Wilbur Sargunaraj: The simple superstar fighting for India's girl child
His debut music video, 'Love Marriage', made him India's first Youtube superstar. A slew of comedic follow-ups like 'First Class Chicken' and 'Cobra Cobra', as well as mainstream forays in Tamil Nadu's movie industry saw him cement his reputation as the 'Simple Superstar'.
His latest initiative though, is a long way from his beginnings, sitting in an autorickshaw and singing about wanting love marriage. Now, on the occasion of the International Day of the Girl Child, Sargunaraj has released his latest song 'Girls Arise', the latest in his campaign to raise awareness about various social causes.
In an interview with Catch, Sargunaraj discusses his latest song, the need for gender equality, the usefulness of comedy in generating social awareness and why he considers himself a feminist.
RC: You're best known for your comedic hit songs. What is it that made you decide to use your fame for social awareness? When and why did you decide to blend your music with your social consciousness?
WS: I believe we are all created with the intrinsic desire to respond to suffering around us. It's a matter of being responsible with your platform, abilities and talents whether you're a celebrity, public figure or just a common person with an ordinary job.
Everyone has the ability and responsibility to respond to the needs around us. If I wasn't a public figure I would still be doing something behind the scenes to make this world a better place.
RC: Your Facebook page makes it very evident that women's issues are very close to your heart. How did this start?
WS: I saw the way my mother and two sisters were treated growing up in India and vowed that I would do something to raise awareness or even start the discussion.
I saw firsthand how they had to deal with being treated as second-class citizens, facing eve teasing (cat calling), sexist and degrading comments, opportunities being squelched, need I go on?
I was so vexed and angered when I discovered female infanticide and how society disregarded females and found cruel ways to kill baby girls. As I said, when you see the injustices of this world you cannot remain silent! One must take a stand and do something about it.
RC: Your latest song, Girl Arise, is made for the international day of the girl child in partnership with the NGO Let Her Live. What is Let Her Live and how did you come to partner with them?
WS: Let Her live is an NGO and charitable trust based in New Delhi, India. They are responding to the issue of female foeticide and other forms of violence against women.
I always seem to meet incredible people through my friend Christopher Hale in Toronto. Through his network I was introduced to the director Raaj Mondol. We had some first class discussions in Gurgaon while planning the video and I was really blown away by Raaj's humility, joy and passion for this cause.
Together we believe that unless there's an intervention aimed at changing the way we think, all efforts made through legal and government actions will be insufficient to stop the abuse and death of women in our country. To see how you can help visit www.letherlive.in.
RC: Tell us about the message of Girl Arise. Is it a song you had written before you'd partnered with Let Her Live or one you wrote specifically for this campaign?
WS: This is a song I wrote for my "Feeling Genki" album which was released in 2015.
I am an ambassador for the Girl Arise campaign run by Women of Worth based in Chennai and really like what the campaign title represents. I thought it would be nice if I could make a music video to celebrate International day of the Girl Child so we waited this year to release it.
Many girls in India and in Delhi have told me that they have a fear of this city and question the safety of women. This is one of the reasons we chose Delhi for our location.
The song features volunteers from the 'Let Her Live' campaign and was filmed with the help of Wilbur fans in Gurgaon, Madam Debbie Mitra and Rahul Singh.
RC: What do you think are the major challenges facing India's women?
WS: I touch on some of the issues in the song but there are lots of issues! Some of these important issues can be summed up in the video where Raaj and I ask people to take a pledge. I would like those who are reading to take this pledge now!
1) I won't take dowry.
2) I will treat all women with respect.
3) I will value the girl child.
4) I will celebrate the birth of daughters.
Why do we say no to dowry? Because this is a major factor that results in girls and women having lesser value and being considered a burden. I long for women in India to be seen as equal to men and worthy in their own right.
RC: Do you consider yourself a feminist and, as a man, how important do you think your voice is to the feminist cause?
WS: If a feminist is someone who is devoted to the cause of standing up for the dignity and equality of women, then certainly I am one! I believe all men need to live in such a way that they set examples and inspire other men and boys to treat women with the utmost honour and respect!
'Boys will be boys' or 'locker room banter' is a pathetic excuse for disrespecting women! We must stand up to the sexism around us that creates a culture that allows for the abuse of women.
RC: Regardless of the seriousness of your message, you always bring a slight touch of humour. Do you think this could result in your message not being taken as seriously as it should?
WS: On the contrary I think this has always worked so well for me. I love dealing with taboo topics! Videos like "How to use a condom", "How to wear a sari" and the "Wilbur bucket bath challenge" have serious messages with a good dose of quality humour, and these videos are the ones that people have been engaging with the most.
Humor draws people in and allows them to let their guard down so these issues can be discussed. I do realize some people use comedy or humour just to shock people with abusive, maligning or racist content...this is not first class at all!
RC: Do you feel people are less open to a social message as opposed to a comedic one?
WS: Combine a social message with good comedy and you have a first class recipe! The best of both worlds!
RC: You're also a strong ambassador of the Dark is Beautiful campaign, have you faced racism in your own life? What can India do to rid our country of this racism?
WS: I am passionate about fighting to end the wretched discrimination of a persons self worth being tied up in the shade of their skin. Having encountered this bias all my life I was thrilled to tie up with the Dark is Beautiful campaign based in Chennai and become one of their ambassadors.
Fighting this is very hard as this issue of shadeism is entrenched into our culture and mindsets, but we must start somewhere! We first have to be honest that this discrimination exists!
Allow me to be frank, I am so ashamed at the way people from Africa are treated in India. Many of my friends from the African continent are shocked at the racism they experience here. It's awful yet I know of people who are so patriotic that they refuse to believe that India could have such a terrible bias at its core and deny any existence of skin colour bias!
We need to raise our voices and talk about this issue! We need to educate people on this issue and the negative effects that shadeism has on people.
We need positive role models who make the youth of our country believe that they are beautiful just the way they are regardless of their flaws, weaknesses, size, shape or colour! I want to see our nation freed from the chains of racial discrimination. I want to see people of all shades comfortable in their skin!
RC: What is it like being the anti-icon, someone who glorifies being simple as opposed to glorifying excess and fame?
WS: One of the most liberating things in life is when you start living a counter cultural life of other-centredness, generosity and simplicity! I am not saying it's easy but it is freeing!
Contentment does not come from owning the latest and the best things, but feeling connected with others. Our consumer-driven society focuses on always acquiring more! However, I believe we can make choices that value people over possessions, and make decisions that are based on our needs rather than our wants.
I am really excited to delve into sharing more on how to be first class citizens with the new book I am releasing in 2017 - How To Be A Simple Superstar. Together we will make the common extraordinary!
RC: Lastly, are you the original creator of the lungi pants? If not, where did you find them and where can I get a pair?
WS: Yes! Lungi pants are truly our best selling merchandise item! Cool, breezy, comfortable and a true reflection between the rural and the urban! We have been selling them for the last 5 years and make them in the village from the highest quality of Lungi material in Tamil Nadu. You can purchase them online.