Jun 1, 2008

Exploring the music of Iruvar :: 'uDal maNNukku'

song: uDal maNNukku
recited by: Arvind Swamy

uDal maNNukku tells the tale of how Anandam (unofficially representing M.G.R. in Mani Ratnam's fictional universe) in Iruvar becomes a star. Like the previous two songs dissected so far on this blog, this poetic recital comes from within a 'mousetrap'-ed film ("Veeraprathaban"). But unlike the other two, this is the first song to carry interesting political connotations (that reach their climax in the magnificent 'aayirathil naan oruvan' song.)

Note that MGR's first success as 'hero' came in the 1947 Rajakumari, written by one M.Karunanidhi.

film context
After suffering the ignominy of seeing his first film as hero shut down due to financial trouble, Anandan has finally found new hope in a historical. This is also a good time to introduce his good friend Tamilchelvan to films. In addition to being a budding political activist, he also writes commanding prose and poetry. Given the situation by the director ("a brave Tamil revolutionary has to rescue a kidnapped 'rajakumari'"), Tamilchelvan starts to pen his lyrics. We switch to the picturised song and end with great applause and adulatory mayhem in the cinema theatres.

the music
In what is more of a recitation than a conventional song, the arrangements are extremely spare, with just a string section (violins mainly) accompanying a deep string swipe. Briefly punctuated by strong percussions and "fight" music, the staccato melody returns with choral accompaniment. This provides a perfectly belligerent mood to the on-screen action.

I don't think the music references any work of that period, and in that sense is quite different from the other songs in the album which at their core had elements reflecting the times.

the playback
Perhaps the kindest explanation of why Arvind Swamy provides the voice for this song (and another lyrical narration later) is that Mani Ratnam saw him as some sort of lucky mascot, what with both of his previous Ratnam appearances turning into hits. Swamy's diction is poor in places (jarring for a song that significantly extols Tamil chauvinism via its lyrics) and his voice tends to get hoarse at the end. Perhaps lyricist Vairamuthu could have taken the mantle upon himself for these songs?

the lyrics
Though the music does not seem to make any explicit allusions to the age, this is not the case with the lyrics. The lines "uDal maNNukku, uyir tamizhukku" (body for the Tamil soil, life for Tamil itself) was a major clarion call during the 60s. The DMK used it as a rallying phrase in their anti-Hindi protests, so this is a politically loaded phrase. The rest of the lyrics invoke an ominous gravity through the choice of words, a hallmark of DMK writers epitomised by M. Karunanidhi.

You could, therefore, interpret the song as an example of how the politically active film-men of the times wrote with two objectives in mind: one, meeting the ostensible goals of the screenplay, but importantly, two, of creating material that would have a life outside the theatre. Each chant in this song invokes Tamil pride and the determination of those 'revolutionaries' who thought themselves as its protectors in the face of the northern imposition.

the picturisation
The song presents several set-pieces from the historical movies of those times: horseback hero wielding cutlasses fighting off enemy soldiers; sceneries involving chains and bells and ropes; the hapless belle waiting to be rescued; stylised fighting (we saw this right upto the nineties!). In B&W, this song introduces Ramani (Gowthami) in the film, ending with the leads being overwhelmed by the huge reaction of the crowds to what has become a massive hit. Anandan is now a bona fide star.

Useful references
1. The chapter on The Anti-Hindi Agitation in Vaasanthi's book "Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars"
2. I can't seem to find any lyrics online

Next post: 'Hello, Mr. Ethirkatchi'
Previous post: 'Poo KoDiyin Punnagai'


Santosh Kumar T K said...

both of his previous Ratnam appearances so the IAS officer of Thalapathi loses to the cryptologist and the journalist, uh ;) ;)

As a non-Tamizh I am not a patch on you I realise when it comes to understanding the nuances in lyrics but the choice of A'Swamy was kick ass. I have always imagined rich bass voices reciting/speaking chaste Tamil (Iyer variety, if I may say so), and the resultant effect. This is compounded when you have a baby face doing it ;) Likewise imagine Abhishek Bachchan doing the same! Back to Udal Manukku Uyir Tamizhukku, one should listen to it on systems that deliver rich, clean, "real", solid bass. Wah! Wah!

Could you the say the same about Sivan's lense work? I thought the B&W work was a big let down; not to say it was gimmicky, he had to depict the period though. But better B&W grading, richer contrasts may be?!

George said...

I just pray that all these posts motivate some kind soul to produce a DVD that matches the merits of the film ... a Criterion-style release would be too wistfully utopian to hope for, but what the heck! That's what cinema's full of sometimes ... dreams :) Eagerly awaiting the next post.

Unknown said...


eeks. The only feeble excuse I can offer for not writing "the last three hits" was that I intended to, but wrote two. I have no idea why. I also intended to write that voice-wise, Arvind Swamy was a good choice. Thanks for catching me out on both these points.

I guess the reason for the slightly scornful take on this choice was the fact that given the whole chauvinist background of the song, the Tamil angle does jar. But then Rahman has consistently preferred taking the quality of the voice over the quality of the diction.

As for the Sivan B&W flaws, I must confess I don't know much about grading etc., but would perhaps venture to suggest whether it was a conscious choice on his part to create a faded effect, much like how certain songs include crackling to evoke music records?

George: let's hope, let's hope.

Santosh Kumar T K said...

have you seen the rgv ki Blaag?

Shamanth said...

Saar. Bring on the Hello-Mr.-E. quick!

Though I must admit - my favourite is 'Vennila, vennila' - I love the blues-y, wandering tone.

Unknown said...

Santosh: haven't seen it yet. Hope there is lots of irony there.

QK: Had noted enthusiasm for green-eyed Mrs. B's intro at the 2007 college quiz. Am getting to the really good parts of the album!
Vennila: Never has there been a more beautiful but utterly unnecessary song (from a story pov)! :-)