Memories Of The Movie Theatre: A Boomer Looks Back On The Bigness Of The Big Screen

Music is a primal force, and when coupled with the moving image, it makes cinema a different beast compared to the novel. There’s a story that you can go back and relate to your friends, sure, but there are also scenes etched in your mind because they moved you so much. 

I watched Psycho a couple of weeks after Darbar released, and later Vaanam Kottattum. My ears were literally screaming for respite when Anirudh’s guitar riffs blared every time Rajinikanth walked in slow motion, and it seemed like he was abusing the power granted as music director. In the case of Vaanam Kottattum, I was humming ‘Kannu Thangam’ long after the movie ended, but I did not remember even one scene where this song was played. Psycho, on the other hand, moved me incredibly. I was even able to ignore absurdities such as a blind man driving a car, solely because of the music. Darbar and Vaanam Kottattum served as the perfect contrast, and opened my eyes to how effectively Ilaiyaraaja uses music to tell a story.

Whether it’s the heavy violins that transition to a mournful flute when Subbu leaves Surya in Thalapathy, or the melancholy tune that weeps when Mysskin narrates his story in Onaayum Aattukuttiyum, Ilaiyaraaja’s music is never about making the audience pay attention to the music alone or to turn heads towards the hero. And so, I revisited Nayakan, a movie lauded for its direction and acting, to see how music elevated it. Two scenes, in particular, stood out.

Sait-u Veetu confrontation

Two Scenes In Nayakan That Showcase How Effectively Ilaiyaraaja uses music to tell a story

Velu has been freshly anointed as the protector of the slum, and he wakes up to find strange men in his courtyard. A hollow percussion beat sets the tone to signal that something is amiss. Once Velu steps out to see what is going on, the beat stops and there is no music for a while. There is a brief dialogue with the Sait, which moves on to  Durai. As Velu converses with Durai, the sinister note of a Shehnai-like instrument makes its entrance, and when Velu finally confronts Durai asking him how much his cut was, a bassy organ underlines the tension. This moment works only because there was no music till that point and the contrast elevates it.

In the very next scene, shots of trucks dumping gravel are intercut with shots of Velu and his henchmen on the warpath, marching to the ratamacue of a snare drum. The tension heightens until the point when Velu announces to the Sait and Durai that he is here to show them what it’s like to witness a house being demolished. Violins and a low-frequency instrument (probably an organ or a double bass) take over to set a brisk tempo. The beats of the scene are set to the music — there’s a surge in the intensity of the music whenever the visuals switch to slow motion. As a result, the images of Velu smashing the telephone with a sledgehammer or king-size beds being thrown over the balcony register deliciously. When the music reaches its height, the Sait’s resolve breaks as well, and his surrender brings the scene to an end, with Velu tearing the land documents.

Surya’s death

Two Scenes In Nayakan That Showcase How Effectively Ilaiyaraaja uses music to tell a story

This scene has become a meme in Tamil cinema history, launching hordes of Kamal imitators who know that crying in his trademark style guarantees a laugh from the audience. There is no doubt that it’s a powerful piece of acting but that scene works so well only because of the anticipation leading up to it.

The Nayakar is feeding his pigeons and is faced with a deafening silence when he climbs down the stairs, with everyone refusing to tell him what’s going on. At the first sign that something has happened to his son, there is a mild tinkle in the background, but that’s it. The silence is now replaced by the sound of the wind. The camera looks at Velu from a distance as he cries out for his son. It is only when he reaches the balcony and looks at his son’s corpse that a lament begins. The lament escorts him down till he reaches the place where Surya lies, but it stops there, much like the people by his side don’t have the courage to take a step further. Silence resumes.

Velu fumbles with his spectacles and finally removes the shroud to get a glance at his son, but he is not prepared for what he sees. He breaks down in pure anguish; as he collapses, the violins take over and crescendo before transitioning to ‘Thenpaandi Seemayile’.

Ilaiyaraaja’s fingerprints are all over every movie he works in, but if listening to a snippet of his music transports listeners to the first time they watched the movie in a theatre filled with mesmerised viewers, it’s because the music does not call out attention to itself. It’s woven into the fabric of the movie itself, and, maybe, someday you’ll look back to appreciate what the music did to the scene, but by then you’re already charmed by the spell it has cast. 

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