Poetry for the masses, the Vivek interview
In this conversation, the lyricist breaks down his writing process, as he explains how he alternates between commercial and 'poetic' songs
It might have been just four years since Vivek's debut with Poo Avizhum (Enakkul Oruvan), but the lyricist's meteoric rise to becoming one of the top songwriters in Tamil, also one of its busiest, is a remarkable story. Not only has he belted out chartbusters like Aalaporan Tamizhan or Verithanam during this time, he has also garnered the attention of those who are passionate about Tamil poetry with Vaa Rayil Vida Polama or the more recent Kulirudha Pulla. In this chat, he breaks down his journey, and explains the politics behind his words.
Aalaporan Tamizhan, Marana Mass, Verithanam, and now Chumma Kizhi. In recent times, you seem to be approached more for opening numbers.
Opening songs have a massive audience. Each song has an objective, and if you stay honest to that, it will reach the masses. It is a huge responsibility.
We have to talk about your catchphrases. There has been a mix of new words such as Manithi, Suzhali, Singapenney... and there are also these normal, catchy words like Verithanam. Yet, all of them have seeped into pop culture.
I am proud to see words like Manithi percolate into regular conversation. We have been a society that expected its women to fit in the word, Manithan. I look at it as a form of patriarchy in language. Suzhali is a beautiful Tamil word, that unfortunately hasn't been used much. But on the other hand, words like Verithanam are already quite popular. I just used it to my advantage. (laughs)
During your early days, your lyrics seemed to come from the school of minimalist poetry. Take the like from Rathinakatti, where you wrote 'Nee rusicha koppai a thechu paakaren, kadhal bootham etti paakudhu'. However, now you seem to operate in a more commercial space.
I think a lot of people feel this shift because these songs are more visible. I want all songs to work commercially. But even going by the regular connotations of a commercial song, there was a Maathare in Bigil. Even Aalaporan Tamizhan had strong verses. I had also written songs for Vada Chennai, Pariyerum Perumal, and Merku Thodarchi Malai. To take an example, Vaa Rayil Vida Polama, and Karuppi fall into the kind of work I have been doing so far.
I asked people who felt this way if they have heard Pariyerum Perumal, and they didn't even know I had worked on that film. Even if that film reaches audiences in a big way, people don't realise who has worked in it. On the other hand, people are waiting to know which technicians are part of these star-driven projects.
I am quite fascinated about how you decided to structure Vaa Rayil Vida Polama (which talks volumes about social discrimination) as a message from a child to his estranged friend. How do you decide to look at a particular subject from a certain vantage point?
For this song, I should credit Santhosh Narayan who asked me how this song would seem in the voice of a child. When two children play, they don't look at caste. These 'social inequalities' are invisible to them. Our thoughts get contaminated with such filth only as we grow up; it is forced upon us. And you wonder if it is better if you don't grow up at all. So when two children, who aren't affected by any of this, get separated and meet after 30-40 years, how will that conversation unfold if they still retained their innocence?
In one verse, the person asks, "I didn't believe when they said we are different and I am here. Why aren't you though? What changed you?" There's also the thought that we are both alone, separated from each other, thanks to these constructs. Unakku enna vandhu paaka manasu illa na, naa vandhu unna paakatuma? Can I ask that apology and bridge our distance together? That's how the song came about.
One of the defining traits of your work is how you incorporate some element of the story into your lyrics. For example, Kulirudha Pulla beautifully conveys how the woman is materialistic while the male is impoverished.
I do prepare myself a bit to make this happen. I ask the filmmakers several questions to understand what they want. Many a time, they just say love songs and leave it at that. It becomes a task to create a unique song that doesn't get lost. When you write about a situation, the song stands out. Mani sir, for example, got the idea for Pachai Nirame from a book. It gave us a new experience, right? And there's also the desire to get really close to the story and reflect the characters themselves. That's what happened with Kulirudhu Pulla. These aren't deliberate things that are done to get attention, more like subtle touches that make a song different. It is still a love song to the unassuming listener.
Let's talk about how lyrics can be written for a character or an actor. Opening songs are dedicated to actors usually.
When you write a poem, it has only Vivek's thoughts. But a song, on the other hand, has several contributing factors -- the character, situation, inputs from the director, composer and even the choreographers at times, the hero's image. Originally, Aalaporan Tamizhan was just a mass song. But when I suggested we approach it this way, they agreed. I can't do that with every song as each song has a different objective. Verithanam was to ensure the hero connects with his fans. It isn't fair if I alter that. But at the same time, I also bring in traits of the character. Verithanam was also a dialogue between the leader of a locality to his people. Chumma Kizhi, for example, had references to his name, Aditya. It is more important, to be honest to the songs' objective than prove my skills as a poet.
They say art is always political. And you have presented these in songs as well. Would you write a song that clashes with your personal ideology?
It depends on the song situation. Only if I establish how evil a person is, can we later show why it shouldn't be that way. Sometimes, that becomes necessary. One should judge based on the intent behind the scene and the song. If the objective is to celebrate or encourage the wrong thing, then I won't do it. Otherwise, one can't draw defined lines between right and wrong in art. However, I have always maintained that I will not write songs that commodify women, for example.
Where do you fall in the debate about reaching the larger masses vs retaining poetic standards?
This is an extension of an earlier answer, in a way. So when I write for bigger projects, it has to reach a large audience that is instantly available. I don't want my language to isolate them. Here, I mean not just the fun songs, but also ones like Singapenney, Oru Viral Puratchi, and Aalaporan Thamizhan. These songs shouldn't function in a zone where someone hears it and explains it to someone else. It has to directly hit them. Simple language becomes necessary. For example, Singapenney's hook line had simple repetitive words that are easily understood. But to ensure that it reaches the men as well, not just the women, I had used, "Annai thangai manaivi endru nee vadiththa viyarvai". I had to bring emotional bonds, so that he can relate to them.
Speaking about that line, don't you think mass media always portrays women as a dependent -- someone's wife, mother, etc. Isn't that restrictive?
That is a very valid question and also a beautiful thought. But as I had said earlier, that wasn't my intention. It was to ensure men emotionally bond with the song, and not how women should look at themselves. And I did deliberately try to avoid what you just said as well. The line, "Olividum kanaa vai serpom vaa, adhai sagathi yil vizhaamal kaappom vaa", is how it should have been lyrically, but I had used 'paarpom' to show that women do not need a man to protect their dreams.