One could perhaps look at Pa Ranjith’s Natchathiram Nagargiradhu as a musical. As early as the first shot, we understand the power that music holds in the film. Rene and Iniyan (Dushara Vijayan and Kalidas Jayaram) are in bed, and a tiff ensues – about the greatness of maestro Ilaiyaraaja. Raaja songs are sung and heated words about the music of Nina Simone and her contemporary from Tamil cinema are exchanged. The beautifully choreographed sequence is a reflection of the film’s tonality — one that is powered by composer Tenma’s rich soundtrack.
Tenma, who has worked on films such as Irandam Ulaga Porin Kadaisi Gundu (2019) and Dhammam (Ranjith’s film in 2022 SonyLIV anthology Victim), is also the co-founder of indie band The Casteless Collective, along with Ranjith. In a conversation over the phone, Tenma opens up about how the soundtrack of Natchathiram Nagargiradhu served to be a satisfying playground for the composer in him. Edited excerpts from the interview:
Pa Ranjith has often spoken about how he wants his film music to be different from how music is usually used in films. How did you approach this film?
As far as songs and score were concerned, I had two points in the film from which I started approaching the music for Natchathiram Nagargiradhu (NN). One was the Perinba Kadhal song and the other was the theatre backdrop in the film. I felt these two points were super important to the film’s universe. Kalaiyarasan goes through a sort of transition in ideology in the song, which also had romantic tones to it. And as far as the theatre element is concerned, I do have basic experience in making music for the medium. But the theatre music that is generally prominent has a lot of showtunes and Broadway ideas. But the play in NN is not trying to be something else. I had to find a unique landscape within the atmosphere of the theatre world.
Take us through the process of merging contemporary sounds of theatre with film music.
One of my biggest mentors is Paul Jacob, who did the music of the Ponniyin Selvan play (a stage adaptation of Kalki’s classic, which was put up by Chennai group Magic Lantern in 2014). I looked at his work and the plays put up by the Indianostrum theatre as well to study its music. But the existing template of theatre music would not work for a Ranjith film because of the politics involved in his film. Theatre involves a lot of emotional effects. The entire process took a certain amount of unlearning on my part about my knowledge of composition. I then reapproached it politically. I replaced the generic instruments used for modern plays such as tabla and mridangam, with instruments such as satti and dholak. I then brought in elements of modern pop to tailor to the film’s sonic landscape.
Natchathiram Nagargiradhu is also a departure from many films in terms of its music – wherein the background score and songs don’t stick out as different entities. What were some of your conversations with Ranjith to make this happen?
I have travelled with Ranjith for over five years ever since The Casteless Collective. I’ve had many conversations with him about film music as well as artistic music. But Dhammam was my practice session for NN to understand his requirements. His grasp of the musical language is just incredible. So, I understood what he wanted out of me.
Let’s speak about the film’s background score. It is very unique and often serves different purposes through the course of the film. What were some of the sounds you explored in the process?
I generally have a scientific approach to scoring a film. I break the narrative down to different elements such as plot, subtext, romance and so on. So, when you take romance, there are two shades to it — bliss and longing. For the theatre bits, I used a lot of percussion sounds. The first time I scored the film, I went by a few references that I had. So, when Ranjith watched the film with that score, he didn’t like 2-3 bits, so I reworked them. This is when I decided to take Iniyan and Rene’s music into a synth and lo-fi vibe.
To score the film,I also had to look at what people of Rene and Iniyan’s age would listen to today, apart from just Ilaiyaraaja songs. They are young people, who would probably listen to Billie Eilish, some Japanese Lo-Fi music and so on. So I used all of this and kept building the tracks.
The film is also very musically-inclined in its writing. Did this bring about a sense of pressure?
Not really. It was like a playground for me. I knew that Pa Ranjith was going off beat with the film, and I am already offbeat as a person (laughs). So, I just wanted to experiment. The most important thing for me was to define my sound. For many years, most people didn’t hire me as a programmer. My music did not serve the purpose of an ideal programmer, who would require to make a few generic sounds. I had zero interest in that. So, this film was a presentation of what I was capable of. I wanted to bring the most eclectic sound palette that would change how young love is looked at in Tamil cinema.
The music of Boys (Shankar’s 2003 film) changed the way we looked at young people. Obviously I can never compare myself with somebody as big as AR Rahman, but I wanted NN to do that.
How important was it for you to maintain a balance with your soundtrack? Because you are also making music for a section of the audience who might be new to the concepts explored in the film.
I tested these things with my mum (laughs). When I made Paruvame, I sang the scratch to my mum only. She is pushing her sixties and is a big music fan. Growing up, our house was filled with the music of Ilaiyaraaja and Sirkazhi Govindarajan. She loved Paruvame and I just casually asked her who she thinks should sing the song. She watches a lot of Super Singer (Tamil reality music show), so she immediately said, `Why not Benny Dayal?’ The balance is already cracked this way.
I also have my inner circle that is quite objective. If my work is terrible, they will say it to my face. For instance I asked Gana Muthu (singer) as to how Perinba Kadhal was. He immediately said: Enna ivlo kevalama paadiruka. So, I recorded it again. The scratch I made him listen to was recorded in a Rs 2 lakh mic. I then re-recorded the song in a small, inexpensive mic, and that is the version you are listening to now (laughs).
Tell us about your musical influences. For Paruvame, you’ve merged the sounds of retro Raaja with techno beats.
It’s impossible to compose in the Tamil film industry without the influence of Ilaiyaraaja, MSV and AR Rahman. This movie had an Ilaiyaraaja focus. But if you look at the song Kadhalar, it has more of AR Rahman influences. Rangarattinam has an MSV influence. I took the arrangements usually found in the 60s and the 70s, which is sort of a barbershop quartet meets an acoustic band vibe.
Paruvame was a straight-up tribute to Ilaiyaraaja. The way he does disco is too much fun. The disco of the black people is incredible. But somehow, Ilaiyaaraja could crack the balance of creating a disco song for the Tamil audiences. I wanted the violin solo, which has a playful vibe. Violin in its entirety plays out like a conversation in Ilaiyaraaja songs.
As a contemporary indie artiste, how do you fit into the cinema space? And what are some of the differences between the two spaces?
A lot of people think NN is my debut (laughs). I have done a lot of non-contemporary work, even before all of this. At one point, people boxed me saying I could only do folk. And when I did Gundu (Irandam Ulagaporin Kadaisi Gundu), which had heavy orchestral and action work, they boxed me into yet another genre. I look at myself as just an eclectic musician.
The quality of music and the amount of people you can hire for a film and independent album are very different. For independent albums, you have to first think about where the money is coming from, and only then about anything. Independent artists are tired people. In cinema, on the other hand, you don’t get an audience once you compose your songs. Imagine, I had to hold on to these tracks for a year. I was happy with the work, but there is this commercial responsibility I cannot shy away from, so there is a paranoia as to how audiences will react to it.
You grew up in the north chennai neighborhood, a locality that is just bursting with original sounds. Tell us about the influence of that on your music.
I grew up in a musical environment, so I was surrounded by many sounds in my neighbourhood. You will find some extremely maniacal jazz musicians in the gullys of North Madras. I have learnt so much from them. Gaana is on one end, and the English music scene is on the other. If you grow up in localities like Purasaivakkam and Perambur, you are around such a great amount of music.