Nice-ish. That’s the word I have right now for O Kadhal Kanmani , A.R. Rahman’s latest album for Mani Ratnam. It didn’t make me wince the way the soundtracks for Lingaa and Kochadaiiyaan did. It didn’t activate every single one of my pleasure centres the way the soundtrack for I did. It’s somewhere in the middle.
That’s not a diss, exactly. As I grow older, I’ve come to realise that songs work differently for me. There’s a cut-off point in your life till which period you absorb everything — movies, music, everything — with frightening intensity, and after that point, your brain stops being the ultra-sponge it was. These days, I find that there are songs that I love when I listen to them, but if they don’t work in the film (for instance, in Kadal ), I don’t return to those songs all that often. Then there are songs like ‘Unakkenna venum sollu’, from Yennai Arindhaal , which sound great on the album, and sound even better on screen, enhanced by the emotions. So maybe these songs, too, will really work on screen, and eventually become more than nice-ish? Even as I write this, my hand is trembling slightly. I’m thinking of all those people who are going to have just one takeaway from this, that I am equating A.R. Rahman with Harris Jayaraj. But I’m not. I’m just trying to make a bigger point, that when I was younger, the picturisation and placement and such things didn’t matter at all, but now, for some reason, they do. Or maybe it’s just that the old attention span has shrunk. Oh well.
There’s always something interesting going on in this album. The percussion that sounds like a wet, sloppy kiss in the opening stretch of the dreamy ‘Parandhu sella vaa’. The kanjira that practically elbows its way into ‘Malargal kaettaen’. Amidst the staccato utterances of the fist-pumpingly upbeat ‘Mental manadhil’, the slightly melodic detour at Like-a like my Laila. The painstaking phrasing of ‘Maula Wa Sallim’, where the intonations of the language provide as much music.
But in general, I was reminded of what Mani Ratnam said about Rahman in my book of conversations with him: “Right from Roja, what he’d give you was a recorded piece, the scratch. But this scratch would be so well-produced that you didn’t know whether you were being seduced by the production quality or by the intrinsic tune. I was used to listening to a harmonium and Ilaiyaraaja’s voice and seeing whether that works. With Rahman, there’s a track laid, and he’s playing magically, and within that we have to find the tune and see whether that works. Just the sound of it is like a finished product. So you have to listen to it a few hundred times more to make sure that it’s the soul you really liked.” For the first time, I think I really understood what he was saying. The production quality of this album is so spectacular that I’m not sure where my nice-ish response is coming from. Again, my hand is trembling slightly. I’m thinking of all those people who are going to have just one takeaway from this, that I am equating A.R. Rahman with Ilaiyaraaja. But I’m just trying to make a bigger point. Oh well.
Despite the publicity machine’s claim that this is a reunion of Rahman, Mani Ratnam and Vairamuthu, I felt, for once, that the latter wasn’t as important a part of the overall scheme. Oh, he comes up with some lovely stuff. I loved the phrase ‘maega thundu’ – ‘puff of cloud’, something as hard to pin down as some of this music. I liked the overall structure of ‘Malargal kaettaen’, which is a set of variations on the thought “I asked for this; you gave me so much more...” There’s the erotic-sounding ‘sandhosha kalaigal’, pleasure-bringing arts. My favourite bit came in ‘Aye sinamika’, where this most physical of our poets discovers yet another body part to dedicate to love: ‘uthattin vari pallangal’ — the furrows on the lips.
And yet, many songs seem to exist on the basis of the music alone. The words are almost incidental — or maybe you could say the words are sounds just like the other sounds, from the instruments. In ‘Aye sinamika’, almost an entire minute is filled with variations on just three words: Nee ennai neengaathe. So I did something. I counted the number of words (approximately) in ‘Parandhu sella vaa’, and for a five-minute song, the number of non-repeating words was just some sixty-odd. Compare this with ‘Kaadhal sadugudu’, another song with a lot of repeating lines, but almost twice the number of non-repeating words. I don’t know where I’m heading with this exactly, but I have the feeling that most of these songs aren’t going to be all that important inside the movie, with hero and heroine actually mouthing these words. Maybe these are just going to be background tracks.
As for that comparison to the Alaipayuthey song, it’s no accident. The trailer practically screams Alaipayuthey: The Sequel . And strangely — or maybe not so strangely — the songs here come off like near-equivalents to the songs there. It’s fun to compare. ‘Naane varugiren’ versus ‘Snehidhane’, right down to the male chorus in the middle. ‘Theera ulaa’, which sounds like something Sting has sung at his highest pitch to the accompaniment of a new age-y band, versus ‘Evano oruvan’. ‘Mental mandhil’ versus ‘Endrendrum punnagai’. ‘Kaara aattakkara’, which after a point sounds like a wasp has taken residence in your ear, versus ‘Kaadhal sadugudu’. ‘Malargal kaettaen’ versus ‘Alaipayuthey kanna’. My hand is trembling slightly imagining those who feel I’m saying this is just a rehash. But I’m trying to make a bigger point. That, if after an interesting if unpopular experimental phase, if Mani Ratnam and Rahman land a hit by drawing on our memories, that would be a nice-ish thing, no?