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Feminist Tamil Songs That Celebrate Women’s Defiance In A Difficult World

Posted: August 7, 2020

Feminist Tamil songs, especially in some of the newer movies, come as a breath of fresh air in an industry often dominated by hero worship.

Oru Ponnu ethu seiyalamnu 5 iruke, ethu seiya kudhatu nu 50 iruke,  ellarukum pudhicha antha 5 namma seiyalam, ana nammaku pudhiche antha 50, namma seiyakudhatu, avalovuthan simple, oru ponnodhe life, Simple!

As a woman, there are 5 things she is allowed to do, and 50 others not allowed.. everything is fine as long as we do the 5 things everybody likes and not the 50 other things that we actually like. That’s how simple a woman’s life is!

And thus begins the song Vaadi Raasathi from the 2015 Tamil movie 36 Vayadhinile. Rasathi is a Tamil term of endearment and the punch line of the song asks women to march forward proudly (proclaiming that women should break free with pride/self-confidence which are often used in a negative context for women). The song is a breath of  fresh air among the patronising list of Tamil songs supposedly ‘dedicated to women’. 

Years and years after their release, movie songs continue to linger, reminiscent of the times they were originally created in. This zeitgeist appeal of film songs makes them a revered tradition in Tamil cinema which has expanded its horizons with the changing times and trends.  

In recent times, Tamil cinema has broadened its appeal by embracing more feminist voices and this has reflected in the movies released. For example, atleast some movies choose not to follow formula-based narratives, serving as testosterone fests.  The greater inclusivity of the times can be seen in the feminist Tamil songs that have portrayed the ‘her-stories’ of Tamil society. 

The Sinagappenney craze

To start with the most recent offering for feminism was the song Singappenney from the movie Bigil, released last year. The trendy tune was a tribute to women everywhere by lyricist Vivek, rendered flawlessly by A.R.Rahman.

The internet was flooded with memes, videos, references to the Singappenney theme and it has since then been used as a favourite template to honour female empowerment. The ‘can do’ attitude of the song makes it very appealing, especially to young children who memorise, sing, mimic and dance to the tune.  

The other song Maathare in the album evokes a deeper, painful realisation of what it really means to be a woman in 2019, Tamilnadu. It’s a very moving song and the lyrics reveal the angst of how women are toyed with, in a world where the rules are set by men

Feminist Tamil songs…for women, by women

Over the years, the role of a submissive female has been the norm in Tamil movies and most movies do follow the same trope. Yet, a few stand out and in recent times the comeback films of actor Jyothika have reflected this conscious shift towards positive female empowerment. The actor’s recent films 36 Vayadhinile and Magalir Mattum are contemporary examples for empowering female representation onscreen. The songs of these movies are in-line with feminist themes and the lyrics celebrate the untapped potential of women that is suppressed.

The song Rasathi folk version in 36 Vayadhinile is a song in very colloquial language that celebrates the ordinary women. Sung by Lalitha Vijayakumar, featuring her and a whole array of women from working mothers, housewives, women workers of the informal sector, and college girls, the song retains the authenticity of folk music.

The lyrics berate the hypocrisies and double-standards that women face in society and the grandmothers in the song deserve special mention as they bemoan women’s plight. The conspicuous absence of men in the video is in tune with the spirit of the song i.e. make your own path. 

The film’s whole album is reflective about the middle-aged woman’s place in society. A category often dismissed in most conversations about empowerment, the song Pogiren is a soulful articulation of wanting freedom and breaking the emotional shackles of patriarchy.

In the other movie Magalir Mattum, the songs penned by lyricists Uma Devi and Thamarai lend a whole new meaning to female liberation.  The songs Adi Vaadi Thimiraa and Ghandhari Yaaro are unapologetic anthems for a progressive society. 

They talk about breaking stereotypes and smashing patriarchy every step of the way. The upbeat rhythms give the music an uplifting ambience, which is a stark contrast to the tragic soliloquies usually employed to depict female sorrows. 

The Nayanthara starrer movie Aramm also had empowering tracks that tackled the social inequalities. The song, Pudhu Varalaare is a moving tribute to the forgotten class who toil, asking them to rise up. The video of the song features Nayanthara (who plays the role of an IAS officer) as the de facto leader of the people, trying to succeed against societal class/caste politics.    

Another song that reflects the energy to beat the odds is Maya Visai, from the movie Irudhi Suttru, (a movie about an underprivileged female boxer, succeeding against social/cultural odds). The song is fast paced, energetic with visuals reinforcing female strength and grit. It moves away from the stereotypical sexualised version of strength training and exercises that is the norm in Tamil cinema. 

Vanguard to the trend

Lyricists often give nuanced versions to social reality. Among my earliest memories of feminist Tamil songs was the Adi Ennadi Ulagam in the movie Aval Oru Thodar Kathai. Sung by L.R.Eswari, the song captures the essence of ‘the rebel’ that is bottled up by mores. Throwing shade at the emotional and cultural veils that inhibit woman’s true empowerment, wearing the shortest dress I had ever seen a grown woman wear, the character ‘Fatafet Lakshmi’ dances to the tune on a terrace. 

Released in 1974, the song remains fresh as it speaks up against the shared patriarchal norms of our world. 

The beauty of any language rests within its lyrical meter and in songs that capture the plethora of human emotions and experiences. Songs in Tamil are usually fall movie songs and even the pop-culture of Tamilians is dominated by film songs.

Trendy, catchy, and usually peppered with misogyny, the chartbusters are often anthems for hero-worshippers. Women centric and empowering songs are a genre that remains trivial, in a world of ‘soup-songs’ and item songs. Conscious efforts can help garner change, in this age of social media where women have access to not just technology  but also content. In the age of Super singers, Star Singers, and many more singers, songs about women empowerment can be truly progressive versions that the audiences/performers can mimic. 

Image source: A still from the song Pudhu Varalaare

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