Between Reviews: Head Games

Posted on May 1, 2010


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AR Rahman packs a lot of his heady signatures into the soundtrack for Mani Ratnam’s new film, but where’s the appeal to the heart?

MAY 2, 2010 – THERE’S MUSIC OF THE HEAD and there’s music of the heart, and our older composers were nimble acrobats who tiptoed blithely along the tightrope-median, secure in the wisdom that their purpose was threefold: to serve the situation on screen, to showcase their own compositional talents, and to give the man-on-the-street something to take home with a whistle on his lips (or a shimmy-shake in his shoes). You heard their songs, and your heart responded instantly, and then – only after you knew the tune-outline like the back of your hand – did you take them apart in your head (perhaps all ten of them). It was a happy situation for everyone. The casual listener walked away with melodies to hum and memories to bequeath to succeeding generations, bolstered by lyrics that could be discerned at first listen. And the music enthusiast (or maniac, if you will), like a geek-mechanic handed a gleaming Rolls, could marvel at how everything fit, how this raga was soldered to that jazz influence, or how that percussion instrument pressed a foot to the pedal just as this string section began to purr. And then our film songs were beset by the same upheavals as Western Classical Music.

As we’re discussing the music of the “Mozart of Madras,” let’s take the instance of real article, the real Mozart. Whether minimal (the twinkle-toed Eine kleine Nachtmusik, say) or monumental (the operatic overture to Don Giovanni), there’s always a melodic hook (or a leitmotif, as the case may be), a comforting tour guide that holds our hands through the more intimidatingly free-flowing aspects of the composition. (Also, these were almost always set to a simple time signature, like the four-four, even if there were complexities within that beat count.) No one will deny that Mozart had a masterful musical imagination or that he bent the scales to his idiosyncratic will, and yet, his music is easy even for a first-time listener. You take away something, something pleasant, even if you cannot tell major from minor, tone from semitone. But later, when the avant-garde came in, brandishing heresies like atonality and serialism, it was as if these formidably intellectual composers decided that all existing melodic possibilities had been explored and exhausted, and the only way forward was uncharted territory – all hyper-intellectualised head-music, with very little patience or indulgence for heart-music lovers, those poor, sentimental fools.

That’s the schism in our film music today, and my first thoughts, after four or five listens to AR Rahman’s soundtrack for Raavan, were about how much head-music there was, and how much he’s completely abandoned the notion of catering to us heart-music lovers, we poor, sentimental fools. Even the token melodic numbers – Behne de (beautifully sung by Karthik), and Khili re (with a light and lovely raga stretch in Kalavati) – are frustratingly evanescent, drifting from the mindscape barely seconds after they’ve alighted. They’re very pretty, and the filigree-work from Rahman’s factory is, needless to say, dependably ornate (though the album, in general, feels a little too fussed-over) – but just try holding on and singing along. There is, of course, one school of thought that says not all music needs to be easy, but then – as Rahman himself has proved so many times earlier – even heavily layered music, that’s borderline-impossible to fully take apart in the head, can effortlessly worm its way into the heart, like the irreproachable Ae hairat-e-aashiqui and Tere bina from Guru, or the entire soundtracks for Delhi-6 and Rang De Basanti. (The Mani Ratnam-Rahman combination may command more might at the box office, but it’s Rakeysh Mehra who seems to inspire Rahman to deliver the best of both head-music and heart-music.) With Raavan, I couldn’t shake off the disappointment that, despite all the evident effort, there is no solitary dazzler, no Aaromale, no Rehna tu, no Rehnuma (and that was un film de Anthony D’Souza, for crying out loud).

There is, also, a lot of déjà vu. If Behne de comes off like a cross between Mera yaar mila de and Satrangi re, the prelude portions of Khili re bring to mind Kehne ko jashn-e-bahara hai, Kata kata (with its frenzied chorus and pounding percussion) is a reworking of the Azeem-o-shaan shahenshah template, and Beera is flavoured like the incantatory title track of Omkara. (There’s a strong Vishal Bhardwaj presence in this music, or perhaps it was just me imagining how these desi-heartland songs would sound had they been shaped by Vishal Bhardwaj.) With so little to appeal to the heart, one is forced to dive headfirst – and there, finally, Rahman gives us glimpses of his greatness. One moment that caught my eye (rather, ear) was the opening stretch of Ranjha Ranjha. A string instrument snakes across eight beat-counts, and then, for twelve counts, there’s a near-pause, a sibilant susurration, like wind on willows. Our mind, therefore, settles into even-numbered ease – twelve more counts of strings, four more of the susurration. And then, after an asymmetric delay, a guitar unspools for eight counts, and we expect the song to get going at the beginning of the next cycle – but Rekha Bhardwaj’s titular cry erupts someplace between seventh and eight count, almost like a syncopation. You feel you’ve suddenly lost your balance. This is pure Rahman, the insolent avant-gardist who won’t rest till he yanks his listeners out of their predetermined comfort zones (which is why it’s bewildering that he’s called the Mozart of Madras).

Another Rahmanesque signature is manifest in the antara of Behne de, when the tranquilising melody begins to acquire thrust, ever so slowly, before exploding into rock-guitar psycho-delirium, and subsequently, descends back to serenity, as if the exertions weren’t worth it. Raavan isn’t a bad album or even a lazy one, and I’m certain the songs will acquire a third-dimensional sheen on screen, when varnished with Santosh Sivan’s palette. It’s just that it never crosses the “hmmm… interesting” threshold. I can’t say, for now, how much I’ll be returning to these numbers a month, a year from now. Even Gulzar is curiously muted, achieving fullness of form only in the colourfully idiomatic Kata kata. There’s a very funny rhyme in Thok de killi, where the master links dil ka to chhilka, which is surely the only time the heart has been rendered subservient to a banana peel. Finally, for those who’ve been maddened, over the years, by this great poet’s mixed metaphors, he unleashes one in Khili re that’s entirely in context – surila badan, a torso in tune, but only after the heroine likens her body to a bansuri. Not that poetry needs logic (and besides, if you’re looking for logic, what are you doing near poetry in the first place?) – but at least the next time someone begins to beat me with a stick about my passion for this poet, I’ll have a proper example to back me up. For that, Gulzar saab, thank you, from head and heart.

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