Music Review: Cheeni Kum

Posted on May 15, 2007


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Ilayaraja marries his new sound to his old tunes in a charming trifle of a soundtrack.

MAY 20, 2007 – LISTENING TO US Ilayaraja fans whining about his of-late overdependence on artificial sound – synth drums, synth flutes, synth everything – you’d think we’d like nothing better than to have the maestro and his MIDI interfaces separated by the space roughly occupied by the erstwhile USSR. But that’s far from it, really. We are the same people who swooned over, for instance, the portion of the second interlude of Oru Poongavanam (Agni Natchatiram) where a cushion of sinusoidal violins enveloped the discrete notes being punched out on a… synthesiser. But the synth sound there was pickle, and now it’s become the main course – and that’s our problem. We are, after all, talking about a genius of orchestral arrangement – those majestic cascades of real violins, the sharply-etched patterns of real percussion – and to see him move on from the magnificence of those man-made sounds to mere approximations facilitated by machinery is to see a lion grazing on grass. And grass, however green, is just… grass. And if that’s how we feel about the new songs, you can only imagine the levels of apprehension when the old ones get the synth treatment, which is the case with the soundtrack for Cheeni Kum. Manram vantha thendralukku from Mouna Raagam, Kuzhaloodhum kannanukku from Mella Thirandhadhu Kadhavu, Vizhiyile mani vizhiyile from Nooravadhu Naal – each one a glistening diamond of the maestro’s inexhaustible eighties’ oeuvre. Will they now be reduced to zircon imitations?

Not exactly. It does take a while – four or five listens – for your head to wrap itself around familiar songs dressed up in an unfamiliar style. But once you’ve freed yourself of earlier associations – to the extent that such a thing is possible – you begin to see interesting things. In Jaane do na, Shreya Ghoshal (in exquisite form) reproduces the melody lines of Vizhiyile mani vizhiyile note for note, but everything else is different – and it’s not just the arrangements. The original number begins with the male voice launching into the first line of the song, and that’s there in this new version too (except, of course, that it’s no longer a male voice) – but there, this was followed by the female voice humming the latter part of the line, the two-note motif at the lower end of the octave that would make its rather sinister presence felt through the remainder of the piece (especially at the close of the first stanza, where this motif is underlined thrice, first by the male, then the female, then picked by the strings before they soar into the higher notes to form the rest of the interlude). But in the retooled number, after Shreya launches into the first line, the keyboard reiterates the first part of the line, the lighter part – and this doesn’t translate into a discernible motif either. Jaane do na, therefore, is just a fresh song, one that skips along with a spring in its step where its predecessor proceeded with a statelier gait.

And listening to this, a thought suddenly struck me. Could the pep in the new version be the result of Ilayaraja wanting to escape his classical associations – his associations not just with classical music, but his reputation as a classical composer? Without the rooting motif in Jaane do na, the segues are less clean, more unpredictable (and even frustrating sometimes) – but maybe that’s what he’s going for now. The one thing that’s been remarkable about Ilayaraja’s (early) music for me is that once a song begins, the way he’s structured it would seem the only way for it to be structured. Everything would fall into place with such a satisfying click, you could not imagine a single additional notation on the music sheet. It was the classical way of going about it, taken to the extreme that was humanly possible. But maybe that phase of his life is over – the court composer phase – and maybe now he just wants to be a swinging pop star. In Jaane do na, the first interlude has a lovely bit with strings (synth strings maybe, for they sound a bit too sharp) but it’s just… a lovely bit with strings, with no past, no future. It plays its part and pretty much disappears – perhaps echoed a little in another bit with strings in the second interlude, but nothing more. And there are flourishes throughout – odd pauses, jerky transitions with percussion rolls – that accentuate the anything-goes nature of the reworking.

I guess I’m saying that these remixed versions aren’t going to make me walk away from their parents anytime soon, but the tracks in Cheeni Kum do possess a charm of their own. As to why this sudden affinity for Ilayaraja in his synth mode, it could be that he’s chosen tunes that sit well within the confines of a present-day Hindi film album (as opposed to, say, Saara yeh aalam in Shiva, which was a reworking of Aananda raagam from Panneer Pushpangal; the latter’s high pitches and gamaka-rich phrasings from the Carnatic raga Simhendramadhyamam didn’t exactly lend themselves to casual listening or humming along with). The wistful Manram vantha thendralukku gets transformed into Cheeni Kum (Shreya Ghoshal), which begins on a bouncy note, with synth bursts drenching the opening lines like summer showers and with a faster-paced first interlude (that retains the saxophone as a nod to the earlier song). But there’s no way to make the stanzas any lighter, for the melody lines in these parts are practically a wail – so while the original is an all-out cry from the soul, this one keeps flitting between happiness and heartbreak. (Another interesting tweak comes towards the end of the stanzas, where you keep waiting for Shreya to hit that high note of the original and she makes a startling U-turn to the lower registers. However, Sooni Sooni – a melancholic spin on Cheeni Kum, sung by Vijay Prakash – traverses all the way up to that high note.)

One track, though, manages to stand on its own – successfully dispelling the looming shadows of its predecessor – and that’s the delightful Baatein hawa hain saare (Shreya Ghoshal again; in a repeat of this number, Amitabh Bachchan chips in with a few spoken lines). While Kuzhaloodhum kannanukku – whose Version 2.0 this is – was entirely one of a piece (the genre would be rustic solo, perhaps?), Baatein has been reimagined entirely as a stunning compendium of musical genres. The first interlude features the kind of full-out symphonic arrangement that recalls Ilayaraja’s phenomenal work in Avatharam and Hey Ram (that feeling when, after a particularly heavy strings section, a lone flute takes off like a dove that’s just been set free – ah!), the second interlude begins with heavy-duty electric guitar chords (and real drums) and moves onto a jazz duet between percussion and trumpet that’s capped off sweetly by a silvery piano run – and none of this baggage prevents the song from being so utterly light on its feet. An instrumental piece played on the saxophone – on a base of what sounds like a strident synth loop – is equally wonderful, the surprise element being the incorporation of a cleverly reworked phrase from En iniya pon nilaave (Moodupani). It’s quite the sprightliest thing Ilayaraja has done in some time.

Then there’s the theme music, a simple tune on the piano that gets augmented with strings and a mini-symphonic movement and the opening riff of Cheeni Kum. The rest of the piece is a beautiful permutation-combination of these elements – and, yes, despite the synthesiser playing such a major part. For all that, this album is undeniably a lesser work from one of our bona fide musical geniuses. (I can’t help linking the lessness of this work to the brilliant title design, where the lettering of the ‘K’ is done with a vertical line and an angle bracket, which, of course, is the less-than sign. Less than… kum… get it?) Perhaps only someone who’s never listened to the older songs – or the older Ilayaraja – can fully get this album the way it’s meant to be got. For the rest of us, an entertaining diversion though this may be, Ilayaraja is too entrenched in our psyche as court composer to make us need him as pop star. And when we feel like a taste of the Ilayaraja magic in the Hindi language (in a Tamil film, though), we can simply replay that magnificent composition sung by Bhupinder and S Janaki all the way back in the early eighties. I’m referring to Kaise kahoon from Nandu, which featured a beauty of a tune backed by real violins (which is why they could be played pizzicato), a real flute, a real Spanish guitar, a real tabla and a real drum kit. Oh, there were synth sounds galore, but just as pickle. The main course that resulted is still a feast for the ears.

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