It makes sense for Meenakshi Sundareshwar, a Hindi film with South Indian protagonists, to have a Tamil composer do the music – it adds flavour and lends authenticity to the film. It's even better if that composer has a 'sound', and Justin Prabhakaran certainly has one: fresh, lively, with a flair for symphony orchestra and Indian folk, sometimes classical, but also rambunctious and groovy – a dash of AR Rahman and a whole lot of Ilaiyaraaja.
Prabhakaran gets a playing field a lot of Hindi film composers aren't granted anymore (a decision taken at the producer level that must be lauded). He and lyricist Raj Shekhar (Tanu Weds Manu 1 and 2) are both specialists – in the sense that they like working closely with the director and the script as a whole project – and you can see that in the first song "Mann Kesar Kesar". It's light and frothy enough to be liked without paying attention to the specifics, but it also gives you a sense of the film's world – its characters, situation and settings. You have the nadaswaram at the beginning (they are getting married!). The female chorus has an undertone of sadness of women singing in a bidai. And the staccato male harmonies mimic a sanskritised chant. Shekhar plays along – the first couple of lines are in Hindi but he inserts a 'Suno Kanmani' in the third to ground it in the film's cultural milieu.
Same with "Vaada Machaney", a song about an alcohol-fuelled office party with peppy Benny Dayal energy that becomes a bit more than a dance number. If these two songs are still somewhat generic – or rather, instances of how Prabhakaran elevates the generic to something more – his best is on display in two songs. "Tu Yahi Hai", sung by Abhay Jodhpurkar and Madhushree, has a lovely Ajay-Atul feel to it and that might have to do with the duo's allegiance to Ilaiyaraaja, also Prabhakaran's hero. There is a clarity and minimalism in his use of the symphony orchestra, as there is a playfulness in the way he comes up with this bit that sounds like jazz singing in an Indian folk style.
The composer throws in variation when he can and that's true for the album as a whole as well. The delightful "Tittar Bittar" comes just when you start wondering if the songs are orbiting around a templateish structure. It's hard to pin down what genre it is – there's a chorus that resembles Goan music, and there's one stanza that goes close to Carnatic – but if I have to call it something, maybe it's some form of folk. This is a 'wacky' song but it bares its soul when it's pure folk: the part where Romy sings the lines Atti kari re, Batti kari re. (Shekhar's lyrics are appropriately nursery rhyme like).
Albums take time for you to wrap your head around them and Meenakshi Sundareshwar is a proper album. It has eleven tracks in total; the rest of the soundtrack keeps up a good mix: "Ratti Ratti Reza Reza", a likeable, if somewhat generic, romantic song, followed by "Down And Dirty", an out and out reggae number; and instrumental pieces that constitute motifs and themes as part of the background score. Not only is that an encouraging sign for Hindi film music, it makes more of an impact when a new composer (albeit from another industry) does it. While Hindi film music has hit a creative low, it's curious how verdant the music in South Indian films has managed to stay, and it was perhaps only a matter of time that Bollywood looked Southward for inspiration. With his strong sense of melody, and his approach to clutter-free arrangements, Prabhakaran's songs are a refreshing change.