Composer Imman has experienced quite a ride in the industry since his debut about 14 years back. He has braved tough times and is now sitting pretty as a prolific composer with a huge number of memorable hit songs to his credit. Imman takes some time out from his busy schedule to chat with Kaushik at his studio on a Saturday morning ...

You have had 6 big releases already this year, and there were close to 10 last year. How is it possible to churn out good music so consistently?

It is all about time management. My day begins at 7 am and I work till 10 pm. It is a long working day, and I am not into partying. The focus is totally on music. There is no mindset and necessity to work on so many films, and it all depends on the story and how the script is. After Kumki, I said no to about 42 films but even then, my work volume seems to be high. I have to tighten even more now.

Sometimes, films don't follow the story and script that was narrated, and may turn out badly by the time they come to me for the background score. The team also plays a role and there is a lot of learning in this aspect, over the years. The director and composer have to be on the same plane and their visions have to match!

Recently, you backed out of 10 Endrathukulla's background score work ...

10 Endrathukulla wasn't a conventional song oriented film at all, and the director wanted more like an OST. The RR had scope but beyond a point, I felt it was better to back out of the project even though I am generally optimistic about finishing my part for a film. There were no hard feelings.

Before, I have pitched in for films which were in some conflict, such as Naan Avan Illai, Yaaradi Nee Mohini and also for the Hindi films Khwahish and Garam Masala. But this was the first time that I backed out of a film before completing it.

So how do you unwind and switch off from work?

I have my family comprising my father, wife and two lovely kids. Generally we hang out for dinner outside and Sundays are allocated for family time with no work thoughts. So there is quality time outside work too, and I am not a workaholic.

How do you go about choosing projects? Are there some criteria to be met?

The script is the main deciding factor. In some cases, the right team can make me look beyond the script too. It is a mix of both factors and also an instinctive decision, to accept a film.

Such quantity of music can have an adverse effect on quality right? How do you infuse freshness into your tracks?

In cinema, song situations are mostly the same, yet I look to vary and show some difference in my tunes, as a composer. But the directors and producers who approach me want something like my earlier hits. It is all business at the end of the day. We have to balance and equate both sides; a blend of business motives and artistic drive has to be found.

Feel-good songs are easier to handle and we can be fresher in ideas. But for the so-called item songs and hero intro songs, references of my previous songs dominate and I have to strike that thin line to satisfy the director and also the music creator within. It is a challenging process.

The Imman sound is marked with quite a few trademark elements. On introspection, what do you feel are your strong points and the areas that you wish to explore more?

My strong point is the fact that my songs cater to all centers. I can get down to the roots (eranga adikkum paadalgal) and please listeners. Be it town buses or tea shops or in general down South, my songs have worked. They are also popular in light music concerts, as they are easy to reproduce. Be it any genre, my songs are catchy, have good tune content and are strong in melody.

When it comes to new exploring areas, composers are always open and sky's the limit. But the right team has to assemble for that, and each composer has certain people with whom he gels better and delivers fresh music each time. The team, mainly the director, has to reciprocate to new ideas from the composer. The director’s personal likes, dislikes and taste towards music matter a lot. Ultimately, composers work to satisfy their directors.

A director's idea of music may not match with that of the composer, but a meeting point has to be found. Sometimes it connects with the listeners, sometimes it doesn't. We discuss and analyze after the song releases and reaches the audience.

Some directors can extract a lot of fresh ideas from a composer. His script also should have that scope for quirkiness. A regular commercial script can't have the scope for different genre of songs. The director's script dictates all aspects of the film, including its type of music.

Speaking along these lines, which director has extracted the best from you?

Of course, Prabhu Solomon. He looks for feel-good pleasing songs which have that timeless quality and work like magic after 10 pm in the night. Balakrishnan, who directed Rummy, also had similar ideas and you could find that flavour in Rummy's songs too. But sadly the film didn't work.

I generally look forward to composing sessions where the mood is chilled out. Feel-good, romance songs always connect with the listeners as ‘love’ is a universal feeling and people want ringtones and caller tunes to express their feelings. Relatable lyrics also help.

The lyricist who has added that extra edge to your music?

Yugabharathi's lyrics obviously have benefitted my songs the most. We follow the old school work pattern where the director, composer and lyricist sit together on the spot during composing sessions. Based on the situation, each of us comes up with many ideas and it would be a healthy composing session. It would be a beautiful process like sculpting a statue, contrary to remote composing sessions where the people concerned aren't at one place and depend on technological aids to communicate. There are very few lyricists who can deliver lyrics extempore on the spot. Yugabharathi’s simplicity stands out.

Coming to the Prabhu Solomon - Dhanush film, what can we expect from the music?

The film would again be based on travel. From start to finish, the film would be set in a moving train and there would be 4 feel-good story based songs. One or two themes would be there too, and the work on 3 songs is totally done.

Imman’s albums and karaoke versions go hand in hand. How did that idea come about?

Such karaoke versions started during the days of Whistle itself. But there wasn’t any big response back then, and some people actually reviewed these karaoke tracks thinking that it was some instrumental version. It was funny actually. Some music companies advised against it and there was also some misuse of such karaoke tracks.

I thought of reviving them during the times of Saattai and Kumki. But again there has been misuse, with Manam Kothi Paravai's songs being used in another language. The source was the karaoke tracks that I had given in the album itself. But I am continuing with these tracks as they benefit people a lot during stage shows and also during get-togethers and parties when one wishes to experience singing some good music.

How important are these 3 factors in your music - spirituality, comfort zones and the director’s understanding of music?

Spirituality comes first. Composing is a mysterious process and I just sit there blank before starting, irrespective of references from directors which generally help. But the process of coming up with a tune is like magic. There is no set process as to how it shapes and evolves. That magic is spirituality. When a great tune happens, it doesn't feel like me anymore. There is some force dictating me from beyond. Proximity and devotion to God always helps.

And when such fine tunes happen, directors have to accept them with the basic taste to appreciate good music. And in the case of big lead heroes, like Vijay sir, we play the basic tune to them and based on their inputs, we may tweak necessarily as they are the ones who are involved onscreen along with the song's choreographer.

But nowadays, everyone is entitled to their views and comments, even newcomers. It is not out of some superiority complex, but comes out of doubts over whether that song would be in their comfort zone and space. For example, in VSOP's ‘Lucka Mattikichi’, initially the total idea was different but we had to change it after inputs from the team. We slowed down the tempo considering all factors. Such inputs are actually healthy and better the overall prospects of the songs.

Coming to comfort zones, I will work happily in films where that basic trust is there within the team. Work is bettered. This is a universal thought applicable to all fields. Prabhu Solomon and Suseenthiran give me that vibe. Coming to Suseenthiran, I experienced great reciprocation from him while working in Jeeva. He is among the very few directors who appreciates good lyrics. He gives me clear, confident inputs. Regarding Ponram, his zone is different and it would be rhythm based commercial stuff. We can always look to vary in that space. Now I can judge the director and his needs and taste after all these years of experience. I just have to tune my mindset accordingly.

Composers singing their own tunes is becoming a common trait of late. For example, Anirudh. What’s your take on this?

It works for them as for their shows, they can perform their own numbers and manage with just their musicians. In Naanum Rowdy Dhaan, that has changed and Anirudh has used some full-fledged singers. It will change gradually with time and experience. I also went through this phase in my early stages, as it was the thought and mindset that I can do justice to my tune better than any other singer. But at the end of the day, if the song works, that's about it. Success speaks.

When you signed on for Jilla, did you feel that your career had completed a full circle? Starting with Vijay’s Thamizhan to again working with the Ilayathalapathy as a seasoned composer ...

In a way, Yes. I had lots of experiences post Thamizhan and Vijay sir's stardom also grew manifold. But after Thamizhan, I never approached him or called him for another chance, even once. When we met before Jilla, even he commented that I had been silent all these years.

Recommendations never work for long in cinema; true talent and respect matter. It is all about survival of the fittest now. My films’ heroes are like Vijay or Ajith to me and in the same way the director is like Shankar or Mani Ratnam. I don't know whether my directors see me like a Rahman or Harris Jayaraj or Anirudh. I treat them and see them like that and put in my wholehearted efforts for all my films.

During the times of Tamizhan and Whistle, the film's success was very important. If a film failed, then all aspects of the film went without notice. But now social media has opened it up and individual aspects of films are being dissected and appreciated. My perspective would have changed if Tamizhan and Whistle had worked commercially as films. But I have had so many experiences, and such bandwidth of experiences that too.

Giri's 'Dai Kaiya Vechikitu' was a song which gave me good reach and a 'commercial music director' image. After the so-called realistic cinema wave, I was stuck in sort of a rut due to my commercial image. Then Prabhu Solomon's films happened and my career took off. I am happy with the path that my career has taken, despite all the failures and struggles.

Ever tracked the number of films that you have done and the milestones?

I have done 60 plus films, but I am never one to celebrate milestones. I am not aware of my 25th and 50th films. People have asked me to celebrate such films with special tags, but I question their validity and don’t want such milestone tags which feel like an exercise in hyping up and boasting about oneself.

Some Quick Notes with Imman

The talents that you are proud of introducing - I have introduced about 75 to 80 singers easily, such as Harihara Sudhan, Ramya Nambeesan, Anita (Vada Vada Paiya) and lots more. Their skills and successes have shaped them in a good way.

The Shreya Ghoshal connect - Indianized melodies are my stamp and the right singer is needed to convey my tune and ideas across. Shreya can't be missed in this regard and she comes to mind immediately. I have had a lot of hit songs in her combo.

Vijay as a singer - Music runs in his family and it is a good thing that he sings like a professional playback singer. Both of us were scared for 'Kandangi' as it was a melody, but he pulled it off. The presence of Shreya Ghoshal as the female singer gave him a few jitters about whether he could manage, but he did. The respect for him as a singer grew after this song.

Sivakarthikeyan as a singer - He wasn't a good singer during the time of VVS, but he was pretty good while singing the title track in Rajini Murugan. Maybe Anirudh has trained him (laughs). Within 2 to 3 hours, he wrapped it up. He is in the grooming stage now and will progress more as a singer, I think.

Creatively challenging projects - I would say ABCD, during my earlier days. The film had 5 songs and 14 situational bit songs and I sang most of them. I did some massive work for that film but it didn't get the proper recognition. We introduced Saindhavi in that album though Anniyan released prior to it.

The ones which didn’t work as expected - Though films like Giri, Thiruvilayadal Arambam, Kacheri Arambam and Masilamani were successes before Mynaa, there were films which didn't work as expected. One such film was Whistle. There was a FM boom around that time and the songs became very popular. I was interviewed as the youngest music composer by the likes of NDTV too. I thought that my career was indeed on the right track but post Whistle, about 7 to 8 films were dropped after the pooja and a few days of shoot. It had a big adverse psychological impact on me at that time. I started feeling that I was some sort of a negative unlucky influence. To break all that frustration, I thankfully got Sundar C sir's Giri. After its success, I did lots of films back to back with both Sundar C sir and Arjun sir.

The impressive aspects of your contemporaries

GV Prakash - The soul in his music, particularly in the ones he sings. Anirudh - The young vibe in his adrenaline pumping music. Santhosh Narayanan - That quirkiness. Ghibran - His new sounds and the regional melodies that he does. I am a hardcore fan of this space.

I am also happy to see promising musicians coming up, like Sean Roldan and Pradeep. More films will open up their trademarks and exclusive aspects. I will always feel happy to see trained musicians with good musicianship. This lot would always command respect.

The social media phenomenon - Cinema is in a challenging phase and this media boom makes it tougher for the industry. Before, opinions used to be passed in tea stalls and sabhas, but now it has opened up to the whole world. Beyond all this, we have to work and prove ourselves. Also, I have noticed that expectations are killing films, due to this internet effect. The industry is also doing its part in such hyping up. Even ‘U’ certificates are used as part of publicity drives. ‘Anything for publicity’ is the trend now, and we have to be prepared to face the aftereffects too.

And that wraps this up … It was quite an experience, Imman. All the very best ...