It was in the year 1992, exactly 25 years ago. I was in Cochin learning the ropes in my 1st job. Weekends were usually time for catching up on films of all hue. And that particular weekend was reserved for what eventually turned out to be a landmark film in Indian cinema in many ways than one. The film Roja was helmed by Maniratnam who had by then become a sort of a cult in Tamil cinema with back to back hits. The film had many firsts to its credit. For the 1st time, a Mani’s film was not about a Robin hoodish character (like in Pagal Nilavu, Nayagan, and Thalapathi) or not of relationships in uber cool urban setting (like in Mouna Ragam, Agni Natchatiram, Idayathai Thirudathey, and Anjali). In this he explored a new template that of setting up a relationship story with a conflict as backdrop and one that he would often deploy in his career later with mixed success (Bombay, Iruvar, Dil Se, Kannathil Muthamittal,…). And more importantly for the 1st time a Maniratnam film did not have Ilayaraja as the music director. One with whom he had partnered since his 1st film and delivered some eternal music. Instead he introduced a rookie, young talent to the world called A.R. Rahman who was till then doing jingles for ads. Leo coffee apart from providing the caffeine quotient to South Indians also has the distinction of providing 2 heartthrobs to Indian Cinema – Rahman and Arvind Swamy!!!
Leaving the theatre after the film Roja, I was disappointed with the film. I thought that the film was good but not great. And Mani whose films are deeply rooted in realism, in this had an overdose of melodrama particularly in the end. But then in the theatre at the climax when Arvind Swamy is let off by his captors and gets to unite with his wife, there was a standing ovation. So I guess it all worked for Mani and the film.
So is this post a review of the film Roja 25 years late as the title may suggest? I guess not. But of the genius called Rahman which the film bequeathed to us. Being an ardent and unapologetic fan of Ilayaraja, I guess the first reason for not liking the film Roja was probably that Raja was not doing the music. But in the film as the 1st song – Chinna China Aasai, played out, the music and the visuals were just breathtaking. It was clear that we were entering into a new era of sounds in Tamil music. SPB, Chithra and other many new comers who were singing in the film were all sounding differently. The songs started growing on you and so did the film. By the time, the Hindi version of Roja got released and became a “super-dubber” hit, Mani was excused and I came out of denial to accept that he has indeed made another great film!
Post Roja, Rahman continued to belt hit songs one after another and he was soon becoming a rage. Whether it was feet tapping numbers like Chikku bukku rayile, Petta Rap,.. or melodies like Narumugaiye, Ennavale,.. or folk numbers like Poraale Ponnu thayee soon Rahman’s music was all over the place. And in South India where the benchmark for a musician is always how “sound” his/her basics are in classical music (read as Carnatic), Rahman’s deployment of Carnatic ragas in some of his compositions was deft and subtle. In the song Kanna Moochi yenada for the film Kandukonden, Kandukonden, Rahman’s blending of ragas Natta Kurinji and Sahana is exceptional. Also in the song Narumugaiye in Iruvar the classical Nattai raga gets a Rahman touch. And in the song – Vidukathaiyaa intha Vaazhkai from the film Muthu, a situation (watch here) which is melancholic Rahman aptly uses Ahir Bhairavi – a raga suited to convey such emotions (Remember Viswanathan-Ramamurthy’s Ullathil Nalla Ullam,… in Karnan??). Enough to get into the good books of even the purists of Mylapore, I say!! While doing all this, he was also in the forefront of turning “Super-Singers” to Stars and breaking the hegemony of established stalwarts. Soon capping new comers would become a mandatory trait for all music composers!
But still for the ears – which were so used to the melody and rhythm of Ilayaraja for probably 20 years since childhood, the new sounds of Rahman were still offbeat. It was only much later that we came to know that in the film Punnagai Mannan which was touted to be the 1st to use computerized music, while Ilayaraja wrote the score, it was a young kid in his late teens named A. R. Rahman who actually handled the music sequencer for the theme music (listen here).
The fact was, in the initial period Rahman’s songs were sounding similar to his own earlier compositions and ended up being predictable. So, for many of us Raja fans, it was either Raja or Rahman and cannot be both.
By 2000 I had moved back to Mumbai and with that got to follow more Hindi music. Soon after, in 2001, the epic Hindi film – Lagaan had released. And Lagaan had Rahman as the music composer. Apart from the various facets of the film which makes Lagaan a milestone film – the music score of Rahman was out of the world. Just in the first few minutes into the film as the song Ghanan Ghanan Ghanan starts playing out, one could make out that this was a hitherto not seen/heard Rahman. From then on, I became an unapologetic fan of Rahman. It was no longer Raja or Rahman but Raja and Rahman.
With his success in films like Roja, Dil Se, Lagaan Rahman became the 1st music composer from the South to leave an imprint in Bollywood. Directors from Bollywood didn’t mind making the trips to Chennai and burn the midnight oil (almost all his recording happens in the night – we are told) to get their music score done by Rahman. And Rahman who keeps saying that he wants to continuously keep stretching his own limits –often walked this talk. His later movies particularly in Hindi like Jodha Akbar, Dilli 16, Rockstar,… explored new aspects of Sufi music till then not touched by earlier composers and brought Sufi music to the centre stage of Bollywood. And again for a person from the South of the Vindhyas to compose some wonderful Punjabi folk numbers in films like Rang De Basanti, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Rockstar,,.. is something extraordinary. Just as we keep thinking that Rahman is past his prime he surprises us with some outstanding music. In the film Tamashaa for example. Or even in the otherwise forgettable film Kochadaiyaan (the shifting of Octave as the song progresses in Meduvaagathaan,… – is nuanced music at its best)
Talking of Rahman and not mentioning of his Oscar would seem to be unjust. But then personally for me, The Slumdog Millionaire (TSM) was not Rahman’s best effort. Yes, it got him the Oscar and we should be proud of that. But beyond that, I think his own work in some of the Indian films far outweigh TSM or his other Hollywood efforts.
Comparisons of the music of Raja and Rahman are odious and unfair but unavoidable. To me Raja is an outstanding music composer. And Rahman an outstanding music Engineer. A true Engineer lives and dies by “Efficiency” as defined as “Output/Input” in his/her work. So Rahman uses voices, scores, instruments, sounds and technology (Inputs) to optimize the eventual music output. Ilayaraja is a composer first who depends on the tune/score largely and then the right arrangement and less of technology. His music horse sense is what he brings to the table than the machines. Hence he is unparalleled in terms of understanding the musical needs of a situation. That’s why Raja’s songs always lift the situations in the films and he is way ahead of the rest as for as background score is concerned. This debate can go on and on.
For a Raja-Rahman fan like me, what about a film that too by Maniratnam with music by Ilayaraja and Rahman – where Raja composes the tunes for the songs, writes the background score while Rahman does the arrangement, records the music, mixes it and we get to hear the magic!!! Well wouldn’t that be a great way to celebrate 40 years of (Anna) Kili’s chirping and 25 years of the Roja blossoming???