Generally, an audience pays more attention to the visuals on the big screen than to the sounds of the film. It becomes rather challenging to untangle the two since the latter is moulded by the former. This in no way implies the inferiority of a background score. Irrespective of genre, film composers have to create unique sound palettes to match the overarching theme of a film, its characters, an emotion, an event, or a landscape.
The history and evolution of movie music are just as rich as that of the movies themselves. When 'Taste of Cinema' released its list of "Top 25 Greatest Film Composers in Cinema History" in 2017, Ilayaraja was the only Indian composer included in the list. But over the recent years, there has been another composer to watch out for in Kollywood. Tamil film music composer Santosh Narayanan made his debut in the Kollywood movie industry in 2012 and has scored over 40 films ever since. In this piece, I will analyse Narayanan's background scores in light of the moods in a few of his films.
Nalan Kumarasamy's Soodhu Kavvum (2013) tells the story of a band of kidnappers, led by a morally conscious schizophrenic, that unknowingly get involved in a much larger scheme. The film humours you while keeping you at the edge of your seat, twisting and confounding the audience. Narayanan's music score follows the same unpredictability, as he effortlessly brings together catchy pop-jazz beats and elements of kutthu (a form of folk dance and music with a heavy emphasis on percussion) to create an unlikely yet fitting theme for a group of flawed and lovable protagonists. He manages to introduce a less-used genre of music for background scores in Tamil cinema by blending it with the familiar. For instance, take the sequence of the bar brawl early on in the film. Bar brawls are not uncommon in Tamil cinema, but the one in this film was crucial to kick-start the unfolding of the plot as the crucial characters connect with each other in this scene. Narayanan chose to accompany this sequence with a cleverly written song called "Mama Douser". The lyrics of the song consist of colloquial Tamil but are sung in the style of jazz, providing a humorously entertaining angle to the scene.
Notably, just as musically vibrant as Soodhu Kavvum was Narayanan's musical spin on Karthik Subbaraj's Jigarthanda (2014). This comedic take on the gangster film genre also gives us an insight into the functioning of the film industry. Popularly known as "Thoonga nagaram" or the city that doesn't sleep, Madurai may be a small city, but it is far from uneventful. Santosh Narayanan's background score echoes the small-town feel with the songs in the film, which are unpolished yet pleasing on the ears, bustling and intense. The main theme of the movie also juxtaposes various moods in the way it rises, falls, and transforms itself: anticipation, strategising, hope and compromise, all as part of an onward journey. This really helps highlight the protagonist's character – a struggling filmmaker with a vision, figuring out his life on the go in a completely new city. The vocal diversity in this film's soundtrack really gives a totality to the experience of a big-city boy in a small town.
Vada Chennai (2018) is definitely the most serious of the Santosh Narayanan movies I have chosen to analyse so far. Set in the slums occupied by the fishing community of north Chennai, Vetri Maaran's film tells the tale of friendship and deceit in perhaps one of the most intricately made gangster films Tamil cinema has seen. The main theme of Vada Chennai has layered vocals with very minimal percussion, and equally addresses both the mind and emotion of a gangster. The music, in its subtle crescendos and decrescendos, seems to embody the gentle rocking of a small boat, reminding us once again of the community's connection to the ocean. Additionally, Vada Chennai uses non-linear narration as a storytelling device. Narayanan cleverly uses the background music to hint at the subtle symbolism by reusing themes throughout the film to link parallel happenings. We see this most evidently when Anbu's (Dhanush) coming-of-age and change in attitude in the present imitates Rajan's (Ameer Sultan) approach to handling the politics of the area from the past.
Karnan, which came out earlier this year, is a testament to Narayanan's ability to truly embed his work in the traditional musical practices of a culture. The film in itself is unique in Tamil cinema for its portrayal of caste conflict at the level of a community, instead of a microscopic vision of a single individual or family. The tone for the entire film is set in the very beginning with the opening song, 'Kandaa Vara Sollunga'. The vocals on the track are by Kidakuzhi Mariyammal, a folk artist, and when her authentic earthy voice is combined with the lyrics, the song is instantly elevated. It tells the viewer that they are about to watch a story of a people who have endured years of hardship, but who are on the precipice of justice. The background score of the film uses a combination of folk beats to remind the viewer of the setting and the people whose struggles we are watching, and creatively incorporates almost symphonic strings and horns to produce a sense of foreboding. The music ensures that what is emphasised in the narrative is the community's pride: their culture, their history and their vision for themselves, which they are relentlessly unwilling to forsake. Narayanan's score works in tandem with director Mari Selvaraj's cinematic style of incorporating the contemporary in a cultural history, in order to send a strong message about the community's ability to fight for their future without forgetting their past. This comes out most clearly in the song 'Uttradheenga Yeppov', which uses a folk vocabulary to encourage the people to resist, but the music accompanying the lyrics is unmistakably modern.
Over his short yet successful career so far, Santhosh Narayanan has maintained nothing but consistency and flexibility, moulding his music to accompany and enhance a diverse range of films. Irrespective of the quality of the film, Narayanan's music has never disappointed. He is undoubtedly a visionary amongst the film music composers currently in the Tamil movie industry. It is one thing to come up with a brilliantly written background score to suit the plot of a film – it's another to take the effort to maintain versatility while capturing a character's traits, the feel of a city, or an emotion as experienced by a character and weave it all together, to remake a movie out of music.