A promise to Na. Muthukumar

Thanks to the insulating naïveté of childhood, it never struck me for the longest time that it was possible actors weren’t really singing their lines. When Rajinikanth in Annamalai looked at the camera and sang, “Pasu irundhaalum paalaagum, seththaalum tholaagum”, it seemed ridiculous to even imagine that the lines could be anything but the Superstar’s own wisdom bursting forth. That the next line was “naan kandu sonnadhunga” only served the purpose of confirming what I thought I already knew. Imagine my horror then to learn, years later, that not only had Rajinikanth not sung those lines, he hadn’t even written them. I was in for another shock, a more minor one in comparison, last week, when it became apparent that the enlightening effects of aging aren’t quite all-pervasive. It wasn’t so much a revelation about the secrets of Tamil cinema as it was about the very nature of our consuming music.

It’s a fault many of us are guilty of. When smitten by a song, we are quick to appreciate the composer, quicker still to compliment the singer. In the occasional song like ‘En Kaadhale’ (Duet) that has an extended instrumental solo, we even take time out to commend the instrumentalist — Kadri Gopalnath, in this case. However, it appears though that no matter how poignant the lines are, no matter how affecting, we remain unaffected by the charms of the lyricist for the most part. This is why comments under YouTube videos are rarely about the lyricists. That is why we don’t hunt down the work of lyricists with the same fervour as we do the discography of composers and singers. Never did I realise this folly more than when discovering the work of lyricist Na. Muthukumar after learning of his demise.

Aanandha Yaazhai’ (Thanga Meenkal) and ‘Azhage’ (Saivam) were widely mentioned in the obituaries (and in most cases, were the only ones), and only naturally, considering he won National Awards for them. You see, for some artistes to be appreciated, it takes recognition of the magnitude of National Awards. As the editor of Jigarthanda, Vivek Harshan, once told me, “If it weren’t for the National Award, most people wouldn’t even have known I worked on the film.” But surely, a man’s work, National Award-winning contributions alone don’t make. And so, I shovelled into Muthukumar’s work, and soon found myself marvelling at the revelation that he was Selvaraghavan’s long-term associate. ‘Kaatrinil kizhiyum ilaigalukkelaam, kaatridam kobam kidaiyaadhu’ flashed across the mind — a line that effortlessly summarised the premise of the film: the incidental damage suffered by a protagonist on account of unrequited love. Suddenly, the film’s climax that has Dhanush smiling, as he falls to his death, brimmed with meaning. Or how about the almost meditative ‘Oru Naalil’, that didn’t even feature in Selvaraghavan’s Pudhupettai? ‘Iravinile nee nadakkayile, un nizhalum unnai vittu vilagividum’ that is a musing on the loneliness of existence, on the transience of relationships.

These were lines I grew up singing, but without ever really pausing to ponder on the meaning. For most of us, enjoyment of a song is generally limited to humming along, as though the lines were simply words strung together haphazardly to fit into the tune. The profoundly affecting ‘Paravaye Engu Irukkiraai’ (Kattradhu Thamizh) acquires stirring meaning as you pause to digest lines like, ‘Kadhai pesi konde vaa kaatrodu povom… Uraiyaadal theernthaalum un mounangal podhum’. It provides deeper insight into the motivation of the characters… into perhaps the very mind of the lyricist himself.

If it is true that you feel closeness with a person when you read their reflections on life and love, it is then entirely possible for us to still experience Na. Muthukumar, to learn about him, even though death has snatched him too early (‘Mudhal kanavu mudiyum munname, thookam kalaindhadhe’). I make this promise to you, Muthukumar. I will do more than just sing along to show my appreciation. I will make the time to hunt down and savour the lyrics as one would do poetry, for is that not what lines like ‘Naan endraal naane illai… Nee thaane naanaai aanen’ are?

This column was written for The Hindu. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share it.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Great article, sir ! A different angle.
    Do take a look at my blog where i also wrote an article about Na.Muthukumar, poetry and cinema.


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