CHAT Madhan Karky has several aces up his sleeve. Meet the ‘lyric engineer' who takes computational creativity to a new level
M iles and miles of the Chennai skyline form a backdrop at Up North, the rooftop restaurant at Raintree. When Madhan Karky strides in for a chat on a breezy evening, it's hard to figure out which one is wider — the horizon or his ear-to-ear smile! Dressed casually in jeans and blue shirt, all he carries with him is his confidence. With a hat-trick of hits (think “Endhiran”, “Payanam” and “Ko”), the young dream-chaser continues to weave a magic spell with words. Suddenly, it looks like everyone wants a slice of the lyricist-dialogue writer.
Karky is a surprise package. With a PhD in Computer Science and an inbuilt need to excel in whatever he does, he prefers to be called a “lyric engineer”. A quirky mix, you think. But he explains persuasively, “I like to explore the possibility of designing and developing lyrics by applying scientific and mathematical principles. You can look at a lyric as software! It's a big challenge to create lines that are syntactically and semantically correct. I've been involved in researching software that helps maximise the meaning, rhyme and freshness of lyrics.”
Easy on the ear
If filmgoers were all ears when “Boom Boom Robo Da” and “Irumbile Oru Irudaiyam” played non-stop on television after the release of “Endhiran”, it was not just for A. R. Rahman's music. It was also for the freshness Karky brought to the lyrics. From the tech-driven lines in “Robot”, Karky dabbled in philosophy in the title song (“Neerchirai”) of “Payanam”. Then came “Ennamo Edho” for “Ko”, which steadily climbed up the charts what with Harris Jayaraj's lilting score and the lyricist's focussed use of pleasant-sounding photography jargon. “I think we tend to lock ourselves in the same set of words… vaanam, megam, kadhal, kaatru, etc. I go for new words that are profound in meaning, at the same time simple and easy on the ear. The word ‘kuviamilla' (out of focus) in “Ennamo Edho” has generated discussions on Facebook and other social networking sites. I want the younger generation to understand that Tamil is cool. There's a lot to absorb from the language,” he says. Karky's engineering twist to lyric writing doesn't come as a surprise given his academic interests. As assistant professor in Computer Science at the College of Engineering, Guindy, Anna University, the youngster, who could actually pass off as a student, enjoys every bit of his tryst with computational creativity. “There's a lot of energy on the campus. Our Tamil Computing Lab is a place where we (staff and students) research and throw ourselves challenges. We've worked extensively on lyric engineering, search engines and even software relating to movie-making with just the script! For this programme, the novel is the input that's fed into the computer. It designs the characters, fits the dialogue and even lip syncs for them! Our latest attempt is “Auto Journalist”. All you have to do is feed a cricket scorecard, and the computer generates a report with a flourish. The best part of all these creative pursuits is there's no commerce involved. We just enjoy doing it.”
Karky's steps to song-writing success weren't easy. “I struggled for about two years knocking on filmmakers' doors. I wanted to make it on my own. So I never mentioned my dad Vairamuthu's name in my attempt to get a break in the industry. The long wait paid off when I messaged director Shankar about my tech background and love for lyric writing which could perhaps come in handy during the making of ‘Endhiran'. Soon a meeting materialised. He appreciated the lyrics I'd taken with me — and was also taken by surprise when I eventually told him about dad! ‘Irumbile Oru Irudaiyam' happened, and Shankar also involved me for the dialogue in ‘Endhiran'. To me, it seemed like a dream.”
The success of “Endhiran” reposed Shankar's faith in Karky's skill. He has once again roped him in for “Nanban”, a remake of “3 Idiots.” Karky has not only written the lyrics, he has also co-written the dialogue with Shankar. “Again, I don't want people to have a déjà vu feeling. So I've deliberately used unusual words for a fresh take on campus life. There's one number which uses words from 16 languages. Instead of throwing in some catchy mumbo-jumbo, I thought film-goers can learn something new,” he beams.
Having found his true metier, there's no stopping Karky. His work will soon be showcased in films such as “Pon Maalai Pozhudhu”, “7 am Arivu”, “Vandhan Vendraan”, “180” (lyrics) and “Goraa” (dialogue). Talk about time management, and the youngster says matter-of-factly, “I find time for everything. College, filmi pursuits and son Haiku.” Now that's an unusual name. “I like brevity. Haiku is about maximum impact with minimum words. In today's world, it pays to deliver more with less!”
He says he was a poor student who failed in all subjects, except Tamil and English.
“But the turning point came in High School, when I suddenly got interested in computers and went on to score well in plus-two. My marks took me to Anna University, where I also met Nandini, my wife. My Masters in Australia and eventually Ph.D. there with full scholarship reassured me that I was cut out for research and academics. With mom being a professor and dad a lyricist, I guess I've got a little bit of both in me!”
Mellinam is an initiative Karky has floated with wife Nandini. “It's an attempt to simplify education, in general, and Tamil, in particular. Through an iPaati series that's available on our website, we expose children to a range of stories in different disciplines — from social science to language. What's next is an easy take on Tamil grammar for beginners. An un-school concept is also on our wish list.
T. KRITHIKA REDDY