The holy trifecta, the g-spot of music videos goes something like this — a banger of a song, a video aesthetic of precision and awe, and a swirl of meaning and subtext. When it comes together, like the recently released, readily viral Enjoy Enjaami, it's a chef's kiss; the song is currently at 25 million views, 10 days since its release on March 7, an anomaly for any independent music video. An entire industry of Twitter raves was mobilized— Dhanush, Sai Pallavi, Siddharth, Arya, Prasanna, Kavin, Kathir, and even Dulquer Salmaan heaped praises on the song.
The music video performed by Dhee, best known for Rowdy Baby from Maari 2 (with 1 billion views on YouTube), features the rapper-lyricist Arivu. It is produced by famed composer Santhosh Narayanan, and directed by Amith Krishnan, known for The Rice Mill Story, a short film on the cloistered, oppressive life of a bonded labourer in a rice mill. The music video is an ode to Arivu's grandmother, Valliyamma, who herself was a bonded labourer, shipped to the tea plantations of Sri Lanka. When her journey boomeranged back to India, nothing had changed. She was still landless. She fondly calls Arivu 'Enjaami' (which comes from 'En Saami', meaning my sir, my dear) from where the song title comes. She also makes an appearance towards the end of the music video, in a silk sari.
Arundhati Roy in her 1999 essay, The Greater Common Good laments the loss of land due to dams being built. Her piece was specifically about the Sardar Sarovar Dam built over the Narmada River, altering the ecology of the river basin, and the surrounding demography that toe along its banks. The Supreme Court was offering cash compensation to those who suffer land loss. Roy noted the futility of this. Most Adivasi people don't have land deeds and won't be eligible for this compensation. But most importantly, for these people who live by and with the land, the land is not a commodity. She acerbically notes, "Most small farmers have as much use for money as a Supreme Court judge has for a bag of fertilizer." She was arraigned for contempt of court for this line, among other things in the essay.
It's this simple truth that Roy notes which gets embedded in the music video for Enjoy Enjaami—that land came first, markets came later. That some people, even today, live outside of the marketplace where we exchange paper notes for pleasure.
The music video conjures up this world before markets, before mandis, before dams, before development, when humans had a more primal, civilizational relationship with land. (The director noted how initially he wanted the video to look like a courting between the king of the wild and a queen) Civilizational because it is when humans settled down, and started cultivating fertile land around rivers, that civilizations began, which snowballed over centuries into kingdoms, fiefdoms, colonies, and then a country. But the land remained as it is, even as its labels switched; that even as land is given to us by our ancestors, we don't own it, but share it with nature.
'Blessed to lead a good life,
Our ancestors have bequeathed us this soil
Across the river banks, and on the fertile fields,
Our forefathers have sung through their life
The lakes and ponds belongs to the dogs, foxes, and cats too'
The song has a kind of narrative storytelling, similar to Tamil's Sangam Thinai poetry, where character and thus feeling is reflected in and thus subservient to nature and the landscape.
The video begins with hands reaching out to loose, uncultivated soil. The video visuals veer between barren brown lands, and lush green indoor plants. Dhee is shown with nail extensions, dangling earrings, and long hair either left loose or tied with flowers, and Arivu is seen with gold and silver around his neck, dressed in a spiffy wine coat outdoors, and in a veshti and a carved staff in his hands indoors. The lyrics populate this world with frogs, elephants, algae, lilies, sandalwood, jasmine, pearls, kingfishers, parrots, caterpillars, dogs, cats, foxes, betel nuts, hens, peacocks, and of course the cuckoo.
So much of the song is just this—lists of animals, plants, and brief human actions like tilling. A kind of narrative storytelling, similar to Tamil's Sangam Thinai poetry (written between 200 BC to 300 CE), where character and thus feeling is reflected in and thus subservient to nature and the landscape. It's the kind of storytelling we saw in last year's JCB Award winning Moustache, originally written in Malayalam by S. Hareesh, where, after a point you stop looking for a character in whose life you can immerse. The main character in the book doesn't even have a dialogue of his own. The world created with startling specificity, is enough. It is, in fact, the point of the story.
The music video is a study in cross-cultural solidarity—in its subtext and even in its production. Three collectives, that come at art from different perspectives, were involved in the making of it.
There is Maajja, an initiative by AR Rahman to encourage fresh (as opposed to just new) talents and viewpoints. When Enjoy Enjaami came out Rahman sent an e-mail to all those involved saying "the vision is moving forward".
Then, there is The Casteless Collective, a 19-member musical group consisting of artists from marginalized communities driven by Tamil film director Pa Ranjith; Arivu is part of this collective, having rapped and written lyrics for their viral songs on beef and reservation. In one of his songs, Sandai Seivom, in support of the CAA-NRC protests, he notes, "En paatai koduthathu pagutharivu", that his music comes from the rationality of Ambedkar and Periyar. It's that rationality that is on display here, but morphed into a kind of naturalism devoid of the individual human ego.
The third collective is Studio MOCA, founded by the video director Amith Krishnan, which began recently as a professional urban coalition of freelancers. Their Twitter description reads, "Just a bunch of caffeine-loving, city-hopping, party-going primates creating ground-breaking art".
Arivu believes that Oppari, funereal music, is the OG Indian hip-hop. Oppari is a folk song tradition that is built around laments and elegies, like the Marsiyah of Urdu poetry. Oppari lyrics, by virtue of who produces it — landless labour, marginalized people — has a thick coat of meaning and history. Arivu makes use of it here.
'Naan anju maram valarthen
Azhagana thottam vechchen…
Thottam sezhithaalum, en thonda nanaiyalaye…'
The lyrics speak of planting a flourishing garden, and yet being unable to enjoy it, suffering with a parched throat. This is a reference to landless labour who toil on the land, without ever benefiting financially from its surplus, like Arivu's own grandmother who despite spending a lifetime working with and on land, never got a smidgen of it to her name. A visceral rootlessness that cascades from her generation to ours where it morphs into verbal cues for pop songs.
This song could have been a lament, an invective against the violence of society and caste. But instead it flips and turns it into a moment of celebration, to come together as one, to "enjoy", and morph a legacy of pain into one of joy.
But there is subtext here too. That of land, mentioned above, and that of Dalit-ness. The Parai, a flat drum, that is shown in the very beginning of the video, and heard throughout, has a very explicit caste association—only Dalits are allowed to play this instrument. Those who play it constituted their own sub-caste, the Paraiyars. So much so that in 1987, a Dalit scholar, Reddiyur Pandiyan, was murdered in a protest in Cuddalore for suggesting that the parai could and should also be played by non-Dalits. In earlier times it was used in royal courts, to declare war, in weddings, temple rituals, etc. Its association with Dalits, and then death, comes later. Today, groups like Buddhar Kalai Kuzhu (Buddha Art Group) and The Casteless Collective are attempting to revive it as an art form in its own right.
It is this subtext and specificity that I fear might be lost on the listeners, who think the song is about platitudes of coming together under the beat-dropping cloak of rap. It will be played in clubs, remixed to rot, and there's certainly no doubt that its meaning will be lost through its renditions. It will become a sick beat, a dope track. As the singer Chinmayee Sripaada tweeted, "We are all grooving to Enjaai Enjaami – But are we listening?"