At a studio in Chennai, 20-odd musicians took their places behind the instruments—the violin, cello, bass guitar, viola, mandolin, xylophone, tabla, dholak, and flute. As soon as the music began for the song, Pookkal Panineer, on a day in November last year for the recent Mollywood release Action Hero Biju, the musicians looked at each other amazed.
Then, one of the senior musicians, Chitty Prakash Rao, came up to veteran composer Jerry Amaldev, and said, “We were thirsting for this kind of melody for the past 20 years. There is no heart in the songs of today. It is just noise and shouting. The music does not hit you.”
But Pookkal Panineer did hit the hearts of listeners. What helped was the beautiful picturisation, set in Fort Kochi, featuring actors Nivin Pauly and Anu Emmanuel, and accompanied by the evergreen voices of legends K J Yesudas and Vani Jairam. “It is a love song,” says Amaldev. “So, I put in a few quiet moments in it. In life, you don’t tell somebody, ‘I love you’, ‘I love you’ in a rush. Instead, you say it once and wait for the effect. I also waited in the song.” The other songs of the film—Chiriyo Chiri, Hara Hara, Oonjalilaadi Vanna and Rabindranath Tagore’s composition of Vande Mataram—were all received well.
Amaldev has returned with a bang, after a hiatus of two decades. Asked the reason for the gap, he says, “Nobody called me. I have been in Kochi all along.”
Amaldev’s comeback happened when a middle-aged film professional dropped to see him at his home a few months ago. He was Abrid Shine, the director of Action Hero. “Shine told me that he was tired of the electronic music and was looking for good melodies and the use of acoustic instruments,” says Amaldev. Convinced of Shine’s sincerity, the 76-year-old music composer agreed to do the film.
Amaldev has had an unusual life. Born in Kochi, he decided to become a priest when he was a teenager. So, he joined the Society of the Divine Word in 1955 at Indore and came under the tutelage of German priests. Having a talent for music, for the next 10 years, Amaldev learnt the tabla, piano, organ, as well as north Indian classical vocal music. But soon, he felt that priesthood was not for him and quit.
Thereafter, he left for Mumbai, and got lucky when he became an assistant to the legendary Hindi composer Naushad. During the five years that he worked with Naushad, he received some valuable tips from the maestro. “The life of the song is in the lyrics,” said Naushad. “When you know the words, you can give the melody. When you have the melody, you can provide the instrumentation.”
After five years with Naushad, Jerry got a scholarship to study music at Cornell University in New York. After getting his master’s degree, Jerry spent several years teaching music in America before he decided to return to Kochi in 1980, and got his first Mollywood film, Manjil Virinja Pookal.
The songs of this film became huge hits and remain popular. Amaldev became the first composer in India to win a State Award (Kerala) for excellence in music direction for a debut film. Thereafter, he composed 300 songs for 75 films before he fell out of favour.
Today, this senior citizen is getting offers again, ensuring that he enjoys a late second innings in Mollywood. But Amaldev says, “When you play music, you are ageless.”