There's something surreal about the image Justin Prabhakaran paints for you when he's describing the early stages of his musical journey. In his teens, he graduated to become the main musician at the Madurai church where his father used to work as the night watchman. During the Sunday mass, he played mediator to connect the pastor's speeches with the devout Christians who came there. As the pastor spoke, he listened patiently so he could complement the words with the music he played on the organ. "If the mass was positive, I kept the music light and cheery. But if the pastor spoke emotionally, like when he's delivering a eulogy, I played tunes like 'Nearer My God To Thee'—the tune those violinists played at the end of Titanic."
He then observed his audience carefully to see how they were reacting. "By this time, the family members of the deceased are already tired from all the crying that has been going on for days. But when I played this tune, you could see how they all started crying again. I might not even know the person who died but the pastor's words would make me feel something at that moment. And with my music, I would give the family the cue to let go of all defences. They would then cry their hearts out. It was their catharsis."
This is where he learnt the sway music has over emotions. It's a tool he keeps sharpening as the hit composer for films in Hindi, Telugu and Tamil. "Even when I was a singer in the church choir, I was always looking at the musicians playing the instruments. That's where I wanted to be." And because his father worked the night shift, he would join him so he could keep playing the church instruments all night long. What helped was his innate ability to play an instrument just by listening to a tune. This became his party trick when he began to play the latest hits on the school harmonium, a skill that excused him from teachers for being an average student. Justin's family took note of their son's special skill and let him pursue his passion obsessively, even if it meant him spending all his time at church instead of school or home.
But even before this phase, he had seen signs of a divine intervention connecting him and music. "I had just started playing at church, helping the musician by backing him. Then one day, I was told that he couldn't come to church because of an emergency. I had never played alone for a crowd but more than that, I was stuck as a keyboard player. I could play tunes with my right hand and my left hand but never use both hands at once. It was an issue that kept me up at night because I just wasn't able to bring both hands together. Adhu cycle balance kadaikira mathiri. But on that day, when the lead musician didn't arrive, I sat tensed in front of the keyboard, as the pastor started speaking in front of a full church. And when it was my turn, I went ahead and used both hands and the music just started to…flow. It was a miracle."
It's a feeling he has been chasing ever since. Events like these can give one a lot of clarity because it's not easy to pursue something as abstract as music. He joined Madurai's famed American College to get a BSc degree but he looked at it as a music college, spending his time at the library. He also joined a band called Living Fossils where his music got another practical outlet. It was while he played for the band that he composed his first song, a leap of faith for any musician. "Until then I had only seen myself as a musician. But when I composed a song and when it became popular, something clicked within me. Making my own songs gave me a high I'd never felt before."
He describes this shift as an even bigger obsession. "Your thinking changes after that. From then, the process of listening to songs become different. I would keep listening to Raaja sir's songs, only to break them down to understand how it was made. What is the length of an anu pallavi? How has he used the hook-line in a song? That became the line of thinking."
But one has to understand how music making was changing to understand how far Justin had to travel, both symbolically and otherwise. As a reasonably confident musician, he had learnt the art of playing several tracks on the keyboard to create a song. He would then 'save' these individual tracks on floppy drives to create a personal collection. But when his friends and family pitched in to get Justin to compose for an album, he realised that there was still a long way to go. "In a studio in Madurai, I met Arul sir, who was then an assistant to Vidyasagar. He had come from Chennai and he was doing on a computer what I would take weeks to do with my keyboard. The monitor itself looked alien and I didn't even know how to switch on a computer, let alone learn the software. And when I asked a friend how much it would cost to buy the cable that connected the keyboard to the computer (for musical instrument digital interface or MIDI), he said ₹5000!"
He describes this sum as a hint at the exposure he had back then to how 'digital' music had become. Nevertheless, he was advised to give sound engineering a shot and he came to Chennai's MGR Film Institute to try his luck. With the limited number of seats and a tough interview process, he was almost sure he wouldn't make it. "This is where miracle #2 happened. I had passed the test somehow and a day before the interview, I asked an anna who had studied sound engineering just one doubt. 'How do you record on DTS?'. And when I went for my interview, the first thing I was asked was…'how do you record on DTS?"
He got the admission and this began his conversion from a musician to a technician. "On one of my first days at college, I asked my professor how much the same cable cost, the one that connects the instrument to the computer. He said, "You'll get it for ₹40 in Ritchie Street." Not ₹5000 like he had thought.
Financially speaking, it was a tough time at home but his brother agreed to step up and look after his family, allowing Justin the luxury to focus on his studies alone. And for his own personal expenses and hostel fees, Justin started working at a telephone booth part-time, before and after his classes. "I spent those three years learning the theoretical side of programming. I had read as much as I could about music theory and the science of sound. But the practical side was still a challenge. Even at the end of my third year, I still didn't know how to use a computer."
A part of the "third miracle" is how he got to work with Harris Jayaraj as his assistant sound engineer after college. "When Harris sir asked if I could work nights, I was more than happy. Another major plus was how I got a further two or three months to put all my theory to use. Since Harris sir was out of the studio to compose, I was able to learn about some of the best equipment in the industry. And when I combined my theoretical knowledge with the practise I was getting at his studio, I felt I had learnt the basics of every stage of music-making."
This is also when he would run from the studio to his own personal home setup to make background scores for short films at Nalaya Iyyakunar. From 2 AM to 6 AM was generally spent with short filmmakers then. "After that, I would rush back to the studio to start my day. It was such an exciting time that factors like health and sleep never even occurred to me."
The word spread about a young music composer from Madurai who worked out of his room. His background scores gained a lot of attention at Nalaya Iyyakunar and one project led to another until he was chosen to score for Pannaiyarum Padminiyum. "Along with working with Harris sir, my biggest dream was to get Vaali sir to write lyrics for one of my songs. That happened for my first film itself, even without me asking for it." The third miracle, as he says.
The eight years that followed have been nothing short of a culmination of a dozen mini-miracles. The composer now has a devout set of fans who listen to his melodies obsessively on loop. His songs are neither instant hits nor viral monsters but they grow on the listener like an addiction that takes over the mind when you least expect it to. "If you compose a song from your heart, it needn't get the reactions you're hoping for immediately. It might have worked a few years earlier or even a few years later but there is an inherent honesty to that creation. I was very disappointed when not many people noticed 'Eppo Varuvaaro' in Oru Naal Koothu. But now it has grown to become one of my most popular hits. Songs like that are not sprints meant for a short duration. They are journeys that stay with the listener."
Albums like Meenakshi Sundareshwar and the lovely Dear Comrade have created fans outside his home state too and a set of directors who only want to work with him. But it's not like making music has become easy, he insists. "No matter how much I tried, I was not getting a tune for the main love song for Dear Comrade. I felt so depressed then and the director even went ahead and shot portions of it without a proper tune. But when he sent the first visuals of the film with Rashmika and Vijay Deverakonda and with the rain in the background, I found my tune. More than the situation, I reacted to the film's landscape and that's what led to 'Kadallalle'.
All of this goes back to his teens as the church musician, he reminds me. "Finally, it's all about the emotions I'm able to create for the story and its viewer. Like the pastor, I listen to the director now but the reactions I try to create are the same. Expect that instead of seeing the faces of my audience live, I now have to imagine how they'd react to a scene or a situation when they watch the film. All the training I've had after is to create that same feeling for the viewer. Catharsis."