In Memoriam: MS Viswanathan, as Remembered by a Millennial

The idea of listening to songs composed by the legendary music director, MS Viswanathan is synonymous with parental pressure for most Tamil millennials. We grew up having a love-hate relationship with his music because it was thrust upon us by our parents who worshipped him. It’s quite unfortunate because, left to our own devices, we might have stumbled upon his amazing compositions ourselves and enjoyed them.

MSV, fondly called ‘The king of light music’, has composed songs for over a thousand movies. That adds up to over five thousand songs across languages (Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, and Hindi) and generations (from the 1950s to 2010s).

But greatness is not just determined by the number of songs composed, I hear you. Then how about the fact that even now, almost 50 years after its composition, his songs mark the major moments of a Tamilian’s life? We hear “Vaarayo thozhi vaarayo” blare out of the speakers during weddings and “Ponal pogattum poda” at funerals.

MSV composed songs that didn’t just stand the test of time but transcended it. Working closely with the great lyricist Kannadasan, he came up with compositions that captured the very essence of life. Whether you are a doting sister or a dying soldier, MSV has a song for you — a song for every emotion, a song for every occasion.

1. Adho Andha Paravai Pola — Freedom from Ayirathil Oruvan

“கோடி மக்கள் சேர்ந்து வாழ வேண்டும் விடுதலை, அச்சமின்றி ஆடிப்பாட வேண்டும் விடுதலை”

A group of slave workers thinks that they are sailing towards freedom. Their leader is singing about their right to live as free people. “We want the freedom to sing and dance without fear,” they say. If it weren’t for the fact that they are eventually betrayed, this journey could be their best moment in life. Fittingly, MSV turned this song is an explosion of happiness and optimism, there’s the chorus, there are trumpets, there’s plenty of la la la’s.

This song is also a treat to watch; two chief ministers of Tamil Nadu dance with the greatest Tamil comedian and the greatest Tamil villain of all time. That doesn’t happen often, does it? 

2. Anbulla Maanvizhiye — Romance from Kuzhandhaiyum Deivamum

“நலம் நலம்தானா முல்லை மலரே? சுகம் சுகம்தானா முதுச்சுடரே?”

MSV is known for seamlessly switching between multiple tunes in a single song and Anbulla Maanvizhiye, where the tune changes every quartet, is a great example.

A pair of young lovers write letters to each other when they are on their date. The hero writes first — “Are you well, my jasmine flower?” The heroine replies — “I am well when you are around.”

The whole song reads like a letter. Sung by TMS and P. Susheela, this is one of the songs that majorly contributed to the success of this National award winning movie. 

3. Viswanathan, Velai Vendum — Rebellion from Kadhalikka Neramillai

“வேலையின்றிப் போகாது, வேறு வேலை தேடாது, பாட்டுப் பாடிக் கூச்சல் போட்டு வேலை வாங்குவோம்!”

A wealthy businessman unfairly fires one of his employees. The infuriated employee appears in front of the businessman’s house with dancers and a musical band (complete with a cello) and performs a musical protest.

Kadhalikka Neramillai is considered to be the greatest comedy movie of all time, just like it set out to be. This song could have easily become a rich-bashing song with communist overtones. But in keeping with the lighter vein of the movie, MSV composed a peppy and playful number and chose a softer voice like P.B. Srinivas’ over a stronger one like TMS’.

The phrase “Viswanathan, velai vendum” which means “Viswanathan, I want a job” is still popular and has caused distress to many a Viswanathan since then. 

4. Partha Nyabagam Illayo — Mystery from Puthiya Paravai

“இந்த இரவைக் கேளது சொல்லும், அந்த நிலவைக் கேளது சொல்லும், உந்தன் மனதைக் கேளது சொல்லும், நாம் மறுபடி பிறந்ததைச் சொல்லும்”

Gopal is a well mannered and hospitable millionaire. But he has a terrible secret and his new girlfriend wants to find out what it is. She confronts him. The scene cuts to a club. Instead of eerie flashback music, we hear violins, trumpets, bongo, and a soulful female voice asking an uncanny question “Don’t you remember me?”

And that is how Gopal would have met his first wife. The wife that he accidentally ends up killing. He’d have passed her death off as a suicide by placing her body on the railway track and moved to start a new life. But his past catches up with him when the dead wife comes back alive!

This song is sure to give you the heebee jeebees. Sung by P. Susheela, it is alluring enough for the hero to fall in love with the singer and mysterious enough to haunt him for the rest of his life. 

5. Naan Aanaiyittal — Power from Enga Veetu Pillai

“இங்கு ஊமைகள் ஏங்கவும் , உண்மைகள் தூங்கவும் நானா பார்த்திருப்பேன்? ஒரு கடவுள் உண்டு, அவர் கொள்கை உண்டு, அதை எப்போதும் காத்திருப்பேன்”

We have all been there. We see something wrong happening, our blood boils, we want to whip those bad people and make them behave. And we want to do it with TMS roaring “Naan aanayittal” in the background.

This insanely popular song was composed by the Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy duo. It was single-handedly responsible for an exponential increase in MGR’s fan base and it gave a huge boost to his political career by supporting his ‘hero of the downtrodden’ image. 

6. Chellakizhigalam Palliyile — Lullaby from Enga Mama

“கன்றின் குரலும், கன்னித் தமிழும், சொல்லும் வார்த்தை அம்மா அம்மா. கருணை தேடி அலையும் உயிர்கள் உருகும் வார்த்தை அம்மா அம்மா.”

For a lullaby that starts with “Why haven’t you slept yet?” this song is incredibly beautiful and can actually put you to sleep. The hero takes a dozen orphans under his care. Being an orphan himself, he considers them his family. He plays with them and teaches them. When they are too excited to go to sleep, he sings for them.

The humming and whistling in this song have MSV written all over it. MSV uses them in many of his songs for different purposes. When the heroine is peaceful and happy, she hums. When the hero feels philosophical, he whistles. In this song, he uses it to show that the soothing words of his lullaby are not just for the children but a little bit for himself too.

7. Varavu Ettana — Financial advice from Bama Vijayam

“நிலைமைக்கு மேலே நினைப்பு வந்தால் நிம்மதி இருக்காது, அளவுக்கு மேலே ஆசையும் வந்தால் உள்ளதும் நிலைக்காது”

A rich movie-star neighbour moves next door to a peaceful middle-class joint family. The young couples in the family spend too much too fast imitating the extravagant lifestyle of the neighbour. So the grandfather and his grandkids decide to teach them a lesson in economics.

This song is structured like a classroom lesson. The grandfather reads out the lessons and the grandchildren repeat them to their parents, word by word. This all-time classic budget song teaches you the perils of biting off more than you can chew. 

8. Ullathil Nalla Ullam — Karma from Karnan

“செஞ்சோற்று கடன் தீர்க்க சேராத இடம் சேர்ந்து வஞ்சத்தில் வீழ்ந்தாயடா, கர்ணா. வஞ்சகன் கண்ணனடா, வஞ்சகன் கண்ணனடா”

It’s the 17th day of the Kurukshetra war. The Pandavas have to take out Karna in order to win. But even after severely wounding him, they are unable to kill him because the dharma (good deeds) that Karna did is protecting his life. So Arjuna enlists the help of Krishna who finds an immoral solution to the problem.

He begins his long walk towards Karna, who is lying wounded on the opposite side of the battlefield, singing about his virtues (something like “I love you man, but I have to kill you”).

The heartbreaking background score is a reflection of how the audience is feeling at this moment. But they also have to agree with Krishna when he says that no matter how virtuous Karna is, in this war, he has to go. That part is taken care of by Seerkazhi Govindarajan. His glorious voice and flawless pitch give the song the stability Krishna feels when he says “I am the betrayer”. 

9. Malarnthum Malaradha — Love from Pasamalar

“சிறகில் எனை மூடி அருமை மகள் போல வளர்த்த கதை சொல்லவா? கனவில் நினையாத காலம் இடை வந்து பிரித்த கதை சொல்லவா?”

Raja and Radha are loving siblings. They miss each other no matter how old they are and how far apart they are. They rave about their relationship in the lullabies they sing to their own kids. They sing that their memory will live on even after the earth, the sea, and the sky cease to exist and that their relationship could never be broken.

This is an incredibly sad song. Only a genius like MSV could have pulled it off without a shehnai. I love the emotions in this song. I love how the voices of TMS and Susheela jump between pride, reminiscence, and sadness in seconds, and I love that tiny bit of traditional lullaby song ‘aariraro’ in the end.

10. Shiva Sambo — Euphoria From Ninaithale Inikkum

“மதுவுண்டு தேனுண்டு சுகமுண்டு மனமுண்டு மனம் கொண்டு வந்தாலே சொர்க்கத்தில் இடமுண்டு”

The year was 1979. MSV was slowly becoming outdated and the Ilaiyaraja fever was taking over Tamil Nadu. But when K. Balachandar wanted to make a full out musical movie, he wanted MSV to do it.

Ninaithale inikkum was MSV’s second coming. The audience flocked to the theatre to listen to his fresh, western beats. Though Engeyum eppodhum is a more popular song in this movie, Shiva sambo has achieved cult status for multiple reasons. Its spiritual and intoxicating composition was one reason. Another was MSV’s voice.

He was not just a brilliant composer but also a trained classical singer. His gruff voice has so much personality that it had to be used very wisely in select few songs. But in this song, it gave Rajinikanth (then a small-time actor) his much-needed break. If putting the superstar on the map is not a good enough reason to listen to this song, what is?

These songs are in no way MSV’s greatest, commercially or critically. These are just the songs that stuck with this particular millennial in spite of the parental pressure.

I originally published this post at on March 17, 2016.

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