Welcome to the global entertainment grid. Experience regional flavours without really understanding their particularities, complexities or contexts.

The grocer's boy, the courier guy and the presswallah have it as their ringtone; my staunch Punjabi neighbour cracked peanuts and jokes around a Lohri fire to its beats this year; and a Punjabi version of the ragingly popular Tamil song “Kolaveri Di” is top of the charts for neighbourhood DJs let loose on wedding celebrations. FM stations and TV channels air it compulsively in a world gone viral with entertainment.  

There's a pattern to the way a flavour of the moment is created or marketed in a mass culture spawned by an age of convergence. Pleasure comes in a saturated blitz, creating an endless loop of repetition across media — in Kolaveri's case, released first on You (mine and ours) Tube and amplified on satellite television, radio and cell phone.

When constant repetition of a song combines with a strongly repetitive element in its structure — as in an ad jingle — compositions such as Kolaveri Di become a subconscious tattoo in the head, almost an involuntary sensation. That is, until the next sensation emerges on the horizon.  

The best thing about this entertainment universe is that it is a phonetic paradise. There is no undue pressure on the listener to understand the lyrics of a catchy Kolaveri; you can mouth the sounds and feel connected to a happening global grid. This is possible because the concept of the popular itself has become the basic language of communication in our times; in its domain particularities like Tamil or Punjabi are not very integral to the sensation of enjoyment.

Search for the new

At the same time, a pastiche or hodgepodge fulfils several vital functions. It gives rise to a triumphant feeling that local tongues, or bits of it, have managed to attain ‘worldwide' popularity even as it satisfies the desire for novelty in each new entertainment product. The Bollywood hit song “Chhammak Chhallo” in the recent Shah Rukh Khan starrer “Ra-One”, is a perfect example of this trend. Unleashed long before the film, the song created quite a stir with its ‘exotic' packaging — its Hindi, Tamil and English lyrics were sung by the popular Senegalese American rapper Akon.

The inflections in the singer's voice made it amply clear that he was recreating the sounds of Tamil and Hindi words with an unselfconscious accent which in fact added to the song's entertainment quotient.

If anything, layered contextual nuances can be counterproductive for marketing strategies which increasingly look to global audiences in the realm of popular mass entertainment. In a speeding age exemplified by fleeting distractions, the transient experience holds centre stage; understanding particularities is tiresome for the time and effort it takes.

The contrast becomes clear when one compares Bollywood versions of folk originals. Take the popular Bollywood version of the Chhattisgarhi folk song “Saas gaari deve” from the film “Delhi 6” or the well-known Rajasthani “Nimbuda” from “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam”. The infusion of folk vibrancy within a contained spectrum of contemporary beats and musical sounds in both songs ensures that you get a whiff of something ‘new' while remaining in familiar territory. There is a clear sense of a finite song entering your space and affording you an instant enjoyment.

On the other hand, the undiluted vitality of the original folk songs reveals a flow of time as lived experience over generations. To enjoy it to the fullest you have to understand it in its own context. The delight is not linked to the folk song's rhythm alone; it emerges from the connectedness you feel to a holistic universe which expands and deepens the more you comprehend it. For a marketing wizard on the assembly line that must seem like an awful lot of unnecessary detail to deliver a short term, skin deep sensation.

Market strategies

It is not a coincidence that the repetitive structure of popular songs today are similar to that of present day ad jingles and splayed across the planet in a markedly similar fashion. One takes a folk song and puts it to an ephemeral beat that resounds deafeningly for its 15 minutes of life span before vanishing; the other extracts the colour of a Kathakali actor's richly symbolic mask as a hue in a shade card for a paint company. Both come together in the marketplace on the global highway to convince the individual that becoming a consumer is to achieve the highest stage of human evolution; it enables each person to express his or her individuality by ‘choosing' the momentary surge as thousands of others do without getting bogged down by specific situations or that old fashioned notion of comprehension.

As the virally marketed success of Kolaveri shows, living on the surface is an honourable existence.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012