Exploring the music of Iruvar :: ProloguePeriod music, 'Iruvar' by Mani Ratnam and A.R.Rahman
The term "period music" is a fairly misused term in Indian film music. Now, I strongly believe that we don't quite give our film music a lot of the credit it deserves. Hardly elsewhere would you see such demands made of music composers and song-writers to come up with songs that have to fit such a diversity of contexts, orchestrations and purposes. Many of the best world musicians specialise in their own genres and get better as time goes by, while some of our best film musicians have grappled with and overcome the challenges of geographical and historical variety that film makers have thrown at them. Many of these challenges have involved creating a score for stories that are set in particular points of time and hence do not allow the film composer a free rein of the usual "two love songs, one sad tearjerker, one lullaby, one reunification melody" formula.
Now, what "authentic period music" really is depends on what the listener thinks the music of that period was. In many cases, it is merely the avoidance of certain kinds of instruments (no electric guitars or drums for songs of the past!) or presence of certain genres (classical or jazz is often used to convey a period mood). The bottomline being: anything but that which is contemporary. Retro has been used to pay tribute or to parody ("woh laDaki hai kahaa.n" - Dil Chahta Hai), "jhankaar!" - Jhankaar Beats, "kyu.n aage piiche" - Golmaal-Fun Unlimited), but here we shall focus on the more serious (at least in intention!) of the efforts. Anu Malik's Asoka was much pilloried for not quite being out of a Mauryan soundscape, but who really knows how they serenaded each other then? In contrast, Naushad's Mughal-é-Azam and Khayyam's Umrao Jaan received both critical and commercial acclaim for their songs. Each had managed to satisfy both the psychological needs of their listeners (classical, court, devotional songs in the opulent Mughal-era film in the former; aristocratic mujras flavoured with the essence of the Lakhnawi tradition in the latter) as well as provide a great film experience, being accompanied by lyrics and performances that enhanced the music. No wonder they remain ageless classics. Hollywood films make a lot of movies set in particular time-periods, but since they usually don't make the same kinds of demands, they typically solve the problem by using a lot of diegetic music (The Shawshank Redemption) or soundtracks that use real scores of that era (Almost Famous is a wonderful example). Of course, this is a bit of a generalisation (see Chicago as an example to the contrary), but to my mind, it's not the same as in Indian films. (For a great example of diegetic music in Hindi films, see Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi (2005).)
(Given that anything "period" calls for careful detailing of the mise-en-scene and the music emanating from the frame, and given mainstream cinema's usually lackadaisical approach to movie-making in general, you can often spot a lot of incongruous howlers where a flashback to a previous janam or to execrable college-lives is often accompanied by music and choreography so post-post-modern that it borders on prescient science fiction.)
Coming to the main purpose of this post, Mani Ratnam's Iruvar (1997) was quite different than many "period" movies. Not because it was based on several true incidents and more importantly, on some very specific people who had a great deal to do with both the Tamil film industry and Tamil politics in a very specific time frame, but because it had to completely reference actual film song styles. The setting wasn't temporally too far away unlike the Mughals or 19th century Lucknow and also had a great deal to do with music. The men behind the music for this film consciously chose to stay within the constraints of the context and in doing so, IMO, produced one of the best film albums ever heard. The score pays rich tribute to the Tamil film music of that period, captures the essence of the musical yield of those times without ever parodying it and provides a wonderful gist to those of us who haven't heard too much of the early masters. In following posts, I explore this album in order to understand the musical influences and references. I am not capable of a technical analysis of the songs, but have used this as a great opportunity to learn a bit about music from an era gone by. The team of Mani Ratnam, A.R.Rahman, Vairamuthu, Santosh Sivan, the choreographers, and the actors collaborated magnificently to produce an album and film of great significance, as we shall see in successive posts on this topic, and I found it a very fascinating experience. Incidentally, Mani Ratnam's next film Guru seems to spread across a large span of time like some of his fictional bio-pics (Nayakan, Iruvar) which may suggest a soundtrack that reflects the music of the related chronology. (The piece of music on the official website has a very promising rock-and-roll theme.) The music is due to be out in a month's time, so this is a good time to look at this team's harvest in the past.
(The usual disclaimer of not claiming complete authority over the subject applies. Factual errors are very likely because I'm going to rely on childhood memories for a lot of details about some of the film songs - in fact, I'd be very glad to find errors being pointed out and further information on any of the aspects. Whatever minimal research I did showed a lack of resources on the Web - especially in comparison with Hindi film songs - with many of the song forums predictably degenerating into name-calling and turf-wars :-))