First, the good news. Tamil film music is doing really well with audiences. The top trending songs on YouTube currently include Madura Veeran, Ponni Nadhi, Marakuma Nenjam and Bullet songs.
Now, the not-so-good news. All these tracks have been sung by a music composer or an actor, and none by an actual singer.
Today, it looks like anyone can sing a film song. Except singers, ironically.
Need for marketable names
With democratisation of music and the need to grab eyeballs, trained singers, especially male singers, are not getting ample opportunities to showcase their skills. Due to market pressures and the need to have marketable names on the playlist, composers are either singing tracks themselves, or roping in actors to do the job. Actor Vijay, for instance, has been crooning at least one track in all his recent films (‘Jolly O Gymkhana’ from Beast or ‘Kutti Story’ from Master). This means that there’s always hype for that particular song, which in turns augurs well for the movie.
Composers, clearly, aren’t complaining. In fact, they seem to encourage the move. During a chat about his 2019 film Bigil, composer A.R. Rahman said, “Vijay’s voice made a lot of difference to the song [referring to ‘Verithanam’].” And, as the hero anyway has to perform the song on screen, it fits perfectly, is the logic.
In Thiruchitrambalam, Tamil cinema’s latest hit, Dhanush and Anirudh — or DnA, as they call themselves — hog the singer credits. Anirudh, the most popular composer in Tamil cinema today, sings most of his tracks himself or ropes in the actors for the job; the hit track, ‘Pathala Pathala’, from this year’s blockbuster Vikram was sung by its lead star, Kamal Haasan, himself.
While Vijay and Dhanush are regular singers these days, other stars aren’t too far behind. Simbu sings in most of his films; his latest is a melody track in Vendhu Thanindhadhu Kaadu. Even relatively newer entrants to films seem to be eyeing the singing console; Sivakarthikeyan sang ‘Inna Mylu’ in the Kavin-starrer Lift, while even Balaji, an RJ-turned-actor, tried his hand with the ‘Daddy’ song in Veetla Vishesham.
Emergence of young talent
This is a clear shift from the eighties, where you had composer Ilaiyaraaja roping in legendary singers like S.P. Balasubrahmanyam and K.J. Yesudas for his unforgettable classics, or even the nineties, when you had Hariharan, P. Unnikrishnan and Srinivas getting a big share of the big-hero songs. The early 2000s saw the emergence of a group of exciting young singers including the likes of Karthik, Naresh Iyer, Haricharan and Benny Dayal, among others.
So, what has changed from then to now?
To understand that, one needs to observe the music composition process itself. A filmmaker explains a situation to a composer, who works on a tune and records a ‘scratch track’ in his own voice. As this version is the first one the director hears, he gets used to it, and sometimes, insists on retaining it for the final version, lest the ‘feel’ gets lost when performed by a singer.
Increasing market value
At other times, it’s just convenience; a particular singer isn’t available during the time of recording, and the composer ends up singing it himself. But the main reason is commerce; actors or composers singing a track increases the market value of the album, and the chances of its discoverability among fans, because they already have an established fan base that devour their work.
But all is not lost, yet. Singer Sid Sriram is among the most popular voices today, with multiple hits in various languages. Among female singers, names like Shreya Ghoshal, Shweta Mohan and Shashaa Tirupati still get a fair share of the big tracks today. Composer D. Imman has a great track record of promoting new singers, especially those who hail from non-privileged backgrounds, in his albums.
In an earlier interview with The Hindu, D. Imman said, “There are so many outstanding musical talents in rural Tamil Nadu who just go about their lives without marketing themselves. I try to seek them out.”
Like him, if more composers include newer musical talents in their albums, the musicality of the songs increase, even as general music appreciation among fans rises. That, at the end of the day, is the real good news we all hope for.