Southern Lights: 20 Years Of Thamarai In Tamil Cinema

This is Thamarai's 20th year in the movies. The lyricist talks about her poetry, her personal life, her politics
Southern Lights: 20 Years Of Thamarai In Tamil Cinema

Magnus Chase and the Hammer of Thor – "by the creator of Percy Jackson" – is the last book I expect to find in Thamarai's living room, as I wait for her, watching a stray cat do whatever stray cats do. It is spread open and placed upside down to mark the page, and surrounded by issues of Nakkeeran and Reporter and unopened newspapers. Later, she tells me that the book is her 15-year-old son's, but the last time I interviewed her, in 2010, she said she was a fan of Modesty Blaise. One never knows.

Thamarai is in the process of moving, so the living room is in a clutter. But it's also because she doesn't throw anything away. She has, from her Vaseegara days, pictures she took with Gautham Menon and Harris Jayaraj and Bombay Jayashree. She has the outlines for the Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya songs in AR Rahman's voice, from when he sent them over. She has all the awards she's won, which are so precariously stacked in a shelf in a far corner that taking one out would cause a Jenga-like collapse.

She walks in as I'm eying the awards. I see a Saamy trophy and ask which song she wrote for the film. Idhu dhaana, she says. There's also a trophy for Thenali, for which she wrote Injirungo, in the Jaffna slang. Kalli adi kalli, from Nandha, was written in the Batticaloa dialect. Thamarai knows her way around the region well. In 1996, she visited the island nation to "start a dialogue," as she puts it. "Almost everyone, here, had stopped talking about Eelam after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, but over there, the war was still on, people were still affected."

She couldn't get a journalist visa –there were stories there that those in power did not want told. So she went as a tourist. She stayed for 26 days. She met a number of civilians, and wrote about these meetings for Junior Vikatan, in whose pages she was anonymised as "namadhu nirubar." ("Our correspondent.") She wanted to meet Prabhakaran, but couldn't. It wasn't until 2012 that she came to know why that meeting she most desired did not happen, but she says she's saving this – along with other "shocking secrets" – for her autobiography.

Thamarai keeps getting asked why she supported the Tigers, why she holds Prabhakaran in such esteem. A separate Tamil state is, according to her, "varalaatru thevai," a historical necessity. She points to South Sudan and Kurdistan as proof that "Eelam will happen. The world is going that way." I ask if she feels the same way about Tamil Nadu. "That's a very different case," she says, and brings up the EU model and Catalonia's recent bid for independence from Spain. It's not that she wants a separate Tamil Nadu. She just wants a self-governed state that's affiliated to an Indian union.

These are strange things to be talking about with a poet and lyricist, but Thamarai says, "I am a citizen before I am an artist. An artist has to be political. How can I not be involved?" Some of this angst was seen – rather, heard – most recently in the album for the Suriya starrer, Thaanaa Serndha Koottam. In the song Enge endru povadhu, Thamarai writes, "Yedho konjam vaazhumbothe / Thoattru thoattru saavadhu." She recalls a moment of indecision about that last word. Should it be veezhvadhu or saavadhu? It's now the latter.

But even in this explosion of despair, there's a bit of exquisiteness: the line "Ini naam oru dhaayam veesi yeni yaeranum." That Thamarai is a fan of Paramapadham/Snakes and Ladders is no surprise to anyone who's heard Unakkenna vaenum sollu, from Yennai Arindhaal: the lines went, Ulagenum paramapadham / Vizhundhapin uyarvu varum… But the mood there was existential, a shrug that knows that ups and downs are part of the natural order. In Thaanaa Serndha Koottam, it's a call to action. Let's throw the die and climb the ladder.

Thamarai admits she has no musical knowledge. She goes by the brief, by the mood of the tune. She is popular with the newer lot of composers and directors. "They are telling new stories," she says. "Even the song situations are so different. They are the future." She played, on her phone, a Vishal Chandrasekhar tune for which she'd jotted down lines on a sheet of paper clipped to a pad. I say I like the phrase "alaadhi thaer." She explains that it's the heroine wishing for a unique chariot to spirit her away.

The adjective-noun coupling in that phrase is equally unique, and is instantly identifiable as Thamarai's (think kalaaba kaadhala, siru vali, piriyaadha poarvai nodigal) – and it has been dotting the Tamil musical landscape for 20 years now. Iniyavalae, the first film Thamarai worked on, was released in 1998. Fun fact: It was directed by Seeman, who is now affiliated to Naam Tamilar Katchi. He was drawn to Thamarai's unadulterated Tamil lyrics, and was especially thrilled by these lines in the song, Thendral endhan nadayai: kuyilgal endhan thamizhai kaettana / ulagam kaetkka koovach chonnen.

It all adds up to some 500 songs, including those in indie albums, television serials and dubbed versions of films like Asoka (2001) and Manam (2014). It all adds up to a range of films, a range of directors – though not that much of a range of songs. Thamarai has been where female lyricists rarely go. She's written a hero-introduction number: Karka karka from the Kamal Haasan-starring Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu. She felt bad she hadn't gotten the opportunity to write a lullaby, but that happened a few years ago, with Kangal neeye kaatrum neeye (Muppozhudhum Un Karpanaigal). She hasn't written purely philosophical songs (thathuva paadalgal), but she's made her peace with that. "That era is gone," she says. But what she hasn't made her peace with is that she's approached mostly for love songs. "I'm a woman. So people have branded me this way."

There's another problem with being a female lyricist. "In the opening credits of films, people are listed in the order of seniority. So if a Vaali or a Vairamuthu have also written a song for the film, then their names should appear first, and mine should follow. That's what's right. But my name comes last even when the male lyricists have come after me." When Thamarai brought this up with some filmmakers, they said it wasn't done deliberately. It's just habit that the men's names come before the women's. "But it's habit that makes it so difficult," she says. Still, Thamarai knows she is in the right profession. "With any other job, I would have grown tired after 20 years. But the charm of my work is that every new day brings with it a new creative challenge. I never get bored."

The journey began when Thamarai was in school, and listened to songs by Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram and Udumalai Narayana Kavi and Kannadasan. She isn't someone who can instantly come up with lists, but when I press her for a few favourite songs, she thinks and mentions Poomalayil oar malligai and Sonnadhu needhaana, both by Kannadasan. I ask what words she'd use if someone presented her with these tunes, but she refuses to play the game. "I hate remixes. Classics should be treated with dignity. They shouldn't be touched. And I don't dare to compete with Kannadasan's sweetness."

That doesn't stop her from analysing the great poet's lyrics threadbare. It's something she does with all poets who wrote the songs that captivated her, in order to understand why she doesn't tire of them – but again, it's Kannadasan's songs that come up. She recalls the line Andha neela nadhi karai oaram from Paartha gnabagam illaiyo. "The river isn't blue. It's the sea that's blue. So this is the woman's fantasy."

She argues about the chauvinism in Naan pesa ninaippadhellam, where the male gets a mere two lines in the entire song and yet makes himself the centre of the female's universe (Naan kaanum ulagangal nee kaana vendum / Nee kaanum porul yaavum naanaaga vendum), while she happily panders to his ego. "Aan gunam," Thamarai calls it. Male nature. Then she amends it to Aan kavignar gunam. Yet, she marvels at the mind that came up – in this very song – with Sollaadha sollukku vilai yaedhum illai. "Imagine this thought in a love song."

Films and music remained a hobbyistic passion as Thamarai became an engineer and began to work amidst people who were very different. She'd argue against casteism, for instance. Her colleagues would not agree. She began to realise that she needed an outlet for her thoughts. She needed to be in a field that would help her connect to the public at large and disseminate her views – and that's when she began to look at cinema. The lyrics of the time became another cause. "They were filled with vulgar words," she remembers. "There was a lot of English usage. I wanted to change all that."

Thamarai is still fighting that fight. "This is my profession, but I won't feed myself by compromising on principles." As with everything she says, it sounds so much better in Tamil: "Arisi-kaaga kolgai-yai vittu kodukka maattaen." She won't write an anti-Eelam song. She won't write songs that denigrate women. She won't write songs that celebrate alcohol consumption. "If you can't buy me, I have won," she says, and segues into vividly melodramatic imagery to demonstrate how hard it is. "It's a tightrope walk. There are thorns below. There's a fire below. There are shards of glass below. I cannot afford to lose my balance."

But other things have changed in these two decades. She is wiser now, more patient, more measured in her speech. She's lost her innocence, become more calculative – but she isn't too troubled by this. "You cannot live without losing something," she says. Among her biggest losses was her husband Thyagu, a Naxalite who went to jail and, after release, formed a political movement named Thamizh Thesiya Viduthalai Iyakkam, based on the principles of Tamil nationalism. She fell for his writings, and he became her political mentor. Despite the 15-year age gap, they got married. It was a second marriage for both.

But gradually Thamarai realised that he was a wrong kind of man. "Romba thappaana aal," she says. She didn't even mind that he'd run off to his office under the pretext of politics, without sharing the responsibilities of the household, either logistically (her income from films was keeping them afloat) or emotionally (she was practically raising their son all by herself). "Some men aren't cut out for families," she says. "And they shouldn't get married."

But when he cheated on her, she'd had enough. She refused to grant him a divorce, and took to the streets in protest. When asked why she was making a personal problem public, she said, "I want to break that concept. Let my life be a lesson for all the women out there." She says she also wanted to unmask a certain kind of politician who says things on stage, which inspire youngsters and draw them to their cause, but end up being very different in real life. "I wanted to expose these fakes. I wanted to say: Think twice before joining these men and their movements."

Thamarai calls herself a survivor. During the last, ugly days of her marriage, she was still writing. The songs of Yennai Arindhaal are from that period. It's the gentlest of ironies: the respect she craved for in real life was all on screen, thanks to a writer-director known for his veneration of women. She met Gautham Menon through Mani Ratnam's office, when a staffer told her about a movie named Minnale that was being directed by Rajiv Menon's assistant, with the leading man from the as-yet-unreleased Alaipaayuthey. She met Gautham, who remarked that they had something in common: they were both engineers by training. But Vaali had been contracted to write the songs, and Thamarai thought that was that.

But problems ensued between the veteran lyricist and the production company, and Gautham asked Thamarai to write for Harris Jayaraj's song whose opening line had been tuned in this metre: tha-naa-na-naa. "The words typically used for this pattern would be ni-laa-vi-le, or ka-naa-vi-le, or u-laa-va-rum, clichés like that," Thamarai says, "but when I proposed va-see-ga-ra, both Gautham and Harris liked it." Till then, directors kept pressing for changes, urging her to stick to the tried and tested – but Thamarai felt she could talk to Gautham. She told him she wanted to write a love song without tired imagery like nila, vaanam, thendral. (She'd already been there, done that in songs like Malligai poove paarthaaya for Unnidathil Ennai Koduthen.) Gautham said she could try it in this song. Thamarai says, "A Vaseegara kind of hit was needed to open doors for me."

Her lyrics for this director, ever since, have been extraordinary, right down to her word paintings for Maruvaarthai pesaathey, from the upcoming Dhanush-starrer, Enai Nokki Paayum Thotta. I ask for a favourite, and she recalls Anul mele pani thuli, from Vaaranam Aayiram. She told herself when she started out that she'd never write a vulgar song, but here's one filled with "hard-core lust." And yet, the usual-suspect words (kaadhal, kaamam) are absent, and the lyrics grab the heart rather than the loins – even something like Iru karaigalai udaithidavae perugidumaa kadal alaiyae, which could be read as the surge of climax.

"Those who get it will get it," Thamarai says. "That's poetry. You can read it any way you want." She points to another set of lines from the song: Uthirattumae udalin thirai / Adhu thaan ini nilavin karai. One interpretation is that the woman wants their hearts to meld, so she wants to shed the "udalin thirai," the facade of the body. But this next explanation blows my mind: Let's discard our clothes with such abandon that they'll end up on the moon, and become the dark spots.

There are so many more songs Thamarai wishes she could have written, but she was simply exhausted, having to take care of her son, her home, her work. "Men don't have to do all this," she says. "They can just concentrate on their work. One definition of feminism has come to mean that women should be like men, be without a family. But I wanted a balance."

One thing she's lost in trying to achieve this balance was the reader in her. Thamarai longs to read again, and it's not just about squeezing out an hour a day and opening a book. She dreams of going to the Himalayas, someplace cool, and living in a house where she's surrounded by books. Another dream, fortunately, has come true. "When I was growing up, there were no female lyricists whom I could look at as role models. Today, I have become that role model for a new generation. That feels good."

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