The iconic ‘Rang barse bheege chunarwali rang barse’ song from the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Silsila is usually on top of any playlist during Holi celebrations. Then there’s the ‘Holi ke din’ song from Sholay, which also rings loud on “Holi-Day”. And one cannot forget Gabbar Singh’s legendary “Holi kab hai?” line from the same film. Holi has been an integral part of Bollywood pop culture and vice versa. After a couple of years of muted celebrations due to Covid-19, Holi is back with verve and vengeance this year.
In the south of India though, Holi is not a big festival. It is not a holiday even. There’s also the aversion that I believe south Indians have to drenching themselves in coloured water. Years ago, this was depicted very well in a TV commercial for IDEA Cellular, in which a Malayali man tries to escape getting hit by colours on Holi but finally joins the children in the fun.
In Tamil Nadu way back in the late 1980s, the only students in our engineering college who played with colours on Holi were those who had come from north India under the other states quota. The exchange of colours would be limited to that group while others would just watch the celebrations with bemusement from a distance. By the time we were in the final year, we were also dragged into the celebrations and got “holified”, albeit reluctantly.
This has, however, been changing since around the noughties. With southern metros like Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Chennai becoming magnets for IT jobs, there has been a huge influx of youth from other states. We also have an ongoing influx of working-class people from north Indian states in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka in factories, construction sites, the service sector, etc. With this came the fusion of cultures. So, Holi has now become part of popular culture, at least in the bigger south cities. When that happens, will Tamil films be left behind?
In the period before 2000, we just had a handful of Tamil films featuring Holi, the predominant one being Mani Ratnam’s Nayagan in 1987. The song ‘Andhi mazhai megam’ captured the Holi festival being celebrated with gusto by migrant Tamils in Mumbai’s Dharavi.
Incidentally, the other Holi song popular from this period is ‘Holi holi’ from Rasukutty where the festival and its colours are force-fed into a song-and-dance sequence. The story is set in a village in Tamil Nadu and as such there is no connection to Holi in the film. I reckon that the film’s director, Bhagyaraj, thought of bringing in Holi in the song for the visual appeal. Apart from the colours, the other thing that stands out in this sequence is of course the legendary dance steps of Bhagyaraj!
We saw many more Tamil films featuring Holi – mostly in song sequences – in the post 2000 period. Usually, these are films set in Mumbai or other Hindi-speaking states, for example, Aarambam starring Ajith or Pa Ranjith’s Kaala with Superstar Rajinikanth. Interestingly, Ranjith used the Holi sequence in Kaala metaphorically in the climax to depict a change in fortunes. In ‘Katravai patravai’, the riot of colours starts with black and then segues into other colours indicating the dawn of a new phase in the life of the people in Dharavi (again), after the machinations of the local politician is quelled not just by the hero (Rajinikanth) but by the people’s movement.
Mani Ratnam’s Nayagan has been such an influence on filmmakers that it is common for a Tamil gangster film set in Mumbai to have a Holi song sequence. Aarambam, Kaala, and Mankatha are all examples of this.
There are also a few other films that are set in Tamil Nadu but with north Indian characters. The first one that comes to mind is Mersal, in which one of the triple roles portrayed by Vijay is married to a Punjabi girl played by Nithya Menen. As part of the flashback, there is a sequence showing the Vijay character in happier times, playing Holi, Jallikattu, etc. In fact, ‘Aalaporaan thamizhan’, a foot-tapping number from AR Rahman, has become sort of an anthem for Tamil youth since then.
Vikram’s superhit Gemini is another film that has a Holi sequence set in Chennai, thanks to the heroine, played by Kiran, written as a north Indian. ‘Deewana deewana’ depicts her playing Holi around her Hindi-speaking household.
And then there are films where the directors use Holi and the associated colours just as visual tools, like Atlee did in Raja Rani. The song ‘Oday Oday’, shot with Arya, Nayanthara, and Nazriya Nazim, has a short Holi sequence but is picturised in a blast of colours. Later I realised that this technique was used as early as the 80s by veteran director Sridhar in Thudikkum Karangal. In ‘Megam mundhanai’, featuring none other than superstar Rajinikanth and Radha, we see them playing with colours in one of the interludes of the song. There is no Holi context, but Sridhar seemingly used the colours to enhance the visual appeal of the song. As an aside, the late SPB composed the music for this film and some of the melodies were outstanding.
In Tamil, there have been quite a few other films of late like VIP, Ayan, Deepavali, Vanakkam Chennai, Siva Manasula Sakthi, and so on, which featured Holi sequences.
In Malayalam, one film that comes to mind when we talk of Holi is of course Arabia, in which the ‘Holi holi’ song depicts colourful celebrations.
With youngsters from Kerala pursuing careers in Bengaluru and other cities, it may not be long before Holi slowly becomes a part of Malayalam films too. And maybe the Idea ad will need an updated 2.0 version!
(This article was written for the News portal The News Minute and it appeared on the 7th March, 2023. You can check this and my other articles written for this portal here.)
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