In 1976, when the opening titles of “Annakkili” scrolls down to the card “Music – Ilaiyaraaja (Introducing)”, all the fierce folk drums, blowing Nadhaswaram and the rushing strings that have been blasting the soundtrack for a while, come to a pause. The ensemble takes a deep breath for a fraction of a second and bounces back with much more rigour to play the catchiest phrases of the catchiest song of the film’s soundtrack – Machchaana Paatheengala. The precision in the shift to the melody of the song in the title music is to make the audience notice the name of this debutante music composer. Ilaiyaraaja’s music not just drew the audience’s attention to his name but also to the art of background score in films. If not for Ilaiyaraaja, we would not be discussing background scores as much as we do now.
Ilaiyaraaja is the one who brought the thematic background music scoring to Tamil films. By creating distinct motifs and leitmotifs, Ilaiyaraaja created a unique identity to the films. The experience of watching Naayagan wouldn’t be the same without the omnipresent flute that plays the melody of the song Thenpaandi Chemmayilae in the score, or Guna without those layers of cascading strings that bow heavenly strands of musical phrases for the shot of moon on the full-moon day in the climax, or Chinna Veedu without that jaunty Nadhirdhaana dhiranana na theme, and, more recently, Paa without that flamboyant Celtic violin piece.
Ilaiyaraaja would play these motifs and leitmotifs repeatedly throughout the film. They get registered firmly in viewers' mind even though the audience may not consciously have paid any attention to the music playing behind the scenes in the film. These melodies though repeated many times throughout the film, never sound monotonous. Ilaiyaraaja would orchestrate the same melody in different ways and give it a musical shape, tone and aura that is appropriate to the given mood or the situation in which the film. Just like any notable film score composer in the world, most of these scores have something for the inclined to take home to hum for a day or two after watching the film. These themes could be derived from the melody of one of the songs of the film, which were already composed for the moods and emotions of the characters in the film. Ilaiyaraaja would orchestrate the melodies of the songs differently to suit the cuts, length of the shot and emotional sync points in the visuals.
In Maniratnam’s Thalapathi, there arises a situation in which Subbulakshmi (Shobana) has to sacrifice her love - Surya (Rajini) and get married to someone else - Arjun (Arvind Swamy). Subbulakshmi comes to meet Surya to explain her situation and defend her decision. The heartbroken Surya shouts at her and asks her to leave the place. When the dejected Subbulakshmi leaves, Surya turns and looks sympathetically at helpless Subbulakshmi, and that shot lingers for a while. Ilaiyaraaja lifts the baton and instructs the string section of his orchestra to go Naan Unai Neenga Maataen, Neenginaal Thoonga Maattaen, Saernthathae Nam Jeevanae, Sundari and a pause. Read that pause as a lump in the throat of anyone who has ever experienced this film. A flute then takes over to sing 'Kannaal Oru Sethi'. Did Maniratnam deliberately allow that shot to linger to create space for Ilaiyaraaja's music? It is totally unthinkable for the emotions in this scene being effectively conveyed by anything else but Ilaiyaraaja's music. There is, of course, that mild shake we hear in Surya's voice, when he says the final 'Po' (Go) to Subbulakshmi. However, it is Ilaiyaraaja's music, which transfers that mild shake into an earth shattering emotional quake.
The most fascinating aspect of Ilaiyaraaja’s background score is precision. The precisely timed, seamless transitions from one emotion to the other in background music, without ever compromising on the natural flow and the musicality of the piece is the single most prominent quality, which puts Ilaiyaraaja on par with or sometimes, even above any film music composer in the world. The aspect of precision could be best illustrated through a scene and its score, again, from the film Thalapathi. It is the scene in which Surya comes to Arjun’s house and asks him to leave the city. A heroic trumpet piece, which could be labelled “Clash theme”, plays in all the scenes of confrontation between Arjun’s group and Devarajan’s (Mamooty) group. When Arjun comes to talk to Surya, the clash theme proudly pronounces Arjun’s perception of this meeting – yet another verbal clash. When Arjun says “Bhayamuruthiriyaa” (Are you threatening me?), Surya replies “Illai, Kenji Kaetkuraen” (No, I am Pleading), and in between Ilaiyaraaja brings down the clash theme from a high-headed trumpet to a subdued Oboe. The real masterstroke is when in parallel strings play Chinna Thaayaval song’s melody. While Oboe version of clash theme is to sound how Arjun perceives this conversation, the Chinna Thaayaval melody is to sound Surya’s emotions. The ironic emotions at play in the visuals are underlined by a piece that plays two different themes that represent the two different emotions as a counterpoint to one another.
Ilaiyaraaja understands the film much better than the director of the film, which is why irrespective of the quality of the visual telling of the story, Ilaiyaraaja’s score always stays in viewers' mind. The background score of the film Ninaivellam Nithya and particularly the love theme of the film is one classic example of Ilaiyaraaja trying everything to prevent a film that is suffering from the poor script, screenplay, direction and the stony expressions of the lead pair. There is no romance in anything in this film except Ilaiyaraaja’s music.
The initial flute bit that plays when the lead pair meets for the first time is a lovely warm up melody for the flute that is so eagerly waiting to play the gorgeous love theme. Ilaiyaraaja firmly registers the place of action with a classic guitar accompaniment playing a rhythmic riff. Ilaiyaraaja amazingly plays with the rhythm of the theme for different moods on various situations - sometimes as chords on piano, sometimes as staccato on strings, and sometimes on rustic tribal percussions to differentiate the subtlety of the emotions in different situations. Initially, we hear an understated bass line running parallel to the main love theme, and it perfectly works for the lighter moments of romance. But, once relationship turns stronger, and when one becomes an emotional burden on the other, the bass line gets heavier. The heavy bass line beautifully works for the heaviness of the situation in which the guy slaps the girl he loves the most in this world. Musically too, the bass line is a brilliant counter melody to the main theme. Ilaiyaraaja rightfully brings in multiple layers of western choirs in latter portions for the love that suffers more opposition and reaches a musically epic end. To make the theme sound more sympathetic, Ilaiyaraaja adds another layer of Oboe to the version of the main theme that plays in all sombre moments.
Ilaiyaraaja, who broke all conventions and grammars in song music, did similar experiments in background scores too. Ilaiyaraaja never bowed down to these restrictions imposed by the time and place. To Ilaiyaraaja, what matters the most is the emotion. It is a fair argument to say that an Indian film score should sound Indian, but when dealing with a universal emotion, there is no harm in the music sounding slightly alien, if the composer knows how to use the liberty without compromising the essence of the native emotions. Only an Ilaiyaraaja can get away with using Ennio Morricone style Spanish Guitars and trumpets in a film, which looks and feels as earthy as Bharathi Raaja’s Mudhal Mariyaathai. The piece works so effectively for the zeal of Sivaji Ganesan, who plays the role of middle-aged man in the film, in lifting the giant rock to prove that he is young enough to marry Raadhaa. No one cares about the alien sound of the guitars and trumpets in the scene, because the mood it creates for the moment in the film could not get any better.
It is necessary for a score composer to keep all of these musical manipulations just in the background. One would not have heard or paid attention to these buried beauties while they were watching the film for the first time, but surely they would have carried home the intended emotions. It is only when one begins to contemplate about those that remain in the background and re-views the film to dig it deeper the genius emerges to the fore. Ilaiyaraaja brings his music into the scene and feeds the feel of the scene into the audience's mind without their knowledge. We often think that all the emotions that we go through while watching the film are because of the actors and the story but, so subtly in the background, Ilaiyaraaja’s music stands tall than anything else in the film as the vital aspect that keeps us emotionally engaged with the film.
A rough estimate says that Ilaiyaraaja has composed background score for at the least 900 Indian films. The talkie portions in Indian films are usually 120 minutes long. Let us assume that on an average 60 minutes of a film has background music. Ilaiyaraaja has composed at least 5400 minutes of background music for films so far. Ilaiyaraaja is still actively making music for films. There is enough music material in Ilaiyaraaja’s repertoire for the listeners to listen to, study and dig deep into for at least another century. However, the book “Moods of Ilaiyaraaja” written by P.S. Suresh Kumar, attempts to give a brief introduction to the genius of the film (background) score composer Ilaiyaraaja. With an extensive analysis of background scores of few of Ilaiyaraaja’s films, the book elaborates why Ilaiyaraaja is and ever will be the best film background score composer in India. For more details about the book, go to www.backgroundscore.com.