A Star is Born reignites the old art v/s commerce debate

October 13, 2018

I watched Bradley Cooper’s excellent directorial debut A Star Is Born starring himself and Lady Gaga in the lead roles.  I have not watched the previous iterations of this film and therefore cannot say how watching them would have influenced my reaction to this one.  However, going by the plot descriptions I read of the previous takes, Cooper does bring a different and significant insight to his telling of the tale, one that’s perhaps coming out of his being a passionate fan of music.

Cooper claims to have learnt singing and playing guitar for the film and if that is the case, then he has done a very fine job.  But that is not what is most interesting about the film.  What is interesting is the reaction of his character Jack Maine to the music that takes Lady Gaga’s Allys to instant stardom.

The previous versions would appear to have focused on the resentment of the older male protagonist to his lover’s success (which overshadows his own career).  This is the narration that aficionados of Indian cinema would also be familiar via Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan.  There is just plain envy, no artistic critique involved.  But that is NOT what Jack Maine feels about what Allys is doing (though she obliquely accuses him of it in an angry argument).

It is the music itself that he is reacting to.  To him, Allys is the one-in-a-million voice that captivated him in a drag bar (yes!) and in whom he discovered great, untapped songwriting talent.  He is dismayed to find this talent, one whom he heartily promoted in his own shows, being ‘wasted’ in dance music with lyrics he regards as inane.

It is the classic art v/s commerce debate.  But, unlike many critics and journos who feel compelled to make politically correct plebeian arguments whilst discussing this, Cooper frames the debate in a manner that would soothe the hearts of musicophiles.  No, he says, the problem isn’t that it’s popular.  As a matter of fact, Jack Maine is very popular too in the beginning when he meets Allys for the first time.  He can’t get anywhere without getting recognised and photographed and this attention creeps out Allys.

No, the problem for him is this new music is not true to who Allys is.  She may not think so herself but she duly submits to a complete image makeover and learns to dance, all at the behest of a controlling manager who can take her to paradise but only if she absolutely doesn’t compromise on any of his instructions.  Individuality, anyone?

When he returns from Alcoholics Anonymous and Allys asks him why he didn’t show her a bunch of lyrics he had written for a romantic song, he says he was waiting for “you to be you again”.  And though there is no vocal acknowledgment of this on her part, she does start to work on one of his songs at his home out in the woods.

For those who only know Lady Gaga from the tranche of very successful dance music albums she made in the mid/late noughties, her heartfelt rendering of material leaning more to country or a more old school variety of pop and her fabulous dynamic range would be a pleasant surprise.  It shouldn’t be.  She had a natural talent for music, learnt piano from the age of four and even studied music at NYU.

Indeed, she chose to explore her voice in the context of more conventional music starting with her jazz album with Tony Bennett.

 

In Lady Gaga’s case, there’s nothing to suggest there was a bossy manager supervising and imposing her transformation from soulful singer-songwriter to manufactured pop idol.  She was just canny enough to know where the music industry was headed to.  But it’s doubtful that she would have landed a recording contract with a major label for an album with piano and old school sensibilities (i.e. the artist Allys comes across as before she turns pop star).  On similar lines, Fiona Apple delivered a multi platinum album with 1996’s Tidal before moving more and more into the singer-songwriter niche.   However, Apple was already making fairly singer-songwriter oriented stuff even on her first album.  It would appear that with the passage of time, the gap between songwriting and the requirements of chartbuster pop only grows ever wider.

But what’s wrong with making some money, right?  And if supposedly inane dance music is what the public wants, why not give them their heart’s desires?  Nothing wrong indeed.  But Cooper offers an alternative proposition right at the end (SPOILER ALERT).  I won’t explain under what circumstances but Maine commits suicide and his elder brother Bob arrives to condole Allys (who got married to Jack along the way but you worked that out already).  Bob tells her he heard a boy performing one of Jack Maine’s songs and was initially angry, thinking what did these people know about the real Maine anyway.  And then, he told himself that if a kid was singing Maine’s song, then maybe it had all been worth it after all.

That is the proverbial last laugh that the artist earns over the commercial star.  The legendary guitarist Alan Holdsworth died penniless and didn’t have a single hit album in his long career but friends and fans (numbering in the thousands) crowdfunded his funeral because they cherished his musical legacy.  J S Bach’s greatness was only fully appreciated a century later when Mendelssohn revived his work.   An alternative tune that Madan Mohan wrote for the song Dil Dhoondtha Hain for his last film Mausam found its way into the soundtrack of Veer Zara years later and became a hit under the name of Tere Liye!

In his parting shot, Cooper seems to be telling us that the soul that the artist has invested in his/her creation never truly dies, kinda like the Hindu concept of an atma that has a life beyond the body of one’s current birth.  Or maybe this is all just the biased reading of one who does appreciate musicians who prize soul above all.

In thus concluding the film, Cooper creates a new beginning, beyond death, for Jack Maine.  Though the film doesn’t depict anything like this, when Allys performs Maine’s last and unrecorded composition at this grand concert hall (couldn’t tell which one) as a tribute, the song probably goes viral on the internet and earns Maine a bonafide hit.  At last, in death, a star is born!

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Ilayaraja’s electrifying experiments with guitar

October 3, 2018

The resurrection of this blog which began tentatively earlier has now gathered steam.  On receiving requests from a few people on other blogs and forums like Quora, I have resolved to write regularly…on music and, at least to begin with, on Ilayaraja in keeping with public demand.  This is not even a New Year Resolution so God knows how this will fare.  But here goes…

Detractors say that Ilayaraja is only good at utilising guitar.  Tamil-la sollanumna, avannuku guitar dhan da nanna varadhu.  Another variation of this is violin-tabla man but I won’t go there today. Obviously, I do not agree that Ilayaraja ONLY handles guitar but if I move the only a bit to the left, I get a more appealing sentence! 😀  No, as a fan of Hackett, Holdsworth, Uli Jon Roth among others, I am not going to go quite that far.  But Ilayaraja’s use of guitar truly is singular, that much may be safely said.  You guessed it…this post will list a few examples with a focus on electric guitar.  Electric guitar because the way that instrument was handled in Indian film music prior to Raja was pretty limited and often cliche.  I would argue it often still is cliche.  Its unplugged sibling fared better but Raja saved the electric guitar from desi rock stereotyping and fashioned many innovative and creative ways to use it.

I will start with a song I was listening to (for the nth time) today and which supplied the inspiration for this post.  Mannil Indha Kadhal from Keladi Kanmani (1990).  Yes, the ‘breathless’ song.  It’s most famous for SPB singing without space for breath in the charanam (antara for those not familiar with the pallavi/charanam nomenclature).  It also has an electric guitar riff accompanying SPB throughout the pallavi.  The beat is provided throughout the song by tabla with no drums/congo etc.

 

What’s the big deal, you ask?  Go on, rack your brains and try to recall songs of R D Burman (or the music directors who preceded him) or of Raja’s predecessor M S Vishwanathan and let me know how many songs you can think of which have ELECTRIC guitar riffs with tabla. It sounds very ubiquitous and normal and Raja has a habit of making very unusual things sound normal because he fits them seamlessly into the music.  Electric guitar riffs and tabla was not then a very normal combination at all, at least not in a sort of introspective, gentle solo like Mannil Indha Kadhal.

And the reason for that is previous music directors could not re-imagine a suitable context for the electric guitar outside its stereotyped rock settings.  This meant that even when they used electric guitar in an introspective or plaintive melodic solo, the beat would be provided by congo/drums to make it Western enough for the guitar to fit in.  Kya Hua Tera Wada for instance.  Main Kahin Kavi Na Ban Jaoon gets as far as having some very stylish electric guitar passages in the interludes.  But the riffs again are acoustic to go with the tabla.  Raja shattered this dogma in his trademark nonchalant manner, as if it was the mos natural thing to do. More importantly, though, the riff itself is interesting.  It combines in a call-response pattern with the vocal melody rather than playing all along the melody, which is how riffs are normally used. The Mannil Indha Kadhal riffs interject to emphasise the syncopated beat, something Raja is fond of doing.  There’s no riff for ‘Mannil Indha’ and then it comes just as SPB sings ‘Kadhalantri’ and repeating once each along with ‘Yaarum Vazhtal’ and ‘Koodumo’.  This is the same pattern that is used for the next line in the pallavi.

Oh dear, that got way longer than I expected it to.  And that’s just the one song.  Moving quickly now, the experimentation is about to get way more radical…and yet very innocuous and unobtrusive.  Can you imagine electric guitar as a staple instrument of Tamil Nadu’s rural landscape?  You don’t have to because Raja has done that too on Chinnamani Kuyile from Amman Koil Kizhakaale (1986).

There are riffs here too (again, so unusual and yet so natural-sounding!) but you won’t notice them so much because your attention will be drawn to the electric guitar lead responding to SPB with imitations of birdsong.  Electric guitar is used in terrific call-response patterns with rustic instruments, namely the shehnai and the Indian flute in both interludes.  And in roughly four and half minutes, the instrument that film music composers once regarded as highly Western is fully appropriated into the Tamil rural soundscape as if that’s where it always belonged.

Ah, if only Raja hadn’t been so concerned with seamless integration and done more in the face fusion like stuff, you say.  But he did that too!  Take the guitar lead in the prelude of Pottu Vacha Malligai Mottu (before tabla kicks in) from Manvasanai (1983).  The melody and manner of playing both evoke Carnatic music but it’s electric guitar alright.   You protest that it sounds like keyboard.  I thought so too…until I saw the guitarist play it in Raja’s 2005 live show.

You know what’s crazy?  In spite of all this frenetic innovation going on in Raja’s music (of which I have discussed barely a sliver of a sliver here), director R Balki summed up Raja with the sentence, “He has given us the simplest of melodies which everybody can hum”.  I was like, that’s all?  Really? Award for blandest description of Ilayaraja, what say?

And then, I said to myself, hey, Balki has a point.  Because Raja is the king of hooks.  He can just hook you in with a catchy melody or an infectious groove.  So even if hypothetically he didn’t do anything innovative at all, he would still get you with the most delicious of grooves like @ 2:14 in Rojapoo Aadi Vanthathu (where S Janaki is singing Thodu Thodu Thodammal)

Listen carefully, and there’s an electric guitar playing along and that’s one badass groove.  Simple but supercalafragalistinfectious.

And there you have it.  Raja could use electric guitar in a Carnatic-like manner, could integrate it with rural music, could use riffs to accompany Indian melody set to tabla beats.  AND he could also come up with a good ol’ fashioned groove that wouldn’t be out of place in a 70s funk compilation.  And much else, which I can’t possibly cover in the space of one post.

Ok, one last example of something unusual, demonstrating the sheer range he had/has when it comes to electric guitar. In Kannan Vandhu Paaduginran from Rettai Vaal Kuruvi (1987), the guitar simply plays baroque in the prelude, paving the way for saxophone.  This baroque like progression returns when S Janaki picks up the vocals.  The setting is a stage performance with Radhika trying her best to appear raunchy.  AND there are no riffs.  Even in the charanam, there are short melodic interjections of guitar (again call-response) rather than riffs.  Where you’d most expect to hear riffs, Raja deftly avoids them! And manages to evoke a jazzy flavour without a note of jazz in sight anywhere in the song.

And with that, it will really have to be a night!

USA in Trump times

September 22, 2018

I resurrect a dead blog…to write again about a visit to the USA.  The last time (and my first time there) was in 2014, in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term.  Much has changed since then, and particularly since, of course, 2016.  A measure of just how much had changed is that when my aunt invited me to come over, I asked, as discreetly as I could, if it was safe.  In that moment, I truly understood where travel advisories issued about safety in India came from. As one from an ethnicity that is in the minority in the US, I felt less certain in the wake of all that had been said and done through the course of a fractious and polarising election and its aftermath…even though I KNOW quite a few of my relatives and friends live there and have reported no reason to worry so far.

I needn’t have worried too much, though, because my itinerary took me to (mostly) blue country throughout (just like last time by the way) – Chicago where my aunt lives, Niagara and Washington DC.  Of these, Niagara county flipped for Trump after years of voting for Democrats, though.  Whilst we walked through Niagara on a very hot afternoon (only mango lassi from an Indian street vendor – 2/3 in Indian style – bailed us out) looking for a place to eat, somebody we asked for directions advised us not to go to a particular part of Niagara.  Was it because of crime issues or was it because it was Trump country?  We could only wonder.

It was in DC, though, that the full import of the Trump presidency hit home – through the overwhelming opposition/disdain towards it from residents and visitors.  Our guide for the free tour of Capitol indulged in many a sly dig at Trump’s expense.  Sample this:  while describing the amount of violence that ensued between Congressmen when Congress was in session in the 19th century, he said that most of us cannot imagine something like this today.  He went on to speculate, “But can that change in the future?”  And smiled naughtily as he shrugged.  While explaining the painting described as Apothesis of Washington that adorns the ceiling of the rotunda, he said that it was meant to depict democracy as something akin to religion in USA, adding that the right to vote is something we have to take very seriously.

A much less subtle message was rammed home on our last day in DC.  On the previous two days, the weather as well as our exhaustion from touring the sprawling Museum of American History had forced us to postpone our walk down to the White House (or about as close to it as security arrangements would let us get to it).  On the last day, my aunt had decided she wanted to spend a couple more hours at the American History Museum, having spent all of the previous day there already (and yes, it DOES deserve that much time, if not more) and we were headed to the Spy Museum.  With our Circulator Bus getting held up for too long at the Lincoln Memorial, we decided against getting down at the Monument bus stop to walk down to the Ellipse.  But the driver stopped the bus there and said you could walk 10 minutes to get a good view of White House from the front and offered anybody who wished to see it to get down here.  She repeated her appeal twice, thrice and none of the (mostly White and many possibly European visitors) passengers in the bus got down.  The genial and venerable African American lady burst out laughing saying, “Nobody wants to see the White House?”

Speaking of African Americans, there was heightened consciousness this time about what it meant to be an African American in the USA.  My cousin (aunt’s daughter) had me read Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me (which was brilliant and, indeed, felt like the ghost of James Baldwin had somehow gotten into Mr Coates). We were frequently invited, if not exhorted, to see the new Museum of African American History in DC.  Another item we could not tick off in our 3 1/2 day stay in that magnificent city, along with the American Indian Museum, the National Art Gallery, the Natural History Museum and so on.  And Circulator bus drivers as well as cabbies discussed the African American condition with us.

They asked me whether we in India were racist (not in as many words) and discriminated on colour (this, they did ask straight out).  Didn’t tell them the truth and instead told them what I personally believe in (which is non discrimination).  Should I have?  I don’t know.  Besides, they probably already knew and were just having fun putting us on the spot.

As in my previous visit, I found many who were incredibly eager to help.  From a co passenger on Lufthansa who offered me her headphones when the flight attendant forgot to hand the inflight headphone package to me only for me to report with embarrassment that I already had my own pair of headphones but was only trying to see if I could, like a typical Indian, get a freebie I was entitled to. To a volunteer at an information center just outside the Smithsonian metro station who generously gave us her HUGE umbrella to run across to a store across the road to buy ourselves umbrellas (it was POURING that evening at DC). To the Circulator Bus drivers who waived off the $1 ticket (no idea why) and ushered us in.

Squaring this country with the one that voted for Trump seems a confounding exercise.  Was it that from the outside I did not understand everything about Trump and what the people who voted him into power saw in him that we do not (just the way we voted for Modi, right?)?  Or was it that I should have gone to Trump country to find out?  Should I have?  Would it have been safe?

Arth: Reel v/s real meaning

August 6, 2017

The subject of how to judge a film based on real (usually ‘historical’) events is debated heavily in cinema circles and I have been part of a few such discussions on the blog of film critic Baradwaj Rangan.  The discussion usually centres around whether focusing too much on the film’s inaccuracies in portraying events is missing the forest for the trees, considering that a film is after all an artistic expression (assuming film as fiction as opposed to a documentary).  That facts may be altered slightly or a little more than slightly to further the filmmaker’s beliefs/ideology (by whatever name) is another aspect that is often debated.

This subject is particularly pertinent when it comes to Mahesh Bhatt’s landmark film Arth.  As is well known, the film is based on his relationship with the actress Parveen Babi even as he was married to Lorraine Bright.  He parted ways with both as it were and married Soni Razdan in 1986. In a tribute to Babi after her death (the tribute was published on Outlook), he expressed profound sympathy for her plight.  He also mentioned that she had in fact inherited schizophrenia from her father.  So why is it then that in the film, Kavita’s mother tells Pooja that Kavita is paying for her sins through her madness?

In fact, it is interesting that a film purportedly about the Bhatt-Babi affair is told from the wronged wife’s perspective.  From this perspective, the husband Inder falls prey to lust far too easily to give her any semblance of security and utterly fails to make decisions until he is pushed to the wall (by which time it’s too late).  Kavita is, until the end when she finally “sees the light”, a mostly unsympathetic and insecure woman who responds to Pooja’s entreaties to leave her husband be by doubling down on pulling him away from her.   Inder’s assistant Harish respects Pooja and disapproves of his master’s extra marital affair but ultimately has to be loyal to Inder until the latter makes him perform an errand that finally gets him to tender his resignation in utter disgust.   Anil is well-intentioned and extremely helpful to Pooja in her time of need but his unstinting faith in the institution of marriage comes across as bizarre given a husband who is hell bent on severing all ties with her.  A prospective employer of Pooja molests her and would have raped her had she not escaped in the nick of time.  Basically, in the world of Arth, the sensitive ghazal singer Raj is the only man of much use to Pooja as his support is entirely unconditional even in the face of unrequited love.  A feminist treatise, in other words, culminating with Pooja walking away with a child who is not hers but who, as she says, will give her company in the solitary existence she has now chosen for herself.

That is, until you consider the plot line in light of the real events it is based on.  How exactly did we traverse from a supposedly hereditary psychological disorder to the curse of a woman scorned?  To be fair, the film does give us an early indication that Kavita is troubled and seeks shelter in Inder’s, ahem, reassuring embrace.  Still, when her mother says her near-insanity is but well deserved punishment for what she did to Pooja, it raises the question whether she is really the only guilty party here.

Yes, she made love to a married man.  And, driven by her insecurity, pushed him to part ways with his wife.  But he is an adult, dammit, does he not have agency?  It was he who consented to do whatever she asked of him, smitten as he was by her.  So where did that leave him at the end of the story?  Deprived of both the women who had once loved him.  Too bad, but is it such a bad deal compared to schizophrenia?

Let us bring in the real events here. Parveen Babi was one of the leading actresses of Bollywood at the time of her affair with Mahesh Bhatt (as also depicted in the film).  Schizophrenia robbed her of a successful career whereas Bhatt won critical acclaim for Arth and went on to make many successful films.

And make no mistake, the jarring background score is the only false note in this unusually sensitive, grown up film.  Rarely are films of such quality made in Bollywood (though, strictly speaking, this was parallel cinema and struggled to find distributors willing to take a punt on it after it was made).  So nothing said here is intended to take away from his success.

But the ‘real’ takeaway from the film seems to be that the punishment for a homewrecker enchantress is mental breakdown whereas that for the unfaithful husband is untold success.  This is in stark contrast to the inspirational yet realistic reel ‘takeaway’.

There is, of course, no compulsion for the filmmaker to have his fictional characters do what their real life inspirations did.  Yet, the stilted portrayal of Kavita remains an unresolved aspect in an otherwise finely balanced film (as between the three main characters).

Kulbhushan Kharbanda, who essayed Inder’s role, also touches upon this aspect when he says that they (the makers of the film) had essentially taken the easiest way out by narrating the story from the perspective of the wife when it could have also been done from that of the love interest (a good example of the latter is Bajirao Mastani).   Kharbanda also alludes to the societal difference in the way sexually overcharged men and women are regarded, saying the former is called casanova (which almost sounds like a compliment) whereas the latter is called nymphomaniac.

To that extent, perhaps, Arth is true to the society it reflects.  But considered this way, it is a more bitter pill to swallow than a plain ‘unbiased’ (by real events) reading of the film’s message would leave one with.  Its message then is not necessarily that a woman can and should fight back against her unworthy, disloyal life partner and lead an independent life if she has to but that even if she does all these things, she is still only a woman in the eyes of society.  A distinction that Pooja implicitly reminds Inder of when he asks that she forgive him.

P.S:  Mahesh Bhatt also suggests that had he remade the film, he would have characterised Kavita as more humane than in the original film.

Ilayaraja’s day the music died rant

July 20, 2017

Trust Ilayaraja to embark on a bitter rant during his birthday celebrations!  He said the era of music making per se is dead and composers, musicians and singers are only keeping up a make believe pretense (drawing a colourful parallel to make believe fight scenes in the films!), but there are, he asserted, no tunes, no nothing.  He said music had gone to Tirupati and returned with a clean shave (the true meaning of that analogy does not translate at all in English, unfortunately). The rant is in the first couple of minutes of this video:

Uncharitable ones may decry him as a bitter old man but more perceptive observers would sense a profound disillusionment as Ilayaraja senses he is in the twilight of his career and life as such.  Of course, you never know, he may live to be a 100 but as he lives on, he sees everything he believed in falling apart.  My father said perhaps he is going through what Einstein did in later life, wondering whether he had achieved anything of significance in his endeavours.

But let’s go back to what he said.  He referred to music being near-sacred (in not those very words, but it’s a view he’s espoused before) and having once occupied an exalted place.  True enough, the last three decades (since the 1990s) have seen music lose some of its earlier cultural relevance.  Some would say in comparison to how things were at the start of the 90s, it has lost much of its relevance.  Mostly, a song gets talked about when it jumps the shark, like Kolaveri or Gangnam Style.  Hey, I have nothing against funny, nonsense songs and they abounded in the glory days of music as well.  The point is, it’s almost only these songs that now grab our attention.  Music does not command our attention for being beautiful, soulful, touching, exhilarating, a few among its many positive attributes.

Ilayaraja’s observation has a more immediate relevance in the Tamil context and his detractors in particular would no doubt infer that that is in fact what he was harping on.  Yes, the Raja era.  During the Raja era, music occupied pride of place and a hit Raja soundtrack was the best insurance against box office uncertainty.  And…when I look at how things are today, I have to ask whether we are truly better off than we would have been with three more decades of Raja domination.

And, no, I am not a Rahman hater.  And while I would no longer identify myself as a Rahman fan (which I will get to later), I love many of his songs and his music was the soundtrack of my growing up years…along with Raja.

No, Rahman per se is not the problem though he helped unseat the king from his throne.  But along with, music directors like Deva, Sirpi, S A Rajkumar also reaped rich rewards as many film makers abandoned Ilayaraja in the wake of him losing his pre-eminent position.   You have to make a heck of an argument to convince me that the work of those fine gentlemen, along with Messrs. Harris Jeyaraj and Anirudh, is preferable to more of Ilayaraja.

We need not go into the unsavoury details.  It is known that Ilayaraja had many in the industry who held grudges against him and they were on the prowl for an opportunity to unseat him; we don’t need to get into who they were.  History has it that they succeeded. And from the days of commanding a higher salary than stars, Ilayaraja was relegated to second or third fiddle even as the popularity of Rajnikanth in particular (but also Kamal Hassan, Vijay, Ajith) exploded (needless to say, Kamal is different from these other stars and has also worked with IR during this period, though not in the last few years).  From a composer hegemony, Tamil film industry moved to a star hegemony.  And about now is a good time to ask whether that has at all served any purpose.

On the one hand, the soaring popularity of stars ensured their remuneration took precedence by an unprecedented magnitude over that of everyone else.  Ergo, the star now held the key to the film’s success or failure.  The quality of the script or the direction or, much less, the music all paled into insignificance compared to the question of whether the cast included a star and whether the star still commanded the loyalty of a large enough fanbase to justify his remuneration (yes, emphatically his, sadly no gender hyphenation required here).

This extreme dependence on stars has since spawned many a mediocre ‘mass’ film which still did well enough to justify bankrolling a zillion more like it. And here we come to the crucial difference between the Raja hegemony and the filmstar hegemony.  As far as his musical output was concerned, Raja did not shortchange anyone, be it the director or the producer or, most importantly, the audience.  He gave his best time and time again.  The worst that his worst detractors can still come up with is only that he was and is a difficult person to deal with (and I presume the stars are utter Lillywhites in comparison but moving on…).  But they cannot mount much of a case against his music.

The pre-eminent position enjoyed by him may have provoked many in the industry to resent him, but he did justice to this position.  Can the same be said of the stars?  Why are the stars only concerned with boosting their personal wealth in the name of entertaining the masses?  Why do they not aspire to help create a better PRODUCT?  This is what drove Ilayaraja day in and day out, to do better today than yesterday, and his ceaseless efforts gave a couple of thousand goodies for the audience to feast in, many of which continue to be remembered long after they were first released.

No, it’s pretty clear.  Where one man had a genuine passion and commitment to his art form, the others have only been concerned with their personal glorification and short term considerations.  And in their ceaseless urge to dominate and impose their power on the rest of filmdom, stars and their henchmen, the filmmakers, have not spared music directors either.

This came to the fore with Ok Jaanu, the Hindi remake of O Kadhal Kanmani, which featured a remix of Humma Humma, called, bizarrely, ‘The Humma Song’.  Ah, you see, it’s The Humma Song; everything has to be marketed as an event now and likewise The Humma Song is more an event than a musical creation.  The grotesque remix was widely panned with many expressing disbelief at how Rahman could have done this to his own creation.  And it was then that Rahman clarified that he had no part in this (the remix was done by Badshah) and he would not have done it this way.

Think for a minute would somebody have got away with remixing an Ilayaraja song badly and without the sanction of the maestro himself?  No way, macha, that would have been the end of that filmmaker’s association with Ilayaraja.  The very kind of behaviour for which they heaped calumny on him.  But, you see, he knew what depths the film industry can stoop to in its pursuit of box office success and defended his work with pride.  Today, the situation has changed so much that the much decorated, Oscar winning Rahman cannot stop the makers from doing something to his song against his own wishes.

And that was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and why I stopped regarding myself as a Rahman fan.  I don’t sympathise much with him for what Badshah did to his song.  He offered filmmakers a ‘pragmatic’, ‘flexible’ alternative to Ilayaraja’s ‘tyranny’ with an eye on the big prize.  And look where it got him.  Well, yes, the fame, the riches, the many musical projects he has been part of remain.  But of what use are they if they do not give him the power to protect his own work?

And so you see why Ilayaraja said there is only a pretense of making music left now.  It has been reduced to a mere vehicle to be manipulated by the film maker to grab eyeballs for his latest project and has no shelf life beyond that.  For everything else, well, there’s always Ilayaraja.  And I leave you on that note with a timeless melody of his, rendered by SPB and Asha Bhonsle, starring…oh, it doesn’t even matter who!

Man v/s machine in music

July 17, 2017

This write up builds on some discussions (or rather arguments, I should say) I was involved in with other Ilayaraja fans.  It deals with his gradual move away from live instruments to electronic sounds (especially in percussion but also eventually replacing or at least supplementing say string sections with synth-strings).

But before I get to Ilayaraja, I want to talk about a duo of song writers from New York who exerted a lot of influence on the rock scene of the 70s in spite of not performing tours after their second album.  The duo went by the names Donald Fagen and Walter Becker and their ‘band’ was called Steely Dan.  They were indefatigable perfectionists and wanted exactly what they had in mind from the musicians (some of the best sessions musicians that the greenback could buy).  Does that remind you of somebody?  Eventually tiring of having to make musicians perform the same part again and again till they got it right, they ventured into devising a percussion loop with computers (with a lot of difficulty, as technology was primitive in the 70s).  But the results of their labours was a rather stiff, sterile sounding album (though the song writing was still brilliant) –  Gaucho.  It was their last album before they went on a two decade hiatus, ostensibly sick of music making.  In their quest for perfection, they had sucked the life out of their music, a realisation which they half-jokingly allude to in the notes to the remaster of Gaucho.

Why this prelude about Gaucho?  Because the quest to get a perfect sound haunted many, if not most, pop wizards of the analog era.  In today’s retro-chic culture, we regard the imperfect hisses and scratches of analog recordings admiringly and remark favourably about their soul.  But back in the day, the composers themselves seemingly didn’t give a flying shit about all that and in fact coveted a smooth, ‘perfect’ sound.  Ilayaraja was no exception.

In his early days, Ilayaraja’s music, while already bearing his unmistakable and instantly recognisable stamp, often had a very loose and dreamy quality.  He was still exploring possibilities and this seemed to reflect in his work.  Take Engengo Sellum from Pattakathi Bhairavan:

The mathematical logic connecting every note of an Ilayaraja composition to the next is very much present here but not in an obvious way.  The song, especially the melody, seems to meander without rambling and losing you and there are gentle, delicate twists in the interlude.  Though the tempo is straightforward, it doesn’t feel so.  It’s as if he is pausing to take in the scenery.  It is perhaps gentle to a fault in that if you don’t crank it up and pay attention, the song might be over before you listen.  But that is also why it is so rewarding for the intrepid listener, transporting you into another world for its nearly 5 minute running length.

By 1984, some things have evidently changed…

Not much pausing in here.  The Raja juggernaut is on a roll now.  The almost frightening inventiveness is now channeled into a well oiled template.  You no longer have to guess that it’s a Raja song.  There are indicators galore, from the beat to the chorus, to the syncopated pattern in the second interlude.   Aesthetically, it is like much of his work from that period (mid-80s) and to that limited extent is interchangable (though the unique nuances of the orchestration aren’t).  This song lacks the enigma, the mystery of Engengo Sellum but on the other hand, it is far more infectious and grabs you by the collar.  It has more meat, in essence.  Makes sense, because by now he had already been the king for a few years.   He would mention in a later interview that he had a responsibility to deliver to filmmakers music that the audience would like.  At this stage, though, the template is still executed with acoustic instruments.

But by 1987, drum machines are well entrenched:

Again, no lack of inventiveness here, whether in the melody or the orchestration.  But as said above, this track uses drum machines and therefore feels even tighter than Pon Maane, with the corresponding merits and demerits.   By now, most of the pleasure is to be derived from the melodic and harmonic choices rather than an atmospheric, pristine beauty that timeless music can evoke.  As Engengo Sellum did (or most of the Nenjathai Killathe soundtrack for that matter).  Which, again, is not to say that it makes it inferior.  But it does make it different.

The last exhibit is from the 90s:

 

By now, synths are all over the place.  They do help Arun Mozhi’s delectable flute stand out even more than usual.  But aesthetically, there’s little that is particularly attractive about the song even though rhythmically it’s one of his most interesting, particularly the first interlude.  If you did not dig deep and pay attention to THAT part in the first interlude, you could confuse him with somebody else.

Don’t believe me?  So here’s the last exhibit (I cheated!):

Music director Adithyan, who had decent success in the 90s, does a pretty good job of imitating Ilayaraja.  And he wasn’t the only one.  Deva did so too.  Sirpi…well, he tried though he usually gave away the game.  But between them, they took away much of the rural film market from Ilayaraja.  Not by making better music than him but by simply making music that fit the purpose.

But would it have fit the purpose if it had required them to also paint soundscapes of untold beauty rather than just putting together a suitably baroque-like arrangement on the synth? Perhaps not.  And thus the irony of this quest to use machines to achieve perfection.  The closer Ilayaraja moved to his goal, the more he let go of qualities that made his work unique.  Not that he ever completely let go of everything that made and makes him unique, but let’s say that for the narrow requirements of film music, these differences became somewhat incidental.

Was he at some level aware of this risk?  I would imagine so, because he has been a vocal critic of the excessive use of technology in music.  But as the frontrunner in Tamil film music in the 80s, he had to stay one step ahead of the rest.  And what must have bothered him in this race but those little imperfectly played parts that we the lay listeners ignore and which however would stick out like sore thumbs to a composer.  Thus, he embraced the machine and for somebody who has done over a 1000 films, it hasn’t panned out too badly, has it?

To conclude, I only want to add that the alleged lack of perfection in Ilayaraja’s recordings is often contrasted with Rahman’s squeaky clean productions and cited as a primary factor contributing to his decline.  I submit that it is the opposite.  It was the quest to perfect and streamline his music into a well oiled machine that perhaps made the soul in his music a touch more elusive than it once was and thus a little easier for the audience to bid him goodbye.

Konta-Vekic, thank you for the tennis!

July 6, 2017

IRL (In Real Life), finding tennis fans in India is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack.  Finding those who watch the early rounds of the slams is even harder (ATP 1000? 500?  Forget it!).  The thinking is these matches simply aren’t worth your time; mostly the top seeds sail through in embarrassingly one sided contests.  What’s there to see?

The key lies in the word ‘mostly’ as devoted tennis aficionados will confirm.  There are always exceptions to the rule and us crazed tennis fans bear with the beatdowns because we hope, nay, we know we will be rewarded with a thriller.

Our ilk reaped a rich reward yesterday, thanks to Johanna Konta and Donna Vekic who played one of the most remarkable matches that at least I have seen in women’s tennis.  And I am certain that I have never seen more clutch serving from both players in a women’s tennis (in singles, to be clear).  7-6 4-6 10-8.  And this was Day 3, Round 2 of Wimbledon.  Yep!

Yesterday, Konta and Vekic played a match worthy of a final.  On a cynical note, I dread the possibility that in fact the final may not live up to the quality both women produced.  The numbers speak for themselves.  The two women produced 23 aces between them, with both getting into double digits. Both made a healthy percentage of their first serves and both won 80% (give or take a few percentage points) of those first serves that landed in. Konta hit 55 winners against 21 unforced errors and Vekic hit 42 against 24.  Those are outstanding numbers.  Also, against most opponents, 42 against 24 would have sealed the deal.  So it’s stunning that Vekic in fact fell substantially short of Konta on that count.

As the high percentage of points won on first serve and number of aces indicate, the serving was out of the world.  Except…that it wasn’t really, in terms of pure pace. Konta averaged 105 mph on first serve and Vekic 106.  The average second serve speeds were quite close to that of the first delivery – 91 mph for both.  Anyhow, not mind blowing pace.  But wonderful placement, great angles, variety as well, particularly Konta who threw in the kicker on crucial second serves.  It saved break point at 8-8 in the third set, as Vekic took a big cut regardless, hoping (but failing) to convert the opportunity.  Kick second serves in the clutch, is this ATP?

The match did have an ATP like quality, considering there were only 6 breaks of serve in a three setter with a long third set.  The other thing that was ATP like about it was a purposefulness that is far too often missing in WTA matches (notably the French Open final).  Instead of seemingly random shot selection leading to a litany of errors, both players used their serve to set up a strong second shot and control the point from thereon.  And with many serves going unreturned, there was an unusual degree of pressure in any baseline rally because it gave the receiver a rare chance to grab a point off the opponent’s serve.

Beyond the numbers and the tactical fine points though was the aforesaid tension.  Not drama but tension.  Tension that those who have watched big servers go at each other at Wimbledon would be familiar with.  This match was settled by fine margins, not wild swings of momentum.  Vekic was in a position to serve out the first set and failed to hold.  Konta took it in a tiebreak.  The second set was the only one with a bit of see-sawing, breaks traded before Vekic held her nerve to close it out.

The third was literally an epic unfolding before your eyes.   You watched both players hold tough on serve, determined to out-stare the other into blinking first.  And then there was 0-30.  This was it, you thought.  And then there were two aces.  Poof!  Gone, no sooner than it had appeared, the chance to break.  And then this happened in the next game on the other player’s serve.  And she too served her way out of trouble.  At 6-6, you thought somebody would wilt.  Somebody looked like she might wilt.  Somebody fooled you right and proper; she was going to play on.

At 9-8, the pressure of serving behind Konta finally got to Vekic, who was probably also dwelling on the disappointment of the previous game where she missed the one break point opportunity.  But no, even at 30-40 match point, she served – you guessed it – an ace!  Konta roared right back to create another match point.  And this time, there would be no next time.  At long last, Vekic made an unforced error at an inopportune moment.  Somebody had to.  It was the only way to declare a winner in the contest.

If that evokes Federer-Roddick 2009 Wimbledon final for you, you are not alone.  It is the match I was most reminded of.  As I said at the outset, a match worthy of a final.  A match where two slender, graceful women played like gladiators, conceding nary an inch to each other, in the process smashing (hopefully) many stereotypes.  So…that’s the reason you should watch Round 2 of Wimbledon.  Because when you don’t expect a match like this and you get it, it’s something else.  Something like Konta-Vekic.

Ostapenko stuns clueless Halep

June 11, 2017

In the run up to the women’s final, I remarked on a tennis forum that Jelena Ostapenko seemed to be on the sort of dream run that we haven’t seen in our sport for a long time and could win.   By beating Simona Halep in three sets in the final, Ostapenko ensured I wouldn’t have the foot in my mouth for making this ‘prediction’.   But it didn’t pan out quite the way I had expected or hoped for.

Early in the match, Ostapenko approached the net and was faced with a pass coming into her backhand.  She used both hands to steer the ball into the open court rather than make a conventional volley.  It was effective (on that occasion) but awkward.  And surely any tennis player with their wits about them would have smelt an opportunity right there.  It’s how Federer used to beat giants like Juan Martin Del Potro.  When you are not confident at the net, even wing span cannot help and Fed would draw such players into the net with a short slice/chip and pass them.  He would make sure the pass would dip, forcing the player to volley up (which is much more difficult).  Angelique Kerber used dipping passes superbly against Serena Williams at last year’s Australian Open final; Serena couldn’t volley up if her life depended on it that day.   A player who uses both hands on the volley would likely struggle to volley up.  At any rate, a gambit worth trying.

And yet, Halep didn’t try it.  Didn’t try pretty much anything other than to “play her game”, the cliched expression used these days in women’s tennis. Fans of Halep have often argued that she compensates for her diminutive stature with her brain.  But there wasn’t much evidence of this on Saturday.  Halep kept feeding Ostapenko in the strike zone and Ostapenko swung with all her might.  She committed 54 unforced errors but also made 54 winners.  Meanwhile, Halep made a measly 8 winners which negated her low unforced error count of 10.

The way to negate somebody playing a low percentage ultra aggressive game is to upset their rhythm, move them forwards and backwards rather than just laterally and give them different speeds, spins and bounces.  Things that Andy Murray did against Stan Wawrinka in the semi final on Friday.  He still lost in 5 sets but that was because Wawrinka was wise to these tactics and by the fourth set had adapted well to them.

We do not know if Ostapenko could or could not have adapted.  Because Halep didn’t try.  She didn’t make her hit low volleys or smash high, deep lobs.  Ostapenko won 7 out of 9 net points but these were juicy swing volleys. With Halep’s weak serve coming for some serious punishment at the hands of the feisty Ostapenko, her best bet was to disrupt her baseline rhythm and force her to hit shots she would rather not.

But that wouldn’t fit into Halep’s gameplan, no?  Which appeared to be to wail louder and longer after every shot than Ostapenko and pound every groundie with all her might.  This was in spite of encouraging results when she did fitfully change the play.  There was one fairly long rally (in a mostly extreme ‘first strike’ match) in the first set where Halep resorted to moonballing and it worked.  But these appeared to be more get-out-of-trouble last resort options and not a switch to a slower pace of game where perhaps she may have had more control over the proceedings.  Instead, she left the match entirely on Ostapenko’s racquet.

And full credit to Ostapenko, she took it.  She persisted with her incredibly simple gameplan of hit and hit harder and did not flinch even when she was trailing by a set and three games. Had she, with an eye on the big prize, second-guessed herself, Halep may well have stolen it from her. But she concluded in pretty much the same emphatic, albeit one dimensional, fashion that she started the match.  She broke Halep in the first game of the match and did so in the final game as well to win the trophy.  And, in her own words, Halep was a mere spectator in the end.

Kerber and the pressure of no.1

May 29, 2017

I am writing on tennis after a long while and as I sit to write, the hot topic is the ‘shock’ exit of world no.1 Angelique Kerber in the first round of the French Open, in fact on the opening day.  On a day marked by a one sided win for Grigor Dimitrov and yet another listless display by Bernard Tomic, it was Petra Kvitova who provided entertainment.  If Kerber’s match against Ekaterina Makarova provided something, it was mostly fodder for armchair psychologists.

Let’s start with why I put the word shock in single quotes. Because it was a defeat that many people, be they journalists or amateur bloggers, had smelt the moment Kerber was drawn against Makarova in the first round. Makarova’s current ranking of 44 (which left her unseeded in the French Open) belies her pedigree and with Kerber being woefully out of form, facing an aggressive Makarova with nothing to lose was not the way she would have hoped to launch her French Open campaign.

By now, defeat is hardly a stranger to Kerber, at least so far as 2017 is concerned.  She has a horrific win-loss tally of 19-13. World no.1s do not notch up so many losses in just the first half of the season.  Elina Svitolina, Daria Kasatkina, Elena Vesnina, Anett Kontaveit, many are the players who can boast of having beat Kerber this year.  That she may lose to Makarova was not a surprising outcome.

What was nevertheless disturbing (and which made for uncomfortable viewing) was her resigned air and diffidence throughout the match.  Her movement was sluggish (she blames it on clay, but look at her losses this year and you will find it has generally been a problem and a pretty big one for a counterpuncher like her), her shot making tentative and her body language negative in the extreme.  As Makarova punished a serve that barely touched 140 ks (screaming forehand winners are sometimes clocked at 160 ks), Kerber’s shot tolerance fell off a cliff and she pulled the trigger way too soon way too many times.  In just over an hour, she had been packed off, managing just 4 games in her straight sets defeat.   Her shoulders slumped pretty early in the match (if not from the get go) and stayed that way till the end, much like Eugenie Bouchard in her prolonged slump.

I have written earlier about Bouchard’s own rise and fall and yet to be concluded struggle for form (by the way, even Bouchard beat Kerber this year!).  At least, Bouchard was a young player thrust into the SW19 spotlight against an opponent who outplayed her in all departments.  It is understandable that a player ostensibly pump primed to believe she was the future of women’s tennis would be shaken to learn the reality (which was more unflattering).

But Kerber is no greenhorn.  She has been around since 2007 and made deep forays into grand slams from 2011.  She has on occasion beaten both Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, Simona Halep among other top players.  She is not new to this as such.

And yet, she has increasingly looked tormented on the court  and unable to get on with the business of playing tennis (in one article, she mentioned paying too much attention to where she was in the race to Singapore and such other noise).  Her mental strength has, as expected, been called into question with her ignominious run of defeats this year (she hasn’t won a title in 2017 yet).  But it was her mental strength which was praised when she overcame Serena last year at the Australian Open.  Besides, a counterpuncher cannot consistently remain in the top 10 or so of tennis, as she has, without mental strength because by definition, a counterpuncher doesn’t rely on huge weapons to win.

Instead, the problem is simply that she is no.1.  The pressure of being no.1 is not easy to handle for many players as her travails this year show (or Andy Murray’s for that matter).  In the immortal words of Shakespeare, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown and right now, Kerber seems to be more ill at ease than Macbeth himself.

Some players may manage to get to no.1 but only a few of them in turn can hold on to it for a long time.  For one thing, the tour wakes up and starts chasing them and in doing so picks holes in their game.  For another, the weight of expectations, self imposed and external, may become a hindrance to free expression of the player’s talent.   Let me take this opportunity, then, to close with a tribute to the ultimate hustler in tennis and the man who spent more consecutive weeks at no.1 than any other barring Roger Federer – Jimmy Connors.  It’s not easy to stay at no.1 and he stayed there for 160 consecutive weeks (and a career total of 268).  Many great players have left their mark on the game since his time but on these two parameters, he remains firmly in the all time top five of men’s tennis.

Ever since Pete Sampras chased Roy Emerson’s tally of 11 slam titles, slams have become the key factor in determining a player’s greatness.  I do not contend that it is not, but there is a tendency increasingly to forget about how long the player could hold on to no.1.  Because there is no truer measure of domination than the no.1 ranking.  There is also no greater measure of just how much the player thrives (or doesn’t) under pressure.  As Kerber’s 2017 suggests, sometimes no.1 can even be a curse.  For Connors, it secured his place in the pantheon of all time greats and any time somebody scoffs at ‘only’ 8 slams, remind him or her that only a very few like Federer, Sampras and Lendl could vault over Connors in the true test of domination, indeed the ultimate pressure cooker in tennis.

 

Triumpian times a nightmare in the making for India

March 12, 2017

In the run up to Donald Trump getting elected as President, one ethnic community/nation that was conspicuously sanguine about the prospect was Indians/India.   The rationale was that India doesn’t depend so heavily on foreign trade as China and has not taken away so many manufacturing jobs from USA.  So Trump’s war will be with China, not India.  A group of US-based Indians even formed a Hindu coalition in his support.  Oh, wait, there was also the hope that Trump would be less pro-Pak than previous US presidents.

As has been the case before, the above showed both a neglect for data, for facts as also a lack of understanding of geo political realities.  When one power decides to take on another, it has to size up how many friends it will have by its side in the fight.  So what happens if USA takes on China?   The EU may turn against USA, for one.  China is EU’s second largest trading partner. behind USA.  USA accounts for 17.5% of EU’s total international trade and China for 14.8%, so the gap is narrow.  Where’s India?  Only 9th, behind Japan, South Korea,  Russia etc.   Heck, even USA’s good friend UK may not go along with an all out trade war on China.  USA Inc may not be comfortable if Trump declares (trade) war on China.   A war on China could plunge USA into majestic isolation and accelerate the transition to the hegemon in waiting, namely, China.

But India?  It’s a very different scenario.  India has a relatively low volume of trade with USA with a disproportionately high surplus.  This is at least partly on account of high import duties (within WTO rules) to push foreign corporations to set up shop in India to at least assemble stuff here.  India is also a major operator in outsourced services, evidenced by the fact that its share of worldwide exports of services is twice that of its share of merchandise exports.  With its growing population and relative proficiency in English (compared to China or other East Asian tigers), India presents a greater threat to service jobs in USA.

So here’s what Trump CAN do (and he dropped a hint with his reference to Harley Davidson): either launch an assault on India’s high import duties and make India curtail outsourcing in exchange for maintaining these barriers to merchandise trade.  OR strike outsourcing and push India to drop import duties in return for continuing to provide services at the expense of American employees.

MY guess (and I could be wrong) is he is more likely to do the latter.  After all, where will service sector jobs in say IT or accounting return to?  Places like NYC, San Francisco or Seattle which are in states that roundly rejected Trump and will likely do so again in 2020.  But if Trump can get countries (including India) to lower trade barriers and simultaneously compel American companies to make in USA, the Rust Belt, which swung in his favour last year, will be delighted. Basically, easy reaping of political capital for Trump with relatively low risk.  It will be a terrible waste of Modi’s zillion cries of Make in India but he would probably also prefer to keep high paying service sector jobs in exchange for putting India’s manufacturing sector under greater stress.  He might also reason that USA does not have products tailored for the high volume segments in India.  Whether this will be the case remains to be seen.

Be that as it may, it behooves the GoI to think seriously about what Trump could do to India (rather than for India as Indians allowed themselves/ourselves to believe) and act decisively to protect our position.  The Budget, made in the knowledge that USA could deliver the bazooka of a sharp cut in corporate tax, did not seem to acknowledge this reality and indicated a preference for business-as-usual.  But going beyond economics, India also urgently needs to mend fences with China, its 800 pound gorilla of a neighbour, and Russia, once its good friend and now aligning with Pakistan, a nation that helped topple the Soviet Union.  Failing that, a bear hug with Trump and roll out the red carpet for the Trump Organisation (you know what I mean).

But something needs to be done and something needs to change, that much is for sure.  It is understandable that the ruling party would presently be punch drunk with the stupendous results in the UP elections.  But if Ramraj is not to end up becoming a laughable and sad parody for social media memes, then India must formulate a pragmatic and realistic strategy to handle the gigantic disruptions that may be coming our way in the Trump era.

PS:  Why do I think Trump won’t risk majestic isolation in taking on China?  Because he is a populist and badly needs the love and affection of his core constituency.  India’s prospects, on the other hand, were better under Bush Jr and Obama, who tried to make India a counterweight. Yes, Trump loves Hindus, because we are as easily flattered and more easily deceived.

 


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