Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Dhanush Feel of Events: Reading Kolaveri Di in the Cultural Context of India

(Dhanush)

While walking down one of the metro junctions in Delhi, I saw a neon-lit billboard of some mega star night slated to be aired by one of the major television channel. What I noticed was the presence of a young man who apparently does not have any features that would catch the eyes of the people had he not been featured in that advertisement piece. But today none could have missed him even if he comes out of a metro train along with the thousands of frozen Delhi-ites who hustle and jostle for foot space both inside and outside the metro coaches. His name is Dhanush, yes the Kolaveri boy/man.

The song that has taken India by force initially and later the world by making the international professionals and amateurs to mimic, recreate and re-jive it also has made the man who sung it a world star. When the ‘Kolaveri Di’ song hit youtube and viewed by millions of people in a few days’ time, people where wondering from where this lean, thin and smiling fellow dropped into the field of pop music. By word of mouth, by excitedly written journalistic pieces, by magazine articles, by innumerable blogs that analyzed the song, by sharing of the enthusiastic fans and those got hooked by the song irrespective of their linguistic affinities in the networking sites and above all by several skilled and naive imitations of the songs from various countries circulated through the youtube, this song became the song of the New Year, perhaps Kolaveri Di was ‘the’ song of 2011 which could hold push it magic into the new year.

Considering the phenomenal success of this song and the ‘national’ star status and appeal that Dhanush gained after the release of the song as the taking of points in this blog I attempt to analyse the socio-cultural and politico-economic and linguistic factors that made this song an overnight hit and the singer and the producers, national stars. Most of the film albums get a formal launch in our heavily ogled at film industry; television study experts like Nalin Mehta say that despite the 24 hours of news and political debates, the TRPs are maintained at a higher level through the programming of filmy (read Bollywood) news and programs. Often the music launches are held in five star hotels with the star cast of the movie very much present and smiling at the flashing cameras. There are pre-launch and post-launch promotional activities through FM Channels and television channels. To put in nut shell, we could say that the Bollywood songs often fill up our sonic scapes not only through the playing and replaying of it but also through strategic promotional literature, glamorous star presence and interviews. Filmy music, whether one wants it or not enters into our mindscapes initially in trickles and then like the proverbial camels occupy our minds.


Such promotions are done without any ambiguity. For example when Akon came to sing ‘Chamak Challo’ number for Shah Rukh Khan in Ra-One, his arrival, his rehearsals with Vishal-Shekhar and then the actual mixing of the songs in bits and pieces were promoted through well edited videos in the internet space via youtube. This causes a fair amount of disambiguation as in the last scenes of a Jackie Chan movie where along with the credits rolling, Chan shows how the actual stunts are done and the highlighting of the follies make the viewers laugh and what this kind of revealing does exactly is not the enhancement of rational disengaging with the film that they have just seen but the accentuation of the temporary suspension of disbelief. This disambiguation in fact helps the fight scenes of Chan register further deeply in the memories of the viewers. The follies facilitate the viewer to ‘love’ the ‘falter’ more than hating him. That’s why when we listen to Akon singing ‘mera picture ka tu hero’ (you are the hero of my picture) and see him faltering several times and see the loving exhortations of Vishal-Shekhar, we love not only Akon and his silky voice but also Shah Rukh Khan who lip synch the lines in the film or even we combine the images of both Akon and Shah Rukh Khan when we listen to the song from an FM Channel.

(Akon with Shah Rukh Khan)

This disambiguation happens in thoroughly in Kolaveri Di. But I would like to argue that this disambiguation comes from several ambiguities already set in place through this song, its quick interpretations in the press, its quick acceptance across the nation and it’s various emulations. The success of Kolaveri Di, unlike the other film music was in a reverse order; as suggested earlier, film music is generally promoted as carefully devised promotional activities where as in the case of Kolaveri Di promotion comes after its ‘official’ release in the youtube itself. If we analyse the quick success of the ‘cultural activities’ in and through youtube, we have some precedence; from my experiential zone let me cite a few examples, knowing that as readers you too will have many other examples to discuss and debate. In the first half of 2011, a Punjabi girl in one of the backstreets of London playing drums along with a western pop became quite popular in youtube. With all ease and happiness she plays the ‘dol’ of Punjab and interestingly this post in youtube has received quite a lot of racially abusive comments. The girl became famous after this video. ‘Akkarakazhchakal’ (Sights of the other Shore) was another television serial that became a hit in television first, a super hit in youtube and a mega hit when it made into a film. This television serial in Malayalam takes place in the USA. It captures the lives of the diaspora Malayali and their efforts to survive in an extremely different culture. Produced in a shoe string budget this serial became a gross earner when it was youtub-ised and later made into a film. The success of this youtub-isation of programs repeated in the case of Harishankar, a painter who one day decided to sing some absurd songs (sil sila eh sil sila) and Santhosh Pandit, a young amateur film maker who claims to handle eighteen departments of a movie production including direction and lead acting. Like it or not youtub-isation of the non-sense songs of Santhosh Pandit brought him stardom.

Like these examples, Kolaveri Di also happened in the youtube first. When the hit crossed a million or so in a day’s time, major newspapers in this country decided to write about it. This helped it to become a mega hit. Interviews with the artists, musicians, singer and so on happened in the public spaces. All of a sudden Dhanush became a national star. It is exactly in this process I would like to flag out how acts of disambiguation become in fact and ambiguity in itself and vice versa. Primarily, let’s say that Kolaveri Di was seen, listened and enjoyed by the Tamil youngsters. The initial success of the song therefore is a linguistically localized success within the virtual zone of aesthetic production. On the second day, the national English dailies take up the story of this ‘localized’ success and transcend its boundaries. Soon in the networking sites too the sharing becomes cross border and cross-cultural and cross-linguistics. One cannot expect the Tamil boys only have Tamil friends in their facebook or other networking sites. However, I would argue that the newspaper reports and the television reports that ensued helped the song to overcome its own localization and to become a national and later an international hit through the virtual sharing.


True, that these newspaper reports and television reports helped the song to become a hit. But there is something more to it; they helped the ambiguity of the song to grow further by carefully suppressing or avoiding the exact meaning of the lyrics. Instead, they overplayed what the song writer and singer, Dhanush had to say about it. Dhanush said that the music came first (as the young musician from Rajnikant’s family did the music) and he and his team comprising of the young musician, Aishwarya Dhanush, the singer/actor’s wife and producer/director of the movie ‘Moonru’ (Three) for which this is said to have been produced, and Shruti Haasan, the heroine of the movie, just came around, jived, jammed and worked over twenty minutes and finally the song was done. It sounds quite easy, especially when we consider the super success of the song. Invariably, Dhanush’s explanation on the production part of the song tells the world that ‘yo boys, you can do it.’ This is simple. Just do it. Yes, you can do it. Do it yourself. Sounds like corporate themes, right?

Coming back to our core theme of the lyrics and its meaning, the opening expression, ‘Kolaveri Di’ was not interpreted by the journalists nor, as I said in the previous paragraph, was it elucidated by Dhanush or his team. Hence, Kolaveri Di was taken for a phrase, that’s quite catchy, alien and above all something that would help the listener to feel attached and detached to the rhythm of the song at the same time. Some people thought, as I talked to many about this song, that it was something like a ‘Cola Very’, something thought it was Spanish and many thought it was just a sound that would sound catchy when repeated rhythmically. ‘Cola Very’ was an easy, logical and feasible interpretation mainly because in our corporate saturated world, Cola is one drink that the young boys and girls prefer to drink. Hence, Cola Very, especially when sung by a young-looking guy, should have something to do with the corporate culture. As the video has lyrics as sub-title throughout, one cannot easily come to a conclusion that this is a loser boy singing a song for his winner girl; in contemporary times losers are often seen in malls and boulevards sipping Cola if not sucking thumbs. Those who thought that it was Spanish must have seen it in the context of Zindagi Na Mile Dobarah, a multi-starrer movie which has a Spanish song that became a huge hit in India. Those who thought that the phrase was just a sound obviously have the songs like ‘Dhinka Chakka’ from the Salman Khan starrer, ‘Ready’.

(Dhanush with wife Aishwarya Rajnikant)

The ambiguity thus set by the non-interpretation of the starting phrase of the song became a vehicle of communication for the rest of the song. When the initial phrase is not interpreted, therefore an ambiguous zone is created as an a priori of understanding the rest of the comprehensive act could take place without much political or cultural emphasis. The meaning of ‘Kolaveri Di’, murderous rage, came much later as people started wondering what exactly this young man was singing about. Only after a few weeks of its becoming a huge hit, Kolaveri Di was given its actual meaning in the public space. Though there were attempts by blog writers, facebookizens and so on to tell the world that ‘Kolaveri’ meant murderous rage, those were not heeded as the video itself was not hinting anything at murder or rage.

Riding on a happy note and the success that it assured Kolaveri Di spurred up a series of imitations and mimicry in the virtual world. First came a ‘girl’ version, then came many protest versions, then lately even one could see a ‘feminist’ version besides having a host of Mexican, Brazilian, Japanese and other linguistic versions. What we see in the process of this mimicry is the globalization of the local. As I argued earlier, the localized success of Kolaveri Di transcends and becomes a global success mainly because its self-disambiguation process through the video in itself produces a sort of ambiguity that draws the viewer irrespective of the linguistic or national barriers towards the team and the singer who have done this song as in the case of the stunt scenes of Jackie Chan.

Now, let’s us analyse how this video works in zone of cultural production as quite confirming therefore inherently possesses the qualities to become popular amongst the public crossing all the language, age and gender boundaries and limitations. Generally, popularity, despite the notion includes the majority of people liking or disliking something, cannot be measured using the common standards of acceptance. Popularity and success could be quite ambivalent in the scale of proportion and defy the common rules of success charts. What I mean to say is that popularity cannot always be equally distributed amongst the receivers. For example heavy metal rock music may be popular and successful but most of the people do not like their children to blast them off in their homes. Munni Badnaami may be successful and popular but might not be catering to the elite sections of the society. The vulgarity of a scene could only become appealing when the actor or actress represents a different set of values in person life; for example Katrina Kaif’s item number in Agneepath or Bipasha Basu’s item numbers become appealing unlike the ones done by Rakhi Sawant as these actresses in their real life represent (or apparently we believe so) a set of values fundamentally different from the values of the ‘item girls’ that they temporarily represent in the film.

(Katrina Kaif in Agneepath item song)

Kolaveri Di’s success is equi-distributed and it is liked by most of the people. During my travels in different parts of India after the success of Kolaveri Di, I witnessed young children singing Kolaveri Di, old women bursting into a very lovable smile when they listen to this song, men shaking their bodies when they listen to it, or even very hip boys from the upper crusts of the society within the metro coaches proudly singing the lines without any mistake either to please themselves or to please those young beautiful girls seen self admiring at the window panes darkened by the tunnels. This equally distributed success of this song originates from the very visuals of the video and the people who ‘behave’ in it. For the time being let us call them the ‘actors’ in this video.

In 2011, Dhanush completed ten years in the Tamil film industry. He is a contemporary of several other young actors who came from the film families and from outside. Dhanush came without much baggage; of family as well as looks. He belongs to a generation post-Rajni-Kamal, Post-Arjun-Ajit-Vijay. Dhanush with his very ordinary looks (may be in the same lines of Chilambarasan, Vijay and many other actors) drew the front benchers to his persona. He came as an angry young boy, a destitute and a social outsider. He faintly resembled the legendary Bruce Lee in his looks. And in his eyes the same fire raged. Most of the youngsters in Tamil Nadu (and interestingly in Kerala too) could immediately identify with Dhanush because he just looked like them. He was not one of those make believe ‘next door boy’ types. He was not a chocolate hero either. He flipped his dhoti up, showing his lean and toned thighs as well as the striped under wear. He courted girls as a loser and cried whenever he felt hurt. This wrote his success down in the minds of the young people.

In India, within the dominant culture of patriarchy, marriage is the most scared institution and it is said that it is not the boy and girl who get married but two families, their legacies, reputation and wealth. Dhanush raised his status from being a darling of the front benchers to the status of a heir apparent to the supreme super star Rajnikant by marrying his daughter Aishwarya, who is a producer-director of ‘Moonru’. In our country, a son is supposed to be the carrier of father’s legacy and this thinking is heavily dominant in our society that most of the social ills like female foeticide, infanticide and ostracising of women who do not beget sons or their lower status within the family and amongst daughters-in-law come as result of this. Rajnikant, whose family life is held as a very sacred one (unlike Amitabh Bacchan’s, Rajnikant’s life is not still not openly criticized for any reason. Criticism were rampant when the Karnataka-Tamil demographic issues came up in the political scene of Tamil Nadu almost a decade back and also when there were rumours of him entering into active politics) and it is not publicly scrutinized by the media. On the contrary, Rajnikant is viewed by his fans as an incarnation of a philosopher saint, Raghavendra as once he had acted in the bio-pic of Raghavendra and also made his spiritual intentions clear by acting in a flopped film called, Baba.

(Rajnikant in his 100th film Shri Raghavendra)

The public life of Rajnikant is so open as he appears without make up in public functions and speaks to his audience in a language that is so rooted and tinged with philosophical maxims. To add to his philosophical aura, people post photographs of his very ordinary self in social networking sites, especially when he makes annual pilgrimage to the Himalayan shrines. This ‘local and ordinary’ image of Rajnikant has helped him to consolidate his position in the Tamil filmdom considerably. But to carry forward this legacy, he does not have a son. Though the two daughters he has are interested and are active in the film world, the lack of son is always felt. Now, with Dhanush marrying Aishwarya Rajnikant a few years back has been perceived as an adoption of a son who is almost equal in qualities of Rajnikant. Dhanush is lean, thin and unconventional just like Rajnikant was when he entered the Tamil film scene decades ago. He has mannerisms that verges on to villainy but has all the capacities to redeem himself from disgrace by doing good for the sake of a larger population. And above all, Dhanush proves himself to be a singer, a quality which Rajnikant does not have unlike his rival in reputation, Kamal Haasan, who leaves no chance in his movies to sing a song for himself.

In this sense, in the public imagination, Dhanush is the ‘accepted and acceptable’ son of Rajnikant, perhaps a surrogate son who could cover up the lacks that his father has. So when Dhanush appears in the video, happily singing, we tend to see Rajnikant singing through his son (-in-law).Besides, the story of success of this song become all the more authenticated when Rajnikant himself tells the press that he was not so sure of the ‘future’ of this song when he heard it first. This scepticism is originated from the fear of his own lack and the anxiety whether his son (-in-law) could do justice while doing something that he himself has been incapable of doing throughout his cinematic career (there was one instance of Rajnikant himself singing in a drunken mood inside a bedroom which was received with so much of happy hooting even by his own staunch followers and fans). Dhanush, himself says in one of television interviews that he was very happy that it was on that day the recording of this song took place when his child took the first steps. So, as a sub-text the credibility and talent of the family chain/line is endorsed and reinforced within the video.


The conformity of the Indian family, which is devoid of any conflicts is what, as I argue, makes the Kolaveri Di album popular amongst the people irrespective of their age, locality and gender. In the album, we see four active people; Dhanush himself, the music director Anirudh Ravichander, Aishwarya Rajnikant Dhanush and Shruti Haasan. Anirudh is one the recording panel and a key board. Aishwaray, quite business like is seen at the side of her cousin, Anirudh and the film’s heroine, Shruti Haasan is seated quite professionally inside the studio. Even a cursory analysis would reveal that there is a reaffirmation of family values within this unit of people. First of all they are from the reputed film families carrying forward a pool of talented genes towards the future. And theoretically, the couples are divided as Anirudh-Shruti and Dhanush-Aishwarya. Though Shruti is unmarried and does not have anything to do with Anirudh, here we see a surrogate pair happy between themselves, though we do not see them communicating much except when Shruti stands in front of the mike jiving and gives a thumbs up to the three people at the recording panel.

Aishwarya’s body language in the video reiterates that she is in control of things, including the possible emotional engagement between her husband Dhanush and the screen pair Shruti. At the same time, Shruti equally shows self-restraint by smiling and nodding in approval without showing any emotional bonding with Dhanush when he approaches her for a suggestion or comment. In the studio, she takes a passive role, seated slightly away from both Anirudh and Aishwarya, asserting her own zone of individuality, family distinction and right to be there. Here, a keen observer could see the sacred family life of Rajnikant and his progenies coming in direct conflict with the troubled family life of Kamal Haasan but safely saved by the aloofness of Shruti in the setting. And with the conflicts resolved by self positioning of the actors, this video shows a confirmed family set up that could carry forward the family legacies to the future as the future belongs and is assured to them.

While we read the success of this song/video within the traditional family context, we should not forget that this is a carefully constructed/produced and articulated video. Those who are familiar with the song recording sessions could easily make out that this video that is hailed as done in twenty minutes is a staged spectacle. What we see here are the compositely edited visuals from a recording session and a post recording session acted out for the camera. We also see Dhanush lip synching in places and also straining himself to match up with the rhythm that he hears in his head phone. As we know that the picture of Dhanush wearing a heading phone and standing before a recording mike has become so popular that even spurred up so many other video makers to emulate (including the clones of Kolaveri Di) this particular posture and light scheme of the Kolaveri Di video. So what we have is a carefully crafted music video which could be included in the genre of the Indi-pop music.

(Anirudh and Aishwarya)

To go further with the argument of this song being Indi-pop, we should see how this genre of Indi-pop is constructed. Peter Kvetko in his article ‘Private Music’ says that while the Bollywood music depends heavily on Ragas and aalps, the Indi-pop finds its energy in western beats generated through drums, strutting of guitar strings and bass. Here in Kolaveri Di song the rhythm that we listen to is not exactly western one. It is folk-ish to the core and is familiar to the South Indian audience whereas the other instruments used are rhythm pad, saxophone/clarinet and key board. The electronic blending of the three with the Indian rhythm gives the song a special sonic quality which is closer to the western pop while retaining its rooted sonic qualities through the percussion rhythm. And most of the western music is meant for private consumption (especially the pop, hip-hop and heavy metal and so on) using high quality sound systems including car-stereos. In the meanwhile, Bollywood music is created for public consumption including its playing up in public places without heeding much to the quality of the sound systems.

In this sense, Kolaveri Di falls into the ears of the listeners as a ‘very private music’ and it evokes individualistic sensibilities. Peter Kvetko makes this observation while explaining the distinction between the Bollywood music and the Indi-pop music. “..the differences in the sonic texture and iconography between Indi-pop and film songs often correspond to (these) two lived environments, that while filmi music and imagery evokes collective experiences and sensibilities, Indipop articulates an individualistic sensibility more in line with the era of neo-liberalism and global capitalism.” (Peter Kvetko- Private Music – Popular Culture in a Globalized India- ed.K.Moti Gokulsing and Wimal Dissanayake- Routledge-2009. Indian reprint 2011). Seen in this perspective Kolaveri Di substantiates position within the Indi-pop genre and assuming the position of a very private music. It also articulates the individualistic sensibility (four people in a room with distinct identities) in an era of neo-liberalism and global capitalism.

Dhanush is now a hot property in the star nights. The way the Kolaveri Di song transcended its language barriers through assuming the status of a private music, Dhanush also has achieved a different status in the popular culture in India. It is ironically interesting and interestingly ironic that through faulty English and its failed articulation he could cut across the boundaries. In his public appearances after the success of Kolaveri Di, Dhanush carefully plays up the family values (being simple in dressing) and playing it up to the galleries like a ‘tapori’ as and when he is expected to do so. When he stands along with glamorously dressed Abhishek Bacchan, he is noticed for his simplicity, the way Rajnikant is noticed for his appearances without make up in public functions along with a heavily dyed up Kamal Haasan. Dhanush also understands the aesthetic scenario of the Tamil film industry after the huge success of films like Subramanyapuram, Nadodikal and Naan Kadvul by young film makers who revisit the murderous rage of the Tamil ethos throughout its history. The Kolaveri Di songs and its lyrics come from this cultural ethos which Dhanush has internalized not only as an actor but as a producer of culture.


As an end note, I would like to add that most of the writings and reports came about this song and its success have accidently or carefully avoided an invisible presence; the presence of the camera (man/woman). The gaze of the camera in this video is omnipotent because by shifting its location of gaze almost in 360 degrees capturing each and every action of the actors, it remains there as a watchdog; t he guardian of these four young people. When the line ‘kaila glass-u’ is sung, the camera ( I would say, the paternal gaze) immediately cuts to Dhanush who is now reclining in the corner of the recording lounge of the studio. From that reclining position, almost obscured by the lack of light, Dhanush says, ‘only English –a’. We find here a linguistic slip; a fault line suddenly appearing between the song’s assumed global position and its very rootedness. However, the conflict is smoothened out immediately by the intervention of the camera/gaze that almost obscures the image of a faltering Dhanush to a corner. Now with the conflicts ironed out, family values confirmed, happiness celebrated, Kolaveri Di reigns the public imagination.

2 comments:

Ishaan Dixit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ishaan Dixit said...

"how acts of disambiguation become in fact and ambiguity in itself and vice versa." .. with the example of "Kolaveri Di" song, you have simplified a lot of theorems which work together as a force to guide and channelize mass. Also after living for 6 years in Trichy, I couldn't agree more how much young ones identify themselves with simplicity of Dhanush. We all love and adore "larger then life" characters but somewhere deep within the search of a common man, an ordinary looking face failing yet struggling to succeed (and then may be winning finally) inspires us more then anything. And that's why in salutation of Dhanush's Nation wide acceptance as Namma Thambi I should play "Kolaveri Di" on my desktop once again.