The multi-faceted Gangai Amaran speaks about facing the camera as an actor and the joys and challenges of being a musician

Philosophical and extremely cheerful at once, Gangai Amaran is an intriguing paradox! Those present at the spacious lounge of Hotel Courtyard by Marriott on Anna Salai are taken in by the joie de vivre and warmth that Amaran exudes. “Life is joy. There’s so much to be thankful for,” he says. Son Venkat Prabhu is a name to reckon with in Tamil cinema today and Premgi Amaran, the younger of the two, is slowly climbing up the ladder as an actor and musician. Active as ever, this lyricist, composer, guitarist, singer, writer, director, popular Sun Singer face and emcee of several music and cultural shows is a much sought after globe trotter. “I’m leaving for Canada this month on a cultural tour. But there’s another facet of mine which people have to suffer soon, and that’s my avatar as an actor!” he says with a cheeky grin. The cheeky grin typifies the humorous side of the veteran. But we’ve already seen him on the big screen in Payanangal Mudivadhillai. “It was only one a scene and I played myself. But in Arya Surya you will see me as the husband of Kovai Sarala,” he chuckles.

Vaalee, at a function said, “Gangai Amaran has the potential to excel in several fields, yet I feel he should have concentrated on one.” Mention it, and Amaran replies: “I was present then. But when I can do justice to various areas of work that come my way, why should I turn them down? When I was a guitarist and wrote verses for films, singing and composing were offered to me and then came story-writing and direction. They met with immense success — Kozhi Koovudhu and Karagaattakaaran are examples. Anchoring was part of my stage activities from the very beginning, so the transition to television was easy. I love being a part of Sun Singer. Being with kids rejuvenates me. It’s like spending time with 25 grandchildren.” Amaran is a doting granddad to Venkat Prabhu’s daughters.

Generally, any art endeavour has a saturation point they say. “Recently, I was on the steps leading to the Vasishta Cave, near Rishikesh. Once inside, I spend at least three hours in meditation. I got a call from my nephew, Yuvan [Shankar Raja]. ‘Amarappa where are you? I need a lyric now.’ ‘Give me the tune,’ I told him, and dictated it before I reached the entrance to the cave. Does it answer your question?” Juxtaposition of religion, philosophy and youthful thought processes — that’s Amaran. Verses, including those for the latest ‘Venkat Prabhu Diet’ — Briyani — run in tandem with his devotional compositions.

“Our eldest brother ‘Pavalar’ Vardarajan was a rustic poet. Great thoughts in simple words were his forte.” When did Amaran turn lyricist? “Before Ilaiyaraaja began to play on the harmonium. Originally He he used to create tunes for lines of popular songs. That was when I would give him my lyrics and suggest that he compose music for them. Thus we stored a lot of compositions in our mind and drew from them when required.” Amaran wrote the popular song, ‘Vaigaraiyil Vaigai Karaiyil,’ when he was just 14 and ‘Andhapurathil Oru Maharani,’ at 15! “As I talk to you I wonder, ‘was it I who wrote them?’”

This lyricist of nearly 500 Ilaiyaraaja films, which translates into around 1,200 songs, besides songs for other musicians, and composer for nearly 200 films, which include all-time hits such as, Kamal Haasan’s Vazhvey Maayam, is modest about his achievements.

Why the pseudonym? “I was named after my father’s friend in the Army, Amar Singh. As a boy I was drawn to a magazine called Gangai in our library. As an aspiring lyricist, when I visualised my name on screen, ‘Amar Singh’ didn’t impact. So I took the name Gangai, made Amar, Amaran and re-christened myself.”

Amaran and brother Ilaiyaraaja were in M.S. Subbulakshmi’s house to invite her for a family wedding. “She welcomed them with a smile and told Ilaiyaraaja, ‘My day begins only with your song. What a composition!”

“Which song?” asked Ilaiyaraaja.

“‘Malar Pola Malargindra …’”

The popular devotional piece was composed by Gangai Amaran for the album he brought out on the Pondicherry Mother. “Ilaiyaraja said, ‘That’s not mine. It was composed by Amar.’ But I was already on cloud nine! My life has been a blessing right through. I believe God works more for my well-being than I do.” He closes his eyes for a moment. “Have you heard my album on Lord Ayyappa — Volume VI of Yesudas’s songs? You must. It’s still popular.” a chart buster.”

He says his wife Kala is another blessing. “We were in love and her well-to-do family was against the marriage. But she stood her ground and believed in me when I was nobody,” he says. An illustrious personality Amaran will always remember is MGR. “His affection for me was immense,” he recalls. Another is Sivaji Ganesan — “I’ve admired him from afar and eventually composed music for his Needhipathi.”

Trials and tribulations have also been part of Amaran’s life. “Yet not once have I lost faith in God. Recently, I was roaming around travelling around in Haridwar, Rishikesh and other nearby places nearby alone. I would have continued for a few more days like I do every year, if it had not been for my granddaughter’s first birthday. Imagine my shock, when just six days after my return, I see on television, the very same places I was walking past, crumbling.” down!”

Amaran has neither allowed success to go to his head nor failure to make him a recluse. “But I’ve learnt who my true friends are. Two people who have been the same with me during my bad days and good are S.P. Balasubramaniam and Rajnikanth.”

Typically Amaran!

Whatever happened to the film he directed with Venkat Prabhu as hero? “Pooncholai? The reels are lying safe! One day I plan to invite all Venkat Prabhu’s friends over, saying that I’ve organised a special screening of a great film, closet them all in a room, lock it from outside before they realise what they have got themselves into, and screen Pooncholai.” Ha! Ha! ”Here’s a man who enjoys a good joke, even if it’s on himself!

His famous brother

“Ilaiyaraaja and I may not always be on the best of terms, but the affection we share is intact. Even today, when the young participants tots of Sun Singer, or my friends abroad, wish to meet him, I call up, and however busy he is, he gives them appointments and greets them warmly. My respect for him and his music will always remain.”