Ilaiyaraja and the Curse of the Visual – Part 4


Tamil film industry has its share of movie directors who are one hit wonders. Irrevocably spoilt by such fleeting success, they realize the rest of their career as one long list of blunders. Such visual diarrhea piggy back on the best from the Maestro, often the only contribution of those movies to the Tamil art world. Our claim on his music has been our undeserved birthright.

That the Maestro had obliged a million times and more to such non-entities could be taken as a sign of confused values, or mark of his indefatigable creative baton. To paraphrase the Bard, the quality of Maestro’s mercy is not strained; it droppeth as a gentle rain from Heaven upon the place beneath – fertile or barren. Abandon hope, all ye enter the movie hell for watching such a movie. The music shall remain bound by the curse of the visuals.

Now there are other directors who are adept in conceiving an interesting movie. But they inadvertently underestimate the place for music in that visual medium. Also, they dare not upset the commercial juggernaut to release their Tamil movies without any songs. So often they give a free hand to Ilaiyaraja (or the music composer involved) and ask him to compose songs for vaguely generic situations with cliches like two duets, one sad song, one group song, one item number. And in return are gifted the nectar of Indra.

The stumped directors realize and express their inadequacy for translating into visual medium when confronted by the musical creativity of Ilaiyaraja. The standard ploy of commensurate effort is to transport the entire film unit, camera, creativity and all, to a foreign country to shoot the song. Otherwise, they do elaborate sets of one city near another, a ship on sands or paint villages in rainbow colors and so on in an attempt to match the brains of the music with such cocktail brawn.

Competent as they are, unlike the earlier category of one hit wonders, some directors do attempt visualization either by total surrender as discussed in part 3. Or occasionally by visualizing the lyrics of the pulsating Ilaiyaraja music, with some success.

As was attempted by director Mahendran in the following example. The famous song is from the movie Mullum Malarum, a favorite of actor Rajinikanth (the actor in the song sequence however is Sarath Babu):


senthazhampoovil – Audio


(YouTube Link – At the start has few Ilaiyaraja visuals unrelated to the song, but good video)

(YouTube Link – Only the song, but direct TV capture)

Those who can understand the Tamil lyrics would know the attempted match of visuals with lyrics in many instances along the song. At the very beginning there was even a synchronization of well edited shots with the music. As the song progressed, perhaps the interest of the director in visualizing appropriately also waned.

Appropriate visuals or not, a major irritant is the uncoordinated steering of the actor driving the jeep. A sub-major irritant is the repeated use of that sequence of bad jeep driving with identical road backgrounds on two instances separated by enough time. Thankfully, at least the lip sync of the actor is properly attended to. A general minor irritant is the ‘slowness’ of the visuals – the shots – contrasting with the jumpy tune. For some Tamil purists, the diction of the singer of Malayalam origin is a sub-minor irritant. Notice for example at the end of the second charanam, that goes malayin kAtchi, iraivan Atchi, how the singer pronounces the word kAtchi as kaat-chee while in Tamil it should be pronounced closer to kaat-szhee. The end of the third charanam has the word arputham pronounced instead arbudham.

If one looks hard, one can find such passable examples of visualization attempts of the lyrics in Tamil movies, with a tacit surrender to the overwhelming accompanying music of the Maestro.

Now, there is another method to visualize songs of Ilaiyaraja. Forget the lyrics altogether and try to visualize the music.

Competent directors get successful with this method when surrounded by excellent technicians. In the example below, the same Rajinikanth abused for his (lack of) dance and sync skills in earlier examples discussed in these essays (in Part 1 Part 2 Part 3), is made to sync wonderfully and even dance reasonably by Manirathnam for Thalapathy. Here is the amazing music composition:


rakkammakaiya – Audio


YouTube Link

From the starting sixty-violins-presto-bash observe the choreography, sequences and editing, only attempts to visualize the music and not the lyrics. If you know Tamil, observe there is only a passing display of lip sync with lyrics and vague resemblance of poses to the lyrics. Even the clap-your-hands lyrics is overlooked and those instances are synced throughout with group-snapping-of-fingers as snapping is what one hear in the background music. Amazingly, even the trademark laugh of the singer SPB during the course of the song (hear it near the very end) is left un-synced with an attempted on screen laugh by the hero. The hero is not even in the frame when that laugh happens. Such is Manirathnam, remaining faithful to his method of music visualization attempt.

Music-wise, the magic of thEvAram in a different tempo seamlessly mixed with the main tempo of the song towards the end is an early bonus from the genius. This mixing of rhythms, tAlams, tempos, an extension of the western classical structure into rhythms, is another aspect that intrigues Ilaiyaraja and keeps us enthralled.

Going back, imagine what such a technique of visualizing only the music could have done to the earlier songs we discussed – AgAya gangai and santhana kAtrE (in Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

And sigh.

One more necessary digression for the above rAkkammA song: The North Indian Hindi copycats upon queried about their blatant copy of the above music without acknowledging the genius of Ilaiyaraja, replied unabashedly with a cock and bull story about their absent minded snapping fingers and how the tune came about. Baloney. When asked about such dearth of musical creativity and ownership injustice, Ilaiyaraja in a later interview answered with characteristic aplomb that comes out of supreme confidence in his talent and often misinterpreted by many as arrogance: Those who have, provide, those who don’t, take [**].

Manirathnam is not the pioneer of the technique of visualizing only the music. Attempts have been made for the compositions of other music directors in an era before Ilaiyaraja. But given his aversion to shooting songs for movies (which he admitted to in interviews) and his bad-habit for excellence of technique even while including such avoidable elements in his movies (another example is his technically excellent, ridiculous comedy tracks), Manirathnam was able to consciously hone and popularize in recent decades this method of choreographing songs for music rather the lyrics. Ilaiyaraja’s music got some justice.

The technique of literally dancing (only) to the tune is easier to attempt. But for its success, it requires the music to deliver more in rhythm than in melody. Deliver it did also in rhythm, the melody rich music of Ilaiyaraja until around 1995. In the recent decade it would seem the music of Ilaiyaraja has been reduced straight to the melody bereft of any standard, off the shelf, groovy rhythm (by melody it is meant the tune of the song and rhythm is the percussion beats in the background). But nuanced listeners would agree the music has only grown complex and subtle both in rhythm and melody, to the extent they are becoming inseparable. The result is, even while meant as an ordinary group song for a contrived situation, these movie-songs are becoming un-dance-able tunes. Un-dance-able, if excellence is striven in matching visuals for the music.

There is another important method to save the visuals. Allow the music composer to partake in the proceedings, i.e. in the creation of the song situation, scenes, sequences and the movie. Not just the background score, but also in the song sequences. For this to happen the director of the movie necessarily requires a completed script in hand with even songs used cleverly as choreographed sequences that move the story. No excess songs need be used, if it doesn’t help the movie proceed.

Some creators believe such planning is detrimental to their spontaneous creativity. And go on to make movies that are kites without any ruddering thread.

The fact is, such planning and execution is possible with only a few having some clarity of thought about the movie they are making. The resulting marriage between music and visuals in such instances is often satisfying, if not always mesmerizing.

Here is an example of this method from the movie Hey Ram:


nee-partha – Audio


YouTube Link

Hey Ram is a period movie with a knot of what if an ordinary guy loses his wife to violence during partition, thinks Mahathma Gandhi is the reason for that. A classic from director Kamal Hassan, I hear it is included in the syllabus for teaching movie direction in some US schools (read a review by Prof. Philip A. Lutgendorf of the University of Iowa [****]) .

The particular sequences enacted for the song, again, doesn’t attempt to mouth the lyrics (expect for a brief instance of the heroine reciting Bengali poetry). But the story moves along with the song with excellent editing. The scenes begin, end and transform in appropriate punches of music with voice (speech) layovers without spoiling the music. Importantly, the sequence of events shown from past and present and their picturization never dilutes the yearn and loss brought out in the bhava (mood) of the song. Or vice versa. The song upholds the mood of the situation, the cherished memories and contrasting reality of a sad and torn individual.

Those who have watched the movie would realize the seamless blend of the visuals in the song that provides the transition from the events before and after it. Those who haven’t can immediately grasp the serene and content feeling with melancholic strains the song evokes. The universality of such feelings of love and loss is highlighted by the song shared by a couple, one from Tamil Nadu the other from Bengal, while the tune itself set literally in a grand piano. The amazing asynchronous parts the singers achieve near the end of the song is again a bonus literally handwritten on the staves by the genius.

Such music and its choreography requires enormous skill and intelligence of craft, experience in the medium, understanding of music and sympathy for excellence around you. That it was possible in Tamil movies in some instances, is a collective sigh of creativity relief both for the creator and the consumer.

The downside of this method is, the creator in the music composer is restrained by the actuality of the movie. The music director cannot create in un-reigned spree and then ask the rest (lyricist, singers, choreographers etc.) to work around his music. It is not the first innings where Sachin is asked to play his natural aggressive game and contribute to a grand total. It is the second innings where he is asked to play his part in saving or winning a test match. The music needs to be created dovetailing with the rest of the creators. Only team work uplifts the visual medium, the movie. Individual brilliance is consciously marginalized or re-channelized. Advantage is, the visuals (picturization) almost always match the music and lyrics. Disadvantage?

An AgAya gangai or santhana kAtrE may not be created by this method.

[Part 5 to follow] [ Ilaiyaraja and the Curse of the Visual – Part 1Ilaiyaraja and the Curse of the Visual – Part 2Ilaiyaraja and the Curse of the Visual – Part 3]



[*] Ilaiyaraja has composed music for more than a thousand movies. It is impossible to write a single article that does justice to the entire musical phenomenon, introducing and saluting his music while also satisfying the expectations of his fans. Hopefully this essay series serves as an introduction to those who are yet to explore his music.

A much more elaborate attempt was already made by my Srirangam friend Lakshminarayanan a decade back in the internet. Titled Classical Ilaiyaraja, the fifteen part essay is also preserved at the unofficial Ilaiyaraja home-site.

[**] What Ilaiyaraja said is conveyed even more powerfully in Tamil: irukiravan kodukkirAn, illAthavan eduthukirAn

[***] The songs and music used here are only for illustration purpose. There is no download link provided.

[****] Thanks to @anantha via twitter for the link