Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Marriage Story: A door closes, a window opens

When reading a bit about Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, I happened upon this headline from The Telegraph – “Marriage Story should be compulsory viewing for any parent heading for divorce.”  While I don’t disagree with the title, I also think it does scarce justice to the film.  If you think that is hyperbole, then let me place for your consideration the scene of this year, the performance of 2019 and the most ‘real’ line ever written about a crumbling relationship.  It is Scarlett Johansson and her controlled implosion at the office of her lawyer (Laura Dern, in a scene-stealing turn herself).  Towards the end of her harangue, Johansson observes wistfully, “He didn’t see me as something separate from himself.”  The amount of truth, pain and sting in that line is symptomatic of this film. 

The singular, stellar achievement of the writer-director is that he doesn’t vilify either of the leads or just take one person’s point of view as the two (Adam Driver plays the male lead) go through the last stages of their marriage.  It is an incredibly tough task to pull us towards two characters who are gradually distancing themselves from one another.  Our loyalties are with both as we get enough glimpses into their strengths, foibles and weaknesses.  The fact that the couple doesn’t let their divorce proceedings eclipse their humanity is one of the poignant elements of the film – watch Johansson’s response to Dern shifting a 50-50 arrangement to a 55-45 one (in her favor).  That the film offers pregnant pauses while zooming in on these moments instead of rushing through them speaks to the trust that the filmmaker places in the audience.

The scenes with the lawyers (Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda) are fascinating and scary in equal measure.  The brute force of some of the arguments, the casual throwaway lines and the lawyer-client dynamics offer a very compelling counterpoint to some of the simplicity, genuineness and empathy that the couple try to retain in their household amidst some tough decisions.  While Dern has the juiciest lines, Alda’s world-weariness and avuncular attitude are endearing to watch. 

But at the end of the day, this film is about its leads.  The director paints them both in a light enough shade of gray to not make them unlikable yet three-dimensional enough to make their interactions immensely relatable.  The film’s most striking visual involves the two of them closing a wheeled gate together, while standing on either side of it.  The glances they exchange towards each other while shutting the door, so to say, gently but definitely on one another, are moving.  

The film may be about two people – or rather three, counting their kid – going through a period of closing a door to one another.  But while doing so with a sureness of foot and delicacy of emotion, the movie affords us a chance to open a window into our own soul.  To assess and reassess our own choices in the relationships that mean something to us.  And to make sure that we ask ourselves tough questions in a timely manner.  As Johansson’s misty-eyed reaction to a key decision of Driver’s in one of the concluding scenes suggests, it is our timely choices that make us who we are.  And to the extent to which we factor in the self and our loved ones without too much of a skew in either direction, the more satisfying those choices will be.  In essence, the film’s finale is really a starting point.  A starting point not just for parents heading for a divorce but also for couples wanting to take their relationships to greater heights while plumbing the emotional depths of one another.  In short, it is “compulsory viewing” for all adults in search of meaning in relationships.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Different Folks, Same Strokes

Let us start with three completely unconnected conversations that span fictional and real spaces.

The first happens in a rather touching sequence in the episode of the Amazon series Modern Love, starring Catherine Keener and Andy Garcia.  They are former lovers in their forties, married – not to one another – who bump into each other.  When recollecting their doomed, “untested” romance, Keener observes, “The idea of you just got me through a lot in life.”  And later adds, “It’s the purest, most concentrated stuff.” 

The second is a father-son chat that happens in the Samudrakani drama, Appa.  A 10th grader confides in his father the rather puzzling imbalance he experiences whenever he sees a female classmate.  The Dad smiles and asks him to invite the girl to their place.  He offers a cup of coffee to each of them and urges them to converse in a civil, mature manner.  Having sowed the seeds of a genuine friendship, the Dad urges the son to never accumulate any ‘toxins’ in his body.  That a friendship that has its roots in thoughtful conversation and deep understanding, has the power to ‘purify’ our system. 

The third is a conversation that didn’t happen on screen.  It was a chat with a friend about visiting a distant relative who is undergoing treatment for cancer.  A few disclaimers - I had not accompanied my relative for her treatment.  I had not cooked her a meal.  I had not taken care of any chores while she was in the hospital.  I enumerate these because I know of people that touch her life in these very definite, selfless ways.  What I did was nothing special or particularly tangible, I confess.  During a recent trip to my hometown, I had just visited her, spent some quality time with her and shared several moments of mirth.  She has a stupendous fighting spirit.  So, it’s not even as though I lifted the morale of a morose person.  But the positive vibe of that meeting has lasted with me for the two weeks that have elapsed since the meetup happened.  Her smiling face has meant something to me.  And the hopeful visage of her caregivers refuses to leave my mind as well.  In these past two weeks, when I have started to complain or get crabby about things that are far less daunting than being the recipient of oncologic treatments, memories of that visit seem to tap me on my head as if to exclaim, “Really, are you this full of yourself?!” 

You must be wondering if there is even a tenuous link that connects these three disparate conversations.  To me, it is the notion of purity.  It is the idea that there invariably exists something – be it an ideal love, a fulfilling friendship or a human connection – in our lives that can bring or restore a sense of equanimity and equipoise to our minds.  We just have to discover it for ourselves, for it sometimes is hidden in plain sight.  At times, we wrap ourselves in a blanket of meaningless mundanity when we should be discovering beauty in the big picture that astonishingly steely human beings draw right in front of our eyes.  A case in point are the survivor and her supporters that I mentioned above.  The truth is that the ‘big’ picture is comprised of smaller strokes of meaningful minutiae sketched out jointly by people and their loved ones.  As seen above, this could be a true friend, a love interest, a caring relative.  In each instance, there is something very pristine, giving and outward that in turn combine to give inner peace. 

As somebody that has rarely been able to find an internal anchor in an invisible supreme power, I feel an urge to depend on abiding bonds with people to keep myself grounded and centered.  Through blood relationships or otherwise, I have certainly been blessed with the presence of several people who, through just being themselves, give me an anchor of purity.  That, as Catherine Keener acutely observed, can get us through life in a way that feels not just good but also right. 

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Politically Incorrect: Reflections on RK Selvamani’s Makkal Aatchi

The politics genre in Tamil cinema boasts of some true gems amidst a slew of wannabes.  I have lost count of the number of films that take cheap shots of contemporary issues without wit, depth or meaning. To do satire well, you have to have a grasp of the source material that extends beyond mere surface-level detail.  Manivannan was a master at this.  He was a well-read, societally conscious filmmaker who, at his best, carried a pen that was much sharper than the Hattori Hanzo sword in Kill Bill!  There is a reason why his Amaidhi Padai is still hailed as the best political film in Tamil cinema.  For instance, he understood the futility of caste-based violence so well that he skewered it mercilessly in the film.  Not far behind is his erstwhile assistant RK Selvamani.  It pains me to note that there is not much literature (even online) on his 1995 film Makkal Aatchi, which I reckon, is the best film of Selvamani’s checkered career. 

Makkal Aatchi is the story of a petty thief (Mammootty) who, through a mix of a huge slice of luck and dollops of street-smart intelligence of his confidante and advisor (R. Sundararajan), becomes the chief minister of the state.  He is a bumbling crook who can’t believe his luck, not a cunning politician covetous of power.  Roja plays his love interest.  Mammootty steps into the parlous world of politics without quite knowing what’s in store with his fellow politicians.  Anandaraj, Radharavi, Livingston and Mansoor Ali Khan are all embodiments of realpolitik, not averse to double-crossing and shifting allegiance to suit their needs.  All is fine and dandy for Mammootty as long as he is corrupt.  But when he decides overnight to turn a new leaf – and the reason packs tremendous punch – his life becomes miserable. (The twist around his wife is also superbly written.  It blindsides us but is convincing nevertheless.)

What sets Makkal Aatchi apart from many other political films are the many subtexts that Selvamani and his writers embed into the film.  Small time crooks and rowdies are jailed, yet scores of blatantly corrupt politicians get away with murder (literally so).  Big money and dirty politics get intertwined so much that to escape from that stifling net becomes an impossibility once you are caught in it – to hell with noble intentions!  A woman’s infidelity and a man’s lust setting a series of heinous activities in motion speaks volumes to the base instincts that shake the core foundations of humans.  A man’s drinking habit, which on the surface seems an acceptable foible, ends up assuming gargantuan proportions.  It is a testament to the intelligence of the story author (P Kalaimani), the felicity of the dialogue writer (Liyakath Ali Khan) and the vision of the director that all these themes are part of a cogent plot, not a series of disparate elements.  

A word about the written word.  Liyakath Ali Khan’s pen must have the same ink as that of Manivannan’s!  The dialogues are spectacular.  This is a talky film.  But you never get overwhelmed by the verbosity because the zingers keep coming at a fast clip.  The Anandaraj-Radha Ravi confrontation is especially memorable.  The way Anandaraj threatens Livingston (“Nee paadai-la yeranuma illa maedai-la yeranuma nu mudivu panniko!”) and the manner in which the latter kowtows to him are as scary as they are sharply delivered.  But the dialogues sparkle the brightest in the sequence where Mammootty decides to mend his ways.  The genuineness of emotion displayed by the actor is supported in no small measure by the potency of the lines he delivers.  The traffic signal comment hits a raw nerve, especially because so many of us have lived through it. 

Selvamani also gets the casting just right.  Every actor in this film inhabits their part with much assurance.  Mammootty is charmingly casual in the first half and delivers a knockout performance in the aforementioned reformation scene.  Roja lights up the screen not just with her dancing in the irresistible “Melooru Maman” song but also in the late-night scene where she makes dinner for Mammootty.  He is the man of her life, whom she hastily got married to the wrong person for what she thought was the right reason.  It is not only a deeply poignant scene but one that has complex emotions associated with it. (I wish Selvamani had dwelled a little more on this fascinating relationship.)  Among the antagonists, Anandaraj walks away with the acting honors.  He makes a menacing presence and displays controlled aggression throughout. 

Selvamani’s films boasted of superlative technical values and here too, his sense of grandeur is seen throughout the film.  MV Panneerselvam is a sadly underrated cinematographer who has done some fine work in films like this one and R Parthiban’s Housefull.  The tracking shots and the top-angle shot (from the tree) make even a slum look appealing in the “Melooru Maaman” song.  The shots in the climax where the camera follows a raging crowd from the sidelines are brilliantly executed.  Ilayaraja’s background score is magnificent in places.  My favorite piece is the one that marks the end of the titles (6:52-min point in the video above).  The beats of the percussion instruments are epic in nature but the score ends with a violin piece that evokes the eventual sad fate of the well-meaning protagonist.  It takes a music director of his stature to come up with such a short piece that is in line with the arc of the lead character. 

Makkal Aatchi was received well commercially and critically upon its release.  But the film and its politics, which are (sadly) relevant even today, deserves more recognition and shelf life.  Despite being Manivannan’s assistant, Selvamani branched out to be very much an original filmmaker.  With Makkal Aatchi, he created what deserves to be regarded as a well-deserving companion piece to his guru’s finest film in the same genre.  The two great minds executed differently but certainly thought alike! 

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Oththa Seruppu Size 7: A one-derful cinematic experience

Oththa Seruppu Size 7 features Parthiban’s finest acting moment till date.  In a journey that began in 1989, he has lit up the screen on several occasions.  The falling-at-his-wife’s-feet scene in Pudhiya Paadhai, the emotionally wrenching harangue in Devyani’s house in Swarnamukhi, the arms-widely-spread posture in Housefull when he sees his beloved theater, come to mind in a flash.  But he eclipses them all in this film in the small, quiet moment with his psychologist.  She has surprised him, in their first meeting, by referring to his “beautiful wife.”  With barely a hint of a smile, a little hesitation while saying “ava…”, a light shrug of his shoulder, he takes us right into the soul of the character.  It is such a gorgeously acted moment that spans a matter of seconds.  Blink or squint too hard, you are bound to miss the delicacy of the nuance.  But observe it, you will savor it and remember it.  For me certainly, that moment is not fading out of mind anytime soon.  Neither that moment nor this movie, I must add. 

Charitable critics of Parthiban have, in the past, praised his ‘different’ attempts while griping that save some disparate sparks of brilliance, that his films did not entertain them or hold their attention for the entire duration.  Of course, tastes vary.  But I dare anyone to an academic argument about the coherence and cohesion of Oththa Seruppu Size 7.  The different cinematic elements like sight and sound all come together in a never-before-seen manner.  This is a very complete picture, one that features Parthiban the actor, writer and director at the peak of his talents. 

The plot of this film is a seemingly simple one – a man who is accused of murder is interrogated by the police.  The film, except for a few stray shots of a room outside where his son is waiting for him, never leaves the scene of the investigation.  And as you may already know from the promos, Parthiban is the only one who is seen on screen.  One of the elements that aids Parthiban, the director, tremendously is his use of props.  Through years of watching Tamil cinema, we have come to associate certain objects with the police station.  Glass cups, lathis, walkie talkies, photos of Gandhi.  Parthiban deftly utilizes all these in his inimitably ingenious manner – the photograph of Gandhi even has an arc with a touching closure.  Ramji’s cinematography is stupendous.  And it is not just the more showy shots like the sun-bathed protagonist or the view through the glasses.  If you observe closely in the first scene with the psychologist, the camera’s gaze follows Parthiban’s lips and eyes.  The invisible craftmanship gets a superb payoff in a later scene when Parthiban thanks the psychologist for observing his eyes and trusting him.  Resul Pookutty’s sound design is another pillar that this film rests on.  Be it the sounds of a wedding or a dying man wailing, the sound design blends seamlessly into the narrative. 

While it is true that Ramji and Resul are pillars that the director rests his film on, the foundation is pure Parthiban.  What brings his singular vision to life are his dialogues.  It is not easy to write lines for a character who has the bulk of the responsibility to move the plot ahead without losing the core emotion.  The lines at times sizzle with wit, drip with humor and at other times, brim with poignancy.  The detailing is astounding.  A seemingly innocuous “PerumaL Thunai” on a piece of paper acquires meaning later on.  Note the way he requests the police to not use a rusty pin to open his son’s eye drops.  In a move that betrays his yearning for a more ideal marital life, he urges the policeman to not take his wife’s affection for granted.  Above all, the vivid imagery evoked by the sounds is matched by his lines.  Take the vaazhapoo vadai scene, for instance.  The description of his romance with his wife in the kitchen is as tasteful as the aroma and flavor of the vadai that he evokes – incidentally, we don’t see these lentil cakes at all!  He just trusts the audience to complete the audiovisual experience in their minds. (Even the two scenes in Kandukonden… that featured these vadais didn’t have such an impact on our taste buds!)

Did I mention earlier that the picture of Mahatma Gandhi gets a moving closure?  That is quite a bit of an understatement if you have watched the climax.  No sooner had Parthiban uttered, “Gandhi ode siripula arthame maariruku” than I felt a lump in my throat.  It takes a supremely thoughtful filmmaker to resist the temptation to milk sadness and instead, project goodness.  In doing so, Parthiban commands our attention, drives our emotion for two hours all by himself.  In essence, he does not just stand alone.  He stands apart.  

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Dear Comrade, I bow to you

I am neither a film tracker nor a trade guru.  All I know from several tweets and news articles is that Bharat Kamma’s Dear Comrade did not fare too well commercially.  I am not going to engage in the futile exercise of analyzing what might have dimmed its commercial prospects.  Instead, let me focus on why it is one of the most important modern day films made about man-woman relationships.

Dear Comrade is the story of Bobby and Lilly, a couple who fall in love.  Nothing novel or revolutionary about that.  But their love story has shades, nuance and depth that have been seldom witnessed on screen.  Bobby, essayed by Vijay Deverakonda is an angry young man.  Nothing earth shattering about that either.  We have seen Vijay portray similar shades in Arjun Reddy.  But what sets Dear Comrade apart is the arc of his character.  He is a rebel without a cause who develops one.  Anchorless at the start of the film, his character discovers himself and realizes what will give his relationship with Lilly enduring fulfillment.  Initially, he is a belligerent college-going kid who resorts to violence at the drop of a bat…err…hat.  The bat, hat, the feather in the cap are all Lilly’s (Rashmika Mandanna), the best etched character of the film.  She is a gifted cricketer who falls for Bobby but lets go of him when she realizes that his impulsiveness and aggression could wreck their future.  They break up, but her future, in cricket and otherwise, is wrecked by an unexpected source.

Years pass by and Bobby and Lilly reunite under trying circumstances. (Spoilers ahead; skip to next paragraph to avoid spoilers.) Lillly, a silent, suffering victim of a horrific MeToo incident, shuns cricket and sinks into deep depression.  This is where Dear Comrade starts to glitter luminously.  Sure, it is Bobby who aids her recovery.  But he seeks to empower her, not just ‘rescue’ her.  He shows her a path but is content following her, not leading her.  He seeks to be a pillar for Lilly to lean on, not a crutch for her to rest on.  In short, Bobby is one of the most secure, thoughtful leading men you have ever witnessed on screen. 

For a while, Lilly refuses to acknowledge what Emma Thompson eloquently said in the movie, Burnt – “there is strength in needing.”  She initially distances herself from her demons, choosing silent, solitary suffering in order to avoid public humiliation.  Sure, it is the criminal who stunted her professional growth who deserves all the shaming, not her.  But as we have seen in real life, it is easier said than done.  Justice is not delivered to victims of MeToo on a silver platter.  The male-dominated society that we unfortunately belong to is far from being conducive to victims who speak the truth, who seek justice.  As a result, Lilly’s initial silence (which she addresses in the climax) is real, painful yet perfectly understandable.  Bobby, and by extension the film, refuses to judge Lilly.  The standout acting moment of the film, to me, is the sequence where Bobby hugs Lilly tightly after hearing the truth about her past.  The lead pair is marvelous in this scene, as they are during the entire film. 

The fact that Bobby wants Lilly to fight the fight herself despite her unwillingness to do so, could be seen both ways.  That he is imposing something on her that she does not want.  Or that he wants her to not lose sight of her first love, cricket.  He realizes that deep down she would rather be playing the game than sitting in the balcony of her house, watching young kids play.  Regardless of whether you think he does the ‘right’ thing for Lilly, it is hard to argue one thing.  His focus is on her, as he seeks to bring out her innate temerity that she had lost sight of because of a misogynistic official.  The cheek and the audacity that he saw in her when he fell in love are what he wants her to be identified by, not fear and cowardice. 

I realize that I have written very little about how well-crafted the film is.  Yes, the film features wonderful acting, thoughtful staging and unobtrusively gorgeous cinematography.  A case in point is the poetry recital scene in the first half.  When Bobby starts reciting an earnest but painfully trite poem, the split-second reactions of Lilly and her sister (a casual, understated Shruti Ramachandran) are captured by the photography and precise editing.  There is as much beauty in these little scenes as that sheer portrait of a frame where we see Bobby and Lilly kiss while leaning out of a window.  But to me, the craft of this film, as good as it is, is second only to the delicacy of the writing.

I hope that as a fictional creation, Dear Comrade is regarded as an important societal advance.  After all, thought provoking films not only offer a reflection of where society is but also an opinion of where it should head.  This is a film that offers hope to victims of MeToo and a charge to the family and friends of the survivors.  That they have a responsibility to offer meaningful, abiding support sans judgement.  That the film accomplishes this by telling a poignant story instead of preaching to us, is yet another reason why we should continue to treasure it. 

Dear Comrade, I am sorry we let you down when you released in the theaters.  But rest assured that we won’t forget you until we see the change that you have dared us to dream of.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Have you heard of SR Sivakami?

Let me guess.  You probably have not.  If you have, you are (a) an even crazier movie buff than I am or (b) you knew her personally or worked with her. 

Let’s try a slightly easier question – have you seen K Balachander’s Agni Saatchi (1982) or his tele serial Kai ALavu Manasu (circa 1995)?  SR Sivakami played Saritha’s mother-in-law in the former and Lyricist Vaali’s wife in the latter.

I recently revisited select episodes of Kai ALavu Manasu on youtube.  And without my realizing it, I was actually skipping the Prakash Raj-Geetha portions – that is the main story, after all! – to go to the scenes featuring Vaali and Sivakami.  Their subplot is classic K Balachander.  They are a lovable elderly couple who care deeply about each other, traditional in demeanor but modern in thought.  Their only son Kandhan whom we never see even a photograph of – yes, classic KB – is in the peacekeeping force in Somalia.  This is the pre-internet, pre-smart phone era.  So, the occasional letter or the rare phone call is the extent of their interaction with their only child.  One day, Vaali gets the news that the son has died.  Vaali’s world comes crashing down.  But here’s the twist – he decides to hide the news from his wife for as long as possible.  In the meanwhile, the couple offer strong support to the romance of a Kannada boy (Ramji) with a Tamilian girl, a union that is opposed by the girl’s martinet father. 

The phone rings, the heart beats (Click on play to go to the scene):

It is the scenes where Sivakami does not know what Vaali and us in the audience know, where the actors glow.  Vaali was a fine, spontaneous actor, one whose potential was largely untapped.  And Sivakami is stupendous in these scenes.  Her growing anxiety, the nagging sense that something is amiss and the short-lived joy at seeing the newspaper clipping (that the troops in Somalia are homebound), are all handled by her with tremendous finesse and conviction.  She is completely natural, doesn’t strike a single false note and makes us tear up in the scene where she sweetly tells Vaali that she will make him chapathi and korma as promised, after returning from the temple.

The chapathi scene (at 7:05) and the heartbreak sequence (at 20:50):

She goes into a near comatose state upon hearing the news of her son’s death.  But upon seeing Ramji and his newly-wed wife, she thinks that he is her son.  (Years later, Radha Mohan would traverse this kind of an arc with the MS Bhaskar character in Mozhi, with equal poignancy and controlled, impactful theatrics.)  Sivakami is a joy to watch in these scenes too.  She brings an innocent, childlike quality.  The way she talks about the past travails of her son in Somalia is enormously touching, especially since we know the truth.  KB does the right thing by leaving this thread in that state of new normal.  After all, the dots connect in real life in unexpected ways. 

A new lease of life (Click on play):

The Vaali – Sivakami portions of Kai ALavu Manasu serve to reinforce what Hollywood discovered eons ago.  That character actors who receive prominence and backing of screenplay authors will bring out shades of emotion that you will never see in conventional lead roles.  (In the Bedroom, for instance, was entirely focused on an elderly couple looking to avenge the death of their only child.)  The Tamil film industry continues to be heavily hero-oriented, with every meaningful role for even a lead actress – forget about character actors – being cause for celebration.  That should be an everyday occurrence, not an exception.  But we must be thankful for the fact that Tamil cinema has been blessed with filmmakers that wanted to go beyond conventional heroism and fake machoism to showcase emotions that are real and rooted.  They knew that they had actors like SR Sivakami.  She may not be with us – she passed on in 2010.  But with films featuring strong female characters like Aruvi and ensemble dramas with strong character actors like Managaram achieving critical and commercial acclaim, there is hope.  But we need more.  That way, more SR Sivakamis will be known to a wider audience, not just crazy movie buffs who think out loud on their blogs!

A tribute to her in The Hindu, from 2010:

Friday, September 20, 2019

The one-day champ – Reflections on Shankar’s Mudhalvan

Realistic fantasy.  That was the title of my review of Shankar's Mudhalvan when I wrote it 20 years ago.  His realistic fantasy trifecta of that decade – Gentleman, Indian and Mudhalvan – all sprouted from wishful thinking of some sort.  Free education for all, corruption free society, a squeaky-clean government.  But apart from the grandeur, what truly made the films work was Shankar’s eye for detailing.  As his stories took fantastic flight, his screenplays grounded his characters.  In Indian, what you remember is not Indian Thatha flying out of an exploding airplane and looking dapper in a suit in the next scene!  What still makes the film work are elements like the superbly written investigation scenes, the inventiveness of and research behind the varma kalai and so on.  This balance was achieved in superlative fashion in Mudhalvan.  A story of a ‘one-day CM’ – a brilliant conceit in itself – was brought to life with some sizzling dialogue, a fast-paced but intricately detailed screenplay and memorable performances, especially by the antagonist.

I did enjoy parts of Anniyan, Sivaji and the first installment of Endhiran.  But none of those film stack up to the painstaking believability that Shankar infused into this film.  In comparison, these other films come across as lazily written.  In MudhalvanShankar sucked you into the story so powerfully that he didn’t, for a moment, seem like he was requiring us to suspend disbelief.  Three extended sequences stand testimony to this – the riots, the interview scene and the one day for which Arjun assumes the post of Chief Minister.

The riots are sparked off by a seemingly innocuous but testy exchange between a bus driver and a student.  The way it snowballs into a humongous law and order issue is shot with immense sure-footedness, utilizing a documentary-style, hand-held cinematography by KV Anand.  The way the Chief Minister exercises his authority (“No arrest, no tear gas!”) is as believable as it is scary.  Even the use of graphics to evoke the traffic jam is purposefully done as opposed to some of the laughable gimmickry that Shankar has indulged in his recent films.  The ‘effects’, in essence, are in service of the story, not the other way.

The interview sequence, which runs for more than 10 minutes, was, is and will always be a showcase for the virtuoso villain Raghuvaran.  This was during a phase of his career where he looked very healthy (and not the weak, gaunt self he was in his final film Yaaradi Nee Mohini).  It added gloss to his persona, which was unmistakably majestic, something that served this movie very well indeed.  The casual arrogance, the authority, the bit of fear when is caught red-handed, the subsequent throwing of the gauntlet, Raghuvaran nails them all.  As much as the dialogue aids him, this entire sequence is a lesson in body language.  The way he gets out of the car and nods to the policeman who opens the door, the dismissive way he asks, “Thambi paeru?”, the explanation of a Chief Minister's responsibilities, are all delivered with his trademark panache.  Note the condescending, almost teacher-like gesticulation while he renders the thirukuraL couplet (“Agalaadhu anugaadhu…”).  Compare this with the spineless characterizations and the inept performances of the antagonists in Shankar’s recent films and you will see the stark difference.  They just don’t make them like Raghuvaran anymore.

The interview sequence:

And finally, the events of the one day that Arjun gets to be Chief Minister.  As far fetched as some of his ideas are, script writer Sujatha’s considerable effort to include crisp, minute detail lends credibility to the grandiose ideas.  The sales tax payments, the “Hello CM” TV show – after all, Arjun works for a TV Channel - and the “omnibus order” that Arjun suggests for the en masse job suspensions.  All of this ensure that we watch the events unfold with a kind of edge-of-the-seat thrill that we would experience in a positive dream.  In the present day of horrendous governance in the state, Mudhalvan seems fresh and relevant, which is sad in a way!

One-day CM in action:

The rocket-like pace of the first half of Mudhalvan meant that the second half had an impossible height to stack up to.  And structurally too, the end of the first half was a climax in itself with the arrest of Raghuvaran.  As a result, the second half suffers from having to almost restart a story where the one day’s dream becomes a reality.  And it doesn’t pack nearly as much punch as the first half.  There are very few moments when the intelligence of the director comes to the fore, the short and sweet conclusion of the movie being one.  And the listless romance, one of Shankar’s enduring weaknesses, drags the film down further.  But the momentum of the first 80 minutes leaves us with such a high that the significantly weaker latter portions don’t derail the movie totally.  But the slower second half does seem akin to the gingerly movements of a lander as it nears a lunar surface.

Writer Sujatha, Raghuvaran and Manivannan have all passed on, relatively young too.  All of them contributed handsomely to the success of this film like they did to advance Tamil cinema in their own way.  The film fanatic’s heart aches for these trailblazers.  But such is the magic of the medium that they live on in the silver screen, their stamps very much indelible.  That Shankar worked with such a monstrously talented team and shepherded them in the direction of his goals, betray a thinking leader at work.  As a fan of Shankar’s early works, I hope that he recovers the ground that he has lost in the past decade, his big budget extravaganzas not withstanding.  Shankar’s canvas has grown manifold but the clarity of the sketch seen in Mudhalvan has rarely been replicated.