Most often, Tamil people claim that they grew up listening to Ilayaraaja’s or AR Rahman’s music. But as someone who reached his teens in the 90s, I happened to listen to Deva’s music the most during my growing up years. Sample this data for proof. In the year 1997, Ilayaraaja composed for 12 Tamil movies, AR Rahman for 4 Tamil movies and Deva for a whopping 29 Tamil movies. The 90s and the early 2000s were music composer Deva’s most prolific years. Tamil television and radio channels played his songs non-stop.
Deva debuted as a music director in the year 1989. And in his very second movie Vaigasi Poranthachu (1990), all the 9 songs were chartbusters. The songs Pallikoodam Pogamaley, Chinna Ponnudhan and Thanni Kudam Eduthu from the album were young, peppy and catchy. And the movie got Deva his first Tamil Nadu State Award for Best Music Director.
Since then, he has composed for over 250 movies, out of which at least 220 are in Tamil. His music compositions have been diverse and popular among all kinds of movie song lovers. While he is generally known for his gaana songs – urban folk that originated among working class men in North Madras - it is important to note that he has also composed an extensive list of melodies and commercial chartbusters.
Gaana with the wind
Since the release of Pa Ranjith’s Madras, writers and journalists have been crediting the film maker for humanizing the lives and stories of North Madras’ working class residents, who were until then caricatured and stigmatized in Tamil cinema. But the truth is, even two decades before Madras was made, Deva has been humanizing the lives of North Madras residents through his gaana songs. Love, sorrow, celebration, joy, friendship, betrayal – Deva earnestly captured it all through his gaana songs.
If there is one gaana song from his initial years that captured (and even shocked) the imagination of everyone, it must be Laalakku Dol Dappi Ma (Suriyan, 1992). The invention of meaningless but catchy words and the irreverent lyrics made the purists squirm and complain but nevertheless, everyone was addicted to the song. The immense popularity of the song made gaana a popular genre in Tamil cinema music and a recurring affair in the movies Deva worked for.
Some of his other popular gaana songs include Kavalai Padadhey Sagodhara (Kadhal Kottai, 1996), Pillayarpatti Hero Needhan (Vaanmathi, 1996), Annanagaru Aandalu (Kaalamellam Kadhal Vaazhga, 1997), Vidha Vidhama Soapu Seepu (Kadhaley Nimmadhi, 1998), Meenatchi Meenatchi (Aananda Poongatre, 1999).
While gaana as a genre primarily tends to be a musical expression by the male characters in movies, Deva subverted this and introduced the song Malai Malai, sung by the female protagonist and her friends in the movie Chocolate (2001). The interesting thing about Deva’s gaana songs is that, even those who fervently claim to not be fans of them are aware of the songs, its lyrics and are at times even caught mumbling a few lines. It only goes to prove how these songs have become part of popular culture.
The Emperor of 90s Melodies
The unfortunate thing about Deva’s melodies is that, they are often misunderstood for Ilayaraaja’s compositions. One might argue that this happens because Deva’s music draws inspiration from Ilayaraaja’s. While I would partly agree with that argument, it is also important to not overstate it. Because if one observes closely, it is quite easy to spot that Deva’s melodies have their own unique breeziness. It is not without reason he was given the Thennisai Thendral (Breeze like Melodies) title.
Annamalai Annamalai (Annamalai, 1992), Pulveli Pulveli (Aasai: 1995), Thangamagan (Baasha: 1995), Kadhala Kadhala (Avvai Shanmugi: 1996), Nalam Nalamariya Aaval (Kadhal Kottai: 1996), Unn Uthatora (Panchalankurichi: 1996), Oru Mani Aditha (Kaalamellam Kadhal Vaazhga: 1997), Manam Virumbudhey (Nerrukku Ner: 1997), Nagumo (Arunachalam: 1997) Thanjavooru Mannu Eduthu (Porkaalam: 1997), Kanave Kalaiyathe (Kanedhirey Thondrinal: 1998), Vannanilavae Vannanilavae (Ninaithen Vandhai: 1998), Yeno Yeno (Appu: 2000) and Mottu Ondru (Kushi: 2000) only make up for a very small sample of the beautiful melodies he has composed.
While melodies and gaana songs might form the primary identity of Deva’s works, he also composed other interesting songs of varied kinds. The sprightly and playful Konjam Naal Poru Thalaiva (Aasai, 1995), the quirky Vandhen Vandhen (Panchathantiram, 2002) which begins as a classical song and ventures into a street fight mode, the techno sounding Metro Channel (Indhu, 1994), Sigappu Lolakku (Kadhal Kottai, 1996) with elements of Rajasthan’s Panihari songs, the young and yearning Aval Varuvala (Nerrukku Ner, 1997), Sukhwinder Singh’s catchy Salam Gulamu (Hello, 1999) and the rural folk-ish Thendraluku Theriyuma (Bharathi Kannamma, 1997) are some notable variants.
Apart from this, Deva was very skillful at composing opening songs for big stars. Vandhenda Paalkaran (Annamalai, 1992), Naan Autokaaran (Baasha, 1995), Adhanda Ithanda Arunachalam (Arunachalam, 1997) were songs which played a huge role in helping Rajinikanth seal his Superstar status. And it was amusing to notice that Deva re-created a similar magic as a singer for Vijay’s Jithu Jilaadi (Theri, 2016)
It is interesting to understand how Deva managed to create a strong space for himself in the 90s and early 2000s when both Ilayaraaja and AR Rahman were active composers. This in spite of all the harsh criticism leveled against him for plagiarism, when the same accusation can be made about almost every other top music director. The reason that was often cited for his popularity is that he used to be a director-friendly composer and super quick in delivering the songs and background score. But then, that still doesn’t explain why the audience accepted him.
Before trying to understand what Deva’s music stands for, let me make a small effort to understand what Ilayaraaja’s and AR Rahman’s music stand for. In my opinion, Ilayaraaja and AR Rahman represent the ‘home’ and the ‘world’. AR Rahman and globalization arrived together and his music literally takes you around the world. Listening to his music is the equivalent of visiting new countries. You feel overwhelmed with new sights and sounds. On the other hand, Ilayaraaja’s music is like getting back home after travelling the whole world. His music takes you back home, to your roots and the familiarity of it calms you down.
So where does Deva’s music lie? It certainly is not as ambitious as Ilayaraaja’s or AR Rahman’s. Instead, it specializes in creating a certain form of lightness, a breeziness, an effortlessness. Like walking on a beach early in the morning. That lightness about life, about people, about everything. That is what makes for Deva’s music. And that is why people continue to seek it. Because sometimes you don’t want masterpieces. But just simple things to lift you.