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S. P. BALASUBRAMANIAM AND THOTA THARINI ON A PAST-PRESENT TRIP

To the director above, thanks!

`Till today, I record at least a song a day. How blessed we are!' — Balu


They've been around for about four decades and won several national awards. But what makes S. P. Balasubramaniam and Thota Tharini special is their trademark earnestness. Having earned their position every diligent inch of the way, more is less for these two exponents who are still energised by the same passion that marked their prime. So what happens when the man with a versatile voice and the man with sets appeal participate in a Take Two? The present meets the past, with Balu's modesty and Tharini's self-effacing nature surfacing as highlights.

T. Krithika Reddy presses the record button and listens.

Balu: It has been quite a while Tharini (with palpable warmth). What's up?

Tharini: There's "Sachin." And I've just completed "Chandramukhi." It was thoroughly enjoyable. Director Vasu understands my work, so I felt comfortable. Of late, cinematographers, in their enthusiasm to please directors, make suggestions relating to art direction too. Some cameramen get DVDs of films, and show a hotchpotch of props and frames to directors. Creative interaction between different departments of filmmaking is necessary, but interference can sometimes be irritating.

Balu: That's there in music too. There are producers, directors and even heroes who come with CDs and ask for a certain type of song. Sadly, directors who wish to try out something original have to give in.

Tharini: The point is that people are not drawing references from their brain — instead CDs and DVDs influence them.

Balu: Technology has in a way ruined creativity. Like fast food, everything is easily available. So people don't hesitate to use it.

Tharini: Can you believe it? In art direction, the use of paper has become minimal. In the past, the maistry would not work without the drawing. Recently, I was told an art director drew a set with his foot. I thought it was atrocious. People ask me why I don't use the computer. But the experience of creating with paper and pencil is special.

Balu: Change is inevitable. In the past, we recorded live. Composers created songs with a particular singer's range, timbre and style in mind. A nod from the composer was like earning crores of rupees. Today, because of the time factor, the track system has come in. But shouldn't singers at least be asked to perform together? Most often, we are not even aware of the co-singer. I agree we have to move with the times. But technology must not override creativity. And when the soul of the song is lost, what for this technology? MSV recorded the famous "Engae Nimadhi" number with a hundred musicians in a single track. The song was completed in about eight hours. Now, musicians take even 15 days for a song! Viswanathan used to do such fabulous rerecording at a stretch. As for Ilayaraja, he can finish all the songs for a film in two hours. Such is his dexterity. Rahman works very hard and another quality I like about him is that he never bad-mouths others.

Tharini: Nowadays, when I ask film directors for the songs to capture the mood to create sets, they often tell me that only the track is ready. `Saar, ting ting ting ting... . adhuthan saar tempo.' (They burst out laughing) But the point is I can make value additions only if I listen to the song. Today's filmgoer is discerning. Details are important.

Balu: Tharini, have you made compromises with design?

Tharini: Yes, for budget's sake.

Balu: But how do you strike a balance between budgetary constraints and creative flow?

Tharini: You know the "Sagara Sangamam" experience? The budget was drastically cut for the song in which Kamal dances on the well. It was difficult to make people understand that an Ooty house meant more than hilly terrain and oak trees. I've been dubbed the most expensive art director. But in reality, I've done the cheapest sets. It's a torture to give what the director wants with the money the producer doles out. The set was created at one-tenth of the original cost. Later, during an awards presentation, Raj Kapoor asked me if the well was real.

Balu: That's more than enough. Okay, tell me about the Meenakshi Amman temple set you did for "Arjun" in Hyderabad. It's simply awesome — on the same scale as the original.

Tharini: It took two and a half months. The artisans were from Tamil Nadu, because only they can relate to its cultural ethos. Tell me Balu, weren't we lucky to have worked with stalwarts in our fields and climb up step by step?

Balu: Yes, that was a blessing — to work with learned composers, experienced co-singers and well-versed lyricists. Today, you have music composers who work with keyboards and demand higher octaves not knowing your range. The major problem I face is with sruthi. Songs are composed without the singer's stamp and fragrance in mind. There are a host of young musicians desperate to make it, so I try to work things out within the given parameters. When that's not possible, I politely tell them that I might not be able to deliver. Also, in some of today's compositions, the voice is more for the instrument than vice versa. KVM was the most practical musician. He always said the orchestra was only to provide breathing space for the singer. To him, voice and words were vital.

Tharini: The thing is that these maestros worked their way up, unlike some of today's youngsters. I have people coming to me with DVDs of "Braveheart" and "Gladiator" and asking me to recreate similar sets. (Laughter) Sets are like canvases. Every detail counts. In "Anjali," I added some grills to a simple table in the protagonist's house to enhance the frames. Likewise in "Bombay," Arvind Swamy's house has a lived-in feel about it because of the kids. Most art directors give clean sets and the producers are pleased. But tell me, isn't aging a natural process for homes and human beings?

Balu: True, all art is about nuances. Recently, when a newcomer rendered a song, the sruthi was imperfect. When the composer asked for a retake, the director chipped in, "It's okay, there's some variety." Is abaswaram variety? Any art form is pure.

Like pooja. I struggled to get my Tamil right before venturing into playback singing. But today, when someone doesn't get the words right, it's called variety. Is killing the language variety? It pains me.

Tharini: And isn't humility missing?

Balu: Yes, youngsters get carried away easily. I've come across composers who ask for retakes to impress producers.

Balu: It's almost 40 years. Remember, we started our careers in 1966. (Turns nostalgic) We got our Padmashrees at the same time. Looking back, I've no regrets. Till today, I record at least a song a day. How blessed we are, Tharini?

The director above (looks up) has been so good to us. And thankfully, we still have people who appreciate good work.

Tharini: Yes. The urge to create is still intact. Like an apple a day, for me it has to be a painting a day. There still is so much to learn, so much work to do. And like `The Brook', some things will go on and on and on...

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