Thaman is perhaps in the midst of one of the best phases of his career. Almost every other song that he’s churning out these days is turning out to be a chartbuster. The ace music director has smash hits like ‘Samajavaragamana’, ‘Ramulo Ramula’ and ‘Butta Bomma’ from Ala Vaikuntapuramlo; ‘Mama Mama’ from Venky Mama; ‘O Bava’ from Prati Roju Pandaage to his credit just in the last few weeks. And he isn’t done yet.
There’s the Ravi Teja starrer Disco Raja and Krack, Keerthy Suresh’s Miss India, Nani’s Tuck Jagadish, and the Telugu remake of Pink starring Pawan Kalyan lined up in the next few months. The 36-year-old, who began his journey as a musician at the age of 9, has worked on nearly 900 films with 64 different music directors; he has been part of 7,000 stage shows in these 25 odd years, and after he turned music director he now has more than 100 films to his credit in these past 11 years.
But something changed after 2016, which, Thaman says, gave him a new perspective. Excerpts from an interview:
You are perhaps in the best phase of your career right now. Where is this streak of inspiration coming from?
I don’t know if it’s the result of a sudden streak of inspiration. To be honest, I think I just stopped working for myself and instead I started working for the scripts. The focus now is on analysing what the story needs and how well I can contribute to that. In essence, the formula of my work changed. In hindsight, I think this change happened when I took a break after Sarrainodu in 2016. Then, I made a comeback with Mahanubhavudu, and then films like Bhaagamathie and Tholiprema happened.
During that phase, I realised that it’s not about my work or my music. Although I was putting in the same effort for every film, I was losing grip over my career because I had become stereotypical. If you look at the trajectory of great music composers like Ilaiyaraaja sir or AR Rahman sir, they compose music for big scale mass films and at the same time, they’ll do a Geethanjali or a Ye Maya Chesave. It all boils down to the choices one makes.
I’ve been working as a musician for 25 years, Aravinda Sametha was my 100th film as a music composer, and I really had to reinvent myself. I had to stop doing music for myself. Now, my whole approach is to give the film that sort of a high. Earlier, I used to be on my own, but now I’ve become a director’s music director. That’s the change that has happened in my life and career.
So, what dictates the marketability of a song?
There are a lot of factors, but the most important aspect is whether you are conveying a story through your song or not. If the lyrics don’t have a concept, the song doesn’t work. Just like how every film needs a story, every song needs a story too. If people can relate a song to their own lives, then it’s a hit. It should conjure up a memory of something that has happened in their lives.
You’ve worked with Trivikram Srinivas in Aravinda Sametha and now you two are back again with Ala Vaikuntapuramlo. When it comes to working with him, what has changed now? Do you understand him better?
I think he understands his music directors and technicians better now (laughs). Each director has his own approach when it comes to what sort of music he or she wants. Trivikram Srinivas is a different man altogether. I find something new in him every day. He’s a bundle of ideas and out of nowhere, he would come up with different ways to insert a song in the script, or how a song should start, and how everything can be moulded keeping the actor’s image in mind.
In Aravinda Sametha, there was so much emotion packed into every song and scene, be it songs like ‘Peniviti’, ‘Ooriki Utharana’, or others. Ala Vaikuntapuramlo is quite different. That only thing I have to do is to understand how well I can strike a balance between Trivikram’s dialogues and lyrics with my music. I keep telling my other directors too that working with Trivikram feels like a student working with the headmaster of the school (laughs). That’s why he is called Guruji.
Now that you had spoken about the value of a song, how has that changed in this decade? The way people listen to music has changed so much in recent years, isn’t it?
Today, we are in the digital age where people are listening to music on their phones. Earlier, people used to queue up to buy cassettes. That era is gone. I started my career in that era, and I know how time and energy fans invest for their favourite stars. I truly respect that and it’s my job to deliver songs that make them happy.
Coming to how my own work has changed in this digital age, it’s got more to do with leaving a lot of space for lyrics in the songs. I can’t overload a song with heavy beats because I want the lyrics to be audible too. I go all out when it comes to interludes (background score) or mass songs, but when it comes to melodies, I’ve to give that extra space for lyricists. In ‘Samajavaragamana’, if you notice, there’s no heavy orchestration throughout the song. This approach is also helping us during mixing and mastering process.
You’ve been working with non-native singers like Sid Sriram and Armaan Malik, to name a few. A lot of times, even when the lyrics are poetic, it sounds different because of these singers. How do you strike a balance because although the song sounds new, it’s probably not the right way to pronounce a word?
We don’t experiment much with non-native singers unless it’s necessary. But then, everything has to fall in place for that to happen. It does take a lot of effort, but sometimes, you don’t have a choice depending on what a particular singer can offer to a song. We didn’t even have a second option in mind while composing ‘Samajavaragamana’. Sid Sriram was our only choice, because the song was asking for him. When I composed a mass melody like ‘Butta Bomma’ in Ala Vaikuntapuramlo, I knew that it’ll be perfect for Armaan Malik.
Every singer can add some life to the song. If I sing all the songs, it’ll be monotonous. Singers like Shankar Mahadevan, Balu garu, Sid Sriram can bring that extra feel and soul to a song. They totally understand that they don’t have to shout, they know how to balance the song with their modulations, which note they need to pronounce on a higher note, and because of their experience they also understand the music director well.
It’s interesting that you call ‘Butta Bomma’ a ‘mass melody’...
(Laughs) A lot of people on Twitter have been asking me for a mass song for Bunny (Allu Arjun), because in the past we have come up with songs like ‘Blockbuster’ (Sarrainodu) and ‘Cinema Choopistha Mava’ (Race Gurram). But there’s no space for such songs in this film, and all the songs flow well with the mood of the film. Incidentally, we had recorded another song with Badshah and Shreya Ghoshal. But then, after some time, all of us took a call to drop it because it wasn’t fitting into the story tonally. Then, we composed ‘Butta Bomma’ in 4-5 days and recorded it immediately with Armaan Malik, and now we are shooting it. It’s all destiny.
You are working on at least 6-7 films in any given year. Is there a method to this madness? How do you not burn out?
It’s all about getting into the script. We don’t just sit and start working in studios right away. I need to have a lot of discussions about what the director is looking for, the montages that he has conceptualised, and only then can I start working on the music. Since I’m a programmer myself, I don’t have to depend on others.
Honestly, when you love your job, you won’t strain much. The directors I’ve been working with understand how I prioritise my work. I work on only one film at a time until it releases before I move on to something else. I put my heart and soul into my work, and everyone understands it.