Ilayaraja 1000!!!

Boxing a tribute for a man who just completed a journey of 1000 films as a music composer in my usual limit of 1000 words is going to be tough. Even tougher is going to be the task of choosing from his expansive body of work for driving home a point. So it is with much trepidation, I sit to pen this tribute to the Maestro Ilayaraja, – as per me the best “all around” Indian composer of film music of our times on his 1000th film as a music director. The film Thaarai Thappattai (names of folk percussion instruments) and its maker Bala are indeed lucky to be a part of this milestone.


For those in their 40’s and 50’s and who grew up in the south of Vindhyas and Tamil Nadu in particular, Ilayaraja (Raja from now on) would have been a fellow traveller in life with his music. Tamil Film music has 2 eras – one before Raja and the other after. For the very discerning and ever critical ears in South India inspite of Raja making waves early, I would say he was on “probation” probably till his 100th film – Moodu Pani.  That was a good 5 years since he made his debut in Annakili. Till then, there was a feeling that though he was good, he was repetitive and can’t see beyond Tharai Thappattai – folk style I mean. But ever since this landmark of 100 films I must say there was no looking back. And as we stepped into the 80’s Raja with his music was like “Narasimha Avatar” – Omnipresent. Thoonilum Irunthar, Thurumbilum Irunthar!!!

Honest Disclosure. I am an unapologetic admirer of Raja’s work. A lot has been said and written about his modest upbringing, his travails as a struggler in Madras,..,… and how he became what he is today. So not going to dwell on those. This piece is entirely going to be on my connection with Raja and his work.

For me the tipping point was Raja’s music in Bharathiraja’s Nizhalgal.  In a middle class household with just a radio to define the entertainment quotient, my first brush with Raja was the Sunday afternoon programme in Trichy AIR called Neengal Kettavai where the top 10 songs of that time were played. I remember many weeks when the entire 10 songs were of Raja’s. Then gradually technology presented many options to be in touch with Raja.  From his initial style of churning rustic tunes and melodies, gradually his repertoire extended to Western Classical melodies, tunes laced with Carnatic scales and other contemporary stuff.

I started this intended hagiography like piece on Raja by saying that he is the best “All around” music composer of our times. His music was melodious at times, haunting at times, chirpy at times, romantic at times, melancholic at times. I am now at a loss of better adjectives. Enough to say that his music went beyond just great songs. Many aspects of his work prove this beyond doubt.

  • Like there is no other composer who can “Value add” to a song situation better than Raja. There are examples galore:
    • In this song from the film Nayagan, the situation is of a duet between the hero and the heroine in happy times. Generally speaking any plain vanilla melodious tune would have done the job. But Raja comes with this peach of a melody – Nee Oru Kaadhal Sangeetham,..(listen here) which conveys the joyous mood between the lovers but with a subtle trepidation. The song moves you to no end and grows on you. Amazing stuff!
    • Another example is this song from Punnagai Mannan. The film opens with this situation I think. 2 Lovers try to spend “quality time” together in a forest kind setting before they call it “Quits” forever. The song is supposed to walk us through this rather traumatic situation. Raja lifts the song situation few notches above with this layered piece Enna satham inda neram,…(listen here)
    • Now look at the very many melodies he churned for plain vanilla duet situations which according to me are equally masterclass – Thendral vanthu ennai thodum,.. or for that matter Vaa Vaa Vaa Kanna Vaa for example.
  • Like Raja’s knack of weaving the story line in the songs. In a sense using the songs to convey a sense of foreboding.
    • If you listen to this song from Moondram PiraiKanne Kalaimane,…. A lullaby song which could have been just that. But Raja (combined with the words of another genius poet Kannadasan) weave a kind of pathos into the lullaby situation and prepare us for what would be coming.
  • Like using a song as a theme in the Background score. Raja is a trail blazer in this.
    • Best example being Then Paandi Seemaiyile,… in Nayagan
    • Another song is Poongaatru thirumbuma, from Mudhal Mariyaadhai.
      • As the film traverses from good times to sad times the mood of the theme song changes.
    • Like being spot on in the choice of singers to suit a particular actor/character/mood.
      • Though those days the choice was limited for singers unlike these days of “Super singers emerging from reality shows” – Raja was canny in his choice. So while he went mostly with SPB/Yesudas for Kamal, It was always SPB for Mohan. And as Rajinikanth transformed from being a villain to an anti – hero to a superstar – Raja also moved from Malaysia Vasudevan to SPB. And he sang himself for the rustic Ramarajan and the likes!
      • When the mood is of sensuousness his call was to Janaki for the female voice. In Idhayathai thirudathey while most of the songs are sung by Chitra the one song (Om Namaha,…) which is a very romantic sensuous number he went with Janaki. By the way this song is another testimony to Point 1 as above.
    • Like Raja being the best in business in India as far as Back ground score is concerned. Apart from his songs, his background score elevates the movie to a different level. I have seen this in many films. But the following examples sort of seal the point.
      • Film is Maniratnam’s Thalapathy. Rajinikanth, Mammooty, Nagesh, Kitty and Arvind Swamy are engaged in a heated argument in Arvind Swamy’s office. Watch this clip. And watch how Raja’s BGM at the end of the scene lifts the drama element of the scene. Best part is for most part of the scene there is no BGM but the timely intervention is what makes it brilliant. This is just pure brilliance.
      • In this very heart rending scene in Kamal’s Apoorva Sagotharargal – it is interesting to see how Raja value adds with his BGM.
      • The Background score in Bhagyaraj’s film – Vidiyum Varai Kaathiru is a case in point where the BGM keeps you on the edge of the seat.
      • Even in his latest outing Tharai Thappattai his BGM is haunting and at the same time outstanding. Watch this.
    • Like without making it obvious, using classical ragas in many of his songs with small tinkering in the scale.

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Can Rajini???

The feeling is almost the same. That feeling when India fails to win inspite of Sachin (or for that matter Kohli now) scoring a masterly century under trying circumstances in a second inning of a test match. Because others fail to do their bit of scoring a few runs required at the end or the bowlers failing to take the wickets in time.  The feeling after watching Lingaa, the latest outing of the “Superstar” was no different.  Rajinikanth in a dual avatar punches above his weight in the film but the story, the script, the director, the music and even the dialogues which lack the usual punch have let him and his fans down badly. Frankly Rajinikanth, coming after an illness which forced him to take a break from movies amazes with his energy and tries to lift the tiringly long movie from ruins. So cannot blame him if the film disappoints his fans but eventually it is his film and so the buck will stop with him I guess. The verdict was clear when my 7 year old daughter who doesn’t get tired of watching the many re-runs of Robot or Shivaji started pestering me as to when the interval would come :(.   Lingaa may still end up being a top grosser at the box office but would not end up in the echelons of Rajini’s best outings.

Most of Rajini’s films in the last 2 decades were based on a central template of “Riches to Rags to Riches (R2R2R)” replete with punch dialogues and other formula items. I hear that Rajini is very careful in giving a go ahead to a script and chooses his director carefully. So when directors gets a chance to make a film with Rajini as the lead, they first consider themselves very lucky. And while directing Rajini, they look at themselves as among his Numero Uno fans first and his “Director” later. So they invariably get conscious of the trappings around Rajini’s image and try their best to stay close to the central theme and the formula.  So whether it is Muthu, Baasha, Annamalai, Arunachalam, Padayappa or even Shivaji they all follow the “Rajini patented R2R2R2” leitmotif. It was a welcome relief to see P.Vasu in Chandramukhi and Shankar in Enthiran (Robot) deviating from the R2R2R theme and still emerging successful.

The question is how long is Rajini or his directors going to flog the same template? As long as it continues to work and rakes in moolah would be the answer I guess. But first with Kochadaiyan and now with Lingaa I feel that the fatigue is setting in. As we saw in Lingaa or for that matter a few years back in Baba (Rajini’s 1st unqualified failure in 25 years) just the Rajini factor may no longer be enough to sustain that Thalaivar aura. The script does play a role. So, what next for Rajinikanth?  As part of the barrage of unsolicited advice he must be getting day in day out, here’s mine.

Looking ahead, he could look at two other people in India who have similar stature and faced similar conundrums in life.

Comparing Rajini’s career with that of Sachin Tendulkar’s may be odious but may be worthwhile. I was always of the opinion that Sachin who carried Indian Cricket on his shoulders for years delayed his retirement from Cricket few years late. He could have retired much before giving us the opportunity to see his stumps cartwheeling against rookie bowlers. As the cliché goes, it is better to retire when people ask “why” and not “when”. Similarly for Rajinikanth it would have been better if he had called it a day after Enthiran. A film in which apparently he was not the 1st choice, but made it a humungous hit with a stellar performance thereby unleashing the larger than life “Rajini phenomenon” and ofcourse the myriad jokes. Director Shankar whose initial choices were Kamal Haasan and Shahrukh for the main leads resorted to Rajini after he realized that only he can make producers fork the mega budget that film called for. Signing off in style post Enthiran on that “high” would have been a fitting climax for an individual who was an outsider in the industry. Now that he didn’t, with Kochadaiyaan and now Lingaa, the conundrum for Rajini begins, I reckon. Decades ago when their careers were going parallel, Kamal started venturing into producing his own films.  I remember reading an interview where Rajini was asked if he will get into production. His answer that time displayed profound wisdom and maturity. He said that he was not keen on producing films because if the 1st movie becomes a hit, the temptation would be to make a bigger hit and if it flops, then the desire would be to deliver a hit. So he felt that it would be a bottomless pit and was happy just acting in movies. Well, I guess with his growing stature and compulsions he had to tweak that philosophy of his. But now I feel he should have applied that wisdom while signing up new movies post Enthiran.  Now that things have come to this head, he can look up to his friend and another successful individual Amitabh Bachchan and take some cues.

Amitabh a mega star and brand in his own right, these days cherry picks his movies and roles where he doesn’t have to play the main lead but where he can leave an impact on the role and the film. This way he is not weighed down by the expectations from a lead actor but at the same time is able to satiate himself of his creative urges and that of his fans’ unending appetite to see him on screen. One or two movies a year in cameo roles till his health and will permits could be a middle ground for the Superstar.


The moot question is, Can Rajini look at the above options?? Or will he dig into the R2R2R2 template yet again?? Only time will tell.  Well as the folklore goes, “If Rajini can’t, nobody can”. Isn’t it?

On that note, “Dear Birthday, Belated Rajinikanth wishes” 🙂 🙂