As I arrived home today to find the Sakkarakatti CD waiting in my mailbox, I was struck by the fact that even thirteen years after I first encountered the sound of A.R. Rahman, even when the soundtrack in question is not associated with a Mani Ratnam film, and promises to be, most assuredly, a "minor" work in the context of Rahman's oeuvre, my excitement when unwrapping the album remains undimmed. Some of that is obviously because Rahman -- even "lesser" Rahman -- speaks to me in a way no other Hindi or Tamil composer does. But much of that is also due to the fact that even "minor" Rahman contains gems, the sort of musical passage that rears up to dazzle the listener when least expected. And much of the excitement is undoubtedly due to the fact that it is often precisely in Rahman's "lesser" work that one encounters the nimble sense of play, the occasional cheekiness, that once made him the most light-footed of all of Indian popular cinema's titanic presences.
On that front, Sakkarakatti does not disappoint: it isn't pathbreaking music, but it is, quite simply (and provisionally, given these are early days for me where the album is concerned), an immensely enjoyable, even satisfying, album. That the master should have it in him to compose a soundtrack so high on the fun quotient just a few months after the ultra-sober (perhaps even staid) Jodha-Akbar speaks volumes about not just Rahman's versatility, but indeed to the composer's need for "smaller" projects. These days, these projects might be among his few opportunities (Shankar's films always excepted) to let his hair down. [Aamir and Murugadoss, I hope you are paying attention.]
Taxi...Taxi... is on the face of it downright silly, a pastiche of neo-hip hop, ragamuffin, and some desi tapori. But its ponderous percussive beat, in contrast to the somewhat drunk quality of the vocals here, that is to say its sheer catchiness, makes it downright irresistible. And there are some moments of genuine zaniness here: from Viviane's French lyrics (delivered in a voice that is nothing if not saucy) to the childishly high-pitched "MamamamamamamamamamaMAMA" refrain, to the incongruous Middle Eastern strains littered over the song. This will never be a great song, but its refreshing to see Rahman hasn't lost the ability to poke some fun at himself.
Marudaani following on the heels of Taxi...Taxi... seems to be the sort of formula that had Munbe Vaa follow the catchy Kummi Aadi on the Sillunu Oru Kaadal soundtrack. But irritation at creative laziness aside, Marudaani is a surprisingly enjoyable song. There's certainly nothing new about this Madhushree (for the most part) solo, and we've heard Rahman croon many many times before -- and yet I was simply unable to resist this song as much as my brain felt I needed to. Old wine in a new bottle? Assuredly. But stale? Far from it: more like one that becomes familiarly mellow with age.
The third song on the album is a rarity in Rahman's recent Tamil work, namely a relatively quiet, almost reflective nocturnal song -- or at least as reflective as a song called I Miss You Da can be. For those who found Sillunu Oru Kaadal's Machakaari too busy, and the same film's Majaa too, well, silly, I Miss You Da is the perfect antidote: it is far simpler than many of Rahman's nighttime songs, but nevertheless one takes it seriously, even on a first listen -- perhaps the result of Indai Haza's forlorn "Yevanay" refrain that recurs over the course of the song; or perhaps because Chinmayi's vocals are recorded at a louder level than one might expect, almost as if she were insisting in one's ear.
If handsome could be a song, then surely the dashing Elay would be it: part tribute to the now-past Urvashi Urvashi era of Rahmania, yet all very much contemporary Rahman in its lush orchestration and assured instrumentation, Elay displays whiffs of a younger, more playful Rahman, but for the most part the urge to experiment is represented here with relative abstraction, reflected in the composer's easy assimilation of a wide array of influences into a recognizably Rahman signature, rather than by means of the instinctive energy of his younger days. There's no reason to complain: the season might be different, but the clarity of the Master's voice shines through just the same. Rahman covers a surprising amount of terrain here, from the peppy opening that brings to mind Roobaroo from Rang De Basanti, but veers off into a more raw vocal direction, while introducing jazzy riffs and even fiddler strains with seeming carelessness. Krish and Naresh Iyer's stolid vocals ground this song, but the music suffusing their words is of a different mind: it wants to soar.
Last but not least, the album recycles two songs from Meenaxi, Ye Rishta into Naan Epoudhu and Chinnamma into a Tamil song of the same name. The former is a straight re-do (even to the point of Reena Bharadwaj's voice), but the latter is, ah, very far from anything denoted by the term "recycling." For through it one gets an insight into how the Tamil masala side of Rahman's brain refracts a tune, a soundscape, he's been living with for quite some time. The result lacks the poise of the Meenaxi number, but more than makes up for it with greater energy, and even -- dare one say it, given how good just about everything in Meenaxi is? -- greater personality. Some of this is undoubtedly the result of Chinnamma's Tamil avatar being a love duet between the expressive Chinmayee and Benny Dayal, as opposed to a Sukhwinder Singh soliloquy, but there's more: the instruments seem more hurried, more assertive, more urban. If the Hindi Chinnamma was bucolic in tone, this one sounds a bit more urban -- and all the while exceptionally well served by the alliterative Tamil lyrics. To this non-Tamil ear, the greater alliteration permitted by that language suits this tune better than the Hindustani of Meenaxi's version. But why compare, when, like all good Rahman fans, one ought to have both?