Neck-and-neck competition could be the right word to describe the current work style in Tollywood. But for the heroines, the industry has near or cent percent self-reliance in all departments. In this backdrop, here emerges an unknown person, call him Vinu Thomas, to Telugu audiences – all the way from Tiruvella, a traditional town in south Kerala. Stranger, this Mallu, who worked as advocate till recently, made his debut as music director on Telugu silver screen, for the film Ankith, Pallavi and Friends. If you look at him, you might mistake him for a college student. This blushing musician finds it a pleasant yet incredible experience working in Tollywood. Vinu Thomas also speaks about upcoming trends in composing tunes, domination of Tamil films in Kerala, adult movies and last but not the least – the enchanting influence of God’s Own Country on his budding career. Excerpts from an exclusive interview with him.
Isn’t it strange that you made your debut as music director in Tollywood? How did you get a placement here?
Yes. I still can’t believe myself. I don’t have any friends or relatives here. I am a perfect stranger. But, Tollywood is a place where the talent will never go waste. Though, I heard of a lot of politics here, so far I have not faced any difficulty, anywhere and at any point, during my four months of working period. First, I want to thank director Hari Yelleti and producer Kishore for my foray into the Telugu film music.
I was born and brought up in Thiruvella, neither a city nor a village. My dad and mom are advocates there. I too finished my LLB and did practice for a year. But, my longing is always for music. When I was 18 years old, I first composed tunes for a Christian devotional album – Divya Santhwanom, which still retains its identity. My parents realized that I studied Law just for their satisfaction and left me free. I started doing some Ad films. During this period, I met Tanu Balak, an ad filmmaker. With his assistance, I soon became independent, doing good ads with some corporate companies. I also worked for the Malayala Manorama. Balak introduced me to Jayraj, a popular film director in Malayalam, who won several National Awards for his professional merit. I assisted him in the making of a commercial ad. He liked my attitude towards work. Recently, Jayraj was directing a Tamil film – Selanerangalil. He introduced me to the movie’s producer Kishore (a Telugu man). He is now the producer of Ankith Pallavi and Friends. In turn, Kishore introduced me to Hari Yelleti, director of APF. See this chain of introductions. I consider it, purely a divine course of things.
What sort of working style you adopted for your debut film album APF?
I never take to heels when it comes to profession. I linger for perfection. From the moment, I met Hari Yelleti and his asking me for tunes, my mind started working like a sparrow building its nest. To my utter shock, I found a current of innovative ideas gushing into it. There are six songs and one bit song in APF. Hari Yelleti clearly described me the various situations connected to the songs. He further gave a clear-cut meaning to each of the lyric provided to me. Though I am a Mallu with zero understanding of Telugu, I felt like a Telugu man.
Coming to the lyrics, Premani - is a duet, which demands melody. Apart from the requirement, I experimented with streaks of heavy music. For the lyric Dost, I thought I heard similar tune somewhere, which I don’t remember. It comes in the mold of Carnatic music. Leletha Poovule is a perfect fit, to be credited as yet another melody in the album. Tell Me Emkaavalo is the theatre song, to which I gave a free but the correct play of trance, rap and all. Adagake Allari Vayasa is my favorite song. I got special appreciation for this from Hari Yelleti. Neelo Medilina is based on the traditional Ragas. Ara Navvulenduko is the song shot in a teasing mood. I call it that way. It also teased us a lot, because we took nearly 45-days to compose it.
I also did the background score for APF. For all the happy finishing of the project, the credit goes to Hari Yelleti. The prized contribution of lyric writers Vanamali and Ramajogayya Shastry deserves mention. I slowly started venerating them, after I knew the meaning of the lyrics.
How different do you feel with film music compared to working for Ad films?
I find a terrific change. But, working for ad films is tougher and risky than working for films. Mark, I have to give a marvelous tune for a one-minute Ad. The strain on my nerves is greater. It’s like Nayagara Falls in full rage. Composing tunes for numbers running from 4 to 5 minutes gives us relaxed mood. We strain our minds, yet enjoying the leisure. We have ample time to establish and fix the lyric to its right spot. Again, there are two types of working styles in film music. 1) A music director is asked to compose tunes based on the lyrics. 2) Asking the lyricist to do his job in tune with the musician’s output. In Ad filmmaking, the sole responsibility lies with the music director.
Tell us your early experiences in Kerala?
Kerala’s film industry is spread into three zones – Kochi, Kozhikode and Trivandrum. Mine happens to be Thiruvella, which really is cut off from the three. I will be able to tell you – my growth as a music director. I struggled a lot to learn music. The pressure of my parents to become an advocate always bothered me. I daydreamt to become a musician. When I was a 10-year-old, I used to frequent a Christian missionary music school at our place. I saw music composers in action. It fascinated me, haunted me day and night. My first music teacher was Senu. He taught me the rudiments of music. As I grew up, I could have a full glance of the various trends and exposed myself to it. Some of my friends that time are now working with legends like AR Rehman as sound engineers. I am content with my growth. Working for APF steeled my determination to get going, come what may.
Kerala is known for adult movies. Did you ever work in that segment?
You are right. When people elsewhere think of Kerala, they invariably speak about adult films. I tell you the real reason behind this. Ours is a small state, with limited income. The film industry too is weak, but highly talented. Adult movies are a periodic development based on the available resources and financial viability. Call it easy money making, assured returns or like that. To be frank, I never worked for the adult films. And no one ever called me. (He keeps blushing, with splinters of laughter in between.)
What about the influence of Tamil films on Malluwood? There is a criticism that it became an irritation to your native industry?
You are true. Our producers are not in a position to compete with Kollywood. We have a deluge of Tamil films, releasing straight. They don’t require any remaking or dubbing. Most of them complete 100 days run. Similarly, we have almost all Telugu films hitting the Malabar land in their dubbed versions. Over years, people of Kerala adapted themselves to straight Tamil and dubbed Telugu films. Good or bad, they resulted in the dawn of variety there. Recently, your film Happy Days got released in Malayalam there. It invited tremendous response in Kerala and entertained people as far as the Lakshadweeps. Our hero Nikhil (who plays the hero in APF) is very familiar there through Happy Das. I feel it my privilege to work with Nikhil, who also belongs to Kerala audiences.
Where does your music industry stand?
Kerala is lagging behind in the aspect of FM Radio stations, compared to the two states. This is a must for the marketing. People might say, FM cult will spell the doom for the music market. But, I believe, FM stations are the real channels of taking the music to one and all. I am happy that our industry continues to survive many an onslaught. It will have its field day, soon.
You did the RR for APF. What’s your response to the film?
It’s wonderful doing the RR. During the process, I watched AFP nearly 65 times. Still, I feel fresh, watching it. No bluffing, please. You will appreciate my word after the film’s release.
What is the influence of Christian music on you?
The influence is really powerful. After all, my first album was a Christian album. Fortunately, there is a rigidly set format for such devotional albums in Kerala. When I tried experimenting with new tunes, the people either shunned them, or advised me not to dilute the traditional arrangement. They are very clever. I can’t cheat them. Similarly, I have the capability to detect the intrusion of such influence when I compose commercial tunes. With the coming up of new age and new trends, it’s really not difficult to put a check to this factor.
What are your next projects?
I am now waiting for the result of my music on the screen. I am thrilled to get highly encouraging reviews to my debut music for APF. I am thousand percent confident that I will get a break with this project.
What you owe to God’s Own Country, as a musician?
I feel honored to be a Keralite. Dotted by palm trees and majestic sea breeze, all of the state is marked by lush green vegetation. Backwaters and hill stations are an unending lure which a man can’t escape from. Of course, our places are a haunt to the filmmakers. Perhaps, had I been born in some other state, I would not have become a music director.
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