Monday, July 16, 2018

A letter of supplication

Dear Shoba,

It has been close to two years since I have seen you.  Yet I am engulfed by a strange feeling – as much as I miss your sunny presence, I don’t feel the distance that has separated us irreversibly.  Is it possible that I wake up every day striving to internalize the spirit that personified you?  There are times that I know that I am failing to live up to the Himalayan standards of character or unable to plumb the oceanic depths of generosity and unconditional affection that you immersed your loved ones in.  But you know, I am okay with putting effort into things that you came to you effortlessly.  I mean, how did you know to put yourself in a newly-wed daughter-in-law’s shoes?  And tell me that my apologizing to my wife when I was in the wrong would mean a lot to her.  How did you manage to convey that in just a simple, well-worded line during your first outing with her?  You didn’t sound like you had prepared that line!  Okay, please don’t tell me that that’s why you are you!  I get it, Ms. Modesty.  I am just asking for a little help here!

In a conversation with your friend Anush, I was telling him about how yoga is an effective way to rid oneself off toxins and how that was helping me be more centered and love my loved ones deeper and in a balanced manner.  He smiled and replied, “Shoba never needed yoga because there were no toxins in her.”  I agree with him partially.  But you will be happy to know that I continue to practice yoga every day.  I do put my yoga mat in front of the photograph of yours that is in my prayer room.  As I focus on the rhythms of my breathing, the scents of nostalgia sweep across me.  The fully functional clock seems to be hopelessly inaccurate. 

In the last week of Sep 2016 - it was the ‘last’ week in more ways than one – you were probably wondering in that hospital room where you were preparing for a one-way journey, how the apple of your eye, your lovable daughter, was going to live life with only one parent.  Before I write anything about her, let me share with you what her Dad wrote to me:

"Yes, like every other person, she too cried initially and asked the WHY questions.  But what, I believe, she did with an innocence of a child, is sacrificed her unhappiness for her mother’s happiness.  When she understood that her mother is supremely happy and completely healthy in Heaven now and that she would have continued to suffer if she had survived, she displayed true unselfish love. She stopped focusing on her grief, her loss, her more difficult future and just focused on a wonderful vision of a healthy bright mother in Heaven.  Her happiness for her mother she so loved diminished her own unhappiness."

Am I surprised?  Not really – she is your daughter.  I used to wonder how despite all your health issues you never lost that radiant smile, your willingness to derive happiness from that of others.  I now understand why everyone thought that your eyes were so beautiful – they were a pair of lenses that you used to focus on others.  You smile was perceived as genuine because it went all the way to your eyes – I can never forget the way you received me at the Chennai airport.  Tears rolled out of those same eyes unstoppably when I bid goodbye to you at the end of the trip.  I recently watched a speech by Martin Crowe, one of my favorite cricketers.  He uttered a line to a fellow cricketer which I would like to steal for you – “I thank you for your emotion.”  I know that you were not a fan of the word, “thanks.”  But how else am I supposed to acknowledge the rarity of your purity?  Your daughter at 13 is already showing the same signs of genuineness and generosity.  You did good, Chithi. (I know you would have loved to hear the word ‘Chithi’ a little more; I thought that that was too formal, sorry!)

There was a moment at the Express Mall in Chennai where your little angel behaved just like you.  Actually the whole visit reminded me of you.  She called me a couple of hours before the visit and asked, “Would it be okay if I bring a friend along?”  Just like you, right – I remember you asking your friend Gomes to come with you for a 'family' vacation to Yercaud in 1985.  Yes, I get it – Gomes was family for you.  Similarity #2 – she played air hockey with her friend at the arcade at the mall.  Her friend lost and looked a tad upset.  Immediately, she went and consoled her friend stating that she played very well too.  Trust me, I never had this grace when I defeated a friend at cricket.  (You knew that, didn’t you!)  What was truly amazing to me was that the trip to the mall was to cheer her up following the unthinkable events at the hospital that October.  She had lost her mother a few days prior and yet she didn’t want her friend to feel bad?  I suppose the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.  In May, when Thathama decided to join you, I tried to take a leaf out of your daughter dearest’s book – Thathamma had suffered quite a bit this year ever since her heart attack on Jan 1.  Maybe it was time for her suffering to end.  If as a 37-year old, I had that thought about my 81-year old grandma, it was due to a 12-year old who had that selfless thought about a 49-year old mother.  I reckon that the ability to teach and inspire by doing, by being, clearly runs in the family.  As I said, you did good, my dear.

I wish I could have agreed with Anush fully.  I wish that the physical toxins had the heart to bow down to the purity of your heart and say, “I lose.”  Shame on them for taking you away from us so early.  But I shall continue to pray to you to give me:

Clarity of vision to focus on my loved ones even when I have pain in my eyelids…
Generosity of thought to brim with pride when someone else’s cup of joy overflows…
Kindness of heart that prevents me from causing indelible wounds to others…
Strength of character that nurses my wounds with the balm of forgiveness…
And finally, the willingness to pardon God for making me bereft of your luminous presence for the rest of my life...
But I assure you that within the heart flickers your bright spirit...

I miss you a lot, my friend, my sister, my mother.
With all the love that you gave me,

Tuesday, July 3, 2018


Chauffeur.  I was 18 the first time that I had heard this word.  I had been chatting with an American friend at a driving class in Memphis during my summer break after my college freshman year.  I had lived in India till I had completed high school.  Back home, we used the term 'driver' to refer to a chauffeur.  So, during the course of the conversation, I kept referring to “our driver in India,” much to the amusement of my friend.  I was referring to Solaiappan.

Solai had been part of my maternal grandparents’ household since the early 1970s.  My grandpa was a banker but was also a small-scale industrialist, who owned a small factory that manufactured silencers and battery caps.  In my early years, the ‘factory’ was a shed right opposite our house.  Solai, who had been groomed by grandpa to be a jack-of-all-trades was, at that time, both the senior most employee of that factory as well as the ‘driver’ of the household.  He was very fond of me but would not hesitate to call me out when I was being a brat - that happened quite often!  He would bark at me for wearing soiled clothes and dirty shoes in the car.  I would argue that it was impossible to be impeccably dressed in the sweltering heat after playing cricket in the middle of the day (and in the middle of the road, I might add). 

After watching the Wimbledon finals in 1989, I decided that I would beat Boris Becker when I got the chance.  I never had a middle name but if I had one as an eight-year old, it would have been chutzpah.  My father either appreciated my confidence or indulged his only child or both, but there I was attending tennis classes at Stella Maris. (Yes, it’s a women’s college but there was a tennis court there where classes were held for boys and girls.)  After returning from school, I would pick up my racket, change into a t-shirt and shorts and dash off to the shed, asking Solai to drop me at class.  He would invariably say, “Wait.  I need to finish a few more pieces,” to which I would respond, “Aiyyo Solai, vandhu pannaa piece yenna thaenjaa poidum?!  Tennis-ku late aagardhu.” (For non-Tamil speaking readers, I apologize.  A direct translation is impossible.  Just know that I prioritized tennis over silencers even though the latter helped pay the bills!)  So, in a huff, he would pick up his wallet, driver’s license and listen with understandable annoyance while I would proffer advice on how to drive fast on crowded Alwarpet roads.  I would also, just to needle him, add that if he quit his smoking habit, he would have more time to work on silencer pieces.  

Solai revered and adored my grandfather.  My entire family was overjoyed when he decided to get married in the late 80s.  I vividly remember the time he invited our family to meet his bride-to-be.  It was touching to see the arrangements he had made ahead of the visit.  He apparently insisted that my grandpa be the person to hand him the thaali (an auspicious thread that the groom ties around the bride’s neck) at his wedding, an honor that is typically bestowed to someone that the couple respects deeply.  (Solai and his wife were blessed with two kids and continue to lead a happy married life.) 

But as much as he respected my grandpa, he was extremely candid with him too.  So, like a teacher complaining to a parent about a recalcitrant kid, Solai told him that he wanted to concentrate solely on the factory and asked him to employ the services of a driver whose responsibility was just that.  Solai, in my presence, told my grandpa that the trips to school, my friends’ places and tennis courts were all taking a toll on him.  This was before the time that I drove my bicycle beyond the neighborhood.  Never known to be subtle, my grandpa matched Solai for bluntness– he said to me, “Ramu, unaala thaan Solai vandi oatta maaten-nu sollaran!” (Ram, it’s your fault that Solai wants to quit driving.)  If you thought that I started sobbing, then you are…as wrong as us Kamal fans that thought that Anbe Sivam would be a commercial hit!  I coolly replied, “Yes, Thatha.  A new driver would be good for me too!  Let Solai concentrate on the factory!”  To this day, Solai and I pull each other’s leg about the restoration of his work-life balance back then!  I would also like to think that he was the only thing that stood between me and my Wimbledon trophy. (Come to think of it, delusion could be another apt middle name.)

When my grandpa passed on in ’94, Solai was as inconsolable as some of our family members.  Not surprising because Solai was family.  But, as the pessimists say, all good things come to an end.  So it did with Solai.  A couple of years after my grandfather's death, he quit his job following an unfortunate rift.  I would like to think that had my grandpa been alive, he would have never allowed Solai to quit.  Truth to be told, I didn’t think much about it at the time.  I was just glad that Solai continued to be a part of every major life event of the family, happy or sad.  As delighted as I was when he attended my wedding, I was equally moved to see him at my grandma’s funeral this May.  He inquired, with immense affection, about me and my family, while sharing his memories of my grandmother.  And true to character, he said that I never bothered to invite him for my wedding.  When I gently reminded him that he did indeed attend my wedding, he promptly retorted, "It was Amma (referring to my grandma) that invited me, not you!"  In a strange way, the funeral felt quite complete when I witnessed Solai be one of the people that carried my grandma’s paadai (a stretcher, with bamboo stems, carrying the departed) out of the house.  It was just nice to see that he was part of her final journey.

As I look back at my childhood days, I am glad that Solai was an integral part of it.  In the US, we live a comfortable middle-class lifestyle.  We do all the cooking, cleaning, driving and so on.  In a sense, it is wonderful that chauffeurs and maid services are a bit of a luxury that not everyone can afford.  Some of them that I have met in the US lead much more comfortable lives than our domestic helpers back home.  But most Indian kids that grow up in the US will never experience the warm, extended family vibes that trustworthy household staff provided some of us that grew up in India.  Solai might have quit driving because of me.  But thanks to his presence at my grandma’s funeral, he surely did drive me on a rather nostalgic trip down the alleys of Alwarpet! 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Eyes Wide Open

The nurse opened the door with great alacrity.  She was swift but not rash, opening the door just enough to let herself in.  My grandma, my grandpa’s best friend, my parents and I were a few feet away from the door.  The nurse watched us askance before quickly shutting the door.  While everyone else looked in the direction of the entrance of the hospital awaiting a senior doctor, I saw through the miniscule opening that the nurse had left open for a fraction of a second, a sight that hides permanently behind my eyelids.  Whenever my eyes would shut, the doors of that hospital room would open widely behind them.  Inexplicably, much wider than the actual sight that the nimble nurse permitted me.  It was the sight of the doctor and his support staff pounding on my grandpa’s chest, as he slipped away rapidly. 

He was 61, and in very good health.  He had gone for a walk to his best friend’s daughter’s place, tried to test-drive their newly acquired SUV and in the process, rammed the car into a wall.  His spleen got ruptured and within two hours of this rather freak accident, he was gone.  Just like that.  No warning, no proper goodbyes, nothing.  The sprightly old man who had gone for a walk in the morning was a pot of ashes submerged in the nearby beach by the end of the day. 

Meanwhile, a sea of tears engulfed my grandma.  She was 58 then.  Having married my grandpa when she was 18, they were in their 40th year of a very happy marriage.  Her wailing lasted days, not hours.  But I misread one thing as inaccurately as an inept stock broker.  I thought that his death was going to crush her.  Far from it.  Within a month, when my family was deep in thought around the future of the factory that my grandpa had owned, she stepped in and said, “It was his labor of love.  I shall be the proprietor.  I may have only finished high school but I will learn the ropes and continue to run this instead of shutting shop.”  That was a moment of great truth to me.  Truths, really.

I could see two things.  Some people have a veneer of strength that obscures a frail inner structure.  Grandma was the opposite.  The tempest that had threatened to demolish her very existence only ended up proving how strong her inner structural foundation was.  The cruel twist of fate that I thought was paralyzing her on multiple fronts was, in fact, strengthening her resolve to stand on her feet and move forward, taking along her fellow sufferers, despite the magnitude of her suffering being much larger. 

The second thing I learned from her was something captured eloquently in the movie, Burnt - “There is strength in needing others, not weakness.”  When my grandpa passed on, my grandma did get a lot of moral and emotional support from family members and trusted friends.  She did share her grief with others.  As a teenager, I shut my eyes only to open a window for the unfortunate incident to play continually in my mind’s eye.  Whereas, my grandma shut the door on grief only after she had come face to face with it.  That she was not averse to getting people’s support and yet very quickly, stepped in to take over my grandpa’s factory showed that she leaned on people, perceiving them as transient pillars of support, not permanent crutches.  There are, of course, some people who possess tremendous inner resolve to deal with crises themselves.  To get back on their feet, they do not rely as much on external support.  That is strength of another kind, but not the only kind.  I say this because there continues to be a popular misconception of people seeking support – of various kinds, be it therapy or personal outreach – as weak.  People need the license to go through tragedy and adversity in their own way.  As providers of support, we only have to help ensure that their wounds don’t turn into indelible scars that incapacitate them permanently.

Last month, my grandma passed on, aged 81.  This time, my eyes were wide open.  I registered my grief, while striving to provide support to my mother and 13-year old cousin who were most affected by this.  I did not have to look far for inspiration – it was hidden in plain sight in our own home until May 22, 2018. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

Goldies: A piece on elderly characters in Tamil Cinema

“Gold is old” – so went my caption that accompanied a snap of a few elderly members of my family, including my late grandma.  No sooner had I sent this picture to my Aunt than she replied with a term of endearment to refer to them – goldies!  Ever since we had that whatsapp exchange, the term stuck with me.  So much so that it made me pick a half-a-dozen characters in Tamil cinema who just meet two criteria!  The characters essayed by the actors must have been elderly, even if the actors themselves weren’t.  And, the characters should have been, in my opinion, well fleshed out, serving as more than just a prop or cheerleader for the lead character.

Kamal Haasan in Indian
Kamal Haasan was no stranger to playing elderly characters.  Kadal MeengaL was released in 1981 when he was just 27!  Of course, in Nayagan (1987), he portrayed an elderly don for almost half the movie with minimal makeup, relying more on body language and voice modulations to bring an old man to life.  But it was in Indian where an elderly character was elevated to an unforeseen iconic status.  “Indian Thatha” actually sounds rather cheesy but I doubt that anyone that actually saw the movie would have said that.  Indian was as much as a Shankar movie as it was a Kamal movie – the taut screenplay featuring a brilliant investigation, razor sharp dialogues (by the great Sujatha) and a sense of grandeur that serviced the plot rather than stand out clumsily were all Shankar in vintage form.  But Kamal did full justice to Shankar’s characterization, exhibiting a sense of panache that was rarely seen in elderly characters.  This scene is one of my favorites, especially the nonchalance with which he combs through his hair with his fingers in the middle of an action sequence!

Srividya in Nee Paathi Naan Paathi
One of Vasanth’s great strengths as a writer is the authenticity he brings to elderly characters.  Right from Keladi Kanmani, Aasai and of course, Rhythm, he has always populated his movies with strong supporting elderly characters, individuals with traits, quirks and flaws that make them three-dimensional.  Some of his finest moments as a writer came in Nee Paathi Naan Paathi where he created a quintet of memorable characters played by Jai Shankar, Sulakshana, Delhi Ganesh, Manorama and Srividya.  In the movie, Jai Shankar is married to Sulakshana but has a child (Gowthami) out of wedlock with Srividya.  Delhi Ganesh and Manorama play the parents of a boy (Rahman) that Gowthami is in love with.  Manorama staunchly opposes the match.  Watch this marvelous 7-min segment.  Srividya’s performance is deeply affecting, especially the way she says, “Morandu pidikathe ra.”

Radha Bai and Judge Rajagopal in Aaha
One of the most lovable elderly couples seen on screen, Radha Bai and Judge Rajagopal were given some funny, heartwarming exchanges in Aaha.  In the opening sequence, they are introduced aptly, succinctly – “Gandhi-ku Kasturba, Sethurama Iyer-ku Lakshmi AmmaL!”  Though the Paati makes fun of the Thatha’s hearing (or lack thereof), the actors play it so sweetly that it never comes across as mean spirited.  They are especially lovely together in the delightfully staged Gokulashtami sequence (that begins at 1:22:15):

‘Pyramid’ Natarajan in Alai Payuthey
Natarajan’s character in Alai Payuthey was one of a kind.  He was neither a martinet that chastises a wastrel son nor a cloyingly affectionate father.  He played an upper-middle class advocate that has abundant self-confidence, bordering on hubris.  He was especially effective in this superbly nuanced sequence (that starts at 5:00) where he lets his self-admitted superiority complex get the better of him.

Chokkalinga Bagavathar in Veedu
The late Balu Mahendra created three unforgettable characters for the greatly underutilized talents of Chokkalinga Bagavathar – Veedu, Sandhya Raagam and Sathi Leelavathi.  Bagavathar was in glorious comic form in Sathi Leelavathi – his explanation of the difference between a brief and a loin cloth brought the house down.**  But Veedu was in a different league altogether.  A tableau of simple human emotions, the movie had several poignant scenes featuring an old man, who simply wants to see his granddaughter build a home. 

This simple scene – the grandpa visits their under-construction house and silently admires it - never fails to make me tear up.  In fact, the actor really isn’t doing much.  But owing to the understatement of emotion and Raja’s tremendous score (from his album “How to Name It”), not to mention Balu Mahendra’s famed natural lighting, this is one of those quiet scenes that speaks volumes of its creator and his collaborators.

Jayaprakash and Thulasi in Pannaiyarum Padminiyum
Modern day Thamizh cinema owes a bit of gratitude to heroes like Vijay Sethupathi and Sidharth.  It is hard to find such assured leading men who concede significant screen space to senior actors.  Though the former and Aishwarya Rajesh have a charming little romance track in Pannaiyarum…, it is undoubtedly Jayaprakash and Thulasi that have the meaty roles, having scene after delicious scene infused with gentle humor and crackling chemistry.  They are so cute as a couple that even the leading actors’ romance fades into the background.  And rightfully so.  This is the seniors' movie and the actors well and truly own it. 

** - In case you don’t know the joke, watch this video, starting at 5:30 --

Friday, May 18, 2018

Eight Memories of Eighties Thamizh Cinema

Hold on a second.  Let me wipe the sheepish grin from my face.  I am quite amused with myself for choosing this topic.  The reason is that I was born in June 1981.  I have no right to be au fait with the 80s cinema to the extent that I am.  But – okay, stop judging me! – I started watching thamizh movies in the theater when I was less than 7 years old!  Plus, there were enough movies from the 80s that I caught later on video or TV that I feel like these films were an integral part of my formative years even more than they probably were!  In this piece, I am not putting on an analytical hat as much as donning a nostalgic cap.  I hope that at least some of these tropes and cliches bring a smile to your face, as you take a trip down your own memory avenues!

Note: I have embedded the videos such that clicking on play will take you to the appropriate place in the video. (Sincere thanks to all the youtube video owners.)

Begin with a bang – The 80s Titles
Much before Mani Ratnam decided that the titles would offer be artfully connected to the subject – a case in point is Revathi’s photos forming the backdrop of the titles in Mouna Raagam- loud flashy psychedelic colors were part and parcel of the title cards.  I suppose there were graphics much before Shankar decided to collaborate with computer scientists!

Exhibit 1: The titles of Makkal En Pakkam

Mike Mohan and Song Suresh – The singing heroes
Make no mistake - they definitely had some acting talent.  Especially Suresh – he had a voice that was good enough to later dub for Nagarjuna (Shiva, Ratchagan) and Ajith (Aasai) but think of these two heroes, what come to mind instantly are their lilting romantic blockbuster songs set to tune by The King and sung by Mr. Dulcet Balasubramaniam!  
PS: No, Suresh was not called Song Suresh the way Mohan had the ‘Mike’ prefix.  That was just my goofiness taking over!

Exhibit 2: Kootathile Kovil Puraa… from Idhaya Kovil

Thamil Vaalga – Radha, Ambika, Nadhiya, et al. 
I suppose Tamil cinema has always been flooded with heroines from outside the state.  Padmini, Savitri, Saroja Devi were all yesteryear heroines but they all dubbed in their own voice.  It was in the 80s with actresses like Radha, Ambika and Nadhiya was the voice artiste coming into prominence.  But to their credit, they all lip synced perfectly.  They all essayed a variety of roles from those of substance to being eye candy.  (In my mind, Saritha was the best non-Tamil speaking actress of this generation.  She dubbed for herself too.)  Nadhiya shot into prominence with her memorable role in Poove Poochoodava and had a short but spectacular run from the mid to late 80s. 

Exhibit 3: Chinna Kuyil Paadum…

 Silk and her ilk – the item numbers
What thamizh cinema did to Silk Smitha was a tragedy.  A travesty.  She was pretty, and could certainly act – remember her role as Thyagarajan’s wife in AlaigaL Oivathillai?  Yet she was made to prance around in skimpy clothing and dance to inane but super hit numbers like “Nethu rathiri yamma” (where Kamal was the dancer-in-crime).  Supposedly the distributors used to insist on a song featuring her even in the films with top actors.  Other ‘glamour girls’ followed in her footsteps but I don’t know if anyone made it as big as she did. (Of course, her real-life suicide was a tragic epilogue to her rags-to-riches-to-rags story.)

There were very few truly melodious numbers picturized on her, the song below being a striking exception. 

Exhibit 4: Poove…Ilaya Poove…     

No laughing matter – The Comedy Tracks
Comedians may come and comedians may go but Counder will go on forever!  It is a testament to the evergreen nature of his comedy sequences that even present day youngsters are familiar with most of his famous punchlines.  Though it was Karagattakaran that catapulted him to fame, there were several films in the 80s that had hilarious comedy ‘tracks’ (standalone sequences with a tenuous link to the main story).  My favorite, by a mile, is Vaidehi Kaathirundhal.

Exhibit 5: The mantel comedy

Don, men and their den
Henchmen got such a raw deal in thamizh cinema in the 80s!  The Peters, Davids and Kaalis were usually tasked with spouting the two most obedient words ever- “Yes Boss.”  What’s worse, they probably were sweating profusely while doing this.  They had to, in sweltering heat, wear figure-hugging jackets.  They had vision problems too – I would too if I had to sport sunglasses in dark dungeons.

Exhibit 6: The 'thagudu thagudu' scene in Kaaki Sattai

Judiciatree – The Panchayat Scene
Did you think that Vijayakumar was the first nattamai in thamizh cinema?!  Nope.  Courtesy of Bharathiraja and his protégés, there were many judiciary matters resolved under humungous trees!

Exhibit 7: The intermission point of Mundhanai Mudichu

Photo finish – The post-climax group photo
The writers and directors wanted to have the carrot halwa and eat it too.  They would kill off a character or write an intense, dramatic climax scene.  Yet they wanted the audiences to leave the theater without a heavy feeling lest the masala quotient be diminished.  So, what did they do?  They would tack on a family photo scene where a character would crack a joke and just to offer a cue to the audience, the others in the scene would start laughing. 


Exhibit 8: The final scene of Moondru Mugam           

Sunday, May 13, 2018

C'est la vie

It was the longest thank you.
“Be choosy about choosing and you will choose well.”  These were the words of author Sheena Iyengar, above her autograph.  After reading her magnificent creation in 2010, “The Art of Choosing” I was so moved and, I dare say, so inspired that I felt compelled to thank her in person.  “Thank you” - it takes less than two seconds to utter; it took me 45 minutes!  I hesitated to request her autograph because she was visually impaired.  She asked me if I would like her autograph.  I wish she could have seen me smile.

It wasn’t always like this.
It used to bother me when one piece of potato in my curry wasn’t properly fried.  It used to irk me that my best friend hated my favorite actress.  Once, when in my teens, I flung the remote control on the wall when India lost a cricket game.  I had non-intestinal digestion issues – I could not stomach the fact that my teacher bought another student a watch for his birthday!  Yes, I was a pugnacious brat.  But as I dug deeper, I started to realize, courtesy of Professor Iyengar, that I was clearly not being choosy about the things that could make me a temporary insomniac.

It was unexpected. 
As I started identifying the things related to my core values or my identity, two things started to happen, one good and one not so.  I became relaxed around the choices, or lack thereof, around everything outside that nucleus.  Suddenly there seemed more to enjoy in life, more to take in my stride.  In short, I gradually felt liberated from many of my obsessions.  But when it came to those things – friendships, emotional generosity, even writing, to name a few - that I continue to hold very dear to me, I started being more protective.  Which doesn’t sound like a bad thing but when you over communicate around your obsessions, you cannot always expect people to think, “It is only four to five things that he is protective about.  Let me stay out of it.”  Instead, I found that there were enough people to pounce on my vulnerabilities.  Why?  It might have seemed harmless fun, a way to mask their insecurities or an opportunity to vent out pent up emotions stemming from a perceived inadequacy.  The reason doesn't matter at all.  Scratch that.  It does matter when you bear the brunt from people whom you did not expect to behave a certain way, where moving away even emotionally is difficult.  That is when it hurt.  Deeply and abidingly.

It happened once…twice…now, I have lost count.
Thanks to close to a decade of meditation, literally and otherwise, I have largely curbed my temper and impulsiveness.  But I quickly realized that when you rid yourself off anger, you have to find other ways to express.  Where I used to flip out, I now try to reason out.  But I know that it does not work all the time.  With a couple of people that I have gradually distanced myself from in the recent past, it was clear that my efforts to communicate my needs fell on ears that weren’t deaf as much as purposely stuffed with cotton to mute everything that I was stating.  The longer the rope I gave, the more nebulous the person at the other end appeared.  Beyond a point, I didn’t want to keep track of the number of instances where these people dismissed, mocked or, worse, attacked passions of mine.  But as much as that caused searing pain, it opened my eyes to the true value of people that love you for who you are and wish the best for you.  These are also the people that know how to retain levity and laughs in life without crossing just a handful of boundaries that I have drawn for myself. 

It was hidden in plain sight.
As I ruminate on Dr. Iyengar’s words, being “choosy” extends to people as well.  Letting one’s guard down in front of all and sundry is a recipe for disaster.  As some sagacious soul once said, life is the opposite of school.  You don’t learn and then take tests.   Life gives you the exams and then teaches you the lessons.  Still, I wish I could have minimized my hurt somehow.  But…c’est la vie.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Flash of Brilliance – An essay on flashback sequences in Tamil cinema

Here is the thing about one of the famous tropes in Tamil cinema – the flashback.  Sometimes it actually makes no logical sense, especially when it involves a song sequence.  Sample the scene that leads into the freedom struggle segment in Indian.  Sukanya, playing the ageing wife of the former freedom fighter Senapathi (memorably essayed by Kamal Hassan), asks the CBI officer in disguise, “What the hell do you know about freedom struggle?”  The story goes back 50 years to the pre-independence era.  A rousing 20-minute sequence follows.  We then cut back to the present scene involving Sukanya.  So, let’s think – what would she have been narrating to the officer?  That she danced to “Kappal Yeri Poyaachu” and changed costumes a dozen times to reflect the myriad ethnic Indian wear?!  But I can bet my life’s debt…err, earnings…on the fact that not one member of the packed audience at Satyam Theater was thinking this way back in 1996 when the movie was released! 

The flashback sequence packs a tremendous punch, not missing a single emotional beat despite all the grandeur and special effects.  This sequence is meant to offer an explanation for the violent ways of the protagonist.  The emotional wallop is complete in a second flashback in the second half featuring his daughter Kasthuri.  If the freedom struggle portions sowed the seeds for violence as a justifiable means to a utopian end, the village portions ensure that our emotional investment in Senapathi is complete. (Even here, did Senapathi, who had a corrupt doctor at the edge of his knife, tell him, “We sang and danced to the lovely ‘Patchai KiLigaL’ song?”  Of course, I don’t need an answer!)  Now we are not only empathizing with him but also rooting for him to take out the corrupt, societal weeds the way he deems appropriate. 

The flashback has been a part and parcel of the grammar of Tamil cinema.  It is an efficient way to reveal the motivations of a character.  It is a tool that allows writers to chart a narrative arc, while achieving a dramatic high.  It also forces them to be economical.  For instance, the delightful Karthik segment in Mouna Raagam plays for only 24 minutes from start to finish.  Yet Karthik made a career out of playing variations (not always nearly as well written, of course) of this character!  These segments allow the writers to build to an episode within the bigger picture, with a climax of its own, even if it means a tone that is different from the rest of the film.  Though not regarded a commercial classic the way Indian is, the standalone segment in Jeans is a standout.  Radhika steals these scenes with her expansive performance, her diction, her body language and her piercing stares all fitting in perfectly with her character, one that has shades of gray.  (It is a testament to her skill as a performer that she made her abrupt transition in the second half work.) Up until this flashback sequence, Jeans meanders along.  It is with this short, powerful segment that Shankar ensures that the first half doesn’t come across as totally slight.

Never one to shy away from experimentation, K Balachander used the flashback to great effect in several of his movies.  One of his greatest efforts AvargaL, worked precisely because of the back and forth nature of the storytelling.  Told linearly, it would not have worked nearly as well in giving us glimpses into the complex, sometimes confused mind of the lead, played splendidly by Sujatha.  This narrative form allowed KB to establish the specter of the Rajnikanth character looming ominously over the life of Sujatha.  This brings a sense of urgency to the narration, making us wish for her happiness and for her to end up with a man (played with finesse and restraint by Kamal) that has a sad past of his own. 

The one kind of flashback that I am not a fan of is the one where a sad scene opens a movie, only for us to immediately travel back in time.  Even in undisputed classics such as 16 Vayathinile, I find it to serve little purpose except to forewarn us to a sad end.  In movies like Mudhal Mariyadhai, Housefull and Duet, the initial scenes give away a little too much.  In the marvelous cult classic Hey Ram, it works both ways.  The present day scenes offer a telling counterpoint to the communal violence of the pre-independence days.  But it is the same narrative style that, at least for me, robbed the crucial shootout sequence (where Shah Rukh Khan ends up losing his life) of tension.  Thanks to the present day scenes that had preceded this, I knew that nothing untoward would happen to the Kamal character.  The one movie where the solemn-first-scene trope worked exceptionally well was Bharathi Kannama.  The old character played by Vijaykumar is apparently waiting for his daughter and son-in-law to return.  We think that Meena (his daughter) and Parthiban (her love interest) will return.  What happens in the climax, of course, is entirely unexpected and all the more stunning because of the skillful setup.

The other aspect about flashbacks that I find to be especially important is the build up.  The best of writers find the most appropriate places to introduce the flashback segments.  The twin flashbacks in Rhythm are placed at just the perfect place in the narration, allowing us to relate deeper to the central characters, leading to an intermission where each of them have learned about the passing away of the other person’s spouse and the tragic coincidence.  Of course, the flashback of flashbacks is the one in Baasha.  The entire first half is essentially an 80-min lead-in to the unforgettable introduction of the don character and his bête noire Raghuvaran. 

As the newer generation of writers and directors strive to make a mark in Tamil cinema, I hope that they use but not abuse flashbacks that can, when conceived and executed thoughtfully, really help them achieve peaks in their narration.  They just have to flash back to the classics of Tamil cinema to see how it was done effectively.  And of course, by coming up with ingenious ways of incorporating flashbacks (Rang De Basanti is probably unsurpassed in this aspect) they will only be flashing forward to a glorious era of cinema!


PS: If you are a fan of Raghuvaran and have not seen this flashback in “Thulli Thirindha Kalam” do me and yourself a favor by watching this. (You don’t need to watch the entire movie to understand what happens in this segment.) It starts at the 1 hour 48 min point and lasts around 25 minutes.