Stanley Donen, who co-directed the famous 1952 Hollywood film Singin’ in the Rain with Gene Kelly, passed away on February 21. Though it released to moderate success at first, the film went on to become a cult classic. The titular song, first composed in 1929 and which “inspired” the film itself, according to its makers, received wider recognition in the coming decades.
The song was so iconic and loved that when Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was released 19 years later, the widespread backlash it received included complaints that it had tarnished the song’s image. In the film, Malcom McDowell’s character assaults a woman while singing the song.
For those who might not have seen the 1952 flick first, this would’ve been a ghastly way to discover ‘Singin’ in the rain’ – a song that Kelly performs in the film to express joy and contentment. Fortunately for me, I discovered the song in an unexpectedly different way – as, I imagine, did lakhs of other Tamil filmgoers in 2001.
In that year, the drama film Manadhai Thirudivittai (Tamil for ‘You’ve Stolen My Heart’) was released, starring Prabhu Deva and, more importantly, comedian Vadivelu. His character, named Steve Waugh, is a college student with many idiosyncratic quirks (in keeping with Vadivelu’s slapstick style). Back in his native village, his family is poor and barely gets by. But in the college, Steve Waugh maintains a façade of affluence (including boasting of a fictitious brother named Mark Waugh, a petroleum magnate in the UAE).
The film also stars comedian Vivek, and both Vadivelu and Vivek vie for the same woman. And whenever Vadivelu outsmarts Vivek for the woman’s attention, he breaks into song: “I’m siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing in the raaaaiiiiiiiiin! I’m sooooooooooooong in the raaaaiiiiiiiiin!”
I’m sure the more informed viewers were able to identify what Vadivelu was singing right away. For many of the rest of us, the song’s provenance and cultural influence struck home only much later.
But by that time, it had been so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche that it could never become the Gene Kelly sensation it originally was. It stayed on only as Vadivelu’s derivative – but no less joyous – performance, becoming a song that other actors of Tamil cinema have sung to the accompaniment of a singeing comeback.
And for most people who watched Manadhai Thirudivittai, Vadivelu’s rendition has remained, and will, his own classic: his rendition, his song, his words.