Music, Masculinity and Desire: Why this Kolaveri Di?

SITA VENKATESHWAR, Massey University, Aotearoa, New Zealand

Why this kolaveri di? is a song that went viral and captured the imagination of the populace in India and beyond. This essay is a playful analysis of the lyrics and its performance that explains the ways in which a YouTube video from Chennai, bridged many differences and connected the world in song.[1]

My family in India sent me a link to the YouTube video.  I watched the video, smiled and thought no more of it.  When I arrived in India in December 2011, I discovered that the song was everywhere: on radio, television and mobile phone ringtones; all kinds of people across the country were humming a line from the song or joining in with others to complete the rest of the song in unison.  On New Year’s Eve at a hotel in Thirunelli, a remote location in the Wayanad region of northern Kerala, I found myself dancing around a bonfire with many other guests there and singing the song with gusto.  Not just once but at least half a dozen times!  I realised that this phenomenon demanded greater attention.  Mapped by the prevalence of flashmobs in locations as disparate as the Netherlands and Japan, I learned that the song had gone viral across the world! 

What was all the fuss about? Both CNN and BBC appear mystified by the same question. CNN’s Erin Burnett nominated it as ‘the top song of 2011’ overtaking luminaries such as Adele, Pitbull or Justin Bieber and ‘taking the world by storm’![2] It would be instructive at this point for readers to view the entire YouTube video:
Note the elements of its performance: the vernacular idioms, the shifts between front stage and backstage, which deliberately and self-consciously draw attention to the fabricated character of the video, as well as the performance of masculinity as presented in the clip. I also want to draw attention to the extent to which the lyrics and the kinesic codes of the performance are embedded within the cultural grammar of the South Indian context, marking the distinct ethnic niche that it occupies, which sets it apart from the more familiar and omnipresent Bollywood varieties of performance with its global following of devotees.[3]

What does that phrase “Kolaveri di” mean? ‘Kola’ means to kill, and ‘veri’ is rage, so ‘kolaveri’ translates to ‘killer rage or murderous rage.” As explained by the BBC Radio commentators, the song is “all about the common man, singing in the bathroom, saying, look, you have broken my heart, you’ve imposed your rage on me and I am dying.”[4]

A cursory search on YouTube confirms the BBC’s mention of the extent of its spread and reach, spawning numerous new versions but also quite clever responses to the original song. One such performance, which was available on YouTube until recently, enacts a rock performance set outdoors on wooded grounds in the USA, by four males of South Asian origin. Constructed as a response to the query from the original song, the four young men give voice to their yearning to have it all, a ‘six-pack’ body, Goldman Sachs accounts, a Kardashian or Shruti Hasan on either arm, yet remain au fait with the fine points of a Mysore Pak.[5]

There is a feminist counter-part which presents a rejoinder to the question of ‘Why this Kolaveri Di?’ while simultaneously mobilising the much better-known Bollywood-Bhangra[6] repertoire of movements to their performance within the confined space of a car.[7]

Many readers are likely to be well aware of the impeccable credentials and the stellar cast of Kollywood first families brought together in the production of this video and its associated film 3, Moonru. [8] The BBC clip has already alluded to the links to Tamil cinema actor Rajnikant and the cult following that he enjoys as far as Japan. Dhanush, the singer, is Rajnikant’s son-in-law, married to Aishwarya, the director of the film. Shruti Hasan, who stars with Dhanush in Moonru and features in the YouTube video, is the daughter of Kamal Hasan, another Kollywood celebrity. Like his contemporary Rajnikant, Kamal Hasan also made successful forays into Bollywood. Dhanush, in his own right, is an award winning actor and lyricist, well connected through his own natal familial linkages to the world of Tamil cinema.
Let us now assemble what I have selected as some of the key elements from the video for discussion. First, note the language, the combination of Tamil and English in this song referred to as Tamlish, just as there are varieties of Hindlish, Benglish etc., signalling the regional parlance in currency. Across multilingual India, speakers seamlessly switch between one and more of that vernacular. It is particularly noticeable in the current generations who inhabit that subcontinent, as do most of the first generation Indian diaspora. What is striking in this instance is that for the first time, the rest of the country exuberantly embraces a vernacular from southern India. Note also the clever use of the ‘di,’ which is the equivalent of the ‘tu-toi’ of French and denotes a similar range of connotations from endearment, intimacy, camaraderie to social status in relation to the addressee. Di and its male equivalent da characterise everyday colloquial speech in Tamil Nadu. It rhymes with the ‘ji’ of north India, but while the ‘ji’ denotes deference and respect, the ‘di’ as I have indicated has a wider range of connotations.

The extended vowels that follow the enunciation of every utterance in English in the song, characterises both the Indian accent and marks the wider region of South Asia. In India, such an enunciation positions the speaker in terms of their schooling and educational background and therefore their socio-economic location. The intonation distinguishes the vast majority of the inhabitants of India as they navigate the English language and render it in their own idiom.

I want to focus now on one word on which to my mind, the entire song hinges, the word ‘Love.’ The usual palato-dental delivery of that sound in English transforms into a deep, guttural yowl in its usage here, uttered straight from the belly. It embodies a world of yearning for the white girl who becomes the index for a form of imagined modernity, desired but elusive and always out of reach.

The performance of masculinity as rendered visible in this song can be considered characteristic of the South Indian male, bears the traces of the colonised subject who has been denigrated as weak and effeminate, unlike the other valorised ‘martial warrior types’ found elsewhere in India.[9]

What is so delightful in the rendering of masculinity in the video is the self-deprecating, and humorous performance of desire, rejection, and yearning in the persona, the voice and the idiom of the vast majority of young men whose own desirability remains under question. In my view, this is the reason why the song has resonated to the extent that it has across the country and beyond, conferring to it the plasticity that enables it to be recast and reassembled for an array of different performances.

However, I want to posit more provocatively that there is also a darker side to such a persona, where the desire, yearning and the lack of opportunities to fulfil them can channel anger, then rage accompanied by violence. “The ‘we don’t have choice,’ that Dhanush bemoans, can become the fuel that has on occasion triggered performances of violence by a populace in India who have embraced this song because it sings in their voice. The greater the distance from all the elements that constitute desire, the six packs, the Goldman Sachs accounts or the Shruti Hasans and Kardashians, the greater the simmering anger that is available for mobilization to the ends of electoral politics or other triggers.

In a testament to the song’s plasticity is a final clip, an irreverent and clever Pakistani version that skilfully hones in on the political dilemmas of that besieged nation, while also demonstrating that the political lies lurking just below the lyric and melodic:[10]

This brief essay offers a perspective on a Youtube video from Chennai that swept the world.  It addresses the ways in which the performance of masculinity in the video and the articulation of desire embeds it within the South Indian milieu, but also enable it to speak to a multiplicity of contexts.  The essay also suggests that such a performance masks a darker, more troubling vein in relation to gendered politics in the subcontinent.

*** 

 

SITA VENKATESWAR is Director, International, in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and Senior Lecturer in the Social Anthropology program at Massey University, New Zealand. She is also Associate Director of the Massey chapter of the recently established New Zealand India Research Institute (NZIRI).  Her ethnography Development and Ethnocide: Colonial Practices in the Andaman Islands (2004) is based on her Ph.D. fieldwork in the Andaman Islands from 1989 to 1992 funded by the National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant. Her recent co-edited book, The Politics of Indigeneity: Dialogues and Reflections on Indigenous Activism (2011) is published by Zed Books.  Sita's research interests include cultural analysis and the relationship between gender and power.

[1] Other commentaries that engage with the song either directly or in passing are available from Kafila, a South Asia collaborative blog site, here: http://kafila.org/2011/12/08/high-theory-low-kolaveri-di-why-i-am-a-fan-of-this-flop-song-a-s-ajith-kumar/and here: http://kafila.org/2011/12/05/why-this-kavala-worry-kavala-worry-di/
[2] CNN’s Erin Burnett’s comments are available from this link: http://www.YouTube.com/watch?v=PljKjvndSRs. Accessed March 10th, 2012.
[3] Bollywood, a term that derives from Hollywood, is a colloquialism used to refer to the film industry based in Mumbai (also referred to as Bombay cinema). It is the largest film producer in India for Hindi films.
[4] Accessed March 10th, 2012.
[5] Mysore Pak is a South Indian delicacy, a sweet dish made on festive occasions and notoriously difficult to get right consistently.
[6] Bhangra is a folk dance from the Punjab region.
[7] Accessed March 10th, 2012.
[8] "Kollywood" refers to the Tamil film industry based in Kodambakkam, Chennai, and like Bollywood, is a play on Hollywood. Wikipedia suggests that these usages date back to a 1932 article in the American Cinematographer by Wilford E. Deming, an American engineer who was involved in the production of the first Indian sound film.
[9] My earlier mention of the kinesic codes embedded within the cultural grammar of southern India should be recalled here and contribute to a presentation of self that is quite distinct from the Bhangra inspired repertoire of movements derived from northern India which is home to the Sikhs, one of the ‘martial races’ according to British colonial typology. See recent publications by Caroline and Filippo Osella for more scholarly engagement with South Indian masculinities, the following collections are particularly useful: Men and masculinities in south India (2006), London, New York : Anthem Press; South Asian masculinities : context of change, sites of continuity (2004), New Delhi : Women Unlimited, 2004.
[10] Accessed March 10th, 2012
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