Friday, June 26, 2020

Missed Spotlights #2 – Manorama in Unnal Mudiyum Thambi

Veteran comedienne and character actress Manorama had a striking similarity to Sivaji Ganesan.  An analysis of her performances suggests that like Ganesan, she was a willing puppet in the hands of filmmakers who had a good appreciation for restraint and underplay.  While she may be remembered for her histrionics in the films of P Vasu and his ilk, Manorama could be sensationally effective when working with directors who weren’t quite content with extracting broad performances from her.  Writer-director K Balachander’s characters were generally expansive personalities.  But he could, from time to time rein in himself and his actors to write a three-dimensional character and extract a truly moving performance.  Manorama’s Angayarkanni character in Unnal Mudiyum Thambi is one such character that I don’t think had gotten as much recognition as I thought it should have. 

Kamal Hassan and Manorama (who plays his sister-in-law here) have shared remarkable chemistry in a wide variety of films ranging from comedies to dramas.  Surprisingly, Kamal, as a filmmaker or screenplay writer, rarely utilized Manorama in serious dramas.  He seemed to prefer SN Lakshmi for the more serious roles – Lakshmi too was fantastic in films like Mahanadi.  Kamal typically gave more lighter roles to Manorama in films like Aboorva SahodarargaL and Michael Madana Kamarajan.  K Balachander, after having worked with Manorama in the sixties and seventies hadn’t collaborated with Manorama in over a decade.  In Unnal Mudiyum Thambi (1988), he brought back two of his frequent early collaborators – Gemini Ganesan and Manorama.  Both turned in entirely different but equally stellar performances.  The friendly Annee character has been a feature in some remarkable films like Sethu and Aaha.  This one too is an equally memorable one.  And the actress played no small part in ensuring that.

The early portions of the film do a marvelous job of establishing Manorama as a friendly, maternal figure to Kamal.  There are some little touches like the way Manorama calls out Gemini for his “vidya garvam” that establish her character as a respectful but opinionated daughter-in-law.  This subtle character sketching is rewarded with an apt payoff in the second half where she confronts Gemini.  While she is the balanced, responsible daughter-in-law to Gemini and a loving wife to her mute husband, her relationship with Kamal is what stands tallest.  She stands up for him when Gemini utters some harsh words, encourages his wooing of Seetha (which, by the way, is one of KB’s most charming romances) but excoriates him when he crosses the line with his father. 

Kamal and Manorama work out their scenes in an utterly down-to-earth fashion.  Two sequences stand out, one a lighthearted one and one a more serious one.  The first one is the delightful scene where Kamal opens up to Manorama about Seetha.  After fumbling through the conversation, the two of them jointly sing, “Oru Pennai Paarthu Nilavai…”  It is an adorably puckish moment whose sweetness quotient is matched only by her line to him in the same sequence - “Enna Raja…koondhal-a elaam moondhu paathirke…paer theriyaadha?”

The second, deeply poignant scene is the one where Kamal decides to leave the house.  With the nagaswaram playing in the background, there is a touching vignette that plays out with no dialogues.  Manorama packs a sweet for Kamal, which the latter refuses.  She gently admonishes him, after which he falls on her feet to get her blessings.  This scene – the lack of dialogues, the searing emotions, the evocative background score - is vintage KB, surely.  But it is Manorama and Kamal who bring the director’s vision to life.

Watch from the start to the 2:30 min point:

Manorama passed on a few years ago, leaving behind a rich body of work for us to cherish.  She enjoyed the adulation of the public and at times, critical appreciation. (She had even won a National Award for her performance in Pudhiya Paadhai.)  But to me, her work in Unaal Mudiyum Thambi is the vestige that does not deserve to be erased by the tides of time.


Thursday, June 11, 2020

Missed Spotlights #1 - Karthika in Nayagan

Of late, I have been reading this series of articles on Cricinfo titled, “Come to think of it.”  Taking a leaf out of my favorite cricket site, I am starting a series titled, “Missed Spotlights.”  In this series, I am hoping to shed light on performances, aspects of a particular film’s craft or entire movies that, in my opinion, didn’t get the spotlight that they deserved.  So, without further ado, let’s start with a performance in a film that has reams and reams of literature dedicated to it.  But hitherto, I have not read even a paragraph on what I reckon to be one of the finest supporting roles and performances – Karthika, who plays the grown-up version of Kamal Hassan’s daughter in Nayagan. (Neena played the younger version.)

Karthika in "Nayagan"

When the entire world (of this film) kowtows to the ageing yet commanding Don, there are two people who stand up to him.  One is the intrepid police officer (played by Nasser), who aims to bring him to book.  To Nasser, nobody, irrespective of their good deeds, is above the law.  Karthika, much before Nasser tries to nab her father, tries to impose the manacles of humanity and reasoning to restrain him.  Of course, the Godfather has rules of his own making and a value system that he had believed in over several decades.  The clash of ideals is the focus of the spectacular confrontation scene between father and daughter.  As arresting as Kamal is in the sequence, Karthika is equally feisty and fiery in this verbal duel.  Right from the moment where she expresses mild irritation at his attempt to fix her hair to her stunned look as she is kneeling down next to the basil plant, Karthika brings to life Balakumaran’s razor-sharp dialogues with the assurance of a veteran. (Mani Ratnam’s attention to detail is astounding.  After Kamal’s slap, notice her cheek closely and you will see fingerprints.)

The Dad-Daughter confrontation sequence:

The other scene where she sparkles is the telephone conversation with her father.  The much-feared gangster, who had refused to pay heed to his daughter’s pleas or respect the boundaries of jurisprudence, sees the plight of his devoted followers in the hospital.  After seeing them in a sorry state, he decides that he is going to surrender to the court of law.  By now, the daughter is married to the very inspector who has been trying to capture him.  What ensues is a poignant conversation, the highlights of which are actually the meaningful pauses more than the words.  Karthika makes full use of her expressive eyes to do full justice to this scene, especially the part where Nasser thinks he has caught her red-handed.

The telephone conversation:

One of the features of Mani Ratnam’s early work was how different and realistic his heroines looked when compared to actresses in the mainstream fare that was dished out in the 1980s.  Here too, Karthika’s lack of conspicuous make-up and her simple, elegant costumes add to the realism that Mani Ratnam strove for in the drama.  The black saree that Karthika wears in the climax somehow looks perfect, given the heavy-duty emotions and the impending tragedy.  I state these seemingly trivial details to underscore the fact that all these elements play their own roles in making a performance believable.  That these choices by the filmmaker are in service of a sublime performance make them indispensable even if they are hidden in plain view.

Apart from Poovizhi Vaasalile and Nayagan, there are no other Tamil movies that I remember seeing Karthika in.  But given that she had superbly etched roles in undisputed classics, it would be a travesty if her roles were to be forgotten.  After all, a shooting star is special in its own way, a spot of light that is not to be missed!

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Beyond the Science – Reflections on Charles Graeber’s “The Breakthrough”

The subtitle of “The Breakthrough” is, “Immunotherapy and the race to cure cancer.”  Yes, the book is about the history of immunotherapy – in laymen’s terms, treatments that harness the body’s own immune system to stave off cancer.  But the subtitle does scarce justice to the richness of content and context that author Charles Graeber packs into 225 pages.  The book includes some truly compelling, sometimes moving, stories of researchers, doctors, patients and caregivers spanning more than a century starting from 1890 until a few years ago.  In a sense, the book is not about a race.  But rather, an extended marathon.  A marathon without a chalked-out route, without competing racers but rather, a relay.  The catch here is that the journey of the discoveries of immunotherapy was anything but a straightforward A to B to C route. 

Image courtesy of Amazon.com

The baton of knowledge was not easily passed from researcher to indefatigable researcher and from one generation to the next.  That did not stem from an unwillingness to share.  It was more of a reflection of the dazzling array of complexities that marked this field for decades.  Even as studies in this field continue to pose newer, tougher questions, by and large, rock-solid foundations have been laid for an approach that has already been making a significant difference to the lives of those suffering from various types of cancer.  This book is a stupendously detailed account of all of the tireless efforts, frustrating setbacks, pleasant and unpleasant surprises, humbling disappointments and the rare but unforgettable moments of ecstasy in discovery and progress.  If one definition of breakthrough is, “a sudden advance,” another meaning of the word is, “an act or instance of moving beyond an obstacle.”  Doing justice to both these interpretations, this book sheds plenty of light on the method and the madness that led to the moments of magic.  And Graeber explains complex science in such simple terms replete with intuitive analogies, that the book is a very accessible read even for those that aren’t that familiar with the field of immunotherapy or its tremendous impact on oncology.

Some of the best parts of this book are in the chapter, “Glimmers in the Darkness.”  In this chapter, Graeber lays the building blocks of the immune system and how the deep understanding of the system came about piecemeal over time, not in one eureka moment.  More importantly, this chapter enlightens us on how researchers had to deal with skeptics.  A telling example is from a time when a researcher first presented information on the immune system comprising T cells in addition to B cells.  He was mocked in public with the comment that “B” and “T” were the first and last letters of the word, “bulls—t.”  It is a very revealing moment that shows us that the barriers to advancements aren’t always financial, logistical or scientific. 

The aforementioned chapter also details, with much incision and perspicacity, the need to disseminate information responsibly.  As much as there is a need to lucidly share important advances beyond the scientific community with the general public, of equal importance is balanced representation.  Nowhere is this more evident in the book than the section on Dr. Steve Rosenberg and the IL-2 news coverage in 1985.  A week before results from a small trial were due to be published in a journal, a Fortune magazine cover screamed, “Cancer Breakthrough.”  While the medicine itself marked definite progress in the field, the results of the trial did not actually measure up to the kind of hype it generated and worse, the blind hope that the headline offered patients and caregivers.  Seen one way, this book, especially this chapter, is not only a lesson in science but a lesson around science. 

The latter portions of the book offer insight into the game-changing discoveries in the field of checkpoint inhibition starting from CTLA-4 to anti-PD-1s/PD-L1s. (In light of what I just said, “game-changing” was a choice of term that I weighed carefully and used here only after being convinced of the enormity of the impact of these treatments.)  Let me hasten to add that these are not technically dense chapters.  As much as there is information on the science, there is an equal emphasis on how some patients stood (and continue to stand) to benefit from these newer treatments.  There are some deeply moving stories, some of delight, others of despair.  Even in his choice of the real-world stories, Graeber ensures that rays of light are appropriately tempered by clouds of unpredictability that continue to exist in the disease and its treatment.

Cancer, regardless of type, can be a very scarily complex disease.  Questions lead to answers that, in turn, lead to more questions.  We have a long way to go before the treatment of cancer, across the spectrum of afflicted patients, can be considered completely predictable and manageable.  This book is an important account of where the journey originated and where we are now.  John Lennon once said, “Everything will be okay in the end.  If it is not okay, it is not the end.”  Suffice to say that we are at the end…of just this write-up!

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Sanity Mirror

“…that was my first lesson on how what you feel inside is less important than what you show to the world.”
In a recent write-up of his, film critic Baradwaj Rangan recounted the passing away of his paternal grandpa.  On that day, to get away from the immense sadness, he and his cousins had gone to a movie theater.  In no way was the act meant to be disrespectful to the departed soul.  But in recollecting the harsh reactions from his family, he wrote of how he might not have been judged as negatively had he chosen to go to the beach.  In the write-up, he also described the overdose of social scrutiny as bothersome yet inevitable.  I found myself nodding for a few reasons which I shall explore further, but not before I share one more quote with you.

“I like me.  My wife likes me.  My customers like me.  Because I am the real article.”
These lines were uttered by the great comedian and character actor John Candy.  Watch the clip below at the 46-second point.  Notice how tentatively he utters the, “I like me” line.  It is a poignant moment because not everyone will have the disarming honesty that it takes to utter that line.  In this sublime acting moment, Candy conveys pain for sure.  But listening to his monologue intently, we realize that despite the hurt caused by Steve Martin’s abrasiveness, Candy would rather remain true to himself.  The tenderness of tone and softness of voice stem really from his inner tranquil.


The thread that stitched these two disparate thoughts in my mind was that of quiet assurance.  While the notion of ‘perception is reality’ is sometimes hard to shake off, what should matter more to us is our own perception of ourselves than that of an external force.  As I grow older, the people that I observe as possessing that quiet assurance are those that take the time to look at themselves in what I would like to call the sanity mirror!

Indulge me by imagining yourself staring into a mirror.  You are the only person in focus.  Now imagine yourself staring into a mirror – the difference now is that there is a bevy of people that are standing behind you.  The second mirror is arguably more representative of the overexposed world that we live in.  While there are myriad joys that technology affords us, the increased connectivity may not always equate to meaningful connection.  But even if that were the case, it is an uphill task to look into the more sane mirror all the time, by blocking out the surrounding crowd.

For me personally, a happy middle ground is a mirror where I allow not a crowd but a select set of people to stand beside me.  These are people whose opinions of me, I care about deeply.  I seek to emulate their way of life but in an authentic manner.  I seek to synthesize what I like about them and distill it into a version that feels true within.  Amidst my imperfections, faults and follies, the limited set of trustworthy well-wishers help me calibrate myself to an equilibrium. 

Truth to be told, I didn’t come to this middle ground that easily.  I used to worry considerably about how the entire world perceived me.  As a result, I tended to come across as overtly sensitive.  There had been times when I would struggle to find inner peace because the harder I tried to make myself understood, the tougher it seemed to please people around me.  With benefit of time and age, I do feel like that having the feedback loop restricted to a carefully chosen set of people, I am able to do two things.  I am able to silence the dins that detract from my efforts to seek an internal quiet.  I am also able to come across as more assured to those that mean the world to me.  I realized that as long as I am true to myself, the happiness I can possibly share with others comes organically rather than painstakingly.  To borrow Candy’s words, the more “I like me,” the more I will like others and vice versa!

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Lens and Sensibility: 20 years of Kandukondain Kandukondain

Rajiv Menon, the veteran ad filmmaker and master cinematographer, has directed three feature films till date.  Minsaara Kanavu (1997) is the weakest of the three, despite a magical musical score.  Sarvam ThaaLa Mayam from last year is, by a Corona-safe distance, the best of them, its highlights a delightful performance by Nedumudi Venu and an unforgettable mirudangam performance in the climax.  Sandwiched between the two in terms of timeline and quality is Kandukondain Kandukondain, which was released in May 2000. (I can sound cool and state that it is a loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.  But if I hadn’t bothered to check the wiki page, I may have even written, Pride and Prejudice because I have read an enviable zero novels in my entire life!)

The cast and crew of Kandukondain… is first-rate.  A cast headlined by Mammootty, Tabu, Ajith and Aishwarya Rai, a behind-the-scenes team comprising stalwarts such as Sujatha, AR Rahman and Ravi K Chandran, Rajiv Menon helmed what should have been a surefire winner.  But to me, this film will always be a qualified success.  While it has aged quite well, the problems that existed at the time of its release persist.  Sometimes movies speak to us differently as we age.  I don’t think age has brightened or dimmed the luster that exists in parts of the film, even if not for the entire duration.

Kandukondain… is the story of two sisters (Tabu and Aishwarya Rai) and the experiences that they go through in their romantic and familial life over the course of a few years.  Tabu’s love interest is Ajith, who plays an aspiring film director.  Aishwarya Rai initially falls in love with Abbas, an industrialist with a penchant for (awkardly) citing lines written by Bharathiyar.  Mammootty is an army officer who lost a leg while in Sri Lanka as part of the IPKF.  He develops feelings for Aishwarya Rai but maintains a dignified silence on account of the age gap.  She realizes the inherent goodness in him but spurns him at every turn until certain sour experiences make her realize the depth and meaning that was missing in her dreams and fantasies that had marked her limpid existence.

One of the strengths of Kandukondain… is the urbanity and delicacy of taste in the characterizations and the interactions among the lead characters.  Mammootty’s is a beautifully fleshed out character.  One who has seen his youth pass him by with his years in the army, who has been scarred physically and mentally.  But the amount of genuine, selfless emotion he infuses into his love for the impulsive, sharp-tongued Aishwarya Rai makes his character sparkle.  The actor too is in fine form, especially in the lovely scene in the hospital where he leans towards her and assures her that for the first time in his life, he would pray…for her recovery.  There is a line in Moondru Per Moondru Kadhal that goes, “Kadhal-ngaradhu kaekardhu illa…kodukardhu.”  Mammootty in this film is an embodiment of that line.  What also makes his character well-rounded is the light vein of humor and sarcasm, which sometimes he uses to obscure his true feelings. 
The hospital scene: 
(Click on play to go directly to the scene)

The Tabu – Ajith romance also has a very convincing arc.  They are two strong-willed individuals, one reticent, the other gregarious.  But the vulnerability of the Tabu character, the way she bears the ‘luckless’ tag with a quiet resignation and the manner in which she expresses an unwillingness to let go of Ajith in the end are layered strokes.  Strokes that writer Sujatha and director Rajiv Menon use to paint a lovely portrait of a woman who is part steel, part porcelain. 

Ajith plays a confident, hot-headed aspiring film director.  Born with a silver spoon, he chooses a life of struggle, unwavering in his vision of and commitment to the film he wants to make.  But the problem is that the actual movie he tries to make is a rip-off of Speed titled, Vegam! (That S. Ve. Sekhar chose this title for his son’s debut film is a joke in itself!)  We even have a character joke about the plot sounding vaguely familiar!  Even the scenes he enacts with Pooja Batra (who plays an action heroine, a fact that the film gleefully skewers!) have none of the conviction that he had projected in earlier scenes.  All this might sound like incidental detail.  But it is the kind of detail that distracts, the sort of nuance (or lack there of) that robs his quest off an element of pain that was brought out so well in Mugavari. (Of course, his character itself could be a subtle dig at filmmakers that place technique over substance.)

The only underwhelming parts of Kandukondain… are thankfully restricted to the first half, especially the Abbas-Aishwarya Rai romance.  Abbas maybe a much-ridiculed actor, especially for his laughable utterances in films like Padayappa.  But I had never dismissed him as an actor completely.  He could hold his own in a certain type of role – the kind of which he played in Kadhal Desam and Minnale.  But he is a complete misfit as a fanatic of Bharathiyar.  Vikram, who had lent his voice for him, would have been a much better choice, one that could mouth chaste Tamil verses in the same breath as casual English lines.  Abbas' scenes with Aishwarya Rai (also a Bharathiyar fan!) are amateurish and completely lacking in the charm and resonance of the other relationships in this film. 

Thankfully, the film is on firm ground in the concluding portions.  The break-up, the re-unions and reconciliations are all convincing.  Especially heartwarming is the way Aishwarya Rai and Mammootty confess their love for one another without using words like “love” or “kadhal.”  Instead, their cathartic moment is about inner beauty, the vagaries of fate and the inexplicable designs of the Almighty.  The final Tabu-Ajith scene in the apartment too is charming and brilliantly acted. (I vividly remember the applause in the theater when they hugged one another!)

The Aishwarya Rai-Mammootty staircase scene:


The Tabu-Ajith apartment sequence:


AR Rahman’s songs and Ravi K Chandran’s cinematography ensure that the film is an audio-visual treat to savor.  Chandran’s framing of the aforementioned hospital bed shot is especially exquisite.  There is a short vignette that features Tabu at work and Aishwarya Rai immersing herself in music.  Rahman’s fusion of carnatic and more modern music works wonderfully for this sequence.

Kandukondain… might not be a timeless classic.  But it is a rarity in the way solid material is brought to screen by a filmmaker with an urbane sensibility, visual finesse and stellar support from his cast.  For that reason, we have to be thankful for its existence.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Proximity Personified: Thoughts on my grandpa in a time of social distancing

I am sometimes amused with myself when it comes to the certainty and conviction with which I can talk about something completely hypothetical.  But indulge me a bit here, please.  My maternal grandpa passed on 26 years ago.  But I know without a shred of doubt – don’t tell me I didn’t warn you! – that he would have had absolutely no issues dealing with this COVID-19 imposed social distancing, lockdown, quarantine or whatever flavor of restriction that he had to deal with.  Until he passed on in 1994 aged 61, he lived in the same house he was born in.  He had a small, tightly knit family.  His best friend was one whom he had known since 5th grade.  He retired from the same bank that he had joined upon graduation.  His friend once quipped, “You have had one job, one friend and one wife!” (He had two daughters, one of whom was my Mom.  Another was my Aunt, who was as much a Mom to me – she sadly died in 2016.)

Did I tell you that he lived in the same house his entire life?  It is not just a fact.  The house was a pivotal character in the story of his life.  While my lovable grandma infused that home with warmth and hospitality, the house didn’t rest on any pillars – he was the pillar.  He exerted a quiet authority on the happenings of the house.  Everyone had their freedom, of thought, of expression.  As the patriarch of the house, he just took it upon himself to ensure that people respected each other’s boundaries.  He did this effortlessly because he practiced what he preached.  I shall share two examples to illustrate this – one an amusing one (hopefully) and one a slightly serious one.

He had this monthly routine to go to a stationery shop to buy office supplies. (Boy, what a creature of habit he was – he stuck to the same stationery shop for as long as that shop existed!) He would always make it a point to buy me some sundries from there.  I would eagerly wait for the car to enter the threshold and I would shamelessly rush to him to see what he had bought for me.  Anticipating my eagerness, he would have already set my stuff apart.  Of course, being the mischievous runt that I was, I would take note of what else he had bought for himself.  I would sneak into his office room in his absence but would always leave behind a piece of incriminating evidence. (Those damn residue from sharpened pencils were my arch nemesis!)  He would find out and admonish me, “WHY do you have to touch my items when I buy you the stuff you need!”  Since he was being totally fair, not once would I feel a sense of anger or hurt.

On another occasion, my father had gotten into a squabble with my Aunt when she was in her late teens; Dad was in his mid-thirties.  My Dad and my Aunt were very affectionate with one another.  My Dad indulged her a lot and she was more of an older sister to me.  My Aunt was also my grandpa’s pet.  On this occasion, my Dad and Aunt had gotten into a verbal volley.  My Dad had tried to discipline my Aunt, who was this carefree, happy-go-lucky girl.  My Aunt, who got testy after a point, hurled some colorful language at my Dad!  Later when my grandpa got to know of this, he called my Aunt and said to her, “You should not have spoken to Murali that way.  Apologize to him.”  Once she did, he then turned to my Dad and said, “What she did was wrong.  She has apologized.  But henceforth, please don’t interfere in her matters.  I’ll take care.”  What was remarkable was that both my Dad and my Aunt followed his advice to the letter, unquestioningly.  And things returned to normalcy.  They knew that he had an innate sense of fairness and an uncanny understanding of the space that people needed.

The other remarkable facet of him was that as much as he was a creature of routine, he dealt with the harder knocks of life with a mixture of acceptance and gumption.  He controlled what he could.  He never fretted about what he couldn’t.  I don’t think I had ever seen him sulk or be downbeat.  When he had a heart attack in 1985, he just took the setback in his stride, developing new physical activity routines, a modified diet and so on, in an unfussy manner.  In 1990 when a cataract was detected in my left eye, it was he and my grandma that took me to a preeminent ophthalmologist in my hometown in India.  And if my memory serves me right, during the next stationery shop visit, he bought me a couple of extra items to cheer me up! (Not that that stopped me from ‘exploring’ his office room!)

I admired the fact that he had possessions, interests and hobbies such as cars, watches, movies and classical music that kept him engaged and gave him happiness.  The joy he derived from these inanimate things was absolute, not relative to what others had.  As a result, his relationships with his close family members as well as his lifelong friend were pure, relaxed and free of manacles such as jealousy or insecurity.  He freely shared happiness with others because he had an inner pendulum that was never off equilibrium. 

So, why do I think that he would have been just fine with this COVID-19 situation?  He would have had a calming, reassuring influence on the ones around him.  He would have worked on lists of things to stock up.  He would have kept himself busy with his own interests.  He would have invented new, fun routines even if he had to be confined to the house.  He and his friend would have probably had each other on Whatsapp video while they walked in their respective houses instead of going for their daily walk together.  Above all, he would have understood the value of proximity in the truest sense of the word.  That joy from physical closeness with loved ones would be amplified by an emotional connection that had as its links, selfless love as well as respect for people’s spaces.  He truly embodied Kahlil Gibran’s immortal quote, “Let there be spaces in our togetherness.”  My grandpa, his wife, his friend have all left this earth for a better place.  But in the way he spread comforting vibes among his loved ones, he showed me that genuine affection and assured positivity spread faster than any virus can.


Wednesday, March 18, 2020

A modern-day blessing: My thoughts on the delightful “Oh My KadavuLe”

Exquisite expressions.  Precise casting.  Thoughtful writing.  Splendid staging.  As I was barely getting out of the heady feeling that this quartet of strengths displayed in Sillu Karupatti gave me, here comes a modern-day love story that has all those strengths and an element of whimsy.  The incredible gamut of emotions evoked masterfully by debutant writer-director Ashwath Marimuthu brought to mind a line from Mozhi uttered by MS Bhaskar (who has a great role here; more on that later) – “Mark my words, this boy will go places!” 

Oh My KadavuLe is the story of…hold on.  I am not going to go into the details of the plot.  Suffice to say that the pivotal characters are played by Ashok Selvan, Ritika Singh, Vani Bhojan, MS Bhaskar and Sha Ra.  MS Bhaskar plays Ritika’s Dad.  Sha Ra plays a childhood friend of Ashok.  Somewhere in here are Vijay Sethupathi and Ramesh Thilak playing two of the most charming cameos you will ever see.  Who these people are, the chances they get, the second chances they get and the lessons they learn in the process are what this film is about. 

Above depicting longstanding friendships, unconditional love, a complex marriage all with such humor, delicacy and conviction, this film stands tall for yet another reason – the truth in the characters.  Every syllable uttered by these actors rings true and every gesture feels right.  In some scenes, the dialogues sparkle.  Case in point is MS Bhaskar’s monologue on the origins of his company.  Now, MS Bhaskar is one of those actors who can deliver an extended stretch of dialogue with effortless ease.  So yes, the casting is just right.  But the lines given to him are moving and authentic.  It makes us almost hang our head in shame (like Ashok does) for having laughed at what he does for a living. 

It is not just the dialogues but also the expressions, body language of the actors and the purposeful use of background score, where you can sense an assured director’s orchestration.  There is a scene in the second half where Ritika comes to Ashok’s room after a conversation with his parents.  The manner in which he puts his arm around her and holds her tightly is one of the most beautiful expressions of affection that I have witnessed on the Tamil screen.  By that point in the movie, clearly a lot of conflicting feelings are on Ashok’s mind about Ritika and this gesture just about perfectly conveys that.  Another beautifully quiet moment is when Ashok drops off Ritika at her place after their trip to Kerala.  Ashok’s expressions in this scene are controlled and nuanced.  Any dialogue or overdone background score would have spoiled this moment – this is an actor’s moment and the writer and director make way.  And in the slightly whimsical scenes, the background score is playful and delightfully catchy.  As I reflect on these moments, it is abundantly clear that the filmmaker is in complete control of his craft, knowing which of the tools in his audio-visual armamentarium to bring  to the fore in service of a scene. 

Oh My KadavuLe also packs a lot of delicious little details that are a joy to behold.  The “FLAMES” t-shirt worn by Ashok, the way he corrects himself and calls MS Bhaskar “Uncle”, the casually dismissive way Ritika describes the VTV intermission scene, Vani’s fondness for the open-air theater and how a birthday ‘gift’ is brought to life there are just a few instances. 

Apart from Ashok who turns in his best, most measured performance till date, Ritika and Vani are cast perfectly and do full justice to their roles.  Ritika is an actress who is utterly lacking in the annoying self-consciousness that some actresses possess.  Her disarming on-screen persona is perfect for her role as Noodles Mandai…err…Anu.  Vani has a quieter but equally well-rounded character and her face brings out a sense of hidden pain marvelously. 

As a fan of well-made cinema, movies like Oh My KadavuLe are a blessing.  One of lyricist Vaali’s lines that often plays in my mind’s ear is, “Naayagan mel irundhu noolinai aatuginraan…naamellam bommai endru naadagam kaatuginran…”  In the world of films, a writer-director might be the puppeteer who spins a yarn to hold the actors and make them sway a certain way.  But really, in the hands of a master filmmaker, I, as a member of the audience, am the puppet.  A willing puppet whose emotions are controlled by the filmmaker and his or her team.  And for those that willingly surrender to the magic of the medium, Oh My KadavuLe is…heaven-sent.