While we lived through 2020 yearning for normalcy, 2021 reminded us of the futility of making long-term plans. Seeing such a life in terms of music makes sense, because during a period that often missed the beats, jumped scales, and was interspersed with long spells of silence, we all attempted to find a sense of rhythm to the happenings. With such hope, movie theatres were reopened, and once again, we saw films coming out every week, with the first three months of 2021 seeing the sort of rush that has defined its final week.
We were dancing to ‘Vaathi Coming’ and ‘Vaathi Raid’; we were moved by Maara’s ‘Yaar Azhaippadhu’ and ‘Oh Azhage’. Both these January releases were musical successes as well and had more than the usual five-six soundtracks. The songs of Anirudh and Ghibran burst with an identity, a soul, and while there were a number of much-loved albums in 2021, we saw that songs were slowly dying, and these albums served as resurgence.
How do we not go on to speak about Santhosh Narayanan, who not only gave albums like Jagame Thandhiram, Karnan, Sarpatta Paramabarai and Parris Jeyaraj, but also was the man behind the enjoyable, important single, ‘Enjoy Enjaami’. If Maajja’s ‘Enjoy Enjaami’ opened up mainstream Tamil cinema audiences to the idea of music videos as a separate entity, there was also some controversy over the sidelining of the prolific Arivu. Nevertheless, this could be thought of his year too, given that his voice was behind some of the most important tracks of 2021. Be it his rap style or the profundity of his lyrics, the year saw the rise and rise of Arivu, who kickstarted the year with a Vijay film for which he rapped in Telugu as well. His strength was tapped in the politically charged lyrics (Jai Bhim, Tughlaq Durbar, Jail, Maanaadu) with some fun tracks (Aranmanai 3, Mandela, Jagame Thandhiram) too showing his versatility and accentuating star presence (Master, Annaatthe).
Over the years, the number of songs in films have been on a decline. This puts tremendous pressure on composers to deliver hits every single time. This is perhaps why we saw an influx of numbers with ‘trendy’ lyrics in the way of ‘Jalabula Jung’ (Don) or ‘Baahubali killed Kattappa’ (Sivakumarin Sabadham). But what stood out, once again, was the power of melodies. What Ghibran began in Maara, Imman—who else—continued with ‘Marandhaaye’ or ‘Iniya Thanimaiye’ (Teddy), ‘Saara Kaatre’ (Annaatthe), ‘Uthira Uthira’ (Pon Manickavel), while Vishal Chandrasekhar also pitched in with ‘Bodhai Kaname’ from Oh Mana Penne.
The music of this year had an important purpose—pardon me for the pun: virality. While this has always been the case with promotional songs, this year perhaps saw a tectonic shift. Finding a place in Instagram reels seemed to tke precedence. The hook step of Eeswaran’s ‘Mangalyam’ song became a trend, and the year saw tracks like ‘Neeye Oli’ (Sarpatta), ‘Bujji’ (Jagame Thandhiram), ‘Per Vechaalum’ (Dikkiloona), and ‘Tum Tum’ (Enemy) gaining traction as ‘instagrammable’ numbers. Did it translate to viewership for these films? Perhaps the experts can weigh in.
This was also a year in which the sounds and sights of Tamil Nadu were documented in music. And this was singularly spearheaded by who I think is the composer of this year: Santhosh Narayanan. He gave us a haunting yet deeply impactful album in 'Karnan' where there was experimentation within the confines of the traditional constructs of our folk music. He also delivered a true-blue gaana album in 'Perris Jayaraj', and without skipping a beat, gave us one of the most myriad albums of this year, 'Jagame Thandhiram'. He then ended the year with 'Sarpatta Parambarai', in which he experimented with instruments, genres and voices.
Meanwhile, Anirudh continued from where he left off in 'Master' to give us another electrifying album in 'Doctor', one in which even a ‘swara varisai’ became a rage. Composers like Sean Roldan (Jai Bhim), Aruldev and Kaber Vasuki (Aelay), and Darbuka Siva (Rocky) gave us soundtracks that were not only wonderful standalone albums but also elevated the flavour of the hard-hitting films they belonged to.
GV Prakash Kumar, even in a seemingly off year, delivered a ‘Kaathodu Kaathaanen’ and ‘Nagarodi’ (Jail), and ‘Pachigalam Paravaigalam’ (Bachelor), and I can’t wait to see what he has in store next year, with some wonderful projects lined up. Another big name who experimented with form was definitely Yuvan Shankar Raja, whose long-pending film, Nenjam Marappadhillai found its way to the theatres. He also provided us with a rousing background score for a template masala actioner in Sulthan, and the famed Venkat Prabhu-Yuvan combo delivered yet again, but this time with more focus on the score than on songs. And yet, for all these top composers of our generation, it was a remastered version of his father Ilaiyaraaja’s ‘Per Vechaalum’ that went most viral. Such was 2021. Such is Ilaiyaraaja’s greatness.
We also saw music video singles on YouTube that rising stars of Tamil cinema looked to cement their popularity with. Social media stars like Ashwin Kumar and Sivaangi used it successfully to stay in the public eye, and use it as a stepping stone into cinema.
Interestingly, it was not just the movies of 2021 but even the music that turned out to have pan-Indian aspirations. This trend gave us the extremely catchy ‘Vaa Saami’ (Pushpa) sung by Rajalakshmi for Devi Sri Prasad, and of course, Andrea’s ‘Oo Solriya Mama’ from the same film. Although RRR is gearing to hit screens in 2021, the ‘Naatu Koothu’ song became popular not just for its tune but also for its ‘hook step’ that went viral on social media. These game-changers were rounded off by AR Rahman, who was part of Tamil cinema only through the dubbed versions of his own ‘99 Songs’, and the Dhanush-starrer Atrangi Re (Galatta Kalyanam).
Some of the talents from Tamil cinema confidently staked claim to being worthy of top-tier status with composers like Vivek-Mervin (Sulthan), Bharath Shankar (Mandela), Nivas K Prasanna (Kodiyil Oruvan), Simon K King (Kabadadhaari) and Ron Ethan Yohann (Vanam and Navarasa) delivered credible soundtracks. While many of these numbers often get submerged under all the attention for the actors, the artists behind them often get masked under these filters. While the work deserved more love, the artists too deserved more attention.
Tamil cinema seems to be going through a season of flux, as it seems to be coming to terms with moving into new vistas, while not quite wanting to let go of the traditional way of doing things. Traditional melodies exist alongside the rap phenomenon that has taken over our cinema. Meanwhile, though songs go viral, our biggest composers are now part of films that don’t quite have songs. Spoken poetry found its way into mainstream cinema through Rocky’s ‘Kaalam Oru Dhrogi’, but then we also had Hip-Hop Tamizha’s ‘Sivakumarin Pondaati’, a song that was mostly gibberish in nature. The truth is, there are listeners for all kinds of music. With another year coming to an end, we are once again moving to the next with the hope that life might just get better. And where else do we turn to, if not music, to fuel this hope?