Last week, the earliest magnum opus of the widely-acclaimed Indian filmmaker Shankar, Jeans turned twenty. So did the accompanying music and one of the most successful commercial soundtracks of the 90s. Jeans featured music and background score by AR Rahman, and lyrics by Vairamuthu, one of the most sought-after leagues in Indian cinema.
The remarkable association between Shankar and AR Rahman had already been well-established by the time Jeans was in production. The aura around the movie – the cast, a composer fresh off the mighty hit in Bollywood, Rangeela – gave the film and the soundtrack a pan-Indian appeal. In fact, it was also India’s unconventional, and controversial, choice sent to Oscars that year. Here, the hype around the duo’s collaboration gained its peak (it has hardly dwindled to date).
The soundscape of Jeans is exquisite, young and fresh, thanks to the late and well-regarded affiliate sound engineer of AR Rahman, H. Sridhar. The movie, however, had a flimsy plot line and the screenplay loosely fleshed out with drama and humour. It was, ostensibly, a territory unknown to Shankar then, who had films like Gentleman and Indian under his belt. The backbone of six songs with uncanny symmetry and never-seen-before visuals, in many ways catapulted the precarious affair to a lofty success.
Shankar was instrumental in taking AR Rahman’s sound and style to the audience at a far greater scale. Kadhalan (Humse Hai Muqabala) is a testament to this. In Jeans, there is a great sense of balance in genres, all t’s crossed and all I’s dotted. The movie employs a lovely theme song ‘Ni-Sa-Ri-Sa’, with an English verse, appearing prominently in the end credits. Unfortunately, it wasn’t included in the wider release of the soundtrack The piano, particularly, flourishes in the track.
Handing a song like ‘Hai Rabba’ to Unnikrishnan who had until then been singing only soft songs for the composer worked wonders. To call the Mandolin interlude just ‘beautiful’ would be underplaying its beauty. Sonu Nigam debuted in Tamil with ‘Varayo Thozhi’; he showcased some ingenious vocal shades, suiting the elderly lady on screen.
The traditional arrangements, simple rhythm, hyperbolic verses made an ear-worm out of ‘Anbe Anbe’. The song is exemplary of unconventional duet structure the composer is known for since ‘Rukkumani’ (Roja) days. Perhaps one of the best executed and most memorable songs on screen is ‘Adhisayam’. The flute layering in this song is characteristic of AR Rahman, a recurring theme in his music, especially in the 90s. Showcasing wonders of the world, it is the first in the line of extravagant song sequences indispensable in Shankar’s movies.
Shankar has a knack for extracting great rustic tunes from AR Rahman – ‘Usilampetti’ in Gentleman, ‘Errani Kurrathanni’ in Kadhalan, ‘Ulundhu Vethaikkaiyile’ in Mudhalvan, and ‘Jail Song’ in Boys. The movie features a short song, not included in the soundtrack, falling in the same category. ‘Punnagaiyil Thee Mootti’ is a moving composition sung convincingly by Hariharan.
The semi-classical number, ‘Kannodu Kanbathellam’, has aged rather wonderfully. A major slice of credit goes to a solid debut by Nithyashree. Adorned with bold percussion, the song disguises as an earnest love song in the soundtrack. In the movie though, it renders an utterly different meaning, and that makes the song even more charming with it becoming the musical precis of the film.
Jeans continues to be a constant in daily playlists and in composer’s live concerts, especially ‘Columbus’. In the twenty years since, Shankar-AR Rahman have gone on to give some terrific soundtracks (Mudhalvan, Boys, Sivaji, I); though some have received mixed responses (I, Enthiran, 2.O).
The reliability quotient is nonetheless, undoubtedly, high.