In memoriam : M. S. Viswanathan as remembered by a millennial
The idea of listening to songs composed by the legendary music director, M.S.Viswanathan is synonymous with parental pressure for most tamil millennials. We grew up having a love-hate relationship with his music because it was thrust upon us by our parents who worshiped him. It’s quite unfortunate because, left to our own devices, we might have stumbled upon his compositions and understood his greatness sooner.
MSV, fondly called “The king of light music”, has composed songs for over a thousand movies. Over a thousand movies, not songs. That adds up to over five thousand songs across languages (Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi) and generations (from 1950s to 2010s). But greatness is not just determined by the number of songs composed, I hear you. Then how about the fact that even now, almost 50 years after its composition, his songs mark the major moments of a tamilian’s life? We hear “Vaarayo thozhi vaarayo” blare out of the speakers during weddings and “Ponal pogattum poda” in funerals.
MSV composed songs that didn’t just stand the test of time but transcended it. Working closely with the great tamil lyricist Kannadasan, he came up with compositions that captured the very essence of life. Whether you are a doting sister or a dying soldier, MSV has a song for you – a song for every emotion, a song for every occasion.
1. Adho andha paravai pola – Freedom from Ayirathil Oruvan
A group of slave workers think that they are sailing towards freedom. Their leader is singing about their right to live as free men. “We want freedom to sing and dance without fear” (Achamindri aadi paada vendum viduthalai) they say. If it weren’t for the fact that they are eventually betrayed, this journey could be their best moment in life. Fittingly, MSV turned this song is an explosion of happiness and optimism, there’s chorus, there’s trumpets, there’s plenty of la la la’s.
This song is also a treat to watch; two chief ministers of Tamil Nadu dance with the greatest tamil comedian and the greatest tamil villain of all times. That doesn’t happen often, does it?
2. Anbulla maanvizhiye – Romance from Kuzhandhaiyum Deivamum
MSV is known for seamlessly switching between multiple tunes in a single song and Anbulla Maanvizhiye, where the tune changes every quartet, is a great example.
A pair of young lovers write letters to each other when they are on their date. The hero writes first – “Are you well, my jasmine flower?” (Nalam nalam dhana mullai malare?). The heroine replies – “I am well when you are around” (Nalam nalam dhane nee irundhal). The whole song reads like a letter.
Sung by TMS and P.Susheela, this is one of the songs that majorly contributed to the success of this National award winning movie.
3. Viswanathan, velai vendum – Rebellion from Kadhalikka Neramillai
A wealthy businessman unfairly fires his one of his employees. The infuriated employee appears in front of the businessman’s house with dancers and a musical band (complete with a cello) and performs a musical protest.
Kadhalikka Neramillai is considered to be the greatest comedy movies of all times, just like it set out to be. This song could have easily become a rich-bashing communist song. But in keeping with the lighter vein of the movie, MSV composed a peppy and playful number and chose a softer voice like P.B. Srinivas’s over a stronger one like TMS’s. The phrase “Viswanathan, velai vendum” which means “Viswanathan, I want a job” is still popular and has caused distress to many a Viswanathan since then.
4. Partha nyabagam illayo – Mystery from Puthiya Paravai
Gopal is a well mannered and hospitable millionaire. But he has a terrible secret and his new girlfriend wants to find out what it is. She confronts him. The scene cuts to a club. Instead of an eerie flashback music, we hear violins, trumpets, bongo, and a soulful female voice singing “partha nyabagam illayo?” (don’t you remember seeing me?). And that is how he would have met his first wife. The wife that he accidentally ends up killing. He’d have passed her death off as suicide by placing her body on the railway track and moved to start a new life. But his past catches up with him when his dead wife comes back alive.
This song is sure to give you the heebee jeebees. Sung by P.Susheela, it is alluring enough for the hero fall in love with the singer and mysterious enough to haunt him for the rest of his life.
5. Naan aanaiyittal – Power from Enga Veetu Pillai
We have all been there. We see something wrong happening, our blood boils, we want whip those bad people and make them behave. And we want to do it with TMS roaring “Naan aanayittal” in the background.
This insanely popular song was composed by the Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy duo. It was single-handedly responsible for increasing MGR’s fan base and gave a huge boost to his political career by supporting his “hero of the downtrodden” image.
6. Chellakizhigalam palliyile – Lullaby from Enga Mama
For a lullaby that begins with “Why haven’t you slept yet?” this song is incredibly beautiful and can actually put you to sleep. The hero takes a dozen orphans under his care. Being an orphan himself, those children are his family. He plays with them and teaches them. When they are too excited to go to sleep, he sings for them.
The humming and whistling in this song have MSV written all over it. MSV uses them in many of his songs for different purposes. When the heroine is peaceful and happy, she hums. When the hero feels philosophical, he whistles. In this song, he uses it to show that the soothing words of his lullaby is not just for the children but a little bit for himself too.
7. Varavu ettana – Lessons from Bama Vijayam
A rich movie-star neighbor moves next door to a peaceful middle-class joint family. The young couples in the family spend too much too fast imitating the extravagant life of the neighbor. So the grandfather and his grandkids decide to teach them a lesson in economics.
This song is structured like a classroom lesson. The grandfather reads out the lessons and the grand children repeat them to their parents word by word. This all-time classic budget song teaches you the perils of biting off more than you can chew (Yaanaiyai pole poonaiyum thinna jeeranamagadhu).
8. Ullathil nalla ullam – Karma from Karnan
It’s the 17th day of the Kurukshetra war. The pandavas have to take out Karna in order to win. But even after severely wounding him, they are unable to kill him because the dharma that Karna did is protecting his life. So Arjuna enlists the help of Krishna who finds an immoral solution to the problem. He begins his long walk towards Karna, who is lying wounded on the opposite side of the battlefield, singing about his virtues (something like “I love you man, but I have to kill you”).
The heartbreaking background score is a reflection of how the audience is feeling at this moment. But they also have to agree with Krishna when he says that no matter how virtuous Karna is, in this war, he has to go. That part is taken care of by Seerkazhi Govindarajan. His glorious voice and flawless pitch gives the song the stability Krishna feels when he says “I am the betrayer” (Vanjagan Kannanada)
9. Malarnthum Malaradha – Love from Pasamalar
Raja and Radha are loving brother and sister. They remember and miss each other no matter how old they are and how far apart they are. They rave about their relationship in the lullabies they sing to their own kids. They sing that their memory will live on even after the earth, the sea and the sky cease to exist (Indha mannum kadal vaanum maraindhu mudindhalun marakku mudiyadhada) and that their relationship could never be broken.
This is an incredibly sad song. Only a genius like MSV could have pulled it off without a shehnai. I love the emotions in this song. I love how the voices of TMS and Susheela jump between pride, reminiscence and sadness in seconds, and I love that tiny bit of traditional lullaby song “aariraro” in the end.
10. Shiva Sambo – Euphoria From Ninaithale inikkum
The year was 1979. MSV was slowly becoming outdated and the Ilaiyaraja fever was taking over Tamil Nadu. But when K.Balachandar wanted to make a full out musical movie, he wanted MSV to do it. Ninaithale inikkum was MSV’s second coming. The audience flocked to the theatre to listen to his fresh, western beats.
Though Engeyum eppodhum is a more popular song in this movie, Shiva sambo has achieved a cult status for multiple reasons. Its spiritual and intoxicating composition was one reason. Another was MSV’s voice.
He was not just a brilliant composer but also a trained classical singer. His gruff voice has so much personality that it had to be used very wisely in select few songs. But in this song, it gave Rajinikanth (then a small time actor) his much needed break. If putting the superstar on the map is not a good enough reason to listen to this song, what is?
These songs are in no way MSV’s greatest, commercially or critically. These are just the songs that stuck with this particular millennial in spite of the parental pressure.