Movie Soundtracks

Audio master: The Ilaiyaraaja-Mani Ratnam combination in ‘Agni Natchathiram’ set the charts on fire

The 1988 production represented Ilaiyaraaja’s second wave of innovation, when he combined funk and pop with classical Carnatic.

Several film directors in Tamil and Malayalam cinema in the 1980s possessed a unique quality: a keen sense of tone. There was Balu Mahendra, who ensured that the poetry of his breathtaking visuals was combined with equally stunning background music. The elements blended seamlessly in such movies as Moondram Pirai and Veedu, elevating human emotions to a transcendental level.

Mani Ratnam falls in the category of filmmakers who use good music to lift the cinematic experience. Some of Ratnam’s films, including Dil Se, Raavanan and Kadal, may have tanked at the box office, but they are still remembered for their soul-stirring soundtracks. Ratnam has an eagerness to embrace the modern. His penchant for innovation gives music composers the freedom to let go. In the process, every album becomes a classic.

And nobody innovated as much as music composer Ilaiyaraaja in the ’80s.

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Roja Poo Adivanthathu from Agni Natchathiram (1988).

Ratnam’s career has two distinct two phases: the pre-1992 portion, when he was exclusively associated with Ilaiyaraaja, and the subsequent years, when he picked AR Rahman as the composer of his film soundtracks. The high point of Ratnam’s association with Ilaiyaraaja was the back-to-back hits Nayakan (1987) and Agni Natchathiram (1988). In Nayakan, Ilaiyaraaja stuck to his time-tested technique of fusing Carnatic, folk and heavy Western orchestration. Agni Natchathriam turned out to be a trendsetter for initiating Tamil music listener into the sounds of electronic funk and synthetic pop.

The script lent itself to such music. Agni Natchathiram is the story of two young angry men – brothers born to the same father and different mothers. Prabhu is the disciplined Balaram to Karthik’s mischievous Krishna. One is a status quoist, the other an anarchist. Despite their differences, they represent the adventurism of the new generation.

Agni Natchathiram’s songs captured the story’s essence. In Raja Rajadhi Rajan Indha Raja, Ilaiyaraaja brings an American electro sting to the beats, reminiscent of bands such as Newcleus that were storming the charts in the ’80s. An almost school-boyish Prabhu Deva is seen dancing in the group behind Karthik in the song.

Ilaiyaraaja was also a master of the scat singing technique. In Raja Rajadhi, the jazz innovation finds place in the second interlude with the chorus using wordless vocables in a fluctuating melody. The transition from shades of electro funk to jazz is a scintillating lesson in fusion. Ilaiyaraaja’s voice adds an unconventional twist to the number.

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Raja Rajadhi from Agni Natchathiram (1988).

Ilaiyaraaja’s songs are known for their Carnatic base. In fact, the credit of taking Carnatic music to the masses should entirely go to this music composer. When he started off with Annakili in 1976, Ilaiyaraaja combined Tamil folk sounds with traditional Carnatic notes. But as he evolved as a composer, he took to fusing Carnatic with modern western genres.

There is no dearth of Carnatic elements in Agni Natchathiram. Any student of this classical form would know the importance of varnams, which trains the musician in the intricacies of a raag and prepares the learner to handle complex krithis at a later point. Ilaiyaraaja chose perhaps the most popular of the varnams, the Ninnukori set in Mohana (Bhoop in Hindustani) as the foundation for this song.

In the movie, the track introduces the character of Anjali. Played by Amala, Anjali is an independent soul who falls in love with the uptight police officer played by Prabhu.

In Ninnukori Varanam, Ilaiyaraaja essays a splendid Mohana raag with a synthesiser. The first interlude is ultra-modern by 1988 standards, but retains its Carnatic core. The tune is lifted by Chitra’s flawless, high-pitch singing.

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Ninnukori Varanam from Agni Natchathiram (1988).

At a later point in the plot, after Prabhu and Amala have expressed their love for each other, Ilaiyaraaja uses the raag Amritha Varshini with its sensual notes to produce Thoongatha Vizhigal Rendu, a composition carried by the mesmerising voice of KJ Yesudas.

The song is an expression of longing. It depicts the yearning of a couple who spend sleepless nights thinking of each other. Lyricist Vaali had the skill of making his words complementary to the notes of the raag. Nothing exemplifies this more than the landing note of the starting phrase –Vizhigal Rendu.

In the second stanza, Vaali innovates on Kalidasa’s famous metaphor of the lotus and dew, used many times in classics such as Raghuvamsa and Kumarasambhava to describe sensuality.

“Mamara Ilai Mela
Margazhi Pani Pole
Poomagal Madi Meethu
Naan Thoongavo?”

(Should I lie on the lap of the damsel like the Margazhi dew on a mango leaf?)

The tiny aalap accompanying first phrase Maamara Ilai Mela in the second stanza is as authentic as Amritha Varshini could get. Add to this the innovative lighting in PC Sreeram’s cinematography and the song remains all-round delight.

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Thoongatha Vizhigal from Agni Natchathiram (1988).

The Mani Ratnam-Ilaiyaraaja combination, which produced such timeless classics like Mouna Ragam and Thalapathy, was cut short at its peak due to differences between the composer and the producers of Roja (1992). By the time Ratnam and Ilaiyaraaja had split, they had sealed their legacy. The works they produced remain the yardstick for Tamil film music.

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Oru Poonga Vanam from Agni Natchathiram (1988).
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.