260 million views. That’s what Jerusalema had racked up by December 2020. It was a musical antidote to a pandemic year that saw people coming together and celebrating a time that didn’t warrant happiness. The musical vision of Master KG, the soul-stirring, resonant, genderless voice of Nomcebo Zikode, the Angolan dancers ‘Fenomenos do Semba’ performing a flawless version of “eating and dancing while living not fancy” told kids, clergymen and cops everywhere they could be part of something special. People didn’t need to understand the Zulu lyrics to celebrate it, hear it on a loop and vicariously watch others do a socially distanced, coordinated jig.
At 52 million views and counting, in two weeks since its launch in early March 2021, Enjoy Enjaami is riding a similar wave. Going by feedback from a series of reaction videos, the general consensus is that “there’s something powerful here” but the Indian language (Tamil) is not Hindi (it definitely isn’t) and it’s not familiar. There’s a lot that’s working to make this the phenomenon it is and the team behind it spent 3 months working on it from concept to final product and there were 8–9 versions that Santhosh Narayanan (Producer) teased out, even testing how it sounded in a car versus on the radio, before eventually releasing the version we see.
Visually, what director Amith Krishnan brings to the table — with a power he seems to not know he wields, is a Wes Anderson styled world. It’s visually detailed, simple at the surface but way more complex and packs Easter eggs for the viewer to find and in that lies the joy of a video like this. He talks about how when he hears a song, he sees visuals and his brain assembles those visuals together and that’s what he’s tried to bring alive. When he first heard the parai (leather-skin drums) he saw in his head a shot of mannu or agricultural soil gently vibrating to that rhythm. The brown, earthy, honest rawness of what Arivu sculpted in his lyrics is captured on screen by Amith, Dhee and the rest of the team in each frame of this 5:05 masterpiece.
The Punchy Combo
Arivu — pronounced Uh-reev-uh (where the second uh is short like a soft gasp when mildly surprised) and not Arr-ivoo, translates to brain or sense and that ability to intellectualize and state inclusive, aesthetized messages that reflect the stories (pain) of regular people is his brand.
His inspiration here is the need to appreciate his ancestors — specifically his grandmother Valliamma — and the various landless laborers who worked on the land, for the land — even when it wasn’t what they “owned” with a sense of respect and awe that he feels is necessary. It’s not just the cliched idea of loving the planet but his stories talk about a beautifully designed space that’s in harmony with itself and shouldn’t we all Enjoy that journey?
Rather than be critical of people abusing the planet he makes the commentary more palatable — in language, in style and visuals so it will be received by more people. That the soulfulness of oppaari or dirge, a folk form of music, which is designed to stir emotion will connect with people regardless of whether they follow the meaning or the writer’s intent.
Dhee channels a presence we’ve seen recently in Amanda Gorman. A sharp understanding of what she should wear, how she should look and what she should say (sing) which when expressed through that powerfully unique voice that emerges from that sculpted neck and high cheekbones makes for truly compelling viewing. The stark orange jumpsuit with Tamil vadaseri temple jewelry that stands out among the earthy brown background dancers wearing mardani (henna that’s not the more familiar mehendi) was her touch.
What the Lyrics Really Mean
The song starts by establishing an idyllic, rustic world where man and nature seem to get along and man doesn’t alter what happens to nature. Literal translations rarely work from non-Latin languages to English so what’s discussed here is more contextual intent than “Google translate” outputs which the video already does.
Cuckoo cuckoo… Thaatha thaatha kala vetti (Grandpa weeding the fields)
Cuckoo cuckoo…Pondhula yaaru meen koththi (who’s hiding in the tree-hole, the kingfisher)
Cuckoo cuckoo…Thanniyil odum thavalaikki (for the frog running in the water…)
Cuckoo cuckoo…Kambali poochi thangachi (…the caterpillar is its sister)
While Yuval Noah Harari may argue in Sapiens that man has always messed with the planet, in this nostalgic world — there is a a Disney-esque equilibrium, where animals are anthropomorphized and going about their business. The one symbol at the start, the parai drum stands for something that comes from cows that are worshipped by men, but when a man touches it — he becomes untouchable. But back to this perfect world where flora and fauna get to be all they can possibly be…articulated by the graceful, feminine, nature-Goddess-like form of Dhee…
Allimalar kodi angadhamae (the lily seems to mock me)
Ottara ottara sandhanamae (the sticky, fragrant sandal has a mind of its own)
Mullai malar kodi mutharamae (a jasmine necklace as valuable as pearls)
Engooru engooru kuthalamae (my city, my space Kutralam — a town)
This points to the transition where from it being about nature doing its thing, it now becomes about man’s ownership, assertion of cultural identity (my town.)
There’s an abrupt change in pace and tone and the Man becomes the narrator.
Surukku paiyamma Vethala mattaiyamma
Somandha kaiyamma Mathalam kottuyamma
Thaaiyamma thaaiyamma Enna panna maayamma
Here he establishes that it’s the story of Valliamma, his grandmother. He believes in the healing, resilient power of a matriarchal society and identifies with the struggle that women in particular would have had if they had had to leave their homelands, work the soil in tea plantations (Sri Lanka), lose their right to live there and find themselves homeless again and find ways to connect to the land, even if they don’t own it. In his view it’s amazing that they can find that peace and connection and wouldn’t it be nice if we all did? (He never outright says that we don’t, it’s more a question — something for us to introspect, if we do have the same sort of gratitude for the land we live on and what it gives us.)
Valliamma peraandi Sangadhiya koorendi
Kannaadiya kaanaamdi Indhaarraa peraandi
This is a conversational interlude between grandmother and grandson and a nod to what happens often in chaotic inter-generational homes. There’s stuff we can’t find (spectacles) and we’re often looking for stuff for each other. There’s a connection between us and our ancestors that is in play for everything from spectacles to soil.
Annakkili annakkili Adi aalamarakkela vannakkili
Nallapadi vaazhacholli Indha manna koduthaanae poorvakudi
Tamil celebrates word play, repetition, alliteration and rhyme (other languages/poetry might do it also, but Tamil writers see it as a demonstration of skill the way rap battles expect you to bring angry swag to the stage.) The celebration of flora (banyan tree) and fauna (colorful parrot) carries on but now with the explicit declaration that we were told by our ancestors who nurtured this soil, to live well. Where “living well” implies we appreciate all of this beauty and respect that soil — the earth we all go back to, inevitably. Without explicitly saying it — the point is to dial down the sense of ownership individuals feel over soil/land and get on board the “we are grateful, temporary caretakers” train. Arivu refers to the song itself as “song of the soil.” To appreciate it as an inheritance that was gifted to us that we must pass on as opposed to “using and throwing” it — but it never gets to that explicit preachy, screedy zone — which amps up its appeal.
Kammaankara kaaniyellaam Paadi thirinjaanae aadhikkudi
Naayi nari poonaikum thaan Indha erikkolam kooda sondhammadi
Our ancestors “sang and moved around these fertile lands” which refers to the need for harmony with the environment. The lines after that “dog, fox, cat also have a stake in this land, it’s theirs too” are a reminder that we do in fact live with them. We don’t qualify for special status higher up the hierarchy — not versus animals, not versus other humans.
Here’s where it veers into the chorus — “Enjoy Enjaami…Vaango vaango onnaagi.” In advertising one tries to stay away from negativity to get people to feel good, lower their guard and accept the message. A classic Arivu move is where instead of berating humans for being lousy planet tenants, the singers tell us to Enjoy this world, come, come together as one. Because honestly, why not?
Enjoy Enjaami is alliterative (a Tamil win) and “enjaami” expands to “yaen saami” which is used by grandparents to refer to their grandkids (you are my God) and also by laborers to refer to their landlords. When used with someone you love, it coopts the word and tries to knock off some of the feudal, negative load. Arivu also says that “enjaami” implies “en thaiyee” or “my mother” which feeds into notions of a maternal, birthing, sustaining earth but that reference is less common.
Ammayi ambaari Indha indha mummaari
Ammayi ambaari translates to “ride on elephants” and the rhythm there(listen to it) feels like you are riding an elephant — it’s slow, it takes its time and rocks gently forward and backward. Indha indha mummaari is “here you go, here you go, shower in the rains.” For an agricultural nation, rains are a life-giving gift from above and again speaks to the need for living in harmony with nature and if you do, what you seek will shower upon you.
The next sequence again does the yin-yang shift where Dhee slow-paces her melodic reverie wondering how the hen knows how to lay eggs, who did the makeup for the gorgeous peacock (national bird,) how does moss know to be green and how precisely did birds know how to line up twigs to make a nest…
Arivu lands firm right there with the story of the toiling, sweat-drenched farmer and markers of civilization that humans brought to riverbanks. This need to draw energy from the environment results in (some) humans being sucked dry. It’s at this point that he pivots to pure oppaari (dirge) style to establish how laboring farmers will rarely ever reap the benefits of anything they sow…
Naan anju maram valarthen (I grew trees)
Azhagana thottam vachen (I brought into being, a beautiful orchard)
Thottam sezhithaalum (even if that orchard flourishes…)
En thonda nanaiyalayae (my throat still remains parched)
Back to Dhee who now switches to third-person narrator — an emphasis that every aspect of space out there that we feel a need to own, in truth — belongs to all of us. Animals, plants, planet and us.
En kadalae Karaiyae Vanamae sanamae Nelamae kolamae Edamae thadamae… (MY sea, bank, forest, people, land, clan, space, footprint…)
Rather than see those markers and divisions…Enjoy Enjaami…
Paattan poottan kaatha boomi Aatam pottu kaattum saami
Raatinandha suthi vandha seva koovuchu Adhu pottu vacha echum thaanae
Kaada maarichu Namma naada maarichu Indha veeda maarichu
This bit talks about ancestors who protected the land and possibly a responsibility that’s incumbent upon us to follow through. If the rooster acknowledges its connection to the planet by crowing after each rotation and going the long mile to fertilize lands that grow into forests — aren’t those forests the ones we claimed as country and as homes for ourselves?
The idea that we’re a planet-destroying marauding species isn’t really news. What Dhee and Arivu manage here is to keep hammering away at the idea that nature, the environment, living in harmony and equitably is awesome but never once making it feel like any of us is being accused. Just subtly nudging us to possibly do better. That’s again its inherent power.
On Being Better
Pandhalulla paavaaka Pandhalulla paavaaka
Vedhakallu vitturukku Adhu vedhakallu vitturukku
Appan aatha vittadhunga Appan aatha vittandhunga
Again in oppaari mode — he laments that a bitter gourd that leaves seeds for further growth, is also something that our ancestors left for us. This is an implied nod to nature (unlike humans) that often seems to know where to draw the line and even something unattractive at face value (bitter gourd) does its job.
Animals in the food chain seem to know to not decimate their food source. Where are we on this front? In traditional farming practice there would be some seed-bearing plants that were not harvested, usually placed near a deity, that would be revered as the infinite source of seed for the future. Decimating food sources is not the way. Here’s where we see actual villagers (presumably) from Arivu’s village and that again lends to the song an honest authenticity even if the production is dressed up to “international” standards. In quotes because the intent was never to seem overly finessed but only to aesthetize what might otherwise be too raw, too real, too banal and ergo — unpalatable.
While Dhee on a throne with Arivu by her side still makes for a stunning visual, Amith Krishnan closes on an entirely different scene. One that he thought looked aesthetically good but apparently when it was shot, people on set told him that the visual of Valliamma at the center with older villagers in the background as prime focus and the younger Dhee and Arivu seeming to take over the baton, was more evocative. This makes for a more honest shout out to ancestors than making the singing stars the focus. The visuals and words had until now showcased earth, water, wind and sky. The closing shot brings fire into the background to include another nod to nature’s buffet of offerings.
In its writing and conception, Arivu was clear that the song had to make people feel something. They should not have to understand the words to feel this connect to ancestors and the planet. The music and visuals are engineered to deliver on that premise. The translation of the lyrics provides some context as to what’s happening but even for a native speaker, the first run reads a little awkward because for many of us — these stories and feelings that are natural to who Arivu is and where he comes from, aren’t necessarily a dominant part of our modern ethos. Even for a career-hardened urban capitalist like me, his stories behind why he wrote what he did managed to make me care just a little bit more about my footprint on the planet. Looking at the reactions of people to this song and video, it would seem I’m not alone.
::Nima:: is a culture, brand and consumer insights specialist and happens to speak relatively fluent Tamil. Without which this would have been impossible to write.