Bichu, who died on Friday, gave to Malayalam cinema many of its most celebrated songs – he was known for coining catchphrases and weaving magic with lyrics.

Bichu in a dark purple shirt sits and writes in paper, the profile is sideways and in the background are green plantsBichu Thirumala / Courtesy - Sumanbichu / WikiCommons / CCBYSA4
Flix Tribute Saturday, November 27, 2021 - 19:30

In a room in Hotel Ranjith in the Madras of late 1980s, director Kamal, working on his second film, sat with his music composer and lyricist. He told them the title of the film – Unnikale Oru Kadha Parayam (Little ones, I will tell you a tale) – and the story. He asked for a song for the movie to begin with. Ousepachan, a meticulous composer, opened his harmonium and sang a tune. Immediately from a corner of the room, Bichu Thirumala, the lyricist, sang, “Unnikale oru kadha parayam…”. Kamal and Ouseph laughed, it was a perfect fit to the tune. But that was not hard, that was the film title. Ouseph sang the tune for the second line and Bichu didn’t waste a second. “Ee pullamkuzhalin kadha parayam,” he sang – “I will tell you the story of this flute.”

And that was a perfect fit too, Kamal says three and a half decades later. The whole pallavi – the starting stanza of the song – got made like that. Bichu, with his eyes closed and lying on the bed, would surprise them by giving words to every line that sprang from Ouseph’s harmonium. “Athaanu Bichu” – that is Bichu – Kamal keeps saying excitedly as he remembers the days with Bichu Thirumala, Malayalam cinema’s most prolific songwriter, who breathed his last on Friday, November 26, a little before dawn. He died of a cardiac arrest, aged 80. 

Between the 70s and 90s, Bichu gave to Malayalam cinema many of its most celebrated songs – ‘Aayiram Kannumai’, ‘Kannamthumpi’, ‘Olathumbathu’ and tracks of Manjil Virinja Pookkal and Manichithrathazhu among them.

Bichu Thirumala’s filmography is huge – the man wrote thousands of songs for films and for light music albums. He began writing songs in the 1970s, as his sister Susheela Devi began singing in films. A director who saw the poetry Bichu scribbled for his sister to sing called him onboard. At the time he came, the practice of setting tune to written songs was slowly changing. Lyricists of his generation began learning to write words for the tunes that came to them.

“Vayalar, Bhaskaran Master, ONV, Sreekumaran Thampi had all written songs and given it to composers. But for the next lot of lyricists like Bichu, Poovachal Khader or Kaithapram, it was the other way around. The good thing was they all knew music, they knew to sing. Bichu was a master of writing lyrics to fit the meter of a song perfectly – there will be no need to stretch a syllable or shorten it,” Kamal says, a fact reiterated by Jerry Amaldev, one of the most gifted composers in Malayalam cinema.

Jerry came to the scene as the 70s ended and a new wave of cinema came along with director Fazil making Manjil Virinja Pookkal, a film which would introduce among others, actor Mohanlal. Jerry’s music and Bichu’s lyrics made up the three most beautiful songs in the film, beginning with ‘Mizhiyoram’ and ending with ‘Manjadi Kunnil’.

“He was an extraordinarily gifted songwriter. I met him in 1980, when I was a newcomer and he was already a senior lyricist. But he treated me as an equal. I came to realise he is not only a lyricist, not only a poet, but he can sing too. When I gave him a tune he would learn it. He would hum it and then write words for it. Long syllables were not made short and vice versa. He wrote with a poetic beauty,” Jerry says.

Jerry speaks of the song ‘Aalorungi arangorungi’ that Bichu wrote for him in Fazil’s movie Ente Mamattikuttyammaku. “It’s a catchphrase he made up. He often did that. For (musician) Ravindran he wrote ‘Thenum Vayambum’ (a song in the movie by the same name). He mixed such commonplace words into the songs and made it so meaningful,” Jerry says.

Perhaps the duo’s most celebrated song is ‘Aayiram Kannumai Kathirunnu Ninne Njan’ (I waited for you with a thousand eyes) which came in Nokkethadoorathu Kannumnattu. Another Fazil movie. Bichu was also the writer of many songs in Fazil’s most famous movie Manichithrathazhu – coining another of his catchphrases for the song ‘Pazham Tamizh Paatu’.

Sreejith Perunthachan, who wrote a book on the stories behind movie names Peraya Ninne Iha, says that Fazil’s first, Manjil Virinja Pookkal (Flowers that bloomed in the snow), was coined after a remark Bichu made. “They were in Alappuzha for the shooting and Bichu Thirumala had gone for his morning walk. When he returned, Fazil asked him how was the walk and Bichu said he saw a flower bloom in the snow. That became the name of the film.”

It’s not just Fazil of course, directors grabbed Bichu to create songs left, right and centre. He is behind a number of songs in the 1980s that many Malayalis remember for being the golden age for films and music. The songs of Thrishna (‘Mainakam’, ‘Sruthiyil ninnuyarum’) brought him his first state award. Melodies that would be hummed by generations got written in those days – ‘Oru mayilpeeliyayi njan janichu poyengil’ (if I were born as a peacock feather), ‘Mounangale chanchaduvan’ (To shake the silences), ‘Ezhu swarangalum thazhuki varunnoru ganam’ (A song that strokes the seven notes), ‘Kasthuri maan kurunne’ (Oh little musk deer), ‘Ormayil oru shishiram’ (An autumn in my memory), ‘Konji karayalle nee’ (Do not coo and cry), ‘Aalippazham parukkam’ (Let’s pick the hailstones), ‘Manjin chirakulla vellariprave’ (Oh white dove with feathers of snow).

“His songs have attracted many of us in our teens into the world of music and lyrics. Songs like ‘Manjani kombil’, ‘Aayiram kannumai’, ‘Neelajalashayathil’ have been so hauntingly beautiful. It was changing times – people began to take notice only of the music and cared little for words. But Bichu Thirumala still wrote beautiful lines, he knew its magic,” says Rafeeq Ahamed, poet and renowned lyricist who became active later on.

Bichu Thirumala became less active towards the turn of the century after he had a terrible accident. “He fell from the terrace of his house where he climbed to hang a Christmas star for his little boy. He hit his head on the ground and everyone feared the worst. He was in hospital with no memory. It took his songs to bring him back. Someone played a cassette of his songs and he asked, ‘Didn’t I write that?’ That’s how it happened,” Kamal says.

Among those songs was ‘Kannam thumpi poramo’ (Will you come with me dear dragonfly) that he wrote for Kamal’s film Kakkothikavile Appuppan Thaadikal. Like Jerry, Kamal too is in awe of Bichu’s ability to create catchphrases on the go. “Take for instance the term ‘Vazhapoonkilikal’ he wrote for my film Unnikale... I asked him is there such a kili (bird) and he asked me if it fits the metre of the song. I said yes and he said, ‘then that bird is there somewhere’. That’s Bichu for you,” Kamal says. 

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