Angamaly brass bands to Bulgarian orchestra: How Malayalam cinema composers are scoring high

Four pathbreaking composers who brought new soundscapes and music to Malayalam cinema discuss their approach to film music

September 30, 2022 01:28 pm | Updated October 01, 2022 11:35 am IST

Music producer and composer Jakes Bejoy in a recording studio

Music producer and composer Jakes Bejoy in a recording studio | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Trumpets wail while snare drums hold a somber rhythm as a long Christian funeral procession passes along a beach. The poignant opening shot, which sets the tone of Lijo Jose Pellissery’s 2018 Malayalam classic Ee.Ma.Yau, would not impact the viewers as much as it does if not for Prashant Pillai’s score.

Also read: Does Fahadh Faasil’s ‘Malayankunju’ mark a new chapter in Indian cinema with its brilliant sound design?

Malayalam cinema composers (from left) Jakes Bejoy, Sushin Shyam and Justin Varghese

Malayalam cinema composers (from left) Jakes Bejoy, Sushin Shyam and Justin Varghese | Photo Credit: Jakes Bejoy

The much-discussed new wave in Malayalam cinema is not just a story of innovative filmmakers and scriptwriters but also of pathbreaking composers who brought whole new soundscapes and redefined what music meant to Malayalam cinema. Four of them talk about their philosophy towards composing and what they look out for as composers.

Matching the terrain

Jakes Bejoy

Jakes Bejoy | Photo Credit: SUJISHA

From the haunting ‘Mundoor Madan’ theme of Biju Menon’s enigmatic Ayyappan Nair in Ayyappanum Koshiyum (2019) to the creeping cello score of Ratheena’s Mammootty-starrer Puzhu (2022), Jakes Bejoy composes to match the terrain of the story and the film. “There is no point trying to be subtextual in mass-entertainers. It is all about making the central character as ‘massy’ as possible at any given moment,” explains Jakes.

‘Mudoor Madan’ theme from Ayyappanum Koshiyum

However, he states no matter how good the actual compositions are, if the people making the movie, especially the editors, are not musically strong, then it will all be for naught. Whether it’s a typical action entertainer like Kaduva(2022) or an off-beat crime drama like Nirmal Sahadev’s Prithviraj-starrer Ranam (2018), he has been fortunate to work with some brilliant editors. “That rapport between the composer and the editor is extremely important. The soul of a scene is decided by how well the edits are made to match the musical cuts. You can see how well it all came together in Ranam’s trailer cut by my good friend Sreejith, and the ‘Pala Palli’ song in Kaduva, edited by Shameer Muhammed,” Jakes adds.

‘Pala Palli Thirupalli’ song from Kaduva

Marrying folk to cinema
Jakes produced the ‘Mundoor Madan’ theme in Ayyappanum Koshiyum (2019) using a ritual song sung during Kummatti performances in parts of Palakkad.
Meanwhile, the chartbuster Pala Palli song from Kaduva (2022) is actually a reworking of a funeral song of the Pulaya community in Kerala.

His latest release, the Telugu science fiction drama, Oke Oka Jeevitham has garnered high praise from both audience and critics.

Jakes credits Ayyappanum Koshiyum for opening a lot of doors and giving him the freedom to choose what he wants. However, he says time is still an issue in Malayalam cinema as schedules are often tight for composers. Yet, when he does get the time and the right project, it is proper brainstorming and research that is key to creating a soundscape that fits the nature of the story. “For Ayyappanum Koshiyum, we spent a considerable amount of time in Attappady researching the local folk music, and that was when we met Nanjiyamma”, he says. A native of Attappady, Nanjiyamma went on to win the National Film Award for Best Playback Singer for the song ‘Kalakatha’.

Jakes’ best works and where to watch them
Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru (2016) - Hotstar, Amazon Prime or YouTube
Ranam (2018) - Hotstar
Ayyappanum Koshiyum (2019) - Amazon Prime
Salute (2022) - SonyLiv
Puzhu (2022) - SonyLiv

Jakes adds that the appreciation, especially from Attappady, for Ayyappanum Koshiyum’s score has made him want to bring more of Kerala’s rich folk music into cinema. He is currently working on Vilayathu Buddha, a Prithviraj-starrer set in Marayoor, which has a distinctive Tamil culture although it’s in Kerala; Jakes is trying to incorporate Marayoor’s unique musical culture into the score.

In search of novelty

Prashant Pillai

Prashant Pillai | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“When I started out in 2009, you usually had to have established connections in the industry to enter it. I feel like that[culture] has changed a lot, and talent is getting recognised for what it is,” says Prashant. He made his debut in Nayakan (2010), which itself was the debut movie of Lijo, who found a perfect partner in Prashant to score his eccentric storytelling.

Prashant’s best works and where to watch them
Amen (2013) - YouTube
Anuraga Karikkin Vellam (2016) - JioCinema
Angamaly Diaries (2017) - Netflix or YouTube
Ee.Ma.Yau (2018) - YouTube
Jallikattu (2019) - Amazon Prime

They have worked together for all but one of Lijo’s movies, and has set the trend for what can be achieved when a maverick filmmaker collaborates with a composer not bound by conventions. “Initially, most people did not understand what I was trying to do. However, Amen (2013) changed that. It showed that we could have a completely non-native musical soundscape for a very native story,” says Prashant, who is glad to have avoided the beaten path and paved way for something new in Malayalam cinema.

‘Engu Ninnu Vanna Devadhoothan’ song from Amen (2013)

Pitch perfect
Prashant chose legendary singer Lucky Ali to sing the trippy ‘Engu Ninnu Vanna Devadhoothan’ song from Amen (2013) to convey the out-of-the-box nature and charisma of the priest Fr. Vincent Vattoli played by Indrajith Sukumaran.

From the fantastically quirky soundtrack of the magical realist Amen to the rustic brass band score that captures the soul of Angamaly town in Angamaly Diaries (2017), he has been on a constant search for novelty. Apart from Lijo, he is also the go-to composer for Siddharth Bharathan and Bollywood filmmaker Bejoy Nambiar — directors with their own unique storytelling styles, and exactly what Prashant looks out for.

Jallikattu (2019) was the last movie he scored for Lijo

Although he has worked on several musically rich movies, Ee.Ma.Yau (2018) is his most satisfying work despite the score being used only towards the end of the movie and at the beginning. “When I sat to watch it for the first time with Lijo, I could not finish watching as I was overwhelmed by emotion. In fact, I did not watch those portions for which I had composed the music,” says Prashant, whose upcoming projects are Siddharth’s Chathuram and Djinn. He is also excited for Lijo’s next, scheduled to begin after the Mammootty-starrer Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam.

Finding the motifs

Sushin Shyam

Sushin Shyam | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Mahesh Narayanan’s magnum opus Malik(2021) had everything that an epic period movie could ask for: fascinating story, superbly written script, exceptional production quality, brilliant cinematography and magnificent performances.

However, even with so many technical highs, Sushin Shyam’s lush and poignant score stood out. Yet, Sushin says he is not someone who can come up with a composition instantly like other professional musicians do. His largely solitary process of starting with something as basic as trying to find the right mood or riff, he says, helps him bring something new to every project.

Sushin’s best works and where to watch them
Kismath (2016) - YouTube
Ezra (2017) - Disney+Hotstar
Kumbalangi Nights (2019) - YouTube or Amazon Prime
Malik (2021) - Amazon Prime
Bheeshma Parvam (2022) - Disney+Hotstar

In Malik, this process resulted in the melancholic theme of Suleiman (Fahadh’s character) played in the stunning opening shot of the movie introducing the character. Meanwhile, in Amal Neerad’s Mammootty-starrer Bheeshma Parvam(2022), it helped create the joyful song ‘Parudeesa’ that laid the foundation for the entire soundtrack of the blockbuster movie, including Michael’s (Mammootty’s character) majestic trumpet-based theme. “Composing that song helped me find the whole vibe of the movie. The trumpet solo became Michael’s theme and the humming melody ended up being the theme of Michael’s family. You can get a stem or a musical motif from that initial theme or song, which you can use to create the whole soundtrack,” explains Sushin.

However, Kumbalangi Nights(2019) remains close to his heart. Not only did he win a Kerala State Film Award but he was also able to score for it at his own pace and all by himself, mostly working from his home studio. The gorgeous ‘Cherathukal’ penned by Anwar Ali and crooned by Sithara Krishnakumar was the first piece of music he composed for the movie. “It was born out of an experience I had when visiting the production space in Kumbalangi. I hummed and recorded a tune it into my phone, and it eventually became the opening guitar riff of the song,” adds Sushin. His next is Jithu Madhavan’s Romancham starring Soubin Shahir and Arjun Ashokan.

‘Cherathukal’ song from Kumbalangi Nights

A director’s composer

Justin Varghese

Justin Varghese | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

From a keyboardist in a church choir to composing one of the most haunting scores — for Dileesh Pothan’s Joji(2021) starring Fahadh Faasil — in Malayalam cinema’s recent history, Justin Varghese has come a long way. “Although I got to work with a Bulgarian orchestra, I never thought it would get any special appreciation,” says Justin. However, when the movie released, critics and viewers were unanimous in their praise of the eerie orchestral theme that was perfect for a plot inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

“Since it was a direct OTT release for a potential international audience, Dileesh and Shyam Pushkaran (writer) asked me to compose something that would sound ‘international’. I had always wanted to work with musicians abroad, and this was the perfect opportunity,” Justin says. Four for Music, the Bulgarian orchestra that played and recorded Justin’s brilliant composition, had the facility to live-stream the recording session, so that he and he could suggest any changes instantly. “It was an amazing experience,” he adds.

Remix of Tulu folk song ‘Ollulleru’ from Ajagajantharam

Justin’s best works and where to watch them
Thaneer Mathan Dinangal (2019) - JioCinema
Joji (2021) - Amazon Prime
Ajagajantharam (2021) - SonyLiv
Dear Friend (2022) - Netflix
Oru Thekkan Thallu Case (2022) - In theatres now

Justin, who debuted with Althaf Salim’s Njandukalude Naatil Oridavela (2017), had more than six releases since December 2021, each showcasing a different soundscape, starting with Tinu Pappachan’s intense action drama Ajagajantharam featuring Justin’s pulsating score and a superbly arranged remix of the famous Tulu folk song ‘Ollulleru’. “Tinu wanted a score that was completely devoid of any melody. Therefore, I improvised a lot with various sounds,” he says. This was followed by Gireesh A.D.’s coming-of-age comedy Super Sharanya (2022) that had the super-peppy ‘Ashubha Mangalakaari’ song. However, for Vineeth Kumar’s slice-of-life drama Dear Friend(2022) starring Tovino Thomas, Justin weaved an exquisitely subtle soundtrack. “I rarely read the script and very much depend on the director’s or scriptwriter’s narration of the story to capture the right mood. Although subtlety is not my strength, Vineeth wanted something really light, and it fortunately came out well,” he adds. Meanwhile, Justin’s latest release Oru Thekkan Thallu Case (2022) features a highly rustic score and songs, two of which Justin himself sang, that superbly sets the tone of the period drama set in a 1980s Southern Kerala coastal village.

‘Yentharu’ sung by Justin from Oru Thekkan Thallu Case (2022)

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