Fact or Fiction: Tamil film heroes are super mutants.
Several hundred ‘mass’ films that Tamil cinema has churned out this decade would tell you that it is a fact. This imperishable Brobdingnagian, who is also impervious to pain, is someone — these films would have you believe — us lesser mortals should aspire to be.
For example, remember the intro scene in ‘Ratchagan’ (1997), when Akkineni Nagarjuna thrashes a man who badmouths India (the men’s cricket team, to be exact)? It is in that scene we discovered that a ‘mass’ hero’s median nerve can run all the way up to the back of his earlobe (Andreas Vesalius was rolling in his grave watching it), and that when it gets throbbing, what is running through the nerve (and not veins, simply because we must defy science) is patriotism.
Cringe worthy as they may be, besides screaming hypocrisy six ways from Sunday, the true believer of a Tamil film ‘mass’ hero is captivated by these moments. Whistles and hoots follow.
What enhances the mood in these scenes is the background music. Imagine Chris Evans yelling “Avengers... Assemble” in a shot without background score in the film ‘Avengers: Endgame’. The dramatic quotient falls flat. A Tamil cinema hero is no less than Captain America in that he too requires some assistance to build an air of invincibility.
And so, this is a list of films from the decade gone by that has some of the top quality ‘mass’ moment-inducing kind of music.
Mass — as I qualify it — is not limited to a formulaic understanding of the term as Tamil cinema critics have come to define it. That is because each entry in this list evokes a set of emotions unique to the film, the character(s) behind it and the situation or setting.
Disclaimer: There is no ranking order, and it was a tough process whittling down the list to just 10 entries. Please be kind on us list-making people in the next decade dear Tamil filmmakers, and, err, maybe not make so many ‘mass’ films!
Vikram Vedha (2017); Composer: Sam CS
Vijay Sethupathi as Vedha had the meatier character in the film.
Vedha was equal times cool as he was ‘mass’. When he is first introduced in the film, Vedha is walking into enemy territory; a place swarming with cops where, moments earlier, a plot to storm his supposed hideout to capture him was hatched. And Vedha takes a jaunt into their joint with a vada in his hand.
The background music used in this scene is drawn from the ‘Karuppu Vellai’ song, and whose lyric, courtesy Vignesh Sivan, consists of words that reflect abstractionism like — “ Dharmamum Dhrogamum Onnu Onnu, Dharmam Kaakha Dhrogam Senjathundu ”.
Kaththi (2014); Composer: Anirudh Ravichander
Anirudh’s background score in ‘Kaththi’ goes beyond the detail of enhancing a scene. It adds character detail.
There are a couple of clever compositions in the film, but the one that takes the cake is ‘The Sword of Destiny’.
There is a tiny bit of the ‘mass’ masala movie fan in me that wants to get off the desk where I’m sitting and compiling this piece, place both my hands on the wooden surface, take a step or two back before leaning forward and crouching to look underneath it and find imaginary pipes while this music plays in the background.
A variation of the track, an official release by Anirudh, with top notch electric guitar riffs also exists on YouTube.
Uriyadi (2016); Composer: Masala Coffee
No prizes for guessing which track it is.
Vijay Kumar, who filmed Uriyadi , took lines penned by Tamil poet Subramania Bharati, and with the help of Masala Coffee, turned it into a first class goosebumps-inducing piece of musical score. So much so that the words “ Thatthagida Thatthagida Thatthagida Thithom ” became the film’s identity.
Not only was ‘Uriyadi’ a bold take on prevalent caste politics in Tamil Nadu, the gripping realism extended into the fight sequences as well. The interval fight sequence is where Vijay Kumar, who was also responsible for the film’s background score, uses a bit from the song ‘Agni Kunjondru’ as background score. The story takes a dramatic turn from that point. To paraphrase Bharati’s words — all it takes to burn down a forest is a tiny flame.
Mankatha (2011); Composer: Yuvan Shankar Raja
This is one of the best ‘mass’ background scores of this decade.
Ajith Kumar’s character in the film, Vinayak Mahadev, was only a start in terms of the many anti-hero characters that Tamil cinema gave us this decade. And Yuvan’s music was at the heart of translating the villainy which, if any perhaps, hadn’t already been interpreted off the screen.
The score fulfilled its prime job of eliciting applause and whistles from the gallery. Be it the intro scene, or the sequence where Ajith performed a wheelie with actor Vaibhav riding pillion on a super bike, or when the final reveal happens, Yuvan’s ‘Mankatha’ theme score was on the mark.
Kaala (2018); Composer: Santhosh Narayanan
An important film in both Rajinikanth and Pa Ranjith’s career, ‘Kaala’ had a handful of classic Superstar moments.
A remarkable bit of cinematography is the stunt sequence atop a flyover filmed under the rain effect. The background score used here as Rajinikanth pummels henchmen with just an umbrella is also the base track used to compose ‘Katravai Patravai’ song. Rapper Yogi B’s vocals and the musical score of the song is what that drives the narrative in the film’s final sequence, which unfolds amid an explosion of the colours black, red and blue, and leads to Rajini asserting the words — “Land is our right”.
Santhosh Narayanan’s chart of ‘mass’ soundtracks was climbing at a steady pace at this point — after ‘Kabali’ and ‘Kodi’ in 2016, and ‘Bairavaa’ in 2017. Yet what he delivered with ‘Kaala’ was nothing short of extraordinary.
Viswasam (2019); Composer: D Imman
‘Viswasam’ was a no-brainer.
In fact, so popular was Imman’s score that the producers of ‘Marjaavaan’ borrowed some of that nativity for use in their Bollywood film under questionable circumstances. In the film, the intro scene, where this piece of background score finds a place, is a show of hands — in that it shows several characters bringing their hands together to greet the protagonist out of respect, or because he is ‘mass’.
Ajith Kumar plays Thookku Durai, whose bushy moustache, his feet, hands and a shot with his back turned towards the camera all get the perfect buildup with a score that is 110% rural in its flavour and treatment.
Jilla (2014); Composer: D Imman
It is evidence of Imman’s rise in popularity this decade, which made it incredibly hard to prevent him from re-appearing on this list a second time.
Jilla’s theme song is the only thing worth savouring in what was otherwise a forgettable film. Whether the ‘mass’ value of this song accurately translates on screen when Vijay makes his appearance as Shakti aka Jilla in the film is debatable. Because irrespective of the weight that a piece of background score can add to a ‘mass’ sequence, it is doubly important that the filmmaker also helps set the mood through creative visualisation. ‘Jilla’ suffered in this department.
But the theme song works because of the mix of flavours used in its composition. The track starts off sedated and builds the tempo step-by-step, adding elements of the Wild West — and not to forget a liberal dose of hero deification in the lyrics — before an infusion of ‘mass’ happens at once, courtesy the introduction of panchavadyam. Listen and then be the judge.
Thani Oruvan (2015); Composer: Hip-hop Tamizha
Though Ajith and Vijay Sethupathi played characters with a villainous shade in their respective films on this list, their villainy did not overshadow the fact that they were the protagonists of their respective films.
Arvind Swamy’s cold, calculating villain in Siddharth Abhimanyu, however, easily overshadowed the protagonist’s role (played by Jayam Ravi) in ‘Thani Oruvan’. The film gave us a villain with ‘mass’ potential.
He also had the best of lines. Sample: “ Velichathula irukkuravan than da irutta paathu bayapaduvan... Naan iruttalaye vaazhravan. I’m not bad... just evil .” (Only those living in light should be afraid of the dark. I live in the darkness.)
Siddharth Abhimanyu was not someone who would yell the hero’s name out in frustration or disgust; he would not stand helplessly while the hero delivered a lecture on leading a life of high morals. It is to these situations that he was expected to flip the finger. He did exactly that, and the masses loved him for doing so.
The ‘Theemai Dhaan Vellum’ track was symbolic of his character. A piece of the track was used as background score in the film for whenever the director (Mohan Raja) wanted his villain to establish a stranglehold on the story line and shock viewers with the depth of his evil.
Kabali (2016); Composer: Santhosh Narayanan
Besides Imman, Santhosh Narayanan is the only other composer who finds a second mention in this list, and for a reason that can be encapsulated succinctly in just two words: “Kabali da!”
Pa Ranjith’s ‘Kabali’ was a much anticipated film because when the teaser dropped, it gave a clue as to what lay in store — that Rajinikanth was going to have a proper ‘mass’ soundtrack in a longtime since ‘Sivaji: The Boss’ (2007).
A quick exercise: shut your eyes, play this song and imagine Rajinikanth walking past a sliding door in slow motion (trust your sub-conscious on this). If you can visualise the Superstar and his inimitable style, then the ‘Neruppu Da’ song has done its job!
Theri (2016); Composer: GV Prakash Kumar
I don’t suppose anyone else has had a more interesting career trajectory than GV Prakash Kumar this decade. We see him so much in front of the screen that it is easy to forget the talented composer that he is.
Two of GV Prakash’s films, ‘Theri’ and ‘Asuran’, were up for contention for the last entry but the former prevailed purely because the latter was anything but a ‘mass’ hero film, although Vetri Maaran had scripted moments of heroism for Dhanush.
Theri is pucca ‘mass’. It is one of the films born out of the Atlee-Vijay combination that is universally liked, and Vijay oozes ‘mass’ in almost every frame he appears as a cop.
Aiding him in achieving the distinction is GV Prakash’s inspired background score. The trigger, which alerts the audience to an impending ‘mass’ moment, is the trumpet, and Prakash Kumar builds it up from there. He produced three distinct variants of the same piece of background score — one with an electronica flavour, a second one with the chenda melam influence, and another one with the folk instrument Udukkai as its centre piece.
He also brought back Deva! It is not far-fetched to suggest that the ‘Jithu Jilladi’ song, which takes off this background score, was the first ‘gaana’ song sung by Deva in almost 20 years that I found enjoyable listening to.