Friday, March 24, 2017

10 'reasons' why the SPB – Ilaiyaraja issue is unfortunate

It is amazing how fast news travels.  No sooner had Ilayaraja’s legal notice to SPB probably arrived in his inbox than many music lovers who had access to the internet felt righteous indignation and started posting their reactions.  If some of those reactions - as genuine as they were -  weren’t hysterical enough, there were some so-called experts who reveled in the news du jour of the moment and started mentioning non-existent copyright laws, only for others to say that these self-professed pundits had no clue what they were talking about!  There were a few voices of reason appealing for a bit of calm and urging people to not respond without knowing the facts fully.  There were others like comedian Vivek, director CS Amudhan and actor Mohan Raman who voiced their opinions in a very balanced manner.  But a common thread ran across every reaction.  That it was unfortunate that two people who had given us great joy – one through the genius of his music and another through the beauty and versatility of his voice – were going through a crisis. (I am not using the word ‘spat’ since I have no idea what is truly going on, what led to it and what is poised to happen as a result.) 

As a fan that doesn’t know either of them personally and as an ignoramus when it comes to copyright laws, I instead choose to rewind the clock (should I say ‘cassette’, given that era?) a few decades in time and mention 10 songs that resulted from their collaboration.  These are 10 songs – among innumerable others – that gave me immense pleasure.  Some songs have had me calm my senses, others have made me tap my feet.  These are the memories that I want to have of them long after one stops playing the harmonium and the other stops singing.  

Since I have seen such a diverse set of messages on this topic mainly on twitter, I am going to let that influence me just for this write-up!  So, each of the 10 descriptions below are 140 characters!  

1 of 10 – Senorita...
Perfect expression of unbridled ecstasy!  The music that plays over the clicking scissors and SPB's rendition of "Poomethai..." are magical.

2 of 10 – Madai Thirandhu
"Pudhu Raagam Padaipathale Naanum Iraivane" - a marvelous way to express the sentiment of a music director.  Godly score and divine singing.

3 of 10 – Sangeetha Jaathimullai
"VizhigaLil ThuLigaL Vadiyumo Adhu Suduvadhai ThAnga Mudiyumo" - tongue twisting magnificence.  Q: What reaches a crescendo?  A: Our senses.

4 of 10 – ILaya Nila…
Mohan owes his career to 3 people - Raja, SPB and SN Surendar.  The guitar, the tune and SPB's dulcet voice vie for our attention.  All win!

5 of 10 – Mandram Vandha
Everything is in sync - visuals, lyrics (the "thotta udan..." line is so perfect to describe Revathi's mindset) and SPB's vocal expressions.

6 of 10 – Kaala Kaalamaga
A song that still sounds fresh, 30 years after launch. Raja's instrumentals are stunningly modern and SPB's singing irresistibly energetic.

7 of 10 – Rumbumbum Aarambam…
The SPB touches - the "yeah" (2:03 min pt) or the way he sings "paerinbam" (2:25) - and Raja's foot tapping tune are like cherries and cake!

8 of 10 – Mannil Indha Kadhal…       
Listening to this breathless song can leave one speechless!  Gangai Amaran's lines are lovely ("Sutrivara seyyum vizhiyum sundara mozhigaL")

9 of 10 – Eduthu Naan Vidavaa…       
A quirky number that finds a place here because I wanted a song sung by SPB and Raja together.  The duo could give a hit even for Janakaraj!

10 of 10 – Kaatu Kuyilu
I am getting insufferably cutesy by posting a song on friendship at this time! Still, a little wistful hearing "Natpai kooda karpai pola..."

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Movie and a Friendship

I recently hung a framed poster (pic above) of Rhythm above my DVD rack.  To give you some context, this is the only movie poster that I have in my house.  What made it sweeter was that the person who arranged for the poster was none other than the person that created the film, director Vasanth.  I had written about him as part of my Inspirations series, five years ago.  I had written about how I managed to meet him in 2002.  But I did not dwell much on why I wanted to meet him.  Those that have followed Vasanth’s career since his stunning debut Keladi Kanmani (1990) will know that rays of positivity have always shone through brightly in most of his movies.  Sacrifice, selflessness and righteousness are traits that have marked the behaviors of many of his lead characters.  I regard Rhythm as his finest work, the film that truly set him apart as a filmmaker in my mind.  These three traits that I mentioned came together in a wonderfully told story, in a beautifully shot film where the writing, the acting, the craft all were in perfect synchrony.  But there was something more to this film.

At the time of its release in 2000, I was 19 years old.  In the past 17 years, much like Iruvar, the same film has assumed multiple shapes and forms as I have viewed it from the perspective of a son and later as a husband and even as a father.  When I first watched the movie, the Arjun character held appeal for how he interacted with his parents.  Not for Vasanth the stereotypical ‘Amma Appa sentiment’ that belonged to the thamizh cinema of yore.  The casualness of the interactions and the understatement of sentiment combined to ensure that their scenes found their way to the indelible parts of my subconscious.  This might be hyperbole to you.  But trust me for I was there when it first happened!  As a son, I know that I am not as patient or tender with my parents as the Arjun character is.  But given the verisimilitude that informs Vasanth’s style of film making, it is only natural that I don’t discount my shortcomings by dismissing this as just a work of fiction.  Rather, this film serves as a feedback loop of sorts that keeps reinforcing in me the need to fulfill my filial responsibilities to the best of my abilities. 

The scene that made me want to meet Vasanth (1:37 – 3:13)

As I have eased into the roles of a husband and a father, I can see that whenever I revisit the scenes where Arjun interacts with Jyothika, Meena or her son (played by Aditya) there are little lines or gestures that I watch with admiration.  In the past few years, I have put in considerable amount of time and effort into refining myself as a person.  As I had written in my post on anger management, I genuinely seek to love my near and dear as thoughtfully and as gently as I can.  But in order to achieve the kind of complete satisfaction with how I am to others, I know that I need to cement the cracks in my character, be it getting a better handle on my temper or acting less impulsively in times of distress.  And, when I watch the Arjun character behave with decency and equanimity despite the trials and tribulations that his character goes through, that, for the lack of a better term, is inspiring in its own way.  The delicate touch of the scene where he tells his wife, “Bomb vechurkaange ma,” the maturity with which he deals with Meena’s equivocation, the cuteness of his scenes with Aditya (believe it or not, I address my son as “Sir” quite a bit, similar to the Arjun character!) are all things that have helped me crystallize my thoughts on the ‘ideal’ version of me.  The ‘best’ version of me is something that I am working towards with the acceptance that even if the goal is not reached, just the attempt to reach it would be rewarding enough for me and, hopefully, my loved ones.

Watch from 3:15 – 4:09, 6:06 – 7:20

In the fifteen years that I have known Vasanth, my family and I have been recipients of his friendship, his generosity of spirit and his thoughtfulness of gesture.  The ways in which he has touched my life are too many to count and some are too personal to recount.  But one incident is worth mentioning.  Last October, when I had gone to India following my Aunt’s untimely demise, I had a lengthy conversation with him the day before I left.  As I took his blessings before leaving, I said to him, “Sir, do visit Paati when you can.”  He smiled and assured me that he certainly would.  On the day of Diwali (by this time, I had returned to the US), he texted me saying that even though we wouldn’t celebrate the festival this year that he still wanted to wish me well.  In my response, I said, “Do visit Paati when time permits, Sir.  She will be feeling low.”  Pat came the response, “I already did, six hours ago.”  When I called my grandma, she spoke of how he spent time with her, offering solace and comforting words and asked her to prepare my Aunt’s favorite dish as a token of remembrance, as a way of reliving my grandma’s memories of my Aunt.  The thoughtfulness moved me and my family a lot, during a tough phase.  Of course, there have been plenty of happier memories too, but as the cliché goes, “A friend in need…”  

"Punnagaiye Vaazhkai!" (That was the original title of "Rhythm")

As I have interacted with him over the years, I have also come to immensely respect the stubbornness of a creator that is one of his dominant traits.  As a filmmaker that steadfastly refuses to toe the commercial line, he has been willing to bide his time to make his own brand of sensible cinema.  He is currently making a film titled, Sivaranjaniyum Innum Sila Penngalum, an anthology based on the works of acclaimed writers like Ashokamitran.  As a creator, he has displayed indefatigable grit to make mainstream cinema that appeals to the reader in him as well as the aesthete in him.  Not all his works may have become classics like Keladi Kanmani or Aasai or cult favorites like Satham Podaathay.  But he soldiers on doggedly, to make films that stand the test of time.  I am not going to slot Rhythm into any category.  Because it is an experience that I, over the years, have made my own.  Yes, I am delighted whenever I find fellow admirers of the film.  But truth to be told, contrary to how communal a movie going experience typically is, Rhythm has been an intensely inward looking, meditative experience.  Thank you, Vasanth Sir, for the film and for your friendship.  I value and cherish both, with gratitude.  

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The joys and perils of increased connectivity

I am very comfortable in my zone as a laggard when it comes to adopting and adapting to technological innovations.  I took a very long time to convert from my flip phone to a smart phone.  Even my current phone is a few versions behind the latest version that is out there.  And that is okay.  I do appreciate the brilliance, taste and thoughtfulness exhibited by the inventors of these tech products.  But it is not something that I will spend too much money on.  As I think about it, it is not just the money aspect.  Blogger, Facebook and Twitter are all free.  Yet, I took my own sweet time.  (I do blog (clearly!) and am on Twitter but not on Facebook.)  As I think deeper, I think the reasons are two-fold. 

One, I have a very small world, with priorities, preferences and interests that hardly need the bleeding edge of technology.  There are less than 15 people that comprise my ‘family’, including my "chosen family" - my family of friends.*  And, there are just a half-a-dozen bloggers that I actively follow, but I follow them religiously.  They give me tremendous joy through their work, they make me think, smile, laugh and in a few instances, have made me tear up (as when one spoke about seeing her newborn pass away in her arms).  All of this is to say that when a true ‘connection’ happens, it tends to stay strong and abiding, barring a few isolated instances. 

My preferences are quite old-fashioned.  I still prefer in-person meetings and phone calls!  Heck, I still send handwritten cards to people for their birthdays!  I don’t do Facetime (Thank you, Steve Jobs!) except when my family wants to spend time chatting with my son!  And even my no-frills HTC phone supports Whatsapp quite well!  I spend considerable amount of my leisure hours reading non-fiction but I spend even more time to pause, reflect on and sometimes, write about what a particular book means to me and how it can help me evolve as a person.  So, in a given year, I would not have read more than five to six books.  I am still most at home reading hard copy versions of books; not a compelling need for any favors from Jeff Bezos there! 

And secondly, I have a healthy amount of fear when it comes to modern tech innovations, be it apps or otherwise.  Yes, fear.  The trepidation stems not from the innovations themselves but how people use them.  I just cannot get myself to truly accept the fact that people abuse the comfort of anonymity and dare to do things outside the ballpark of decorum and decency. (Sometimes, it’s not just outside the ballpark but outside the “league” and outside the “sport,” as Samuel Jackson said in “Pulp Fiction!”)

The truth is that this increased connectivity is a double edged sword.  It has been utilized in umpteen positive ways and I love the fact that things go 'viral' at the speed of light.  When large scale crises happened, such as the Chennai floods or the Jallikattu protests, smart phones, Whatsapp, Twitter and Facebook were all used to drive awareness, connect people and mobilize resources in a truly awe-inspiring manner.  But by the same token, negativity can go viral so fast that it could give pancreatic cancer cells a run for their money.  

The recent crisis involving singer Suchitra Karthik’s twitter account is a case in point.  There were some truly appalling content shared about some of Tamil cinema’s top celebrities and some equally disgusting personal attacks by commoners who, with the ‘privilege’ of anonymity, put up insulting and hurtful remarks.  There was hardly any display of empathy or even the willingness to be patient enough to find out what exactly was happening.  We still do not know what she went through or is going through and even whether the tweets were hers to begin with.  Fortunately, amidst all the comments were some truly sane voices such as stand-up comedian SA Aravind, whose comment was at once eloquent, empathetic and touching.  He wrote, “Our empathy is any day more important than our curiosity. It really is that simple guys. Think about it and let things be.”  It is voices such as his that must resound as loudly as the background score of Singam-3!  It is comments such as his that must serve as the panacea that outpaces and curbs the growth of malignant societal tumors such as nastiness and meanness that threaten to destroy every atom of the society’s being and kill its progress.

As I reflect on what this increased connectivity has given me, I consider myself fortunate to have come across people across the globe whose voices I respect, whose writing I admire and whose thoughts help shape my own thinking.  And, I am thankful to the different technologies that have eased my lines of communication (pun intended) with the people that make up my little world, despite the geographical distances that stand in our way.  At the same time, I wish and pray for a better future for those that are abused in myriad, unfortunate ways.  I will continue to hope for a utopian society where abusers can begin to recognize the ill effects of their behaviors.  I once came across a lovely quote, “Everybody has a chapter that they don’t read out loud.”  While people might be exposing themselves by opening up their own wounds in public, what we may be seeing is only a line from that “chapter” of their life.  What led to it and what follows it might be things that we will never, ever know.  But for now, let’s not judge the book by a few painful 140-character lines in a very difficult chapter.  That, right there, would be the ultimate insult to not only the pioneers behind these technologies but also to humanity itself.
* - In a recent tweet, Anu Hasan referred to her friends as her "chosen family."  I loved that choice of words, hence its inclusion here.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Press on the Brake! - An essay on anger and temper

Let me fess up.  Prior to writing this piece, I did a google search: difference between anger and temper.  I was directed to a site called (what a name!) that spelled it out lucidly that temper is an “expression of anger.”  I am glad that I listened to the dormant dork that resides within me and googled this because I was letting quite a few thoughts stew in my mind over the past few days.  On a relaxed Sunday afternoon, I was digging through old papers and sundries on the floor of my basement closet, determined to create enough space to walk through the area!  I found an old group photograph from a high-school excursion from September 1997.  That made me whiz along the twisting and turning lanes of my memory, a la a sports car on a winding road.  Looking agape at that horror of a picture, I wondered how impossibly large my glasses were, not to mention my waist size.  I was amused that the cleverest thing that a classmate could do was to put his hand above and behind another friend’s head and strike a ‘rettai elai’ pose as though he was campaigning for the AIADMK!  So yes, I did smile to myself.  But no, it was not just a sweet nostalgic moment.  I simply put the snap in a pile of papers.  It was the stack of papers that I was going to throw into the trashcan.   Not the set of papers that I wanted to retain. 

As I walked upstairs to the living room, I wanted that 'car' to zip back to the present as quickly as possible.  It was because I don’t think I enjoyed the memory of how I was as a person.  It was an age where I thought that it was perfectly fine to lose my temper.  No, I have never hurt anyone physically.  And yes, I was a pampered but not insensitive kid; I was taught by my family to apologize when the blame rested squarely on my shoulders.  “But everyone has flaws,” I would say to myself.  “And, a short fuse is my shortcoming.  Those who love me will accept it.”  I would apologize quite sincerely when I made a mistake but I would move on.  But 20 years down the line, I can still hear the unpleasant sound of my screaming at a classmate (who was in that snap) who took great delight in needling me persistently.  Even now, I can almost feel my ears vibrate as a result of that high pitched shriek of mine.  But here’s the strange feeling that I experienced.  I wondered whether I was ever nice to him.  Anger might have been what I felt when he may have said something hurtful or unsavory but why could I never find a better “expression” than temper to convey that?  Well, let that memory be consigned to the trash can, as the car zooms by to 2007.  

2007 was the year that I started doing yoga.  Rest assured that I am not going to pontificate on the benefits of yoga.  But I will share an analogy that a yoga practitioner once shared with me.  He said, “Imagine that you are on an interstate and you are traveling at 80 miles an hour.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, you see a truck coming at you in the opposite direction, traveling in the wrong lane!  You start pressing on your brake and realize that the brake isn’t working!  Is that when you take your car to a mechanic?  No, you need your car to be a well-oiled machine.  Similarly…”  Well, you catch his drift.  I share this because I use to have this ill-informed belief that at the moment that I was going to erupt, if I could manage to somehow count to five or delay my response that I could manage to keep my temper in check.  Let me just say that the car was clearly crashing into a truck quite often and insurance rates were skyrocketing!  (Not literally, thankfully!)  

I can’t claim enough knowledge of meditation to establish a causative relationship.  But a reasonably healthy diet and regular meditation have been integral parts of my life over the past few years.  Keeping my temper in check (for the most part) allows me to love my near and dear more deeply, more thoughtfully, more gently.  As mushy as it may sound, to lavish my loved ones with kind words and meaningful gestures is something that means a lot to me.  If temper is a barricade in that journey that I share with my family and friends, then the least that I can do is to put my brakes on at the right time and swerve around it.  And, yoga might not be your cup of tea.  But I do sincerely believe that some sort of a sustained, disciplined method to focus on the self is a necessary ingredient of temper control.

I have purposely avoided mentioning the triggers of my temper because that is besides the point.  The triggers are excuses.  I would like to believe that irrespective of the trigger, my reactive expression cannot be one involving temper.  There are things that make me angry.  Recently, I was in a group setting where I was working on something for a good 25-30 minutes and when I was finished, someone in the group loudly cracked a crude joke (an admittedly funny one, I must say) about what I had worked on, even if the output was very well received by everyone (including that person).  I must say that I did not enjoy the joke at that moment.  I was quite peeved.  I thought that it was neither respectful nor sensitive.  But I just smiled faintly while others laughed.  The laughter subsided soon and everyone carried on with their business.  But the hurt lingered for a while.  Between asking myself whether I was being too touchy and questioning my own silence, I just walked away with at least a sense of satisfaction that I didn’t behave like a killjoy, puncturing the lightness of the atmosphere that resulted from the joke. 

I repeat to myself what Dr. Sheena Iyengar wrote to me (see my write-up if interested) when she signed her book (“The Art of Choosing”) for me.  “Be choosy about choosing and you will choose well.”  I just have to choose and prioritize what is truly meaningful to me.  If someone gives me grief on something that I consider a core element of my being, then I have the right to become angry, even if I don’t have the license to lose my temper.  Instead, what would be more apropos would be a  mature conversation that addresses what disturbed, bothered or offended me.  Anything outside the realm of those core elements is just not worth losing sleep over.  Life is too short.  Life is too precious for that.  I know that I have some ways to go before I can consider myself completely free of any temper control issues.  But at the very least, I do respect the periodic maintenance that the car needs, in order to enjoy the pleasure of the ride that I am on, with those that gift me the bounty of their affections.  After all, being in the driver’s seat is not only a privilege but also a responsibility. 


My conversation with Anu Hasan on the triggers of temper:

Thursday, February 9, 2017

High-class behavior: Musing on truly ‘classy’ people

My Aunt was 49 when she passed away last October.  Memories of her pervade my mind from time to time, tightly packed and vying for space, akin to water molecules in a cube of ice.  As I begin to zone in on the specifics of some of those memories, the tightly packed moments melt into a free flowing stream of thoughts related to a particular facet of hers.  Very recently, I smiled to myself, thinking of how she always had a teenager’s gawkiness.  She could be totally clumsy with the food on her plate.  She could be standing near the threshold of our house and yet the way she hollered out, “Amma!” could wake my grandma up even if the latter was in the other corner of the house, taking a siesta.  She giggled in a way that made it impossible to distinguish between her and her 12-year old daughter.   Her gait was so rapid, so rushed that it was a wonder that she didn’t trip, fall and end up in a doctor’s office every week.  All these descriptions might evoke just an endearing, childlike person and not a classy person, necessarily.  But to me, she was truly classy, of a different kind.  And I am not even referring to her impeccable sartorial choices or her perennially perfect coiffure.  In my mind, the sheer class that she had, stemmed from something much deeper, something incredibly genuine.

In 2007, I had gotten married through the arranged marriage process. A month after my wedding was my Uncle’s birthday.  My Aunt, my Uncle and their daughter took me and my wife to Savera for dinner. In the presence of my wife, she told me, “Never, ever hesitate to say ‘sorry’ when you are wrong.  It will be important for Nandu (my wife).”  Kindly pause.  And, reread that.  As I reflect on that moment, I realize that she could have spent the better part of dinner either confabulating with my wife or just teasing me.  But she didn’t.  She felt that in the incipient stage of my marriage that I must know to acknowledge my imperfections, have the grace to apologize and learn from my mistakes.  That one line of hers has been one of the guiding principles of my marriage and I can see how “important” it has been for my wife that I acknowledge and introspect whenever I err.  Be it with her choice of words or the timing and thoughtfulness of that gesture, that discussion at Savera is one of several incidents where my Aunt came up with a concoction of something thoughtful and mature.  And to me, that was class, in the most meaningful sense of the term, a lot more meaningful than someone that only possessed an aristocratic mien and nothing deeper. 

That is not to suggest that people from the upper strata of the society that have a dignified bearing, do not have true class.  As a matter of fact, I have been witness to someone that belonged to the upper class – owing to his social and financial status – display true class.  That was my grandpa’s great friend, who was a wealthy industrialist.  My grandpa, on the other hand, lived a very comfortable lifestyle but was nowhere in the league of his friend when it came to wealth.  But it was a difference that existed just on paper, not in either of their minds, which I thought was remarkable, given the fact that their friendship lasted from their middle school years until my grandpa’s death (at the age of 61) in 1994. 

Their relationship makes me think of another trait that I have always associated with class – assuredness.  Both my grandpa and his friend felt so assured of themselves that they had neither insecurities nor the need to vulgarly display wealth.  That sense of contentment with what they had, made them relaxed.  Relaxed in a manner that would let them enjoy the sunshine of happy moments, withstand the storms of turbulent times and let their friendship offer a protective umbrella that prevented each other from getting drenched in the rains of sadness when their family members went through issues, health wise or otherwise.  It also made them thoughtful in ways that beggar belief.  After my Aunt (my grandpa’s second child, after my mother) was born, my grandpa’s friend was supposed to have given him a pep talk that with two daughters, he must start taking savings and investments seriously, and encouraged him to consider small scale industry to supplement his income.  It was advice that my grandpa took seriously and started a small factory that lasted more than 30 years, until after his death too.  Just the thoughtfulness exhibited by his friend (who was then just in his early 30s), instead of just wishing my grandparents on the arrival of a newborn and lavishing them with a gift, is something that makes me feel quite humbled.  

As I reflect on the class that my grandpa and his best mate exhibited, despite their class differences, the more I feel like I should be conscious of my words and actions.  I say this because as I progress in my career, make more money and acquire more tangible assets, it is perfectly acceptable to enjoy these material possessions for what they are.  But I should also never fail to realize that it is those intangible assets – those admirable traits demonstrated by people like my Aunt, my grandpa or his great buddy – whose value never depreciates over time.  As a lover of watches, I might occasionally allow myself the indulgence of a nice timepiece on my wrist.  It should make me feel nice, that’s all.  But the more I wear these acquisitions lightly, the lighter I can feel, hence making me more grounded, more stable.  Again, that stability will lead me to being less self-absorbed and more giving in myriad ways.  These people that I have written about, are sadly no longer with us.  But, in my personal and professional lives, I continue to see people that exhibit graciousness*, generosity and gratitude in equal measure.  To emulate them would be my best bet if my goal were to make an impact on a loved one’s life in the manner of my Aunt, at Savera.  That would be the kind of class that persists, even after someone leaves this world.  That would be the type of class that lingers, even after the watch stops ticking.


* My first version of the write-up had the word "gracefulness" here.  After seeing Anu Warrier's comment below, I feel that "graciousness" is the more appropriate term for what I was trying to convey.  Thank you, Anu!  

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Magic of the Montage: A piece on my favorite montage song sequences in thamizh cinema

In an interview with Bosskey, legendary director Mahendran made an interesting observation.  He mentioned his ambivalence towards songs in the movies.  While, as a music lover, he could rarely resist the temptation of including Ilayaraja’s scintillating songs in his movies, the thought of picturizing them made him extremely uncomfortable.  As a filmmaker who firmly believed in realism – quite often, the stark, brutal side of realism – songs were anathema to him because their inclusion in his movies meant that he was going against the grain of what he tried to achieve with his style of storytelling.  But as he started out as a director with Mullum Malarum (1978), he arrived at a compromise that was remarkable for how stunningly different it was from the status quo of the songs of that era.  And, that was the idea of the montage sequence for songs, sans formal dance choreography.  Of course, there is a lot of visceral thrill in witnessing an intricately choreographed dance sequence.  But for the purposes of this post, I have compiled 10 of my favorite montage sequences in thamizh cinema.  (These are just listed in chronological order.)  These are just some brilliant numbers; that is a given.  Instead, I’d like to focus a little more on the actual picturization.*

“Senorita” from Johnny (1980; Director: Mahendran) - One of the most joyous sequences committed to film, every element of this song  is perfectly coordinated.  The music that syncs with the clicking of the scissors (Rajnikanth plays a barber), SPB’s irresistibly enthusiastic rendition of the line, “Poomethai poduginra vaasa pushpangaL”, Rajni’s antics at the 1:58 min point, are just some of the things that make this song a delectable concoction. 

“Anthi mazhai” from Raja Paarvai (1981; Director: Singeetham Srinivasa Rao) – This was probably the song that made people christen Kamal Haasan, kadhal mannan!  This song sequence is perfectly symptomatic of what a sweet, aesthetically shot romance Raja Paarvai is.  The part from 2:55 – 3:10 is astounding, given the limited resources that must have been available back in 1981!  And, Kamal and Madhavi holding that transparent umbrella together– who came up with that idea?  So beautiful, so tasteful that the rain gods would have felt the need to work extra hours just for that device to be opened for this couple!  Barun Mukherjee’s cinematography (especially from 1:17-1:30) is as extraordinary as Ilayaraja’s tune is mesmerizing. 

 “Poongatru” from Moondram Pirai (1982; Director: Balu Mahendra) – The apotheosis of Balu Mahendra’s illustrious career as a cinematographer and director, Moondram Pirai is a fine example of what results when the actors, director and the music director are all simpatico.  The way the sequences are filmed and edited almost give the feeling that the director and the music director conceived this audio visual treat in one session, with one providing the music and the other coming up with the corresponding visuals!  The way the train track segment (starting at the 2:29 min point) is shot is a case in point.

“Sangeetha swarangaL” from Azhagan (1991; Director: K Balachander) – Director K Balachander was a master at coming up with novel situations for the songs in his movies.  This song does a marvelous job of capturing the closeness and the sensuality of a couple that is falling in love.  Though the whole sequence just involves the two of them on the phone, the way this song is shot is exquisite.  Mammooty and Banupriya are charming in an effortless manner.  And, I loved the way the song ends with the Doordarshan news tune!  Sometimes reality shakes people up from a dream in the most mundane manner possible! 

“Nivetha” from Nee Paathi Naan Pathi (1991; Director: Vasanth) – A song with no lyrics, “Nivetha” more than amply compensated for the lack of words with pictures that spoke a thousand of them in every frame.  The visuals are pleasing and the editing, seamless, and result in an experience that is sheer poetry in motion. 

“Vetri Nichayam” from Annamalai (1992; Director: Suresh Krissna) – Rags-to-riches-in-one-song is an oft-used, sometimes abused, trope in the world of masala movies.  But “Vetri Nichayam,” owing to the fact that it was one of the first of its kind, packs quite a punch.  Through a series of crisp vignettes, the song makes a powerful impact, carrying forward the momentum from some of the dramatic sequences prior.  And, a suave, casually understated Rajni doesn’t hurt either!

“Mettu Podu” from Duet (1994; Director: K Balachander) – Another one from the rich collection of KB’s songs, “Mettu Podu” is sheer sensory magic.  My favorite part of the song is when Prabhu and his family gather in their living room to watch their own song on TV (starting at the 4:26 min point below).  Just the way the family members' reactions are showcased, goes to show that with some thoughtfulness, it is possible to paint an evocative sketch that complements the audio portions of a song.

“Pachai kiLigaL” from Indian (1996; Director: Shankar) – A director that’s known to stretch the limits of grandeur (though not always in an aesthetic manner, in my opinion), Shankar created a tremendous impact in the flashback sequence in Indian by just sticking to good storytelling.  “Pachai kiLigaL” is a fabulously shot song on a small family that live in the idyll of a village and enjoy simple pleasures.  Kasthuri is especially moving in the engagement scene (starting at the 3:32 min point).  As an aside,  I just wish that Shankar had reined his urges to indulge in unnecessary graphics  - the ‘flying’ pen is an example of the more is less in Shankar’s cinema!  The actors were doing just fine in this song until Shankar’s graphics department took over!  Nevertheless, the song is indeed special in a whole host of other ways.  

“ILangaathu veesuthey...” from Pithamagan (2003; Director: Bala) – The king of gore, violence and tragedy, director Bala, has the knack of surprising his audiences with sprinkles of sweetness, warmth and gentle humor.  He extends it to song sequences like “Maalai En Vethanai” (Sethu), “Munpaniya” (Nanda) and this one, from Pithamagan.  The impact of Ilayaraja’s glorious composition is enhanced by the visuals of Bala and his cinematographer, Balasubramaniem. 

“KangaL irandaal” from Subramaniapuram (2008; Director: M. Sasikumar) – James Vasanthan shot to fame with his mellifluous number, only to flatter to deceive, with none of his subsequent works (barring maybe the “Oru Vetkam” song from Pasanga) even in the ballpark of this stunning creation.  We get some lovely visuals that fit the tune like a glove, especially the portion where Samudrakani approaches Jai and Swathi during their surreptitious meeting at the temple (starting at 3:29 below).  The first time I watched this, my heart was in my mouth.  Kudos to Sasikumar for injecting a bit of suspense into a melody, of all things!  And, that head bob of Jai’s – please don’t start wondering how that became so popular.  It just was popular, that’s it!


* PS: Since it is impossible for me to figure out the relative contributions of the director and the choreographer, I have given credit for the picturizations to the director with the belief that it is, after all, their vision that is being brought to life by the crew.  

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Madras movie theater experience: Fun memories of watching movies in Madras

“Wait a minute!  All this serious stuff is fine.  But you have also had some incredible fun at the movies.  Why not write about that too?”  That’s what I said to myself last week, a few days after I published my post on Iruvar.  As I gratefully accepted all the positive feedback on that write-up, I also felt the urge to revisit another set of my memory cells, related to my decade-long memories, starting from the late 80s, of Madras’ cinema theaters.  I first need to provide some context.  I lived in Madras – yes, good ol’ Madras, not the C word that it got transformed into – for 17 years from 1981, when I was welcomed into this world by the same maternity ward nurses that rejected Raja Paarvai and celebrated Murattu KaaLai!  As I took baby steps in my house, so did Kamal, in Bollywood with Ek Duje Ke Liye.  By the time I was six, two things happened –my family felt comfortable taking me to the movies that they wanted to watch.  And, alarm bells went off in Kamal’s head to wake him up from his Bombay dreams; he decided that he would make new dreams right out of Madras and started working on some path breaking movies, which my family really admired.  What this meant was that starting around the time of the release of Nayagan (Diwali, 1987), I used to tag along with my grandparents and my parents to pretty much every movie that they wanted to watch.  Mind you, this was the pre-satellite TV era.  Heck, I don’t even think DD-metro was on air back then, let alone Koffee with DD! 

My admiration for Kamal began in the post-Nayagan phase itself.  But truth to be told, I was not the Kamal Daasan that I am now!  I used to equally enjoy Rajni’s masala movies.  Maapillai at Albert Theater was quite something, especially the pre-intermission feisty exchange with Srividya; the fans screamed until the elders in the audience lost their hearing completely.  I even remember going to the now-defunct Sapphire theater to watch Mohan Lal and Mammooty movies without subtitles, without understanding Malayalam!  An hour into the Mohan Lal starrer His Highness Abdullah, my Mother exclaimed, “Bore adichu thallardhu!  Kalambalaam!”  (“I am bored stiff.  Let’s leave!”)  My grandpa was enjoying the movie and didn’t want to leave.  And, I don’t know if I enjoyed the movie or if it felt nice to ‘support’ my grandpa but I said, firmly, “Naanum varra maaten!” (“I am not coming either!”)  And, I very proudly stayed with my grandpa throughout the movie, savoring the corn puffs purchased during the intermission as much as what ensued on screen!  My mother and grandma,  meanwhile, left the theater in an auto during the intermission!  As my age approached double digits, I have a feeling that I understood movies a little better.  I remember being impressed with serious fare like Thalapathi (Diwali, ’91) and Marupadiyum (Pongal, ’93).  But it was only years later that I took movie-watching as seriously as I do now.  Save the occasional Balu Mahendra or the KB movie, it was still the mainstream entertainer that I looked forward to, in those days.  Speaking of Thalapathi, I have fond memories of my Aunt (who passed away in October) and Uncle  who would take me to preview screenings of GV and Mani Ratnam productions.  My Uncle is a chartered accountant who partnered with the late GS (GV and Ratnam's brother) and so, I would tag along with them to not only catch the movies but also glimpses of the stars.  I still remember Suriya, during the premiere of Nerukku Ner, as a gawky youngster who looked as star struck as I was!  Well, that was 20 years ago!  

Devi Theater / Cineplex (Image Courtesy of
My mid-teens were when I started watching movies with friends.  Sathyam and Devi theaters were our frequent haunts, followed by Woodlands and less frequently, Shanthi or Albert.  Given how passionate we could get about our favorite actors and actresses (especially the latter!), a heated argument was always lurking in the corner.  We would needle one another, argue vehemently as though our lives depended on it and would stop only when another friend would step in to gently remind us about dinner plans!  The friends in our group had wildly varied tastes – some of us were huge fans of Aishwarya Rai, others hated her, some of us liked to watch the occasional artsy movie, others preferred commercial entertainers – and we used to exhibit very little respect for each other’s tastes!  Years later, when my erudite Uncle taught me the term, ‘De gustibus non est disputandum’ I told him that I wished he had shared that with me when I was in my teens!  In the 90s, Praarthana was an open-air theater that opened in the outskirts of the city.  Once the novelty wore off, it was not a favorite of mine because I was invariably disappointed with the acoustics.  But still, watching Vaali (during a trip to India, in the summer of ’99) along with friends was a memorable experience.  Not just for the movie – which was fantastic – but one of my friends started bashing Simran as a hopeless actress, much to the chagrin of others!

An annoyance or pleasure, depending on your tolerance level and interest in that particular movie, was to watch movies amid all the sarcastic remarks of those smart alecks in the crowd.  While I admit to being occasionally peeved with those comments (in a movie like Kuruthi Punal, which had me riveted), I have also experienced guilty pleasure thanks to the sheer audacity and the wit of those comments.  In the dramatic climax of Alai Payuthey, as Madhavan pleads to an unconscious Shalini to wake up, a restless friend of mine hooted, “Yendhru Shalini Yendhru!”  Years later, when I was watching Chandramukhi in a packed theater in Southern California, there was a scene where Prabhu says, “Saravanan, ungaluku e-mail la message vandhuruku.”  To this, an audience member reacted – rather loudly, I might add – “Pinne, e-mail la message varaama masaal-vadai ya varum?!”  (Now, how do I translate that to English without losing the magnitude of the irreverence?  I’m not even trying!)  It was in Southern California but I felt transported to Madras in a matter of seconds!  By the same token, it is sheer magic to watch a movie that’s working for an audience, in a theater in Madras.  Chennai-600028 (part 1) was one of the first movies that I watched with my wife.  What added to the fun element was that we also had one of my best friends for company.  While laughing along with the audience at Shiva’s perfectly timed one-liners was fun, what was especially memorable was the theater erupting hysterically at the start of the “Saroja Saaman Nikkalo” song. 

Video capturing fans’ reactions during the intermission scene of Baasha:

As I revisit these memories in my mind, I realize what a fun, communal experience movie-watching in a theater in Madras has been.  Things have changed over the years with the advent of upscale malls, outrageous parking fares, perfectly upholstered seating, snazzy lighting, western food, online booking, etc.  That’s all well and good.  But my memories are of a different type of city that seemed to possess a different ethos.  The evolution of the theaters, the audiences that frequent them, the amount of money spent there, all form a microcosm of the city's evolution.  It doesn’t matter if the changes have been for better or for worse, overall; they are what they are.  I am just thankful that the city’s theaters afforded me the luxury of pleasant memories.  These scenes from my childhood and youth, be it with my family or friends, seem to play quite vividly on my mind’s screen even now, as nicely as the movies played out on the silver screen back then!  And, that’s the end!