The soundtrack of Neethane En Ponvasantham, which has been picked up for a record price, is due on July 1. Gautham Vasudev Menon talks to Baradwaj Rangan about working with Ilayaraja for the first time
We often find directors opting for younger composers after a while, but rarely, if ever, do we see a filmmaker from the current generation opt for a senior composer. The first question, naturally, has to be about how different it must have been.
This must have been a very different experience for you, listening to outlines of tunes first, which is how Ilayaraja works.
We were at Prasad, in his small studio, where he sits on the floor with the harmonium, nothing else. I too sat down with him. He's got a small recorder into which he puts a tape, and if he likes a tune, he records that tune in his voice. I had given him a pretty visual description of my songs. He puts his hand on the harmonium and there's a tune that comes out. The second tune also came out as he put his hand on the harmonium. It was amazing. If I hadn't stopped him, I would have got all my eight songs on that day itself.
So you have a set of tunes (or melody lines) that you like. How did he add flesh and blood to these skeletal structures.
Like you said, I just hear a melody. There is no pattern. Then, in the studio, he gets a guitarist to sit in front of him and then he calls a drummer. He breaks the song into a guitar pattern, and then brings the percussion in. Now he records this melody properly, in his voice, and the tune is hard-core clear for me. This was done to actually give me an idea as to what the song will end up sounding like.
Otherwise it's just his voice and the harmonium and the melody with his voice in your head. Slowly he gave me exactly what I asked for.
You say this is a new sound. What is it exactly?
I can't put my finger on it and say it is this particular genre, so I call it the Raja genre. This is Raja sir's music. That brilliant melody is there. The sound that he's given in these eight songs is not today's sound, and it's not the 1970s, 1980s sound he was known for. It's a new genre in music – that much I'll tell you. His manager told me that he normally works in Budapest. I suggested we go to London instead. And when we went to London, he put this plan in place. He said, “I want this 108-piece orchestra for four or five days. On the other days I want this Budapest quartet, my friends. Apart from this I need a harp, sax, bagpipes...” He gave us a pretty comprehensive list only based on what he had composed, without actually writing anything.
So you went to London with just the melody lines slightly fleshed out with guitars and drums, the stage at which you said the tune became “hard-core clear” for you.
No, he also recorded the voices here, with a click track. It's just a voice with a click track, which is the beat of the song in the form of clicks, done on the computer.
The thaalam, basically.
Yes, the thaalam. We had the singers singing Muthukumar's lyrics in a studio in Bombay. We recorded with Karthik, with Yuvan, with Raja sir's voice. And then he wanted one week's time to write the music.
You mean the prelude, interludes and so forth.
Yes. He listens to this song (as rendered by the voice backed by the click track) and he writes his music. It's simply amazing. He just writes and makes a fair copy of his written music, all notes written by him, and on Day 1 of the recording, he hands out these notes to everyone. There's no rehearsal. It's a take right away.
This sounds a little like how music was recorded in the days before multi-track recording, except that the singers aren't there. But it's odd that there's no rehearsal. What if someone makes a mistake?
Then he'll say something like the harp and the violins not being in sync, and they will go for another take. And in ten minutes, we have the whole background music for the song ready – prelude, interludes, everything. It was amazing. I didn't have to say anything to him (for changes etc.), because everything that I said I wanted, it was all there when we recorded the song. He remembered all that from that single-day session we had over the harmonium. And any scepticism I had about Raja sir's modernity was washed away. He was telling the musicians exactly what I had in mind, the break beats, the jazz/blues stuff, everything. I kept shooting him on the iPhone throughout, because I wanted every single moment to be recorded. He asked why I was doing that. I said I need this for myself. It was just the most brilliant thing ever.