Kerala’s YouTube Stars!

Sound Box - August 2011

[This feature was first appeared on Sound Box, music industry magazine, in it’s special anniversary issue in August 2011]

To Hindi movie buffs, the word ‘Silsila’ would bring back memories of a popular Hindi film that featured Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha and Jaya in the lead roles. But for youth and netizens of the southern state of Kerala, “Silsila” currently refers to an album song that has become a YouTube sensation. The song video, shared by several users on the social networking website, supposedly has had more than twenty lakh hits thus far.

Nearly everyone and his uncle in Kerala is aware of this song, and in all probability, has it tucked away in his phone’s memory as well.

The song is an unlikely winner, however. A search in YouTube with ‘Silsila Hai Silsila‘ as the keywords will reap you results with the video, boasting taglines like “the worst album song ever” or “the worst song in Malayalam“. If you try one of those pages and decide to check out the comments section, you would realise that the song has probably set a record by receiving the most number of abusive comments. The song video has a set of people including two foreigners dancing as they please, without having to worry about choreography of any sort while the singer-cum-lyricist-cumcomposer-cum-director Harishankar’s face keeps popping up in between. Needless to say, there isn’t much sense to either the music or the vocals.

All publicity is good publicity

Silsila HarishankarBut that exactly is the selling point of the song. Even though the creator of the song was serious about his song, the audience has taken to it as an object of ridicule, something to laugh over with your friends.

The video has been shared through emails, social media and mobile phones. The song, that the producer-director-lyricist-singer-composer Harishankar had taken off YouTube when he received negative comments for his video when he first posted it, became an instant hit through the Net and the cell phone. Harishankar and the song went on to become the biggest YouTube sensation in Kerala.

The influence of Silsila in Malayali pop-culture is only growing. The song was featured in a Malayalam movie called “Seniors“, in a scene where students poke fun at their college principal. An upcoming Malayalam movie called “Three Kings” has its remake of the song sung by actor Jayasurya under the supervision of original singer Harishankar. In a recent stage show of AMMA (Association of Malayalam Movie Artists), Malayali superstars Mammootty, Mohan Lal and Jayaram sang this song. Avial, the rock band, featured the song in one of their live shows, and that too is now becoming a hit on YouTube.

Though he continues being ridiculed, Harishankar is a winner at the end of the day. Now every Malayali youngster and techie knows about him and his song. He has appeared on television channels and given interviews to newspapers. Many articles are being written about him in mainstream and online news channels and blogs. And Harishankar is aware that it is the negative publicity that brought him the attention. In an interview, he said, “When people called it ‘the worst Malayalam album’, Keralites were curious to see it. Malayalis are more interested in negative things.” He has also admitted in a television interview that his song has its own drawbacks and that he is just a beginner.

Spawning a trend

Santhosh PanditThe negative publicity that Harishankar and his song ‘Silsila’ received has prompted several wannabes to post their own album songs to YouTube. Aspiring and small-budget album producers now know how to publicise their songs, thanks to Harishankar and his popularity. They do not wait for approval from TV channels; instead they post their songs straight to YouTube. Sometimes this PR work is taken care of by people who stumble upon these music videos accidentally and share it through their online spaces.

After Harishankar’s “Silsila”, another song is doing the rounds on YouTube, again for all the wrong reasons. “Raathri Shubharaathri” is a song that was written, composed and sung by Santhosh Pandit. Like “Silsila”, this music video too was posted under the ‘worst Malayalam album’ title. The video of the hero singing and dancing around a teenage girl attracted much criticism when it was posted with people linking it to the news of sex rackets that use the casting couch for flesh trade. But eventually, the focus shifted to Santhosh Pandit, the hero of the music video. Pandit has so far released eight music videos on YouTube and says these songs are from his upcoming movie project, “Krishnanum Radhayum”, which he claims to be a ‘violent love story’. Now there are several websites and blogs dedicated to Pandit and his movie that has the movie stills and songs. The ‘fans’, ironically, comprise people who make fun of him, call him the Alien Star (a spoof of Super Star or Mega Star).

Unlike Harishankar, Pandit does not admit that his work may have any drawbacks but claims that his movie and the songs will bring in a sea change in Malayalam movies and music. He lashes out at big budget mainstream Malayalam movies. The audio of the phone calls that his ‘fans’ made with him are now running on YouTube and those too have become the laughing stock of Malayali netizens. But one has to admit that the compositions of Santhosh Pandit are as good as any Malayalam film song that is being churned out these days. Two people did a cover version of Pandit’s song “Raathri Subharaathri” with just guitar chords in the background and it is being appreciated online.

All in the game

So, what do we learn from Harishankar and Santhosh Pandit? Sometimes negative publicity could help you become famous (or infamous, depending on how you view it) and to sell your product which otherwise would not have seen the light of the day. Also, perhaps both these adventurers show where they draw inspiration from. If you compare Pandit’s song with the song “Entadukkal Vannadukkum” (movie: Merikkundoru Kunjaadu, singer: Shankar Mahadevan, music: Berny-Ignatius), or “Othorumichoru Gaanam Paadaan” (movie: Makante Achan, singer: Vineeth Srinivasan, music: M Jayachandran), or “Moham Kondaal” (movie: Christian Brothers, music: Deepak Dev), it will make you think that Pandit’s song is anytime better than these movie songs in terms of lyrics and music and perhaps the only thing that it lacks is a good vocalist and an industry-standard orchestrator.

With Harishankar and Pandit both having become household names in Kerala, more such ‘internet sensations’ could very well be launched in the near future. For an audience that thrives on such entertainment, the fun is just beginning.

Categories: Entertainment, Music, Sound Box

Kudos to you, Gayatri!

My respect to playback singer Gayatri just went up for speaking openly against the malpractices of Malayalam film music industry. Gayatri, in a response to music director M Jayachandran, has lashed out at his unwarranted comments. Read the full interview here (in Malayalam).

To those who cannot read Malayalam, here is a loose translation of the core of what she said:

M Jayachandran doesn’t need to tell me that I should listen to Shreya Ghoshal. I don’t need his advise. I don’t need to hear his opinion to understand that Shreya is the best singer in India. I’m not stupid enough to criticize Shreya’s singing.

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I’ve never asked for a chance to any music director. I am very happy in my space. These people should understand this.

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Bollywood singers are paid good money here, but what is the situation of our singers up north? I know about this. I have heard people blaming Hariharan’s pronunciation. They are very strict on this matter. They never would excuse even a small mistake. But what about us? The song “Chaanchaadi aadi” sung by Adnan Sami is rated very low in the charts. It’s not my personal opinion. People say this on media. The problem is not the choice of the audience, but the attitude of [Malayalam film music] industry.

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The industry doesn’t consider the local singers. I stand by that opinion. Singers from other states are VIPs for us. But do we get the same treatment from them? We are still asked “do you want the travel allowance” after we sing and this happens to singers like us who have been in this field for years. We are asked such questions when the north Indian singers are paid upto Rs. 75,000 per song. But the industry doesn’t have at least Rs. 2000 for singers like us.

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Why this discrimination? If it’s Adnan Sami, they are ready to pay upto 1 lakh rupees. We do not ask even half of this amount. All singers face this but nobody dare to tell the truth. But it must be told.

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Up to an extent, it is the singers themselves to be blamed. Some singers who come from reality shows tell the MDs, “sir, I will give Rs. 50000, please give me a chance”. Singers as a whole suffer due to this kind of people.

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There are organizations like MACTA and FEFKA. We go to their programmes and sing for free. They need our co-operation for their programmes but our needs are not considered.

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There is no gender difference in the case of singers not being paid for their work. In Bollywood and Tamil Nadu, they would send us call sheets even for small jingles. It is because they respect the work we do. Is there anything like it here?

Also you can listen to my Malayalam podcast with Gayatri and Pradip Somasundaran (in two parts) for M-Pod below.

Part I

Part II

Categories: Entertainment, Music

About friends and friendship

Yet another friendship day that Hallmark invented and keeps on popularizing has come. Well, I am not planning to send any greeting card to any friend, but would like to take this moment to remember my friends and thank them for the friendship.

They say you can only rely on your childhood friends. And the friends you make in the virtual world cannot be trusted. From my personal experience, it is not always true. There were many moments in my life when I used to be let down hugely by some of my childhood friends who valued money and social status more. Forgive and forget policy works and the friendship still goes on. But there were some genuine and sincere childhood friendships which continue to this date. And I have realized that the number of days or years of friendship does not really count in a good friendship.What matters is how much your friend cares for and supports you.

Friends in need are friends indeed, as the saying goes. But it’s not only them who have become my best friends. There are many others who would just brighten up the moments I sit with and talk to them. With whom I can share my happy and sad moments. From both the real and virtual world. But then there are some that needs a special mention because they were involved in some special or most needed hours of my life.

A friend, who always remained in the backstage and never took credit for what she did, had helped me so much with M-Pod, my Malayalam podcast. She took me along to many events, introduced me to people, various forms of art and activism and in the process I learned a lot. At the early stages of adulthood, when I was emotionally unstable – because I was still learning what life and relationships were and couldn’t take it myself when people I loved hurt me – she was the shoulder to cry on.

There were not many tools available in the initial days of music blogging and the only option was Audioblogger (now known as Hipcast), an embeddable music player that also hosts MP3 files. I tried it on a trial mode and got some appreciation for my songs. I was about to quit after the trial period and that was when this man, who was just an online friend then, came up and gifted me a 2-yrs subscription. He only requested (not even demanded) that I should keep singing. You have to understand that it happened at a time (which remains un-changed even today) when people wouldn’t pay even to hear their favorite or famous/popular singers. And he paid $ to hear my songs which I recorded using my poor quality chat microphone. We remain good friends.

When I wanted to fight a legal case and sought help, there was this other friend who is a corporate lawyer and she offered all the legal help. For free. She kept following up even among her busy schedules and made sure everything worked fine throughout the process. And once when my own ignorance put me in a bad position, her words gave me much comfort.

There is another friend who once helped me connect with his friend to get me a job interview, at a time I needed a job so badly. I was in the middle of nowhere and had just quit from a job after just a single working day because the work schedule there was frustrating. This friend, who mesmerizes people with his music, helped me at the need of the hour.

When my Mom needed to have an angioplasty done, it had to be decided and acted upon quickly after the angiogram. I had to arrange the money overnight because the hospital administrator said that I would have to pay Rs. 1.12 lakhs upfront for the stent. I was short of 75 grands even after pooling up the money I had saved. Though I would get this 75k in a week’s time I still needed the money for the moment. Then I called up a friend and asked for help. He said – “I have saved 5 lakhs for my wedding which is in the next 3 months. Just tell me how much you want and I will transfer to your bank account“. This is a friend whom I’d known only for 3-4 years but became close friends. Nobody else, even the wealthy ones in the family, could give me such a comforting assurance.

Then there are others who tried (and who keep trying) to see me reach a place in the music industry. Like a researcher in a university in the UK who kept pestering his friends in the music industry to give me a break. Another one, a doctor from UK who gave me a chance to showcase my music in one of his projects. A playback singer’s mother, who gave me valuable suggestions and called me to catch a flight and go to Chennai to participate in Airtel Super Singer (and I couldn’t go because there was a function in the family).

Any relationship without love and care is meaningless. People say that family is important and that they are the ones who would stand for you when you need help. I agree, but most of the times it is the obligation of ‘blood-relation’ that makes the family stand close, not the love itself. Whereas in friendship (and in love, in some cases, until it takes the customary form of commitment), there is no such obligation. There, the love is pure and selfless. And that’s what makes the world go round. That is why friendship and friends are so important in our lives.

So thank you everyone, all my best friends, good friends, casual friends and acquaintances, for the love and support. And those who only saw me as a tool, an object, a funny-figure or a feel-good thing, I never gave a damn about you. Not that I am a perfect person or have not been a jerk at times though.

Categories: Notes

A young man’s tale

My dearest Appu,

I’m not so good at story telling, though I do or rather did like writing them when I was a boy. One of your aunts was so good at telling fascinating stories and we the younger ones were enthralled by her story telling skills. But today, I’m going to tell you a story. Story of  a young man called Varghese. You won’t get to read the stories of people like him in the books or in history because to the public, they and their lives are so uninteresting. There are probably millions of Vargheses in the world who born and die everyday and not a single person would take notice because they are so ordinary. They are ‘destined’ to live their un-interesting lives.

Okay, so our story begins in a village, now a town, in the middle part of Kerala. Varghese was born 41 years back on an August 3rd to a crude father and a lovely mother. He was the fourth child of the couple. He was named after St. George and don’t ask me why people with the name Varghese have St. George as their patron saint. Perhaps it is because St. George has a Malayalam name of “Gee Varghese” (‘ghee-varugees‘ as the name spelled in Malayalam).

Varghese was different from other kids in his family. He was slightly dark, too much of an introvert and artistic. He loved painting, movies, music and reading. He was very possessive about the people whom he loved (here, perhaps you can draw some parallels between him and your Appan). Varghese did not study much and dropped out of school early. He did many jobs after that. He worked as a salesman in a fancy goods selling shop in the town. He worked there for many years and then moved on to masonry.

Varghese did not have many friends or rather was very choosy of his friends. He did not hang out with friends much. He spent his spare time painting. He loved art though he did not have access to learn much about art or artists. All he knew was to paint with the pastels and a single brush that he had bought with his own money. He could not afford to buy a canvas paper, so he would collect the old Sivakasi calendars to paint on it’s back, on the white space. His youngest brother would curiously look at him doing the painting – first the outer form with a pencil and then the pastel colors flowing on the paper with the stroke of a brush. He was so skilled. People who saw his artistic skills asked the family to enroll him in an art school or send him to somebody who can teach him art. But how can a family that struggled hard to make their ends meet afford to pay the fee for such a thing? But he did not give up. He continued painting with pastels on the back of the calendars or with a white chalk on their verandah. He even applied some of his skills in his masonry work with the permission of his supervisors.

Another passion of his was movies. He so loved movies. And he would take his youngest brother along to watch movies. Imagine a young man just in his twenties taking his brother who is ten years younger than him to movie halls while he could have hung out with his friends. If he couldn’t take his brother, he would narrate the story lines to him. And Varghese had some skill in narrating the story line of movies with hand and face gestures. So he would narrate Ten Commandments or Benhur to his brother who loved these story telling sessions. Like I said before, he rarely went out with his friends but he had a solid set of friends who stood by him. After each day’s work, he would come home, take a shower and would go to the nearest library where he was a member. Or he would go for a movie screening organized by Navachitra Film Society in which he was a member.

Then on a bright Sunday morning of January in 1997, while he was on his way to attend a friend’s wedding, he met with an accident that took his life away. He was just 27 years old when he died.

If you ask me why Varghese’s life was so interesting to me, it is not only because he was my second elder brother, your Valyappan, and we loved each other so much but also it is about a young man who was denied the opportunities he could have had as an artist. It is about young men like him denied of the chances and had to suppress themselves because of the lack of money or the people around them thought that art could get them no where. And one day they just fade out to memory. Nobody asked him if he was happy with the life he had. He never complained.

Do you know why his birthday this year makes me sad than ever in his memories? Because now I understand why my Amma still can’t control the tears when she speaks of my brother. Now I understand how it would feel when you lose a child forever. How precious a child is to a parent. How the first memory of holding their child would rush to their mind when they think of their child’s birthday. Today, I drop a tear for your Ammamma and pray God give her strength and comfort.

PS: You know I don’t usually cross-post anything I write in this private blog I created for you. But I made an exception this time and I am going to publish this post in my blog also, because I wanted to tell the world about him.

PPS: I love you so much!

Categories: Notes

Group Activity

[This feature was first appeared in the July issue of Soundbox, India’s premier music trade magazine. Checkout the website here.]

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Group Activity

It was late in the evening when a group of three techies walked into one of the residential colonies in Bengaluru. They were going to attend what their host called a musical get-together and they did not have the slightest idea of what to expect. They heard people singing when they entered the host’s house, some people even dancing to the music, all of which was followed by thunderous applause and appreciation. It felt weird to them that a group of people came together, many of them not even amateur singers, just to sing their hearts out. But as they sat through the event and heard the songs being belted out one after the other, they were totally moved. Here was a group of people encouraging and applauding each other to sing just for the love of music and not to scale their ability to sing as in a reality show. Here, it is music that rules.

People from several walks of life in the metro cities and small towns in the southern part of India are forming music appreciation groups where they also get to shape their raw talents. And they are not shy to sing their heart out before the others in their group meetings, because these groups are not primarily about showing off but appreciating a certain song, composer, lyricist or singer.

Inspired by Antakshari

Ant-Tak (meaning ‘till the end‘ ) is one such group based in Bengaluru. They begin the music sessions in the early evening and the music goes on until the wee hours of the morning. According to Rama Iyer, a lawyer and partner at Legal Solutions Bangalore, who is also one of the hosts and organising members of Ant-Tak, the idea of this group came about after a corporate antakshari contest in 2004. An Ant-Tak member’s company had planned to send teams to the contest after internally picking out people who were interested in music. It was then that they realised there were many people within the company who were passionate about music. The rehearsal sessions were filled with the participants’ family members who helped them with song information for the contest. And music being the bonding factor, they became friends in a short span of time. This made way for further get-togethers to sing with karaoke tracks and some music instruments (played by the members themselves) and many other friends joined them. Ant-Tak has held 31 music sessions and the event mostly takes place at members’ homes. If the number of people coming over to the meeting is larger than can be accommodated at home, the host family rents a hall for the purpose, even though it is not obligatory for each family to host an event.

Theme song

Priya and Venkat, a couple from Bengaluru were instrumental in bringing together like minded people and hosted many such music meets in the city. The last event they organised was this April, named Ek sham Bhoole Bisre Geet ke naam. The meet was firmed up through Bhoole Bisre Geet, a music group on Facebook. The success of the event has encouraged the group and they are now planning to arrange such meets in Mumbai and Delhi.

Bangalore groupThese musical meets sometimes have a central theme. If Ek sham Bhoole Bisre Geet ke naam was about celebrating retro Hindi film songs, they had two musical meets dedicated to the legendary composer M S Viswanathan. They talked about MSV’s music, exchanged tit-bits of his compositions, played his original tracks and their own instrumental versions and sang his songs together. And not just that – the group had M S Viswanathan, the man himself, for two days when the group interacted with him about his music. Priya notes that it was the happiest moment of her life. Another event of Ant-Tak was named Bollywood Hungama where the members came dressed as Bollywood characters and movie posters were plastered on the walls.

There are people from several walks of life who participate in these shows and what bring them together is their love and appreciation of music, irrespective of the language. The participating homes are suitably decorated, most of the times with a banner that has the event name on it. Songs in different languages are sung at these events. But it’s not just about singing one song after the other. The participants spend time in appreciating the lyrical and musical aspects of a song. Sometimes, karaoke tracks keep company or music instruments are played by some of the members.

Notes from the homeland

Roshni Chandran and Iyyappan Santhanam, a couple from Los Angeles formed a group DesiTunes with the primary goal to unite the Indian/desi musicians in Los Angeles. DesiTunes also welcomes musicians of other nationalities who are interested in performing Indian/desi music. Roshni says that though there were many musicans of Indian origin in Los Angeles, there is no common platform for all of them to meet or socialise and this is what DesiTunes is striving to provide.Los Angeles group They meet twice a month to jam with other musicians. “Usually they have to wait for once-ayear community events organised by Indian regional communities where they hardly get a chance to sing a song due to the time constraints. We thought it would be helpful to create a consistent opportunity to perform where it could benefit the existing and the new musicians who relocate to Los Angeles to get the exposure they deserve,” Roshni says.

Back in Thrissur, Kerala, another group of people organises a monthly music meet-up called paaTTarangu. The event takes place every month in Thrissur town, at any convenient location. The songs are mostly unplugged versions without any karaoke or instrumental tracks to support the vocals. They welcome everyone to join them and invite a celebrity guest singer for every meet-up. The response, they say, is heartening.

So what goals do these groups achieve with these meet-ups? Priya and Venkat say the aspirations of participants are on different levels. “What happens is, they better their own performances the next time. Each one takes time to select songs, learn them, procure karaokes somehow, practice well and when they render at the music meets, it is sheer happiness to see the contentment on their faces,” Priya notes. She says it has also helped people, especially the kids, to get over the stage fear and the fear of holding microphones and singing in front of a group of people. paaTTarangu also has a similar success story to tell about singers from the city of Thrissur in Kerala. For DesiTunes, it is all about meeting, socialising and jamming with fellow musicians. “And for others, it is a consistent opportunity to perform which in turn gives them a chance to display their talent. There are a few music bands which are part of DesiTunes and some of these bands have been able to select singers/musicians based on their performance during our past meet-ups.

In the early days, people were happy and content with singing along the karaoke tracks in their private spaces. They called themselves ‘bathroom singers’ and were hesitant to express their appreciation towards music by singing in public spaces. But with many of these groups encouraging people to sing before the others and help them get better and better with each new meetup, south India could witness a new trend of grooming musicians through impromptu music sessions and meetups. Not to mention allowing all those bathroom singers to be able to sing their heart out!

Categories: Entertainment, Music, Sound Box