25 years since the “Roja” blossomed!!!

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???

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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.

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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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OK, No more – Mani!!!

My first reaction after watching Maniratnam’s latest outing OK Kanmani was “Man, Mani should now call it a day”!!! Okay_Kanmani_film_poster

After feeling disappointed the last few times over (Guru, Raavan, Kadal), it was with much trepidation that I ventured to watch what was Mani’s 21st film without even bothering to look at reviews. Ofcourse the teasers and trailers communicated loudly that Mani was in his familiar territory. Youth, Urban, Romance, Rebel,…,… Like somebody said there was virtually a sympathy wave this time around for Mani and more than himself, his fans wanted this movie to work. And there are enough reasons for this kind of sympathy and empathy.

After all, in Tamil cinema which is usually driven by the “Star Mania” (Puratchi thalaivar of yore to Thala of today not to forget the Nadigar Thilagam, Super Star, Ulaga Nayagan, Ilaya Thalapathy in between) – there has been little scope for a Director to make his mark and make people throng the theatres just for his direction. Maniratnam did that. Again and again for a long time. Up until recently. Not that he was the 1st to do so. From Bhim Singh to Sridhar to Balachandar to Bharathiraja and briefly Bhakiaraj all of them did exactly that. But what made Maniratnam stand apart from others was he removed “Drama” from Tamil films and that was a welcome change. Rooted in “casualism”, his movies shunned lengthy dialogues, over the top acting/overacting, emotional hathyachaars,… in short what I call as “Drama”. And brought in an overdose of cool quotient –female leads with a rebellious streak, Staccato dialogues, matter of fact acting and ofcourse with a lot of emphasis on the technique (Cinematography, Storytelling style, Background score, Music, Sound engineering, Song picturisation,…) And appealed to the Nextgen. Having said that, he was careful not to tread the path of an Adoor Gopalakrishnan (the ace Malayalam Film maker whose movies were rooted in realism – so rooted that they failed to break into the mainstream mould and remained favourites of film festival hoppers). Mani was smart to remain mainstream while pursuing an alternate film making path for himself.

It was about 3 decades ago when we were in our 2nd year Engineering that Mani’s 4th film (Mani was just another upstart director then and not the Mani Sir) Mauna Ragam silently got released. Those were days when we use to watch almost every film to hit the theatres for want of alternate source of entertainment. When we came out of the single screen theatre after watching Mauna Ragam, our usual group which usually get into slicing and dicing any movie on our return to the hostel for few hours, this time was silent. Silenced and stunned by an all new freshness hitherto unseen in Tamil movies. So much so we hit the theatre to watch the movie the second time soon. And then the analysis of the film followed for few days over. The lines Revathi (main female lead) speaks to her mom after marriage just before the 1st night were the kind unheard of in Tamil cinema before. Karthik’s characterisation in a cameo role made boys wonder why they are not like him. And I came across a MBA HR Manager (Mohan – the male lead) for the 1st time in a Tamil film 🙂 🙂

After Mouna Ragam, when Nayagan hit the screens, Maniratnam had arrived and there was no looking back since. I can devote an entire post on Nayagan which I will keep it for another pertinent occasion. For now I will just leave it with – “In Tamil cinema there was an era before Nayagan and one post that”!

In an interview when somebody asked him as to what was the secret behind his films’ connect with the audience – Mani said that all his films are about relationships which people relate to. And generally not from out of the world.  But when I look at his body of work, there are 2 types. One set of films just about relationships (Mauna Ragam, Agni Natchathiram, Idayathai Thirudathe, Anjali, Alai Payuthey and lately OK Kanmani) and the second set is about relationships but in a political/current affairs/worldly backdrop – Nayagan (Bombay Tamils), Roja (Kashmir issue), Bombay (Post Ayodhya riots), Dil Se (NE turmoil), Kannathil Muthamittal (Srilankan strife), Aayutha Ezhuthu  (Student politics), Raavan (Maoist problem),…  He has appealed to us and made a success of both the genres by and large. But what comes naturally to him I guess is when he talks to us in an Agni Natchithiram or an Alai Payuthey lingo.

Frankly when I saw Roja way back in 1992, I was a tad disappointed. First of all I couldn’t accept that Mani can do a film and make a good one at that without Ilayaraja and P.C.Sreeram. And then a Mani film with a serious issue like Kashmir strife as a template was something unimaginable and not expected. But gradually the film grew on you. (So did Rahman’s music). And when the dubbed version of Roja got a wide appreciation in Hindi, I guess Mani’s ambitions took wings. Then after he started writing Tamil films but for a national audience.  So a sense of indulgence started creeping in as it does for most creators who initially create work without any burden of expectations and then have to, to live upto their own reputation.

Even at that stage I thought he was still making brilliant films. I for one still couldn’t understand why a Dil Se flopped (perhaps for the contrived climax I later concluded). But with Alaipayuthey in 2000, he went back to his original style- a film about relationships without any forced backdrop. And just for the Tamil audience. And about Urban youth. And with P.C.Sriram. And just when we were relieved, Mani Sir went back to his second type with a series of films like Kannathil Muthamittal, Aayutha Ezhuthu, Guru and Raavan. I liked KM and AE but only in parts. I forced myself into liking Guru though not fully convinced. I gave Raavan and Kadal a miss after not so charitable reviews. But quite obviously they were disappointing and couldn’t help questioning Mani’s sync with the times.

And then OK Kanmani happened. The urban coolness is back. Staccato lines are back. The rebellious streak is back. And P.C.Sreeram is back. The relief in us is back. Mani is back 🙂 🙂 🙂

And that’s precisely why I feel that he should now call it a day. After all it’s better to sign off on a high and not after he is forced to, post a string of flops trying to explore relationships with Nepal earthquake some ISIS territory as backdrops 😦 😦

It’s not my contention that Mani should stop experimenting and keep making Agni Natchithiram/Alaipayuthey/OK Kanmani type films for ever. I am sure he has still within him for a few more movies and good ones in that. Just that anxiety as an admirer of Mani’s craft that his upcoming movies mustn’t fail and he mustn’t fall from that high pedestal he is positioned himself in.

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Postscript: No, as an afterthought, maybe he should do one more film. With Ilayaraja and Rahman to do the Music honours in a co-operative effort. That will be path breaking and be in sync with Mani’s credentials😜 😜

Kabini – where Nature Unwinds!!!

Kabini – heard the name  for the 1st time when the TV commercial for Orange County Resorts was playing again and again a year ago.  The flute bit (check this out)was enchanting and inviting. The next course of action followed naturally – Google ‘Kabini’.  200 odd Kms from Bangalore Bengaluru, amidst forest area, natural serene place and the name of Orange County were reasons enough to lock this for the next holiday. Having missed the opportunity in summer, didn’t want to miss the second opportunity which came last week in the form of “Durga Puja” holiday and there we were off to Bengaluru en route to Kabini.

Signs of “Your kind of Airport – Coming soon” welcome you as you touchdown in Bengaluru.  For an airport which was just thrown open to public I guess 3-4 years ago, going for an expansion so soon means either the traffic has exploded or the planning was woefully shortsighted.  Both are not of surprise in Incredible India! Weather in Bengaluru is one among the many things I love of the city and as expected it was pleasant and just great.  As we navigated out of the airport one hoped that the distance of 208 kms would be covered in 4 hours.  The reality was different. 

A light shower started glazing the Bengaluru – Mysore highway as we drove past the town Ramanagara where folklore has it that “Kitne Admi The?” the most enduring line of Bollywood and many memorable scenes of the iconic film Sholay were shot with the rocky terrain of this town as backdrop!!   As we take a turn from Srirangapatna and on the final stretch towards Kabini, the scenic beauty just enthralls you. Away from the hustle bustle of the city and its smoke, a lazy charm engulfs you as you drive on what is just ‘R’ of a Road!!!  As you keep seeing the signs of Airtel, Sun Direct and Videocon on top of houses, one cannot but feel impressed at the Dish TV penetration in small towns of India. DTH – Direct to Hinterland???

Maddening traffic before hitting the outskirts of the Bengaluru city, a 30 min. lunch break and the last ‘No Road’ stretch of 40 kms leading to the resort means we took in all 6 hours to cover 208 kms.!!! You need more than a normal welcome as you reach the resort after the long drive and we were not disappointed. Within few minutes in the resort, the journey and its tiredness are all forgiven and forgotten. The staff and the Nature start working their charm on you!

The resort is right at the banks of River Kabini and has a breathtaking view. 

View of the River Kabini

The rooms are in individual hut style and meshes completely with the ecosystem.   We are told that they have been styled in the Kadu Kurubastyle which is the local tribe in this part of the world. 

Kuruba Syled Huts

An Activity instructor briefs you of the various activity options for the next 3 days. But he missed one important activity which was on top of our minds – Just lazing around!  There was another activity which seemed missing. The jungle safari and the lake safari which take you to the Nagarhole forest reserve for some wildlife sightings of the ‘natural’ type have been banned by the Supreme Court.  Though the ban has been lifted recently the local government is still skeptical of the ‘wild’ human types creating inconvenience to the actual wild types.  So we had to make do with the captive elephant in the resort for some time pass.  Sunset cruise in the lake, bird watching walks, Ayurveda therapy,…,… are all there to fill your time.  A Coracle ride in the river brings you memories of Maniratnam’s classic ‘Roja’.  One cannot escape thinking of the captivating sequence of Chinna Chinna Aasai (Choti si Aasha)” as the coracle swirls in water aided by the breeze.  Take a row oops bow – Maniratnam, Rahman & Santosh Sivan!! 

Coracle Ride

The resort has a captivating “Reading lounge” with a collection of books centering around wildlife, nature,… I found it an amazing place – tranquil, with a stunning view of Nature and a collection of books.  And free flowing Coffee!!!  Yes, pure coffee from the hills of Coorg of the ‘filter’ type is served hot and you don’t need a better incentive to keep walking up to the lounge again and again!

Invariably there were light showers in the evenings making the coffee tastier. In one of the evening we were shown glimpses of the “Kuruba” tribal culture with some folk songs and dance by the local men. Just realized that it’s a routine they have to go through every now and then for the urban ‘matter of fact’ people like us seeking some peace of mind there.  However their enthusiasm and commitment were infectious.

Food at the resort was great with the chefs paying personal attention to your specific needs.  As the ‘holiday fat’ kept on adding itself to various parts of the body, you realize that it is time to wind up and leave.  A line about the staff. The resort has some great people who were extremely genial, highly motivated with great passion for serving the guests.   They went out of the way in making our stay extremely comfortable and memorable. Many ‘Namaskaras‘ to this tribe’ and may it get bigger! (The staff has been trained to greet you with “Namaskara” whenever they see you)

The way back was more predictable as it always happens. You know what is coming ahead.  Except for a pleasant surprise when we stopped by at the town Maddur for lunch. As I was launching myself into “Maddur Vada” a local snack at “Adigas” – suddenly I could hear the enchanting sounds of “Santoor” instrument in the air. Pandit Shivkumar Sharma the great exponent of Santoor was walking in to have a bite there. The boy who was waiting his table had little clue that he was serving a living legend of our country – well can’t blame him. He is not of the Doordarshan generation and between Balaji’s emotional hatyachaar there is no ‘Bhaje Sargam Har Taraf Se’   fillers these days!  The excitement of having the legend for company compensated for the food at Adigas which was certainly disappointing.

On the Jet airways plane while returning– one couldn’t help think of the days when India had 2 world class domestic airlines. One (Kingfisher’s) future is uncertain and the other (Jet Airways) is living in past glory!

Kabini? Kabhi Nahin! Was the refrain as we endured the 6 hour drive on our onward journey. But the place, the resort, its people, the sights, the serenity, coffee …,… meant it was all worth it. After all you don’t want to miss a place where Nature also unwinds and takes a break!!!

Please take a look at the short video I’ve put together when you have the time :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8Eph2IZIO0&feature=g-upl

Kabini By Night