In November last year, Kamal Haasan launched his upcoming film Vikram with a title track that retained parts of a song from the 1986 film of the same name. For 2021, these sounds by Anirudh Ravichander might be rousing, but no one would call it innovative. Yet, the programmed electronic beats at the end of the track were cutting edge when they were first heard. Thirty-five years ago, when film composer 'Maestro' Ilaiyaraaja composed the original, he launched a quiet revolution that continues to influence Tamil film music to this day.
The second half of the 1980s, a new kind of electronic music radiating from Kollywood reverberated into the soundscapes of India. Ushered in by Ilaiyaraaja, it was hypermodern without being soulless, and futuristic without being anaemic. Through the use of computers, sequencers, synthesizers, and drum machines, he reinvented Tamil film songs into what we can call Tamil electro synth-pop.
Ilaiyaraaja experimented with electronic funk and synthesizer pop. At times, he did so by fusing them with Indian classical and folk music forms. South India thus opened another node in the global cultural flows of electronic music just as synth-pop in the west entered a period of relative decline. In the process, he also ushered in a digital revolution in music technology in India.
Ilaiyaraaja's most prodigious output in electro synth-pop came in the years between 1986 and 1992. While the record labels B-Music and Bollywood Connection have tried to compile a sample of some of these, the full auditory and ocular significance of Ilaiyaraaja's compositions remains to be explored. Curated here therefore is an audio-visual playlist from that era as cultural artefacts for the unacquainted.
If you'd like a soundtrack for your reading experience, we've embedded or linked in each song on YouTube. Here's a curated playlist on Spotify!
By listening to, and looking at, electro synth-pop's staging in Tamil cinema, we see how they were repositories for the zeitgeist, material and sonic culture of its time. Besides reflecting national preoccupations, their absorption of transnational trends serves to show the global influences on Kollywood even before India's liberalization in 1991. Cumulatively, Tamil electro synth-pop may even represent the triumph of import-substitution in cultural production.
Tamil electro synth-pop emerged sometime after Ilaiyaraaja's visit to Singapore in 1985 for a course on the Yamaha CX5M music computer. He followed this up by purchasing a music computer, which even attracted media attention. An India Today report from 1986 claimed that with the new device, "instead of drumming on the mridangam or strumming on the veena, [Ilaiyaraaja] types out notations on the keyboard of a computer, which records these tunes and 'mixes' them precisely with the vocals." A year later, the same magazine called it symptomatic of the quiet computer revolution sweeping through India.
Director Mani Ratnam encountered this digital revolution first hand during the simultaneous production of his period gangster epic Nayakan (1987), and the musical crime drama Agni Natchathiram (1988). The latter film prominently used electro synth-pop tunes. In Ratnam's words: "With Ilaiyaraaja, we used to record in the mornings for Nayakan, and in the afternoons for Agni. In the morning sessions, the studios would be filled with period instruments and the orchestra, and in the afternoons, there'd just be electronic equipment."1
Ilaiyaraaja's explorations with programming commenced proper a little earlier on the soundtrack of the spy flick Vikram (1986). According to industry insider and film composer Taj Noor, the title track of Vikram was the first time that digital music was used in Tamil cinema. But it was officially inaugurated on the soundtrack of the romantic drama Punnagai Mannan (1986), which marketed specific tracks on the cassette and vinyl as 'computer music.' The back of Punnagai Mannan's vinyl even features a black-and-white photograph of Ilaiyaraaja with the Yamaha CX5M, and the Yamaha DX7 and Roland Jupiter 8 synthesizers. If you are wondering what other equipment allowed Ilaiyaraaja to create his ethereal compositions, record producer Andy Votel suggests that we could also add the E-mu Drumulator and Roland R-8 drum machines to the list.
That Oscar-winner A.R.Rahman operated the music sequencer for Ilaiyaraaja's 'computer music' in Punnagai Mannan uncredited is a slice of pop history.2 Rahman also played the synthesizer for the soundtrack besides programming the musical computer. He would later go solo as a film composer himself after years in Ilaiyaraaja's shadow as part of his troupe. Known as "Mr Synthesizer" and "talked about primarily for his use of 'computer music'" when he first broke through in Kollywood, Rahman would go on to extend the horizons of electronic music technology in India.
While MTV from the US would officially arrive in India only in 1994, Agni Natchathiram (1988) was proof that music television stylistically percolated into Indian cinema much earlier than that. It has been characterised as a "music video-type fantasy with rapid cutting, hazy images, and flared lights."3 Film critic Baradwaj Rangan, who considers Agni Natchathiram to be the defining film for Tamil urban middle-class youth at that time, describes its aesthetic as "flashy, MTV-era cinematography." At the same time, it might also be the definitive Tamil film of the late 1980s for its ability to absorb a range of global influences. Music television was just one such stimuli.
Agni Natchathiram reveals the influence of western media on Mani Ratnam. Easy access to foreign films and music videos, despite import duties, was a result of the video cassette invasion in India since the early 1980s. With this came the video libraries. Ratnam reportedly often patronised one such prominent music library in Madras. He has also revealed that prior to Agni Natchathiram, he wanted to make a sleek Hollywood-style urban action film. Beverly Hills Cop (1984) was one of his key inspirations.4 Harold Faltermeyer's synth classic 'Axel F' from Beverly Hills Cop even plays in the background in a scene in Agni Natchathiram.
Mani Ratnam appears to have gone with electronic music in the background score. This was a conscious aesthetic decision to "push the envelope in terms of style" and energize Agni Natchathiram.5 The film's songs also brought "the sounds of electronic funk and synthetic pop" directly to the Tamil listener. The chartbuster 'Raaja Raajathi Raajan Indha Raaja,' in particular, fuses synth-pop with jazz interludes pumped up by drum machine beats played by Ilaiyaraaja's drummer the late R. Purusothaman. Picturised as a boys' night out in town, the song's aesthetic on film also takes the disco to the streets.
Nothing is quite as evocative of retro Kollywood as the disco dance item. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, psychedelic rock and psychedelic funk were the predominant sounds of Tamil disco. Take for instance, 'Sorgam Maduvile' from Sattam En Kaiyil (1978), 'Disco Sound' from Dharma Yuddham (1979), or 'Solla Solla' from Ellam Inba Mayam (1981). Record label Finders Keepers have compiled two volumes of Ilaiyaraaja's early electronic music output entitled Solla Solla.
But in the late 1980s it was the turn of programmed electro synth-pop to set everyone gyrating on the disco floor. Besides the audio-cassette tape, commercial cinema's song-and-dance scenes became a conduit for the global disco phenomenon to find more spectators and participants in southern India. Especially among those who were not already consumers of the Bee Gees or Bollywood's disco.
Who better than Indian icon Superstar Rajinikanth to signal what was in vogue at that time? In the fantasy film Athisaya Piravi (1990), his character Kaalaiyan (who finds himself prematurely dead and in heaven because of a divine blunder) mansplains to a celestial danseuse Ramba that classic bharathanatyam was old-fashioned. He breaks the fourth wall and warns her that they (the cinema audience) might leave during her performance.
Kaalaiyan recommends to her that what the masses really came to watch was "break [dance], disco, rock and roll." With that, the netherworld turns into a disco for the synth-rock item, 'Paattukku Paatu.' Just for good measure, there's another synth-rock number on the soundtrack 'Idhazh Engum,' which also adopts the disco aesthetic on-screen. According to Athisaya Piravi's director, S.P.Muthuraman, unlike the film, the soundtrack was a big hit, for which some credit must go to the synth-pop tracks.
While there were various Kollywood songs set in a discotheque, none are as campy in all its neon-lit glory as 'Hey Unnai Thane' from Kadhal Parisu (1987). The outlandish décor in the song includes a 12-foot high silver head described as a cross between "Greco-Buddhist kitsch" and "creatures from science fiction films." The gaudy disco backdrop was characteristic of opulent sets that sprung up in the studios of Bombay, Madras, and Hyderabad in the second half of the 1980s. This shift to mega-budget spectacle cinema was an attempt to stave off the threat from television soap operas and the video onslaught.
The mini-plot of 'Hey Unnai Thane' itself unfolds as a testosterone-charged disco dance showdown between the film's hero Mohan (played by Indian screen legend Kamal Haasan) and a rando to win the hand of the heroine Chitra. That Mohan would win is a foregone conclusion. But not before smashing some spectacular moves intended to emulate if not surpass disco from the west.
Ilaiyaraaja's 'Aththi Marakkili' from Paattukku Naan Adimai (1990) is fascinating because it fictionally takes Tamil disco right to the capital of global disco culture. In the film, a talented folk singer Panneer's heroic journey takes him from the village to Madras where his band wins an East-West music competition at a 'World Music Festival'. He then earns a chance to perform in the US. The song itself is set in (what is meant to represent) a New York nightclub. In there, a Caucasian audience grooves to euphoric Tamil electronic pop from synthesizers on overdrive augmented by electronic guitars and violin interludes.
Sonic explorers looking for localized interpretations of the global disco craze would find a goldmine in songs like 'Pavala Malligai' from Manthira Punnagai (1986), 'Oru Raaja' from Thendral Sudum (1989), 'Rani Mangamma' in Poruthathu Pothum (1989), 'Unnaithaan Nitham' from Mappillai (1989), and 'Poongatre Ithu Pothum' from Padicha Pulla (1989).
Kollywood also responded to the fitness dance craze taking India and the world by storm at that time. Modern dance studios and gymnasiums, virtually unseen before this period on screen, now featured as a fact of urban life in India. If anyone wondered whether the dance musical and aerobics craze was a global phenomenon, they only had to look at some popular Tamil electro synth-pop songs.
Following the trail of Ilaiyaraaja's electronic music output, leads inevitably to Punnagai Mannan. Made after the release of Hollywood's Flashdance (1983), Staying Alive (1983), and Footloose (1984), Punnagai Mannan evidently capitalises on the wave of popularity of modern dance musicals. Besides utilizing the song-and-dance interludes inherent in the medium, it also provides ample scope for its lead actor Kamal Haasan to display his nimble-footedness on the dance studio. He plays a moody no-nonsense dance instructor Sethu who is recovering from PTSD caused by a botched couple suicide that killed only his lover.
Two synth-pop songs in Punnagai Mannan stand out for their contemporaneity. The first is 'One Two' rendered fully in English as though to say, 'Who needs to import English music when we can make our own?' The other is the 80s electronica 'Love Theme on Computer' played on synthesizer by Rahman, which has been described as "a beautiful lovechild of Kraftwerk and Koji Kondo." Ilaiyaraaja's composition can thus be considered spiritual kin to Kraftwerk's 'Computer Love.'
By 1988, aerobics had taken off in a big way in urban India influenced by American media. This was as part of a general workout fever in the late 1980s. One report referred to aerobics as the "most startling change" to India's fitness culture that coincided with the flourishing of gyms and studios offering "dancercise" classes. This was accompanied by changes to material culture in the country as Indian manufacturers began to produce their own fashion and equipment: "track suits, jogging shoes, leotards in electric colours, leg warmers, rowing machines, treadmills" etc.
Featuring most of the above products, one cannot be faulted for mistaking 'Roja Poo Adivanthathu' from Agni Natchathiram (1988) for a fitness centre or health spa advertisement. The choreography of this dance focused on actress Amala was aerobicized, as was her other synth-pop number 'Chick Chic Cha' from Mounam Sammadham (1990). The training montage song 'Pottathellam' from Bharathan (1992) featuring actor Vijayakanth, is not aerobics as such, but also cashes in on the fitness craze.
Spies & sirens
Electronic music came in handy to convey a sense of suspense and intrigue in 'cloak and dagger'-type situations. With its industrial sounds, the programmed beats of synthesizer music were ideal for Kollywood's adaptation of film genres and tropes from the west like the espionage film and the femme fatale, respectively. It helped to set the mood for fantasies and nightmares about techno-digital modernity. Filmmakers also chose to stage these songs in glamorous, and extravagant locale to foreground the conspicuous consumption of its characters. This was consistent with the trend towards visually spectacular productions at that time.
Probably the first computerized synth-pop song to ever appear was the title song of Vikram that was perhaps inspired by the opening credits of James Bond films. The robotic voice effects in 'Vikram…Vikram…' as well as the synthesizer chimes put it on par with its western forebears in electronic music. These programmed rhythms provide a suitable opening for a sci-fi-infused spectacle about RAW agent Vikram's race against time to defuse Agni Putra II, a stolen computer-programmed Indian ICBM.
Then there's Vetri Vizha (1989) that's inspired by the Bourne Identity television movie (1988). Here an undercover Intelligence Bureau (IB) agent Vetrivel is afflicted by retrograde amnesia, and goes in search of his identity. He finds a lead in the form of a female IB agent Shanthi undercover as a nightclub dancer at Chola Sheraton Hotel in Madras. This provides the pretext for the high-octane techno dance item 'Thathom Thalangu.' Like in Vikram, intelligence gathering in Vetri Vizha is updated for the high-tech era with computers and state of the art digital scanners helping IB agents stop the film's antagonist, a South Asian 'Carlos the Jackal.'
The item number 'Enakku Tha' from Velaikkaran (1987), is part of a sub-plot about a temptress who is also a would-be assassin. Yet, the film shows her to be more of a reluctant assassin who has submitted to forces beyond her control. She has been blackmailed by an underworld boss whom she only hears as a menacing and disembodied telecommunicated voice (think Charlie from Charlie's Angels but evil), to seduce and assassinate a scion. The song itself is rendered almost entirely with electronic instruments and reflects influences from European synth-pop. Staged at the pool deck and ballrooms of the iconic five-star Centaur Hotel in New Delhi, it provides a glimpse into the glamorous lives and conspicuous consumption of the affluent.
Thematically similar is 'Uthama Puthiri Naanu' from Guru Sishyan (1988) featuring another femme fatale. This time she's working for the good guys. It ramps up the spectacle by setting it at the magnificent Lalitha Mahal Palace in Mysore. The song itself is sensual synth-pop with matching sultry vocals, and unmissable digitized drum beats. It is worth segueing to say that the second-half of Guru Sishyan goes from comedy caper to an Indiana Jones-style adventure, borrowing heavily from Hollywood's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
Eros, ethos, pathos
Part of Ilaiyaraaja's genius lies in his ability to use synth-pop to convey a range of emotions. You could probably find a synth-pop track or two to match each human emotion. Three emotions, in particular, bring out Ilaiyaraaja's techno virtuosity: love, anger and tragedy.
Arguably one of Ilaiyaraaja's finest compositions, the timeless romantic duet 'Valai Osai' from Sathya (1988) is sweet synth-pop with an Indian touch. It foregrounds the synthesizer and drum machine while syncretising with interludes in flute and violin. There are other love songs like 'Raja Raja Cholan' from Rettai Vaal Kuruvi (1987), 'Paaramal Partha Nenjam' from Poonthotta Kaavalkaran (1988) and 'Nethu Oruthara' from Puthu Paatu (1990), both of which richly experiment with the fusion of Carnatic instruments with electronic funk.
You would not associate electronic music with populist violence, but the title song of Ithu Engal Neethi (1988) manages to do just that. Despite the hip bouncy tunes, this theme song deals with some edgy subject matter. It serves as the revolutionary anthem of a band of three working-class heroes who by night turn into angry machine gun-wielding vigilantes to exterminate the scum of society. The theme song plays each time these social bandits set off on their missions.
Though less popular relative to its upbeat counterparts in this playlist, electro synth-pop also provides a vehicle for pathos songs too. For instance, 'Pattu Inge' from Poovizhi Vasalile (1987) shows that desolation and tragedy had a place alongside sublime synthesizer and guitar riffs. Likewise, 'Nadapathu Nadakattum' from Bramma (1991) is alcohol-fuelled bravado to distract from the searing loss of a loved one. In contrast, 'I want to tell you something' from Anand (1987), with chorus entirely in English, showcases heart-wrenching emotion as S.P. Balasubrahmanyam's vocals tremble with ache from heartbreak.
Electro synth-pop was so popular in Tamil cinema of the late 1980s and early 1990s that it was even shoehorned into a narrative that it was ill-suited for. In the period action film Maaveeran (1986), there are two electro funk tracks 'Hey Maina' and 'Nee Koduththatha' that are also picturised in the film. This is without any consideration for cognitive dissonance or anachronism because visually the film is set in colonial India at the start of the twentieth century but you hear electronic music from near the end of the century.
We only need to hear the music of his contemporaries to see just how influential Ilaiyaraaja's music was. Take for instance, some of the work done by composer Chandrabose syncretising electronic and synthesizer music with local folk instruments: 'Medhuva Medhuva' from Annanagar Mudhal Theru (1988), and 'Superstarru Yaaru' from Raja Chinna Roja (1989) and the hugely popular 'Kakki Chattai Potta Machan' from Shankar Guru (1987). Once Ilaiyaraaja started churning out hit after hit in the genre, others tried to replicate a similar musical style.
Kollywood's popularization of Tamil electro synth-pop in the second half of the 1980s lay at the intersection of the computer revolution and the video boom. Besides the digital transformation that allowed for musical programming, on screen these songs brought the world into cinema. Evidencing proto-globalization, prior to economic reforms of 1991, they absorbed a range of foreign influences like disco, aerobics, and the Hollywood spectacle.
Yet, Ilaiyaraaja's electro synth-pop was never criticised for being emotionless, a charge sometimes directed at western electronic music. Although A.R. Rahman would take electronic music to new directions in the 1990s, Ilaiyaraaja's legacy has been far reaching for the way he first blended soundscapes, atmosphere, and moods in ways that merged the intelligence of electronic music technology with the genius of the Maestro.
1 Baradwaj Rangan, Conversations with Mani Ratnam (New Delhi: Viking, 2012), p. 70.
2 Kamini Mathai, A.R. Rahman: The Musical Storm (New Delhi: Viking, 2009), p. 54.
3 Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Paul Willemen, eds., Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 482.
4 Rangan, Conversations, p. 76.
5 Rangan, Conversations, p. 44.