Bitty Ruminations 69 – Sattru munbu

Posted on September 5, 2012

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I don’t know if I will have the time for a full-fledged review of Ilayaraja’s soundtrack for Neethane En Ponvasantham. Also, after just a few listens, the songs haven’t sunk in fully — though they have left behind rough outlines in my mind. But the main reason for my inability to launch into detailed thoughts about the whole album is my thralldom to Sattru munbu, the song that instantly made me sit up — and it’s been on endless loop ever since.

The tragic song is built on the kind of dynamic contrasts, the swelling and the subsiding, we rarely hear in our film music (stray examples include In lamhon ke daaman mein, Sundari kannaal oru seidhi, Engay nimmadhi). The first line is sung a capella. Then a disorienting — seriously jolting — blast of horns and percussion. Second line a capella. Followed by another blast of music. A hint of strings. And an undistinguished ticktock rhythm sets in. (Anything more complicated may have made the song too much.) What anguish in the melody line that closes the pallaviellaame poi endru solvaaya! This is why music was invented, to dramatise the spoken word, to give full shape to feelings that even words cannot fully express. The singer stops, as if she reached the edge of a cliff and suddenly opened her eyes and saw the drop below. A hint of steadying strings. And she’s back to the beginning.

Dynamic contrasts again in the first interlude. Piano and strings swelling their chest and issuing stentorian notes, then calming down and playing variations in a (relative) whisper. By the end of this interlude, there’s been one more swell, one more whisper. The singer again. The stanza begins, and slowly she ushers it to my favourite part. Vaangi pona en idhayathin nilamai enna da. Okay, in tune with the rest of the stanza. Nothing out of the ordinary. But the next line ends with a twist in its tail. Thengi pona oru nadhiyena indru naanada. She seems to be preparing for liftoff. And what a liftoff it is. The ascent begins with thaangi pidikka un tholgal illaye… And boom! Without his shoulders to support her, she’s lost in space. A higher-octave rendition of the lines that opened the song, followed by a vertiginous drop back to earth. Sattru munbu

She picks herself up and begins all over again. A more conventional (even old-fashioned) interlude. The second stanza begins and ends. Time for the last iteration of the pallavi, which hoards the separate instances of dynamic contrasts we’ve been hearing so far into one simultaneous segment — the singer whispers, the chorus roars behind her. Mesmerisingly operatic music. (Appropriately, wrist-slashingly melodramatic words as well: maari poga, for instance, rhyming with keeri poga.) And it leaves the tantalising question: however the hell are they going to do justice to this on screen?

PS: But some of the songs seem to have been sung by people who shouldn’t have actually sung them. Ramya NSK sings Sattru munbu well enough, but the singing is a little… timid. A song this boldly dramatic needed a diva capable of reckless drama. I kept thinking of how someone like Sunidhi Chauhan would have sounded.

PPS: But at least she keeps in tune, and her pronunciation is fine — even if she cracks into a falsetto when asked to climb into the higher reaches of the tune. What about the singers who go off key? But I guess I’m old-fashioned that way. Today’s “youth,” from what I keep hearing, aren’t sticklers for what used to be called sruthi suddham. Pitch, apparently, is just something you get from petroleum.

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