By Amol Ranjan
Radio Jockey (RJ) Malishka Mendonsa made a video song talking about poor performance of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), Mumbai, and uploaded it on YouTube on 10 July, 2017. Inspired by a Marathi song, Sonu Tuza Mazyavar Bharosa Nahi Kay, it become a huge hit, and made Shiv Sena, a party which leads the BMC, angry as they threatened to file a defamation case against Malishka. In a rearguard action, Shiva Sena announced that RJ Malishka could face action under Section 381B of the Mumbai Municipal Act for allowing dengue mosquitoes to breed at her home. Responding to this pressure, Red FM made another ‘Sonu Song’ with RJ Raunak defending Malishka, while RJs from many other FM channels in India also made their own ‘Sonu Songs’ with changed lyrics talking about various themes including politics.
Since the controversy erupted and even before the Malishka song, ‘Sonu Songs’ have been made in various languages by people who modified its lyrics to suit what they want to say. There are even ‘Sonu Songs’ about recent Lalu-Nitish feud in Mahagathbandhan (in fact several) in Bhojpuri. A certain motif and similarity runs through almost all the ‘Sonu Songs’: familiar rhythmic style of the composition, people formation of group selfie frame in the video, and the head or body movement to a particular beat. The duration of the song varies from 40 seconds to 100 seconds. If one were to search social media platforms, especially YouTube, there are thousands of versions of the song created and uploaded by people with their own way of remixing, reuse, appropriation, aesthetic, style, and beat. It has even found popularity outside the country – a group of comedians from Pakistan made a ‘Sonu’ Song’, which is shot in a swimming pool, satirizing the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif because of his involvement in the Panama Papers expose.
Origin of ‘Sonu Song’
All this called for further inquiries, as I was curious to know about the origin of the song. When I started digging the internet, I found a news report which credited Marathi singer Ajay Kshirsagar as the original writer-singer of the ‘Sonu Song’. The report also said that Ajay was inspired by a ‘picnic song’ sent to him by his brother on WhatsApp which motivated him to make the song. In another video interview, Ajay also mentioned that he had made the ‘Sonu Song’ on 12 January, 2017. Although Ajay is happy that the song has gone viral, he is also unhappy for not getting due credit for the song as people jumped to make their own versions. Here, we must remember that ‘Sonu Songs’ is a video phenomenon and the people who are making ‘Sonu Songs’ are probably inspired by the ‘Sonu Videos’ that have been made after Ajay’s ‘Sonu Song’ became popular among the audience.
‘Sonu Song’ as a Viral Video Phenomenon
But the question is: how did ‘Sonu’ become a viral video phenomenon from a hit Marathi audio song?
I further mined YouTube for the earliest ‘Sonu Songs’ on the platform and I found a video from as early as 21 February 2017. This ‘Sonu Song’ was about 47 seconds and contained only the famous refrain, Sonu Tuza Mazyavar Bharosa Nahi Kay, which we also find in Ajay’s song. Mixed with a piece of music, the song was either not lip-synced with a visual of a man holding a selfie pose with his friends or was probably matched with a video which didn’t have the ‘Sonu Song’.
Next in the YouTube history, I found a video, which was uploaded on the 26 February 2017, where four young men posed for a selfie and sang the ‘Sonu Song’ for 47 seconds. Saurabh Parvekar, who uploaded the song, claimed in a YouTube comment that people started making more ‘Sonu’ videos only after this video.
Another song uploaded on 28 February, 2017 was more interesting since it also added to the form that it has taken subsequent to ‘Sonu Videos’ made after this. The video has three girls posing for a group selfie with their head movement matched to a beat, a similar head movement or the body movement has become popular with thousands of uploaded ‘Sonu Songs’ now. This particular video became quite popular and was uploaded by a lot of people, garnering considerable views.
On further investigation I found that the visual from the video is taken from another video where the three girls are narrating a joke in a group selfie. This was a bizarre revelation since it indicated that the video form that we have come to associate with ‘Sonu Song’ might have its origin in such digital manipulation or morphing. It also suggested that not only the lyrics of the song have been appropriated but the visuals too have evolved to inform itself in the making of the cult of ‘Sonu Songs’.
How do we read the ‘Sonu Song’ phenomenon?
There might be other WhatsApp videos older than these videos. When we closely examine its pattern and constituents, it becomes certain that the ‘Sonu Song’ has its codes which can be read according to many ‘old’ and ‘new’ media logic. First, the video song is embedded within a popular digital and visual expression of contemporary time: a group selfie. ‘Sonu Songs’ have also been produced and circulated with hardly any resource or large scale production infrastructure. This has been made possible by the penetration of the digital technologies and spread of the internet, where videos can be readily and cheaply produced, published, consumed, and distributed.
Apart from this, in terms of form, one of the ways to read this phenomenon is to think of it as folk – not the folk whose origin precedes the digital but which are ‘born’ into and produced through the digital media. Just like folk, it has a certain mysterious angle to its origin since Ajay himself confessed that the original ‘Sonu Song’ that he made was inspired from a ‘picnic song’. Also note that the ‘Sonu Song’ has gone through a process of transformation where it is no longer about the lyric or the audio, but a new visual digital expression. As we know it, folk cultures grow, evolve, and are constantly constructed by the people who come across them. The documented examples above provide ample proof. The songs have also been adapted into different languages with changed lyrics, which have been produced and reproduced through community with no sense of ownership and without any conscious attempt to monetise them. All of these attach a ‘folk like’ character to ‘Sonu Songs’.
Having said that, it is also unlike folk in the sense that its popularity has been communicated ‘virally’ rather than orally, a nature which historically has been associated with folk. The viral nature of a video is such that a ‘folk’ no longer remains confined to the boundary of a specific ‘culture’ but ‘crosses-over to other cultures’ rapidly in globally connected networks, barring digital divide which is still very big in India. We must also remember that folk is also associated with something which has lasted for a long period time and ‘preserved’ by the people who have passed it to the next. However, the ‘Sonu Song’ phenomenon is most likely to be forgotten and buried in internet histories or one of the data centres of Facebook, Google, etc as its viral magic fades away just like series of parodies which once became popular.
Could ‘Sonu Songs’ be categorised as folk which are born in the ‘digital’? Or are these just a series of parodies made by fans of the song? And if we are to understand this through the lens of folk, how do we imagine folk in the digital age where almost every other kind of cultural expression are likely to be produced, consumed, and circulated digitally? Is folk something that will always precede the ‘digital’, which will only reproduce itself when it is contacted with digital mode of production and communication? Or can a folk also be ‘born’ in the ‘digital’ amidst the danger that is likely to be ‘lost’ in the next wave of viral videos? In that case, does ‘digital’ threaten the ‘longevity’ that a folk requires to qualify itself?
Several questions emerge. But one thing is certain that a phenomenon like ‘Sonu Songs’ is an interesting site to understand emerging cultural practices in the digital age.
Amol Ranjan has worked with various media and research organizations after completing his MA in Media and Cultural Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, in 2012. He was previously working with The Centre for Internet and Society as a Consultant.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘India at 70: The Many Partitions’, edited by Bhaswati Ghosh, author & translator, Canada.