It's unlikely that a composer today can dominate Tamil film music the way MS Viswanathan, Ilaiyaraaja, and AR Rahman did at their peak. Both the role of music in our films and the listening habits of the audience have evolved to allow for choice in music. That kind of influence by any composer is not really possible anymore. But, Anirudh Ravichander is something of an exception. He is most-sought-after by the biggest Tamil stars and directors. He's worked with Rajinikanth (Petta, Darbar), Vijay (Kaththi, Master), Ajith (Vedalam, Vivegam), and is set to work with Kamal Haasan in the upcoming Vikram. A decade ago, though, he didn't start out as the hit machine of big stars.
Much like AR Rahman until his first 'mass' hero film Muthu, Anirudh started out as a low-key hit machine for Dhanush and Sivakarthikeyan, until he worked in films like Kaththi (2014) and Vedaalam (2015). The music of this period was relatively minimalistic, made nuanced use of guitars, and was — for want for a better word — playful. Vanakkam Chennai (2013) especially embodies this quality with songs like 'Osaka Osaka' and 'Ailasa Ailasa' that take their time to get going.
Anirudh began to reinterpret music for 'mass' hero films from Kaththi. Just as AR Rahman's 'Oruvan Oruvan' from Muthu was a completely different introduction song for Rajinikanth, 'Pakkam Vanthu' had a trippy and free-flowing structure that is very different from, say, 'Pattu Onnu' from the earlier Jilla. The songs from this phase sound sophisticated. For instance, 'Tamilselvi' from Remo (2016) is carefully layered, with each layer rising and falling according to even rhythms. Rum (2017) is a neglected gem from this phase with intricately produced songs such as 'Hola Amigo', 'Kadavulae Vidai' and 'Peiyophobilia'.
Starting from Petta (2018), the sound of Anirudh's music became bigger by, perhaps, losing some of its earlier musicality. He resurrected musical elements from 90s Rajnikanth films in Petta and Darbar. Master (2021) pushed the boundary of the kind of music that could be heard in a Vijay-starrer. Yet, these films rarely push the boundaries of Anirudh's music.
What has not changed over the decade is how loopable Anirudh is. Of course, you could loop songs by Ilaiyaraaja and AR Rahman. But, many of Anirudh's songs seem to be purposed for looping. Often, he does away with the linear pallavi-anupallavi-charanam structure. Instead, he weaves musical ideas around a kernel.
'Yennai Maatrum Kadhale' from Naanum Rowdy Dhaan (2015) is made up of three simple tunes (or melodic ideas), two of which are sung by the lead singer, and the third by a chorus. We hear these tunes in order first. They are then shuffled around and developed to create a sound that's different from songs with a linear structure.
This fractal-like approach of starting with simple ideas and building on them does not make Anirudh's songs merely listenable, but also easy to listen to in the background. Rarely do we sit down to 'hear' a song or have time to appreciate long musical phrases or complex structures. Most of us listen to music when driving, working out or cooking. We use music to set the mood while we concentrate on something else — the conscious part of the brain isn't entirely available to process the music.
The part of the brain that's available while we concentrate on other tasks finds it easier to grasp simple musical ideas that are developed organically, rather than focus on long linear structures that require you to take them in entirely before you understand them. For example, 'Andha Kanna Paathaakaa' is made up of three mostly independent tunes that you could absently run in your head all day in any order; it would still sound like 'Andha Kanna Paathaakaa'.
This is not to say that Anirudh's songs are simple ditties. The phrases might be simple, but they are developed and arranged in complex ways. That's why his songs are often instantly catchy, and yet, reward repeated listeners. He redefines uniqueness by making repeatability a part of it. A great tune might be memorable. But it's not repeatable until it can be remembered by a listener who is only paying partial attention to it.
The way Tamil film music is being consumed has changed, and Anirudh is one of the few composers who recognises that. An Anirudh song is a sonic marshmallow that's lush in your ear only to become sweet mush when it reaches your brain. Here are 10 of his works, ranked.
Often, Anirudh's music is not very specific to the film. 'Karuthavanlaam Galeejam' from Velaikkaran is an exception. He mixes in the sounds of North Madras with an interesting beat that explodes in your ear but fades out sooner than you expect. Anirudh, who is also the singer, rarely hits his notes — he only hints at them, giving this song an unusual sound. This song alone should earn the album a place in a list of Anirudh's best.
Anirudh creates an international but generic album in Vivegam. 'Kadhalaada' is the only song in the album with some melodic character. 'Surviva', 'Thalai Viduthalai', and 'Ready to Rage' are vehicles for depicting Ajith's larger-than-life persona. Yet, every song in the album could be looped and enjoyed.
My pick from the album would be 'Nijamellam Maranthu Pochu' with lyrics that slip off the notes. 'Boomi Enna Suthudhe' is interesting because the balance of sound between the left and right ears is tweaked when we hear the accordion playing. It leaves the listener with a spinning effect, which is what the lyrics talk about too.
Probably the most mellow of Anirudh's albums, Vanakkam Chennai had 'Osaka Osaka', 'Oh Penne', and 'Ailasa Ailasa', but it also had fun songs like 'Chennai City Gangsta' and 'Engadi Porandha'. The album is significant in his discography because it showed that in the absence of star directors or actors, Anirudh's music could be the star of a film.
The Rajinikanth introduction song had become too predictable. It used to sound like 'Naan Autokaaran' (from Baasha) and it had begun to sound like 'Pudhiya Manidha' (from Enthiran). Anirudh brings back the old-style introduction song in 'Marana Mass' that reminds one of 'Podhuvaga En Manasu' from Murattu Kaalai.
What 'Marana Mass' did for the introduction song, 'Ullaallaa' did for the Rajinikanth philosophical song. It could either be sorrowful like 'Vidukathaiya' from Muthu. It could also be a celebration like 'Kikku Yerudhey' from Padayappa. 'Ullaallaa' is cut out of the 'Kikku Yerudhey' template.
Petta also marked the transition from having five or six songs in the album in addition to a theme song or two to having only a song or two in the album with the rest made up of the film's themes.
The music of VIP and Kaththi had 'mass' elements, but from Maari, North Chennai found a permanent home in Anirudh's music. He continues to use the large expansive sound that he created for the film in, say, Darbar. As a fun thought experiment, you could try and see if 'Thappa Dhaan Theriyum' starts to sound like 'Chumma Kizhi' if you speed it up and loop it in your head enough times. Anirudh continues to use variations of the sound he created for Maari. The album is also a fun throwback to the 90s. For example, parts of "Don-u Don-u Don-u" echo 'Kadhalikum Pennin' from Kadhalan.
'Selfie Pulla' sounds like it wasn't made in a studio but on the dance floor. It's impossible to ever guess the genre of Anirudh's songs because, often, he only adopts the sound of a genre without wholly subscribing to it. You hear a bit of rock and folk in the song.
'Paalam' is difficult to classify. It sounds and sashays like a baraat song. The singing sounds Carnatic at times, folk at others.
After Kaththi, Anirudh has often created themes for villains and included them in the soundtrack. The soundtrack for Petta, Darbar and Master too have themes for villains. Fans have begun to look forward to hearing these themes in the first look, teaser, and trailer.
VIP was Anirudh's first 'mass' album. But we are nowhere close to the complex sound of Vedalam. This is still the early Anirudh and the album includes melodically interesting songs like 'Amma Amma' in which two voices interpret the same tune differently, or even 'Udhungada Sangu', which keeps changing genre.
What makes Anirudh interesting is that his sensibility is wide. In lesser hands, 'Udhungada Sangu' would have been a regular kuthu song. He infuses it with a faint 90s vibe that makes it interesting.
In my mind, 'Thangamey' is the spiritual successor of 'Oorvasi' from Kadhalan. It sounds a bit like rock at times and like Carnatic at others, but never long enough for you to pin it down to a genre.
In 'Neeyum Naanum', the quietness of the heroine (who cannot speak in the film) is mirrored in the song. It's made up of basically just a voice and a quiet synth, almost like a hymn. A simple chorus accompanies the voice. The interlude is unintrusive, almost generic. Like 'Karuthavanlaam Galeejam', the arrangement in this song is very specific to the context. Similarly, 'Yennai Maatrum Kadhale' uses marching drums to depict the hero walking into danger like a soldier for the sake of love.
'Varavaa Varavaa' would be my pick of the album. The beat keeps going without respite, like someone looking for revenge, which is the situation in the film. Like 'Yennai Maatrum Kadhale', it has three simple parts that you can make your own and loop in your head almost immediately after you hear it.
Anirudh comes into this album with no baggage. The film might be rather dark but the music is definitely not. Even the remixed version of 'Po Nee Po' barely reaches the darkness of, say, 'Sadda Haq' from Rockstar. Anirudh has always kept it relatively light. He might hint at darker emotions like in the film's theme 'A Life Full of Love', but he never indulges in them.
'Why This Kolaveri Di' has rightly been relegated to the museum of musical curiosities where it belongs. But without 'Why This Kolaveri Di', there's probably no 'Kutti Story', which is a similarly relaxed and conversational song in Tanglish.
With a composer like Anirudh who defies genre and structure, it's hard to justify why this — and not, say Thanga Magan, is the best album. The simplest answer to that would be that it wasn't just Anirudh who came to this album without baggage. The audience too heard him without the baggage of expectation. What Roja is for AR Rahman's fans, 3 is for Anirudh's!