Category Archives: Ilayaraja

Of Rivers, a Poet and Music

It is Puja and the work place has quite a few Bengali colleagues. Gleaned from a conversation was that Baul sangeet is an integral part of the pujo pandals. Bauls were mystics who roamed Bengal and their music forms a corpus of Bengali folk and colloquial music, which among other things, deeply influenced intellectual giants like Rabindranath Tagore and the imprint of the style of Bauls is there in his poetry and Rabindra Sangeet, the music form for his poetry, composed by him – he was a prolific composer – with influences from Carnatic (Dikshitar’s Meenakshi Me Mudam for instance was adapted as Bashonti Hey Bhubonmohini), Hindustani, Scottish and Irish music (Go Where Glory Awaits Thee inspiring Aha aji e Basanti for example). The music he composed and one which he has left us was but a reflection of the man’s famed and inclusive, borderless worldview.

Which took me to playing one song of Ilaiyaraaja’s – a very popular number at that – to the colleague. Engeyo Thikku Desa from Mahanadi. The prelude has a bit in Bengali, an invocation to Matangi, from the prostitutes of Sona Gachi after that incredibly moving sequence leading to ‘Krishna’ taking his daughter ‘Kaveri’ across the real ‘Ganga’. A story of rivers reaching a flashpoint on the river, taking the hero back to his days from Cauvery, being realized in this song is a testament to Kamal’s talent at writing screenplays of undeniable depth. However, as the oarsman sets the boat going along Ganga, he sings a song. The colleague had no hesitation in letting me know this is typical of Baul sangeet.

The song the oarsman hums is Ebar Tor Mora Gange. I did some searching. It is a Baul song from Tagore! This is the tune he has composed

I learn from another friend that the sub-genre of this song is the kind where boatmen invoke Ganga and offer her prayers before setting off (Jay Maa Bole – say Jai to Ganga) and that SD Burman handled this deftly, hailing as he does from the Tripura royal family and its geographical and cultural proximity to Ganga in a complete Bengal in pre-partitioned India from his formative years leading him to start his journey in Bengali films.

The wonder is how does a man from Pannaiapuram get the cultural essence of this sub-genre in Baul sangeet which is the driver in this Rabindra Sangeet song, deliver an authentic Bengali song in that sub-genre, switch gears effortlessly to Tamil folk, already imprinted through the film as its running theme with a bridge to change scales and also deeply impact the sequence and serve as a pivot for the film at that point. It is probably like how Salil Chowdhury *got* Malayalam folk and delivered stunners in Chemmeen and Nellu. And the writer in Kamal presents a worthy platform for this burst of art.

Oh and the other friend also had this tidbit. The voice of the oarsman is C Ashwath, a Kannadiga composer and singer, an expert in Jaanapada, a sub-genre of Kannada folk! The tune and its rendition is as authentic as one may like it and it is this precision from the detailing of the music form to the emotional impact that makes Raaja the monster he is. Kamal and Raaja here; proving what they are. மஹாகலைஞர்கள்.



Filed under Filim, Ilayaraja, Kamal

Thoughts on Guna

Warning: Potentially lengthy read. May end up boring you to death, putting you to sleep or maybe if your stars are aligned with mine, rivet you. Anyway, jump along.

I happened to re-watch Guna recently and as is the wont with any film of intelligence involving Kamal in the ‘90s, it sent me on a trip. On the surface, this is a film about a person with obsessional psychoneurosis who kidnaps a woman who comes under the influence of Stockholm syndrome, likes him but the plot contrives them to death. But there is more to it than this in my considered opinion. I just feel like archiving my thoughts on the film here. So here goes.

I feel it is up there with other Kamal works like Hey Ram and Virumandi as a master-class in Indian film history. The story and screenplay are credited to one Sab John and the dialogues to Balakumaran, while the direction is by Santhanabharathi. Superficially, there is no Kamal other than the lead actor and occasional singer. But peer closely and there are enough filmmaking signatures which tell me subtly that there is quite a lot of Kamal all over the place (for a broader discussion on the same across many films, hattip: Dagalti). Let me broadly focus on the screenplay, scene composition and the music (Ilaiyaraaja; genius bursting out everywhere) which in my opinion makes this film an insanely great achievement by Kamal and Raaja.

Prologue and its Poetry

The first sequence itself is richly conceived. The film’s first shot after the opening credits is a full moon with a man standing like Lord Shiva on a terrace top.

First Shot of Guna

We are then provided a tapestry into a North Hyderabadi settlement (vote for TDP, vote for BJP graffiti on the wall to go with Charminar shown with the opening credits) which houses a brothel. This is kind of evident when a woman, dressed like a courtesan of yore, dances to Inhin logon ne le liya dupatta mera (these folks have taken my Dupatta off) from Pakeezah, a 1972 film about a courtesan! It is even more evident when, as the song fades to the background, Kaka Radhakrishnan, a quack, assures a person he doesn’t have AIDS, followed by telling a girl, “ரெண்டு மாசம் தானே? கலச்சுரலாம்.” There is Ismail, a local dada, extorting from the folks and taking care of the Police. A corrupt yet thriving settlement is made clear in a single sequence of admirable detailing. The shot pans to Kamal, who is revealed to be the guy standing like Shiva, the longshot zooming to him reigning down on a wedding procession and he goes down to the bride and utters a verse from Abiraami Anthaadhi and gets kicked about. Pause.


Abiraami Anthaadhi was written by one Abiraami Battar. His legend is of interest in context with this film. He was someone who was obsessed with the Hindu female deity Parvathi aka Abiraami, so much so that he was branded a lunatic by the people around him. He was also known to see Abiraami in every woman he saw and went about praying to every girl. One fine day, the King Serfoji of Thanjavur, visits Battar’s hometown Thirukkadaiyur, learns about him and asks him what day it is. Battar answers it is the full moon day, when in reality, it was a new moon day. An argument is supposed to have ensued and the King declares that unless Battar proves that the day has a full moon, he’d be put to death. Battar places himself on a plank strung to a ceiling by 100 strings with boiling oil beneath. He goes on to sing an Anthaadhi, where every verse’s last word is the first word for the next verse and cuts of one string at the end of each verse. At the end of the 79th verse, it is said that Abiraami tossed her earring, moved by his devotion, and the earring manifested itself on the sky as a full moon, stirring the King and everyone around to be thrilled by Battar’s devotion. He went on to sing 21 more, with the 100th verse’s final word being the first verse’s first. Nice symmetry.

*End Tangent*

The full moon makes vague sense as Kamal gets beaten about, with some cruel irony in there with him uttering “சென்னியின் மேல் பத்ம பாதம் பதித்திடவே” (placing your lotus feet on my head) as he gets kicked around [1].

This supposed madman, with his doctor in the asylum as he rages, keeps circling with the camera moving with the circle and the doctor standing still on a tangent, in some superbly conceived scene geometry. The theme music, to dominate the film later, makes its first appearance, a leitmotif of the score that sounded with the opening credits, underpinning a troubled mind. Guna, as Kamal is revealed to be, hallucinates about a mountain which provides the chills. Abiraami is மலைமகள், after all and he ends up jamming on a door, opening the film up to full credits as Raaja sings a brilliantly written Sidhar paadal to cap what to me is among the most poetic prologues to any mainstream Indian film.

General Themes

The film touches upon quite a few themes, handled with varying degrees of finesse, all interesting and some eminently gratifying. To be sure, this is subjective, but with Kamal, it is alright to read in without inhibitions.

The film skirts briefly with effeminate men. Ganesa Iyer, a Guru of sorts to Guna who implants the idea of Abiraami in him and sends him off with a thaali to Kaka Radhakrishnan (Mangalyam Thanthunaane), wears a mark on his forehead and speaks and dances like a woman. The Chithappa, a very engaging Janakaraj, bets on his masculinity, only to immediately flip when confronted by Ismail and unabashedly exclaims he’s a woman. A more direct instance is when an iconic song has the lines, “சிவகாமியே சிவனில் நீயும் பாதியே…”, quite literally invoking the ultimate instance of the effeminate man in Ardhanareeshwara. But the film doesn’t really tell us more than this (edit: the song Unnai Ariven has a shot of Rosy lighting a lamp in front of a photo of Ardhanaareeshwara).

A more evident theme to me was the film dealing with religious patriarchy, which is evident among the characters. Guna is a man of conventional rights and wrongs (“தூங்கறதுக்கு இருட்டு வரலியே”). He can be capable of incredible heart (“அங்க ஒரு குருவிய கொன்னுட்டாங்க குயிலே”). But he also has his shades of grey. He justifies him stealing a car; comparing it with the quasi legitimacy Rosy and his mother receive, indulging in prostitution. To take it up a notch, he chains his woman in his house! This from a man who rages infinitum and even kills another man for a dead sparrow! Why, even his mother, technically Abiraami’s mother-in-law eventually, gags her and throws her into a dungeon initially. Mysskin and Pisaasu anyone? Also, as he lets her bath, he lets us know, “புகுந்த வீட்டுக்கு வந்து பொறந்த வீட்டு பெருமைய பேச கூடாது [2].” Heck, even the doctor, before the climax, to lure Guna, lets him know that “புருஷனுக்கு பாத்ததுக்கு அப்பறம் தான் பொண்டாட்டிக்கி.” However, quite curiously in a witty subversion, he eats from her plate after she finishes (the reason given is lack of plates. But read with these instances from the film, you know where I’d wager my bet on).

Immortality, Divinity and Music

However, the most obvious and gratifying themes were religious symbolism and immortality. The theme, we think is meant for love, also plays very briefly with a leitmotif registering the first few notes when he rushes to see his mother who he thinks is dead [3]. She says “நான் சாக மாட்டேன்”, assuring to him of her immortality. Janakaraj tells Guna before doping him that he is “பாதி சாமி.” This seems important to Guna, to be constantly reassured of his divinity. There is also a wee bit of make believe and a leap of faith necessary where he borders on possessing superhuman strength, to repeatedly recover after falling from a cliff to being shot, that it’s also plausible that the screenplay thrusts some divinity, outside the scope of his hallucinations, on him. Guna tells ‘Rohini’ “எதுக்கு சாவனும்? நமக்கு சாவில்ல” as she wants to kill herself. In fact, he simply walks away after introducing his name with some delight, oblivious of her perilous state [4], almost as if he is assured of her divinity that he doesn’t consider death as a possibility! In fact, he takes her to a mountain top, as is the residence of a மலைமகள், worthy of the name Abiraami.

It is impossible to talk about the screenplay without the music and vice-versa. The depth in this film’s music places it right up there among the top of the table in my experience with Indian films. The numerous leitmotifs to the theme come when ‘Rohini’ is seen as Abiraami by Guna and the ‘divinity’, such an abstract thing/emotion, finds vent in the music so aptly that this author is lost for words. I’d say the music is inseparable from the divinity and immortality in the film. In some breathtaking poetry of scene composition and music, it plays when Guna sees her in the halo of the Sun.



It plays when she is dead, in a gory way. It plays when he first spots her, in a temple. The theme gets fulfillment there. That entire stretch is screenwriting/music composing porn. Allow me to indulge. He is goaded by Janakaraj that Abiraami would come, “pippiripippiripee”, and there materializes a beautiful woman he sees as Abiraami. She spots him, casts a benign smile and walks away. He asks himself if she is Abiraami and follows her in the other direction. His head hits the bell, the signboard he hits points him to her, the screen dislodges a veil to shine the Sun on him and even the security Guard points his finger toward her. The stars, with the deities, animate and inanimate objects seem to align to tell him She is his Abiraami. The theme, playing in raga Sarangatharangini, changes scales to Paavani, as verses from Abiraami Anthaadhi begin. At ஆயகியாதி உடையாள், the camera pans to her feet. The line literally means Abiraami’s feet is the origin of everything and presents Battar there. Ilaiyaraaja and Kamal are firmly in fifth gear now.

The song begins. Stunning melody. Paavani, the raga, literally means remover of sins (interesting, because Guna helps steal from the temple the next day and is immediately repentant. Seeing ‘Abiraami’, he follows her, seemingly wanting her to show him the way out of his sins). The rhythm pattern (thaaLam) operated by Ilaiyaraaja is Kandam (beat of 5, tha ka tha ki ta). Kandam is the beat used for Shiva thaandavam. The interlude is a brief reentry to another verse of the Anthaadhi which praises the jewels that stay firm on Abiraami’s breasts (முத்துவடம் கொண்ட கொங்கை – muthuvadam meaning pearl necklance and kongai meaning breasts) and her vagina that is beautiful like a cobra (நல்லரவின் படம் கொண்ட அல்குல் பனிமொழி வேத பரிபுரையே – nalaravam – nallapaambu – cobra; algul – vagina), she being of speech that cools us (paNimozhi), with all the Vedas present at her feet; and Raaja takes a brief detour to a pleasant Kalyani raga exactly as the film rolls to the filmy Abiraami’s breasts at முத்துவடம் கொண்ட கொங்கை, almost asking to take pleasure, and reverts back to Paavani from நல்லரவின், as Guna goes on a hallucination trip into a Shiva thaaNdavam with this Abiraami, ending with the cheNdai pouring its rhythm; a subversion of a devotion bordering on the erotic in the Anthaadhi to divine love here. Outstanding.

Addendum: A crystallization after a twitter convo with @athreyaa. The beauty in the changing of scales from Sarangatharangini (ST) to Paavani is the difference is 1 note and a variation in another. SaRiGaMaPaDhaNi are the 7 swaras. But for Sa and Pa (which don’t have variants), RiGaMaDhaNi have 2 or more variants each. That way, Paavani has Ri1 and ST has Ri2. Not a big difference but the addition of Ga1 to Paavani (which ST does not possess) makes it a vivadi raga. Now vivadi ragas, especially those with with Ri1, are considered divine (in feel, mood, etc.). Now consider this. A mundane yet attractive Rohini (underlined by a melodious ST) becomes Abiraami to the lover/seeker and that is underlined by a divine Paavani as the song segues to Abiraami Anthaadhi. Insane genius. To opine further, I’d like to quote the man himself to say:

Unnai Naan Ariven is a great song too; a picturization of great symmetry, beginning in the brothel where Guna is put to sleep, travelling across the brothel/settlement to ghazal, Telugu folk and back to Guna with his mother putting him to sleep. But before she gets to her son (hattip: the Dagalti post linked above), there is a rich sequence where she peeps over to monitor business between a client and a prostitute working under her, all the while praying to the Gods, seemingly indifferent to the irony! Also, note how Rosy suddenly looks at the rickety table fan as the song segues to ghazal mode because of the change in the Tabla rhythm, this at the back of Guna telling her “இதுல சத்தம் தான் வரும்”! What detailing man! All round brilliance.

Kanmani Anbodu Kaadhalan is set to Shankarabharanam. The raga quite literally means an ornament on Lord Shiva. Was this deliberate too? Maybe not. But will it stop me from reading in? No. After all, this is Raaja and Kamal we are talking about.

Coming back to the divinity minus music briefly, the crooks who assist Guna and his uncle before they are eventually killed are curiously named as Kaasi and Anumanthu (Guna in fact calls him Anumaar!!), names associated with Shiva and Rudra. To make this more evident, Anumaar is killed by a trident which was part of the loot!


As a side note, the police officer after Guna is called Moovendar (meaning Lord of the 3 worlds and Shiva having 3 eyes and a trident and all that. You get the drift). There is also a wickedly ironic moment where the villain SK, the only character with trite and clichéd dialogues (more of a nitpick this), gives permission for Ismail to rape Abiraami inside a dilapidated Church! But then, Ismail refers to her as a देवता as he sees her for the first time in the dungeon.


Above all, there is the presence of Abiraami Battar, his Anthaadhi and legend all over the film. He wants to tie the thaali to Abiraami on Pournami. He is derided as a lunatic. He ends up tying the thaali a day before Pournami, because Abiraami tells him this IS Pournami, a subversion of Abiraami making a full moon when it was not for Battar’s sake.

The end happens when, despite his unshakable belief in their immortality, she dies. Guna’s nemesis is eventually Abiraami’s and his mortality. Not humans, who he disdainfully tosses away. His penultimate statement before dying is stating he is a சாமி, holding Abiraami like the Shiva of lore held Sati.

Naan Saami

The final shot of the film is the full moon that eventually arrives that night.

Final Snap of Full Moon

The first shot of the film was a full moon. So was the last shot. The second shot of the film was Guna standing on a terrace top like Shiva. The penultimate shot of the motion picture is Guna standing in a similar pose with Abiraami. Talk of symmetry! Especially when Abiraami Anthaadhi’s final word is the same as its first word.

What do you do when presented with such high art? Kamal and Raaja are great creators. Together, they are just something else. Every film of theirs where Kamal has been involved in significant degrees as a creator has been absolute magic on screen. This simply stands head and shoulders above even among their best.






PPS: Bouquets and brickbats welcome.


Filed under Ilayaraja, Kamal

Aboorva Sagodharargal

Aboorva Sagodharargal was re-watched yesterday and as always it led to a discussion where I promised to pen down why I thought this truly is the greatest Tamil film made for the pleasure of mankind. So here goes.

It is interesting to note that this film was the second script after the first one was discarded by Kamal and this itself was majorly toned down for violence because Ilayaraaja and Panchu Arunachalam did not approve of the amount of violence there initially was. Now this in itself seems like an ode to Sam Peckinpah. One wonders how the unadulterated violence would be in the original.  This film is the biggest ode to Tamil cinema itself. I say this because this film was conceived in April 1987 (as detailed in this blog by a Bollywood filmmaker). In a conversation recently on twitter, @dagalti mentioned how Kamal and Rajni following on Sivaji and MGR respectively is a misnomer and went on to make a case that Kamal’s films are replete with hat tips to MGR (Sakalavallavan being a rehash of Periya Idathu Penn, references to Vaathiyar in Kaakkichattai and in the song Singari Sarakku Nalla Sarakku, Kamal and MGR being trained fighters, whereas we see Rajni experiment with roles early on and do a clutch of films with Sivaji too, Justice Gopinath, Naan Vazha Vaippen, Padikkadhavan and later Padayappa, both Rajni and Sivaji being rather limited fighters) and we associate Rajni with MGR today because of certain mannerisms only they can pull off and Kamal with Sivaji because he did experiment with characters after MGR’s demise. I find it eminently worthwhile a thought for we have MGR’s debut film called Sadhi Leelavathi, MGR acting in a 1939 film, Maya Machindra, a 1951 film of his called Marmayogi (Kamal planned but shelved a film of the same name) and Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu being an MGR song. The title Aboorva Sagodharargal itself is rehashed from the 1949 MK Radha starrer which MGR remade in 1971 as Neerum Neruppum. The case is most definitely made.

In that context, I would place Aboorva Sagodharargal as Kamal’s ultimate ode to the legacy of MGR, written immediately before and after MGR’s demise in 1987. The basic story is about the villain(s) killing the heroes’ father, twins separated at birth, as Manorama exclaims “innA da idhu, tentu kottAiyila VaathiyAru padam pAkkura mAri double actu!” (they are suggested to have been born in 1960 when Appu asks for papers later on in the library), the kids growing up to be the respective heroes, Appu telling Kaveri, his mother, that he is an “Ulagam Sutrum Valiban” on top of the globe in the circus, the heroine being the daughter of (one of) the villain(s), Appu twirling his fingers on his nose a la MGR in Nadodi Mannan in Pudhu Mapillaikki, Raja and Janaki singing a duet (Vaazhavaikkum Kadhalukku Jai) around a sationary car; a la Pesuvadhu Kiliya in Panathottam and the heroes eventually extracting revenge on the villain(s). It’s a template; formula driven Tamil masala film with MGR peppered everywhere. But what mastery within this genre that overflows with originality in every frame!

The film brims with irony everywhere. Right from deliciously naming the villains Dharmaraj, Anbarasu, Sathyamoorthy (the lawyer!!) and Nallasivam, Kamal the writer seems to be sardonically peering over every scene. Right from Raja and Janaki dancing, singing and romancing with a dead body on a truck, Raja nearly making love with Janaki as her father is murdered, policemen setting off the burglar alarm (Janakaraj’s bumbling Pink Panther-esque ways eventually nabbing the culprit (can’t help see Kamal the writer as a pale shadow in a poor Dasavatharam where a bumbling Balram Naidu eventually nabs Fletcher) adds to the already brilliance-bursting-at-the-seams film), Raja wanting to remain in the jail but the policemen driving him out of jail (!) and the extraordinary murder of Francis Anbarasu by Appu in KuLLanchavadi, dark irony (black humor?) explodes throughout the film beneath the surface but once you notice it, it is extremely hard to miss out. With Kamal, it is eminently admissible to read into every frame. You often come away feeling rewarded. One such moment that had me gob smacked was when Raja is on the run from the police, he is on the road and there is graffiti on the wall which reads ADMK Janaki (this right after MGR’s death mind you) and points to a direction where Raja runs to. What understated humor, playing on Crazy Mohan’s fad and the heroine’s name! I am justified in saying this film is original awesomeness in every frame here (and you GET this only if you are Tamil).


The film uses animals to great effect and that is apparent on its surface when we see animals used for killing the antagonists, playfully and also in macabre ways.  Peering beneath the surface also we can see more references. The first frame of the film is a duck. When the villains try to kill Sethupathi and poison Kaveri, Sethupathi tries to save her and while doing so, almost covers her and their child(ren) in a near motherly animal embrace, applicable to every single animal mother in duress, including humans. Dharmaraj as to impress on what would follow, exclaims, “kiLi koovudhu” to refer to Srividhya and “Saadhu meraNdA, veedu koLLAdhu” to refer to Sathyamoorthy instead of the conventional kaadu koLLAdhu. It most definitely makes a case for Kamal the writer subverting habitats intentionally.


Appu uses animals to kill 3 of the 4 antagonists and while using the tiger to kill Nallasivam, he oddly reminds one of Ayyappan as he sits on top of the tiger which carries him giving an appearance of tiger-man. Just when the irony of an Ayyappan reference while killing a character named Sivam sinks in, Janaki rubs it into Raja asking if he is a “Deiva Piravi” when he is in prison as a tiger-man denying he has ever seen his dad. Well, make your conclusions. As Appu kills Dharmaraj, one can quite easily imagine Kamal murmuring, “Feed him to the lions” 🙂 The attention to details. Flies flying over Nallasivam’s corpse. David’s pant stained with blood above his buttocks as Sethupathy drags him out of the car breaking the glass as he drags David on to the field outside in the initial scene. Muniamma telling Kaveri “un puLLa kolagAran illa” suggesting an anxiety of letting the true mother know that she has not been a bad foster mother. The sequence comes across beautifully.

Appu’s character is the piece de resistance. A midget, suffering from an inferiority complex and ridicule from the world outside who doesn’t mind joking with his mother, “nee pAthu naa yEn vaLarala?” is completely shattered when his mother belittles him in front of the circus owner and the rest of the circus. What is more is she indirectly suggests that she herself would disapprove if Mano married Appu. And how easily the rest of the world treats him with Mano telling him that he and his friends would be the “entertainment” for her Reception night (to be fair to Mano, she only tells Appu “kalyaNam paNNikka pOrOm” while giving him the ring and not a word more), Vincent’s friend Kannan poking fun at Appu in the most obnoxious way and a learned magistrate also sharing a laugh at Appu’s real age. It would all sear the midget. His poignant dialog with his mother after he attempts suicide where he says “nee edhu sonnAlum enakkadhu pathu madangu ma” holds interesting parallels to the kid in Mumbai Xpress telling Manisha Koirala, “nee solradhu dhAne ma naa serious aa eduthuppEn” while attempting suicide (almost tempted to write down anga kozhandha, inga dwarf. Aana prechanai ellAm oNNu dhAn). When Kaveri tells her son it could be her fault that he is a dwarf because she consumed poison, he buys it. She only suggests “naa vesham kuduchadhunAla dhAn unakkippidi AyirukkumO?” and how could quickly he takes it lock stock and barrel, making a case for a scorned midget simply looking for a reason to let lose all the pent up frustrations and anger in a legitimate way than a conventional case of revenge. We however would never know. But the masterstroke is when Kamal makes us buy his anger as ours, that beautiful word called அறசீற்றம், as Kaveri looks on with Appu throwing Dharmaraj to the lions with Ilayaraaja’s adrenaline pumping background score lifting the rage in the scene several notches.

To conclude, I can speak on every scene forever but it just cannot praise this film enough. Mind you, this was a blockbuster across languages. It subverts the genre of masala in the most outrageously brilliant way and still entertains heartily without compromising on any masala element that I will go out on a limb and say that if this does not qualify as Tamil cinema’s ode to the Indian cinema tradition of entertainment, nothing will.


Filed under Filim, Ilayaraja, Kamal

The Hero Lives On

Nayagan released 25 years back yesterday and Kamal wrote a superb piece on it for The Hindu. I watched the film again after reading his piece. A few intrigues fell in place. For instance, I have had issues with killing one of the Reddys inside a car as was done in Godfather. That aside, there is no denying the films its place. Though not the greatest film made, it certainly is a special film simply because it was a first of its kind in Tamil cinema.

That the not so great production values had to be brought out by Kamal for us to notice is an achievement in itself. As a film and a screenplay, it might be inferior to Thevar Magan, the other twin from Godfather’s womb. But I won’t deny that Thevar Magan had the hindsight of Godfather and Nayagan. Kamal’s performance here could seem more wholesome than in Thevar Magan but that is because this is a biopic centered around a male protagonist.

The eye for detailing was interesting in Nayagan. A young Velu Nayakan screams thiruttu kamnaattiyaLa at a young Selva and co. Velu Nayakan, many years later, is widowed and argues with his daughter in the now cult Brutus-is-an-honorable-man-esque avangaLa nirutha sol dialogue and slips in a seth kamnaati. The widowed Velu Nayakan, still with his kids, names a child during Ganesh Chathurthi at an earlier instance. Later on, an old and forlorn Nayakan is arrested by the police and they go looking for witnesses. The same father tells the police that his son was named by Velu Nayakan. There is consistency and detailing in this. Also, it is curious how Mani took pretty much the same content to Thalapathi and turned it into a vehicle for Rajnikanth. A child wrested away from its parents which does not refuse anything anyone asks, kills a wicked guy and later learns that he has a kid and takes care of the family and the clashes between the police and the grey side seem to suggest Mani did have elements of Velu Nayakan in Surya and Karna in Velu Nayakan to turn a Varadaraja Mudaliar into the Nayakan he created on screen with Vitto Corleone contributing to the plot elements.

What I found interesting was how Velu Nayakan is carried by his calling. He starts out a reluctant Don being forced to kill Inspector Kelkar. It is Kelkar’s son who eventually leads Nayakan to the assistant commisioner’s house (is Nasser ever named in the film?) which carries the plot further leading to Nayakan’s surrender and it is the son that kills him, presenting a case of harping back into being sucked into a chakravyuha which eventually leads to the downfall of the protagonist. The same theme has been handled in different capacities by different films. Lohithadas’s Kireedam was direct and Thevar Magan was subtle (with an extended shot of Kamal’s feet in the muck, before he chases after a culprit after which he decides to stay in Chinnathoovaloor which pretty much seals his fate, so as to suggest that Sakthi (interestingly, both protagonists are nearly namesakes) is being sucked into a vortex). Thevar Magan has more apparent similarities with Mahabharatha and I am guilty of indulging too much in the epic. But such is the nature of the beast. Velu Nayakan, like Lohi’s Sethumadhavan, takes the knife and has to live by it. Never is this more apparent than when Nayakan concedes to his rebel daughter, niruthuna sethuruven ma.

Ilayaraaja’s contribution to this film, as with any film in the 80s, deserves a bow. The rerecording is widely talked about, as are the songs, and deservedly so. The piece of music closest to my heart is not the Thenpaandi Seemaiyile refrain or the theme that plays for Neela, from the brothel (a small cue that grows into a counterpoint that is overwhelming), till Nayakan has lost her. It is when Nayakan is with Kelkar’s son, Ajith. That mera baba mar gaya scene is widely noted for its impact. But Raaja plays a cue in Saarangi, less than a minute long, that is wrenching, engulfing and overpowering, all at once. It plays from 7:07 till 7:53.

However, what clinches the writing in this film is how the crown is passed on, albeit reluctantly. Velu Nayakan does not want it. He does not want his children to take over from him either. His son does, realizing his fears. His daughter does not want her son to be influenced by him. Yet, in the final frame, we see a young Velu with what can be construed as a passing-on-the-baton symbol over his neck, looking over his namesake curiously. The hero lives on.


Filed under Ilayaraja, Kamal, Mani Ratnam

Raagas and a Digressing Rant

I have an amateur obsession in trying to find the Raagas of film songs. I am no expert and this is a fun hobby as far as I am concerned. This interest has however led to trying to find the roots for the names of Raagas, or rather, their etymologies. Many of them are queer and interesting and it is good fun to discuss a few with examples from films.

A very interesting name is Kharaharapriya. It is supposed to be Lord Rama’s favorite. Ramayanam tells us that Rama killed two Asuras, Khara and Dhooshana, who happened to be cousin brothers of Raavana. This makes him the person who defeated Khara (Khara hara since it rhymes and not Dhooshana hara) and this rAgam being his favorite, becomes Kharaharapriya. Tamil film music has been centered over the last 5 decades around MSV, Ilayaraaja and Rahman. All 3 have had some beautiful compositions in this rAgam. Maharaajan Ulagai AaLuvAn is a song from Karnan, composed by MSV and TK Ramamurthy, which is set to this Raagam. Raaja has been the one composer though, who has handled this Raagam in the most western fashion to surprisingly fabulous returns in Maapilaikku Maman Manasu and Poo Malarndhida (okay I must gush about the flute in the first interlude. *gush*). Rahman has a beautiful Jiyajale/Nenjinile in Kharaharapriya too.

There are a few Raagas that get their names because of a particular region. Kamboji/Kambodhi could have got its name from the Kamboja region beyond Hindu Kush Mountains that Kalidasa mentions in his Raghuvamsam, Gowla could have got its name from Gowda region (Govinda Bhagavathpadar aka Gowdapaadar, Adi Sankara’s Guru, hailing from the same place which is present day Bengal), Kedaram coming from Himalayas (Kedarnath) and so on. But these are essentially Carnatic Raagas. So it is quite possible that the individuals who made these popular here hailed from these respective places. KV Mahadevan has a lovely Kamboji in Arupadai Veedu Konda from Kandan Karunai (just the first stanza here with the composer moving on a different rAgam for each stanza). Rahman has a fine Ennavale that is loosely based on Kedaram. Raaja has a lovely Kedaram too, still not 100%, in Sundari Neeyum.

I would like end with a rant on my favorite rAgam, Kalyani. Like wise men have said, it is a mangaLagaramAna, i.e. an auspicious rAgam giving it its name. It is possibly the most widely used rAgam in Indian film music. But I feel no one has handled it with the depth and versatility that Raaja has. I would like to not bring a song, for there are countless Raaja himself has composed, but background sequences where he has used the rAgam to ethereal effect.

The film is Mannan and the theme between Rajni and Pandari Bai is the Amma EndrazhaikAdha song, which is based on, no prizes for guessing, Kalyani. This theme comes thrice.  First, when Rajni brings Pandari Bai her wheelchair. Here, a shehnai plays a western classical Kalyani and it leads to the original song itself from the interlude, bringing the essence of the mother-son relationship. The second time, he brings it when Kushboo visits Rajni. He begins it with silence and slowly, a veena plays a gorgeous Kalyani and the theme pops up when Kushboo learns it is Rajni who takes care of his mother. The same theme expressing the mother-son love from a third person’s perspective still sounds otherworldly. It goes on for Kushboo and Pandari Bai to converse and stops as Pandari Bai is speaking and leaves the sequence to complete in silence as he had started it. A simple, clichéd scene is beautifully elevated by the background score. The third time, it is very brief, lasting 15 seconds, and is more about Rajni’s disappointment. He does not finish it fully, for the hero feels incomplete too.

However, the piece de resistance is delivered before the climax. All the major characters are here with Kalyani. As Manorama speaks about Rajni, a flute comes in to emphasize the epitome of goodness that the hero is as the violin plays a counterpoint in the background. As Vijayasanthi accuses him, cellos with tremolos start their extension of the rAgam to signify the tension that is building up with the violins taking on the hero’s case, delightfully continuing the counterpoint. As the hero makes his point, an oboe comes in with the violin as Pandari Bai is getting cured. As Pandari Bai is cured, a veena comes in bringing a flurry of notes (a mild violin elevating it) indicating the relief and completeness she experiences over her worthy son and as she calls out Krishna, a shehnai joins in and you stand hopelessly manipulated by the music and are caught by your balls to the edge of your seat and left powerless. I don’t think any background score in Indian cinema can come close to this sequence in signifying the mother-son affection. As Pandari Bai asks for forgiveness, a quick piano traverses through the shehnai, now static on a single swaram to say that her life has been completed and a slow veena with the violin plays with cellos rising in the background to indicate an impending danger (every single, minutest emotion is conveyed and how!) and as the mother falls at her son’s feet and dies, everything stops. There is silence to let the sorrow sink in for a few seconds and he starts the charanam of Amma Endrazhaikadha and the rest of the scene is carried by the song. The lyrics and lead performances play a worthy role here. But the backbone is the music and it makes a clichéd scene a memorable, heartwarming one.

Kalyani just thanked Raaja there for elevating her.

PS: I digress here. I came across this piece by director Suka on Ilayaraaja’s music recently and his final paragraph on a personal memory touched a chord. The song is Azhagiya Kanne. The emotion it carries across is the sentiment between a mother and her children. The year was 2006. My mother had to undergo two surgeries on her abdomen. At one point, the doctor told it was a 50-50 chance of survival. I and my sister visiting her in the ICU is one unforgettable image. She is healthy today. But this song, repeated as the mother passes away, with her children beside her, transports me to my personal space 6 years back and it invariably chokes me. I’m sure I’m not alone here. I am a guy who grew up with Rahman in the 90s, who adores both him and his music. But there is no denying that Raaja, with his music, has been able to intrude the corners of my personal space, as is true with almost all Tamils. In many ways, he has become a part of our lives.

We too owe a thank you to Raaja.


Filed under Filim, Ilayaraja, Rahman


Mahanadi watchal happened yesterday, after what must be eons. The depth in screenplay, class in constructing scenes and elevating what is already a powerful scene is what is striking in the screenplays of Kamal in the early 90s, something that is evidently lacking in the last few years. Mahanadi falls in the former category. A lot of things might be pretty evident in the film. This post could hence be clichéd for a few, but to know if you already know what you are going to read, you would still have to read.

Kamal has a fascination for names. This is rather evident from the way he names his films after the protagonists. Anbe Sivam, Manmadan Ambu and Vishwaroopam (becoming redundant, yes) now are proof. In Mahanadi also he obsesses on names in his inimitable way. Right from “Krishna’s” daughter introducing herself in front of his friend’s camera; “My name is Kaveri, like the river Cauvery. My brother is Bharani, mother is Narmada and grandmother is Saraswati Ammal; we see references to rivers which are rather direct (not so in the case of Panjapakesan, who introduces himself as Punjabi; Punjab, the land of 5 rivers. He is never again called by his name, leave alone Punjabi. He is simply referred to as Iyer). We see Suganya as Yamuna and the prostitute and her daughter in Songachi as Ganga and ‘Jala’ja.

The life of the protagonist mirrors a river too by starting out adventurously (some beautifully audacious background score here), unafraid of challenges, foolishly speedy, bouncing over, eventually going down with an almighty thud and mellowing down with twists and turns. This could be a stretch but it’s easy to show the protagonist being kicked and thrashed out rather than visuals that render themselves quite fluidly for such plausibility that it might not be a stretch.

What I find striking is after he has sketched the protagonist’s journey to reflect a river; the film gives the quintessential Indian humanness to rivers through the songs, Cauvery to be precise, calling her a woman with water as an apparel. This quite reminds one of Kalki’s portrait of Cauvery where she is in her journey to the groom’s place (sea), her arms growing multifold in delight as she nears him (a wonderfully imaginative picture of distributaries). References to rivers continue through songs from Tagore in Bengali, followed by Tamil, the former calling out to the villager to set his sails in the river and go about his life for he has wasted his time idling away so far (a precise reflection of the protagonist’s life till now).

We see Kamal’s pet theme of atheism quite apparently coupled with the irony of being asked to read Bharathi to cultivate patience who fuels Krishna’s righteous anger all the more. Kamal the script writer also paints a wonderfully deep canvas to depict human nature in a frankly realistic manner. To elucidate, Sundar, Krishna’s friend, a typically loud mouthed rich guy, mentions inappropriately about Krishna’s wife passing away and realizing that the damage has been done, tries to salvage the moment by calling Bharani a “sweet fellow”. This one sequence packs a lot, from telling us that Krishna’s wife passed away during childbirth to a little peek into the nature of people and also gives the audience a poignant moment, all in a few seconds. The poignancy is more an afterthought here. Similarly, we see Poornam Viswanathan, a character with ulcer who suffers a whole night without food in the jail telling Thalaivasal Vijay that he is to eat only once that day. These sequences don’t judge people as much as reflect what is apparent in a rather subtle way, Kamal style. Beautiful ‘moments’.

Ilayaraaja is in sublime form too with his background score. He conceives a wonderful score for Krishna-Yamuna’s platonic love in the jail which he repeats whenever Krishna and Yamuna are together (this scene being my favorite where a bespectacled Iyer asks Yamuna to find his glasses to make sure the unmarried couple don’t go too far) and a different yet equally lovely score for Krishna’s wife and daughter. However, he doesn’t bring the Krishna-Yamuna score but fits in Krishna’s wife-daughter score to underline that Yamuna has become a part of Krishna’s life when Krishna ironically kisses Yamuna goodbye.

I think Kamal is on his own trip here and other than Raaja, he pretty much completely owns the film. The story on the exterior is like every other sad melodrama but what makes it so beautifully realistic is the handling. I just wish he writes more like this.


Filed under Bharathi, Filim, Ilayaraja, Kalki, Kamal

Rahman and a Blast from the Past

What do composers do when they have a tune? Do they write it down? Do they remember it? Do they play, record it in a safe place, out of the reaches of everyone and use it when they feel it right? Or do they just use it for the film at hand instantaneously? What if a tune comes out of nowhere in the bathroom? Half the musicians anyway come from reality shows and bathrooms.  There was a famous caricature in Kumudham in the early 80s where Gangai Amaran, no offence meant, was shown stealing Raaja’s tunes inside a notebook as Raaja was furiously writing them down (suggesting that Gangai Amaran’s tunes were in fact Ilayaraja’s). So what do composers do? This is one question that has always intrigued the layman in me.

What Raaja does, I would love to know. A peek into how his brain works when he gets a tune out of thin air is in my bucketlist. What Rahman does, I think I know part of the answer. He uses (or at least did use) a few of them in his background scores and later reuses them for his songs. Roja is a universal favorite of all Rahman-tards. The soundtrack is widely acclaimed and rightly so. The rerecording is brilliant and backgroundscore does a fine job of articulating a part of the film’s score here, alongside Rahman’s other BGMs. Do read.

There is however a scene that mightily interests me. I did not discover it the first time I was watching the film. However, in the scene where Arvind Swamy comes to the village with his mother to see his would be bride (English doesn’t have a proper translation for ponnu paakaradhu!), Telephone Mani Pol plays in the background. This portion to be precise. He also repeats the same tune here as Madhoobala goes to the temple, a little slower in the tempo now, extra sangathis in the flute to give a semi-classical flavor; a mild tambura to signify sanctity, for the heroine is now in conversation with God.  So this is it? The most beautiful portion in Telephone mani pol was once a part of a background score upon which he embellished orchestration and composed a song? Roja released in 1992 and Indian in 1995. So was the composer trying out a few of his songs as background scores in his first few films? Intersting!

Another film, another score.  Puthiya Mugam, Rahman’s third film, had another heartwarming album.  Looking for the final song, Idhu dhaan vazhkai enbatha, I discovered another minor facet to the film’s score. In the scene before the climax where Suresh Menon leaves Revathi, the background score starts with a piano playing along with a violin behind it. You get the feel of Netru Illadha Matram because of the violin and sit back to see Rahman pulling out Azhagu Nilave! I felt a rabbit was pulled out of the hat. The score extends up to Menon entering Vinith’s room and going out. The warmth in the nuclear family of husband-wife-son is beautifully conveyed through the score. The score is repeated again, after Menon’s death when Vinith goes to the room to be with Revathi, coming alongside, yes (!!) Netru Illadha Matram! Puthiya Mugam was released in 1993 and Pavithra in 1994. So this does appear to be an interesting method he followed in the early part of his career.

I don’t know if Rahman tried this out after Puthiya Mugam and Pavithra but was the composer playing with an earlier background score and converting it into a song (which is fascinating) or trying out the tunes as background scores first and embellishing them inside songs later on, I will never know. However, it does offer a peak into a part of his brain and I am grateful for that.


Filed under Filim, Ilayaraja, Rahman