Across the Tamil world—among Indian, Eelam, and diaspora Tamils—lyricist-poet Vairamuthu is well known. For close to a decade, beginning with an iconic ‘Pon Malai Pozhudu’ in director Bharathiraja’s Nizhalgal (1980), Vairamuthu collaborated very successfully with Ilaiyaraaja. This was the super hit triumvirate of Tamil cinema in the ’80s before a much-publicised rift put an end to its magic. Reasons for the Vairamuthu-Ilaiyaraaja split have been wildly speculated for decades. (Vairamuthu has reportedly penned a poem about it: I was shocked to receive a legal notice from you, my friend. Ilaiyaraaja though has not spoken about it.)
Since 1992, Vairamuthu has worked with AR Rahman; from the Academy Award winner’s very first film Roja. It hasn’t been all that smooth a journey for this duo either. As this column from 20 years ago points out, at the cassette release event of Rajiv Menon’s Kandukondein Kandukondein, Vairamuthu reportedly got on stage and said that “it would be nice if Rahman could give his lines some weightage by cutting out the ‘deafening beats’ that accompanied them. Rahman, sitting in the audience, smiled beatifically and nodded at the poet. But the very next day, he instructed his staff that Vairamuthu was not to be allowed to set foot in Rahman’s own Panchatan Inn, the state-of-the-art recording studio where the composer does all his work. Jolted by the reaction, Vairamuthu sent out a series of feelers, both in person and through intermediaries, but Rahman remained unmoved.” An upset Rahman is said to have “instructed all his producers and directors to use the services of Ilayakamban, a rising young lyricist.” Vairamuthu was not one to take things lying down. “The poet fired his own first salvo when he made a bid to lure away Jayaraj, the keyboard whiz… to score for a couple of films”.
The Mani Ratnam-AR Rahman-Vairamuthu juggernaut reunited two years after this rift for Kannathil Muthamittal and was hurtling towards its 28th year. For Mani Ratnam’s epic Ponniyin Selvan. This collaboration has now come to a screeching halt.
October of 2018 marked the beginning of this end.
It’s been over a year and a half since several women, some publicly and some anonymously, accused Vairamuthu of sexual harassment, as part of the #MeToo movement. Multiple women who had nothing to do with each other confirmed his M.O. The stories seemed to have similar patterns too. From lewd poetry, forcibly kissing women, to threats of ruining women’s lives and careers, there are also several other accounts of his aggressive behaviour online.
Many of the more serious accusations are from women who are worried, justifiably, to make themselves public. His was among the biggest names to emerge from within the Tamil film industry. (Others include playback singer Karthik, actor Arjun Sarja and director Susi Ganesan.)
In an interview post-MeToo, one of his accusers, singer and dubbing artiste Chinmayi Sripaada said to The Hindu that speaking up had affected her career. “In a month, I used to do 10-15 songs, out of which 5 songs would be in Tamil. This has dried up as well. And then, the dubbing union terminates me. I realised it is not a coincidence. Recently, I had signed on to dub for two movies, which were subsequently cancelled.”
Vairamuthu on the other hand has faced little less than reverence from the local press in TN. In fact, he has never addressed a press meet nor taken on questions about these allegations. His most famous accuser has borne the brunt of Tamil journalists’ ire, and that of trolls on social media. A disgraceful interview conducted by anchor Rangaraj Pandey, in which he “grilled” Chinmayi belongs in journalism’s hall of shame. The show was titled ‘Kelvikku Enna Badhil’, loosely translated, ‘What’s the Answer to the Question’. Vairamuthu was not invited on this show, nor grilled by Pandey even once. Chinmayi–whom Pandey insulted with every question–was a picture of poise, her voice always calm, and her answers dignified, at times, understandably exasperated.
— Rangaraj Pandey (@RangarajPandeyR) October 20, 2018
Over several months, I spoke to people in the Tamil film industry, and some of the women who have accused Vairamuthu of sexual harassment. Here, I piece together the Vairamuthu story, including the latest on Mani Ratnam’s professional break-up with the man he’s worked with since Roja. At least some of the anonymous accusations against Vairamuthu come from women in the public glare; women who don’t want to deal with the repercussions of openly confronting him. Yet.
Though the media has painted this as a Chinmayi-vs-Vairamuthu, he-says-she-says battle of sorts, Chinmayi was not the only woman to accuse Vairamuthu of sexual harassment. Nor was she the first. As #MeToo took over our timelines on Twitter, on October 8, 2019, journalist Sandhya Menon, posted a screenshot. It was the account of an anonymous woman who wrote about her experience from when she was all of 18.
“I was 18. I had to work with him for a project and he seemed nice. I respected him as he is a legend, a famous poet, national award winner. In the pretext of explaining lyrics, he came to me, hugged me and kissed me. I did not know what to do. I said OK sir, thank you and ran from his house. His house and office were the same in Kodambakkam. People were asked to meet him there if I remember right. I have shuddered being alone in a room with him though my work gave me more instances where I had to work with him. I made sure I was in a group. That Vairamuthu is a predator is an open secret in the film industry but no one will expose him because of his political connections, which he uses to silence his victims. It happened to me. And this is the truth…” This was the first accusation to come out against Vairamuthu. It set into motion a chain of events that continue to play out even today.
It is early 2020 when I meet one of Vairamuthu’s other victims. It’s late in the evening, the woman and I are sitting on the floor. She’s gently, lovingly stroking the dog that’s lying down between us. We communicate in silence as she gathers her words.
She makes it clear to me that she must remain absolutely anonymous. That, if even the slightest of hints come out it will affect her personal and professional life. Her voice is calm, soothing even. Later when I play the interview back at home on my recorder, the dog’s heavy breathing punctuates our conversation throughout. The young woman stops occasionally to pay attention to our canine friend.
She knew Vairamuthu strictly professionally. She knew him from and for work and had met him in that context only whenever she did.
“I was 23-24 when this happened. Very aware of what he was doing,” she says recalling an incident that occurred six years ago.
“I’d met him for work before and had been warned to be careful. He’s always had a bit of a ‘reputation’, you know? That day I’d gone to his office, again for work. I was alone with him. He asked me if I wanted buttermilk and said, ‘They make the best buttermilk here.’ I said, ‘Okay sir’.” When the drink arrived Vairamuthu said to the woman, “So nice to watch you drink. I want to touch the lips that the glass is touching,” in Tamil. “It was very awkward. I was used to men hitting on women–casual flirting–but hearing something like this from someone who was so much older was disconcerting. I couldn’t believe such an old man was talking to me about lips,” she says.
Someone left flowers in his room. Vairamuthu then called the young woman to him. When she went closer and asked him what he wanted: “He tried to keep a flower on me and kiss me. I couldn’t process anything then. He was a tall man (the woman is petite), and he was trying to kiss me. I just bent down. I didn’t let him kiss me; I didn’t let him touch me. I ran across the hall. It’s a huge hall in his Besant Nagar house. I ran. I took my bag, I just smiled at him and said ‘See you later sir. See you sir’ and ran out of the house. Everybody watched me run out. All his staff…”
She says he called her even after this. “He would call and beg me, ‘Why are you not coming to see me. Ayyava yen vandhu paaka maatengareneega?’” Vairamuthu referred to himself with the honorific ‘ayya’ while badgering her to meet him. As she tried to wriggle out of one of these calls she told him, “My folks won’t allow me to come.” To which he said, “Tell them you are coming to meet the kavignar (poet). That you are going to sing.” Whenever she got a male acquaintance around her to pick up the phone, Vairamuthu changed his name. “The call would so obviously be from his number but he’d tell them, I am *different name* speaking or pretend it’s a wrong number.”
After several such instances, once, the woman got a colleague to speak to Vairamuthu when he called. “I had them tell him that it was a wrong number and that it was not mine. After that, he stopped calling.” When this happened to her, she says, she warned everybody she knew that could or would come in contact with him. “This person is like this. Please don’t recommend girls to go to his place… This is what I’d tell them.”
In one of her earlier conversations, she remembers asking Vairamuthu what inspired him, his poetry, and movie songs. “He told me that he was writing a song imagining the body part of the heroine of the movie he was working on–he wanted to describe it so he was imagining it and writing about it.” My interviewee feels a bit flustered about saying it out loud, but she gestures to explain that the body part he was referring to that day was some well-known actress’s breasts. “He told me this, which was very disturbing. But I thought maybe this is how poets talk. I consoled myself that way,” she laughs wryly. “I don’t talk much about this guy because I am kind of disturbed… but I thought I should mention he does this.”
Over the years social media posts, blog posts, and even Youtube videos have explored Vairamuthu’s not-so-hidden lyrical tributes to breasts in movie songs. Kamini Mathai’s book A. R. Rahman The Musical Storm (2009) quotes Vairamuthu as saying, “There are some songs in which you need a little double meaning… because that is what the crowd loves. But with Rahman that is not allowed.” Vairamuthu is indeed known for these ‘double meanings’ in his songs (O Podu from Gemini, Maanga Maanga from Prathap come to mind). And despite what he claims about Rahman’s preferences he seems to have used quite a few of them in the musician’s compositions as well (Rukkumani Rukkumani from Roja, Ottagatha kattikko from Gentleman, Spider-man Spider-man from New to name a few famous ones). In another interview that appeared in Frontline magazine in October 1994, in an article about sex and violence in cinema, Vairamuthu said, “Am I responsible for the social decay which demands debauchery? Treat the disease at the roots.” Jerry Vincent, AR Rahman’s programmer says in Krishna Trilok’s Notes Of A Dream: The Authorized Biography of A.R. Rahman (2018), “He [Rahman] will sit with Vairamuthu especially when coming up with songs for Mani Ratnam. Sometimes, he’ll ask for changes, if there’s vulgarity or if a line is too wordy or if it’s not fitting the metre…”
When I ask the woman what she thinks should happen to him, she says, “I have heard he’s done things to so many girls. He’s a threat, right? He shouldn’t be among us. He should be in jail. At least he should be known as a predator. People should not endorse him. You know, I used to love Vairamuthu’s work. He’s a great poet. There’s no doubt about it. But after what happened to me? No… I like the songs and love the poetry but I am not going to go out and say ‘Ah, he’s so great‘. He is a threat. And he’s probably going to keep doing this to others.”
About what she thinks Vairmathu’s own assessment of himself is, the woman says, “He thinks he’s a demi-god. He wants the world to think he’s a big man, periya manushan. Often, when he was talking big, it was obvious to me that he was trying to prop himself up. I thought of it as, you know, an old man bragging about himself.”
எனக்காகக் குரல்கொடுத்த தி.மு.க தலைவர் மு.க.ஸ்டாலின், ம.தி.மு.க பொதுச்செயலாளர் வைகோ, மார்க்சிஸ்ட் மாநிலச் செயலாளர் கே.பாலகிருஷ்ணன், நாம் தமிழர் சீமான், முற்போக்கு எழுத்தாளர் அருணன் மற்றுமுள்ள தமிழ் அமைப்பினர் அனைவர்க்கும் நன்றி.
இத்தனைபேர் துணையிருக்க எனக்கென்ன மனக்கவலை…?
— வைரமுத்து (@Vairamuthu) December 31, 2019
It is common knowledge that Vairamuthu was very close to the late DMK chief, M Karunanidhi. In an interview with Firstpost, in March 2018, he said, “For 33 years, we [Karunanidhi and Vairamuthu] have spent half hour every morning talking to each other over phone.” It was Kalaignar (as Karunanidhi was known) that gave him the title ‘Kaviperarasu’—the emperor of poets at the launch of Vairamuthu’s poetry collection Peiyena Peyyum Mazhai. Vairamuthu was invited to release the poetry collections of two Prime Ministers of India, both belonging to the BJP. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi. Over the years, the writer has cultivated formidable power.
However, the woman I am interviewing thinks that a lot of Vairamuthu’s influence now is feigned. “I don’t think these political parties even know what he’s up to. He’s possibly landing up at their events and they are accommodating him now.”
As we finish the interview, she talks about what she felt when these stories started to come out: “I was very happy. I thought he will never be outed because I didn’t do it… I was also sad and was shocked by some of the stories especially those involving young girls…”
She is hopeful that something will happen and he will eventually be ‘busted’.
On October 9, 2019, another anonymous account of Vairamuthu’s unwelcome advances made it to social media. “I was hardly 18/19 years old (still in college) when he in the pretext of appreciating my work called me to his office, a pad on the top floor at Seethammal colony. I went as he was a senior writer and I thought of him really like a grandfather (that’s the age difference between us.) It didn’t even cross my mind that he could be dangerous. But soon as I entered, he locked the door behind me and tried to touch me. I made an excuse and ran out.”
It is January of 2020 when I reach Chinmayi’s home and I’ve walked into a full house; her Shih Tzus (four of them) are up and about. We are seated on two single sofas in her living room, with the recorder between us on my chair’s armrest. Her pets surround us. “I was seeing the #MeToo movement happen and actively sharing, tweeting, doing all that,” she begins. “I was wondering ‘Will there ever come a day when a Vairamuthu will be exposed?’ I knew it had happened to me. But I hadn’t had that conversation with too many people. This was a taboo subject.”
Chinmayi was reminded recently by a friend that she had confided in her about Vairamuthu. “Some years ago, one day, I’d run into two friends from the industry at Gangotree (a chaat shop) and it ended up becoming a bitching session about Vairamuthu. My friends told me that his locker room talk was making his usual collaborators uncomfortable. Vairamuthu apparently said, madhu (alcohol), maadhu (woman), and something else to mean food, biriyani maybe, all of these… should have no limits. That day I ended up telling them about what had happened to me.”
We take a break in the conversation early on. Chinmayi offers to make me Samahan as my fits of cough threaten to ruin the interview. The conversation continues in her kitchen.
The singer was friends with Vairamuthu’s son Madan Karky before she publicly outed his father. “I told him before #MeToo that his father molested me. I also said it’s not your cross to bear.” She wanted him to know it from her. When Chinmayi called Karky to tell him about his father, his reaction was surprising to her.
“He said he knew. And that his mother had told him this. Karky said, ‘My mother had a long list of girls and when she added your name to it I said to her, no way, there’s no chance’. Now, in retrospect, I feel I should have asked him what his mother said. How she said it. I don’t know what she thinks happened.”
Their friendship then ended. “Karky had told me, ‘Through the night Nandini (his wife) and I couldn’t sleep. Whatever happens, we will stand by you. And then the next day he blocked me on Twitter the moment I posted my story. He never reached out after that. I am sure it was traumatic for him. It’s tough on the family. I told him it was not his cross to bear but this society is not nice. As much as they abuse me, they abuse him too.”
‘I will say you spoke ill of Kalaignar (Karunanidhi).’ That was his threat.
I came back crying and that’s the first time I told Rahul (her spouse and film director) that this man molested me. I told my in-laws too, that day. My father-in-law said, ‘You go ahead and say no. We will see’.
I found the courage to call his manager then. I said, ‘You do your politicking. I will tell Kalaignar that this man is threatening me. My mom and I will go stand in front of him and talk to him. We will see who he believes.’ That day Vairamuthu stopped calling me.”
Chinmayi called two people after she received this threat. “One was a friend in the industry and the other was Karky. I asked Karky why his father was saying he’d ruin me? Karky said that his father gets very angry if things don’t go as planned.” Chinmayi asked him why and how would she have possibly got a stage to speak ill of Kalaignar? To which Karky said, “My father tracked you using Intelligence.”
“At first I thought he meant my intelligence and was confused. Then Karky clarified that his father was tracking me using IB (Intelligence Bureau).” She was flabbergasted at the idea but since it was hearsay from Karky she didn’t think much of it.
“I called my other friend later and told him, this man is threatening me and he too said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll see.’ When I told him Karky said his father was tracking me with Intelligence, he said, ‘Intelligence-a? Haha. Seri… seri (ok… ok).’ He laughed it off but reassured me that I had nothing to worry about.”
Chinmayi sought this friend’s reassurance because, she says, Vairamuthu was big on displays of power. “I remember he had a book launch about nine years ago and every singer under the sun had come. From SPB, Yesudas, Vaali, Rahman to even actors Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. Kalaignar said that day that his friend Vairamuthu was so important to him that he didn’t go to receive the then-Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh because he wanted to be at this event. This is how close to power Vairamuthu was,” she says.
His influence may be waning now but that was not always the case. One look at the awards that have come his way steadily over the years is enough to establish how close to state actors the lyricist was. Seven national awards, the most for any lyricist in India, a Padma Bhushan, a Padma Shri, a Sahitya Akademi Award, and Tamil Nadu’s Kalaimamani.
About 12 minutes into our hour-and-a-half-long conversation, we talk about the incident in question.
“I remember I was in Vairamuthu’s office to sign some papers. For a concert, I think… The door was open. I went in and signed. He was sitting on one side of his table and I, on the other. He got up from his end and came up to me, and I got up too out of respect. At that point, he hugged me and kissed me… I started shaking. I left my footwear behind and ran downstairs. I think Ponmani (Vairamuthu’s wife, who’s also a poet and a former Professor at the Meenakshi College for Women in Chennai) was talking to my mother downstairs. My mother was downstairs too. She was very taken by the fact that there was a kovil (temple) there. She was curious because Vairamuthu was an atheist. She wanted to see this space, complete with a lit lamp and all. Between the time our car was parked and my mother came in to look at the temple, I had rushed back out. All of this happened in maybe seven minutes. I remember running down and telling my mother ‘Let’s go’. I remember putting something in the dashboard of my mother’s car. I said to my mother then that Vairamuthu molested me. She did not shame me, she never did. She asked me to move on. After that, he called me a couple of times to sing as a part of some group. All of those times I’d find his wife Ponmani, keep a safe distance from him, and make sure that I was never alone. Whenever I went to a recording, I would ask the music director to make sure he was not around. Even I had forgotten that I was doing this.”
Chinmayi remembered this when she saw a Twitter thread from music composer Ashwin Vinayagamoorthy (Yaadhumaagi Nindrai, Vidhi Madhi, Jigiri Dosthu).
He wrote, “2012, first time I try getting in touch with Chinmayi through my dad to sing a song for my debut movie (which unfortunately never took off). 18 then, I know nothing about the industry… Entire album had lyrics by VM [Vairamuthu] sir… Cut to recording studio. One incident I remember very clearly is a very brief but striking conversation that makes sense now. Chinmayi in front of mic, hums tune. “Yaaru lyrics, kanna?” (Who’s the lyrics by?) And I start boasting about how VM sir agreed to do and has written the entire album. She smiled, raised her eyebrows and got back to work immediately without much banter. Two lines later, we have a lyric pronunciation debate. And also if the usage in the particular phrase was correct. I suggested the director call VM sir and clear the doubt. Note: During this project, since I was new and VM sir really liked the songs, he accompanied us for most of the recordings. After we recorded each song, we would invite him and play the song or go to his office. He would listen and give us a set of corrections based on pronunciation, emotion and clarity that we would have to change mostly in his presence the next time his availability and singers availability matches. Coming back: Chinmayi comes forward immediately and says “Edhukku vambu (why take a chance). I’ll sing it both ways. You decide later and use that. VM sir let’s not bring into midst now.” Not verbatim. But I remember very clearly this conversation went on for couple of minutes. Chinmayi was 1. Not comfortable with the idea of being on call with sir. 2. Him knowing about the recording and Chinmayi singing the song then. 3. She didn’t want to take the risk of wanting to come back and record in the midst of sir there. She sang it in all ways possible… The conversation about VM sir makes a lot of sense now(sic).”
Chinmayi says, “That was the best I could do to navigate things. Avoid him.”
When Chinmayi spoke about her story, multiple victims (or their friends) reached out to her. The singer assesses the number of Vairamuthu’s victims who have told their stories, anonymously or publicly, as being at least around 11.
“Is it ok if a man is talented and uses his power and talent to harass people?” she asks. In many of the accounts, Vairamuthu even uses the names of others in the industry with the promise of work, among other things to schedule meetings with young women, when he molests them. “They (the people whose names he uses) don’t seem to mind it,” Chinmayi says.
Two days after Chinmayi’s allegations brought national attention to #MeToo in the Tamil film industry, Vairamuthu put out a statement saying “it has become fashionable to accuse known people”.
“Am I not known?” Chinmayi asks.
“Look at how I have been treated now. Imagine what would have happened if I had spoken up when it happened? Who would I have spoken to? What were the laws in 2005-06?” she asks.
Though Vairamuthu took his time to react publicly to these allegations, he did visit senior lawyers in the aftermath of #MeToo. Sources in the legal profession in Chennai told me that in one such meeting Vairamuthu was with one of his sons. He and the son at this consultation slut-shamed Chinmayi and spoke about how ‘these women’ are and something to the effect of: ‘They bite the very hand that feeds them’.
Vairamuthu also put out a video statement in which he said, “I have been compiling unshakeable evidence of my innocence. I have consulted many senior lawyers about this. All the accusations against me are completely false. If those who made the accusations believe them to be true, they can file a case against me. Let the courts decide if I am a good man or a bad man. I bow down to the power of the courts and am sure they will bring me justice.”
Our conversation then veers towards Mani Ratnam, when Chinmayi says, “During Mani Ratnam’s last film, Chekka Chivantha Vaanam’s audio release event, I told everyone ‘I will not call Vairamuthu to the stage. I will not praise him…’ I said this so many times that people wondered if something was wrong with me. Then Mani Ratnam called me aside and asked, ‘You look disturbed Chinmayi, is everything ok?’ I said to him, ‘I just have a resting bitch face don’t worry‘ and he laughed. That day I didn’t want to talk about it. I was invited to host the event because Mani sir said he wanted somebody who wouldn’t be fawning all over these celebrities. He wanted someone who would treat them as professionals. I told [playback singer] Karthik, who was hosting the event with me then, that this man molested me. ‘You have a daughter who’s 12, I am sure you’ll understand’. He said, ‘Ayyayoo don’t tell me all this‘. He said he couldn’t do the one Tamil line – Kavipperarasu Vairamuthu ayya avargalai medaikku azhaikkirom, to invite Vairmathu on to the stage. I should have said no and not done it or stayed silent. I thought it’s my job, so I invited him to the stage.”
Chinmayi remembers something else through the course of this conversation. She recalls a phone call: “A day after I tweeted my story, I got a call from someone in Mani Ratnam’s office asking if I could come to a compromise. I asked, ‘What are you saying?’ Then I thought let me give them the benefit of doubt and asked again, ‘Does Mani Ratnam know what he’s asking me to compromise for?’ Their answer was, ‘I don’t know. Vairamuthu called Mani Ratnam. I am only relaying the message.’ I said to them, ‘Please ask him to read the news, and then decide whether he wants to be a part of this compromise business’. After an hour or two, they called back, livid. They said, ‘My blood is boiling that he would involve Mani Ratnam in something like this. He [Mani Ratnam] only asked you to be careful. We are with you.”
Year 2005/2006 maybe.
Veezhamattom. An album for Srilankan Tamizhs that I had sung in, as had Manikka Vinayagam sir.
I dont remember if it was a book or an album release or both now; the performances and launch happened in Switzerland in (Bern / Zurich maybe)
— Chinmayi Sripaada (@Chinmayi) October 9, 2018
The October of 2018, and exactly a year before that in 2017, when Raya Sarkar published the LoSHA outing predators in academia, the collective anger that seemed to be simmering against abuse, had its big moment on Indian social media, as women raged against indignities. A lot of us have had the luxury of moving on since. Not Chinmayi. She continues to be in that space because people continue to come to her to out other men. There are also those that continue to charge at her with righteous anger for daring to speak and just not ‘shutting up’.
“It hasn’t made me angry. At that point I was, but I was very quick to take help. I took different forms of therapy. I took traditional therapy, where I was talking to a counsellor as well,” she says.
As we wrap up, Chinmayi says, about that infamous interview with Rangaraj Pandey, “As a journalist what did he do to question the aggressor? What did he do to question the system, asking ‘Where is the investigation?’ He could have done that.” She also recalls another Polimer TV journalist telling her that it was because of ‘women like her’ that other ‘real, truthful women’, whatever that means, did not get justice.
Following Chinmayi, two other women came out in public to not only back her up but also to talk about their own ordeal.
One of them was Bhuvana Seshan. She gave a Tamil web portal a candid video interview in which she spoke about his toxicity. She also penned an eloquently detailed piece about it for The Quint.
Bhuvana knew Vairamuthu through work, and initially, he spoke to her on the phone about ‘harmless things’. Bhuvana writes in her piece, “One day, he told me that not only do I have a great voice, but I am also an intelligent woman. Oru arivupoorvamana pennai naan thedik kondirundhen. En thedal unnil mudindhuvidumo?” (I was searching for an intelligent, attractive woman. Will my search end with you?). I told him I was uncomfortable. The next day, he called again. He told me he would be going to Malaysia the following week and asked if I wanted to join. I said, “Do you want me for singing or anchoring?” He said, “Neither.”.” When she stood her ground and said no, he issued a threat: “You will cease to exist in this industry. I will shut all doors for you. Do you know what my influence is in this industry? I can reduce you to nothing.”
“Subsequently,” she wrote, “I lost three trips abroad and some recording opportunities… I sulked for a week but then got up to move on–but I decided I would never pursue playback singing.”
Over a year after all this, Bhuvana talks to me about how she feels: “It is really frustrating. The way this industry has remained indifferent to the whole thing. No one addressed anything. What is more frustrating is seeing Vairamuthu walking with his head held high. But isn’t victim-shaming our specialty?”
She adds, “Initially I had no idea of coming out. But when I saw insults and derogatory terms thrown at Chinmayi I was really upset. I know what Vairamuthu is. The way people were defending him and shaming Chinmayi upset me. Chinmayi is much younger than me. When I saw the way she stood her ground and took so much nonsense, I was ashamed of myself and angry with myself. That’s when I decided to step in. I just couldn’t see that girl fighting all alone. The consequences were mixed. Some stood by me; some ridiculed me. People said since I didn’t make it big in the music industry, I was trying some attention-grabbing … One called me an owl… One guy said that I am a grandma who still thinks she looks good. But I learnt something from this. I learnt that this society is a disgusting mix of toilet and garbage with some deodorant sprayed here and there. I learnt that here money, power, fame, and clout speak.”
Bhuvana wishes for “a world in which a victim walks with her head held high.” She says, “I wish to see a world where people don’t sit on a throne and pass judgments on women. I wish this industry would look into this and establish a platform where women can come and share their stories. What people fail to realise is that however old you become, the pain remains, with the same intensity. I can never forgive Vairamuthu. I wish he could be pulled up and at least interrogated. I know he can never be convicted because we have no evidence of anything. But he should at least go through some humiliation for inflicting so much pain on so many women. This eerie silence must give way to real voices.”
US-based musician Sindhuja Rajaram also publicly supported Chinmayi. When she was 18, Sindhuja, who’s in her thirties now, visited Vairamuthu with her mother to see if she could join his hostel. Vairamuthu runs the Thaai women’s hostel in Chennai. Most women’s hostels in the city have curfews and enforce them very strictly. Sindhuja worked in the film industry then, as a sound engineer, and couldn’t adhere to these curfews. Her mother thought since Vairamuthu was from the industry, he would understand.
In an interview with Scroll.in, on October 14, 2018, Sindhuja said, “I had taken along my demo CD containing songs I had composed and programmed. He was so impressed he said he would love to take me to AR Rahman… He took my number and said he would keep in touch… A week later… Vairamuthu called, asking me to get over to Rahman’s office… The meeting with Rahman was brief. Vairamuthu called me again the following day and told me how impressed Rahman had been with me. A few weeks later, he started calling frequently to ask how I was doing. He would ask about my work and tell me, “Let’s meet sometime.” I would say “sure” and end the call. Then his calls became desperate. I would only answer out of respect for the man. One time, he said, “When do we meet? I miss you. I have written poems about you, please come meet me at my Besant Nagar office.” I felt awkward; I said I had to get back to work and hung up. His next call was even more desperate. He said he was falling in love with me, that he was constantly thinking about me. That is when I said, “Sir you are like my father. I have great respect for you. Please do not say such things. I feel very awkward”.” Sindhuja eventually stopped taking his calls.
When I speak to Sindhuja in 2020, to ask why she decided to publicly back Chinmayi, considering the kind of harsh reaction the singer was subjected to, she says, “When I first heard about it, I wasn’t surprised as you may have heard that it’s the industry’s open secret. I was really happy someone, especially like Chinmayi, addressed it. Initially sharing anonymous people’s stories and then her own. At that time, it was almost 15 years later, I had moved on not just from the “episodes” but also the music industry. But when the public never believed anyone or Chinmayi I felt that it was so wrong and decided to back her. I’ve been in a very similar place and that I totally believe what everyone was saying.”
— Sindhuja Rajaram (@rajaramsindhuja) October 19, 2018
I ask her what the consequences have been and she says, “Not as much as it was for Chinmayi who was tweeting and giving interviews and having to deal with all the name-calling. I gave my video interview and then my life was normal again. There were comments on Youtube about my current appearance. I was called a “cow face” and many did not want to believe that Mr. Vairamuthu approached a “cow face”,” she says and adds, “But other than this, nothing.”
On the accusation that Vairamuthu uses others’ names, especially of AR Rahman’s as an excuse to talk to women or hold that out like a prize, Sindhuja says, “Well in my case he really did help me meet with Mr. Rahman and fortunately also within a couple of days after my meeting with Mr. Vairamuthu himself. The calls and flirting started a few weeks later, which initially I tried to politely disagree with, then I avoided his calls. It is very unfortunate that this has been taken very lightly and is accepted as the “culture” of the industry until the #MeToo movement. The predator was not just Mr. Vairamuthu but many other music directors, producers, directors, and, actors. For me, Mr. Vairamuthu was certainly not the first or last.” She also points out that “many media folks called my episode with Mr. Vairamuthu harassment. I would like to say that he was making an obscene approach just like the other industry men. He did not threaten me with an “or else”. He tried his best but I just avoided him”.
That someone with this reputation continues to run a women’s hostel is cause for concern. Multiple anonymous accounts on the Internet say Vairamuthu abused his position as the owner of a hostel and as an influential poet to molest women who came to live there. In an interview with The Hindu about his hostel, Vairamuthu said in 2003, “Our aim is to provide healthy food and protection to women, and most importantly, create an ambience that feels like home.” On October 9, 2018, one accusation against Vairamuthu read, “My friend lives in the Vairamuthu hostel in Kodambakkam, and a lot of girls there have told stories of him trying to exploit them whenever he visits the hostel.”
Musician AR Reihana (AR Rahman’s sister) publicly acknowledged that Vairamuthu is a predator in an interview with News7 Tamil following #MeToo. “I believe what Chinmayi is saying because two-three people have told me about this,” she said about four and a half minutes into the interview.
— A.R.Rahman (@arrahman) October 22, 2018
Hayma Malini, who is also popular playback singer late Malaysia Vasudevan’s daughter-in-law, was among the earliest to publicly come out in Chinmayi’s support. “I don’t believe how the Tamil film fraternity is not standing by Chinmayi! Why question Chinmayi not reporting the incident ten years ago! There is a report now and that should be dealt with! Why are we not questioning Vairamuthu? Why is society questioning the victim and not the perpetrator? What a patriarchal industry? When I was in Sun Music, I have personally witnessed Vairamuthu trying to get fresh with one of the young presenters… And I have spoken about him in many stages more than 10 years ago! I salute Chinmayi for being the voice of many voiceless! Time for some introspection by the industry(sic),” she wrote on Facebook.
Nothing has changed since October 2018. There is still no ICC (Internal Complaints Committee) in the Tamil film industry, despite one of the biggest actresses of the day, Nayantara asking for one. Legally speaking, production houses should have ICCs and all complaints regarding their movies must be investigated by them. No responsible body–writers union, dubbing union, producers council–has initiated an enquiry against Vairamuthu over multiple allegations that continue to tumble out.
However, the one big outcome of these women’s testimonies is that it is no longer a whisper network that warns women about the likes of Vairamuthu. A source in the industry also pointed out that there is some hesitation to work with him now, though his work hasn’t all dried up.
Earlier in the year, it was speculated that Vairamuthu was no longer part of Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus Ponniyin Selvan. Sources in the know confirmed to me that he has, in fact, been dropped from the project. When he was named in #MeToo, the director was reportedly shocked.
The crew of Ponnoyin Selvan initially tried other writers for the songs. However, nothing satisfactory came of it. The director wanted to see if he could ‘try’ things out with Vairamuthu. A call went out to the lyricist and he was given a brief for one song. The next day Vairamuthu released a statement to the press claiming he was working on Ponniyin Selvan and that he was writing all 12 songs. He did this without an official go-ahead from the production, or any papers being signed. At that point, the filmmaker hadn’t even decided if there were going to be 12 songs in the film. Vairamuthu’s statement led to a severe backlash against the film on the internet.
Finally, it was this backlash that led to the dropping of Vairamuthu’s name from Ponniyin Selvan.
— Ramesh Bala (@rameshlaus) September 6, 2019
Chinmayi’s voice that remained stifled by an industry that sought to punish her for speaking out, echoed across homes recently as Jyothika starrer Ponmagal Vandhal hit OTT platform, Amazon Prime. It’s only fitting that her ‘comeback’ song featured in a film in which the protagonist, Venba (Jyothika) says to a male lawyer, “Why does it always sound like a lie to you when a woman talks about abuse?”
As I wrap this piece up, in late May 2020, the ‘first look’ poster and teaser video for a new film, Ka Pae Ranasignam starring Vijay Sethupathi and Aishwarya Rajesh, are released. They carry Vairamuthu’s name in bold, right below that of the movie’s director’s (P Virumandi). Next to that of the music director’s (Ghibran). This time there isn’t even a murmur against his name featuring so prominently.
The more things change, etc.