A place far, far away from Tamil cinema

Posted on March 2, 2015


Notes from an afternoon spent listening to the “Uttama Villain” album and talking to the composer Ghibran.

A little after 12 last Saturday, I stepped into a recording studio in RA Puram. The television set in the reception area said that UAE were 36/3 in their World Cup match against India. There were a couple of couches, a  few people propped on them. They didn’t seem particularly invested in the outcome of this match. India would win. It was just a matter of time. Still, it was there, like the two-year-old issues of TIME you find at the local GP’s office. I hung around a bit. At 41/4, I was led into a room with a Mac, and R Ragavendran – who is Ghibran’s music production manager and also handles the PR; it was on his invitation that I was there – began to play a song from the new Kamal Haasan starrer Uttama Villain.

Kaadhalaam kadavul mun, it went. It’s sung by Padmalatha, and it’s what the industry calls a “melody song,” a strange term, considering that all songs traverse some kind of melodic arc. But what they mean is that this isn’t, say, a kuthu number. This isn’t the kind of song you’d immediately hand over to the choreographer. It’s the kind of song that you’d try to fill on screen with a Balu Mahendra-style montage of mood shots.

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All pop music – and film songs are our pop music – has an element of repetition. The songs open with the pallavi (our version of the Western pop song’s chorus) and keep returning to it. And pairs of lines in the charanam (verse) are often set to the same tune. Ghibran has an interesting way of adhering to this structure, yet breaking away from it. There’s always a tweak the second time the melodic line is repeated. Sometimes the closing stretch grazes a lower note. Or only the first line of the chorus is sung in a lower octave.

You know that thing where you hear a song and a phrase suddenly yanks you out of the present and deposits you in front of a radio set circa 1980? That happened to me. Suddenly, I was thinking about the Gangai Amaran song, Nyaabagam illaiyo kanne. Maybe it’s the raga. Ghibran, who joined us later, told me that he’d tuned this song in Maru Bihag. I had just one quibble, and it’s about the recording. The song has that super-shiny quality most songs have these days – everything is too perfect. I wondered if Ghibran would be offended if I asked him about this.

Next, Iraniyan naadagam – no, not a play from the country formerly known as Persia, but one about Hiranyakashipu and Prahlada. The lines, written by Kamal (who voices Hiranyakashipu), are blazingly theatrical: En udhirathin vidhai / En uyir udhirtha sadhai… There’s great variety in the percussion, not just in the different instruments used but also in the rhythm patterns. Sometimes, the drums just come to a halt. The base is the traditional koothu, so all lines are sung – and given the Western-classical wrapping, the lines also sound like the recitative of a Broadway musical. The number keeps soaring and climaxes in anthemic swells.

After this, Love-aa love-aa was almost an anti-climax. It’s the most mainstream thing I’d heard that far – an insanely catchy tune, with hard-driving beats that sound as if they’re ripping the song to shreds, and a vast dynamic range, comprising the audio equivalent of the close-up as well as the wide shot.  It’s the kind of song that’s an instant hit. This film probably needs this song.

Kamal hasn’t sounded this young and peppy in a while, and his borderline-falsetto here is effectively contrasted with a female voice that sounds like Usha Uthup trapped inside a boom box. The owner of that deep, resonant voice is a new singer named Sharanya Gopinath, and Ragavendran found her when he was shopping at the flea market in Wesley Grounds, Royapettah. He heard sounds from a music show nearby, and he froze when Sharanya began to sing a song that had the refrain “Beef biriyani.” He knew he wanted that voice. He made his way to the show, found out who sang the song, and went up to her and got her number, despite her father looking on disapprovingly at his daughter handing out her number to a strange man who claimed to be from the film industry. Ghibran listened to the voice. He liked it. A year-and-a-half later, he said he wanted the “Beef biriyani” girl. And that, sometimes, is how you make your playback-singing debut opposite Kamal Haasan.

A youngish chap popped in, dressed casually in a T-shirt and cut-offs, and it took me a minute to realise this was Ghibran. He was taking a break from the recording session in another room. He looked like he wouldn’t mind me asking about the super-shiny quality of the songs these days – they just don’t breathe like the songs used to in the days of live recording. He smiled and said it was due to the competition. There’s something called RMS Level, which determines the loudness of the output. Fifty per cent of what the finished product sounds like depends on the mixing stage, when the 100-or-so tracks (the various instruments, plus the voice tracks) are fed into the computer and processed into two (in most cases) tracks, for the left and right speakers. This is the stage where they decide things like panning, reverb, delay. The other fifty percent depends on the mastering stage, where they play around with the frequencies, boosting them so that they can compete with the volume levels of the ads on radio, the medium that pretty much decides how our music is made. In other countries, the digital mix is converted back to analog to smoothen out the sound, so that even the maximum volume will not hurt the ears. But no one here goes for analog mixing, because that makes the song sound “soft,” and when the previous song on the radio has blasted the roof off your speakers, this number ends up sounding like something went wrong in the recording, like the musician made a mistake. That is how we’ve gotten used to high frequencies, that super-shiny sound. And that’s how it’s going to be. But the music of Uttama Villain is  a mix of analog and digital. The name of the film features a lot in my notes, as an acronym, and it makes me think of ultraviolet rays.

We spoke about the modernised koothu in Iraniyan naadagam. He said it didn’t start from a musical point of view, the way a composer thinks of this raga or that scale when a song situation or a scene is narrated to him. It began, instead, from the point of view of the scene. Imagine that Hiranyakashipu and Prahlada are having a fight. Imagine the raised voices, the back-and-forth exchanges. When Ghibran studied music at the Lasalle College of the Arts, Singapore, he was exposed to Schoenberg’s atonal music and Sprechstimme (recitation that’s declaimed melodramatically. hovering between the spoken and the sung) – and he realised that Sprechstimme was just like our koothu. Only, the latter did not have that kind of orchestral accompaniment. So koothu, with a dash of atonality, became the base for Iraniyan naadagam. Kamal had the whole narrative ready. He and Ghibran talked and rehearsed and decided how much time each exchange would take. And then the Western classical elements came in. Ghibran said it was challenging because some parts had already been shot with actors speaking the lines and then Kamal felt it would be better if they sang those same lines. Ghibran worked for a year-and-a-half on the score.

When he left, we turned to the other songs. Uttaman arimugam is what you’d call a rocking villupaattu. The baton-passing between Kamal, villupaattu exponent Subbu Arumugam and the all-male chorus is terrific. Next, the soulful Saagaavaram. (I wonder if that word was used anywhere before Kamal used it in Virumaandi’s Onna vida…) Peel back the orchestration, and the song sounds like one of those philosophical numbers MSV used to sing in the 1970s films – say, Kandathai sollugiren. I’m not talking about the tune. I’m talking about the feel.

There’s another story in Mutharasan kadhai, all 8 minutes and 13 seconds of it. Then, Uttaman kadhai. I kept thinking about how the album was filled with words and names that point towards immortality – saagaavaram, Mrityunjay, and even Iraniyan, who sought everlasting life. Maybe that’s the film’s theme. I could have asked, but then you don’t want to know these things before you watch a movie, especially a Kamal movie. That’s why I didn’t ask about the yawn-like sound made by a male in the otherwise all-female  Kaadhalaam kadavul mun. The male, of course, is Kamal.

The instrumental pieces really made the album for me. The theme music opens with sounds that seem to be erupting from the bowels of the earth, and then the title is repeated in an ominous monotone, as if by the members of the cult in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – the song then becomes more modern. Guru and sishya is more romantic – rather, Romantic. It takes you back to Debussy, Chopin. More instrumentals – Uttaman and Karpagavalli, Father and son, Letter from and to Yamini, Dr. Aparna, and possibly my favourite after two listens, the exquisite Father and daughter.

This is probably the “analog” part of the score. The sound is softer and the music sweeps you to a place far, far away from Tamil cinema. Throughout the album, the strings work is wonderful, and the violins sound so soft in the instrumental pieces that you may be reminded of John Barry’s score for Out of Africa. Again, I’m not talking about the tune. I’m talking about the feel. The team that won the Oscar for Best Sound Mixing this year (for Whiplash) has worked on this album. Maybe the softness is their doing. Ghibran said that they decided to do away with all instruments traditionally used in period films. Tabla. Ghatam. Dholak. All gone. Uttaman’s story unfolds in a fantasy land, so there’s an element of fantasy in the sound too. There’s a lot of music in the movie, but only 67 minutes of it made it to the album. I don’t remember how much time I spent inside, but when I left, Dhoni was smiling into a mike. India had won.

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