Review: The Playback in Malayalam Cinema

Cover of 'The Playback in Malayalam Cinema'.
Cover of 'The Playback in Malayalam Cinema'.

A small tin box full of needles  with the picture of a dog listening to "His Master’s Voice", stacks of gramophone records made of  lac, a group of teenage boys going to meet their English Professor  in his room  full of stacks of  records, records of  Saigal, C H Atma and the like, and the professor, (the late) G Kumara Pillai, telling his students in his nasal tone how he liked the music of the bygone era—these are some of the  visions conjured up by a cursory reading of Kiran Ravindran’s  book The Playback in Malayalam Cinema.

Undoutedly the result of very hard work, the book is a veritable encyclopaedia of Malayalam film music.

Kiran Ravindran traces the origin of  Malayalam film music to the dance dramas of the early decades of the 20th century when actors had to be accomplished singers as well and the stage was the most popular form of entertainment. I have heard old people speak nostalgically about the performance of  Rajamanickam Pillai’s troupe.

While tracing the history of Malayalam film music  the author reveals  such historical insights as to how  the history of  Malayalam films would have been different had Marthanda Varma(1933), the second silent movie in Malayalam, been released.  Right from the first talkie, Balan (1938), down to the latest movie, the book is the most authentic source for movie music buffs.

Kiran Ravindran
Kiran Ravindran

There are extensive chapters on Playback, Lyricists, Music Directors and Singers and the author tops it all with a near exhaustive list of ragas used in different  film songs—a remarkable compilation. It is like rounding off a seven course dinner with the choicest cognacs. If not for anything else, one should read this book for this compilation only for  this shows the author’s grasp over the grammar of film music. Almost all the noteworthy melodies of Malayalam films have been categorized under different ragas and ragamalikas.

Going through this book, one can understand  how the legends evolved from their first film songs to the later dizzying heights. The book is full of little known anecdotes about the legendary singers and hitherto unpublished photographs of the rare camaraderie that existed  among the singers at a time when the competition could not be termed as cut throat.

There is the story of how Yesudas came to sing ‘Alliyambal Kadavil’ which was to be sung  by Udayabhanu. As Udayabhanu was indisposed  he had suggested to  the music director that Yesudas may be called in to sing the song. And it turned out to be one of the best loved songs in Malayalam cinema.

It is interesting to read the author recounting the friendship between different great musicians with an accomplished raconteur’s skill. He has been careful not to omit anyone—be it lyricist, music director or singer, ever connected with Malayalam film music.

Thus if one has to refer to R K Sekhar, A R Rehman’s father, and his contribution  one has only to go through the index. Again if you want to know the hit songs of Usha Khanna in Malayalam,you would find it in the book. Did you know that the legendary Kishore Kumar also had sung a comedy song in Malayalam—he did it in the film Ayodhya. So had Talat Mehmood, Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle.  Manna Dey’s Manasa Maine is in its own right one of the greatest film songs in Malayalam.
The book dwells on the musical journey of the legends of Malayalam film music in detail giving insights into how they grew into myths of Malayalam  Cinema. Once you go through this  perhaps you can also say that you have known them all.

About Yesudas the author writes that the first Hindi film was Mahasagar.This is a true revelation.I have always thought that Jane Man Jane Man from Choti Si  Bath  by Salil Chaudhury was his first Hindi song—it was a duet with Asha. Like this there are many examples  where one could update one’s knowledge  not only about singers  but about music directors and lyricists as well.

And one wonders as to the travails Kiran Ravindran has undergone to collect these rare photographs. There is one showing Ramu Kariat and Salil Chaudhury watching Vayalar explaining the lyrics to Yesudas. Another one shows Manna Dey recording a song in the presence of P Leela. The book is worth a buy if only for these rare photographs.

I have a feeling that the author has a remarkable collection of  old photographs and some more little known anecdotes about the film folk but probably he has selected  best of both for this volume—some of the facts mentioned like the one about Yesudas being turned down  by the AIR authorities  during audition should  serve as eye openers for the young aspirants to the world of film music.

So is the story of how Raghavan master came to sing Kayalarikathu in Neelakkuyil because producer T K Pareekkutty did not like  the way the chosen singer, Abdul Khader from Kochi, sang it. And we know that the celebrated singer Kozhikode Abdul Khader was known as Leslie Andrews before his conversion to Islam.

If ever you have loved the melody of Malayalam film music, if ever your hearts missed a beat while listening to Manikyaveenayumayi or Nee Madhu Pakroo or Thaliritta Kinakkal Than, if ever you wondered how Salil Chaudhury could imbibe the spirit of Malayalam melody, if ever you sang along with Mehaboob’s Vandi Vandi or with Udayabhanu’s  Manassinakathoru Pennu, then this is the book for you.

G. Krishnan
G. Krishnan

This is the ultimate reference book on Malayalam film music, a book written by a young man who is a lover of music, a love offering of a movie music buff par excellence. This is a book to cherish, a reference guide which is to be kept by your bedside The more you go through it the more delectable it  becomes. A book one should not miss. But it is high time the book is translated into Malayalam also  so that it can get the wider readership it deserves.

The Playback in Malayalam Cinema
Author: Kiran Ravindran
Publisher: Folio Publishers, Thiruvananthapuram
Price: Rs 400

G Krishnan is a retired officer of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). He is a former Principal Adviser to the Governor of Jharkhand and former Chief Secretary to Jharkhand Government. He lives in Thiruvananthapuram.


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