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A melodious journey

He has over 3,000 films songs in five languages to his credit. S.S. KAVITHA meets Unni Menon to whom only good music matters

Photos : R. Ragu

Sing along Unni Menon

A job at the Heavy Vehicles Factory in Avadi brought him from God’s Own Country to Tamil Nadu more than two decades ago. But he wasn’t cut out for working with machines and quit within 18 months.

“I quit without any goal in mind. But an inner voice somehow directed me to recording theatres. I simply obeyed,” says Unni Menon. As he speaks, there’s a glint in the eyes of the man who became famous with ‘Pon maane kobam eno…’ from the film “Oru Kaithiyin Diary.” There’s an interesting twist to the singer’s identity. When he sang the above hit — and many more later — he was known as Vijay.

Armed with a pleasant temperament, optimism and a melodious voice, the well-known playback singer has another interesting story to tell about his journey into the music industry. Unni recalls how he once bribed a watchman to gain entry into a studio.

That one little act changed everything: it launched his music career. Kunjunni, a violinist for music director Ilaiyaraaja introduced him to B.A. Chidambaranath, a director, and Unni’s musical career was launched in 1981-82. His maiden song ‘Amudhum Thenum’ was never released, but with ‘Pon maane kobam eno …’ he became a famous singer in 1984.

“Few people knew me or my real name as I sang in the name of Vijay and continued doing so for the next 15 songs in Tamil till I shifted to Malayalam. There I sang many tracks for the veteran singer Yesudas, but surprisingly got the credit,” he says.

It was his mellifluous rendition of the song ‘Pudhu Vellai Mazhai’ for Mani Ratnam’s film “Roja” in 1991 that gave him mega status in Kollywood. And he went on to prove his versatility, and ease with various styles — be it the ‘Ooo la la la,’ in “Minsara Kanavu” or the gentle ‘Nadiyae nadiyae,’ in “Rhythm” or an Ayyappa devotional.

“I did not have any formal training in music when I entered the industry but later I studied under S. Ramanathan, Neyveli Santhanagopalan and Jeyachandran,” he says.

The son of a retired police officer from Guruvayur, Unni’s love for music was evident from childhood. “I owe a lot to my class teacher, Benjamin master, who discovered my love for music when I was in Standard IV. He used to take me to all music competitions in the jatka,” he fondly remembers.

He adds with pride that he still keeps in touch with his 80-year-old master from B.E.M High School, Palakkad.“My father always wanted me to become an engineer but I have no regret in choosing music as my career,” says Unni, who graduated in Physics.

Five years ago, Unni Menon decided to multi-task: he not only acted as a hero but also wrote the lyrics and sang for the Malayalam film “Sthithi”. One of the songs ‘Oru Chambaneer’ became an instant hit while the film won the second best film award from Government of Kerala.

Following this, Unni was loaded with offers to act but he decided against accepting them. He felt he was deviating from his first love, music.

“I am lucky as I never went after anything. Opportunities just kept coming my way,” he says. Unni’s commitment to his craft is such that he learnt to write and read Tamil; but for songs in Telugu, Kannada and Oriya he still depends on a Malayalam script. On the current trend in film music, he is forthright: “Anyone can sing any song these days. Songs are being churned out only for visual appeal. Not much importance is given to lyrics or music. That is why songs fade easily from public memory now.”

After music, Unni loves football, which he has played at college and university level. He also has recording studios in Chennai and Kochi.

His parting words: “To go on singing and I always want to better my previous performance.”

Fact file

3,000 songs in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Oriya films over 23 years

500 devotional albums in Malayalam and Tamil

Won the Tamil Nadu Government’s Best Playback Singer award twice — first for ‘Ooo la la la,’ and again for ‘Enge andha vennila’ (Varushamellam Vasantham) and ‘Nadiyae nadiyae’.

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