Interview: Thamarai

Posted on February 25, 2010

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Picture courtesy: hindu.como

Picture courtesy: hindu.com

LOTUS NOTES

That sound you hear is Baradwaj Rangan fanning himself after a heated conversation with the lyricist Thamarai, the beauty of whose verse cloaks a blistering commitment to cherished beliefs.

FEB 26, 2010 – A BLACK MUTT LIES ON ITS SIDE in the modest living room where Thamarai is to join me for a conversation, its flank rising and falling with every lusty breath. This is not a happy situation, especially after the offhand information that this is a dog with a penchant for fastening its fangs around the ankles of strangers. Trying not to think about my canine companion, I focus on the wall in the distance, bedecked with trophies whose glimmer has waned over time. Common sense tells me that the item of furniture in front, by my feet, is a coffee table, but it’s unrecognisable – all I see is a hillock of books, newspapers, magazines, more books. Thamarai arrives and, after preliminaries, enquires if I will have coffee. I wonder if I should say yes simply to see where she plans to position the cups, but it’s late evening and I have no desire for a stimulant. Thamarai is dressed simply, in a nightgown that declares, in no uncertain terms, that the person inside has no patience with frippery. The paint and polish are reserved for the poetry.

The conversation, however, begins with mechanical engineering, which claimed Thamarai after school. She wanted to study journalism, but the only choices were medicine and engineering, and she chose the latter to avoid the former. She, then, worked for seven years doing quality control in the fabrication division of a pressure vessels company, Universal Heat Exchangers Limited, Coimbatore – a distaff island amidst a sea of men. She was the first woman trained at the Welding Research Institute, Trichy. This information is not something I’m prepared for. I would have been happier with the creationary myth that a pigtailed Thamarai ran home from school, flopped on her bed, and breathlessly began to recount her day in perfectly calibrated verse, and that these volumes were displayed by mildly amused parents to a guest who coincidentally turned out to be the editor of a Coimbatore publishing house, who, wonderstruck, felt beholden to showcase this dazzling talent to the world at large. A welding mask does not fit into this picture.

As if sensing my dismay, Thamarai reveals that, in this period, she did find time to submit short stories and poetry to popular Tamil magazines. During the final year of college, she was selected as student reporter for Anandha Vikatan. She was even offered the position of subeditor with (the now-defunct) Saavi, but a move to Chennai, at the time, was out of the question. A full seven years elapsed before Thamarai emboldened to scratch a long-festering itch. She knew she should be doing something else, so she quit in 1994. She came to Chennai with dreams of writing for films. Like starry-eyed strugglers everywhere, she knocked on more doors than she cares to remember – of producers, of directors, of music directors like Deva and Ilayaraja who advised her to wait until they called upon her to write. Thamarai realised that to make it in Tamil cinema, she could not afford to be based in Coimbatore. She needed to relocate to Chennai. So she gave up the dream and retreated to reality, staying at home for a while to recover from setbacks both professional (a job she was unbeaten at but uninterested in) and personal (a bad marriage).

Finally warming up with familiarly angsty chapters of a creator’s backstory, Thamarai recalls feeling that her talents had rusted – but this notion was dispelled when, to climb out of depression and keep herself alive, she started reading again, writing again. She won a Kumudham-Air India poetry contest in 1994, and then the floodgates opened. A slew of literary awards from Tamil magazines flew her way, two short-story collections and a poetry compilation were published, and the trips to Chennai became more frequent, if only to pick up prizes. She decided to give films another shot, especially as, by now, her name was established in the literary circles. She met many more directors and showed them her prize-winning poems. That’s how she tiptoed into her first film, Seeman’s Iniyavale, in 1997, and that’s when she moved to Chennai, all alone. I interrupt this reverie to enquire if she’d label her interest in films as dilettantish dabbling or desperate desire, and she laughs that she’d rather call it destiny. (The exchange sounds punchier in Tamil. “Aarvam-nu solveengala veri-nu solveengala?” “Vidhi-nu solven!”)

But she doesn’t really invest in destiny – she’s an atheist, or as she puts it, a Periyar-ist – and she says it was perseverance. Her life was hell in Coimbatore, and she sought a more intense inferno to sink into and forget the pain, and the sulphurous sidestreets of Tamil cinema proved perfect. She’d had enough of being yanked around by life. She wanted, now, to be the one to pull at the leash, with life trotting behind like a panting puppy. She delivered close to 50 songs – some kicked and screamed their way to the final film, many stayed stillborn at the recording theatre. But despite hits like Malligaipoove (Unnidathil Ennai Koduthen) and Onnu rendu (Pudhumaipithan), the lyrical landscape had little place for a woman. Possibly owing to a paucity of predecessors (other than curious one-offs like Roshanara Begum), the male-dominated film industry remained sceptical about this lone female songwriter knocking at the doors. Thamarai restates the obvious, that there’s a difference between the male and female points of view, and that male directors had gotten used to male point-of-view songs from male lyricists. Her style did not appeal to them – they just didn’t understand.

The first four years in Tamil cinema were not a happy period for Thamarai. She was physically unwell, mentally burdened, and, as a consequence of severing ties with almost everyone, socially single. The struggle was hard, the monetary rewards hardly commensurate – the crawl through the long tunnel ahead was suffused with gloom. Light finally arrived in the form of a first-time director named Gautham Menon and a first-time composer named Harris Jayaraj. Thamarai was writing songs for television shows produced by Madras Talkies, when she got word about the young team that was making a romance named Minnale. She met the director, who said that Vaali, the veteran lyricist, was writing the songs. He said he’d call her if anything changed. She waited. She kept in touch. Three songs (Azhagiya theeye, Mama Mama, Venmathi) were written and Vaali, for some reason, did not continue. Thamarai was invited to craft the remaining songs (Vaseegara, Ivan yaaro, and the exquisitely eros-imbued Iru vizhi unadhu), and the rest is her story.

Vaseegara was the first song she wrote for the film, in 2000, and her first draft was approved. It was her song, with her feelings, written from her viewpoint, in her by-now-patented style. Thamarai recalls that Gautham Menon was extremely non-interfering – he described the scene and left the rest to her. (“Kaatchi avarudayadhu, karpanai ennudayadhu!”) Not a word was changed in the song that defined her career. Minnale was a hit – the birth of the millennium witnessed the blossoming of Thamarai. She admits that there was the euphoria of vindication, but the success was sweeter because it arrived on her own terms, through her own struggle. She comes from a family that values education, and, unsurprisingly, was leery about politics and cinema. (Both parents were teachers in corporation schools. Her father taught English and Mathematics, and her mother was a Tamil teacher, which possibly explains the names of the children: Thamarai, Malligai, Poonkundran.) But today they are proud, almost as proud as Thamarai is that her flight to the stratosphere was unimpeded by turbulent compromise. She will not take up a new song until she finishes the one she’s writing. She will not stain her verse with vulgarity. Most importantly, she will not employ English.

It’s not that she hates this leaden legacy of British rule. But she hates that English has come to mean not “a language” but “superior knowledge.” She hates the mad scramble for English education that is turning Tamils into little brown sahibs. She hates that parents speak to their children in English, that they choose to enroll their children in English-medium schools. She hates that there are Tamils who cannot read their mother tongue. She hates that Tamil magazines use English words, for effect, when English magazines do not feel the need to include Tamil phraseology. She hates that Tamils have an inferiority complex about their own language. (“Vandhavanayum vaazha vaikkum, thannaiyum thaazhthi kollum! Andha maadhiri culture idhu.”) She wants to fracture the hegemony of English and bring Tamil back to the folds of Tamil Nadu. She reasons that cinema is not just entertainment, that it has an enormous influence on society, and she cannot (and will not) wield a weapon like the film song to perpetuate this inequity. She demands to know where else the language will be nurtured if not in the land of its birth.

I venture that, while an admirable ideal, the writing of lyrics is subservient to context, and I ask what she would do if there were a character, in a film, like me, someone to whom “thank you” rolls more readily off the tongue than “nanri” – a Tamilian who speaks and writes Tamil, but thinks and dreams in English. After all, some aspects of our lives are chosen for us before we are capable of making other choices. Thamarai gracefully spares the head I have laid so timorously on the chopping block. She admits she can see why exceptions are needed – in comical songs, for instance, or in the Kaadhal yaanai track in Anniyan, where the Westernised Remo character was a pointedly silver-tongued stud. She says she has used words like “dozen” and “kilo” and “dragon,” but where there is a readily understood Tamil equivalent, she will not write in English. There are others to do that, she says. They don’t need her. In her stories, she is more relaxed about English, because stories are realistic, whereas songs, by nature, are unreal – nobody bursts into song in real life. Lyric writing, therefore, is a specialised art – one that she should use to reflect what she fights for, what she believes in.

Like a drop of driven snow carried aloft a tempest of blazing conviction – Anal mele pani thuli? – Thamarai is swept up in this subject. She segues into a relevant flashback about her husband, Thyagu, a Naxalite, a social revolutionary who received the death sentence when he was 20. A decade thence, he became a lifer and was released after serving a term of 16 years. While incarcerated, he authored what Thamarai terms the first prison literature in Tamil, a couple of serialised stories (Suvarukkul Chittirangal and Kambikkul Velichangal) about life inside, which proved enormously popular when published in Junior Vikatan. (He also translated Das Kapital into Tamil.) Thamarai became a big fan. She wrote an eight-page letter to Thyagu, through the magazine, and eventually met him. They found they had lots in common, like the fact that they had both survived a traumatic first marriage. They gradually fell in love, and in 2002 – after eight years, as if commemorating a year of courtship to each page of the letter that brought them together in the first place – they got married. After his release, Thyagu founded a political party named Thamizh Thesiya Viduthalai Iyakkam, based on the principles of Tamil nationalism, aimed at retrieving the lost rights and reinstating the lost pride of the Tamils, even those in Eelam. It is understandable that Thamarai feels the way she does about English – what her husband does through politics, she seeks to do through poetry.

Now that she has come to be identified with a certain kind of poetry, with a certain female point of view, I wonder how Karka karka in Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu came about – the über-macho hero-introduction number she wove around a massively heroic Kamal Hassan. She says that, at the beginning and as a female lyricist, it was a struggle just to write a song – any song. Then the struggle was to prove the people wrong who thought she could write only sensitive and romantic songs. Hence, when this opportunity to showcase an encounter specialist presented itself, she had a point to prove – that she could be all woman and yet write an ode to the manliest of men. I bring up the casual phrase about this cop sauntering about with death in the pocket of his shirt, and Thamarai insists that it’s not just wordplay. There is depth in her songs because she is essentially a storywriter, and besides, she has worked for seven years in a male-dominated field like engineering. She carried all that baggage into this song. Upon hearing the lines Adhigaaramo aarpaattamo ivan pechil illai / Mun aayvathil pin paaivathil ivan puliyin pillai, entranced fans of Kamal Hassan thanked Thamarai for beautifully capturing the essence of their hero, their thalaivar, and she laughed that she hadn’t written about their thalaivar but hers, Thyagu – these words are the observations of a proud wife.

Thamarai has felt, on occasion, like parlaying her story-writing strengths into screenplays, but she does not wish to diversify now. She wants to do one thing, and she wants to do it well. She says she has achieved a position that no female has gotten to before, and she needs to use this privilege to say the things that haven’t been said. She tells directors to not just give her love songs, but also philosophical songs, songs of revolution, the other variegated songs that existed during the times of Kannadhasan. The latter, along with Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram, has been a major influence – besides, books of course (“Paadalgal kettu valarndhen, puthagangal padithu valarndhen!”) – and she wanted to write songs as beautiful as Naan pesa ninaipadhellaam from Paalum Pazhamum, Thoongaathey thambi thoongaathey from Naadodi Mannan, Paattondru ketten from Paasamalar, the title song from Anbe Amudha (she singles out the line Kaadhal dheivam mounam aanaal kanni Thamizhum vaadume), Kaadhalile tholviyuttraal from Kalyana Parisu, Thillai Ambala Nataraja from Sowbhagyavathi (which she cites as a stunning instance of how an atheist could craft a devotional ode without compromising his core beliefs).

These songs were worded, mostly, before being forged in the fires of musical imagination, in an era where director and composer and lyricist huddled together in the hope of making magic. Thamarai agrees that technological revolutions have sundered this triumvirate. She hasn’t met the composer James Vasanthan, for instance, except on stage during audio release functions. (They collaborated on Kangal irandaal, the gargantuan hit from Subramaniyapuram.) She observes that the change began, gradually, from the Ilayaraja era. The maestro had such confidence in his tunes that he deemed it enough if words were retrofitted to these tunes. The trend has prevailed, and if Thamarai is wistful about a more glorious age of lyric-writing, she isn’t complaining. She points out that technology is one of the reasons for her rise, despite her gender, in this profession – she was able to write from home, which is a blessing in an industry so male-dominated. This isn’t fussiness or fear – just that in the midst of all the men, it’s more practical to work from a distance. (The men feel at ease too.) And she notes that the metrical challenge of adapting to a predetermined musical scheme can give rise to unusual constructs like maragadha sombal or kalaaba kaadhala.

Every once in a while, Thamarai will aim a bouncer at the head in order to clear fast-forming notions that attempt to slot her, stereotype her. She says she’s a Harry Potter fan and that she can be quizzed endlessly about JK Rowling’s magical universe. She hoards comic books – Phantom and Mandrake and Asterix and Tintin and Irumbukkai Maayavi (the Tamil adaptations of The Steel Claw) and, most of all, Modesty Blaise (by which time, of course, I’ve figuratively fallen out of my seat and dislodged the hillock of books in front, causing the dog to jump with a start and lunge at my long-awaited ankles). Thamarai quotes a hugely influential panel from Modesty Blaise, where the bedevilled heroine snarls at a man who offers help, “Step aside. I will fight my own battles.” And then she quotes from early Harold Robbins, 79 Park Avenue, where he wrote of a prostitute that “she came willingly into his arms.” Thamarai marvels at this phrase, where a man attains a woman not through might or money but (only) through her will. Given the opportunity, Thamarai would love to create comics, but she says, like Goscinny and Uderzo, there needs to be a melding of minds.

A day in the life of Thamarai comprises primarily housework (with a husband always on tour, and a seven-year-old son to run behind) and social work, with only the remainder available for writing songs. That’s why she writes so sparingly. Earlier, it was a song a month, but now she tries to average one a week. She shows me her song diary. I read out a few lines of verse she’s writing for Sasikumar’s new film and I’m curious about the writing in pencil. She jokes that it’s easier to erase (“Adithu adithu ezhudhuvadhai vida azhithu azhithu ezhudhuvadhu vasadhi!”), but the real reason is that, due to chronic migraine and backaches, she prefers to lie down and write, and a pen just won’t work. I flip to another page and read from another song. I fail to recognise the words – neeyum naanum, orey pulli, orey kodu – until she hums the tune. It’s Kannukkul kannai, AR Rahman’s composition for the new Gautham Menon movie, Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya. I rue that this is one album where her contribution was completely overshadowed by the music – in the sense that it was tough, at times, to even decipher the words – but Thamarai promises that this will change when the movie releases, and that the lyrics will leap off the screen.

It’s been a couple of hours, and I forage for final thoughts. She delivers, instead, a finality. She begins by saying she’s more than just a lyricist – she feels strongly about not just Tamil, but also religion, caste, male domination, child abuse, and the degradation of politics. She wrote very little last year because she was affected by the Eelam war (and also the untimely demise of a close friend, her only friend in Chennai). She says she cannot write love songs here when so many are dying out there. She campaigned for the release of Nalini. She has a social responsibility and she doesn’t shy away from speaking out, even against the present government. The day India interfered and destroyed her Tamil nation, disregarding her feelings and supplying arms to the Sinhalese (who are her enemy; she sympathises with the LTTE and she sports a badge with Prabhakaran’s image whenever speaking on stage), she stopped feeling like an Indian. This rage congealed into rhetoric in the poem Kannagi Mannil Irundhu Oru Karunchaabam, a fiery curse from Kannagi’s homeland directed at the Indian nation. She declares, with pride, that she is a Tamil nationalist, and she delivers her finality. “I won’t write anthems about India.”

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil