Penning politics: The Yugabharathi interview
The acclaimed lyricist talks about why he thinks poets are always political and why only political art goes on to find a place in history
Lyricist Yugabharathi was a published writer when director Linguswamy asked him to write a song (Pallankuzhiyin Vattam Parthen, which went on to become a super hit) in Anandham. With more than 1,300 songs in his repertoire since, Yugabharathi's journey has been adorned by a garland of songs across genres including romance, dance, and politics, the category much cherished by him. In conversation about his most recent hit, Gypsy's Very Very Bad (which has crossed 1.4 million views), he opens up about this song which sharply critiques authoritarianism.
Excerpts from a conversation:
A politically-charged song from Raju Murugan and yourself isn't surprising. But the video featuring social activists ina jail was definitely a surprise.
The promotional video was purely the director's idea. He has been part of many protests and knows what happens on the ground. The overall idea of the song stems from a common man raising his voice against authority. This voice had to be simple, for, a common man can't eloquently and vociferously question authority. When a man gets caught by the police for, let's say not wearing a helmet, his immediate reaction would be to say, "You have let the more powerful people go, but not me." Very Very Bad stems from that tone, and that anger.
The film is about a gypsy who travels across the country; so each landscape is a song. How does this traveller turn into a rebel? The song comes at a very important juncture in that journey. Another song promulgates the idea of humanity bringing the masses together, of music bringing people together. That song, I feel, will create more buzz for the film.
You have always claimed that art needs to be political. While that is definitely a good standpoint, what about art for art's sake, entertainment’s sake?
That should also be there -- art for the sake of aesthetics has always existed and will continue to flourish. But in cinema, longevity comes from social and political relevance. If you make a list of the best films in Tamil, most of them would be of this category. Commercial films don't find a place in such lists. Only films that talk about the people, their lifestyles, their problems get the tag of 'art'.
Kannadasan has written more than 5,000 songs, while Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram has written only around 180 songs. But there are debates that try to analyse which of them is bigger. If the Communist parties hadn't celebrated Pattukottaiyar, how would he have reached the masses? A lyricist is a person whose contribution to cinema comes from the outside world -- it becomes a thought from the society, for the society. When a writer is socially and politically relevant, his social value increases. I desire such a position.
Effort goes into creating fun, dance numbers too, but they don’t get as much appreciation.
Each song has a different purpose and is consumed again by people with different sensibilities. The objective of ‘thullal isai’, is to make people jubilant; it is meant for celebration. Kaalam kadanthu pesapadanum engira nokkam andha paattukke illa (The song, by itself, doesn’t desire to be recognised beyond its time).
But not every song becomes a Manmadha Raasa, right? Haven't such songs passed the test of time with flying colours?
There is politics behind everything. Thullal Isai has the sensibilities of the music of the working classes while Sastriya Isai is the music that occupies the sabhas. We think or believe that Sastriya Isai is superior. By extension, Gramathu Isai or Thullal Isai is deemed to be inferior. The way we consume art stems from such notions. When you celebrate or put forth one perspective, that automatically is perceived to be right. This perception has been created by the media or the ideologists of earlier generations; that the songs have double-meaning lyrics and are not in good taste. But if you keenly observe, it is not the lyrics but the visuals that are often provocative. How a song is looked at is determined by such complex factors.
After Mynaa, you have begun to use simple language in your songs. Poet Vaali had once said that we should never underestimate the audience's taste, and give them what we intend to, without simplifying. How do you perceive this dichotomy?
It is an important question. But I think the film's nature determines the kind of the language used in songs. If you look at heroes before the 2000s, they played characters with extreme discipline and social responsibility. However, post-2000, the hero is sometimes not even respected even by those in his circle. Won't it be odd to have him sing songs with poetic lyrics? On the other hand, those like Vaali and Kannadasan were able to write such poetic numbers because of the characters they wrote for. Vidhaarth in Mynaa, for instance, is a labourer. How can he turn into a poet overnight just because he falls in love?
However, I follow something else suggested by Vaali: ensuring continuity in the lyrics. For example, 'Un mela oru kannu' sounds simple, but to find the follow-up phrases is difficult. I don't want to miss that continuity as every song is a screenplay in itself.
Your trademark seems to be the memorable catchphrases in your songs, like ‘Oodha colour ribbon’.
My writing didn’t begin with songs. I have a background in literature and also in journalism. In journalism, we always think of catchy headlines for the wrappers. The idea is to make the person read it. I perceive cinema songs similarly. The first line of the song needs to feel different, and be attention-seeking to ensure someone listens. It is easy to use thendrale, maane, etc, but it sounds old. So, I use colloquial words, which in a way is the idea behind ‘Nattar paadalgal’ and ‘Thozhil paadalgal’. The lyrical identity stems from the language people use; I bring that aspect into my songs.