The Ten Commandments of Ilaiyaraaja and Mani Ratnam

The music conjured by this legendary combination not only stood the test of time but defined musical consciousness for entire generations.

ByAvinash Ramachandran

Published Jun 02, 2024 | 9:30 AM Updated Jun 02, 2024 | 9:30 AM

Ilaiyaraaja and Mani Ratnam created a new music language

Hosa bhaasheyidu rasa kaavyavidu… ida haadalu kavi beke?” asked Anil Kapoor as he walked through the streets of 1980s Bangalore, alongside the charming Kiran Vairale in Mani Ratnam’s debut film (Kannada) Pallavi Anu Pallavi.

Composed by Ilaiyaraaja and sung by SP Balasubrahmanyam, the line translated to, “This is a new language, a romantic poem. Do we need a poet to sing this?”

It is serendipitous that this new music language created by the birthday twins—Mani Ratnam and Ilaiyaraaja—gave us not one, not two, but 50 plus new poems over the next eight years and 10 films.

The music conjured by this legendary combination not only stood the test of time but defined musical consciousness for entire generations.

Almost four decades later, yours truly embarks on a truly unenviable task of picking one gem from the 10 glorious albums that Ilaiyaraaja and Mani Ratnam presented to the world like it was just another Monday.

Pallavi Anu Pallavi (1983)

Pallavi Anu Pallavi still

A still from ‘Pallavi Anu Pallavi’. (Screengrab)

Of course, Naguva Nayana is the OG, but take a shot in the wild and give “O Premi O Premi” a listen.

A techno start lays the foundation for the inimitable SP Balasubrahmanyam to bring his unique baritone to a fun number.

There are trumpets. There are electronic guitars. There is Anil Kapoor in a leather jacket. There is a sudden infusion of tabla. There is vocal harmonising. And then, there is SPB inserting a little laugh while singing.

O Premi O Premi“, the first line of a love letter written by Ilaiyaraaja and Mani Ratnam, showcased those butterflies in the stomach when you first lay eyes on the love of your life.

Also Read: Kamal-Simbu’s leaked photo from ‘Thug Life’ sets goes viral

Unaru (1984)

Unaru still

A still from ‘Unaru’. (X)

Unaru was Mani Ratnam’s first Malayalam film. It was his first political film and his first film with Mohanlal.

In a film about unionising, workers’ rights, and revolution, Ilaiyaraaja composed a lilting melody showcasing the romance between Mohanlal’s Ramu and Sabitha Anand’s Mary.

It was the quintessential Ilaiyaraaja number replete with beautiful orchestration comprising violins, flutes, and percussion. And of course, S Janaki’s mellifluous voice was the perfect bridge between these individuals’ brilliances.

It was the second line of the love letter that showcased the comfort that was being built between the two unlikely creators.

Pagal Nilavu (1985)

Pagal Nilavu poster (Wikipedia)

‘Pagal Nilavu’ poster (Wikipedia)

Two years after making his directorial debut in Kannada and one year after his inaugural sojourn into Malayalam cinema, Mani Ratnam finally made his first Tamil film—Pagal Nilavu.

Now, this story about gangsters, youthful romance, allegiance, loyalty, and love needed Ilaiyaraaja to do something special.

Did they know it was the start of a collaboration that would redefine music consumption for an entire generation of Tamil cinema audience? Probably they did.

Otherwise, how would Ilaiyaraaja compose and sing a song like “Poo Maalaiye” with the ever-dependable S Janaki?

What Raaja did with that song was genius, and it was almost like Mani Ratnam set the standards for how the former’s music has to be “seen” on the big screen.

The third line of a love letter exemplifies the need to bring the best out of each other in a creative relationship

Also Read: When Mani Ratnam was served food and Suhasini wasn’t

Idaya Kovil (1985)

Idaya Kovil poster

‘Idaya Kovil’ poster. (X)

Labelled as the biggest “compromise” in Mani Ratnam’s career by the filmmaker himself, Idaya Kovil, despite its box office success, became a blot in his filmography.

Behind-the-scenes issues notwithstanding, there is something honest about the album. There is something honest every single time Ilaiyaraaja places his fingers on his harmonium, and composes a song.

One of the finest albums in this collaboration, the title song also marked the debut of Ilaiyaraaja, the lyricist.

He is said to have dedicated “Idhayam Oru Kovil” to his wife Jeeva, and the song had the word “Jeevan” used multiple times.

Of course, the film had another beautiful song that had the iconic words “Mouna Ragam” but we will get there later.

For now, this here is the fourth line of a love letter that showcases the space they gave each other to design a story that would be told for the ages.

Mouna Ragam (1986)

Revathy and Mohan in a still from Mouna Ragam

Revathy and Mohan in a still from ‘Mouna Ragam’. (Screengrab)

When you hear SP Balasubrahmanyam start the song with his “Aah aha… aaa… aa… ahaa” you are transported to a lonely full moon night with the twinkling of the stars as your only source of light, right?

It can’t be just me. “Nilaave Vaa Shines” the brightest in the interludes, and it just somehow gets better when SPB swoops in, and gets even better in the next interlude.

Vaali’s words, elevated by Ilaiyaraaja’s music, and accentuated by SPB’s voice, just get platformed in the halls of excellence by Mani Ratnam’s vision for the song.

It could have been anything, but Mani Ratnam decides to have Mohan in white, Revathy in black, and them looking at each other furtively with just the moon as the witness.

The fifth line of this love letter is my favourite. The line where both express their love for each other in the only way they know with a healthy competition about whose expression is better.

Also Read: Ilaiyaraaja partnered with IIT-Madras to provide music for all

Nayakan (1987)

Nayakan still

A still from ‘Nayakan’. (X)

Sometimes, just sometimes, everything falls into place. One such Mani Ratnam film was the 1987 classic, Nayakan.

The world sat up to take notice of whatever Mani Ratnam, Kamal Haasan, Ilaiyaraaja, PC Sreeram, and Thota Tharrani did next.

Nayakan became a benchmark, and rightfully so.

It had an album that existed to service the story and wasn’t an individual entity. The film had songs that were essentially mood pieces, but only one of them perfectly summed up Nayakan.

Thenpaandi Cheemayile” was a song that spoke about the tragic nature of its protagonist. The song reminded the world that Velu Nayakkar was indeed a lonesome man, who desperately wanted to embrace death despite being forced to defy it multiple times.

When Ilaiyaraaja and Kamal Haasan go, “Yaar adithaaro… yaar adithaaro…” you just want to hold them tight and say, “Theriyalaye pa…”

The sixth line of that love letter was one where we understood that there is a melody in melancholy, and it is the most mature of collaborations that allows such art to be formed.

Agni Natchathiram (1988)

Agni Natchathiram poster

‘Agni Natchathiram’ poster. (X)

Agni Natchathiram was starkly different from Nayakan. Mani Ratnam experimented with form and structure as he embarked on giving a new-age family drama.

And of course, as always, he had the support of Ilaiyaraaja.

Electronic music was in fashion, and Raaja reminded people he was always trendy.

Another album where every song is a sixer, but there was one stand out. One song, written by the brilliant Vaali, might seem like Raaja showing off.

Such doubts are expected when a song has the lines “Netru illai, naalai illai, eppavum naa Raaja” and is sung by Ilaiyaraaja himself.

But when elevation is supported by talent, it isn’t a showoff, but a mass moment.

Mani Ratnam, in association with the brilliant cinematography of PC Sreeram, created a visual that would go on to define cool for a long time. Really long!

The seventh line of the love letter is one where the outside world sees one half of the relationship as overshadowing the other. But isn’t love also about compromises?

Also Read: Ilaiyaraaja issues legal notice to team Manjummel Boys

Geethanjali (1989)

Geethanjali poster

‘Geethanjali’ poster. (X)

Geethanjali, Mani Ratnam’s first direct Telugu film, also saw him step into a rather interesting territory. In many ways, it was his first full-blown youthful romantic film.

Of course, it is a Mani Ratnam film, and nothing will be as it seems. But it is beautiful how in a film about romance, inevitability, and youthfulness, the song that managed to transcend the time and space continuum is a lullaby featuring the leads.

When the mist falls, and SPB’s voice effortlessly lifts our moods with the words, “O Paapa Laali…” you want to find someone to hug tight. There is a lot of sadness, but there is also hope. It is like waiting for that sunrise amidst all that fog and mist.

The eighth line of the love letter discusses eventuality and reminisces on the memories that make a relationship.

Anjali (1990)

Anjali poster

‘Anjali’ poster. (X)

It was No 500 for Ilaiyaraaja. It is cute how Anjali allowed Ilaiyaraaja to use the voices of his sons, daughters, and nephews.

The album is one of the most vibrant from the collaboration between Mani Ratnam and Ilaiyaraaja.

Now, the chorus songs are aplenty in the film, and each manages to evoke a distinct emotion in all of us.

It was about friendship. It was about family. Ilaiyaraaja gave us a soundtrack that amplified these emotions.

But he also remembered that it was a children’s film.

And then, we had SPB’s vocal range being showcased in “Raathri Nerathil“. The film also had Usha Uthup belting the “Vegam Vegam” number.

But my heart would always beat a bit more fondly for the title track because it was a bunch of children being children.

The penultimate line of the love letter was filled with empathy and understanding. Did we know it was the beginning of the end? More importantly… did they?

Also Read: Madras High Court rejects Ilaiyaraaja’s sole ownership claim

Thalapathy (1991)

Thalapathy still

A working still from ‘Thalapathy’. (X)

This was Mani Ratnam’s 10th directorial venture and his first with Rajinikanth. It was an album that featured in The Guardian’s list of “1000 Albums to Hear Before You Die”.

Thalapathy also featured the iconic “Raakama Kaiya Thattu“, which was listed in a BBC list of “World’s Top Ten Popular Songs”.

Incidentally, the film went on to become the last collaboration between Ilaiyaraaja and Mani Ratnam. What happened after their rift is well-documented in the history of Indian cinema.

But keeping aside all that, can a swansong get any better than Thalapathy?

Can we listen to a train’s horn and not immediately hum “Chinna Thaayaval“? And how can we not smile after knowing the wonderful genius of Vaali, and how he incorporated an Ilaiyaraaja folklore in this number?

How can we not be awed by the experimentation in the “Sundari Kannal Oru Seidhi” number?

Mani Ratnam-Ilayiraaja’s love letter to music

The list can go on and on, and it is one of those good things that come to an end.

It wasn’t a stuttering end to a long innings. It was a flourish.

After eight years and 10 films, the Ilaiyaraaja-Mani Ratnam combo bowed out of the stage with a triumphant melange of audio and visual excellence.

The love letter that started with a new language and a romantic poem ended with a line about the importance of letting go for the greater good.

Just because they moved on, it doesn’t mean the love wasn’t true. It doesn’t mean what they did to the Indian music scene wasn’t special. Those 10 albums came out of the true love, respect, and adulation between two of the finest creators in the world.

As Plato once said, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and everything.”

Through 10 films, Ilaiyaraaja and Mani Ratnam created music that did all this and much more.

For that and everything else, thank you… and Happy Birthday, you absolute rockstars!

Also Read: Ilaiyaraaja and his lone battle of copyrights continue