Shamitabh: End of an era and a new beginning?

Ilayaraja has managed to stun one and all – fans and detractors alike – with the music of his latest, R Balki’s Shamitabh.  It’s all the more surprising given that it’s for a Hindi film and one directed by Balki, for whom Ilayaraja had thus far reworked 80s classics.  Clearly not the context in which a surprise package was expected but there it is.  

He has gone all out contemporary, unabashedly embracing the brave new computer world of music.  It’s not that he has never attempted contemporary (apart from setting contemporary trends for nearly two decades in Tamil music).  But there was, if I may, a half assed flavour to earlier attempts, as if his heart wasn’t quite in it.  Say the dance track Rukku Rukku from the film Friends (which starred Vijay, Surya and Devayani).  It may have had a peppy beat but somehow didn’t feel well put together and didn’t really flow as a composition.  

In comparison, Sha Sha Mi Mi is pop perfection.  Lyrics haven’t been this hip in a Raja soundtrack for a long time, Swanand Kirkire as well as Kausar Munir having a blast with very funny and smart Hinglish.  Vocals haven’t been this strong in a Raja soundtrack for a long time either.  Tellingly, Suraj Jagan is the only other singer to have previously sung for Ilayaraja and he is by no means a staple in the Raja camp either. Caralisa Monteiro excels in Sha Sha Mi Mi while Shruti Haasan caps Sannatta a stunning Kraftwerk-like reworking of tribal dance track Aasayai Kathula.

As mentioned already, this has shocked detractors who opined that he was on autopilot and only capable of pleasing blinded fanatics of his music. This has also caused some churn for the longtime fans themselves. The ones who kept the faith even as commercial returns of his soundtracks dwindled. Because Shamitabh represents a new chapter in Ilayaraja’s career and possibly also the end of an era.

Since the mid 90s or so, Ilayaraja, the composer who once set trends for Tamil film music, whose work R D Burman had praised of being ahead of his time, seemed to have boxed himself into a Last of the Mohicans corner. This chapter probably began with Guru, a 1997 Malayalam film, and gained strength through Hey Ram and Mumbai Express, culminating in Neethane En Ponvasantham and Megha. Ilayaraja insisted that music of quality ought to have live instruments and ranted on the drawbacks of computerised synthesizer music. He even lamented that computer technology had made it too easy to compose. Whether such criticism was legitimate and fair is another story. But, to cut a long story short, as the rest of the film music world got more and more computerised, Ilayaraja only seemed to get even more steadfast in his almost ideological commitment to orchestral music. Only budget constraints could get him to ditch the orchestra and his reluctant acceptance of such ground realities could be seen in the noticeably less lustrous arrangements in such soundtracks.

In this majestic isolation, only loyal fans, for the most part, were his allies. And not without reason. There isn’t anybody else anymore in film music who can come up with orchestral arrangements to approach, let alone match, Ilayaraja. The Hindi golden oldies were by now long gone and even those 90s composers who attempted mediocre imitations of the then standard Hindi film music template were out of assignments. Thus, Ilayaraja’s isolation actually acquired brand value in a way. For those who still wanted to listen to live instruments in music, there was no better place to be than an Ilayaraja soundtrack. The perseverance of these fans was rewarded with the rich, lush recordings of the Neethane En Ponvasantham and Megha soundtracks. Complete with the majestic Budapest Symphony Orchestra, these soundtracks reached, in places, heights hitherto not scaled even by Ilayaraja himself as the fantastic classical musicians added nuance and a fine sense of dynamics to brilliant arrangements.

Unfortunately, neither film met with success in the Box Office. NEPV in particular was a rather costly failure, given that it was directed by the extremely successful Gautham Menon. Megha too sank without a trace. The writing was on the wall but it probably took Shamitabh for the fans to take note. Any hopes of more such expensive experiments would have to be shelved.

Having courted musos for a long time, Ilayaraja finally seems to have decided to appeal to the public at large. And as a one time box office king, he doesn’t seem to have found that very hard. A musician of his immense skill and know how would not find it impossibly difficult to adapt to the computer age. But in doing so, he is probably going to bring down curtains on an era. The era of gracefully orchestrated film songs. The Last of the Mohicans has finally moved on, at least so it seems.

He has signed off with a little something for the long time fans. Piddly, the Amitabh Bachchan sung track, has superb arrangements as always, with the second interlude in particular boasting the kind of twists Raja is known to conjure up. Long live the king!

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10 Responses to “Shamitabh: End of an era and a new beginning?”

  1. vpjaiganesh Says:

    Nicely written.
    Only point i would love to contest is that Raaja has never been about change tracks, abandon this and embrace that ever. It is always context driven for him. When the situation demanded he has done shamitabh kind of sounds for Om Shanti om (Telugu) and Hodedavane (from kannada film Prem Kahani). He has always had the guts to abandon even the basic sense of melody if cacophony is what is demanded by the dramatic context in the movie. That is why I always maintain that the best way to rate Raaja album (if it is tied to a movie) is to watch the movie. The minimalistic orchestra he used in 70s is still being used by him in his devotional albums (Sree Ramana aaram, Ramanamaalai, Baba pugazh maalai etc.,) He doesnt mandate/request BSO for every movie, only if it has elements which need punctutation by pure orchestral music. One thing musically he has done recently is, become more purer and simpler (read classical) when it comes to his orchestral scores. This we have discussed at length in forum. Case in point is Megha and NEPV whose scores are distinctly simple inspite of the large number of instruments and musicians at his disposal..

  2. raaga_suresh Says:

    Jai wrote what I wanted to say 🙂 I have always maintained that Raja has been doing such music in multiple films but one at a time. In ‘Shamitabh’ it is the whole film though.

    As Jai says and as Plum had famously said in a different forum Raja has always had the integrity to ensure that his music served the cause of the film. That is something which he has never wavered from.

    I don’t see Raja shifting to this style the same way he did not shift to the ‘Enna Thaalatta Varuvalo’ style fully. He gave such songs when needed but when a ‘Virumandi’ came along you know what happened 🙂

    We needn’t be worried. Raja will keep moving ahead and experimenting more and more. He will not shift to any one style except that whatever he does, it will have his stamp.

  3. Madan Says:

    Jaiganesh/Suresh: Thank you for the comments. In fact IR never used BSO in the 80s so the genesis of his interest in using the Hungarian orchestra itself is worth exploring. Another speculative question is whether the symphony experiment influenced him in this regard. And my point was directed more to whether the BSO collaborations would continue. Probably not imo. But would be happy to be proved wrong.

  4. raaga_suresh Says:


    I think there are two parts to his Hungarian collaboration, the BSO is one and the Jazz players of Hungary (Atilla et al) is another. In NEPV case he used a London Orch and the Hungarian Jazz players. In Megha it was the Jazz players alone.

    I guess a lot has to do with the affordability of the producer as well as what the film demands. When Gunasekhar came with ‘Rani Rudramma’ the recording was done in London. Most of the producers we have now don’t have big budgets so we need to adjust with synth 🙂

  5. Madan Says:

    I can see where the orchestra fits in the scheme of things in a period film about Gandhi. But I am not sure it was purely the demands of the script in the case of NEPV/Megha. More like the directors gave IR carte blanche and he went with the BSO. That is where his heart is, live music arrangements performed by a foreign orchestra. Unfortunately with the failure of both films, it’s going to be difficult to repeat that collaboration, at least that’s how I see it.

  6. me adaraya Says:

    me adaraya

    Shamitabh: End of an era and a new beginning? | Pictured life

  7. anonymousviolin20 Says:

    6 years later, and Shambitabh is still an album I listen to on a regular basis, esp Ishq E Fillum and Piddly Si Baatein. Have you ever thought that Ishq E Fillum sounds sort of like an expanded version of the 2nd interlude of Ennodu Vaa Vaa from NEPV (in terms of arrangements)?

    And Madan, I have a question about IR being a haven for people who dislike music with synths. How do they view songs like Mandram Vandha, Vaan Megham, and Ninnukori Varnam? IR used synths beautifully in those songs. Do they just ignore them? View them poorly? Perhaps they like them and don’t realize that they enjoy synths used tastefully? Would love to know your thoughts on this.

    • Madan Says:

      I had to jog my memory and initially wrote a different comment from what you’re reading now. Because if you ask me today, Sha Sha Mi Mi isn’t actually all that out there and the brass section in the second interlude would belong in any number of vintage Raja songs. But OTOH the difference is starkly in your face in Stereophonic Sannata. Thappad is not a particularly amazing song but in both of these you hear Raja appropriating the contemporary pop (or Indian popular, I should say) vocabulary confidently. To the extent that you barely recognize him (even when Stereophonic is a remix of his own composition though the slight crossbeat in one part of the charanam is a giveaway). But the script I foresaw at the time never materialized not necessarily because Raja saw it as a one off but because such projects never came his way thereafter. The movie flopped through no fault of Raja whose music did give it a leg up at the time. And not like Hindi producers were dying to work with him anyway otherwise. About Ennodu Vaa Vaa, I actually hear echoes of it in Thappad but yeah, I guess there are similarities between Ennodu Vaa Vaa and Ishq E Fillum. Though Ishq itself originated from a BGM theme Raja had done for Paa. Balki had said on stage at the time that Raja’s BGM themes had enough melody to become full fledged songs. So they actually got to work on it.

      About synth, I don’t think people who think of IR as a synth free composer would ignore or avoid the three classics you mentioned. I think – and I feel likewise – that IR’s use of synth throughout the 80s was restrained while still ‘hip’ and he sort of fitted it into a live band framework (not unlike all the progressive rock/Stevie Wonder/Steely Dan stuff I like). Ninnu Kori is the most synth-based track of the three but he uses live drums (along with electric drums in places) and guitar to, again, make it sound very much like a live track as opposed to one programmed entirely on synths. The proof is that to reproduce any of these tracks on stage, you would still need a band. You couldn’t do it all with just keyboards. Maybe with today’s amazing sampling, you can get halfway close with two or three keyboards but with the then prevailing tech, there was no way to do all of it on synth.

      So…”Perhaps they like them and don’t realize that they enjoy synths used tastefully” – This…and that IR appropriates synths into a band/orchestra set up rather than making the synth the entire orchestra. I think whether IR fans articulate this aspect in as many words or not, what they really want is the feel and energy of a live band. When they talk about orchestra and the ability to handle so many instruments, it can come across as snobbish but I think that’s more down to their poor awareness of Western music (which leads them to compare IR with classical composers or Hollywood chaps like Williams or Morricone) which leads them to struggle to express what they have in mind. Actually what they dig is the very live band-like feel as in 70s Stevie Wonder or Steely Dan (pre-Gaucho). Steely Dan is the most pertinent example because they actually stopped touring after their second album but the music on the recordings sounds like a real band (which it is). If I ever got to meet him and if saar was in a halfway decent mood, I would ask him for his thoughts on Wonder or Steely Dan. Either them or stuff like Earth Wind and Fire or fusion bands/artists like Return to Forever or Jean Luc Ponty, some of these must have surely influenced him. I don’t believe you can land up with such an authentically 70s rock/fusion sound just by pure coincidence. Come to think, L Subramaniam would do proper fusion albums in the 80s (not the more Indian oriented work of later years). So I guess there was more fusion in the air in 70s Chennai than we may be aware of.

      • anonymousviolin20 Says:

        Thanks for your comments. I have seen people talking about how Raja can reproduce his music in front of you with just the instruments and score, so I guess the live band feel really is what they’re going for.

        And Raja not getting those films that you anticipated he would was probably because of what you yourself outlined in your post. Raja became the poster boy for orchestras and lush scores. I guess he got type casted for it, which did end up working out for the hardcore fans who only wanted that kind of music.

        Sometimes I do wonder though, how Raja would’ve done something like Konjam Nilavu or other almost purely techno songs.

    • Madan Says:

      “Sometimes I do wonder though, how Raja would’ve done something like Konjam Nilavu or other almost purely techno songs” – Yes, now had he never done Shamitabh, I wouldn’t have thought him capable of reproducing that attitude. But I think he abetted this typecasting of himself as an orchestra oriented composer. Right from the 80s he used to warn about the perils of computer music. The way I see it is with his talent, if he really wants to, he can do this kind of stuff but he would much rather these tools not be available because he can beat everybody else at composing with an orchestra :D.

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