Ilaiyaraaja’s music in Mani Ratnam films: A well-scripted harmony

The duo, who share the same birthday, have given us music that has transcended generations and continues to stay engraved in our hearts.
Ilaiyaraaja’s music in Mani Ratnam films: A well-scripted harmony
Ilaiyaraaja’s music in Mani Ratnam films: A well-scripted harmony
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Last they worked together was in the year 1991 and it has been 28 long years since that film, Thalapathy. Yet, even to this day, the work they have done together is highly acclaimed and remembered fondly by fans of south Indian cinema. In the annals of Tamil cinema, there are many composer-director duos who are revered. Their works survive the test of time and continue to stay engraved in our hearts. The duo of Ilaiyaraaja-Mani Ratnam is one such pair whose works have transcended generations and continue to warm our hearts and soul.

What made them tick as a pair so well? Both Raaja and Mani were born on this day (June 2), 13 years apart. So, it probably could be the stars! More seriously, for a pair that worked together in just 10 films, which is just 1% of all Raaja’s films, to be remembered fondly even today, there must be something more to it.

First, I think Mani knew exactly what he wanted out of Raaja. In the sense, he knew what role he wanted the music (songs and the background score) to play in pushing the screenplay forward as opposed to looking at songs and background score as fillers. National Award winning critic and writer Baradwaj Rangan says that the quality of creative output depends on how clear the director is on what he/she wants. Rangan adds that Mani was absolutely clear in his mind on the mood setting for his songs, the context bringing up to the song situations, and of course the kind of background score he needed for the scenes. So his brief to Raaja was always quite detailed and specific instead of just asking for a ‘duet song’, ‘lovers’ pathos song’, ‘item song’ and so on.

As an example, Rangan cites that in the film Anjali, the entire Motta Maadi, Motta Maadi song was conceived by the director as part of the screenplay itself with a children’s choir in mind. So, the songs in this film were entirely sung by a chorus of children instead of a singer using a false voice, which was usually the case then.

Similarly, Rangan gives an example of the scene in Nayagan when Kamal meets Saranya for the first time at a brothel. In such an emotionally overpowering scene, Mani was quite clear from which point the background music would begin to play, and so wanted Kamal to just do nothing but just look at Saranya. Raaja’s response in the form of the background score is simply brilliant, adding to the poignant feel of the scene.

Second, I do feel that when working with talented filmmakers, Raaja did want to leave his own imprint on the film. Raaja often says that he just creates music and doesn’t really differentiate for whom he creates it. Recently at the Ilaiyaraaja-75 event, even Rajinikanth mentioned in a lighter vein that Raaja probably scored better music for Kamal than for him. While Raaja quickly refuted the same and said that to him all are the same, frankly I do believe that for talented directors, like Mani for example, Raaja did raise his bar and come up with something special. This explains the fact that in all the 10 films of Mani, right from Pallavi Anupallavi to Thalapathy, for which Raaja scored the music, the songs have been evergreen chartbusters. That we even remember the moving background score in films like Mouna Ragam, Nayagan, Agni Natchathiram, Thalapathy even today is a tribute to the pair’s joint effort.

There are many instances in Mani’s films in which one can see Raaja’s keenness to leave his stamp. Again in Nayagan, for the duet song featuring Kamal and Saranya just after their wedding, Raaja could have just come up with a plain vanilla song that is pleasing to the ears. But for that situation, which involves a collage of heart-warming visuals, Raaja came up with this peach of a melody – Nee oru kaadhal sangeetham. As you hear the song and watch the visuals, you realise that both Mani and Raaja are preparing you for something foreboding. Rangan adds that in the same film, for a raucous Holi scene, Raaja came up with another brilliant composition – Andhi mazhai megam – which has a completely rustic feel while at the same time oozing energy. I would add the Naan Sirithaal Deepavali song here which transports us right back to that era. The genius of Raaja is apparent here in the way he chose the female voice as well as the orchestration for this song to give it a period feel.

Third, Rangan is of the opinion that any talented creative person is bound to get inspired by challenges thrown at them. He adds that in the 80’s when Raaja and Mani were working together, Raaja was already an established and busy composer while Mani was slowly and steadily building his reputation as a filmmaker of calibre. With his initial films like Mouna Raagam, Agni Natchathiram, Geetanjali and so on, Mani was bringing a whiff of fresh air into south Indian cinema. Raaja at that time was churning out songs and music – enchanting and melodious at that – almost like an assembly line. He could sense a freshness in Mani’s approach and took it up upon himself to create something more striking. For example, in Mani’s first hit film Mouna Raagam, the theme music is itself another character in the film, changing its course according to the mood and flow of the film. I would venture to say that post Mouna Raagam, the concept of theme music in Tamil films was never the same again.

Fourth, another important reason for two collaborative minds to tick is the chemistry between them and at the same time a mutual respect. It is obvious that Mani and Raaja shared a great rapport and of course respect for each other. In an interview, Mani said that he was quite tuned to the very fast pace of Raaja’s composing. And that it was important to tell Raaja the requirements right at the composing stage itself. Raaja, in live shows, often cites the example of how the song Nila adhu vaannathu maele… in Nayagan was originally composed as a lullaby song and eventually became a dance/item number after Mani requested. And this was done instantly without much fuss.

Mani on many occasions has acknowledged that Raaja is a genuine musical genius and has been quoted as saying, “When he touches the harmonium, tunes appidiye kottum.” He also recalled that for Nayagan and Agni Natchathiram, which were two completely different genres, the song recording was done simultaneously and even then Raaja could pull it off effortlessly. Though Raaja is not known to be vocally appreciative about filmmakers in general, he did mention in an event that he had been impressed right after Mani’s first film and in fact when a producer was looking for a new director, he had recommended Mani.

Fifth, the filmmaker’s keen ear for good music. In this case, though Mani has said that he doesn’t know much about music, I suspect that he has an ear for good music. Dr G Dhananjayan, founder of the BOFTA Film Institute, adds that the uniqueness of this combo (Mani-Raaja) was the kind of music they created without losing the nativity of the land in each of their films. And this cannot happen without the director having a good sense of music. The memorable music in films as diverse as a Pagal Nilavu set in a small town to Agni Natchathiram set in a big city bears testimony to this.

Sixth, the tendency to rise to the occasion of landmarks and milestones. Among the 10 films that Mani and Raaja worked together for, there have been important milestones. Dhananjayan points out that Nayagan was Raaja’s 400th film and Anjali his 500th film, and that these kind of landmarks also spur makers to up their ante. Raaja and Mani were no exception.

When one attempts to list some all-time hits of Raaja, it is usually crowded with many of the songs from Mani’s films. Though the duo stopped working long ago, the harmony they scripted together in their films is still talked about even today. In an interview, Mani said that if he comes up with a film that is meaty enough for Raaja to score the music, he would certainly love to work with Raaja again. That is something fans eagerly look forward to. On that note, here is wishing Ilaiyaraaja and Mani Ratnam many happy returns of the day.

Anand Kumar RS is a management professional by week and an avid blogger by weekend. He writes on politics, business, and films.

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