Friday, April 21, 2017

An Ode to the Written Word

The time was 5:16 am.  I was in deep slumber yesterday when the rather unpleasant din from my alarm shook me up a little.  Yes, I do have my superstitions.  My alarm times have to add up to 12.  No, that is not my lucky number.  It was my grandpa’s.  Please don’t ask me to rationalize.  I already said it – it’s a superstition!  So, I walked downstairs to my kitchen, opened the blinds and saw that it was quite perfect for an early morning jog.  After doing my yoga, I was putting on my socks and shoes to head out.  Next to my chair, I noticed the latest edition of TIME.  On the cover was a picture of the enterprising COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg.  Next to her profile picture were the words, “Let’s talk about grief.”  Grief.  It is a topic that I don’t take for granted.  I could hazard a guess that it was about the loss of her husband (who had passed away at the age of 47).  I wanted to read it right then.  But I equivocated for a few seconds – do I want to read that article?  Or, do I want to go out running?  I chose the latter because I have a certain fondness for the orange sky in the mornings.  But even as I stepped out, I did not turn on my iPod, as is my wont.  As the tea was brewing in the kitchen, so were my thoughts around the headline that I had just seen.  I asked myself, “How does a person like Sandberg, who has such a pivotal role to play in one of the most game-changing companies on the face of earth, balance work and personal life in the wake of a tremendous tragedy?”

By the time I had returned, I sat down, with my chai in hand, to read the article.  I had the answer to my question: Sandberg threw herself back into work, while not being oblivious of her grieving experience.  There was one line in the article that was poignant and eloquent in equal measure – “Dying is not a glitch of the human operating system; it’s a feature.”  Yes, that is true – it’s just that this “feature” features in certain systems way before it should or when we are least expecting it.  This is one operating system that has no consistency across units, no reliability and no testing that could make it foolproof!  The fault therein lies in the inventor, I mused.  But my point (finally!) is that the written word made me pause, reflect and it made me…write!  Let me elaborate…

The first non-fiction book that I read was Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” back in 2008.  Up until then, I had written a few short stories and several movie reviews.  But I had never written much about things that meant something to me, things that bothered me or things that I wanted to be.  It was in the summer of 2010 that I read Sheena Iyengar’s “The Art of Choosing.”  Pausch (who passed away in 2008) and Iyengar have since then become the two great influences of my life.  Not only did they inspire me in certain enduring ways – Pausch for making me focus on the right things professionally and personally, Iyengar for making me prioritize in ways that I had scarcelyimagined – but they also inspired me to get inspired!  I realized that the wider I opened my eyes and put on the lens of perspective gifted to me by different writers (be it bloggers, critics or book authors) that the world, starting with that person in the mirror, could be seen differently.  I also realized that by writing about people like Iyengar (who was the first in my “Inspirations” series), that I was fleshing my thoughts better and making it personal.  That is why after every book that I read, I allow myself a period of rumination instead of going to the next book.  I let the book sink in and see what else I can learn from it and execute on at home or at work.

When I write non-fiction, it typically falls into two categories – film related or about topics or people that mean something to me.   When it comes to analyzing films, I usually have my thoughts fleshed out in my mind prior to writing a piece – my write-ups are just my expressions of reaction, be it awe (“Rhythm”), admiration (“Kaatru VeLiyidai”) or sometimes, just plain irritation (“Kandhasamy”).  But when it comes to, say a person, a book or an area of personal interest (such as talent management) that I want to write about, the writing begins, the thoughts follow.  When I am lucky, the thoughts become epiphanies. (At least, to me they are epiphanies!)  One of my articles which had a bit of a therapeutic value for me was my piece on grieving that I wrote following my Aunt’s passing away last year.  I started the piece knowing that I just wanted to vent about my grief but by the time I ended it, I had, to an extent,  come to peace with myself.  My last line of that piece went, “The show is over.  But the highlights will continue to play...”  It is a line that I am glad that I wrote.  Because it helps me reconcile to the fact that I will see my Aunt only in my mind’s eye, for the rest of my life.  (Now you know why Sandberg’s piece made me perk up yesterday even before the sun did.)  And it is my hope that people that read my pieces – especially the non-film related ones- walk away with something that makes them think or even smile.  Also, the best part of the blog sphere is that the traditional one-way communication from an author to a reader has transformed into a dialogue between the two.  And that dialogue is a gift that keeps on giving.  And I must thank those that engage, sometimes indulge, me in that two-way conversation.

As I look back, the written word – both mine and that of others - has been a lock that has offered closure on certain issues; it has been a key that helps me unlock certain mysteries – such as theism- that I can't necessarily solve but at least appreciate and accept the complexities of.  It has been the foundational stone of friendships that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.  And it has been a pillar that has sometimes supported my drooping shoulders.  So, with this write-up, I profusely, sincerely thank writing itself!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Kaatru VeLiyidai – a movie review

There is a sensational scene in Mani Ratnam’s Kaatru VeLiyidai where VC (Karthi), a fighter pilot, takes Leela Abraham  (Aditi Rao Hydari, playing a Doctor) on a ride on one of his planes.  While the plane is still on the ground, Leela reveals something about her sibling, a connection that VC never knew existed.  VC requests her repeatedly to smile – he comments that the siblings have a very similar grin – making Leela conscious.  Nevertheless, she secretly enjoys the extra attention that this revelation has led to.  As the plane’s engine revs up, the camera shakes vigorously and then steadies up as the plane takes flight. (We get the feeling that we are on the flight with them!)  Overcome by the beauty of the snow-kissed mountains and basking in the flickering of her heart’s lamp, Leela’s defenses are lowered for the first time, and certainly not the last. 



This sequence, which ends outside Leela’s house (when VC drops her off), is an example of so much that is good about this movie – a complex romance set in the time of the Kargil war - as well as the elements that don’t work.  First and foremost, Aditi’s magnificent performance - she owns this movie.  Her ability to confidently hold lengthy close-up shots, switch expressions in a matter of seconds and project feelings of strength, disappointment and vulnerability all equally well, are truly awe-inspiring.  This scene, as is the movie, is this actor’s showcase.  Secondly, the staging and the cinematography.  The frames that Ratnam and cinematographer Ravi Varman compose, deserve approbation not only for the beauty of the visuals but also a certain ineffable quality that they bring to the movie.  Soul, perhaps?  Just the way this flight scene and several other sequences are shot, take us to the emotional core of many moments than the way those sequences were written. 

But one marvelous performance and superb staging alone cannot make a movie.  As I think beyond these two elements, some of the issues of Kaatru VeLiyidai come to the fore.  Firstly, Karthi’s uneven performance.  It is a challenging role for him, no doubt.  This character is not soaked in shades of white and is markedly different from any of the roles that he has played thus far.  And, I didn’t know where to lay the blame for the weakness of his performance - at his feet, the writer’s or just the fact that his casting didn’t work.  Maybe it’s a combination of more than one factor.  Actors like Karthik (in his heyday), Madhavan and Dulquer Salman have a twinkle in their eye and an easygoing onscreen persona that bring a certain amount of effortless charm to their acting.  But they can also go a step further and combine that innate persona with a certain edge, resulting in a magical concoction.  Karthik in Agni Natchathiram, Madhavan in Aaytha Ezhuthu and Irudhi Sutru, Dulquer in Kali, are instances of the persona of the actor finding a perfect match in a multi-layered role.  That sadly is not the case with Karthi here and the struggle shows on screen.  Be it the scene outside Aditi’s house where he sings a song or the seemingly interminable monologue at the dinner table where he tries to allay the concerns of Aditi’s parents, there is something constantly off-key about him in Kaatru VeLiyidai.  It is a relief that he makes the all-important climactic sequence work; he is fantastic here.

As I mentioned earlier, the staging of some of the sequences is so fabulous that it overshadows the writing at times.  That is a good thing because I found the writing to be similar to Karthi’s performance – sparkling in some parts, unconvincing in others.  The episode featuring Karthi’s family, for instance, is written horribly.  The purpose of this extended sequence is to show the origins of Karthi’s selfishness and shades of a male chauvinistic attitude (despite an innate goodness).  But the writing is so clunky that the emotional resonance is zilch.  Had Karthi’s confrontation with his father and Aditi at the hospital worked, our empathy for his character would have increased manifold.  (To see how this can be done effectively, watch the “Raji madhiri ponnu” episode of Suhasini’s Penn, where Raghuvaran plays a spoiled child who inherited bad habits from his Dad.  It is available on Youtube.)

The sequence where Karthi escapes from the Rawalpindi prison is, again, a deftly shot action sequence with a scintillating background score.  But this sequence should have evoked the level of tension of the Shah Rukh - Kamal Hassan soda factory sequence in Hey Ram.  Instead, I was appalled at the apparent effortlessness (with the police firing from all sides) with which Karthi goes to the back of the truck.  Sure, he is supposedly a fearless fighter pilot but a little more tension would have been more apropos.  I mention this in the context of the writing to underscore the fact that the staging, at times, doesn’t find an able partner in the content.  And that hurts the movie.  When we should be witnessing VC's desperation to get back to Leela, we instead see someone escape from a prison in another country as though he is playing a video game.

But when the writing works, as is the case with the plane sequence that I mentioned at the start, the result is memorable.  This is also the case with some of the scenes with more depth.  The pregnancy scene is one where it all comes together beautifully.   This scene – as opposed to the unbearable dinner table monologue – is one that has a stunning start, slowly building tension and an unforgettable conclusion.  As the camera gently zooms in from up above, moving towards the two characters lying in bed, the drama – aided by the splendid lines – intensifies.  The actors too don’t miss a beat here, explaining their stance in a manner that seems just right, given the nature of their characters. 

The other reason why I think this movie didn’t transcend from a supremely well-crafted, interesting romance into a classic is because outside of Aditi and (to a much lesser extent) Karthi, none of the characters registered.  While one might think that it is not a huge factor in a movie that is laser-focused on its lead pair, I beg to differ.  Strong supporting characters can add a lot of weight to the drama.  And the good ones will even do things to enhance the lead actor’s performance.  Let me explain.  Delhi Ganesh appears in this movie in a miniscule role as Aditi’s grandpa.  But there is no presence.  It is no fault of this great actor; it’s just that there is nothing for him to do except be around.  Contrast this to another example featuring the same actor.  In Nayagan – the ultimate one-man show, you might think – Ganesh plays the role of a loyal aide of Kamal’s.  In none of the scenes does he have a great deal to do.  But in the crucial funeral scene, as Kamal nears the dead body of his son, Ganesh gently says, “Vendaam Naaykare…kozhandhaiku nerupu kaayam nerayya patruku…”  What it adds to the impact of Kamal’s performance is hard to quantify but the impact is absolutely real.  There is not one such moment here featuring the talented Ganesh, RJ Balaji, Rukmini or the wooden non-actors that play Karthi’s family members.  And, Kaatru VeLiyidai is poorer for that.

As I walked out of the movie, there were frames that kept flitting in and out of my mind’s eye.  It is a testament to Ratnam’s ability as a filmmaker that so many differing thoughts were occupying my mind in lieu of a simple, “I enjoyed it” or “No, I hated it.”  But it is the same Ratnam that has given me more fulfilling experiences.  So, at the end of the day, Kaatru VeLiyidai might have fallen short of the Himalayan peaks scaled by not only Karthi’s planes in this movie but also several of Ratnam’s previous ventures.  But he surely does take us on one hell of a ride.  
***

Saturday, April 8, 2017

To (Na)sser, with love: Reflections on actor and director Nasser

In a Whatsapp group that I am a part of, there were recently a slew of comments on actor Nasser, with some that knew him well extolling his virtues as a person and others familiar with his rich body of work picking their favorite performances.  I resisted from commenting because I felt that I would struggle to capture the extent of my awe and respect for him as an actor, in a few comments on Whatsapp.  (I do not know him personally so I will stick to talking about his performances.)  In an illustrious career that has spanned 32 years since his debut feature “Kalyana AgathigaL” (directed by the late K Balachander), he has essayed a variety of roles, many significant, others not so memorable.  But as I reflect on the range of his performances – not just the roles themselves – it does make my jaw drop.  That is because of how he has invariably played his roles at a pitch that is absolutely right for the tone of the movie and the style of filmmaking.  And what adds luster to his performances is how he invariably manages to bring even stereotypical characters come to life with little touches, adding shades and nuances, but rarely calling out undue attention to the process of his performance.  Instead, as the cliché goes, he dissolves into the character.  For an actor that is seen so often on screen, that is no mean task.

Let me take three examples to illustrate this –Thevar Magan, Bombay and Jeans.  In Thevar Magan, he played the pugnacious antagonist whose hatred for Sivaji Ganesan’s family runs so deep that you could be swimming down vertically all day and still not reach rock bottom!  Starting from his first scene, where he is forcefully dragging a hound by its leash, there is something raw and bestial about his character.  Even the “thoongura mirugam...” lines seem superfluous, that’s how well he plays the role.  The panchayat scene where he insults Sivaji is one where his body language and dialogue delivery are stupendous.  Forget the vitriolic lines, just the way he says, “thaamadham aayrichu…” without apologizing for being tardy sets up the confrontation superbly.  Of course, due credit has to be given to the writing (Kamal Hassan) and direction (Bharathan).  In Jeans, he played the role of Siamese twins that are identical only in looks.  The climax where he turns around and stares hard at his brother for duping him (the brother’s reaction is even more priceless) was so superbly done that you could be forgiven for thinking that Nasser has a secret twin brother that the world doesn’t know about! 

Watch his expressions starting at 2:37 - 

But to me, one of his greatest performances has to be that of Aravind Swamy’s father in Bombay.  I have always felt that his character arc conveyed the essence of Bombay even more than the travails of Aravind Swamy’s family and the final religious union scene.  He plays a staunch, religious, ritualistic Hindu who even taunts his Muslim rival (Kitty) by asking for bricks with the name “Ram” inscribed on it!  Mani Ratnam’s detailing of this character is exquisite.  He even manages to infuse gentle, unforced humor into scenes such as the one where Nasser dresses up his grandkids in traditional Hindu outfits, (with three streaks of holy ash on their foreheads, no less!) as he welcomes Kitty to Bombay!  I love the moment where Kitty exclaims, “Yah Allah” and Nasser promptly replies, “Siva siva!”  But by the end of the movie, not only has he accepted his daughter-in-law but also realizes the error of his ways and the futility of religious fanaticism when Kitty rescues him outside the temple.  The final scene of this character – he retrieves the Holy Quoran even as he is fighting for his life amidst the riots – is one that showcases the power of cinema and its ability to evoke a lump in one’s throat.


Thanks to Kamal Hassan, we have also seen some great comic performances from Nasser.  Be it in Magalir Mattum, Avvai Shanmugi or Mumbai Express, his comic turns have been a great pleasure to watch because he can run the gamut from being poker faced and deliver funny lines (Mumbai Express) or go completely zany as in the case of the other two movies.  There is a scene in Magalir Mattum where he attempts to gift a saree to his subordinate Revathi only to be excoriated by her.  Unable to bear the insult, he goes in front of the AC vent in his office to let the cool air blow on his face.  His expressions –having lost his face – are a joy to behold.  And this scene has an even crazier finish (scripted by “Crazy” Mohan) as he is caught red handed by his wife as he is hitting on the maid servant (played wonderfully by Rohini).  A far cry indeed from Maya Thevan of Thevar Magan

See his expressions at the 30:30 min point:

As a director, he has made some genuinely interesting films such as Avatharam and Dhevadhai.  But the commercial failure of his lesser efforts like Pop Carn has made him move away from direction.  In the context of his directorial capabilities, I feel like I have seen only glimpses of his potential, instead of an entire 2 ½ hour stretch of sustained excellence.  The court scene in Avatharam, the picturization of the “Oru NaaL…” song in Dhevadhai and Mohan Lal’s confrontations with Simran in Pop Carn have all been rare strokes of brilliance on canvases that were envisioned with thought, painted with care and yet something felt missing in the overall picture.  But on the flip side, the lack of commercial pressure (owing to some of his past failed productions) have freed him up to be relatively choosy as an actor and to make a strong impact in roles such as the lovable patriarch of Saivam.



In his fourth decade as an actor, he deserves to be treated with much respect by directors who must resist from casting him in clichéd roles to get their sometimes ill-conceived ventures a patina of respectability.  Instead, as the next generation of writers and filmmakers such as Karthik Subburaj and Narein Karthik weave fresh tales, they must look to knit more tailor-made roles deserving of Nasser’s stature.  And by doing that, they can ensure that we, in our Whatsapp groups, can stop revisiting the past to pick his best performances!

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.)

Special thanks to Ravishanker for the wonderfully witty cartoon.  Ravishanker (aka Zola) blogs at https://thezolazone.wordpress.com/
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.
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* - 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 differencebetween.info (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. 

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My conversation with Anu Hasan on the triggers of temper: