Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Benny Lava, or: sigh, groan, eyeroll?

If you're a Western Bollywood fan, or an Indian person with international friends, or simply anybody with friends, co-workers or family members who enjoy sharing the funniest clips they find on youtube, chances are you've endured the phenomenon of "Benny Lava".

Long story short, "Benny Lava" is a youtube video of a South Indian song picturization (Tamil to be specific) with actor Prabhu Deva shaking a leg. What makes it a classic viral video clip is the "misheard lyrics" added by youtube user "buffalax", essentially hearing the Tamil lyrics as English one. Originally the song is called "Kalluri Vaanil" from the Tamil film Pennin Manathai Thottu (2000).

With 13 million views on youtube, this is just the kind of internet phenomenon that is pretty difficult to avoid. But since I hadn't really seen this viral video discussed on any Bollywood blogs I frequent, I was wondering how people "in the know" react to it? Is it cool to hear non-fans of Indian cinema suddenly know who Prabhu Deva is and praise his dancing skills? Or does it make you groan, knowing a lot of people's enjoyment of the video isn't because they think it's cool but because they think it's cheesy and silly?

Or if you are a random surfer who is not into Indian cinema, are you genuinely enjoying the music and the visuals, despite the silliness of the "English" lyrics? Has this shaped your ideas of Indian cinema in general?

My own reaction is usually exhaustion as I attempt to start a conversation that never quite results. "It's actually not Bollywood, it's in Tamil, a South-Indian language, the guy is called Prabhu Deva, he's a famous dancer and choreographer, he directed my favourite Telugu movie.." I always want to attempt establishing these facts, and make the person learn a bit. And I refuse to join in on the "look at it! it's so bad and odd!", because quite frankly, I find it insulting. The reason why this is exhausting is because very rarely does anybody actually go "oh really?" - it seems like the information goes in and goes out the next moment, and the next time I mention watching Indian films, they will again tell me "oh do you know Benny Lava?".

And bottom line - I really don't enjoy one of my biggest interests being reduced to a youtube joke in the minds of so many people. I really don't.

The best case scenario, I suppose, is that these Indian film ignoramuses begin watching more Indian films and discover they're much more than weird youtube clips. On the other hand, if their starting point is masala potpoilers from Tamil Nadu, I'm not sure they'll find anything that will shake their prejudices. Prabhu Deva is a charming feller and a fantastic dancer but I don't think his body of work is exactly awe-inducing in terms of quality.

But I'll try to stay positive: a friend of mine recently asked me to put together a playlist of Benny Lava-esque songs. I promised I'd do my best, my music library isn't vast but I am sure I can put together some groovy, electropop-style Indian film songs. (Leave your own suggestions at the comments, I'd be glad to hear them.) I have to take it as a sign this viral video might be making some people more curious about Indian film music, and that can never be a bad thing.


Smitha said...

I find that some people who get a kick out of the Benny Lava video are ignorant at best and xenophobic at worst. No matter what anyone says, essentially the video is there to mock what one doesn't understand.

The English-centrism of it is so odd too; sure the lyrics could be construed as something else, but I am too familiar with south Indian languages to hear it as anything else. Plus, watching the Benny Lava video makes you focus on mocking a language, not on Prabhu Dev's awesome dancing skills. ;)

64bitter said...

Puhleez. Even though I don't know enough Tamil, I briefly lived there in the late 80s and still love the movies I saw then. Not living in the country any more, I'm woefully out of touch with South Indian cinema. However, I have no doubt that they still make better films on the average than Bombay.

I say this to preempt the knee-jerk "oh you North Indians are ignorant and xenophobic too" :-).

Because, let's face it, that video is FUNNY. You have to be a real sourpuss to not appreciate the creativity in the faux lyrics.

God, what a depressing world we'd be living in if we lost the ability to laugh at silly stuff like this.

Filmi Girl said...

And bottom line - I really don't enjoy one of my biggest interests being reduced to a youtube joke in the minds of so many people. I really don't.

This is how I feel. I hate the condescending attitudes people have toward popular Indian film songs and the refusal to engage with them beyond a mocking "wow this culture is different than mine and I will mock it" level.

veracious said...

Smitha - Yeah, well said. I try to watch it and I just get distracted, as the faux lyrics don't entertain me one bit.

64bitter - If not liking this one video online makes me a sourpuss, so be it. And there's nothing creative or original about misheard lyrics, especially when they're intentionally misheard (I appreciate the English song videos with funnily misheard lyrics much more).

I always just end up feeling like there are so many fantastic song picturizations and comedy scenes and whatnot in Indian cinema both south and north that they don't require these vapid "oh a foreign language, how bizarre and mock-worthy!" type of videos circulating the nets.

Filmi girl - Your comment made me realize the crux of the matter; people are laughing at it from a place of supposed cultural superiority. And that annoys me.

Anonymous said...

I'm a fan of Indian cinema and due to unfortunate circumstances I never learned Hindi even though my parents are Indian.

I never thought of the Buffalax videos as a jab at the Indian language or the film scene, but rather as a satire.

Whenever I want to sing an Indian song, I myself don't know what I'm singing and I can only sing the words as they sound to me. Sometimes my family makes fun of me because it turns out I've said something unforgivably wrong or it just sounds funny.

My own cousin was the one who told me "Have you ever seen the Benny Lava video?" because my aural translations of the songs reminded him of it.

Now for the fact that some people find the dancing cheesy and funny, I'm sure those very same people react like that to musicals. It's just not their cup of tea and the transliteration is what calls to them.

It's like an SNL skit.

It's not so bad. (:

ajnabi said...

I'm sorry, veracious--I mean that sincerely, because I wish I was better-versed in Southie films and also kinder to films that are cheesy by my own standards--but I think the Benny Lava song deserves to be parodied. I think the picturization's so totally whack that it begs for the treatment. The people who use one satirical take on the video to form their opinion of an entire industry were never going to be fair to it in the first place.

My brother loves the silly buffalaxed version and then clicked on a suggested video of Sushmita that had been given the same treatment. He watched that for about thirty seconds, declared, "Not funny. She's pretty though," and then navigated elsewhere.

Sanket Vyas said...

Being North Indian and a huge fan of Bollywood (enough so to have a blog on the topic) I do appreciate the humor in the Benny Lava video. In fact the first time I saw/heard it was with a bunch of other Indian friends (including a few South-side ones) when we were having one of our monthly Bollywood parties. We were getting ready to watch that piece of insanity from 1977 known as Suhaag but that's a story for another day.

Bollywood or Tollywood from the mid 80's was so full of cheese that this sort of video was ubiquitous throughout the industry. And while my Indian friends definitely LOVE the movie industry with all our hearts (despite growing up in America) - there are some things we can laugh at. Now, if some firangi who doesn't share our love for Bollywood were to see this video and laugh at it - well then, we would be upset.

That's the upshot in this whole thing. If you truly love something then it's ok to see the absurdity in it's excesses and even laugh at them. It's akin to you being able to make fun of your family members - it's perfectly ok to beat up on them but woe be unto the stranger who tries to do so because while I can make fun of my own, nobody else does. The only non-Indian friends I show Benny Lava to are the ones that love Bollywood to some extent or the other. Laughing at your old family pictures in regards to old hairstyles and fashions can be done in a loving and sweet way - don't see why laughing along at this video isn't the same thing.

An obscure but a favorite Bollywood song from the 80's that is similar to this song is from Inquillab (starring Amitabh & Sridevi). Just type in 'asha bhonsle & kishore kumar - inquillab' into youtube for more cheese than can be considered legal :)

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Anonymous said...

All I can say is that I'm glad I'm not the only one who doesn't think the 'Benny Lava' thing just isn't funny.

veracious said...

Thanks for the differing views, guys. I'm kind of not sure what else I can say on the topic to be honest, but I appreciate everybody's input.

Sanket - I agree that it's okay to laugh at something if you love it or "get it". The problem with Benny Lava, as I see it, is that most people who laugh at it don't have the slightest clue about Indian films in the first place.

Nina said...

Honestly, I was introduced to this "BENNY LAVA" video by a group of douchebags that sit on YouTube cackling at hamster videos all day. Needless to say, I never really found it funny. Something tells me that it's mainly those type of people that find it hilarious. And this buffalax guy made another one -- this time from Chiranjeevi's "Goli Mar" video -- "Girly Man." LOLZ, THAT'S SO CLEVER.

Jewels said...

I am hoping that someone can direct me to the ACTUAL translation for that song, as I am very interested in what they are really saying. Any suggestions?

Anonymous said...

I understand how some people worry that there are tons of people out there watching "Benny Lava" and mocking other people's cultures. People are people and there are always going to be some idiots that do or say hurtful things. However, the majority of people I know that find the video funny (myself included) are simply enjoying the absurdity of the lyrics, regardless of the culture of the people in the video. :) I also have noticed that after watching the first time, the attention shifts from the lyrics to actual (and incredible) talent of Prabhu Deva, and that seems to be why the people I know love it. I mean, that man is amazing! Until I saw the buffalax video, I had never had any contact with Indian or Tamil films, but since seeing the Benny Lava video, I actually starting looking up other original, un'buffalaxed' Indian films, and I love them! :)

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