Tenma bought his first guitar when he was 16 by saving up money elders in his family gifted him on special occasions. “I actually sold a fifth-hand mobile phone I bought to talk to a girl I had a crush on, to buy the guitar,” he admits sheepishly. But he never got the chance to learn playing the guitar professionally. “I enrolled for classes but later dropped out since I could not afford it,” says the 31-year-old, who is making his début as a music composer with Pa Ranjith’s banner Neelam Productions’ Irandam Ulagaporin Kadaisi Gundu, directed by newcomer Athiyan Athirai, which is hitting screens this week.

After his first failed attempt at formal training in music, Tenma did try to continue. “Each time I started learning something, I ended up dropping out since I ran out of cash,” he says. But musicdid not let him off that easily. “I was surrounded by musically-inclined friends,” says Tenma, who is also the leader and arranger of the North Chennai band The Casteless Collective. “I learned music by jamming with them.” Tenma remembers how he and his friends “played games to learn music.” He explains: “We would sit in a circle in an affluent friend’s house — our homes were not spacious enough — pass a guitar around with the rule that each person should come up with a melody and words on top of it.” He adds, “If there was any chance to learn music for free, I would run to grab it.”

After 16 years as an independent musician, Tenma has learned one important life lesson with respect to music: “You feel it, you do it.” He does not play by any rules. “I fear turning cerebral and losing out on the emotional,” he says.

Speaking of fear, Tenma admits to having a “little” of it when the opportunity to compose music for Gundu came calling. “I was happy with the life I was leading as an independent musician.” It was Pa Ranjith who asked him why he had not entered the film industry yet. “Hehas confidence in the talent he picks,” adds Tenma.

He started working on Gundu in December 2018. “I slowly started getting into the movie,” he says, adding that director Athiyan gave him a three-and-a-half-hour narration of the script. “He broke it down for me, and I had a few hundred doubts such as what emotions he was referencing at a particular instance and so on,” explains Tenma. “The story was so good that I did not want my music to disturb it in any way.” He says that he “made mistakes” along the way and that “Gundu was a course on cinematic music” for him.

Tenma: ‘Gundu was a course in cinematic music’

Tenma is unabashedly frank about his approach. Words like ‘mistakes’, ‘fears’, and ‘doubts’ freely crop up during our conversation. “Learning music is an ongoing process. I will be a lifelong learner and will say the same thing some 50 years from now,” he says, adding, “I know I have vulnerabilities and have accepted them.”

On his father’s first death anniversary, Tenma was composing ‘Neduvazhi’. The song is a heartwarming ode to the father-son relationship. “It took a toll on me,” he says. He found it “strange” that the situation presented itself at that point in life. “My father and I always had differences of opinion,” he says, adding how his father somehow did not accept his choice to be an independent musician. But Tenma was actually making his début as a music director, which his father would have been proud of. Says Tenma, “More than me, my dad wanted this.”

The sound of it

The soundscape of Gundu is varied. It has ‘Irul Vaanam’, a lovely melody; the rousing ‘Thalaimurai’ sung by Shakthisree Gopalan and Chinna Ponnu that is heavy with yearning for a world without war and oppression; the peppy ‘Maavuliyo Maavuli’ that has an interesting story to it. According to Tenma, maavuli is a torch that’s suspended from a rope that men swing by hand in great speed, sending sparks flying. It’s part of rituals on Karthigai Deepam in places around Villupuram. “But the practice usually makes fun of women, with men involved singing sexist lines. But we have flipped it and made it a love song,” he explains.