This article has been co-written by Anand Mahadevan and Navaneeth Unnikrishnan.
It’s alright, some songs do sound similar. What’s the big fuzz? At the end of the day, it’s all good music. Right?
Plagiarism, “inspiration”, or just plain “copyadi” is not a new thing in the music scene now. For a while, we’ve heard multiple names (some very household ones at that) getting dragged into this hassle.
When I watched Kantara in the theatre, and when “Varaha Roopam” started playing, my first thought was “Wow, this sounds pretty much like Navarasam. Thaikkudam composing for Kantara?! Great!”. As the film ended, I was scrounging through the rolling credits for a mention of “Thaikkudam Bridge” the same way I do for an Indian name at the end credits of a Marvel movie. But to my surprise, I found none.
Confused as to whether this is a strange coincidence, I started asking my friends who’d heard the song if they felt the same.
Not so surprisingly, most people felt it. You could say that if you’re an ardent fan of Thaikkudam Bridge, even for the slightest similarity, you would go “copy copy copy” at another song. But it’s a whole different scenario when even first-time listeners point out that the songs sound strikingly similar.
We have done an article before saying how songs composed in the same raga might sound similar. But we don’t think that’s the case here.
The major argument for the motion supporting the Kantara team is thus: Both songs are composed in the same raga. But we can dig a little deeper here – to be precise, both songs are composed with the same “combination of ragas”, the base being Bhairavi with tints of other ragas such as Dhanyasi, Mukhari, and Thodi. This selection too could be termed as purely coincidental – after all, ragas are no one’s monopoly. As a composer, one is always at liberty to choose which scales/ragas to base one’s composition on.
Compositions on the same raga need not necessarily make people think “athu thanallayo ithu?”. To take an example, consider Jeevamshamayi from Theevandi and Kangal Irandal from Subramanipuram. Both of them are composed pretty much in the same raga, Reethigowla. But when Jeevamshamayi was released, no one was going around blaming Kailas Menon for “copyadi”. So let’s keep this whole Raga argument aside for a while.
Let’s analyze the arrangement of both songs, portion by portion. Fortunately (or not?), the pitch of both songs seems to be the same, which makes this comparison easier.
The very beginning of Navarasam is a simple bassline going root-fifth-root-fifth. In contrast, in Varaharoopam, it’s a similar guitar riff with the same notes re-arranged in a different meter. After this, both Navarasam and Varaha Roopam slide into a dark, Bhairavi-esque melody line played on the Violin and possibly a Nagaswara respectively. It is not very difficult to notice the same chord changes, and the same tension and resolve techniques in the melody.
Rhythm Guitar and Drums
With mostly one or two bars’ difference, drums and electric rhythm guitar kick in right after the dark melody. One can find similarities in the patch used, beat breakdown, and riffing patterns in this guitar+drums portion as well.
Like before, with a difference of one or two bars, the vocal melody starts off. Although the starting bit is quite similar in both, as it progresses, both the melodies are considerably different, with Varaha Roopam hinting more at the Mukhari raga.
Main Guitar Portions
After what seems like the first leg of the melody, there is a swara portion in Varaha Roopam which goes:
“Pa Paa.. Ma Ga Ri Sa, Ma Ga Ri Sa”
Interestingly enough, in Navarasam, we hear the exact same notes played the same way, only in distortion guitar.
This portion is extended with Nagaswara in Varaha Roopam. This is again an additional bit as compared to Navarasam.
Right after this, both songs go into a slow-buildup, dark prog-metallish guitar solo. Although they might not sound very close, the solos have very similar phrasing and the same chord changes. If we ignore the subtle differences in the amount of reverb and compression used, the patches used in both guitars are also pretty much the same.
Main Rhythm Pattern
After the solo’s end, we hear a particular rhythm pattern on the guitar and drums played in both songs. Not so surprisingly, they’re the SAME! Unlike the other portions, there is literally a note-to-note similarity. The instruments used vary quite a bit here, with Chenda and Snare overpowering in Navarasam, while Varaha Roopam continues with Guitar+Drums.
This rhythm pattern is vocalized in Navarasam as “Dhim Takida Tha Dhim Dhim ” and more lyrics are sung to the same pattern. In Varaha Roopam, the rhythm pattern continues, but without any vocalization. After a few bars of this, Navarasam goes back to the initial intro melody but this time, accompanied by lyrics.
Varaha Roopam goes back to the initial intro melody as well but is played in Nagaswara like the first time.
Ultimately, we do believe that there is an 85-90% similarity between these tracks; the major differences being the addition of certain extra bits as well as some obvious differences in lyrics and melody.
The legal aspects
Musicality aside, we also spoke to Sandhya Surendran, a lawyer who specializes in entertainment, media, and tech, about the prospects of this case winning in court, given that Thaikkudam Bridge has announced their intention to take this via the legal route.
“The question of whether Thaikkudam Bridge can win the plagiarism case in court, is not an easy yes-or-no question, as a lot of factors need to be looked into. But do they have a strong case here? Definitely.
Typically, if someone wants to remake a song – legitimately – there is a license fee they need to pay to the rights holder. If we are assuming that Varaha Roopam is a derivative of Navarasam, as per law, the filmmakers should have taken the necessary license from Thaikkudam Bridge & the publisher/ label who owns rights to Navarasam.”
But again, can Varaha Roopam be technically classified as a derivative of Navarasam in court?
“As per copyright law, copyright protection is technically granted only to the main melody, lyrics, and sound recording. Here, one can argue that all the above three factors are different for Varaha Roopam – but is this sufficient? After all, the arrangement is almost identical. And this similarity is not something that one or two people have felt. Both Thaikkudam Bridge fans as well as first-time listeners are feeling the same way – There has to be a reason behind it, and the court will go behind that. It is not here to interpret things in black and white. If it does go to court, I think it’s going to be an interesting case to watch, whichever way it swings”, she signs off.
As much as we enjoyed Kantara the film, it’s sad to note that the most effective song in the film was “inspired”, without credit, by one of the best independent outfits in the country. Let’s stand in solidarity with Thaikkudam Bridge and hope and pray that justice is served.