Between Vaalee's first lyric for ‘Azhagarmalai Kallan’ in 1958 and the most-recent ‘Mankaatha’ is a mind-boggling list of more than 14,000 songs!
Contentions, counters, conclusions – my two-hour talk time with Vaalee has all these and more. The veteran poet, lyricist, playwright, story teller and actor in that order, is a personality you don’t get to meet often. Age may have made him slightly frail but his mental agility fascinates.
Between his first lyric for ‘Azhagarmalai Kallan’ in 1958 and the most-recent ‘Mankaatha’ is a mind-boggling list of more than 14,000 songs! Not to forget his literary treatises such as ‘Avathara Purushan,’ ‘Paandavar Bhoomi’ and ‘Ramanuja Kaaviyam.’
Those who follow ‘Ninaivu Naadaakkal,’ his weekly column in Ananda Vikatan, can vouch for his clarity of thought and expression as he dwells on the various people he’s rubbed shoulders with. Just as I mention it, the phone rings and it is a journalist from the magazine! “He wants to come over with the proof for the next edition. I insist on checking it. Tamil is tricky. Even a small change in a letter could alter the meaning adversely,” he says.
A contemporary of Kannadasan, Vaalee’s staying power in cinema is amazing. “I attribute it to Providence,” he says. “I believe in Karma. If you go out in the Sun you end up with a headache, if you get drenched in the rain you catch a cold. That’s Karma made simple. Every action evokes a reaction.” The statements of the staunch theist stem out of his deep study of Hindu philosophy. “Yeah, my interpretation of the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ alone was serialised for 37 weeks.”
Nearly all the posers he fields come with an analogy and a counter-query. “How do you explain Sachin Tendulkar’s continuing success as a cricketer, when those who came with him and even after him have faded out? Surely it has nothing to do with his bat and ball. Just like my writing skills aren’t based on my intelligence,” he laughs, leans forward and chuckles, “Let me tell you something. You can quote me. None of the composers like me.”
I’m confused! “Honestly,” he continues. “Can you believe it if I say that doyens Sivaji Ganesan and MGR would wait for nearly four hours for Nagesh? He would arrive, shoot for half an hour and move on to the next location. How would you explain it? Simple, he was indispensable. The answer to your question about my sustainability is the same. And cinema works on sentiment. If you are in a film that runs you are a lucky mascot. ‘So what if Vaalee is conceited? His verses for our last film was a hit, let’s have him on board again,’ the producer says,” he smiles.
Using the colloquialisms of today’s youngsters and bringing out their changing values and mind set in his lyrics belie Vaalee’s age! So how does he keep himself constantly updated? “I have a voracious appetite for reading and I keenly observe the happenings around me. So from Annadurai to Anna Hazare, I’m familiar with all occurrences. I may not leave the confines of my room, but people of all ages and from all walks of life visit me every day.”
Vaalee attributes his fame and fortune to M.S. Viswanathan, who was the first to proclaim that “a giant had arrived on the scene.” Though before he met MSV, Vaalee had written for nearly 50 films, it was only after he began to pen verses for MSV’s tunes that he became a star writer. Muktha Srinivasan was then making ‘Idhayathil Nee.’ MSV was the composer, and writer Ma. Ra., its dialogue writer. When Ma. Ra. suggested Vaalee’s name, Srinivasan remembered that the young man had met him earlier. He put Vaalee on to MSV and the scintillating song in P.B. Sreenivos’s voice – ‘Poovaraiyum Poonkodiyae Poomalai Podavaa’ – happened. MSV was taken aback at the speed with which the young man churned out words for his tunes. Even before his fingers could dance on his harmonium Vaalee supplied the lyrics! “Where were you all these days?” MSV asked him.
“I cannot forget the time when actor V. Gopalakrishnan, who was instrumental in my shifting base to Chennai, took me around on his two-wheeler to producers and recommended me.” Thanks to him Vaalee wrote his first song within 15 days of his arrival in the city. And the very second song was for MGR in the film, ‘Nallavan Vaazhvaan,’-- ‘Sirikkindraal Indru Sirikkindraal’ -- a T.R. Paapa composition in Sirkazhi Govindarajan’s voice. “Writer Ma Lakshmanan got it for me. But in the 1960s you were accepted as a lyricist only if you wrote for the Mellisai Mannargal, Viswanathan and Ramamurthy. Within a week of my first song for them, I had 20 films in hand!”
‘Karpagam’ released on the day of Deepavali in 1963 and made Vaalee a star lyricist. “I like MSV a lot. Whether MSV likes me or not is immaterial. He is my benefactor and my gratitude for him will always remain,” Vaalee conveys cryptically.
Initially, with Nagesh, singer Dharapuram Sundarrajan and actor Srikanth as roommates, Vaalee did struggle. “Only Srikanth had a regular job at the U.S. Consulate,” he recalls.
Born in Thirupallathurai and brought up in Srirangam, Vaalee had been writing songs for AIR in Tiruchi and staging plays in his hometown. His family owned a house in Srirangam. And sugarcane from their fields was supplied to factories. So his early days in Chennai must have been frustrating. “Not at all, I wanted to be different and accepted ordeals with cheer. At least, I came here without a job. Imagine Nagesh’s guts and self-confidence that made him quit the Railways just after one film,” he smiles.
Christened T.S. Rangarajan, TS to friends and Rangappa at home -- so how did the name Vaalee come in? “I aspired to become an artist like Maali. My friend Babu suggested I change the name as it rhymes with Maali, I took it.” Vaalee’s stint at the School of Arts in Chennai, as a student of Commercial Painting is yet another dimension of the multi-faceted octogenarian.
In spite of his busy schedules as a lyricist, he found the time to write plays and stories and dialogue for films. ‘Kaliyuga Kannan,’ the film version of his successful play, ‘Krishna Vijayam,’ was remade in four languages and all versions were roaring hits. “Again it was Gopalakrishnan who brought me into it. He asked me to write a play for his Gopi Theatres,” says Vaalee. Acting? “I got into it because K. Balachander wanted me to.”
The way he spells his name is quaint. “Only because I feel it looks beautiful this way,” he laughs.
Vaalee is frank to a fault -- the candour could be construed as arrogance. “Poet Bharati has said you can pardon a liar only if he is illiterate, not otherwise. If I’m obsequious and scared to take a stand it means I don’t believe in God. A handful doesn’t make the world. None needs to be a sycophant to gain a position. If you aren’t found suitable, you can always try something else and succeed.” The words ring in my ears all the way back home!
Pace and practice
Composers come to Vaalee's house to give him the tunes -- a practice rare in cinema. It has been the norm for more than a decade now because of his delicate health. But isn't working against time strenuous? “I give them a date suitable to both of us and stick to it. If I don't get the words on a particular day, I put my writing pad aside till my imagination takes wing. Nagesh and I never followed the dictates of time. We ate only when hungry and relaxed when tired. I'm still the same,” he smiles.