Aug 16 2012

ARR 20

Published by at 11:26 pm under Audio,Tamil Cinema


The phrase ‘dawn of a new era’ is thrown around rather carelessly these days as it is used to refer to anything new or different from the norm. But few, if any, will dispute that August 15, 1992 truly marked the beginning of a new era in Tamil film music. That was the day Manirathnam’s Roja released, introducing to us a brand new music director A. R. Rahman. 20 years later, Rahman is going strong, still giving us the feeling that there’s a lot more to come.

Whenever someone new comes along and is viewed as the one who will topple from the top, someone else who is close to our hearts, the immediate feeling that arises is one of dislike. That was my feeling towards ARR when I heard that he rather than Ilaiyaraja would be composing music for Manirathnam’s next film. The primary target of my anger was of course Manirathnam. How could he not work with someone who had given him songs like Idhayam Oru Koyil…, Poo Maalaiye…, Nilaave Vaa…, Thenpaandi Seemaiyile…, Ninnukkori…, Anjali… and Raakkamma Kaiya Thattu…?! How could he make a movie without the background score that brought to life every scene in films like Naayagan, Agni Natchathiram and Idhayathai Thirudaadhey? I felt a sense of betrayal and viewed Manirathnam as someone who was ungrateful and disloyal. But some of that feeling rubbed off on the new music director too. Though I knew little about him, I looked at him as an usurper; as someone who was too small for those big shoes he was expected to fill.

With feelings like those, I never bought the Roja audio cassette when it was released. But it wasn’t long before the songs started blaring from loudspeakers pretty much everywhere. And as I listened to them, I understood the meaning of the phrase ‘mixed emotions’! I didn’t want to like the songs but I couldn’t help myself. The exhuberant Chinna Chinna Aasai…. The incredibly romantic Pudhu Vellai Mazhai…. The melodious Kaadhal Rojaave…, which managed to exist in the space between a love song and a pathos number. The fun Rukkumani…. And the patriotic Thamizhaa Thamizhaa…. As I listened to the songs I had to admit that Rahman had pulled it off.

While Udhayam theater’s sound system and Manirathnam’s picturization made the songs even better when watching Roja on the big screen, ARR’s background score didn’t make much of an impact initially. But his bgm during the flag-burning sequence made me an instant – even if still reluctant – fan. The music and the chorus as Arvind Swamy charged the terrorists and then doused the burning Indian flag with his body were rousing and exhilarating and capable of igniting patriotism in even the most jaded of hearts.

As good as the songs in Roja were, the Ilaiyaraja fan in me still felt that the album could be a flash in the pan and that ARR could be a one-hit wonder. But as albums like Puthiya Mugam and Gentleman came out, it was clear that he was here to stay. And as he delivered hits with remarkable consistency, introducing us to new sounds and new singers with each new album, I started looking forward to his albums eagerly. He . He was able to soothe us with songs like Kannukku Mai Azhagu…, Ennavale…, Anjali Anjali… and Nila Kaaigiradhu… just as easily as he was able to make us dance with numbers like Oorvasi… and Mukkaala Mukkaabla…. For a while there was the impression that he had a rather narrow range and could compose only western music. But it wasn’t long before he crushed that impression and proved that he was at home in rural films too with hits like Aathangara Marame…, Poraale Ponnuthaayi… and one of my personal favorites, Pennalla Pennalla….

The next big step for ARR came in 1995 when he stepped into Hindi films. Thanks to films like Roja and Bombay, he was already known to Hindi audiences. But it was only after Ramgopal Verma introduced him in Rangeela that he became a national sensation as Urmila swayed and danced to his tunes like Tanha Tanha… and Rangeela Re….

Its hard to imagine now but he delivered more than 5 soundtracks annually in those years and had a remarkable success ratio as he gave us soundtracks for films like Indian, Minsaara Kanavu, Iruvar, Jeans, Dil Se, Taal, Alaipayuthey, Lagaan, Kannathil Muthamittaal and Rang De Basanti(another one of my all-time favorites) and Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na.

After progressing from ad jingles to Tamil films to Hindi films, the next step was going global and that chance came when ARR composed the music for Slumdog Millionaire. The catchy and inspiring Jai Ho… became a global catchphrase and the world truly became his stage as he won 2 Oscars at Hollywood’s glitziest night. If one talks about Tamil cinema’s defining, most exhilarating moments in the last decade, hearing ARR utter Ella Pugazhum Iraivanukke at the Oscars would undoubtedly rank right up there. He has since composed music for a couple of mainstream Hollywood releases and is definitely a well-recognized name in Hollywood. Its difficult to say what he can do to top what he has achieved and where he is today.

As he steps into the 3rd decade of his career, ARR has composed so many hit songs and albums, has earned himself millions of fans, has won several laurels and awards and is associated with some of the biggest, most prestigious films being made right now(Kochadaiyaan, Kadal, I, Yash Chopra’s next with Shah Rukh Khan). But the words ‘Music by A.R.Rahman’ on a soundtrack cover still give rise to the same kind of anticipation, excitement and fervor that they did 20 years ago. That may just be his biggest achievement. Jai Ho!

40 responses so far

40 Responses to “ARR 20”

  1. skandadeva says:

    rahman had his lows too, somewhere around 2000-2003, where some of his composition fell flat like “kanathil muthamithal”, “alli arjunna”, “star”, “thenali” . His popularity dipped slightly as Haris Jeyaraj, Yuvan and Vidyasagar started giving hits after hits…Problem with Rahman that time, he gave music to some flop films, which didint help matters. it became bad to a point that no one wanted to download “varalaru” songs way back in 2006….But i think becouse of his goodwill, he has able to sustain so long….wishing him another 20 years on giving us good music…

  2. Sandya says:

    Fantastic writeup! I salute your style. You speak the truth when you say “I didn’t want to admit that he might be the one to unseat Ilaiyaraja.” I fought my father tooth and nail, when he suggested that ARR was here to stay (after he heard Gentleman) and time for Ilaiyaraja to retire. Now, I wonder what I’d do if someone else ever came in the next 5 or 6 years who was to unseat ARR! :O I’m probably fight them tooth and nail too! πŸ˜‰

  3. Harish says:

    Probably the first time I am hearing a first-hand account of how an ardent fan of Ilayaraaja felt when Rahman came around. For me, I never knew Ilayaraaja as a Phenomenon as I know him today. I did not know his body of work before Agni Natchathiram (as I had mentioned in your review of the movie) and hence became an instant fan of Rahman. Thanks for capturing his career-graph so wonderfully. It gave me goosebumps as I reminisced his work.

    I just thought I will mention three things though :). First, I think Rahman has the dubious distinction of an Indian composer who work has been plagiarized internationally (nope, not going on a debate on the beats rahman has used from Alban’s repository!). Second, Spike Lee used Chaiya Chaiya in Inside Man. Third, Chaiya Chaiya became the national anthem/morning subrapatham for some months.

    Anyways, thanks a lot for a very energetic read on someone I have huge respect for (especially noting the Oscar speech).

    On an unrelated note, planning to be in SFO area for labor-day weekend. I know you are big travel buff and have a solid eye for photography. If you dont mind, send me an email when you have a chance (nharish at yahoo dot com OR nharish77 at gmail dot com) on some good spots to visit. Do note that I have a 4-year old and my wife is pregnant as well and i might not be able to go on long/strenuous hikes at this time :).

  4. ram says:

    very nice and honest article about ARR and how the Ilayaraja fan in you refused to admit that a star was born. Same here. I remember telling my friend, “I don’t like ARR though I like his music!” :-)
    Ilayaraja’s decline began in the early 90s with ARR’s entry. Its sad that in the past 20 years we’ve seen only glimpses of Raja’s genius not the astonishing consistency of super hit songs that he had from 1976-1992.
    Srinivas mentioned in his NVOK episode that when he mentioned to ARR about not being included in the singer list in the initial cassette release of Mr. Romeo (he sang the lovely “Mellisaye”), ARR told him that his name was not on the initial cassette release of Roja. I guess the music spoke for itself and the rest, as they say, is history.

  5. Brilliant writeup. @Skandadeva, I thought ARR won national award for Kannathil Muthamittal.

  6. Sandya says:

    Giri, you are right! ARR did win the national award for KM back in 2003. I think what skandadeva was probably referring to was ‘mass appeal’ and some of those films he had mentioned did rank very high on the dull scale.

    BTW, Balaji, I just realized that you didn’t write a single word about Thiruda Thiruda. That album pretty much revolutionized the way Tamil Cinema music would sound from that point on. We were hooked! πŸ˜€

  7. venkit subramanian says:

    For me the Vayalar-Devarajan team has always been the best closely followed by Kannadasan-Viswanathan. But when IR came with the S.Janaki song “Senthoora Poove”, I became an ardent fan of his. It was almost like transitioning from supporting G.R.Viswanath & Gavaskar to supposring Dravid and Tendulkar.

    When IR joined hands with Vairamuthu, there was no looking back. We were in for a real treat from two musical geniuses. Just imagine, ManiRathnam’s “Anjali” was IR’s 500th film as music director. And the music in it was as fresh as the one in Panchu Arunachalam’s “AnnaKili” (IR’s first film).

    More than the breakup with Vairamuthu and a public altercation with “Thalaivar”, I think it was his sabbatical from film music in preparation for the performance in London, which earned him the title “Maestro”, that really paved the way for new comers like ARR and IR’s two sons to get a foothold in the industry. IR came back with the title, but no real offers for music direction in Tamil. He continued to provide occasional good music in selected Malayalam movies.

    Of course, ARR got into a combo of Vairamuthu & Prabhudeva and came out with some fantastic songs, that really brought him to the top of the Tamil fim music world. ARR also had a breakup with Vairamuthu, which may have led to a bit of a decline in his music too, in recent times. And Yuvan Shankar Raja, Harris Jeyaraj (an ARR disciple?) and ARR’s nephew G.V.Prakash have also started encroaching upon the top spot recently.

    Like the politicians, I have slid from MSV to IR to ARR and now to GVP, without any shame. (he, he).

  8. Sandya says:

    Venkit.. very nice comment, but when did Karthik Raja do anything worthy to even remotely get a ‘foothold’ in the industry (besides playing second fiddle to IR and Yuvan all these years)?.. A very talented musician who refused to shine alone by himself! :(

  9. Suresh says:

    When I first saw roja on Theaters ( before I bought the audio) I felt that this guy is some find. The songs were remarkable but it’s the bgm and mani’s picture perfect framework was a match made in heaven. The hits kept on coming, puthiya mugam the opening sceane bgm, gentleman’s chibuku rail, all the songs from kadhalan, duet, kilzaku chimayilee… To name a few. I never turned back to anybody since then. As you mentioned correctly if the audio says “music by A.R.REHMAN it’s a special feeling, I still have the same anticipation when I first bought the audio cassette for “thiruda thiruda”. There is more to come…..

  10. Balaji says:

    skanda, I loved Kannathil Muthamittaal songs. Though the other albums you mentioned weren’t hit, he also delivered Alaipayuthey, Kandukonden Kandukonden, Lagaan during the time period u mention. If a period with albums like these can be called a ‘low’, guess that only illustrates the high standards he set before then!

    Sandya, thanks! I remember those kinda fights too :)
    and yes, reading through my post again I can’t believe that I didn’t mention ‘Thirudaa Thirudaa’ either. It is definitely one his best albums and as I realized recently when I saw the film, it is the only part of the film that hasn’t aged.

    Harish, thanks! While on the topic of his music being used in Hollywood films, the Bombay theme was used in Lord of War. Have u seen that?

    ram, β€œI don’t like ARR though I like his music!” – ha ha, that’s exactly how most of us IR fans felt after hearing Roja songs! Its rather strange that IR’s decline coincided almost exactly with ARR’s arrival. He’s had some great songs even recently(Naan Kadavul, Nandalala, Dhoni, etc.) but the universal appeal and consistency are missing.

    Giri, thanks!

    venkit, public altercation with ‘Thalaivar’? what’s the scoop on that?
    until Sakuni, GVP has been the most impressive among the music directors working now. I’m hoping his Thaandavam sees him getting back to form. YSR and HJ have had some great albums but its been awhile since they delivered some real winners.

    Suresh, yeah Mani’s picturization played a good part in making Roja songs such winners when seen on the big screen. I still remember the thrill I felt when chinna chinna aasai started playing…

  11. San says:

    To me ARR revolutionized the Tamil music industry by discovering new talent in playback singing and giving them opportunity to sing in his composition. Before him, there were just 4 or 5 prominent singers singing every album by illayaraaja or MSV. But with ARR came the innumerable number of playback singers that we have today. Commend him for that.

  12. Vimal says:

    The greatest music director India has ever seen imo…The best thing about ARR is that he never is artistically complacent and always tries new things. The true impact of ARR is that his songs are so ahead of their time that songs by other music directors that become hits are very often inspired/influenced by AR Rahman songs 3-4 years ago! I do wish he would score more for some of the more quality Tamil movies that have been coming out of late (Pasanga, Mynaa, Yudham Sei, Poo, etc.). Aside from the Shankar & Mani movies the movies for which ARR has composed in Tamil have not lived up to his music imo. That being said, can’t wait to hear his music for I and Kadal. In Hindi, I’m expecting nothing less than a musical masterpiece for the Yash Chopra movie. Long live the king!

  13. venkit says:

    During the “whatever day” celebrations of Thalaivar’s movie “Valli”, Thalaivar seemingly made some joke about how music composition was comparatively easier than acting or some such thing. IR took it seriously and made some comments that did not go well with Thalaivar. Of course it did not help that IR and Thalaivar did not share the kind of personal friendship that IR & Kamal shared. Added to it the press also poured oil on the fire and it led to Deva and subsequently ARR to be the music director in Thalaivar’s films.

    I don’t know if I would rate ARR as the greatest music director India has ever seen. I guess it all depends on the times you live. As one who grew up during the heydays of Devarajan, Visvanathan, Shankar-Jaikishen and then transitioned to IR and RD Burman and now to ARR, Jayachandran, I don’t know. He is no doubt a musical genius and I still listen to songs by all these people without having to choose between them. I guess it is like arguing about Bradman, Hobbs, Gavaskar, Rowe or Tendulkar, as to who is the greatest cricketer.

  14. venkit says:

    Sandhya, if you recall, Karthik used to be ahead of Yuvan initially and there were even rumors that IR was actually creating music in Karthik’s name. But of course he faded away quite fast.

  15. KP says:

    Another aspect we should laud him for sharing of credits first MD to list names of people who contributed by playing the main instruments.

    Maybe inspired by his long career of working for other MD without recognition? He did digitize music for illaiyaraja for punnagai mannan, nadodi tendral.

    I am a Raja fan though.


  16. […] Anil Srinivasan (The Hindu): The Rahman Effect 2. Balaji (@bbthots) – ARR 20 3. P.S.Sureshkumar (@ursmusically) – 20 Years of Rahman! 4. Vipin Nair (@musicaloud) – […]

  17. venkit says:

    The name of the movie was “Veera” not “Valli” as I mentioned earlier.

    ARR’s father R.K.Sekhar used to work as asst to Devarajan and a few other music directors. He was a very talented MD and there is one song by Vani Jayaram in a movie “Yuddha Bhoomi”. He did not get the credit due. He died early too, not a well to do man.

  18. anon says:

    I’m a fan of IR as well as ARR…why the need to choose? They’re both musical geniuses and IR is also said to have revolutionized music when he first got started. Two peas from the same pod:)

  19. Balaji says:

    San, yes there has been an explosion of new playback singers in Tamil cinema and that was definitely due to ARR. But I think he also pioneered using singers(mainly from Hindi) without worrying about their bad pronunciation and I’m not sure if that was such a good thing.

    Vimal, the term ‘greatest’ is always subjective(in spite of all of ARR’s achievements, I personally would say IR is the greatest) but agree with the rest of your comment. The part about him being ahead of his times is especially true and that is the 1 aspect that his imitators will never be able to catch up to.

    venkit, that’s an interesting bit of gossip. I hadn’t heard of any IR-Rajni breakup & always thought their pairing didn’t happen cos of the team, esp. since their last film, Veera, had such an amazing soundtrack.

    KP, not sure I’ve noticed that but yes, its a nice gesture to recognize all the players in the group.

    anon, can’t agree more. In fact I can remember so many MSV-IR fights during my school days :)

  20. Harish says:

    When it comes to taking over the reins from Rahman, I dont believe there is anyone yet. None that consistently composes original music. Most of GV Prakash, Vijay Anthony, Harris Jayraj are pure copy-cat work. I was initially impressed with a number of tunes by these composers. Specifically, “aval apadi ondrum azhagillai”. Turns out, VA copied it from a Ghazal. Same story with a song in Vellithirai. HJ is probably the one where his “version” of a song sounds better (to my non-audiophile ear) than the original. That is not to absolve him, just saying. Rahman, on the other hand, has, for the good or bad (mostlyyyyy good) has produced original tunes. Most of the others that produce good music in their first movie, fade away. I hope Ghibran is not one of those that fades away because I really do believe he is a very versatile composer.

    As for Venkit’s comment, I was like “no way”. As it turns out, Valli released in 93 and Veera in 94. It is very possible that IR had composed the songs for Veera before this “whatever day” get together. Interesting that IR and Rajini never worked together but everyone knows who lost out πŸ˜‰

    As for Karthik Raaja, he just seemed to have lost it somewhere. I still remember him mentioning Ullasam as his first album that would show him as a talented composer. I believe it really did especially with Veesum Katruku. Somehow, he never did make it big and I honestly never understood why. I guess he simply lost focus.

  21. San says:

    Udit Narayanan was the only singer from the North who didn’t learn to pronounce tamil. But the rest such as Hariharan, Shreya Goshal, Sukwinder Singh, Vijay Prakash, to name a few singer from North introduced by ARR, are a blessing to the music lovers.

  22. @San, Hariharan, though brought up in Mumbai is a Tamilian and Vijay Prakash is from Mysore, Karnataka, I agree with the rest of the singers you mentioned.

  23. Vimal says:

    D. Imman is doing pretty well nowadays. I liked his soundtrack for “Thiruvilayadal Aarambam” a lot. “Mynaa” was terrific and “Kumki” (brand new) is just stellar and, unless AR Rahman comes out w/ I or Kadal this year, will probably end up being the album of the year. But yes, I agree with the general consensus here that GVP is probably the best of the post- ARR composers..(Deiva Thirumagal, Aadukalam, Mayakkam Enna, Veyyil, Angadi Theru, etc. all had wonderful music) ..Harris is very consistent but hasn’t shown any sort of artistic growth in his 10 plus years in the industry..(although Pachakilli Muthucharam and Kaakha Kaakha will always be great soundtracks) plus his scores (music in the background of a movie) are atrocious…Yuvan copies way too much but he def. has some great soundtracks (Pattiyal, Pudhupettai, Kathrathu Tamizh)..his fast songs also have a tendency to just be a lot of sound and terms of melodies…he also has the advantage of being good with movie scores just like his dad… Vidyasagar is fantastic but not that great with dance songs plus he’s pretty inconsistent…i would like to hear Sharreth (180) compose more in Tamil…same w/ Deepak Dev (Urumi)….that being said, i think Tamil music is definitely in a golden age with many good soundtracks coming out from a variety of music directors every year…

  24. Vimal says:

    * terms of melodies is fantastic

  25. Kumki songs are just wonderful. D.Immam is really on a roll at the moment. He has probably dished out one of the best albums of this year with Kumki.

    @San, to add to my earlier post, Shreya Goshal is the of the lot. Just listen to “Mannipaya” from VTV and the latest “Sollittale” from Kumki, it will be hard to say that she is not a Tamil singer.

  26. I meant to say “best of the lot” :)

  27. San says:

    @Giri exactly my point. Udit Narayan is the only black sheep. :) Shreya Goshal is the best. Regarding Hariharan and Vijay Prakash, I was just trying to say that they were not native to Tamilnadu. Hariharan was a hard core ghazal singer. Still they don’t have any accent while singing tamil songs and they don’t kill tamil.

  28. Rajesh Krithivasan says:

    In the early 90s there was a question on “Arasu Badhilgal” in Kumudam to compare the two greats. The answer by the Editor SAP Annamalai is translated/paraphrased below.

    “IR – Brought back the tamil people from hindi music to tamil music
    ARR – Made hindi people listen to tamil music”

    Sounds a lot better in Tamil.

  29. Nikitha says:

    I was a toddler when Roja came out :) So, I grew up with ARR’s music. So it was really refreshing to read about what IR fans felt when ARR came into the scene.
    Of course, I discovered IR later in life and I’m a big fan of his music too.

    BTB, did someone mention Kannathil Muthamittal among ARR’s flop music? KM has one of the best background musics by ARR!! It gives me goosebumps. It’s one of his greatest albums, in my opinion.

  30. Balaji says:

    Harish, among the ones you mention I think GVP has been pretty original so far. And he’s been pretty versatile too. If looking fwd to the next album can be used as an unscientific way of ranking the music directors, he comes right after ARR and IR for me now.

    San, yeah I was thinking mainly of Udit when I talked about singers with bad pronunciation. But if ARR introduced Shreya Goshal to Tamil, then I’d be OK with many more Udits :)

    Vimal, that’s a pretty good summary of the key music directors out there today. I remember phases where YSR and HJ were on top with a string of good albums. But its GVP for now. I still haven’t listened to Kumki or Thaandavam though.

    Rajesh, that is awesome. I remember Arasu Badhilgal had many such concise but on-the-dot answers.

    Nikitha, yeah we oldies were almost in college when Roja came out :)

  31. Prasad says:

    That was a fitting tribute to the ‘Mozart of Madras’..! Was it only with Slumdog..that he went global? Even before that, I believe he worked in this Chinese movie Warriors of Heaven and Earth…and that Broadway musical Bombay Dreams..whatever, but there is one point in your post that I truly, absolutely positively agree with. Even after 2 decades any soundtrack that has Rahman’s name still creates the butterflies all around..!

  32. Prasad says:

    And you believe GVP is pretty original?? God, you are totally naive..! If you can strain a bit and browse thru those tamil musical forums, you will realize that he is far from the offense..!

  33. Vimal says:

    I’m pleased to report that the Thaandavam songs are pretty good (except for the one called “Thandavam”)

  34. Vimal says:


    I’m sure GVP has copied some stuff but not as blatantly as Yuvan. Did you know that the ENTIRE “Kadhal Konden” album was plagiarized?!

  35. Sandya says:

    Ahem, Wikipedia says Shreya Ghosal debuted in Album under Karthik Raja’s music direction, which I believe to be accurate. Can someone explain why ARR is getting credit here?

  36. Vimal says:


    I think they were just referring to the general trend of having non Tamilians sing Tamil. That happened before ARR though. KS Chitra, Yesudas etc. are non-Tamil. ARR’s legacy with regard to playback singers is not just using the established ones. While he may not have introduced Shreya, he introduced great singers like Chinmayee, Karthik, Harini. Unnikirshnan, Naresh Iyer, Benny Dayal, and many more!

  37. San says:

    @Vimal, yes that was my thought process. However I don’t have enough time to do deep dive research with all the data points. But that was the general thought I had. Thanks for clarifying.

  38. Bahma says:

    OK, I know I am going to get shot down here but I was getting so fed-up with Illayaraja and SPB. Serious monopoly going on. Roja was so refreshing and I was so taken up with the soundtrack. Thiruda Thiruda was sublime in my opinion. Putham Puthu Bhoomi – I have never heard a Tamil song like that… Konjum Nilavu. Oh, and Lagaan….I remember ARR was here for a show and he could not believe that K3G was getting airplay and not Lagaan. Lagaan’s music was of course far superior – Oh Paalanhare is just spine-tingling.

    All the rest cannot match lah. HJ is a poor copycat. They all have their hits but cannot come up to our ARR.

  39. Srijith says:

    Nice Post, Balaji. I’ve been a big time fan of A.R.Rahman, even before Roja in fact. I was so much in love with the music for the Credits section for Spirit of Unity Concert Program in Doordarshan. I think the biggest plus point as far as ARR was concerned as that he was able to adapt well to the setting and the time period and audience taste, which is why he has probably been the most successful composer from the south, who composed in Hindi movies. The sad part like someone said was that his music was wasted on certain films which made the overall value of those songs go down. Even if it is Rahman’s music, you just cannot bear to see S.J.Suryah dancing to it. I also however felt that perhaps due to the overall instrumentation and richness of the sound and aural feel, many of his songs cannot be sung along with, unlike the olden days songs. There were few initially, which were melodious and easy to sing, but I dont know perhaps it’s just me, but IR and MSV’s songs I feel I can always sing by myself more easily.

  40. Thiru says:

    Nice write up bb…