Tamil Memes

Masters

Politics, social tensions, and comedy all found a home in Tamil cinema.
The Tamil meme needs all four things to work.

Masters - Aditya Shrikrishna; Illustration by Akshaya Zachariah on FiftyTwo.in

“Suthiyal,” a Tamil person commented. “Painting contractor Nesamani’s head was broken with this by his niece.”

Someone latched on and asked after Nesamani’s health. The original commenter replied that he was going to pray for Nesamani. Soon, the hashtags #Pray_For_Nesamani and #Nesamani found their way to Twitter and began trending. Until Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on 30 May, the Nesamani hashtag was a viral social media trend. On Twitter, the most important development in Indian electoral politics collided, and competed, with the blitzkrieg of a Tamil pop culture reference.
Nesamani is a character from the 2001 Tamil film Friends, played by the actor-comedian Vadivelu. Even as Vadivelu’s career somewhat petered out in the 2010s, he attained the status of Meme Kadavul, the meme god.

The meme is the ultimate internet in-joke. When the format first started taking over internet culture in the West, one of its richest sources was homemade media. The first viral memes were all images of cats, children and domestic accidents. In India, home video was relatively rare, and memes only arrived on the back of the smartphone camera. Here, it was India’s cinema, unapologetically melodramatic and physical in practice and consumption, that provided a common memory bank. Cinema morphed readily into meme commentary on issues and lived experiences.

Indians often hear that Bollywood knits the nation together. But no one whose diet purely consists of Hindi or English movies really experiences how cinema can insert itself into every part of daily life. In the south, you do. In Tamil Nadu, particularly, it is inseparable from the way people are blooded into and experience their own culture.

Since at least the 1940s, much of what might be considered ‘high’ Tamil culture has been given the ‘pop’ treatment by its cinema.

A Tamil male actor doesn’t become a people’s star based on charm and conventional good looks alone. On screen, he must speak directly to the people and for them. To be taken seriously, he must be their saviour in either a current crisis or a mythological one. To this day, the political ambitions of the biggest Tamil stars are imagined and discussed in a tone of inevitability. The former screenwriter M. Karunanidhi and superstars M.G. Ramachandran and J. Jayalalithaa served as chief ministers of Tamil Nadu. One of the most hyped battles of the upcoming elections was to be between actors Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. [1]

Partly in good faith, partly for selfish ambition, the film industry in Tamil Nadu approaches cinema as a vehicle to win over the masses. Unlike Hindi or Telugu cinema, Tamil cinema has become intertwined with its culture across caste and class, and delivers more pointed commentary on society than its money-spinning counterparts.

Also more strikingly than elsewhere in India, this is strengthened by the anger and ideological differences, current and historical, that the state has with the central government. As the BJP continues to spread its wings across India, Tamil Nadu and Kerala remain the final frontier. With the volatile incumbent government aligning with the BJP, a potent cultural response arrived in the form of meme culture.

Irreverence
Let me tell you a kutty story, a sample of how the arts in Tamil merged into a seamless whole that is the Tamil cinema universe. The Siddhars were wandering mendicants, rebel ascetics who wrote poems of philosophy and dissent. Kaduveli Siddhar wrote Nandavanathil Or Aandi, a folk poem centred on the futility of life. It is about a man who waits ten months for a mud pot, and then manages to break it when he finally receives it. The song’s lyrics were adapted for comic effect by Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram for the film Arasilankumari (1961). The 2007 film Oram Po uses the same tune in a montage—the lyrics of this version riff on the multiple uses of rice batter. You can use it for idli, dosa, uttappam, the song goes. The original continues to be sung in Carnatic music concerts.

“Irreverence is a hallmark of Tamil poetry,” Chenthil Nathan, translator and curator of a website on old Tamil poetry told me. No one is immune to it, even Murugan, a distinctly south Indian deity. He brought up a poem in Nattrinai, one of the eight anthologies of Sangam literature in which Murugan [2] is called names. Avvaiyar, a twelfth century poet, mocks self-serious poets in her work. Tamil poets were experts at the diss track and the subtweet before the conditions for either were created. A verse written by the big man himself, Thiruvalluvar, famously cursed the gods to go begging.

Cinema has not shied from co-opting the vocabulary of the classics. In 1991, the composer Ilaiyaraaja used part of the tevaram [3] in Rakkamma Kaiyya Thattu, a Rajinikanth dance number in Thalapathy. In 2007, A.R. Rahman incorporated a hymn from the Thiruppavai [4] in Sivaji, another Rajinikanth hit. Since at least the 1940s, much of what might be considered ‘high’ Tamil culture has been given the ‘pop’ treatment by its cinema.

“I think we Tamils have this inbuilt capacity for irreverence,” C.S. Amudhan told me. Amudhan made a film called Tamil Padam in 2010, a spoof of Tamil movie tropes. “Our popular films are also larger than life. They lend themselves to farcical references. As for why it is ingrained so deeply, I think we have to do some genetic research.”

In contrast with the Hindi movies of this period, Tamil cinema has readily moulded itself to be consumed across social hierarchies, taking special care not to distance itself from what it calls the ‘mass’ (as opposed to ‘class’). [5] By the time the internet arrived in India, Hindi cinema had shifted its focus to the upper class and diasporic audience. While Hindi cinema can be categorised as ‘popular’ or ‘parallel,’ there exists only one in Tamil: the mainstream. Tamil cinema began with folklore and mythology, shifted to tales about the freedom movement and quickly adapted to pushing the ideals of the progressive Dravidian and Periyarist movements. [6]

This brand of cinema weaponised comedy and mockery. Political leaders C. N. Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi wrote scripts that were performed by actors such as Sivaji Ganesan and M. G. Ramachandran. N. S. Krishnan, the first comedian of Tamil cinema, was close to the Dravida Kazhagam, and his films and comedy often espoused the movement’s anti-caste views.

“We always had this tradition. Right from N.S. Krishnan, the comedian was the folklorist, the sutradhar,” said Dr. Swarnavel Eswaran, associate professor in the Department of English at the Michigan State University. “He was also the actor who’d look at the camera and address the audience on issues. He had the freedom to break away from the narrative of the film.”

Exponents of this tradition included a host of talents: Nagesh, Manorama, Thengai Srinivasan, Cho Ramaswamy, Goundamani, Senthil, Kovai Sarala, Vadivelu, Vivek, Santhanam. Their work is a self-contained universe. There are Tamil TV channels that only broadcast comedy scenes throughout the day. [7] The comedy tracks often overshadow the narrative of the film, and even the aura of the lead actors. Witticisms, one-liners and sermonising quickly become iconic. The seepage of all this into daily life creates both a disposition and talent in people born into the culture.

This track of cultural commentary became the backbone of what is informally referred to as the Tamil Meme Nation.

Vadivelu

Some memes work because they are detached from the image’s original context, but that’s not true for Tamil memes. When a film lover sees a screengrab, called a ‘template,’ everything about the scene comes back in a rush. Take the template that begins with (who else!) Vadivelu entering a house in the dead of night. He is a decoy for his friend, the hero, who is stealthily meeting his lover. Vadivelu encounters an actual thief. Taking Vadivelu for a fellow burglar, the thief shares his playbook for navigating the house in the darkness.

This template is used in a meme to convey the exasperation faced by the common man looking for alcohol in a locked-down Tamil Nadu. [8] The thief tells Vadivelu: “Not this street, let’s go to the other one.” Vadivelu, in characteristic style, asks: “You’re so well-informed, who are you?” The thief, nonchalant, is now made to say: “I’m just like you, a guy looking for bootlegged alcohol.” Vadivelu is stunned. I am looking for milk! he exclaims.

Here’s an example from another meme sub-category: Tamil dissent against the homogenising tendencies of India’s central government. When President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Modi participated in a bilateral dialogue in Mahabalipuram in October 2019, a meme from the 2009 film Kanden Kadhalai did the rounds. [9] There’s a scene in which the star, Tamannah, is trying to bat away the interest of a comedian, played by Santhanam. Tamannah, having confirmed that Santhanam is watching, puts her arms around a friend. In the template, the comedian is labelled “Hindi” in saffron font and the friend is labelled “Chinese” in red. The message is clear—we’d embrace Chinese over Hindi if it comes down to it. [10]

Another Vadivelu template mocks the government for presiding over increasing majoritarian violence. [11] Vadivelu readies himself to take a beating after he is accosted by a loan shark who he is not in a position to repay. After taking a few blows, he requests the man to shift to the other side and have a go at him again. This meme went viral after the Modi government was voted back into power in May 2019. A translation of the dialogue? “Five more years. Shift to this side. Come here and resume the lynching.”

Vadivelu’s popularity is linked to his association with the mofussil, Dr. Swarnavel told me. Directors such as Bharathiraja made realism and the rural their signature aesthetic for a decade from the late 1970s onwards. In the 1990s, as liberalisation kicked in, the gentrification process moved Tamil cinema to towns and cities.

Then, until about 2008 and the gritty Madurai genre films, this provincial aspect of Tamil cinema receded into the background. When it appeared, it was in a kind of romanticised, symbolic form. It was in this period that Vadivelu was most active. In movies about the city and city-slickers, he came to represent the working class with roots in the countryside.

In movies about the city and city-slickers, Vadivelu came to represent the working class with roots in the countryside.

“This spectre is important,” Dr. Swarnavel told me. “Everybody active on social media or those who took to the Internet age with ease has that tinge of urbanity to them. They imagine themselves to be in an urban space while retaining nostalgia for their home that’s largely mofussil. Vadivelu is so full of artistic resources that he comes across as the lost contact to a tradition. [12] A tradition that’s not Brahmanical, not originating from Rama or Krishna; rather a folklorist tradition or koothu.”

The symbolism is evident in the meme world. A meme featuring Vadivelu’s predecessor Goundamani is arguably limited in its reach, because the character he’s come to signify is typically one who likes to mock and pontificate. “But Vadivelu always plays the loser. He represents the otherness,” Dr. Swarnavel said. “When this loser can not only laugh at himself but also respond without losing his dignity, it is cathartic.”

Culture

In 2014, a 27-year-old named Gautham created a Facebook page called Chennai Memes, inspired by the global meme website 9Gag. There was already a popular ‘Bangalore Memes’ page, and Gautham thought Chennai needed its own.

The shapeshifting of cinema as meme language may not have begun here. But it was somewhere in its vicinity, for sure. In Gautham’s telling, the scene exploded when the filmmaker N. Lingusamy quipped in an interview that he had used all his talents to make a film called Anjaan, which released in 2014 to massive hype but total box office failure. After the disaster, Lingusamy’s unironic delivery was trolled on social media. His quote attained iconic status, the equivalent of something like US presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s invocation of “binders full of women” to score points in a debate, only to achieve instant and lasting fame as an internet joke.

“We are an entertainment driven state,” Gautham, who used to work in IT, said. “Our content never dries up as popular Tamil cinema must include comedy in some form. And if there is comedy, there will be memes.”

Today, Chennai Memes has 1.2 million followers on Facebook, 1.2 million on Instagram, and close to 700,000 subscribers on YouTube. They post at least eight to ten times daily on Facebook, on topics ranging from cinema, cricket, politics and the city. Gautham has capitalised on the page’s virality to pivot Chennai Memes into a full-service digital marketing agency. He has six full-time employees and additionally works with a few freelancers. His clients include movie stars, production houses, restaurants and start-ups. [13]

Their first ever meme was a dig at Chennai traffic police’s tendency to pull-up two-wheelers. They were quick to spot trends: people liked laughing at local college stereotypes––Chennai’s elite colleges, Stella Maris and Loyola, were popular targets—or jokes that poked fun at city woes, like the stalled construction of a flyover at Porur. Gradually, the page helped build a feeling of local connection, something that translated into community action in times of need. During the floods that ravaged the city in late 2015, Chennai Memes’ inbox was flooded with requests for supplies and SOS calls from low-lying areas. In January 2017, the page hosted live broadcasts from protest sites during an agitation to defend jallikattu, ceremonial bull-running. [14]

I asked Gautham what set Tamil memes apart from other image-driven satire in India. He suggested that the sheer volume of the diaspora population ensures that Tamil memes reach wider audiences compared to the only other region which has a similar meme culture: Kerala. And wherever the Tamil diaspora goes, access to Tamil cinema is essential. [15]

The above-average level of mobile and internet penetration in Tamil Nadu is another factor. At 49%, it is only behind Kerala (56%) and the National Capital Territory (68%). [16] Trends data released by Twitter revealed that four out of the top 10 Indian hashtags in 2018 came from Tamil Nadu: three were for films and another was linked to the Chennai Super Kings, the Indian Premier league cricket franchise. In 2020, the superstar actor Vijay’s selfie was the most-retweeted post in India. [17]

The success of the early meme pages has spawned a large set of amateur meme creators. One among them, Sanjeev N.C., explained that the reach of memes is platform-dependent. “On Twitter, it is more contextual. A meme on a trending topic has a better reach.” Nesamani is the obvious example. “On Instagram, it reaches friends of friends but on Twitter it can go viral.” Twitter’s user-base in India is small, but its trending topics and viral messages act as a force multiplier across mainstream media.

“Tamil and Malayalam meme pages stand out as only we use cinema as a template,” an administrator of a cricket-themed meme page told me. “There are many cricket meme pages up north, but they stick to dank memes.” [18]

Dank memes can often be a repository of the internet’s vulgar instincts, revelling in misogyny and insult comedy that skirt the line between irony and sincerity. But their relative absence from Tamil Meme Nation does not signify a wholesome or wholly progressive subculture. Politics, in particular, can bring the misogynistic elements of the male-dominated meme-making community to the forefront. During the storm over Jallikattu practices in 2017, a poster announcing the death of actor Trisha from HIV, suggestive of sexual promiscuity, did the rounds. They picked on Trisha because of her association with animal rights group PETA, which supported a ban on Jallikattu.

Meme Nation has also been responsible for popularising the casteist word ‘pullingo’ to mock the self-expression of youth from underprivileged communities in North Chennai. In a piece published by The News Minute in October 2019, Tenma, musician and co-founder of The Casteless Collective, called out the YouTube channel Erumai Saani for trading on the slur. It had become the equivalent of the n-word for black people, Tenma wrote.

Politics

Tamil Nadu has had an eventful five years. It lost two of its political icons, M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa. It contended with devastating environmental disasters, made worse by administrative mismanagement. [19] In May 2018, police in Thoothukudi opened fire on people protesting against Sterlite’s copper smelter plant, killing 13 people. The June 2020 custodial deaths of a father-son pair in Sathankulam town sparked national anger over police brutality. Now, we are on the eve of an assembly election, rendered significant because the ruling AIADMK’s alliance with the BJP’s electoral juggernaut appears to have deepened.

It’s been a great half-decade for Meme Nation. The young administrator of Cricket Trolls 2.0 told me that memes against former Tamil Nadu BJP president Tamilisai Soundararajan used to be a particularly popular addition to their sports content. [20] Large parts of Tamil Meme Nation have banded together, as a kind of cohesive response unit, against the ruling alliance.

“A graphic designer cannot be a meme maker. Meme creation requires natural humour and a passion for messaging.”

an @AdmkFails administrator

For some years now, a Twitter account called @AdmkFails has been tracking the failures and gaffes of the ruling party and processing it for meme clout. It was quick to capitalise on events like the succession drama after the death of then-chief minister J. Jayalalithaa. Over text, the moderators told me that they were running a full-on campaign. They don’t restrict themselves to simply running a “hashtag or a meme feed.” They claim to be the “first politically-focussed critic page operating around Tamil Nadu since 2015.”

In September 2018, AIADMK IT Wing member Prem Kumar filed a police complaint against @AdmkFails and other Twitter handles, for tweets and memes mocking Tamil Nadu’s chief minister E. K. Palaniswami. An FIR was registered for portraying the CM as a “thief.” In July last year, the account handlers told me that there are three open cases against the page that have been filed by the AIADMK. “Many memes are blocked or removed by Twitter. They are obviously reported by the AIADMK. This page can be taken down any time.” (They have a backup account.)

The administrator I spoke to admitted that they initiated and trended a hashtag that translated to ‘Our CM is a thief.’ “We are specifically focussed on AIADMK alone. Trolling the BJP in Tamil Nadu does not have actual value. But since the ruling government is in alliance with the BJP, we occasionally indulge in that too.” The account claims to have helped trend #GoBackModi—a hashtag which reaches the top of nationwide trending charts every time Modi visits Tamil Nadu.

“We need a punch in the content to make hashtags trend, and memes are an easy way to do that,” one of the administrators said. “As many politicians and amateurs get wind of this process, they hire graphic designers in place of meme makers. A graphic designer cannot be a meme maker. Meme creation requires natural humour and a passion for messaging.”

I asked the administrator of @AdmkFails if the AIADMK’s chief challenger, the DMK, did this sort of work through its own IT wing. Not officially, I was told. The DMK’s media spokesperson and lawyer Manuraj S. downplayed the impact of memes on political outcomes. “No matter what policy our party or any other party has on memes, they are now part of media discourse and they travel quicker and wider than any other form. The real question is: what impact do they have on the voter’s mind?” He said he saw no evidence that memes were successful at influencing voters.

Polling day is just around the corner. The influence of cinema in the land of the Tamils is not lost on the BJP, which has attracted a number of party-hopping film personalities into its fold. Actors Namitha and Radha Ravi joined the BJP in November 2019. [21] Actor Khushboo, previously part of DMK and later Congress, joined in October 2020. Comedian Senthil joined earlier this month. There were reports that the party courted actor Vijay’s father S. A. Chandrasekhar, actor Vishal and even Vadivelu.

The lines are blurring in Meme Nation. In the last few months, Chennai Memes’ Facebook page has posted links to their own website. Clicking through takes a user to positive stories about the AIADMK government, and unflattering news about the DMK. Most of these stories are accompanied by appropriate election hashtags. This is hardly meme content—these are posts that crop up between usual programming. Page users have observed that “Chennai Memes is now AIADMK IT Wing” and “It is official, Chennai Memes is supporting AIADMK.” Gautham denied any links. “It is just news,” he said.

Aditya Shrikrishna is a writer and film critic from Chennai. He writes on two of his passions—cinema and tennis—for various publications. He is a co-founder of the south Indian cinema podcast The Other Banana. He tweets @gradwolf.

A previous version of this story referred to Chenthil Nathan as curator of a website on old Tamil poetry. He is, in fact, also the translator of the poems on the website.

Acknowledgements:

A big thanks to the often unidentifiable meme makers without whom neither the culture nor this piece would exist. I am grateful to everyone I spoke to via phone/email/text: Chenthil Nathan, Amrutha K., Dr. Swarnavel Eswaran, Gautham, C. S. Amudhan, Sankeerthana Varma, Sanjeev, Manuraj S. and a host of anonymous individuals. Dr. Swarnavel’s book Madras Studios continues to be a key source of information on the origin and influence of early Tamil cinema. I appreciate the contributions of all my cinema-loving friends: they’ve shared considered opinions and also helped me navigate the ever-expanding world of Tamil memes by documenting the memorable ones over the years. Thanks also to Vaishnavi Prathap for all the support and advice.

A couple of academic papers were particularly helpful:

  • Kumar, Sangeet (2015) Contagious memes, viral videos and subversive parody: The grammar of contention on the Indian web, International Communication Gazette. 77. 10.1177/1748048514568758.
  • Constantine V. Nakassis (2019) The ontological politics of the spoof image in Tamil cinema, New Review of Film and Television Studies, 17:4, 423-455, DOI: 10.1080/17400309.2019.1667056.
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