Kadhal Kavithai – when music speaks a thousand words

I never knew about Kadhal Kavithai, the Prashant/Isha Koppikar starrer directed by Agathiyan, at the time of its release.  This is strange for two reasons.  One, I used to watch Tamil films a lot back then, especially afternoons after school on Sun TV.  Two, I had watched and liked Kadhal Kottai.  It’s also not like being away from Chennai (I lived then and continue to live now in Mumbai) deprived me of the chance to watch more recent films because I had watched Jeans on TV as well.

Years later, I heard the songs of the film whilst on my never ending expedition to hunt down interesting Ilayaraja songs and came away mostly underwhelmed.  I didn’t mind the tune of Kadhal Meedhu Oru Kadhal but didn’t enjoy the orchestration.  I appreciated Diana Diana best overall.  Devoid of surprises but at least melodic and sonorous.

And THEN, it happened.  About ten days back, I saw Navin’s upload of the Kadhal Kavithai BGM pop up on my Youtube recommendations (in case you don’t know, Navin has uploaded the BGM themes used in many, many Raja films, new and old). Out of curiosity and curiosity alone, I started listening and found myself riveted.



I listened to it once all the way through.  And then again.  And then again.  And then to select themes which I loved most out of a score that’s beautiful pretty much all the way through.

And NOW I was so piqued I HAD to see the visuals that accompanied this score.  That is absolutely the wrong way to listen to a background score but that’s what us Raja bhaktas do all the time anyway!  I remembered the lead cast from watching the song Kadhal Meedhu and dreaded what I would get with a Prashant-Isha pairing (much like Isha’s Jyothi dreads her first-meeting-to-be with her unknown pen lover in the film).  But I bit the bullet.  My trepidation is justified by the way;  I have previously done this with Idhayam and started speed watching less than half way through the film.

But what I found here instead was that rare film that offered a measure of sensitivity and pure emotions that rose up to the level of the music.  A film that largely steered clear of cliched plotlines of that period like a flashback where the lovers’ parents had a feud (extremely popular since QSQT) or a jealous cousin (Friends) and, amazingly, had no fight scenes.  Some of the Charlie comedy seemed forced and I did not appreciate turning Kasthuri into a loosu ponnu trope though she tries gamely to make a fist of being miscast (even so, this film shines in offering her an opportunity to air her perspective and hinting at the misogyny of the male gaze).  There is no stalking by Vishwa of Jyothi and at no point does he talk to her in regressive lingo, giving the lie to the oft-aired defence of filmmakers that this is how love is made in something-something-somewhere and they are forced to depict society in cinema.  More engaging than all of this is the conceit, which is similar to that of You’ve Got Mail (though Kadhal Kavithai released first!) but opportunistically pairs this with the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death and resorts to a more anachronistic device for the pen lovers to communicate with each other – handwritten notes appended to bouquets placed at the Diana memorial.  Without giving away too much, you can guess how this plays out – one of the two finds out who the other is and tries to say so and whether or not he/she succeeds is the crux.  OK, might as well let slip that the one who finds out is Jyothi as this will become clear from the scenes I discuss in the write up.  Here anyway is the film:


As you can tell from the excerpt of the BGM in the earlier clip, the score pays off towards the end as the emotions swell up to the surface like a Marina wave.  While the rest of it is beautiful too, it is deftly trying to steer clear of elevator music territory, forced into being light and pleasant as befits the movie.  But the last twenty minutes are the denouement of the film and, thereby, the score.

First, at 2:02:16,  Vishwa is asked by Jyothi (via, you guessed it, an unsigned letter) to meet his lover at a temple where in all corners is her name.  She means the divya’jyoti’s all around him.  The maestro beautifully alludes to this with a keyboard theme that evokes the tolling of bells, giving way to a variation on the main leitmotif used in the film.

Moving on to 2:06:04, Jyothi hands Vishwa (in his capacity as the head of a publishing firm owned by his father) a sample of her poems.  The poems are of course the ones she wrote for her then unseen lover at the Diana memorial. She knows but he doesn’t know.  She is teasing him in anticipation of the moment when he finds out.  The score captures the mixture of playfulness and romance in this moment.

At 2:07:10, Jyothi reaches home and is clearly incredibly excited.  She can’t hardly wait for Vishwa to call on her to declare his love to the woman he has loved but never seen until now.  The music leads with a soft keyboard (in the tone of a piano) figure.  Violins join in and soon follows what sounds like woodwind, ending in one of the few overtly baroque moments in this mostly lush and luxuriant score.

This mood continues at 2:09:10, as Jyothi has now readied a bouquet to gift to Vishwa when he calls upon her (at her residence, as she expects he will).  She rushes with great anticipation at the sound of the doorbell only to find it’s her father.  Score leads again with a soft (but slower) piano figure, moving onto a playful but questioning flute.

At 2:10:38…light has given way to dark and it’s night.  Her parents head to her room to check if she is sleeping.  A solo flute signals that she is asleep.  But wait, they close the door and she opens her eyes, looking anxious and sad that Vishwa hasn’t called yet and this is accompanied by the leitmotif, only this time played on solo violin and it oozes aching melancholy without being overwrought.

At 2:14:28, Jyothi hangs up after a heartbreaking call from Vishwa.  The leitmotif plays but with a variation that makes it gloomy and foreboding.  The music is much more in the background here to allow the dialogue to be heard but it makes its presence felt nevertheless.

Lastly, at 2:15:40, Jyothi tells the children, “Akka villaiyaatu mudinchupochu” (My game is over).  There is no music to accompany this statement.  And that is a very important quality that a great composer like Ilayaraja brings to the table.  Silence where the dialogue is enough to convey what needs to be said.  The late Balu Mahendra said he said to Raja during Moondram Pirai, “If you cannot understand my silence, you cannot understand my speech”.  Raja duly obliged then and has obliged many times over since.

I am not going to delve on the climax BGM but suffice it to say that Raja avoids conveying an overwrought sentiment and instead keeps the focus on the tension of the moment.  That takes vision and confidence too.  To understand that the BGM is not fertile ground for him to show off and instead respect the cinematic moment and tailor the score accordingly.  Of course Raja was secure enough in his legacy in 1998 but this wouldn’t change even if you looked at scores from the late 70s.

I will conclude with a cliche but as several directors have mentioned, Raja has a way of using the BGM to arrive at the heart of the cinematic moment on screen and to underscore it so well that even the director may not have known this is what he wanted until he got to see the visuals with the score.  Raja’s scores don’t just support or complement the film, they complete it.   And Kadhal Kavithai is one of the shining examples of this from his vast oeuvre.

P.S:  I did wonder after watching the film what motivated Agathiyan then to work with Raja for this film.  He had previously worked with Deva, never before with Raja.  And never after.  Understand that in 1998, in spite of the success of Kadhalukku Mariyathai, signing up Raja for a urban yuppie A List project was already seen as a risk. The soundtrack underlines why it was a risk.  So, did Agathiyan have kadhal for Raja’s music and did he want Raja’s music to embellish his lovingly rendered love poem?  Would love to know the backstory for this.



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