Between Reviews: The Right Place, the Right Time

Posted on January 31, 2009


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FEB 1, 2009 – WE HOPED FOR ONE OSCAR NOMINATION, and he ended up with three. How else can one celebrate the awesomeness of AR Rahman’s achievement than by appropriating the season’s catchphrase-cliché: Jai Ho! I’m also happy for Resul Pookutty, a name I’ve been noticing in the titles of most prestige productions of late, and especially ecstatic for that genius wordsmith named Gulzar. Yes, please note that I said “genius.” I’m making a point of explicitly mentioning this because when I last wrote about another genius – Rahman (and his Golden Globe achievement) – I’d made a case for his success being a result of his being, at all times, at the right place and at the right time, and quite a few readers misread this as taking away from the composer’s genius.

That’s the last thing I wanted to do – for the Tamil film industry has been blessed with at least three incontrovertible geniuses in the musical front. I do not have to affix the tag of “genius” before the names of MS Viswanathan, who came first, or Ilayaraja, who followed, or now Rahman – you only point out things that need pointing out, and calling these composers a “genius” is like declaring that the sky is blue. We’ve had several hit-makers, musicians who’ve churned out songs that were on our lips for a month or two before getting consigned to the trash heap of memory, but this Trinity – so to speak – has left a mark on how Tamil film music will be perceived by posterity. If that’s not genius, I don’t know what is.

With the right-place-at-the-right-time thesis, I was simply alluding to the circumstances that allowed Rahman’s genius to shine through to the extent that it has. My primary point is this: he arrived on the musical scene when the country was expanding, when the world was shrinking, and when he could be exactly who he wanted to be without worrying if enough listeners would get his music. During the age of MSV and Ilayaraja, Tamil film music was for Tamil Nadu and the Tamils scattered worldwide. Very few non-Tamils had a clue what this music was all about because the film industry, the music industry, the country, and indeed the world, was split up into isolated pockets of locally consumed culture.

The audience for the music of those older composers was a vertical cross-section of Tamil Nadu, percolating from the cities downwards to the tiny little outposts whose names are familiar to us only through the films of Bharathiraja. And it is a mark of the genius of MSV and Ilayaraja that they were able to incorporate so many sounds and so many genres into their music – to pick examples out of a hat, think MSV’s big-band stylings in Ninaithathai nadathiye or Ilayaraja’s seamless assimilation of Carnatic and folk music in Thanaa vandha sandhaname – while still satisfying what you’d call the least-common-denominator listener, the Tamil equivalent of someone from the North who tapped his feet to massy Laxmikant-Pyarelal numbers.

But Rahman is a product of a different generation, the kind that never existed earlier – the global Tamilian, if you will, and by extension, the global Indian. And when it came to the kind of “sound” of his music – rooted yet not specifically so, Indian yet not alienatingly so – he had the extraordinary latitude of not having to depend on that top-down model (of listeners inside a state). He could, instead, get the same numbers of listeners (and perhaps more) thanks to a horizontal model, spread out across the surface, the cream, the upper crust of the state, the country and the world. He can, today, afford to appeal only to the equivalent of the consumers of multiplex movies – because even if there aren’t enough buyers for his kind of global music (think Hey, goodbye nanba) inside Tamil Nadu, the numbers are more than made up for by music enthusiasts across the country, and around the world.

Today, Rahman need not concern himself about the pan-Indian viability of – to take an example from his excellent soundtrack for Delhi-6 – the Sting-meets-Steely Dan ethos of Rehna tu. This is a global sound that is not going to find favour in the interiors of an India whose films (at least from Bollywood) have increasingly oriented themselves towards the tastes of upscale urbanites – and Rahman wouldn’t have been able to put out such a tune, say, twenty years ago. (Even if he wanted to, the director would have balked.) Such phenomenal freedom – to do exactly what one wants to do, and to be accepted and celebrated for the same – is surely a factor of the age Rahman is in.

The generalisations inherent in an analysis of this nature – and in a newspaper article of this size – obviously preclude exhaustive examples. When I point to Rahman’s “multiplex music” and his predominantly urban consumers, I understand that he’s as capable of crafting, say, the semi-classical Manmohana or the rousingly earthy Valayapatti thavile. But I suspect an interesting trend will emerge if we move away from the cities and conduct polls on the kind of music the people in the interiors are really swaying to. I doubt, for instance, that they would have the patience or the inclination to subscribe to the famous dictum of needing repeated listenings to get someone’s music – but the fact that Rahman doesn’t need to factor these considerations into his compositions, that he can just be himself, is a blessing, and this is what I meant by this (yes) genius being at the right place, at the right time.

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