The Journey of MM Keeravaani- the Music Composer of Oscar-Nominated song-Naatu Naatu

Also known as MM Kreem, the Telugu composer behind classic Hindi film songs from the 90s and 2000s remained on the fringes for a long time - until Baahubali resurrected his legacy.
The Journey of MM Keeravaani- the Music Composer of Oscar-Nominated song-Naatu Naatu

For Hindi film music listeners, in the late 90s, early 2000s MM Kreem was a name without a face, the mystery composer behind such hits as 'Tu Mile Dil Khile', 'Gali Mein Chand' and 'Jaadu Hai Nasha'. We didn't know who he was but we loved the songs. Today it seems absurd how such a thing was even possible. It was a time when the term 'pan-Indian' hadn't been coined and film industries operated in their own bubbles. And here was someone who was working in different film industries under different names – as Keeravani in Telugu, his actual name, as Maragathamani in Tamil and Malayalam – and no one really knew about the other. In a pre-internet India, this created all kinds of confusion – and comedy. 

One of them involves the Telugu media baron Ramoji Rao. Rao had liked Keeravani's work and got him to compose for a number of films produced by him. Keeravani had a disagreement with one of the directors and wanted to opt out. This displeased Rao, who might have thought of it as unprofessional. (You can imagine the Telugu film industry twenty years ago, where a composer walking out of a film because of creative differences might've been seen as revolting). Rao was in his car, and complained to his associates – one of them later told Keeravani the story – that it was perhaps time to replace him. A new composer had caught his fancy and he wanted to give him a chance: "There's an album called Sur, some guy called MM Kreem," he said. Rao wanted to fire MM Keeravani and hire MM Kreem – that is, before the associate told him that they were one and the same. If the Telugu film industry wasn't aware of Kreem's existence, the reverse was true as well. When the lyricist and poet Nida Fazli (who worked with the composer in Sur) paid him a visit in his Chennai studio, he had a tough time finding Keeravani because he kept looking for Kreem. Fazli couldn't believe that the composer had three names, and told him, "Do you think of yourself as God?".

This kind of insularity between two industries is unimaginable today, particularly Hindi and Telugu. I spoke to Keeravani in January, after the release of SS Rajamouli's RRR had been pushed due to a third wave of Coronavirus. (It's now releasing on March 25.) There can't be a better film that represents how the Hindi and Telugu industries have come a long way since. Apart from Telugu stars NT Rama Rao Jr and Ram Charan in the leads, the film has much publicised guest roles by Alia Bhatt and Ajay Devgn – and of course, music by Keeravani. RRR rolled out its promotions last year with a music video, a version in every Southern language and Hindi, featuring new generation composers like Anirudh Ravichander and Amit Trivedi. Waving the baton is Keeravani. It opens with a silhouette of the composer playing the lute, almost as if unveiling him for the first time to the public. 'An MM Keeravani musical', reads the tagline. 

The pan-Indian film – at least the way we use it today – was invented by Rajamouli's two-part action epic Baahubali. The film's unprecedented success resurrected the composer's legacy. There has been some retrospective appreciation for his Hindi film work (although not nearly enough). Riya Mukherjee, a radio professional, invited the composer to her podcast "Riya's Retro" in 2016, on his birthday, shortly after the release of Baahubali: The Beginning (2015). The composer got her to write the Hindi lyrics for three songs in RRR; the others are written by Varun Grover. Describing him as "amazingly an underrated composer", the lyricist and screenwriter said he was bowled over by his "non show-offy, gentle kind of personality". "If you meet him for the first time you will be surprised that 'Oh god, this is MM Kreem!"

Keeravani himself is a fan of Hindi film songs. He inherited music from his father, a painter and musician who was a student in Bombay's Sir JJ School of Art. Thanks to him, Keeravani started violin lessons from a guru since the age of four. This, and learning the harmonium from his father gave him a strong classical foundation, but he gave his heart to the greats of Hindi film music.

When he was ten, Keeravani used to play the violin for the Pranalingam Accordion Party – a traveling band from Kakinada, a coastal city in Andhra Pradesh. He was something of a child prodigy attraction for the crowds and would often perform a solo version of 'Ek Pyaar Ka Nagma Hai'. Part of the reason why he played it so well turned out to be a case of misheard lyrics – an integral part of growing up on Hindi film music: where the second line went 'Maujo ki ravaani hai', Keeravani thought it's 'Maujo keeravani hai'. 

In 2000, when Filmfare published a special issue featuring all the awards they had presented since their inception, Keeravani found out that RD Burman, one of his idols, had been snubbed through the seventies (according to him Burman's best decade) and was outraged. The composer had some Telugu Filmfares by then, as well as others, but he threw them all away and hasn't attended an award function since.

In "Riya's Retro", Keeravani sang a number of songs on his harmonium, including 'Aawarapan Banjarapan' from Jism (2003); Mukherjee told him that she associates the song with the arrival of FM radio stations in India. It was a sudden, poignant reminder that the early 2000s had become retro, particularly for a generation that had grown up in the 90s – and how songs are not just songs but also associations we form with them.

The composer went on his own retro trip in the podcast. Almost every song he requested had some story, memory, or a life-altering epiphany attached to it. Once he was in a farmhouse when he heard a song he had never heard before. Like a Hindi film hero following a ghostly female voice, Keeravani went looking for its source; someone had played a CD in the kitchen – it introduced him to 'Yahi Woh Jagah Hai' sung by Asha Bhonsle. Another time, he was staying at the Udaipur palace and felt a connection – years later, when he saw the video of 'Mera Saaya Saath Hoga', sung by Lata Mangeshkar, he realised that it had been shot in the same palace. "There's a word that connects music and ghosts," Keeravani told me, "Haunting." 

Haunting is a word you might reach out for when trying to describe some of Keeravani's own songs – or MM Kreem's, if you like. Often, it comes from a wailing violin or a mournful cello – one of his signatures – or the rising synths he seems to be so fond of. A surprising number of them (in some cases, set to scenes of seduction by virtue of being a part of such films) have a strong sensuality. Keeravani is alert to the primal forces of man. "Aahar (food), nidra (sleep), bhaya (fear), vihar (the wish to roam around) and maithuna (sex) – these are the five elements we have in common with animals, and I am very much in connect with them," he said.  

Ram Gopal Varma offered the composer his first big break in Kshana Kshanam (1991) when he saw him reading a novel by King in his Chennai studio. Varma had heard some of his tracks, but reading King was the clincher. "If you like Stephen King, that means we can work together," he told him.

When he was thirty three, Keeravani's wife was pregnant. It's around the same time that his guru told him to live like a sanyasi for a year and a half, if he were to avert premature death. (Mahesh Bhatt describes the composer as someone with a "religious gene" and remembers when they met for the first time, "dressed in black, with the most enduring smile, and a demonic twinkle in his eyes."). A devotee of Shiva, Keeravani followed his guru's orders. He lived like a hermit, ate vegetarian, but his biggest sacrifice was staying apart from his wife. The couple was blessed with a son during that period, and Keeravani got to see him only months later. 

The only thing Keeravani couldn't afford to give up was work – he was in the middle of projects – but he gave up all his earnings to charity. That's when he met Kumar Sanu. Sanu wanted to shake hands with him but Keeravani wasn't allowed to touch anyone ("Like Covid times," he said), so he did a namaste instead. Keeravani thought Sanu was offended.

Soon they were recording 'Tu Mile Dil Khile', arguing over a creative difference. Originally the second melody line, "Dil Khile", was meant to be as curvy as the first melody line. Sanu wanted to do them both differently in a way that suited his singing style. Keeravani came up with a solution: "Tu Mile" was going to be his way, "Dil Khile" Sanu's way, an idea that worked beautifully, bringing the singer's vibratos into play and lending it a distinct appeal. 'Tu Mile Dil Khile' became the composer's first bonafide 'pan-Indian' hit – and the debut of MM Kreem. A rebirth, indeed. 

Keeravani's guru suggested the name. But the decision to create aliases was inspired by Stephen King – "Stephen King had two names. I have three," he said in a Rediff interview in 2004. Keeravani owes the American horror writer more than one. Ram Gopal Varma offered the composer his first big break in Kshana Kshanam (1991) when he saw him reading a novel by King in his Chennai studio. Varma had heard some of his tracks, but reading King was the clincher. "If you like Stephen King, that means we can work together," he told him. 

Varma (who in retrospect seems to have possessed some mad, prophetic eye for talent in the 90s) advised the composer to not work in every Telugu film that came his way but Keeravani wasn't in a position to be selective. For the first few years of his career he had to support his family – a joint family of about thirty people. Rajamouli, his cousin, was still a student, and his uncle, KV Vijayendra Prasad, was a script 'repairer'. They were zamindars who had fallen on hard times, and for a while Keeravani was the sole bread-earner. He started out as an assistant to music directors such as Rajamani and K Chakravarthy, working non-stop. "There used to be 75-90 Telugu movies produced in a year, and Chakravarthy did 90 percent of those films." Keeravani said. "It was work 365 days a year, without a holiday."

Keeravani's Hindi film stint was underrated maybe also because the films were largely ignored or forgotten. But the fact that the songs have endured is a testimony to his greatness and a reminder that the film song often transcends the film.

If this helped him develop skills as a commercial film composer, it also resulted in a kind of fatigue. Keeravani opened up to Hindi cinema like it was a secret, passionate love affair. It liberated him at some level. He did an interesting mix of films. He largely stuck to the sound of the decade and yet managed to sound different. 'Tu Mile Dil Khile', from Criminal (1995), is a 90s touchstone, which marries the silken playback singing styles of Sanu and Alka Yagnik with Enigma inspired, chill-out ambient music. 'Gali Mein Chand' and 'Hum Yahan' from Zakhm (1998) are delightful creations in the tabla-dholak template, a very 90s Hindi film music convention (so is 'O Saathiya', composed for the movie but used later in Saaya, 2003).

The composer changed gears according to the style of the film. The low-key textures of 'Chup Tum Raho' are in sync with the grittiness of Sudhir Mishra's Is Raat Ki Subah Nahi (1996). Melody is central to Keeravani's songs, but with his training in Western and Indian traditions he is also a masterful arranger. The mukhdas in 'Nadiradinna' from Okariku Okaru (2003) and 'Dheere Jalna' from Paheli (2005) use the same central melody but the songs have a different feel because of the arrangement – the latter has the mood of a light classical recital, featuring meditative flute passages and soft tablas while the former is punctuated by laser beam like electronic beeps. 

Grover points out that with his "complex, pure melodies" Keeravani was perhaps bringing something to his Hindi songs that was distinct to music-making practises in the South. He takes the example of 'Chalo Tum Ko Lekar Chale' from Jism, which has Carnatic influences in the melody but has a more Western arrangement (briefly flirting with jazz-funk in the antara). "When you heard MM Kreem, even for somebody who didn't have the vocabulary to appreciate music in an academic way at that time, I remember being amazed by that sound and melody, very different from what we were doing in Hindi cinema," he said. 

Even back then, I remember being thrilled by Keeravani's casting – or rather anti-casting – of Shreya Ghoshal as the female voice in Jism, an erotic thriller starring Bipasha Basu as a sultry femme fatale. Ghoshal had just made her debut with the semi-classical songs in Devdas (2002), and she was instantly associated with a chaste, shy kind of an image. Someone like a Sunidhi Chauhan – who, it could be approximated, was the Asha to Ghoshal's Lata, and had a reputation for bolder numbers – might have been a safer choice but instead Keeravani wanted Ghoshal's nubile, unspoilt innocence. It went a long way in making the songs sound the way they do (besides establishing the singer's versatility). Keeravani tends to underplay his genius, and he was similarly stoic when he told me how he captured samples of Ghoshal laughing, without her knowledge, as they chatted in breaks during the recording of 'Jaadu Hai Nasha Hai', and later incorporated it into the song. "If I had asked her to perform, it wouldn't have come out natural," he said.

The composer got a great collaborator in Mahesh Bhatt, a connoisseur of the Hindi film song himself and a director-producer with a canny ear for musical trends. According to Keeravani, Bhatt was very good at "identifying bogus lines in the melody". "He extracted music from me," he said. A few years ago, a Telugu TV channel felicitated the composer and invited Bhatt as a surprise guest. They bonded like old friends and Keeravani told him that he missed the times when people used to meet in flesh and blood and talk about human situations that would give birth to a tune. 

Bhatt, in his grandiloquent manner, told me that Keeravani's greatest gift was his "silence". "It's very rare to find in people in this business, who even before they walk into a sitting, come with all the answers, they come with their bag full of tunes. Keeravani was not frightened to be empty," he said. "Zakhm was a deeply autobiographical film and one is trying to convert those emotions into some kind of a story and images. I remember the humility and quietness with which he was listening to me. He is a human being who has been through the fire of life and has felt certain strong emotions".

A few years back, one afternoon, Bhatt went to meet another old friend – Irrfan. The actor's cancer had already reached a critical stage and the filmmaker didn't know how to initiate a conversation. "You know when you meet a friend who is face to face with a terminal illness, it has a strange kind of a silence which hovers over your head," he said. In order to kind of make that silence more… bearable, to both of them, he sang the opening lines of a song: "Maine dil se kaha, dhoond laana khushi, nasamajh laaya gham, toh yeh gham hi sahi…" from the film Rog (2005), written by Neelesh Misra and composed by Keeravani. 

Keeravani's Hindi film stint was underrated maybe also because the films were largely ignored or forgotten. But the fact that the songs have endured is a testimony to his greatness and a reminder that the film song often transcends the film. It won't be inaccurate to say that the burnout in the South films instilled in Keeravani a drive to only do Hindi film work that he liked, and didn't have to force himself to do. When Neeraj Pandey wanted a 'shaadi song' for Special 26 (2013), Keeravani said he couldn't get himself to do it – he requested the director to appoint another composer for it – because he hates the fakery and hypocrisy around weddings. "I would've ended up giving a bad melody, which I didn't want to," he said. Listen, instead, to him pouring his soul into the lovely, minimalist ''Mujh Mein Tu' from the film, with a rendition in his own voice. 

Special 26 was one of Keeravani's later Hindi film work, and perhaps one of his less memorable ones. The film music industry has a way of making composers and singers go out of fashion. Keeravani might've been out of work by now – even though the steady stream of Telugu films continued, and Rajamouli was getting bigger. In 2014, perhaps with a hint of frustration at the kind of work he was getting, Keeravani announced his retirement and put everything he had in Baahubali – his magnum opus, his last hurrah. 

Whether it's with his rich, melodic string section or his own vocals, Keeravani's music has always underlined the emotional core of Rajamouli's films. Baahubali's two parter, epic nature allowed the composer to approach it like a genre-bending, quasi-religious opera. It's a work of stupendous showmanship – a confluence of folk, military music, hair-raising shlokas and sometimes lilting, sweet melodies, mounted on a Western symphonic structure, with a scale and drama that can only be matched by the director's larger-than-life visuals. Shiva, the hindu god, also the name of the protagonist, is omnipresent in Baahubali: The Beginning, from the thunderous proclamations of 'Sivuni Anna', which concludes in taandav like percussions, to the mega, Herculean shouts of 'Dhivara'. Even the seemingly frivolous 'Manohari' – which in the movie takes place in a tavern with belly dancers – is a tribute to the inebriated state Shiva is known to be in.

If the hero is mythologised, so is the villainous dictator ruler of Mahishmati – in 'Nippulla Swasaga', we get a fascistic military theme with strong Darth Vader energy. At the heart of the Baahubali: The Beginning album, though, is Keeravani's vocals, who sings with an aching devotional cry, and incredibly moving mournfulness, as if voicing the collective prayers of the people of Mahishmati. The movie's father-son reincarnation tale powerfully makes through into the album, when, in Baahubali: The Conclusion, Keeravani brings in his own son to sing. 'Dandalaiyya' sounds like the answer to the prayers, and the charged 'Oka Pranam' plays in the film's opening credits, which recaps scenes from part I frozen in time. A cello provides the underlying sadness, reminding us of the tragedy that befell the hero in the first film.  

The son sings with the passionate intensity of youth; he has Keeravani's soul, but with more power. He is the son the composer was "blessed" with when he was living a life of renunciation, unable to see him for months after he was born. His name is Kala Bhairava – another name of Shiva. 

Baahubali's historic success changed the fortunes for not just Keeravani, but also his family – now, one of the most influential film families not just in Andhra Pradesh but all of India. Keeravani changed his retirement plans. "I can never retire from music – whether it is creating, or listening".  

With inputs from Vishal Menon

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