In the 1991 Tamil movie there’s a scene in which the character played by Sathyaraj, in his quest to find the details of a missing person, stumbles upon sheets of paper that apparently carry musical notations.
To unravel them, he goes to a film musician, who looks into the paper and says it is terrific music and playfully asks him whether he can put his name to that tune.
It is a kind of meta, inside joke. For, in that scene the one playing the musician is Gangai Amaran, whose real-life musical career has unfortunately been asterisked by the dubious but popular belief that he had merely affixed his name to many of his illustrious brother Ilaiyaraaja’s scores.
To make that as a joke and take it on himself in a mainstream film in those ‘literal’ times when spoof and sarcasm were not a thing calls for immense self-belief, funny irreverence and the chutzpah of a maverick.
Gangai Amaran, as his near 50-year stint in the film industry so far shows, has plenty of those qualities, and more.
However, the world around also does not seem to have given its considered attention to Gangai Amaran, who in his own right deserves to be seen as a more-than-average Tamil film musician and director, but more importantly, needs to be given a high place as a lyricist.
But in a sense, Gangai Amaran himself is to blame for his predicament. He never seemed to take himself – at least outwardly – seriously. The world, especially the film industry, tends to rate high those who know the knack of promoting themselves.
If his own self-effacing style precluded his talents from getting a weighty appraisal, the fact that he happens to be the brother of Ilaiyaraaja, the greatest music director India has produced till date, also makes it impossible for Gangai Amaran to emerge out of that long and broad shadow.
Even in the aforementioned scene in Bramma, before showing Gangai Amaran on screen they focus on his photo, and that inevitably has him with Ilaiyaraja. The world willy-nilly sees him through the prism of Ilaiyaraaja, which is understandable, but a tad tough if you are Gangai Amaran.
The long and inevitable shadow of Ilaiyaraaja
It is a fact that there is some handy leverage to be had if your sibling happens to be a maestro and one of the biggest influencers in the film industry, and it certainly was the case with Gangai Amaran.
But the argument that he owed the opportunities he got in the film industry solely to Raja does disservice to both him and his brother, who is not the kind to push the case for others even if they happen to be his blood relations.
But having somebody as prodigiously gifted as Raja as his brother may have also had an impact on the kind of personality that Gangai Amaran exhibited to the world. It is always tough being the son/daughter/wife/brother/sister of a famous performer.
For instance, Donald Bradman’s son was deeply affected by the relentless attention paid to him as the son of ‘The Don’. So much so that he changed his name to John ‘Bradsen’ in a desperate bid to shrug off ‘his’ burden.
John felt he was not his own person, that people saw him as Don Bradman’s son, and it kind of crushed him.
Gangai Amaran, of course, could not have moved totally away from Ilaiyaraja as he also set out to operate in the same field. But he probably left the Ilaiyaraaja ambit by embracing a personality that was, in a sense, the antithesis of his elder brother’s.
Raja, it is well known, is not the type to suffer fools gladly. And, as it happened, Gangai Amaran became someone who played the fool at least on a public forum.
This he may not have done consciously. But the jester personality he has embraced, sometimes annoyingly, does set him apart from his genius brother. It has also provided him cover for some of the nasty things he has said (and gotten away with) against his sibling.
His own man, and not quite
That Gangai Amaran thirsted to be his own man became known quite early in his career when he branched out as a music director, especially working with people like Bhagyaraj and (producer) Balaji who did not get too well with Ilaiyaraaja.
By choosing to pair with those who had a bone to pick with Ilaiyaraaja, Gangai Amaran was kind of rebelling. But it redounds to the credit of his elder brother who continued to indulge him and had him around.
For the directors and producers who could not get Ilaiyaraaja, they were getting the next best thing — Bargain basement Ilaiyaraaja. At least that is what Gangai Amaran’s music sounded, in phases, in his early days.
Gangai Amaran’s first major hit as an independent music director as credited in the title cards — hah! There we go again with that asterisk — was Suvarilla Chithirangal (1979) which was also Bhagyaraj’s first movie as a director.
He had done two movies before but they didn’t bring him the notice that he wanted. The in Suvarilla Chithirangal became a big hit and was repeatedly played on radio those days.
It had a jaunty tune that got accentuated with rousing beats. The orchestration was not Ilaiyaraajaesque (how could it be?), but the smoothness in the song flow showed that the younger brother had musical genes.
Another Bhagyaraj-Gangai Amaran collaboration, Mouna Geethangal (1981) also had a handy melody, , that showed that the youngest of the Paavalar Brothers had the wherewithal to be a musical talent in his own right.
Gangai Amaran’s two major hits for a big star, Kamal Haasan, — Vazhve Maayam (1982) and Sattam (1983), both produced by Balaji — further underlined his essential prowess as a music director. While Vazhve Maayam‘s songs continue to be played on musical stages, Sattam‘s numbers do not enjoy that much recall value.
Sadly, at that. For, the entire album is a complete one with typical but hummable romantic duets, a rambunctious (kuthu) dance song, and a couple of philosophical male songs.
My personal favourite among these are the two love songs in SPB and Vani Jayaram combo — and . Unfussy but quietly enjoyable, which was essentially musical ethos.
But the fact is Ganagai Amaran’s musical career never got the momentum going as he did not manage to churn out songs of quality with any amount of consistency. A hit here, and a hit there was never going to cut it. Especially for Ilaiyaraaja’s brother.
Also, even among his hit films there were songs that were ‘lent’ by you know who. Take the film Kamal starrer Sankarlal (1981). The bouncy number turned out to be the big brother’s. Ditto with the song from Chinna Thambi Periya Thambi (1987).
New direction to his career
Perhaps Gangai Amaran was never destined to reach great heights as a musician – he scored music on his own for around 60 movies – and quite possibly he also understood it.
But the restless spirit in him made him focus simultaneously on other things in the film world. Film direction is something he took a liking to, again quite early. But here too his brothers were around to push-start him. His first film as a director, Kozhi Koovuthu (1982), had the producer’s name as R D Bhaskar, which of course is his another elder brother.
His second movie Kokkarakko (1983) was also bankrolled by the Paavalar Brothers stable. His first big hit for an outside banner was Enga Ooru Pattukaran (1987). It was produced by Sangli Murugan.
And in two years time, he had his biggest hit of his career Karakattakaran (1989), which, when you come down to it, is a careful but blithe-spirited rural reprise of the 60s hits Thillana Mohanambal.
As a director, Gangai Amaram never quite exhibited a unique voice. But as with most things with him, he brought to the fore a funny joie de vivre and all his films, mostly located in the hinterlands of Madurai-Theni area, carried an unmistakable rustic redolence.
Good comedy set-pieces (Goudamani-Senthil), great songs (inevitably tuned by Raaja), romance and emotional conflict were his main ingredients. As with his musical direction, Gangai Amaran never showed great ambition for anything big as he seemed to operate within his comfort zone.
And it was reflected in his films. Though he seemed to operate out of set formula, Gangai Amaran had a major hand in setting the template for the ‘village subject’ in Tamil cinema in the post-Bharathiraja era. In the event, his directorial stints also came to a slow, unheralded stop.
Words are music to his ears
Even as he was going through the ups and downs as a music director and film director (and also producer), Gangai Amaran was truly doing solid and steady work as a lyricist — which is what he set out to do in the first place when he and his brothers arrived from Pannaiyapuram and set up their tent in Madras.
The sad thing about Gangai Amaran as a lyricist is his comedic veneer did not allow many to associate songs with gravitas with him. You can take for example the haunting in Raja Paarvai.
In a film, in which two other more popular numbers were penned by Kannadasan and Vaiaramuthu, Gangai Amaran not only managed to hold his own, but also brought out the pathos of the blind person’s love that has hit a roadblock.
How beautifully and poignantly the description ‘vizhiyoraththu kanavum‘ sets up the fact that a visually challenged person’s love can only be a corner of the eye phenomenon.
And just when the hope of light is about to streak in, disappointment happens for him, ‘Vidiyum endra pozhuthil vandhu, Irul moodidudhae‘. There the entire film in a succinct summary of four lines. It takes remarkable understanding of a film and its music to pull this off. Gangai Amaran had this quality in abundance.
His greatest strength as a lyricist is that he had a preternatural understanding of film music. His words would never stretch ungainly to fit in with the tune. Instead they would seem to waltz effortlessly into the embrace of music.
in 16 Vayathinile, his very first officially credited film song as a lyricist, is a good case in point of his natural understanding of what kind of words would work in a song.
There is as such no flower called Senthura Poovu. But the man writing his first song in films had the brazen confidence to coin one because he innately understood that is what will fit the musical metre there.
If film music is in service of the story then film poetry is in service of that music. Gangai Amaran grasped this early and organically.
Take another Ilaiyaraaja-Bharathiraja film song (Puthiya Vaarpugal 1979). This brilliant number, which practically never allows the singers to take a breath, calls for great imagination from the lyric writer to come up with words and phrases that match the organic progression of the seemingly relentless tune.
The words jump forth with joy and mirth in tandem with the tune that bounce with fun and merriment. I don’t know whether this song was written to tune or tune was set to the words. But what I am sure is this song could have been written only by a person who has a good mastery of the musical minutiae. It was not one-off.
In another Ilaiyaraaja-Bharthiraja film Kallukkul Eeram (1980), Gangai Amaran again showed his skills in a song that would have surely stumped many established writers.
The lines ‘, Adhil therikkum pudhu isaiyum, Iru kanmani pon imaigali thaala layam, Nidhamum thodarum kanvum ninaivum idhu maarathu, Raagam thaalam paavam pola naanum neeyum saera vendum‘ literally is suffused with the music and the tempo it is sung in.
Not surprisingly, the song that is lionised in the annals of Tamil film history as the breathless one, (Keladi Kanmani 1990) is from the pen of Gangai Amaran. It is his grace and generosity to let it appear in the film as from his brother Paavalar Varadarajan.
Gangai Amaran may not have the philosophical gravitas of Kannadasan. Or the ability of Vaali, who had the admirable talent to use the cliches of Tamil film music lexicon in a manner that did not make them come off as cliches. They gave us the comfort that come with familiar things.
But Gangai Amaran had an easy cognizance of the needs of the song on screen. The song in Rickshaw Mama (1992) would be a good illustration.
It is sung by a male (SPB), but the lines ‘Muthukkal kottiya natchathiram, Andha natchathiram en pakkam varum, Vithukkal kattiya muthucharam, En pakkam vanthu pon mutham tharum…’ would seem to be from a female perspective.
And when you see it on screen you’ll know that the lines are actually penned by a woman (Kushboo) who passes it to her husband (Sathyaraj) to croon in the scene.
He also knew how to magically meld poetry, music and film story in a matter of a couple of lines.
In that amazing Abhogi raga Indraikku (Vaidehi Kathirunthal 1984), he encapsulates the wistful dream of one waiting for a marriage with the lines ‘Kanavugalin suyamvaramo, Kan thiranthaal sugam varumo‘. Look at the rhyme. Look at the seeming effortlessness with which it moves with the music and also the larger story on the screen.
Even in the film Goa (2010) — a time by which Gangai Amaran was well past his best — the man showed he can come out with lines (Engae naan thodanganum, madanganum adanganum sollikkudu… in the ) that impishly showcased present-day sensibilities and inclinations (in this case it is about a gay man).
He is a hall-of-famer for sure
Some of the biggest hits from the stable of Ilaiyaraaja in the 80s were from the pen of Gangai Amaran. That he never quite got the recognition for something that he solely came up with is one of the tragedies of the Tamil film world.
Look at this hall-of-famer songs list: All the songs of Johnny, Panneer Pushpangal, Amman Kovil Kizhakale, Chinnavar, Karagattakaran, Villu Paattukaaran, and many songs in timeless musical classics like Moodu Pani (including En Iniya Pon Nilave), Rosappu Ravikaikaari (including Yenullil Yengo), Nenjathai Killadhe, Aval Appadithan, Alaigal Oivathillai, and Mullum Malarum.
The list is almost never-ending, and they are all absolute winners. And mind you, this is just a portion of Gangai Amaran’s oeuvre as a lyricist. That many of his songs were thought to be someone else’s also hides the inherent politics in the Tamil film industry.
But that is a story about another lyricist and it is for another day. Gangai Amaran has sounded bitter about Ilaiyaraaja. But strangely he has no rancour about him never having got his due as a lyricist. In that sense, the man is a paradox. Loose with tongue but firm with pen.
But his zest for life and music still remains undiminished. Even though he has health issues and his memory is playing tricks, the man, as we saw , is ready for some fun, which is a word that can summarise him in a way.
He tried to have fun with whatever he wanted to do. And in the process also wanted to pass on the same to others. But because he was seen as a fun guy, people chose to not take him seriously.
That’s the triumph and tragedy of being Gangai Amaran.