Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Time (to) Travel

HE seems so near, yet so far. 

Today marks the 25th death anniversary of my maternal grandpa.  But no, this post is not about him.  Or my memories of him.  I was speaking to a well-wisher about how no dam could be big enough to withstand the gush of memories that my mind was getting inundated with.  She smiled and responded, “You live in the past quite a bit, don’t you!  And you seem to get quite a bit of comfort out of it.”  I don’t think I can credibly deny that!  But let’s dig deeper.

As I type this, I am several thousand feet above sea level.  I am traveling.  And I am ‘traveling.’  When I do get time to myself during work-related travels, I work, read or write.  When I work, I’d like to think that I am reasonably focused.  But when I read or write (non-fiction mostly), I invariably take a sojourn to dwell on memories.  Memories of a time when a significantly higher number of near and dear were alive.  Thoughts on the departed are akin to miniscule points on a longwinded path that I have to turn, squint and put on a pair of binoculars to look at.  Whereas memories that involve people who are still alive and a part of my life in some form are like pages of a taut screenplay.  The dots didn't appear to always connect in ways that we could predict but they did. 

The most pleasant memories of this kind are those of vital, transformative moments in my life which were enabled by people that had immense emotional intelligence and generosity.  It is a deeply fulfilling experience to be able to express my gratitude to people who penned meaningful thoughts in my book, drew upward arcs in my professional life or infused bright colors into the sketch of my personal life.  I am nobody without them.  And I continue to feel incredibly Lilliputian in front of them.  It is a soothing feeling to have continuity and longevity.  For instance, some of my mentors are people that I have known for decades.  There are past memories for sure.  But there is also a distinct present which makes me look forward to tomorrow with hope and promise.    

But the dulcet sounds of kind words delivered with grace by my heroes sometimes co-exist uneasily with harsher sounds caused by troublesome relationships.  I have made peace with the imperfections of relationships that didn’t always pan out the way I wished for them to.  As I grow older, I try not to let the weight of memories bulldoze the defenses that I have built for myself.  Because it is absolutely vital to not only live in the present but also to be acutely aware of the existing version of the self and the current version of the ones around us.  To accept the inevitability of change ranks only second in terms of importance as a determinant of lasting peace of mind.  To me, even more important is the refusal to dwell on the past if the present does not stack up to it in some way, shape or form. 

One of my favorite parts of the amazingly inspirational “Option B” is the part where Sheryl Sandberg recounts a touching poem of God interacting with a man.  The man asks God why there were two pairs of footprints in his path during good times and only one pair during times of adversity.  The man wondered whether God had abandoned him when he needed Him the most.  To that question, God responded that during times of adversity, the only footsteps you saw were of God himself – He was carrying the man (and his burdens, I guess).  Sandberg has a different interpretation of this rather striking visual.  To her, the second pair of footsteps represented the trustworthy well-wishers among her family and friends.  During good times, they walked beside her.  During times of adversity, they walked behind her.  I like Sandberg’s version better.  Because her explanation, to me, conjures up the present and how every step of her journey is marked by the definite, reliable presence of the people she regards as her near and dear.  To fall back on someone, they have to be right behind you when you need them. 

That to me is what makes any past memory of living, everyday heroes worth dwelling on.  There is a strong sense of comfort from a shared present.  As a result, when I turn to look back at shared memories of these heroes, I do so with the subject of the memories right beside me.  Or, as Sandberg suggests, right behind me during times of adversity.

In a sense, these memories are so far, yet so near.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

A glimpse of Kamal’s vision: Reflections on “Raja Paarvai”

It was a sign of things to come.  The year was 1981.  Less than 10 years from making his debut as an (adult) actor, Kamal Haasan had made his 100th film.  Granted, he had acted in a slew of films as a child.  But nevertheless, his prolificacy was undeniable.  By 1981, he was a bonafide star with a growing fan base.  This was affectionately referenced in the Sakalakala Vallavan song – “College Teenage PenngaL Ellorkum En Meedhu KanngaL!  His acting talent was given ample fodder by the likes of his mentor K Balachander, Bharathiraja and Balu Mahendra.  But until his debut home production Raja Paarvai, he had rarely gotten the opportunity to shape a movie as much as he did here.  Raja Paarvai was one of the early examples of Kamal’s hunger to make cinema that was off the beaten path, cinema that brought forth to screen an aesthetic representation of solid content. 

For Raja Paarvai, Kamal was heavily involved in the creative process right from the writing, surrounding himself with some dazzling talents – fantastic screenwriters such as Ananthu, novelist Balakumaran, RC Sakthi and his friend Santhana Bharathi are credited as his collaborators.  He recruited the veteran Kannadasan to pen the scintillating “Azhagil Azhagu Dhevadhai” while he also sought out a relative newcomer at the time (Vairamuthu) to write Ilayaraja’s glorious, timeless melody, “Andhi Mazhai Pozhigiradhu.”  Possibly inspired by the marvelously natural cinematography of Balu Mahendra and Ashok Kumar, he roped in Barun Mukherjee.  The lens work in Raja Paarvai has stood the test of time like very few other movies of that era have – the lighting, especially in the song sequences, is exquisite.  The actors appear with minimal makeup and in tastefully designed, elegant costumes.  This is most evident in the case of Madhavi – contrast how she looks in this film with how she appeared in garish costumes and layers of horrendous makeup in “Kaaki Chattai” which was released four years…later and you will realize the refined taste at play in this movie.  Even the editing, with the seamless dissolves and segues into subsequent scenes (Santhana Bharathi explained this detail in a recent interview) are unlike anything that was seen in Tamil cinema. 

At heart, Raja Paarvai is a simple love story of a visually impaired violinist (Kamal) who falls in love with an aspiring writer (Madhavi).  Her Dad and brother oppose this match while they get support from her grandpa (LV Prasad, with a mischievous smile and a twinkle in his eye) and his friend Y Gee Mahendra (in one of his best performances, astutely mixing spontaneous humor and solid dramatic acting).  His shrewd stepmother has plans of her own for him and he resists it at every stage, detesting her very presence.  Despite the fairly straightforward nature of the plot, it is the treatment of the subject that makes the picture a memorable experience.  Rarely has a film focused on the minute joys of falling in love.  This film drips with sweetness, especially in the first half. 

To me, Raja Paarvai will always be special for the 20-minute sequence that captures the events on Kamal’s birthday, from dawn to dusk.  From Madhavi being mesmerized by the violin rendition – it’s impossible not to, for its one of Raja’s great instrumental pieces – to the time Kamal is insulted by her boorish Dad or the lovely, tender moment with the kid in the school who saves a piece of chocolate for Kamal, this entire stretch is great cinema.  The writing, acting, staging, background score all cohere superbly.  Especially stupendous is the culmination of this sequence where Kamal barks at Madhavi, only for her to break through his defenses.  The way this sequence is shot and acted is bound to make the most hard-hearted viewer spellbound.  The antics of Mahendra, after they drop Madhavi at her house, are an added bonus, especially the way he says, “Enaku adutha maasam!”

Click on “Play” to go to the start of the aforementioned 20-minute stretch:

The second half features a magical, ingenious scene where Madhavi is desperate for her father to leave town.  She is pacing the house frenetically while everything around her moves in slow motion.  Raja’s flute is in perfect sync with the movements.  This rather simple scene, where a girl flees the house as soon as her Dad is out of sight, is an apt example of what I said earlier – whatever seems simple on paper is brought to life with immense care and thoughtfulness. 

Click on “Play” to go directly to the time-less scene:

The movie’s weakest portions are when Kamal and Madhavi are separated.  The humor becomes a tad forced and the drama feels overblown.  The drunken revelry and the subsequent brawl, for instance, are overlong and sloppily staged.  This especially sticks out like a sore thumb given the remarkably tight writing that preceded this part of the movie.  But as I cavil about this ineffective segment, the climax (which is heavily inspired by The Graduate) comes to the rescue.  It is a  heartwarming scene where we cheer loudly for the pair that we had been rooting for all along. 

Alas, the movie fared poorly at the box office despite all the critical acclaim.  It put Kamal severely in debt and it forced him to act in commercial films that ranged from the fairly entertaining Thoongathey Thambi Thoongathey to some irredeemable dreck like Andha Oru Nimidam.  True, he did have the occasional gem like Moondram Pirai and Salangai Oli.  But from 1981 till 1987 (when Nayagan and history were made) Kamal’s progress as an actor and auteur had been checked by the commercial disappointment of Raja Paarvai.  But as is the case with quite a few of Kamal’s artistic ambitions, Raja Paarvai has built a sizable cult legacy over the years.  I suppose that the delayed recognition is a sign that we open our eyes to his efforts much slower than what his farsightedness deserves!

Friday, February 22, 2019

Standing Firm in Infirmity

Bittersweet.  That is the word that best summarizes my feelings when I flip through any photo album from the past.   The more distant the memories captured by an album, the longer the list of loved ones that are not with me anymore.  It is an inevitability, yes.  But it is sad nevertheless.  Sadder is the fact that there are some elderly members of the family who are still alive...but only just.  Owing to a health crisis of some sort, their emasculated body, face and eyes are a pale shadow of a former self.  A voice that was able to enunciate words in a manner that was as clear as a crystal in a showcase would now evoke a throat that is impaled by broken glass.  A majestic gait would be replaced by shoulders that droop so much that we will start questioning the accuracy of the height scale.  But it is the eyes that say nothing but reveal everything.  A piercing stare that seemed to burst out of every tissue of the eye now seems like a bottomless pit.  The deeper we look, the stronger the pain we experience.  Alas, the emptiness in their eyes paradoxically fills our own eye lids with a liquid that was designed to make us feel lighter.  But beyond all the physical devastation is the steel of their resolve.  The spirit that refuses to bow – drooping shoulders not withstanding- to the health issues that drain them of their vim, vigor and vitality. 
My mentor Dr. Jim Jamison was a personification of that positive spirit.  In the last ten years of his life, he had two different types of cancer, multiple stem cell transplants and a bypass surgery.  No amount of adversity seemed to mount a challenge to the innate grace and poise that he possessed as a human being.  The hearty laugh was always round the corner.  Earlier, he used to have calculus problems that featured himself as a character.  The problems would start off along the lines of, “The bearded fat man was working on an 10-feet ladder when his wife hollered out.  As he slipped…”  During exams, you see, it was distracting to have such an entertaining story and figure out how to create equations around it!  After he underwent chemotherapy and lost all his hair for a while, he quipped, “I suppose I now have to have my problems describe a bald, gaunt man!”  Years later, when he was sequestered in a hospital post a transplant, he made it a point to keep himself mentally agile – he started penning a paper!  It was the year after he was first diagnosed with cancer that he worked on a book that he co-wrote- “Isometries on Banach Spaces.”  I joked with him that I would buy the book only after I understood what the title meant. (Sorry Dr. Jamison, I still haven’t figured it out!) 
During his last months – he passed on in 2014 – he remained hopeful but was never delusional.  He had a nagging feeling that the cancer was going to fell him.  But as Randy Pausch eloquently remarked, “We don’t beat the Grim Reaper by living longer, we beat the Grim Reaper by living well.”  In that respect, Dr. Jamison certainly had the last laugh.  I vividly remember my last meeting with him.  My family and I had gone to his place to invite him for my father’s 60th birthday celebrations.  He was seated in his favorite chair with a blanket over him.  Yet as I was leaving, it was he who was emanating warmth with his bear hug.  The fingers that had firmly held so many pieces of chalk over four decades could barely hold a pen now.  Yet the tenderness of his hug wrote my last memory of him indelibly.  He called later to apologize for being unable to attend the function – no, it didn’t come as a surprise.  Months later, he went to the hospital for his final treatment.  And that was that.

Whenever I have had back issues in the past or felt weak physically, I would have the tendency to get cranky and irritable.  I would remind myself of how my mentor was able to exhibit such equanimity in the face of a literal life-and-death situation.  Not that I would immediately mend my ways!  But I would pause and smile to myself thinking of him.  The amount of power that he derived from a laser-sharp focus on what he could control helped him withstand the debilitating effects of things that he couldn’t control.  As much as he derived strength from the moral support he received from family and friends, it was he who led us down the painstaking path of graceful acceptance of life's unsolvable problems.  I suppose my Math teacher taught me not just how to count but what really counts.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Food for thought - a piece on food-based sequences in Tamil Cinema

As I watched ’96 for the umpteenth time, I paused at the rather lovely scene where Trisha cooks a late-night meal for Vijay Sethupathi.  What was remarkable was how utterly unsentimental the scene was.  Trisha simply asks, “Okay vaa?”  To this, Vijay gestures that it is delicious, while adding, “Enga Amma samaicha maari iruku.”  My mind went back 34 years in movie time to 1985 when the great Sivaji Ganesan says pretty much the same thing to Radha.  The situations are completely different – in Mudhal Mariyadhai, Ganesan is married to a cantankerous woman (that underutilized powerhouse Vadivukkarasi).  He finds succor in a much younger woman who showers on him the kind of maternal love that he had been bereft of, all those years.  I then racked my brain to think of a few songs and sequences where food played a role, even if tangentially or laterally. (I steadfastly refuse to devote any space in my blog to the numerous booze sequences that have pervaded Tamil cinema in recent years!)

Without further ado, here is a list of sequences that I was able to recollect.  Bon Appetit!

The “Mudhal Mariyadhai” scene:

“Athi kaai kaai kaai…alangaai vennilave…”
I am no expert on Kannadasan but he is at his ingenious best in this song, my favorite line being, “Elakaai vaasanai poal engaL ullam vaazhakai!”

“Kalyana Samayal Saadham!”
The granddaddy of all food-based songs, the highlight of this number is Trichy Loganathan’s joyous, uninhibited singing.  The most amusing part of this song is when the actor opens his mouth expecting the food to fly in, only to grimace at an empty plate!  The nonchalance with which SV Ranga Rao throws out the plate is a sight to behold!

“Nitham nitham nelluchoru!”
A foodie is asked to sing a song by her husband on the first night of their marriage.  What does she do?  She sings about food!  The livewire Fatafat Jayalakshmi was such a wonderful contrast to the demure Shoba in this movie – it’s a tragedy for not just their families but also for Tamil cinema that both of them (in their personal lives) ended their lives when they were young.  Both of them achieved immortality onscreen though with their stellar work in a limited number of movies.  “Mullum Malarum” features great performances by both of them.  Watch Jayalakshmi’s unfettered body language and gestures– they are playful but never obscene.  Watch this song also to see how beautifully Rajnikanth plays second fiddle.  The song is Jayalakshmi’s showcase and Rajni lets it remain so.

There is plenty of food…in the mind
K Balachander’s “Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu” is a deeply thought-provoking movie.  But unlike his more serious fare like “Achamilllai…Achamillai” and “Thaneer Thanneer” there is a lot of humor that leavens the film but without diluting the impact of the theme.  The scene where Kamal, S. Ve Sekhar and Dileep pretend to be having a sumptuous meal is one such.  Despite Sekhar’s funny antics, there is tremendous underlying sadness.  KB the writer walks the tightrope walk expertly, with no small help from his monstrously talented cast.  There is a companion sequence where Sridevi cooks a meal, only for an unexpected tragedy to strike.  The saying, “Kai-ku ettinadhu vaai-ku ettaama poachu” has never been brought to screen in as poignant a manner.

Click on ‘Play’ to go to the aforementioned scene:

“Ena Samayalo”
A Carnatic-based song on food?  Sounds tough?  Well, Ilayaraja is the music director.  Need I say more?  SPB is in peak form here, bringing to life hilarious lines like, “Rasam thaa…paadu vasantha!”  Chitra joins in the fun too, letting loose in a way that was quite rare for her.

“I mean what I mean"..."But they can’t be so mean!”
You, the reader, could have filed a lawsuit against me had I omitted this sequence from this write-up!  One of the timeless comic scenes committed to film, Crazy Mohan’s dialogues are done full justice to by Kamal Haasan and the inimitable Delhi Ganesh. (PS: I love the title of this youtube video: “Something fishy!”)

Begging for alms…by serving a meal
For a brief while in the early 90s, RV Udhaykumar was a force to reckon with.  He was at his best when he worked with writers like MS Madhu (“Kizhakku Vaasal”) and R Selvaraj (“Chinna Counder”) as opposed to films where he wrote the script himself (I despise every moment of “Yejaman!”)  “Chinna Counder” was an especially impressive artistic treatment of a commercial subject.  There is a sequence where Sukanya, who is deep in debt, invites the villagers to her house – the custom is that they leave money underneath the plantain leaf.  It is a strange-sounding custom and I do not know if it is indeed a practice in any community.  But Ilayaraja lifts the scene to great heights with his background score.  And the actors too play the scene with strong conviction.

You don’t lie to AGS Ganesan!
I remember reviews of “Aaha” stating that Delhi Ganesh reprised his MMKR role.  True, he plays a cook here.  But Ganesh’s character is a lot more fleshed out and has several more shades than his role in MMKR.  He has the best lines in the movie.  While my favorite pithy one-liner of his is, “Apram pul tharai puliyotharai aaydum,” this scene in the marriage hall features Ganesh at his sparkling best.  Mohan’s one-liners fly thick and fast and Ganesh catches and delivers every one of them with panache!

Click on ‘Play’ to go directly to the wedding hall scene:

Food is a matter of…comfort
One of the lesser-known sequences in this list, Prithviraj and Gopika are absolutely brilliant in this scene.  An aspiring director is married to a once-famous actress and is taunted by the film fraternity for exactly that reason.  As he offers food to his wife, he shares his sorrows in the sweetest manner possible.  There is something inexplicably comforting about food during moments of anguish and this film understands this and delivers a truly moving experience.

Click on ‘Play’ to go to the dining table scene:

I realize that this is not an exhaustive list but if you recollect other sequences where food played a role, please share them in your comments. 


Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Six of a kind

“It is harder to be kind than clever.” 

Of all the quotable quotes that I have read in the past decade or so since I started reading non-fiction, this has to be near the top.  I think it is especially pertinent in the modern era of active social media platforms.  The comforts of online anonymity have increasingly given people the (wrongful) license to be snarky, hurtful and sometimes, downright nasty.  Of course, even outside of online interactions, we have all been at the receiving end or sometimes, the giving end of unkind words or behaviors.  But as I see and observe those increasingly rare acts of kindness, small or large, I do feel compelled to shine some spotlight on acts and words that have made a tremendous impact on me.  In some instances, I have not been part of the interaction but I may have seen or heard about it.  I have also tried to stay out of some deeply personal stuff because…well it’s too personal, you see!  With those disclaimers out of the way, here are six acts of thoughtfulness, in no particular order.

         -- My grandfather worked for a bank for close to 40 years.  His job paid him decent, if unspectacular money.  My Mom was his first child.  When my Aunt was born 11 years later, my grandpa’s best friend visited his house to see the baby.  But before he left, he offered some advice to my grandpa - that to raise two daughters, he would be able to do so more comfortably if he had some supplemental income.  He urged my grandfather to invest some of his savings to start a small-scale industry. (My grandpa heeded his advice.)  What I thought was incredibly touching was how my grandpa’s friend not only wanted to partake in his friend’s happiness but also took the time to think through a future for him and his family.  That he went beyond surface-level affection was what the depth of their relationship was all about. 

     -- My fifth standard Maths teacher Ms. Sundaravalli Subramaniam was not amused when I started sobbing.  I had scored 55/100 in my half-yearly exam in a subject that I loved dearly.  I couldn’t believe that I had made a royal mess of the paper.  In my school (in India), one had to score at or above 60% in every test and exam during a year to get what was called the “Merit Card.”  By ‘virtue’ of my score, I had lost my chance for that year.  She did not console me with any sweet words.  Rather she admonished me for being playful and not focusing enough.  She added that just because I ‘lost’ the merit card should not detract attention from my efforts for the annual exam.  During the next three months, she took extra care to ensure that I was well-prepared for the final exam.  At times, I was reminded in a ‘friendly’ (!) manner that I shouldn’t be letting Maths…err…history repeat itself!  So, I had written the (final) Maths exam.  A few days later, when I was in the exam hall for another exam, she dropped in and casually asked the invigilator, “Where is Ram Murali?”  In front of the entire class, she said, “You have done beautifully well in your Maths exam.”  What it did to my morale – do I need to tell you?!

      -- A few years ago, during a health crisis, I had to take a few days off work without any notice.  I had sent the briefest of e-mails to my manager about this unplanned break.  Within minutes, she wrote back to me, asking me to not worry about work.  That was nice.  But what, to me, was even more special was when she promptly sent a note to the rest of my team as well as the internal stakeholders of our group to not send me any e-mails until she said otherwise.  That all requests intended for me had to be routed to her until further notice.  I came back to work to a rather surprisingly sparse inbox.  She had essentially backed up her words with swift, concrete action.  Her brand of empathy-dipped sweetness is something that I humbly salute, especially for how rare it is.

   -- My mother had lost her only sibling, my Aunt Shoba, in October 2016.  She had come back from India (she lives in the US) after arguably her most painful trip – my Dad was still back in India.  Upon my Mom’s arrival, one of her close friends hugged her and said, “Please consider me your sister.”  This may sound dramatic or cinematic to you – it sounded like soothing music to my Mom’s ears.  She had been feeling completely distraught and bereft post the untimely death of her kid sister.  And for a friend to assure her that while her loss was irreplaceable that she was going to help her fight the vacuum, was love of the deepest kind – of the giving sort.  My Mom's friend realized that the magnitude of the void left by the departed is at its maximum immediately afterwards.  And by giving her the gift of time, she did her part to fill that lacuna at least partially.  It was not mere words – to this day, my Mother’s friend has stuck to the spirit of the promise she made in 2016.

   -- In the Hindu tradition, it is custom to not celebrate festivals for a year following the passing on of a loved one.  Amidst all the fireworks during Diwali of 2016, my grandma’s house was dark in more ways than one.  I had texted our family friend Director Vasanth to call on my grandmother since my parents and I had returned to US by then and she was by herself.  A few minutes later, he responded – “I already did.”  Even before my request, he had gone to her place.  My grandma was visibly touched by his words to her– “I can understand how you must be feeling.  Of course, you would not feel like celebrating.  But please prepare a dish that Shoba liked to eat.”  Not only did he give her a way of concretizing her grief but he understood that age-old traditions could sometimes come in the way of engaging in meaningful ways of coping.

      -- I sincerely believe that meaningful friendships with people of the opposite gender can go a long way towards helping us refine ourselves and make us more well-rounded as a person.  There are needs, concerns, perspectives, vulnerabilities, strengths that a friend of the opposite gender can open our eyes to, if we are willing to look.  I have known this particular friend since my undergrad years in Memphis.  We have seen each other through highs, lows, immense joy, intense grief.  Over the years, she has given me a lot of well-meaning advice that fell into the 'she didn't have to but she did' category.  On one of my trips to Memphis, during a chat over coffee, she looked at me intently for a few seconds.  She said, "I am so glad that you look healthy now.  The last time I saw you, you looked so gaunt that I was worried that you were going through a health issue."  I was so touched by her almost-maternal attitude as a friend.  I have received my share of mean-spirited comments on my looks, girth, etc. as a youngster.  So, for someone to focus on my health as opposed to cosmetic stuff was very poignant.  She, as with my grandpa's friend and my Mom's buddy, continues to show me that deeper the emotional foundation, the stronger the bond. 

I could go on to write about many more people who have touched me and my near and dear with their genuineness and depth of character.  For now, I will simply say that I am blessed.  Truly blessed.

PS: The "kind than clever" quote is attributed to Jeff Bezos.  I didn’t mention his name at the outset given the mess that he has created for himself in recent times - I thought it would be distracting to put his name at the start of the article!  Well, the words still ring true even if the person behind them has done quite a bit to discredit himself.

Friday, January 11, 2019

The river continues to flow: Reflections on "Mahanadhi" 25 years after its release

It was 25 Januaries ago that one of the most important films in my life hit the theaters.  Matters of taste are extremely subjective.  But let me just say that if I were to pick five movies that made me cherish good cinema, appreciate understated acting and applaud perceptive writing, on top of that list would be Mahanadhi.  It is a film that chalked its place in my subconscious over the years and has stayed there.  And at the risk of engaging in hyperbole, I will say that this movie helped me find and refine the film fanatic in me. 

Reams of film essays have focused on various aspects of the film.  Such is the density of thought and the delicacy of expression.  There are several emotionally devastating moments that make this movie a rather tough experience.  But it is a testament to the institution that is Kamal Haasan that I make myself go through this experience time and again, only to be awestruck at the impact that a fictional tale can make.  I think that the reason is that Kamal Haasan, as a writer, usually transports the viewer to the worlds he creates – Devar Magan, Kuruthi Punal, Hey Ram, Virumaandi, Anbe Sivam all feature milieus and situations that are not exactly familiar to the lay person.  But aided by his carefully sculpted scripts, Kamal the actor made you invest in the extraordinary situations that the protagonists found themselves in.  But the reason Mahanadhi is in a different league altogether when it comes to emotional resonance is because Kamal does not take the viewer to his world; he brings his world to the viewer. 

By making the protagonist a very unheroic character - in the cinematic sense of the word - and by writing situations that are rooted in realism, even if of the gut-wrenching kind, and above all, adopting an acting style that is an exercise in understatement, Kamal ‘brings’ the characters right next to us.  He gives us the feeling that we are watching the proceedings as a helpless, invisible observer.  Nowhere else have I felt a two-dimensional screen project the happenings in a film to me as Mahanadi did…and still does.  Without wearing any weird glasses, I have experienced the most fulfilling three-dimensional experience every time I revisit this film!

When people talk about Mahanadhi, they invariably refer to the sadness.  But look closer, you will realize that there is a lot of goodness in the movie too.  Kamal’s life is made miserable by a slew of detestable antisocial elements.  But at the same time, he is surrounded by a worldly-wise mother-in-law (SN Lakshmi), a caring jail warden (Rajesh), a woman that loves him deeply (Sukanya), to name a few.  Of the lot, the late SN Lakshmi stands tall.  There is no artifice in her performance.  For a veteran artiste who had acted in much more melodramatic fare in the 60s and 70s, she is remarkably restrained.  She sells every moment that she is on screen, especially the lovely early morning scene where she offers Kamal some sage advice in the most loving manner possible.    

Click on Play to go to the SN Lakshmi scene:

Even as the movie descends into one emotional abyss after another, it is continually peppered with moments of pure, humane goodness.  When Kamal is beaten black and blue by the constables, the kind-hearted Rajesh gifts him a book of Bharathiyar poems.  And the stirring lines which end with "...naan veezhven endru ninaithayo" do more justice to this scene than any dialogue could possibly have. (Bharathiyar's inspirational poetic verses feature in the climax too.)  And as harrowing as the sequence in the prostitution house is, what stands out is the innocence of the daughter (of one of the prostitutes) who applies sindoor on the forehead of Kamal’s daughter once she is rescued.  Kamal’s reaction here is one of the most priceless images ever committed to film.

Light at the end of the tunnel:

MS Prabhu’s cinematography brings to mind Mani Ratnam’s words about the craft behind a movie – “It is okay if viewers don’t recognize something as long as they sense it.”  His work is especially stellar in the prison sequences.  His close-ups of Kamal’s face in the hauntingly bittersweet scene with his daughter is a case in point.  Kamal’s instinctive reaction when his daughter falls at his feet is a brilliant piece of emoting, one that is captured in an unobtrusive manner by Prabhu’s camera.  His camerawork in the brothel is astounding – note the overhead shots through the narrow lanes.  It brings a sense of claustrophobia and heightened anxiety as Kamal searches for his daughter.

"Kaveri enga?":

Ilayaraja, as is his wont, comes up with a magnificent background score for the emotionally charged scenes.  My favorite piece of his actually plays during the action sequence in the prison.  The violin piece, even as Kamal beats Shankar to a pulp, is a wail that perfectly describes the mindset of the Kamal character – he is not resorting to violence out of rage; the blows are a byproduct of immense pain.  It takes a perceptive genius to understand the nuances of Kamal’s writing and as always, Ilayaraja rises to the occasion. 

Raja's use of violin in a stunt sequence:

Finally, a word about Kamal’s dialogues, which he co-wrote with Ra. Ki. Rangarajan.  Kamal’s penchant for weaving in his personal views into his writing is well-known.  Here too, indignation that is vented out in tirades against societal evils, rationalistic thoughts, a mention of Mahatma Gandhi are all there.  But there is not a single place where any of these lines or thoughts stick out like a sore thumb.  Every discourse about the ills pervading the society flows organically from a situation faced by the character.  While the conversation that Rajesh, Poornam Vishwanathan and Kamal have in Rajesh’s house features several sharp lines, it is the late-night outburst of Kamal that seamlessly blends searing intensity and emotional poignancy.  

"Nallavanuku kedaika vendiya ella mariyadhaiyum...":

It has been 25 years since Mahanadhi hit the screens.  Many of the themes are undeniably – even unfortunately - relevant in this day and age.  The movie, named after a river, not only continues to lead us to a stream of tears but also makes us marvel at its oceanic depths.  The experience might make us feel drowned in a whirlpool of sorrow but thanks to several standout moments of goodness, it buoys us to the surface too.  That a creator can command such attention and involvement is a tribute to not just the filmmaker but also to cinema itself. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Year-Round Lights

It is that time of the year.  The holiday lights gradually get turned off.  Work kicks off in top gear.  Plus, I am not a fan of the winter.  I don’t especially care for shoveling snow or wearing so many layers of clothing that I sometimes feel like even a sweaty Spiderman suit will not be a much worse option.  I can’t complain about the weather this season - it has been quite bearable.  But as I look back at 2018, I am happy that it’s over.  My grandma’s massive heart attack exactly a year ago – yes, 24 hours into 2018, we were already dealing with a crisis – and her subsequent passing on in May cast a rather long shadow on the rest of the year.  Her passing on reinforced one of my beliefs about my kind of grieving– that as time progresses, the pain of separation from the departed increases rather than dwindling.

“I am sure that the path that lies before you will have moments of joy and this pain will slowly be pushed away by time."  These were the first words of an e-mail that my mentor had sent me at the time of a personal tragedy several years ago.  I derived great comfort out of that line at the time.  But as you can see, it is quite the opposite of how I feel about the departed.  Whenever I think of people that have left me, I think of how I have several decades ahead without their sunny, comforting presence.  Yes, I do realize that elders, as much as I hate it, have to go sometime.  I realize that it is one of the most certain of certainties.  And in the case of my grandma, I did get comfort out of the fact that she had lived a long life, been part of all of my life’s highs and lows until her clock decided to stop ticking.  Add to that the fact that she had suffered quite a bit in the last couple of years of her life physically and mentally (her daughter predeceased her in 2016) meant that her death felt like deliverance from pain.

But let’s go back to my mentor’s words for a moment.  It is the very process of going through the pain that has helped me realize that regardless of when or whether any pain gets truly “pushed away by time” it is a set of meaningful relationships that is the primary source of the “moments of joy” that he mentioned.  It is true that I get immense happiness from things like a well-made movie, a thought provoking book or a project well-executed at work.  Not all of my happiness is dependent on people around me.  But I realized that be it with my near and dear, extended family or friends, having heart-to-heart conversations, sharing moments of vulnerability, receiving authentic affection, getting thoughtful advice were all gifts that I received in abundance this year. 

The true magic of connection happens when a bond is established at a significantly deep part of the mind.  It is a lot more reliable and enduring than surface-level frivolity.  This is not to say that life is all about meditative stuff – boy, that would be the real-life equivalent of a badly made art film!  I am just saying that where there is true depth of emotion, the moments of fun get amplified.  In such cases, the scents of memories grow increasingly fragrant with time.  Else, the fun is akin to the fragrance of a perfume – pleasant but transient.  And I am fortunate that in 2018, I have had the fortune of spending quality time with people that have lent my year immense meaning.  As much as I realize that inner strength is what truly endures, they have been external forces that have given me strength when I needed it the most.  Some through words, some through gestures, some by virtue of just being there - sometimes that’s all it takes.  Of course, I always hope that I reciprocate all of that.  But this is about them, not me. 

I realize that I have not gone into any specifics about the kind of impact that people have made on me.  I have not mentioned names or identified people by relationships.  If you will, excuse me this one time for being more general than specific.  In this write-up, I really wanted to capture the vibe that 2018 leaves me with – amidst waves of despair and suffering that fate can sometimes hurl at us, meaningful relationships are a bulwark that we can rely on.  That is the brightness that lights up dark days.  That is the incandescence that makes us see and sense inner glow all year round, not just during the holiday season.    

Happy 2019, folks!