Thursday, August 7, 2014

Will there ever be another Ilayaraja? Part 3

#3. Commitment of promoters of a music composer

Though, he struggled prior to 1976, Raja had great luck with the unwavering commitment of his promoter, Panju Arunachalam. Panju, did not just introduce him and move on. He continued to produce movies and ensured that Raja took care of the musical needs of his projects. As a story writer, he had many opportunities to work with other directors, and perhaps suggested Raja’s name, wherever possible. Beyond the first 50 movies (perhaps achieved by 1979), Raja did not really need Panju. However, their relationship of mutual admiration and benefit continues to date.

The only parallel to this I have seen is the case of AR Rahman (AR) and Manirathnam (MR). In the early years, MR was patronizing AR. After 2000, it has been the other way around. MR’s repeated failures does not come in the way of AR doing music for him. With that exception, I do not see any longer, great relationships between the producer/director and the composer. Many directors, simply call the shots and forget the boost they got from the composer. Gautam Menon was promising when he introduced and used Harris Jayaraj (HJ) repeatedly. However, he broke away from HJ and went to other MDs. It is a rat race now, where one uses the other as long as there is mutual benefit and ruthlessly show them the door, when their commercial purpose is not served. 

The new composers have an uphill task – Venkat Prabhu uses his cousin YSR, and there are a few others who seem to be have some lasting relationships. A talented composer like Sharath is tossed, even though his 180 was a good musical. At least Sharath can go to Kerala and try his luck with his old contacts. The MDs who focus only on languages such as Tamil or Telugu are toast. It is important for a MD to grow, to have, a confident sponsor, to experiment and flourish. Such an environment simply does not exist today.

A director will call the shots in a movie, no questions about that. However, without lasting relationships with directors/producers, a composer cannot shine. Picture someone like Raja, who will work with anyone who can convince him to do music for his/her movie, regardless of their past success, stature etc. He treats all of them equally. He does not care when a director deserts him. There is always someone else who want him to do music. Such a luxury is impossible for all new composers, no matter how talented they are.

That’s one of the reasons for about 30 new composers who show up in the TF business alone every year, and at best, one among the 30 gets a chance to do another film the next year. When the media writes about any new composer, they use the simple yardstick of "> movie/year” – boy, that’s achievement!

Unfortunately, most young composers get squeezed on budgets as well. They have to operate on rented studios and with the shoe string budget, you can only get SS finalists to sing with a synthpad and a keyboard. Kutthu songs come easy with these two instruments. Whether you like it or not, that is the true state of what the new MDs have to deal with. They do not have the luxury of Raja or Vidyasagar (who have multi language clientele). They operate in an environment where their potential is not realized nor are their fears alleviated.

#4 Ability to experiment and take risks

 Most of today’s young composers talk about genres and very rarely about any experiment. Even Raja has never spoken about his ‘experiments’. I do not think even Raja approaches music as a way to ‘experiment’ his ideas. He merely reacts to a film situation and finds a solution that best meets the need of the scene and the story. It is listeners like us, who call these things as ‘experiments’. To him, it is a non-standard application of his toolset. In my view, his tool bag is so deep, that the situations have not fully exhausted his options. For the most part, the job gets done with the tools in his top two or three draws.

A CCM enthusiast may speak at length about the choice of Raja’s notes in a ragam; a WCM enthusiast may look at his choice of modulation within scales, or his counter points and so on. What we consider as non-standard application of his toolset may very well be standard application for him. At the end of the day, ‘experiments’ such as what we talk about requires a very deep tool bag that is accumulated with years of hard work and intuition.

The young composers who work on movies today, do not have that depth, hard work or innovative ability. ‘Genres’ is just exposure to other musical types. Doing a composition of music in another genre is just the tip of the iceberg. Raja has always maintained that he wants to add his contribution to any area of music he touches. ‘Contribution’ is something big. Put simply, what the young composers are doing are like talking a course in physics in a university. You will be taught magnetism, optics, motion, electricity and topics such as these.  Now, if your favorite topic in physics is ‘optics’ (a.k.a. genre in music) – it is no big deal. What Raja does, is akin to not only doing a PhD in optics, but going on writing his own original and individual research publication.

I do not consider his work on disco music in the 80s as a risk as this was the music of those times. However, he had the right tools to do that 'experiment' as he always had an additional Indian musical touch to whatever he did. His experiment with voices in Geetha (Kelade Nimageega) went unnoticed and the common listener took the 'Jyotheyale' song more seriously.

The kid composers have only the ability to brag about their ‘optics’ lessons. It does not sound like good optics to seasoned music listeners, unfortunately. As they are not fully prepared, they can only do as much.

I also talk about ‘risks’ along with experimentation. Music making has little risks, according to Raja. It is the directors, producers, who run the risk of losing money and not him. Having said that,  Raja is always looking for the odd opportunity to use something from draw 5 and use it, as it may rust when not used. Let’s think of a song such as ‘Eriyile Elantha Maram’ from 'Karaiyellam Shenbagapoo' in 1981. The setting that is given to him is a rural setting with kids dancing around someone who shows up from a city, with a guitar. The requirement was just a folk tune. Raja throws his deep WCM, choir, CCM, folk tools from draw 5 with a nice sugar coated melody to deliver what the director wants. All the director heard was the initial pallavi’s tune. This song was hardly appreciated for its genius for decades after it was created. Raja does not care.  What we say as risk, translates to use of his tools from the bottom draws of his tool bag.  The tune will carry it through – the rest is ornamentation that Raja wants to use his deep knowledge. Similarly, ‘Manjal Veyyil’ from Nandu would have got the approval from the director based on the tune – the ornamentation goes back to Bach, which few people notice. Those are risks that Raja boldly takes, though it has the least impact on the general listener.

 It took him years to find a place for an acapella in Indian film music. He used his connection with Panchu to push such an idea (consider it as risky in the Indian context) with his Maya Bazaar song.

Most of his ragam based songs are ones that he runs by several directors (example, Raathiriyil Poothirukkum) and manages to find a taker at last. I am not sure, how many such great rejected tunes, he has created. As he says, he has no problem giving as he has an infinite supply of tunes. Imagine a young composer today pushing a raga based composition to a director where he has dancers and main characters jerking around. That’s not going to cut it. Even if they have the ability to mix things that they know very well, say, a jazz and a R&B mix, it is a hard sell. These young composers will be relegated to ‘kuthu’ songs only, as a result.

A case in point is the dance video industry of Mumbai (also called Bollywood). Even though it has few very talented artists such as Shankar Mahadevan or Shantanu Moitra ,most are relegated to dance video music. There is simply no scope for innovation in music in Bollywood. Unfortunately, the casualty in all this development of digital music is Indian and Western classical music. Bollywood is just a precursor to the state of South Indian Film music in the years to come...

Will there ever be another Ilayaraja? Part 4

#5 playing by the rules that suit one's best musical beliefs

While most of the leading composers who have been successful for a long time abide by some rules they set for themselves, the most intriguing rules are the ones that Raja sets for himself. Most of his rules are from the old school that none of the new composers can ever relate to. Some of his rules are so noble, it is unfortunate that none of the new composers seem to follow any of these.

 He does a number of movies where he does not get paid. He does several top class albums for Ramanashramam for nothing. As a commercial film composer, it is hard for someone to figure out the drivers behind such projects. He has worked on several projects (Nasser did mention this in the Dhoni launch) where the payment terms were not decided. He bails out several friends (Kamal in Hey Ram) by not charging for his work.
Regardless of his market position, he keeps helping new directors make their debut lending his name; I wish other composers follow this lead. Most of the new directors have deserted him and he has never lamented about it.

He refuses to be drawn into copying other composers work; nor does he care when others like Anand Milind blatantly use his work without permission. Very little has been written about his professionalism (though most values are from the old school). He will not snatch work from other composers. When he was on the top of his game for the first 17 years of his film career, he never once suppressed anyone’s growth. Many composers went down fighting his talent, not influence.

While 99% of the composers work with directors in constantly improvising what they create, he refuses to change his work, once the director has accepted his work. Having said that, he does give the director enough flexibility during the story and song discussions. This practice reflects more on the finicky nature of the director than Raja.

He is more adventurous than what most people would admit. He has done music for animation films, which calls for a very deep understanding of this new medium. For an aging composer, this is remarkable – even JW did that only late in his career recently (Adventures of Tin Tin).

Regardless of the money that is on the table, you cannot get Raja to dilute his standard. There are stages in his career, in my view, where his boredom has surfaced in his work. However, he has never compromised on his stamp in his work. With the exception of a few WCM classics, which he has imitated/got inspired, he has stayed clean in this matter. Even RD had several detractors crying foul on few of his copycat work.

I am sure, like many gifted artists he is not very good at fiscal management, nor does he care. There is also a negative side to some of his practices, which the new composers have been careful not to imitate. His work is not organized properly. He does not even have a good web presence. 

Most of his work methods are still effective as they have merits in them (with the exception of music organization) and also due to his stature of a musical genius.

Think of such beliefs with new composers – it simply does not fly.  Firstly, they are focused on making money. There is no question of doing stuff for free.  Helping out new directors – there is no chance, as the new composers need someone’s help in the first place to shine – no question of lending their name. Some of them cry foul play when their work is imitated.

They quietly copy others as well as directly lift samples.

All of Raja’s musical beliefs have been with him even before he started his film career. Even if someone gets lucky with a string of hits, there is no way any new composer can match most of Raja’s musical beliefs and practices.

#6. Ability to span multiple languages

Even in the 70s, when he had everything going, Raja kept his language options open. The GKV connection enabled him to speak Kannada very well and he already did a few Malayalam films such as Aalolam. While I am not sure, which was his first Telugu film, his connection with Vamsi started in the early 80s, who was fascinated by his speed and genius. By the early 80s, he had all the four languages in his radar and he continues to work on these four since then. Though he was predominantly a Tamil composer till the early 80s, throughout the 80s, he did a lot of work in Telugu and became a force to reckon with.

No other composer since, has had such a sphere of influence in all the four South Indian languages. He was and continues to be the best pan South Indian composer. Over time, he has been able to decently converse in all the four languages. In the 90s, and the 21st century, he has done a lot of work in Malayalam, more than before. The only other Tamil composer who came after him, who has had some presence outside Tamil has been Vidyasagar, who does a lot of Malayalam films (I have not seen Vidyasagar conversing in Malayalam – he understands the language, and responds in English). Raja’s ability to provide melodies differently for all these four languages is unmatched even today.

There is a theory about Raja’s Kannada films that is not my own, but have come to see merit in it. In the 80s, Raja tried most of his orchestral techniques that were risky, first in Kannada before porting it to Tamil and Telugu. Few of his best melodies in the 80s also started in Kannada (Bhanu Bhoomiya became Etho Ninaivugal, Nanna Jeeva Nenu became Devan thantha Veenai, Jyotheyale became Vizhiyile, Naguva Nayana became Paniyil Nanaiyum).

Somehow, few of his Malayalam tunes made it to other languages. There are some outstanding 90s and 200s melodies that Raja left them intact in Malayalam. I think there are several ones that are very portable to other languages including Hindi: a) Poo Kunkumapoo b) Pon Veyilile c) Mandarapoo Mooli d) Varna Vrindhavanam e) Virahamaay Vibhalamaay, f) Shivamalli Poove, are some examples.

New composers continue to struggle with one language as they did not have the GKV type of connection that Raja had. Also, Raja got to the pan South Indian appeal very early on in life. By the time, he hit his first 100 movies (which was under 4 years), he had done work in all the four languages. This was one of his very smart strategies in the early days. He could try a musical idea in one language and if it succeeds, adapt it in another. His ‘Sangathil Paadatha Kavithai’ hence has 6 incarnations in all languages except Kannada. Even his son, YSR, who finished 100 films recently has limited presence outside Tamil.

In the 90s, when most of his big Tamil directors deserted him, he focused more on Malayalam for more than 15 years, before he bounced back. There is always somebody within the 4 languages who wants to use his talent.

With digital music revolution underway, new composers have a disadvantage. Earlier, all the four language music production took place in Madras. Not anymore. The small studios with the right electronic equipment are now present in Hyderabad, Bangalore as well as Cochin. The composers will have to be in these cities competing with the local boys to win projects. Only when these language production requires a big composer like Raja, they will come down to Chennai. But for few exceptions, all new music talent get relegated to become local talent, as a result.