How women lyricists of Tamil cinema have shattered the male gaze in film music

Tamil film songs mostly idealise women as pure, beautiful, kind and tender or demonise them as gold-diggers, too ‘modern’ or callous heartbreakers. This is what women lyricists have disrupted with their writing.
Lyricists Parvathy (L), Kutti Revathi (M) and Thamarai (R)
Lyricists Parvathy (L), Kutti Revathi (M) and Thamarai (R)
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When Thamarai’s ‘Vaseegara’ from Minnale was released over 20 years ago, it became a phenomenon. The brilliance of ‘Vaseegara’ lies in how it poetically discusses a woman’s sensuality and desire, without banking on sexual innuendos or allusions. Sung in a husky and sultry voice by Carnatic singer Bombay Jayashree, the track became a starting point for other songs with a pinch of romance and sensuality.   

Thamarai, arguably Tamil cinema’s first professional female lyricist, has written more than 500 songs in over 25 years. Speaking to TNM, she says, “When I entered the industry, my professional world was filled with men. Before Minnale, they were so accustomed to looking at things from men’s perspective that they couldn’t accept my writing. They wanted me to tweak the lyrics to suit their liking. So, yes, gender did play a role.” 

Lyricist Parvathy, who is popular for songs like ‘Yedhedho Ennam Vandhu’ from Amara Kaaviyam, ‘Kannukkul Pothivaippen’ from Thirumanam Enum Nikkah and 'Verasa Pogayilae' from Jilla, among others, recalls how people paid attention to the lyrics of the song when ‘Vaseegara’ released, which was unheard of. “I’ve noticed how people tend to pay more attention to the music and singers. The lyrics often take a backseat. But people were discussing the freshness in ‘Vaseegara’s’ lyrics,” Parvathy says. She also points out that in the case of ‘Vaseegara’, it was probably the female perspective that offered a new and unique take.

Tamil film songs mostly idealise women as pure, beautiful, kind and tender or demonise them as gold-diggers, too ‘modern’ or callous heartbreakers. Even if the song is sung by a woman character on screen, the perspective tends to be male. This is what women lyricists have disrupted with their writing. 

“As women and lyricists, I think we are wired differently when it comes to certain nuances. Sometimes directors plan the visuals of a song after it is ready and when the lyrics offer a new perspective, the visuals are planned accordingly too. That lends a different colour, context and flavour to the whole song,” says Parvathy. 

There is no denying that women lyricists of Tamil cinema have widened the scope of many songs by not sticking to tried and tested tropes. But poet and lyricist Kutti Revathi, whose poetry collection Mulaigal (Breasts, 2002) received flak for openly discussing the taboo subject of women’s bodies, says that she believes more than the gender of the creator, it is their sensibilities that shape their craft. Parvathy echoes her views: “There's a dearth of women music directors in the Tamil film industry. Having said that, the nuanced portrayals of women in my absolute favourite films like Tumhari Sulu (Suresh Triveni) and The Great Indian Kitchen (Jeo Baby) make me wonder if it all boils down to individual sensibilities of the director.”

Thamarai also points out that she has never viewed songs solely from the prism of gender. “I always looked at the broader impact or ramifications a song could have on society and would evaluate the choices I made accordingly. This essentially meant that I had or have to constantly read and stay updated to shape my sensibilities,” Thamarai says.

Kutti Revathi observes that it is imperative for creators and especially writers and lyricists of all genders, to be well-read. “The works of Babasaheb Ambedkar have influenced me greatly and helped me understand so many societal frameworks,” says Kutti Revathi who is gearing up for her directorial debut Siragu.

Space for collaborations

Given the collaborative nature of film sets, there have been times when lyricists find differences between the ideas they conceived versus the final output. The most recent example of this is Samantha’s ‘Oo Antava’ or ‘Oo Solriya’ where the lyrics seemingly attempt to take a dig at the male gaze but the trite visualisation with its voyeuristic camera angles makes the effort futile. In such cases, despite not having control over the creative choices made by DOPs and directors, lyricists are held accountable for the visualisation and the song’s overall messaging. 

“Once we submit the lyrics of the song and it is finalised, the makers mostly don’t involve us in the process at all,” says Thamarai. When asked whether she has faced similar experiences, Parvathy remarks, “Most songs are montages these days. When a director approaches me with the concept of the song, I usually ask if the montages are already shot or planned. I try to match my lyrics that would suit a few montages and the director uses them accordingly. I have written two songs after watching the visuals thus far, and honestly, I had no issues with whatever was shown to me.” 

However, she recounts one instance when the makers were not open to her suggestions. “Once an assistant director sent me ‘montage ideas’ for a song and I found a couple of them in bad taste. I promptly called the director and told him that I don't want to write the song and he quipped ‘romba sandhosham’. I couldn't care less. This film was shelved later,” the lyricist says. 

A good way to avoid such disagreements, Thamarai observes, is to be picky with the filmmakers and the teams she collaborates with. While the versatile lyricist has experimented with several genres, she has carved a niche with romantic songs that explore the female protagonist’s love and desire for her partner. She has a long line of songs such as ‘Azhagiya Asura’, ‘Annul Maelae’, ‘ Oru Vetkam’, ‘Mazhayin Saralil’, ‘Ondra Renda’ and ‘Malai Mangum Neram’, that do not bank on the objectification of women to express their sensuality.   

Speaking about how she does not budge from her vision for a song, Thamarai says, “There have been times when the crux of a film or the intent of the filmmaker hasn’t aligned with my ideology or perspective. Letting go of films, especially the big-budget projects with headliners wasn’t always an easy call to make but it was important.” She further says, “With Maara, the director had taken me through the process of picturisation because the visuals were shot before we started working on the lyrics. If you look at the songs, they work as independent singles promising a visual treat, even when you take the movie’s plot or setting out of context.” 

Substantiating Thamarai’s point, Kutti Revathi shares that when the director’s sensibilities are in line with the lyricist’s, it enhances the final output. “With Aruvi, director Arun Prabhu had a clear vision of how he wanted the songs to be. He even had directions about the texture of the song, the literary style and the word choices. We worked on so many drafts but that is also the reason why the songs turned out as well as they did,” she says.

Thamarai and Kutti Revathi also note that they are keen about hearing the entire narration of the film or reading the script before they sign a project. “‘Kangal Irandal’ was a song that plays after the first few sequences of the film [Subramaniapuram] but I insisted on hearing the entire script,” Thamarai says. She had revealed in an earlier interview with The Hindu that the line ‘…thadai-illai saavilumae unnodu vara' in ‘Kangal Irandal’ was a tricky take on the film's climax.

Citing a similar instance, Kutty Revathi explains how ‘Nenjae Yezhu’ from Maryan was conceptualised as an universal anthem of hope. The visualisation and lyrics, nonetheless, add several layers, thus pushing audiences to ponder if the song is sung from Maryan (Dhanush) or Panimalar (Parvathy Thiruvothu)’s point of view.  “I need to understand the emotional arc and journey of the characters rather than hearing a brief to be able to come up with lyrics,” Kutti Revathi says.   

Aruvi’s ‘Baby track’, ‘Party song’ and ‘Liberty song’ which had lyrics by Kutti Revathi, retain the spirit of these genres, without necessarily following the templates that are generally used in such songs. Would more women lyricists penning breakup and party songs save them from the travesty they are caught in? Parvathy observes that filmmakers don’t generally approach female lyricists with such songs. 

“Forget party or item songs, women lyricists are mostly given only love songs. I remember how, after writing 500 songs, Thamarai Ma'am rued in one of her interviews that she is known only for love songs. She had also mentioned in that interview that she requested Harris Jayaraj sir to give her male solos, precisely for this reason, and that's when songs like ‘Karka Karka' and ‘Anjala’ happened. For party, break-up and item songs to change, the onus lies largely on the director,” she says. 

Lyricists are insistent about their demands. Even so, they say that they are overlooked or not given credit where it is due. Be it the descriptions under YouTube videos or details on audio streaming platforms like Spotify, the names of the lyricists are often left out. “We specify these things while signing a project but that has not really prevented its occurrence,” Thamarai says.

Adding to her point, Parvathy says, “I remember how I jumped with joy when I heard the Hindi song ‘Credit de do yaar - the lyric writers' anthem’ which was released by a bunch of Bollywood lyricists.  I often feel that songwriting is a thankless job and Tamil lyricists are no exception. I don't know if this situation will change at all, and even if it does, it won't be anytime soon.”  

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