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Science fiction in an old Tamil film lyric: Subtle Patriarchy in Promotion of Science!

This blog is written on 30th May 2020, as the number of Corona affected cases in India is increasing steadily, with the number of affected approaching 175000 and the number of deaths approaching 5000. It does not seem to have stopped anything else. We have a standoff between China and India. An unarmed African American was brutally killed by a police officer in front of another officer and some public watching around, with the street cameras recording the gory incident. India is facing the worst migration crisis since the partition. There have been a focus on Science with some pointing out Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel being a scientist and suggesting that Scientists should take part in policy making, if not in politics. May be a good time to write a blog to promote Science. In particular, one of the lines in the lyric says ‘We need to make an instrument that will help our kids learn sitting at home, without having to go to schools’. This is happening now. But, why on patriarchy now? Why not? Nandita Das has released a short movie on domestic violence in particular during the lock down (1).

One of my favorite comedians from Tamil films is N. S. Krishnan (NSK). His wife T. A. Madhuram (TAM) and he formed a good couple in life and movies. When they were both on travel to Pune from Madras to act together for the first time in a film ‘Vasanthasena’, NSK fell in love and they were married (2). NSK did not tell TAM that he was already married and his wife, Nagammal, was in Nager Coil at that time. It was not unusual those days for some one like NSK to have two wives. The NSK-TAM couple was a big draw in movies and they enjoyed fame and money like those of the hero/heroines in those days. As Randor Guy says in the the Hindu article “People loved their brand of comedy, satire, irony and social relevance.” The Wikipedia page on NSK says “He was a Gandhian, patriot and philanthropist, yet a controversial figure”. He was an active member of Dravidian movement, which takes pride about their role in empowering women. Both NSK and TAM had a very successful professional career in movies. As it was common those days, they both were good singers and all the songs in their movies were sung by them.

One of the popular songs by this couple came in a movie called ‘Nallathambi’ written by Udumalai Narayana Kavi. I have mentioned the lyricist in another blog earlier (3). The complete lyric in Tamil can be seen in a blog called Dhool Lyrics (4). As with many of their songs, this is a duet as well, sung by a husband and wife in the movie. Husband introduces Science to his wife and sings about the advantages of Science. Let me offer a translation, more as a prose, below:

Husband to wife: Aa, come, sit down. I am going to promote Science and invite the Westerners for a feast and show them what I have done. Will undo the plows used in Thanjavur and learn all Science thoroughly. I will find a way to produce a kid without a husband and wife. I will ensure that ignorance and superstition are demolished. I will use atomic energy to ensure that people live longer. Unlike the leaders from other Nations who have used atomic energy to kill people and destroy cities, I will use it to demolish ignorance and superstition and also to help in long and healthy life for humans.

Not only that, I will find ways to grow dresses for men and women from the cotton plant directly. I will find ways to make the old people look and live like young. I will show what my hands can do and create wind and rain. I will create a motor and fix it in a bullock cart and take your mother in that. Will take you in that as well and show how it runs.

Wife: Sounds great, but what are you going to do for our home?

Husband: For our home, tell me what do you need?

Wife: I need machines to remove the husk in rice, to grind rice/dal for making idli/dosa, and for pumping water. I need a machine as well to cook all day. I would like to have a water tap in our back yard and an air conditioner in our home. I need an instrument to help kids learn from home without having to go to school.

Husband: Is that all?

Wife: I forgot one: I need a machine which on clicking a button should serve idli and coffee on our table. I need fan above our bed and a machine to show time.

Husband: You mad lady, look at the women in our country. They do all the work at home. There are some women, who look at those from the West and long to have a life like them. Our women go to forest, do field work, work at home and eat rice. The women who want to copy Western women, go in car, roam around town, dress themselves in front of the mirror and have coffee (both of them laugh as it sounds funny to them).

The lyrics in Tamil is written in a colloquial language and rhymes well. The song was quite popular and I knew it by heart. Until a few days ago, I did not try to analyze it. When I was listening to it recently, it just occurred to me that, the guy wants to use scientific advances to help in his work. As the famous dialog in 3 idiots says, “A machine is anything that reduces human effort”. He brags about that to his wife and says he will show the western world his accomplishments. When the wife asks him to make some machines to help in her work, he calls her mad and preaches about how our country women are great as they do all these work by themselves!

Of course, now we can see that most of what was written in this song has been achieved. We have machines to do most of what both of them wanted. However, in 1949, when this movie was made and Udumalai Narayana Kavi wrote this song, the lyricist, NSK and TAM and everyone in the movie crew and all the people who listened to this song did not find anything wrong. All those watching the movie, may have laughed with NSK and TAM as the song ends comparing our hard working women in the country with Westernized women who just roam around having coffee! It is not as subtle, isn’t it.

References:

  1. “Listen to her” a short movie by Nandita Das.
  2. https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/lighter-vein-column-nsk-part-3/article6639763.ece
  3. https://earunan.org/2015/04/02/learning-history/
  4. The lyrics of the song can be seen in Tamil in this link: http://lyricsdhool.blogspot.com/2017/03/vignanatha-valarka-porendi-nallathambi.html
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