Do Tamil film lyrics qualify as literature?

Posted: October 18, 2016 in Uncategorized




In the context of the literature Noble to Bob Dylan for the lyrical content of his songs, it is pertinent to ask whether Tamil film songs have any literary value. But there is an obvious difference between Dylan’s oeuvre and Tamil film song in general. Bob Dylan was a counter-culture icon, who apart from being his own song writer, music composer and performer had great freedom to be individually expressive. The film lyricist, on the other hand, works to a commission….he is writing for a situation which for most part is pedestrian and clichéd. He is hemmed down by tunes to which he has to write to. No wonder train-loads of Tamil film songs are not worth the paper of which they are written though they too in some mindless way reflect the preoccupation of their times!

Tamil cinema has for long been influenced by the traditions of the professional Tamil stage. Sankaradas Swamigal was a doyen of the Tamil stage in its golden period. His song-filled scripts proved to be the template for numerous drama troupes and schooled actors in the cadences of Tamil diction, in epic mythology and the expression of dramatic situation and feeling through song.

 Actors like MGR and Sivaji Ganesan grew up in such a tradition, and though they learnt realistic acting styles while enacting novels of the day, they were alive to the indigenous song-filled tradition. This explains why Sankaradas’s ‘Kaayaadha Kaanagathe’, sung by Muruga when he appears before the tribal belle Valli as a hunter in search of a deer, was delivered by a cavalcade of actors on stage, and also reprised on screen by T.R.Mahalingam, Sivaji Ganesan and  Vijayakanth. Does this persistence across film eras make ‘Kaayadha Kaanagathe’ literature?

Papanasam Sivan, pre-eminent composer-lyricist of the opening decades of Tamil cinema, honed some of the evergreen songs of the thirties and forties. His ‘Radhe Unakku Kobam Aaagadhadi’ was Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s first hit, it launched T..M.Sounderarajan’s singing career in the late forties and later had Sivaji miming to it in Kulamagal Raadhai (1963).  Sivan’s ‘Manmadha Leelaiyai Vendraarundo’ has gone on to become a proverbial saying. Not literature?

With Tamil Nadu’s heady mix of cinema and politics and Tamil cinema’s penchant for mass heroes as well as melodramatic and escapist fare, intellectuals are entitled to turn up their noses regarding any claims of creativity in general and of literary worth in Tamil film song in particular. Modern poet Gnanakoothan didn’t hide his disdain for film songs and flayed them for crudity and butchery of lyrics at the altar of music. Acclaimed novelist Vannanilavan finds only a line or two of literary value even in the best of songs of Kannadasan.  Bharatidasan, the poet of the self-respect movement, wrote the songs for some films initially, but considered it infra dig. Poet Abdul Rahman famously put down film lyricists with the jibe, ‘Ammi Kutha Sirpi Yedharkku’ (No need for a sculptor to roughen the surface of a grinding stone). He later changed his opinion and affirmed that film lyrics also are a kind of poetry.

There is also the fact that a reputed writer like Jayakanthan wrote film songs. His ‘Thennan Keetru Oonjalile’ , sung by PBS and S. Janaki under the baton of M.B.Srinivasan is one of the greatest melodies of Tamil cinema. His ‘Kandadhai Sollugiraen’ (anthem of a modern writer who bears witness to his times) and ‘Veru Idam Thedippovaalo’ (angst-filled cry of a rape survivor) for the celluloid version of his own novel, ‘Sila Nerangalil Sila Manidhargal’. are very meaningful songs. Do they qualify as literature? Famed novelist Kalki Krishnamurthy came up with ‘Kaatrinile Varum Geetham’ for M.S.Subbulakshmi’s Meera, and it turned out to be not only her best but also one of the most entrancing songs of all time!

Most common folk who affirm Tamil film song’s literary worth mostly give one name, Kannadasan! Whether it’s a love song (Naan Pesa Ninaippadhellaam), inspiring anthem (Adho Andha Paravaippola) or patriotic song (‘Naadu Adhai Naadu’, ‘Pani padarndha Malaiyin mele’) and songs reflecting a variety of human predicaments from birth to death, Kannadasan set the bench mark for excellence. Vali came a second but was oftentimes chagrined to be mistaken for the former!

Vairamuthu, fresh from his popularity as a ‘new poetry’ performer in Kavi Arangams, debuted with a bang with ‘Oru Pon Maalai Pozhudhu’. He holds the record of winning the National Film Award for Best Lyric six times. Lyrical excellence?

In times of ‘Kolaiveri’ lambasted by judges, social activists and lay people for breeding misogyny and violence in the youth , the late and lamented Na. Muthukumar kept the flag of poetic creativity flying. But did he have the musical support that somebody like Kannadasan could boast of?

Kannadasan lived in times when there were music composers like MSV and K.V.Mahadevan who were supremely alive to the nuances and rhythms of the lyric. While MSV claimed that the words themselves yielded the tune, KVM insisted that lyric came first every time. Also, most male artistes of Kannadasan’s time came from the stage and were grounded in music even if they did not sing, while female artistes were either dancers or reasonably acquainted with dance. On the other hand, many intellectuals and writers who flay film lyrics don’t understand that the film lyric cannot  be prised out of its musical and cinematic setting.

The question of the literary worth of film songs is a contentious one, but it is also a fact that texts accepted as literature have been beautifully presented in Tamil cinema. Bharati’s ‘Chinnanchiru Kiliye Kannamma’, tuned by the genius C.R.Subburaman for ‘Manamagal’, has gone on to become a famous Carnatic song. Bharati’s songs have been used many times from 1935 to this day. From snatches of Silappadhikaram to verses of the Divya Prabandham and Thevaram and songs of Tiruppugazh, many a literary piece has been meaningfully popularized in films. Who can forget T.M.Soundararajan’s flawless rendering of Arunagirinathar’s ‘Muthai Tharu Paththi’ with all its percussive flight and intricate interweaving of words. While occasionally film song does indeed boast of some literary merit, or at least a touch of it, now and then what is accepted as literature also becomes a winning film song!


(The writer is a historian of Tamil cinema and a lyricist himself).

(This article was published in the Chennai edition of Times of India)

  1. excellent article. There are a few occassions where film song writers have found inspiration from early tamil literature. For example ” OOthha kalaru Ribbon ” finds a parallal in a poem in Nattrinai. The film song from Iruvar ( Vairamuthu) borrows heavily in content and lyrics from Purananootrup paadalgal. Am sure there are several such instances. Look forward eagerly to an article by you on this.

  2. Viayakumar says:

    The secret of popularity of film songs depend on the catchy tunes with matching orchestration.The song lyric by themselves would not reach the masses if it is not presented with the appropriate musical format. After all whatever may be considered as a worthy thought /concept presented in a lyric and even if the pandits praise that for its literary value yet if it does not reach the society what will be the use of use of such a literature?