Going against his parents’ will to fighting societal stereotypes, independent singer ‘Gana’ Stephen has come a long way.
You know the word. You have come across it on social media. Some of you have used it to describe your friends. It exists both as a noun and adjective, and depends on the context. Its purpose as an adjective has had a cascading effect on the beholder.
What is it you ask. It is pullingo (meaning: squad of friends), a word that made its way into the independent album Gumbala Suthuvom — written and sung by ‘Gana’ Stephen.
If someone had told Stephen that his first song would fetch him 48 million views (and counting), he would have probably laughed at their unflinching optimism. The song became a sensation after it was uploaded on YouTube earlier this year.
“Never in my wildest dreams have I thought that it would attain this level [of popularity]. When I wrote it, all I wanted was to be known. But I have become a household name now,” says Stephen, who was toying with the idea of composing an independent album, and was waiting for the opportune moment.
That came in the form of semester results.
Stephen flunked his degree course at Pachaiyappa’s College, and began jamming with his pullingo , in an effort to make a simple TikTok video.
That was how Gumbala Suthuvom took shape. Stephen admits that he borrowed the base tune from another popular song ‘Kumbakonam Vethalai’ performed by ‘Gana’ Achu, whom, he says, is one of his favourites.
“There was no practise as such. All of us got together and started singing. It was as simple as that,” he says, adding that the album was shot within half a day, and was released by a private channel.
Stephen adds that he wanted to write a feel-good song that was both peppy and educative at the same time. If you go by the visuals and some cringe-worthy lines, Gumbala Suthuvom may look like your regular gana number at surface level. Dig deeper, and you will find subtle references to caste and class hierarchy.
“Nobody has the patience to listen to songs that are message-heavy,” says Stephen, adding, “I was particular about the lyrics. In fact, there was no lyrics as such. Whatever day-to-day activities that I do with my friends, I incorporated those into the song.”
The 20-year-old is equally bemused by the traction the song has been getting on social media. Ask him why he preferred pullingo over the commonly-used pullinga and Stephen says, “That is how people call us in our locality because we look slightly different. We were constantly jamming, and in due time, it transformed from ‘ga’ to ‘go’.”
You could say that pullingo has rightfully become a subculture of its own. Gumbala Suthuvom scaled newer heights when actor Vijay addressed his fans as “ pullingos ” at the audio launch of his film Bigil .
A closet fan of the actor, Stephen says he felt immensely proud when he listened to ‘Verithanam’, in which there is a line that goes: “... Pullingo irukaanga vera inna vonum.. ”.
If these are silver linings, the song did face its fair share of criticism.
For, the word pullingo has since been used as a slur to box a certain class of people — those who sport a side-part hairstyle smeared with bright hair colours on one side, and ride a Dio bike (a fashion statement made by Stephen and his gang in the song), which ultimately results in class stereotypes.
Recently, a popular YouTube channel came under fire for its distasteful take on the pullingo phenomenon, and was forced to pull down the video.
Stephen is pained by how people have reduced it to a derogatory word. “What’s the alternate word for friends? Buddies? Pals? That is what pullingo is for us,” he says, “I saw a video where a guy is introduced as one of us. He is dressed in colourful costumes; uses expletives and sits opposite another guy hailing from a privileged background. What do you imply through this? The class difference is obvious and wrong,” he says.
Stephen’s deep-rooted love for gana runs through his bloodline.
- Stephen listens to all genres of music, but prefers gana over the others. He grew up admiring noted gana singers like Vinoth and Bala. “Apart from them, I am a fan of music director Harris Jayaraj,” he says.
- Following the release of ‘Gumbala Suthuvom’, Stephen started his own YouTube channel: Pullingo Media and has released over 10 songs. His latest album is called Pullingo Attack. In addition to producing independent songs, Stephen also performs at katcheris and weddings.
- “Nothing has changed in terms of my lifestyle. However, wherever I go, people identify me as the pullingo boy and flash their phones to take selfies,” he says.
- He caught up with the Dhanush-starrer Asuran recently — a movie he loved to the moon. Having crooned a song in the upcoming yet-to-be-titled movie starring Atharvaa in the lead, Stephen says he is flooded with offers. “A well-respected director wanted me to sing for his movie. I have been asked not to divulge information.”
His fisherman-father, Mu Raj, also a gana singer, went against his will when he expressed his desire to foray into this world. Except his mother’s jewellery, which he pledged for ₹10,000 to produce the video, Stephen was left with no support from his parents. After the song became what it is today, he recovered his mother’s jewels but not through YouTube monetisation.
“The channel did not share the revenue with us. I never bothered asking them for the money. Which is why I have started my own YouTube channel: Pullingo Media,” he adds.
Admittedly, Stephen shares a cold relationship with his father.
However, he had a mini Gully Boy moment in his life, when his father finally showered praise on his talent. “My father works in a fish market. His boss saw the video and appreciated him. That is how he came to know of my song. He watched it and said, ‘You have done well. Whatever help you need, ask me’.”