The Ilaiyaraaja masterclass took place this Wednesday evening. Balki was moderating it, and I met up with him for a chat this afternoon. It turned out to be a session of Raja remembrances. I spoke of growing up with the maestro’s music and what it was like to be in Chennai at that time, ear tuned to the radio. I spoke about listening to a Geethanjali number for the first time. Balki hummed a number from the Mani Ratnam film. I said it was an earlier movie, the one with Thulli ezhunthathu paattu, a song that made you feel the night. He then, spoke of the day he approached Raja for the very first time —for Cheeni Kum— and said he wanted to use his older songs. He recalled how Raja pulled out a file filled with sheet music—from among several such files—and showed him the notations for Mandram vandha thendralukku, which even stated which musicians would play which notes.
Balki spoke of the time Raja came out of the loo with the melody line for Piddly si baatein (which appeared in Shamitabh), written on a flap of toilet paper. He spoke of the time Raja told him his music wasn’t just a tune—a “melody” —but something systematically created to affect the listener’s neurons, which is why the sad songs make us feel so sad, the happy songs make us take flight into the clouds. He spoke of Raja’s disappointment when he saw the way many of his songs were picturised, of the abyss between the lofty things Raja had imagined while composing and the vulgar reality on screen. Balki’s passion for Raja is second to none. “This man made a stinking city smell sweet,” he said, meaning that after a session with Raja at Prasad Studios, even the sewers of Kodambakkam appeared fragrant. (He repeated this anecdote in the masterclass.)
After our chat, Balki took me to the maestro’s room. There He was, dressed in white as always. Introductions were made, but after the brief smiles and hellos, it was clear that the great man’s mind was on something else. He had asked Balki to find a stretch of Amadeus he wanted to talk about and he’d found it himself, with someone’s help. He played the stretch on his smartphone and spoke about how music was used in the film as a counterpoint to the dialogue. Amadeus was released in 1984, Raja said, but he had used this technique in many films that came earlier. I asked him which ones, or if he could name just one such film. He laughed and said, “That is for you to find out.”
I asked Balki how he was planning to approach the masterclass, and he said he was going to just “play with Raja sir”—as in, just have a lot of fun. That’s exactly what he did at the event, which was meant to start at 4 pm, but was running late. The musicians were on stage, tuning the instruments, checking the sound. As they played snatches of songs (the opening violin bit from Mella mella ennai thottu, or an interlude from Vizhiyile), the crowd roared so much that I wondered if this was Chennai or Goa. At 4.20, an impatient member of the audience yelled, “Ayya, poosari laam vandhutteenga… kadavula kannla kaaminga…” Everyone laughed. Ten minutes later, when the maestro ascended the stage to thunderous applause, someone else stood up and asked, “Dharisanam kidaikaadha?” Clearly, this was an audience that knew its stuff.
Balki said it was an honour. He said he was a fanboy. He called Ilaiyaraaja “the coolest dude I’ve ever met”. He said the man was still eight years old, like a child when it comes to his enthusiasm for music. He said that today’s music directors struggle to do 8 or 9 films a year, and Raja has done 58. He said Raja taught half the country how to fall in love. The maestro then took over, asking his orchestra to play the opening bars of Mella mella. Then he hummed the pallavi. Balki called it a “first-ball six”.
He asked how Raja composed background scores with melodies that could be converted to songs. By way of an answer, the maestro sang Engey irundhaai isai, from Ajantha. The lyrics were the answer. How can one say where the music comes from? Then, in the musical equivalent of what Hitchcock said about editing, he said he could make the same expression of a hero on screen mean different things. “With one tune, I can make him look like he is thinking about his mother… Or his childhood… Or his lover…” Balki asked him about the background score of two scenes in Paa, and why the same theme used in the scene where Auro visits the Rashtrapati Bhavan was used again at the end, when Auro’s parents get married.
But really, the answer did not matter—for this was not, technically speaking, a masterclass, even though a few “technical” things like that Amadeus bit came up. One, few people can talk about music, which is the most abstract of arts. And two, in several concerts, the maestro has already spoken about how this song or that song came about. And here, too, the audience wanted more music than talk. Balki was really an emissary between god and his devotees. When he asked about scoring a rural scene with Western Classical Music, Raja replied, “Why should I explain my techniques to you? I am free to do anything to make the film interesting.” He implied that most films are bad and he has to do these things to not get bored.
But surely this is not the answer. It’s something to make the audience laugh, that’s all. The real reason lies inside his head and either he didn’t want to talk about it or he cannot put it into mere words. So it made sense that Balki gave Raja a situation—a son is about to kill his father—and asked for the score to be composed on the spot. It was a privilege to watch the great man at work. He put some paper on his harmonium and started scribbling with a pen. A few minutes later, he handed the sheet to his violinist and the tune took on a simple form. By the time the full orchestra performed it, it was breathtaking. Because of the father-son scenario Balki suggested, Raja had composed a theme like a lullaby.
An hour had gone by and it was already time for audience questions. Several songs came up. Om shivoham… Nalla neram neram… Ae zindagi gale laga le… When the prelude of the latter song began, a woman stood up and belted out the lines with amazing confidence. Raja mentioned that that song was forty years old. He’s wrong. It’s timeless. Raja then made the audience hum along to Thendral vandhu theendum pothu… By 5.40, he rose. But the audience made him sit for an encore. He did one of those medleys where a song segues smoothly to the next one. Ilamai enum poongatru slipped into Ilaya nila which slipped into En iniya pon nilaave… you should have heard the roars that punctuated the numbers. Balki, clearly, wasn’t the only fanboy in the auditorium.