Enchantment in the making : Ilaiyaraaja’s re-recordings for Bharathiraja’s films


In the mood for Ilaiyaraaja.

That’s a very ordinary and quite daily feeling for anyone who grew up listening to his music. In fact, a random search for his songs or background music on Youtube to make working sessions more endurable is an usual mania for me. But sometimes, it can lead to unexpected treasures and surprising glimpses from the past. That’s exactly how these extracts appeared to me, like a time travel into the 1980’s tamil cinema, in the most pleasant and exceptional company, that is to say, with music director “Isaignani” Ilaiyaraaja and legendary director Bharathiraja.

Extract 1 :  Ilaiyaraaja live scoring BGM for Kadalora Kavithaigal (Bharathiraja, 1986) – from Ilaiyaraaja official Youtube channel

Extract 2 : Bharathiraja explaining Ilaiyaraaja’s re-recording for a scene from his movie Muthal Mariyathai (1986).


Nowadays, watching the making process of tamil cinema is such a common thing. Think about those musical clips inviting us into to the recording studios; or those appealing “making of” videos inviting us to film shootings; or even those end-credits bloopers, inviting us to share a lighter and fun moment with the film crew.


In fact, in our digital era, the frontier between film industry and audience is shrinking : film stars are not anymore (or not only, I should say) distant and unreachable demigods seen on larger-than-life cut-outs and posters, film technicians are not anymore unknown craftsmen hidden in shadows. These days, the “on-camera” show is no longer enough, we want to know the “camera-off”. Of course, some would say that knowing this backstage stuff wipes out the magic of cinema, the enchantment of seeing the white rabbit pulled out of the magician hat. Others (like me) would rather say that it’s a fantastic way to understand these film-magicians tricks, to learn how this damned rabbit can come out of a hat.

But, in contrast, our knowledge of the 1980’s film making process is ridiculously restricted. That’s why these video extracts, especially the first one, should be considered as precious archives, as they carry us into one of the most unknown, unseen but also a key step in tamil cinema : the re-recording.

In fact, in the second extract, Bharathiraja chooses the right words to explain the importance of background score for a film : “Karu’nu sonom’na kadhaiya, pinanni isai sekardhu oru jeevan muchi maadhiri” / “If the story of a film is an embryon, adding background score to it is like adding the life breath”. And as he admits it himself, when a scene is weak by the situation or by the acting, background music can even lift it to another level.

Indeed, re-recording is not only a pleasant ornament, it’s really organic to each scene, to each shot, as background score is a kind of musical storytelling, an open window on the characters souls, a reflection of their geographical and social origins, but also the pulses of a scene situation. In these video extracts, this is reflected by Ilaiyaraaja’s work on Bharathiraja’s films, Muthal Mariyathai and Kadalora Kavithaigal : two different scenes, two different moods, and therefore, two totally different background scores.

In the scene from Muthal Mariyathai, it’s striking to see how Isaignani’s musical language perfectly fits Bharathiraja’s visual language. Listening the filmmaker’s passionate and meticulous narration of the scene situation and knowing the long-time friendship between the two men help us understand how Ilaiyaraaja could have been inspired. Anyhow, here is the fact, the music director’s complex background score beautifully blends with the emotions of the scene : the low percussion beats for the close-up shot on the unseen villain’s feet, this vibrating and scatting flute to enhance the simultaneous cut-editing after Sevuli’s death (Ranjani), and to reflect the anxious pulses of Sevuli’s lover (Dheepan) and the running villagers. But Ilaiyaraaja also knows when the music has to disappear to let the audience experiencing the natural sounds of the scene : indeed, just before the assault on Sevuli, we can only hear the wind and the water as the background music stops, emphasizing the tension.

The scene from Kadalora Kavithaigal is totally an opposite one and requires another kind of background music. Indeed, the flirting attempts of young men on Jennifer, the teacher (Rekha) and then the teasing of these three men by Das (Sathyaraj) and his gang have pushed Isaignani to create a light and comical background score. Here, a perky trumpet and percussions tune accompany the young men flirting attempts whereas a naughty synthesizer rhythm is used when they are caught by Das’s gang.

By watching these extracts, I understood one more time, how much Ilaiyaraaja’s compositions are inlaid in our experience of 1980’s tamil cinema and in our collective psyche.

Born in 1943 in a small rural village, Ilaiyaraaja has grown as a kaleidoscopic genius : after being harmonium player with his brother’s troupe, he acquired a multiple and rich music education, from Karnatic music (with T.V Gopalakrishnan), to Western classical music (with Master Dhanraj). Since he broke into Tamil film industry in the 1970’s and brought up a disruptive renewal, Ilaiyaraaja has composed for more than 1000 movies in Indian cinema and, thus, has set some musical codes that are part of every tamilian film DNA.

In Ilaiyaraaja’s musical world, each kind of situation is associated with an instrument, or with a peculiar sounding. For instance, in so many films, the typical Ilaiyaraaja’s sound that I would name “the synthesizing and echoing boing-boing-boing” (my limited technical knowledge doesn’t allow me to name it in other words) is used when the truth breaks out in a comical way. We can hear it, in the scene from Kadalora Kavithaigal, when Das finds out that there is no money in the pocket of the flirting boy. In the same way, in so many films, Ilaiyaraaja grants each important character with a musical piece so that the audience can identify him/her only by listening to the composition. And in fact, we are so fluent in Isaignani’s language that every single note immediately opens our memories box to reach our film imaginary.

But above all, the first extract is a rare occasion to dive into the 1980’s background score craftwork.

Once the camera zooms out from the partition sheet and shows Ilaiyaraaja writing his music watching the scene filmed by his friend, Bharathiraja, we are in the inside track. Indeed, in the 1980’s typical re-recording sessions, music directors used to work on scenes from an entire reel for which the editing was done (nowadays, film images are converted to DVDs). In those times, music directors and their assistants also used to go through each scene, marking when music was required: in fact, there was a specific person called the “marker” who physically marked the film roll according to the music director’s instructions. The cinephile I am ardently hopes that these marked film rolls, such a treasure archives of tamil cinema history, are preserved and stored somewhere.

After this initial stage, musicians were gathered in the studio for re-recording sessions that could last one day, one week and sometimes even more. And this extract shows it very well : Ilaiyaraaja’s conducting his orchestra scene by scene, giving minute instructions, instinctively adding sound effects. These rare and semi-dark images of the re-recording session give us the feeling that we are entering 1980’s cinema’s secret garden. It’s a special emotion to see “Isaignani” Ilaiyaraaja “at work”, to see all these craftsmen behind the making of a film, and to see this orchestra playing live score for the film images just like those musicians playing live music in cinema theaters for the very first movies of the silent era, in the beginning of 20th century.

“Sound and image”: these extracts remind us this simple yet most relevant definition of cinema. A film is always a global experience for our senses and intelligence as it reaches the soul through eyes and ears. This kind of “behind the scenes” images are also a way to satisfy any cinephile’s voyeuristic curiosity : it’s just like watching cinema through the keyhole after having watched it so many times on a wide white screen.


But, nevertheless, I am thinking about this shot where Ilaiyaraaja is shown in the foreground with his back to us, silently watching the scene screened in the background and certainly silently composing in his head.

And here is the cruel truth : even though we learn so much about the re-recording making process from this kind of documents, something remains unreachable and unexplainable about Ilaiyaraaja’s music…

His silence.

This mysterious silence from which his genius blossoms and enchants us.


Shakila Z.