Why don’t I like the Kolaveri Di song? That’s the question that’s been bothering me all last week. Am I not Tamilian enough to like it? Am I too Tamilian? It has morphed into a full-blown identity crisis.
Everyone around me— family, friends—is raving about it. Interestingly, though, the other Tamilians who populate my life (milk lady, flower man, ironing man, vegetable vendor, help) don’t mention the song during our daily conversations about news and views.
Among the myriad communities which populate Tamil Nadu, I know three fairly intimately. There are the rich mill towns surrounding Coimbatore (where I was born). These are families belonging to the Gounder community, who make their money out of cotton and farming. They wear crisp white dhotis, matching shirts and speak with the lilt of what I call Coimbatore Tamil. They have a sweetness of speech that comes from the Siruvani reservoir water they drink. They also have a small chip on their shoulder about the north Indianization of south India. They are proudly Tamilian; and were frequently portrayed in Tamil movies of an earlier era, made by director Bharathiraja. I doubt that these communities who farm Ethicus cotton in Pollachi or coconuts in Vettaikaranpudur are entranced by this song. Their instinct for hospitality will make them agree with you when you rave about what a sensation it is, but it remains largely irrelevant to their lives.
Out of sync: The song isn’t really a Tamil song, it’s a watered-down version.
The stylish urban youth of Chennai are the target audience for this song. They are comfortable calling you machi (akin to the Australian “mate”) and dancing the dappankuthu. They use matchless phrases like Sothappal, which are hard to translate. It means messed up, but when delivered well (“Ennada? Sothapittaya?”), it can mess you up for life. Young Chennai can talk about film directors like Kurosawa or Mizoguchi, but when it comes right down to it, they will watch an Ajith, Suriya or Dhanush film in droves. First day, first show. They will whistle when Vivek, Senthil or Goundamani comes on screen. I was one of them till I moved out of that city. I wanted to invite Senthil and Goundamani for my wedding and request them to come in the blue-striped knickers they usually sport in their movies. Most of my friends in Chennai love the song.
Kolaveri means murderous rage. Dhanush sings it to a nursery rhyme beat. I don’t like Dhanush because I don’t think he is a good enough son-in-law for my icon Rajinikanth—he who morphs into a tiger and then back. Dhanush is a middling actor. His anorexic frame doesn’t help. That said, he has acted well in this video, displaying an endearing quality that is sadly lacking in his films.
Domestic and international emigrants love this song. These are Tamilians who have migrated to Bhopal and Bhubaneswar; Boston and the Bay Area. Some have fond memories of their “native place”, as we call it in India. Most are mildly embarrassed by their Tamil-ness. You would be too if you grew up in south Bombay or south Delhi and were forced to streak sacred ash on your forehead and apply coconut oil in your hair. I subject my daughters to this whenever I can. Most of my emigrant Tamil friends and relatives have shortened their names. Suryanarayanan becomes Suri. Ananthasubramaniam becomes Soni. When a guy goes from being Ariyanayakipuram Hariharasubramaniamto Ari Harry, you know you’ve lost him. These same folks are suddenly posting this song on their Facebook status and talking about how “proud” they are to be Tamilian. Where were they all these years?
The song in question—Why this Kolaveri Di?—isn’t really a Tamil song. It is a gratuitous, watered-down imitation of a Tamil song, somewhat like Shah Rukh Khan’s enema-inducing depiction of a south Indian in Ra.One. Kolaveri is the lowest common denominator among Tamil songs which is, arguably, the reason for its popularity. The beat is moronic and the lyrics are mostly in English. It is apparently all the rage in the US and Dubai too. In the end, it is only a song, not world peace.
Yes, I’ve heard the Japanese, acapella and Arabic versions, thank you. I have watched in bemusement as Indian-Americans who cannot speak a word of Tamil post it as their Facebook status. I’ve had north Indians sing it to me. I’ve sung it to them in a clumsy attempt at bonding. Curd rice meets rajma chawal. That type of thing.
The best part of its popularity is that it has broken people in. You want to hear Tamil music? Let me give you a few recommendations—all current, all trendy. I am not going into classics like Ilaya nila or Rathiriyil Poothirukkum, or any of those S.P. Balasubrahmanyam numbers. Listen to songs from these movies: Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya (Hosanna), Ayan (Vizhi Moodi), and Vaaranam Ayiram (Mundhinam Partheney) for starters. Shankar Mahadevan has sung some fabulous songs—Varaha Nadhikarai is one of my favourites. Listen to a song called Nee Korinaal, from 180 Rules Kidaiyathu; or the one called Thozhiya en kathaliya from Kadhalil Vizhunthen. It has a nice folksy beat with English lyrics and a rap beat blended in. Now that’s a song. Go to MusicIndiaOnline, one of my favourite sites, and play these songs on your computer.
As for Kolaveri, play that darn song if you must. Post it as your Facebook status. Just don’t call it a Tamil song.
Shoba Narayan jives (awkwardly—like Elaine in Seinfeld) to the beat of Appadi Podu, while her WTK (Why this Kolaveri Di?) friends watch in amusement.
Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns