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Hum a revolution

Varsha Venugopal | Updated on: Mar 15, 2019
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No longer content with getting the lead romantic pair to run around trees, Tamil film songs today are all about sparking social change

“How many times must I tell you/ Not all men are equal here” — anger and grief explode in the haunting song Karuppi , which repacks the traditional oppari (Tamil folk song of lamentation) as an impassioned rap number in Pariyerum Perumal , the critically acclaimed Tamil film on caste-based oppression. With the potent words, spirited performance and striking visuals, the song — a raw, uninhibited elegy — remains with you long after the movie is done.

Tamil film songs — often dismissed as mere fillers or the occasional hit tune that sets cash registers ringing — are increasingly acknowledged as a new form of poetry, by dint of their sheer reach, popularity and influence. Director Santhana Bharathi, who gave us gems such as Gunaa and Mahanadhi , agrees that Tamil film songs have the power to take social issues to the masses. “Cinema is a powerful medium that can reach people in every nook and corner,” he says.

Take the example of Cement Kaadu (concrete jungle) from the film Aruvi , a defiantly cheerful song which looks at how the marginalised and the poor navigate life in cities. Or Ennanga Sir Unga Sattam (what are these laws you’ve made, sir) in Joker, which attributes multiple socio-economic problems to poor governance, such as the horror of farmer suicides. Vivek Velmurugan, the songwriter of Karuppi , as well as Aalaporan Thamizhan (the Tamilian will rule), and Oru Viral Puratchi (one-finger revolution), says unless the lyrics genuinely explore the issue at hand, they will not leave a mark. “There must be truth in the lyrics for the public to accept a song,” he says.

Pariyerum Perumal ’s director, Mari Selvaraj, believes that songs can effectively deliver a message where dialogues cannot. “Dialogues exclude the viewer from the conversation between the characters in a film. But a single song can communicate the core message of the film to the audience because they connect with the feeling it evokes.”

The song then transforms into an anthem that gives voice to his story, he says.

“I will do whatever I can to get my point of view across to the audience in a format they like. And the most popular format is song. Even if they are completely unaware about a subject, I can pack my idea in tunes that come from familiar genres,” Selvaraj says.

Actor Elango Kumaravel agrees that songs can amplify a story. He recently appeared in Sarvam Thalamayam , a film that examined the impact of the caste system in the classical music circle. A deceptively dulcet classical piece, Varalaama Un Arugil (may I approach you), subverts the perceived exclusiveness of Carnatic music by deploying it to express the point of view of the protagonist, the son of a simple mridangam maker.

Pointing out that such social consciousness is not recent but a long-standing feature of Tamil film songs, actor and film historian Mohan Raman says, “The concept of relaying social messages through songs has been around much before the Dravidian movement began using cinema in the 1950s. For instance, the first Tamil talkies were produced pre-Independence and were a significant means of rallying support for the Swadeshi movement, often with the help of patriotic songs.”

Raman cites the 1939 film Thyagabhoomi as a classic example, where the song Desa Sevai Seyya Vareer , sung by the Carnatic great DK Pattammal, is powerfully evocative to this day, with its splendid visual of a group of khadi-clad men and women exhorting their countrymen to “step up and serve the nation”. Ahead of its time, the film also touched on women’s rights and the evils of the caste system.

In the 1950s and ’60s, songs picturised on the leading stars MG Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan famously spread the ideals of rationalism, equality and Tamil pride, and remain wildly popular even today.

Besides discussing social and political issues, and offering solutions, they painted an image of an ideal world that people could aspire to.

What perhaps distinguishes the contemporary Tamil film song from its predecessors is its call for the collective ownership of a problem. It is sung on behalf of the people, not to the people; it calls for a considerate approach and meaningful engagement from every one of its listeners. Today’s Tamil film songs seek to put the agency of change in the people’s hands.

“Art has a responsibility to reflect the current state of society and lead people down the right path,” says Velmurugan. “With more film-makers believing in this duty, we can expect more films and songs of this kind in the future. As industry professionals, we also have to thank the public for encouraging us — after all, they’re celebrating these songs instead of setting them aside as sanctimonious advice.”

Varsha Venugopal is a Chennai-based writer

Published on March 16, 2019

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