Before complex algorithms told us what to listen to and what to watch, we all had that one person we would trust with our moods, lunchbox and, most self-destructively, our pocket money. This person could have been an older sibling, a cousin or even a classmate, but for a few, this was the ‘cassette kadaikaran’.
In hindsight, you realise how he has influenced your likes, dislikes and a few questionable habits; I even have a completely original title for someone like him. He was my… film companion (no plug intended!). But, my most vivid memory of him and this phase has to be the day he convinced me to buy the cassette of Minnale.
Back then, one would always have a certain amount of money (usually a folded 100-rupee note hidden in the back of one’s ‘velcro’ wallet) reserved for a very specific kind of emergency — say, ‘What if the new AR Rahman album is released suddenly?’ For every other composer’s every other album, you could always skip a few bottles of Pepsi, sell a few trump cards and rejig your finances to buy it the following week.
But, that wasn’t the urgency with Minnale. It wasn’t a recommendation, it sounded more like an order. My film companion was willing to risk his future business to get me to buy the cassette; he even played ‘Azhagiya Theeye’ on his Kenwood speakers, because “a beat-heavy dance number sells a cassette faster than a melody”. I must have bought the cassette at 4 pm, reached home by 4.30, played it on my Aiwa Walkman at 5. By 6, I had discovered ‘Vaseegara’.
For a smallish group of 90s kids, this is the closest we were ever going to get to having our own “Roja Moment.” AR Rahman’s genius was something we were born into; so, that feeling of seeing an album explode, while binging on it day and night, even before we properly learnt the composer’s name, was still a very new feeling.
The throne, so to speak, was never really up for grabs, like it may have been in 1992, and there was no question of ARR slowing down, with the composer giving us Alaipayuthey, Kandukondein Kandukondein and Rhythm just a year earlier. Call it separation issues, but there was always this sense of worry during the 2000s that ARR was just one Subhash Ghai film away from shifting to Bombay for good. Of course, he was going to be back for Mani Ratnam, Shankar, Rajini or even Kathir, but the circumstance was such that one felt a bit more secure knowing that Harris Jayaraj, and, of course, Yuvan Shankar Raja had blasted onto the scene.
Any doubts of Harris being a ‘one-album wonder’ was cleared the moment Majnu and 12B hit the stands. Samurai (2002), too, was a reasonably satisfying album, but if there were any remaining questions about this composer’s ability, 2003 (the year I became a teenager) was the answer. The ‘velcro’ wallet made room for another secret 100-rupee note now; the hype was starting to get real, and even cynics had afforded Harris his own space. The conversion, so to speak, was happening, albeit… lesa lesa.
Proof of this was the marketing miracle I’d call the Lesa Lesa cassette. Long before YouTube singles or the Mr. Xs took over Tamil film music, the makers of this Priyadarshan film chose to let out just one song from the album. Priced at Rs.10, this cassette had no Side A or Side B; we were all just happy to be on Harris’s side. It also created demand like never before, making the wait for the complete album pleasurably painful. And when the whole album did come out, Harris delivered, and HOW.
And if that wasn’t enough, there was also this tiny, not-very-popular, under-the-radar album called Kaakha Kaakha, which reunited Harris with Gautham Vasudev Menon. I have this strange theory about music; I believe the songs you were listening to when you got your first crush are always going to have a very special place in your heart, no matter how evolved or eclectic your tastes are going to become. In a sense, if you were crushing on the new English teacher, the album gave you ‘Oru Ooril Azhage’, which really made her out to be, in equal parts, a mystery as well as a fantasy.
And, if you were waiting near the landline to sneakily pick up that special phone call before letting anyone else hear it ring, you’d notice how your heartbeat sounded a lot like the beats of ‘Uyirin Uyire’, a song that resonated deep within your oomahaazeeya. I also remember visiting Music World, betraying my film companion, to check out what that song sounded like on its fancy transparent CD players and headphones. And, on my way out, I demanded ‘Uyirin Uyire’ be played on SS Music, when the channel had set up tiny web-cam kiosks to encourage viewers to request their favourite song. Because, your friends may have been VH1 people, but if you were an SS Music kind of guy, Harris was surely very, very important to you.
With every new album, the brand seemed to only be getting bigger. But, my relationship with my film companion had started to sour after he made a very powerful enemy named ‘Winamp’. You now had friends who could burn all of Harris’ hits into a CD, making the Aiwa redundant as well. But, there was also another event that made Harris bigger. As an AR Rahman fan, it was heartbreaking to see Shankar choosing to work with another composer. But, as a Harris fan, Anniyan was a moment of immense gethu.
Until that time, you’d associate a Harris fan with a very urban person who’d prefer cold coffee over filter coffee. But, a Shankar film had the power to change that; because his films were inevitable hurricanes that swallowed everything in their path. And, when a hurricane named Anniyan arrived, another miracle happened. Harris had not just managed to meet the ‘Shankar-levels’ of expectations… he managed to exceed them. Every song in that album became a superhit. You could go to any college culturals to see a group dancing to ‘Kadhal Yaanai’ for western dance, ‘Andankaakha’ for folk dance and ‘Iyengaaru Veetu Azhage’ for classical dance.
He also came out with amazing albums such as Ghajini, Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, Unnale Unnale and Bheema after this. But, for me, the greatest ever Harris album has to be 2008’s Vaaranam Aayiram. If Anniyan had a song from every genre, Vaaranam had a song for every emotion. This is where his songs became more than just instant gratification. Like Rahman, these songs needed their own time to really sink in, and a couple of heartbreaks on your part would have helped too. Yet, as a Harris fan, nothing really could prepare you for the heartbreak of finding out that Gautham Menon was replacing Harris with someone else for his next.
Of course, we all wanted a great ARR-GVM album, but heart of hearts, I must confess, I secretly wanted it to be ordinary. My film companion was curious to see what I had thought of Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa, and thankfully, there were the first two days when I felt it was just… OK. By the third day, though, I had succumbed to its powers. So, when Shreya Ghoshal tore you apart with ‘Mannipaaya’, I noticed I was asking Harris for forgiveness as well.
Nothing, really, has remained the same since. Flash forward to 10 years later, and Harris is hardly the force he used to be. People who took pride in adding ‘Harris Fan’ to their Orkut profile, slowly took it down before anyone noticed. His songs became predictable. You could foresee where the rap portions were going to begin and where the gibberish in the lyrics was going to end.
The Internet, too, had a field day with people composing their own Harris songs, which sounded suspiciously accurate. From a star, Harris had quickly become the guy who was cool back when Spencer Plaza was cool. And, if you liked Harris, it was becoming increasingly difficult to defend his music to younger fans who had moved on to newer, hipper composers.
And, with Kaappaan all set for release, I went back to an old habit of listening to all the songs on loop. You think you’re whistling to one of the new songs, but as you go along, you notice how you’ve unknowingly slipped into one of his older tunes, because “they all sound so similar”. The feeling of disappointment is something I have gotten used to by now, and I admit that I don’t know a single song from many of his recent albums, something impossible a decade ago.
Or, maybe, it’s just a part of growing up, when you have to deal with seeing your heroes fall. I use the word disappointment, not because I feel he’s over. It’s disappointment because I feel he’s not trying hard enough, because you know he still has it in him to come up with something truly great. The new GVM movie might just be the reinvention, like Yennai Arindhaal briefly was.
Because, if there’s one thing that separates a fan from an aficionado, it’s the idea of hope. The hope that he will be back with another great album, taking you back to that day in 2001 when you slowly unfurled that 100-rupee you had kept ONLY for AR Rahman.