Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Ninaivellam Nineties - Top Trends in Tamil Cinema in the 1990s

Chathriyan.  Michael Madana Kamarajan.  Chinna Thambi.  Devar Magan.  Roja.  Amaidhi Padai.  Naatamai.  Baasha.  Aasai.  Indian.  Kaadhal Koattai.  Aaha.  Mudhalvan.  Sethu. 

How about that for variety?  The 90s was a decade when, as I look back, there was an embarrassment of riches for Tamil movie lovers.  Sun TV and several other TV channels would make a significant impact on entertainment media in general.  But a lot of quality filmmakers churned out films at a fairly fast clip when compared the serious filmmakers and major heroes of today.  But this was also a decade that probably led to Kumaravel’s hilariously perceptive line (in Azhagiye Theeye) about Tamil cinema – “Thamizh naatula mattum than da Xerox copy ku kooda kai thatuvaange!”  Thankfully some classics like Devar Magan were mercifully spared of the ignominy of poor imitations.  But many successful films of that decade would spawn a ‘trend.’  The resultant films would invariably range from well-crafted films that just followed a genre template to lazily done rehashes of the same core material.  Without further ado, let me list a few seminal films and trends of that decade.  Not all the films listed are cinematic classics per se.  But they were important films of that decade in their own way.

The Country ComaLi
Chinna Thambi was probably the best thing that happened to Prabhu…and the worst.  The film featured a titular character who didn’t have a clue about nuptial knots – I suppose he was the original ComaLi!  As preposterous as the theme was, the film was a runaway success that gave tremendous commercial impetus to the careers of Prabhu and Khushboo.  But it also led to several films set in the village featuring rural plebeians overcoming domineering antagonists - Radha Ravi made quite a career out of these roles!  And what was lost for the most part (save the occasional Duet) was the inherent urbanity of Prabhu, which was quite delightful to watch on screen.  In fact, I remember watching Vasu’s Senthamizh Paatu where Sukanya and Prabhu gave each other stiff competition as they reached for the freezing end of the IQ spectrum.  Several of these films were redeemed to a large extent by some scintillating musical scores.  For your listening pleasure, here is one of my favorite numbers from that decade:

Rags to riches, Riches to rags
I am trying to think if it was Rajnikanth or Vikraman that led to this series of films where a rousing 5-minute song was all that it took for a hero’s bank balance to skyrocket. (Thamizh Padam featured an uproarious spoof of this conceit.)  While some of these films were earnest and others featured convincing transformative character arcs, this trend became a tiresome routine.  Even as recent as Lingaa (2014), you could witness huge swings in the financial pendulum of the hero. 

The jury is out…under a tree!
One of the most genially spoofed lines in Tamil cinema is, “Naatamai...theerpa maathi chollu,” uttered by ‘Erode’ Soundar in KS Ravikumar’s 1994 film.  Films such as Vedham Pudhidhu, Chinna Counder and Devar Magan had already featured well-written, deftly staged ‘panchayat’ scenes.  But it was not until Naatamai that this type of scene became truly a rage.  I will leave it to you to decide if this sequence has aged well.  But it is safe to say that Coimbatore was to the 90s what Madurai (post Paruthi Veeran) was to 2000s Tamil cinema.

A don by any other name
Pudhiya Paadhai (1989) set the template for an antihero in the first half turning over a new leaf in the second.  But the granddaddy of all templates was born on Pongal day in 1995 when we first got hints that auto driver Manickam might have another name.  The gradual escalation in tension leading to a spectacularly explosive intermission point, in turn, led to a second half where we got to see the Don Baasha.  Scores of films followed this style of storytelling.  But the impact achieved by Baasha has been quite impossible to surpass or even match.  The first of its kind is always special, I suppose. 

Vigilante to a T
If ever a schema for a screenplay has been followed dutifully by its creator (Shankar) and other filmmakers until the present day, it is the vigilante justice plot lines drawn for Gentleman back in 1993.  To lend credence to Kumaravel's line, even the titles would be similar - if Shankar made Indian, Saravana Subbiah made Citizen.  Last I heard, a hardcore Shankar fan is making a film against Trump's foreign policies titled, Permanent Resident.  Just kidding.  But don't be surprised if my words ever come true.

“Solli Kadhal…Solaama Kadhal…Solliyum Sollama Kadhal”
The quote above is from Kandukonden… where Mammootty gives an aspiring filmmaker (Ajith) tips on what type of film to make.  This witty line written by Sujatha crisply summarizes the last four years of the 1990s when ‘different’ love stories were in vogue.  It all started with Kadhal Koattai.  Of course, the movie would never work now in an age where nobody writes letters anymore and cellphones are omnipresent.  But in 1996, the film certainly worked wonders, especially the second half where Ajith and Devyani keep bumping into each other without realizing that they have corresponded through letters earlier.  The movie was a blockbuster and won national awards.  What happened next?  A heroine became obsessed with the eyes of the hero (Nee Varuvay Yena…), a hero would sever his tongue (I wish that was a typo but you know, Sollamale exists), a heroine would scream into a telephone in the middle of a hospital ward (the climax of Kaalamellam Kadhal Vazhga….), a guy would search for a girl with a mole on her navel (Ninaithen Vandhai)  Which one of these was most preposterous?  I would vote for the following scene:

Models of Song Picturizations
If the commercial films of the 80s invariably included glamorous dance numbers featuring actresses like Silk Smitha, the 90s were the era of models from the north.  Mani Ratnam’s films had featured actresses like Kuyili, Shantipriya and then models like Sonu Walia and Anu Agarwal in foot tapping numbers.  Shankar, in his song sequences, starting with Gentleman up until now, uses and occasionally abuses special effects like a kid in a toy store.  One of the best song sequences of the 90s, even accounting for the tacky graphics in the end, was the Akkada song in Indian.  The costumes (by Sarika for Kamal Hassan and Manish Malhotra for Urmila) and photography (by Jeeva) were done with a kind of panache that has gradually faded out of Shankar’s song picturizations over time. 

Switching Tracks
In the past couple of decades, comedy has been mostly integrated into the core story of films, with comedians mostly acting as a friend of the hero.  But in the 90s, the comedians mostly had a separate track that had a tenuous link to the main plot.  Coundamani and Senthil had many a memorable track in the first half of the decade while Manivannan was the numero one among the funny men post the release of Ullathai Allitha.  Several comedy tracks come to mind but one of the most beloved sequences is the one from Suriyan, which featured what has become a stock phrase in colloquial Tamil – “arasiyal la idhelaam saadharnamappa!”

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Flash-forward Thirty Years

I am good friends with a septuagenarian.  Despite an age gap that exceeds 30 years, I have often found that he and I can strike meaningful conversations about family, friendships, films, politics and so on.  But most importantly, there is a kindred spirit, shared values and similar perspectives on the relationships that matter most.  I have shared his anger against hypocrisy and his lack of tolerance for unprincipled people.  When I would sometimes reflect on my conversations with him, I would sheepishly grin at myself.  For sensing loads of righteousness in the way he spoke and wondering whether I was seeing a bit of myself in him and vice versa!  Three decades on, would I want to be perceived by a 38-year old the way I perceive him now?  The answer is certainly more nuanced than a simple yes or no. 

A double-edged sword that I take out of my mental scabbard often is my inflexibility with certain core values.  Just like how obsessive-compulsive people get a comfort out of a certain routine, I find tremendous inner comfort with the familiar rhythms of my mind.  There are certain beliefs that I have on topics like honesty, gratitude, empathy, relevancy and priority where I haven’t quite changed with age.  I embrace change, ambiguity and uncertainty in my professional life in an equanimous manner – I know that and have received enough positive feedback on the same.  But there are things in my personal life that I value so passionately and guard so vociferously that the ‘comfort’ I mentioned earlier comes at such a great cost that any inward-facing victory would seem pyrrhic. 

As I have mentioned in several write-ups, professor Sheena Iyengar did me a great service by urging me to “be choosy about choosing” in order to choose well.  As a result, I know that my obsessions are few but deep.  I have seen some people admire the constancy of character that they have witnessed in me over the years.  I have equally witnessed others - or sometimes, the same people! -  driven to frustration that I have stayed put when the sizes of the circles of trust and relative positions have evolved over time.  And I find that okay because I know that for my part, I am making an effort to “choose” my priorities or inflexibilities in a reasonably thoughtful manner.  And there are several elements of personal development such as anger management, listening empathetically and acting with purposeful awareness where I know that constant evolution is a must.  I don’t let mental inertia stymie personal growth in those aspects.  So, a refusal to change, in essence, is something that I restrict to a few areas.  And I am almost certain that the elderly gentleman thinks of himself this way!

I am sure that he wonders, in silence and aloud, why people begrudge his occasional refusal to budge when in fact, he moves with much mental alacrity most of the time.  But having interacted with him, I know the one area where I want to be different from him.  I want to be happier with the choices I make.  I don’t think he quite is at the level of peace where he wants to be.  As he takes gingerly steps in the twilight of his life, he looks back at the path traversed and the people that have disappeared from sight with a mixture of sadness and anger.  As a result of looking back too much, his steps forward are a lot less surefooted than his intelligence deserves.  In essence, a corollary to what Professor Iyengar says would be, ‘Be choosy about choosing.  Once the choices are made, be choosy about how you react to the consequences of those choices.’ 

When I reach his age, I hope to make the world brighter in a small way for the ones that have trusted me enough to spend time with me, listen to me, share my pains with generosity and theirs with graciousness.  And along the way, we hopefully share some laughs too.  After all, a soul rests in peace only when the life that preceded it is lived with inner harmony.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A dance, a trance, a memory: An essay on Lakshmy Ramakrishnan’s “House Owner”

It is raining cats, dogs and snakes outside.  An elderly couple breaks into an impromptu dance in their kitchen.  This sequence is intercut with a dance performed by the same couple at a much earlier phase in their life.  There is an adorable moment when the elderly lady can’t quite hold a pose.  But she tries gamely.  She is in a state of bliss amidst the seemingly huge imperfection that has marked the couple’s present state – the husband, a retired army officer, is suffering from Alzheimer’s.  And then, he suddenly snaps out of the wondrous reverie.  He can’t recognize the lady as his wife.  What is still imprinted in his mind is the image of the much younger girl that he fell head-over-heels in love, even if the marriage itself was arranged.  In a fit of disgust, he throws a tantrum and some flour on the wife for good measure.  The wife loses her temper but only for a split-second.  She knows that it is not the husband’s fault.  Amidst the heartbreaking moment, she focuses on a practical detail – she has to change.  Life has to move on.  It is this kind of detailing that sets Lakshmy Ramakrishan’s “House Owner” apart.  The nuance not only brings the drama to life but also right next to us.

This couple – essayed by Sriranjini and ‘AadukaLam’ Kishore as the elderly pair and Lovelyn Chandrasekhar and ‘Pasanga’ Kishore as the younger version – becomes imprinted in our minds slowly but surely.  The wide-eyed wonder of the younger couple is a stark contrast to the world-weariness and exhaustion of the older pair.  This is never expressed in any dialogue.  Even the transitions between the past and present are done seamlessly, purposefully.  Seemingly incidental details like a non-existent snake in a pond assume gargantuan proportions later on.  Minutiae like the fear and apprehension of Lovelyn in the darkness and the subsequent role reversal as they age are just put out on the screen but never force-fed to us.  In that sense, Lakshmy Ramakrishnan trusts the audience to pay attention and to be patient – the details unravel gradually (as they should), not in a rush. 

She reposes the trust of the audience manifold in the concluding portions, which play out like a thriller, one that makes our hearts ache, not race.  There was a point in the climax where I turned my eyes off the screen, for the tension was unbearable.  Without spoiling the movie for you, I will just say that the images and sounds are bound to haunt even the heartless viewer. 

M Ghibran comes up with a background score that is just about the perfect complement for the images on screen.  And the images themselves?  The art direction (by the director herself with Captain Chandrasekar) and the cinematography by Krishna Sekhar are in sync in a way that would make the PC Sreeram – Thotta Tharani pair of the ‘80s proud.  If you think that that is hyperbole, then you haven’t watched the climax of this film closely.  The technical brilliance of the crew behind the screen is matched by the ability of the actors on screen.  Sriranjini is the prime reason the climax works so powerfully.  Lakshmy Ramakrishan’s voice work perfectly suits her– the Palakkad-accented Tamil is lovely to listen to.  (My favorite line – “Nelam ellam vallam!”; translation: the floor is full of water!)  Kishore (Senior), through his circumspect body language, essays the retired army officer role with much assurance.  His best performing moment comes in the aforementioned dance sequence.  The younger couple too strike an easy, likeable chemistry.  Kishore (Junior) nails the ‘ponnu paakara’ scene – the way he silently expresses joy with a suppressed smile seeing his wife-to-be is wonderfully done.  And Lovelyn is excellent in the party scene where she conveys awkwardness without overdoing it. 

(Spoiler ahead) - I had an interesting conversation with a friend, who wished that the ending was positive, that the film could have ended with a ray of light, that could have offered hope to couples where one is suffering from Alzheimer’s.  Of course, the way a tale concludes is the prerogative of the writer.  What I took away from the movie was encapsulated in a scene featuring Lovelyn and Kishore.  The latter, having returned unscathed after serving in the army, mentions to her that given the uncertainties of his profession that it is his intent to enjoy every minute that life affords them.  It’s a beautifully written scene, one whose seriousness is punctured with a delightfully sweet response from the wife, who admires the English spoken by the husband than paying much attention to the content.  But as a viewer, I thought of this scene during my chat with my friend.  Life is sometimes shorter than we plan for it to be.  And it behooves us to savor every moment by loving our loved ones deeply.  This is stated explicitly nowhere in the film.  But the magic of the medium is such that the same film plays differently for different people.  As much as I felt a strange sense of upliftment during the bittersweet ending of the director’s previous effort, “Ammani” I was thankful (for the lack of a better term) for the poignancy evoked by this film’s conclusion. 

I admired the director’s debut feature “Aarohanam” quite a bit.  I enjoyed only parts of her sophomore effort, “Nerungi Vaa…Muthamidathey.”  I was stunned by “Ammani,” which I reckon, is her best film yet – the “Seththathu Saalamma” line knocked a punch in my gut like few other movies have managed.  “House Owner”, her fourth effort, is a profoundly thought-provoking experience.  It doesn’t have the more instantly accessible pleasures of “Ammani” (like the irresistible “Mazhai Ingillaye…” song).  But it is a mature film that wants to go deep into the minds and hearts of the lead characters, and by extension the audience.  That it succeeds handsomely is a testament to the vision and conviction of the filmmaker.

The protagonist of “House Owner” may have suffered from Alzheimer’s.  But it will be nigh impossible to forget this movie.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Dear Men in Blue: An open letter to the Indian cricket team

My dear men in blue,

First things first - Thank you!

It has been a sheer pleasure ‘following’ you throughout this 2019 world cup.  Even though many of us could not be in England physically, our thoughts, prayers and emotions were with you every day and every minute in your journey.  I shall leave the more technical analyses of your performance to the cricket pundits.  I will, in this letter, just tell you what I took away from this experience. 

What stands even taller than some of your run rates is the way you continually looked like one tightly-knit unit.  When MS Dhoni dove to his right to take a sharp catch, Yuzvendra Chahal bowed to him in a gesture that at once suggested respect and unfettered joy at an ageing master throwing up a pleasant surprise.  I will remember Hardik Pandya winking at a teammate after scalping a wicket with his patented slow bouncer – the smile reached his eyes quicker than Jasprit Bumrah’s yorker usually reached the stumps.  Isn’t that a sign of genuineness?  Trust me when I say that those smiles were infectious. 

Team pic taken from Virat Kohli's tweet:

Every time a tough question or two was thrown at the captain leader Virat Kohli about a team mate’s purported error, what we heard was not apportioning of blame.  Instead, what he offered was a measured response that addressed the issue without attacking the person.  Excuses were not given for errors of judgment.  Rather, human fallibility was acknowledged as a part of professional sport in the most mature manner possible.  In short, this may be a relatively young side but as a team, you exhibited an enviable mix of youthful exuberance, energy, playfulness yet never losing focus on your goals as a team or missing an opportunity to be guided by the more senior players in the team.  When confidence mixes with humility, the resultant cocktail is not intoxicating in a trippy way but rather, invigorating in a balanced manner. 

I was certainly worried when you lost the monstrously dangerous Shikhar Dhawan early on to injury.  But you somehow coped, managing replacements without being rigid.  You, of course, know that the middle order frailties will have to be addressed swiftly.  But I must say that up until today, the spectacular top order ensured that – this car analogy will make Dhoni happy, I hope! – you raced off the blocks with controlled acceleration, knowing when exactly to press the brakes so as to retain control.  Alas when the top order crashed into the brick walls erected by New Zealand’s nifty bowlers and fielders, the damage was nearly irreversible. 

The fact that Ravindra Jadeja and Dhoni showed such indomitable spirit and fought until the very end is something that budding professionals like me will take to our own work lives.  As your friend Harsha Bhogle thoughtfully stated once, the trifecta of “ability, attitude and passion” are the key ingredients of success.  We weren’t successful today – I say “we” because feel like I should partake in failure as much as we derive surrogate happiness from your successes.  But the spirit, the intent and the willingness to try your best to succeed was a ‘success’ in itself.  Just that in the group phase, this spirit resulted in victories.  But today that was not to be. 

I know that you must all be deeply disappointed that you will not be playing in the finals at Lord’s.  That is okay.  This is not the last tournament that will be staged by the ICC.  The “attitude” and “passion” that you all have aplenty will ensure that in due course that your “ability” will fetch commensurate results quicker than you think is feasible.  For now, please remember my idol Randy Pausch’s words – experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted. 

Over the last few weeks, you have given us immense happiness by representing the nation the way you did.  It is time for us to meaningfully express gratitude and reciprocation by being there for you during this hour of sadness.  You have our unqualified support as you learn from this experience and continue to take Indian cricket to stratospheric heights.  May tomorrow be a brighter day.  For now, safe travels.  Rest up and recharge.  We will back with you before you know it.

With much love, gratitude and respect,
Yours cricketfully,
Ram Murali

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Vivekh is Awake – An essay on actor Vivekh

If you stake claim to be a fan of good cinema and have an interest in Tamil films, then you better have watched the recent “Vellai PookaL.”  One of the best-written thrillers in recent times, the film has a jaw-dropping twist at the end that is so powerful, so convincing and so unexpected that it forces you to forgive the mercifully rare missteps in this movie.  The pleasures of witnessing a well-crafted film are aplenty in the movie.  The ingenious twist astonishes us for sure.  That is the cerebral gratification offered by the film.  So, kudos to first-time filmmaker Vivek Elangovan.  But even he would be the first to admit that the primary reason the memories of the film lingers in one’s mind long after the end credits roll is the riveting, controlled performance of its lead actor Vivekh. 

Unlike unidimensional comedians, Vivekh has always been a well-rounded, thinking comic actor.  Right from his early roles in K Balachander’s movies such as his 1987 debut feature Manadhil Urudhi Vendum, Pudhu Pudhu ArthangaL (which featured the famous, “Iniki Seththaa NaaLaiku Paal” line) and Oru Veedu Iru Vaasal, there was a certain amount of intelligence and wit in the humor.  In an interview, Vivekh mentioned that KB, during the shooting of Oru Veedu…, spotted a rainbow.  Wasting no time, he asked his cinematographer to capture its splendor and then shot a close-up on Vivekh, asking the latter (who plays a writer’s assistant) to ad lib a few lines about a rainbow.  Quick to seize the opportunity granted by his mentor, Vivekh came up with the following gem:

Vannangal Koartha VaLaindha Malar-aa…Vaanam Aditha Water Color-aa…
Arjunan Vilenum Kanavu Poster…Andavan Than Idharku Drawing Master!

In the 1990s, his career stuttered, his limited roles in movies like Veera going almost unnoticed.  A year before he skyrocketed to fame with Vaali, he had a wonderful role in Saran’s Kaadhal Mannan.  Playing a friend of Ajith’s who is staunchly opposed to the very idea of love, Vivekh’s characterization was fresh, a stark contrast from that of comedians whose sole reason for existence was to help the heroes in their attempts to woo the heroine.  The humor was unforced, his lines were sharp and his chemistry with veteran MS Viswanathan was quite delightful.  Having worked closely with Saran on the making of the film, he was even credited with associate direction credits for this film. 

Of course, 1999 came.  Vaali released.  On the merit of writing and acting in some side-splittingly funny scenes, Vivekh quickly became Tamil cinema's busiest comedian.  And Thirunelveli, released the next year, set the template – and standard - for his humor for the years to come.  Mixing social consciousness with sardonic dialogue, his scenes were undeniably the sole highlight of an otherwise unremarkable film.  Over the next few years, he went from strength to strength, writing some of his scripts but also working with one of the most unheralded comic writers of them all – the late Prasanna Kumar, the writer behind the splendid humor in Run, Manadhi Thirudi Vittaai, Pennin Manadhai Thottu among other films.  His collaboration with Shankar has spanned three films till date – Boys, Anniyan and Sivaji.  He was in dazzling comic form in Anniyan, the train scene a real hoot, specifically the “Kamal Sir” comment!

After being prolific for a few years, his output in films diminished at the same time that he evinced keen interest in his passion project – the Green Kalam, focused on planting trees.  In 2014, he turned in a brilliant performance in Naanthan Bala in a serious role, which was applauded by critics but was not commercially successful.  I state this because had the movie set the cash registers ringing, similar roles may have come his way.  They say, better late than never.  That is exactly what has happened with Vellai PookaL. 

There is a stupendously acted sequence in Vellai PookaL where Vivekh breaks down in the solitude of his son’s house.  I watched the film on Amazon Prime.  I would have loved to have watched this in the theater; I can wager a bet worth the film ticket that there would have been pin-drop silence during and applause after the end of this sequence.  His dialogue delivery is as refined as it has ever been, the power of lines like the "Test match" line being brought to life by the actor with a conviction of his own.  Vellai PookaL has received several encomiums from critics and fans alike.  I hope that this film kicks off the next phase of Vivekh’s career.  Of course, it takes many a perceptive filmmaker to be the “drawing master” to help chalk out a new path in support of an actor and comedian par excellence.  And they need to look no further than Vellai PookaL for a testament of his immense ability.  

Friday, June 14, 2019

Beyond the Laughs - A tribute to 'Crazy' Mohan

I had the pleasure of driving 'Crazy' Mohan, 'Maadhu' Balaji and their troupe member Vasu back from a staging of “Chocolate Krishna” during their visit to the US in 2012.  In this play, as fans know, he played the titular role of Lord Krishna.  En route home, he glanced at the GPS in my car, turned to his brother and said, “GPS na God Positioning System.  HE will guide us in the right direction as long as we follow him unquestioningly!”  That moment was so symptomatic of the man.  He could conjure a pun out of nowhere.  He could create a joke out of nothing.  In another instance, we were driving through AVM Studios at a time when the AVM family was going through a partitioning of familial assets.  Looking at a huge wall erected in the middle of the studio, he quipped, “Chettiar kattina studio la paaru.  Great Wall of China maadhiri idhu Great Wall of Naina!”  But to those that knew him well, he was a lot deeper than the hilarity suggested.  The moniker of ‘crazy’ fit his screen persona well.  It even fit his happy-go-lucky real-life personality.  But he was deeper than that.  A lot deeper.

Hilarity – that was the gift that God bestowed on him. 
Loyalty - that was the gift he bestowed on his family and friends. 
Artistry – that came so naturally to him that you almost got the feeling that his paintings painted themselves. (Balaji once joked on Koffee with Anu, “Chinna vayasula avan paint adichathuku aprama naanga sevutha paint adikanum!”)
Poetry - that is where his deep piety shone like a newly polished diamond.  One of his most masterful poems was the following:

Paiyyan Mannai Thindraal Veiyyathe…
VaaykuL Paar…
Vaiyyam Theriyaavitaal aiyyame illai…
Nee Yashodhai Alla…

That last line is gorgeously understated and loaded at once.  Every child being akin to God has never been more profoundly expressed.  Over the past decade or so, he decreased his output for theater and cinema.  But he had elevated himself to another plane – his poetry, which often dwelled on spirituality, became his forte.  In his style, we could say, “Munaadi Drama, Ippo RAma!”

One of his best speeches:

In my interactions with him, he has always emanated the kind of sweetness and warm vibes that mark the best of his plays.  I have seen him enjoy the simple pleasures of life like the spontaneous hug of a child or a well-prepared cup of coffee.  His needs were as basic as his thinking was advanced.  His demeanor was as simple as his mistaken-identity screenplays were complex.  His ego was as miniscule as the monuments of his talents were huge.   Alas, the span of his life was as short as his character stands tall.  But in this hour of grief, it behooves us to reflect, internalize and spread the joy that he gave us. 

Joy he gave us aplenty.  For a kid born in Chennai in the early 80s, audio cassettes of his plays were a constant fixture in the house.  I vividly remember my Aunt and I listening to “Return of Crazy Thieves” and rewinding the tape to the immortal “B.A. Paashandi” line numerous times till the tape wore out!  On stage, I remember marveling at the ingenious structures of his play where the plot unraveled in hilariously unpredictable ways.  People wax eloquent about his dialogues but if you think deeper about his plays, the plots were deliciously convoluted sans any confusion.  The eye doctor clinic sequence in “Madhil mel maadhu” is a case in point.  What is absolutely magical is that the entire sequence plays out so well even on just audio even though there is plenty happening in the scene with multiple characters entering and exiting the scene.  He had complete command over the medium which is why it rankles me when people dismiss humorous plays as ‘thunuku thoranam’ (string of jokes).  His was a fertile mind that combined intricate plotting with inimitably witty dialogue and it behooves discerning critics to give credit where it is due.

His writing for movies peaked with his collaborations with Kamal Haasan.  If you think about it, Kamal’s films up until “Aboorva SahodharargaL” (his first collaboration with Mohan, in 1989) never had the kind of zaniness that we were going to witness in the next 15 years up until 2004 with “Vasool Raja” which was the last of their credited combinations. (Mohan was heavily involved in the scripting of subsequent efforts like “Dasavatharam.”) Kamal understood the breadth and depth of Mohan’s talents and contributed handsomely as an actor and screenplay writer.  Their synergy was the stuff of legends.  And in “Michael Madana Kamarajan,” “Avvai Shanmugi” “Sathi Leelavathi” and other comic classics, we have to reflect on how even if the creator dies, the imprints left by the ink of his pen never dries.

But to me, Mohan gained true immortality with not any of his Kamal collaborations but with “Aaha,” which, to me, was his best work as a screen writer.  Some of his collaborations with Kamal Hassan have probably resulted in even bigger laughs.  But "Aaha" remains very special.  I think I know why.  The other movies made me laugh, yes.  But “Aaha” is the movie that makes me smile.  It is not a nuance; there is a world of difference.  This movie was sweet but not syrupy.  Every smile is well-earned.  Every tear is worth shedding.  And the dialogues play no small part in this respect, especially Banupriya’s interactions with Rajiv Krishna.  Even the advice-laden lines like the cute scene in the supermarket are laced with Mohan’s witty lines.  And beyond the smiles, there are, of course, some big laughs in “Aaha.”  Famous for his imaginative, witty puns, Mohan’s writing is in top gear here.  Be it the “pul tharai…puliyotharai” comment, the “bar attached, nee detached” remark or the hilarious “thayir vadai” joke, the laughs are fast and frenetic.  But the biggest laughs come in…of all scenes, a death scene.  The exchange that the Thatha has with Delhi Ganesh has so many laughs that the ink in Mohan’s pen probably had a tough time keeping pace with his flow of thoughts!  It is deeply saddening to think that the writer who made us laugh in a death scene is now making us shed tears with his own final journey. 

Highlights from the highlight of his film career - "Aaha"

Of all the scenes that featured in his movies, the one scene that I wish were to be replicated in life would be the last scene of “Aaha” where the eldest brother, thought to have passed away, appears in the house much to the shock and joy of his family members.  Of course, that’s wishful thinking.  But it is certainly something that reminds us of the imperfections of life and the gratifications of art.  It also reminds us of how the God Positioning System takes us in paths that we find hard not to question.  But with HIS untimely demise, all we can do is to treat him as the one whose values we espouse, to chalk out our own path.  And that GPS will never, ever fail to guide us in the right direction.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Worship the Art: Thoughts on the Ilayaraja controversy and idol worship

The irony of the title will not be lost on those that know me.  I am one of the most passionate movie buffs that you will have the pleasure of knowing – many may say, ‘pain of enduring’ but let me look at the full half of the glass!  But I don't always stop with just watching the films.  I have, through contacts, persistence, serendipity or a combination of all of these, met a considerable number of film folks from writers to directors to actors.  The root cause of this urge to reach out to them is the fact that their art gives me tremendous joy.  Movies and music are a very important part of my life.  A few years ago, ‘Crazy’ Mohan offered a profound, even moving explanation of humor and its role in society.  He opined that the profundity of novelists, intellectuals and social workers were all akin to a surgery that was performed by these social doctors on society; humor was the anesthesia.  By itself, it may not have intrinsic value but without it, surgery is impossible.  In a way, movies are the anesthesia for my life.  As much as it is the intention of filmmakers to evoke a reaction, visceral or cerebral, movies are a parallel stream of consciousness.  They exist on a different plane.  Yet they are a calming influence that help me keep myself centered.  And what about the people that create this parallel universe for me?  Are they akin to God?

For creators, being deified is not only an honor but also a burden.  But in a lot of cases, they only have themselves to blame.  There are very few filmmakers in Tamil cinema who consciously avoid the spotlight or the public adulation (Mani Ratnam is a case in point).  Some like singer Chinmayi utilize social media to make themselves accessible to people, especially for important social causes like the #MeToo movement.  But a lot of celebrities live off the idol worship, the sycophancy, the constant shower of praise, some empty.  They believe that their prima donna behaviors are a natural byproduct of their genius.  That civility, empathy and respect are all things that people can pray for but not expect from them the way they can of lesser mortals.  In here lies the dilemma that we fan(atic)s face – we have a choice.  We can choose our boundaries.  We can choose to keep the art at an arm’s length and the artist at a barge pole’s length.  And to point of this write-up, we can choose the subject of our worship –the art or the artist?  Alas, the inexorable pull of the medium can be too hard to resist for some.  And yes, I admit – I have had my challenges too!

The recent video of Ilayaraja acting in a rude, insensitive manner towards a security person during his concert should not come as any surprise.  I am not going to delve into the rights and wrongs of his behavior.  The poor security officer was in a state of shock.  Singer Mano stepped into defuse the situation but not before gesturing to the officer to fall at Ilayaraja’s feet!  Of course, the officer didn’t have to.  He could have stated his rationale and exited the stage.  But it is impossible to imagine the pressure he must have felt in front of a humungous crowd, standing next to a man who is worshipped as a God, hailed as a king of music.  The ‘God’ gave evidence that he is just a human being, with his own flaws and foibles. 

I have had several memorable exchanges with filmmakers and actors.  I have been mesmerized and awestruck to be in their presence.  I have had mostly pleasant interactions.  In some instances like with Director Vasanth, I have had longstanding friendships that sprouted from my love of their art.  But there have been other instances – I will not mention names – where I have seen the subjects of my adoration behave or say things that have rubbed me off the wrong way.  I have simply distanced myself from them.  I know of friends who cannot stand to watch the film of a much-respected artist whose actions and behaviors (in real life) left a bitter taste – Woody Allen is a case in point.  It is a very, very valid choice - after all, we have to respect our instinctive reactions in such cases.  Others go to the other extreme, ignoring these things completely with a laser focus on the art itself.  They have even made public statements to this effect.  I find myself somewhere in the middle.  I certainly don’t think that a work of art can or should obscure unacceptable behaviors.  But the truth remains that I can watch (or listen to) the creations without the ghosts of the creators’ dark sides looming over me.  After all, it is the art that gives me joy. 

It is the art that moves me.  It is the art that uplifts me.  The artists come second.  If I know some of them and they are nice to me, that is an added bonus, a privilege that I don’t take for granted.  But by the same token, I think that celebrities have responsibility too.  Let me hasten to add that I am not about to act as moral police.  All I am saying is that they cannot assume that the adoration of their art must co-exist with a condoning of their behaviors.  They don’t have to act or sound angelic.  But the written and unwritten rules of societal interaction apply to them too.  But as long as we deify them, we will continue to unwittingly imply that they are the exception to these rules.  So, as fans, I think we must empower ourselves to create a healthy distance from creators while knowing that if we want to get any closer, we are subconsciously signing up to take risks that come with the territory.  That, I think, will be a lot easier than to sit back and expect celebrities to mend their ways and act in ways that stack up to the heights that their art take us to.  After all, the parallel universe that they create for us is easier to enter into and exit from.  If we only remember that while they may have created it, we own it now!