Music has been an integral part of cinema ever since the first talkie hit the screens. There have been films without songs but a film without background music is an unheard of concept.
Tamil cinema has always placed great emphasis on music and has been well served by excellent music directors right from its early days. Music directors like CR Subburaman, G Ramanathan, SM Subbayya Naidu came up with brilliant scores. Actor-singers like MK Thiagaraja Bhagavathar, SG Kittappa, PU Chinnappa and NS Krishnan became household names for their full-throated rendering of songs written by the poet laureates of the time.
But the first superstars in Tamil film music were the immensely talented duo, MS Viswanathan and TK Ramamoorthy, known widely as Mellisai Mannargal (Monarchs of Light Music). MSV-TKR, poet and lyricist Kannadasan along with singers TM Soundararajan, P Susheela, PB Srinivas, Seerkazhi Govindarajan and S Janaki enthralled a whole generation of music lovers. Almost all the songs in their films turned out to be chart toppers. The duo, however, split and MSV branched out on his own and proved his mettle in such blockbusters as Sivaji’s Sivantha Mann and MGR’s Ulagam Sutrum Valiban.
Equally popular was KV Mahadevan, who was inevitably the first choice for mythological films. His scores in Kandan Karunai and Thiruvilayadal embellished the films a great deal. But his crowning achievement was Sankarabharanam, the story of a classical singer and a danseuse, directed by K Viswanath. To the dismay of classical music connoisseurs, KVM roped in SP Balasubramanian to render all the numbers. With Carnatic music stalwarts like Balamuralikrishna and Yesudas available, this was a clear gamble as SPB had no grounding in classical music. But it paid off in a big way and all the three National Awards for Music that year were bagged by KVM, SPB and Vani Jayaram.
The music directors who came later, like Shankar-Ganesh, were quite popular too and their music for MGR’s Idaya Veenai had some soulful melodies. ‘Thenisai Thenral’ Deva too had a good run and is credited for the introduction of a new genre in music, the ‘Gaana’. Even today Gaana songs are extremely popular and singers like ‘Gaana’ Ulaganathan and ‘Gaana’ Bala continue to be in demand.
The real revolution in Tamil film music, however, came with the 1976 film Annakili. Produced by Panchu Arunachalam, poet Kannadasan’s nephew and a lyricist in his own right, this film introduced to Tamil cinema, a shy, demure young man, Ilaiyaraaja. Annakili was a perfect launch pad for Raaja who later teamed up with Bharathiraaja in several films, right from the latter’s debut film Pathinaru Vayathinile. The music director, who had good exposure to Western music as well, regaled audiences with his background score for Bharathiraaja’s Sigappu Rojakkal, an edge-of-the-seat thriller. Their partnership ended after Bharathiraaja opted for AR Rahman for a couple of films.
Raaja’s association with the late cinematographer director Balu Mahendra was no less fruitful. Azhiyatha Kolangal, Moodu Pani and Moondram Pirai all had chart topping numbers. Balu never looked beyond Raaja and the fact was acknowledged by Raaja himself. Raaja’s association with Mani Ratnam too was an enduring one, beginning with Mani’s first film in Kannada Pallavi Anu Pallavi. Mouna Ragam, and Nayagan were a few of the films where the Mani-Raaja team worked wonders together.
The release of Roja in 1992 was like Annakili in 1976 – a real gamechanger in the musical firmament of Tamil cinema. Veteran director Balachander, the producer of the film, plumped for a 22-year-old newcomer, AR Rahman, till then a keyboard player for several music directors, including Ilaiyaraaja, and a creator of jingles.
The Mani Ratnam directed film had perhaps the best score ever in Tamil cinema. Though Rahman has worked in hundreds of films in various languages and also pocketed a couple of Oscars for the English film Slumdog Millionaire, his aficionados still opine that he has never surpassed his score for Roja.
Mani stuck with Rahman ever since and Rahman has always reserved his best for Mani, even scoring for his Hindi films like Dil Se and Guru. Rahman’s rapport with another director, Shankar, too began with the latter’s first film Gentleman and their combination has given the industry hits like Kadhalan, Jeans, Robot and so on. But with his commitments in Hindi and his international ventures, Rahman has been quite choosy about his projects.
Among other music directors who have been highly successful in Tamil films are Harris Jayaraj, Yuvan Shankar Raaja and D Imaan. Harris has given his best in films directed by Gautam Menon, such as Kakka Kakka, but a tiff with the director resulted in his losing out on films like Nee Thaane En Ponn Vasantham, where Ilaiyaraaja was assigned the job. Yuvan and Imaan have been extremely prolific and the quality of their work is reflected in their numbers finding acceptance from listeners from different walks of life.
Anirudh Ravichandar arrived with a bang in 3 and the number Why this Kolaveri Di, written and sung by the hero of the film Dhanush, became a rage with millions of online hits. Two composers, Vijay Antony and GV Prakash Kumar (Rahman’s nephew), have decided that donning the greasepaint and turning into heroes is a better proposition than wielding the baton. Antony, whose creation Nakka Mukka reached every nook and cranny of the state and outside as well, and Prakash, whose work in films like Adukalam was highly acclaimed, are no great shakes when it comes to histrionics and just ham their way through their films.
But the flavour of the season is none other than young composer Santhosh Narayan, who has been a permanent fixture in all movies directed by Ranjith, right from Ranjith’s debut Attakathi (2012). His background score for films like Pizza and Jigarthanda, directed by Karthik Subburaj, was noticed and appreciated. But the two Rajinikanth films directed by Ranjith, Kabali and the yet to be released Kaala, have shown him to be a force to be reckoned with. With films like Parayerum Perumal, Shaitan Ka Bachcha and Vada Chennai in his kitty, he is clearly sitting pretty.
What is gratifying as far as the music scene in Kollywood is concerned is that with production of films on the rise there is enough work for every music director. While the big guns like Rahman get the cream in the form of big budget films, the others too have multiple projects to work on. As far as talent goes, Tamil cinema has some of the finest composers, lyricists and musicians and they have the latest technology at their disposal as well.