A rousing seven-second violin part stands out as the bridge to a crescendo on strings in a recent instrumental piece composed by the Chennai-based music director Ilaiyaraaja. It could have fit into any of the memorable background scores the 79-year-old maestro created for films such as Nayagan and Agni Natchathiram in the late 1980s. Except that this piece came out in May, composed for a promotional video created by Netflix to announce the release of the Tamil and Telugu dubbed versions of season 1 of the hit American sci-fi series Stranger Things.
Titled Ilaiyaraaja x Stranger Things, the video has gained close to 300,000 views (292,464 at the time of filing) despite the English version of season 1 having been released seven years ago. So, while Kate Bush may have notched a No.1 hit with Running Up That Hill 37 years after its release because it was featured in the latest season of the nostalgia-packed series, for south Indian viewers the hype is all about Ilaiyaraaja—Stranger Things merely feeds off his fandom.
On Instagram, however, most post-millenials have no idea that they are creating Reels to Ilaiyaraaja’s music. Recently, The Elephunk Theme by Black Eyed Peas from 2003, which includes an irrepressible dance hook from Ilaiyaraaja’s Tamil track Unakkum Enakkum Anandam, became all the rage. Ilaiyaraaja composed the track for the 1985 Rajinikanth-starrer Sri Raghavendrar. The audio has been used in over 50,000 Reels to date, featuring everything from evening snack ideas to knee-strengthening exercises.
“I just loved the track. I had come across it long back during the first lockdown and just danced to it. Never knew that it was going to be trending now. I didn’t have too much idea about the Tamil track that was sampled,” says Naveen K. Razak, 25, an MBBS student from Thrissur, who created a dance video based on The Elephunk Theme in November 2020.
Yet while Ilaiyaraaja’s older music, from the 1980s and 1990s, has been inspiring fans of cinema all over again, the absurdly gifted composer’s contemporary scores have not lived up to his greatest hits. Isaignani, the honorific of musical genius bestowed on him by former Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi, has often dismissed the genius of other composers who have been able to break the mould and find a following with younger audiences. Maybe therein lies his inability to resonate with the now.
Whatever the reason, between 2000-10, only one song of his, Elangaathu Veesudhey from the film Pithamagan, made an impact. Over the past decade, there has been none. His older music continues to hold its own, though: His younger son, Yuvan Shankar Raja, has been remixing it, others have been referencing it. It is appealing both to those who grew up listening to tapes and those buying NFTs from musicians online today.
In some instances, the songs are used to recreate that period, so their use is understandable. In 2018, for instance, for the score of the Tamil film 96 that included Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha in lead roles, music director Govind Vasantha used Ilaiyaraaja hits to evoke a sense of nostalgia, notably during a reunion scene. Film enthusiasts cheered raucously when they heard the unforgettable opening notes of the soaring hit Thendral Vanthu Theendum Pothu, originally sung by Ilaiyaraaja himself for the 1995 film Avatharam, and the slow-burning ballad Yamune Aatrile, rendered by Hindustani classical vocalist Mitali Banerjee Bhawmick from the 1991 film Thalapathi. Despite the makers of 96 duly crediting Ilaiyaraaja for using his music to craft a mood, however, the senior composer eviscerated Govind Vasantha for not making original music to set the tone of the film.
In 2019, Yuvan Shankar Raja chose originals composed by his father from the 1970s-90s for the background score of the film Super Deluxe. Yuvan licensed the uptempo disco track Yennadi Meenakshi, picturised on Kamal Haasan in the 1978 film Ilamai Oonjal Aadukirathu; Vanithamani, from yet another Haasan starrer—the 1986 espionage thriller Vikram; and Andhiyile Vaanam from the 1992 social drama, Chinnavar, which was directed by Ilaiyaraaja’s younger brother, Gangai Amaran. He picked these tracks for Super Deluxe for the same reason that Govind Vasantha likely felt moved to use Ilaiyaraaja’s music for 96—to situate viewers in another time and place. And perhaps blood does run thicker than water— Yuvan has referenced an Ilaiyaraaja song every other year since.
In 2021, Yuvan revisited his father’s track, Per Vachaalum Vaikkaama, for the comedy Dikkiloona. Sung by S. Janaki and Malaysia Vasudevan for the 1990 laugh riot Michael Madana Kama Rajan, starring Kamal Haasan in multiple roles, the song is driven by a romping horn section and full-bellied folk beats. In a Twitter spaces interview from 2021, Yuvan said it was Dikkiloona director Karthik Yogi’s idea to include the song. “I had composed another tune based on this song since it was the reference for it but we finally decided to go with the original,” Yuvan said. Elated to be part of his son’s soundtrack, Ilaiyaraaja even recalled an anecdote of how the original came to be. This month, Yuvan reinterpreted the boisterous Rum Bum Bum from the same film for the soundtrack of Coffee With Kadhal, another comedy that is being rolled out as a Yuvan Shankar Raja musical.
Film-maker and self-confessed superfan R. Balki has often said he regards Ilaiyaraaja as the greatest composer in India. For his film debut, Cheeni Kum, in 2007, he too had his heart set on Mandram Vantha, a standout composition from the 1986 film Mouna Ragam. Sung by the late S.P. Balasubramaniam, it was reimagined, much to the disappointment of those who loved the original, for the title track of Balki’s film starring Amitabh Bachchan and Tabu.
In an age where fans of K-pop and koothu songs cross over comfortably, it is cinema’s loss that Ilaiyaraaja’s contemporary scores do not live up to his greatest hits. It is almost as if the composer’s music is stuck in a time warp, unable to make the leap. He need not look far, though, to find the musical pulse of today’s audiences. Yuvan delivered one of the biggest dance hooks for Tamil cinema with Rowdy Baby in the Dhanush-Sai Pallavi entertainer, which released as part of the soundtrack of Maari 2.
Lately, Ilaiyaraaja has composed some inspired tracks. Like Neenga Mudiyuma and Unna Nenachu, both sung by the hit machine Sid Sriram, for the film Psycho, which released in 2020. Both called for dramatic orchestration, a nod to Ilaiyaraaja’s 1980s’ oeuvre. Just before the pandemic hit in 2020, the title track of Marudhanayagam, Kamal Haasan’s long-awaited magnum opus, in the making since 1997, was launched. The track, sung by the composer himself, encompasses all the elements of a classic Ilaiyaraaja hit—Tamil folk music influences that are all soul, his inimitable voice, filled with pathos, and a rhythm that rages like a wildfire.
But will the music endure? I am not sure.
Lalitha Suhasini teaches journalism at FLAME University, Pune.