Thursday, April 29, 2010
Music Review: RAAVAN (Hindi; 2010)
The music of "Raavan" -- supposedly a modern day re-telling of The Ramayana -- wasn't what I was expecting. Instead of a self-contained album confining itself to the world of the film like several other collaborations between composer A.R. Rahman and director Mani Rathnam (such as "Alai Payuthey", "Yuva", or "Kannathil Muthamittal"), this album hearkens to the music of the greatest Rathnam film of all, "Iruvar", in its anthologizing of almost an entire film music tradition. But whereas Rehman's mode in "Iruvar" was history, with each song representing a different Tamil film era (Rehman's genius ensuring that none of the songs seemed derivative or stale, as merely nostalgic numbers would have), the "Raavan" album cannot imagine such continuity: the Hindi film musical tradition is here, but in shards as it were. The cumulative effect of the album is thus somewhat disorienting, as musical moments from Bollywood's past -- a 1990s song here, a Punjabi beat there, a tapori jig elsewhere, even strains reminiscent of some who have followed in Rahman's wake, such as Mithoon -- occur when least expected. Fitting: for nothing so linear as chronology (even where history is refracted through Rathnam's eye) makes sense in the realm of myth (and the power of myth), even if, in the case of Rathnam's Ramayana, by virtue of being a contemporary tale, the myth is itself heir to several histories...
The first song on the CD, "Beera", would have been more at home in "Yuva" than at least one song in that Rahman/Rathnam/Abhishek Bachchan film (think of "Kabhi Neem Neem"): the soaring, clean instrumentation, the in-your-face lyrics, the urban vibe (that is to say, not music targeted at the self-consciously urbane, but music that takes its bustle and restlessness from cities) that was practically invented in Hindi and Tamil cinema by Rahman -- "Beera" shows that six years on, the Master still has it, and he doesn't need to repeat himself to show it. Gulzar's lyrics owe more than a few debts to his earlier work on the title song of "Omkara", but musically the two are as different as can be; and if the lyrics of "Beera" are nowhere near the equals of those in the earlier song in terms of epic grandeur and the sort of myth-making this sort of "hero" song cries out for (although Gulzar shrewdly uses the word "Beera" ("brave"; or "warrior") as a refrain for entire lines of song, almost seeking to obviate the need for any other poetry), musically the solid and assured "Omkara" cannot match "Beera" in fleetness of foot or deft touch. And if this emphasis on charm seems a bit incongruous in a film named after Hinduism's most famous villain (or, from the perspective of Dravidian nationalists, its most vilified hero), perhaps it tells us something about the film: virtually all of the album's quintessential "hero" songs are lighter, more upbeat, than its dark, fretful love songs. A quibble: at just a shade over three minutes, I wish it were longer -- Keerthi Prakash, Vijay Prakash, Mustafa, and Rahman's vocals didn't begin to satisfy me, giving this song the air of a tease.
Its opening fifty seconds are reminiscent in tone of Anwar's "Symphony in Blue", but "Behne Do" then veers back into a more traditional direction (this track is about transporting love; not the victim of society at Anwar's core), combining a conventional tune-structure with the mood of "Dil Se Re" (Dil Se). Over a decade on from that unsatisfying number, though, Rahman is now more adept at composing testimonials to hopelessly overwrought desi love in a semi-Western orchestral setting. Think of it as the frontier between "Dil Se Re" and "Satrangi" from the same film (certainly singers Mohammad Irfan and Karthik seem to think so, with their Sonu Nigam-inspired vocals) -- while I doubt "Behne Do" will ever rise to the level of "Satrangi", the best neo-Sufi love song in Bollywood history, Rahman's integration of the Western orchestration into a completely Indian emotional landscape bodes well (in the past, his attempts along these lines have more often than not been unsuccessful). Ultimately, though, the song, splendid in itself (except for the fact that, not for the first or last time in the album, Rahman relegates his own vocals to the background), suffers from the presence of "Ranjha Ranjha" in the same album, almost as if two different attempts at fulfilling director Mani Rathnam's brief have been preserved in the same album. "Behne De" isn't completely subsumed by the later song's spell, but what is its own is poorer.
With respect to "Thok de Kili", it is a real pity that the album's most politically daring lyrics -- turning on childish rhymes between nails (killi), a common Indian street game (gilli), and of course, the national capital (in lines reminiscent of the 1857 battle-cry "Delhi chalo!", itself appropriated decades later by Subhash Chandra Bose for his rebel Indian National Army) -- should be housed in the least impressive musical number. It's certainly early days for me and this song yet, and it is perhaps the least accessible (and deceptively so) of the album's songs. But while the instrumental portions have a chocolate velocity to them that is hard to resist, the vocal portions (by Am'nico, Sukhvinder Singh, and Rahman himself, although one is hard-pressed to make out anyone but Singh) drone on without getting anywhere. Gulzar's daring appropriation of the rebel trope for some of contemporary India's least popular political militants (Abhishek's "Raavan" character has long been rumored to have Naxalite antecedents; the stinging criticisms of Delhi's neglect, and references to the color red, appear to provide confirmation), deserved better. I'm curious to see if the Tamil version will showcase this song's music to greater advantage.
The folly inherent in predicting which number in a Rahman album is going to stand the test of time in my iPod playlists is not going to prevent me from nominating "Ranjha Ranjha" as my favorite song from this album. Rekha Bharadwaj's chorus-refrain (adapted from Bhulle Shah's poetry) is addictively catchy, but insistently and urgently so, and no less mournful for it -- a worthy metonym for a song that re-treads old ground about love being both blessing and curse, loss of identity and derangement, slave and master, and -- not coincidentally given Raavan's theme -- kidnapper and captive. Thanks to Gulzar, who is at his best where, as here, he borrows bits of folk songs and poetry to use as a springboard, the lyrics are that rarest of things in Hindi romantic numbers: fresh. The song's urgency -- devoid of aggression -- is crucial in rescuing the song from the merely conventional, far removed from the strains (too familiar to place with precision, in too unfamiliar a setting to be placed), left over from other songs, other musical moments wafting in and out of this seductive yet unsettled number. Who knew that a khichdi of everything from Nadeem-Shravan's mediocrity (often by means of Javed Ali's callow-sounding voice); Sufi-kitsch the Bhatts specialize in; the generic urban sound of countless "male bonding" songs; all held together by the promise of intimacy always suggested by Rekha Bharadwaj's voice, could combine to yield an ambience so compelling?
I'm not a huge fan of Rahman's very slow Hindi numbers, but "Khili Re" is the way Goldilocks would have liked it: just right. Rahman gets it right, first, by using a female solo (most of his slow misfires are male solos, such as Bombay's "Tu Hi Re" (Hindi)/ "Uyire" (Tamil)); and second, by keeping things simple for the first minute and a half with restrained instrumentation accompanying Reena Bhardwaj's delicate voice. Just when you begin to think the song might have trouble sustaining interest over five minutes, tabla beats (of a decidedly traditional dance bent) break into the song, inflecting this song with a structure and balance it might not otherwise have had, even after it has returned to Bharadwaj's vocals. Over all, the purity of this song is reminiscent of some of Rahman's earliest works (such as "Dil Hai Chota Sa" from "Roja"; or "Karuthamma"), and while it is too polished and ornate to completely blend in with that company, it is heartening to encounter Rahman's abiding readiness to compose work in a decidedly minor vein. Especially nowadays, when the combination of the Oscar for "Slumdog Millionaire" and the fact that (unlike in Tamil, as even the far-from-great Vinaithaandi Varuvaaya will attest), his Hindi music is mostly for Big Films, threatens the mellower pleasures his music affords.
"Kata Kata Bechaara Bakra" has to be the most rambunctious, fun, Rahman number in quite some time, a wedding-song that reminds the audience there was one (far more lewd) in the album that brought Rahman India-wide renown ("Rukmini Rukmi" from Roja). Despite all the throwback fun -- the backup vocals, the percussion, and the speed, all might have been transposed from the era when Rahman unleashed Kathalan on us, while the lyrics are clear kin to those in "September Maatham" (Alai Payuthey)/ "Chori pe Chori" (Saathiya) -- this song is not fluff. In any film that purports to engage with the Ramayana, the question of That Marriage has to loom large; and while I don't know if this song is set at the wedding of the purported Ram and Sita-characters, the conch shell-sounds that punctuate this track never allowed me to forget that this film is supposed to re-imagine an epic, that something cosmic is in the air. That extra dimension, unncessary in the analogous songs from Roja or Alai Payuthey, is also expressed in Ila Arun's vocals, which take this song into a more traditional (and surprising) place, the North Indian "household" women's songs that are now virtually extinct in urban India (but not, apparently, for Rahman, whose "Genda Phool" (Delhi-6) is also in this vein). In a little over five minutes, distinct Indian spaces -- the urban South, the North, and the western deserts it is impossible not to think of when confronted with Arun's voice -- bubble up and vanish. This song (like its mythical progenitor) has geography on its mind. [My one reservation: while my non-existent grasp of Tamil will mean that I'll miss Gulzar's lyrics in the Tamil version, I can't help feeling that language's more definite consonants and springy rhythm will do greater justice to the mood of this number than Gulzar's playful lyrics; I mean, could "Kummi Aaadi" (Sillunu Oru Kaadal) have been nearly as much fun in any other language?]