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Music for the people

Though film music is often compared unfavourably with classical music, it is a genre that is marked by constant experimentation and innovation, says S. THEODORE BASKARAN, tracing its evolution through the years.


Tamil cinema popularised classical music by simplifying it for the people.

OCTOBER 31, 1931. The first Tamil film "Kalidas" opened in Madras at Kinema Central, the present day Murugan Talkies. When T.P. Rajalakshmi as the heroine appeared on the screen and sang the song "Gandhiyin Kai Rattiname," few realised that they were witnessing the birth of a cultural colossus — Tamil film music.

The early Tamil films, advertised as "all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing pictures," right from the beginning drew upon the existing form of music-drama. All the song-laden Tamil films produced during the initial years were film versions of popular plays staged by the drama companies. The practice was to engage a drama troupe, make them enact a play and shoot head on, in long takes. In doing so the film-makers tapped a powerful and popular tradition — the drama company repertoire. These drama companies had shaped a theatre of song and music, where words and action were minimal. As long as cinema remained silent, there had been little interaction between the world of drama companies and cinema. But once sound was introduced into cinema, all the musicians and songwriters got up, as it were, from the pit in front of the stage, and moved into the studios.

Almost immediately after the arrival of talkies, film songs came out as 78-rpm plates. This helped to establish their position as an independent aural experience, separate from the films of which they were a part. After sound studios were established in Chennai in 1934, the cinema industry stabilised itself and the prospect of steady money was clear. Attracted by the lucre, classical musicians who had hitherto looked at cinema with disdain, entered films, once after another. Right from Maharajapuram Visvanathayyar to GNB many musicians associated themselves with the films. In turn Tamil cinema popularised classical music by simplifying it for the people most of who had been far removed from it. Film songs were standardised to four or five minutes to suit the duration of the gramophone plates. However, when the facility of recording sound separately and placing it later on the sound track became available, there was no need for actors to possess singing ability. Artistes could be chosen for looks and for acting ability. This marked the exit of classical musicians from the screen. A new category of film artiste, playback singer, arrived on the scene.

Film music transcended categorisations. The inegalitarian society, this was an important development. Though All India Radio ignored films songs and refused to broadcast them, Radio Ceylon brought the songs into homes. Later, audio cassettes, CDs, TV and the attendant electronic technology, vastly extended the reach of film songs.

Though film music is often compared with classical music and is denigrated, it is catholic in approach, adapting continuously from several styles. This is one area of Indian musical scene that is marked by constant experimentation and innovation.

Though such adaptations at times degenerate into plagiarism, its appeal is undiminished. Film sings have supplanted folk music in the lives of common people. Both have a simplicity that does not pre-suppose any knowledge of music. The association of sound with images, of songs with certain scenes and certain actors is another factor in their popularity. The love scenes endow the songs with direct erotic association, thus increasing their appeal. Songs evoke the film viewing experience.

No other artiste's career symbolises the popularity and hold of film music, as does Ilayaraja's. He has been at work in Tamil cinema for 25 years and has composed music for more than 800 films in five languages. For the Tamil diaspora, Ilayaraja has emerged as a cultural force.

Ilayaraja came on the scene 45 years after film music had first appeared. When he entered Tamil films in the mid 1970s, there was stagnation, in film music and in the type of films that were being made. Ilayaraja's innovative creations came as a whiff of fresh air. The song that made him famous in his debut film "Annakili" (1976) "Annakili Unnai Theduthu" (Annam is looking out for you) was authentically folk and soon was playing throughout Tamil Nadu. The film "Kavikuyil" (1977) stabilised his position in the film world.

There are three elements of Ilayaraja's music, the first is the folk music of the Tamils, such as the work songs and march songs. The second is Carnatic music and the third European classical music. Folk music has been used earlier, but quite functionally through classical music idiom. Ilayaraja brought it in with its soul, with its earthy, rooty characteristics. He used authentic instruments like tharai and thappattai (drums). In many films he has demonstrated his skill over Carnatic music, handling some difficult ragas. In 1989 when the Classical Musicians Forum honoured him, Ilayaraja pointed out that classical musicians were not being innovative and were parroting the same ragas and songs. He went on to point out that film musicians, just to survive, have to be creative.

When he came to Madras in search of fortune, he learnt Western music and quickly became familiar with Western Classical. In fact when Ilayaraja went for his first audition in 1968, the piece that he played on his harmonium was Laura's theme from the film "Dr. Zhivago." Much later, in 1989 after dominating the film music scene for a decade, he brought out his first independent album "How To Name It" in which he established his mastery in fusion music. One critic (C.S.G. Prasad) has suggested four factors as the basis of Ilayaraja's success as a music director: his fidelity to the form he chooses, whether it is folk or classical, his musical imagination that provides evocative background score, his sense of harmony which keeps each song under control as it were and lastly his brilliant orchestration.

But most of all, Ilayaraja's understanding of the role of music in films is what set him apart. He realises that film music is not just music placed on the sound track of a film and that it should not be created as if it was a mere aural experience, isolated of the images of a film. It is applied music. It has to integrate with the narrative, not intrude upon it. It has to go with the images that appear on the screen and enhance the quality of cinema. It is part of a viewing experience. To achieve this, the music director should be familiar with the aesthetics of cinema, with its form and with its possibilities.

In cinema, a good music composer is not necessarily a good music director. Ilayaraja's comprehension of cinema is evident in his background scores, which add a new dimension to it. He pays closer attention to this aspect as few have done before. He watches the film fully, grasps the basic thrust of the film and adds appropriate musical score in the soundtrack. Ilayaraja has shown that just as imaginative lighting could enhance the visuals and their cinematic quality, so can background music. This can be pointed out as his defining influence. One film in which this is evident is Balu Mahendra's "Veedu." The film had no song. He also composes music to suit the lead characters of a particular film. This is new to Tamil cinema,. He says that he tries to understand the character, her/ his inner feelings and then decides on the appropriate music and instruments that would go with the particular character.

The director of the film "Bharathi" told me that when he showed him the film script and screened the rushes, Ilayaraja was quick to grasp that the liet motif of the film was the poet's famous lines "Having crafted a fine Veenai, would you fling it, so its timbre is ruined, in the dust"? In the last scene, this song has been placed as an off screen voice. At a poignant moment Ilayaraja joins in with his mellifluous voice to close the song and the film.

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