Justin Prabhakaran: Lyrics are the key to imagination
The man behind the soulful music of Dear Comrade talks about his composing process, his idea of background score, and the struggles he faced in his career
The tagline of Dear Comrade —Fight for what you love— is akin to the mantra of its composer, Justin Prabhakaran. The debutant who made heads turn with Onakkaga Poranthaenae in Pannaiyarum Padminiyum, can now be said to be the most lauded talent of 2019 with back-to-back chartbuster albums in Monster and Dear Comrade. The toughest of the challenges he has faced in his career so far is his fight for identity. "Talent is definitely one of the criteria to be successful, but unfortunately, that's not the only one. The music industry also pays attention to outward appearance and how a musician brands himself. When I started, I was lean and was judged for my looks. Even after Pannaiyarum Padminiyum, I've heard people say, 'Ivan laam epdi music pannuvan?'. Instead of allowing these words to kill my confidence, I took it as fuel to work harder," says Justin, as he takes a break from composing for Ravana Kottam at his home-cum-studio in Valasaravakkam.
Excerpts from the conversation:
Dear Comrade is a rare album that has received unanimous love for all its songs. What does this success mean to you?
I have been waiting for the audience to love all my songs in a film's album, and this has finally happened with Dear Comrade. I believe that good things take time, and when they are destined to happen, they will happen for sure. I invest the same amount of hard work for all my other films too but somehow, everything fell in place for Dear Comrade.
Not many albums of dubbed films get as celebrated as the original version. What did you do to make Dear Comrade a pan-South Indian album?
The two things director Bharat Kamma and I were particular about were the choice of instruments and the lyrics. We felt using the right instruments will help the audience establish a personal connect with the film. For instance, Vijay's fight sequence will have a chenda melam theme. We did this targetting the Kerala audience.
The other thing that makes the viewers feel alien to a song is the lyrics. Even if the tunes are really good, a verbatim translation of the lyrics will ruin the experience for the audience. But in the case of Dear Comrade, we just gave the tune and situation to all lyricists and allowed them to explore.
All your chartbusters have been melodies. Even team Dear Comrade took a dig at that with the canteen song promo. Have you feared being typecast?
Yeah, I've had this thought always. Audience tend to think a composer's strong zone is based on his first hit. To break that, you need scripts which demand a different style of music. Thankfully, in Dear Comrade, I got songs like Comrade Anthem to prove that I can also deliver a catchy fast-paced number.
They say creators perform better, when they draw on nostalgia. Since Dear Comrade is all about love, do you have a love story of your own?
(laughs) Who hasn't? Ellarume panni irupanga... adhu oru unarvu dhaane? While working on a film, I get into the world of its characters and travel along with their emotions, before composing. So, if I am working on a thriller, I might not have had a similar experience, but I try to tune into the emotions of the characters through my imagination.
Regardless of the genre, in all your songs, lyrics are dominant, which isn't the case with most of the other composers.
To be honest, even I have composed a couple of songs whose music drowned out the lyrics. But, in general, I believe lyrics are the key to imagination. Burying it with music will stop listeners from connecting with the music.
You never repeat tracks in the background score of your films. How important is rerecording to a film, according to you?
Composing background score for films is a never-ending process. I still find something new to learn when I watch films, especially those by Raja sir. According to me, the background score is a character in the film. For instance, Rashmika has a fun flute theme in the first half, and I used the same flute with a different orchestration for the intense portions in the climax. The music has to adapt itself according to the changes in the character arc. If the content is good, BGM can enhance the feel of a scene, but if the writing is weak, no matter how good the music is, the film can't be saved.
Which do you think is the most challenging sequence you have composed music for?
Hands down, Pannaiyarum Padminiyum. It was my debut film and I had to compose music for a man's love for a car. Music podradhuku munnadiye bayam vandhuchu. But within a few days, I started to see the car as a character in the film and things became smooth for me.
I had a similar experience while working on the Malayalam film, Kunjiramayanam. There, I had to compose music for a song based on a drink called salsa. Composing music for objects is quite a challenge, but I completely love taking the thrill of working on them.
All your films so far have been genre-centric. Would you accept a full-fledged masala film?
I am totally game for it. Adhellam paarthu dhana valarndhom. Honestly speaking, I like commercial films a lot. Somehow, I haven't been approached for such scripts, but when I get the right ones, I'll take them up.
Anything you are against?
I wouldn't let my music be the platform to convey a wrong message to the people. No matter how the big the film is, if they are going to communicate something malicious to the audience, the answer from my side would be a strict no.
Here's the video interview: