Karthik: "Of all the women in the world, why did I love Jessy?"
This is the opening line of the endearing saga of Karthik and Jessy, arguably one of Gautam Vasudev Menon's best works, which chronicles the turbulent and tumultuous relationship between a man and a woman hailing from different states and walks of life. The one-line thought of this film is as simple as that. It does not strike someone by surprise. It's as ordinary as they come. People fall in love. There are ups and downs in every relationship. Big deal. This isn't the first movie of its kind. Then what makes it stand out among all the films made in this genre in the 21st century?
The hero, a young man aspiring to be a filmmaker, aimlessly lurks around the gate to his duplex house hoping to be inspired by everyday life, when he sees a woman walk down his lane, her hair flowing with the wind, moving in the most elegant fashion that he's ever had the fortune of witnessing. She slowly makes her way to him and stops in front of his house, looking awkwardly at him, as he stares at her, unable to believe the sight that is in front of him. She talks but he hears nothing but faint sounds, because he is lost, immersed in the beauty and charm of the woman who stands in front of him. It is only much later that he realises that she is asking to be let in, as she is the tenant in the house upstairs, which his parents are renting out. He is swiftly nudged back to reality and dutifully opens the gate, letting the woman in. She walks by and he is dumbfounded, although he doesn't let her know it. He still can't believe himself, but he is sure of one thing: it was love at first sight. What follows is a single note of a bell chime, which paves the way to a song, as the man jumps over his gate and slowly spins himself around, trying to take in what just happened. The song is 'Hosanna', immortalised by the scintillating voice of Vijay Prakash, cueing the first track of my favourite album by the Mozart of Madras. The album: Vinnaithandi Varuvaayaa (Will You Cross the Skies for Me).
The year is 2010. I am in high school. Being a non-native Tamil speaker, I take pride in discovering Raja sir and Rahman sir's music from the '90s, singing along to "Kanmani Anbodu Kathalan" or "Kadhal Rojave", much like any other teenager in south India, thinking to themselves that they are unique in their taste in music. The success of Slumdog Millionaire and Rahman's Oscar wins are still fresh in everyone's minds. Not a single day goes by without listening to his chartbusters. Every album of his has at least one song that I absolutely loved. I remember going to Planet Music every time I went out with my family and picking out his CDs, which had his best works in volumes and struggling to choose between the titles, as I would only have enough pocket money saved to buy one. I have established myself as an ardent fan, and think to myself that I am probably a "Rahmaniac". "New York Nagaram" gives me the chills every time I listen to it. Life is wonderful. "Masakali" is out. It plays on a loop in my room and on my iPod Nano. Good times, but little do I realise that his best work is yet to come.
This was a time when I was only starting to get accustomed to movie reviews and blogs about films in general, so I wouldn't know about a film before it was released. However, this one poster had caught my eye simply because of the image on it. It had STR and Trisha sitting in a jeep and lost in some romantic moment as they drive across the highway. It was eerily similar to a particular shot in Kaakha Kaakha with Suriya and Jyothika. Not much else was revealed in the poster except that it was a GVM film and that it was yet another love story. Having seen GVM's previous works, I was looking forward to this one. Not only did I like his films, but I also quite ardently listened to the music in his films, growing up in Chennai. That is when I noticed something else in the poster. Unlike all his other films, the music credits didn't go to Harris Jayaraj this time. It was an AR Rahman musical. Two of my favourite technicians at the time were joining hands for a love story. This was exciting news. But then time went by and I forgot about the film's existence. Almost 6 or 7 months later, I watched the film with barely an idea about what to expect from it.
After the opening sequence, which is shot atop a boat manoeuvring its way across the waters of Alleppey backed by a soulful humming tune as the credits roll, I was invested. The music was already trying to reach out to me, as I waited on the other side, arms outstretched, longing for that inevitable embrace. Sure enough, it arrived and boy, does it sweep you off your feet! "Hosanna" is an ode to the mesmerising nature of the love that unfurls at the very first sight. I was awestruck. Right from the single bell chime to the opening lyrics, it takes you away to a foreign land, much the same way Karthik is transported from his quaint little street in Chennai to the breathtaking island of Malta. I have never been so quick to forgive a song-and-dance number shot on a completely different location from a film's setting. Vijay Prakash is accompanied by Suzanne D'Mello's breathtaking harmonisation and an amazingly integrated hip-hop presence in the form of Blaaze. All is well. It is only the first song and it is already stuck in my head.
As the film progresses, every song that follows will entice you with its individuality. With "Omana penne", Benny Dayal is allowed to riff with the lyrics although it never strays away from the metre. It is a brief but romantic encounter between jazz and Carnatic music, which is underlined even more so with Kalyani Menon's introduction in the second half of the song with the Malayalam lyrics, and also with the overdrawn but beautiful outro that features a dreamy nadhaswaram that is allowed to take centrestage while everything else just supports its journey. Marvellous. Even here, the visuals compliment the music in a way that makes you bow down to GVM's sense of visualising the treasure chest of songs that he is allowed to play with. Did someone ask me to forgive another dance number? Done.
As the relationship arrives at the realms of discord and complications, the music quickly shifts gears as well. "Kannukkul Kannai" shocks you with that banger of an intro where strings have been used effectively to stimulate the metamorphosis of angst and impatience in Karthik's journey and we empathise with him as he pains for Jessy's reciprocation. The lyrics by Thamarai get uplifted sensationally with Rahman sir's choice of progressing the song with its highs and lows mirroring the chaos that is unfolding in Karthik's mind. A wonderful Naresh Iyer executes this with sheer dedication, in my favourite song of his discography. The visualisation goes all out with elaborate set pieces and everything, not that I was complaining.
Then the title track slowly makes its way into the midst of the proceedings. It blends into the atmosphere much like the romance that painstakingly makes its way into the land. Karthik follows it around on a boat as he makes his journey beyond the realm of reality and dreams towards his lady love, who begins to realise that she loves him too. She longs to meet him at that moment, despite being grounded within the compound walls of her ancestral house which serves the role of the metaphorical prison, on the day she walks out on her impending marriage. "Netru iravil unnodu irunthen athai neeyum maranthaaya, maranthaaya…Kanavodu Vilayada…Vinnaithandi Varuavaya". The lyrics slowly pierce your conscience as Karthik (also the name of the singer) mesmerises us with his melancholic rendition accompanied by nothing but a guitar for most of the song's duration. Simple, yet so powerful in the way it blends with your soul.
The emotionally uphill journey that you embark upon as the film begins reaches its summit with "Mannipaya". No other song has ever had the effect that "Mannipaya" had on me. Anyone who listens to it will start to think they have found the true essence of love and adoration, despite all the hardship that it brings along. The song drowns you in its translation of pain and longing in an emotionally exhausting relationship that is slowly consuming the central characters much the same way it consumes you. I remember seeing a GVM interview where he mentions that this song was kept as a surprise for him by Thamarai and AR Rahman. I could only envy the level of personal and emotional fulfillment or validation a director could get for his work when a musical genius like AR Rahman decides to go out of his way to put together a work of art as spellbinding as this. Shreya Ghoshal's angelic voice caresses your wounds and your pain in a soft embrace while Jessy asks for forgiveness, as Karthik thanks her for her existence. She is accompanied by none other than AR Rahman's voice, as the emotional backbone of the song. The way he brings life to the lines "Melum melum urugi urugi, unnai yenni yengum ithayathai yenna seiven…" brings me to tears as the song draws to a close, changing something deep inside my mind. It is no small task for a song that is almost seven minutes in duration to have such a profound effect on someone.
After the emotional behemoth that is "Mannipaya", it would be a Herculean task for anyone else to follow it up with two more tracks that have as much prominence in the movie. Rahman almost makes it seem like a cakewalk with "Aaromale", which starts the proceedings with the rustic voice of Alphonse Joseph. It echoes Karthik's loss, accompanied by backing vocals that heighten the disturbing sense of peace that comes when one finally comes to terms with a breakup and uses it to fuel one's imagination and creativity, only to give us more hope in the form of "Anbil Avan". The magic in this song in particular is the way he blends the church bell tolls and the different organs that embody the Christian weddings seamlessly with wind instruments like the shehnai and the nadhaswaram, which are staples in Hindu weddings. In my opinion, this song was a major reason that the climax worked so well for me because the sheer optimism and happiness that the song tries to embody completely sell you on the belief that despite all the hardships and obstacles, they finally end up together and that is all that matters.
Even after the movie draws to a close, especially the way that it does, one is bound to be left with a sense of loss and sorrow, but at the same time, the mere existence of its soundtrack is something to look forward to. The songs feature in all my playlists and I somehow coincidentally end up listening to at least one of these songs every day. I also cannot stress enough how much the film's original score (BGM) has moved me. At around 50 minutes in duration, everything about it is just as enticing as the songs. Even the slightest cues uplift the visuals and stand out on their own when listened to in isolation. The recurring themes and the way he ever so slightly reintroduces the melodies albeit in varying avatars is an ode to the legend that is AR Rahman, and I am certain that the OST has a separate fanbase. When Karthik Dial Seytha Yenn, the short sequel released last year, came with its own soundtrack by AR Rahman, with plenty of callbacks to the original, the feeling was just multiplied.
As much as Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa is one of his most celebrated works, it still, in the weirdest and the most inexplicable sense, needs to be worshipped more, as it undulates in your mind in all its glory, reiterating AR Rahman's formidable presence in our everyday lives, as we traverse every moment of it, cherish every memory and fall in love over and over again not just with Jessy, but also with ourselves.