For people who have ever passed through the universe in which Illayaraja exists, the National Award reveal for ‘Best Background Music’ may have aroused the least earth-shattering acknowledgment. How does one manage to work up any excitement over this? Illayaraja set the bar so high on scoring for films, this award bears the significance of handing the Swarna Kamal to Dadasaheb Phalke.
In 2009, the National Award for ‘Background Music’ was ushered in. A category that forked from the customary ‘Best Music Director’, to honour any effort that went beyond the song routines and added to a film’s voice. For the uninitiated, the  first recipient of the ‘Best Background Score’ award was Illayaraja (for the Malayalam film ‘Pazhassi Raja’). A legend who redefined film scores, had for eons enthralled moviegoers with music that elevated dull films into watchable ones and good ones into classics.
For years, he’s been revered, celebrated and deified by not just his fans, but by talents that have an eye to spot someone beyond their world. For years, his background scores have offered an invisible blessing. A blessing that has added missed subtexts, surfaced non-existent emotions, resuscitated stillborn directors and affected the meaning of film as an out of the world experience.
The fact that it took a new category (and director Balki’s stubborn attempts to re-herald him in Bollywood territory) to deliver the Nation’s attention to his artistry and genius was seen as a sign light reaching years after a celestial event. It’s only a matter of how removed you are from the source. No offence taken.
Yes, Music is an universal language, but comparing Illayaraja’s work on background score with international Original Soundtracks is a pointless exercise. While they serve the same purpose to a film, what Illayaraja does to films can only be measured in an Indian context, structure and sensibility.
That history behind us, picking Illayaraja was probably the least debated decision from this year’s lineup of National Award winners. That is no suggestion that he gets an automatic award for being Illayaraja. In ‘Tharai Thappatai’, the jury couldn’t have found a more apt candidate. No, not even because ‘Tharai Thappatai’ is Illayaraja’s 1000th film; the man roils at the mention of milestones. ‘Tharai Thappatai’ is that rare film that was crafted with Illayaraja’s invisible blessing in mind.
For a film that captures the struggling lives of Tamil folks artists (part pariah, part dispossessed), the music had to be authentic, evocative and unadulterated. Tharai Thappattai had to recall a period of Tamil folk art form that went back a millennium.  It meant putting away instruments that weren’t born then.
Any other director stripped down to a Thappu (an ancient skin percussion device) and Nadaswaram would have lamented the short runway, but in Illayaraja, Bala helped push back on the curtain the wizard who transforms the perceived monotony of a folk base into an electric force that lights the emotional charge on screen.
Illayaraja (divinity incarnate) and Bala (a sworn atheist) form a compelling partnership when they collaborate. Hymns (Use of ‘Paaruruvaaya’ from Thiruvacakam to invoke the dedication to his/her lord) and chants are organically planted in a story to reveal a deeper more satisfying layer.
Bala is one of those handful Tamil directors (in a list that includes, J Mahendran, Balu Mahendara and Mani Ratnam) who is able to tap into this unfathomable reservoir. For a film where the songs/soundtrack dominate the background score, I’m surprised how the jury splits the call to name Illayaraja only for Background.

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