Music in Manirathnam movies (Part 1 – The Raaja years)- A journey from Pallavi Anupallavi to Thalapathi

On February 1st, Mani rathnam’s latest movie “Kadal” will release all over the world. It features music by A.R.Rahman that has already topped the charts and captured the imagination of millions across the world. But all this is nothing new for Mani, arguably one of the best directors to emerge from Tamil Nadu ever.  Mani has a great ear for music as evidenced by the fact that two icons of tamil film music Ilayaraja and A.R.Rahman have produced some of their best work for his movies. In the first of two posts on the music in Manirathnam movies, I focus on his collaboration with Maestro Illayaraaja. The next post will feature his contemporary hits with A.R.Rahman.

The Beginning

It all started with Pallavi Anupallavi, a Kannada movie. Mani’s first movie features some remarkable talent- Balu Mahendra behind the lens, Anil Kapoor in front of and Ilayaraja delivering the music. To me, the standout piece in this movie is this piece of instrumental music with Raaja’s humming. Addictive does not even begin to cut it. The Maestro’s magic over the hum is all here. 

His next outing was the Malayalam trade union movie, “Unaru”. Featuring the veritable who’s who in Malayalam cinema then, it again featured music and some excellent BGM from Ilayaraja. The song I remember most is “Theeram Thedi” which went on to become “Roja Ondru” in Komberi Mookan (thanks MadAboutMoviez for the reference help)

His first tamil movie was “Pagal Nilavu” with Sathyaraj, Murali and Revathi. The movie is best remembered for Sathyaraj’s performance and Raaja’s music. The standout piece was “Poo Malaye” which features a great intro violin piece. Notice Raaja Sir delivering a completely contrasting voice to S.Janaki. Great song. If you are into Raaja’s BGM, here is a sampling from Pagal Nilavu. Violins again. 

 Later that year, Manirathnam delivered Idhaya Kovil with “Mike” Mohan, Radha and Ambika. Raaja delivered a huge hit as did Mani. Mike Mohan got SPB to make his vocals sound magical. “Idhayam Oru Kovil” got a big chunk of radio time for a long long time. “Naan padum mouna ragam” was the melancholic piece that made it big and my personal favorite in the Raaja having fun genre is “Oor Oramaa”. The “jum jumka jum” humming in “Oor Oramaa” is something alright. 

Mouna Ragam

Emboldened by the success of Idhaya Kovil, Mani and Raaja delivered what is considered by many as one of the best tamil movies of the era with “Mouna Ragam”. A well acted and brilliantly written movie featuring outstanding performances by Revathi, Mohan and Karthik, it was also a highmark for Raaja’s music. Every song is fantastic. The standout is the absolutely soulful “Mandram Vandha” by SPB.

From “Nilave Vaa” to “Oho Megam” each song was just fantastic. Even today the album is fondly remembered. While you are it, give the title BGM a hear. At once it is chirpy and introspective. Anyone who has seen the movie can immediately visualize Karthik and Mohan with Revathi caught in the middle. 

Of Kids and Gangsters

One could argue that after delivering Mouna Ragam, both Raaja and Mani were due for a clunker. Instead they gave the world, Nayagan. Arguably India’s best gangster movie, it was punctuated by an epic performance from Kamalhassan. Based loosely on the real life gangster Varadaraaja Mudaliar and inspired by Coppola’s Godfather, Nayagan was a tour de force. And then there was the music. Every inch of the movie’s bgm was painfully crafted by the Maestro and every song conveyed the depth of the moment. Be it the lonely warrior song, “Thenpaandi seemayile” sung soulfully by Kamal himself, or the gangster smuggling run piece “Nila Adhu” with Raaja’s rustic vocals, or the brothel piece “Naan sirithal” or the festival piece “Andhi Mazhai”, every song was incredibly in sync with the mood of the movie. To me though, the piece de resistance of the movie’s soundtrack was the Mano – Chitra duet, “Nee oru Kadhal Sangeetham”. I remember Mano in an interview complaining about how many people thought the song was sung by SPB and not him. And for a sampling of the lyrics, “Isai mazhai engum pozhigiradhu. Engalin jeevan nanaigiradhu”. Pure gold. 

So how do you top Nayagan. You dont. But you do delivered an action packed family saga that is hugely entertaining and riveting with “Agni Nakshatram”. Mani plots then superstars Karthik against Prabhu and asks Raaja to do the rest. Raaja obliges with a brilliant soundtrack. Every song again is a high point for tamil film music and is a complete bag of everything from trippy disco music to songs drenched in carnatic classical music. 

A few months ago in this blog, I had written an entire post about this movie’s soundtrack and specifically the outstanding “Ninnukori”. There was the signature megahit of the day, “Raaja Raajathi” featuring a nondescript Prabhu Deva. Mani introduced the sultry Nirosha in this movie and Raaja supported this debut with two sensual numbers in “Vaa Vaa anbe anbe” and “Oru poongavanam”. Those were some scorchers in those days, believe me. But to me, the best song in the movie is the gorgeous duet “Thoongatha Vizhigal” set to Ragam Amrithavarshini and sung by K.J.Yesudas and S.Janaki. Pure bliss. 

After a solid streak of tamil movies, Mani and Raaja shifted their eyes to Telugu cinema and made “Geethanjali” featuring a young Nagarjuna. The movie was dubbed and released in tamil as “Idhayathai Thirudathey”. The songs were blockbusters. Ranging from teenybopper hits like “Vidiya Vidiya” to the moody “Paapa Laali” to the girl power piece, “Athadi Ammadi” and the very popular Mano-Chitra piece “Oh Priya“(watch the pace pick up on this song), all the songs were pretty popular. The standout hit of this movie was the romantic and sensual “Om Namaha” which featured a then notorious smooch. 

In a completely 180 degree turn from all the gangster sagas and romantic dramas he had been delivering till date, Mani made “Anjali”- a kids movie with a lot of heart. The signature theme piece, “Anjali Anjali” achieved iconic status very soon. In Mani’s own style, the movie was a social commentary delivered with humor and heaps of love and emotion. “Motta madi motta madi” was a great love in the shadows piece while “Magic journey” was Mani’s ode to Star Wars. The real music piece worth mentioning in this movie is the stellar BGM that permeates the entire duration ranging from sheer joy to shock to absolute despair. Raaja’s wizardry at its best.

Superstars and the Mahabharata

As if they had one last movie to show the magic of their combination, Mani and Raaja delivered the Mahabharata inspired epic, “Thalapathi” with Rajini and Mamooty. A star studded mega movie that shattered box office records and delivered a musical bonanza for fans, every song of Thalapathi deserves special praise. 

So where do we start?. Do we start with the haunting “Chinna thayaval” or the mellifluous “Yamunai Aatrile”. Maybe the foot tapping and beautifully picturized “Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu” with all those synchronized violins or the SPB-Yesudas crowd-pleaser “Kattukuyile Manasukkule”. And there is the criminally underrated “Putham Pudhu” . To me, the standout piece in this musical epic is a personal favorite, “Sundari Kannal”. I had written an entire piece on this since it truly warrants it. A movie within a movie, hauntingly composed by the Maestro and beautifully sung by SPB and S.Janaki. 

Maestro to Prodigy

And all this was only one half of Mani’s output. In the next post, we will look at Mani’s prolific collaboration with A.R.Rahman. The public playlist for all the songs featured in this post and more Raaja- Mani masterpieces is here. For now, I will go back to listening to “Sundari Kannal”. 

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