Tamil cinema’s breakup songs need a little more love


Reading Time: 4 minutes


Song-and-dance sequences are a staple feature of commercial cinema throughout India’s diverse film production regions. Where dialogue cannot express sexual desire or love, the hero and heroine often celebrate their union through song and dance.

A distinct style of songs also address feelings of loss and longing when love does not flourish as expected. In Tamil cinema, these breakup songs are known as “love-failure” songs. While both female and male characters sing and dance away their agony, a subset of love-failure songs give voice only to men who invariably go on a blaming spree, and attack women for breaking their hearts.

Sociologist Premalatha Karupiah has aptly identified the misogyny of these songs — while scholars of other film industries in India and globally have addressed similar issues in elements of film.

Beyond the misogyny of these love-failure songs from Tamil films, what is failing here is not just gender politics. The idea of love itself has been abandoned through the male protagonists’ self-serving preoccupation with their egos.

Film formula

Western audiences may typically associate the habit of breaking into song and dance with Bollywood — a globally-recognized cultural category that refers to the aesthetics of Hindi-language cinema emerging from Mumbai. But song-and-dance routines are common to other regional film industries as well.

Although the first Tamil film, Keechaka Vatham, was produced in the silent era, the first Tamil talkie, Kalidas, released in 1931, featured 50 songs.

What began as an element of attraction, borrowed from old theatrical traditions, has since evolved into a customary film formula. Each film contains a minimum of five to six songs to serve two main functions: to advertise the films within India and globally by promoting the film’s music, and to help punctuate the different emotions playing out in the film narrative.

Blaming women for heartbreak

The quintessential melodramatic account of “love failure” songs in Tamil is blame for a failed relationship, projected onto the figure of the woman. One of the earliest and striking instances where male romantic grief turns into an anxious, invective on women (and God who created them) is found in the song “Kadavaul Manithanaga Piraka Vendum” (“God must be born as human”) from the 1963 film Vanambadi (Skylark).

Through dramatic camera angles and movements combined with lyrical prowess, the male protagonist Sekar demands God to come down to earth and be born as a man to experience the suffering and betrayal of love at the hands of women.

Contemporary iterations of this accusatory approach are usually situated at a public place where a group of men gather to sing and dance their woes against women.

Male bonding

The Tamil song “Why this Kolaveri” (Why this murderous rage), an international hit from the 2012 film Moonu (Three), set the stage for the genre of “soup” or “flop” songs. The term “soup”, coined by Moonu’s lead actor Dhanush, refers to the emotional state men find themselves in after being dumped.

In the song titled “Local boys” from 2013’s Ethir Neechal (Swimming Against the Tide) Dhanush makes a cameo appearance: he is seen consoling the hero who finds solidarity in strangers at a local bar. They come together because they claim to share the same fate with women and the same decision to drown their sorrows in booze.

The song starts with the line “I honestly don’t need you,” and the lyrics go on to encourage men to shed their dependence on women and live freely without any worry. By interpreting rejection as women’s fault, these songs not only soothe the male ego but they also help grieving men bond through their identification as “soup boys.”

This cinematically induced identity has not only potentially helped to legitimize stalking and other dangerous and unethical modes of pursuing of women, but has also potentially galvanized narcissistic behaviour, something incompatible with love.

In an acknowledgement of his social responsibility, another director apologized for similar lyrics by Dhanush for the 2011 film Mayakkam Enna (What is This Illusion?) in an interview with Cinema Express.

Love has no ego

In my preliminary research, I measure the philosophical durability of these songs. As lyrical expressions of personal failure, they reflect an excessive obsession with the self. The bereaved lover views his beloved as an investment that’s supposed to have returns. When love is not reciprocated, blame gets thrown on the woman. Both love and the woman are declined together

But what every soup-boy needs to learn is actually that love’s fundamental condition is the onset of a broken, fractured self, even before a breakup and even if the betrayal is real. Because the moment one is in love, there is actually no self to possess.

As the late French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy discussed, when we are in love, what we know and recognize as an “I” disintegrates into an ineffable connection with the other. There is no ego in love. There is no property to own.

“I love you” truly means: I am fully exposed to you in all my vulnerabilities and peculiarities. I am bare in front of you; I am already shattered in your presence.

Drop the blame game

In my opinion, to counter the misogyny of love-failure songs, instead of portraying the inverse, women drinking and singing of their troubles with men, films should should experiment with poetic pronouncements of love’s true essence: how we risk everything when we love.

There are many examples of Tamil cinema exemplifying non-possessive ways of depicting love that “love failure” genres could build upon. In Rajiv Menon’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Seen It, I Have Seen It)) Aishwarya Rai plays Meenakshi, based on Austen’s Marianne Dashwood, a girl who is in love with love.

In the song “Enge ennathu Kavithai?” (“Where has my poem gone?”), Meenakshi discovers her lover is to marry someone else. She yearns for her lost love in a mise-en-scène of pouring rain and flooded streets. Blinded by dejection, she slips into an open manhole only to be saved by a good-natured and more trustworthy man, the one she falls in love with later.

The song does not resort to blaming anyone because in love there are no enemies. There is no “I” or “you” in love: only the cosmos that brings us together again and again.

Ganga Rudraiah is a PhD Candidate at the Cinema Studies Institute, University of Toronto.

This article was first published in The Conversation, you can read it here.

READ ALSO: ‘Love is Blind’ 2: social media’s torn up over Abhishek and Deepti

What's On