About time…

Posted on September 18, 2010



The most deserving, overdue and just decision at the National Awards this year is the recognition of Ilayaraja for best background score.

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SEP 19, 2010 – A KINGDOM APPEARS TO HAVE been created so that a king can be coronated. By carving out a brand-new category for best background score and by singling out Ilayaraja as its first recipient, the National Awards jury has recognised not only an auditory aspect of cinema long languishing in the shadows of the film song but also one of its greatest practitioners.

To longtime admirers of the maestro, the award carries the suggestion of a benchmark – as if future aspirants will have to contend and compete with his staggering standards – as well the hint of an apology, for not instituting this category earlier when Ilayaraja was scoring music for the brightest and the best. Had there been an award for best background score in the eighties, for instance, Ilayaraja might well have shifted base to New Delhi, to save himself the trouble of having to return each year to collect his trophies for Moondram Pirai and Nayakan and a great many other films that he brought to life with his baton.

I use the word “baton” intentionally, for in terms of musical sensibility, Ilayaraja picked up where Salil Chowdhury left off. They were certainly not the only composers to employ the orchestra in its fullest sense – strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion – but unlike other music directors, their grammar was derived from Western classical music. Chowdhury and Ilayaraja were composers in that grand tradition, with the former taking his cues from Mozart and the latter genuflecting at the altar of Bach.

Considered in this light, the award for best background score is far more indicative of Ilayaraja’s talents than his earlier National Awards for best soundtrack album (of songs, for the Telugu films Sagara Sangamam and Rudraveena, and for the Tamil Sindhu Bhairavi) – because his most profound thoughts manifest themselves through instruments and through orchestration. If he spoke through his songs, he felt through his music.

His was not just stock music intended to give the audience Pavlovian nudges in the rib – the surge of violins for a mother’s tears or the urgent tattoo of drums for an action sequence. In the Western classical tradition, Ilayaraja wrote (and still writes) thematic scores, laden with leitmotifs, and in several films – say, Moondram Pirai or Mouna Raagam – these themes are bundled together during the opening credits, like the overture for a symphony or a Broadway musical.

And this, while also scoring the mandatory five songs that would play elsewhere in the film, themselves outfitted with exquisitely orchestrated preludes and interludes. And this, in an era of live orchestration, where the difference between the tuning of the second violinist and the fifth could result in instant disharmony. And this, without the guiding hand of a Hollywood-style temp track, helpfully inserted by a music editor to give the composer a sense of the tone, colour and mood of the moment. Film after film – a few worthy, a great many unworthy – Ilayaraja was the mighty bridge between the director’s vision and the audience’s perception.

It’s fitting, therefore, that the award for best background score be inaugurated with him – and I say this as someone with an ambivalent relationship with background music as used in mainstream cinema, whether in Kollywood or Bollywood or Hollywood, and if you sedated me and threw me on a couch, I’d confess it’s because I resent being told what to do, how to feel. I am simply uncomfortable when music is used to manipulate me, whether the manipulator is John Williams, RD Burman or Ilayaraja.

This is not to say that film music should be entirely diagetic, through audio sources visible on screen, like a radio or a nightclub singer we register at a conscious level. Background music is invaluable in uniting the various visuals of a montage, or in segueing from one scene to the next without shedding the semblance of narrative continuity. (Take the stretch from Nayakan where Kamal Hassan marries Saranya in a temple. Each time she rings a bell, a sitar issues a twang, and this sound links this scene subtly, subconsciously to the song that follows, Nee oru kaadhal sangeetham, whose prelude is ornamented with sitar runs.) And in larger-than-life films like Star Wars or our own masala movies, background music is absolutely essential in providing operatic commentary on par with the dialogue, so that we are elevated into the realm of myth.

But in human-sized films, the value of background music becomes more suspect. We already have images, dialogues, sound cues, and most importantly, songs. With five or six songs spanning the dominant tracts of the film’s emotional landscape, the moods (love, tragedy, and so forth) are already coloured, and the background music need only branch off from the overarching themes already present in the song.

Take the scene in Thalapathi where Shobana takes leave of Rajinikanth because her conservative father will not allow her to marry this benevolent hood. As she departs, the background echoes with an excerpt from their love song from earlier, Sundari kannaal oru seidhi, with stirring strings giving way to a mournful flute. We already know this song, we have already linked it to their love, and this re-orchestrated reiteration is sufficient to outline his despondency at the denial of the happy ending that the song promised. Rahman does something similar in Aayitha Ezhuthu when Madhavan murders his brother, by replaying the buoyant humming that opened his Dol dol song sequence but in a sinister lower register, on a cello. We don’t need freshly composed music to signal the depths to which this character has descended – this tweak tells us everything.

This is not to say that freshly composed music is not of value – but how many musical cues can a human-sized film hold? Ilayaraja recognises the usefulness of silence, but elsewhere, with his signature style – Baroque-era signatures throbbing with lush, Romantic-era expressiveness – the music is so distinctive, so breathtaking, that it has the power to pull you out of the scene and make you marvel at the score, and as a lover of cinema, I’m not entirely convinced about this operatic approach of underlining visual information with auditory information.

As a lover of music, however, I am eternally grateful for these outpourings of genius. We, sadly, do not have the tradition of soundtrack albums, and in that absence, the screen remains the only showcase for the craft of a composer so in sync with the emotional landscape of a film that if we were to close our eyes and listen to the music, we’d conjure up these very images. That is why Ilayaraja is celebrated as a living legend, and that is why the National Award for best background score could not have gotten off to a more salubrious start.

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