Valentine's Week: Soupy sentiments

CE ends the Valentine’s week looking at heartbreaks etched in ‘soup’ songs, while poet Thamarai flags the lack of space for female heartbreak in Tamil cinema
Representative Image.
Representative Image.

CHENNAI : Music is memory, culturally preserved and shared. The dynamic has played out across the history of civilisation; be it memories of places left behind, of yesteryear friendships, or of a long-lost love. Romance and its vagaries have always been strongly rooted in music traditions from around the world; the mute agony of heartbreak in particular is best accompanied by a song, nothing else comes close.

As writer and poet Franz Kafka wrote to the mysterious Milena, “You are the knife I turn inside myself; that is love. That, my dear, is love.” It would be fair to say very few have walked these lands without having tasted the bittersweetness of heartbreak, of wallowing in desire that has nowhere left to go.

While there exists a contemporary, political need to affirm love and its enormous capacities at every chance we get — the unreason of love unites us all — this Valentine’s season, we stray away from the beaten path, to return to soup, to heartbreak, a conception that possible predates even Valentine’s Day. By turning to Tamil music and its long-running association with romantic failures, we pay our respects to the countless nameless, faceless, and placeless throughout history who have been unsuccessful in love, and whose stories continue to eternally reverberate across cultures, for the history of soup is the history of man.

Soup in our heads

The modern Tamil imaginary has been chronically afflicted with romantic failures, and tragedies. The tendency has been primarily reflected in cinema, arguably the region’s most influential media form. Be it Viji’s devastating gait of indifference (Moondram Pirai, 1982) or Ram’s utter solitude in being a lover (’96, 2018), there is a distinct, rich lineage of Tamil cinema’s encounters with romantic failures and tragedies. The list is exhaustive — from Sethu (1999) and Iyarkai (2003), through Vaaranam Aayiram (2008), Subramaniapuram (2008) — and nearly all these films live on through the soupy brilliance of their soundtracks. Tamil soup music and its sheer range — Ilaiyaraaja’s dark and pensive Poongaatru Puthithaanathu residing next to the mute melancholy of Anirudh’s Life of Pazham — has become a huge part of how we configure our own romantic selves, in joy and sorrow.

As to why we insist on returning to these songs, Angela Rachel Matthew, a teacher, says it helps her “drown out inner sorrows by celebrating them.” There is also a definite feeling of camaraderie when such experiences are configured as universal, she adds.

Kiruba, a student and writer, says, “These songs aided me greatly in getting out of the state of inertia I found myself in after heartbreak. The songs tell me the very things I want to tell myself. They have the capacity to belong to everyone and just us at the same time. Some of the songs taste like my tears as much as they taste like thiruvizha appalam.” Ninaithu Ninaithu Paarthal (7G Rainbow Colony, 2004) brings back memories, Oru Poiyavathu Sol Kanne (Jodi, 1999) got me through denial and Kadhal Yen Kadhal (Mayakkam Enna, 2011) helps me vent, she notes.

Nethu Night Neelambari, a drag artiste, listens to their own music during heartbreak, as the category of music has largely been restricted to heterosexual romance. “Queer people in films are hard to find, expressing emotions and having a solid character are not even there, we are the first ones to die or the villains. Tamil movies don’t revolve around stories, but everything moves around the hero,” they say.

Tamil cinema has featured countless male leads who break into song and dance to express their heartbreak, to wallow in soup; this image presents in a particular mode: male soup as everybody’s business. While their female counterparts, usually the reason for said love failure, are usually vilified as being scheming, self-centered, and kolaveri-type villains, and call for violent retribution.

But what about soup girls?

From Sangam poetry to Tamil film music, while women have historically expressed their desires and sorrows, their rage and soup is nobody’s business. In the palai thinai of Kurunthokai 29, a woman waits in the backdrop of whistling winds for her lover or in AR Rahman and Madhushree’s Mallipoo, the singer longs for her lover as her jasmine flowers wilt, their desire is present but they are relegated to waiting in solitude, for their lover’s return or in remembrance of them. As essayist Roland Barthes wrote, “The lover’s fatal identity is precisely: I am the one who waits.” While waiting does constitute modern love, it is peculiar Tamil literature and pop culture assign waiting exclusively to women. Moreover, these women are often depicted to be wasting away by themselves, in silence. Where are the songs for soup girls? Where are the images of women drinking away their sorrows, consoled by their comrades? Where is the space for angry women and sisterhood, let alone queer love?

According to poet-lyricist Thamarai, a veteran who has cemented her name in the great hall of Tamil music, there had been a time not too long ago when female soup was mainstream. Right off the top of her head, she recalls some classics: Ninaikka Therindha Maname (Anandha Jodhi, 1963), Uravu Endroru Sol Irundhaal (Idhayathil Nee, 1963) and Kalaimagal Kai Porule (Vasantha Maaligai, 1972). “It is not that women don’t have heartbreaks, not that they don’t express such feelings, not that they don’t sing aloud. In fact, women feel things more acutely. Their expressions of sorrow and grief found a mainstream outlet in Tamil cinema a long time ago, but times have changed. These days it is rare to find a female solo track, let alone a soup song. Audiences, primarily male, say they are bored of it. When a woman breaks into tears about a lost love, men just get up and go out for a smoke break. The female soup song has gone out of fashion, and everyone involved in making films have understood that much” she notes.

The songwriter admits that there has never been an angry female lead in the history of Tamil cinema. “To this day, the only viable anger on the silver screen is the anger of a man, that too a young man. Yesteryear’s angry young man, incensed by society’s inequalities, went out to attack and change them; today, we get the angry young men from Animal and the likes. Either way, men can be portrayed in whatever manner, because how much ever base he is, there will always be people to affirm him as a hero. The same cannot be said for a woman. So, as long as these social evaluations continue unchallenged, they will continue to be reflected as such in our cultural forms,” she adds.

Beyond this, we acknowledge there is no instant remedy for heartbreak, a deeply personal and transformative experience for most. As the Priest says in Fleabag “This too shall pass” or writer James Baldwin notes: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” In the spirit of Barthes saying, “The lover’s discourse is spoken, perhaps, by thousands of subjects, but warranted by no-one”, we present this list of Tamil soup-adjacent music, a mixtape, that has made our days less blinding, and nights less lonely.

Now loading... Soup songs

While the feeling has been around since forever, the phrase ‘Soup’ and its associated variations: ‘soup boys’, ‘soup song’ and others, broke out into the Tamil (and Indian) mainstream after the release of the 2011 viral-hit Why This Kolaveri Di, composed by Anirudh Ravichander, written and sung by actor Dhanush. The song’s ‘Tanglish’ lyrics — Hand la glass-u, glass la scotch-u, eyes-u full-ah tear-u — had become a global phenomenon. Over a decade later, ‘soup’ has nearly entered colloquial usage among urban Tamils, with the popular music channel, Sun Music, featuring multiple segments dedicated to soup songs, and streaming platforms such as Spotify and YouTube promoting entire playlists in the name of Tamil soup.

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