There was a time when Mani Ratnam was a master of his art. He took the best out of every actor; even actors about whom we thought were average have performed beyond our expectations in Mani Ratnam films. When melodrama was the signature characteristic of Tamil cinema or Indian cinema in general, Mani Ratnam’s characters did it subtly, spoke not just with their words, and they went straight to our hearts. Well, that’s a thing of past now.
(Possible spoilers ahead)
In “Chekka Chivantha Vaanam”, you see the director struggling to keep the audience consistently engaged with the characters. Even the characters are emotionally disconnected with each other (and I’m not talking about the plot’s context). There is a scene when Jyothika’s character is dying and Aravind Swami is confessing something to her. This supposedly is a very emotional scene, yet it is one among the many cold scenes in the movie.
The first half of the movie was totally racy though. So much so that you wouldn’t realise how that one hour went. Mainly thanks to the towering performance of Prakash Raj (that actor is a gem!). But once the initial plot for each character is set, the director is clueless about how to take this forward on the shoulders of the three leading actors. Though at the end he gains some hold on the craft.
Jyothika is the only consistent performer in the movie, other than Prakash Raj and Jaya Sudha. Vijay Sethupathi does justice to his role, but it is not convincing enough that all his subtlety throughout the film was for the climax. Aravind Swami’s performance is not what I would except in the company of Mani Ratnam but maybe that is expecting too much.
Rahman’s background score is gripping at times but falls to melodramatic lows at times. And please don’t sing anymore, Rahman! You startled me with your voice during that funeral scene of Ethi’s wife.
Mani Ratnam does a Ram Gopal Varma with “Chekka Chivantha Vaanam” and that is not what his fans go to theatres for. I hope he doesn’t forget that even if the movie does well in the box office.
As A R Rahman turns 50, I think there are two things unique about his contributions in the field of Indian film music. One – he used human voice as just another instrument. He brought in the singers, had them record and used their voices as he pleased. Two – he started crediting musicians on the album labels. Musicians like flautist Naveen and drummer Sivamani had become household names.
First was his biggest and most disruptive contribution though. Human voice was considered to be pristine and divine in the film music until Rahman came in. One could not imagine playing around the vocals with the electronics. You could do that to guitar or violin, but not to the vocals. The singers could make sounds that are funny and weird which was considered to be a talent but no one was allowed to touch their voice and mix it electronically. Rahman broke those rules slowly and steadily. The monopoly of the singers were about to be crunched (and when I say vocals as an instrument, I’m not talking about harmonies or a’capella or western choir settings in the music; Ilaiyaraja had already done that).
Many credit Rahman for bringing in the elements of western music to the Indian film music, but he wasn’t the first do that. Again, there was Ilaiyaraja with whatever little exposure he had to the different kinds of music available back at a time when the world wasn’t this open. Maybe Rahman experiemented a bit too much with instruments and different styles of music that the musical identity that he consiously created was soon lost to others who followed this ‘technique’. As a result, in the initial days of Harris Jeyaraj, one could not tell apart the difference between Jeyaraj and Rahman. The arrangement and approach were just about the same. Which makes one wonder whether Rahman was more of a musical arranger than a composer, though the difference between the two is a fine thin line. There is no ‘Rahman sound’ in the film music, just as there is no Harris Jeyaraj sound or Yuvan Shankar Raja sound. They all seem to follow the same pattern and technique, and are failing to make a mark of their own (and I’m not talking about popularity here).
Post-Oscars, Rahman seems to be in a quest to find his own identity in his music. Off late, his music seems to be veering away from the populist lines, but it doesn’t look like he has found it yet. Maybe, the influence of sufism is the kind of identity that he should further explore, like Folk is to Ilaiyaraja, but he is not yet ready to take that up.
That said, I end this note with one of his songs, one in many years that is still ringing in my ears.
“The Revenant” takes us back to the ‘olden’ days of Hollywood film making and tells us that movies can still be made outside the green screen studios. And that definitely is a plus, for a generation of computer-savvy movie goers aren’t much thrilled or convinced of stories told by the ‘gruesome’ visual effects these days. Lubezki’s camera would captivate you so much because it reminds you of the wide angles or close-ups that you have seen in movies about the wild west or native Americans (I also hear that he has used the natural lights, so that makes the cinematography here a lot interesting). Some of the shots are so Terrence Malick-ish and I’m talking about Malick movies before Lubezki started associating with him. At times, the movie has it loose on the conviction part – particularly on the scene where Glass could not move a finger when his son was being killed yet manages to drag himself out of his grave thereafter. The film in spirit too is a mixture of ‘Dances with Wolves’ meets ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ in a Terrence Malick movie scripted by Quentin Tarantino.
But that is not to discourage you from watching the movie. In fact, it is a must-watch and you should go to a theater where the widest screen and good sound are available to watch this movie (people of Trivandrum, do not miss this in Audi 1 of Ariesplex Cinemas). Because even with the advanced visual and sound technologies available these days, movies of this genre and visual quality are seldom made. DiCaprio’s performance does not come close to what he did with Wolf of Wall Street but is sure to gain the Academy members’ attention (who doesn’t like tragedy on-screen?). And I’m sure Lubezki would walk away with a golden man in his hand. I read that the crew had to go through a lot of pain while shooting and you can see that on screen.
Life at times is like Clint Eastwood, the composer. Out of the blue, it brings out strangers on your way, walking beside you and in the very next moment they’re gone. You don’t want to know where they came from or where they’ve gone or who they are. You’re left untouched. Like those guitar riffs in Million Dollar Baby.
I didn’t even notice how many times the word ‘fuck’ appeared in the movie (of which I watched a YouTube video that took count before I watched the movie) because the movie, even in it’s entire three long hours, didn’t distract me to those unimportant details.
I was of the opinion that Leonardo DiCaprio, no matter what roles he played, I always saw the ‘actor DiCaprio’ a lot more than the characters he played. This was not to undermine his abilities as an actor. He does the ‘acting’ well, but he always was ‘DiCaprio playing the character’ for me. I have noticed the same thing in the case of Tom Cruise. No matter what role Tom plays, he remains ‘The Tom Cruise’ always (not comparing him with DiCaprio; DiCaprio is definitely in a different league as far as acting is considered). Don’t take me wrong, I don’t have anything against the handsome/good-looking actors because I don’t see the same thing happening with Matt Damon. Even when I look at Gatsby to Jordan boy here, they are just roles that DiCaprio plays (and there isn’t too many differences between both portrayals but that’s for another note). That said, the only reason that you would sit through these long three hours is, DiCaprio. And if there is a best of his so far in his career, this is it.
One thing is sure though. You’ve got to watch the movie to see what happens when you go off the track in your life – you know, with alcohol abuse, drugs abuse, sex abuse, career abuse or money abuse. There is a message for the guys of those sort or to the guys who may be headed on that track (even though the scale may vary).
Been doing this list every year for the past 4-5 years and here comes the list of my favorite songs from the last year. I haven’t listened to all the songs and albums that were released last year, so this list comes from whatever I could listen to.
If I am to pick up the best music album of 2013, it will be “Amen“. Every song from this album is a treat to ears and Prashant Pillai is definitely a music director to watch out for. His music is fresh and captivating. Add to that the lyrics by the legendary Kaavaalam Narayana Panicker which makes “Amen” the album of the year.
Now to the list:
Movie: Annayum Rasoolum
Lyrics: Rafeeq Thiruvallur
Singer(s): Shahbaz Aman
My top favorite song of the year. The highlight of the song is definitely Shahbaz Aman’s voice. There is love, pain and longing in his voice for this song. And it doesn’t have a heavy orchestral background. You will appreciate the song more if you have watched the movie which in itself is a beautiful work.
I like everything about this song except that Lucky Ali was a misfit, not for the voice, but for the language. His diction is the only thing that kills the song because you can’t make out what he is singing except for a few words here and there. But you know it’s Lucky Ali and his voice is a perfect fit for this song. Almost all songs of ‘Amen’ is a favorite to me and this one tops the list.
There isn’t anything fresh about this song. You have heard so many beautiful Malayalam songs in the same lines, the orchestral arrangement reminds you of many songs you’ve heard in the past but still, the singers – especially Madhu Balakrishnan – makes you play this song on loop.
I think probably the mass popularity of the song “Kaatte Kaatte” from his period venture “Celluloid” is what made director Kamal to come up with another song that ‘sounds’ old. However, Vijayalakshmi’s crystal clear rendition and voice with Ouseppachan’s melodic structure make this song beautiful.
Song: Otta Thumpi
Movie: Pullipulikalum Aattinkuttiyum
Lyrics: Vayalar Sharath Chandra Varma
Singer(s): Shankar Mahadevan, K. S. Chitra
This is a typical Vidyasagar but that’s why you like this song.
Song: Laalee Laalee
Music: M. Jayachandran
Lyrics: O. N. V. Kurupp
Singer(s): Mridula Warrier, Sudeep Kumar
A beautiful lullaby, sung so beautifully by Mridula Warrier. Her voice is so fresh, clear and beautiful.
Music: M. Jayachandran
Lyrics: O. N. V. Kurupp
Singer(s): Shreya Ghoshal
This one is sung by Shreya Ghoshal and an absolute favorite.
Remember the A R Rahman song “Irumbile oru idhaiyam” from the Rajnikanth movie “Robot”? What if someone told you that the lyrics of that song was actually ‘generated’ by a software? Can’t happen, right? But you’ve got to believe. The lyricist Madhan Karky uses a software to key in a tune and the software returns fresh and suitable words that would fit the given music pattern, mood of the song and the song situation. The software was developed by Madhan himself, who is an assistant professor of Computer Science in Anna University. This young man is also the son of Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu, and has no qualms in admitting that he is not a poet and you need not be a poet to write lyrics.
Watch this video where Madhan explains the process of ‘Lyric Engineering’ at TedxYouth Chennai and get amazed. And then go listen to the song he has penned (or rather generated :)) for Mani Rathnam – A R Rahman team’s latest offering “Kadal”. A truly mind-blowing innovation.
My story on contemporary Malayalam film music scene written for the December issue of Sound Box magazine. Here is an unedited version. You can read the e-magazine from here (go to page # 36 to read).
Ask any Malayalee what genre of music he or she likes and the instant reply you would get is melody. Even though the word ‘melody’ has somewhat different meaning in music, the average Malayalee uses it to refer to the soft and soothing music. Malayalam film music has played a big role in developing this ‘taste of melody’ among the Malayali audience. Like many other film music industries in India, Malayalam also did not have much exposure to the various genres of music outside the Indian classical music system. As a result, it contained itself to be a simplified version of Karnatik and Hindustani music systems for the past several decades. The equations however are changing and fast.
The old school
The lighter version of the various Indian classical music schools went very well with the audience too, thanks to the lyricists like Vayalar Ramavarma and P Bhaskaran who used simple words to convey the ideas through songs. Their words and the lighter forms of classical music stayed with the audience. Composers like G Devarajan and M S Baburaj were a supreme influence of this era. Singer K J Yesudas was another big factor and his voice had set a benchmark to the singing aspirants of Malayali society. But there was little life for popular music outside the film music scene that got stuck to the style of Karnatik music. Then came music composer M G Radhakrishnan who popularized a music genre called “Light Music” in Kerala. Radhakrishnan who was working with All India Radio before he entered the film music had helped this genre to become mainstream. Parallely, Yesudas had also begun releasing light music albums under his own recording label Tharangini. Be it in popular music (that consisted of light music) or film music, Yesudas found a massive fan following.
“In an industry where a lot of music has become formulaic, often bcos the producer tells the music producer exactly which hit song to copy ;), I think filmmakers who are experimental enough to approach indie artists are looking for something different and thats what they are getting. I’m sure the audience can make out the difference and appreciate it. – Suraj Mani, singer and ex-vocalist of Motherjane
Late 80s and early 90s saw the Malayalam film music going back to it’s classical roots with much vigor that was not seen even in the early days. Thanks to a new trend in film music called ‘semi-classical’ which was made popular by music director Raveendran. The trio of composer Raveendran, singer Yesudas and actor Mohan Lal made these films and genre extremely popular. This has in a way helped bridge the gap between the general public and Karnatik music but it did not change much for the Malayalam film music.
The pace hots up
Meanwhile, a younger generation of Malayalees was growing up, listening to the fast paced Hindi and Tamil film music. The ‘dappankuth’ genre of fast paced Tamil numbers had taken over the Malayali youngsters so much so that every orchestra or every single Malayali musical programmes had to have a few Tamil numbers to mark a grand closure of the show. TV channels were flocking with requests from Malayali youngsters to play fast-paced Tamil songs. Indi-pop singers like Daler Mehndi also had a huge fan following here in his heydays.
But the clutches of classical music stayed on in Malayalam film music and not many tried to break the barrier (agreed that there were one-off attempts at western music by music composers like Devarajan) until a new music director came into the scene. Jassie Gift became a household name among Malayalees with a single song called “Lajjavathiye”. The song was a massive hit not only in Kerala but in other south Indian states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, and heavily contributed to the success of the movie that featured the song (which was then remade into other south Indian languages). The song with it’s Rap intro, heavy beats and a different style of singing by Jassie himself had drawn much criticism from the purists of music but nevertheless enjoyed a huge success. Alternatively, another music director, Alphons, was also experimenting with different genres of music. One of his compositions in Malayalam film “Manju poloru penkutti” had an English number that featured one of the best voices in the contemporary Malayalam film music industry, Sayanora.
But still, a bigger change of genre was just waiting to happen. Musicians like Jassie or Alphons had to work with an older generation of movie makers, a fact which might have drawn limits to their experiments in music. This applies to almost all new entrants in the Malayalam film music industry. But a new era of young and vibrant film makers in the industry has dared to take the film music score to a new level of experiments. Parallely, the Malayali music bands like Avial and Motherjane were making waves across the country and abroad.
Leading the change
Director Aashiq Abu was probably the first among these new age movie directors to introduce the Malayali rock band Avial in his popular film ‘Salt N Pepper’. The song was used for the movie’s online promotions, but Aashiq Abu could not feature it full length in the film or let the band compose the score of the film. So while the movie and songs were scored by another young music director Bijibal, the Avial song was played at the end of the movie. Sameer Thahir, another young movie director, went a step further and roped in Avial’s lead guitarist Rex Vijayan to set score for his debut venture “Chappa Kurishu”. The change was clearly audible in the music of the movie. Rex’s second film music project was for Aashiq Abu’s third flick “22 Female Kottayam” and this also has made a mark in the industry. He has also composed for the film “Second Show” with his band Avial. It would be interesting to note that Rex Vijayan had said in an interview that he has no idea of raagas. This is in a music industry that has it’s roots gone deep in the classical music system and it clearly shows the sign of a transition phase.
As a band, Avial was already a popular up north , not so much so down here. But, with ‘aanakallan’ (the song from the movie ‘Salt N Pepper’) they became household names in Kerala and that year we did a lot of shows in Kerala for colleges and Govt. sponsored shows and corporate events. – Neha S Nair, playback singer and vocalist of Avial
The raaga to rock journey in the Malayalam film music industry couldn’t get more visible than the entry of internationally acclaimed rock band of Malayali origin, Motherjane. Motherjane sang the English theme song “Jehad” for director Amal Neerad’s “Anwar”. But it’s not just the local musicians alone. The X-Factor fame Piyush Kapur has sung an end title song in English for the movie “Asuravithu”, which is in a pure metal flavor.
This could well be the beginning of a new era of diverse experiments in Malayalam film music. With a new set of film makers, music composers and a changing audience, the scene is definitely bringing up multiple genres together in Malayalm film music. There couldn’t be a better time and audience for such a change in the indie-music scene nationally and Kerala also seems to be marching in that direction.
It is that time of the year again, to rewind and count the best songs that I have heard this year in Malayalam movies. If 2011 was the year of singer Shreya Ghoshal, 2012 is the year of lyricist Rafeeq Ahamed. Most of my favorites from this year were written by him.
A new generation of music directors and singers continue to rule the scene and top the charts, though the veterans still contribute to the hits. More actors have taken up singing in the movies this year – like Biju Menon, Lal, Remya Nambeeshan and Mamta Mohandas – and among them Remya and Mamta have proved themselves to be good singers. Actor Mohan Lal too had a popular hit with the song “aattu maNal paayayil” on which he collaborated with music director Retheesh Vega. Indie musician/music blogger Harish Sivaramakrishnan has made his entry into Malayalam film music with the song “maRayumO” from the movie ‘Jawan of Vellimala’. Though different genres have been tried and tested, ‘melody’ remains as the popular genre in Malayalam film music.
So here goes my list of favorites from 2012. You would note that this is in no particular order.
I don’t think there has been better lyrics written for any other Malayalam movie in this year than the movie ‘Spirit’ written by Rafeeq Ahamed. Each and every song in this movie is sheer poetry written without verbal/grammatical jugglery. Kudos to music director Shahbaz Aman who has composed aptly supportive music score without killing the soul of the lyrics. Also checkout the other songs in this movie such as “maraNametthunna nEratthu” or “EE chillayil ninnu”.
This song became an instant favorite when I heard it for the first time. The music, vocals and visuals are all beautiful in this song. The kids who acted in the video were also sweet. I thought it was Shankar Mahadevan when I heard the first verse but later realized that it was Najeem Arshad’s voice. Don’t know if that sounding-like-Shankar part was intentional or not.
This year, music director Deepak Dev has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. He has been accused of stealing Canadian musician Loreena McKennitt’s music and using it in his movie album “Urumi”. Loreena had filed a case against Deepak which I think is still on-going. However, this particular song is one of the best songs of the year. Deepak couldn’t have got a better team than Haricharan on vocals, Embar Kannan on violin and Sanjeev Thomas on guitars for this song.
Song: Vaathilil Aa Vaathilil
Movie: Ustad Hotel
Music: Gopi Sunder
Lyrics: Rafeeq Ahamed
It is singer Haricharan again who has teamed up with music director Gopi Sunder this time. Gopi is known to have made peppy songs with heavy use of guitars, electronic keys and stuff but this song is like a cool breeze floating in the air with a soft aroma of Haricharan’s vocals that makes you close your eyes, inhale deeply and enjoy the bliss. Okay, I understand that I’ve gone overboard but you know what I meant when you hear this song 🙂 (the video below has dialogues from the movie that might be a distraction to enjoy the song). The movie is also a good watch, by the way.
Jassie Gift is most remembered for his hit song ‘Lajjavathiye’ but the man has composed many beautiful melodies right from the beginning of his career. You would remember his song “thooveLLa thoovum ushassin” from the movie ‘Saphalam’. This song from the debut directorial venture of Siddharth Bharathan is also a beautiful melody, sung by Shreya Ghoshal. Check it out.
Song: Muthuchippi Poloru
Movie: Thattathin Marayathu
Music: Shaan Rahman
Lyrics: Anu Elizabeth Jose
Singers: Sachin Warrier, Remya Nambeeshan
This whole album is so far the best work of music director Shaan Rahman. This song particularly lingers in my mind with beautiful visuals and Sachin Warrier’s beautiful vocals. I don’t like Remya Nambeeshan’s vocals in this one though. The songs in the album are written by a 21 year old techie and it is her first work in the movie industry.
This folk-ish song has marked actress Remya Nambeeshan’s debut as a playback singer and it became immensely popular. Remya’s voice and treatment gave this song the right feel. With the veteran lyricist Kaavaalam’s lyrics and Sharreth’s music, the song is an absolute delight to listen to.
Another top composition by national award winner Ouseppachan.
Apart from the above mentioned Malayalam songs, there are a few other language songs which were playing in the loop in my playlist. The following songs were played perhaps more times than any of the songs listed above.
Song: Shedding Skin
Album: Coke Studio @ MTV Season 2
Composer: Karsh Kale
Singers: Karsh Kale, Shruti Pathak, Shilpa Rao, Apeksha Dandekar and Monali Thakur
I’ve got to read an article by Roger Ebert through a Google group of movie buffs. Mr. Ebert’s article was titled “Why I’m so conservative“. Not in politics, he says, but in his thinking about movies. Basically he is saying that he likes watching movies in projection theaters than in digital format. That got me thinking about my experiences of watching movies in cinema halls and why I would prefer a home theater experience instead. (Disclaimer: This is about my experience in watching movies in theaters in India and I mention that particularly because somebody said that the theater experience in USA is different from that of here).
The experience of watching movies on a big screen is different. It leads you to a new world, an amazingly wider world of reality and fantasy. But watching a movie in cinema halls in India is just that – watching, and not enjoying. It depends a lot on the projector, it’s operator, the crowd, the atmosphere that the cinema halls gives you, the screen, sound and so on. If one of them fails, you would never be able to appreciate a movie for what it is.
In some theaters, they project a 70mm movie in 35mm on a 70mm screen. Sometimes it goes out of focus, scenes slightly blurred. When you watch a 3D movie, which is supposed to give you a more real cinema experience, you can see some folds and dirt marks on the screen and so you end up constantly reminded that you are ‘watching’ a movie. Sometimes our good old ‘film editors’ in the projection room do their own cuts and edits. So you abruptly jump between frames or scenes. Audio in some theaters, even the ‘good ones’, turns out to be just ‘noise’ sometimes. The ambiance that the movie halls provide also matters in enjoying a movie or giving your full attention to it. In some theaters, you’d wish they had a better cooling air conditioner and in some others you wish they had a heater. Then there is the crowd. Some would push you to the sides of your chairs and some would play games to win the space for arm rest of the chair.
You think multiplexes are good, but they are a vast abode of bored people. Some of the problems mentioned above apply to multiplexes too (or at least the ones I went to, in Bangalore). And if you are watching a Hollywood movie, you are doomed. People would laugh out aloud even at the silliest joke in an English movie which does not usually happen when they watch regional language movies. You would be left wondering if the joke was something that you did not understand because of the language. I’ve felt it as if the multiplex audience, while watching English movies, wants to convince others that they do understand the language (which is – understanding English language – considered as a sign of education and intellect in India). So you would end up hearing laughter outbursts every now and then with a semi-loud chatter. As an aside, it is largely in two types of places that I have seen people trying to convince others, mostly strangers to them, that they do understand the language and appreciate cinema – in multiplexes and film festivals.
When I watch a movie in my laptop or at home theater, none of these problems affect me. The only thing I really miss is the screen size. There are many advantages to watching a movie at home. I can adjust the light and sound as I like it. That gives me a feeling that I am also being a part of the movie presentation. Ebert says, ‘projected’ is good. I think it is eery. It gives me a feeling that somebody is hiding behind me to control what I see. That doesn’t feel free. When I was a child, I used to look behind to the source of light that came to the screen (I admit that I was just curious back then, than being frightened). When the movie originates on screen, it is like a gift that somebody’s offering you, from right in front of you. It’s a call, that says, ‘come, let’s take this trip together‘. And when I am at home, and have the freedom to control the presentation of a movie, I’m also being a part of the movie. That makes me feel good.
When I watch a movie at home, I don’t have to control or hide my feelings. I don’t have to be socially conscious. I can weep if I want to or laugh out loud when I want to. I don’t have to wipe my tears before people see it. I don’t have to worry about people seeing me weep like a baby. If it is a DVD, I can read the sub-titles at places where I did not understand the spoken language (even if it is English). I don’t see pause and rewind as an advantage though; I think it’s a distraction. When it’s just me and the movie, the line of distance between us is blurred. Sometimes I can touch a character. Or can just stroke them to console.
I’m not saying that all cinema hall experiences are bad. It’s definitely worth experiencing to watch a commercial masala movie in a full house packed with people laughing and clapping and passing on comments. But there cinema doesn’t go beyond the level of being a medium for entertainment.