Story in a song: The epic “Sundari Kannal” from Dalapathi

In my previous post following a fantastic SPB – Chitra concert in the Bay Area, I had mused that Ilayaraja’s brilliant composition for Manirathnam‘s Dalapathi, “Sundari Kannal oru sethi” warrants a post of its own. The time for that post is now.¬†

The year was 1991. Rajinikanth and Kamalhassan were marquee draws. Karthik, Vijaykanth, Sathyaraj and Prabhu were forever knocking at their doors with little to middling success. Every Pongal and/or Diwali was eagerly awaited for the next clash of Rajini and Kamal. It was with that background that Rajini’s Dalapathi was announced to much fanfare to go head to head with Kamal’s Guna. It was to be hotshot director Manirathnam’s first movie with superstar Rajinikanth and all sorts of fireworks was expected. Added to the excitement was Malayalam superstar Mammooty sharing equal screen space with Rajini. Given the sky high expectations from the movie, the music was expected to be a chartbuster. And did the Maestro deliver or what.

Ilayaraja delivered one of his best soundtracks with Dalapathi. Each song fit the scene perfectly and stood out as a classic on its own. And thats just the songs. The background music stands out as one of the best ever in tamil cinema. Every scene’s bgm had a story to tell. And in what was a unique attempt at that time, Mani, Raja and the crew created a story in a song piece with “Sundari Kannal”. The setting for the song was that the timid heroine had spotted the hero doing unsavory thuggery ¬†in the middle of the road. The hero, defiant of his act is trying to convince her that there is a reason for his actions and that his ways are not for her kind. The soft spoken Shobana, playing the heroine bursts out saying she loves him, inspite of everything she just saw. Cue the setting to something that vaguely resembles feudal Japan.

Tolling bells and a beautiful flute piece sets the stage for a burst of violins as Rajini trots on a horse towards Shobana. A temple wedding follows. Orchestration picks up at this point as we are shown the hero heading out to war. Their longing for each other is juxtaposed with scenes from a bloody combat. The ever brilliant S.P.Balasubramaniam and timeless S.Janaki give life to Vaali’s ode to love and longing.

A student of Tamil literature once told me that the song carries strains of an old tamil poem, the Netunalvatai. A fan of Akira Kurosawa told me that the visuals are Mani’s tribute to one of his personal icon’s greatest movies, Seven Samurai. Whatever inspiration it may be, the song is an epic in itself. From the visual grandeur conceived by Mani, cinematographer¬†Santosh Sivan and art director Thotta Tharani to the operatic orchestration composed by Maestro Ilayaraja to SPB and Janaki rendering Vaali’s poetic words to glorious perfection, everything is just the way it is meant to be. The orchestration warrants special mention as it captures the duality of the piece- one that truly creates the feeling of a war in the listener’s mind while understanding the pain of longing and love. It seems so simple when I write about it but to deliver two completely different emotions in the same song and at the same time requires a complete understanding of the medium and the audience.

Tamil cinema has played host to some great composers from G.Ramanathan to Viswanathan-Ramamurthy to Illayaraja and today’s A.R.Rahman. But songs that are perfect are far and few. It is not because of any one musician or artist involved in the effort. For songs to be perfect, everything has to come together. The setting, the mood, the lyrics, the composition, the singers, the rendition, the actors performing the piece, the cinematography and that special glue that binds them all together. This song has all the ingredients in right proportion with that glue to offer the listener and the viewer a singularly timeless experience. A song that never ages. One that can be heard and seen over and over again. One which offers a new set of nuances with every new hear or view. For everyone who has experienced this piece, you will know exactly what I am talking about. For everyone else, here it is. Perfection.