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Malayalam film industry never recognized Johnson’s worth

Renowned playback singer G. Venugopal remembers music director Johnson, who passed away last week.

(This article was published by the International Business Times)

By G. Venugopal

TRIVANDRUM: Johnson is no more.

The most comprehensive composer in the Malayalam movie industry is history now.

Twenty-four years roll back before my eyes. There I am, a slender, shy, anxious young man, sitting in front of Arjunan Master, one of the doyens of Malayalam film music, memorizing a sweet, soulful song.


My anxiety is, nevertheless, enhanced by the fact that the song writer is none other than O.N.V. Kurup, one of the finest poets Malayalam has ever produced.

A file photo of Johnson (holding guitar) with singers G. Venugopal, K.S. Chitra, Jyotsna and Vijay Yesudas after a concert in Dubai. The entire movie unit had assembled at Tharangini Studio in Trivandrum, and in walked a small man with confident steps, puffing smoke, thumping backs and bellowing jokes.

That was Johnson, the music director, who was much in demand those days. He was to write the score for the background, and conduct the song, for his guru, Arjunan.

He didn’t give me a second glance, and there I stood awkwardly in front of the recording microphone. Other than just giving him a fleeting look from a corner of the eye, my entire attention zeroed in on to the song, and giving the timing.

The song was over by the second take and Johnson was gone in a whiff! The next I heard him was over the phone inviting me for a recording in Chennai for an important I.V. Sasi chartbuster. How many songs I sang under his guidance since then! I have lost count. Some music connoisseur would be having all the records.

I have known Johnson all these years, through his tumultuous career, the climb up the ladder strong and steady, the deep fall into a commercial abyss, the phoenix-like comeback, and then the personal chaos that he himself created and sustained but wanted to get rid of badly.

Shining like a precious stone through all the mishaps was his musical gift that created some of the most memorable songs in the history of Malayalam films and the fine pieces of background theme music that still haunt me and music lovers all over the world.

What was Johnsons contribution to the Malayalam film music?

M.B. Srinivasan, the late music director, once said about the new composers who made their presence felt in the early 1980s: “We have Johnson, and then we have tune-makers!”

We often mistake film songs for film music. We forget the background score in the songs and the bits and pieces of musical notations that run through the entire cinema story, which lift us, frighten us, give us hope, bring tears and smiles, and pull us up from the seats to do a hop, a skip, and a jump in tandem with the protagonist.

In his movies, from the first reel to the last, it was Johnson all the way. Most composers depend on assistants to do the background scores and rerecording, but he did everything from A to Z in his movie music.

On many occasions, I was witness to the incredible spontaneity of Johnson while he was doing the background scores. Back in the early ’90s when songs had to be recorded at one go, he had this habit of composing just the general melody of the songs, and then deciding on the background score at the nth hour, when the instrumentalists arrived. Then he would build a whole body of background music, which jelled with the song and the movie. It was a case of the deadline giving him an adrenalin rush that would spur his spontaneity.

His songs had a structure that adhered to the classical dictates of pallavi, anupallavi and charanam with the interludes. There’s a simplicity in his music, which was the hallmark of his greatness. He also had a tremendous grasp of the lyric. The challenge was always to give the maximum to the song in the limited time and embellish the movie’s visuals.

There he would sit, his hands on the harmonium, a stub-laden ashtray at hand, an array of string and rhythm instrumentalists assembled around. He had a sharp tongue and the whiplash of criticism can come out of his mouth any moment. The appreciation, likewise, was public, too.

Reshmi, my wife, still adores "Poothalam," his song from a Sathyan Anthikkad movie, which I recorded during our honeymoon days.

Johnsettan, as I fondly called him, faced a ruthless industry with his tough guy image and talk. When he was into music, it was a divine pursuit of excellence. When he was drunk, he would be out of action for days together. When the next generation came and he was sidelined mercilessly, he never resorted to PR to grab his job back.

Towards the end, Johnson found himself in deeper trouble. He had started a de-addiction treatment, but before it was over, he stumbled back and forth across that thin line between sanity and insanity, often falling into a deep depressive pit.

When he breathed his last, in this 58th year, Johnson left behind some great and unforgettable music and his mourning wife Rani chechi and two children.

I don’t think the film industry has ever recognized Johnson Master’s worth. His music speaks volumes about him and his fans will mourn his absence forever. (Global India Newswire)

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