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19 November 2015

Salilda's Malayalam Songs

Salilda with Yesudas
Photo uploaded by Shashank Chikermane
One of my first posts soon after (desultorily) beginning this blog was on Salil Choudhary, and on some of the (many) songs I liked from his compositions for Hindi films. In that post, I mentioned how I could make ten lists of ten Salilda songs and still find new ‘favourites’.  Since then, I have listened to more such old favourites, discovered ‘new’ ones, and thoroughly enjoyed being amazed by what one man could do with seven notes. And every time I hear Salilda’s Malayalam compositions while driving somewhere (the bulk of my music listening is in the car), I think – casually – of how many of his songs I really, really like, and wonder if I should make a list. But while my blog has been open to cinema from different languages and I have reviewed Malayalam films here, and mentioned a couple of Malayalam songs here and there while making themed lists, I had never made a whole list of Malayalam songs - so the thought remained a thought. Recently, however, a reader, Rahul Jain, asked if I would ever consider doing a post on Salilda’s Malayalam songs. 'It may encourage folks to look up and listen to unknown gems' is how he put it. That comment gave me the impetus to actually write this post; so here, on Salilda's 92nd birth anniversary, this is for you, Rahul – thank you.

Hindi film music directors have often stepped outside the confines of the Hindi film industry to compose songs for regional languages. Many of the Bengali music directors, for instance, had already begun their journey composing for Bengali films, before they ventured into Hindi. It helped that even the Hindi film industry traced its beginnings to studios in Calcutta. Once the Hindi films’ production moved to Bombay, they continued to compose for Bengali films and for Puja songs while moving along with the needs of the times. 

Salil Choudhary was no different. He had moved to Bombay in 1953, debuting with a stellar score in Do Bigha Zameen. In the twelve years since, he had carved a niche for himself. And in 1965, he made his way to a movie industry that was as far away from Hindi and his native Bengali. In the three decades since that  debut, Salilda composed for more than 25 films and became as close to the Malayali heart as he is dear to Bengalis, or to Hindi film music lovers.
Salilda with ONV Kurup
Photo courtesy: New Indian Express
‘Introduced’ to Malayalam cinema by Ramu Kariat, a good friend from their IPTA days, Salil Choudhary soon formed a long-term partnership with poet/lyricist ONV Kurup and Vayalar Rama Varma, apart from Sreekumaran Thampi. [Three years before Chemmeen, however, Salil Choudhary had composed the background music for a documentary called An Invitation to Nature's Paradise (the first documentary film released by the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation) made by film-maker Sivan, the father of ace cinematographers/directors, Sangeeth and Santosh Sivan.] Chemmeen was a pathbreaker in Malayalam cinema, winning accolades and awards from all over. Complementing Thakazhi's rooted-in-its-milieu story was Salilda's fine compositions, soaked in the ethos of a little fishing village. The songs and music became as popular as the film, and are popular even today. That was just the beginning.

I have chosen 15 songs - some of my favourites. These are the songs that first came to my mind when I thought of this post. It is an incredibly difficult choice - every single one of Salilda's compositions in Malayalam is a gem; some of his songs in Malayalam, in fact, have no equivalents in any other language. Most of the songs listed here have no Hindi equivalent, for instance, though many are present in Bengali. However, the arrangements and even the chord progressions in these cases are different. 

What is interesting is that these changes though not evident to most people who listen to the base tune, and say, 'Oh, but this sounds like...' add the requisite regional inflections to a tune, no matter where its origin. For instance, take Machalti aarzoo from Usne Kaha Tha (1960). Now here is the Malayalam version Itharo chembaruntho from Thumboli Kadappuram (1995), Salilda's last film in Malayalam. The base melody is the same, but you cannot deny that the latter song, with the sound of traditional drums, is soaked in the Malayali ethos. His arrangements change what was a beautiful love song in Hindi into what's basically a fisherman's song in Malayalam. In between, he diverges completely from the original.

Salilda was known for being adamant about composing the tune first, and then getting the lyrics written to fit his composition. It could be said that it was he who elevated that into a fine art in the Malayalam industry, where typically, lyrics were written first and tunes came later. [This is said to have led to a kerfuffle with Vayalar, a poet-lyricist who would go on to become one of Salilda's closest collaborators in Malayalam.]

This is what Cinematters of oldmalayalamcinema has to say about it: It could be said with  reasonable conviction that it was Salilda who elevated 'lyrics-for-set-tunes-as-soulful-compositions' into a fine art in Malayalam film industry, where purists gagged at the very thought. This wasn't a new idea. Attempts at slicing away toes and heels to fit sonic shoes have been on quite a while since the advent of popular cinema. Not to mention the average Malayalam cineaste on whose behalf the orthodoxy vehemently protested, and in most cases was so thoroughly skewed and coloured with their own personal agendas. The average Malayali fans' and the purists' sensibilities were as similar as chalk and cheese. With Chemmeen, Salilda became a Malayali. Here was a music director who gave you quirky chord progressions, rousing chorale crescendos on one song, and made your knees go Jell-o with a dulcet piano backed-vocals in the next. Though MB Sreenivasan had brought in chorale and the western nuances into Malayalam film music, it was Salilda who served it with a "twist" ( pun intended) where you least expected it. 

Here are my (present) choices from his Malayalam compositions, in chronological order of the film's release. (My husband's notes about the music follow.)

1. Puthan valakkaare (1965) 
Chemmeen (1965)
Singers: KJ Yesudas, P Leela, KP Udaya Banu, Shantha P Nair 
Lyrics: Vayalar
It was director Ramu Kariat who brought Salilda to Kerala, for his magnum opus, Chemmeen, that was based on a novel of the same name by Thakazhi Sivasankaran Pillai. The film also saw some other celebrated stalwarts from outside Kerala's border - Hrishikesh Mukherjee as editor, and Marcus Bartley as cinematographer. Salilda, in turn, gave Manna Dey one of his career best songs (his only solo in Malayalam), in a language that was neither his own, nor the one in which he had carved a niche for himself. Manasa maine varoo became a cult song, one that endeared Manna Dey to Malayalis everywhere - they even lovingly overlooked his harsh 'r' while enunciating the words. Puthan valakkare, sung by the fishermen and their spouses as they begin the day's work, sings of a peculiar phenomenon known as the 'chakara', which is seen only in the coastal waters of Kerala, when prawns and other fish throng the seas, turning it almost blood-red, and proving a boon to the local fisherfolk.

Puthan valakkare dispenses with the standard antara-mukhda format; it starts with the drumming on the chendas (traditional drums of Kerala), followed by Yesudas's vocals, and the mens' chorus joining in for the refrain. Incidentally, this first melody line is never repeated in the song. Without an interlude, the women's voices come in singing another melody, which was never used by Salilda in Hindi. (Years later, he used this part in a Bengali film called Kobita.) Yesudas comes back with the tune that one can recognise as Baagh mein kali khili. The interludes include some lovely flute pieces, played by Dr N Ramani, the great Carnatic flautist, who passed away recently. 

2.  Sourayudhathil
Swapnam (1973)
Singer: Vani Jayaram
Lyrics:  ONV Kurup
Swapnam was based on a novel (of the same name) that had been serialised in a Malayalam weekly. A 'romance' on the face of it, it had a heroine who was passionate about poetry, but it meandered through the usual 'love-triangle' trajectory, with Madhu and Sudhir playing the two men, and did not fare too well at the box-office. However, Salilda's compositions - two solos by KJ Yesudas, two solos by S Janaki, and this one, became the high point of this film. In fact, if Swapnam  is remembered at all today, it is because of its music, and because it gave to Malayalam cinema two fine women artistes - Nandita Bose, the Bengali actress, who became a sought-after heroine in Malayalam films; and Vani Jayaram, who made her playback debut in Malayalam cinema with this song. Unlike the other songs in this film, Sourayudhathil has no equivalent in any other language.

The humming in the beginning sets the tune for the song. It is followed by the first chords on the organ, and then the violin and the organ playing off Vani Jayaram's voice, before the first percussion comes in. Salilda used the same percussion in other songs; he seems to have been fascinated by the tribal drums from Kerala. The song moves to notes on the electric piano and the flute, with the latter imitating bird calls. And when Vani Jayaram begins En jeevanathante sindooramenno, she steps almost into soprano territory. As the song progresses, you notice that it - almost imperceptibly - speeds up with every alternate verse, almost doubling up in metre by the end of the song.  

3. Neela ponmaane
Nellu (1974)
Singers: KJ Yesudas, Madhuri
Lyrics: Vayalar
Another film directed by Ramu Kariat, he brought back Hrishikesh Mukherjee for editing (along with Appu) and Salilda for music. Nellu also saw the debut of Balu Mahendra as cinematographer in Malayalam (though this film was not his first release). Based on an award-winning novel of the same name by noted writer P Valsala, Kariat took the essence of the strong story and crafted a strong and visually-pleasing film. The film saw the debut of Mohan (in the inset here) as the lead opposite Jayabharati, one of the leading heroines of the time. Also headlining the cast was Prem Nazir. 

Both critically acclaimed and a commercial success, Nellu took a deeper look into the life of tribals of Wynad just as Chemmeen depicted the life of the fishermen of coastal Kerala. The original of Neela Ponmaane can be traced to a non-film Sandhya Mukherjee solo Neel neel paakhi. According to Gautam Chaudhary on Salilda.com, Salil Choudhary is supposed to have visited the forests of Wynad so he could hear the sound of the tribal drums, which he then incorporated into Chemba chemba - the only other song that Manna Dey ever sang in Malayalam. 

4. Poomala poonkuzhali
Neela Ponman (1975)
Singer: S Janaki 
Lyrics: Vayalar
This song, a Salilda original which has no known versions in any other language, has two versions in this film, both sung by S Janaki. This one, here, is picturised on Sumitra alone. (The other version is picturised on Sumitra and Prem Nazir, and if you're wondering why he has auburn hair and is wearing an overcoat in tropical Kerala, well, he's supposed to be playing a Russian scientist in the film.) 

S Janaki begins the song, almost unaccompanied by any orchestration; there is only the sole electric piano. This was followed by Salilda's rare use of the reverb followed by the many sounds of the jungle. When the song proper (Kilum kilum) begins, there's an interesting use of plucked strings, which continue even as the percussion joins in. In the interludes, you have the flute and strings; the violins strike a different note in their own melody when the vocals begin the antara. The second interlude has no connection to the first, and a striking chord change seems to herald some coming danger.  

5. Nishasurabhikal 
Rasaleela (1975)
Singer: P Jayachandran
Lyrics: Vayalar
Another original composition by Salil Choudhary, which has no 'versions' in any other language. The songs and the film were a commercial success, in no mean measure due to the subject matter of the film - it dealt with a young man's awakening sexuality, and also dealt with the controversial topic of sexually transmitted diseases, leading to problems with the censors. Kamal Hassan (he was Kamalahasan then) had only the previous year debuted in his first adult role in Malayalam in Kanyakumari. (His previous outing in Malayalam was as a child artiste in Kannum Karalum (1962).) A slew of films followed. Rasaleela was the remake of Unarchigal, which also starred Kamal. (The film, co-written by Kamal, was supposed to be released in 1972. It too was embroiled in censorship, and finally saw box-office light in 1976.)

6.  Nanma nerum amma
Aparadhi (1976)
Singers: Latha Raju, Baby Sujatha, Master Sreejith
Lyrics: P Bhaskaran
Teaming up with lyricist P Bhaskaran, Salilda gave to Malayalam cinema one of its finest Christian prayers, with its wonderful choral arrangement. Once again, this is a composition which has no other-language versions. With all the top stars in Malayalam - Prem Nazir, Madhu, Sheela, Jayabharati - present, Aparadhi had four songs, all of which were very popular at the time of release, and are still remembered. Nanma nerum amma has several 'cover' versions, which according to my friends who have heard them, are cringe-worthy. 

This was one of [Baby] Sujatha's first songs. The melody is fairly simple, but once the children's chorus dies away, and the choir comes in, you can hear the melodic counterpoints. Listen to the way the chorus emphasises and complements the main melody, sometimes singing along, sometimes providing harmony and polyphony.   

7. Keli nalinam
Thulavarsham (1976)
Singer: KJ Yesudas
Lyrics: Vayalar 
Malayalam films tend to have very few songs - Thulavarsham had three. Every single one of them is a gem, and I had a tough time deciding between Swapnadanam, an S Janaki solo, Yamune nee ozhukoo, a Yesudas-Janaki duet and this one here. A very young Sridevi (she was barely 13 or 14 when this film was released) made her 'adult' debut in Malayalam; if I'm right, this was her first full-length adult role in any language. (And yes, it is slightly creepy to see her being romanced by men who are very many years older than she is, especially when she looks like a little girl playing dress up.) A number of films followed, and Sridevi has always recognised that Malayalam cinema gave her some of her best roles in cinema. 

8. Shyama meghame 
Samayamayilla Polum (1977)
Singer: KJ Yesudas
Lyrics: ONV Kurup 
Unlike the previous few songs, Shyama meghame can trace its origins back to a Sabita Choudhary solo, Jao tobe jao, a non-film song. I don't recognise the actor but he has a snazzy pair of eyeglasses (and Yesudas's voice is wasted on his completely non-expressive face).

This is one of the few times that Salilda used a raga without deviating too much from the norm. Based on Raga Kalyani (Yaman / Yaman-Kalyan), it starts off with a beautiful flute solo. It reminds me of Aap ke anurodh pe, but whereas Laxmikant-Pyarelal stick to the more traditional treatment, Salilda, that serial disrespecter of traditions, is all over the place in the interludes, with chords that are quite edgy and brushing against the odd note in the melody quite skilfully. Yesudas skips through the little slides and gamakas with great panache.   

9. Poomanam poothulanje
Etho Oru Swapnam (1977)
Singer: KJ Yesudas
Lyrics: Sreekumaran Thampi 
Poomanam poothulanje has been a perennial favourite with me, and not just for its lyrics. Etho Oru Swapnam, based on Bhikshaamdehi, a critically-acclaimed novel by K Surendran, was 'action-hero' Jayan's attempt to prove that there was more to him than doing dangerous stunts. His turn as a mendicant who helps an estranged couple (then real-life husband and wife Jagathy Sreekumar and Mallika) come to terms, but is, at the same time, forced to question his own convictions, was well received, both by critics and the box-office. (Incidentally, the film had three estranged couples - Jagathy-Mallika, Sheela-Ummer, and Jayan-Kanaka Durga.) Three short years later, the naval officer-turned-hero, whose meteoric rise was unprecedented in Malayalam cinema, would die a tragic death while shooting a stunt scene for a film. 

Poomanam poothulanje is one of Yesudas's best songs for Salilda; he sings it so effortlessly. Magnificent guitar playing and a lovely counter-point on what seems to be an electric organ and a flute. The flute counterpoint extends throughout the main melody, sometimes intertwining with a single note on the electric piano. Though most of the song appears to be in B-Minor, there are all sorts of chords which are not in that key that make their appearance. Poomanam... was first composed in Malayalam. Two years later, Salilda would use this melody as a duet - slowed down - in the Bengali film Antarghat. I prefer the rawness of the Malayalam version, though, because of the lyrics, and the guitar pieces that play both melody and rhythm. There's a Tamil version of this song too, which is in a faster metre, with different interludes. 

Salilda reprised the Bengali version in an obscure Hindi film named called Aakhri Badla (1989). The Kishore-Lata duet is not a patch on the original, in my admittedly biased opinion.
Madanolsavam (1977)
Singer: KJ Yesudas
Lyrics: ONV Kurup 
An adaptation of Erich Segal's Love Story, Madanolsavam saw Zarina Wahab's debut in Malayalam. The film was dubbed into Tamil (Paruva Mazhai), Telugu (Amara Prema) and Hindi (Dil ka Saath Dil), so the songs from this film have equivalents in these three languages. They also show up in his non-film compositions in Bengali.  

This vies with Nee mayum nilaavo for two of the best songs in the film. Set to a daadra taal, it contains some really lovely flute pieces that accompany Yesudas's voice. Typically Salilda, the strings never follow the voice but play against it, providing the harmony and, as he has often done, he places a sitar against the violins. The last line is sung  in a single breath, with no breaks.  

11. Malarkodi pole
Vishukkani (1977)
Singer: S Janaki
Lyrics: Sreekumaran Thampi 
The remake of an extremely successful 1961 Tamil film, Karpagam, which starred KR Vijaya, Gemini Ganesan and Savitri Vishukkani nevertheless transcended the original to take on a flavour that was uniquely Keralite. (Karpagam was also remade in Hindi in 1965 - the obscure Jamuna-Rajkumar-Nutan starrer named Rishte Naate.) While I could take either Savitri, Nutan or Sharada in the second lead, I much preferred Vidhubala, a favourite of mine right from my childhood, to KR Vijaya/Jamuna. For a change, and surprisingly, it is a little boy (Master Kumar) who played the role of the daughter, Ambili. While I really like this film (and can still watch it again and again), this song also holds dear memories; this is the lullaby I used to sing - badly - to put my older boy to bed. Not having developed his musical tastes then, he used to insist I sing (!) it every night. It was 'his song'; so much so, when I sang his brother to sleep with the same lullaby years later, he took great umbrage at 'his song' being used for his brother. 'Can't you find a  different lullaby for him?' he asked, in disgust. I love, love, love this song (my husband prefers Yesudas's version), and while I find the Lata-Manna Dey duet in Hindi beautifully sung, I still prefer this one. (Unfortunately, the Hindi film Sangat was never released.) 

12. Raapaadi paadunna ragangalil  
Vishukkani (1977)
Singer: P Susheela
Lyrics: Sreekumaran Thampi
Rishte Naate's music was composed by Madan Mohan, and while I find Mujhe yaad karnewaale a pleasant enough composition, it is nowhere as beautiful, as poignant - or as complex - as Raapaadi paadunna ragangalil, which is picturised in the context of the same situation in the Tamil/Hindi version - the man's wife has been dead, killed in a freak accident, but he's still grieving for her, though, even though his family members (and hers) would like him to move on. It's been a year to the day, and everywhere he goes, he sees her. Finally, it takes her memories to make him come to terms with them.  Not quite a ghost, but still, ghostly enough. 

The very famous Bengali version of this song was released around the same time as Vishukkani, and so, one does not know which came first. Aaj noy gun gun was composed in G Minor, while the Malayalam song is tuned a step lower in F Sharp. The electric organ and guitar begin the prelude, followed by the strings that bring in that touch of eeriness - according to my son, they sound like the winds during a storm. There is a second set of strings that provide a deeper, more haunting single note played portamento that helps in setting the mood for the song, and dropping into complete silence before Susheela's vocals take centre-stage. Where this song differs from Lata's Bengali version is the 'weight' of Susheela's voice, which adds the gravitas necessary to the context of the scene.

What is interesting is that in the antara, when the main melody repeats the same note, the strings behind are playing a completely different set of notes in a counterpoint that changes the chords within each measure, even if the main melody is invariant. 

12. Oru naal vishannere
Devadasi (1978) 
Singer: KJ Yesudas 
Lyrics: ONV Kurup
Another lullaby, but oh, how different from the maternal (and paternal) emotions expressed in the previous one! Orunnal vishannere is a song that disturbed me terribly when I heard it the first time. The notes are - how shall I put it? - dissonant, moving back and forth seemingly without any particular meter, and that dissonance troubled me. By the time I paid attention to the lyrics, I was in tears. It's the narration of the story of a nightingale and a firefly - a tired, hungry nightingale chances upon a firefly; just when it's about to peck what appears to be a golden grain, the firefly speaks up, pleading for its life. It's they who light the path of the nightingale, the firefly pleads tearfully; the same God that gave the nightingale its song, blessed the firefly with its light, and if only the nightingale would not kill it, it will - forever - light the nightingale's nest like a lamp in the temple... if only...   

The nightingale, torn between its hunger and touched by the firefly's plea, presses its plumage against a white rose, tearfully singing out its desperation as the night passes. When dawn alights, the white rose is blushing as well, its white petals tinged with red... 

And I wondered who on earth would tell/sing such a story to a child just when he/she is going to sleep

The film, supposedly with a heavy star-cast of Prem Nazir, Madhu, Soman, Sukumaran, etc., was never released. It fell prey to a clash between the director J Sasikumar and Adoor Padmakumar, and six beautiful songs composed by Salilda were the casualty. Gautam Choudhary, the creator/curator of the Salilda website, has this to say about this songOru naal vishannere" is a gem ! It is basically the Malayalam version of Salil's all time Bengali classic 'Kono ak gaanyer bodhu' but the arrangement in Devadasi is just amazing with a wonderful guitar intro; Salil has introduced quite modern chord variations in this version

The melody in this song is so delicately poised with its shifting tones that if a single note were to be removed the composition will fall apart.

14. Ee kaikalil
Ee Gaanam Marakkumo (1979)
Singer: S Janaki
Lyrics: ONV Kurup  
Here's a 'ghostly' song that can hold its own against any such melody in Hindi. Haunting music? Check. Lady in white sari? Check. Who appears and disappears at will? Moonlit night? Rolling mists? Check, check, and check. This film saw the debut of Bengali actress Debasree Roy in Malayalam. Considering the title of the film translates into 'Will you forget this song?' I wonder if the talented ghost is Debasree herself. 

15. Aarattu kadavil
Puthiya Velicham (1979)
Singer: P Jayachandran
Lyrics: Sreekumaran Thampi
This is one of those songs for which Salilda should have put his foot down and said that if they were going to murder his composition in the picturisation, he wasn't going to give it to them. (No, please don't watch.) The song itself is a fabulous composition, the lyrics by Sreekumaran Thampi are so erotically charged, and it is sung beautifully by Jayachandran, another fantastic Malayali singer. (One would think that Malayalam playback was dominated by Yesudas as the male voice, and after a certain period, that was certainly true. But there was a time when Jayachandran ran him a close second.) A remake of Phool aur Patthar, with Jayan reprising Dharmendra's role (the only actor in Malayalam cinema in those days who could have matched Garam Dharam in physique), Sree Vidya taking on Meena Kumari's character, and reigning queen Jayabharati playing Shashikala's role, Jayan in Puthiya Velicham evoked the same female hysteria that Dharmendra did in Phool aur Patthar. While Ravi scored the music for Phool aur Patthar, Salilda composed six songs for the Malayalam adaptation, ranging from the folksy (in picturisation), erotic Aarattu kadavil, the playful Jhil jhil jhil chilambanangi chiriyil, the 'club' song Poo virinjallo, the seductive Aaraaro swapna jaalakam, the devotional Manasse nin ponnambalam, and the quasi-traditional Chuvanna pattum.

Salilda's output in Malayalam may have been limited to twenty-five plus films (for three of which - Dweep, Vellam, Vasthuhara - he composed only the background music) but each and every song that he composed in my language has been accepted by Malayalis who embraced him wholeheartedly, and celebrate him as one of their ownThe songs I chose are some of my favourites from amongst Salilda's compositions, and I've linked to a few others as well. 

*My thanks to:  

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