Interview Tamil

Ilaiyaraaja @ 75: The maestro seen through the eyes of Nassar

How can such beautiful art emerge from the collaboration of a genius and a fool, the actor-director still wonders.

Manigandan KR

Knowledge is power. And Ilaiyaraaja's knowledge of music is just phenomenal.

The maestro, who has scored thousands of songs, most of which became hits, has regaled music lovers all over the world with his fantastic compositions for almost half a century now.

Although a lot is known about Ilaiyaraaja's music, not many know about his working style and how directors revere him.

Ilaiyaraaja is special not just for the beautiful numbers he delivers but also for the swift manner in which he composes them. At a time when music directors take weeks, even months to deliver four or five songs, Ilaiyaraaja delivers music in a matter of hours.

To give readers an idea, we present actor Nassar's experience of working with Ilaiyaraaja. Nassar, who is now president of the South Indian Artistes Association, also known as the Nadigar Sangam, had directed a film called Avatharam (1995), which had fantastic music by Ilaiyaraaja.

Nassar shared his experience of working with the legend during a film event that was held a few years ago. Nassar's speech, which was delivered in Tamil, is being reproduced in English here.


Speech follows:

In 1994, I went to Ilaiyaraaja and told him, 'Sir, I intend to make a movie.' He said, 'Why man? You are busy acting in films, Nassar. Why do you want to go and produce a movie now?'

I insisted. I said, 'No sir, I intend to direct a film.'

'Direction? How are you going to do it? You are acting in so many films. How will you direct a film in the midst of all this? In fact, I am scoring music for at least one of your films once a week. How will you direct with such a busy schedule? Do it later,' Ilaiyaraaja sir said.

'No sir, I intend to do it now. You need to do certain things when they strike you', I persisted.

He replied, 'Oh! So you think you are speaking with clarity? Okay, what is this movie you intend to make?'

I said it was a small film and that it was based in a village and was on street plays.

'Street plays? I am on a different journey... But okay, let's see,' he said and left it at that.

A few days later, I went to him and said, 'I have completed the film.'

He replied, 'So soon?'  I said, 'Yes. You need to watch it. Let us watch it this evening.'

That evening, he watched the film. Without speaking a word, he got into his car and told me, 'Come home', and left.

I was scared. Here was this very important artiste who had watched hundreds and hundreds of films. When such an artiste, after watching your film, leaves without so much as uttering a word, to either congratulate or criticize... I was scared. I was afraid that he would scold me saying, 'I told you earlier. Why did you direct?'

Anyway, I went to his home in fear and anticipation.

'How did you manage to make such a film? It is good. Let us have the recording tomorrow,' he said at his home.

Tomorrow? I was hesitant. I did not have funds. I said, 'The producer is not in town tomorrow, sir.'

Ilaiyaraaja sir replied, 'Why should the producer be there? You are the director and you are here and I am the music director and I am here. The recording happens tomorrow.'

'It is not that sir...,' I said and hesitated.

Ilaiyaraaja said, 'I know what you are talking about. I don't need anything. Okay, ask your producer to come. Where is he?'

'He is in America, sir.'

'Let him come when he will. Recording happens tomorrow,' he said.

In cinema, everybody knows that nothing ever moves an inch without an advance. But here was this man who was offering to work without an advance. So it was agreed that the recording would happen the next day.

I was in a state of excitement. My heart was pounding. More importantly, I was given a warning. 'Please make sure you are there at his studio by 6 am. Sir will be there by 5.45 am.'

The next morning I was in a state of excitement and expectation. I reached his studio on time.

I was ushered into his room. The room was completely white. There was one black and white photograph of Ramana Maharishi and another picture of his mother. Next to that was Ilaiyaraaja in his white dress. There was nothing else in that room. The room was so silent and peaceful.

In this peaceful room, Ilaiyaraaja sir was writing something. He hadn't even taken note of the fact that I had entered. I was unsure whether I must stand or sit in the chair in front of me. He raised his head and saw me.

He said 'sit' and I sat. Next to him, he had a small box which had imported chocolates. He picked up one and threw it to me. I caught it and its wrapper made a rustling sound in my hand as I caught it. That was the first sound I heard in that room in the six-seven minutes I had been there. I was unsure if I should unwrap the chocolate or keep it, for I knew unwrapping it would make a sound which could cause a disturbance. Unsure, I held the chocolate.

Meanwhile, Ilaiyaraaja continued to write at a furious pace and he kept writing.

After a while, I slowly began to get angry. What was this? Here I was, a director who had made a movie. After having asked me to come, he was sitting and writing with me in front of him. Why must he make me wait for him to write his personal letter? He could have told me, 'Please wait. I am writing a letter. You can come in 10 minutes later.'

With these thoughts running in my mind, I was seated with the chocolate still in my hand.

Ilaiyaraaja wrote four or five sheets at a furious pace. Then he set them aside and softly uttered the word, 'Puru'.

He uttered the word so softly that only I, who was seated just four feet away from him, could have heard it. Yet, a man from the next room walked in. I am saying this to point out the intimate communication he has with his personnel. He told Puru, 'Have this distributed.' Puru collected the sheets and left.

Now, I was happy. Fine, he has finished his personal work and we can now get to our work, is what I thought.

I began by asking, 'Sir, what are we going to do [for the film]?'

'There, it is gone,' he said.

I was clueless. I said, 'What is gone sir?'

Pointing to the papers Puru was carrying to be distributed to the orchestra, Ilaiyaraaja sir said, 'There goes your film's first song.'

'Is that so sir? Which song have you scored the music for, sir? Before which scene does this song appear,' I asked.

'All that your film has told me. Your film has told me where all I should compose songs and I have written and given it,' he replied.

I could not understand what was happening. I had only worked as an assistant to director Aabhavanan. He was the kind of person who would be bathing and would suddenly come and drum a tune on a desk and ask me how it would be if this was included in our film. I had, however, heard lots of stories about how music compositions happened. How directors would have to narrate the story, the situation where they required a song, the kind of music the scene demanded, and all that. But here was a man who had already scored the music for a song without me even telling him where I needed a song.

Looking at my puzzled face, Ilaiyaraaja hummed a tune for my sake. 'Thanaa nanaa...' My heart sank.

Looking at me, he asked, 'What's wrong?'

'What are you thinking? Okay, listen, Thaana naana naana naana naana naana naa... Thanananaaa....' It was at this point that I showed how dumb I was. I don't know how such beautiful art can be created when a genius and a fool work together. I was in a dilemma once he finished humming the song. I did not know whether to say it was nice or not. If I said it was nice, what if he asked me which part of it was nice? If I said it wasn't nice, what if he asked me what was not nice about it? What do I say then?

So, I told him, 'Sir, the scenes preceding this song and the scenes after this song are all slow scenes. So, it would be great if this song could be a lot faster.'

Ilaiyaraaja replied. 'That is what this song is. This will be perfect.'

I slowly asked, 'Fine. But can you at least raise the tempo?' I don't know what it was — it could have been the love he has for me or the feeling of admiration he has for my work. If I had said the same thing to another music director, he would have thrashed me and kicked me out. An ignorant person like me was asking a genius to increase the tempo without having an idea of what I was asking him to do.

Ilaiyaraaja only smiled like a child. He asked, 'What are you doing now? Do you have any other work?' I replied I had some editing work. He said, 'Fine. Go, finish it and come back at 4.30pm.'

I returned to my office confused. My assistant directors were eagerly waiting for me. 'What happened, sir,' they asked. I told them, 'He has composed some tune. If I ask him, he says he has already written the entire song. I can't understand what is happening.'

"Eager to know what the tune was, they asked me to hum it for them. I hummed what Ilaiyaraaja sir had hummed earlier that morning.

There was pindrop silence. I got scared. I asked them, why have all you guys become silent? As it is, I am already scared. What is wrong? Then, my assistant directors said, 'Sir, we shouldn't be taking whatever he is offering us. You go and ask him for more.'

I said, 'What do I cite to ask him for more? He won't even ask me what scene it is, he has already written the song. I don't know what to ask him. Why don't you come with me to meet him?'

My assistant directors beat a hasty retreat. 'That won't be nice, sir. You go and ask him for more. Ask him to compose four or five tunes,' they advised. I said, 'I am feeling very uncomfortable about this. Anyway, I have asked him to increase the tempo and he would have done that. Let's see.'

At 4 in the evening, I arrived at Ilaiyaraaja sir's studio. It was like visiting a wedding. There were around 20 violinists, tabla players, chorus singers and a lot of musicians. There were all kinds of musicians and all of them were testing their equipment. I felt happy. Phew! So many people working on my film's song, great, I thought.

At 4.30pm, Ilaiyaraaja sir said, 'Puru, let's see the monitor once.'

There was silence. Ilaiyaraaja sir then gave the count, 'One, one, one two three' and then the chorus began singing, 'Thaana thanthan thaana thanthan thaananaa....'

When I heard that, I cried. I could only see his knee and touched it, apologizing for my foolishness of doubting him. 'Please forgive me, sir. I have said something in my ignorance.' He just pacified me and said, 'Listen to the whole song.'

That was how this superhit number 'Thendral Vandhu Theendumbodhu' from Avatharam was created. What surprised me was how can a person write music so swiftly like how a poet writes poetry about love, sadness or courage. How can someone envisage all that music and write it down at such a furious pace? That song has notes for 20 violinists, chorus singers, tabla players and notes for so many other musicians. He was just writing it at such frenzied speed. I was amazed.

There is one other important piece of information. Every single song in that film Avatharam is a gem. All five songs in that film were recorded in just two-and-a-half days.

Enjoy Ilaiyaraaja's creation here, picturized on Nassar and Revathy: