Friday Review

Recalling a musical legacy

Music director S. Balakrishnan Photo: H. Vibhu

Music director S. Balakrishnan Photo: H. Vibhu   | Photo Credit: H.Vibhu

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Music director S. Balakrishnan tells why his career never scaled the heights of fame, despite giving Malayalam cinema some unforgettable melodies.

Remember Ramji Rao Speaking? Then, what are the three aspects of the film that pop into your mind when you think about this film? The successful director duo Siddique-Lal is one, the comic scenes involving Innocent, Mukesh and Saikumar is another and, of course, the iconic background score and some hit songs. One of the most popular and instantly recognisable tunes of the time was ‘ Avanavan kurukkunna kurukkazhichedukkumbol gulumal…’ However, S. Balakrishnan, the man who created the music and inspirational montage of tunes for Ramji Rao Speaking and a handful of other films, may not be so familiar. Not surprising, because despite creating some superb songs, Balakrishnan has been forgotten.

One of the key dynamics in the art of filmmaking is the bond between directors and their cinematographers, screenwriters or music composers. Siddique-Lal and Balakrishnan created a template in this regard. They worked together in four roaring hits – Ramji Rao Speaking, In Harihar Nagar, Godfather and Vietnam Colony – but surprisingly this bond could not be sustained.

Top Ten

» ‘Kanneer kaayalil etho…’ Ramji Rao Speaking
» ‘Ekantha chandrike…’ Harihar Nagar
» ‘Pookkaalam vannu…’ Godfather
» ‘Paathiravaayi neram…’ Vietnam Colony
» ‘Kalangallil kaanum roopam…’ Mr & Mrs
» ‘Ponnum poovum…’ Ishtamannu Nooruvattam
» ‘Chingara kombathe…’ Mazhavil Koodaram
» ‘Mohabbathinte manimuthil…’ Mohabbat
» ‘Oraayiram kinaakkalaal…’ Ramji Rao Speaking


Ask Balakrishnan why this happened and why he never got the breaks despite scoring hit after hit and the soft-spoken, unassuming composer smiles. Prod him further and he says in Tamil-accented Malayalam, interspersed with good English: “I really don’t know. Like most successful movies, all the four cannot be imagined without its music. There were a lot of promises but nothing materialised. I remember A.R. Rahman telling me during a recording that Siddique-Lal had approached him for their new film, which he could not accept. He said he was surprised that I was not taken on board after all the hit songs in the four films. I replied that perhaps they were opting for a new composer, for new sounds. I feel that must have been the reason and have no ill-will against them, who were responsible for my place in the industry.”

Ramji Rao Speaking was Balakrishnan’s debut as music director. This was something that he had not really bargained for. “I used to play the Western flute and the recorder for orchestras and recordings. Film music always exerted a pull even when I was learning Carnatic and Western flute. I cannot think of anyone in my family with a passion for music and they, naturally, did not approve of my choice of career. I reached Chennai after graduation, a little bit of music training, chasing my cinema dreams.”

Balakrishnan hails from Chittlancherry in Palakkad district. “We moved to Coimbatore long ago. I still visit my ancestral home and the family temple whenever there is a special occasion. The roots are still very strong.”

Life was not easy for the fledgling musician. He kept playing what he knew and was waiting for opportunities to hone his musical skills. “In 1975, as advised by pianist Jacob John, I enrolled at Trinity College of Music to learn the recorder. I passed the 5th grade (theory) and 4th grade (practical) winning the best student award. It was at this time that a Dutch musician, Ninkey Kreiser, was in town. I got the chance to learn the Western flute from her. In between all this I was playing for orchestras, film recordings and also found a job with the agency division of Binny’s.”

Hardworking and talented, Balakrishnan soon began assisting music directors. “I worked with the popular Kannada music director duo of Rajan-Nagendra, M.B. Sreenivasan and Guna Singh among others. For Guna Singh I worked in films like Manjil Virinja Pookal, for which he got the State award for background score, and Padayottam. But working with MBS in the film Manivathoorile Aayiram Sivarathrikal proved to be the turning point in my career. Fazil, who was director of this film, urged me to work independently and when he was producing Ramji Rao Speaking…he was kind enough to remember me. He is my mentor.”

Balakrishnan has pleasant memories of his work in Malayalam films and happy that even after all these years his songs are still hummed. “The song ‘Kalikallam…’ in Ramji Rao Speaking was programmed and orchestrated by Rahman with Sivamani on the drums. Perhaps, this was the first Malayalam songs that Rahman did. I also remember Yesudas singing ‘Pavanarachezhuthunnu…’ (Vietnam Colony) and completing the recording in less than an hour. Majority of my songs were tuned first and the lyrics written to suit it. The only song for which I did it differently was for the song ‘Panineer manamulla…’ in Grihapravesham. ONV Sir wrote two songs for this film. He wrote one based on a tune and then wrote the other and asked me to create a tune for it.”

Balakrishnan worked in 16 Malayalam films and created 78 songs, the most recent being for the film Manthrikan (2012). He also composed music for the film MGR Nagaril, the Tamil remake of In Harihar Nagar and also for its Telugu remake.

Today, Balakrishnan is a faculty member of Rahman’s KM Music Conservatory where he teaches the recorder and Western flute. He is also a member of the teaching team at Yamaha Music Foundation India, established by the authority of the Japanese Ministry of Education. He was the winner of the outstanding western classical musician/teacher award for 2015 instituted by Ilaiayaraja. “I work as an instructor for the Foundation with the mandate of training teachers. My work involves travelling across north of India, introducing the recorder and teaching them to play it. I also conduct my own classes in Chennai.”

Composing music, especially for films, requires a different skill set. Training in various genres alone may not help, feels Balakrishnan. “Of course, there is hard work and some training would help. But more importantly it is that imagination, an inspiration for which I may not be responsible, which is no merit of mine. Getting that snatch of tune or phrase at the right time is what matters. I firmly believe it is a gift of imagination.”

Balakrishnan has not given up hope. He is waiting for that call.

“I’m not hanging up my boots yet. I have the tunes all ready and I’m sure I’ll get another chance.”

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2019 10:17:27 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/recalling-a-musical-legacy/article7328966.ece

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