Susheela (Madhoo) waits for her train at the Egmore railway station, her eyes searching for someone, when Gautami walks in wearing a gorgeous tulle ensemble, heels clicking amidst train announcements. A young boy with a cap worn sideways — an image that screams 90s — suddenly breaks into song. “Chikku bukku chikku rayile, ada kalakkuthu paar iva stylu”: a young GV Prakash Kumar’s voice takes over as Prabhu Deva jumps from the sky and onto the platform, his dance unstoppable.
Like many songs of its time, ‘Chikku Bukku Rayile’ instantly transports us into a world of candyfloss and fantasy, away from Shankar’s vigilante warrior story of deceit, death and destruction. But the AR Rahman song was much more than just a delightful distraction. With Gentleman’s ‘Chikku Bukku Rayile’, Rahman and Shankar created a definitive pop moment in Tamil film history.
The song itself was a product of every little detail — from the kind of sounds AR Rahman envisioned and Suresh Peters brought to life. The inspiration for the train sounds could be traced back to a conversation Rahman had with an ad-maker, whose “whole house would rattle at the noise” of the trains near their house, wrote Kamini Mathai in her book AR Rahman, The Musical Storm). On the film’s 30th anniversary, here’s the story that led to the song.
The Birth of The Song
Madhesh, Shankar’s AD in Gentleman: Shankar had this vivid memory of college students singing this catchy line on their way to college by bus when he was a student himself. It went something like "Chikku Bukku Rayile Chikku Bukku Rayile, Oduthu Nagore Mail-le”. And he wanted to incorporate this into Gentleman. The situation of the film warranted this because Kicha (Arjun) is travelling by train in the film, and we wanted a song for this situation.
This one line gave life to the song. As per the script, the song was initially supposed to unfold on a bus, but we changed it to a train. But shooting in a moving train at night wasn't an easy thing. We took that as a challenge. Apo dhan brahmandamana director ah oruvaanru Shankar (That was the start of Shankar’s ambitious filmmaking).
Suresh Peters, singer: This song itself was something that came as a surprise. I was not aware that I was singing for a film. The only thing that Rahman asked me was to sing a track and I didn't really ask any questions. Rahman has a habit of taking vocals on tracks that necessarily don't give the idea of the whole song, and then he would work on them. I landed up singing this track and forgot about it. A year later is when I realised it was for a film. I recorded the song again as there were changes in the lyrics. By that time I had met Shankar too.
The first time I sang it, I could not see the whole song because it was taken in different segments and we were focused on the melody. Whereas when I sang it the second time, there were parts that emerged that I didn't hear the first time, like the sax lick that leads into the song. The structure was a little more defined. But even then it was not fully there. Rahman worked on it even after I had sung it again. When I heard the final track, I was blown away.
Madhesh: I used to assist Shankar even when he was an assistant director. I had a corporate job when Gentleman happened. When he got the opportunity to work on the film, he first called me, told me to resign and join him. Of course, I quit my job and joined him. Everyone had massive faith in Shankar at the time, and so did I. My decision (to quit) was eventually proved right (laughs).
Suresh Peters: It was a brand new experience for me in terms of language. Until then I have sung songs, but had mainly worked on ads and programming. When the song happened the second time, we did a lot more detailing. It would be one of the first times when a singer would do his own harmonies of the main track. We also did doubling vocals. That was brand new. We approached Chikku Bukku Rayile like an internationally produced song.
Rahman had a clear idea of what he wanted and since I had worked with him earlier (I was in a rock band called Nemesis Avenue, in which he was the keyboard player), he had an idea of my timbre. One of the lovely things about Rahman is the kind of voices he brings into music. Be it Minmini in Roja or making Mano sing Mukkabala, he is always looking for something and maybe he saw that something in me. Being a percussionist and having worked with him in Roja, he used my voice the right way.
Madhesh: When we initially pitched this idea, a lot of people were hesitant. Because there is the matter of permissions, getting dancers to dance on a moving train and other logistics. But our visuals were set. These were all questions and problems and we just needed to find solutions and work backwards.
We shot most of the song at the Egmore railway station, where we hired a train for three days. But first, how do you light a running train and make sure you get electricity? This was a question that we all had. We hired a few generators and used one such generator for each light. So, we had about 10-12 generators for the 12 lights we used, and we rolled. It was very risky and needed huge manpower, which meant expenses. But producer Kunjumon sir stood by us. "Panringala? Nalla varuma? Apo pannunga (Will it turn out to be good? Okay then go ahead)," he said. We then shot Raju Sundaram’s portions at the Guindy race course for a day. It took us a total of five days to wrap. Spending such time on a song was unheard of then.
Madhoo, actress: Shankar sir had a very different way of connecting the plot points in his story. His way of narration, too, was very different—one that was grounded in reality, but also had a lot of high-intensity action, and music, weaved into storytelling.
The scene in the train was the first time I saw Prabhu Deva dance. And I remember, thinking to myself, “Oh my god, how his body moves. Where are his bones?” Especially the part of the song where he dances to the beat of the train. Until then dancing was all about movement and swaying. In Tamil, we use the word 'vettardhu'. That’s exactly how I would describe it.
Madhesh: We wanted a central artiste for the song, for which we decided to approach Gautami. It was our first project so there were hesitations as to whether she would agree. But we wanted to try our luck and both of us set off to meet her. The minute we told her the crux—which is a song inside a running train—she loved it and was on board.
We kept thinking about how we could keep adding colour to the song. Merugethikite irukanum (had to keep polishing and making it better) was the idea. We knew we wanted a little boy's voice for the song. And once we told this to Rahman, he told us he had something in his mind. And we decided to open it with that little boy's perspective. It was all magic.
Aditya Madhavan, who played the little boy in the song: Gentleman was my first film before films like Kuruthipunal and Rhythm. I was picked for the Trumilk biscuit ad shot by PC Sreeram, for which the casting was done by Ms Anees, who was cinematographer Jeeva’s wife. And Jeeva happened to be the DOP for Gentleman. And I was hence called to do this.
I was too young when I shot this and don’t remember much, but from what my parents told me, I was very excited. I remember not knowing how to wink and it was Gautami aunty who taught me. Prabhu Deva, on the other hand, helped me with the rest of the actions. We shot the song in Egmore on the first day and in Chengalpet, on the second, both after 10 PM. While GV (GV Prakash Kumar, who voiced his parts) and I didn’t know each other then, we spent most of our childhood together in school and were also the cultural secretaries, spending our time attending culturals. It is amazing to know I was part of something so historic. Even today, where I live in Singapore, you still hear it everywhere.
Suresh Peters: The recording day was crazy. We started in the morning and finished almost the next morning. By the time we finished, it must have been about 3AM! Before Rahman, everything was acoustic like the string section, guitar, drums or bass guitar. But with Rahman, we were hearing synthetic sounds that were so pleasing. And then he explored programming, something that would take a song to near-close perfection. All of this was even more fascinating than singing. It was more about what was beneath the song. You could've recorded ‘Chikku Bukku Rayile' with a drum and guitar. But it won't be anywhere close to the birth of the synth sound. We were listening to our own language for the first time with that kind of sound.
If you listen to ‘Chikku Bukku Rayile’, the interlude, where you get sounds of dholak and tabla with the jugalbandi happening, came from a high-calibre percussionist. Or take Naveen who plays the flute or Sivamani on the drums or Keith Peters who plays bass. All of these musicians contributed to the song in a huge way. It is not just the singers and programmers, but the quality of the musicians that Rahman uses.
Madhesh: This particular song gave new perspectives to many people in the crew. Even when Suresh Peters sang the song at the time, we did wonder if people would be accepting of it because they weren't used to his voice. Rahman and Shankar stood by him and knew he would be a trendsetter. Many assistants at the time suggested getting many others to sing, but these two were sure about him, and at the end of the day they were right.
Suresh Peters: Shankar had that faith in me. He knew what to extract from whom. And there have been a lot of creative interactions between us. I have worked with him on ‘Pettai Rap’ (Kadhalan) as well, for which we sat and wrote the lyrics together because rap was something new to Tamil. In those days, harmonies used to be done by background vocalists. But in ‘Chikku’, there would be 15 to 18 tracks of mine on that song alone, where I would've done my bass, my seconds, thirds, and counters, all on vocals. The singers themselves do the harmonies so that the timbre doesn't change from person to person. Because of the nature of the song, the harmonies sounded so nice.
The reception and legacy
Madhesh: We felt the pain only during conceiving, but once we executed it, things were calm. Oru song vandhu mudiya pidichi ulukirichu is what you can say. The audio was first released around 30-40 days before the release of the film. We use the word ‘viral’ so frequently today, but the song became viral back then. The first call and reaction for the song was from Malaysia. A lot of audiences were wondering how this song would be visualised, and thankfully we put a lot of thought into it (smiles).
Karthik Srinivasan, music analyst and writer: I heard ‘Chikku Bukku’ for the first time in 1993 like most people. I was waiting for the cassettes in Salem, where I was studying in college. We knew even then that AR Rahman was extremely unique and the films Roja (1992) and Pudhiya Mugam (1993) were proof enough. I was also keen to see what he could do with a fairly new director.
Shankar had assisted director Pavithran for the film Surieyan in 1992. If you notice, most of the things he showed in Gentleman was directly inspired as a template from Surieyan, and most importantly ‘Chikku Bukku Rayile’ was the exact template that Pavithran used in Surieyan with Prabhu Deva's ‘Lallaku Dol Dappi’ song. The song is completely incidental just like ‘Chikku Bukku Rayile’. But just observe the differences in the musical sense. Deva's song was a folkish song. This one was completely bizarre the first time I heard it. The voice of Suresh Peters was literally screeching and screaming. But then you actually understood the pattern and then it was a complete earworm! I thought Rahman was trying to emulate Michael Jackson's voice with the song, and both Rahman and Suresh Peters nailed it.
Madhesh: We trusted the audiences to accept the song, but didn't expect this sort of a vertical take off. They gave us 150 marks out of 100.
Karthik Srinivasan: The lyrics, at that period, were captivating at least to college students like myself. It talked about baggy pants and girls and stuff, which was typically Vaali. When the video came out, it became an even bigger earworm. In hindsight, it looks corny, but back then Shankar was trying something fairly ambitious even for an item song. It was a true landmark from that point of view. I would in fact rate it even better than Mukkala (from Kadhalan) also, and look at it as a precursor to what Shankar and Rahman wanted to achieve in Tamil cinema.
Where Shankar did something different was the animation in the beginning. It was like a quasi-dream song, but of course, you had no clue who was actually dreaming. There was no narrative connection between the song and the movie. At least you could argue that songs like ‘Ottakatha Kattiko’ are Madhoo's dream sequences. Prabhu Deva, Gautami and Raju Sundaram are merely introduced as an incidental forced addition to the beginning of the song. It is a nice distraction from the movie and Shankar didn't even pretend he needed a link. It was just like a "here's what I can do as a showcase” kind of a thing.
Suresh Peters: During those days we had a longevity for songs. We had to go to a shop and buy a cassette and could experience a song on a tape recorder. You cannot compare that to today. The very sound is different because ‘Chikku Bukku Rayile' was recorded on analog spool and not digital equipment. When you listen to the song, you can hear the richness of the analog sound anyway. You can't take that way. It is a song which will live as long as music lives.
Karthik Srinivasan: Chikku Bukku has aged stupendously well. If you listen to the song even now, it is very fresh. It is a top-of-the-chart Western pop song, but sung in Tamil.
Madhoo: I feel quite lucky to have been part of such iconic songs. It is nothing but great destiny. People forget movies, but people don't forget songs in our culture. ‘Chikku Bukku Rayile’ showed us what Tamil songs can be, and what dance can be.