‘Ungal Naan’: In Search Of The “Greatest” Kamal Haasan-Ilaiyaraaja Album

Given the number of fabulous scores the maestro has crafted for the actor, here’s an attempt to settle on one being above all others. 
‘Ungal Naan’: In Search Of The “Greatest” Kamal Haasan-Ilaiyaraaja Album

From the first film they worked on (16 Vayathinile, in 1977), the Kamal HaasanIlaiyaraaja  collaboration is one for the ages. While it is true that the maestro showed zero partiality in doling out his riches — the worst movies with no-name heroes would often end up with timeless songs — the Kamal films are something of a treasure trove. And when I heard about Ungal Naan, the Ilaiyaraaja concert centered on #Kamal60 (if you count the actor's career) or #Kamal 65 (if you count his age), a foolhardy question descended on me. Which is the best Kamal-Ilaiyaraaja movie score?

For the purposes of this foolhardy exercise, I set myself some rules. (1) I am going to assume that it is indeed possible to arrive at one score being better than the others. (2) I am going to ignore the many great background scores (Guna, Moondram Pirai, etc.) and just look at what we old-timers got in the form of cassettes and on the radio, i.e. just the songs.

This doesn't make it any easier — for there are so many Kamal-Ilaiyaraaja films with N songs, where all N songs are flat-out dazzlers. Take Tik Tik Tik, and you have 'Idhu oru nila kaalam' and 'Netru indha neram' and 'Poo malarndhida'. Take Vikram, and you have the smashing title song (a "robotic" number from the pre-Rahman era), along with 'En jodi manjakuruvi', 'Sippikkul oru muthu', 'Vanithamani' and the mind-boggling 'Meendum meendum vaa', which starts out with that plaintive electronic-flute birdcall and descends into some serious sensuousness — the tap-tap-tap fingerwork on the mridangam echoes the, um, fingering happening on screen. Take Kaaki Sattai, and you get 'Pattu kannam' (my favourite song from the album, with SPB laughing that "Kamal laugh"), plus 'Kanmaniye pesu', 'Poo potta thavani', 'Vaanile thenila'…

And 'Namma singaari sarakku'. Okay, so Kaaki Sattai is out. This is a fun song, but I wouldn't label it "great". (For a "great" beatsy, quasi-kuthu paattu combination from this actor and music director, I'd go with 'Marugo marugo', from Vetri Vizha.) So after several hours spent on such highly unscientific methodologies, I decided that I would have to approach this exercise cinematically as well. Again, Sigappu Rojakkal is a great album, no doubt, with 'Ninaivo oru paravai' and 'Indha minminikku' — from what I consider Ilaiyaraaja's greatest, most stylish period. But on screen, they are just… duet-like numbers.

When I say cinematically, I mean something like 'Unnai naan ariven', from Guna, which is not just a magnificent song, but a song whose magnificence is enhanced by how it is used on screen. It starts with one set of characters (Kamal, Rekha), then takes us on a whirlwind tour of the milieu (a brothel and its surroundings), and ends with another set of characters (Kamal, S Varalakshmi). It's a mix of all kinds of love — romantic love, carnal love, maternal love. That's what I settled on as my definition of greatness, something that becomes more than a number to listen to, something that's transformed to a whole new level when seen, something that's equally about Ilaiyaraaja's genius as a musician as Kamal's genius as an actor or writer. (Many of their songs are more about Kamal's genius as a dancer, which, also, is quite something when taken on its own.)

And that narrowed it down. Why, the "greatest" could be Guna itself! All the songs are based on a major conceit. Apart from 'Unnai naan ariven', the film has 'Paartha vizhi', during which Kamal sets eyes on the "Abirami" he's been wanting all his life — the divinity of the music is reflected in the divine ecstasy on Kamal's face. It's like Shiva has found his Parvati, which is actually how the song picturisation ends. Then, there's the soul-piercing 'Appanendrum', which, like 'Unnai naan ariven', takes on a tour of a milieu: this time, it's a mental asylum. 'Endha Gangai aatril / indha azhukku pogum'? The lyrics set up both the "filth" Kamal imagines himself covered with, and the suggestion of salvation. Finally, we have the smash-hit 'Kanmani anbodu'. When the same letter-writing idea was used in RD Burman's beyond-exquisite 'Gum hai kisi ke pyaar mein' (Rampur Ka Lakshman), it was just an innocent man asking the woman he loves to pen down his thoughts in words. Here, it's about the couple being sequestered in a cave, away from the world, like a modern-day Adam and Eve. And it's not just about love. It's about pain. It's about the sanctity of this relationship, which is not just "manidha kaadhal" but "adhaiyum thaandi punidhamaanadhu".

But the film/album I finally settled on as the GREATEST of the duo is Rajapaarvai (1981). Why? (1) Because it's from my favourite Ilaiyaraaja phase, the late-70s to the mid-80s. (That his other phases also have such a stupendous output is merely proof of why the man's such a phenomenon.) And (2), it's also, to my mind, the first time Kamal-ism crept into the Ilaiyaraaja-ism, which makes the film/album important in a historic sense.

I don't wish to downplay the contributions of the director, Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, or any of the others — but look at 'Andhi mazhai pozhigiradhu', and you get the visual of a sketch/portrait  transforming into a real-life scene, like we'd see some years later in the 'Annaatha aaduraar' song sequence in Aboorva Sagotharargal (also by Singeetham Srinivasa Rao). Speaking of which, that film had 'Vaazha vaikkum kaadhalukku jai' and 'Unna nenachen' and 'Pudhu maapillaikku' and 'Raja kaiya vacha'… Another all-hit album. Just what was I thinking when I began this foolhardy exercise?

Anyway, back to Rajapaarvai and 'Andhi mazhai'. Many people point to 'Valayosai' from Sathya as the definitive song sequence that shows a couple casually being in love. There's no choreography. It's that thing we now call Balu Mahendra-esque. A series of scene-lets, period. 'Andhi mazhai' is the precursor. What I love about this song, cinematically, is that it starts off with the couple we know, Kamal and Madhavi, and then, boom! — the fourth wall is broken. It's SP Balasubrahmanyam on screen. It's the recording session of this very song, and Kamal is a violinist in the orchestra. ('Orey naal' from Sridhar's Ilamai Oonjalaadugiradhu, another Kamal-Ilaiyaraaja collaboration, has a similar fourth-wall-breaking start, when the couple who will go on to enact this song first hears it playing on the radio, after the announcer says that the next number is from… Ilamai Oonjalaadugiradhu.)

So 'Andhi mazhai' functions as both a Balu Mahendra-esque montage ("candid" shots of a couple, with an unseen, "asariri" voice wafting in the background, like incense), and also as a blind man's "imagination" upon hearing this song, while he is playing the violin to SPB's singing. That's why I have always argued with those who object to the word "therigiradhu" in the opening lines. They ask… how can a blind man "see"? To me, this is not actual "seeing", but the fact that sight is one of the "senses" — the same kind of "sense" mix-up we hear in the Gulzar-written 'Humne dekhi hai' (Khamoshi), where the singer says she "sees" the scent rising from the eyes.

You could even say 'Andhi mazhai' is Madhavi's imagination. She is watching the recording in progress and the camera moves into her face (it's a dissolve into a close-up), and then we take off into the next series of "candid shots". Or is it a dream? For towards the end of the first stanza, we do see both Kamal and Madhavi waking up from sleep with a start! I am not going to go into how fantastic this composition is musically, but just a word about the second interlude, when the staccato piano notes segue into the violins. In that phase of his, Ilaiyaraaja liked to impart a tinge of melancholy into even the happy songs, a touch of minor amidst the major notes, like a captain announcing: "Look folks, I know this flight was heading to Sydney, but let's turn towards Moscow, instead, for a brief while." You see this in the second interlude of 'Poonkathave', too, for instance.

Now, let's move on to 'Azhage azhagu devathai'. A ghazal-like start, with tones of Hindustani music. A Carnatic-style first interlude. A second interlude that — in its magical undefinability — can only be described as Ilaiyaraaja-esque, with that gorgeous call/response bit between flute and sarangi. A semi-jazzy third interlude. All in the service of a major idea: a blind man feels his way through how his girlfriend looks. As in 'Andhi mazhai', he "sees" her by "sensing" her. This time, it's the sense of touch.

'Vizhiyorathu' is a typical "sad song". Or is it? Again, there's an 'Andhi mazhai' connection, for the opening violin plays out in the recording session of this very song. It breaks the fourth wall. We see the violinist, and it's not Kamal, because he's heartbroken and cannot play. Much sadness ensues, as is expected in a "sad song". Madhavi's father rails at her. Kamal's friend tells him to snap out of it. But wait. What's this sudden burst of peppy synth notes in the first interlude? Ah, Madhavi imagines Kamal beside her in bed! Happy times again? But alas, when the camera moves to a close-up of Madhavi and pulls back, she's alone, and the solo violin takes off. Sadness, again! He's left with her portrait (which we also saw in 'Azhage azhagu devathai'). She's left with his. The closing shot was something new for its time, with cinematographer Barun Mukherji (who shot Rabindra Dharmaraj's Chakra the same year) pulling back from Madhavi as she collapses. But it's not a smooth zoom-out. She's in a mid-shot, and a few shaky (hand-held?) frames later, it's a long shot that observes her crumple into a heap.

But what clinches Rajapaarvai as the "greatest" of the Kamal-Ilaiyaraaja collaborations is the concerto, highlighting a solo violin against a full orchestra that takes on the Carnatic raga Pantuvarali. At first, the composition moves through traditional Carnatic phrasings, with a few unconventional touches like the roll of a tabla tarang. Kamal is on stage, performing to an audience of children from the blind school and some well-wishers. Suddenly, Madhavi runs into the auditorium. The mood changes. Again, it's as though Kamal "senses" her. He stands up. Ilaiyaraaja changes his stance, too.

There's electricity in the air. The raga stays the same, but now, the stylings are much more dramatic, in the Western Classical mode. As we sense another musical transition, there's a visual transition, too. We move from the stage to a flashback played out in stills, harking back to the couple's first meeting in an elevator, when Madhavi accused Kamal of ogling her, not realising he was blind. And in a stunningly Expressionistic touch (much drama in the lighting, too), Kamal steps out of that same elevator and points an accusing finger at Madhavi, though she is actually in the audience, visually "disconnected" from Kamal's pointing finger.

Now, this angry Kamal (from the elevator) replaces the earlier, placid Kamal on the stage (with the same dramatic lighting), and from his vantage point, he beckons to Madhavi in the audience, and lashes at her with his cane. (I keep thinking, sometimes, what the early-1980s audience must have made of all this.) Cut to… Madhavi's eyes opening. It's actually her imagination. The music reaches a crescendo and relaxes into pop/rock. It's still the same raga, now backed by electric guitars and synthesisers and an extra layer of percussion: claps from the audience.

Much later, we'd hear the tape with the Guna recording sessions and see the alchemy actually happening, and realise how actively Kamal was involved in the creation of music for his films. But back then, this was just an album that burst out of nowhere and one that still sounds so… new. I don't mean that it sounds like an album from today. It is very much of its time. I just mean that it's timeless. And thus, ladies and gentlemen, I conclude my foolhardy exercise.

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