The Anti-Climax of a Rajinikanth Film!

First up, I haven’t seen Annaatthe – Rajinikanth’s latest film to have hit the big screens all over the world during the festive Deepavali week. So, this is not “My Flash Review” of the film. However ever since the film got released on the 4th, I have seen quite a few reviews – both of the professional reviewers and the social media type. And mostly they have not been charitable about the film. In fact, they have all trashed the film. Herein lies a tale of irony.

Among the Tamil speaking audience not just in Tamil Nadu but all over the world, Rajinikanth has been a huge phenomenon for many years now. No other star has been able to get the kind of adulation he gets, till now. In fact, over the years his appeal has spread to other South Indian states and now even to other parts of India.  So, when a Rajini film is about to be released, there is this huge expectation. And this expectation gets hyped up and amplified in the new age digital era with the release of First looks, Teasers, Singles, Trailers and Making videos which flood our screens before the release through well-orchestrated PR campaigns.

One would argue that the trend is the same for all popular stars today who use social media to the hilt to create a buzz before release. But in the case of a Rajini film, other than the hard core fans (which every star can boast of), the excitement extends beyond his loyal fans. It extends to common public, youth, children, elders and even IT Professionals!  The countdown starts as soon as the release date is announced.

First there is frenzy and craze for booking the tickets for the opening weekend and then there is this craze for the FDFS (First Day First Show) tickets. The whole experience of watching a Rajini film wherever in the world FDFS is completely different. Since this has been written often enough, I am not dwelling into the same here. And those who watch the film FDFS also take it upon themselves the onerous responsibility of giving a ball by ball update of the film from inside the theatres through social media with pictures, clips and what not. The result – the verdict on the film is almost out within three hours of the release. The irony of Rajini films in the recent past has been this “Verdict”.

The fact of the matter is since the film Sivaji – The Boss in 2007, we are yet to see a fully enjoyable “Rajini padam”. Enthiran was also good and enjoyable but I would call it as a Shankar film rather than a Rajini film. If you see the films since then which are Lingaa, Kabali, Kaala, 2.0, Petta, Darbar and now Annaatthe we can see  a pattern. A pattern of the films weighed down by some huge expectations and then flattering to deceive. I am not getting into the debate of Box Office collections or profits these films made because they are subject to interpretations and fair data are seldom available in open domain. We can’t get into conclusions with the available “convenient” data.  So, instead of calling them as flops or failures, let me call them as “Underwhelming” films.

In the above seven films, Ranjith’s films – Kabali and Kaala were disappointing not for the same reasons as the other five. Ranjith tried to capitalise on the Rajini persona with a matching character, imagined Rajini and cast based on his actual or close to actual age and did not make him dance and prance with heroines one third his age. The problem in these films as per me was Ranjith not knowing what to do in the screenplay while untying the knots at the end, resulting in both films promising a lot but leaving us disappointed at the end.

The other five films can be grouped together and they suffered from what I call as the “Fan Boy Director” syndrome.  The directors of these films namely K.S.Ravikumar, Karthik Subbaraj, A.R.Murugadoss and now Siva see themselves as fiercest fans of Rajini first and then as his director. And herein lies the problem. When they wear their fan boy hats, they only see the form of Rajini which they enjoyed way back in the 90’s.  The script takes a backseat. Showing Rajini as this larger than life mass hero of the 90’s takes prominence. In my opinion, this concept is done to death in movies like Annamalai, Baasha, Muthu, Padayappa, Yajaman and in even Arunachalam where a template of “Riches to Rags to Riches” (R3) formula was used to good effect.

We are in 2021. In my opinion, only those in the age bracket of 40-60’s now can relate to the 90’s nostalgically like the directors. Children in the teens today were not born then and they can’t understand the brouhaha over a film like Yajaman!  Similarly the youth in the 20’s and probably 30’s were toddlers then and so cannot relate to the Rajini –Meena romance in Muthu or a Rajini-Khushbu kadavule kadavule chemistry in Annamalai.

This is the BTS (Bangstan Boys) or PUBG generation. To them, trying to bring back the nostalgia of the 80’s and 90’s by rehashing some of the earlier themes in my opinion just doesn’t work. Even for those in the 50’s, having seen many of Rajini’s films in the past, we would like to see him in substantive roles rather than doing the same thing again and again. Here, I would also like to add that it is not necessary that in these times of feminism, social media activism and wokeism, yesteryear super-duper hits of Rajini like Padayappa and Annamalai may meet with the same response today.  Some of these films haven’t aged well, frankly.

I would suggest therefore, that Rajini provided his health permitting, follows the playbook of Amitabh Bachchan who still rules Bollywood but, qualitatively and not quantitatively.  Following the footsteps of Amitabh is nothing new for Rajini. In the 70’s and 80’s many of Rajini’s super hits in Tamil were remakes of the “Angry Young Man” films of Amitabh. Just that when Amitabh’s glory as a hero waned off in the 90’s, Rajini had to look elsewhere for his scripts and landed up with the “R3” template.

Today, Amitabh is not necessarily cast as the main protagonist but is always cast in a role in which he can make a difference.  Which means that directors finish the script and approach him for casting if he is suited for it and not the other way about as it is the case for Rajini today. Mostly, directors and producers get the nod from Rajini based on a broad story line and then they try to fit in Rajini, the mass hero into a templated script. This also means casting the most popular lady as the heroine invariably, crowding the film with popular co-actors whether the script demands or not,  filling in with frivolous comedy tracks thereby shooting the budget to astronomical proportions. This in turn raises the expectations of the entire supply chain and as we have seen, the film wilts under the weight of its own expectations.

Even in the last few films, one thing which is still going, is Rajinikanth himself.  No one is still questioning the power of his screen presence or his energy or even his capability. What is under scanner for sure is his judgement of scripts and roles. So, at the December of his career, Rajinikanth can decide to write the climax of his career differently by being more discreet and choosy. After all, we don’t want this climax to become an Anti-Climax!

Rajinikanth – Destiny’s Own Child?

This piece was written for the News site – The News Minute and was carried on 2nd April, 2021. It can be read here:

https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/why-rajinikanths-dadasaheb-phalke-award-richly-deserved-146395

It was few days into June in the year 2007 in Mumbai. Those were heady days for the Indian economy with frenetic activity in retail, real estate and in fact almost all spheres in India. Malls and multiplexes within them were the cool things those days. In the midst of that, I saw some huge excitement around the release of a Tamil film in Mumbai, probably for the first time.  FM Radio stations were talking non-stop of that film, adding to the build-up. The film was Sivaji – The Boss, directed by Shankar and the reason for the excitement was Rajinikanth, who by then had transcended the Southern borders and was a phenomenon across the country in what I would say the phase-4 of his still running career.

The film got a huge theatrical release even in Mumbai.  When I went to watch the film over the weekend at the nearby multiplex, there were kids, teenagers, young couples, middle aged folks and senior citizens of all hue, who had thronged to watch the film. The buzz was palpable and unprecedented. I have not seen any other Indian actor who commands such a following across age groups, across class divide, across genders, in short across anything, till today.

I don’t think anyone would have foretold such a rise for Rajinikanth way back in 1975 when he literally “entered” into the world of films with Apoorva Raagangal pushing a huge gate in his entry scene. That scene in a sense remains metaphorical of his career in films. He had to push hard the prevailing stereotypes for an actor to establish himself in phase -1 of his career where he was doing support roles, many of which alongside Kamal Hassan, who was already an established star. Much credit is due to director K.Balachandar who saw something in him which others didn’t and mentored him as he evolved into a bankable hero. In this period, what made him stand him apart was not so much his acting prowess but, his screen presence and mannerisms which became to be branded as “Rajini style” in years to come.

The same “Rajini style” packaged with some raw energy on screen carried him through to become a sole hero in films in what will be the phase-2 in his career. Even as he started delivering hits as a hero, there were still questions around his acting skills. Comparisons naturally ensued. If it was MGR Vs. Shivaji in the previous era, it was Kamal Vs Rajini in that era. In those pre-social media times, there were endless arguments on who was better with Kamal camp emphasising on his versatile acting talent while the Rajini camp was pitching in for his wider appeal among masses. But given an opportunity by way of meaty roles, Rajini did prove himself as a consummate actor in films like Mullum Malarum,  Aarilirunthu Arubathu varai, Engeyo Ketta Kural, Thillu mullu to mention a few. Yet, Kamal, the “Class actor” Vs Rajini, the “Mass hero” debate went on unabated. After every film release of either of these stars, I remember our group of film buffs in our engineering college re-opening the debate and ending without a conclusion. There were no hashtags way back then to monitor the trends and announce victories.

It’s in the mid 90’s post Baasha, however, that something changed. Rajini’s appeal then started transcending all boundaries. Young and the old, privileged and not so privileged, urban and the rural, educated and not educated, men and women, Software geeks and accounting professionals – he endeared himself to one and all. Soon, Kamal Vs Rajini debates ceased to exist.  Rajini films were simply too entertaining and he himself became that mass entertainer. While most of Rajini’s films then followed a standard template of “riches to rags to riches” hero, in real life though, from one phase to another his career graph went only one way – Up.

From then on, what happened to him and his career are stuff that dreams are made of. Looking back, here was a guy who was defying all established norms and conventions for a Tamil film hero. Rajinikanth was not conventionally “good looking”. He was not fair skinned or even brown skinned – again a much needed specification for heroes at that time. His grip on the Tamil language and dialogue delivery were not up to the mark. He had not come from the “stage” background which was very common for most actors those days. He did not possess the best dancing skills either. And finally in terms of histrionic skills, there were better heroes around.  In short, he did not fit into the established grammar of a hero. Yet, he became the reigning Superstar of Tamil cinema. In all of these phases, he had the backing of talented screen writers and directors who knew how to package Rajinikanth on the big screen.

All the so called inadequacies didn’t prevent him from making a lasting impact on the audience. For sure, he picked up on his acting skills as time passed by.  He made up for the lack of everything else with his sheer screen presence. He turned his dialogue delivery style into his own with his baritone voice. On screen, he was always a man of high energy. And there was an element of style in his movements which people simply loved. In his own admission, more than his strengths, he was aware of his short comings and decided to work within them.  And more importantly like MGR, Rajini had the pulse of his fans. He was very choosy about the subjects he did and the film makers he worked with. While he was hands off in making of his films, in this phase, Rajini always had the final say on what made it to the final cut.

This phase -3 of Rajinikanth’s career is interesting in more ways than one. Before, commercial films were labelled “Masala films” a category in which Rajini ruled. With his films like Baasha, Muthu and Padayappa, Rajini now created the “Mass” film category and owned it for a long time. Mass films came with “Mass scenes” which became iconic.  Normal lines when mouthed by Rajini repeatedly in a film became punch dialogues.  Today, almost all stars across languages have made mass scenes and punch dialogues necessities in their films.

It is this mass adulation of whatever Rajini did, that pitch forked him to become the phenomenon he is today. Beyond the borders of Tamil Nadu or even South India, his films are eagerly awaited even in Non-Tamil speaking states of India. Not to forget the surprising admiration he earned in Japan since Muthu. It can be safely said that Rajinikanth is the biggest entertainer Tamil cinema has ever seen till today and he continues to be so.

At 70, Rajinikanth is at the December of his career. However he is not done yet. The opening his film like Kabali got, is the envy of many young stars. Even today, the expectations and the frenzy his new film release generates across all age groups are unmatched. The last few of his films might not have matched his all-time hits of the past due to poor story lines and screen play but, Rajini himself gave a good account for himself with his performances.

It’s only apt that the Government of India chose to honour Rajinikanth with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award now as he completes 45 years of stardom in cinema, that too without a break.   Notwithstanding the timing of the award which has set some tongues wagging, Rajinikanth the phenomenon truly deserved the Dadasaheb Phalke award or rather as the memes would go – Dadasaheb Phalke award truly deserved the Rajinikanth! After all, he is indeed Destiny’s own child, isn’t it?

33 Years of Nayagan and its lasting impact!

(This post was written for the News portal The News Minute and first appeared on the 24th Oct, 2020 and it can be read here.)

I remember the episode very well. Nayagan had just released for Deepavali in October 1987. There was no pre-release hype then as it is the case for new releases nowadays. However, the poster depicting a clean shaven Kamal with a bloodied nose intrigued us. To us, it was a “Kamal” film and in those days, we invariably caught up with all Kamal films.

Three of us friends watched the film at Anand Theatre in Madras and after watching, we walked down the stairs. The usual quick post-mortem of a film after watching it was missing and the mood was sombre and reflective.  There was an adrenaline rush inside among us with chests all pumped up.

We got to the gate and hailed an auto to get back home. As was wont those days, the usual argument with the auto driver about “meterukku mela pottu kudunga” ensued. Just this time, there was a sense of belligerence in us.  We were not in a mood to succumb to the auto driver’s fleecing tactics.

Writer Balakumaran style dialogues flowed from the three of us in turns. “Niruthanum. Ithu ellathayum niruthanum. Ethukuyya meterukku mela pottu kudukkanum? Ungalaala Madras pere kettu poyiduchu!’ (Everything should be stopped. Why should we pay above the meter? It’s because of you that the name of Madras is spoilt) “Nee enna vena sollikka. Meterukku mela pottu kudutha varum, illa varaathu” (You can say whatever you want, if you don’t pay extra, the auto won’t come) said the auto driver. This ticked us off completely. We got into the auto and told him “Vandiya police stationukku ottuyya’!  Innikku oru vazhi paakaama vidarathu illa!” (Drive the auto to the police station. We have to resolve this today). Clearly, the film had awakened the sleeping Velu Nayakkar in us!

The above is a factual narration and not an imaginary story. I heard similar episodes from others too. The story of a slum dweller taking on the system and becoming a towering and benevolent don, that too in an alien land, which is what Nayagan was all about, clearly touched a raw nerve with Tamil cinema goers.  One the one side, if the character had such an impact on many of us, on the other side, the way the film was made had a huge impact on Tamil film aficionados.

Just the opening shot of a boy running with the sound of his huffing and puffing in the background blew us away. Within a few minutes we could realise that we were not watching another regular film. This was when we watched Nayagan the first time. Once back in college after Deepavali holidays, we would watch it many times over and keep talking about different aspects of the film endlessly. I guess it was not just us. I have often seen many Tamil filmmakers in the past three decades saying that Nayagan was one of the most influencing films in their lives and career. Tamil cinema, in that sense, can be divided into “Before Nayagan” and “After Nayagan” era in terms of filmmaking.

Starting from Kamal’s acting, his get-up, Mani Ratnam’s staging of scenes, PC Sreeram’s epic camera work (for which he got his first National Award), Ilaiyaraaja’s magical score, Balakumaran’s earthly writing, Thotta Tharani’s art direction, the acting by the supporting cast like Saranya, Janakaraj, Delhi Ganesh, Karthika, Naasar and others, and finally Mani Ratnam’s style of filming – it was a case of all the elements coming together impeccably with precision.  Nayagan sowed the seeds for “The Mani Ratnam film” as we see it now.

Months after Nayagan’s release, even as it ran for silver jubilee in theatres, the film kept coming back in our lives.  So, for our engineering college cultural festival, when we were thinking of a theme for our Tamil skit, we hit upon a novel idea. “What if a Nayagan like character lived amidst us in the college?” was the starting point. The next few days in the evenings extending to night we sat to write the script.  Since we had decided to base the play on the movie, we just had to plug in local issues within the movie template rather than re-invent the wheel.  We didn’t realise that we had stumbled upon the now famous Lollu Sabha format then.

Velu Nayakkar in our play was a local don in the campus. Students knocked at his doorsteps to get their college related problems “sorted” out. He helped all students but at the end could not prevent a “CUP” (which was the slang for “arrears” in our times) for his own son. That was the one line concept. We started filling in the scenes.  Campus politics, tyranny of the mess food, unfriendly and strict professors all found their way into the script.

Having fixed the flow, we got down to writing the lines paraphrasing the original film lines so that people could relate to it easily. We scanned the town to lay our hands on the audio cassette of Nayagan film soundtrack to get the lines right. Those were pre-Google times.

The skit was a resounding hit and we won the first place. Bolstered by the success, we went on to stage a few more plays but the first Nayagan experience still remains etched in our memories just like the film is, even after 33 years!

Coming back to the scrape with the auto driver, when we told him, “Vandiya police stationukku otuyya”, he turned around coolly asked, “Entha station? Ashok Nagara? K.K.Nagara?” (Which station? Ashok Nagar or KK Nagar?) We should have known that the auto driver would have also watched Nayagan a few times and was imagining himself as another Velu Bhai who was not going to take anything lying down!

Pic credit: New Indian Express

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!!!

“Mauna Ragam” – A review 30 years late!

Couple of days back a friend who is equally a big fan like me of the ace director Maniratnam passed me a link of the film critic Baradwaj Rangan’s ode on Mani’s Mauna Ragam.  The piece titled “30 years of Mauna Ragam” flashed me back to 1986 when the film was released. That was during my 2nd year of Engineering when Mani Sir as he is revered now had not arrived though flashes of his brilliance could be seen in his 1st Tamil film Pagal Nilavu. Mauna Ragam had no mega star cast and got released silently without much fanfare. But then those days mega star cast or no star, we almost watched all movies which hit the theatres and contributed our bit to Kodambakkam. Since was not into writing then, didn’t write any review after watching Mauna Ragam. But we sliced and diced all films some times for days together which could have made for decent reviews. So today I am writing this piece as a review for that film Mauna Ragam, (recollecting from the many postmortem sessions we had in canteens, Railway station benches et al) Mani’s first full-fledged film (he wrote and directed) which announced to the world the arrival of a Director of class. With his next film Nayagan, Mani would go on to stamp his presence and influence on South Indian films forever.

mounaragam1 (1)

The narrative in the film was path breaking in many counts as far as Tamil cinema then was concerned.

  • As per me, this was the first film (at least of what I saw) which had a genuine feminist hero (Mohan) who was sensitive to the feelings of his counterpart (Revathi) almost throughout the film. Even when Revathi’s character was at her provocative best in what would seem as taunts at Mohan, he would still react in a calm, composed manner always respecting Revathi’s point of view. He takes all her requests seriously and tries to comply (including going ahead with the divorce) without trying to put forth his point of view.  In a moment of what I call that “directorial touch”, Mohan opens the rear door of his car for Revathi when they come out of the advocate’s office after filing for divorce. One could argue that even MGR was an eternal feminist in his films. But then that was of the Thaikulam (Motherly) variety.
  • For most of the film, the heroine would be shown in rather a stubborn light as one who isn’t willing to move on shrugging her past. Heroines were virtues of everything good in films then.
  • This was again one of those early movies in Tamil where the boy (Karthik) professes his love for the girl very casually in his second or third meeting without beating around the bush so much. In fact that scene when he actually does is only the first of the many scenes in all Mani’s films which establish his credentials as a King of soft romance!
  • I read in Mani’s book that the entire Karthik portion was an afterthought and it was not in his original script. I am now wondering how the film would have actually shaped up without that short but breezy portion where Karthik educated youngsters of those days on ‘pataoing’ girls with confidence.
  • It’s also one of the first films where the hero is a MBA and is a practicing HR Manager. Probably Mani pitched in his own MBA background here and weaved it into the story line effectively. (Union issues, thugs bashing up factory managers and even killing were quite prevalent in the 80’s India). On Mani’s MBA background showing up I must also mention that very memorable “Mr. Chandramouli – Coffee” scene (watch here) in the film. Karthik casually flips Revathi’s book kept on the table and asks her what the book was all about. She says “Econometrics”. A subject unheard of when I watched but which would come to haunt us as the most dreaded paper in the second year of MBA!!!
  • Some of the lines Revathi as a female character speaks early on were unheard of in Tamil films those days. Remember the scene before the first night?
  • In the climax, when the woman (Revathi) sheds her ego and communicates that she doesn’t want the divorce now, the man (Mohan) a HR practitioner who is trained to deal with human egos most of the time at the workplace, finds it difficult to shed his own ego. I thought that the disconnect one encounters between theory and practice was demonstrated very well here. Don’t know if it was intentional or could be I am reading too much.
  • And finally here was a film without any villain per se.

Revathi was super brilliant in the film. She portrays the transition from a college going happy-go-lucky girl to a serious married woman in an unfamiliar land with ease. The hero Mohan was those days called “Poor Man’s Kamal”. When a producer couldn’t afford Kamal they would resort to Mohan. He had limited histrionic skills but did well with the song sequences. And in a superstitious film industry he was considered a lucky charm. But in Mauna Ragam he did manage to emote well and with Surendran dubbing for him superbly, Mohan made his mark as an actor for the 1st time.

Apart from being a trail blazer, the other thing which worked well for Mauna Ragam was its freshness in approach. Just a few characters, set in Delhi, P.C.Sriram’s cinematography, the angles, a no “big star” cast to mention a few.

While I say it was a film with no big stars, I must add though that there was one. Which was Ilayaraja’s music. The songs and the background score integrate nicely into the film and set the mood frame after frame. In that one song – “Mandram vantha thenralukku,…” Raja ably supported by Vaali with the lyrics and S.P.Balasubramaniam with his soothing voice convey the conflict in the minds of the characters so well that you end up feeling sympathetic for both of them! That Raja is the best in the business of re-recording is now beyond dispute.  He demonstrates that in many frames in this film. One such frame is vivid in my memory. In that scene (watch hereMohan asks Revathi to make her choice between “divorce” and “life with him”. As she starts signing the divorce papers, Raja uses the oft-repeated score in marriage muhurtham scenes in Tamil movies – “Maangalyam thanthunanena,…” and that too as very coarse chorus. Nobody else could have conveyed the contradiction and the battle of the mind better!

Not that the film was flawless. I always thought that Mani struggled with comedy. And soon he realized it and jettisoned attempts in forced comedy in his later movies. In this film, the comedy track with V.K.Ramaswamy and a Sardar looked very amateurish and was avoidable. Again a girl who was carrying the ghosts of a tragic love affair in the mind is shown in the initial scenes as a very happy-go-lucky person without any trace of melancholy in her mind. Now you can understand that I am nitpicking and trying desperately to be balanced!

Frankly when we watched the film for the 1st time we were speechless. And then we watched the film again. And talked about it many times over. Why write this review 30 years later, now?? Well just to thank Mani for this and the many other classics he bestowed us.

Postscript: So, it’s 30 years of Mouna Ragam, baby!” I told the wife yesterday as she is also a fan of this film. And she quipped, “Common, in January it’s going to be just 20! You forgot that we got married in 1997???” 😃😃😃

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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