What’s a refrain in a song? Something that you refrain from singing clearly, or beep parts of, in the interests of (in)decency! With such an approach to his heartbreak song that begins with a four letter word referring to women’s anatomy derogatorily, film star Silambarasan has stepped into a full scale row. The song has taken the rampant commodification of women’s body in films to the level of outright vilification.
Even as the claim is made of a theft and supposed leak, the song itself has an in-built caveat on the hysteria against the other sex — there are lines saying that a man must not blame girls, he must blame himself. This belies the claim that the song was meant only to be a cathartic experience in a private jam session. It perhaps is a failed attempt at another viral Kolaveri though the Kolaveri is now on the part of an enraged public!
Not that the film world is new to charges of vulgarity and obscenity in song, gesture, dance or scene. As a mass medium which is inherently voyeuristic, even Tamil cinema’s first sound film had its incipient star T.P.Rajalakshmi miming erotic feelings with ‘Manmatha Baanamada, Maarinil Paayudhada’ (Cupid’s dart is piercing my heart). It has been a motif of Tamil cinema to have the heroine pining for intimacy at some point of the film. Nearer our times, a brilliant playback singer like S. Janaki added her peppy moans and shrieks (‘Ponmeni Urugudhe’, ‘Nilaa kaayudhe’…) to such erotic acts by actresses which only became more and more explicit with the times.
The club song or cabaret song began in Tamil films as early as 1936. American filmmaker Ellis Dungan introduced a club song in Sathi Leelavathi, his debut film as a director, though the cabaret song came into its own from the late sixties with generous assistance from Hollywood and Hindi films. It had to been an element of the storyline to show the husband going astray or a villainous gang in action. L. R. Eswari, who later was identified with Amman devotionals, specialized in cabaret numbers churned out by the likes of Kannadasan and Vali and their worthy successors. But there was no vilification involved in all this, at least through cuss words, only an advertisement to sexuality and invitation for celebration.
The emphasis during British rule was mainly on censoring nationalistic sentiment in films. (The British were also apparently worried that the American films that Indians got to see did not present a good idea of the white race). Films like Thyaga Bhoomi (1939) and Matrubhoomi (1939) were banned. But filmmakers got away celebrating ribaldry and debauchery (Savukkadi Chandrakantha, for example – 1936) and exposing the female body (K.R. Chellam in Vanaraja Karzan 1938, a jungle film).The act was repeated in Vanamohini in 1941, with the dare bare Ceylon actress Thavamani Devi proving more than obliging.
The screws tightened after Independence on such ‘profanity’ with new rules and regulations, but then it was the avalanche of DMK propagandist fare that rained through films. Even the steel frame of severe censorship could not thwart the abrasive demagoguery of films like Parasakthi seeping into the public domain. The prominent comedian N. S. Krishnan took to barely concealed double entendre to back the DMK through his song, ‘Theenaa, Moonaa, Kaana’ which could be taken to refer to the DMK but which he expanded as ‘Thirukkural Munnani Kazhagam’! This was taken to be a good enough camouflage for the censor to put aside his scissors! C. N. Annadurai’s ‘Sorgavaasal’ (1954), had a song, ‘Raajaadhi Raajan Namma Raaja’ in which Congress leader K. Kamaraj was named in a demeaning manner. The lines were chopped.
Kannadasan believed in the liberating power of sex and worked out the metaphor of sexual union through various poetic devices in a multiplicity of ways and moods in his songs (‘Katti Thangam Vetti Eduthu’, ‘Ennirundu 16 Vayadhu’). Sometimes he managed to keep it lyrical, for he was one of the mainsprings of the musically fecund romantic era in film music, but even he could not avoid being gross and insensitive. There are songs suggestive of lesbian encounters in Tamil cinema, but as the classic and favoured approach goes, it’s all in the time honoured ‘ilai marai kaay’ style, couched in a suggestive and hidden manner.
The sixties and seventies saw MGR honing songs in his films for building his image and that of his party on the one hand, and for keeping his female admirers happy through erotic jousts oftentimes framed as dream songs. The archetypal, ‘Aaayiram Nileve Vaa’, from the pen of Pulamai Pithan, is rampant with erotic ideas which are veiled by the flowery literary style employed (the picturisation of ‘en uyirile unnai ezhudha, pon meni thaaraayo’ explicates the meaning, though).
With cinema-in-theatre gradually losing out family audiences to 24×7 cable channels and the internet, filmmakers have become more explicit in trying to attract younger audiences. Some find it difficult to avoid the temptation to exploit the internet to go viral on their ‘sensational’ song. But seeking cheap popularity is likely to be rather harmful both to morale and to lasting results.
(A version of this article appeared in Times of India, Chennai)