Is the Ilaiyaraaja–Mani Ratnam combination the greatest among all the other directors the great composer has made great music for? I'm not sure. But at least one aspect singles out these two creators. Whenever they came together, there were two levels of anticipation. (1) What will the album sound like? (2) What will the songs look like on screen? Here's my list. What's yours?
In this first film, there isn't yet a "Mani Ratnam style" of song. The numbers are shot in the "Balu Mahendra style" (he was the cinematographer), montages of people simply doing everyday things, like we saw in Poo vannam pola nenjam (Azhiyatha Kolangal) or Paruva kaalangalin kanavu (Moodupani). But in the exquisitely tuned and sung Nagu endide manjina bindu, we see the "Mani Ratnam style" of heroine, a single mother played by Lakshmi. Few other mainstream filmmakers have consistently told stories centered on married women. The other signature touch is an urbanite being shown with an unfussy mix of tradition and modernity. At one point in the song, we see Lakshmi in a sari, worshipping the tulsi plant. Elsewhere, she's in midis, jeans, she's seen reading a magazine in bed. She's a sad separated wife. She's a happy mother. She's also her own person.
This is a tough one, because the mood of the movie hardly presents much scope for the two songs. If I pick Theeram thedi olam padi, it's because this S Janaki solo would be reworked into a hit Tamil duet (Roja ondru from Komberi Mookan), and also because it's always nice to see the young Mohanlal in love. The visuals are pleasant: sunlight rippling on the sea, moisture disappearing from mud after a wave recedes. But there's nothing more — like, say, the eroticism in a future "lovers on a beach" number, Vaa vaa anbe anbe from Agni Natchathiram, with sand sticking to wet skin and the couple being tossed around by waves. Of course, Theeram thedi olam padi is pitched in a much mellower mood. I'm just saying the "pop-music video" aspect of the Ilaiyaraaja-Mani Ratnam combination isn't yet in place.
Three films in, and the composer still holds the upper hand. If asked with a gun to the head what the best song from the Mani Ratnam filmography is to date, I'll instantly pick Poo maalaiye. What a song! It's also the song I'd pick as the one, here, that looks best on screen. It's the Balu Mahendra aesthetic, yes — but done in a much more formal way, with hints of "choreography". (This is the first Mani Ratnam movie with song and dance, steps and all.) And along with the choreographer, you see the director. There are little "scenes", like when Murali is caught smoking. There's "acting" (as opposed to people just being). There's the camera that rises and captures the couple through the flowering tree, though the "poo" motif in the song's lyric isn't consistently explored elsewhere.
Mani Ratnam's most generic, least Mani Ratnam-esque movie has a glorious Ilaiyaraaja score. Paattu thalaivan is my favourite song (with the unrelenting shriek-shriek-shriek of Psycho violins made to sound like music, in the first interlude), but given that we are talking about the picturisation, I'll go with Vaanuyarndha solayile. The "vaan" motif, here, is much more visible than the "poo" motif in the earlier song. We get several "cinematographic" shots of the mourning Mohan silhouetted against or dwarfed by giant skies. Around the 2.24 mark, we get what's possibly this director's first frame-within-a-frame in a song, and I also like how Radha is used. She's spying on Mohan, and she glides through the song like the invisible presence she is to him. (She loves him. He only has thoughts for his dead lover.)
In the battle of Ilaiyaraaja's rain songs of 1986, Oho megam vandhadho pales before Vaan megam, from Punnagai Mannan. But the rest of this album is a beauty, and the song I'll choose is Mandram vandha thendralukku. My other top number from this film is Pani vizhum iravu, but though I love the idea of using erotic dance moves to contrast with a sexless marriage, this rubber-limbed music video sits oddly in this gentle movie. In Mandram vandha thendralukku, we finally move from a single emotional state being depicted in a song to a "story" being told in a song. The divorce has just been agreed upon. This is the worst time for surprise guests, but there they are. Revathy flees to her room, and gives us a signature Mani Ratnam mirror shot, first raising her face just enough to show the vermilion dot, and then gazing at herself fully. Also, thanks to PC Sreeram's high-contrast cinematography, Mani Ratnam finally lands the formalistic look that will reach its zenith in his next film.
Except for the various versions of Thenpaandi cheemayile, this is not an album I particularly love. Ilaiyaraaja's genius lies in the justly legendary background score. But the pick is easy: Andhi mazhai megam. This is the situation: you need to show the don has become not just a distant saviour but one of the people. It's raining. Kamal Haasan and his entourage are only ones with umbrellas, carefully weaving through crowds in Holi revelry. When the little boy leaps and applies red powder on Kamal's face, some of which spills on his spotless white shirt, the tension is palpable. But he smiles and chucks his umbrella and becomes… one of them. This is a song with choreographed steps, yet Sreeram weaves his camera in and out of the scene, creating a sense of utter abandon — there are even splashes of water on the lens. For me, the most brilliant touch is how the singers (on screen) keep changing. Usually, it's one pair that sings, with the rest merely performing the steps. But here, the camera follows the crowd and keeps picking out people who sing a line, before handing the mud-splattered "stage" to the next lip-syncer. It's the equality they've been striving for — and this is possibly Mani Ratnam's first great music video, both in terms of conception and execution.
What a cracker of an album! What a cracker of a masala movie! I can't think of too many films where six song sequences — six MTV-style music videos, really — are so tonally different. One's in a swimming pool. One's by the beach. One's in a railway station, apparently lit by E.T.'s spaceship. One's inside a room that explodes in LSD colours, like the world's biggest lava lamp. One's on an ad-film-like set, with a swing. I'll pick the one inside the gym, with Amala and her friends in leotards ragging Prabhu, who's seriously trying to work out. Flex exercises and hula hoops and Roman Rings and skipping and aerobic workouts become the basis of the "dance steps". After the conceptual grimness of Nayakan, here's Mani Ratnam saying you can infuse a "concept" even into the fluffiest of situations.
If it's just about Ilaiyaraaja's work, then I'd go with Om namaha and O paapa laali. But when we think of the songs as they play out on screen, it's O priya priya — aka, a dress rehearsal for Sundari kannaal oru seithi, from Thalapathy. The fate of the tragic lovers (they've each got a potentially fatal illness) is imagined as a desert kingdom, the illnesses become the king's guards always trying to separate them, and the whole thing gets a timeless fable-like quality thanks to the princess-and-commoner trope from fairy tales. How I wish these films are restored, so the YouTube generation can really see the light/shadow play, the colours as they were meant to be. Still, even with the available prints, you can see how the song is very much in tune with the film's central idea of Girija saving Nagarjuna from his morbid obsession with approaching death. Even in the song, she keeps saving him.
It's very much a story for grown-ups, and the brilliant twist is that every song is either sung by children, or staged around them. (I find these music videos a bit grating today — but back then, it was the wildest use of song I'd seen in an Indian movie.) My pick from Ilaiyaraaja's smash album is Raathiri nerathu, brilliantly, brilliantly sung by SPB. It's not about the special effects: they tried, but you can't pull off a Star Wars here. It's about the idea, that a bedtime story turns into a sci-fi adventure for the whole family unit: Revathy, Raghuvaran and their two kids. The father opens a book, and the story invades their home and sucks them away to outer space. They undergo a variety of tortures from aliens, but they escape and when they destroy the enemy, all four of them are at the controls. This is a film about a family, and this is its equivalent of a "family song" — once again, seen through a child's imagination.
There's a series of riches to choose from in Ilaiyaraaja's final soundtrack for Mani Ratnam, in this Mahabharata retelling, but the choice is easy: the second version of Chinna thaayaval, staged in a temple and its surroundings. Rajinikanth/Karna has just discovered that Srividya/Kunti is his mother, and the song opens with a "picture" of his parents. Kunti emerges from the stairs of the temple pond, whose surface is suffused with sunlight: Kunti and Surya, in the same frame, by Santosh Sivan. The staging is like Andhi mazhai megam, but less rowdy, more stately. There are always people crossing the frame, rarely allowing mother and son a private moment on screen. They are never seen together. The closest he gets to a "mother's touch" is when he picks up a flower, a solitary jasmine bloom, that's fallen from her hair. You should have seen that flower in 70mm. Man, oh man! As a pure filmmaker, I certainly prefer the Mani Ratnam of today — but those of you who've seen the Ilaiyaraaja-Mani Ratnam films only on smaller screens, you really don't know what you missed.