Na. Muthukumar : when poetry meets cinema

Last year, at the London Indian Film Festival, director Mani Ratnam answered the interviewer about the use of songs in indian cinema :

« In a flow of a film, it lets you reach an arc of celebration, whether it is joy or moroseness of a sorrow(…) it gives you an abstraction which lets you fly and land back at a completely different point and get across what is inside a person’s mind (…) It’s a very liberating thing (…) That gives you the pause to take in a situation, take in where you have reached and lands you onto the next thing »

To this truthful statement, we can add the fact that songs are, in tamil (and indian) cinema, an extraordinary space for poetry, and sometimes, for great poetry. In an industry where movies often take roots in epics and oral tradition, it’s not surprising that literature and cinema meet each other the time of a musical and imaginary pause. In fact, many male and female writers begin their literary journey by writing lyrics for cinema songs, probably because song lyricists have a recognized and respected status in tamil cinema. Think about the cult of the legendary Kannadasan, or even the fact that some important politicians from Tamil Nadu have also been writers and poets : for instance, the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi, or even, the 11th President of India, A.P.J. Abdul Khalam. Indeed, in a nation where orality is so crucial, the one who has power of words can easily reach political power. Moreover, the particular status of lyricists in tamil cinema is also explained because they are considered as the guardians of Tamil, a millenary language, that is constantly threatened by the heavy presence of English colonial heritage and by the waves of globalization.

One of these guardians was Na.Muthukumar, most prolific song lyricist in current tamil cinema industry, who died prematurely last sunday, at the age of 41.


  • The itinerary of a poet born in books.

 Born in 1975 in Kannikapuram, a village near Kanchipuram, Muthukumar lost his mother at the age of four, and was raised by his father, Nagarajan, who was his inspiration and the main subject of his book/tribute published in 2012, Anilaadum Mundril (The courtyard where the squirrels dance).

“My father was my greatest inspiration. He opened the world of books for me and I’ve lived in the treasure trove ever since.”

His father, a tamil teacher, was, indeed, a books lover, or, should we say, a voracious books devourer, as he read dozen books per week, collected more than 5000 rare books, and used to borrow money to buy them. Thus, Muthukumar was raised in literature and poetry in which he found solace after his mother’s death and, consequently, at a very young age, he began to write poems that have won several prizes at competitions. Obviously, the path of literature led him to a Masters in Tamil literature and, later, a doctorate but also to greater ambitions. Indeed, one of the biggest (and laudable) dream of Muthukumar was to set up a library to house his collection of one lakh books inherited from his father (some of which being more than 200 years old or even, palm-leaf manuscripts, that need a very expansive microfilming) and to open it for literature students.

Nevertheless, even though this early life seems to be the classic background of a poet/song lyricist, Muthukumar entered cinema industry with the dream of becoming a filmmaker. Indeed, this books child was also fascinated by the seventh art. That’s why he worked as an assitant director with none other than the legendary filmmaker, Balu Mahendra. It’s interesting that the two persons Muthukumar considered as his mentors, his « aan thaaigal » (masculine mothers, as he used to call them), that is to say, Balu Mahendra and the poet Arivumathi, symbolize each of his two passions, cinema and literature. However, his literary talent and circumstances (more lyrics writing opportunities than direction opportunies) eventually led Muthukumar to a lyricist career.

Balu Mahendra (1939-2014)

Introduced in Seeman’s Veera Nadai, Muthukumar has worked with almost all tamil music directors and has written more than 1000 songs. Writing for big commercial blockbusters («Ballelakka » in Sivaji) just like for auteur movies, Muthukumar experienced the consecration when he won, two consecutive years, the national award for best lyrics : first one in 2013 for the song « Aananda Yazhai » in Thangameenkal by Ram and second one in 2014 for the song « Azhage Azhagu » in Saivam, by A.L Vijay.

“In my opinion he had the calibre to achieve great heights in Tamil literature. But film industry reduced the space for his creativity,”

Reading this words of Director N.Alagamperumal, who worked with Na.Muthukumar on his movie, Dum Dum Dum, we can wonder about the effect of song lyrics writing on Muthukumar’s art, as it can easily become line work in an industry like tamil cinema that produce more than 300 movies per year. But the question can be reversed and we can wonder about the effect of Na.Muthukumar’s poetry on tamil cinema, as the pen of the poet has left a lasting imprint in tamil imaginary.

How can we describe Muthukumar’s poetry ? Maybe by his own words :

« chiRu pullil uRanggum paniyil theriyum, malaiyin azhagoa thaanggavillai » / “The beauty of a mountain reflected on a dew drop that sleeps on a grass blade is exhilarating”.

A little dew drop is enough to show the beauty of a mountain. Indeed, Muthukumar’s writings reach greatness when deep meanings appear in a disarming simplicity. Thus, we can easily understand why he loved « haikus » and published some of these micro-poems. In an interview, the poet separated opaque intellectual poetry from emotional poetry and obviously, he claimed himself as belonging to the second one. He, who refers to Mahakavi Bharathiyar’s dictum, « Paatinaal Anbu Sei » (« Spread love through verse »), explained his search of elimai/simplicity as a way to reach people. If many songs written by Muthukumar have become evergreen, it’s simply because they reflect universal experiences and find the path to each and every one deep and intimate feelings : for instance, “Ninaithu Ninaithu Parthen” in 7G Rainbow Colony by Selvaraghavan expresses pain at the death of the beloved, “Unakkena iruppaen” in Kaadhal by Balaji Sakthivel shows the selflessness of a young lover.

So why Muthukumar’s lyrics are they so meaningful ? Maybe because his lyrics are characterized by metaphoric verses as well as common, understandable tamil words and minimal use of non-tamil words while many, in tamil cinema, succumb to the temptation of anglicisms, and even, sometimes, to the temptation of totally invented and gibberishing new words.

  • Ram and Na.Muthukumar : a special bonding, two special songs

Even though i am pretty sure that, now that he’s gone, Muthukumar’s songs will be constantly rediscovered, one by one, I choose to focus here on two gems, which are, in my opinion, the reflections of the poet’s brilliancy : « Anandha Yaazhai » from Thangameenkal and « Paravaye engu irukkirai » from Kattradhu Tamizh. And it appears that the two of them were born of his work, hand in hand, with director Ram. It is not a coincidence.

The two men were friends since college days, as the two of them studied Masters in tamil literature and often met each other at college culturals, especially in a kind of poet circle named « Vaanam » where students, writers and poets used to come to public lecture of poems. But above all, the two men were fed at the same breast : Balu Mahendra. Indeed, Muthukumar first entered Mahendra team, and when he began to write lyrics, Ram, also became one of Mahendra’s « garden’s plant » (as Mahendra said about him), just like some current important tamil directors (for instance, Vetrimaran, Bala or Sasikumar).

The common work of Ram and Muthukumar show that they were on the same wavelength, that there was a fraternal connexion between their artistic universes. Of course, we have to mention that the extraordinary music made by Yuvan Shankar Raja gives soul to their collaboration in the two movies.

Anandha yaazhai (direction : Ram, lyrics : Na.Muthukumar, music : Yuvan Shankar Raja, singer : Sriram Parthasarathy)

Muthukumar has written a series of beautiful songs on childhood, as this theme has recently flooded tamil cinema. Muthukumar’s pen knew how to sketch innocence and fun of child life, for instance, in songs like « Veyilodu vilayadi » in Veyil, « Azhage » in Saivam, “Aariro” in Deiva thirumagal” or « Sel Sel » in Kaaka muttai.

Whereas, in tamil cinema, mother’s love is abundantly represented (probably because women are confined to this kind of role…), songs about father’s love are very few. « Anandha yaazhai » is the perfect reflection of a movie, Thanga Meenkal, which revolves around a father/daughter relationship.

For this song, Ram has chosen to show the father, Kalyani (Ram himself) and the daughter, Chellamma (Sadhana) in a mountainous landscape, maybe as a symbol of the pure affection that unites the two characters. The whole song, Muthukumar’s words and Ram’s filmmaking unite and mix perfectly : picturization (by cinematographer Arbhindu Saaraa) subtly illustrates the lyrics, without the demonstrative heaviness of some movie songs.

The song begins when father and daughter get to the top of the mountain. In a misty atmosphere, the face and voice of the daughter emerge when Sriram Parthasarathy’s voice begins to sing, « Anandha Yaazhai meettugiRaay » / « you are composing a happy tune in veenai » : the veenai is thus subtly compared to Chellamma’s voice.

The following lines are also equally and nicely illustrated : a very long shot on the green and grassy mountain is associated with « chiRu pullil uRanggum paniyil theriyum, malaiyin azhagoa thaanggavillai »/ « The beauty of a mountain reflected on a dew drop that sleeps on a grass blade is exhilarating », while a bow sight shows the characters trying to fly (or swim ?) against the wind when Sriram Parthasarathy’s voice sings «undhan kaigaL pidiththu poagum vazhi, adhu poadhavillai innum vaeNdumadi.» / «The path that I walk holding your hand is never sufficient, and I desire more».

 In the same way, the second couplet is based on a personnification of the moon which becomes a balloon to play with, for the father and the daughter. Moon is a frequent metaphor for children songs in tamil cinema (« Nila kaigirathu » in Indira, by Suhasini) but we can also see this whole song as a declination of the famous tamil rhyme « Nila nila odi vaa, nillamal odi vaa, malai mela eri vaa… » / « Moon, moon, come running to me, don’t stop while you run, climb over the mountain… ». Here we can see the brilliancy of Muthukumar who take roots in tamil popular culture to sublimate his lyrics.

Apart from the lyrics, the picturization of the song itself also offers, silently we could say, some thoughts on being a father : he is the one who carries his daughter against the wind, the one who became innocent and childlike to play with his child, but also the one carried to new heights by his daughter. Fathers can also be raised by their daughters.

Paravaiye engu irukkirai (director : Ram, lyrics : Na.Muthukumar, music : Yuvan Shankar Raja, singer : Ilaiyaraaja)

This song from Kattradhu Tamizh (Tamil M.A) is the soul of the movie, expressing the painful quest of Prabhakar (Jeeva) for Anandhi (Anjali), his childhood love. She is the only reason to live of the young man, a misfit, a tormented soul, who is flayed more and more by an unfair life.

Muthukumar has written a lot of songs about painful and tormented love, for instance, in Selvaraghavan’s movies : « Ninaithu ninaithu » in 7G Rainbow colony, « Thottu thottu » in Kaadhal Kondhein.

However, « Paravaye engu irukkirai » is, in my opinion, the one who split the heart of the listener and the viewer. The same combo has worked together, that is to say, Ram, Na.Muthukumar and Yuvan Shankar Raja, but here, the incredible, hoarsed, voice of Isaignani Ilaiyaraaja, that suggests all the intricacies of the soul and that has impregnated tamil imaginary for years, adds a magical touch to the song and is enhanced by Ram’s filmmaking.

Muthukumar’s words « Paravaye engu irukkirai »/ « Bird, where are you ? », appears like the cry of Prabhakar who is shown, searching for Anandhi in North India, by train, by cow cart, in city as in countryside, carrying a bag just like he carries his painful love for Anandhi. This song could be seen as the reversed (and more intense) twin of the song « Evano Oruvan » in Alaipayuthey by Mani Ratnam, in which, Karthik (Madhavan) is searching for Shakthi (Shalini), carrying a bag. But whereas Evano Oruvan is a rainy song, Paravaye engu irukkirai is set in an arid climate which reinforces the hopelessness of Prabhakar and Anandhi’s love.

Capture d’écran 2016-08-20 à 03.44.05

Just as in « Anandha Yaazhai », here, Ram (with the help of cinematographer S.R.Kathir) illustrates with great accuracy and subtlety Muthukumar’s lyrics. Thus, when Ilaiyaraaja sings « adi en boomi thodangum idam edhu needhaanae, adi en paadhai irukkum idam edhu needhaanae » / « Oh sweetheart! my world begins from where you are! Oh sweetheart! My path would lead to where you are! », we can see a train travelling shot and the light of the end of the tunnel approaching… Here, the picturization sticks to lyrics beautifully and show the unity of the lyricist and the filmmaker.

Capture d’écran 2016-08-20 à 03.45.41

In the same way, for the line : « unnoadu naanum poagindRa paadhai
idhu neeLaadhoa thodu vaanam poalavae » / « The paths that I walk with you wouldn’t they extend, like the limitless sky? », Ram has chosen to use a very long shot showing Prabhakar and Anandhi riding a cycle in a mountain road that seems to be endless. This line, just as the whole song, sums up the movie and is a presage of the climax. Muthukumar said, once in an interview, how fascinated he was by Kannadasan’s lyrics for the song « Kanne Kalaimane » in Moondram Pirai by Balu Mahendra. Indeed, one line of this song predicts the climax of the movie : « unake uyir aanaen…yenaalum ennai nee maravaadey »/ « I became your life, don’t ever forget me ».

Finally, there are some common points in both songs that show some obsessional themes in Muthukumar’s poetry, as in Ram’s filmmaking :

– In Muthukumar’s lyrics, love is frequently expressed with the lexical field of water, and so it is in both songs :

In “Anandha Yaazhai” : «anbennum kudaiyai neettugiRaay adhil aayiram mazhaiththuLi koottugiRaay » / « You are extending your umbrella of affection onto me, and in it, you are collecting and adding a thousand more rain drops (of happiness) to my happiness »

In “Paravaye engu Irukkirai” « aezhai kaadhal malaigaLdhanil thoandRugindRa oru nadhiyaagum maNNil vizhundhum oru kaayamindRi udaiyaamal uruNdoadum nadhiyaagidudhoa » / « Poor man’s love! it is like the stream that emanates from the mountains, Even if it hits the ground, without suffering any bruises or breakages, it flows and becomes a river! Let us too become like the river! »

– In both songs, Muthukumar also uses the image of the path that is not enough to express the desire for eternity created by love :

In “Anandha Yaazhai” : « undhan kaigaL pidiththu poagum vazhi, adhu poadhavillai innum vaeNdumadi » / « The path that I walk holding your hand is never sufficient, and I desire more »

In “Paraveye” :  « unnoadu naanum poagind Rapaadhai idhu neeLaadhoa thodu vaanam poalavae » / « The paths that I walk with you wouldn’t they extend, like the limitless sky? »

In both songs, we can see two souls who seem to be alone in the world, enshrined in the immensity of breathtaking natural landscapes :

« Iru nenjjam iNaindhu paesida ulagil, paashaigaL edhuvum thaevai illai.Indha maNNil idhuboal yaarum inggae, enggum vaazhavillai endRu thoandRudhadi » / « There is no need of any languages, for two hearts to communicate in this world. It feels as if no one in this world has ever lived this sort of a life anywhere »

« Indha puL pooNdum andha paRavaiyum naamum poadhaadhaa ini pooloagam muzhudhum azhagaaip poagaadhaa » / « Aren’t these grasses, that bird, and us enough (to live in this world). Wouldn’t this world turn beautiful then? ».

– In both songs, green colour represented by grass, leaves or trees seems to be a symbol of pure and happy love. In « Anandha Yaazhai » which depicts an unconditionnal father’s love, we can see a vast and completely green landscape, whereas in « Paravaye », touches of green here and there shows that Anandhi is not so far. Especially, we can see it, in this shot where Prabhakar sitting next to a loving Anandhi, faces a black goat (often a symbol of evil) eating green leaves, just like Anandhi’s affection feeds him (who chooses violence, the evil, in the movie).

Indeed, these two beautiful songs have a lot in common.

Both of them express a pure, childlike and idealised love which emerges from childhood, whether the father/daughter relationship or the love born in childhood of Anandhi and Prabhakar. Obviously, this obsessional theme in Muthukumar and Ram’s works take roots in their teacher’s Balu Mahendra movie : indeed, Moondram Pirai tells the story of the sacrifice of Cheenu (Kamal Haasan) for Bhagyalakshmi/Viji (Sridevi) who regresses mentally to the state of child. Just like their guru, something in Muthukumar and Ram wants to retain the innocence of childhood.

In fact, tamil cinema is going to miss Na.Muthukumar and to the poet’s ears, we should sing his own words :

« unnoadu naanum poagindRa paadhai idhu neeLaadhoa thodu vaanam poalavae » / « The paths that I walk with you wouldn’t they extend, like the limitless sky? »

Shakila Z.

References :

Vinoth Varatharajan’s video on “Evano oruvan” :

For english translations of tamil songs :