What’s The Shankerest Shankar Song Ever?

Last in a series about world-building in Indian cinema, we look at director Shankar’s love for shooting songs that build bigger worlds than the mega-budget films they belong to
What’s The Shankerest Shankar Song Ever?

If you’ve ever noticed yourself struggling to recall the title of that great 90’s song or a beautiful tune you haven’t listened to in a while, your first instinct is to either hum or whistle it to a friend. If the song was either directed by a major filmmaker or a superstar of the era, you could sneak in that bit of info to get a name. But if you’ve caught yourself forgetting a song from one of Shankar’s movies, you don’t have to try so hard. Before you open Wikipedia or before you confuse every algorithm in Shazam, you simply have to narrate the “legend” of the song that is often just as big as the song itself.

Say for instance you’re not able to name ‘Vaaji Vaaji’ from Sivaji (2007). You could say that it’s the shoot location from which Jackie Shroff was allegedly removed from when he wanted to sneak in. You could also say that Thotta Tharani spent more than Rs.3 crore to make a palace-like set for the song, making it the most expensive one for an Indian film then. Let’s say you want  another example and say you cannot recall ‘O Sukumari’ from Anniyan (2005). It’s a memorable song from a superhit movie. But just say the word “tulips” or “the flower song for which the crew waited six months to shoot” and that friend is sure to start crooning “Sanjane thene nena noooo..” That’s the power of a Shankar song. It’s the dream sequence for people who dream in EMI. It’s epic to the person who hopes to one day see at least one World Wonder.

As a card-holding member of this group, I’ve always wondered how he was able to build a separate fan-base for his songs. For a culture that did not grow up with million-dollar music videos like Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ or ‘Thriller’, the songs in these big films were the only place that wasn’t limited by the scope of a script or an actor’s image. The fact that a lot of these were dream sequences, especially in Shankar’s films, allowed for one’s imagination to run wild. And if you’re discovering these songs before you discovered cable TV (like a lot of us did), these grand musical universes demanded a sum that was often more valuable than the movie ticket. So if the theatre next door was screening a love story featuring a sweet young couple, Shankar’s movie gave you that PLUS a song that took you across the seven Wonders of the World, a song featuring the Miss World herself and her CGI clone and then a song featuring Prashanth and his twin bathing in their tighty-whities.

As irresistible as that sounds, it’s always been Shankar’s philosophy to give you so much more than the regular film that you just have to watch in the theatre. This “bigger or nothing” philosophy can be surmised by a coinage he himself has donated to Tamil pop culture. “Adhukum Mele”, you could have heard him say if ever there was a voiceover to Shankar’s brainstorming sessions. This is super-reassuring because the budget of a single Shankar song is oftentimes bigger than the budget of the other Tamil film that’s playing next door. And if you’re someone who thinks in EMI, doesn’t it make better financial sense to go to the theatre to watch a film like 2.0 (2018) because every minute of that film cost more than 4 crores to make?

This is obviously a silly way to quantity the worth of a movie but there’s always been a larger-than-life element to watching a Shankar movie song because it provides a bigger escape even within his escapist cinema. But before we get down to individual songs, how do you define a signature Shankar song? Is it a song that’s so far removed from its  movie that it comes with its own world, themes and story? Or is it simply a song so over the top in both concept and execution that you’re sure that only Shankar could have thought of it. Falling somewhere in the middle of both is one you can truly call a Shankar Song™. Here are a few favourites that stand out on in terms of vision and outrageousness.

The “Location” Song

If one were to divide Shankar’s songs into a set of tropes he uses repeatedly, it’s the location song that’s perhaps the least imaginative. Like ‘Pookale’ in (2015), ‘Athisayam’ in Jeans (1998), ‘Ennavale’ in Kadhalan(1994) and, most obviously, ‘Kadhal Anukul’ and ‘Kilimanjaro’ in Enthiran (2010)…, the highlight of the song arises from the place(s) it’s shot at. The myth of these songs are often woven around how tough it was to reach the location or how the song was the only one allowed to be shot there. Some of these songs were also shockingly fresh when we first discovered them back when vloggers hadn’t covered the world multiple times with GoPros (remember the kuala in ‘Telephone Manipol’?). Even the choreography, apart from the idea of lovers meeting in an otherworldly dreamland, doesn’t really present all that much in terms of a story of its own or a vision. But of his many location songs, a personal favourite is ‘Ale Ale’ from Boys (2003) set amid large lavender fields of Australia. Along with a strangely satisfying crinkling sound each time Ravi K Chandran’s freeze frames got activated, the song remains a blend of a high concept technology used for a charming, romantic AR Rahman duet.

The Futuristic Song

Shankar has for long nursed a special love affair for songs set in buildings that essentially look like modern IT parks. While songs like ‘Arima Arima’ presupposes the concept of a palace befitting a robot king, in other instances, they are simply a background for the ultra modern “Remo-types” and the heroine of the song. An example for this is ‘Kannum Kannum Nokia’ with its Apple Store aesthetic, complete with tonnes of glass and metal. These songs are also perfectly at home when we imagine a song as seen through the eyes of a robot. In 2.0 song ‘Enthira Logathe Sundariye’, we saw an entire universe inside a motherboard, with microchips turnings into butterflies and LED gardens. When merged with a concept like Rajini’s CG-infused fairer skin, these futuristic songs became wild and original. Rahman’s ‘Style’ from Sivaji is arguably the best among these modern songs.

The Folk Song Pro Max

The exact opposite of this is the rural folk song setting Shankar went on to master in his 2000s films. Starting earlier with the super successful ‘Uppu Kuaruvadu’ in Mudhalvan, these songs became way more purposeful than a requirement for the B can C centre audience. The choreography was fresh and innovative and so were the visual motifs he found for each film. This could be extras dressed up as Thanjavur Dolls in Mudhalvan (1999) to an entire bridge, agraharam and hills getting painted to the theme of ‘Andankaka Kondakari’ in Harris Jayaraj’s Anniyan, to a 1000 extras dressed with Rajini painted on their bellies for ‘Balleilakka’. Shankar even managed to parody himself in Nanban with a song that featured a fully repainted train for the folk portions.

The Folk Song Pro Max

The exact opposite of this is the rural folk song setting Shankar went on to master in his 2000s films. Starting earlier with the super successful ‘Uppu Kuaruvadu’ in Mudhalvan, these songs became way more purposeful than a requirement for the B can C centre audience. The choreography was fresh and innovative and so were the visual motifs he found for each film. This could be extras dressed up as Thanjavur Dolls in Mudhalvan (1999) to an entire bridge, agraharam and hills getting painted to the theme of ‘Andankaka Kondakari’ in Harris Jayaraj’s Anniyan, to a 1000 extras dressed with Rajini painted on their bellies for ‘Balleilakka’. Shankar even managed to parody himself in Nanban with a song that featured a fully repainted train for the folk portions.

A Story Within The Song

Among the Shankarest of Shankar songs are those that come with its own story. In Vikram-starrer I for instance, he pushes this concept to the extreme when he uses the idea of advertisements to chop up parts of a song into multiple sub stories. Some are bizarre like the sets of a guillotine as an ad for a razor blade. Another one includes a metal structure meant to show the inner workings of a mechanical watch. But how would you describe a song like ‘Ennodu Nee Irundhal’? It’s the entire Beauty And The Beast fairytale being brought alive in the form of an opera. Although it’s meant to show the inner workings of a man who has changed so much physically that his lover is repulsed by him, the song has its own world and its own dream logic. A similarly unreal world can be seen in Mudhalvan’s ‘Mudhalvane’. I mean, can you even imagine what the pitch session must have been like with Shankar describing a palace, a thousand knights in shining armour, Lutyens New Delhi, Manisha Koirala is a sunflower dress and three virtual pythons, all for one giant AR Rahman score.

The OG of CG

This includes the sub-genre of Shankar songs that are so wild and OTT that it took a few shows on Sun TV to make sense of what it was trying to do. Starting right with a small animated sequence in the iconic ‘Chikku Bukku Rayile’ to a full-fledged love story set inside an AI-inspired garbage ground (‘Boom Boom’), less is never more when Shankar is in his element. I mean ask an entire generation of teens who fell in love with a virtual girlfriend in ‘Enakku Oru Girlfriend’ and you’ll see how strange and shocking it was to feel that a decade before Spike Jonze made Her (2013). A similarly wild Shankar song was ‘Mersalayitten’ from I where Amy Jackson popped out of television sets, mobile phones and even a moving motorbike. But in all fairness, there cannot be a better example of a true Shankar song than this one from his second film. It is also the film that immediately gave his films a market in the north. When he imagined Prabhu Deva as a man waiting to be hung in Colorado, in the Wild Wild West for ‘Mukkala Muqabla’, that too in a song that begins with the heroine rescuing the hero, did he know that he was inspiring an entire generation?

With the use of these fantasy songs drying up in from the works of most new-age filmmakers and with a separate push to reduce songs, will we ever see a new Shankar song, in the grandest sense of term again? For people to whom his songs were dream sequences, without the reality of an EMI or daily routine coming in the way, we can only hope that he returns with a blessedly out-of-the-world song that is beyond gravity and logic, purpose and snobbery.

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