South Tamil Nadu has been historically centres of various traditions of ballads, folklore, dance and drama. Madurai, in particular, has produced many stalwarts in the film industry over different period of time.
However, three names stand out for their phenomenal achievements and could easily be called the ‘Pride of the South,' though they cannot be bracketed within any stated boundaries.
Music legend Ilayaraja, director Bharathiraja and Vairamuthu are the awesome threesome from the composite Madurai district.
The trio shares so many commonalities. Hailing from the rural hinterland, they came from a humble background. The three took elements of their everyday life and wove magic in their respective fields.
The contributions of Ilayaraja and Bharathiraja stand out in particular considering the historical process and the stagnation that the industry faced during the 1970s.
They changed the rules of music composition and film making respectively and paved the way for a fresh and down-to-earth wave of creativity at a time when the film world was stuck in an overdoing rut.
In his book Tamil Cinemavin Varalaru, Muktha Sreenivasan classifies the first three phases of Tamil cinema as puranic, mythological and folklore period (1931-50); melodrama story period (1951-75); and partly realistic anti-sentimental story period (1976-85).
He characterises the first phase as one in which films “had nothing to do with real life.”
The second phase was a period of exaggeration: “scenes of extreme sacrifice, totally unconnected with real life, were seen in their films. Events of family life were presented in an exaggerated form. There was excess dialogue in their films.”
The period between 1976 and 1985, when Tamil cinema came to terms with ‘partly realistic and anti-sentimental stories,' is the best so far. Though he found it inadequate, crass commercialisation usurped the scene in mid-80s.
You cannot escape from the hold of Ilayaraja if you live anywhere in the world where there is a substantial population of south Indians, particularly Tamils.
Such is his presence in everyday life of Tamils. Born at Pannaipuram in Theni district, he saw a meteoric rise as a music composer.
A composer of nearly 910 films with a whopping 4,500 songs recorded, Ilayaraja is nothing short of a legend. His entry into films was significant.
It was the early 1970s, a period which saw the decline of hero-centric films and breaking up of star system associated with MGR and Sivaji Ganesan.
Ilayaraja worked with famous music directors such as M.S. Viswanathan, Salil Choudhury and G.K. Venkatesh while simultaneously trying to compose his own music.
According to film historian Theodore Baskaran, “No other artiste's career symbolises the popularity and hold of film music, as does Ilayaraja's.
For the Tamil diaspora, Ilayaraja has emerged as a cultural force.” Paatalae Puthi Sonnar, Paatalae Bhakthi Sonnar, the title song in Karagattakaran provides an idea of his influence.
Ilayaraja's path-breaking background score and songs across genres took the audience to a new world, a different listening experience. The songs in his debut film Annakili (1976) were authentically folksy and it changed the way the film music was composed.
Speaking to “The Hindu” about Ilaiyaraja's contribution, noted film critic and theorist Sundar Kaali says, “Ilaiyaraja revolutionised film music in Tamil Nadu. For the first time, we had what was a blend of Indian classical music, Western classical music and folk music of Tamils. Another important contribution is his orchestration which was hitherto unknown in Tamil cinema.”
Theodore Baskaran says folk music has been used earlier but quite functionally through classical music idiom. Ilayaraja brought it with its soul, with its earthy character.
He used authentic instruments such as tharai and thappattai (drums). In many films he has demonstrated his skill over Carnatic music, handling some difficult ragas.
It was during Ilayaraja's reign that there was a string of movies that were specially made keeping in mind his songs and background scores. Films with protagonists as stage singers emerged as a new phenomenon then. Films with little known stars such as Mohan (who eventually was referred as ‘Mike' Mohan), Murali, and not to forget Ramarajan as a rural folk singer, were running to full houses.
One of the interesting facts during the days of cassette culture was using compact cassette with varying playback lengths and getting them recorded with ones own list of songs. Though not legal, it was largely the practice then.
A few owners of those recording centres said that songs such as Kanne Kalaimane, Ilaiya Nila Pozhigiradhe, Ilamai Enum Poongatru, Nilave Vaa, Poongathu Thirumbuma were such big hits that they were recorded everyday for various music lovers.
Comparisons can be odious but if Hollywood can be proud of its Nino Rotas, Bernard Herremans and Ennio Morricones, we have Ilayaraja. Ilayaraja's knowledge of cinema is evident in his background scores, which add a new dimension to it. For example, his films like Uthiripookal, Moodupani, Mullum Malarum, Moondram Pirai, Nayagan, Thalapathi, Hey Ram and Pithamagan stand out for the re-recording. It was no surprise that he bagged the first national award constituted for background music score for Pazhassi Raja .
Ilayaraja's acumen and knowledge on the aesthetics of cinema and understanding of the role of music in films is what set him apart. For him, music should synchronise with the visual images and should not stand isolated; and it should be an engaging aural and visual experience. Ilayaraja's non-film albums — How to Name it? (1986), Nothing But Wind (1988), Tiruvasagam: A Crossover (2005) were critically acclaimed. Even today, Ilayaraja's theme music and songs remain the most sought after when it comes to ‘hello tunes' and caller tunes, his Mouna Ragam theme music is still a big hit.
Bharathiraja, like Ilaiyaraja, is a trendsetter. He made his debut just a year after Ilayaraja in 1977 through Padhinaru Vayadhiniley . Born in Allinagaram, a small village near Theni, with his debut film Bharathiraja broke new ground.
He worked with Kannada legend Puttanna Kanagal as an assistant director in 1967 and learnt the craft of film-making before making a mark for himself in the annals of Tamil film history.
He could be termed a pioneer in what Sundar Kaali in his essay ‘Narrating Seduction: Vicissitudes of the Sexed Subject in Tamil Nativity Film' terms as neo-nativity films (a popular genre that emerged in 1970s and ran till 1990s). In these films, a rustic hero and a village with its social milieu were preferred.
Bharathiraja's arrival had created such an impact that even established directors started making neo-nativity genre films.
For the first time, cameras got shifted from the studios and went to capture the countryside.
The films not only liberated the filmmaker's eye from the sets but also changed film-making techniques through its realistic portrayal of characters.
First, the heavily made up glamorous heroine of the yesteryears was replaced with a simple looking protagonist who was representative of the village woman.
Costumes and dialogues with the original dialect reflected the everyday life of the village in an authentic manner. Films such as Puthiya Vaarpugal, Muthal Mariyathai, Mann Vasanai, Kizhakku Cheemaiyile, and Karuthamma brought in the rural ambience on the widescreen.
Bharathiraja not only proved his success in the neo-nativity genre but also managed to silence his critics by making suspense thrillers such as Sigappu Rojakkal and Oru Kaithiyin Diary which were urban-centric subjects. Films such as Alaigal Oiyvadhillai, Kadalora Kavithaigal were sheer poetry on screen, with scintillatingly romantic music and lyrics.
Films such as Karuththamma dealt a social malaise, female infanticide, which was rampant in the Usilampatti block of Madurai.
Though Bharathiraja's films address issues of caste in a critical manner, somehow it never tried to break the caste hegemony. Most of his films have the protagonist hailing from the Mukkulathor community and he dealt with caste from his perspective.
In Mudhal Mariyadhai, even though the love that bonds between the protagonist and the heroine transcends caste and we have the incident of the hero going against the tradition and gets his nephew married to a Dalit girl, the event accentuates his caste pride rather than letting it down because he then becomes patron and still at another level the girl's father is always shown falling at his feet despite he becoming the father-in-law.
Vedam Pudithu did deal with caste question, but it has the upper caste Brahmin kid questioning his dominant caste selfhood rather than the member of an oppressed caste.
Though a late entrant, Vairamuthu's contribution to Tamil film industry is priceless.
His lyrics came as mnemonic devices that promise to recreate the past and celebrate it.
Nothing justifies this than Chinna Chinna Aasai and some of his early songs composed teaming up with Ilayaraja and Bharathiraja.
Hailing from Mettur near Vaigai dam, Vairamuthu strongly believes that any art work based on the ‘lived' experience has a lasting impact on the people.
“Only the one who experiences the pain can bring out the desired effect.
Unless you feel the pain, there is no point uncapping your pen. Every good creation has life in it. Craftsmanship comes later.”
For the first time, lyrics depicting the stark realities of rural life were heard through renditions with authentic markers.
Lines like Kokku Pasiyara Kokkulathu Meen Irukku, Yaen Makka Pasiyara Makkipoana Nel Irukka, highlighted the deprivation and distress of rural life.
His songs always had a close connection with the land and the people who inhabit it, their emotions and responses; it always carries the fragrance of the soil. He, in an interview to The Hindu once, said, “The sense of belonging runs so deep that it really hurts me even now, for it was difficult to part with my land, cattle, life and soul.”
This was reflected in his national award-winning song Poraale Ponnuthayi Pola Polavendru Kanneer Vittu, Thannerum Sorum Thantha Manna Vittu, Pal Pechum Maata Vittu, Pancharathu Kozhiya Vittu …which talks about a departing girl finding it hard to detach herself from her village after getting married.
His songs with socialist themes such as Manidha Manidha Ini Un Vizhigal, Erimalai Eppadi Porukkum, Ezhugave Padaigal Ezhugave could still be heard in almost every May Day meetings organised by the Left parties. Vairamuthu said that lyrics of film songs are a record of socio-cultural and political changes. When one engages with these songs, one gets to know what has changed in our society and what remains constant.
He recently said: “it is always an easier task working with Ilayaraja as we share the same rapport and he is particularly keen to bring about the rural touch in his songs.” Most of the films which came under the combination of this trio had been great musical hits such as Nizhalgal, Alaigal Oiyvathillai, Mudhal Mariyadhai and Kadalora Kavithaigal.
Vairamuthu was also criticised for his songs such as Thirupachi Aruvala and songs in Bharathi Kannamma which aroused feelings of caste pride to a heightened sense.