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The Master and his Maestro: Mani Ratnam and Ilaiyaraja

In 1985, Mani Ratnam was just another producer's son venturing into Tamil cinema. Ilaiyaraja was entering his second decade in the industry. Over the next decade, the masters set the sonic template for emotions in Tamil cinema. It is little surprise then that they share the same birthday. On their shared birth day today, we take a look at their most successful collaborations. 

Shriram Iyengar

In 2007, when R Balki released the music for Cheeni Kum, he arranged a quiet meeting between two of the more powerful men in the Tamil film industry. Both, Ilaiyaraja and Mani Ratnam, were mentors to Balki. Cheeni Kum's title track was, in fact, a remade version of Ilaiyaraja's classic 'Mandral vantha thendral' from Mani Ratnam's Mouna Raagam (1986). The partnership between the two dated back to 1985, when Mani Ratnam was still an amateur. It was, to repeat a classic line, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. 

Mani Ratnam's position in the film industry, Tamil or Hindi, is built on the reputation of being one of the finest visualisers of the song. The director shares a reputation similar to that of Guru Dutt, Raj Khosla, and Vijay Anand, who added a new dimension to song picturisations in film. As the director would confess at a Masterclass in Mumbai in 2015, "The song is a different beast... it allows you to liberate yourself and get abstract."

As a debutant, Mani Ratnam sought out the best in the business to assist him in making his first film. Pallavi Anupallavi (1983) had cinematography by Balu Mahendra, art direction by Thotta Tharani and music by Ilaiyaraja. It was 'Raja' who stayed with Ratnam through the next two decades in the industry. Their combined efforts read like landmarks in Tamil cinema and music Mouna Raagam (1986), Agni Natchathiram (1988), Nayagan (1987), Geethanjali (1989), Anjali (1990), Thalapathi (1992).

It was in Mouna Raagam, a film about love blossoming after a disagreeable marriage, that the combination fell in sync. Mani Ratnam painted its canvas with broad strokes of his ouevre. His mastery over subtle expressions of the strongest emotions was underscored with the sumptuous background score by Ilaiyaraja. Throughout the film, the master composer plays with a symphonic score that hangs heavy over the silence in the troubled marriage. Even the songs, romantic and melodious, are in stark contrast to the nature of the scene. It was the genius in Mani Ratnam that managed to link the romance in the film with the sad scene of a divorce unravelling on screen. 

A counterpoint to this argument would be their following collaboration, Agni Natchathiram (1988). A fiery tale about birth right, a la Deewar, it remains one of the most ambitious visual experiments in Mani Ratnam's filmography. The lighting, action sequences, and taut editing make it immensely watchable even today.

As a contrast, Ilaiyaraja's music was a delight. From the classical hues of 'Ninukkori varanam' and 'Thoongatha vizhikal' to the disco rhythms of 'Rajathi raja', Ilaiyaraja's music was a wake-up call to a sleeping music industry. The film is also a brilliant lesson on how to heighten drama through the background score. The song 'Raja rajathi raja' would become Ilaiyaraja's calling card, after having spent 20 years in the industry. The song also featured a lanky, dark teenager in a loose white T-shirt named Prabhu. The world would know him as Prabhudeva. 

In Baradwaj Rangan's book 'Conversations with Mani Ratnam', the director provides invaluable insight into the composition process of Ilaiyaraja. He says, "He sees the movie once, then puts the reel on while he's scoring, and as the reel is playing, he jots down a word here and a word there that are cues for him. And when the reel is over, he sits and writes his score. That's it." This anecdote clears up the mystery, if any, on the reason for the successful partnership of Mani Ratnam and Ilaiyaraja.

When director Gautam Menon was faced with the prospect of talking to Mani Ratnam over a hero's dates, he postponed the matter for several weeks before approaching the filmmaker. When asked why, he answered, "I couldn't look at him... I mean, how can you? He's the man who made Nayakan." It is only right that Ratnam's reputation revolves around his greatest work. Nayakan (1987) was included in the list of 'All-Time 100 Best Films' by Time in 2005.

A film that rivalled The Godfather in its scale, style, and narrative, Nayakan was a first for both the director and his composer. The film was minimalist in terms of its songs, but its background score remains memorable. One scene in particular, that of Velu Nayakan arriving to see his son's corpse, stands out for its compositional harmony with the scene's heightened drama. Watch. 

If Nayakan marked the high point of drama, Thalapathi (1992) was its denouement. Based on the story of Karna from the Mahabharata, Thalapathi had two of South India's most mercurial stars, Rajinikanth and Mammootty, playing friends. The film is a testament to the complete crystallised vision of Mani Ratnam emerging from the chrysalis of his earlier experiments like Anjali and Agni Natchathiram. The soft lighting, the conflicts, the collateral damage of human relations, a love story in the middle are elements that would come to define 'a Mani Ratnam film' for years.

Ilaiyaraja, for his part, plays beautifully with melodies, crescendo symphonies and foot-tapping pop rhythms. While songs like 'Yamunai aatrile' would reveal the soul of classical music that influenced the composer, the pop rhythm of 'Rakamma kaiyya thattu' defined his popularity amongst the masses. The song 'Rakamma' would eventually find itself listed by BBC as one of the top 10 most popular songs in the world in 2002. But it is in the background music that Ilaiyaraja steals the scene. The leitmotif of a train's hoot precedes the theme of the song, tying the orphaned anti-hero with his distanced mother, and brother, throughout the film. It acts as a thread which ties the music of the film inextricably with the story. 

It was also the last time Mani Ratnam worked with Ilaiyaraja. The reasons for their split remain unknown, and are only guessed upon. Many attribute it to the rise of AR Rahman, and some to the waning influence of Ilaiyaraja in a rapidly changing industry. The fact remains that few filmmakers have found such an able ally in a composer, who understood the importance of the presence, or absence, of music in a particular scene. 

In a recent masterclass, the director explained songs as 'a film within a film'. It is unsurprising that Ilaiyaraja, a composer who enjoys classical operas and musical dramas in his leisure time, was his chosen storyteller.