Thursday, November 8, 2018

A memory to remember - My review of '96

Kamal Haasan once presided over a debate where the topic was, art house pictures vs. commercial cinema.  His verdict was, “Artistically made commercial cinema is what will endure.”  His judgment could be summed up in one number – 96!  96 takes place during the course of a night, focusing on a man (Vijay Sethupathi) and woman (Trisha Krishnan) who, partly owing to choices and largely due to destiny, took different paths in life and are meeting after two decades at a high-school reunion.  What happens during the course of that one night is the crux of this tale, lovingly brought to screen - and to life - by writer and director Prem Kumar.

                                                                                                       
For a first-time director, Prem Kumar comes across as a filmmaker completely assured of himself and his command over the medium.  This is a beautifully photographed movie - the unobtrusively lovely work is by Mahendran Jayaraju and Shanmuga Sundaram.  Simple shots like the school kid driving a cycle across a puddle of water are aesthetically done.  And the close-ups of the lead pair capture every minute change in expression.  Every choice of lighting is tasteful yet purposeful – a case in point, the use of the flashlight in the power cut sequence.  The tools that the director utilizes to bring the 90s to life too, are not flashy, yet make us smile– a floppy disk in the hands of a Computer Science student, a student singing a snatch of “Thendral Vandhu Theendum…”  Govind Vasantha's exquisite score ("Kathale Kathale..." is a haunting melody) too fits the mood of several scenes in an undemonstrative yet impactful manner.

In addition to being an aesthete, Prem Kumar is also a masterful storyteller.  He knows exactly when to cut away to the school portions.  Every flashback reveals a little facet of a character or chips away at a plot point.  He has a couple of recurring elements such as the hands-on-the-chest gesture or the craving for the “Yamunai Aatrile…” song that have sweet, little arcs of their own.  But to me, the pinnacle of his writing skill is the college sequence, which plays in two versions.  It is so splendidly written that it leaves a lump in the throat by the end of the second version.  There are subtle touches (like the way a young Vijay Sethupathi asks the name of a supporting character) that make the two versions distinct.  The two versions say pretty much what needs to be said about fate and how seemingly little choices seem monumental in hindsight. 

If the cinematography of the movie is the eye and the writing the brain, the actors are the heart and soul of ‘96.  Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha, individually and as a pair, well and truly make the movie.  This role is a breeze for the former, who uses his casual body language and undemonstrative dialogue delivery to full effect to bring to life a man who is stuck in a time warp.  This is Trisha’s finest work yet.  She imbues her character with immense warmth.  Of course, the writing plays a part in shaping her performance. (Chinmayi’s voice work is pitch-perfect too.)  But the actress is wonderful here – be it sobbing her heart out in the bathroom or smiling impishly while asking if Vijay is a virgin, she is as ‘alive’ as I have ever seen her.  She also does something nuanced – she underplays the parts where she playfully lords it over Vijay Sethupathi.  There is a refreshing casualness in the way, for instance, she squats on the floor and asks him to sit closer.  Or the way she insists on a clean-shaven appearance.  This dynamic does wonders for their chemistry.  The duo goes into top gear in the concluding portions, working perfectly with one another, knowing exactly when to cede the spotlight to the other.  If Trisha sparkles in the restaurant scene, Vijay Sethupathi is brilliant with the monologue that he delivers about attending a wedding.  Devadarshini and Bagavathi PerumaL have delightful cameos.  But the movie, especially the second half, belongs really to the lead pair and they lift it to great heights.

It is very rare that acting, writing and filmmaking all cohere as well as they do in ‘96.  It is a testament to Prem Kumar’s thoughtfulness and taste that ‘96 comes across as a film that is not only pleasing to the eye but also tugs at our heartstrings, lingering long after the end credits roll.  This is the type of cinema that endures.  This is the kind of cinema that a certain Mr. Kamal Haasan will especially be proud of!


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Fearless?

In characteristic style, film critic Baradwaj Rangan noticed something about a movie that had escaped many.  In writing about the playful “PeigaLa nambathey” song in Mahanadhi, he detailed how the song was a subtle way of foreshadowing some of the ghastly events to follow.  The hopeless Kamal Haasan fan that I am, I thought of that song on the eve of Halloween!  One line in particular stuck out while I was listening to the number – “AchangaL enum boothamunai andaamal nee oattu…”  This roughly translates into, “The apparition that is fear…drive it away.”  I know of a few people who are utterly fearless.  I have known them well enough and long enough to know that they are not faking it.  Nothing fazes them because they face everything with fierce determination.  Or did I reverse that?  I do not know.  But I have utmost admiration for them. 

I am not fearless.  Have never been, will never be.  But I would like to think that with a few grey cells in the right parts of the brain that I have learned to face my more important fears.  To borrow a favorite imagery of my Aunt, you enter dark tunnels hoping for light, not fearing an incoming train!  As I have written earlier, it is absolutely imperative that everyone has at least one anchor – be it God, science, family or friends.  Instead of delving into my anchors, I shall share five of my fears, some conquered, others not quite.  I have mixed up the lightweight ones with more serious ones.  Regardless of level of seriousness, these are certainly things that I fear. (Needless to say, this list is not exhaustive for the simple reason that I didn't want you to feel exhausted!)

Bark, Bite and Fright – thanks to an insensitive pet owner who was my neighbor during my formative years, I have a morbid fear of dogs.  Irrespective of size, my canine friends make me shudder with very little effort.  I am just thankful for the fact that over the years, I have had some very sensitive pet owners as friends and acquaintances that respect my fear and give me my space.  Well-wishers have tried to help me overcome this, only to realize that they barked (!) up the wrong tree. 

Men in Boo, err…Blue – Being a die hard fan of the Indian cricket team is a boon and a bane.  Victories can be really sweet.  But defeat can be so bitter that even badly made chai would pale in comparison.  To non-cricket fans, this may seem trivial.  But I confess I have a real fear of defeat whenever India plays.  Having grown up watching Indian cricket in the 90s and having seen the Indian team grasp defeat from the jaws of victory many a time, this is a fear that has been partly conquered by enduring, endearing images of Sachin Tendulkar’s sixer off Shoaib Akhtar and the most joyous moment of them all – “Dhoni finishes off in style…A magnificent strike!”

Hospitals – at the risk of sounding pretentious, I shall say that I do not have much fear for myself and my own health.  Whereas near and dear in a hospital?  Now I see the personification of pusillanimity in the mirror.  I have tremendous regard for good Doctors.  Having had the privilege of interacting with a few owing to the nature of my work (in a pharmaceutical company), I know that there are physicians out there with an unerring drive to improve human health.  But the hospital is one setting where emotions trump rationale.  I have had some positive experiences in hospitals but the emotional baggage of unfortunate experiences is yet to be lifted.  One day I will feel lighter.  Until then, I will have to keep my eyes wide open as I walk in, especially when my support is needed.  After all, a bit of selfless focus on others is a surefire way to ignore what is in the mirror.  And making a loved one feel lighter rarely makes us feel heavier.

Single Child Sentiment - Don’t blame me.  Blame my 49-year old Aunt who passed on two years ago.  Why did she have to be a sister, mother and friend all rolled into one?  Why did she do so many things that she didn’t have to?  Why did she never tell me - when she was alive - that she was the reason why I never felt any pangs of being a single child?  Why does she make me feel - even after her death - that true, genuine affection is that exhibited by someone that doesn’t have to?  Why does she make me fear a lack of sense of belonging and relevance?  But as I think deeper, the answer is ridiculously simple.  I just have to emulate my Aunt.  I just have to be a good protective sibling to those that have given me the privilege of being one.  Oh, I almost forgot to tell you - among those ‘siblings’ is my Aunt’s 14-year old daughter.

Delayed action, Useless inaction –Words can be impactful.  Kind words uttered can be as soothing as unkind words spitted can be hurtful.  We all know that.  But I have come to realize that nothing can usurp the importance of action.  Thoughtful gestures and supportive actions can mean the world to people.  Having been a lucky recipient of many a kind gesture, I try sincerely to pay it forward.  But I am no saint.  I do know that there have been instances when my misdirected action, inaction and delayed actions have all hurt people.  I can only say that I am a work in progress.  One with a healthy dose of fear that I will cause hurt if I don’t spring into action timely, thoughtfully.

So, there you have it.  Let the fears be.  Time may help me conquer a few old ones while new ones sneak in.  To me, facing the apparitions that Kamal sang about is as important as exorcising them.  I don’t think that I will ever be fearless.  But something tells me that with time, I will fear fears less! 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Hashtag BluePrintForMeToo

Adam Grant could possibly be the new best friend for anyone passionate about the #MeToo movement.  Well, if not him, then at least his book, the wonderfully insightful Originals.  In the concluding chapter of his book, aided by a couple of deeply thought provoking examples, he lays out the blueprint for a long lasting revolution.  None more impactful than the story of Serbian activist Srdja Popovic, who had masterminded the downfall of their dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

Brave victims, empathetic caregivers, driven activists and even passive onlookers of the pervasive, painstaking MeToo movement should take to heart Grant’s single most important line in that chapter – “To channel anger productively, instead of venting about the harm that a perpetrator has done, we need to reflect on the victims who have suffered from it.”  He writes elsewhere, “Venting doesn’t extinguish the flame of anger; it feeds it.”  Grant also makes an oft-ignored demarcation – being angry for someone will result in more justice than being angry at someone.  Not for a moment does Grant suggest that the perpetrators be given undue impunity.  Rather, the excision of societal weeds must begin by sowing the seeds of well-directed, controlled aggression.  That was the story of Serbia, the story of Popovic.

Popovic had the foresight and astuteness to know that direct, overt confrontation of Milosevic would only result in unfortunate loss of life and fleeting scents of emancipation.  In order for the people of Serbia to breathe the air of freedom for a lifetime, he realized that the spotlight had to be switched onto the unfortunate plight of the victims of Milosevic’s tyranny.  A case in point – on New Year’s Eve at the turn of the millennium, Popovic organized a concert where dirge-like songs were played.  And in a dramatic move, he had all the lights switched off and then proceeded to flash on a giant screen gut-wrenching images of Serbian police personnel and soldiers who had lost their lives in the struggle against Milosevic.  Not one image was of Milosevic himself. 

For the MeToo movement to cause sweeping changes in written laws as well as unwritten rules across professions in favor of victims, it is imperative to first respect the sensitivity and privacy of the victims.  The mother of singer Chinmayi – one of the leading voices of MeToo in India – made a telling point in an interview that while she truly believes in the value of the movement, she is simultaneously opposed to the “washing of dirty linen in public.”  At first glance, the two might seem contradictory.  After all, for the movement to succeed requires great fortitude on the part of the hitherto oppressed subjects to come out with difficult truths involving personal, sensitive details.  But the point she makes is that more women and men who have been subject to harassment and humiliation should come out and share their stories.  But what should be dwelled on in public – oh, the media would hate this! – should not be the sordid details of their encounters with coercive demons.  And instead, their hurt must be registered, their voice heard and the movement be propelled in the direction of safe environments for women and men to flourish without pressure or fear.  For all the trauma undergone by their family, Chinmayi’s mother also vocalizes her contempt for people’s urge to slap a perpetrator more than using that hand to hold the hand of a sufferer.  The punishment of the offender would then come as a byproduct of this movement, not the primary goal.  Clearly, great minds – be it in Serbia or South India – think alike!

Another golden nugget actually mentioned in a footnote in the chapter is on catharsis.  Grant writes of how in the wake of 9/11, the efforts of counselors to get trauma victims to purge and express their grief proved counterproductive.  He writes about how vocal expression of grief tends to have a more soothing effect on a suffering soul once sufficient time has elapsed from the time of the distressing event in question.  This is important for MeToo supporters and caregivers.  Too often we have, with the best of intentions, the urge to rush people into catharsis when a bit of time would actually help heal wounds.  The way I see it, our quiet, tacit empathy could be the calming anesthesia that victims need before they put themselves through the painful yet necessary scalpel of detailed, sometimes disturbing reflection.  It is also a reason the media and celebrities alike must not scoff at the time that it takes for victims to come out with details of their depressing experiences.

Grant ends the book with some truly inspirational lines on Originals – that they “embrace the uphill battle, striving to make the world what it could be” instead of settling for what the world has given us.  Let us respect, applaud, support and above all, listen empathetically to the voices of pain.  As Popovic so ably demonstrated, the collective voices of pain have the power to silence people in positions of power more so than a philippic ever can.  And by the way, he wrote a book too – Blueprint for Revolution!

***
Reference: Adam Grant’s Originals – the final chapter titled, “Rocking the Boat and Keeping it Steady.”

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Gifts of the Future

No sooner had I uploaded my previous write-up, “Presents of the Past” than I toggled to a few of my favorite albums from the 90s during my ride to work.  It felt just right.  It was not as though I was wallowing in past memories – a few songs in a 35-min drive, just enough to hum a few notes from the pages of nostalgia.  One song that made me pause considerably was the scintillating, “Putham Puthu Bhoomi” from the caper Thiruda Thiruda.  A quartet of small time crooks stumble upon a truckload (literally so!) of money and launch into a song.  But the lovely twist is that the song doesn’t feature a single line about money or wealth.  It is about a utopian future, sans poverty, hunger, a world where lasting peace satiates the mind’s appetite for a better tomorrow.  Subsuming the ideas springing out of that song under the larger fabric of thoughts that stitched itself in my mind in the wake of my Aunt’s second death anniversary, I have put together a wish list of 10 items (in no particular order).  For each of these ‘gifts’ that I would like to receive, I shall add a couple of lines on what attracted me to it in the first place.

-          Ability to speak loudly with actions
o   Ever since I heard Anu Hasan state that it is imperative to shift focus away from content to intent, I feel that I have to put more thought into the possible reactions derived from my actions, over any possible resonance that my words may hold.

-          Thoughtfulness to appreciate effort regardless of outcome
o   The CEO of a startup that I worked for in the 2004-05 timeframe once came to the cubicle of every employee before we headed to an important conference to thank us all for our hard work in preparing for the launch – he made it a point to not wait until we got to see labor bear fruit.  Just the labor merited praise and acknowledgement.  As William James once said, “The deepest craving of human nature is the need to be appreciated.”  Our CEO has surely taught me a thing or two on how to cater to the cravings of my family, friends and colleagues. 

-          The magic mix of analysis and storytelling
o   As I strive to advance in my career as an analytical marketer, I hope to never lose sight of the value of a well told story.  My former manager once said, with his tongue firmly in cheek, “Never let the facts come in the way of a good story!”  Well, let me find ways to make them co-exist. 

-          The alertness of a thinking leader
o   Sanjay Manjrekar wrote of former captain and current prime minister of Pakistan Imran Khan that when on a cricket field, he had never seen Imran’s focus shift away from the action.  He wanted to make things happen, not wait for them to happen.  If not for anything else, the thought of Imran (thanks to Manjrekar) is likely to help me resist the lure of multitasking and the distraction of my dumb…err…smart phone.

-          Patience to convey pain without hiding it in a capsule of anger
o   A dear friend of mine once told me in a very low tone, years after he got married, that he was very upset that I didn’t make it to his wedding.  I have never felt a stronger urge to apologize.

-          The zest to read non-fiction
o   Given the abiding impact that non-fiction authors like Susan Cain and Charles Duhigg have made on me, I wish to never be bereft of meaningful words.  After all, every author gifts me a fresh pair of lenses to view the world through.  It all started with Sheena Iyengar who urged me to “be choosy about choosing.”

-          The zeal to write about what is right
o   When I lose myself in a train of thought, writing seems to provide the directions to the right stop where I must disembark and change tracks.  When I write about my value system, I sincerely feel that the words come first, the thoughts later.  It is strangely comforting and during times of need, the pen (well, the keyboard) becomes a friend indeed.

-          An Undying love for cinema
o   Movies have been an integral part of my life for as far as I can remember.  To enter and exit worlds created by others is a gift that I am truly thankful for.  For the characters to then enter my world and stay in the deep recesses of my mind is a kind of magic that I am very grateful for.  Exhibit A – Rhythm.  Exhibit B – Iruvar.

-          The blessing of relevance
o   In recent times, this has become a prized commodity for me – the strong need to feel that I am relevant, that I matter to those that are relevant and those that matter to me.  May long distances not result in my fading out of sight.  And that the mirror of thoughtful reflection correct any issues of myopia.

-          And finally, the wealth of good health
o   If I continue to receive this gift, then I am rich.  If my loved ones all get this, then I will be superrich.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Presents of the Past

The lens that we put on to look at the past is invariably rose-colored.  This is especially true when we narrate a story or share a memory.  By cutting out generic details and embellishing the story, a dash of spice here, a hint of exaggeration there, any scene from the past seems to be the product of a taut screenplay and well-timed dialogue – even the aesthetics seem to be right in place.  When reminiscing about a walk on the beach with a loved one, was the sky truly as beautifully azure and serene as we make it out to be?  Or were the sands too hot and dirty to walk past to get to the rather crowded part of the shore?  Even when we recount messy details, there is a tendency to vivify details with more nobility and positivity than what truly ran in our minds then – was the “sorry” after a nasty (and needless to say, needless) argument with a friend outside a movie theater more perfunctory and obligatory than a deep realization of a mistake that we claim that it was?  The truth is, the ‘truth’ really doesn’t matter beyond a point.  The scene that plays in our mind’s eye is the scene, well edited and all.  The story that rings in our ears is the story, even if coated with the saccharine sweet treats of nostalgia.

In less than two years, I have lost two of my very close family members – my maternal grandma and my aunt.  As an only child born and raised in India, I used to be frequently asked by curious extended family members and acquaintances whether I felt bad that I did not have any siblings.  At that time, I would laugh it off.  My circle of loved ones was small but tightly knit.  As a result, I never yearned for a sibling.  Since everyone that cared for me (and everyone I cared for) seemed to be within driving distance of where I lived, there was never a question of yearning for anyone.  I don’t think I ever said, “I miss you” to anyone  simply because I never had to miss anyone.  In essence, Chennai was part cauldron, part cocoon. 

For the past 20 years, I have lived in the US.  While I have enjoyed many personal joys and professional successes, I do find that when I am by myself, doing yoga, running on the treadmill or even driving to work, I have the tendency to dwell on memories from the times when more members of my family were alive.  Without getting into the kind of details that I gleefully mocked earlier, I can unhesitatingly say one simple thing – the memories feel nice.  I feel less bereft of the departed when I recollect an incidental detail that makes me smile.  For a fleeting moment, that detail brings the person to life.  Of course, it is only right that the feeling is transient, for it is odious to distance oneself from surface realities as flashbacks take flight. 

But what is more enduring is the past that finds a definite shape, form and structure in the present.  As I have mentioned time and again, the ultimate tribute to loved ones that have passed on is to find ways to live life in the ways that they would have liked me to.  Whenever I find ways to concretize my loving memories of them into actions, little or large, they seem to be brought to life in a manner that is still transient – you don’t need me to tell you that death has a stunning, irreversible finality – but the residual positive effects and vibes seem to last that much longer.  This thought, at least to me, applies to important relationships too.  The members of my family and circle of friends that I continue to have deep bonds with are the ones where I not only have a long, wonderful history with but also have a strong sense of a shared ‘present’, not just a shared past.  The anticipation of new memories that get created on account of being relevant to a set of people is quietly comforting.  So comforting that it achieves the impossible task of stacking up to the magnificently tall structures – made up of memory cells – that I have built up in my mind.

I suppose that moderation is vitally important in ensuring that thoughts of the past, positive or negative, do not consume the present.  It is imperative to respect and cherish the mutability of the present and future as much as it is to resign to the constancy of the past.  That way, images from an earlier time can exist as a well-edited prelude to the scene that is about to unfold.  That way, the narrative arc of our lives continues to have all the elements of suspense and surprise that the boon that is life throws at us.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

We are Family: Thoughts on Kousima and Muralipa (Guest Post by my wife Nandu)

Kousima and I are have evolved to become the best of friends.  I love how she is very chilled out and easy going.  Her mantra for life is to live happily today and not worry about tomorrow.  I think over the years, through our highs and lows, I have clearly understood who she is as a person.  Our best times are when we shop and cook together.  She is an inspiration to any woman and has so much to teach any millennial kid.  As a family, we have tried to be there for her especially in recent times- the days leading up to Shoba or Thathamma's demise.  

Muralipa and I are two peas in a pod.  We think alike, laugh aloud at the same jokes and just get it when no one in the room gets it.  It's like we were best friends in our previous birth.  Over the years, the mutual admiration has grown manifold and we respect the things that we hold close to us.  Muralipa is religious and his love for Tamil language is something I truly admire. I totally enjoy our TV time together as he invariably has everyone in the room in splits with his awesome sense of humor. 

Life is so short.  We need to learn to create new memories with our loved ones so that we can enjoy the boon that is life.

I wish this awesome and rocking couple a very happy wedding anniversary.  My heartfelt wishes for a great year filled with lots of laughter and happiness.  I'm sure you readers will join me in saying a prayer for their long and healthy life.  Cheers!


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

An Appointment with Mr. Disappointment

My regrets, be it losing loved ones prematurely or missing something narrowly in academia, seem to be one of two kinds.  They are either completely uncontrollable or they seem to be mostly in my hands.  But I slot disappointments in neither of these two categories – I seem to associate the word mostly with expectations.  Of expectations missed by trusted ones…wittingly. 

‘Wittingly’, because I have heard it from at least a few different people that I give my family and my family of friends a long rope.  I would like to believe that I put in sincere efforts in order for people to feel loved, cared for and secure.  I try to channel my father in this respect – he may not always remember people’s birthdays or anniversaries.  But his approach to every relationship is completely customized.  He would focus on the other person’s likes, needs, desires and leave no stone unturned in ensuring that they feel the warmth and security afforded by his affection.  In conversation, he would effortlessly slip in things about the other person’s childhood or remember something from a few decades prior that rarely found a place in anyone else’s memory cells.  Yet by sharing the scent of a memory, he would envelop the person in a fleeting, intangible yet wondrous mist of nostalgia.  If you were ever the recipient of that affection, you would know how special and privileged that feeling was. 

To be regarded as a chip off the old block is an abiding desire of mine.  But I know that my own foundation has been rickety, not rock solid until recently.  Let’s examine the cracks in the chip.

did have expectations of reciprocity. 
did want to feel that I was relevant.
refused to accept that as a person’s circle expanded, that I may be pushed to the periphery. 
I was proud…strike that…I was arrogant about the fact that I had painstakingly walked the extra miles out of my own volition. 

Let me pause.  And let the wiser, more mature part of my brain take over.

So yes, I do have expectations of reciprocity.  But that is okay because I am aware of, respect and even cherish different forms of expression, even the tacit ones.  I’d rather expect reasonable reciprocity rather than try to act selfless and be resentful.

I have a need to feel relevant.  But I know that it is a vibe.  It is either there or it is not.  Relevance can be on shaky ground when people’s interests evolve over time.  But when the foundation of a relationship is genuine respect and regard (even if unstated) for the other person, their evolving areas of interest become automatically relevant to oneself.  Even when there is an innate lack of curiosity, to have some focus on and acknowledgement of the other’s persons likes is a surefire way of completing your half of the relevance piece. If the other half of the piece is empty, the dissonance is bound to be pronounced.

Yes, I refuse to accept a place in the periphery but I know that I am unaccepting of only those changes where I don’t see the beautiful yet ineffable core of a person anymore.  When that core is visible, the periphery seems a splendid vantage point to view the other person’s new world from.  When the core is invisible, the sight of the other person can get frustratingly hazy.

And finally, yes, I have a healthy dose of arrogance about my convictions.  But over time, I believe that a small acknowledgement of extra miles that I put in is what makes me put in those huge extra steps.  As some wise old soul said, acknowledgement is the first decisive step in the path of empathy.  

For better or for worse, I have, in the recent past, distanced myself emotionally from the ones that have disappointed me.  As allusive as this write-up may be, it is a lament resulting from long ropes that got so lengthy that the other person is no longer visible to the naked eye.  As direct but courteous requests for continued relevance fell on deaf ears, I have had to mute my own internal wails that were, beyond a point, deafening.  For now, Mr. Disappointment is being kept at bay.  But not before I came face-to-face with him.  Love him or hate him, you can’t ignore the fact that he is a fantastic teacher!