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November 17 2019
Only composers like Anirudh can make every song a hit: Santhosh Narayanan
20 June 2018

Music composer Santhosh Narayanan on the challenges of scoring for two Rajini films and how music is an agent for social change

Santhosh Narayanan paces down the lobby of Chennai’s GRT Hotel with zero trappings of a celebrity composer. He’s not being bothered for selfies, nor are people stopping him to drop the customary ‘I’m-a-big-fan’ line that is a given with celebritydom.

It’s probably because of how rarely he is seen in interviews and in the public eye. For an interview request a couple of years ago, Meenakshi — Santhosh’s better half and manager — had replied, “He genuinely feels his work isn’t good enough to be discussed.”

So naturally, when we finally get the chance to meet him, we expect a guarded artiste who would be a challenge to talk to. A few minutes and a dozen jokes later, we realised how wrong we were. Excerpts from a two-hour-long dinner conversation:

We’re a bit nervous. There’s a notion that you are a very serious person.

(Smiles) Who told you that? I talk so much that I could have become an RJ! Actually, even Rajini sir thought that about me. The first time he met us, he said, “Unga amaidhi ennaku pudichiruku (I like your silence), and everyone in my team started laughing because they know how much I talk.

You have now completed two films with Rajinikanth. If an astrologer had told you a decade ago that you would be composing music for Superstar, how would you have reacted?

 

Only composers like Anirudh can make every song a hit: Santhosh Narayanan
 

Andha time-la ketta varthaila thittiruppen (I would have abused him). Two films with Rajini...who would have thought. I started my career with Pa Ranjith and Karthik Subbaraj and both of them got to do films with the Superstar.

So, how has Kaala been for you?

Even the background music (BGM) has been appreciated. A lot of musicians worked hard on it... perhaps as many as the number of soldiers who fought in Baahubali!

 

The fact that Kabali happened itself was a dream come true. A Rajini film was meant for legends like Rahman sir...and I’m the sort of musician who goes around bragging that I’ve seen Rahman sir once. I was unsure if people would like the music of Kabali and had even booked tickets to Sydney on the day of its release. I didn’t want people to come and throw stones at my house!

 

When you were growing up, do you recall any background score generating a lot of interest?

Of course. Muthu,Padayappa,Thalapathy and Mouna Raagam...all these films were talked about for their BGM. But today, background music does not have a commercial market...all it gives is goodwill to the composer. I don’t want people to dislike my BGM so much that it runs like a subtitle to a scene: “Intha scene la BGM kevalama iruku. (The background music is pathetic).”

Your initial songs were considered unconventional in the film music space...

My biggest inspiration was the music of Slumdog Millionaire. The music that Rahman tried had such an Indian sound, but that didn’t stop it from winning two Oscars. So, I wanted to dig into my roots for music.

Do you consciously balance commercial songs like ‘Neruppu Da’ with melodies like ‘Maya Nadhi’?

I do all songs with equal commitment. Only composers like Anirudh can churn out hits in every album.

How easily do tunes come to you?

I have no fears or inhibitions while composing. It’s a way of expressing myself. Sometimes, it takes time — like ‘Aagayam Theepiditha’ and ‘Pota Pulla’ — but it can also strike you immediately. As a musician, I enjoy the spontaneity.

 

So, do you get the musician’s equivalent of a writer’s block?

Thankfully, not so far. But I think it might happen soon.

We’ve heard that you don’t play a lot of music outside your studio...

I listen to my songs so many times that I tend to lose objectivity. After I hear a tune around 30 times, I keep it aside, and revisit it after a while. Then, it starts sounding fresh again. The idea of ‘Neruppu da’ went over several changes over the course of a year. I remember asking my friend Satish to listen to the latest version, comparing it with the first one that we had made. That’s when I realised I preferred the original despite the thousand engineering tweaks it had gone through. It’s like demolishing a newly constructed house just to fix a window on the first floor.

 

Are all musical decisions yours alone or is it a collaborative effort?

The creative decisions are mine. I stick to my own instincts when it comes to the tune, bass, chord progression and the basic rhythm. But when you work with musicians like Pradeep, Sean Roldan and Anantu, you tend to take in their inputs too.

There’s a lot of anger in your music, especially when you work with Ranjith...

I think music is the only thing that can change a person’s mind. No amount of speeches and begging can achieve that. Like in Inception, music has the power to change a person’s decision by influencing their dreams. I know this for sure because ‘Vellai Pookal’ did it to me. After I heard it, I thought: ‘Namba nallavana irukanum la...’ (Shouldn’t we be kind?)

Is it possible for you to work with someone whose ideology you don’t agree with?

Never. A few years ago, my ideology was flawed but I feel I have changed after meeting people like Ranjith, Karthik Subburaj, Vetri Maaran, Nalan Kumarasamy, Sudha Kongara, Mari Selvaraj and Raju Murugan. Though they come from different backgrounds, they all believe in equality and have a certain level of social consciousness. People are painting Ranjith to be a ‘jathi veriyar’,but isn’t he the opposite? Isn’t he saying that there shouldn’t be caste at all?

But haven’t you also done films based on their commercial pull alone?

I used to be like a ‘company artiste’, working with the same set of filmmakers. A film like Vijay’s Bhairava was like an odd man out.It was one of my biggest hits, even though I faced a lot of backlash for doing it. Maybe the songs or score was a misfit for the film. But honestly, I enjoyed it and can fix it the next time around.

On a lighter note, we’ve heard that you’re a big foodie...

100 percent. I once even finished off an entire urga bottle (pickle) in one sitting. I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs...it’s food that gets me high. I would have become obese had I not played cricket every day.

We’ve heard that you’re an allrounder in tennis-ball cricket. How much would you rate yourself as a cricketer?

5 on 10. You guys should play with me to find out yourself. Of course, only chucking allowed.

As a chess player?

Maybe 8 on 10.

As a composer?

(laughs) 0.5.

And...as a singer?

0.1...and that too because you are calling me one!

 

 

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