M.M. Keeravani: Insights into a legend
Not everyone who is 61 years old is ordained to achieve this. M.M. Keeravani, the South Indian genius singer-composer, is rightly considered no less than a rock-star today, besides as the genius he always has been.
Having annexed the 20th Golden Globe award for his song Naatu naatu from RRR, as well as the Los Angeles Critics’ Choice award, Keeravani (the name is of a prominent raag in Indian classical music) has also made it to the nominees for the 95th Oscars in the Best Original Song category.
For good measure, he has also been now conferred the Padma Shri by the Government of India.
Keeravani’s score in the 32 years of his spectacular career is a staggering 250 films in five languages—mother-tongue Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi. In Mumbai for the song recordings of his newest Hindi film, featuring Ajay Devgn and directed by Neeraj Pandey, he took out time for a meeting with me. In Hindi cinema, he is known as M.M. Kreem, and the composer and I go back a long way to the time I met him after his first lot of Hindi triumphs—Criminal, Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahin, Zakham, Sur and Jism—way back in 2003.
From regional to also Hindi to global—the master composer has come a long way.
Excerpts from an interview follow:
Did you expect all this recognition?
I never have any expectations of any kind. Such feelings only lead to despair or disappointment. I only expect my films to be hits, which is what I expected from RRR. As for the Padma Shri, it’s recognition that one must accept and a kind of entry into an elite class.
There is a school of thought that says that for Indian films or music, foreign recognition is of no consequence. What are your thoughts on this?
I look at it very simply: today. a dollar is worth about 85 rupees. The day, a rupee is worth 85 dollars, maybe recognition of this kind might have little value! For me, the Golden Globe, the Critics’ Choice award and the Oscar nomination all mean precious global recognition for my work.
But don’t you think that an award for just a song takes away from the rest of your album, which was amazing.
It’s like this: If I like you, I like everything about you—your thought-processes, brain, how you talk, how you dress, the kind of shoes you wear and so on. But I can show my love for your entire personality only by shaking your hand! And by doing so, I am appreciating you in entirety, not just your hand. So, somewhere, my entire score is being appreciated and recognized by this representative song, Naatu naatu.
How did you go about creating this landmark song?
The song situation was conceived by my brother (S.S. Rajamouli, my first cousin) as a weapon against the hostilities from the British. The hero, NTR Jr., is insulted and asked, ‘What do you know about dancing?’ And Ram Charan and he express themselves with pride, and exhibit our country’s dance, song and stamina and ultimately win the competition. It is thus a song against racism.
For me, this was just another assignment like hundreds of situational songs. I tuned the lyrics by Chandrabose and my elder son, Kaala Bhairava, arranged the song with the perfect orchestration needed, which indeed made a lot of difference. Then our choreographer, Prem Rakshith, who is always experimenting and innovative and is obsessed with his work, put life into the song along with our two heroes.
What does Naatu naatu mean? In the Hindi version, the lyricist Riya Mukherjee’s words go Naacho naacho, which perfectly fit the metre and the dance sequence.
No, in Telugu, the words refer to ethnicity or the place to which we belong. The actors are stressing that they are ethnic. When we dub a song in another language, the lip-synch must match.
My personal favorite in Komurom Bheemudo, in which the Hindi version has the same two words.
Yes, because again it is about the tune’s metre. The song was to be filmed mostly with close-ups of NTR Junior, and a perfect lip-synch was needed. Luckily, the term refers to his name, and a proper noun cannot be different in other languages, can it?
How different is it working with your cousin as director?
As I see it, the only difference between Rajamouli and my other directors, be they K. Balachander, Mahesh Bhatt or Neeraj Pandey, is that he has access to my bedroom or even my kitchen! The rest have to wait if they wish to discuss anything with me as they will have to meet me at my workplace with a prior appointment, or until I come down to Mumbai! Also, if there is a difference of opinion, I have to be polite with them, which I need be with my brother!
Now that you are back in India, how do you plan to celebrate your success?
I have made it a practice never to celebrate any success! I get energy points with every success. And when I don’t celebrate with champagne, a party or any hungama (fanfare), they get converted within into energy units, just like the points that airlines or banks give you! And I redeem all that goodwill when failure comes. That prevents sinking into depression and gives me the strength to make another attempt.
Your instrument for composing is a violin, which is said to be the one nearest to replicating human emotions and expression.
Yes, it is an evergreen instrument. Violinist are always emotional people! And songs are about emotions. Let me narrate something that you have not asked but is very important. I lost my mother on the same day as my Golden Globe nomination was announced—on December 12 last year. She heard the news and was happy before she departed. But it was the pain of parting from her after 61 years that caused me acute heartbreak and I kept on weeping for three weeks and could not focus on my work.
My family made me aware of my duties, my responsibilities and above moving on as nothing was permanent, but I was ridden also by guilt, of feeling that I could have done much more for her than I did. And two Hindi songs that I kept hearing 24/7 in that phase reinforced my grief—Gagan dhuan dhuan, an Indie song, and Judaai from Badlapur. I consider those composers and lyricists great because a song that makes you cry, according to me, is Grade 1 music. A song that soothes you to sleep is Grade 2. A song that makes you happy while lounging with friends over a cup of tea is Grade 3 while a song that makes you tap your feet is Grade 4.