‘My films are not star vehicles’

Chatting with filmmaker Vasanth about rule-breaking, lyrics, and the music of his forthcoming feature about three people and three love stories.

At one point during our conversation where we try to fix up a time that works for both of us, the filmmaker Vasanth ends up sounding slightly sheepish. Tuesday, 3 pm, I say. He pauses. He asks if we can make it 5. I cannot. And the rest of the week doesn’t work for me. What about earlier? Earlier doesn’t work for him. The airwaves are thickened with the minor tension of who will blink first. He sighs and consents to 3 pm. That is when he turns sheepish. He says that 3 pm, Tuesday, is rahukaalam, and it’s not like he believes in this stuff, but still… I assure him that he need say no more. This is how a lot of us are – our heads screwed on tight by Science, but our hearts wavering like reeds in the winds of ancient wisdom. We arrive at a compromise. I will be there at 2:30. Keeping the phone down, I think I know what a diplomat feels like after he’s engineered a détente.

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Vasanth’s office, situated atop an art gallery, is filled with people. In the reception area, three men are seated on a sofa, clutching a bouquet between them. I squeeze myself into the space I can find, and thankfully an assistant arrives and escorts me to the director’s office. Chennai, in October, is still sweltering, but the air-conditioning is so intense inside that I feel I’ve been whisked away to an icecap. A thought arises, that when Vasanth made that admission about rahukaalam, he was probably sitting in this very office, surrounded by unimpeachable proof of Science, which can manufacture machines capable of altering the very air around us, transforming Chennai into Chicago in winter. Do engineers at air-conditioning plants switch off on Tuesdays between 3 and 5?

Vasanth walks in and interrupts these idle thoughts. He is surely older than me – his breakout film, Keladi Kanmani came out in 1990, when I was barely out of school – but he looks younger, far trimmer, far less grey. He offers me coffee. I decline. He offers me green tea. I decline. Water’s fine. He says that he used to drink so much coffee at one time that if you pricked him with a needle, he’d ooze decoction. But now, his sustenance comes mostly from green tea. And, of course, movies. He hands me a matte-finish photo album that’s as big as a medium-size painting. It contains stills from his new film Moondru Per Moondru Kaadhal. “The film is about…,” he begins. He stops. “The title is self-explanatory,” he laughs. The three men enmeshed in these three love stories are played by Arjun, Cheran and Vimal, and these stories play out in three landscapes. By the Seaside. In the mountains. On the plains.

The songs, however, will play out in a room nearby, where Vasanth hands me over to his assistant editor, a heavyset youth who stands beside the music player with six CDs containing the film’s six songs. After each song, he takes out the CD and inserts the next one. As I write this, I’m kicking myself for not asking him why all six songs couldn’t have been burned on the same CD. Is this standard procedure? Is some kind of numerological superstition at work here? I guess my journalistic curiosity, then, was distracted by the music, which is definitely different. The first song he plays me, Kaadhal endhan kaadhal, opens with the backing of a percussive morsing (calling it a Jew’s Harp in a land of Tamils with an eye on rahukaalam makes no sense whatsoever), and it has one long, long charanam bookended by two renditions of the pallavi. (Later, Vasanth tells me that there is a second charanam if you look closely, that the long, long interlude is the second charanam.)

The next song, the duet Mazhai mazhai, has stanzas structured around a type of call-and-response exchange (calling this sawaal-jawaab in a land of Tamils doesn’t make much sense either). Unakkaagave uyir vaazhgiren is a dubstep track (the first in Tamil cinema, Vasanth says), while Padapadakkudhu begins with free-flowing male vocals, unfettered by percussion, then switches to the springy cadences of rap, then the beat disappears and makes way for the first singer, and then it’s rap again, and finally the sounds fuse. I ask Vasanth, later, if he feels that the layman is going to get on board such a meandering construction, which is fascinating at a formal level, no doubt, but requiring a greater level of attention than can be expected from someone who’s driving or someone who’s checking emails. Isn’t that how most people tune into music anymore? Vasanth says that he doesn’t think about the result, that out of the tunes presented to him he selects those that he feels will stand the test of time. Music that lasts is more of a priority than the instant chart-climber.

“My films are not star vehicles,” he says. “People come to my films because of the director’s name, my name. They expect something different from a Vasanth movie.” Hence that song. “Besides, I do have melodies that are instantly catchy, which make people feel comfortable right away.” That would be Aaha kaadhal, which appears to cling to the contours of the raga Bahudari, and which can be effortlessly classified under the raga-rock genre that yielded Vasanth one of his biggest hits in Nerukku Ner. (That song was Manam virumbuthey, which came off like the Thyagaraja kriti Manavylakin chara as played live by Alice in Chains.) “I love music,” Vasanth says, “whether it’s MS or soft rock like Phil Collins or cinema music, where I like everything from CR Subbaraman to Kolaveri.”

Vasanth also collaborates on the lyrics of his songs. During the sitting for Azhagu kutti chellam in Saththam Podaathey, his previous outing with Yuvan Shankar Raja (they first came together for Poovellaam Kettupaar, in 1999), he drew up a list of things we immediately associate with babies. Milk. A dimple that burrows into the cheek. Buttocks like full moons. I ask about his faith, in this attention-deficit age, in the layman’s willingness to listen to the song well enough to latch on to its lyrics. Vasanth turns philosophical. “The lyrics are there to serve the film and for my satisfaction. I have no control over these lyrics reaching the listener.” He says that the song Pesugiren pesugiren, again from Saththam Podaathey, made a woman call him up and tell him that it saved her from suicide. “Maybe the listener doesn’t want these lines now, but only if I compose them now are they going to be available to you at a time you really need them.”

But he concedes that it’s not the lyrics but the music that reaches the listener first. And he concedes that, for most of his songs, the music was composed before the lyrics were written. Among the rare instances where the lyrics came first, he points to Endha kudhirayil varuvaan (Saththam Podaathey), and to Vidu vidu in this new soundtrack for Moondru Per Moondru Kaadhal. “The opening lines were written so that we could get a hold of the concept,” he says. And the concept is that this is a song about songs. “A song does something to you. In the 1980s, I was mad about Ilayaraja’s songs. Andhi mazhai. Pothi vacha malligai mottu. Siru ponmani. You can’t stop singing them.” Hence the refrain in this number: “Stop the paattu.”

This film is not about romance, but about love. And yes, according to Vasanth, there is a key difference. “Today, school-going kids talk about dating. That’s just romance. Love is more enjoyable if you come across it at the right age, when it’s no longer just an infatuation, when you are mature enough to handle it.” Even the opening line of the song Kaadhal endhan kaadhal asks the perennial question: What will become of my love? I ask if Vasanth loves any one song from his films over the others. He doesn’t answer. He chooses, instead, to lavish love on his composer for being open to ideas, for trying out new things, for thinking beyond “mere hits,” for delivering something more than “the usual sound.” As he states it, Vasanth’s brief to Yuvan Shankar Raja sounds like it was inspired by an AR Rahman anthem: Break the rules. “If the technicians give their best, the film goes to an entirely different level.”

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

16 thoughts on “‘My films are not star vehicles’

  1. Vasanthukku ivvalavu periya buildupa. I can’t recall his last good work.Maybe Rhythm? adhu kooda sodhappals dhaan towards the end. He is a frustrating filmmaker .He is a non-entity today. But that said, he has a decent ear for music and hope the forthcoming soundtrack offers a pleasant surprise, because his last one didn’t quite.
    (Are you an old acquaintance of Vasanth or something? why this sudden interview?)

    BTW, Interview’kku kooda rahu kaalama?Really? No wonder our industry is mired in superstitions.

    And did you get to ask why he has kept changing his composers every now and then?

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  2. vijay: Not really. I’ve met him at screenings and stuff, but I don’t really know him. Nice chap to talk to, though.

    It’s not a sudden interview. The music release of his film was coming up and someone would have done a feature around this anyway. The cinema supplement’s lead story is always about a forthcoming release, either music or movies. Sometimes, they interview the hero, sometimes the heroine, sometimes the director. I stay away from the hero/heroine stuff usually, but I like talking to directors, and so I said I’d do this.

    Even the Gautham piece came about that way. They would have done something more general, but I said let’s make it specifically about Raja’s music and I said I’d do it.

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  3. இவா எல்லாம் ஒரு கூட்டம் குலம் சார் அஷ்ட்டே. Blood is thicker

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  4. BR, I understand the interview is always tied to a score’s release or a film release but the choice of Vaasanth was what that was mildly puzzling to me (he has been inactive for 4 or 5 years now, and even 5 years back he had sort of fizzled out, become at best a B-list director). But I get what you say about him being nice to talk to. Plus the music is always a bit interesting in his films.
    Hope he has lit a fire under YSR

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  5. Some of the best songs in his career was in rhythm,i don’t know what prompted him to work around the idea of five elements but the result was astounding.he says he is a music lover,but he didn’t even mention the movie.so sad.

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  6. Prabu: Er… from which part of these lines do you infer a claim that “manam virumbuthey” is bahudari?

    “That would be Aaha kaadhal, which appears to cling to the contours of the raga Bahudari, and which can be effortlessly classified under the raga-rock genre that yielded Vasanth one of his biggest hits in Nerukku Ner. (That song was Manam virumbuthey…”

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  7. Aravindan,

    I beg to differ. His best songs were from Deva. Aasai, 15 odd years later, still sounds fresh. Appu’s music was atleast 5-6 years ahead of its time, in terms of sound and soundscapes used. Nerukku Ner punched far above its weight – a music director flexing all his creative muscles to come up with extraordinary songs (barring Akila akila).

    Rhythm was nothing unexpected. Had great songs, considering ARR’s then form. Did not stray from his usual sounds. It’s easy to call Rhythm Vasanth’s best in terms of songs, but then it tells a lot about him when you consider he extracted class music from Deva.

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  8. To each his own, but Dr Rangan, when you have some time, perhaps you could devote a column to what Karikala Cholan refers to as directors extracting music from composers? Easy example being AR Rahman extractions for the same director in Sangamam and Baba being vastly different in terms of quality.

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  9. Karikala Cholan

    What I said was rhythm had “some of the best songs” of his career.I don’t have any problem with the other songs in fact i do like them.But in the entire interview he didn’t even mention the name of one of his own creation which he considers as close to his heart.please go through the following article appeared in the Hindu metro plus.http://www.hindu.com/mp/2010/09/21/stories/2010092150310300.htm OR visit his page in Wikipedia.

    I beg to differ on the form factor .Form is temporary class is permanent.The director has a key role to play in extracting good music from a music director.It is his vision that is translated in to music.It is to Vasanths credit that he managed to convey a certain vision of his to ARR ie the five element concept and extracted music that suited his vision and HOW!.

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  10. Aasai and Nerukke Ner had quite a few lifts between them as well, which further makes a case for Rhythm being the better effort. But one should concede Aasai and Nerukku Ner was the best among Deva’s grand heists :-)

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