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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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.