Reluctantly, I turn off the radio that's playing the lilting ‘Kangal Irandal', and like an artiste, rehearse my questions loudly in Tamil. My driver is puzzled. As someone used to the Tamil-English admixture in conversations, Thamarai's use of ‘ Tholaipaesi en ' and ‘ nandri ' while fixing up the interview, makes me a bit nervous.
In her nondescript house in Kodambakkam, the lyricist is chilled out and hardly intimidating as she's made out to be. Amidst piles of paper and racks of statuettes that bear testimony to her work and achievement, she lets her long dark tresses down and reclines on a sofa. As her pet dog plays peek-a-boo from behind a table, the lyricist traces the ups and downs in her roadmap.
Ironically, life hasn't been a song for Thamarai. “ Vizhundhu, purandu, ezhundhu vandhaen …” says the mechanical engineer-turned-lyricist. “I had coped with enough difficulties, both personally and professionally, before entering cinema. From mean-spirited people at the workplace to flagrant mistreatment in marriage, I've seen it all. On the contrary, the dream factory isn't as bad a place as people imagine it to be,” she says dispassionately.
After working for seven years as a quality control engineer in a company in hometown Coimbatore, Thamarai quit a psychologically toxic workplace (‘I became a machine among machines!'), but continued to bear the brunt of an emotional warfare at home. “It was a bad marriage. I was buffeted on all sides and on the brink of a breakdown. One fine day, I found myself on the street. I've never opened up about my past. But I think women need to know there is no need to suffer oppression. They should come out. Nothing can be worse than a traumatising relationship.”
Leaving behind the baggage of marriage, she set foot solo in Chennai with nothing but a suitcase. “The going was obviously tough. But I survived simply on my dream and drive to make it as a lyricist. Thotthuttu saagakoodathu (don't die a failure). It was a profession considered incompatible to my gender. Some filmmakers who wished to try my lyrics didn't like them because mine was a female perspective. They were used to men describing what they thought was on a woman's mind! While waiting in the wings, I wrote short stories and poems and contributed to Tamil journals. My tryst with Literature helped me gain acceptance, and eventually proved to be my springboard to cinema.”
Though Thamarai has been writing since the late 1990s, the big break came in 2001, with director Gautham Menon's “Minnalae.” ‘Vaseegara' drew her out from darkness to light. The soft romanticism and subtle sensuality of the word weaver won her instant recognition. Soon, she became a Gautham Menon-Harris Jayaraj staple. “It's the comfort level that matters. Gautham is understanding and gives me space. Harris, like me, is a perfectionist. Our success lies in our synchrony.”
As she let the ink from her heart bleed onto paper, filmmakers queued up at her doorstep. “Surprisingly, they felt it was the female perspective that lent freshness to my pieces!”
Thamarai's songs sparkle with the simplicity of words and the luxury of emotions (think ‘Anul maeley pani thuli' from “Vaaranam Aayiram” or ‘Kangal Irandal' from “Subramaniapuram”). With simplicity, she allows you to discover the detail (‘iravum alladha pagalum alladha' for twilight in ‘Kangal Irandal'). And she was able to switch seamlessly from rural earthiness to urban elegance, from riveting romance to painful heartbreaks. Anyone listening to the ineffable beauty of her love songs will think she has a heart as large as the moon. “No, no, I'm not a romantic,” she beams, as her little son from a happy second marriage whizzes past. Behind the alliteration and assonance in her lines, there's a mix of turmoil and triumph.
“Five hundred songs in 13 years is not a big achievement,” she declares. “Those who came after me have a staggering number. But I take time to write. I'm in a state of trance while working. I don't accept assignments till I've completed what I have on hand. For me to sign up something new, the waiting period is usually over two months!” But that doesn't deter directors from signing her. “They know all my conditions — that I don't mix English words, never work on two/three songs simultaneously and avoid double entendre. Quality is my strength as also my weakness. Lyrics express emotions, you cannot extract them. I've succeeded on my own terms. Today, even youngsters understand that a song in chaste Tamil can be appealing. And that a song needn't transgress the line of decency to succeed. Cinema reaches out to crores of people; we have no right to contaminate it.”
A stickler for detail, Thamarai insists on listening to the full story before writing a lyric. “A song must be integral to a film. Sometimes, directors are annoyed and comment, ‘ Heroineukkae katha solrathu illa !' I live the character before writing the lyric. I need to get the right emotion. In ‘Kangal Irandal', the line ‘…thadai-illai saavilumae unnodu vara' is a tricky take on the film's climax.”
Whether it's ‘Uyirin Uyirae' (“Kaakha Kaakha”), ‘Nenjukkul Peidhidum' (“Vaaranam Aayiram”) or ‘Mannippaya' (“Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa”), the sonic cues of her words are unforgettable. She understands that while lyrics must tug at the heartstrings, they must also appeal to the ear. “Some of my lyrics have generated huge online discussions because they connect with the listeners on these two levels. To me, success is work-in-progress. As someone who honed my skill on the job and made my passion my profession, I'm still learning with every line.”
The wait...and after
Director Sasikumar waited without a murmur for three months for ‘Kangal Irandal'. I was shifting my house and there was too much work. When I began to write, I completed it in four days. I wasn't asked to change a single word by composer James Vasanthan. One morning, Sasi called me at 6 a.m. “This song is going to be a superhit,” he declared. “I was stunned. Apparently, he was shooting the song in the wee hours and everyone on the sets replayed it several times. After the film's release, I was travelling to remote Bhavani Kumarapalayam in Erode. The cab driver played it all the way. He had put it in repeat mode. I asked him, ‘Don't you tire of listening to it?' Without knowing who I was, he replied, ‘I can listen to it till the end of my life.'
Sadly, people think love songs are my forte. I'd like to experiment with a range of lyrics. At one point, I requested Harris to give me male solos. The result was ‘Oru Maalai Illa Veyil Naeram' (“Ghajini”). The macho opening song ‘Karka Karka' in “Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu” and the gana number ‘Anjalai' in “Vaaranam Aayiram” are some of my creative departures.
It's been a busy period. There are a clutch of films in which my lyrics will figure. They include “Vanthaan Vendraan”, “Rowthiram”, “Prabhakaran” and “Pon Malai Pozhudhu.” I'm also writing all the songs in Gautham's next untitled film.