Little known things about well-known songs


Duet is not the best film K. Balachander has made. A remake of Cyrano de Bergerac, with assorted additional nonsense and a dash of Alibaba thrown in for good measure, the movie never really manages to get itself out of the way and reach the heights it could. It is, however, one of the most interesting movies I’ve seen, from a musical standpoint. The main reason why I’m somewhat fond of that movie is its music.

They key, for me, came during the opening titles itself. I didn’t notice it when I saw the movie for the first time, since I didn’t know the whole plot then. But when I went back home and listened to the album, I realized what KB and Rehman were doing in that opening piece.

It is a Kadri Gopalnath saxophone solo in Kalyanavasantham – a beautiful, beautiful raga (best known example: Nadaloludai, composed by Sri Thyagaraja – yet another of his little gems). In the movie, you see Prabhu playing it.

He plays a character named Guna, a talented musician and sax player, who forms part of a successful music duo with his brother Siva. Guna is overweight, and doesn’t have much luck with women as a result, whereas Siva pretty much has them eating out of his hands. A minor early crisis causes them to move to a different city, where they begin their career afresh. Their life settles into a comfortable routine when love comes in the form of Anjali, a film choreographer who lives next door. She loves Guna’s music, but thinks Siva is the one composing it. Things get a little heated when this truth is revealed, but before it can be resolved between the three of them, additional complications arrive in the form of Sirpi, a psychotic movie star with designs on Anjali. It all ends in a violent and senseless climax where all extra characters are bumped off and only the hero and heroine are left.

Crazy plot, and there’s really no obvious reason why I should narrate it here. But now that you know this plot, go back and listen to the theme music and see how it is patterned – how it starts off slow, breaks for a moment when the waves crash against the rocks, starts again, settles into a rhythm, then picks up the pace, then begins to have more ominous notes sounding in the background, and ends with the waves crashing against the sea. When you think about it, this could have been pretty much any piece – most movies have random instrumental music playing over the opening titles – but KB showed here what he could do with it.

The entire story is told in flashback from Prabhu’s point of view, and you realize, after watching it and harking back to its musical set pieces, that this was a man who used his sax as a narrative intrument. Listen to the interludes in En kaadhalae, and you see how he expresses his feelings – his frustration, his despair, his love – through his instrument. Amazing piece of work.

Yet another gem from Ilaiyaraja, from the movie Nenjathai Killadhe. The picturization involves Mohan and Suhasini jogging together, and the song plays in the background. What’s amazing is how much of the visualization has crept into the piece itself.

For one thing, the singers (SPB and Janaki) sound like they’re shivering in the cold morning weather – their voices aren’t strong and clear. Plus, there’s the rhythm of footsteps to cover the jogging – it adds another layer.

But my favourite little addition comes in the second interlude: it fades in, then out slowly, as if the joggers just ran past a bunch of musicians playing the interlude. Again, this is one of the things Rajesh told me – I didn’t notice it myself until he did. He called it the Doppler Effect song!

Beautiful, beautiful song. Written by Kannadasan, composed by Ilaiyaraja and sung by K J Yesudas. One of the greatest songs of all time. To me, it’s one of the finest examples of pathos expressed in a song. Yesudas’ voice is perfectly suited to this sort of mood.

However, what I didn’t realize until a friend of mine named Rajesh told me, was that Ilaiyaraja hahd used a little trick t enhance the effect of his voice. If you listen very carefully to the song, you will notice a single violin playing the tune that Yesudas sings. It plays only when he’s singing, not otherwise, so it’s difficult to catch. But once you do, it’s hard to miss afterward. It’s a really small thing, almost trivial, but it makes a difference.

This series of posts is aimed at educating the teeming millions reading my blog (okay, three people including me, if I’m optimistic) on some lesser known aspects of well-known songs. Things like an odd instrument playing an odd note somewhere in the background that adds something to the song. Read on, and you’ll find out more…

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