My Playlist, with Annotations and YouTube Links (The Music of the World is on My IPod, But There Is No World Music)

Here are five representative tracks from my iPod (with YouTube links):

1. Harris Jayaraj, Vaseegara

Everybody knows A. R. Rehman (of Slumdog Millionaire infamy) but Harris Jayaraj is another master of contemporary Tamil film music—soulful and super melodious. Another track of his I could have listed as a favorite is June Ponaal from Unnaale. (If you follow the link, try to ignore the video.)

2. V. Doreswamy Iyengar, Dasara Pada: Pogaadirelo Ranga (Raagam: Shankarabharanam)

The music of my childhood. Classical South Indian music. Idli, sambhar, and coconut trees. Except that the purity of sound produced by Doreswamy Iyengar’s veena defies all cliché.

3. Cheikh Lo, Né la Thiass

Senegalese music with cross-Atlantic touches of jazz and blues. The Black Atlantic sounded out in musical notes. Years ago, I heard Cheikh Lo in Dakar in a club owned by Youssou N’dour. The performance started at 11 PM and ended long past midnight. Wondrous.

4. Bob Marley, No Woman No Cry

Enough said.

5. The Byrds, Mr. Tambournine Man

If ever a cover could rival an original, this one does. A sunny and deceptively naïve rendition by the Byrds of a Bob Dylan classic. Marriage of American moods with the imported sounds of Swinging London that becomes a complete reimagination.

So there they are; but, should I want to, how should I classify them? Perhaps the only truly discernible pattern of my playlist is a highly personal one—one that reflects my personal biography and tastes—but what if I (or you) wanted to look for meaning beyond the idiosyncrasies of the personal?

We like to make comparisons, to look for patterns, to discern design. There is no avoiding this impulse, for it might very well be that all knowing is pattern recognition (though I will leave the final word regarding this to cognitive psychologists). It might, then, be tempting to call (some of) the tracks on the list World Music—as in the section of a music store all the way at the back in which you might find the first three artistes, for example.

Let’s not. World Music, perhaps even more than the similar sounding World Literature, is a sales gimmick—a classification through which music corporations set out to create a market for music that does not in their opinion easily fit into popular existing categories. The challenge for us—as opposed to the corporations—has always been to find ways to talk about the world without reducing it to formula. The world is not formula. Certainly, I have the music of the world on my iPod, but there is no World Music, a designation as absurd as World Literature (about the indubitable absurdity of which I have written at length elsewhere).


Tamil Cinema: Ten Essential Titles for New Fans of Indian Movies Who Want to Venture beyond Bombay

Because I spent a good part of my childhood in Delhi and Bombay rather than Chennai, I grew up knowing Hindi movies better than Tamil. I am talking about a time before video cassette players. When you saw movies, you went to theaters. So it was only on vacations in Tamil Nadu that I got to watch a few MGR and Shivaji Ganesan movies. I recall going to Thanga Pathakam with my family while visiting my uncle, aunt and cousin in Salem in the late Seventies. Afterward, on the lawn outside the theater, a heated discussion of Shivaji Ganesan’s (over)acting raged over roasted peanuts with shredded coconut and slices of spiced green mango.

Thanga Pathakam is a good reminder that no cinema in India is more masala than Tamil cinema (okay, maybe Telugu is). And no film tradition is more interesting historically and sociologically. Much has been written about the links between Tamil cinema and the Dravidian movements that transformed politics in Tamil India, and indeed eventually across all of the country. One might say that Tamil film personalities (C. N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi, MGR, amongst others) pioneered the political uses of cinema. Call what they did masala with politics. If you are familiar with the “crepes” with potatoes that many associate with Tamil cuisine, call it masala dosa cinema.

Of course, not all Tamil cinema is masala dosa cinema. Most Tamil films, especially today, are simply masala, not masala dosa—brashly commercial and apolitical. And though Tamil cinema is famous for lacking the kind of auteur-driven film traditions found in Kerala and Bengal, there are even films that may be classified as alternative.

Here, then, are ten essential masala, masala dosa and alternative titles from Tamil cinema, with brief annotations. Translations of titles are mine; official DVDs might have alternative translations. When not translated, titles are proper nouns.

  1. Parasakthi (The Goddess Parasakthi)

1952. The original masala dosa film. Written by M. Karunanidhi, later Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, with covert political themes and directed by the team of Krishnan-Panju. Main role brilliantly acted by Shivaji Ganesan.

  1. Kadalika Neramillai (No Time for Love)

1964. A brilliant metacinematic comedy directed by C. V. Sridhar. Show stolen by Nagesh in the role of an aspiring film director.

  1. Server Sundaram (Sundaram the Waiter)

1964. Melodrama by the directorial team of Krishnan-Panju. Nagesh is brilliant in the title role of a poor waiter who rises to become a film star.

  1. Enga Veetu Pillai (Our Son)

1965. Perhaps the most famous of MGR films. MGR, also later Chief Minister, in a double role at a time when he was rapidly transitioning from a film icon to a political heavyweight. The song “Naan Annai Itaal” played a big part in that transformation.

  1. Thaneer, Thaneer (Water)

1981. Film adaptation of a classic Tamil play of the same title by Komal Swaminathan (English translation by me). Directed by K. Balachander, who carved out a niche between masala movies and alternative cinema often referred to as “middle cinema.”

  1. Terrorist

1998. Written and directed by Santosh Sivan, one of the most acclaimed cinematographers in Indian cinema. A thought-provoking and beautifully shot study of a female suicide bomber. Definitely alternative cinema.

  1. Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Seen)

2000. Adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility by director Rajiv Menon. With an early Aishwarya Rai and with Malayalam superstar Mamooty. Music by A. R. Rahman.

  1. Bombay

1995. Directed by Mani Ratnam, perhaps the most renowned of current directors working mainly in Tamil and inheritor of the mantle of “middle cinema director” from K. Balachander. A torn-from-the-headlines fictional account of the religious riots in Bombay in the early Nineties. Equally renowned for the music by A. R. Rahman.

  1. Sivaji

2007. Huge Rajnikanth hit about a do-gooding entrepreneur. What list of essential Tamil movies could be complete without Stylemaster Rajnikanth? Pure masala.

10. Subramaniapuram

2008. Typical of a contemporary trend towards low-budget offbeat films. Directed by M. Sasikumar. A study of young men drawn into a culture of violence. Acclaimed for its direction and authenticity of presentation.


No list of ten could ever do justice to such a long and distinguished film tradition. If you are a fan of Tamil cinema, feel free to share your favorites.