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Article Tamil

20 years of Alaipayuthey: An album of refreshing originality

While the film is a trademark realistic romance by Mani Ratnam, it is the soundtrack that truly brings on a wave of nostalgia in an age of repetitive remixes.

Shriram Iyengar

Released on 14 April 2000, Alaipayuthey is one of those optimistic, cheerful moments of cinematic nostalgia that are played back in fondness. The film defined, for a generation of South Indians, the ideal of middle-class romance. R Madhavan played a clean-shaven software graduate who founds an IT startup, rides a bike to work, and dates a doctor. If Mani Ratnam had set the film in Bangalore, it would have been dismissed as a stereotype.

Where the film was heartwarming, the music was thrilling. In the week after the usually quiet Rahman took to social media to speak up against a remix of his song, Alaipayuthey is a reminder of where the composer's anger stems from. The originality, refreshing lyricality and melody of the songs only lights up the romance of Mani Ratnam's story. The film marked the sixth collaboration between the filmmaker and the composer, and was a direct departure from their previous work, Dil Se… (1998). 

Where Dil Se… was built with operatic melodies that induced passion, frenzy and a sense of despondency of the soul, Alaipayuthey was the perfect commercial score with a bit of everything, always enjoyable. Take the opening song, ‘Endrendrum Punnagai’, which taps into the growing international pop music influence that was hitting India at the time. The song is a signature Mani Ratnam moment. While it could have easily been the stereotypical ‘hero entry song’ in the hands of any other director, Mani Ratnam uses it to mark both the optimistic mood of the character and the darker shadow of the accident (a crucial plot point). 

The song is played in the background, one of a series which includes the lovely rain song ‘Evano Oruvan’ in the voice of Swarnalatha. The singer won the Tamil Nadu State Film award for Best Playback Singer for a song that is as moving. Again, Mani Ratnam uses the song to set up the atmosphere of turbulence and the depiction of a passionate storm brewing in the hearts of the separated lovers.

Rahman’s composition never allows the voice to take a back seat but offers the flute as a rival to make it a pseudo-duet between the present voice and the absent instrument. This connection is mentioned in Vairamuthu’s lyrics, and make one wonder if the lyrics inspired the music or vice-versa.

In an interview with The Hindu newspaper in 2018, Rahman spoke of the importance of composing songs that fit Mani Ratnam’s storyline and narrative. “It is very important," the composer said. "A movie caters to a universal audience and not just one section of it. It’s also about adding to the story. In Mani’s films, if you remove the songs, then the movie might not work because it is constructed that way.”

An example of that is ‘Yaro Yarodi’, a sweetmeat-cute song that establishes the chemistry, characters and familial structures of the boy and girl. While Shalini is as charming, it is Rahman’s thumping track that gets you going. Before the rise of the Punjabi DJ, this was the next best thing to a wedding dance track.

Another example of the blending of situation and song comes in the title song ‘Alaipayuthey’, a classical composition by Oothukkadu Venkata Subba Iyer in raga Kaanada, given a touch of modernity by Rahman. Thankfully, its aesthetics were stunning and did not bring the Carnatic sabhas to the streets in agitation.

The highlights of the soundtrack, however, were two of the finest lyrical and melodious compositions to come from the composer, which is saying something: ‘Snehithane’ in the voice of Sadhana Sargam and the evergreen ‘Pachai Nirame’. 

The magic of 'Snehithane' lies in the delicate touches that accompany Sadhana Sargam’s beautiful voice, in addition to the evocative sarod that adds depth and pathos to the song.

In contrast, 'Pachai Nirame' is a highly lyrical, flowing, refreshing composition that bursts with happiness. It is difficult for someone uneducated in music to try to express in words what can only be experienced. Regardless, it is a song that can be listened to again and again over 20 years.

An album with nine songs, Alaipayuthey broke cassette sales records on its release a year before the film's theatrical release. What's more, the album was filled with original songs throughout. Of course, this was a good two decades before a remix in every film became mandatory.

Alaipayuthey won AR Rahman the Best Music Director award at the Filmfare South awards (2000), before the composer went on to conquer the world with a couple of Oscars and Grammys. Twenty years later, the film might be a sweet nostalgic memory of a lost romance, but the music resonates deeper and stronger for an audience tired out by soulless remixes.