Isai [Music] is Tamil poet A. Sathyamurthy’s pseudonym. His poems are powerful commentaries on the contradictions of modern life; they come with a tinge of bitterness, satire and celebration. I felt that translating his poems that reference Tamil cinema will provide a lens to study human emotions, while offering an accessible introduction to his poetry. Of course, poetry cannot be translated as is; every word has cultural and linguistic connotations that cannot easily be transferred. In such cases, I have provided notes for better understanding.
Movie watching in Tamil cinema halls has long been an immersive experience, even before the advent of 3D, thanks to the willingness of the audience to accept reel and real life as the same. I have seen my grandmother sit huddled beside the small television set at home and nod her head in sync with the hero’s dialogues. She would aim a punch at the glass screen whenever a closeup of the villain was shown.
At the same time, Tamil films also have something unique that tears the viewer away from the film—the infamous interval block, a ten-minute toilet break placed strategically in the middle of a three-hour long film. Auteurs like Balu Mahendra disliked these intervals and dismissed them as an excuse for the cinema hall canteens to do business. But the movie-watching memories of many Tamil film viewers are closely linked to the snacks they eat during intermissions, be it an egg puff wrapped in the previous day’s newspaper, or caramel popcorn served in branded cardboard boxes. This poem of Isai draws our attention to both the immersiveness of a Tamil film, and the culinary delights of the interval.
A Whistling Samosa
During the tea break today
it occurred to engineer Anand
to have a samosa.
The aroma of onions deep fried with spices
made his nostrils swoon.
He closed his eyes, drew a breath
and inhaled 22 years of his life.
The triangular samosa
expanded into a screen,
long, rectangular and white.
is now a little kid
seated on a mound of sand in Lakshmi Talkies.
Kamal Haasan is hanging upside down
poised to steal the golden fish.
The hero must finish his task
Elderly women are praying to God
The rope is swaying to and fro like a swing.
amidst the rising applause
the hall is pierced
by Anand’s whistle.
The scene with Kamal Haasan hanging upside down is a reference to the Tamil film Guru (1980), in which he performs this stunt to steal a golden fish protected by a laser light security alarm(!).
With the advent of globalisation and the transition towards malls that enclose all kinds of entertainment, including plush cinema halls within their multi-storeyed bellies, Isai’s poems hold within them memories of the old cinemas, the independent auditoriums where you had to sit on a mound of sand and crane your necks up to watch a film. Lakshmi Talkies is one such place.
They razed a fifty-year-old cinema hall
and built a factory in its place
The factory siren does not wail
It sings a song instead
An unknown man
is chasing an unknown lover
all around the hall
Somewhere a woman is sobbing incessantly
Two unknown persons are engaged in a heated fight
Sometimes there is a huge battle
The machines occasionally let out
moans echoing the pangs of love separated
A few sincere police officers
go on rounds through the night
At midnight a white figure wanders
with long untied hair
her anklets tinkling
(Wolves howl in the background)
A booming voice often roars,
Every time the factory owner rests awhile
the voice of a wife thunders,
“Let this auditorium crumble to pieces!”
how will the owner ever get rid of
these many many ghosts?
This poem is peppered with references to stock characters and stereotypes of Tamil cinema. The voice that thirsts for the auditorium to crumble is a reference to Kannagi, the epic character, whose story has been adapted to film many times, the more memorable portrayals being the ones by P Kannamba in Kannagi (1942) and CR Vijayakumari in Poompuhar (1964).
Fridays for a Tamil cinema film fan mean the release of a new film. Sometimes when a highly anticipated film is released on Thursday night itself, I start having butterflies in my stomach. The excitement becomes unbearable because I have been primed to watch first day first shows on Fridays, and somehow watching it on a Thursday feels like a rare once-in-a-lifetime event. In the next poem, this love for Friday shows is combined with an 80s style stunt sequence, the ones in which the hero must fight off one goon after another before rescuing the heroine in the climax. Like this fight scene from the Rajinikanth film Priya (1978).
He came all the way
just for Friday
To hug its bosom in a tight embrace.
He had waited until Wednesday
but could restrain himself no longer.
Thursday was an annoying hindrance
He yearned to leap past it
like bounding over a canal.
Thursday could not bear to see
someone leap over it
It opened its mouth wide and screamed.
The scorching heat of love
lured a truckload of goons.
He cracked a few skulls
He snapped a few legs
He twisted a few necks
At last a wily fellow
held a knife to Wednesday’s neck
Time came to a standstill.
The lover had no choice
Falling at the fellow’s feet he wailed,
“I want Friday… Give me Friday…”
Relishing the joy of victory
the fellow’s head slid back in a guffaw
Seizing that moment of distraction
he yanked the fellow’s feet
and nailed him to the floor.
He ran… he bolted…
He planted his feet firmly on Wednesday and leapt in the air
Dodging speeding bullets and hand grenades
he landed in Friday’s territory and rolled over.
This poem is titled Subam in Tamil, which means a sense of fulfilment. Subam is also the word that was displayed at the end of yesteryear Tamil films (similar to ‘The End’) and has gradually come to signify completion.
One of Isai’s poetry collections is titled Sivaji Ganesanin Mutthangal [Sivaji Ganesan’s Kisses]. Sivaji Ganesan is a veteran Tamil actor, known as the Marlon Brando of Tamil cinema. In this poem, Isai introduces us to his namesake, an inconspicuous bank employee, who shares some of the qualities and quirks exhibited by the actor in various films.
Sivaji Ganesan’s Kisses
D. Sivaji Ganesan works as a cashier in a bank.
Despite his ruffled hair and grubby clothes
He has a naturally handsome look
Flowers, children and old movie songs
he admires them all
Sivaji has three brothers
All three now live in three different directions.
“The joy not found in the palaces of kings”
Anytime he hears this song lyric
he breaks into tears immediately.
Before taking the first sip
he has the habit of passionately kissing
each bottle of alcohol.
He has been suspended twice
for the blunder of kissing the bank’s customers.
He rejoined work after his second suspension
by making a solemn promise
“I shall not repeat this.”
On that day
when he asked pitifully,
“Could I kiss at least you and the other employees?”
the manager banged his fist on his forehead.
The song referenced in this poem is Muthuku Muthaaga from the film Anbu Sagotharargal [Dear Brothers, 1973], which tells the tale of two separated brothers. This classic song has a happy version and a sad version, both sung by Ghantasala Venkateswararao.
This poem illustrates that real life emotions end up having deep connections to Tamil cinema, which defines Tamil pop culture to a large extent. It is common to find Tamil memes and political cartoons that make references to cinema for every kind of life situation. In fact, the state of Tamil Nadu that did not vote for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2019 Indian general elections, partially assuaged itself and mocked the victory through the Pray for Nesamani meme, a reference to an iconic comic sequence in the Tamil film Friends (2001). In the next poem, we find a character drawing parallels between cinema and life in Isai’s characteristic bitter, satirical tone.
Just like in the movies…
Just like in the movies
I clutched at my heart and fell
Just like in the movies
My mouth began to bleed.
Will my face sport a striking beard ever again?
Will I sing like Yesudas ever again?
Just like in the movies
Will the wind snuff me out
as it does to oil lamps?
Just like in the movies
Will I be enlightened
only under the shade of death?
Just like in the movies
Will my wife
finally have to
mortgage her wedding chain?
Just like in the movies
Who among my seven lovers
will stand at my doorstep and say,
“I wish to see him one last time.”
Yesudas in this poem refers to the celebrated playback singer KJ Yesudas. Singing and dancing, without which we cannot imagine Tamil cinema, feature prominently in many of Isai’s poems, like the one that follows.
His dark face
overgrown with white hair
a dirty towel slung over his shoulder
wearing a khaki uniform.
I saw his slipper’s torn strap
and pitied him for a moment
That’s when he pulled out
his China mobile.
He dabbed a few keys and out came a song
“The clouds swayed to the sky’s lullaby”
He nods his head far better than Kamal
He sings far better than the singer
He drowns in the song ten leagues deeper than me
My dear sir… which vehicle do you drive?
It’s the pushpaka vimana, isn’t it?
The song referred to in this poem is Thaalaattuthey Vaanam, composed by Ilaiyaraja for the film Kadal Meengal (1981), starring Kamal Haasan. ‘China mobile’ is a phrase commonly used to refer to cheap mobile phones imported by India from China. While the physical description of the man in this poem resembles a bus or auto driver, the poem ends by making a reference to pushpaka vimana, the mythological flying chariot of Ravana.
Held a pretty coffee mug in his hand
And sat handsomely
in his balcony
lost in a book.
I made Anirudh scream louder.
I saw the neigbour’s face twitch and frown.
His twisted face transformed bit by bit
and blossomed in an instant
His fingers began to dance to the rhythm.
I had hit maximum volume.
If I turned the knob any further
the tube will explode.
I knew not what to do.
I yanked out a fat book
that my friend who hung himself
had given me as my wedding gift
and began to read furiously.
Anirudh, referred to in this poem, is a Tamil film composer. There are many more poems Isai has written which make references to film stars and singers like Anuradha Sriram and Swarnalatha to name a few. This approach is also evident in several essays he has written on films.
There is a popular scene from the Tamil film Marudhamalai, in which a character asks the comedian Vadivelu, “Are you jealous of me?”
Vadivelu responds reluctantly, “A little”. (He says lighta, a Tamil colloquialism that forgets its English roots.)
One of Isai’s essay collections is named, Lighta Poramaippadum Kalaignan [An artist with a tinge of jealousy]. In the titular essay on Tamil comedian Vadivelu, he writes, “Through his comedy, Vadivelu depicts the intricacies of Tamil life and psychology, the community’s subtle flow of thoughts and yearnings.” He also goes on to say that Vadivelu’s response to “Are you jealous?” made him look at jealousy from a different perspective. “Thanks to Vadivelu, I view my jealousies with sympathy now, and smile at them.”
While writing on kuthu songs, a unique genre of Tamil music that prioritises percussive beats and is often frowned upon as a cheap form of entertainment, Isai declares, “If it is true that the strings of a veenai will bring forth God with a radiant smile, then it is the same God who emerges from our parai and gyrates with a drawn-up lungi and bare thighs.”
I find Isai’s poems and essays to be an exciting way to engage with cinema. He carefully chooses moments and elements from cinema that a critic would frown upon or ignore. He dusts them and presents to us the hidden jewel. His words do not blindly celebrate cinema without pausing to reflect. Instead, they use cinema as a guide, to explore the working of the human mind. Cinema is a veil for Isai, a smokescreen beyond which a reader must look. For example, the magic of the Driver poem lies in the moment when the observer realises that it was a mistake to pity the driver.
I will end with another classic example of this veiling—a poem which appears to be an ode to carnatic singer Sanjay Subrahmanyan but takes you to other unexpected places if only you’d follow the majestic fly.
Soaring high in the vast skies
And tunneling deep into the earth
When Sanjay sings
the mic becomes a candy
A fly is feasting on its tremors.
Even as Sanjay sings close to the mic
the fly sits motionless.
Instead of chasing it away
the percussive beats and plucked strings
hold the fly in its place.
It crawls on electric wires as if
relishing the early morning breeze in solitude.
Stick like a fly
to majestic things
O foolish heart!
This poem is inspired by an actual stage performance by Sanjay Subrahmanyam. Watch out for the fly around the three minute mark!
 Isai’s Tamil article on kuthu songs
 Isai’s Tamil article on comedian Vadivelu
 An interview with Isai in Tamil Hindu
Special thanks to Isai for gladly agreeing to feature translations of his poems; and to Suja Chellappan for creative inputs, for introducing me to the world of Isai’s poetry, and for handpicking the poems for this article.
Cover image: Reproduction of book cover from Isai’s Lighta Poramaippadum Kalaignan
About the author
Ramchander is a freelance writer who’s written on cinema for Film Companion. Depending on his mood, he oscillates between Medium and Tumblr for blogging. On his desk you might find photos of Steve Jobs, Buddha, Isaac Asimov and Satyajit Ray.