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Wednesday, Aug 21, 2019

How Tamil hip-hop sensation Adhi went from controversy’s child to unlikely film star

Adhithya Ramachandran Venkatapathy, popularly known as Adhi, makes up one half of the duo, Hip Hop Tamizha (HHT). The other half of the musical duo is R Jeeva, but it is Adhi who is synonymous with Hip Hop Tamizha and who has now become the poster boy of Tamil hip hop.

music Updated: Aug 12, 2017 20:16 IST
Shruti Sunderraman
Shruti Sunderraman
Hindustan Times
Every college festival played Clubbu le Mabbu le after the music video went viral. Screenshot from YouTube.
Every college festival played Clubbu le Mabbu le after the music video went viral. Screenshot from YouTube.

A young musical sensation whose song helped trigger the pro-jallikattu protests in Tamil Nadu last year has, in an unlikely follow-up, now released a feature film based on his life. In which he acts as himself, and which he has also co-written and directed.

This young sensation is Adhithya Ramachandran Venkatapathy, popularly known as Adhi, who makes up one half of the duo, Hip Hop Tamizha (HHT). The other half of the musical duo is R Jeeva, but it is Adhi who is synonymous with Hip Hop Tamizha and who has now become the poster boy of Tamil hip hop.

HHT’s dramatic journey started when their song Club le Mabbu le went viral in 2012 — radio stations played it every day, twice a day, and within a few months it got over 4.5 lakh views on YouTube, besides spawning a bunch of response videos as well.

The hit also caught the attention of the alcohol brand Rémy Martin, which helped launch HHT’s first album, Hip Hop Tamizhan later that year.

Building on that success, the duo have delivered further hit singles like Vaadi Pulla Vaadi and their jallikattu sensation Takkaru Takkaru. After Yogi B, arguably the pioneer of Tamil rap and hip hop, HHT has been the group who have kept Tamil youngsters on the beat in the last few years. And now they have done the unlikely thing of releasing a biopic based on themselves, called Meesaya Murukku (Twirl Your Moustache).

Meesaya Murukku chronicles 26-year-old Adhi’s rise through his lens. According to the movie, the title comes from a phrase Adhi’s father (played by comedian Vivek) would often deploy on his son. “’Jaichalum, thothalum meesaya murkku’ (win or lose, always twirl your moustache and hold your head high), he’d tell me,” Adhi recounts.

The term Meesaya Murukku means ‘twirl the moustache’, something Adhi’s father always repeated to Adhi.
The term Meesaya Murukku means ‘twirl the moustache’, something Adhi’s father always repeated to Adhi. ( Meesaya Murukku Facebook )

While the film constantly brings focus back to twirling of moustaches, unlike his fellow actors in Kollywood, Adhi does not try to overtly ‘man-up’ his character. Instead, he’s a simple boy-next-door who believes in his dreams, with minimal macho dishum dishums with goons ten times his size. Even in the confines of the movie’s masala formula of a romantic musical, this simplicity makes for an refreshing watch.

The film also gives a peek into R Jeeva’s life, who is famous for being reclusive. Throughout the duo’s rise, it’s always been easy to mistake Hip Hop Tamizha to be just a moniker for Adhi alone. Jeeva is the compositional backbone of HHT, both according to Adhi and the movie. Although he’s not the public face, Jeeva invested equally in setting up a mini-studio, looking for their first break and producing the group’s music.

Either ways, Adhi’s charm seems to have done the trick. Sethumadhavan Nappan, movie critic at Bangalore Mirror and founder of says, “There are two ways to look at Meesaya Murukku. Either that the realistic depiction of his life is endearing and fresh, or that it is too everyday-esque to be a movie. But one thing is apparent — Adhi is not here to pretend. What you see is what you get.”

Adhi and Jeeva from Hip Hop Tamizha.
Adhi and Jeeva from Hip Hop Tamizha.

Controversy’s Child

The controversies around his music videos have fuelled a large percentage of Adhi’s fame. HHT’s song Sait Ji for Meesaya Murukku offended some members of the Jain community, and had to be taken down from YouTube. In 2016, PETA denounced his jallikattu video as “factually inaccurate” and said that HHT should “stick to making music”.

His first song Club le Mabbu le was the harbinger of future controversies — the lyrics shamed women who partied, smoked, consumed drugs and were in live-in relationships. But it also got him his first film song, Thapellam Thappe Illai, for the movie Naan (2012).

Today, however, Adhi unexpectedly owns up to his past misogyny. “I was wrong to have stereotyped women that way. I was in class 12 when I wrote that song. Where I grew up in Coimbatore, there was absolutely no pub culture, and meeting women at clubs was a culture shock to me. So I wrote the song out of misguided notions. Have you never done stupid things that you can’t undo?”

If you feel a tiny strain of empathy, you are not alone. Rapper and producer Sofia Ashraf made a response video to Club le Mabbu le back in 2012, calling out on the song’s awful misogyny. As an activist who’s been at the receiving end of many unpleasant comments, she says the only time she received rape and death threats was after this response video. But now even she believes that Adhi has come a long way since then. “He was a child back then,” she says. “I can understand and respect his passion. His interpretation of hip-hop is highly catchy.”

Adhi’s jallikattu video Takkaru Takkaru, which similarly raised a furore, documents personal accounts of farmers who rear bulls, trying to draw empathy for the losses they sustained when the sport was outlawed. “I wanted to show another side to the story,” explains Adhi. “But there should also be a larger idea about the consequences of the ban on the livelihood of people who depend on the festival.”

Music critic Karthik Srinivasan is of the opinion that Adhi has rightfully cashed in on such controversies. “He has used it to turn the tide in his favour at the right time,” he says. “Director KV Anand broke his long association with Harris Jayaraj to bring Hip Hop Tamizha on board for his movie Kavan. So he’s obviously marketing himself right.”

A scene from the song Theemai Dhaan Vellum in the movie Thani Oruvan, for which Hip Hop Tamizha composed the score.
A scene from the song Theemai Dhaan Vellum in the movie Thani Oruvan, for which Hip Hop Tamizha composed the score.

However, Srinivasan also points out that Adhi’s music itself remains repetitive. “The only songs that I’ve managed to salvage from his compositions are Va Va Vennila and Vaadi Pullai Vaadi in Meesaya Murukku. There’s almost a Himesh Reshamiya-esque drone to his movie compositions.”

What highlights this repetitiveness is his contrast with artists who have localised rap. MC Mawali rose to fame in the underground music scene by writing in Marathi. Malaysia-based Yogi B experimented with the genre in 1990, producing hip-hop albums in Bahasa Melayu, Cantonese and Tamil and English, incorporating beatboxing and reggae. Hip Hop Tamizha can be benched in the same space as rappers Honey Singh and Badshah, both with similar popularity and controversies.

Riding on Tamil Pride

While his backing for jallikattu garnered him a lot of support, Adhi has also had considerable impact on the idea of Tamil culture and pride.

“I don’t think Adhi understands how strong a fan base he commands,” says Ashraf. “As a person, he is very far from propagating violence, but his audience can be slightly dangerous. So it’s not about he himself being too jingoistic, as much as his audience taking it upon themselves to police ‘Tamil culture’.”

Even in Meesaya Murukku, there is a constant reference to Tamil pride through monologues about Tamil glory. Nappan also believes that Adhi has a lot of influence over college crowds and his jingoistic tendencies become apparent in live concerts. “There’s an insane reaction to his live concerts. He is probably the most relatable guy to youth in Tamil cinema right now.”

This is certainly a big reason why film directors are seeking him out to score music. Since his debut as a music director in 2015 for the film Aambala, Adhi and HHT have scored for eight more films. In an industry where you’re constantly jostling for space with stalwarts like AR Rahman and Ilaiyaraaja, and peers like GV Prakash and Anirudh, shrewdly identifying your audience remains difficult.

Director Mohan Raja, who signed HHT for his crime-thriller hit Thani Oruvan, says that Adhi has succeeded in finding his niche. “I was a little sceptical when I brought Hip Hop Tamizha on board for Thani Oruvan’s score as I wasn’t sure if their style would match the movie’s content. But Adhi’s understanding of his audience was reassuring and took the movie to them.”

A still from the movie Meesaya Murukku.
A still from the movie Meesaya Murukku.

A Peculiar Rise

Meesaya Murukku deviates from real life while chronicling Jeeva and Adhi’s friendship. In the movie, they are childhood friends, but the truth is that, in a typical 90s story, they actually met via a Yahoo! chat room as teenagers. Their love for hip hop in an environment that didn’t speak their musical language brought them closer.

Then came the social networking site Orkut that gave Adhi his first taste of public exposure. “I’d post videos and audio clips on Orkut. People took notice and started following me. I used to even spam people’s testimonials on Orkut with links to my music,” he laughs embarrassedly.

After graduation, Adhi and Jeeva knocked on the doors of studios and production houses and were turned down several times till, in 2012, Radio Mirchi’s RJ Gautham let Adhi perform Club le Mabbu le on his show. This was the turning point. The video of the recording session went viral on YouTube and caught the attention of Rémy Martin.

Adhi has not looked back since. HHT went on to compose music for hit films like Kaavan, Kathakali and Aambala. Sundar C took notice of Adhi in Takkaru Takkaru and encouraged Adhi to act for Meesaya Murukku.

Throughout his success, Adhi credits his professor father’s support to be key, and the elder is also a constant presence in the film. “He refused to pay for my stay in Chennai when I decided to pursue music after engineering. He wanted me to learn to stand on my own feet,” says Adhi.

Despite all this, he claims he still has a difficult time explaining his ‘job’ to his parents. But for Adhi, his early struggle was less difficult to deal with than the confusion of figuring out his own place in music. “We were fooled very often. That’s why I appreciate everything now that comes with the success — the praise and criticism. It means people are listening to me. I am no longer invisible.”

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)

First Published: Aug 12, 2017 20:15 IST

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