A Charan Raj Musical: The Aural Poetry Of A Unique Kannada Musician
When the title track of Hemanth M Rao’s Saptha Sagaradache Ello: Side A was released in August, it instantly made me ecstatic, yet I was longing. While I was happy that we finally got a beautiful song from the much-awaited album, I longed for more. I do not know if it was the synth-wave sound, Kapil Kapilan's melodious vocals, the magical lyrics by Dhananjay Ranjan, or if it was just the Halo effect of knowing this piece of art was produced by my favorite music director in recent times, Charan Raj.
The second version of the song, used in Side B was released recently, and with it, Charan Raj is no longer my secret music taste. The film is now ‘A Charan Raj Musical’ and the ace music director is on his path to becoming one of the greats. He has come a long way since his Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu days, and is about to find a place in everyone’s hearts with the release of the soundtrack of SSE: Side B.
In case you are new to the world of Charan Raj, here are five songs that make him an important new-age musician in Kannada cinema:
'Naa Ee Sanjege' - Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu
The songs of Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu (2016) are not choreographed. They are played over the montages of characters being introduced, and to underline their longing, bonding, and memories. The fan-favorite ‘Naa Ee Sanjege’ can also be seen as an aural montage of different genres, styles, and emotions. What starts off as a slow jazz number, a genre that's rarely explored in Kannada films, slowly turns into a classical Carnatic song. The two genres don't naturally gel, but Charan Raj does not care about that. He makes sure that the shift is not jarring as the piano and drums seamlessly transition to the veena and tabla, with a saxophone serving as the binding agent. The montage-style genre-bending makes even more sense since the film's central conflict is about a career-driven youngster trying to trace his missing father, who is an ailing Alzheimer’s patient.
The song, or say, this album is the biggest reason why Kannada movie enthusiasts like me were fanboying over the announcement of Sapta Sagaradaache Ello in 2021, as the dream team of Hemanth Rao, Rakshit Shetty, and Charan Raj would return.
'Psychedelic Maaye' - Popcorn Monkey Tiger
Popcorn Monkey Tiger is a weird film. That can either be a good thing or a bad thing, but the film ballsily treads that fine line. Suri’s follow-up to the extremely successful Tagaru would usher in a new creative direction as he teamed up with actor Dhananjaya and music director Charan Raj again. The score is one of the most inventive soundtracks to come out of Kannada cinema. Raj is influenced by the sounds within the frame and originates musical moments that begin with that sound and escalate to new avenues. Each piece of score is an earworm and is instantly impressionable.
There are only two full songs in Popcorn Monkey Tiger. One is the rap ballad ‘Maadeva’ and the other is 'Psychedelic Maaye', dubbed as 'The Vibe Track'. A chill-step track, 'Psychedelic Maaye' comes into the film after a long episode of depression and sadness for the protagonist Tiger Seena. The man finally moves on from his ex-girlfriend and is traveling the country with his gang of on-the-run gangsters. But without the context of the film, the song works for its complete jump into the genre.
Indian songs always make a Western genre into our own by integrating some kind of an instrument, a bit, or a lyric to make it resemble an Indian song. However, there is no blending of genres in this Charan Raj song. Sanjith Hegde’s pop-style vocals fit perfectly in the song which sounds like it would fit right in at a mellow party in Ibiza. The rap portions by Rahul Dit-O are the cherry on top. Charan Raj is among the few musicians who perfectly knows how to use the rappers of the Kannada hip-hop community.
Narayana Narayana - Avane Srimannarayana
Charan Raj is not the only music director to compose for the adventure comedy Avane Srimannarayana. While B Ajaneesh Loknath scores the majority of the soundtrack, Charan Raj contributes two songs. And what a breath of fresh air those songs are! The first song by Raj is placed at one of the most wonderfully surreal moments in the film. Called ‘Sadheya Dharisi’, the track is a musical hymn from members of a drama troupe in hiding, who come out to celebrate on a moonlit night. The song describes the history of the troupe, doubles up as a conversation between the protagonist, and even has clues for the hidden treasure that forms the film's conceit.
However, it is the incredibly charming and larger-than-life ‘Narayana Narayana’ which takes the cake. The song is positioned as a celebratory number, welcoming our hero, the messiah who would save the troupe from the oppression of a mighty clan. The difference is that the protagonist Narayana is not that hero but is just pretending to be one, so he can find the treasure. The lyrics are satirical and hilarious at times, with a generous mix of English despite the traditional Kannada poetry. The track is laced with huge drums and percussion, which give us a sense of the larger-than-life scale of the events that are occurring. Moreover, it features one of the most mesmerizing uses of the flute since Rangitaranga (2015).
Jeeva Sakhi - Tagaru
With Tagaru, Charan Raj entered the mainstream, commercial zone. The film starred Dr Shivarajkumar and was his second film with director Suri. Shivanna played a cop who is on the hunt for two notorious gangsters who represented a new era of crime for the city, one that had genuine evil lurking. The film was a new zone for Charan Raj who had made a mark in Godhi Banna-esque dramas. But being thrown into uncharted territory did not stop him from making a mark.
Tagaru’s most famous songs are the crowd-pleasing dance number ‘Tagaru Banthu Tagaru’ and the anthem of evil ‘Balma’. Both are musically brilliant in their own ways, with the latter being something that the antagonist Daali hears in his own head. But one of the most brilliant pieces of music is the lament of loss that is ‘Jeeva Sakhi’. The film starts with the eerie flute as the song itself represents the death of a key character in the film.
A pathos song is usually the perfect place to bring a violin and be an easy tear-jerker. But Charan Raj does not do that. He brings a guitar and gives a Country song groove to the piece, while the eerie flute stays in the outliers. With that groove, Charan Raj says grief is not just sadness but also the rage that is seething at all times, helplessly being suppressed. Jayanth Kaikini’s existential lyrics are crooned to perfection by the Raj himself. The song is a statement to the world that Charan Raj is not in the industry to play around but to create moving art even in the realm of a commercial entertainer.
Kanmareya Kaade - Sapta Sagaradaache Ello: Side A
Sapta Sagaradaache Ello: Side A was a revelation in many senses. The writing of the film itself was a visual poem that came alive with the performances of Rakshit Shetty and Rukmini Vasanth. The tragic romance has couples of the entire state calling each other ‘katthe’ and ‘putti’, and the influence of the film is only exemplified by its mesmerizing soundtrack. Charan Raj brings in his signature aural poetry with the score and a whopping six-track album from Side A itself.
The soundtrack features an eclectic sound mix, ranging from a rap and Carnatic fusion song about surviving in prison to a Porcupine Tree-esque progressive rock ballad, a synth wave romantic proclamation, and more. It is so hard to choose one as each song blends in perfectly with the scene that is playing in the film while also being a testament to Charan Raj’s craft. While the entire soundtrack has a soothing effect, there is nothing more mellow and melodious than the romantic lament ‘Kanmareya Kaade’.
The background music of this song is barely there, the percussion is just a small thump, and Shaktishree Gopalan’s soft vocals are barely louder than a whisper. It is as if Priya is trying to talk to Manu through the prison walls beyond visiting hours in the dark of the night. The lyrics talk about the suffering and the pain that we see on screen and the pathos is accentuated by a crying violin by the brilliant Narayan Sharma. While the title track of the film might be a celebration and exclamation of the kind of love that the two share, ‘Kanmareya Kade’ is the fading breath of a love that is struggling to stay alive and is likely to end soon.