Ilayaraja’s day the music died rant

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!

11 Responses to “Ilayaraja’s day the music died rant”

  1. You Know Who Says:

    Came here from BR’s blog after reading some of your brilliant comments there. Brilliant write up!

  2. Madan Says:


  3. Rm Says:

    Wonderful write up.
    I also feel decoupling music from cinema as the mainstream medium and promoting independent music, with a focus shift from ‘commercial gains’ to art creation, will help the cause. I think this has happened to some extent in the North with the MTv coming up back then in early nineties and now we have more channels doing this. There were few attempts down in the south but mostly they fizzled out ( with rare exceptions like Malgudi Subha’s Valpara Vattapara which anyway people hardly listen to these days).

  4. Madan Says:

    Sorry, pretty late getting to your comment. I agree that independent music did work reasonably well in the 90s and up to the mid noughties for the North. But the emergence of Indian Idol killed off viewership of hardcore music channels (the irony!) and only MTV remains now.

  5. Surya Says:

    SAME. Came here after reading your comments in Brangan’s blog. I know what I was gonna get here, and got it. Thanks.

    Also, could you change your blog’s URL in your Gravatar profile? because the links are expired it seems. Just randomly googled the names and stumbled upon here.

    Thanks hoping to read more from you on Maestro 🙂

  6. Madan Says:

    Thanks Surya for the comment and also for the much needed feedback about my gravatar profile. Sorry I am late to the comment but caught up in month closing activites (yup, finance guy). Will fix it ASAP, thanks again.

  7. anonymousviolin20 Says:

    As much as I love IR’s music, I have to admit, I’m one of those people that sees these rants and thinks of the “old man tells at cloud” meme. However, pieces like this do help me understand what might be going on in his head, even if I may have my disagreements with his statements. So thank you very much for that. Truly well written and well researched.

    I do agree with your contention that IR always attempted to bring his A game to every project during his hegemony in a way that the likes of Vijay/Ajith never did (and still don’t tbh).

    However, I do have one question. Aren’t both the star hegemony and composer detrimental to films as a whole? I’ve heard from many people that in the 80s, a surefire way to get a success was to sign up IR and Goundamani/Senthil. Just like the way many stars of today churn out one mediocre film after another that survives on their star power alone, wouldn’t this have happened back then with IR’s music?

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    P. S.
    I also have to disagree with you that 3 extra decades of Raja domination are preferable, if only for the fact that in that universe, I wouldn’t have gotten the Alaipayuthey and Minsara Kanavu albums 🙂

    • anonymousviolin20 Says:

      I think my comment got a bit wordy.

      Just to clarify, I was wondering whether an industry with films surviving on Raja music alone would produce as bad films as an industry where many of them survive on star power.

      • Madan Says:

        That’s a good question (somehow missed this comment!). Yes, it’s conceivable that without the success of Annamalai or Aasai, Deva would not have become the force he was in the 90s. And you’d have had Rahman bagging the projects with youngsters or prestige projects of Mani or Balachander while Raja retained his traditional hold on rural films and the Parthiban-Ramki-Napoleon starrers.

    • Madan Says:

      “I also have to disagree with you that 3 extra decades of Raja domination are preferable, if only for the fact that in that universe, I wouldn’t have gotten the Alaipayuthey and Minsara Kanavu album” – See, this is what I addressed in the article which I admit is as long and unwieldy as Raja’s own rant. It was never a zero sum game between Raja and Rahman because Rahman never went for volumes. He was only doing a few films a year. But the films that used to go to Raja began to be given to Deva/SA Rajkumar/Sirpi and I have a huge problem with THAT. In that context, I’d have preferred further domination of Raja. By the way, I have changed my views on Rahman after the time I wrote the article because this was before the Dil Bechara soundtrack and 99 songs. Now that Rahman is doing what he can to keep melody alive, I don’t have a problem. I was just not happy then with how he chose to politely pander to the whims of the industry.

      “Aren’t both the star hegemony and composer detrimental to films as a whole? ” – Yes in general, I would much rather a director-scriptwriter hegemony, the way it is in Hollywood. It’s good for stars like a Tom Hanks or composers like a John Williams to have SOME box office pull but that shouldn’t become the sole point of the film. I just find the composer hegemony preferable to the star hegemony because the composer nevertheless worked for the film, whether in Tamil with Ilayaraja or Hindi music in the 50s and 60s when, again, composers commanded higher fees than actors. In a film like Balu Mahendra’s Veedu, there were no songs and even the background score was sparse. Raja would not try to impose himself on the film because his role was limited to the music.

      When the star hegemony began, they wanted EVERYTHING to revolve around maximum attention for the star. I find it pretty hypocritical that the Tamil audience goes after Raja’s attitude constantly while never taking the stars to task just because they act nice in front of the media. I don’t care how humble and polite you make yourself out to be but if you think you should be the sole point of the film and that who directs it or who gives music doesn’t matter, you’re the arrogant one. If you’ve read Gautham Menon’s interview about Kaaka Kaaka to BR, he says even Kamal sat on his head to change the second half to cut the villain’s role and highlight Kamal more. All stars are the same, even the ‘artistic’ ones like Kamal.

      • anonymousviolin20 Says:

        I see what you’re saying. I guess if Rahman wasn’t conquering by volume, then the success of Annamalai was also pretty important to the unseating of Raja, since it proved Deva a viable alternative.

        Assuming that it didn’t become a success, would it have been possible for there to have been a Raja-Rahman duopoly of sorts?

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