103 lyrics for 36 films in a year! Malathi Rangarajan gets busy bee Na. Muthukumar to take a break and discuss his journey in Kollywood and beyond…

Numerals may not interest all of us, but details about Na. Muthukumar’s career as a film lyricist could. In the past year alone he has written 103 songs for 36 films! The cornucopian creativity is spell-binding! Without getting into the literal number game of his achievements, it’s impossible to comprehend the volume of his work. Is it a record? “Frankly, I don’t know. Every year, till Mr. ‘Film News’ Anandan calls me up to check out the list of my songs, I’m in the dark about the figures. Thanks to the film historian I have the complete data,” says Muthukumar, as we settle down for a chat over a cup of coffee. In that case, either he should be lapping up every assignment that comes his way or his vocation ought to be his recreation too. “Neither of your surmises is right,” laughs the young poet, whose writings extend far beyond the horizon of cinema.

His recent book, Anilaadum Mundril, serialised in Ananda Vikatan two years ago, has been reprinted for the sixth time in two years. A document of the endearing relationship with his father, his felicity in prose comes out loud and clear in the book.

“I read for at least four to five hours a day. My appetite for fiction and non-fiction, both English and Tamil, is insatiable. Books and movies are my relaxation,” he clarifies. “And out of the 155 Tamil films or so that were released in the past year my contribution was only for 36. If I had accepted all that was offered to me, I would have penned verses for at least a hundred films.” Yet, in the past eight years or so he has been the busiest among lyricists in Tamil cinema.

That filmmakers, from Lingusamy to Vijay, go back to him for lyrics over and over again is evident. His cordiality and flexibility and the fast pace he works at have made him a favourite with composers too. Muthukumar’s rapport with G.V Prakashkumar is well-known. “So it is with Yuvan. Briyani will be his 100th film, out of which I have written lyrics for 58, and in at least 40 of his films, all the lyrics have been mine.” It’s the statistician at work again. Ilaiyaraaja, Vidyasagar, Rahman, Harris Jeyaraj, Vijay Antony — Muthukumar has worked with most of the composers.

It all began when as a toddler he would accompany his father, a school teacher who devoured books by the dozens every week, to all the libraries in and around Kanchipuram. They lived in Kannikapuram, a village nearby. “My father was my greatest inspiration. He opened the world of books for me and I’ve lived in the treasure trove ever since.”

Having lost his mother at the age of four, even as a child, Muthukumar sought solace in books. “Solitude drove me to the literary realm,” he says. He graduated in Physics but he opted for a Masters in Tamil Literature, and worked for a doctorate from the Madras University. “And imagine, when I came out I wanted to become a film director,” he laughs.

He went on to work as assistant to stalwarts such as Balu Mahendra and Hariharan, but the Muse of poetry had other plans for him. “From childhood my poems won prizes at various competitions and I contributed to magazines too,” he remembers. Soon he started getting offers to write lyrics for films, “though not for direction.”

Filmmaker Seeman gave Muthukumar the opportunity to write his first song. The film was Veeranadai. “But before it could come out I had written nearly hundred lyrics in cinema. I owe a lot to Deva who composed the music for Veeranadai. He would play the songs for others and talk about my lyrics to them. My first film was actually my 32nd release.”

When was the last time he wrote his lines in a jiffy? “This morning, over phone,” is the reply. “Joshua Sridhar called me up, played the tune and said he wanted the words at once. I gave them to him. We finished two songs.”

Going on at such breakneck speed can be strenuous. “If I work for four days, I relax for the next three, reading, and of course, playing with my son. When the brain is taxed continuously for three hours, physically I feel drained for the next six hours or so. But by the next morning I’m fresh and raring to go. That’s the beauty of a creator’s mind.”

Muthukumar then pauses to ask me, “How many times could you possibly get nostalgic every day? Not unless you meet somebody or notice something from your early days, right? But every time I sit down to write a song I draw from my past. I find it rejuvenating, and after a few hours exhausting too,” he explains the dichotomy quite well.

Does he resort to yoga to keep his mind calm? “Writing is yoga and meditation for me. I find it very therapeutic. I follow poet Bharati’s dictum, ‘Paatinaal Anbu Sei’ (‘Spread love through verse’) and it keeps me going.”

Books and dad

Muthukumar’s father, Nagarajan, has been a major influence in his life. “Our home was filled with magazines, both rare and popular. My father would constantly borrow money to buy books. I have nearly one lakh books at home, some of which are more than 200 years old, and also several palm-leaf manuscripts. He is no more, but I plan to set up a reference library to house his entire collection so that students of literature benefit,” says the lyricist.

Lit fest beckons

Thunchan Festival, South India Poets’ Meet, is being celebrated at Tirur, in Malappuram district, Kerala, till February 10, where Muthukumar has been invited to speak on ‘My Language, My Poetry.’ “I’ll be there on Feb 9 and 10. It will be a gathering of litterateurs, where a translation of a few works of mine, into other languages of the South, will be presented before my address. I’m looking forward to it,’ he says.

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