The four languages of the south have, at the very least, four different cultures in their approach to songs in films. In the year gone by, it would appear that Malayalam cinema is all but agreeing that songs are a distraction for taut storytelling. Perhaps as does Tamil cinema — rather telling that director Nelson chose to put the most popular song of his film Doctor post-credits. On the other hand, the Netflix film Guitar Kambi Mele Ninru/Navarasa was nearly a musical, released in a medium where it's easy to fast-forward.
For the most part, the music in 2021 has been a mixed bag. Here's my list of the notable trends and top songs across languages.
Kaithi was one of the most successful films of 2019, directed by Lokesh Kanagaraj, featuring one of the leading stars of Tamil cinema, Karthi. Yet had no songs. Lokesh's 2021 release, Master, had the mandatory six songs, though. One of this year's successful films, Maanaadu, had one song (for context: no other film starring Silambarasan in the lead had only one song). Another successful film, Doctor, had just three songs — the least number of songs among all movies that starred Sivakarthikeyan in the lead; and he produced this movie too, incidentally. That both these films had popular heroes who are known for their songs did not stop the directors from not having the standard quota of 4-6 songs.
We may be witnessing a very early trend in Tamil cinema where songs aren't entirely necessary in the larger scheme of things. There used to be a template for Tamil films earlier — '4 fights and 6 songs', but songs may join other potentially defunct features like fights, foreign locations, duets where the leads lip-sync, and so on.
That doesn't sound promising for an annual music round-up, of course, but Tamil cinema may simply be seeking inspiration from its Malayalam counterpart that is ahead of the curve in terms of treating songs as a distraction in story-telling. We should have realized it when Mani Ratnam, a director known for his hugely imaginative song picturizations, chose to use the many songs of the soundtrack largely as background sounds in his last film, Chekka Chivantha Vaanam. Even the busy Santhanam who had three releases in 2021, seemed to have lost interest in songs by his 3rd film in 2021, Sabhaapathy, which had just two songs, compared to Parris Jeyaraj, with five songs, and Dikkiloona with four songs.
The rise of OTT viewing may possibly accelerate this trend given that viewers could do better than to head out of the theater for a quick smoke/samosa during a song — they could simply fast-forward. Ironically though, anthologies like Paava Kadhaigal and Navarasa had proper soundtracks with quite a few songs!
2021 was also unusual in the sense that many films that were half in the grave, came back from the dead and got minor replays for the music that was released long ago. This list included films like Nenjam Marappathillai, Pon Manickavel, and even top-grossers like Doctor and Master that were meant for early 2020 release but got pushed around due to elections and the pandemic. The result was that songs like 'Chellamma' from Doctor and 'Vaathi Coming' and 'Kutty Story' from Master that had been released in 2020 and had already featured in most 2020 annual music round-ups had a fresh lease of life in 2021 too.
In terms of sheer consistency and success, Anirudh Ravichander tops 2021 (rather, 2020/2021 for the reason outlined in the previous paragraph). Master and Doctor (with just three songs) were easily the best soundtracks of the year. He added to that with good songs from the upcoming Kaathuvaakula Rendu Kaadhal. Anirudh remains one of those few composers who produce soundtracks/albums where every song is listenable.
D.Imman, despite being busy — Annaatthe, Laabam, Bhoomi, Teddy, Udanpirappe, Pon Manickavel — had a middling year. Santhosh Narayanan had a considerably better year, delivering excellent music in Karnan, Jagame Thandhiram, and Sarpatta Parambarai, and forgettable music in Parris Jeyaraj and Vellai Yaanai. Yuvan had a similar record — impressive in Maanaadu and Nenjam Marappathillai, but functional in Kalathil Santhippom, Chakra and Dikkiloona.
Other composers with more than one notable song included Sean Roldan with Jai Bhim, Singer Karthik with Guitar Kambi Mele Nindru, Kutty Story, Vivek-Mervin with Enna Solla Pogirai, Ajesh with Sarbath, Pradeep Kumar with Vaazhl, Ghibran with Maara, Girishh Gopalakrishnan with Netrikann, Vishal Chandrashekhar with Oh Manapenne!, and the lone woman composer of the year in Tamil cinema — Revaa with Mugizh.
As for lesser-heard, but very-listenable songs that deserve more, here goes: 'Pattu Rosa' (Theethum Nandrum, C.Sathya), 'Usuraiye Ulukkuthey' (Thaen, Sanath Bharadwaj), 'Kaalam Azhagai' (Ward 126, Varun Sunil), 'Kaalai Adhikaalai' (Naduvan, Dharan Kumar), 'Enil Paaindhidum' (Sinam, Shabir), 'Seevanuke' (Aelay, Kaber Vasuki), 'Sokkuren Sokkuren' (Chidambaram Railwaygate, Karthik Raja), 'Murukku Meesakaran' (Vettai Naai, Ganesh Chandrasekaran), 'Muruga' (Yaadhum Oore Yaavarum Kelir, Nivas K Prasanna), 'Thattiputta' and 'Ye Rasa' (MaaManithan, Ilaiyaaraja and Yuvan Shankar Raja), 'Kaami Kaami' (Tughlaq Durbar, Govind Vasantha), 'Jeeraga Biriyani' (Yennanga Sir Unga Sattam, Guna Balasubramanian), 'Enakkenna Aachu' (Kasada Tabara, Yuvan Shankar Raja), 'Adiye' (Bachelor, Dhibu Ninan Thomas), 'Uchanthala Regaiyile' (Pisasu 2, Karthik Raja), 'Yarathu' (Maddy Engira Madhavan, Hesham Abdul Wahab) and 'Knockout Song' (Arasiyalla Idhellam Saadharnamappa, Madley Blues).
Here are my picks for the top 10 Tamil songs of the year:
1. 'So Baby' – Doctor (Anirudh)
2.'Tum Tum' – Enemy (Thaman S)
3.' Thooriga' – Guitar Kambi Mele Nindru/Navarasa (Karthik)
4. 'Theeranadi' – Maara (Ghibran)
5. 'Nagarodi' – Jail (G.V. Prakash Kumar)
6. 'Polladha Ulagathiley' – Jai Bhim (Sean Roldan)
7. 'Aasai' – Enna Solla Pogirai (Vivek – Mervin)
8. 'Kandaa Vara Sollunga' – Karnan (Santhosh Narayanan)
9. 'Thangamey' – Paava Kadhaigal (Justin Prabhakaran)
10. 'Oh Manapenne' – Oh Manapenne (Vishal Chandrashekhar)
Among all the leading film producing languages, I believe that only the Telugu film industry still revels in the song-dance tradition in films. The overall output of songs for Telugu still continues to be better both in terms of quantity and quality, even though the quality factor is slightly questionable given the musical world Telugu creates in itself.
The best part is that there's a wide variety of composers who compete mighty well, even beyond A-listers like Devi Sri Prasad and Thaman who are clearly, and consistently, the picks for A-list stars. Someone like Pawan Ch could come from nowhere and blow our mind with Love Story, while veterans like Keeravani demonstrate superb form with films like Pelli SandaD and Konda Polam.
The odd situation that I had mentioned in my Tamil round-up — of the pandemic-infused delay in the release of the film after the release of the music in 2020 — is applicable to Telugu too. Case in point: Much of the songs of Rang De, Uppena, and Love Story were out in 2020, and I had featured some of them in my 2020 annual round-up too! These films were released only in 2021.
As for the other composers, I was glad to see Shravan Bharadwaj get much better visibility with the one film he did this year — Natyam. The film though, bombed, but I do hope he gets more work to prove his mettle given his hugely impressive but largely-unheard body of work so far. Chaitan Bharadwaj too continues to impress and his Maha Samudram had great music. Mickey J Meyer had a good run in Sreekaram and a bit less impressive, though listenable run in Shyam Singha Roy.
Song-level highlights — if we look past soundtrack-level — included 'Chitti' (Jathi Ratnalu, Radhan), 'Kolu Kolu' (Virataparvam, Suresh Bobbili), 'Ayyayyayyo' (Aakasa Veedhullo, Judah Sandhy), 'Devi Kalyana Vaibogame' (Vivaha Bhojanambu, AniVee), 'Entha Baavundo' (Gunde Katha Vintara, Masala Coffee), 'Kannaye Kallu' (Ee Kathalo Paathralu Kalpitam, Karthik Kodakandla), 'Ala Ila' (Stand Up Rahul, Sweekar Agasthi), 'Bandeena Bandeena' (Raja Raja Chora, Vivek Sagar), 'So So Ga' (Manchi Rojulochaie, Anup Rubens), 'Idhi Nijamaa' (Bathuku Busstand, Mahavir) and 'Ra Ra Linga' (Skylab, Prashanth R Vihari).
Here's my pick for the top 10 songs of Telugu for 2021:
1.'Leharaayi' – Most Eligible Bachelor (Gopi Sundar)
2. 'Evo Evo Kalale' – Love Story (Pawan Ch)
3. 'Rangule' – Rang De (Devi Sri Prasad)
4. 'La La Bheemla' – Bheemla Nayak (Thaman S)
5. 'Ekkesinde' – Manchi Rojulochaie (Anup Rubens)
6. 'Hey Rambha Rambha' – Maha Samudram (Chaitan Bharadwaj)
7. 'Madhura Nagarilo' – Pelli SandaD (M.M.Keeravani)
8. 'Chettekki' – Kondapolam (M.M.Keeravani)
9. 'Hey Abbayi' – Sreekaram (Mickey J Meyer)
10. 'MBA MCA' – Chalo Premiddam (Bheems Ceciroleo)
Probably owing to the pandemic-related constraints and delays, I'd say that the Malayalam film music output in 2021 was largely middling. There were good songs all through the year, but compared to the previous years or looking at the quality of music overall, I found it lacking in both range and quality. I missed the kind of outstanding soundtracks from composers like Shaan Rahman or Prashant Pillai that they are known for. Perhaps next year when the effects of the pandemic are on the wane… hopefully.
In terms of highlights that could have more impact next year, I look forward to what more Pradeep Kumar does in Veyil (his Malayalam debut), and Prashant does in Moonwalk, considering we have just one song so far from both films. Given the few songs released, it looks like Hesham Abdul Wahab has a very well-put-together album in Hridayam and I look forward to the other songs in the soundtrack.
Here's my pick for the top 10 songs of Malayalam for 2021:
1. 'Darshana' – Hridayam (Hesham Abdul Wahab)
2. 'Innale Mellane' – Nizhal (Sooraj S Kurup)
3. 'The Hey Song' – Veyil (Pradeep Kumar)
4. 'Madhuradhari' – Karlmarx Bakthanayirunnu (Manikandan Ayyappa)
5. 'Paathira Kaalam' – Kurup (Sushin Shyam)
6. 'Kanvaathil' – Roy (Munna PM)
7. 'Ollulleru' – Ajagajantharam (Justin Varghese)
8. 'Kantharipenne' – Marathon (Bibin Ashok)
9. 'Thee Minnal' – Minnal Murali (Sushin Shyam)
10. 'Varavayi Nee' – Sara's (Shaan Rahman)
As always, I find the overall quality of Kannada film music to be abysmal. Even the so-called masala/commercial music lacks the finesse and imagination of Telugu commercial film music that seem to be mounted far, far better.
That said, I do expect a lot from talented composers like Ajaneesh Loknath, Charan Raj, and Judah Sandhy who have been largely consistent in delivering good music that aims to truly compete with the rest of the country's best. I was a big fan of Arjun Janya's music when he was a fresh talent, but he seems to have settled into a mind-numbing sameness of late. Hope he finds adequate inspiration and better scripts to get his creative mojo back.
Here's my pick for the top 10 songs of Kannada for 2021:
1. 'Nenapina Hudugiye' – Hero (Ajaneesh Loknath)
2. 'Tininga Miniga Tishaa' – Salaga (Charan Raj)
3. 'Nee Parichaya' – Ninna Sanihake (Raghu Dixit)
4. 'Premakke Kannilla' – Sakath (Judah Sandhy)
5. 'Gicchi Gili Gili' – Rathnan Prapancha (Ajaneesh Loknath)
6. 'Khali Khali' – Puksatte Lifu (Vasu Dixit)
7. 'Bareve Bareve' – H34 Pallavi Talkies (Ajaneesh Loknath)
8. 'Endo Bareda' – Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana (Midhun Mukundan)
9. 'Yaare Yaare' – Ek Love Ya (Arjun Janya)
10. 'Shuruvaagide' – Sakath (Judah Sandhy)