Sunday, October 18, 2020

Viral Positivity: A review of "Putham Pudhu Kaalai"

COVID-19 has had an adverse impact on the lives and livelihoods of people across industries and social strata.  The film industry is clearly one of the affected ones, with stalled releases, closed theaters and a minimal amount of shooting.  Amidst the general dreariness comes an Amazon Prime release with a sunny, hopeful title – Putham Pudhu Kaalai.  It is an anthology that showcases the works of five supremely talented filmmakers.  The common threads that spin these disparate yarns are positivity, hope and redemption.  And all five stories take place during the lockdown. 

The segments are helmed by Sudha Kongara, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Suhasini Mani Ratnam, Rajiv Menon and Karthik Subburaj.  Of the five, two made a terrific impact on me, for entirely different reasons.  Two others were, in my mind, qualified successes.  And one was a disappointment.  Here are my more detailed thoughts on the stories.

ILamai Idho Idho (Directed by Sudha Kongara) – A tale of two middle-aged people contriving an opportunity to spend time with one another, this short features some terrific acting by veterans Jayaram and Urvashi as well as a charming young pair in Kalidas Jayaram and Kalyani Priyadarshan.  While the ambition of the conceit is laudable, the film suffers from trying to accomplish too much in too little time.  One of the chief pleasures of films that focus on senior actors is the opportunity to listen to them explain their life’s choices, wants and desires.  The premise, which involves two younger actors as well, does not get fleshed out well.  There are some sparkling moments of humor such as Jayaram doing an impression of a yoga retreat teacher - Urvashi’s measured expressions during this phone conversation are priceless.  But on the whole, the short has a half-baked, rushed feel.  The closure is akin to a door shutting abruptly than the smooth, delicate movement that this story demanded.

Avarum Naanum- AvaLum Naanum (Gautham Vasudev Menon) – The awkward sounding title aside, this is my favorite of the five stories.  This is a poignant, powerful story of a grandfather (MS Bhaskar) and his granddaughter (Ritu Varma) reuniting in the former’s house and spending quality time with one another.  Gautham Menon brings writer Reshma Ghatala’s script to life with a sureness of foot, despite the material not being in his tried and tested zone as a director.  The milieu, the posh surroundings and the English lines might sound familiar.  But the character of the grandfather, superbly played by MS Bhaskar, is not the type that you typically see in GVM’s films.  Here, the director is content to let the camera focus observantly on the main characters.  There are none of the frills or indulgent stylizations that have marred some of his previous work. (The staging of the pre-intermission scene of Neethane En Ponvasantham comes to mind.)  But the detailing, be it Bhaskar’s black leather watch or the “Lost in Math” book on his desk, is immaculate. 

If GVM’s goal was to tell an honest story with utmost conviction, he surpasses his goal handsomely.  And he is aided in no small measure by MS Bhaskar.  Bhaskar is the master of the monologue.  Be it talking about a toilet business in Oh My KadavuLe or his dead son in Mozhi, he can show remarkable restraint and let out just the right amount of emotion at just the right times.  His extensive experience as a voice artist is amply evident in his modulations.  He delivers an enormously moving talk about his daughter and her excellence in music.  The casual way in which he talks about rubbing shoulders with a doyen like Abdul Kalam is in sharp contrast to the way he speaks about his immense pride in his daughter and the incalculable loss that he had suffered.  This scene is a character acting tour de force.  Full credit to Ritu Varma for playing an apt foil to this powerhouse without losing the identity of her character. 

Coffee, Anyone? (Suhasini Mani Ratnam) – This story features an elderly couple where the husband assumes the role of the primary caretaker for his ailing wife.  Their three daughters are inherently good, well-meaning human beings who are poles apart from one another in character.  In the short running time, Suhasini expertly establishes these characters. 

Some of the lines snap and sizzle with truth, wit and wisdom.  For instance, Kathadi Ramamurthy’s line about the futility of assessing what is right vs wrong, drips with profundity.  Anu Hasan glows in the scene where she tells her mother about her long-awaited pregnancy.  Sruthi Haasan nails the video call scene. (The pottu on the laptop is a delightful little touch.) But Suhasini, the actor, plays her role at a pitch that just doesn’t feel right.  Her overemphatic style of acting feels like it belongs to another era.  For instance, the way she acts when woken up by her sister, feels completely false.  Ditto for the reaction to her sister’s pregnancy.  But as a writer, she takes very few missteps.  The psychological reasoning and motivations of the characters all feel just right.  Sruthi Haasan’s resentment owing to being a late child, is especially realistic.  Though the ending may be a bit twee, the rays of hope and faith do shine brightly nevertheless.

Reunion (Rajiv Menon) – This was my least favorite of the five stories.  This was all the more disappointing because Menon’s previous work, the magnificent Sarvam ThaaLa Maayam, was a film whose impact lingered for days after I had watched the film.  A tale of two friends who rekindle their relationship in unexpected circumstances, Reunion had very little that resonated with me. 

None of the performances - Andrea Jeremiah, Sikkil Gurucharan and Leela Samson – are especially memorable.  While Andrea is able to bring out the rebellious, maverick spirit of her character, she is unable to do justice to the quieter, more vulnerable moments.   Beyond the nerdy appearance that fits the Doctor’s character like a glove, Gurucharan does not have the effortless charm or lightness of touch that would have made his interactions with Andrea more spontaneous.  And I may be in the minority.  But I find Leela Samson as an actor with limited range who plays every role of hers at the same pitch.  While there are a couple of tender moments between her and Andrea, I could not resist the thought that a better actress like Radhika would have brought more heft to the admittedly well-written character.  And Menon’s writing too felt surprisingly shallow at places.  Substance addiction is too loaded a subject to be addressed in a couple of perfunctory vignettes.  Even the “I will seek professional help” line felt like a throwaway comment.  In short, Reunion would have benefited from a little more realism and a little less forced positivity.

Miracle (Karthik Subburaj) – A wildly entertaining little story of two crooks, this is Karthik Subburaj at his humorous best as he delivers yet another witty tale with his trademark twists and turns.  Bobby Simha seems to turn up as a performer only when Karthik is at the helm.  And he sinks his teeth into the role, having fun on screen after a long time.  Matching him step for step is his partner in crime, Sharath Ravi - here is an actor with impeccable coming timing, to watch out for.  The two, along with the director, have oodles of fun – ditto for the audience- in a segment where neither the story nor its cast takes itself too seriously.  While this may be a lighthearted, slight effort, it is still a sharp, smart film that does not take the audience’s intelligence for granted.   

Overall, Putham Pudhu Kaalai is a fine start for filmmakers who want to invest the time, effort and money in anthologies with multiple perspectives on a subject or a theme.  The good news is that as long as they care to look, there are stories abound for filmmakers to pick from.  And that thought makes me feel as positive as I did watching this anthology.  

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Missed Spotlights #5 – Raghuvaran in Thotta Chinungi

Most leading men of Tamil cinema have an inexplicable reputation for staying away from playing characters with shades of anything other than white.  On those rare occasions that they play a baddie, they feel compelled to also play a more traditional heroic role.  The exceptions are few and far between such as Ajith in Mankatha.  But even setting aside potential negative market implications of playing a villain, even playing characters that have flaws seem to make these men develop cold feet.  We have to be thankful to character actors such as Prakashraj for having the luxury to portray well-fleshed out characters that are not saddled with the pressure of being squeaky-clean.  But in my book, the man that blazed the trail for such characters was Raghuvaran.  While he played the traditional villainous characters memorably in movies like Baasha and Mudhalvan and straightforward, good men in films like Mugavari, where he created a niche was playing characters that made difficult life choices.  Be it hiding the existence of a child in Anjali, surreptitiously reviving ties with a former love interest in Aahaa, he was marvelous in well-written, complex roles.  Near the top of that list is his character in KS Adhiyaman’s Thotta Chinungi. 

Raghuvaran in Thotta Chinungi

Raghuvaran plays the role of a vulnerable man who gets to marry the love of his life (an excellent Revathi).  But post marriage, he starts to lead a life of disappointment and resentment.  Revathi’s tacit, unspoken love for her husband is in sharp contrast to the latter’s expectation of a demonstrative, nurturing, maternal woman.  Adhiyaman shows remarkable maturity in showcasing these two characters, both inherently good but vastly different in thought and expression.  Adding further complexity to this relationship are Revathi’s close friend (Karthik, turning in a mature performance) and her brother (Nagendra Prasad).

It is a lot easier to play a character that tears up outwardly when compared to playing a role where one has to project inner anguish on screen.  I have often felt that certain actors have a way with their eyes that makes it easy for them to project inner pain.  And Raghuvaran was a master at that.  The eyes that could unleash uncontrollable rage in antagonist roles could project vulnerability equally well.  And add to that a voice that could crack just the right amount to bring out the emotion of an atrophied heart, Raghuvaran’s performance in Thotta Chinungi becomes spellbinding. 

Four sequences merit mention.  These are important points in the arc of Raghuvaran's character.  As disparate points, they are remarkable enough.  But as dots that help sketch the arc of his character, they form parts of a deeply satisfying and profound experience.  The first one is a casual sequence in the kitchen where Karthik barges in uninvited.  Raghuvaran is taken aback but pays attention to Karthik’s every word and gesture.  Karthik utters a casual line about Revathi’s cooking and her future child that Raghuvaran memorably reiterates in the final scene.  The second is the scene in the middle of the night where the volcano implodes.  Raghuvaran collapsing onto the sofa as he blunders backwards is a masterful exhibition of body language in service of an emotion.  The third sequence is the one where Raghuvaran dissects his own character in a conversation with his sister – the “nallavana kettavana” phrase, to me, is as impactful here as it was in Nayagan.  And the fourth one is the climax where he reconciles with Karthik.  There are no grand gestures or flowery prose.  Just a simple restatement of a desire that had been expressed by Karthik (in the kitchen scene).  The economy of words and nuance of expression join hands to wrap up the movie on a delicately emotional note.

I once had the opportunity to interact with Anu Hasan after reading her delightfully sunny book, “Sunny Side Up.”  In that conversation, I had told her that the reason I liked the book over many other non-fiction books was her candor.  The frank self-analysis of herself gave me the impression of a friend sitting beside me and sharing life experiences as opposed to someone preaching from a pedestal.  I state this because that is how I demarcate between image-conscious heroes and bold character actors who play lifelike characters.  Raghuvaran might not be alive anymore.  But he has left behind such an important body of work.  An oeuvre that is filled with characters who have ‘taught’ their own life lessons by just projecting human experiences in an honest, authentic manner.  That is the sort of lesson that is loaded with meaning.  That is the kind of impact that endures indelibly despite the winds of time.


The four sequences that I cited are at the following points in the video below:

32:10 min, 1:39:05 min, 2:11:50 min, 2:18:20 min

Friday, September 25, 2020

He stood tall: Reflections on SPB & “Sigaram”

SP Balasubramaniam leaves behind a deluge of memories that threaten to flood the mind for many more days to come.  But in a strange way, when artistes pass on, I tend to instinctively zone in one abiding memory that becomes even more indelible.  With MSV, it was “Kanaa Kaanum KangaL Mella…” from Agni Saatchi.  In the case of Vaali, it has been and will always be, “Ellorum Sollum Paatu” and “Nalam Vaazha” from Marupadiyum.  Ever since I heard the news of SPB’s unfortunate demise, my thoughts have been focused on Ananthu’s Sigaram (1991).  SPB played the role of a music director in the film, was the music director for the film and sung one of his most soulful numbers, Vannam Konda Vennilavey…To say that he excelled in each of these roles is not just hyperbole in the wake of his death.  Rather, it is an honest opinion that I would like to record amidst all the tributes that are overflowing online.

The title Sigaram refers to Damodaran, a highly successful music director.  He has a loving wife (the talented Rekha turns in a lovely performance) but his only child (Anand Babu) is an alcoholic.  The joys and lows of a successful professional with immense sadness in his personal life, are brought out beautifully by SPB.  He imbues every scene and every line with immense warmth and grace.  Listen to him confess to his colleague (NizhalgaL Ravi) that his son “is committing the longest suicide.”  It is a great line but the tenderness with which SPB utters it is what makes it tug at our heartstrings.  In fact, every scene of SPB and Rekha is a delight to behold.  SPB’s onscreen persona (from all accounts, his real-life character too) has mostly been that of a genteel, delicate, respectful man.  And Sigaram, much like his other celebrated roles, is a showcase for his acting abilities.  There is a wonderful little sequence where SPB seeks Rekha’s permission to go to Singapore for a concert.  Right from the way he thanks her for giving him coffee, to the mischievous “contraceptive” comment, he plays this scene with endearing artlessness.

Pretty much every aspect of the Vannam Konda Vennilavey… song is remarkable.   The context for the song (one that Damodaran composes for a film), the tune and the lyrics are all encapsulated into the first five minutes of the film.  But especially poignant are the two scenes where we hear snippets of it later in the film.  One is the scene where visually challenged kids visit an ailing Damodaran and sing a few lines for him.  It is a very KB-esque moment. (Ananthu was KB’s Man Friday for several decades.)  Even more poignant, especially now that SPB has left us, is the sequence where Damodaran returns from Singapore following his wife’s death.  The way Ananthu utilizes silence to build up to the cathartic moment where SPB breaks down, is a masterful demonstration of cinematic technique in service of stupendous acting.  Sigaram is filled with many such moments, big and small, where the writing, filmmaking and acting are top notch.  Not many may have savored these moments, which is why I chose to highlight this film for my tribute. 

As I reflect on the innumerable pleasures that SPB the 'sigaram' gave me as a singer, actor and composer, two phrases from Vannam Konda Vennilavey… assume added significance now:

Vinniley Paadhai illai…Unnai Thoda AeNi illai…

Rest in peace, Sir.  And thank you for the memories.


You will have to open the video in youtube to watch the film.  Here're the sequences/songs I referenced in the article:

The context for Vannam Konda Vennilavey... (1 min 41 sec point)

The husband-wife interaction (1:03:16 min point)

The kids singing "Vannam konda..." for SPB (1:48:31 min point)

The stillness and silence of death (1:09:10 min point)

Friday, September 11, 2020

Missed Spotlights #4: The seniors in Nee Paathi Naan Paathi

Film critic Baradwaj Rangan’s delightful two-part interview with director Vasanth touched upon his 30-year journey as a filmmaker.  The conversation touched upon Vasanth’s moments of glory as well as despair.  Vasanth too was in a completely philosophical, reflective frame of mind as he analyzed the pluses and minuses of his films.  More so than has been the case in any interview of his, there was a fair amount of discussion on Nee Paathi Naan Paathi (1991), his sophomore effort.  The film did not receive the encomiums or the commercial response of his astonishing debut, the much feted Keladi Kanmani.  29 years post release, Nee Paathi... is instantly associated by many with the marvelous, ingeniously picturized Nivetha… song.  But this is not a film that can be written off easily.  Far from it, actually.  And that is because it features a quintet of fantastic performances, starting with Gautami and four senior actors – Manorama, Srividya, Jaishankar and Delhi Ganesh. (Sulakshana is good too, but these four are splendid.)  Truth to be told, Gautami’s controlled, riveting portrayal of a complex character deserves a post of its own.  So, I shall focus on the senior citizens who truly drive the plot forward in the first half.

Jaishankar is married to Sulakshana but has a longstanding extramarital relationship with Srividya.  Gautami is their daughter.  Delhi Ganesh and Manorama play Rahman’s parents.  While the former is a friendly, lenient father, the latter is a proud martinet who is staunchly opposed to the concept of a ‘love marriage.’  Gautami and Rahman fall in love, knowing fully well that their marriage is not going to take place under easy circumstances.  The reactions of the seniors to their love affair are varied and superbly showcased on screen.  While Srividya and Delhi Ganesh are enthusiastic in their support, Jaishankar is quietly supportive.  But the ticking time bomb in this story is Manorama.  There is genuine suspense in Delhi Ganesh’s attempts to unite Gautami and Rahman.  We know that his ploy is dangerous and that Manorama, when she realizes the truth, is going to explode.

Once the character establishment is accomplished in an economy of scenes, the plot really kicks in at the end of the Kaalamulla varai… song.  Gautami, even in a moment of unbridled passion, pauses and requests Rahman that they consummate their relationship only after getting married. (Gautami is terrific in this scene, as she is in the entire film; Vaishnavi’s voice work too is pitch-perfect.)  That sets off the plot into motion.  Save a couple of comedy sequences featuring Janakaraj, the stretch, starting from this scene (at the 49-min point in the video below) up until the intermission is a series of scenes of sustained brilliance in terms of writing, staging and performances.  Vasanth, an ace at writing and fleshing out elderly characters, is in glorious form in these scenes.

Delhi Ganesh steals the lighthearted scenes with his customary gusto.  He is equally good in the terrace scene where he urges Rahman to elope with Gautami.  Jaishankar is supremely effective in the scenes where he apologizes to Srividya and pleads with Manorama.  Manorama sinks her teeth into the mother role with relish, delivering her sharp lines with utmost conviction.  Watch the sequence in the kitchen where she burns a photograph of Gautami.  The force with which she washes her hands and flings the towel are in perfect sync with the lines she utters.  But the best of them all, arguably my favorite female performer of all time, is Srividya.  Her work in this film sadly went unnoticed.  She is enormously moving in the scene where she recounts all her life’s mistakes and holds herself responsible for Gautami’s plight. 

As Vasanth himself admitted in the Rangan interview, we miss these characters sorely in the second half.  (Once they elope at the intermission point, the milieu shifts to Ooty and becomes the story of Rahman, Gautami and Heera in the absence of these seniors.)  It is easy to be wise after the event.  Nevertheless, it is not hard to foresee the kind of stabilizing influence these anchors could have had on the second half, much like Nagesh, Vatsala Rajagopal and Lakshmi had in Rhythm.  As Vasanth noted in the interview, the copious notes he wrote following the mixed reactions to Nee Paathi Naan Paathi certainly had its effect on his later films.  

Strong supporting characters are a pleasure to behold.  They bring a sense of verisimilitude that is lacking in films whose sole purpose is to glorify the protagonist.  But in order to achieve heightened realism, it is imperative that all characters, big or small, come across as living, breathing individuals on screen, not just in service of the leads.  Vasanth has demonstrated this over and over in his films.  Actors like Poornam Vishwanathan (Aasai), Raghuvaran and Shanti Krishna (Nerukku Ner) are few of his character actors who had roles with their unique characteristics, idiosyncrasies and most importantly, arcs.  By creating a narrative arc for a supporting character, a Director is signaling that he is interested in following these people through the course of their journeys.  And the journey that we take with the seniors for at least the first half of Nee Paathi Naan Paathi is a meaningful ride, one that deserves more than a speck of light.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

The currency that matters

“Simple living and high thinking were slowly replaced by simple thinking and high living.” 

This one line by journalist Suresh Menon best summed up the sheer tragedy of cricketer Mohammad Azharuddin’s career and his role in the match-fixing crisis of the late 1990s.  In my own personal and professional life, I have encountered people on all ends of the spectrum encompassing the different combinations of quality of thinking and standard of living.  In some instances, the same people have, at least in my mind, gone from one part of the spectrum to another. 

I have had my share of growth, stagnation and dips in my life.  These have had a direct bearing on the level of confidence that I experience internally as well as the comforts that form part of the externals. (Although in the case of confidence, or lack thereof, and its relation to success or failure, it’s hard to gauge what is the chicken and what is the egg.)  I would be lying if I said that it is only the ineffable minutiae of interpersonal interactions that have mattered to me.  There have indeed been material possessions such as watches and cars that have given me much joy. 

There are times when I do set my sights on the next ‘best’ (I am using that term loosely) thing that I want to acquire in due course of time.  I am certain that there have been instances (hopefully few and far between) when I may have come across as boastful or appearing incapable of having my head connected to my shoulders or my feet rooted to terra firma.  Over time, upon reflection, I have felt compelled to find ways to internalize and compartmentalize the joys that I derive from material possessions.  Successes are best shared with a small set of trustworthy people.  In this day and age of social media overexposure, there is constant pressure to advertise and amplify moments of happiness for public consumption.  In the tradition of most life lessons, the crucibles of character precede the lessons learned.  I have passed on some occasions, failed on others.  But the lessons have mostly stuck.  And arguably, the most important learning has been around the currency of relationships.

Several social science papers and articles have characterized time, trust, words and gestures as reliable currencies of trusted relationships.  Based on the relationships that I have had, be it family or friends, respect is the most reliable barometer of a relationship.  Respect is the currency that appreciates in value in relationships that flourish.  And I think of respect both in terms of the self and respect for the other person.  Both are important.  I sincerely believe that we need to have a healthy amount of respect for ourselves in order to develop a quiet confidence that, in turn, enhances our relationships.  A healthy amount of self-respect eclipses the odious effects of insecurity that can incapacitate a relationship.  And an inherent respect in the other person can reduce differences in lifestyle choices (or ‘quality’, again defined loosely) to a mere fact, not a factor.  Deep-rooted respect is what makes us genuinely savor the ingredients that make the other person happy, not what we define as the recipe for happiness or success. 

The benchmark for a relationship that existed indelibly despite socioeconomic differences, tastes, interests and tangible comforts, was the friendship that my maternal grandpa – a lifelong employee of Reserve Bank of India- had shared with his best friend, the chairman of a conglomerate. (Neither of them is alive.)  Pretty much everything that I have written above are the result of introspection through observation (and many an anecdote) of what I reckon to be the gold standard of a relationship.  A kinship where equality was defined in terms of the amount of respect, affection and security afforded to one another. 

I do hope that in the autumn of my life that I would get to relish and reflect on relationships like the one my grandpa and his friend shared.  Thanks to them, I know that it is possible to let the quality of “high thinking” co-exist peacefully with the elements of “high living.”  The odds remain high as long as the currency of respect does not get demonetized.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

I was born in 1961

1981.  That was the year I was born.

Indian cricket and Tamil movies.  Those have been my two passions ever since my age entered double-digits.  I would like to think that I am a keen observer of the game, not just in its present form but also its history.  Ditto for the movies.  In my little bookshelf, I have autobiographies of cricketers Bishan Bedi, Sunil Gavaskar and actor Sivakumar.  Sometimes, I wonder how much more I would have admired cricketers, actors and filmmakers from the 70s had I been born much earlier.  So, welcome to my whimsical time capsule.  Buckle up…

1961.  That was the year I was born ;)

And here is a team of 10 people comprised of Indian cricketers and Tamil film personalities that my mind is teeming with as I think of my favorites from my formative (!) years.

Sunil Gavaskar: Who else can I open with?  I was 10 when Sunny made his debut in the West Indies.  774 runs in his first four Tests with four centuries.  Critics would say that this West Indies line-up did not have the likes of Sir Wesley Hall or Charlie Griffith.  But is there another Indian batsman except his brother-in-law GR Vishwanath who could stand up to pace with conviction?  It was not until the mid-to-late 70s that Indian batsmen like Mohinder Amarnath played pace bowling with conviction.  And apart from his batting, just the way Sunny carried himself on and off the field was absolutely delightful to watch.  An air of unconscious assurance, confidence and let’s admit it, a bit of arrogance.  You could tell that he knew that he was good.  His brutally honest opinions of cricketers like Farokh Engineer in his autobiography (which I read in 1976, as a 10th grader) are a must-read.  The cricketer of my school years.

Sivaji Ganesan: The SG of Tamil movies follows the SG of cricket.  I was 12 when Gowravam came out.  What an experience that film was.  I remember the trip to Shanthi theater with my family.  There was no 'dolby' sound then; Sivaji's baritone did not need one.  Kids and critics of this generation find his acting style too loud and theatrical.  I was too young when Motor Sundaram Pillai and Uyarndha Manidhan came out.  But I revisited those during re-runs thanks to a guy in my school who had a keen ear for good cinema even back then- Baradwaj Rangan.  Let me just say that Sivaji could be subtle if he wanted.  He could be measured and graceful.  Too bad that the Mahendrans and Balu Mahendras did not work with him.  But as I said, Gowravam – that was the movie that made me a fan of his.  Two incredible performances as a barrister (whose name, incidentally, was Rajnikanth) and his innocent, honest nephew.  He was special to us.  History better be a little kind to him.   

Kamal Haasan: He burst onto the scene as an adult actor in Arangetram, which was released the same year as Gowravam did.  I despised him in the film.  His role was that of an ingrate.  How much I hated him owing to his character versus his performance in that film, I am not clear.  But it was not until Nizhal Nijamagiradhu released 5 years later, that I felt that he was complete as an actor.  Utterly refined and assured, he displayed a body language that suggested he had become a veteran by the time he was 25.  The scene where he dances in front of Sumitra’s students was unforgettable. (Strangely, he smokes more in this film than the rest of his filmography put together.)

Bishan Singh Bedi: Suresh Menon’s incisive, definitive “portrait” of him (as the title of the biography reads) could have actually been titled, “Bishan: No inhibition.”  One of the true artists of slow bowling, he was arguably one of the most outspoken cricketers that India has ever produced.  He took on not only batsmen but also authorities, captains, other bowlers (he openly accused the English team of tampering with the ball with Vaseline back in 1976, which by all accounts, led to the scuttling of his county contract) and more.  He may not have always done the ‘right’ thing (if there is ever an easy way of determining that) but his heart was rarely in the wrong place.  Statistics don’t always tell the full story but they do capture at least some of the essence- as a left arm spinner, Bedi ranks fourth among the top Test wicket takers.  There is a lovely story in the book about how he sobbed buckets when one of his wards died in an unfortunate accident.  Menon’s words are even more poignant – “Passion and compassion came together that day.”  Those are the elements of his story make Bedi the person we loved and sometimes loved to hate.  I am glad that radio commentary back in the day helped me visualize the beauty of his bowling until Youtube videos in recent years confirmed that what I had imagined was indeed real.

Mahendran: If ever there was a filmmaker who walked the talk, it was Mahendran.  Disgusted with how talky Tamil cinema was (and being honest about contributing to it, in his work as a dialogue writer), when he got the opportunity to become a director, he showed how cinema must be made.  He started off on a terrific note with Mullum Malarum but Udhiri PookaL is the apogee of Mahendran, the filmmaker.  A quiet, stirring tale of immense emotional devastation, the film’s power is best summed up in a scene featuring a supporting actor (played by Samikannu, an actor who deserved a lot more love and a lot more work when he was alive).  He plays a barber who, during the course of the film, keeps requesting Archana that he give her kid a haircut.  She keeps postponing it.  And when its time for him to use his paraphernalia, he is emotionally paralyzed.  He shed tears on screen.  We did, off screen.

Ilayaraja: For kids of a later generation, 1992 was a test of their loyalties.  AR Rahman vs Ilayaraja.  For teenagers of my generation, MSV vs Raja was our loyalty battle.  Thankfully, many people of my generation loved them both equally.  Both were masters of melodies: Kanaa Kaanum KangaL vs Thalaiyai Kuniyum Thamarai – I can’t pick one.  The tie-breaker, to me, is Raja’s background score.  Mahendran once referred to Raja as his “dialogue writer.”  Enough said.

One of Raja's best bgm scores (Bharathi's authority and Chellama's discomfort come together in this peace so unobtrusively, with the beats and the veeNai):

Srividya: She was the best actress of that generation yet, rarely played the lead actress.  A tumultuous personal life didn’t exactly help here either.  But later generations who would wax eloquent about the powerful eyes of actresses like Saritha and, much later, Kajol, had no clue what they were missing if they were unfamiliar with Srividya’s eyes and her rich body of work.  The most expressive pair of eyes that one could hope to see, fortunately, her talent was noticed in later years in supporting roles.  May her soul rest in the kind of peace that she probably did not experience while she was alive.

Kapil Dev: I was fortunate to have watched some of the best Indian spinners while also witnessing the arrival of the man who gave swing bowling a fair amount of meaning.  Not to mention the fact that he taught us who a genuine all-rounder was.  There is a hilarious anecdote from his first tour of Pakistan.  He was sent in as night-watchman, one whose job was to defend his wicket late in the day.  But here is the catch.  He actually did not know what the term meant.  Literally so.  Ignorance was indeed blissful…to the spectators, not his captain.  He hit a couple of huge sixes instead of defending stoutly!  Later he confessed to his roommate EAS Prasanna that his big hitting was not out of disrespect for the captain’s orders!  Disrespect was something he reserved for the bowlers who dared to bowl at him when he was in full flow.  And when he led India to the 1983 World Cup win, even Test purists like me gravitated reluctantly, inevitably to the shorter version of the game. (Cricket aficionados now find the 50-over version not short enough.)  The cricketer of my college years!  

Sivakumar: Sivakumar to Tamil Cinema was what Mohinder Amarnath was to Indian Cricket.  Rarely flashy but incredibly dependable and hardworking.  There may have been bigger stars but Sivakumar is one who has flickered for a much longer time than many.  His current passion as an orator is a very natural extension of him as an actor who had an affinity for the written word.  He was never insecure to cede spotlight to his fellow leads.  Lakshmi, Sripriya, Saritha, Sulakshana and Suhasini all benefited from his willingness to work well with his actresses who sometimes had the author-backed roles.  In sharing his routines (in real life) that include yoga, walking, preparing for speeches (which he delivers flawlessly without any written aids), he continues to serve as a model senior citizen.  As someone turning 60 next year, I do have a thing or two to learn from him.

K Balachander: By the time, I started watching films, Sridhar was already on the decline, only showing sparks of his talent in films like ILamai Oonjaladigradhu.  K Balachander was the one who stood out as a director.  He had a stamp.  Sometimes the stamp was so big, it obscured the postcard.  Mahendran once wrote, “A good filmmaker makes you forget about its creators during the film.  You should blend with the happenings on screen.”  K Balachander sometimes gave one the feeling that he was not as secure about letting the happenings on screen ‘speak’ for themselves.  His ‘touches’ sometimes were slaps on the face.  But it is impossible to not acknowledge how different he was from his contemporaries.  He wanted to tell bold stories.  He wanted to break tried-and-tested notions of what an actress must do.  He truly broke new ground with situational songs.  I may not have admired him as much as I did Mahendran and filmmakers of his ilk but I certainly respected KB for what he did for Tamil Cinema.

Thank you for taking the ride with me in my time machine.  It's time to hop off.  Adios. :)

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Missed Spotlights #3 – Sruthi in KB’s Kalki

Several tributes poured in two weeks back in honor of K Balachander’s 90th birth anniversary.  Many films were discussed and dissected.  For a filmmaker who boasted of such a rich oeuvre, it is impossible to achieve comprehensiveness in the true sense of the word.  But one film that I sincerely feel that deserves more attention is KB’s Kalki, released in 1996.  I remember reading some fairly positive reviews.  The film ran for over 100 days.  Sure, it has flaws.  It is overwrought in parts.  The music, for a KB film, is mediocre.  One of the lead characters (Rahman) comes across as terribly one-note.  And a key plot point is reminiscent of Sindhu Bhairavi.  Yet, it is far from a film that can be dismissed.  The three female characters, played by Sruthi, Geetha and Renuka, are all superbly detailed.  The actors all do full justice to their roles that are diverse from one another.  But in my book, the best of them is the titular character played by Sruthi. 

When on song, K Balachander was a master at establishing plucky characters with an economy of scenes.  Be it Seetha slapping a lecherous old man in a movie theater (Unnal Mudiyum Thambi) or Suhasini turning all inquisitive in the middle of a concert (Sindhu Bhairavi), KB made his audience sit up and take notice of his female leads swiftly.  Sruthi in Kalki sparkles right from the beginning.  One of the best scenes in the film is the sequence where she calms down an agitated former policeman (Thalaivasal Vijay, in a splendid cameo) who brandishes a gun in a supermarket.  She, like other shoppers, is stunned initially.  But the moment she hears of his sad past, she sets her basket aside, approaches him and…kisses him, upon him requesting her.  One can go into the rights and wrongs of the decision she takes.  But for who this character is, this is just about the perfect character establishment scene.  It is also a crucial scene for another reason.  Geetha sees her in action here and is drawn to her because she sees a trait in Kalki that she doesn’t possess – boldness. 

16-min point in the video:

Upon hearing the horrors and trauma of Geetha’s marriage and divorce from Prakashraj and her yearning for a child, Sruthi hatches a plan to get close to Prakashraj, who is now married to Renuka.  She becomes pregnant with his child and decides to ‘gift’ the child to Geetha.  Rahman plays an aspiring film actor who is hopelessly in love with Sruthi.  If that plot is KB-esque in spirit, the way Sruthi essays her role does not really have the stamp of the KB film performance.  And I mean that as a compliment. 

There are some films where I felt like the lead actors and actresses had some all too familiar tics and quirks.  These mannerisms, some endearing, some annoying, made it appear as though the actors were simply acting out instructions and not blending with the characters.  To me, that made some truly three-dimensional characters – on paper – appear as two-dimensional on the rectangular screen.  No such problems are evident with Sruthi’s acting here.  Apart from the customary KB eye-squint at a couple of places, her performance comes across as authentic and in sync with her characterization.  As a result, Kalki comes across as a flesh-and-blood character.  The way she essays this scene (below) is a case in point.  Her agitated movements in the house, the relief upon seeing Rahman and the slaps on his face all come across as absolutely real.  KB’s lines sizzle, especially the manner in which Kalki berates birthday celebrations. (Trivia: After Thillu Mullu, this is the second KB film that features the word, bourgeois!)

1 hr 20 min point in the video:

Sruthi’s performance is especially measured in the rather dramatic concluding portions.  There is tremendous conviction in the way she utters KB’s piercing dialogues.  Especially these two lines – “Naan senjathu than right-nu solla varle, aana naan senjathu thappu illa.”  And, “Karpa vida conviction perisa thonichu.”  It takes an actor of special talents to not only rise above good material but also lift the material itself from paper to screen convincingly.  Sruthi possessed that talent.  Too sad that no other filmmaker in Tamil gave her meaningful material. 

2 hr 25 min point in the video:

Kalki remains a footnote in KB’s illustrious career.  And whatever its flaws may be, I think it deserves more attention.  It is a rare film that makes a mockery of Tamil cinema’s sickening obsession with the virginity of its female characters.  Even the way the film ends is refreshing, for a KB film. (Spoiler alert: The fact that it doesn’t have a tragic ending, in a way, is a statement too against patriarchal notions of purity and virginity.)  Above all, the lead actress turns in a performance that is arresting from start to finish.  And that is reason enough to shed a bit of light on this sadly underrated film.