Santhosh Narayanan has found a way to make his unusual music accessible. Since his debut eight years back in Attakathi, he has often skirted popular Tamil music sensibilities even while working in mainstream commercial films like Kabali and Kaala. Rarely has one heard such eclectic music in a Vijay film as in Bairavaa. Take the acid jazz-inspired song ‘Azhagiya Soodaana Poove’ that sounds like an echo of funk band Jamiroquai’s ‘Virtual Insanity’ cleverly adapted to the format of a generic Tamil duet. Santhosh’s music can be surprising—even shocking, sometimes—without alienating the listener.
It’s not just that he melds genres. He make it his own as he combines them. His songs are interesting even when you just care about how they sound. They’re even more rewarding when you pick them apart to look at what makes them tick. It’s not just music that sounds good, it’s also music that’s thoughtfully put together. Beneath all the apparent chaos, Santhosh is something of a formal minimalist, building complexity out of deceptive simplicity.
He is at his experimental best with new-age directors like Pa Ranjith, Nalan Kumarasamy, and Karthik Subbaraj. His music in their films has an exuberance that makes one think that the tightrope between quirky and accessible is really a musical highway thrown wide open to the listener. The following is a list of eight such unique albums that are both unusual and enjoyable.
‘Aasai Oru Pulveli’ is the pick of the album, with its bright guitar and unhurried flute. It often flutters with Carnatic flavour as the tune rises. At other times, it sounds a bit like progressive bluegrass. The guitar never really stops strumming its steady rhythm, just like the ceaseless beating of a heart in love.
‘Podi Vechi Pudippan’ is a self-aware hero introduction song that doesn’t take itself seriously. Have we ever heard a nasal-sounding accordion instead of a blaring trumpet in a song that is supposed to extoll the hero’s greatness? The musical arrangement is delightfully tongue-in-cheek.
Another song in which the guitar plays the role of a metronome that keeps the song company is ‘Vazhi Parthirundhen’. The song is about the hero keeping vigil at night, waiting for his lover to arrive so that they can elope. The guitar-metronome recedes to the background sometimes, and at other times it seems to envelope the vocals, mirroring the character’s hope that alternates between rising and sinking.
An unusual film like Soodhu Kavvum needed unusual music. ‘Come Na Come’ starts off with a short parody of informational programmes on Doordarshan before swiftly transitioning to an edgy rhythm. The orchestration is minimalistic, and you can count the number of instruments used with one hand. And yet, it sounds boisterous.
The Tamil thathuva paadal of the 1950s is a perfect match for Santhosh’s minimalism and ‘Ellam Kadanthu Pogumada’ is a terrific and faithful tribute to the music from that era. The biggest hit from the film, though, has to be ‘Kaasu Panam’. The song starts off with muffled beats that lead you to think that it belongs to the house genre before suddenly exploding into a fun and random gaana rap.
‘Ding Dong’ is a song that’s about a gangster who is eccentric. Santhosh musically represents the character skilfully by combining Tamil hip hop for the gangster part and trippy reggae beats for the eccentric part. Again, in ‘Paandi Naatu Kodi’ which is sung by the gangster during a drinking binge, he uses a brass band which is typically used for occasions like weddings. This is a gangster whose every binge has to have the over-the-top vibe of a marriage procession.
In contrast to these rather loud numbers is ‘Jigar’ that sounds like a tribute to Ennio Morricone’s ‘Un Amico’ from Inglourious Basterds—meditative and restlessly searching at the same time.
The melodic line in ‘Poo Avizhum Pozhudhil’ seems to twist itself around a quiet beat. The song is exquisitely layered; various sounds fade in and out, depicting the changing emotional state of the character.
‘Endi Ippadi’ is just a kuthu song if you mute out everything but the vocals. The sparse orchestration, especially that drone that won’t stop looping, transforms the song into a rare example of a highly stylised kuthu song.
Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum
‘Bongu Kichan’ can be used for adult education classes because —on the surface— it sounds like a simple nursery rhyme for grownups. It is very minimal. It has a voice that sounds just slightly off, a string section, and an oboe for interludes. It also has significant pauses that create an expectation in the listener for the next musical phrase. There’s way more going on in the song than just what meets the ear.
For the title song ‘Ka Ka Ka Po’ Santhosh uses harmony to creatively depict what’s going on in the minds of the hero and the heroine. You’d be hard-pressed to hear a single harmony when the male voice is singing, because he is singing to himself. The heroine though is afraid, thanks to the voices in her head, and you hear harmonies when the song shifts to her. It doesn’t just sound good when you listen to it; it also makes sense when you watch it in the movie.
‘Ei Suzhali’ is a spirited Tamil folk song with an unusual “lowkey” RnB arrangement. Perhaps, Santhosh has a secret lab somewhere where he stores rare musical genres in freezers and experiments with different combinations to create strangeand new musical beasts.
‘Vettu Pottu’ would have been just a ‘mass’ song but for the groovy distorted synth that haunts the song at regular intervals. Santhosh doesn’t overuse this, though; he makes you crave for it as you hear the generic portions. One of those songs that you go back to over and over again, just to hear those few musical phrases.
If The Who developed a fascination for big brass orchestration, they might have created ‘Dhikku Dhikku Sir’. Both the music and lyrics are zany. It’s only topped by ‘Jagadhammaa’ which sounds like the love child of Bon Jovi’s ‘It’s My Life’ and an Amman song.
Can you do anything interesting when writing music for a romcom? You can create ‘Maalai Nera’ which sounds like a Carnatic song sung by drunk with a refrain that’s straight out of Jigarthanda’s ‘Ding Dong’. It’s a romantic song thatdoesn’t immediately sound romantic but still feels romantic.