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.
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.
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