The point of pop culture isn't some imagined idea of quality — just a sense of throbbing with a common pulse
The last column of the year. Should I devote it to best-of lists? A more cohesive meditation on the cinema of the year? Or something more overarching, something to do with the very nature of what I write about, something that encapsulates the ephemeral essence of pop culture?
I speak, of course, about Kolaveri, the undoubted sensation of 2011, something that – like a bug in a bad science-fiction novel or a star-studded Steven Soderbergh movie – crawled out of nowhere and infected the planet. The Japanese are dancing to it. The hits on YouTube are too numerous to count anymore. Even Sonu Nigam's son performed a version, a cute little boy voicing unknowable feelings about murderous rage – papa must be so proud.
Why did Kolaveri become such an uncontained rage that it would barely cause a ripple of excitement, tomorrow, if the newspapers showed us spacecraft pictures of little green men on Mars hopping to the tune? Why did this song, of all the year's songs, go viral, crossing linguistic and geographical borders with the greased ease of a Harry Potter blockbuster?
Was it the pounding percussion, hardly new to Tamil ears but perhaps a novelty to others? Was it the laidback-slacker way in which Dhanush delivered the number, as if he couldn't be bothered to rouse himself to the levels of indignation demanded by the opening lines? Was it the ingenious way the whole thing was presented, artfully packaged like fly-on-the-wall visuals from an actual studio recording? Or was it just the ungentrified English, a decisive gesture of defiance suggesting that our former rulers can cross their t's and dot their i's but leave us out of it, thank you very much?
No one can say for sure. The reason for the success of Kolaveri is as mysterious as popular culture itself – if they knew why something worked, the formula would have already been patented and bottled and sold. That's why Javed Akhtar missed the point by a mile when he tweeted something to this effect: “KOLAVARI-D. Every one is praising the robes but the emperor is naked. Tune ordinary, singing substandard. Words an insult to sensibility.”
His is the hilariously misbegotten assumption that consumers of pop culture buy into quality (and even that contention is troubling, for who's to decide what constitutes “quality”?), and that we are somehow misguided because the lyrics aren't lofty and the singing isn't ethereal and the tune isn't the kind that wrings tears from rocks. He may be right on all those counts – where he is wrong is in that none of this matters when it comes to pop culture, which doesn't always welcome the deserving and the worthy but sometimes the sideshow carnivals that make modern life such an entertaining merry-go-round.
Akhtar's sniping is like the criticism of the thesping talents of a great light of a golden age that was extinguished this year. We didn't like Dev Anand because he was some sort of great actor in the timidly defined sense of “great acting” – oh, he can play the hero and the villain and the cross-dressing heroine's aunt, and he can laugh and cry and race through acres of dramatic dialogue. Those are valuable skills, but they do not necessarily determine why an actor captures the affections of a large mass of people, why he becomes an inextricable part of popular culture.
Even as I write this, even as I use the term “popular culture,” I realise that there may be in it an ingrained speck of snobbishness, as if Kolaveri and Dev Anand and anything seized and claimed by millions, the great unwashed masses, can only be recognised and respected in a “popular” context, and for true culture, “high culture,” we have to seek out Waqt ne kiya and Dilip Kumar. But who cares how a thing is labelled if it provides, if only for a diverting instant, a sense of diving into a great ocean of communal joy?