Women and song

Posted on February 4, 2015


So there’s a new Gautham Menon movie out this week. I look forward to his films, for two reasons mainly. One, to see the way the heroine has been shaped. I know. This is borderline-blasphemy considering it’s essentially an Ajith movie and all, but even in Menon’s big-star outings like Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu – the kind of film that, in other hands, would provide ample excuse to trot out the sheepish excuse that “I had to make all these compromises because this is a big film and I wanted to reach not just the A-centre audiences but the ones in the B- and C-centres as well” – we get a fascinating heroine, not a virginal PYT but a divorcee with a daughter. Let’s not get into whether this character has much to do in the overall scheme of things. Her mere presence in a film of this magnitude is enough. Sometimes a rocket is enough to brighten up a night sky.

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The other reason to anticipate Menon’s movies is the music. Yennai Arindhaal – as with Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu and Pachaikili Muthucharam, this title is a play on an MGR song – marks something of a return to form for Harris Jayaraj, a talented but often frustrating musician who’s content to coast on tunes that even an Easy Listening station would find too easy to air. But even in his most repetitive tunes, one element stands out: the sound. His sound is one of the best in the movies. It’s a modern sound, and it’s not just about audio effects and instruments. It also showcases voices beautifully. (Whether we want to hear some of these gibberish lyrics is another question. The answer: Let’s not go there.)

At the recently concluded Lit for Life, the Hindu’s literary festival, I attended an eye-opening workshop by the lyricist Madhan Karky. Among his many revelations was the fact that the first word in the song Ladio (from AR Rahman’s album for I) was “pani koozh,” i.e., “snow soup” – and every time, earlier, I’d heard it as “panikkul,” i.e, “inside snow.” This isn’t a major deal-breaker, for this isn’t a lyric-driven song. It’s punch comes from the propulsive arrangements and the breathy singing – that voice, really. Still, there’s a bit of sadness when a lyricist uses a beauty of a word and you miss it.

If you don’t know the language, you don’t care about lyrics. The tune, the music that supports this tune – these are the only things. The strange words become part of this tune, like scat syllables or ululations. But if you know the language, lyrics become important. And the lyrics in the Menon-Harris Jayaraj films are sumptuous affairs, thanks to the not-so-secret sauce that is Thamarai.

One way to assess the talent of a lyricist is by the unusual words used, and Thamarai always brings something new to the table – thula thattu, paramapadam, fresh rhymes like maattri/oottri. Another way is to see how they use metaphors, how they extend existing metaphors. The metaphor of one’s heart being a blank piece of paper isn’t new. This was used, most famously, by Anand Bakshi in Aradhana: Kora kaagaz tha yeh man mera / likh liya naam is pe tera. My life was a blank piece of paper… I fell in love with you… And now, on that blank paper, I’ve written your name. That’s the essence of these lines.

Look how much further Thamarai takes this metaphor in Menon’s Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya (whose music was by Rahman). In the exquisite Mannippaaya, she writes, Kaatrile aadum kaagidham naan / Nee dhaan ennai kadidham aakkinaai. I was a blank piece of paper being tossed about in the wind… You settled me… You stabilised me… And now that piece of paper is a (love) letter. That’s the essence of these lines. A blank paper with a name on it doesn’t let you, the listener, go too far. That’s pretty much the end of the imagery. But a letter, the things it makes you imagine… Ah.

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