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From Yugoslavia to South India: The Rise of Tamil Turbo-folk

Like its Serbian counterpart, Tamil Turbo-folk masquerades as ethno-nationalist resistance against the dislocations brought to bear by nation building, liberalization, and globalization.

With music, intercultural proximity cannot be mere coincidence. While in our polyglot world music functions as a kind of passé-partout for assimilation across linguistic boundaries, globalization has limits. The harmonization of musical genres thousands of miles apart, devoid of any direct internuncial conduit, is an unprecedented transnational phenomenon. Such hidden synchronicity intimates to analogous socio-political anxieties and affinities in cultures of expression in the ignored by mainstream writing. Attempted here is an auscultation for the transcendental cadences of culture via the Turbo-folk genre.

Indian cinema remains a thriving bastion of the musical in world cinema. Regardless of genre, the multifarious language-based film industries in India, with a market of tens of millions, preponderate the immutability of the filmi song and dance intrusion into the narrative. Marketable vaudeville is a key reason Indian films continue to stretch out to three hours.

However, with advancements in playback technology, the leading performers in India’s cinemas are now just faux vaudevillians. Unlike the truly minstrel heroes of early Indian cinema, by the ’50s actors no longer needed to croon. The playback singer does the serenading but with few exceptions, someone else appears on the visual register. When it comes to the megastars, the actor lip-syncing the lyrics becomes synonymous with the song – elevating it to audio iconicity.

Film soundtracks have also effectively crowded-out India’s independent music market. Within this soundscape, score composers are sui generis. The finest have carved out a niche as co-auteur with the director. The term music director, especially in India’s Tamil cinema or Kollywood, emerged as an outcome of this inseparability of musicality from narrative.

The first three hits on a Google search for the term ‘music director’ throws out a kind of genealogy of Tamil film composers. Oscar winner A.R. Rahman, who has ruled the industry since the early ’90s, is first on the list. Second is his predecessor, the legendary Ilaiyaraaja who since the late ’70s amassed a discography in the thousands. Third is a relative wunderkind, the youngest music director in Kollywood, Anirudh Ravichander.

Since his first single Why This Kolaveri Di went viral on YouTube and became an Internet sensation four years ago, Anirudh has taken the airwaves by storm. In December 2015, his debut track became the first Indian video to cross 100 million views on YouTube. The biggest hits of 2014 and 2015 are also his to claim. Anirudh affirms his consanguinity to his illustrious predecessors by continuing the Tamil musical revolution they started.

Vox Pop

Both Ilaiyaraaja and Rahman were pivotal in dismantling the stratification between genres and listeners across social classes to create euphonies that were both eclectic and transcendental. Ilaiyaraaja spearheaded this attack on binaries in Tamil film music. Historian M.S.S. Pandian remarks that Ilaiyaraaja’s hybrid film music “synthesizes Indian classical, western classical, and folk music forms” (M S S Pandian, “Tamil Cultural Elites and Cinema: Outline of an Argument”, Economic and Political Weekly, (April 1996): 950-955). Likewise, Rahman furthered the process of cultural heteroginization with computer scored electronic music (Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Paul Willemen, Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Indian classical, western classical or even western pop music was no longer privileged access but audible even to the subaltern through this benign vulgarization. Unconventional texturization and inclusivity has accounted for the popularity enjoyed by Ilaiyaraaja and Rahman in different periods. By effacing dichotomies of highbrow-lowbrow, eastern-western, and traditional-modern, while mediating the global through the local, both composers established an inter-cultural accord.

Fans of Anirudh insist that his most prominent contributions to Tamil music induce tarantism on the dance floor. By interweaving the dappan kuththu, an informal folk rhythm, with techno-synthesizer enhancements, rendered in the rap-like gaana lyrics, he too strives for equilibrium between nativist authenticity and imported exoticism in this yet unnamed genre. The result is an amalgamated musical form that interrupts the filmic narrative as a dance number stylized into a music video-type sequence for semi-autonomous distribution on other mediums. Foregrounded in this music video is usually an inebriated heartbroken lover or a Don Quixote gyrating with a flash mob of unwashed subalterns in urban squalor.

However, Anirudh is neither the progenitor nor the sole proponent of this unspecified hyper-eclecticism. A younger generation of music directors also experimented with fusion tracks. Music directors such as Vijay Anthony, Harris Jeyaraj, Yuvan Shankar Raja, D.Imman, S.Thaman, and the duo known as Hip Hop Thamizha, to name a prominent few associated with this hyper-eclecticism. Yet, the recent hit parades lionize Anirudh as the most prolific in deploying the genre.

Local music critics dismissed the genre as trashy cacophony devoid of aesthetic value or cultural significance as the replicas tassel out. Such insouciance has left these song and dance numbers devoid of any apposite classificatory system besides the most generic. To generalize it as just dappan kuththu or gaana ignores the assimilation of both with electronic dance, hip-hop, rap, and metal augmentations.

Borrowing from theories about Serbian music during the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, I propose a term that aims to capture the genre’s cultural politics and musical hybridity: Tamil Turbo-folk. While there is insufficient space to catalogue all the Tamil Turbo-folk songs in the market, offered here is a sampling of a new sound that musically unites two diverse cultures of the ‘global south’.

Tamil Turbo-folk masquerades as ethno-nationalist resistance against the dislocations brought to bear by nation building, liberalization, and globalization while taking advantage of its technological breakthroughs. Of course, aesthetic and ideological similarities aside, Tamil Turbo-folk songs are far less controversial than Serb Turbo-folk, which became the anthem for internecine civil war in Yugoslavia. Nevertheless there is the complaint that commercialization has turned folk into junk while sucking the soul out of Tamil songs that are now deemed all fury and no substance. For all the seemingly harmless euphoria that Tamil Turbo-folk invokes, it also has an obnoxious side that insidiously celebrates misogyny and crapulence as apt responses to postmodernity.

Tito in Madras

The intertwined tale of two multicultural states provides a starting point for Turbo-folk’s travel from southern Europe to South Asia. An industrialized middle power, socialist Yugoslavia enjoyed warm ties with India throughout the Cold War. In 1955, Yugoslavia’s President Josip Broz Tito joined India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and other Indian National Congress party leaders at a key conference in Madras state. At the meeting, Nehru sealed the friendship between the two states when he announced a “socialist pattern of society” for the incipient Indian republic. Key countries of the global south, their commitment to secular nation building to avoid the resurrection of ancient hatreds made them natural allies.

Later that same year, Tito would join hands with Nehru and other leaders of newly independent countries in Asia and Africa, to establish the Non-Aligned Movement. The Non-Aligned countries averred neutrality in the power struggle between the First World and the Communist Bloc, becoming the putative Third World. Like Yugoslavia and India, most of the members of the Non-Aligned Movement were multicultural secular polities, coming to terms with independent statehood against the backdrop of the Cold War. The superpowers had a penchant to exploit civil strife or regionalism for their own empire-building purposes, which these inchoate nation-states sought to avoid through solidarity.

While Tito strengthened relations with India and the rest of the Third World, Congress leaders in Madras state staved off fierce opposition from Tamil ethno-nationalist parties trying to secede from India. Among the most prominent in the Indian body politic, Tamil language zealots mobilized public support for self-determination through exaggerated fears of cultural genocide under North Indian hegemony.

Much to the chagrin of the Congress party, Tamil nationalists and language chauvinists used a variety of political strategies throughout the ’50s and ’60s to disrupt national unity: public demonstrations, iconoclasm, effigy burning, and that most horrifying antecedent of suicide bombing: self-immolation. After Tamil nationalists seized power in Madras state through the ballot box in 1967, rechristening the state Tamil Nadu, talk of separatism died down until the ’70s.

The height of Indo-Yugoslav friendship came in the mid-’70s. In 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency in India, suspending civil liberties and democracy against a tide of opposition across the political spectrum. The government incarcerated leaders of several ethno-nationalist parties such as those in Tamil Nadu. Himself a strongman holding a culturally heterogeneous federation together, Tito expressed support for the clampdown in India.

Yugoslavia arose from the ruins of a multinational empire of southern Slavs. War hero Tito’s charismatic personality alongside communist centralism, socialist modernization, and intolerance for regionalism ensured the unity of the postwar state of Yugoslavia. National cohesion meant curtailing ethnic chauvinism, while socialist modernization curbed atavistic forms of cultural expression, even when it came to Yugoslav music.

The state stripped Serbian folk music of its provincial heritage, ethnic markers, or rustic crassness to promote a Pan-Yugoslav identity. In its place was the dignified ‘newly composed folk music’ or NCFM endorsed by the communist party. This paternalistic micro-management of culture was a manifestation of a dictatorship anxious to avert the unspeakable horrors of Balkanization.

After the death of Tito in 1980, things fell apart. The lid came off when various sub-nationalist entities started clamoring for autonomy, releasing pent-up communal tensions worsened by crisis in international communism in the late ’80s. When the communist center could no longer hold, convulsions grew into calls for independence, escalated into ethno-religious conflict, and full-blown civil wars eviscerated Yugoslavia.

Over the course of the ’90s in some of the most terrifying wars in recent memory, Yugoslavia would violently crumble into multiple nation-states. Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Serbia now stand where Yugoslavia once was. The resurrection of ancient hatreds, religious extremism, genocidal ethnic cleansing, mass rape, and mass graves seemed to vindicate the worst fears of Pan-Yugoslav nationalists.

Profound cultural shifts in the Yugoslav music industry corresponded with Tito’s demise. Although NCFM “took the Balkans’ millennia-old tradition of folk music [and] cleaned out all the references to drinking and fucking in the bushes”, the repressed returned. Hitherto underground, there was a resurgence of the “racey [sic], old style of folk” antithetical to NCFM after the meteoric rise of popfolk sensation Lepa Brena [“Make a Dumbful Noise” Baby Balls and Iva Prolic, Vice, 29 November 2011].

With multiple Brena imitators sprouting over the course of the ’80s, this revival of folk as popfolk grew into movement. With the sponsorship of druglords and the mafia in Serbia, as Vice puts it:

Overnight popfolk turned from funny songs about cheating husbands into “turbofolk”: a coked-up, synth-and-trumpet-laden celebration of sex, money, boob jobs, brand-name crap and startling levels of vapidity.

As the country disintegrated in the midst of an economic recession, the Serbian crime elites who were the biggest beneficiaries of the political crisis became Turbo-folk’s impresarios.

Art historian Uros Cvoro more cogently describes Turbo-folk as syncretic: “high-energy pop mixed with traditional folk music [borrowing] elements of Oriental and Mediterranean melodies channeled through electronic dance rhythms”. Serb ultra-nationalist and wanted war criminal Slobodan Milošević pioneered the trend of right wing parties using Turbo-folk as a platform for the promotion of Serb ultranationalism (Uros Cvoro. “Remember the Nineties? Turbo-Folk as the Vanishing Mediator of Nationalism”, Cultural Politics, (2012): 121-137).

According to Cvoro, Turbo-folk songs carried lyrics like: “No one can touch us / We are stronger than destiny”, “I am a proud Serb… we are all defending Kosovo, the heart of Serbia, and if necessary we will all die for it”, or “Brother Serbs, Gypsies are with you” to name a few affirming Serb ultranationalism. Or “Good Zagreb chicks / They were like toys to us” as well as “If you were wounded / I would give you my blood / If you were blind, I would give you my eyes” carrying overt and covert references to the conflict in the Balkans.

Turbo-folk queen Ceca or Svetlana Ražnatović symbolized the politics-crime-pop nexus behind the industry. She married criminal capitalist Željko ‘Arkan’ Ražnatović, leader of the Serb Volunteer Guard or Arkan’s Tigers, wanted by international courts for the Srebrenica Massacre amongst other cases of ethnic cleansing during the Yugoslav wars. Warlord Arkan and Pop-star Ceca became the poster couple for Serb ultra-nationalism. The dream union ended with the assassination of Arkan who apparently ran foul of the Milosevics. A contentious genre, Serb Turbo-folk is the union of trashy music with dirty politics.

India Plugged In

Widely expected to follow Yugoslavia suit, India did not suffer the ignominy or disaster of Balkanization. The roots of Tamil Turbo-folk were in far less violent – but no less momentous – circumstances related to developments in India’s political economy. Facing a balance of payments crisis, worsening debt, and dwindling foreign exchange reserves, India liberalized its economy in 1991 to relax restrictions on foreign investment. To invigorate a closed-off moribund socialist economy, state controls gradually gave way to privatization, while further integrating India with the global economy. As she acquiesced to exogenous market forces and unfurled her bureaucratic impediments, India had to renegotiate geocultural relations.

The economic reforms included changes in the broadcast industry to allow the entry of cable television in 1993. The state-controlled monopoly of the national broadcaster Doordarshan gave way to multiple channels. India permitted a slew of local private channels as well as foreign players like STAR-TV network and Sony Entertainment Television. STAR-TV brought with it the music-based Channel V in 1994. Shortly after MTV joined the fray in 1996, VH1 India established itself in 2005.

The climate of economic liberalization in the early ’90s promoted the growth of telecommunications and software industries that became major drivers of India’s shot at an economic miracle. The hitherto neglected information technology infrastructure benefitted tremendously from the freeing up of India’s economy and took a more robust form over the course of the ’90s and ’00s.

The first public Internet access via dialup established in 1995 quickly expanded with private Internet service providers in 1998. With the Internet followed social media. Youtube India was established in 2008, enabling yet another conduit for world music. Shortly after, the smartphone arrived. After decades of anxieties about the pernicious effects of foreign influence or western economic penetration, the interpenetration of the Internet thoroughly plugged India to the rest of the world.

Connection to a sprawling cultural ecosystem through multiple cable channels and websites widened the soundscape in India tremendously. The accessibility and variety enjoyed by the Internet savvy generation through Youtube, ITunes, and SoundCloud provided tremendous impetus for modifications in Tamil film scores. Enterprising Tamil music directors looking to inject fresh energy into the filmi song interludes had to be alacritous in replicating or remixing foreign music.

Moreover, a more open economy enabled India to keep pace with advancements in sound technology. The youth brigade of composers has their music assemblage and audio engineering done on laptops. Digital recording technology now allow for innovative texturing with a range of syncopated rhythms from around the world. Now music directors can release a single track online as a foretaste of the rest of the soundtrack to pique public interest. The forces of globalization have thus made possible the hyperindustrialization and virtualization of Tamil filmi music.

The ubiquity of access to music outside India meant Tamil audiences could now choose from an abundance of televisual sources for an auditory experience. If filmi music got stale, there was always a plethora of alternatives. Score composers had to innovate in order to keep pace with the ever-vacillating tastes and preferences of the youth market. The trendiest numbers get daily replays via chart shows on cable music channels or virtual virality. As the competition to dominate the airwaves intensifies, only the catchiest will thrive.

Songs for the Subaltern

Yet, for all the technological hybridization, multicultural influence, and amplified enhancements, the telluric essence of Tamil filmi songs remains – especially in the context of high-octane dance numbers. The dappan kuththu (literally ‘box punch’) used in Tamil music is at the heart of Tamil Turbo-folk. Using either the thara thappattai or the urumi drums for a heavy percussive pulse, dappan kuththu is an unstructured freestyle folk song and dance performance. The electronic dance music synthesized or ‘turbofied’ dappan kuththu is the most common form of Tamil Turbo-folk in Kollywood.

Frenzied dance moves accompany the frantic rhythms, gesturing towards a culture of expression that is more catharsis than craft. Patronized by the elites, the Indian classical Bharatanatyam dance and Carnatic music emphasizes acquired discipline, formal precision, and ritual purity. In contrast, to do dappan kuththu is to perform subalternity. The ontology of the dappan kuththu was in the dirge accompanying a funeral procession. Young men under the influence of alcohol would dance hysterically in any moves they liked ahead of the corpse as part of a rident passage to the afterlife in Tamil Hindu tradition.

If dappan kuththu is the heart of Tamil Turbo-folk, gaana is the soul. Devised in street Tamil patois, gaana is a doggerel rap-like genre with rhymes and verbigerations. In the early ’90s, score composer Deva, now known as “the father of gaana”, introduced the genre into Tamil filmi songs. Over the course of the decade, various clones of filmi gaana burgeoned in no time, making a ghettoized sub-culture a part of the Tamil mainstream.

According to journalist S.Anand, gaana originated from the Dalit caste poor living in slums and near burial grounds looking for an outlet for social expression [“1000 Lights Rrapp!”, S.Anand, Outlook, 3 September 2001]. After a hard day’s toil, working laborers and fishermen would extemporize tunes over booze. Gritty passion pervades gaana lyrics. Like traditional Serb folk songs, the original folk gaana were crude songs of experience, chronicling the travails of the underclasses in their struggle for self-respect. Tamil Turbo-folk appropriated the gaana with its terrene existentiality for a mode of address that would appeal directly to disenfranchised youth. With provenance from similar liminal spaces, both dappan kuththu and gaana are musical idioms of the subalterns.

Whereas the conventional dappan kuththu number resonated in village-based films since the ’70s, Tamil Turbo-folk is a more recent transmutation. By the early ’00s, traces of this hyper-eclectic form were discernible. The most famous attempts at Tamil Turbo-folk include: the song Aal Thotta Boopathy from the soundtrack of Youth (2002), the song Manmadha Raasa from the soundtrack of Thiruda Thirudi (2003), the song Appadi Podu from the soundtrack of Ghilli (2004), and the song Vaadi Vaadi from the soundtrack of Sachein (2005). Mixed from these dispersed precedents, Anirudh’s single Why This Kolaveri Di, which became part of the soundtrack of 3 (2011) fully elaborated the features of Tamil Turbo-folk.

Intentional or otherwise, Tamil Turbo-folk has become a vehicle for cultural nationalism. Take for example the song Udungada Sangu from the soundtrack of Velaiyila Pattathari (2014) composed by Anirudh. A section of the chorus rings: “Blow the Conch / I am the king of the Wastrels / Tamil is my Mother Tongue / I am Single and I am Young” with the last two stanzas in heavily Tamil-accented English or patois Tanglish. Another song on the soundtrack, Wat A Karavad, consists almost entirely of verbigerations in Tamil and Tanglish. Both songs are depicted as boozed up dance numbers, not only to allow the film’s major star Dhanush to display his repertoire of dance moves, but also nurture his image as champion of the underclass youth among his growing fan-base.

The assertion of Tamil identity in both songs becomes a form of resistance and empowerment for the hero of Velaiyila Pattathari. This plucky underdog remains unemployed because, rather than taking up a Call Centre job like every other graduate, he refuses to abandon his dream of being an engineer to build homes for the local poor. The struggle between pragmatic submission to market forces and nativist idealism is first enunciated in the film’s hit Tamil Turbo-folk songs. Later this escalates into violence against the dominance of the upper class antagonists who are postured as unscrupulous compradors of neo-liberal capitalism. The salt of the earth hero ultimately outsmarts the powerful villains in the denouement, of course.

The box office success of Velaiyila Pattathari marked the third collaboration between Dhanush’s production company Wunderbar Films and composer Anirudh. The previous success of 3 was largely attributed to the standout number Why This Kolaveri Di, which also used Tanglish extensively in its lyrics. As journalist A.Srivasthan suggests, the song ““takes a dig at the English speaking youths … who are often perceived to look down on the Tamil speaking who are no less in aspirations.” [“A song infected by misogynist undertone”, A.Srivasthan, The Hindu, 23 November 2011]. Besides Tamil and Indian youth, the song captured the imagination of youth around the world, with various imitation videos online pouring scorn on Anglophone culture and the values of pompous Anglophiles.

Tamil Turbo-folk postures itself as an anthem to celebrate the symbolic supremacy of the unrealized Tamil nation. The ethnocentricity is aureate in the song Naan Adicha from the soundtrack of Vettaikkaran (2009). The music video for the song introduces the film’s action hero, played by Kollywood megastar Vijay. Turbo-folk is prominent in Vijay’s oeuvre as set pieces to exhibit his dancing talents. In Naan Adicha, the hero ‘sings’ to young children that rural schools under the Banyan tree and instruction in Tamil should grow into a institution like Oxford University for the glory of the Tamil nation. Similar to strands in Serb Turbo-folk, which “symbolizes the triumph of folk populism over urban elitism”, the song valorizes rural traditionalism as the cultural core of the Tamil nation.

The song Seval Kodi from the soundtrack of Billa (2007) more blatantly asks: “Tamil is the language of our ancient forebears / Why should we worship in any other language?” A throwback to the ideological precepts of Tamil nationalism, the song raises incendiary questions about the legitimacy of chanting Hindu mantras in Sanskrit – sanctifying Tamil. Such lyrics militating against other cultures carry a xenophobic undercurrent like Serb Turbo-folk.

The song Vaadi Vaadi, one of the earliest attempts at Tamil Turbo-folk, is homage to gaana itself. The chorus goes: “Even if Michael Jackson or Madonna arrive / Tamil gaana will never lose out / Even if Rap or Jazz arrive / Tamil gaana will never lose its spiciness”. The representational strategies valorize the resilience of a subaltern music style against the perceived corrupting influences of globalization. Articulated by a hero emblematizing Tamilness, played by Vijay again, it avows the superiority of folk culture against the deracinated products of neo-liberalism. Another Turbo-folk hit, No Money, No Honey from the soundtrack of Vaanam (2011) also addresses anxieties about economic liberalization. In a series of invectives against the ruination of social relationships by mercenaries, the song attributes blame to unfettered capitalism.

The occasional lapse into English in Turbo-folk does not overwhelm the lyrics that are almost entirely located in a Tamil milieu. Infusing Tamil figures of speech, rural idioms, or local sentiments enables the genre’s ethnocentric undercurrent. As was the case with Serb Turbo-folk, pathological anxieties of cultural genocide in Tamil Turbo-folk may crystalize into a parochial worldview that informs anti-liberalization xenophobia. While India is not on verge of Balkanization, it does expose the incompleteness of nation building in India and reveals the aspirations of those who exist outside the hegemonic order of the ruling elites. The marginalized who lack an Anglophone education become willing participants in consuming the spectacle of the suppressed Tamil nation via Turbo-folk’s emphatic escapism.

Tamil Turbo-folk occasionally puts a new spin on traditions for a faux Tamil renaissance. The song New Age Aathichoodi from the soundtrack of TN 07 AL 4777 (2009), self-reflexively declares itself a rap-dappan kuththu mashup while juxtaposing hip hop with the use of archaic Tamil ethical codes in the lyrics. Even the song Nakka Mukka from the soundtrack of Kadhalil Vizhunthen (2008) and the song Dandanakka from the soundtrack of Romeo Juliet (2015) make references, albeit in passing, to characters from classical Tamil and Hindu epics. On occasion, even pseudo-devotional songs dedicated to deities in the Hindu pantheon like the Mother Goddess or the Elephant god, such as in Kumbida Pona Deivam from the soundtrack of Thirupaachi (2005) and Veera Vinayaka from the soundtrack of Vedhalam (2015) respectively utilize Turbo-folk.

While longing for an independent Tamil nation was dead and buried by the ’80s, with Tamil Nadu firmly ensconced in the Indian nation-state, residual fragments of Tamil nationalism remain. It is in these Turbo-folk invocations that they reside, praising the historicity of Tamil culture and irrepressibility of Tamil ethnic pride. Yet, these perfunctory displays belie a fundamental representational tension. The references to Tamil classicism and Hindu Tamil traditions appear desultory given the kitschy manifestation they take in Turbo-folk. The result is a vulgarization of classicism packaged as neo-traditionalist revivalism. Rather than making any real commitment to Tamil revivalism, this intertextuality appears to exploit culture for commodification and social media popularity

An Anthem for Doomed Youth

Like all commercialized music, Tamil Turbo-folk is polysemic in coding. This protean mode of address allows for duplication across variegated performative and social contexts. Turbo-folk has been adapted into tragicomic blues loosely referred to in the industry as ‘TASMAC songs’. TASMAC is short for Tamil Nadu State Marking Corporation, the state-owned enterprise with a monopoly on alcohol production and the sole legal retailer of alcohol in the state. Intended to restrict illegal manufacturing as well as curbing rampant alcoholism, the TASMAC monopoly has had the opposite effect according to local Prohibitionists.

The heartbroken lover drowning his sorrows at the dingy roadside TASMAC outlet is now an unwitting mascot of cinema’s ability to interface reality and fantasy. Sufficiently inebriated, the jilted lover breaks into a song about betrayal or unrequited love usually in gaana. Joined by fellow despondent male drinkers, they congregate to break out in dance. Intended to be fun songs about male camaraderie, the misogyny is nevertheless grating in the TASMAC song – now a mainstay in Tamil romantic comedies.

The Anirudh composition Local Boys from the soundtrack of Ethir Neechal (2013), carries this sexist stanza: “Like Cotton in the Wind / The Heart in Love Explodes / Girls are Heartless / How Many Rounds Have We Had?” The imagery in this song whips up male chauvinist feelings by blaming women for driving men to alcoholism. Another unsubtle Anirudh song Open the TASMAC from the soundtrack of Maan Karate (2014) equates the closed TASMAC store to a hardhearted woman with the chorus: “Open The Shutter!” Tamil Turbo-folk now looks set to emulate Serb Turbo-folk’s notorious sexism and denigration of women.

Returning to Why This Kolaveri Di is instructive because it self-reflexively refers to itself as a ‘soup song’ or ‘flop song’ in its lyrics, which according to its creators is a ‘love-failure’ song. Key portions of the song that betray its misogyny sound like: “White Skin Girl / Girl Has a Black Heart / After Our Eyes Met / My Future Became Dark” blaming the fair-skinned girl for disappointing the dark-skinned boy. As a corollary of allowing the male persona to play victim, the song demonizes women. In the aforementioned article, Srivasthan also observes that like other TASMAC songs, these verses “carry the domineering male perspective of romance, marriage and life in total”. By characterizing independent-minded women who do not submit to the whims and fancies of men as wild, loose, or misguided, TASMAC songs permit the entrenchment of male domination.

Other anti-feminist TASMAC songs reinforce this patriarchal view to insinuate that the modernized woman with the freedom to choose her partner is dangerous. These seemingly innocuous songs of intoxication overturn power asymmetries by feigning male victimization. By carrying lyrics that suggest gender equality and liberalization has made men impotent while empowering women, such songs raise male anxieties by feeding false perceptions.

The more glamorous precursor of the grungy TASMAC song, the item number is just as synonymous with Tamil Turbo-folk. Set in a chic nightclub with a special appearance by a provocatively dressed female dancer, the item number is a key convention in the action-masala genre across South Asia’s film industries. The dance sequence of the song Madras to Madurai in the film Aambala (2015) manifests Kollywood’s voyeuristic proclivities. Intended to invite the male gaze and titillate the male frontbenchers, the music video begins with the camera hovering over the main attraction: the cabaret girl. Once she starts dancing, the lyrics begin with the line “I am a Common Guy / I Loved a Girl / She Betrayed Me / My Heart Cannot Bear It”. Although the preceding narrative had nothing to do with heartbreak, the cinematic conflation between male self-pity, misogyny, and alcoholism meant that, this item number had to commence with a random statement of female betrayal.

Turbo-folk is now privy to the worst excesses of male fantasy and female objectification in Kollywood. While the Tamil hero cavorting with the cabaret girl in an item number is glorified, the sexually liberated female cannot aspire for any other characterization but as a vamp or an item girl. An entire Turbo-folk discography has emerged from conventionalizing these double standards: the most prominent being Machi Open the Bottle from the soundtrack of Mankatha (2011), and the cult hit Kalasala Kalasala from the soundtrack of Osthi (2011). An atavistic view of womenhood continues to cast a pall over Tamil Turbo-folk songs, bringing it closer to the trashy lows of Serb Turbo-folk.

Popular enough to settle as a convention in nearly every big budget action-masala film these past two years, Turbo-folk now furnishes the personality cults of Kollywood’s biggest stars. For maximum hype, Turbo-folk is used in the ‘introduction song’, the dance number that marks the action hero’s first appearance in the film. Essentially hypermodern incarnations of the heroic ballads of Tamil folklore, these paeans lionize the action hero while boosting the subversive charisma of the star. To build up the ambience of the Tamil action hero as a man of the masses directors are turning to Turbo-folk. The mise en scène of the ‘introduction song’ is assembled to facilitate identification: the sweaty masses dancing, their fan-like reverence of the hero, even the street clothes they wear and the quotidian surroundings.

One of this year’s biggest hits, Thara Local from the soundtrack of Maari (2015) is eponymously chorused to exalt the hero. The refrain translates as: “Maari is kind of a Good Guy / But Mostly Unorthodox / Maari is as Pure as Gold / But Fierce as a Lion”. Elevating the picaresque protagonist, played by Dhanush, the song’s title leaves no suspicion about his underclass origins. In a film with little redeeming quality, anti-villain Maari is a stock character based on a tired notion of macho coolness. Nevertheless, the song became immensely popular with various copycat Youtube videos by male dance groups.

The year’s other chart topper Aaluma Doluma from the soundtrack of Vedhalam (2015) is also a Turbo-folk number. In the music video, a larger than life mobster hero, played by Kollywood’s other megastar Ajith Kumar, brandishes a sword as he prances in a market with a flash mob. The lyrics extol aggression and fetishize violence as hallmarks of true masculinity, in ways similar to most Turbo-folk introduction songs; including Pokkiri Pongal from the soundtrack of Pokkiri (2007), which became a trendsetter of sorts.

The intention of these major stars to emblematize Tamil masculinity or for their characters to constitute modern archetypes for Tamil youth complicates matters. An aura of invincibility surrounding the Tamil hero and his monopoly over violence makes him an ego ideal but a flawed role model. The predilection towards “glorified kitsch, anti-intellectualism, the objectification of women, and the cult of criminality” in Tamil Turbo-folk puts it in the same league as Serb Turbo-folk. Consuming the performance of hypermasculine heroism and subversive charisma on film provides marginalized youth with little else but an escapist fantasy from the banality of the daily grind.


Despite its popularity, the intelligentsia remains unimpressed by Tamil Turbo-folk. Ethnographers decry Turbo-folk’s filmi gaana as a poor imitation that has misappropriated a humanist culture of expression. The authentic folk gaana was a commentary on a variety of topics:

“Other than death, there are songs targeted at the youth on social morality, songs that tease women, songs addressing the relationship between a man and a woman or a husband and wife, songs on love, sex, trust, god, alcohol, drugs, depravity, politics, politicians, violence, actors, work, the difficulties of rickshaw pulling or autorickshaw driving and poverty in general”.

Every human sentiment and social concern provided stimuli for versification, rather than just bad romances. Folk gaana even vocalized sexual and social taboos, unlike the sanitized mainstream version [“Unsung songs”, T.M.Krishna, Frontline, 5 September 2014]. In comparison, the soulless defanged filmi gaana is simplistic to the point of being puerile.

The most trenchant charge directed at Turbo-folk is that cinema has stolen both the dappan kuththu and gaana without acknowledging the cultural debt. The poor Dalit artistes who turn to indie gaana performances in public to make ends meet, now have to compete with industrialized clones that are bulldozed into the cinema, online portals, and music stores by marketing companies. Rather than giving these struggling singers an opportunity to sing on films to articulate an authentic gaana, music directors have stolen the form.

The subordination of lyricism for online virality has also earned the ire of purists. Some critics lament that the cultural richness of Tamil film songs is dissipating, for which Tamil Turbo-folk must take the blame. In the postcolonial history of Tamil cinema, filmi song lyrics were one way to convey the classicism of the language – thereby sustaining and preserving it. Highfalutin rhetorical detailing or grandiloquent poetry in the filmi songs of the past paralleled the melodramatic narrative. However, the postmodern onslaught of technology enervated the vocality of film songs, turning them into aesthetically vapid earworms.

Film historian Vamanan refers to the rise of Turbo-folk when he describes recent Tamil film music as a “cacophony of noise“. He remarks that “lyrics have lost relevance” as filmi numbers are now characterized by the precedence given to loud beats. Rather than literary substance, composers now prefer to “write or compose songs for the sake of making it go viral on social media” – the more likes and shares, the better. Vamanan calls this marketing strategy: “viral infection” as a means of indicting the hyperindustrialization of music in the Internet age [“’Beep’ song caught in controversy”, Sruthisagar Yamunan, The Hindu, 14 December 2015]. Whether it is diaphanous or cacophonous is another matter of debate, but the genre appears to be here to stay, especially with the younger generation of listeners.

As I write, an untitled song that leaked online has caused a furor. Like a TASMAC song, it laments the futility of romantic relationships and encourages men to choose the right kind of women to avoid heartaches. While there is insufficient information to suggest that the song was to be in a film, the Turbo-folk beats suggests that it may have been. Known as the Beep Song for a bleeped-out profanity in the lyrics, this irrepressibly sensational tune courts notoriety for “objectionably describing a woman’s private parts”. Women’s rights groups in Tamil Nadu who claim the song is degrading have registered a police case against the singer as well as the composer. The accusation: “indecent representation of women”. Exemplifying the controversial nature of Tamil Turbo-folk, the composer in hot soup, Anirudh, has denied all associations to the song.