Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Dear Men in Blue: An open letter to the Indian cricket team

My dear men in blue,

First things first - Thank you!

It has been a sheer pleasure ‘following’ you throughout this 2019 world cup.  Even though many of us could not be in England physically, our thoughts, prayers and emotions were with you every day and every minute in your journey.  I shall leave the more technical analyses of your performance to the cricket pundits.  I will, in this letter, just tell you what I took away from this experience. 

What stands even taller than some of your run rates is the way you continually looked like one tightly-knit unit.  When MS Dhoni dove to his right to take a sharp catch, Yuzvendra Chahal bowed to him in a gesture that at once suggested respect and unfettered joy at an ageing master throwing up a pleasant surprise.  I will remember Hardik Pandya winking at a teammate after scalping a wicket with his patented slow bouncer – the smile reached his eyes quicker than Jasprit Bumrah’s yorker usually reached the stumps.  Isn’t that a sign of genuineness?  Trust me when I say that those smiles were infectious. 

Team pic taken from Virat Kohli's tweet:

Every time a tough question or two was thrown at the captain leader Virat Kohli about a team mate’s purported error, what we heard was not apportioning of blame.  Instead, what he offered was a measured response that addressed the issue without attacking the person.  Excuses were not given for errors of judgment.  Rather, human fallibility was acknowledged as a part of professional sport in the most mature manner possible.  In short, this may be a relatively young side but as a team, you exhibited an enviable mix of youthful exuberance, energy, playfulness yet never losing focus on your goals as a team or missing an opportunity to be guided by the more senior players in the team.  When confidence mixes with humility, the resultant cocktail is not intoxicating in a trippy way but rather, invigorating in a balanced manner. 

I was certainly worried when you lost the monstrously dangerous Shikhar Dhawan early on to injury.  But you somehow coped, managing replacements without being rigid.  You, of course, know that the middle order frailties will have to be addressed swiftly.  But I must say that up until today, the spectacular top order ensured that – this car analogy will make Dhoni happy, I hope! – you raced off the blocks with controlled acceleration, knowing when exactly to press the brakes so as to retain control.  Alas when the top order crashed into the brick walls erected by New Zealand’s nifty bowlers and fielders, the damage was nearly irreversible. 

The fact that Ravindra Jadeja and Dhoni showed such indomitable spirit and fought until the very end is something that budding professionals like me will take to our own work lives.  As your friend Harsha Bhogle thoughtfully stated once, the trifecta of “ability, attitude and passion” are the key ingredients of success.  We weren’t successful today – I say “we” because feel like I should partake in failure as much as we derive surrogate happiness from your successes.  But the spirit, the intent and the willingness to try your best to succeed was a ‘success’ in itself.  Just that in the group phase, this spirit resulted in victories.  But today that was not to be. 

I know that you must all be deeply disappointed that you will not be playing in the finals at Lord’s.  That is okay.  This is not the last tournament that will be staged by the ICC.  The “attitude” and “passion” that you all have aplenty will ensure that in due course that your “ability” will fetch commensurate results quicker than you think is feasible.  For now, please remember my idol Randy Pausch’s words – experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted. 

Over the last few weeks, you have given us immense happiness by representing the nation the way you did.  It is time for us to meaningfully express gratitude and reciprocation by being there for you during this hour of sadness.  You have our unqualified support as you learn from this experience and continue to take Indian cricket to stratospheric heights.  May tomorrow be a brighter day.  For now, safe travels.  Rest up and recharge.  We will back with you before you know it.

With much love, gratitude and respect,
Yours cricketfully,
Ram Murali

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Vivekh is Awake – An essay on actor Vivekh

If you stake claim to be a fan of good cinema and have an interest in Tamil films, then you better have watched the recent “Vellai PookaL.”  One of the best-written thrillers in recent times, the film has a jaw-dropping twist at the end that is so powerful, so convincing and so unexpected that it forces you to forgive the mercifully rare missteps in this movie.  The pleasures of witnessing a well-crafted film are aplenty in the movie.  The ingenious twist astonishes us for sure.  That is the cerebral gratification offered by the film.  So, kudos to first-time filmmaker Vivek Elangovan.  But even he would be the first to admit that the primary reason the memories of the film lingers in one’s mind long after the end credits roll is the riveting, controlled performance of its lead actor Vivekh. 

Unlike unidimensional comedians, Vivekh has always been a well-rounded, thinking comic actor.  Right from his early roles in K Balachander’s movies such as his 1987 debut feature Manadhil Urudhi Vendum, Pudhu Pudhu ArthangaL (which featured the famous, “Iniki Seththaa NaaLaiku Paal” line) and Oru Veedu Iru Vaasal, there was a certain amount of intelligence and wit in the humor.  In an interview, Vivekh mentioned that KB, during the shooting of Oru Veedu…, spotted a rainbow.  Wasting no time, he asked his cinematographer to capture its splendor and then shot a close-up on Vivekh, asking the latter (who plays a writer’s assistant) to ad lib a few lines about a rainbow.  Quick to seize the opportunity granted by his mentor, Vivekh came up with the following gem:

Vannangal Koartha VaLaindha Malar-aa…Vaanam Aditha Water Color-aa…
Arjunan Vilenum Kanavu Poster…Andavan Than Idharku Drawing Master!

In the 1990s, his career stuttered, his limited roles in movies like Veera going almost unnoticed.  A year before he skyrocketed to fame with Vaali, he had a wonderful role in Saran’s Kaadhal Mannan.  Playing a friend of Ajith’s who is staunchly opposed to the very idea of love, Vivekh’s characterization was fresh, a stark contrast from that of comedians whose sole reason for existence was to help the heroes in their attempts to woo the heroine.  The humor was unforced, his lines were sharp and his chemistry with veteran MS Viswanathan was quite delightful.  Having worked closely with Saran on the making of the film, he was even credited with associate direction credits for this film. 

Of course, 1999 came.  Vaali released.  On the merit of writing and acting in some side-splittingly funny scenes, Vivekh quickly became Tamil cinema's busiest comedian.  And Thirunelveli, released the next year, set the template – and standard - for his humor for the years to come.  Mixing social consciousness with sardonic dialogue, his scenes were undeniably the sole highlight of an otherwise unremarkable film.  Over the next few years, he went from strength to strength, writing some of his scripts but also working with one of the most unheralded comic writers of them all – the late Prasanna Kumar, the writer behind the splendid humor in Run, Manadhi Thirudi Vittaai, Pennin Manadhai Thottu among other films.  His collaboration with Shankar has spanned three films till date – Boys, Anniyan and Sivaji.  He was in dazzling comic form in Anniyan, the train scene a real hoot, specifically the “Kamal Sir” comment!

After being prolific for a few years, his output in films diminished at the same time that he evinced keen interest in his passion project – the Green Kalam, focused on planting trees.  In 2014, he turned in a brilliant performance in Naanthan Bala in a serious role, which was applauded by critics but was not commercially successful.  I state this because had the movie set the cash registers ringing, similar roles may have come his way.  They say, better late than never.  That is exactly what has happened with Vellai PookaL. 

There is a stupendously acted sequence in Vellai PookaL where Vivekh breaks down in the solitude of his son’s house.  I watched the film on Amazon Prime.  I would have loved to have watched this in the theater; I can wager a bet worth the film ticket that there would have been pin-drop silence during and applause after the end of this sequence.  His dialogue delivery is as refined as it has ever been, the power of lines like the "Test match" line being brought to life by the actor with a conviction of his own.  Vellai PookaL has received several encomiums from critics and fans alike.  I hope that this film kicks off the next phase of Vivekh’s career.  Of course, it takes many a perceptive filmmaker to be the “drawing master” to help chalk out a new path in support of an actor and comedian par excellence.  And they need to look no further than Vellai PookaL for a testament of his immense ability.  

Friday, June 14, 2019

Beyond the Laughs - A tribute to 'Crazy' Mohan

I had the pleasure of driving 'Crazy' Mohan, 'Maadhu' Balaji and their troupe member Vasu back from a staging of “Chocolate Krishna” during their visit to the US in 2012.  In this play, as fans know, he played the titular role of Lord Krishna.  En route home, he glanced at the GPS in my car, turned to his brother and said, “GPS na God Positioning System.  HE will guide us in the right direction as long as we follow him unquestioningly!”  That moment was so symptomatic of the man.  He could conjure a pun out of nowhere.  He could create a joke out of nothing.  In another instance, we were driving through AVM Studios at a time when the AVM family was going through a partitioning of familial assets.  Looking at a huge wall erected in the middle of the studio, he quipped, “Chettiar kattina studio la paaru.  Great Wall of China maadhiri idhu Great Wall of Naina!”  But to those that knew him well, he was a lot deeper than the hilarity suggested.  The moniker of ‘crazy’ fit his screen persona well.  It even fit his happy-go-lucky real-life personality.  But he was deeper than that.  A lot deeper.

Hilarity – that was the gift that God bestowed on him. 
Loyalty - that was the gift he bestowed on his family and friends. 
Artistry – that came so naturally to him that you almost got the feeling that his paintings painted themselves. (Balaji once joked on Koffee with Anu, “Chinna vayasula avan paint adichathuku aprama naanga sevutha paint adikanum!”)
Poetry - that is where his deep piety shone like a newly polished diamond.  One of his most masterful poems was the following:

Paiyyan Mannai Thindraal Veiyyathe…
VaaykuL Paar…
Vaiyyam Theriyaavitaal aiyyame illai…
Nee Yashodhai Alla…

That last line is gorgeously understated and loaded at once.  Every child being akin to God has never been more profoundly expressed.  Over the past decade or so, he decreased his output for theater and cinema.  But he had elevated himself to another plane – his poetry, which often dwelled on spirituality, became his forte.  In his style, we could say, “Munaadi Drama, Ippo RAma!”

One of his best speeches:

In my interactions with him, he has always emanated the kind of sweetness and warm vibes that mark the best of his plays.  I have seen him enjoy the simple pleasures of life like the spontaneous hug of a child or a well-prepared cup of coffee.  His needs were as basic as his thinking was advanced.  His demeanor was as simple as his mistaken-identity screenplays were complex.  His ego was as miniscule as the monuments of his talents were huge.   Alas, the span of his life was as short as his character stands tall.  But in this hour of grief, it behooves us to reflect, internalize and spread the joy that he gave us. 

Joy he gave us aplenty.  For a kid born in Chennai in the early 80s, audio cassettes of his plays were a constant fixture in the house.  I vividly remember my Aunt and I listening to “Return of Crazy Thieves” and rewinding the tape to the immortal “B.A. Paashandi” line numerous times till the tape wore out!  On stage, I remember marveling at the ingenious structures of his play where the plot unraveled in hilariously unpredictable ways.  People wax eloquent about his dialogues but if you think deeper about his plays, the plots were deliciously convoluted sans any confusion.  The eye doctor clinic sequence in “Madhil mel maadhu” is a case in point.  What is absolutely magical is that the entire sequence plays out so well even on just audio even though there is plenty happening in the scene with multiple characters entering and exiting the scene.  He had complete command over the medium which is why it rankles me when people dismiss humorous plays as ‘thunuku thoranam’ (string of jokes).  His was a fertile mind that combined intricate plotting with inimitably witty dialogue and it behooves discerning critics to give credit where it is due.

His writing for movies peaked with his collaborations with Kamal Haasan.  If you think about it, Kamal’s films up until “Aboorva SahodharargaL” (his first collaboration with Mohan, in 1989) never had the kind of zaniness that we were going to witness in the next 15 years up until 2004 with “Vasool Raja” which was the last of their credited combinations. (Mohan was heavily involved in the scripting of subsequent efforts like “Dasavatharam.”) Kamal understood the breadth and depth of Mohan’s talents and contributed handsomely as an actor and screenplay writer.  Their synergy was the stuff of legends.  And in “Michael Madana Kamarajan,” “Avvai Shanmugi” “Sathi Leelavathi” and other comic classics, we have to reflect on how even if the creator dies, the imprints left by the ink of his pen never dries.

But to me, Mohan gained true immortality with not any of his Kamal collaborations but with “Aaha,” which, to me, was his best work as a screen writer.  Some of his collaborations with Kamal Hassan have probably resulted in even bigger laughs.  But "Aaha" remains very special.  I think I know why.  The other movies made me laugh, yes.  But “Aaha” is the movie that makes me smile.  It is not a nuance; there is a world of difference.  This movie was sweet but not syrupy.  Every smile is well-earned.  Every tear is worth shedding.  And the dialogues play no small part in this respect, especially Banupriya’s interactions with Rajiv Krishna.  Even the advice-laden lines like the cute scene in the supermarket are laced with Mohan’s witty lines.  And beyond the smiles, there are, of course, some big laughs in “Aaha.”  Famous for his imaginative, witty puns, Mohan’s writing is in top gear here.  Be it the “pul tharai…puliyotharai” comment, the “bar attached, nee detached” remark or the hilarious “thayir vadai” joke, the laughs are fast and frenetic.  But the biggest laughs come in…of all scenes, a death scene.  The exchange that the Thatha has with Delhi Ganesh has so many laughs that the ink in Mohan’s pen probably had a tough time keeping pace with his flow of thoughts!  It is deeply saddening to think that the writer who made us laugh in a death scene is now making us shed tears with his own final journey. 

Highlights from the highlight of his film career - "Aaha"

Of all the scenes that featured in his movies, the one scene that I wish were to be replicated in life would be the last scene of “Aaha” where the eldest brother, thought to have passed away, appears in the house much to the shock and joy of his family members.  Of course, that’s wishful thinking.  But it is certainly something that reminds us of the imperfections of life and the gratifications of art.  It also reminds us of how the God Positioning System takes us in paths that we find hard not to question.  But with HIS untimely demise, all we can do is to treat him as the one whose values we espouse, to chalk out our own path.  And that GPS will never, ever fail to guide us in the right direction.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Worship the Art: Thoughts on the Ilayaraja controversy and idol worship

The irony of the title will not be lost on those that know me.  I am one of the most passionate movie buffs that you will have the pleasure of knowing – many may say, ‘pain of enduring’ but let me look at the full half of the glass!  But I don't always stop with just watching the films.  I have, through contacts, persistence, serendipity or a combination of all of these, met a considerable number of film folks from writers to directors to actors.  The root cause of this urge to reach out to them is the fact that their art gives me tremendous joy.  Movies and music are a very important part of my life.  A few years ago, ‘Crazy’ Mohan offered a profound, even moving explanation of humor and its role in society.  He opined that the profundity of novelists, intellectuals and social workers were all akin to a surgery that was performed by these social doctors on society; humor was the anesthesia.  By itself, it may not have intrinsic value but without it, surgery is impossible.  In a way, movies are the anesthesia for my life.  As much as it is the intention of filmmakers to evoke a reaction, visceral or cerebral, movies are a parallel stream of consciousness.  They exist on a different plane.  Yet they are a calming influence that help me keep myself centered.  And what about the people that create this parallel universe for me?  Are they akin to God?

For creators, being deified is not only an honor but also a burden.  But in a lot of cases, they only have themselves to blame.  There are very few filmmakers in Tamil cinema who consciously avoid the spotlight or the public adulation (Mani Ratnam is a case in point).  Some like singer Chinmayi utilize social media to make themselves accessible to people, especially for important social causes like the #MeToo movement.  But a lot of celebrities live off the idol worship, the sycophancy, the constant shower of praise, some empty.  They believe that their prima donna behaviors are a natural byproduct of their genius.  That civility, empathy and respect are all things that people can pray for but not expect from them the way they can of lesser mortals.  In here lies the dilemma that we fan(atic)s face – we have a choice.  We can choose our boundaries.  We can choose to keep the art at an arm’s length and the artist at a barge pole’s length.  And to point of this write-up, we can choose the subject of our worship –the art or the artist?  Alas, the inexorable pull of the medium can be too hard to resist for some.  And yes, I admit – I have had my challenges too!

The recent video of Ilayaraja acting in a rude, insensitive manner towards a security person during his concert should not come as any surprise.  I am not going to delve into the rights and wrongs of his behavior.  The poor security officer was in a state of shock.  Singer Mano stepped into defuse the situation but not before gesturing to the officer to fall at Ilayaraja’s feet!  Of course, the officer didn’t have to.  He could have stated his rationale and exited the stage.  But it is impossible to imagine the pressure he must have felt in front of a humungous crowd, standing next to a man who is worshipped as a God, hailed as a king of music.  The ‘God’ gave evidence that he is just a human being, with his own flaws and foibles. 

I have had several memorable exchanges with filmmakers and actors.  I have been mesmerized and awestruck to be in their presence.  I have had mostly pleasant interactions.  In some instances like with Director Vasanth, I have had longstanding friendships that sprouted from my love of their art.  But there have been other instances – I will not mention names – where I have seen the subjects of my adoration behave or say things that have rubbed me off the wrong way.  I have simply distanced myself from them.  I know of friends who cannot stand to watch the film of a much-respected artist whose actions and behaviors (in real life) left a bitter taste – Woody Allen is a case in point.  It is a very, very valid choice - after all, we have to respect our instinctive reactions in such cases.  Others go to the other extreme, ignoring these things completely with a laser focus on the art itself.  They have even made public statements to this effect.  I find myself somewhere in the middle.  I certainly don’t think that a work of art can or should obscure unacceptable behaviors.  But the truth remains that I can watch (or listen to) the creations without the ghosts of the creators’ dark sides looming over me.  After all, it is the art that gives me joy. 

It is the art that moves me.  It is the art that uplifts me.  The artists come second.  If I know some of them and they are nice to me, that is an added bonus, a privilege that I don’t take for granted.  But by the same token, I think that celebrities have responsibility too.  Let me hasten to add that I am not about to act as moral police.  All I am saying is that they cannot assume that the adoration of their art must co-exist with a condoning of their behaviors.  They don’t have to act or sound angelic.  But the written and unwritten rules of societal interaction apply to them too.  But as long as we deify them, we will continue to unwittingly imply that they are the exception to these rules.  So, as fans, I think we must empower ourselves to create a healthy distance from creators while knowing that if we want to get any closer, we are subconsciously signing up to take risks that come with the territory.  That, I think, will be a lot easier than to sit back and expect celebrities to mend their ways and act in ways that stack up to the heights that their art take us to.  After all, the parallel universe that they create for us is easier to enter into and exit from.  If we only remember that while they may have created it, we own it now!

Monday, May 20, 2019

Made in Mylapore

Randy Pausch of “The Last Lecture” fame was waiting at a Doctor’s office.  Carnegie Mellon University had invited him to give what was to become a world-famous talk.  They had been sending him ‘gentle’ reminders to send in a talk title.  He hadn’t really arrived at a theme for this lecture.  And it suddenly dawned on him that all of what he wanted to achieve and eventually achieved were rooted in his childhood dreams.  Bingo!  Problem solved.  He titled his talk, “Really achieving your childhood dreams.”  A few days back, my childhood friend texted our group of friends with the sad news that his grandma had passed on.  To offer my condolences, I spoke to him and his Mom – the latter lives in Mylapore (a bustling neighborhood in Chennai, India for those that are unfamiliar with the city).  After I hung up, I was reminiscing about my own maternal grandma whose first death anniversary is May 22.  As you may know from previous write-ups, I used to call her Thathama.  She passed on a day before her 82nd birthday.  As I was reflecting on Thathama, I realized that most of what she was as a person and certainly a lot of what I remember of her could be traced back to her roots in Mylapore, where she was born and raised.  The more I thought of Mylapore, the more I seemed to see my grandma in it, and vice versa.  I could now relate to the sheer joy that Pausch experienced in his epiphany!

I have visited a couple of times the house where Thathama spent her formative years.  I don’t have many vivid memories of this place except for the fact that it was a quaint courtyard house.  Thathama’s brother’s family lived there until the 90s.  I honestly don’t even know the current state of that house.  But more than the house itself, I remember Thathama’s memories of the house.  She had lived with four sisters and two brothers.  She lost her Dad before she turned 10.  There was something very poignant about how she reminisced about her Mother.  She spoke of how from a young age, she could empathize with the pain of a relatively young widow who never remarried and on whom was the responsibility of raising several children.  She was extremely close to her siblings.  In fact, three of the sisters including Thathama died within five months of each other – one of them breathed her last less than two weeks before Thathama did.  Surely that was no coincidence, right?  I don’t have an answer.  But I feel that destiny played its part.  I remember Thathama’s anguish when her elder brother died of cancer in 1992.  What I remember even more was how she teared up at my upanayanam when she saw her brother who made it a point to attend despite having very little time left.  But don’t let the tears evoke the image of a weak person.  She had tremendous inner steel.  She had taken a lot of hard knocks in her life, starting with the early loss of her father, the unexpected death of her husband in a freak accident and her daughter predeceasing her, to name a few.  She may have fallen down many times.  But she never failed to get up.  More importantly, she never failed to rally around her family even when the magnitude of her loss was bigger than that of her family’s.  Her growing up in that house in Mylapore with her family and feeling a strong sense of responsibility towards her mother from her formative years – all of that laid the foundation of her deep empathy and resilience. 

Both her school as well as mine were in Mylapore!  She studied at Lady Sivaswami School.  But she never went to college.  I suppose that women going to college was not the norm in the 1950s.  Instead, she got married when she was 18.  Owing to the fact that she didn’t get educated beyond high school or her exposure extending beyond the confines of Mylapore, she was very insistent on top quality education for her daughters.  Despite belonging to a regular middle-class family, it was upon her insistence that my grandpa had my Mom join the Rosary Metric Convent.  To Thathama, a solid educational foundation was a surefire way of instilling confidence in her children.  This is not to say that that’s the only way of life.  I am just making the point that she wanted for her kids what she hadn’t gotten as a child. 

My childhood was spent pretty much entirely in my grandma’s house.  Even though my parents lived in other apartments and homes in Chennai, my ‘base’, so to say, was Thathama’s house.  It was very close to my school.  This meant that in primary school, when parents were allowed to bring lunch for kids in the large shed in my school, it was not my Mom (who was a working professional) who came – it was Thathama who would show up with steaming hot lunch!  One of my school friends thought that she was my mother.  I suppose he was not too far off!  Thathama packing my lunch was the norm up until I finished high school.  Of course, in addition to the food itself, she offered a lot of food for thought on education!  Not that I was always the most attentive listener.  She would waste no time in reminding me that I should work a lot harder to stack up to my Mom’s credentials.  Once, after my final exams, I was stacking a set of text books.  Back home in India, you could sell these books by the pound.  The heavier the book, the more money it would fetch.  So, I was joyously getting ready to make some money off the books that I couldn’t comprehend anyway.  Poker faced, she quipped, “Why don’t you wait until the results are out?!”  Over the years, I’d like to think that she developed a little more confidence in my aptitude.  My undergrad professor who attended my graduation told me later that he couldn’t quite comprehend why my grandma was sobbing uncontrollably.  I replied, “Tears of happiness, Dr. Jamison!”  It was more relief, now that I think of it! 

Anyone that staked claim to being a hardcore Mylaporean would have tasted the kaalathi kadai rose milk at least once in their lifetime.  This shop was within a stone’s throw of Thathama’s childhood home.  She had taken me many a time to this rather charmingly nondescript store that served this delectable beverage.  Both of us had a sweet tooth and it suited our palates just fine.  I have seen her enjoy the continental breakfast spread at hotels with equal relish.  But she never forgot the simple pleasures that she had experienced in her formative years.  I am glad that she made me a part of the times that she took a stroll down the memory lanes of Mylapore!  The other Mylapore place that was an integral part of her life was the vegetable market.  She took great delight in buying vegetables herself and striking a conversation with the shop owners that invariably extended beyond produce!  In fact, she seemed to be very familiar with all the shops in Mylapore that catered to my needs - be it Vijaya Stores (stationery shop), the Ambika appalam store or a tiny framing shop (whose owner proudly showed off photos with Vaali and TMS!) where broken frames - courtesy of yours truly - would be fixed in a matter of hours.

But the one place in Mylapore that will be forever associated with Thathama is the Srinivasa PerumaL temple.  Frequenting the temple on a daily basis was a habit that she cultivated when she was barely into her teens.  As a kid, I would shamelessly accompany her just for their delicious curd rice while uttering the same ‘saraswati namasthubyam’ regardless of the sannadhi that she took me to, much to her chagrin!  I would cheekily remark that the Gods in the different parts of the temple would communicate with one another and pass on my prayers.  I found it funny then; I am not sure she did.  When in my teenage years, following my grandpa’s passing away, I went through an extended phase where I felt incredibly indignant that the God whom Thathama prayed to every day had let her down so badly, so irreversibly.  She, of course, continued to pray as hard as ever.  But there was a phase when I would accompany her to the temple but would wait outside in the car, gleefully chatting with our chauffeur about how I was going to change the world for the better.  I am not sure if even my family or friends think that way, let alone the world!  

Last year, when I visited her in April, she was confined to the bed as a result of the massive cardiac attack that she had suffered in January.  But upon my family’s insistence on a particular auspicious day during that trip, I visited the temple.  I broke the ‘no photography allowed’ rule because I wanted to show a picture of the deity to Thathama on the phone.  If she couldn’t see the God that she had visited on a daily basis, then the God better come see her.  I don’t think it was the right thing to do but at the time, it felt like something I owed my grandma.  The temple priest yelled at me for not following the rules.  For a change, I was thick skinned and after offering an apology of an apology, I stepped out of the temple, picture safe and secure on my cell phone to show to Thathama.  She believed in the lord until the very end despite all the joys and sorrows of her life.  It was the anchor that allowed her to be the anchor for the family as it faced its share of happiness and despair. 

Thank you Mylapore, for how you shaped Thathama.
Thank you Thathama, for how you shaped me.

Monday, May 6, 2019

(He)Art Beats: Mahendran’s “Nenjathai Killathey”

Watching Nenjathai Killathey, which released in 1980, in 2019 is quite a joyous experience for any cineaste.  Not just for the glorious cinematography by Ashok Kumar, which was way ahead of its time.  Not just for the exquisite delicacy of taste in the writing and characterizations, which is a rarity even now 39 years after its release.  Not just for the scintillating score, the kind of which Ilayaraja usually reserved - not that it was needed elsewhere! – for the directors who respected the ‘visual’ aspect of cinema.  As I think that the movie is six months older than me (!), what is a fun, illuminating experience is how much this film, unlike any of Mahendran’s 11 other films as a director, inspired other filmmakers.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise really.  Because, truth to be told, Nenjathai… is probably the most ‘commercial’ of Mahendran’s works as a director.  There is a love story, there are comedy scenes that the film really doesn’t need, there is a dance number featuring an adolescent kid and a girl, there is even a climax scene at the airport!  But while Mahendran dabbles in more mainstream elements than was the norm for him, the nuance of the writing and the complexity of the relationships all ensure that the movie gives us plenty of glimpses of what makes Mahendran’s work stand the test of time. 

Andha 7 NaatkaL (1981), Mouna Raagam (1986), the Prashant-Ambika-Manivannan portions of Agathian’s Kadhal Kavithai (1998), all have thematic similarities to Nenjathai… Agathian even made a film of the same title about a prickly relationship between a self-indulgent man and the hurt he causes his love interest.  To give credit to these filmmakers, all of them had their own stamp on their material.  Mouna Raagam’s similarity is striking if you look at just the core theme – that of a girl, who is unhappy in her arranged marriage because of a failed love affair.  But the key difference is that in Mouna Raagam, Revathi gradually falling in love with her husband is completely intrinsic, influenced by nobody.  Whereas in Nenjathai…, Suhasini falling for Pratap Pothen doesn’t happen in a vacuum – the tragedy of a kid succumbing to cancer and Murthy’s subsequent words of wisdom to Suhasini are a case in point.  Even her former lover (played by Mohan) who is now married, comes back into her life, trying to convince her in a roundabout way, to be happy in her marriage. 

Click on Play to go to the 'words of wisdom' scene mentioned above:

It is quite fascinating to see the difference in how Mahendran and Mani Ratnam, both masters of the medium, tackle the same theme.  I prefer Mouna Raagam to Nenjathai… mainly because of Revathy’s performance and the Revathy-Mohan portions in the second half.  As wonderfully controlled as Suhasini is in Nenjathai…, I think Revathy was astounding in Mouna Raagam.  Small moments like the lead-in to the “Chinna Chinna Vanna Kuyil” song, were sprinkles of magic between the couple.  There is something beautiful about a love story that zooms in on just the couple, sans external forces.  In Nenjathai…, an outspoken, modern woman marries an equally broadminded man who knows of her love affair.  The fact that she doesn’t open up to him is not hard to digest – after all, complex human beings are rarely seen on screen.  But somehow her changes in attitude, dressing style and her final change of heart don’t have the kind of quiet conviction that I sensed in Mouna Raagam.  But that is not to discredit the writing of Mahendran, which has several other layers which I will delve into.

Suhasini gets top billing (that too in her debut feature, which is still rare for actresses in Tamil movies).  But the best characters in the film are that of Sarat Babu, as her doting yet pragmatic sibling, and Pratap Pothen, who plays her husband.  Sarat is stuck in an unhappy marriage and is fully aware, yet helpless, of the odious effects that his monster of a wife has on his sister.  (Agathian had a beautiful arc for the Ambika character in Kadhal Kavithai whereas the shrew remains untamed until the end in Nenjathai…) He finds solace in a platonic relationship with a woman who showers him with the kind of affection that is missing in his marriage.  When he realizes that his sister has fallen in love with a mechanic, he reasons out with her perceptively.  Mahendran, the writer, sparkles in this segment.  The way Sarat talks to her and subsequently enlists Pratap’s help, are instances of psychologically sound writing.  Ditto for Pratap’s reaction later when Sarat tries to intervene in their marriage and its discord.  The protective attitude of the husband is as endearing as the tough love of the brother is understandable. 

The protective husband meets the practical brother (Play to go directly to this scene):

Suhasini, Sarat and Pratap, all do some of their finest work in this movie.  Aided by SN Surendar’s superb voice work, Pratap is especially delightful.  And he has arguably the best line of the movie.  It is his response to Sarat when the latter apologizes for a no-frills wedding at the registrar office - “Kalyanam-ngaradhu manasuku therinja podhum.  Naama vazhara vaazhkai mattum ulagathuku therinja podhum.”  Especially for those that have only seen his over the top eccentricity on screen, Nenjathai… will be a revelation.  Even Murthy, known for his ribaldry as a comedian, has a great scene where he learns of his employee’s cancer diagnosis.  While affording due credit to the performers, it is impossible not to think of the director who shapes up their performances, especially given how rarely we saw/see actors bring in this kind of detailing and understatement to their acting.  Note how Pratap is constantly clinging to a pack of cigarettes – his smoking habit, exacerbated by the stress of his marriage, gets a payoff in a deeply moving scene where Suhasini oscillates between tending to him and resisting the urge to do so, during a coughing bout.

Murthy's finest moment as a character actor:

Ilayaraja’s background theme for the Pratap – Suhasini portions is reason alone to watch this film!  The theme fits perfectly with the slowly brewing anguish of the marriage. (Suhasini utilized this theme again for the Revathy episode of Penn, which she wrote and directed.)  The “Paruvame” song is one of the most breathtaking sequences captured on film.  Ashok Kumar’s images are inimitably picturesque.  My favorite scene from a photographic perspective though is the one at the registrar office.  The staging is beautifully done, especially the placement of Sarat Babu’s confidant.  She is in the background behind a window, yet Sarat catches a glance at her as she silently admires the newly married couple.  What better way of showcasing the fact that she is a part of Sarat’s life, but with a caveat.  The closeups that capture the expressions of Pratap and Suhasini make any dialogue in this scene redundant. 

Ilayaraja's heavenly score:

The registrar office scene:

With Mahendran’s passing away, there has been considerable interest rekindled in his films.  Nenjathai Killathey was his biggest commercial success.  That he achieved it without completely sacrificing his vision raises the question why he didn’t walk this tightrope more often.  But I suppose that a subset of his films will continue to offer ample, enduring evidence of his vision for the audiovisual medium that is cinema.  It is now up to the modern generation of thoughtful filmmakers to carry that forward. 

Two rather lovely scenes from Kadhal Kavithai - this is a good example of what inspiration is as opposed to imitation.  The Ambika character is modeled along the lines of the Shanti Williams character of Nenjathai Killathey.  But Agathian provides a lovely closure to his character, something that Mahendran doesn't bother with.  Neither approach is 'right' or 'wrong.'  They are just different.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

An elusive triangle: Reflections on interpersonal relationships

As we chatted over a cup of tea, my friend ‘drew’ a triangle with his fingers.  His right hand was at around his waist level, as he started moving his hand horizontally to simulate the base of the triangle.  As he chalked out the base, he paused and said, “Imagine that the two bases represent you and the other person in a relationship.”  Now, he proceeded to draw the rest of the triangle – the top of the triangle was at around his chest height.  He concluded by stating, “Now think of your relationship as the top of this triangle.  Both you and the other person are at the same level at the base, while the relationship is on a much higher pedestal than you are.”  That simple, eh?  You and I know that the world would be a far more utopian place if this were easy.  It is certainly not simple to chalk out this perfect equilateral triangle for all our key relationships.  But is it impossible? 

In a rather thoughtfully worded e-mail, a pal of mine wrote, “At a basic level, I think all relationships have to be equal for them to be successful.  And somewhere, they must fulfill some part of you and give you joy.”  The eloquence of these lines, to me, are matched by their profundity.  I say this because the fulfillment and joy that we experience are what make us afford the place at the top of the triangle to the bond itself.  As selfless as we can sometimes make ourselves out to be, how a relationship makes us feel is something we do place a tremendous premium on.  I suppose what this triangle theory - trademark will be granted to my friend! - urges us to do is to be secure about being on an equal plane with the other person while valuing the relationship itself to put it on a level much higher. 

When relationships turn sour, it invariably is a result of the balance between the axes of the triangle getting disturbed.  Once the distances become skewed, it requires a joint effort to bring the triangle back to its homeostasis.  When fissures appear in a relationship, from whatever little sagacity my age has given me, it is a monumental task if the burden were imposed on only one to seal the cracks.  Eventually resentment sets in, sometimes egos, and distances expand.  Surely, communication is of pivotal importance.  It takes a mix of great courage and sincere humility to express concerns about a relationship and seek a viable, sustainable solution.  I have been the lucky recipient of such correspondence – where I am told about my flaws in a way that gives me utmost confidence that the other person is not seeking to diminish my importance.  That the other person is, in fact, striving to keep the top of the triangle intact.

As a man with imperfections, I know that the one way to make up for our human frailties is to never hesitate to apologize.  This may seem like the simplest, bleedingly obvious statement to make.  But we all have had moments when we convince ourselves that it is infra dig to apologize.  Or even worse, ask, “Why should I be the one to apologize?”  Accounting for the fact that blame, at times, needs to be apportioned equally, a sincere apology sometimes gets put on the back burner only to paradoxically, yet precisely, be missed as a tool to douse a fire. 

As I reflected on this image of a triangle, I also thought of parents and children and whether this applied at all.  Selflessness is one of the much-haloed traits associated with parents.  But as Adam Grant notes in his thought provoking book, Give and Take, giving at the cost of the self, leads to enduring resentment.  As children age and mature into youth (mature youth is probably the father of all oxymorons!), astute parents realize that instead of talking down in a patronizing manner, a friendly arm-around-the-shoulder approach brings much more peace to the experience of parenthood.  I realize that this is a gross simplification given that parents have a tremendous role in guiding the next generation despite rapidly growing social media, overexposure to all sorts of information, good and bad.  But as an elderly well-wisher once told me, kids learn more from watching how parents behave than from ‘listening’ to their parents.  This makes me believe that the success of parents lies really in convincing their kids that they may talk from experience but are not placing themselves on a higher plane just on account of age difference.  That one of the bases of the triangle is the parent, the other the child, and their bond is right there on top!  And one can only hope that filial love and respect emerges as a deserving byproduct of this healthy bond. 

As I ruminate on this, I feel truly blessed with the depth of the select few meaningful relationships that I have.  There are times when I do place people on an elevated status owing to their character, generosity or their affection towards me.  And that’s okay, because they stand tall without making me feel small.  But the spirit of a bond – be it personal or professional – needs to be nourished in equal measure by both parties for it to be strengthened with time.  Back to my original question – is the achievement of a perfect equilateral triangle impossible?  Maybe so.  But for now, I’ll focus on the ‘try’ in the triangle!