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Music man of movies

Isaac Thomas Kottukapally has scored the music for six films selected for the Indian Panorama 2004. A profile.

— Pic. by N. Sridharan

He creates a mood with music: Isaac Thomas Kottukapally

HE DEALS in stories. A closet scriptwriter. An aspiring filmmaker. An inspired photographer. A successful adman. And, today, a feted music director, Isaac Thomas Kottukapally has the distinction of having scored the music for six of the films selected for the Indian Panorama 2004. The Indian Panorama is the section of the International Film Festival of India that showcases the best of Indian feature films — which makes him a sort of "alternative filmmaker's music man," as Sashi Kumar, director of "Kaya Taran", puts it.

Language no bar

"Kaya Taran", by the way, is just one of the stories Kottukapally has helped narrate with his music. Being a storyteller who uses rhythm to tell tales, language to Kottukapally is clearly no bar. The four feature films (the other two are short films), span three different languages: "Kaya Taran" in Hindi, "Maargam" by Rajiv Vijayraghavan in Malayalam (as is Ligy J. Pullappally's "Sancharam"), and "1:1.6 An Ode to Lost Love" by Madhu Ambat in English.

"I started making music for films only five years ago," says Kottukapally, fiddling with a series of knobs in his Chennai studio as he carefully watches numbers whiz past the screen while his latest project, a Malayalam movie, plays. "I put in music with mathematical calculations... it's precise to the second," he adds, pointing at the numbers.

And that's the essential difference between Kottukapally and other music directors, in terms of technique at least. "The change I made is in background music, it's necessary only where it's actually required."

If that sounds cryptic to you, replay your favourite commercial movie and you'll realise that Shah Rukh Khan, for example, always has dramatic music backing his dialogue. When he cries, the music weeps. When he gleefully prances around assorted water bodies, it splashes about with delight. After a while, like any strong smell, you eventually stop noticing it, simply because it's always there. Kottukapally, on the other hand, requires his directors to time their movies and then tell him where exactly they want music inserted, so he can work with them, and their films.

"Music can be used for various reasons... It is often used for lengthy dialogue to make a break in a monotonous conversation. But I would call that the last reason to use music — to camouflage a weak spot," says Kottukapally firmly, adding that, ideally, music should be used to heighten emotion. "To highlight a particular emotion, dialogue, reaction... so that the audience, without realising, is treated to an entire audio-visual experience."

Maybe you haven't realised, but there's more to a movie than just the title track. For all those of you who conjure up a moony-eyed Leonardo DiCaprio looking like a lovelorn sea gull with `My heart will go on' playing in the background whenever you think `Titanic,' here's what you didn't realise: All those times your heart leapt to your mouth, you weren't just mourning lost love, you were also being played like a fiddle by the sweeping, melancholic background score.

Music underlines emotion

"Music can improve a movie tremendously," says Kottukapally, adding that it not only underlines and establishes visible emotion, but also reveals emotional undercurrents. "Sometimes the emotion you put out there is very different from what you really feel. A character in conflict could be happy outside, but dying inside."

Then, it illustrates movement. Like from a city to a rural landscape, established by disco and car honks followed by folksy tunes and the murmur of paddy fields. "Music is a shortcut to a mood or scene. With a single scene change you can move from a sad to a happy sequence."

But despite being totally savvy about the nitty gritty of film music, Kottukapally says music direction is still just one of his many cherished hobbies. "I'm basically a filmmaker. When I passed out of film school, I decided to get experience by working as an assistant director before I make my own movie. I'm also a scriptwriter, and have more than a 100 scripts ready for production. I'm ready to start my movie any day. (Laughs) Only, `any day' has been going on for the past 25 years!"


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