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Guitarist Jhanu Chanthar On His Life Before ‘Kabali’ & Why He Doesn’t Want To Meet Rajinikanth

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(Photos: Sriram Narasimhan)

Jhanu’s two trusty guitars, the ones with which he’d strummed “Neruppu Da” for Kabali, are named Mohini and Malar. His musical instruments have always been given female names, he says

Spending a little over an hour at musician Jhanu’s studio in South Chennai, I leave with a new favourite idiom – ‘feeding off energy’. It’s a saying he lives by, something that often figures in our conversation.

With a cup of freshly brewed coffee in hand, Jhanu gives me a tour of his comfy studio; it has artworks scattered across the kitchen, but some much-needed quietude in the recording room. Amidst all the equipment, instruments and computer, there’s an interesting wooden stool that catches my eye. A gift from his friend and neighbour, Aditi Balan (the Aruvi actress), he reveals.

Art isn’t new to Jhanu. He has a background in architecture, even though his current occupation is largely to do with music. The shift, he says, happened quite organically.

It took me seven years to complete my architecture course from NIT Calicut, thanks to attendance shortage, guitar playing, and movies. Post that, I went to Nagpur, and with a senior and a batch-mate of mine, I started an architecture firm. I was drawn towards the city mainly because it was developing. You don’t get to design much in an already developed space.”

But: “One day, I realised that I didn’t have time to practice music. So I thought I’d take a 10-year break for music, and I’m now on my seventh year.”

However, structures and buildings are still a part of his life. “I get a high even now when I look at an upcoming construction. It’s nice to see it, and I miss that. Recently, I got into stage designing, art decor and 4D mapping, so my architectural skills are still in use. Also, I play for like six-seven bands now,” he says. 

Playing the guitar (and subsequently dabbling in other instruments) was something Jhanu’s father – an engineer – had hoped to do himself. So when Jhanu was in class two, his father brought home a guitar tutor.

I hated him, because he’d only teach me ‘Jingle Bells’. I’d hide under the bed whenever he’d come or find some excuse to not attend,” he recalls.

Jhanu was 16 or 17 when he heard a band play at an event in school; not a popular one, just a few guys of his age making merry on stage. Years later, he cannot recall the band’s name, but it had certainly inspired him to do what he does best – create music.

That was the first time I saw three people just rocking the crowd. I started playing since then,” he says. Jhanu is grateful to his music tutor, Steeve Vatz, who taught him for five months in class 12 which eventually led him to form a few bands with friends. Like most amateurs, his first few bands had juvenile names, he laughs.

“In school, our band was ‘Asteroid’. But the singer felt we should change it to something more serious, so we called ourselves the ‘Wreckage Avenue’. In college, I was part of a funk band called ‘Slingshot’. Now, I have ‘Jhanu’, ‘Oorka’, ‘Skrat’, and ‘Kulam’.”

For a musician who prefers stage performances over working with computers in a studio, Jhanu took his time at getting the hang of playing live. The first time he went on stage, he didn’t know “what was what”, he admits. But, things changed when he got to perform at a competition at 10 Downing Street, along with his brother. 

My brother is a drummer. So after his work, I picked him up and we performed. We played what we learnt in class 11, because we didn’t know anything else. When we were asked for a name on the competition form, my brother wrote my name. Turns out they were asking for the name of the band. Either way, ‘Jhanu’ stuck, and along with my brother and friend from school, the band was formed.”

In association with Kappa TV, the band has mostly performed in Kerala, singing Tamil songs. If one were to observe videos of their concerts, the band exudes a brash sense of energy that goes beyond mere foot-tapping. There’s a bit of headbanging among the audience, and a lot of metal signs in the air. While Skrat is more pan-India, Jhanu turned out to be perfect for concert-goers in Kerala.

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Currently, Jhanu’s works have mostly been in association with composer Santhosh Narayanan. After Kabali, he is collaborating with Narayanan for Rajinikanth’s upcoming release Kaala, but this time, as composer. Contrary to what’s been doing the rounds, Jhanu did not strum for Kaala‘s teaser. “It was Keba (Jeremiah) who played the guitar in the official teaser. You would’ve heard the leaked version. That was just a scratch track I had worked on,” he clarifies.

Singer Pradeep Kumar, the voice behind the soothing ‘Mayanadhi’ from Kabali, had a lot to do with Jhanu coming on board for Kabali. After attending one of his concerts, Pradeep had phoned Narayanan about getting a guitarist for Kabali. While Jhanu didn’t have high hopes considering the film industry had a reputation of cancelling out on artistes often, he was eventually brought on board after a few meetings.

I knew it was for a Rajinikanth film. So when we met, we jammed for an hour. Me, Tapass Naresh (on the drums), Pradeep (on the bass). We used to jam in this place where I’d meet at least ten artists everyday. People would stay there for hours and keep making music. And, suddenly, when we counted the number of songs we had, we realised we had made over a 100!” he explains.

Working with Santhosh Narayanan comes with a lot of spontaneous jamming sessions, and a whole lot of artistic freedom.

He’s there with me in spirit, telling me words, giving me tunes, jumping and feeding off the energy.”

For Kaala, things shaped out differently.

I was a music director for Nila, a film that was released only on Netflix. I didn’t want to take the chance of recording many people, so the full movie had only one guitar (played by me) because that’s my strength. I recorded the last track of the film with a symphony from Spain. Santhosh heard that and told me that he wanted me to join him in Kaala, but this time as composer,” Jhanu narrates.

Bags were packed and work was scheduled over the next few days. But before it could all begin, Santhosh Narayanan and Jhanu always played a game of chess.

“We’d begin with a game of chess – he has a killer table with all the chess boards on it, and he’s really good at it. So after that, we’d be jamming for five-six hours continuously. I was very attached to Kabali’s trailer, so I really wanted to make a different one for Kaala.

Kaala‘s music, many suspect, might well be an encore of Kabali, also a Pa Ranjith film. “There’s a great deal of difference, really. It’s like comparing a BMW with a JCB truck,” Jhanu says.

Kabali was more polished – the story of a man who was coming back to take revenge. The music was made on-the-spot, written by me, Tapass (Skrat), and singer Pradeep. For Kaala, we couldn’t get dates from Pradeep or Tapass, so it was just Santhosh Narayanan and me. I don’t think I’ll go back to recording the background score for Kaala because I’ve already recorded a lot with him.”  

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Even though he has worked in two films starring Rajinikanth, Jhanu has never met him. And would probably opt out of meeting him if given a chance. “I see him as a hero, and I want it to be like that. Because for me, Rajini is a character on screen, more than human.” 

This rule applies to his musical heroes too, including stalwarts like Megadeth and Slash. “I’m not really inclined to meeting my heroes. I like being a fan, it’s a greater experience than getting to know them,” he says.

As for inspirations, there are plenty, but he feels at home with only a few.

Michael Jackson’s music is a very safe place for me to escape to. I do follow bands, but I don’t belong to the streaming generation at all. I am more of a discography man. Currently, I’m listening to Justice from France, Queen of the Stone Age, and I can’t wait for System of a Down’s next. Red Hot Chili Peppers is my favorite and I’ve heard six years of their music. I haven’t followed a lot of artistes like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd because I go for bands by instinct. I’ll probably listen to them when I’m…50, maybe?”

Interestingly, Jhanu shares a fairly complicated relationship with Ilaiyaraaja, something that didn’t necessarily begin with a lot of liking.

“While growing up, my uncle had the habit of playing Ilaiyaraaja’s songs out loud. And those choir girls, man! What happened was, I subconsciously knew all his songs. So right now, I keep going back in time to appreciate his songs. His compositions have influenced my playing; they were within me even though I didn’t want them.”

Right now, Jhanu the band has its first album coming up, while Kulam, another band he’s a part of, will be releasing a binaural album. He will also be collaborating with Nila‘s director, Selvamani Selvaraj, for a black-and-white film set in the early 50s.

As for his ten-year break, Jhanu likes to think there’s no stopping music.

“To me, success would be this – if I want to play in a city, say Bengaluru, I’d like to get it done with just one phone call. As for Jhanu, the band will keep writing music. Stuff like the whole one-hit-wonder thing scares me. Which is why, if we have one viral hit, we’ll continue doing what we do best. Jhanu’s music will be timeless.”

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The Jhanu Chanthar interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.

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