Family time can be really a boring thought on paper, but certainly man can’t live without that. Heck, in year one of college, I just couldn’t do without them even for a few days a week, because where else can you move around and feel like no one’s judging you. The family, we seem to know everything about each other. Or do we?

Like most brother-sisters, S and I grew up fighting all the time too.She’s in her 10th grade, and I’m finishing college but we can still fight for the horrendously silliest reasons. I’ve been a vocalist since young, with mom enrolling in me all kinds of ‘paatu classes’. And she did the very same to my sis too. So when it comes to singing, both of us get on ego clouds and watch with so much passive aggression when the other starts singing. I have the obvious advantage of age and experience, but still tend to look down upon her all the time (and feel a bit bad later), even when she sings kinda decently. And she would do the same too. So what happened to all that now?

I seem to be holding the upper end of this part I guess. I have a recording setup at home, and produce song covers which you can check out here https://soundcloud.com/sudharshan-ashok

So, I’ve collaborated with a lot of people really, most of whom have come to my place to record. And whenever someone would come to record, the sister would stare at me with her ‘tonight-I-am-going-to-break-all-your-gadgets-with-the-choicest-bricks’ look. This is because I’ve obviously never entertained her requests for working together. And she kinda thinks she is a better singer than my collaborators. And I am still on that ego cloud, we’ve discussed about before. But no idea what happened this one day, my sister kinda nagged me to record her. And I obliged.

This is one of my most favorite songs from last year. ‘Naan Nee’ by Santosh Narayanan, sung by Shaktishree Gopalan. My sister’s closest voice match I always felt, but wouldn’t say it to her. So she just sat and recorded it in about 30 minutes, one stretch. And I felt extremely weird, because it turned out she has an extremely soothing voice texture. So that could have been just another condescending ‘who would’ve thought?’ moments, but it wasn’t. I genuinely liked her voice. I immediately mixed the track for her and sent it before I had to leave town that night.

I couldn’t see the excitement on her face, but the way she was brimming with positivity on Whatsapp really did something to me that day. Turns out she had shared the recording with her friends, and they were all raving crazy about her singing. I actually saw some posts from her friends on her Facebook wall, about her rendition. This left me with a lot of hope; One, she was a pretty good singer I could use for some tracks. Two, I thought we would be in this passive-aggression phase for all our life, but there are signs of us maturing, finally! There’s hope someday we might actually be nice to each other.

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Music has time and again been my biggest source of hope, inspiration, positivity, whatever you call it. I don’t really know why, sometimes it’s weird. A 5-minute piece that was probably written to promote a film, wiring itself with your head, and tugging at you at multiple levels. Very few songs do that though. Say, Vellai Pookkal from Kannathil Muthamittal. Just the simple guitar strumming, and the voice, you would think it was written for a simple sweet situation. But when you see the character in the film, taking that journey between two countries on literally troubled waters, you have that ‘Ah’ moment. That moment has rewired your brain forever.

But Vellai Pookkal is a pretty favorite hope song for many. But I think two songs from AR Rahman, which came post 2010, are really underrated, and need more love. Chithirai Nila (Kadal, 2012) and Tu Kuja (Highway, 2014) are just two songs I can rant about for days altogether. But I’ll try to put in how the latter has made life better for me in recent times.

There’s Alia Bhatt looking into the emptiness of the desert, broken by everything that’s happening around her. Cue in Sunidhi’s soaring voice going into ‘Tu Kuja’, it sounds as if the voice is just floating through the desert, air of divinity. And then she decides to take that leap of faith, the bass, the dholaks and the synth orchestra kicks in live as she runs back to her own captors! What could have been quite a weird story, turned into one of the greatest moments of hope etched on cinema ever (for me, at least).

I went through a quite traumatic situation, with my grandmother going through respiratory illness. And the night she slipped into a semi-comatic state and was brought to the ICU, everybody around me lost hope on her. Even the doctors wouldn’t promise anything. I just sat outside the unit, all night trying to sleep. In that semi-slumber state, I hear the strains of Tu Kuja playing somewhere in my head.. (and Irshad Kamil’s surreal lyrics)

Mein kahaan kahaan
(Where am I?)

Ghanghor hain andhiyare
(The darkness is dense)

Sab roothi hai ujiyaare
(All the lights are angry with me)

Tan toote man haare
(My body is breaking)

Kismat ke doobe taare
(My stars of luck have drowned)

Koi Kiran dikhla re
(Give me a ray of hope)

Hain soone path saare..
(All the paths are lonely)

That went on in my head for an hour, and then I slept. I just felt like I was there in that endless desert at night. I took that leap of faith Alia would take in that film, I would put my trust in the power above I didn’t really understand, and I would sleep. And the next morning, my granny would wake up.  That was my look-up moment, I don’t think I was ever brimming with hope like that before. I would even go and donate blood, just hours after she woke up (my kind of giving-back I guess)

It was also kinda poetic that the first thing she wanted after food, was to play this song from Thillana Mohanambal for her. And of course, I did.

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I think the biggest jump-start I’ve experienced in life would be this phase of moving to a new city at 18, and living with new people, which I could probably sum up in just one word – college. National Institute of Technology, Trichy. This is what I had slogged for, all through my senior schooling, all for something I wouldn’t even want. I didn’t want to move, I liked what Chennai offered me, I was inertial. And now at the end of the four years of college, I am at the same crossroads once again thinking of how it felt the last time I was here.

One of the most moving films from last year, was Boyhood (and sigh, Richard Linklater). A lot has been written about the film in general, the way it has been shot over the course of eight years, or on the stellar performances or about the dedication of the cast and crew. But this article on VOX (http://www.vox.com/2015/2/26/8114351/boyhood-college) really gripped me. This was a feeling that hit me too, on a subconscious level; how moving out to a new place, and getting close to new people really changes what you are, the very constituents that define you. It’s also kind of weird, there’s no concept of moving out when you’re 18 or anything here in our country. And here I was relating to the quintessential American teenager in that film, when he was staring into that new horizon.

I was homesick, not just your regular brand of ‘homesick’. I was introverted, I am still introverted, but not so much. If I was my three-years-ago self, I wouldn’t have the courage to tell people I choked up when I first moved to Trichy from Chennai. The feeling of being independent, was too much to handle. I hated the food offered at the mess. I hated making small talk with new people. I couldn’t wash my own clothes (I still can’t, I just cannot). I would return home every single weekend. This was my way out of homesickness, but later it would grow into habit, and a little more later I would get actual reasons to be in the city during weekends.

Push a tough first year through in the new town, I landed a job at one of the leading newspapers in the country, asking me to cover the local events in Trichy. I started growing close to the place and its intricacies, when I had to roam around in search of stories that were waiting to be covered. And with no background in journalism, I also had to learn how to write for print media, all by myself. I started experiencing how it felt to spend from one’s own hard-earned money. I found people who would make me question existence sans them. And I did find what I was most passionate about in life. Now to think of all this, was ‘moving’ to this city probably the best coming-of-age screenplay I could ask for?

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A tête-à-tête with guitar maestro R Prasanna who played here at NIT Trichy’s Festember this week.

Let’s start with Trichy

Oh I’ve done many concerts here, but I guess the first one dates back to probably the 80s when I was here for the very same Festember. I had to lie and sneak out of the house to play with my band in my eleventh grade. So that’s quite memorable

Delving into your career, the Academy award winning documentary Smile Pinki had your score.

When I was based in Boston, the director Megan Mylan was looking for an Indian musician and stumbled on me through her contacts. She was just planning on featuring multiple Indian recordings from CDs as part of the score and that she needed some help from me. So I asked her to send me the film, and it was really beautiful. I insisted that the movie would benefit from an original score and offered to do it myself. But it came with quite a deadline. That’s how Smile Pinki happened, in three days. The interesting fact is I still haven’t met her.

You couldn’t catch her even at the Oscars ceremony?

I had a baby just a few weeks before that, so I couldn’t make it to the event that year. And quite ironically, I was performing here in Trichy on the eve of the D-day. And right when I landed in Chennai, there was this big news.

There’s something quite unique about your first Tamil feature, Vazhakku Enn.

Vazhakku Enn is quite a raw beast of a film. I composed the song and score on the completed film, so it just fits well I guess. And it was recorded entirely live, like how you would do with a band in the 70s.

 The song from the film ‘Oru Kural Ketkudhu’ featuring Karthik is quite something. It has just these vocals and a splendid tune set to visuals, and it really worked. Riveting stuff.

Well, it was originally set to music, but Balaji (dir. VE18/9) it would be better to foray the lyrics which encapsulate the visuals. And since he felt the tune could stand on its own, he dropped this surprise to me in the end. And that was the best thing.

Some more films in the pipeline?

Ah It’s always a yes-no situation. I get quite a number of requests, but it’s a little tough on my schedule. I had started work on one of them. A big production venture, that’s been halted for a while right now.

But you have played for other composers a lot right? Your collaboration with AR Rahman for Coke Studio turned out amazing.

I don’t play so much guitar for other composers now, it’s been really long since I’ve done that, but with Rahman, it’s a different relationship.

You’re one of those people who’ve worked for both Rahman and Illayaraja

It all started with a call from Rahman for Pudhiya Mugam, the song was ‘July Madham Vandhaal’ and I went on to play a lot for him in the 90s. My first song for Illayaraja was around 2000 for this film ‘Kizhakkum Merrkum’. I played in the early 2000s for a lot of Rajas, notably for ‘Moods of Illayaraja’ and ‘Mumbai Express’.

So the jazz influence in Mumbai Express..?

<laughs> Part of it probably came from me. Just a little part of it, I had played in the theme song. Anyway, I’ve played a lot more for the other two Rajas actually, Yuvan and Karthik. But later I got worked up with my own projects. There was ‘Algorithms’, a documentary on blind Chess players from India, a biopic on the great painter ‘SG Vasudev’ and a whodunit ‘Framed’. This one was entirely scored on the guitar (including percussions, done by tapping). Vazhakku Enn was the first Tamil offer where I could try something edgy like entirely live music, so I lapped it up. Fewer projects with more focus is what I like.

You have a soft corner for acoustic music?

Forget even VE. Take Balaji’s Kadhal. No one would go and ask the DoP why it was entirely shot with natural light. That’s because it is what the film needed. So a very raw film like VE mandated a different flavour to it. Hence we used a lot of instruments, quite rare acoustic ones that might even sound electronic, and the didgeridoo plays a central theme in the score. If I get a film with three songs and kids dancing at the discotheque, I would definitely do electronic music.  There’s no bias here.

You have your international collaborations with the likes of Dream Theater, and your classical concerts in India taking most of your time. What’s the best part of each?

The differences get lost in all the multi-tasking <laughs> One moment I am working with the cream of New York’s jazz musicians, and next there are European festivals and there are a few bands I play for, then my Carnatic concerts and film projects. When I think of it, I really do wonder how I get away with it.

And there’s your music school as well. What inspired you to get on to it?

The score for my films including VE were mostly done at Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music, and the talent of the students really inspired the directors; Balaji insisted on having our 15 piece student choir for the climactic theme. And then there are people from so many countries here, with eclectic forms of music. I guess that explains where the idea began, there’s so much of raw talent in the country waiting for guidance. And I felt we had looked outside the country for too long.

Okay, who inspired you to take up the guitar?

Honestly I don’t remember <laughs>. Probably this neighbour of mine as a kid in Ranipet, who played it. I would go sit at his place, and watch him play. So that was the first instrument that struck a chord in my head, it’s one of those things a kid sees and likes. That’s it.

There’s probably nothing you haven’t done yet with the guitar, what still keeps you driving?

<laughs> Really? I haven’t done anything. I’ve just done what I wanted to do and that’s all it is. What keeps me driving is the ability to lead a life that finds these connections everywhere. I am able to connect myself with people across cultures through the language of music, that’s universal. It’s not as simple and stupid as just entertaining people I think. With SAM, the whole world gets intertwined, and I am one of those who like the connection more than the music itself. And I am lucky enough to be in a position where I can pursue that.

Two cents for someone who would want to take up music as a career?

Music as a career is quite an exciting thing; a happy coincidence where what you enjoy is what the people around can enjoy, and could also be your breadwinner

But you are an IIT grad..

<laughs> You know, we don’t make all decisions when we’re that young, we just try different things. Then one speaks better than another. It may be because of what I studied, Naval Architecture. I was very bad at drawing anything; I couldn’t even draw a dog, a man and suddenly I had to draw these cross-sections of ships. Not for me <laughs> Nevertheless I did study, but I knew I wasn’t going to become one of those Naval Architects. Most others who study end up doing an MBA and land up somewhere else anyway. I took up music, what’s the big deal?

This article first appeared on Trichy Times (The Times of India) edition dated 11th of October 2013.

 

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An angel wrongs the institution of God. God punishes. The angel becomes Satan, and his revenge shall be quenched only when God shall be tested as badly as he was. He breaks God and brings out the frailty of man inside him, but the light within Him shall compel away the dark and steer him to goodness, not so quickly. The Kadal that it is, shifts between the low and high tides, the suns and the storms of life beautifully, but its not always a clear sea.

Arjun as Bergmans vs. Arvindamy as Father Sam is Kadal, the moral game. The two play clear-cut one dimensional roles that Satan and God stand for in The Bible, which in a way make this MR’s mirror image piece to Raavanan. Torn between them is Thomas (Gautam Karthik), virtually an orphan dangling like a raft on the sea that feeds him. The romance track with Thulasi adds another variable, but the equation between these three is what the movie is about. And all of them render very memorable performances. Arjun menaces around with his mere gaze, Arvindswamy with his godly resilience and Gautam with his energy.

The beginning of this film has some of the most gut-wrenching sequences I’ve seen in a long time. A torn apart childhood that starts with the loss of a mother, probably the most influential person in his life and to the story. The hate for his bigamous father begins with her. The hate from his people begins courtesy a life with his mother he never had. Hence he is pulled towards anyone who would mentor him ; Father Sam, Bergmans and even a retarded girl. Chinmayi’s lines from Magudi play at a later point of the movie on a montage with a shot of baby Thomas on his mother’s lap, and suddenly you realize how far the butterfly’s flaps have led to.

But sadly, how beautifully the movie sets up its scenario, it loses its fizz in its latter half when you’re supposed to wrap up things, set up a duel between the hero and the villain, explain what’s happened of the romance, throw in cheap twists and all that. Because it is a Tamil film? And I always thought the second half suffered from very upsetting discontinuity (thanks, to some last minute cuts)

Nevertheless, there’s so much to look into Kadal if you dont even dig the premise. The scent of a Mani Ratnam film always breezes around. The placements of Chithirai Nila. A disgraced Arjun biding to sing ‘Onna Ala Mela‘ to his seminary mates. The charming montage over Nenjukulle. That moment Celina is left to choose between the man she loved, and the man who brought back her love. Anbin Vaasale over the birth scene. That taperecorder, yes that. And there’s more.

Rajeev Menon’s breathtaking visuals, which scream out why film will always be film and digital shall not pave its extinction.. AR Rahman’s brilliant array of songs and a score that scales between operatic highs and zen-like calmth. Where the two unite brilliantly is in the climactical fight on the ship, where Mani shows up his middle finger to Ang Lee who needed 3D, Dolby Atmos and a million dollars to make his storm in Life of Pi impactful. But only if he let the story follow its own course and let it meet its natural end, rather than forcing it through a boring, systematic abortion; I’d have loved Kadal.

 

Where to start and where to end. I’ll just stick to this random rambling routine.

If Nila Kaigiradhu couldnt put you to sleep, there was a Thendrale. If Luka Chuppi couldnt heal a crumbling mind, there was always a Shauk Hai. I’ve been reported to have regularly bartered a listen of ‘Ennavale‘ for sleep as a kid. My parents very fondly reminisce of their hunt for audio cassettes and their hope for some channel to air the song and knock me off. At my corny best, I’d say I didnt have a better reason to get out of the womb in 1993.

It wasnt just me. Everybody have stories around this person they havent probably met. I’ve seen that look on the face of people explaining to me how they felt when they first listened to the soundtrack of ‘Roja’, one of the biggest gamechangers of the Indian music industry. The kuthu music of TN was dethroned from the speakers for a while. And soon every street’s corner had people around a sound system checking out Chinna Chinna Aasai, wondering who this guy was. They would then dig all the beautiful jingles he had already composed. A huge population would resolve to wait with bated breath for each of his album. The sheer quality of the sound had absolutely stunned them.

It was truly ‘Pudhu Vellai Mazhai‘ in the ear. A genius in his own right, who ruled the 70s and 80s music stage with zero competitors suddenly felt the heat coming from the ‘computer guy’ who assisted him in Punnagai Mannan. And funny the number, 20 years later, Rahman wouldnt have someone to topple him down, remotely close to that Rahman who revolutionized an entire industry two decades back.

I have no business talking about his discography here. His soundtracks can only be rated on a scale that he defined in his first film. I mean that’s no easy job. My dad was simply over-astounded by the Rahman of 90s, that his compositions of this millenium don’t appeal big time. But when I lie and introduce his recent discography as the work of a debutante’s, he is genuinely amazed. You see? That’s where the scale is. Working under expectations is a skill. Delivering though is an art. And delivering to the right audience at the right time is the biggest reason I’ll attribute to his success. They dont simply say Rahman is ever ahead of the rest of the industry by years.

But even these people who don’t fully dig his music, will still have no complaints about the human he is. He’s like this good guy we all know. Its a Herculean task to have two decades in this industry with almost zero haters. I havent been next to him through his life, but when somebody says he hates Rahman, I cannot hold myself from judging the person’s nature. Our understanding about him majorly involves admiration. An admiration of the musical genius. An admiration of his positivity. And the pride in admiring the man who brought our country two Oscars.

And as he says, love led him to the Kodak Studio on February 24, 2009. The same love drove us all through the lashing rains on December 29, 2012 to that concert of a lifetime. Twenty thousand people with umbrellas up on a wet breeding ground of mosquitoes, all with nothing on their minds but to watch him perform. I was there too.

Noor ki baarish mein bheeghta sa thar aaya!

You waved to our side. I felt like you waved to me.
You just don’t make some movies better, you make lives better with your music.

Happy Birthday God!