You could say that he made the first pan-India viral debut on the internet: by December 2012, college students knew the lyrics by heart, as did colony uncles, and you could hear the bass line hum coming from any of the weddings of that season in Delhi, making passersby automatically lip sync, “Why this Kolaveri….” That was seven years ago, and Anirudh Ravichander was 21 and fresh out of college. He had cracked the viral formula in the first song from his debut motion picture, 3. Now, seven years later, he has come to hold his own in Tamil cinema, the land of the great composers—Ilaiyaraaja and Rahman.
Slim, slight, with those boyish looks intact, Anirudh represents a newer age, as his viral internet debut announced, and a newer generation of music. Take random samples from his repertoire, there is sheer variety—a cultivated genre-hop approach. Marana Mass from the recent Rajinikanth film Petta is classic ‘Kuthu Pattu’ (the quintessential Tamil fast song), while the Petta Theme is regal, the primary strains of trumpets pushed with rock and trap beats. Yennai Maatrum Kadhale from Naanum Rowdy Dhaan (2015) is a soul ballad that can also remind you of the international artiste Hozier’s sounds. Airudh is well versed with the sounds of the age, making good use of the internet generation he was born into.
It’s this contemporaneity that has made Anirudh popular among directors and producers. Director Shankar, who has mostly teamed up with A.R. Rahman in the past, got Anirudh to do the score for the upcoming Indian 2, said to be Kamalahaasan’s last movie. Rahman had given the score for its prequel, which had been a huge hit. With Petta, released this year, Anirudh managed to get to that other benchmark in cinema, apart from filling in Rahman’s shoes—he got to do a Rajinikanth film.
“It helped that two crazy admirers of Rajini came together for Petta,” says Anirudh, speaking of the director, Karthik Subbaraj, and himself. The music echoed with Rajini’s past style, but Anirudh added his own shades to it, throwing in some flamenco and drums from Odisha to the mix. The multimillion views on YouTube and constant replays of Petta’s songs on the radio stand testimony to the young director’s musical prowess and his initial tendency towards ‘virality’.
His gratitude for being from the YouTube generation is understandable. “But for YouTube, Kolaveri wouldn’t have been such a rage. My music’s popularity has been determined by the millions of views online,” says Anirudh. “Composers of my era are lucky to have multiple platforms from which our music can be heard.” Sony Music have declared Anirudh a “viral prodigy” for his chart-topping knack. It’s to capitalise on this prophecy that they recently came up with India’s first vertical video for the Hindi-English song ‘Bewajah’ featuring Anirudh.
Anirudh could play the piano at just three. “Since he could not sit and reach the piano pedal, he had to play standing and peeping over the keyboard,” recalls Lakshmi, his mother. “By the time he was five, he was on the stage playing for the school’s annual day. Yanni had just performed at the Taj Mahal, and Anirudh became obsessed with his style. He then played a few Rahman hits. He could soak in whatever music training he was put through,” she adds.
The roots were fusion all the way, Anirudh trained in Western classical while his family was into Carnatic music. He was part of a Carnatic fusion band, a rock band, and even the school’s ‘bhajan band’, where he would try a few jazz variations on the harmonium. “Even today, I owe it to my bandmates, many of whom are still with me, for the freshness in my music. They are ruthless when it comes to rejecting a tune,” says Anirudh.
‘Kuthu Pattu’ songs like Aaluma Doluma (from the 2015 film Vedalam) and Sodakku Mela (from Thaanaa Serndha Kootam, 2018), among others, have built a reputation for Anirudh for beat songs, but he doesn’t want to remain in a box. “I was lucky that my fast numbers with Ajith, Vijay, Dhanush, Surya and now Rajini sir have clicked. But I definitely don’t want to be typecast as the “Kuthu Pattu” man,” he says. So he takes care to make his soft melodies count too. Director Vignesh Shivan, a close friend and a lyricist says, “When we did Naanum Rowdy Dhaan (2015), the film had enough scope for a fast beat song. But Ani insisted that the film will be suffused scores with melodies, including ones for a fight sequence. And his instinct proved right, the songs were lapped up by listeners. Even today they remain evergreen.”
You could soon see Anirudh compose for Bollywood. That project too should be full of melodies. “Only melodies will have a lasting impact. Also Hindi cinema is so full of commercial music, so I would like to be different, with my own brand of melodies,” he says. He had given a single for Bejoy Nambiar’s David (2013), also made in Hindi, but that was a one-off. Anirudh is also keen on collaborating with independent artistes, in the true tradition of the internet generation musician. He has already collaborated with DJ Snake from France and Diplo from Los Angeles. “Only collaborations will bring in a bigger market while allowing me to experiment. Film music does have its own constraints,” he reasons. It makes sense that the Indie aesthetic can be found in many of his songs.
As a composer, Anirudh has a distinct side: he sings for other composers. “Don’t sing for others was a loud refrain from my family and friends who feared my exclusivity will go away. But I wanted to prove that there is no competition between musicians. Also, it feels good to work with another musical brain. And I do not take money because I want to give something back to their music—be it Rahman or a beginner.”
In a short span of time, Tamil cinema has come to regard Anirudh a dependable hit-maker. Actor Sivakarthikeyan, who has done five films with Anirudh, says that a movie is instantly lapped up by distributors once Anirudh’s association is announced. “He is virtually a minimum guarantee for any movie—his music provides a strong opening. For me, his music represents sheer energy. He loves to explore, even after a director okays a sample. He is the surprise package everyone loves,” says Siva.
And it’s not all behind the scenes for this new-age composer. Anirudh has been voted Chennai’s most desirable man by a local daily for two years running. But he stays grounded. “I used to get a high in my early days when a song became a hit, or when I saw the audience react wildly to my beat or an award came my way. But not any longer. Now I enjoy the process of making music—the vibes I feel and that exchange with the lyricists as the songs take shape. Maybe I’ve evolved as a person,” he says
When asked if he’s become an icon like his idol Rahman, Anirudh blurts out, “Chancey illa (no chance). I am just seven years old in this field. Popular maybe but nowhere near iconic. I need to extend my streak to the next ten years. It’s like asking who is greater—Tendulkar or Kohli. There can only be one Tendulkar.”
Inside Anirudh’s backpack
- Hangout Terrace of his Alwarpet studio
- Food South Indian veg meals
- Car Ford Mustang GT
- Dress Full sleeve T-shirt, crew neck or polo
- Circle Dhanush, Shiva Karthikeyan, Vignesh Shivan and the band
- Peeve Not putting on weight
- Relationship status Eligible bachelor
- Favourite cities London and Las Vegas after Chennai
Chennai’s jukebox (Ani’s chart-toppers)
- Ullalla (Petta)
- Aaluma Doluma (Vedhalam)
- Yennai Maatrum Kadhale (Naanum Rowdydhaan)
- Enna Solla (Thangamagan)
- Sodakku Mela (Thaana Serndha Kootam)
- Guleba (Gulebaghavali)
- Oodhungada Sangu (VIP)
- Kanave, Kanave (David)
- Kannazhagaa (3)
- The Karma Theme (U-Turn) Telugu
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai