Opened the internet today to the news of Balu Mahendra’s death. As sudden and hence tragic as it is, one understands powerlessness against time. He will be remembered as a great director. He should be remembered as a great cinematographer who was introduced in Nellu (1974), went on to capture all the films he directed and also filmed MuLLum Malarum (1978) for Mahendran’s debut, Pallavi Anu Pallavi for Mani Ratnam’s debut (1983), Shankarabharanam for K. Vishwanath (1979) and Seethakoka Chiluka (Alaigal Oyvadhillai‘s Telugu remake in 1981) for Bharathiraja, showing that he filmed for the top directors (or rather, directors who went to the top) after becoming a director too, telling us perhaps of the magnetism of his lens which drew serious directors of the time to him. I am a big fan of simply watching En Iniya Pon Nilave for the morning mist he captures. His characters talk through songs, literally, for that is a signature of his. He depicts mostly real, rooted characters and his sensitivity is not often matched. My most favorite film of his shall remain Sandhya Ragam (1989) which I rate as Indian cinema’s most sensitive tribute to Satyajit Ray and his Mahanagar (1963).
Balu Mahendra worked with Ilayaraaja in 19 of his 22 films and theirs is a combination that will draw unanimous respect. They started with Balu M’s 3rd and Raaja’s 100th film, Moodupani (1980), due to Salil Chowdhry’s insistence on scoring the music for the first couple of his films (Kokila in 1978 and Azhiyadha Kolangal in 1979) and broke once for Sandhya Ragam (L. Vaidyanathan). I realize a little later, now that he has made me move out of my arm chair and pen this post, that this shall also be an elegy to their combination. Ilayaraaja will not have a Balu Mahendra to work with him anymore. A cruel sentence. I think of the many classic films they’ve worked together in, the not-so-classics and all the songs. He was instrumental in Raaja composing, using and re-using his iconic Thumbi Vaa. But I shall share, in the poetic justice to the moment, a song that plays twice in a film, once from a mother to her sons and then from her son to her as an elegy.
NeengaL Kettavai may not rank among his poetic bests but it remains a fairly engaging mainstream film for me with some superb songs. PiLLai Nila IraNdum VeLLai Nila is the song I am interested in. It first appears as Poornima Jayaram, a widowed mother of two kids, leads her bitter-sweet life. There is no string section with his famous violins in this song, a method Raaja uses to rare but extremely effective means. The singer is S Janaki, who breathes life into a tune that comes with a certain ache, underlining the difficulty in the lady’s life. The interlude plays with the tribal chorus sounds that effortlessly captures the rural scene of a hill station. சூழல் and உணர்வு; both are covered here. The charanam speaks of a வசந்தம் first, due to her sons. Flute, bells and guitar fill in. Flutes gives the ache. Right from the la la la of the chorus to the bells and the guitar, the tenderness of the children is underlined. The second interlude matches a dhobi’s thwack with his folk tune as he goes about his vocation. The song ends beautifully with that mix of ache and want of a secure life, tenderness and a certain romantic optimism constantly touched upon by the composer.
This was Raaja setting us up in the gut. We now have a much older son, separated from his brother and mother, who is raped and killed by the villain, searching for his revenge and leading the profession of a singer. As if to make up for the first song, Raaja starts this song with the string section with a 1,2,3,4 and the heaviness it brings is immediately palpable. But it is the same tune with the same lyrics. The choral la la la is directly from the chorus here and strangely, it is not out of place. The violins have led us away from the tenderness and with them in tow, the la la la isn’t very tender. The interlude rushes at us, with the flute and drums as the brothers are with their mother in the flashback that hits the screens and the violins as the brothers cremate her.
As KJ Yesudas sings the charanam, the same flute, bells and guitars fill in the வசந்தம். Their memories haven’t been touched, says the composer. A certain vacuum is underlined in the other interlude as the end of his mother flashes on screen (சூன்யம் is the perhaps the best word, vacuum doesn’t quite translate it), the beating of what sounds like an ஈர்க்குச்சி with minimal orchestration making an appearance as her body is taken in a procession. The strings that are in the background come to the forefront and rush at us as the villain comes on screen. Raaja narrates a story with his wares. He isn’t quite done. As KJY sings ஆளான சிங்கம் ரெண்டும் கைவீசி நடந்தால், instead of the flute, guitars and bells, there is a string section that translates the underplayed but very real rage in the hero. When the mother sings, it is tender with her overplayed love that calls her sons lions. When the son sings the same line with a valid cause, it is real rage that hits us. Both the times, Raaja makes sure it is real.
As his elegy ends with the final pallavi, the violins seem to lift the song to the heavens to his mother to assure her that he will finish his business with her killer and get his brother back (ஆளான சிங்கம் ரெண்டும் I say). Raaja is at his effortless, supreme best in elevating a standard commercial fare with his depth and so long Balu Mahendra, may Raaja’s elegy sing to you in the heavens.