There is nothing wrong with the massy song-and-dance routine that the South is indubitably known for. Feisty numbers of old wine in a new bottle like Arabic Kuthu and Oo Antava unsurprisingly broke multiple records and the internet early this year. But in a year that gave us Insta-friendly hot tracks, we also got songs that were staged with smarts. These are not earworms that you find yourself listening to on repeat mode because of a catchy interlude. These are all songs weaved into the film that subvert, stand out and stand the test of time (one even caught the attention of the Oscars, becoming the first Indian song to be shortlisted) Let’s take a look at a selection of such numbers from the south.
Rajeevan and Devi, daily-wage workers in the lush Cheemeni village of Kerala find themselves in a tough spot minutes before the song begins. When Devi tells her partner that they barely have rice to feed their bedridden father, guilt and shame fills Rajeevan’s face. And we immediately see him rush out of the house in the next shot. To buy some rice and pick up the slack perhaps? Rajeevan instead chooses to go to the temple festival and break dance his troubles away.
As a remastered version of Ouseppachan’s gorgeous choir song Devadoothar Paadi (from Mammooty’s Kaadhodu Kaadhoram, 1985) fills our ears with amped up techno beats, we see Boban losing himself to the tune among a bunch of excited villagers. As catchy as it is, Devadoothar Paadi is not your typical dance song. The song serves as a brilliant prologue, introducing us to the colourful characters that make up the village. If the MLA is seen doing a tiktok of the song with toothy grins, Rajesh Madhavan (the lovable goof of an auto driver) is buying his girlfriend some nail paint. All the while, the police eye Rajeevan with suspicion from a corner. The song is also a harbinger of what is to come in the film, which is an endless case that interconnects the happy faces we see at the festival. Boban’s delightfully graceless dance (choreographed by the actor himself), which reflected the every man drunk dance, spawned several recreations on Instagram and Twitter, not even sparing . We are not complaining.
Thallumaala Paattu, which has a consistent place in the rich soundtrack of Thallumaala is also a stellar piece by itself. And the impressively orchestrated number gets the staging that it deserves. When the first ever fight sequence in a film that treats brawls as poems unfolds, we are in for a visual treat. Jamshi (Lukman Avaran) enters a mosque with a pair of squeaky clean white sneakers, nestling it safely on the shoe stand.
But when Wazim (Tovino Thomas) dumps his muddy sneakers on top of his, Jamshi gets ballistic and the film’s first fight ensues around the mosque’s waterbody. As young kids sing a ballad about two men quarrelling on an auspicious day in the background, Jamshi and Wazim go head to head in this beautiful, metaphor heavy song. Stunt master Supreme Sundar’s punches fly in slow motion and blood is shed, but everything about the song’s staging points towards a complicated romance. A bromance, rather, that stems from a random brawl. As the song ends, Wazim drops off Jamshi at his house, where his mother is unmoved by the bruises on her son’s face. She instead invites Wazim home to gorge on some chicken curry and ghee rice, where the duo dust themselves off and become buddies.
Ante Sundaraniki has a rich musical canvas. While this is not necessarily new for romcoms such as the film itself, Vivek Sagar’s ability to fuse Western pop and R&B with Indian classical in the soundtrack is masterful. The film tucks music so seamlessly into its canvas that it’s hard to imagine the film’s audacious screenplay without it. Sample this for size: When a young Sundar wants to leave to the US to become a child artiste for a Chiranjeevi film, his father and his veena soloing grandmother are on the fence. But when he finally gets the green signal, it is through his grandmother. She gives her blessings with a sweet sounding melody. The raga from her veena seamlessly becomes Natavara, a celebration song, which is also an unabashed tribute to the south Indian pop heroes of the 80s– Chiranjeevi, Ilaiyaraaja and SP Balasubrahmanyam.
The sepia-toned song unfolds in an abandoned factory, with Sundar truly channelling his inner supreme star. Filled with Michael Jackson’s hip thrust, break dances and sideways glides — all steps that have been emulated by many stars including Chiranjeevi in Indian dance songs — the song is a joyous tribute not just to nostalgia, but the naivete of childhood.
Sita Ramam brims with a remarkable jukebox, each Vishal Chandrasekhar number outdoing itself with the sounds of old school romance. But ironically enough, the most romantic song in the film comes in Eppudo Ninnu, a solo number rendered by Yazin Nizar. Lieutenant Ram of the 60s is a local hero in Kashmir. He has just saved a village from religious acrimony, and the letters of love from his country keep piling on. One such letter, however, gets his heart rate up — a letter from a certain Sita Mahalakshmi, who speaks in flirtatious Telugu riddles, and pretends to be his yearning wife. And thus begins a romance of letters that crosses boundaries.
Eppudo Ninnu captures the emotion of first love with simplicity and opulence. Unfolding amidst the gorgeous snows of Kashmir— a recurring motif of their romance in the film – the song traces the love that Ram develops for Sita, whose essence is featured only through Chinmayi’s comforting voice. Ram doesn’t step out anywhere without the letters, often clutching them close to his chest as if to warm himself in the cold. “In the cold brazen winds, they are like the flowers that bloom in the summer,” goes the lyrics.
This thunderous number, which has become synonymous with the wild popularity of RRR, is the talk of the town for more reasons than one. Apart from catching the eye of the Western award circles, Naatu Naatu is venerated for bubbling with love for the Indian local arts. Even if its premise is ordinary (When a bigoted white person screams “What do you brown buggers know about art?” we know a massy song is on its way), nothing about the song is. Prem Rakshith lets go of elaborate background dancers for this routine and veers our attention on the two leading men, who let their legs do all the talking. The song, which is as much about cultural legacy and pride, is also about finding brotherhood in strange places. Ram Charan and Jr NTR, who move legs and suspenders in cohesion, outdo each other and the tasteless Brits along the way.
Even if the song is controversy’s favourite child, this list would be incomplete without the mention of Varaha Roopam’s majestic theatrics. The song is essentially an extension of its rousing climax, where Demigod Guliga takes the form of Shiva (Rishab Shetty) to protect his kin and their land from oppressors. Just seconds after Shiva’s turbulent turn as Guliga, Varaha Roopam begins, with the camera circling in on a tranquil Guliga’s third eye. The storm has passed, and it is now time for him to call on humans to step into his place and protect his legacy that is their land. Rishab Shetty follows the phenomenal climax with an equally riveting song, which plays out amidst a mesmerised crowd that is still processing the stupor that they witnessed together as a community. As Guliga runs into the forest to meet his companion Panjurli, the two share a knowing smile before making their final disappearing act.
The Cholas have won over yet another kingdom, and it is time for a war song. AR Rahman’s Chola Chola is a celebration song that heaps praises on the flag of the fierce tiger that never rests. But what Brinda Gopal does with it is subvert the chest-thumping war song with a choreography that captures a heartbroken Aditha Karkalan’s drunken stupor. As the flag flutters and heaves with the wind with Ravi Varman’s dizzying angles, so does Aditha’s frenzied state of mind. And as he hoists the flag that he proudly wears on his chest, the song begins — “Kodi kodi kodi parakka, Thada thadathu, Pari pari pari thudikka/ The flag flies high, The horse is raring to go.” In a poignant paradox, the song captures the downward spiral of the Chola Kingdom’s strapping horse.
What’s the first thing we do after we finish a date with a crush? The process of filling in eager friends, without sparing any detail commences. This is the premise with which the romantic Megham Karukatha begins. The Anirudh composition is a warm conversation between two friends, one with lovestruck eyes, and another, with patient listening ears. But when Palam (Dhanush) takes his best friend Shobana (Nithya Menon) through his date, the conversation turns into an eye-wateringly gorgeous song that transports us into a world of whimsy.
Palam and Shobana get their La La Land moment, grooving to Anirudh’s smooth blues in the middle of Chennai roads. Palam imagines Anusha, his crush, who appears and dances on command. It is easy to guess who Shobana, on the other hand, is thinking of. With Megham Karukatha, Jani Master’s choreography looks past the familiar romance piece.
On first listen, AR Rahman’s Mallipoo might sound like a generic folk song sung by a woman to entertain men. But what Brinda and Gautham Vasudev Menon do with its visuals is turn the formula and our assumptions on its head, giving us a superbly shot portrait of love, longing and friendship among the working class crooks. It is a normal day at the Essaki parotta shop, and the men are desperately trying to catch hold of normalcy in their phones, connecting with their loved ones. And when one of them longs to hear his wife’s voice on video call, she breaks into Mallipoo, which permeates into their cramped lodging in Bombay. The song also symbolises a glimmer of light in the darkness that is their lives. So, when we hear police sirens gradually merging with cheerful beats in the end, we know that the song is nothing but a brief escape from a reality that haunts these men.