Thoughts on the music of ‘Kabali’, which is easily the least “Rajini-style” album since ‘Sri Raghavendra’.
Listening to Santhosh Narayanan’s soundtrack for Kabali is an exercise in imagining what must have run through Rajinikanth’s head as he heard these songs. I’m sure he must have smiled at Neruppu da, even if the track is driven by unusually subdued beats for a hail-hero anthem. The drummer isn’t trying to rouse us. He’s just keeping time. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-stop. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-stop. For propulsion, the song relies on other effects. Growling guitars. The voice that strives to out-growl those guitars. Snatches of super-cool, Spaghetti-Western whistling. Stretches of Rajini-speak. (“Bayama?” “Magizhchi.” “Kabali da.”) A chorus that just doesn’t want to let go of the film’s title: Kabal-i-i-i-i-i… Kabal-i-i-i-i-i… And the pulse-quickening wail that kicks off the number, the love child of a megaphone and an ambulance siren. There are no words yet, but the lyrics write themselves: Hold on to your heartbeats! Superstar striding through! In slow motion!
What would thalaivar have made of Ulagam oruvanukka? Thematically, the song treads familiar paths, fusing Rajini-style celebration (think “Kaattukuyilu,” but with lines like “Parayisai adithu nee paattu kattu”) and MGR-style the-oppressed-shall-overcome philosophy (think “Yaen endra kaelvi,” but with lines like “Ina mugavari adhu ini vizhi thirandhidume”). But musically, the song is its own creature, mixing rap and song, poetry (beautiful rhymes like poovin nizhal / pullanguzhal) and punch-in-the-face prose (“Naanga enga porandhaa ada unakkenna poda”). The similarly themed Veera Thurandhara is an equally unusual Rajini song. There have been many songs that have praised him, but not in rap that alternates between Tamil and English. Even Spanish. Siempre peligroso, which was also the title of a 1999 song by the American hip hop group Cypress Hill. It means: Always dangerous. Was Rajinikanth recalling the songs from his 1999 release, Padayappa? How differently the “always dangerous” idea was conveyed there: Vettukkili alla, nee oru vettum puli endru…
Words change. Styles change. Times change. Even Rajinikanth’s music directors change. The news that Santhosh Narayanan was scoring a Rajini film isn’t half the surprise it was when Hamsalekha was called on to score Kodi Parakkudhu. At least Santhosh Narayanan is one of the top composers today. Hamsalekha, then, was virtually unknown to Tamil audiences. As was Vijay Anand, who made music for Naan Adimai Illai. Heck, there’s even been a Bappi Lahiri, disco-ing up Thaai Veedu. So this isn’t about the composer, and it isn’t about the non-mainstream nature of the music either. AR Rahman’s Oru koodai sunlight from Sivaji wasn’t exactly composed keeping in mind the “masses.”
But that album had compensations in the form of Sahana saaral thoovudho (conventionally melodic) and Balleilakka (conventionally beatsy, with an energetic SPB amping up the song by a factor of a hundred). Kabali has none, which may be the album’s biggest surprise. After decades, possibly since Sri Raghavendra and its Carnatic-infused compositions by Ilayaraja, a Rajinikanth album sounds less like it was made for the star and his fans, more like it was made by a composer who follows his muse around the requirements of the narrative. When you look at the first few words, Vaanam paarthen feels like a “Rajini song” all right – the words bring back memories of Vaanathai paarthen, from Manithan (the 1987 Rajinikanth film, not the recent one Santhosh Narayanan scored). But the moody minimalism of the music harks back to something like Thendral idai thoranangal, from Ilayaraja in experimental (i.e. “non-Rajini”) mode.
And what about the marvellous Maya nadhi, the closest Kabali comes to a duet? It sounds so grown-up, so mature, especially with the line “thooya narayilum kaadhal malarudhe.” Rajinikanth must have smiled wistfully remembering how much more “crowd-pleasing” his earlier grown-up duets were – songs like Rekkai katti parakkudhadi, from Annamalai, which also had a line (though far less lyrical) referring to his grey hair, with Khushbu addressing him as “naracha maapillaiye.” He must have realised that the release of this album is a hint that the idea of “a Rajini film” itself has changed. And he must have wondered if his audience has changed. We’re wondering too.
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