Ilaiyaraaja's body of work is vast, however you choose to slice it. On the whole, he has worked on over a thousand films and he continues to score music for at least half a dozen films each year. He had significant and recurring collaborations in the 1980s and 90s with important directors like Mani Ratnam (Mouna Ragam, Thalapathi, Nayagan), Bharathiraja (16 Vayadhinile, Mudhal Mariyadhai, Alaigal Oivathillai), Balachander (Sindhu Bhairavi, Punnagai Mannan, Unnal Mudiyum Thambi) and Balu Mahendra (Moondram Pirai, Rettai Vaal Kuruvi, Sathi Leelavathi), to name just a few.
His work after the 2000s has also been dominated by a few significant collaborations that have unlocked new dimensions to the music. As the composer continues to intricately shape films through his music, the films and their directors have also defined and shaped that vast library of music we get to experience. For example, Gautham Vasudev Menon's Neethaane En Ponvasantham gave us a millennial view of Ilaiyaraaja's music from the 1980s. But the strongest influence on his oeuvre after 2000 must be director Bala, beginning with Sethu in 1999.
There are a couple of generic songs in Sethu — 'Maalai En Vethanai' and 'Sikaadha Sitrondru'' — that might be dropped into a film like Friends (except for perhaps the parts of 'Maalai En Vethanai' that has dialogues by specific characters around the film's protagonist Sethu). But by Pithamagan (2003), Bala's films had acquired a certain idiosyncrasy and Ilaiyaraaja's music began to reflect that. For example, there was 'Gaana Karunkuyile' in Sethu, a rowdy counterpoint to the deeper music in the film: the bawdy and the beautiful. In 'Aruna Runaam' from Pithamagan we also get an unexpected Ilaiyaraaja track with a lot of sampled music. But where the Bala–Ilaiyaraaja sensibility comes together is in their depiction of bleak tragedy.
Take 'Piraye Piraye' from Pithamagan which begins with an eerie, almost ghostly, sounding voice before a rhythm that can't find it's feet takes off. The beat and a synth that blooms and fades create a feeling of shifting ground, of instability, while the visual shows a child being born in the graveyard.
This effect is not brought out through the melody but through rhythm. It short circuits sentimentality and allows us to view the character for what he is. This is music that intuitively sneaks in hints that help us understand the emotional context of the film without bringing it to the foreground: it must be the musical equivalent of the writing maxim: show, don't tell.
This trend reaches a culmination, in a sense, in Naan Kadavul (2009) with 'Oru Kaatril Alaiyum' where the music shows a Herculean detachment from the lyrics, something that reminded me of 'Appan Endrum' from Guna. Both songs are sung by Ilaiyaraaja with spare ornamentation: the music sounds harmonious but it also feels deathly cold.
Ilaiyaraaja reaches for warmer tones in his music in his collaborations with director Balki. If it was how Ilaiyaraaja constructs his music for Bala, it's how he transforms his own earlier work for Balki. And it's fascinating how the right minor tweaks can greatly modify the interpretation of music. Beethoven took a basic tune and wrote 33 variations for it over 4 years in the early nineteenth century. What was astonishing was that, at the hands of a master, the short, simple tune produced complex and wondrous variations. Ilaiyaraaja's albums for Balki are something like that. We get to hear reworked and recontextualized versions of originals that sound like new revelations. What we thought couldn't be improved is given a dramatically different form.
For example, 'Mere Paa' from Paa (2009) is based on 'Kaatu Vazhi' from Balu Mahendra's Adhu Oru Kana Kaalam. You hear how a skilled hand can make the original violin chorus sound like an Irish ballad and transform the same notes in Paa into something delicate, something that could have been written by Vivaldi. You hear the same melody but you are taken to different worlds through the infinite pliability of Ilaiyaraaja's tunes.
Or take the title song of Cheeni Kum (2007), which reworks the cult 'Mandram Vandha' from Mouna Ragam. What's interesting is how we hear shades of the melody that are muted in the original. The orchestration of the original was relatively sparse and in 'Cheeni Kum', sung by Shreya Ghoshal, the orchestration is dynamic and interacts with the melody in new and interesting ways. We even get a third variation in the film, sung by Vijay Prakash, which sounds like an airy variant that's closer in spirit to the original. When compared to the original, different parts are highlighted through instrumental interventions in the charanam. It's not just the tune that is pliable it's also the surrounding orchestration that's shaped by Ilaiyaraaja. Together they create dramatically varying effects out of a basic template.
But it's with Mysskin that Ilaiyaraaja's formalism meets it's best friend in the style of filmmaking. Mysskin's characters troubled by Dostoevsky's ghosts in Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum get a soundtrack that sounds like a tribute to Shostakovich's Concertos for the Violin, especially the track 'I killed An Angel'. The orchestra and the lead violin never seem to be able to reconcile themselves, maintaining a baseline level of sonic uneasiness, never being able to settle on a safe and solid note. Shostakovich's musical device created a dissonance that mirrored the dark and disharmonious state of the Soviet Union of his time. Ilaiyaraaja transposes this sensibility superbly into Mysskin's twisted world to depict chaotic minds in the film. This is unlike like the relatively more intimate music he created with Bala and Balki: it's serious worldbuilding through music.
'Somebody Loves Us All' shows the film's duality. The tune sounds innocent but, in parts, you hear harmonies that dramatically deepen the emotion in passing, turning them a shade darker before looping back to the main theme. It sits somewhere between the melancholic and the philosophical. It's all coldly formal but still emotionally effective.
'A Fairy Tale' plays in a scene where Mysskin's Edward reveals his backstory in the form of a children's tale. You hear Shostakovich's violins in Ilaiyaraaja's score: aching, confused, dissonant. They play straight, clear notes but don't fuse into a single voice initially. As he narrates his story and it becomes clearer, the music harmonizes, especially as a flute takes over the tune and fuses beautifully back into the theme of 'Somebody Loves Us All': a musical depiction of a tale of crime and redemption.
Ilaiyaraaja has also had interesting collaborations with Kamal Haasan and Prakash Raj, both actors turned directors who make films about specific ideas. For instance, Ilaiyaraaja's orchestral scores began at least as early as Kamal Haasan's Hey Ram with it's resounding title track that sounds like a royal entourage walked into a rock concert capturing the film's dual preoccupation with the past (pre-Independence) and the present (as the story is being recounted by Kamal Haasan's aging Saket Ram to his namesake grandson).
Even in a rousing track like 'Karbagraham Vittu' from Virumaandi you hear unexpected classical hints. Right after the line "sathiyam innikkuththaan sariyaaga saththam pottu pesudhey" a briefly heard layer of harmony that you've never heard in the song so far is added. It underscores with a light touch the emotional center of the song which says: "dharma devan yeri varum saala theru orathula".
Musically opposite, in a sense, is Ilaiyaraaja's work with Prakash Raj in Dhoni (2012) which has a "small" sound. There's a controlled artlessness in 'Vaangum Panathukkum' which is choppy with it's quick melodic shifts. The orchestration appears thoughtless and the harmonies are never really completely fleshed out leaving you with a vague sense of dissatisfaction. It's exactly what the lines of the songs talk about: the haphazard life of an average middle class man who can't quite get what he wants.
From the same film, 'Thaavi Thaavi Pogum' is about a boy struck down by the harsh monotony of not being able to pursue his passion. And the song's beat is boring too, ticking predictably like time. The tune sounds a bit mechanical like a nursery rhyme. These devices are superbly combined to musically depict the mind of the boy who is too worn out to make big emotional leaps. Ilaiyaraaja accepts the musical limits imposed by the character to give us an intuitive, musical description of a difficult to comprehend state of mind.
None of these directors are mainstream in the sense Shankar or AR Murugadoss are, and that's probably why these collaborations haven't received the attention they deserve. The music in these films isn't just about hit singles or bringing audiences to the theatre. It's music that captures abstract ideas in a story and makes them evocative by converting them to sounds. It's music that reaches out to the heart of a film and helps you hear its beat.