Neethane En Ponvasantham – Music

In my review of Thiruvaasagam in Symphonic Oratorio, Ilaiyaraaja’s orchestral, oratorio-based rendition of the Tamil classic text Thiruvaasagam, I had ended it with ‘Welcome back Raaja.’

On the day the music of Neethane En Ponvasantham (NPV) was released, the social media was replete with adulations that ‘Raaja is back’. It is clear enough that we desperately wanted Raaja to ‘come back’. Why we wanted him ‘back’, I am not sure.

For Raaja was not really ‘gone’. As I mentioned in one of the earlier posts, he has been consistently writing music for 10 or more films every year. In 2011, Ilaiyaraaja had 8 releases in all languages. The same year Harris Jeyaraj had two, GV Prakash had four and AR Rahman had just one (Hindi). So, in what sense is NPV his ‘come back’? It is, I guess, because we expected ‘quality’ music from this album because Gautham Menon is teaming with Raaja. When people were getting excited about NPV, I remarked that they were indeed getting excited about Gautham and not Ilaiyaraaja, because, they believed that Gautham has the ‘ability’ bring back the ‘great’ Raaja, which dozens of directors in the past 10 years weren’t able to do.

The fact is the fans of Ilaiyaraaja have never really reconciled to him being relegated to the side-lines. And now they think, with the help of Gautham, they can realise their dreams.  It’s almost like orthodox Christians hoping for Jesus’ Second Coming. With Rahman now settled in Los Angeles, and NPV doing well, that’s a real possibility for Raaja.  Anyway, let that be.

Now coming to NPV’s music: there are three key points:

#1 NPV is a great orchestral work. In my review of Thiruvaasagam, I had mentioned that Raaja should stop writing for films and focus on his orchestral compositions. I still stand by it. Take one of his recent, yet unknown, works: Ponnnar Shankar. Try listening to Kannai Padithen and pay attention to the first interlude. If Raaja had the opportunity and budget to record it with London Symphony Orchestra, like he did for NPV, Kannai Padithen would have turned out far richer. To understand this better, play an NPV song, let’s say Saindhu Saindhu, and pay attention to the second interlude. Then listen to first interlude from Ennodu Vaa Vaa and listen to the arrangement by ignoring the rhythmic beat. Then move over to the first interlude of Vaanam Mella. What do you get? And then the song begins and the mood changes. Listening to these tracks, I couldn’t help wondering if Ilaiyaraaja could release the extended versions of these pieces. By their sheer power of independent beauty they dampen even the best of the singers, Karthink included. The only standout voices are that of Ramya NsK in Saindhu Saindhu and, of course, Raaja in Vaanam Mella. In Pudikala Mama, the richness of the prelude is greatly let down by the artificially gruffy voice and the insipid lyrics. Now onto the lyrics.

#2. If the disjoint of his orchestration and the voices is one problem, it is compounded by the poor quality of the lyrics. Somebody must tell Raaja that, if he wishes to return to the throne of Tamil film music, he should either patch up with Vairamuthu or find a good lyricist. It’s a shame that he still refuses to acknowledge that his greatest undoing was his breakup with the best lyricist Tamil Nadu ever produced. Vairamuthu’s enriched and deeply complex vocabulary stood shoulder to shoulder with Raaja’s intricate orchestral interludes and that mesmerised the listeners for a whole decade. Having lost that support, he could manage on his own for a while until Vairamuthu found another guy to team up with. Sample these words from Saindhu Saindhu:

‘Aal yaarum paarkamal, thadayangal illamal, anbaal unnai naanum kolven’. 

And then this beauty from Ennodu Vaa Vaa:

‘…Kadhal athai porukkanume, illai endral katti vaithu udhaikkanume,’

Well, it is not the first time somebody’s has written about violent love. Sample this:

Idhazhodu idhamaga, mutham ketten padhamaga

Nee thandhai, nee thandhai, en elumbellam thoolaai-p-poga!

Male: Oru mutham athu maranam, maru mutham athu jananam

Female: Idhazh naangum vilagaamal oru nootraandu vaazhvom vaada

When you read the lines, you can see Vairamuthu there. Some of Ilaiyaraaja’s great works in the past have suffered from dreadful lyrics, especially during his heydays when he himself wrote trashy lyrics just to ‘prove’ a point that his music alone is sufficient to carry a song. Can anyone forget  ‘Gaali perungaya dabba, athula vaasana balamathan adikkudu’? These lyrical words were written by than none other than the maestro himself.

#3. Is Raaja a Mark Knopfler fan? I asked this question when I first heard Dire Straits, because the mid and final guitar work of Ilaya Nila is trademark Dire Straits. Now, listen to the prelude of Saindhu Saindhu guitar and then listen to Fade to Black of Dire Straits. Now, play the prelude of Pudikala mama and then play Heavy Fuel of Dire Straits. Mind you, I’m not insinuating plagiarism because that would be blasphemy, but there seems to be clear appreciation from Raaja of Knopfler’s steel guitar sound. Or Raaja can even be appreciative of Celtic folk, the school from which Knopfler evolved. Now go back to Vaanam Mella. Wait for the initial chorus to end. Now, do you hear Celtic sound? Raaja doesn’t draw inspiration from anyone less than Dvorak or Bizet and it speaks highly of Knopfler, none the less. Unless Knopfler himself draws from an Irish or Scottish classical composer that I’m not aware of, and that Raaja is also a fan of the same composer.

All told, NPV makes a good hearing and probably the best album of the year so far. That’s a super-human achievement for a composer who has crossed 4500, perhaps even 5000 songs. But then, should the credit also go to Gautham for extracting such a rich work from Raaja? In the west, the music industry has a concept called ‘producers’. These are music-aware people, but perceptibly lack the creativity of the artist. Therefore, when a band, say Radiohead, wants to make an album, they would hire famous producers who would huddle with the band in the studio and guide and orientate their creative flow and strive to get the best out of them. In the Indian scenario, film directors double up as ‘producers’ for music directors. That’s why when Mani Ratnam ‘huddles’ with with Raaja we get an Agni Natchatram whereas an ‘uncreative’ director is only able to extract ‘Gaali perungaya dabba’. Also, Raaja himself believed in ‘instant’ music composition and bragged about his ability to compose a song in 30 minutes. Worse still, he even ridiculed the practices of other composers (read Rahman) who took weeks to write a song. Now, would Raaja please stand up and declare how long it took to complete each song in NPV?

Nevertheless, we can hope that this experience and the success should have made Raaja realise the potential he has going forward. More directors who were wary of signing up Raaja might flock to his doorstep now and he might end up returning to his old habit of doing 40 films a year. But that would be unwise and bad for his music. If, on the other hand, he signs fewer films and become choosy with the directors, we might expect some quality music from him in future. In any case, NPV will be a turning point in his career and the entire credit should go to Gautham Vasudev Menon.