View Full Version : Background Scores in Tamil Movies (Suresh Kumar)

25th June 2006, 01:30 PM
Background Scores in Tamil Movies

- Suresh Kumar

Initially when there were only silent movies, the cinemas started to employ musicians to play piano or organs just to avoid the disturbance and noise created by projector running sound. While the movie is screened, the musicians will play some random music that goes in synch with the mood of the scenes. Gradually when talkies came, the creators understood the impact of the background music in movies and started employing big orchestras playing newly composed music that matches with the mood of the film. Thus a time-being solution for avoiding noise became one of the most important and integral parts of movie making.

Just imagine that you are watching a scene with sun rising on seashore, how it would be if you see the waves but can’t hear the sound of it. A wave without the sound of waves sounds odd. Right? A background score should sound like that exactly. That doesn’t distract the audience’s attention that is so close to the mood of the film so that our eyes and ears sense the same. Also in this scene, if there is no any music in the background, the visual won’t loose its impact on the audience, here silence is the key. At times, silence is the most effective score any composer can write. Now if you feel the silence in this place is very raw and realistic to the core and if you want to add a dramatic pleasant element to the scene just imagine a flute playing boopalam in the background (“clichéd“ accepted, but a scene like this can’t get a better effect with any other music). This will enhance the mood of the scene for sure. Background score is not about great music; it is all about apt music, the visual and its music should club together like two snakes while in sex. As John Williams says, our prime goal to achieve an apt score for the visual but if the theme music or a cue from the movie finds a life as a stand-alone piece even out of the movie, then that is a bonus for the composer. That is why Hollywood directors have also used already existing musical pieces of western classical composers that suite the mood of their film the best. A composer would be paid just for arranging and conducting these pieces.

Cinema is naturally a medium of exaggeration. It is an art of sound and light. A movie can be made without songs but not without music. No matter how hard a creator tries to make it look realistic, the audience cannot be made to believe everything. They know that they are just images and it is just a fiction. So, when the creators are aware of this fact, they started using background music as an effective tool to communicate with the audience. The background score may turn highly exaggerated and artificial when it is overdone and also when it is out of synch with mood of the film. So it should be done with care. But we Indian audiences are quite comfortable with exaggerated scores. I am not at all surprised by the decision of A.R.Rahman to have a new background score for the Indian version of the movie “Provoked”. They say that the actual score is too subtle for Indian audience. But as a composer, it is their duty to make even common people understand how a subtle underscoring of music in a scene can impact the audience’s sensory nerves. Are we under-estimated?

I am not exposed to movies from all parts of India. Yet, from what I have seen, it is understood that our composers are largely inspired by western classical music when it comes to background score. Though up until late 70’s there was a clichéd style of scoring background music in movies. A scene with a character getting shocked by something will have a banging chord played by a 100 violins together. Of course for investigating scenes, they have blatantly lifted the James bond theme. And the list can just go on…. I think old movies didn’t even have any themes based on characters or mood of the scenes. They just have ready-made musical pieces for all kinds of scenes in a movie and they were using it repeatedly. Exceptions being background music in Satyajit Ray’s movies. I still can hear the haunting flute and sitar pieces from “Pather Panchali”. Songs being an integral part of Indian movies, most of the scenes in movies had the tune of the song that comes next will be used as a background score. Of course, still this technique is being followed. I am absolutely fine with this method of scoring as even the songs are written based on the mood of the film in mind (ignore item numbers here).

To sum it up, I have never witnessed a background piece from old movies that were meant to be subtle, underscoring and elevating the mood of the scene perfectly without being clichéd. The very fact that there still is no any category for best background score in National awards in films proves how less importance out makers (though not the contemporary composers) gives to the background score in films. I have often heard composers saying that they were given just two or three days of time to compose and record background score for an entire movie. When all the postproduction work is done and when the film is ready for release next week, the film roll will roll in the recording studio for the composer to do his job as soon as possible. Considering such pressures in mind, the kind of clichéd music that composer scores (though they didn’t want to) is quite understandable. But even with these constraints there is one composer who revolutionized background scoring in Indian films. Let us talk about him later. A genius of a composer is still measured by the quality of music in his songs and not on his background score skills. So, if this is the scenario when was the first time I came to notice the beauty of BG scores in Indian movies?

Actually I didn’t understand the impact of a background score through an Indian movie; instead I realized it when I watched “Titanic” in 1999. It is the scene in which Titanic departures from Southampton city. The stunning beauty and grandeur of the ship is conveyed more effectively through a bombastic score written by James Horner involving an orchestra and choir. Even now, I get goose bumps when I watch this scene. Then one Sunday afternoon I was watching E.T for the first time. Those who have seen the movie can never forget the impact of the flying theme on them. In a chasing scene, when the cycle with the alien suddenly starts to fly in the air, the kind of music written by John Williams is one of the most exhilarating moments in history of cinema. You just feel like lifted in the air along with them. And yet another masterpiece is the “Jaws” theme. If anyone asks you about what background scene is, show them a scene from the movie “Jaws” where a two-note motif just plays the most important character in the movie. The camera remains stationary; instead of the camera moving to create thrill and the suspense in the scene a slowly tension building two note theme does the manipulation of audience’s mind in that scene by announcing the arrival of the shark with the fluctuating rhythm and the tempo of the music in the background.

But only later I realized, my first realization was not from these movies but much before when I had seen movies like 16 Vayathinilae, Muthal Mariyathai, Mouna Raagam, Nayagan, Thalapathi, Agni Nakshatram, Guna and 100’s of more movies that came in 80’s when I was in my early teens. You all know whose music I am speaking about. The one and only Maestro Illayaraja and in my opinion, he is the best in the world to score background score for a movie and only next comes John Williams. I have never heard a single note expressing so much of emotions in a scene until I saw Anjali movie. Illayaraja’s genius is unimaginable. Even without watching the scene one can guess what movie and which scene are playing right now from the music in the background. Yet I consciously didn’t notice these background pieces when I watched the movie. It just grew on me and mixed with my blood. His score will not distract you to pay attention to the music leaving the visuals, it will go with the visuals and only when you listen to it again, you will realize that you have heard this music already in one of the scenes of the movie. If I have to write about Illayaraja and his scores, I can go on and on and on writing about it. Let me stop with this.

At present, there seems to be more awareness among the common people about the background score in a movie. The composers and the directors also give a lot of importance to background score of a movie. Though if not up to the class of Illayaraja, many of the contemporary composers in India are doing a decent job in scoring backgrounds if not always. Original Sound Tracks are getting released after the release of the movie. It is a pretty good sign. From next issue, I am planning to write about some of the most interesting movie background scores that I enjoyed watching (not listening). This is just a preamble for what is going to follow. Let me know your suggestions about how I can proceed.

4th July 2006, 10:20 PM
As you said, the background scores apprearing as those 'sound tracks' is an encouraging sign .. but I feel we have a long long way to go ... Invariably in almost all movies you get to hear a totally out-of-sync music running somewhere.

This is a good topic to write on ... but there is one more topic which I thought could be really good - music for ad films. People hardly speak about it, except for rehman and airtel. I cannot stop enjoying the tune of 'aanandham bru vudan arambam ..' there are many such music elements in them too, but hardly recognized... How about writing on that too?!

8th July 2006, 06:25 PM
I liked this article very much
Especially about Raja

Like to know more about his awards and acheuvemts

18th July 2006, 11:56 AM
hi suresh what u speaked is the fact and the truth nothing other than that. In my life i Tell u that Isai means Illayaraja no one can replace his place till this world going to the end. he is the God of Music.......... I like ur article its really superb. I like to here more from u..............


3rd August 2006, 04:01 PM
Hi Suresh what you have writen it is 100% truth Iam so happy to see this .Raja is Music Music Is Raja.

3rd August 2006, 04:06 PM
Hi Suresh what you have writen it is 100% truth Iam so happy to see this .Raja is Music Music Is Raja.

21st August 2006, 05:51 PM
Hi suresh,
please tell me these movies you talked about where raja's BGM stands out. I see a lot of movies where somehow miss appreciating it. I only notice the bad ones. For eg.. 'nooravadhu naal' - mohan, nalini,satyaraj was the worst BGM i have heard in my life. its by IR. THis is not a hate mail. I adore Raja for the songs. But i havent noticed any standout BGM like the ET, Jaws u mentioned. Jaws -specifically - i saw this interview by Spielberg where he said the mechanical shark wasn't ready for the shoot. SO they showed water (or the barrels)and with the music, people assumed the shark was there... When actually people were still working on the shark during these scenes.

Dont send me stinkers. I am asking since i want to know.