You’ve probably heard a lot about Nenjukulle, the preview of a song from AR Rahman’s forthcoming soundtrack for Mani Ratnam’s December release Kadal. If you haven’t heard the song itself, in spite of the collective crush that sections of the Internet are harbouring for it, you must not be Tamil-speaking. Or possessed of a heart, I guess.
I’m kidding. This is pretty great, though, and if you follow this helpful guide to the Vairamuthu-written lyrics, with Tamil, English transliteration, and a rough English translation, you’ll probably be inclined to think so yourself. (Here is another good English translation.) Shakthisree Gopalan’s beautiful smooth-jazz voice has a lot to do with the success of this song; you probably missed her singing in Jab Tak Hai Jaan’s title track, given that the song appeared during the end credits, but queue it up if you haven’t heard it already, because she is a winner.
I’m still in two minds about the champagne-y concertina. I know this is rich coming from an unabashed fan of Rohail Hyatt’s work on Coke Studio Pakistan, but this MTV Unplugged set, where Rahman previewed the song to widespread surprise and delight, was a little too smooth and pleasantly-pitched for me. Rahman has always been a master manipulator of the pleasant pitch, but a wonderful thing about his best work is how he can surprise us — scratchy percussion here, an unexpected dip in a vocal there — even when he is lulling us into submission. What’s can a full orchestra do with Rehna Tu that the original soundtrack hasn’t already done? So as much as I’m enjoying this, I await Nenjukulle’s appearance on the soundtrack of Kadal, reportedly releasing on 23 November.
The heart of this song’s success, and the reason so many fans are calling it a “comeback” for Rahman (who I, personally, don’t think went anywhere), though, is its clean, waltzy melody; one of those instances when you understand why certain kinds of film music have endured for generations. My grandfather would have loved Nenjukulle just as much as a teenager in Madras does. Songs like this make me think about an early strand of Rahman criticism, which claimed that he was a synth merchant whose talents with machines were superior to his grasp of melody. This was really a laughable accusation to level at someone who debuted with the music of Roja, but now that we have two decades of his work on which to pronounce judgment, this becomes a little easier to refute.
I think there are times when Rahman doesn’t quite tell the stories he’s supposed to with his music -- this happened most recently on his soundtrack for Jab Tak Hai Jaan (my review). He’s sometimes described, even by fans, as a composer whose work has increasingly needed patience and repeated listening to get into, because he’s sacrificed spontaneity for textural complexity. But I’m also going to go ahead and propose that Rahman on form has produced some of the finest love songs of the last few years. Think of Rang de Basanti’s Tu Bin Bataye, or Ay Hairat-e-Aashiqui from Guru; my own favourite is the aforementioned Rehna Tu from Delhi-6, a strange, luminous thing sung by Rahman himself. These songs all fall well within the tradition of the epic Hindi movie love song, which has been a somewhat beleaguered genre in the last few years; but I don’t think any of Rahman’s contemporaries, even the talented innovators, could have pulled them off with quite the same grave resonance. And these are just the product of the recent, more gnomic years. This is the composer who gave us Kaadhal Rojaave and Uyire; his Yennavalae from Kaadhalan is enchanting even in the piped muzak form in which it plays over lunchtime customers at Saravana Bhavan in Delhi’s Janpath.
However, many of these have been duets, or male solos. This is much in keeping with the gendering of our movies. Rahman, you will have noticed, composes for a lot of movies that include happy women singing about their freedom and oneness with the universe -- does anyone have a word for this category? I’m stuck on “cool singing girl” — from his very first hit song, Minmini’s Chinna Chinna Aasai (Chhoti si Asha) in Roja, to Sujatha’s Poo Pookum Osai in Minsara Kanavu, transformed by Hema Sardesai as Aawara Bhanwarey Sapnay, to Neeti Mohan belting Jiya Re in last week’s Jab Tak Hai Jaan. But these are different from songs about love, which, while certainly not new to Rahman, are altogether fewer. So Nenjukulle doesn’t have as many predecessors as it might have had if it were sung by, say, Naresh Iyer. But it reminded me of at least one other great Rahman composition for a Mani Ratnam film, Sadhna Sargam’s Snehidane in Alaipayuthey (transmuted into the somewhat duller Chupke Se in Saathiya, Shaad Ali’s Hindi remake). Will it become as popular? Let’s give it another decade.
What are your favourite Rahman love songs? Tell us in the comments.