All I really want to do is create music. So why not spend my life in music?” asks Sam CS. A Tamil boy who grew up in Munnar and migrated to Chennai in search of work, Sam never dreamt that he would ever work in the film industry. He merely loved creating music and penning lyrics. But lady luck had a different plan for him. In 2017, when Vikram Vedha hit screens, his mettle as a music composer become obvious to anyone who was listening. Things have been on an upward swing since then.
But Sam is more than a success story. Growing up so far removed from the film world, where even getting hold of newly-released film music meant waiting for days, young Sam never imagined the life he has now. In a candid chat with Provoke Lifestyle, he talks about the path he took, the struggles that lined his way and all that he wants from the future. Here are some excerpts from the interview:
When did music first make its way into your life?
I grew up studying in Christian institutions and was always a part of choirs. It’s one of those activities you are made to be part of and I began my chorale education when I was in 3rd standard. But I only sang as part of a group. When I was in class 11, I was disqualified from a music competition. It’s not like I was great at singing, but when they said I didn’t sing well, I got really angry. I was adamant on proving them wrong.
But you got a degree in MCA and MBA, and worked in the IT industry instead of pursuing your interest in music. How come?
I studied without a goal. I did MCA the way people do engineering now, even though I continued participating in the arts even then. I just wanted a secure future. I came to Chennai for the same reason many people do — in search of work. I didn’t know anyone here. I got a small job in the IT industry and worked there for four years to make a living.
I used to write poetry and lyrics even then and in 2009, a friend got me an opportunity to write lyrics for a song produced by GN Raja. It was a song for an album, and I was very excited. The composer was having trouble coming up with the tune, and so I just wrote the lyrics and sang it in a tune, and the producer was very impressed. He asked if I would compose the music as well. But at that point, I didn’t know this was composing because growing up, seeing visuals of how Illaiyaraja worked with a live orchestra, I had a very different idea in mind. After that incident, I realised what an organic process it was to create music that comes from your heart. I found that I could compose quickly. But even then I didn’t think about becoming a music director because looking at Illaiyaraja sir at that time, how he handled and led so many musicians, with knowledge about each instrument and its capacity… it was an intimidating prospect.
It must have been a struggle to have so much music in your heart and work in a completely unrelated field… when did you finally make the shift?
I was not able to quit my IT job because I was scared; we all need money to survive, don’t we? I come from a middle class family, and had nothing to fall back on. I had worked in IT all these years and had climbed to a certain position… but there was no money in cinema; it was a big deal to even get the chance to work on a film.
I apprenticed under X Paul Raj — he was composer Vidyasagar’s keyboard programmer — and around 2009-2010, I got the opportunity to work on Ambuli, a 3D Tamil film, where I was one of four music directors who worked on the project. That opportunity, at a time when there were none, was a big deal. I was so excited that I finally quit my job, thinking I could only make a name for myself in cinema if I gave it my full attention. I found a new confidence after creating music for Ambuli, and that feeling was exhilarating and intoxicating. I felt like I didn’t even care about money, I just wanted appreciation for my work. But the problem was I didn’t get any work after that.
So for a few years, I worked for other music directors as a programmer. I learnt a lot in that process. The next movie I bagged was Mellisai, but the problem was that it released only after three years, titled Puriyatha Puthir. It was such a struggle and I even got married in the meantime, which meant there was a lot more at stake now. I couldn’t even go back to IT because technology had advanced greatly since the time I worked in that field and I would have had to study for another two years to upgrade myself. I got really scared at that point of time.
Sounds like you were on no man’s land…
Yes, and that’s when I met Pushkar-Gayathri and Vikram Vedha happened. I decided that this was the film that was going to determine my destiny. I wanted people to talk about the film for its music. I worked on it frame by frame, and it really
Your approach towards the BGM, and how you composed it just by reading the script was talked about a lot. How come this is not a common practice in Tamil cinema?
At one point of time, people would wait for the BGM to come together. They would want it to hit the right notes before they were willing to release the film. Now they just announce the release of the film on the final day of shoot, without considering the work of the music director. But this is because music directors are able to deliver their work in that time; they work on it for 15 days at the most. But the background score is a big deal. It plays a major role in the success of a film. It needs time to mature and change. That’s why I compose the background music in the beginning with most movies I work on, and I would really like to get people to appreciate background scores which lend emotions to a scene.
In a cut-throat industry abounding with talent, how do you set your sound apart?
I think of music as food for the soul. So when I record music, I do it live like they did in the 80s, with my emotion and the emotions of the musicians coming together to create something honest and affecting. I think it’s this approach to music that sets me apart.
So when you think of music as food for the soul, you don’t want to go the fast food way?
Exactly! But sometimes, I do have to make some compromises to appeal to the current generation as they don’t have the same relationship with music as someone from say, Illaiyaraja’s time.
If you think about it, after MSV, Illaiyaraja, AR Rahman… there’s no music director who you can name as someone who defines the sound of a time. But this is a problem with the people. No one listens to music now in the way they used to in the olden days. If you are listening to music in your car, you have over 10 channels to choose from. If you don’t like one song, you just switch to the next station; you don’t wait to get to know the music and savour it. Unless you give it time, how can you define your own interest and taste in an art form?
What are you working on next and what are your hopes for the future?
When I came in I didn’t have any aspirations, but now I have so many! I want to work on big films like Baahubali… grand war movies with western influences. When I watch English movies, I feel like I can do such good work with them. I just finished a Vietnamese movie called Sam Hoi, and I am currently in discussion about working on a Chinese film with the same team. I am also working on a trilingual film called Rocketry: The Nambi Effect directed by Madhavan sir, with Shahrukh Khan appearing in the Hindi version and actor Surya in Tamil.
Though I work in the film industry and what sets Indian films apart is the songs, I would like it if we didn’t insert songs in movies just for the sake of it. Instead, we can create music independently and use songs only when it is necessary to take the narrative forward in films. I say this as someone who watches cinema, and not just as someone who
works in film music.
write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Watch the interview on ProvokeTV
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