Ilayaraja, who is known as 'Isaignani' (musical genius) has always focused on Tamil cinema ever since he accepted producer Panchu Arunachalam's offer to compose music for his film Annakkili in 1975.
He used Tamil folk poetry and melodies to create an evergreen soundtrack that included songs such as 'Annakkili Unnai Theduthe' and 'Machaana Paatheengala' sung by S Janaki.
In the two years that followed, Ilayaraja started looking at other South languages, accepting one offer each from Kannada and Telugu.
Fresh from the success of 16 Vayathinile, he composed for director K G George's Vyamoham in 1978, making his debut in Malayalam. The film had a Tamil connection: it was a remake of the Tamil film Policekaran Magal. 'Poovaadikalil' by S Janaki and 'Neeyo Njano' by P Jayachandran are two songs that etched Ilayaraja's name in the minds of Malayalam film lovers forever.
Even after composing music for over 7,000 songs in more than a 1,000 films, Ilayaraja's harmonium still creates magic.
As the film world celebrated the 77th birthday of Ilayaraja over the past week, here is a list of his 12 most memorable Malayalam soundtracks.
1. Moonnam Pakkam (1988)
An album that captures the joy and the eventual tragedy that occurs in this Padmarajan film, Moonnam Pakkam is regarded as one of the best of Ilayaraja across languages. G Venugopal bagged the state award for best singer for the song 'Unarumee ganam' that moists your eyes even if you are watching the song the umpteenth time. 'Thaamarakkili Paadunnu' sung by M G Sreekumar, Chithra and Ilayaraja is a playful number that denotes the fun times that the grandpa and his loving grandson share with each other.
It was on Padmarajan's insistence that the producer signed Ilayaraja to score music though he knew very well that he could not afford Ilayaraja for this modest production. After Ilayaraja composed music for the film, the producer paid a sum that is already one-third of his running rate, but Ilayaraja gave a part of it back as a gesture of gratitude for inviting him to score music for this beautiful film, Legend has it that Ilayaraja was emotionally moved while scoring background music for the film.
Despite being someone who does not deviate much from his working style, he agreed to score music for the already edited montage and also to make the newcomer G Venugopal lend his voice to 'Unarumee Ganam' as requested by Padmarajan and M G Sreekumar sing 'Thamarakkili' as recommended by the producer Gandhimathi Balan.
2. Olangal (1982)
Balu Mahendra's debut in Malayalam Olangal was inspired by Erich Segal's novel 'Man, Woman and Child.' Amol Palekar who became a household name because of Yesudas's hit songs in Hindi, made his first appearance in Malayalam. The soundtrack penned by O N V Kurup, had three hit songs that became all-time favourites. 'Kuliradunnu Manathu' sung by Yesudas, 'Thumbi Vaa Thumbakkudathin' sung by S Janaki and the duet by both the singers 'Vezhambal Kezhum'.
3. Kaalapaani (1996)
Fans remember this pre-independence period drama by its music more than the story. An album replete with beautiful tracks, Kaalapaani is one of the top Ilayaraja soundtracks of all time. Ilayraja has given a signature character to the tunes, one that suits the characters played by Mohanlal and Tabu and the nature of their romance. The songs 'Aattirambile Kombile', 'Chempoove Poove' and 'Maarikkoodinullil' are romantic numbers that you can identify with the film instantly. 'Kottum Kuzhal Vili' captures the pain of separation.
4. Guru (1997)
The makers of this epic film did not have anyone other than Ilayaraja to compose the background score and songs. Who else other than the maestro can so beautifully imagine the sounds and music in an utopian world inhabited by blind people who have their own unique sounds, musical instruments and sense of melody? This soundtrack is a symphony on screen. 'Devasangeetham' sets the stage for the musical journey into the film's universe. The track 'Gurucharanam' marks the devotion towards the guide. 'Minnaram maanathu', 'Arunakirana deepam' and 'Thattaram mozhiyumee' completes the symphony.
5. Mangalam Nerunnu (1984)
Director Mohan's drama Mangalam Nerunnu is remembered for the songs 'Alliyilam poovo' and 'Rithubhedakalppana'. M D Rajendran had written the lyrics. Whereas 'Rithubhedakalpana', became one of the all-time best romantic songs, 'Alliyilam Poovo' became an evergreen lullaby with lines such as 'Kannivayal Katte Nee Kanmaniye Urakkan Vaa'. The Shanthi Krishna and Sreenath couple who romanced in 'Rithubhedakalpana' tied knot soon after.
6. Aa Raathri (1983)
Director Joshiy's first collaboration with Mammootty, this thriller became the first Malayalam film to cross the 1-crore collection landmark. The sweet melody 'Kiliye Kiliye' is the pick of the soundtrack.
The other notable songs are the duet 'Ee Neelima Than' and the dance number 'Maarolsavam'.
7. Onnanu Nammal (1984)
This P G Vishwambaran-Kaloor Dennis-Dennis Joseph collaboration hit the theatres with songs that were on everyone's lips. The semi-classical number 'Vaalittezhuthiya' filmed on the Mohanlal-Poornima duo carries the magic of Yesudas's voice. Lyricist Bichu Thirumala wrote the songs. Krishnachandran and S Janaki has sung the passionate duet 'Kalkkandam Chundil.'
8. Yaathra (1985)
Balu Mahendra adapted Yoji Yamada's Japanese classic The Yellow Handkerchief, as Nireekshana in Telugu and later as Yaathra in Malayalam, setting it in the backdrop of emergency. The folk number 'Yamune Ninnude Nenjil' penned by O N V Kurup and sensuously sung by S Janaki have been livening up many dance stages for many years. The number 'Thannannam Thannannam' captures the mood of the journey and the reunion that are central to the plot.
9. Poomukhappadiyil Ninneyum Kaathu (1986)
This Bhadran film had two Yesudas-Janaki duets: 'Konchi Karayalle' and 'Poonkattinodum Kilikalodum', both added to the film's success. In this story of troubled relationships, Mammootty and Rahman played two male leads while his fellow superstar Mohanlal did a cameo as the uncle of the girl courted by Rahman's character. S Janaki immortalised 'Konchi Karayalle' by giving the song the right mood.
10. Adharvam (1989)
The sensuous song 'Puzhayorathil' pictured with Silk Smitha is on the hit chart instantly. 'Poovay virinju' sung by M G Sreekumar is a nostalgic melody that carries Ilayaraja's signature. The third track 'Ambilikkalayum' is a devotional song sung by Chithra that takes you back through the memory lane.
11. Oru Yaathramozhi (1997)
Pratap Pothen's casting coup Oru Yathramozhi brought the legend Sivaji Ganesan alongside Mohanlal on Malayalam screen. The film has a mixed soundtrack. Ilayaraja has used folk and semi classical melodies to bring out the father-son relationship, love and revenge. 'Thaimavin Thanalil', 'Kakkalakannamma', 'Manjolum rathri maanju' and 'Ponveyilile' are the tracks in this album.
12. Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja (2009)
This last film on the list was probably the last of Ilayaraja's unique compositions in Malayalam. Good music has always been a high point of any epic drama came out of the M T Vasudevan Nair-Hariharan partnership. The story of Kerala Lion Pazhassi Raja was at its gripping best, thanks to Ilayaraja's BGM and melodies.
The song 'Aadiyushassandhya' in the rich voice of Yesudas and 'Kunnathe' sung by Chitra are two super-hit melodies that came out of O N V Kurup's pen. The foot-tapping Mappila folk number 'Aala Madangal' and the tribal song 'Ambum Kombum' add variety to the period drama that celebrates the secular fight for freedom.
(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and film enthusiast. Read his past works here.)