Interview: Aavesham’s Illuminati songwriter Vinayak to TNM on success, modern lingo, and more

Vinayak Sasikumar has been a game-changer in the lyric writing department, ensuring a sublime quality to even commercial dance numbers like his recent chartbuster ‘Illuminati’.
Vinayak Sasikumar
Vinayak SasikumarPhoto by: Vishnu Thandassery
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A friend had this theory about the popularity of Vinayak Sasikumar’s lyrics in Malayalam films— “Simple, but effective words that are so easy to comprehend.” There isn’t a better way to condense his filmography.

Take the recent chartbuster ‘Illuminati’ from Fahadh Faasil’s Aavesham. With millennials declaring it ‘their song of the year’, Vinayak’s uncanny knack for minimalism shines through in the lyrics. Be it the gentle poetry of the romantic number ‘Kaatil’ (Mayanadhi), the bliss of innocence strung together in ‘Minni Mini’ (June), the audacity in ‘Jaada’ (Aavesham), or the spookiness in ‘Adaranjali’ (Romancham), Vinayak has been a game-changer in the lyric writing department, ensuring a sublime quality to even commercial dance numbers.

In many ways, he is also a rule-breaker, considering the pressure that falls heavy on most lyricists to keep up with the audience’s nostalgic affinity with the songs of yesteryear veterans. We had a quick chat with the 30-year-old after the humungous success of Aavesham. Excerpts below

Q. You studied economics in college, worked as a data scientist at Infosys, and then quit all that for a songwriting career…

I started writing poetry very young and always wanted to do something creative. My first writing gig happened at the age of 18, and I dreamt of working in cinema in some capacity (as a screenplay writer or lyricist). It was only when I shifted to Chennai and started socialising with people from the film fraternity that I decided to give writing a shot. I never wanted a 9 to 5 job, and after Guppy, which was my 12th film, I decided to quit my job and do full-time songwriting. When I write, I feel I am being relevant.  

Q. What’s your writing process?

Usually, I add lyrics to tunes based on the briefing. Off late, there is more give and take. Now they give a line or two or I might throw in a word to condense the mood of the song. For instance, in Romancham the operative word was ‘Athmave Po’ (spirit go back) and later we developed the song. Post Romancham and Aavesham, I encourage the music directors to sit down for a brainstorming session before the entire tune is composed.

Q. Does the completion period vary according to the genre?

Based on luck as well! Something should click and then we can finish it accordingly. It may take 30 minutes or 3 weeks. Take the ‘Parudeesa’ song (Bheeshma Parvam) for example – it took a while to come up with the word ‘Parudeesa’. We had already composed the tune and I was searching for an Arabic or Spanish word and eventually picked Malayalam. The song was about the liberty to make one’s personal choices in life and how that would make our world a more freeing place.

Q. How do you keep yourself informed about language, words, coinages…

It comes from various places. Not much reading there, rather I listen to a lot of music. I observe and pick stuff from social media, even trolls. Today, it is not easy to write lyrics only based on reading material.

Q. What’s the difference between poetry and songwriting?

Songwriting is an applied art. Lyrics are raw material, the song is the final product. And it should be accommodative to the target audience. You should remember that people are only going to listen and not read, unlike poetry.

Q. Is there a checklist while sitting down to write?

I feel achieving simplicity is the task. Being complicated is easy, but sticking to simple language and then reaching out to a larger audience is very difficult. And let me tell you that historically also it has been proved that such songs have stood the test of time. We have had rare classical melodies like ‘Hari Murali Ravam’ (Aaram Thampuran) or ‘Pramadhavanam’ (His Highness Abdulla) tasting success because the films demanded such intricate writing. But when it comes to bread-and-butter songs, the trick is to make it simple. Sounding should be given importance, and the melody shouldn’t be tampered with by using complicated words. 

I believe that the essence of a song for most listeners is the music. So the lyricist must enhance the tune for people to enjoy it. Otherwise, one may get an award for the writing because in that case the jury only focuses on the written word, but people may not enjoy the composition as much.

Q. Does failure affect your work?

It affects the song itself. Off late, the song's shelf-life is heavily dependent on the movie’s visibility. Most people are only talking about my popular ones even now. But I have better work in lesser popular movies too, but they never got their due. That’s unfortunate for any artist. Sometimes, we know if a film might not work but hope that one day the work is recognised.

Q. Your recent success with music composer Sushin Shyam was much discussed. How would explain the synergy?

Since it is a collaboration, the music director, film director, and lyricist must be on the same page. We might have a brilliant idea, but it has to resonate with the filmmaker as well. A song will materialise only if the idea works for all three of these stakeholders. 

Sushin is very secure about his work and is not under any pressure to deliver hits. But I have worked with musicians who are bent on topping the charts and that only adds to the pressure. Jithu Madhavan (Aavesham director) knew exactly what he wanted, and we all had space to improvise and modify.

Q. How would you define creative freedom?

You can’t make a hit song out of a vacuum. There has to be a screenplay, a foundation to work on. A lot of people tell me to do promo songs and insist that I feel free to do my own thing. But we need some input from the director, some measure of guidance, and then we can work our craft. Film songs aren’t like advertisement jingles that are created with the sole intention of getting hits.

Q. Let’s talk about Illuminati—the new favourite in town. How did it become what it is now?

It was done keeping Fahadh’s character Ranga in mind, comically exploring his larger-than-lifeness. It is a fan anthem for Ranga – he is God and Illuminati and on hearing the song, the listener should laugh it off. But as an afterthought, they should also wonder if it is true after all. 

His arc in the film is also on similar lines. It’s a dappankuttu-meets-Western-number style song. During the post-production, I was worried that the lyrics would get drowned, but thankfully it worked. I think it is the kind of song that can be placed in a car video, a celebration, or anywhere else.

Q. What was the brief for Jaada from the same film?

The ‘Jaada’ song had visuals and I saw the edits. Except for ‘Illuminati’, all songs had visuals. Give us a ‘Jaada song’ was the brief and then I thought why not call it ‘Jaada’? It got defined like that, the catchline being – the comeback is always greater than the setback.

Q. Is penning romance tricky?

There are so many layers to romance – gender, age, and other elements. The choice of words will depend on how playful, intense, or mature it must sound. For instance, ‘Minni Minni’ (June) had cute words, while ‘Pavizhamazha’ (Athiran) had a compassionate angle in the romance, and ‘Aradhike’ (Ambili) was about long-distance, and the relationship was unconventional. ‘Parayatharike’ (Kolambi), on the other hand, had an elderly couple showing contentment with each other.

Q. What’s the story behind the ‘Shante Sowmya Shalinee’ song in Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey?

Since I travelled with the film, I knew the film’s politics – both satirical and hard-hitting. What is shown on screen is just the opposite of what’s written on paper. But the catch of that song is that the sarcasm can only be understood after you see the film. ‘Santhe Sowmya’ are monickers that glorify misogyny, which ironically have been used generously in yesteryear films. These coinages were the definition of a ‘perfect woman’ according to patriarchy. I remember researching proverbs to create a song about women and I was shocked to see the extent of shaming and misogyny. These usages were made by men, evidently, and if you don’t look at the context of the song in Jaya Jaya Hey, the lyrics are very problematic.

Q. What’s the most challenging part of songwriting in today's times?

Language is sometimes a blessing and an irritant, and it is difficult to crack certain genres. I can’t write a pub song within the constraints of my language, for instance. If you want to write a hero worship song, you might need to add English or Tamil for effect. We use a lot of English while speaking, but when it comes to lyrics, we still want metaphors and poetry (we are compelled to be poetic). 

In vintage songs, we could accommodate heavy words, but that is difficult in contemporary times. Melodies are fine, but things get difficult in day-to-day songs. You have to be dishonest most of the time. You can’t use a sakhi, priyathama, or such words while talking about a lover now, because that may sound archaic. 

I think things will be even more difficult for a songwriter going forward.

Q. Has the concept of good lyrics changed now?

Ideally, it should, but our audience still leans toward poetry and old-school nostalgia. The trick is to crack the new lingo and seamlessly blend it into songs.  

Q. Who are the songwriters you grew up adoring?

I have always loved Baburaj songs written by P Bhaskaran. Then the evergreen Vidyasagar-Kaithapram/ Gireesh Puthenchery combinations.

Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to and She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.

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