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Mainstream Pop Culture is not the Enemy of Tamil People: Part 1

Mainstream pop culture is seen by some as a disease spread by western propaganda to assist in eradicating a person’s affinity for their cultural heritage. This article provides a counter-opinion to this way of thinking.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article about movies and songs are based on the author’s personal preferences. He is aware that people have different opinions and preferences based on their own emotional and cultural backgrounds. The author does not believe that people should conform to his preferences and does not believe that his preferences are superior to others. 

 

As a Tamil person, I am always told that the core identity of my Tamilness lies in speaking Tamil, listening to Tamil music, dressing like a Tamil person and watching Tamil movies – basically immersing myself in everything related to Tamil. And if I tell people that I don’t do any of these things because I don’t generally like these things, I am labeled as a sellout – someone trying too hard to be different or someone who believes that Western culture is superior just because I am more in tune with mainstream pop culture.

Pop culture is often seen as a dirty term by some "purists" in many brown communities as they believe it is an opiate created by the West. However, I do not think that pop culture is a product of the West but an amalgamation of many cultures neatly marketed across global media networks.

For example, Star Wars is a huge piece of mainstream pop culture and has critical acclaim as a product of Western minds. But that is far from the truth. Star Wars was inspired by an old Japanese serial. Many concepts regarding the attire, names and the force were actually inspired by Arab and Asian cultures and philosophies. Mainstream pop culture is an influential neatly assembled puzzle made of up of pieces belonging to cultures that have within themselves their own forms of pop culture.

We like to believe that Tamil culture is this pure, uninfected vector that does not possess the silly tropes and fanaticism that drives mass consumerism – that it is above all forms and versions of so-called “Western” pop culture. But this is a lie. Tamil pop culture exists, and it has existed way before the scourge of the Kardashians. The cult worshipping of movie stars – adopting their sense of fashion, their mannerisms, and slang – all fall under the umbrella of Tamil pop culture. 

But is Tamil pop culture problematic? 

People have the right to express the joy that a song, dance, and movie brings to them. The problem arises when some expect others to conform to this mass hysteria just because they are Tamil. It becomes problematic when this form of pop culture is placed on such an elevated pedestal that you cannot constructively criticize it without offending a bastion of Tamils who viciously defend Tamil pop culture. A bastion that reduces one to be ashamed of their heritage because one's pride for something doesn't equate to theirs. 

An assumption is the mother of all failures. To assume that a Tamil is ashamed of their heritage just because they cannot cheer Rajnikanth kicking down a tree or admonish a scruffy Vijay in all his mediocre glory is definitely problematic. To assume that a person who opts to wear jeans and a t-shirt instead of a sari or veshti is ashamed of their heritage is problematic. To assume that a person who is not openly expressive about their heritage is too Westernized or a supporter of white hegemony is problematic. 

It is a societal norm among diaspora Tamils to be conditioned to see two worlds – an ancestral world that is associated with "purity", and the "venomous" world of modernity that counteracts this "purity." Some sit on the top of this gyre of thought where they are not ready to create an open dialogue regarding this issue but judge others who don't want to absorb prescribed versions of Tamil pop culture. 

Tamil cinema, just like Hollywood, produces a barrage of effluent sewage – films with weak narratives and overly pretentious storytelling and a recycled show of macho patriarchy packaged as "Tamil values." I am critical of Tamil movies not because I am ashamed of my heritage, but because I’ve done my research and realized that most are a dollop of poisoned soup. 

The backlash I receive for saying negative things about Tamil movies can be likened to the backlash I received for saying negative things about Marvel’s Black Panther

Black Panther was a political project placed on a movie reel to highlight problems concerning the representation of minorities in Hollywood. This deserves all the plaudits it can get. However, the empowerment angle the movie tried to deliver seemed juvenile and rehashed, and the protagonist was just plain boring. 

Due to the political climate surrounding Black Panther, any criticism was met with disdain. Anyone who said anything negative about the movie was called a racist or somebody who was dragging down a revolutionary moment in cinematic history. I understand that Black Panther represented something to many oppressed minorities and majorities of the world. But my criticisms of the movie didn’t really mean that I was against the representation of black people in Hollywood.

In a similar light, if I have something negative to say about a Tamil movie, it does not mean that I am against the upliftment and propagation of the Tamil language. It does not mean that I am against Tamil movies getting screened in cinemas either. It does not mean that I am against traditional forms of cultural expression. It does not mean that I don’t understand the insurmountable prejudice many of us go through for calling ourselves Tamil. An honest opinion is not a betrayal of one's heritage.

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