Music composer Tenma has a long story. An interesting one too. From having seen bitter times in the initial days to starting a trendsetting indie band to turning heads with Pa Ranjith‘s Casteless Collective to now composing some brilliant numbers for the director’s latest film Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, Tenma has seen a lot in the indie and mainstream space. Natchathiram Nagarigirathu has definitely put him on the radar as the songs “Rangarattinam”, “Kadhalar”, and “Paruvame” have made many sit up and pay attention to the new composer in town. In this conversation with Tenma, we talk about his initial days, role of Pa Ranjith in his life, his idea of music, and more.
Excerpts from the interview:
One thing that’s similar to you and Natchathiram Nagargirathu’s Rene is that both of you have changed your birth name to a different one. Why do creative people change names?
(Laughs) I didn’t want to carry the baggage of family pride. Also, I wanted this identity all for me…the success and failure of it all. As far as the name Tenma goes, I used to read a lot of Manga back when the world of the internet was opened to us. I chanced upon this Japanese anime called Monster. It was, of course, a pirated version. Later, I watched the series. During that time, I composed music for a friend’s short film and for the credits, being an ardent fan of Mysskin, I wanted to use a different name like him. I love the character Kenzo Tenma from the manga series. He is a calm and dedicated guy, who becomes a monster by fighting one. So, that’s how I became Tenma. Now, whenever my song is uploaded somewhere, Monster series fans come and comment, “Johan fan club sends their regards.” Johan is the nemesis of Tenma in the series (laughs).
You started off your music career by playing at funerals and weddings.
Yes, that’s where I could play music because of a dearth of opportunities. I am not a generational musician, but because of my Catholic upbringing, I used to sing in choirs. Later, the place where I could test my talent was weddings and funerals. From there I slowly progressed. My family wanted me to become an engineer and was against this. So, with a lack of backing, it was a hard journey.
In India, cinema is the only source of music for many. Naturally, everyone aspires to compose for film. How did you forsake that path and set a huge precedent in the Tamil indie scene with Kurangan?
My anger that I couldn’t make it in cinema led me to achieve that. I have had bad experiences of being exploited and invisibilized when I tried to get into films. But indie was like my home. I started doing indie music when I was 17. So, it has always been there for me. Tomorrow, if I compose bad film albums and people want to kick me out, I still have a home to go back to.
Has the collaboration with Pa Ranjith for Casteless Collective changed your career for good?
It has changed my life! See, I took notice of Ranjith after a popular incident when he lost his cool over Anitha’s suicide (She is a cause célèbre in the fight against NEET). There is the same dialogue that’s going on in society. Everyone kept telling the same monotonous stuff, but Ranjith stood out. So, when the call came from Neelam Productions asking for the band Casteless Collective, I immediately said yes. If it had been anyone else other than Ranjith, I would have hesitated. After that everything changed. He has given me a lot.
How did you come up with that En Janame – the Oppaari song in the film?
There’s something magical about folk singers. I get the smell of the soil whenever they sing no matter where they are… be it the stage or the studio. If I don’t get the smell, I don’t use the song. I think it is a privilege to be a folk singer… to know the culture. It is a skill that I have learnt over time. But folk music is more than just a skill. We took a lot of time to compose this song. You don’t have to do anything to make an oppaari singer feel and cry, I mean oppaari basically means lamenting (mostly over death). However, “En Janame” is not just about grief. So, the singers had to first understand the politics of it.
I thought Natchathiram Nagargirdhu could have been made as an out-and-out musical like La La Land. Did you?
For me, Natchathiram Nagargiradhu belongs to a crossover genre. It is a crossover between 12 Angry Men and Singing In the Rain. See, the film is basically something that we were talking about inside closed doors. So, it has the intensity of 12 Angry Men. On the other hand, it also had the innocence of Singing In The Rain. If they make a Natchathiram Nagargiradhu musical for the stage, that would be fun.
What was the toughest song in the album for you?
“En Janame” was a bit difficult to finish because it was a heavy song. I would get down listening to it. I think “Paruvame” was the toughest. I wanted a specific vibe for the song, and everyone wondered why I would even attempt such a tough project. I thought I failed with that song. It was the busiest track in the film. It was pretty messy.
Exactly. Your indie songs are very minimalistic and vocals play a predominant part.
It was a conscious decision. I took it up as a challenge because I wanted to know if I can go beyond this minimalism. For my debut album Irandam Ulagaporin Kadaisi Gundu, I received comments like “you didn’t compose music at all for the song”. My minimalism was understood as simplicity. So, I wanted to change that with this film.
Do you think cinema restricts musicians, in the sense people know AR Rahman only through his film songs. His real personality might be something else.
No. His personality gets reflected in his music. For example, fresh sounds are one of the characteristics of Rahman. He is always in search of new sounds. That goes on to show his constant search for new things. That’s his personality and his music.
You have started off with a niche film like Natchathiram Nagargiradhu. Will you be ready to compose a kuthu song in the future?
Of course! I only talk about Miles Davis, punk music etc. I am someone who will listen to Samsaaram Adhu Minsaaram songs. I love commercial cinema. I have seen Tenali seven times, and Siruthai five times. I don’t look down upon commercial cinema. It is not as easy as people think it is. There’s a history behind it. People have been working for decades shaping up that unique genre. Like, take producer Thanu’s film posters. When you look at his posters, you will get an idea what the film is about. That’s what I mean by history. That brand of cinema has evolved over years and it is not something to be taken lightly.