Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Guardian can't spell Kolaveri



I've cribbed about the art and food components of the Guardian's Bombay guide, and here's an interesting new blog taking on the audio-visual interpretation of the city created by the music collective B.L.O.T.
The Guardian's never been strong on India, but a recent article about the hit song Why This Kolaveri Di seems a low point even by the paper's standards. To begin with, the writer, Priya Virmani, gets the spelling of Kolaveri wrong. Then she translates Kolaveri Di incorrectly: the phrase does not mean "killer rage", only its first word does. The second word, Di, has no English equivalent, but defines the addressee as female. Why this Kolaveri Di? is equivalent to, "Why this murderous fury, girl?"
I'd have let this slide, but Virmani goes on to suggest the singer strings words together, "in a very James Joyce-like stream of consciousness". Now, I'm a bit protective about Joyce, and once Virmani's brought him into the picture, I take it personally. She digs herself deeper in the hole by asking, "Is this Joyce's 20th-century symbolist writing making a comeback in a 21st-century guise?" Do sample, here, the most famous example of Joyce's stream-of-consciousness style, the final chapter of Ulysses, and decide for yourself if it has anything in common with symbolism, or with lines like these from Why This Kolaveri Di:
Aa.. distance la moonu moonu
Moonu colour-u white.
White-u background night night-u
Night-u coloru black-u
Haan.. why this kolaveri kolaveri kolaveri di

White skin-u girl-u girl-u
Girl-u heart-u black-u
Eyes-u eyes-u meet-u meet-u
My future dark-u
Why this kolaveri kolaveri kolaveri di

There have been hundreds of articles written about Kolaveri Di, but I'm yet to read a satisfying analysis of why the song works. Sure, as pointed out here, here, here and here, it's a catchy tune that employs demotic Tamil-English to amusing effect, but that's far from enough to explain the song's crossover success. Asking the singer-lyricist Dhanush isn't much help either, because he sees it only as a nonsense verse scribbled in under half an hour.
The song is very meta, and though that's true of pretty much every cultural product these days, it is still worthwhile underlining, as few writers have, that the singer switches regularly from a depressed, rejected loser to somebody commenting on the melody itself, using phrases like 'flop song', 'rhythm correct', 'maintain please', 'what a changeover mama', and 'OK, now tune change'. The music also contains ironic passages. It starts folksy with a nadaswaram beat, before shifting to a wedding band atmosphere and a trumpet going dreadfully, and comically, out of tune.
The distancing effect created by the words and music is greatly enhanced by an element that analysts have mysteriously missed: the visual dimension. Kolaveri Di's popularity exploded primarily through YouTube, where its viewership is about to hit the 50 million mark. The video focuses on four young, good-looking people in a recording studio: Dhanush, the singer; Anirudh, the composer; Dhanush's co-star Shruti Haasan; and his wife Aishwariya Rajinikanth who's directed the film featuring Kolaveri Di. Whether or not we know they're among the wealthy darlings of the nation, the video conveys an impression that these people have it all, in glaring contrast to the poor protagonist of the song.
The emotion felt by the 'soup boy', then, is twice filtered: first, through a pidgin tongue that varies from faintly to wholly ridiculous; and, second, through a visual rendition entirely at cross purposes with the song's theme. The two negatives end up making something like a positive. Whereas melodrama of the Devdas variety begs to be deflated, the Kolaveri Di singer -- endowed with the requisite props of moonlit night, glass of scotch, and teary eyes -- ends curiously validated. The multiple distancing, Brechtian alienation if you will, results in the condition being described floating free of its particular anchor -- the soup boy's tale of woe -- and assuming a general or universal aspect. The song's mildly nonsensical quality facilitates a disentangling of the fundamental state of being jilted, or of loving without requital, from any narrative specifics. This precipitates a recognition in ourselves of having felt a similar emotion, or been in an analogous situation, and therefore to identify with the singer and song. Viewing any incarnation of Devdas, my primary response for three hours straight is, "What an idiot". With Kolaveri Di it's more like, "This guy's foolish, but I've been there myself, or can imagine being there". I can't imagine being like Devdas, ever.
As one's identification with the singer and situation evolves, the silly lyrics, jotted in a hurry with no forethought, begin to appear clever, even eloquent, if some way short of Joycean in stature.