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???

Intha Raja Kaiya Vecha,…,…!

Today was just another Sunday morning. As I turned on the ignition of my car for a Sunday morning drive, Ilayaraja’s (Raja) hits started playing. On top of the playlist was Raja Kaiya Vecha,…,… from the hit film Apoorva Sagotharargal.  There are 2 versions of this song – one sung by Kamal Haasan himself which eventually featured in the film and the other sung by S.P. Balasubramanyam (SPB) which just got retained in the music album. Its’ very rare that a song sung by SPB and composed by Raja gets consigned to just the album. As I was enjoying the interlude in that song which has some awesome feet tapping music, the CD started playing truant and was jumping few tracks and eventually it stopped. My Sunday morning tryst with Raja-SPB duo got aborted midway. At that point in time, I had no premonition of what was to follow later.

Reaching home, soon I could see SPB’s Facebook post going viral where he claimed that he has been served legal notice by Raja’s attorney for singing Raja’s compositions without prior permission in his recent World tour stage shows. And that in the rest of the shows, he may not be singing Raja’s songs. Difficult to believe, the first reaction was of course “Why would Raja take such an extreme step against SPB who was a close friend, associate and a fellow traveller in his music journey?” In a spat involving these 2 namely Raja and SPB for people like me who have grown up with the music of the 70’s and 80’s it is difficult to take a stand. On the one hand you have Raja, a genius and whose music transcends all superlatives. And on the other hand you have a singer who even today can give an Arijit Singh a run for his money with his mellifluous voice and versatile singing. While a lean and fit Raja is known to have a bloated ego, the physically fuller SPB comes across as a man of humility and feather lite ego. Even in this FB post he didn’t have one word of disrespect for Raja and admitted his own ignorance of legalities. He won the hearts and the sympathies of the fandom.

To be fair, it was important to hear out Raja’s side before getting judgemental on his action. And soon in the course of the day we did get to see the same through Raja’s legal consultant who was probably behind shooting this legal notice. As expected he talked of violation of IP rights, royalty payments,…,… The issue of copyrights and Intellectual property rights (IP) on music compositions have of late become a bone of contention between music composers, Lyricists and film producers. The fact of the matter is till about the first decade of this millennium, lyricist and music composers were blissfully unaware of their Intellectual copy rights with a result they were never paid royalty by producers for their creations. Only recently, with the exposure to Hollywood,.. the composers and lyricists became aware of their IP rights. A.R. Rahman now owns the IP for all the music he creates.

Looking up on the issue of Indian Copyright Act, I understood that in 2012 the amendments made to the act set right the historical anomaly of being not beneficial to the creators. Famed Hindi lyricist Javed Akhtar was instrumental in getting the amendments passed. Historically, Indian film producers just paid a one-time fee to song writers, composers and singers. And denied them revenues from other sources like cover versions, ringtones, digital downloads,.. which have become increasingly lucrative.

The amended bill now makes song writers and composers as owners of the copyright which cannot be assigned to the producers as per earlier version. More importantly, as a recurring source of revenue, it is now mandatory for broadcasters – Radio, TV and Digital to pay a royalty to the copyright owners each time the song is played.

It seems that it is now part of the standard operating procedure for singers to take formal permission from the music composers before performing their songs on stage. And as part of this process, the acceptance to pay the applicable royalty. So it comes as a surprise that event producers of SPB’s recent concerts missed this point of not informing or taking Raja’s permission for singing his songs. So from a purely legal standpoint, it is clear that Raja has not hit a wrong note on this matter. But then SPB is not just another singer. He has been a constant companion to Raja all through, with the duo churning out some thousands of hits. It is today hypothetical to argue if the duo’s songs were hits because of Raja’s music or SPB’s singing.  For a fan the Raja-SPB combination was magical and together they have given some evergreen, everlasting music which will continue to live forever in his/her heart.

From Raja’s side could it have been handled differently? Certainly one would feel so. Instead of a legal notice, a friendly call to remind the SPB camp of the IP issue would probably have settled the issue under wraps. Unless otherwise we are not privy to some larger conflict of interests between the two themselves or their minders. In which case after Vairamuthu and Bharathiraja SPB could be the latest to land on the other side of Raja’s symphony.

‘Intha Raja Kaiya Vecha,…. Wronga ponathilla,.. ‘goes the song.  The genius lyricist Vaali wrote this line probably keeping Ilayaraja in mind on his music. But on this issue, it appears Raja has hit a wrong note! He probably should lay his hand on the phone to call SPB and undo this wrong bit, unless Raja chose to use syncopation!!!

Being an ardent of fan of both Raja and SPB, to me what has happened is sad and disappointing. In terms of taking sides on this spat, the head wants to go with Raja and the heart with SPB. But then the ears are always with the duo!!!  Let the Andhi Mazhai continue to pour!!!