Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Poems, with beats and a great tune…”

Posted on January 31, 2014


Vairamuthu’s Padma Bhushan honour is a reminder (if any were needed) that the lyrics written for films are sometimes on par with the best poetry.

We all read prose, some of us write prose, but when it comes to poetry, we excuse ourselves from the table, suddenly remembering something more important. I don’t think it’s because we dislike poetry. And I don’t think it’s because we don’t (or won’t) get it. Many of us enjoy poetry when we encounter it in school, simple poetry, laid out in evenly measured lines and with easy rhymes, and we even learn to quote a few stanzas, pausing carefully at the punctuation marks – but as the years go by and we realise that only maths and the sciences are going to get us jobs, these poems recede further and further in the mind, into the attic-like space cluttered with the date of birth of Akbar and the major crops of Madhya Pradesh and the names of the countries that are permanent members of the security council. And one day, all grown up, we find that we’ve forgotten how to read poetry, which we now see as sideward skyscrapers, staggered lines of words piercing a lot of white space.

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And if it weren’t for our film music, poetry would be out of our lives for good – especially, in my case, Tamil and Hindi poetry. Most of my reading and web browsing consists of English-language content, and save for the short poems in Tamil periodicals I don’t get to read much poetry in other languages at all – but thanks to film songs, I do get to listen to a lot of poetry, and when I heard that Vairamuthu, the great lyricist and writer, was one of the recipients of the Padma Bhushan this year, I had a flashback of sorts, to the time I began listening to “poetry” on the radio, through the lyrics of the film songs that played on the Vividh Bharati programmes.

With songs, it’s always the music that gets you first. We’re drawn to the flight of the tune, the drive of the percussion – and if the music is good, we don’t really need the words, in the sense that it is possible to experience an emotional reaction to a song even if we don’t know the language the lyrics are in. But there’s an altogether higher kind of pleasure in listening to a song in a language you know, where the music flows around the lyrics and the lyrics lock into the music. And when you know the language, a well-composed song with bad lyrics is a little like a gold-plated objet d’art – there’s always the embarrassment of something being compromised, of not being all that it could have been.

But are lyrics really poetry? The great Broadway songwriter Stephen Sondheim, in his near-autobiographical collection of lyrics, Finishing the Hat – you must read it (and its sequel Look, I Made a Hat) if you’re interested in writing, in music, in songs, and in the way they shape the thoughts of a character in a musical (a lot of which applies to our films too) – draws a clear line between poetry and lyrics: “Lyrics, even poetic ones, are not poems. Poems are written to be read, silently or aloud, not sung… Poetry is an art of concision, lyrics of expansion. Poems depend on packed images, on resonance and juxtaposition, on density. Every reader absorbs a poem at his own pace, inflecting it with his own rhythms, stresses and tone…”

All of which is certainly true, but the best lyrics, when written down, can produce similar effects. Besides, how do definitions matter when you can feel that something is poetry – if not in the textbook definition of the word, then in the sense of freeing us, for brief moments, from this prosaic world? Emily Dickinson said, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” That’s as good a definition as any for poetry, and the best lyrics can make us feel that way, through mood and image and a voice from beyond that’s like an X-ray of your soul, surprising you by revealing everything about something you thought only you knew about.

And I return to my flashback, to the Vairamuthu lyrics that took the top of my head off, many many years ago – from the song Vizhiyil vizhundhu, in the film Alaigal Oyvadhillai. I haven’t heard or read a better encapsulation of the feverishness of adolescent infatuation, which is a strange mixture of the sacred and the profane, as much love as lust, and this all-raw-nerve-endings excess of emotion can truly be represented only by one colour: the colour purple. And that’s what Vairamuthu does, throwing caution and restraint and taste and decorum to the winds, and writing the song as if he were a teenager with a burning temperarature. (The song takes these feelings a notch higher by using a female voice for sentiments that ought to be expressed by a male – another “strange mixture”.)

Everywhere you turn in these lyrics, in this – yes – poem, there’s a startling physicality. There is, first, a description of the physical process through which one falls in love. The usual way to do this is to say that “one’s eyes fell on a certain someone,” but here Vairamuthu says that “a certain someone fell on one’s eyes,” then entered the heart and then merged with the soul. Love has struck. And thereon, the cosmos and its contents are slave to this love – the mere sound of your silver anklets will open every window in the street; your laughter will cause moons to rise in every direction; if you place jasmine flowers on your hair then the spurned rose will catch a fever; if you wear silks, silkworms will attain salvation. Even the skies are touched by this physicality, with the twilight hour resulting from the “rubbing together” of day and night. It’s some sort of celestial frottage.

In these lines, we find – to borrow Sondheim’s words – density and packed images, and if these lines were to be written down, the reader can read it like he does a poem, inflecting it with his own rhythms, stresses and tone. But even if you reject these “academic” criteria, something inside those of us felled by these words tells us that these are, without doubt, not just “lyrics,” in the sense of simple, rhyming constructions fitted into a tune so that the singer will have something to sing. Lines that produce this kind of raw feeling – what else can they be but poetry? And someone who captures this level of intensity with mere words – what else can he be but a poet?

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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