On the director’s 88nd birth anniversary, here’s a look at how he integrated Carnatic music with Tamil films to popularise the art.
  • Monday, July 09, 2018 - 12:46

In one of the most impactful and memorable scenes in the Tamil film Sindhu Bhairavi, the male protagonist, who is a famed Carnatic vocalist, is shown rendering a Telugu kriti ‘Mari Mari Ninne’ in a concert. The assembled audience in a hall in Chennai applaud after the song, though nonchalantly. Even as the singer is revelling in that appreciation of the audience, a hand goes up. This is of the woman protagonist who challenges the singer and demonstrates that Carnatic music, if sung in the local language (Tamil in this case) which people can follow, will be appreciated much better. In a later scene, the singer discovers this for himself when a fisherman profusely appreciates his rendition of a Bharathiyar composition in Tamil.  

It was felt then (and may be even now) that Carnatic music was elitist in nature. Ace director K Balachander (popularly known as KB) one of the most revered filmmakers in India, used this film as a medium to plug this important message that for music to reach many, it needs to be understood.

By his own admission, KB was a big fan of Carnatic music and hence didn’t want it to be seen as some highbrow art form.  In his own ways – some direct and some subtle -- he did his best to mainstream Carnatic music as much as he could, through his many films. On his 88nd birth anniversary, here’s a closer look at this aspect.

The film Sindhu Bhairavi, one of KB’s later works, that too among his best hits, has a Carnatic musician as the central character. For a filmmaker to indulge in references to Carnatic music in a film like Sindhu Bhairavi which had it as its backdrop is not surprising. But this piece is just not about Sindhu Bhairavi alone but about many of his other films right from his early career days where it would appear that the director was waiting for some opportunity to plug Carnatic music in his films.  

Right at the beginning of his career, at the height of black and white cinema, one of KB’s landmark films was Apoorva Raagangal. Though the film was about complex relationships, KB sets this with Carnatic music playing the interlude. The female lead is a popular Carnatic singer. The male lead happens to play the mridangam which incidentally works in enhancing the romantic quotient between the leads!

Another novel idea in the film was to use different aspects of Carnatic music like Sarali varisaiThani Avartanam, Abaswaram, Sruti betam, Mangalam as placeholders throughout to carry forward the narrative. KB’s understanding of Carnatic music comes out very clearly when we see these placeholders in the context of the film. For example, when the estranged husband character makes an entry at the wrong time, the card KB uses is Sruti Betam (pitch distortion). How apt!

Apart from Aboorva Raagangal and Sindhu Bhairavi, another film where KB placed a Carnatic musician in a major role was Unnal Mudiyum Thambi. Here, the hero’s dad is again characterised as a famed Carnatic singer and is called Bilahari Marthandam Pillai, Bilahari being a popular Carnatic raga. And the elder son who is born mute is a Nadaswaram player.

Though the film is about ideological differences between a non-compromising dad proud of his “high caste” moorings and his son who wants to break these shackles, I feel KB’s use of Carnatic music here was only was to draw a parallel. Of the need for Carnatic music to be liberated from the sabhas to the streets, breaking another caste divide of sorts. In what is a typical “Balachander touch” scene, the dad tells the son that he used Ashuddha Danyasi (Shuddha Danyasi being a Carnatic raga) in a song he sang in front of labourers.

All these films, Apoorva Raagangal, Sindhu Bhairavi and Unnal Mudiyum Thambi with Carnatic music as the backdrop, gave opportunities for the music directors to popularise this form more widely. In that sense, KB and the respective music directors need to be credited for making or at least earnestly attempting to make Carnatic music, to use today’s lingo – “mass”.

If these were on-the-face attempts, there were other subtler methods which KB used. He had a penchant for using names of Carnatic ragas to name his women leads in many of his films. Bhairavi and Ranjani in Apoorva Raagangal, Sindhu and Bhairavi in Sindhu Bhairavi, Sriranjani in Jathimalli are some examples. Even in his small screen innings, this continued with the serial Sahana.

In the film Duet, one of the male leads is a saxophone player. In one of his interviews, KB had mentioned that he was a big fan of the very popular saxophone vidwan – Kadri Gopalnath. Kadri, as he is known in music circles, is one of the pioneers in playing Carnatic music with the saxophone. KB was keen to spread Kadri’s talent among the masses which he did with this film, Duet. This gave an opportunity for film’s composer AR Rahman to use Kadri in the songs which all became super hits. In the film’s opening sequence with title credits itself, we are treated with a virtuoso Kadri performance.

KB’s not so known film Oru Veedu, Iru Vaasal was a novel experiment in storytelling. It has two different stories split by the interval. The other experiment in this is that both the stories feature the famed Carnatic violinist duo – Ganesh-Kumaresh as the protagonists. Impressed by their stage presence and personality, KB probably cast them in the film but this was one experiment that didn’t work.

However, this doesn’t take away anything from his effort to mainstream Carnatic music – here, by introducing hitherto popular Carnatic musicians as actors in his films. If the film had worked, the “Cine fame” prefix to their names would have helped them get more people to their concerts, just like post the film Shankarabaranam, “Cine fame” Manju Bhargavi attracted huge crowds for her Bharatanatyam programmes.

These instances may not be exhaustive but they are enough to drive home the point that KB, through his films, played a stellar role in bringing Carnatic music to Tamil cinema. For instance, he points out the difference between Arohanam and Avarohanam of a Carnatic composition through the judge character in Sindhu Bhairavi in the climax.

This dimension is another feather in KB’s already crowded hat and remembering this on his birth anniversary is only a small tribute to this genius.

Thukkada: As a keen follower of Carnatic music, there is no doubt that Carnatic musicians started including full length Tamil keertanas in their concerts in Tamil Nadu or while singing amidst Tamil dominated audience, post Sindhu Bhairavi. If Tamil songs are no more restricted to Thukkadas (short songs thrown in at the end of concerts usually), K Balachander deserves credit for the same.

Also read: 'Mr Chandramouli' review: A half-hearted drama with unconvincing performances

In the whole of the film, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that PC’s lighting was a character in itself.
  • Sunday, April 15, 2018 - 12:06

This day, exactly 30 years ago, in the sweltering summer heat, director Mani Ratnam’s stylish flick Agni Natchathiram released. A film which defined “cool” to young boys and girls alike in TN those days. It was an unapologetic ‘A-Centre’ film and made no pretensions of being anything else.

Overnight, Karthik and Amala, who were part of the multi-star cast in the film, became a huge rage among the youth in south India. But this piece is not to revisit Agni Natchathiram 30 years since its release as is the trend these days, but, to talk about PC Sreeram (fondly called ‘PC)’ the cinematographer of the film, who became a star himself post Agni Natchathiram.

Agni was not PC’s first film. But it was Agni that gave PC the tag of a hotshot cinematographer and announced his arrival in the big league. Before Agni, he had worked in notable films like Prathap Pothen’s Meendum Oru Kaadhal Kadhai and Fasil’s Poove Poochooda Vaa.

Meendum Oru Kaadhal Kathai did not do well at the box office and will be remembered more for Raadika’s acting. Poove Poochooda Vaa, a Malayalam remake, was a big hit which made Nadiya a teenage heartthrob in TN. 

Though PC’s work in these films was commendable, few noticed him or his contribution. And then Mouna Ragam happened, PC’s first outing with director Mani Ratnam, a film in which both Mani and PC got noticed as director and cinematographer respectively.  We saw the Taj Mahal in angles and shots not seen before.  And talking of camera angles, can we forget the shots with the camera moving along the wheels of the horse-carriage in the song Chinna, Chinna Vanna Kuyil’?  

The duo’s next work Nayagan was path-breaking in many aspects. While “Mani Sir” arrived in the Tamil film scene with Nayagan, PC got his first major recognition with the National Award for Best Cinematography for the film. With most of the scenes set indoors, in typical Mumbai chawl setting, there was actually little scope for PC to showcase “eye candy” camera work. But even in that film, which was replete with high drama and intense scenes, PC demonstrated his ability to add value to scenes with imaginative camera work with never-seen-before frame structuring, camera angles, lighting and shots. The top angle shot in the pre-Jimmy Jib crane days in the scene where Velu Nayakkar hears of his son’s death and takes a long walk to see his son’s face, for instance.

In the next film, Mani in PC’s own words, gave full freedom to him to “go berserk”. And that was Agni Natchathiram. And PC did go berserk! Professional critics and aspiring reviewers who usually comment on acting, storyline, music/songs and camera work while reviewing films, started talking of lighting for the first time. In the whole of Agni Natchathiram, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that PC’s lighting was a character in itself. For the ‘Thoongaatha Vizhigal Rendu’ song, PC used shining brass vessels to reflect light on to the whole set instead of direct light – a technique which has been emulated by many cinematographers since. 

Similarly, in the song Raja, Rajadhi Rajan Intha Raja’ shadows created out of interesting lighting were part of the choreography. In scene after scene, PC adopted creative techniques of lighting, angles and frame composition. Of course, the overdoing of the lighting in the climax with lights flickering for a long while at a stretch came in for a bit of criticism as well.

I vividly remember, sometime in 1988 or 1989, when PC visited our college campus as a special guest for our university’s photography association, he got a rock star’s welcome. This was just after Agni and the hall was packed with enthusiastic student crowds wanting to meet PC. He answered a wide range of questions that day, on techniques and also on the over lighting bit in Agni. I remember him saying that his job is to keep trying something new every time.

As seen in his body of work since Agni, trying something new has been the constant with PC’s work. Mani and PC would go on to become one of India’s top director-cinematographer pairs. There are scenes and frames which as normal film-goers we vividly remember even now from their films.  Whether it is the shot where Kamal and Saranya walk together with fluttering pigeons as the backdrop in the song Nee Oru Kaadhal Sangeetam’ in Nayagan or the close-up shot of water gushing out from shoelace holes of Nagarjuna in Geetanjali or the colourful shots in sync with the lines in Pachai Nirame Pachai Nirame’ in Alaipayuthey or the church scene in OK Kanmani, they are all still fresh in one’s memory.

In addition to Mani, PC’s collaboration with Kamal in some of his films also warrant mention. We all know the kind of efforts Kamal took to play the role of a dwarf in Aboorva Sagotharargal. But, I read that PC’s cinematography technique in choosing the right angles and avoiding obvious angles also played a key role in getting the dwarf effect right in what was clearly pre-SFX era! Thevar Magan is another movie where the look and feel of the typical TN rural landscape was brought right before our eyes by PC through some exemplary camera work.

Even in Bollywood, PC has been on fire. His work with director Balki in films like Cheeni Kum, Pa, Ki and Ka and recently Padman have all brought a whiff of fresh air on the screen.

It’s not that there were no talented cinematographers in Tamil cinema before PC. People like Balu Mahendra and Ashok Kumar were special. But, it was PC who made cinematography become an integral part of the script. If you observe his work, it is not limited to showing breathtaking visuals in outdoors but using cinematography to add heft to the scenes and becoming a director’s able ally. And that’s why, we have images which stay in our minds for a long, long time from PC’s films.

“Enna, manasula PC Sreeram nnu nenappo??” (What, do you think you are PC Sreeram?) is an often heard quip if someone takes time to focus and tries new angles to click a picture! Or these days, if someone shares his/her clicks in WhatsApp groups, a comment like, “Photo PC Sreeram levella irukku!!” (the photo is of PC Sreeram’s level) is quite common. That has been PC’s impact. Without him realising it, he has been a guru to many an aspiring photographer. After becoming a hot star 30 years ago, setting new benchmarks consistently is not easy. However, PC does that even today. The reticent legend deserves every accolade which comes his way and then some more.

The plot of 'Nayagan' wasn't novel, it was the treatment that made the film the classic it is.
  • Saturday, October 21, 2017 - 13:27

It’s been 30 years since Mani Ratnam’s epic film Nayagan hit the screens in Tamil Nadu for Deepavali. Memories are vivid of the film even today, so much so that many say that Tamil cinema can be divided into two eras – one before Nayagan and the other after.

When the film released in the October of 1987, the lone interest in the film was its “Kathanayagan”, Kamal Haasan.

Director Mani Ratnam was just a few films old in the industry with Mouna Ragam being his solo hit, so to speak, until then. Devoid of the hype and promotions that precede film releases today, the main publicity for Nayagan was just the posters that were plastered all over, which were quite intriguing. They featured Kamal minus his moustache.

From the time the credits started rolling, we could sense that we were in for something different.

A good film becomes a great film and then a classic when it is remembered and influences filmmaking for years after. Nayagan ticks off many boxes in this regard. There are very few directors of this generation in Tamil cinema who have not admitted to being influenced by Nayagan in some way or the other.

The plot of Nayagan in itself is nothing novel, drawing liberal inspiration from The Godfather in reel life and Mumbai’s erstwhile don, Varadaraja Mudaliar in real life. But, it’s the treatment of the subject and the way it turned out on the silver screen that made Nayagan memorable for years to come.  

The screenplay, dialogues, casting, acting, songs, camera work, art direction, background score, make-up, and of course the direction stood out in the film and that doesn’t happen always.

Here’s a closer look at some of these aspects:

Casting: Kamal towers tall in the film. But the supporting cast of Delhi Ganesh, Janakaraj, Nizhalgal Ravi, Saranya, and Karthika are not far behind. Irrespective of the size of the roles, each one of them leaves an impact. More importantly, the attention to detail in choosing faces that closely resemble each other as the character ages, deserves acclamation. The younger versions of Kamal and Tinnu Anand were perfectly cast.

Dialogues: Mani Ratnam drafted ace novelist Balakumaran to write for the film and the latter didn’t disappoint. He could bring in the native Tuticorin flavour in the lines that Kamal’s character speaks and an overall earthiness to the dialogues. “Neenga nallavara, kettavara?” is the “Kitne admi the?” of Tamil cinema!  

Camera work: One could safely say that though he had few films under his belt before Nayagan, the “brand” PC Sreeram as we know him today was born post Nayagan. Though in this film he didn’t have much scope to showcase the beauty of outdoor locales, we could get a glimpse of his skills in lighting and deploying unique angles.

One could clearly see the difference in the look, feel and texture as the film progresses from one period to another and this was a first, I believe, in Tamil cinema. The shot of fluttering pigeons in the background when Kamal and Saranya walk along the Gateway of India in Mumbai for the Nee Oru Kaadhal Sangeetham song remains fresh in memory.

Music score: This was Ilayaraja’s 400th film and would rank among his best work. The theme song of Nayagan which Raja deployed is talked about even today. Not to mention the background score.

Using the voice of veteran singer Jamuna Rani for the song Naan Sirithaal Deepavali, set probably in the ‘60s, was an outstanding choice. In the song Nee Oru Kaadhal Sangeetham, the situation is that of the regular duet between the hero and the heroine in happy times. Generally speaking, any plain vanilla melodious tune would have done the job. But Raja came up with a beautiful melody which conveys the joyous mood between the lovers with a tinge of melancholy to suit the script.

Art Direction: One can never make out if the slums of Mumbai’s Dharavi being shown in the film are for real or shot in sets. And that’s a clear sign of a job well done by the Art Director Thotta Tharani.

Acting: A great film is a sum total of great scenes, brought to life by some memorable acting. For example, the scene where Kamal’s character meets Saranya’s for the first time - it’s a brothel and Saranya requests Kamal to leave her early as she has to study for her Maths exam the next day. An outstanding scene with controlled performances, simple lines and an apt background score. And Nayagan has plenty of those. Involving not just the lead actor Kamal but all the supporting cast. While Kamal got recognized for his acting with the National Award, most others got their due by way of promising careers since Nayagan.

Screenplay and Direction: One reckons that Mani Ratnam became the “Mani Sir” of Tamil cinema after Nayagan. The film is replete with his directorial touches, till then a sole preserve of somebody like K.Balachandar. 

The showing of a Plymouth first, then an Ambassador and then finally a Maruti car as Velu Nayakkar’s vehicle, to fast forward his age and life is just one example. There are many more. Talking of screenplay, one wonders how he chanced upon the perfect climax for the film, wherein the don could escape from the long arm of the law but not his past deeds. Any other ending would have been a dampener.

The significance of a film can be borne out by the legacy it leaves. Nayagan bequeathed to Indian cinema some amazing talent. Like Nassar, Saranya, PC Sreeram, Thotta Tharani and of course Mani Ratnam himself.  Kamal, who was till then acting in all kinds of films, started placing a premium to the choices he made in terms of roles post Nayagan. And his body of work since Nayagan bears testimony to this.

For many, Nayagan was a great film, a classic. But for followers of Tamil cinema, it has been a cherished lesson in filmmaking. 30 long years since, as we reminisce and relish the film Nayagan, kudos to the entire team that was part of the classic. And no, we are not rooting for a sequel!