Wednesday, May 27, 2020

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

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

Image courtesy of

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Sanity Mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Lens and Sensibility: 20 years of Kandukondain Kandukondain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Aishwarya Rai-Mammootty staircase scene:

The Tabu-Ajith apartment sequence:

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

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

Thursday, April 2, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Si-Lens: A few quiet moments captured on Tamil screen

In an interview with Bosskey, the late Mahendran had recounted his formative years in Ilayangudi.  He was a fan of the Tamil cinema of the 50s, which boasted of truly impressive, at times incessant, dialogue.  This was the decade when Tamil cinema was branching out of musicals into more social dramas.  Writers like Mu. Karunanidhi and Sakthi Krishnaswamy were making a mark with their pen in unprecedentedly powerful fashion.  Mahendran had truly enjoyed the talky films to the hilt.  During a conversation with his Uncle, the latter urged him to watch more English films.  It was only after he started watching films from the West did Mahendran develop a bit of an aversion towards excessive dialogue.  To his credit, he stuck to his convictions when he became a Director two decades later and gave us a handful of mesmerizingly memorable audiovisual experiences.  In this piece, I am going to list a few moments from Tamil cinema where it was a combination of expression, body language, cinematography and background score that weaved magic.  Dialogues, in these sequences, were functional, minimal or non-existent. 

Shoba in Mullum Malarum
It is impossible to create this sort of a list without a tribute to the master storyteller that I mentioned above.  This film and Udhiri PookaL are filled with several stunning moments of silence.  One of the most haunting visuals committed to the silver screen featured that shooting star, Shoba.  She slowly, painfully realizes that her brother has had a hand amputated.  Her expressions ranging from joy to realization to shock to despair are brought out in sublime fashion by her.  Rajni does very little and graciously cedes the spotlight to his co-star.  And she is incandescent.

Note: for all the videos below, clicking on Play will take you to the scenes I write about:

Sivaji Ganesan in Mudhal Mariyadhai
Sivaji Ganesan was referred to as ‘nadigar thilagam.’  Many fans of his work remember him for his remarkable dialogue delivery and crystal-clear diction.  But that scarcely does justice to the depth and breadth of his acting chops.  You would have to watch him keenly in some of the smaller moments to realize how beautifully expressive he could be, with very little dialogue.  One of my favorite moments in Bharathiraja’s Mudhal Mariyadhai is the scene where he is disgusted with his wife’s gesture while serving food.  He quietly moves away.  And the moment he steps out of his house, he drinks in the beauty of his surroundings.  The joy on his face is a delight to behold.

Saritha in Achamillai Achamillai
There is a beautiful line in Dil Se where Shah Rukh Khan describes the eyes of Manisha Koirala.  He loves them yet hates the fact that the deeper he looks, the stronger the realization that there are more depths to plumb.  KB probably felt that way about Saritha.  Watch this scene where she acts entirely with her eyes.  Sure it’s a showy piece of histrionics.  But it is impossible to look away.

Ilayaraja in Sethu
Consistent with the previous headers, I should have probably titled this, “Abitha in Sethu.”  But as moving and expressive as she is, many portions of Sethu, this one included, are totally owned by the King.  In concert with Ratnavelu’s marvelously purposeful camera movements, the impact of Sethu endures, warts and all (especially in the realm of toxic masculinity).

Prakashraj and Mohanlal in Iruvar
For a film set in an era where the oration and rhetoric swayed the voting and movie-viewing public en masse, Iruvar boasts a plethora of visually arresting moments.  One of the telling contrasts is evidenced in the pair of scenes where Prakashraj is on stage while Mohanlal makes a delayed entry.  In the second scene, it is clearly established that Lal arrives late on purpose to test the strength of his following.  Prakashraj’s expressions in this scene are nuanced and measured.

The first scene - the young idealists:

The second sequence - power corrupts…absolutely!

SPB in Sigaram
Tamil cinema has been witness to many death scenes that have spanned the spectrum of loudness from incredibly quiet to deafeningly loud.  On the quiet end of the spectrum is one of the most poignant scenes in Sigaram – SPB’s wife Rekha is dead while he is away in Singapore on a concert trip.  What happens once he returns is what is captured in this sequence which features no background music, just a few ambient sounds.  Director Vasanth once told me that writer Anuradha Ramanan, in a conversation on Rhythm, death and loss, mentioned the “silence that comes with death.”  That phrase is what comes to mind in this scene, especially the portion where SPB enters an empty house.

Kamal Haasan and Amala in Pesum Padam
And finally, the movie with probably the most apt title about silence ever, Pesum Padam!  A film where the actors ‘spoke’ volumes through their eyes, their body language and purposeful gestures.  My favorite is the scene in the handicrafts shop where Kamal ‘picks’ a earring for Amala.  These two fine actors share such cute, crackling chemistry that any dialogue would have felt completely redundant!

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Earthy but Worthy – A piece on Balakumaran’s writing in Tamil Cinema

Disclaimer – this is not meant to be an exhaustive, analytical piece on Balakumaran.  It is an attempt to capture a few facets of his writing that I have enjoyed and admired.

I may sometimes be tardy in paying our monthly gas and electricity bills. (No, it has not gotten to the point when connections have been turned off!) But part of my unerring monthly routine is watching at least a few scenes from Nayagan.  During one such recent viewing, I reduced my treadmill speed – yes, I was probably exhausted too! – to rewind a few seconds to watch a conversation again.  It is between the two kids, one played by the young Kamal Haasan.  The kid has just lost his father, avenged the latter’s death and has arrived in Bombay sans any support system.  He is sipping on hot tea while his new friend is inquiring the reason behind him escaping from Thoothukudi.  First things first – the kids in this scene are remarkable actors.  There is not an ounce of inauthenticity or cinematic precociousness.  What makes them shine even brighter in this scene are the marvelous lines rooted in the local milieu, penned by the late Balakumaran.  I especially love the colloquialism on display – “paritchai-la giritchai-la fail aaytiya?”…“panam ginam thirudiniya?”  Now, you don’t have to be ‘Senthamizhan’ Seeman to know that “giritchai” and “ginam” are not Tamil words.  But is that not how we speak.  That is the nativity and realism that Balakumaran, at his best, brought to screenwriting. 

There are filmmakers – the great Mani Ratnam included – who can sometimes get carried away by cinematic technique, to the point that the writing seems to be given short shrift.  But as Kamal once noted, Mani Ratnam was secure enough to surround himself with “strong collaborators” like Balakumaran.  Very few directors like Shankar (Gentleman, Kadhalan and Jeans), Suresh Krissna (Baasha), Durai (Mugavari) and Selvaraghavan (Pudhupettai) have utilized Balakumaran well.  But when they did, with an understanding of what truly made him tick, the results were there to see. 

To me, Balakumaran’s strengths as a screen writer were twofold – authenticity and profundity.  He was an expert at getting into the skin of the characters and explaining their motivations in a way that felt completely in sync with the character.  The motivations may not always be ‘right’ or reasonable but the way he could pen the lines, we could totally see the character speaking that way.  Take Gunaa for instance.  There is, of course, the oft-cited monologue in the doctor’s office – it is an amazing stretch of dialogue, no doubt.  One that is masterfully delivered by Kamal.  But I like Roshini’s lines in the ‘wedding’ scene equally well, if not more.  She has fallen in love with someone whom she knows is besotted with her for reasons that might go beyond the realm of normal man-woman relationships.  Yet, the purity of his emotion has consumed her.  In the scene, when Kamal states that it is not full-moon yet, she responds, “Nila agasathulia iruku?  Manasula iruku.  Manasu than nila.  Neranja naaL...manasu neranja naaL...Kattu…”  (The way Saritha, who dubbed for Roshini, modulates the delivery of these lines is quite special too.)  As poetic as the lines are, they ring very true coming from a girl who has experienced emotional fulfillment in a way that she never had previously. 

If these lines from Gunaa were gentle and poetic, the lines he penned for Radhika in Jeans were sharp and vitriolic.  In one of her great performances, the monstrously talented Radhika tore into the part with relish, delivering Balakumaran’s lines with amazing vitality, her diction being spot on.  One of the stinging lines in this segment was, “Vevaram kettavanuku pondaati-ya irukardha vida vela therinjavanuku vepaati-ya irukalam!”  There is zero political correctness in this line.  But you could totally see the Radhika character speak this way.  In fact, it seemed like the only way she would speak!

Another example of his lines shedding light on the inner workings of a character is from the famous “avana nirutha sol…naan nirutharen” scene from Nayagan.  A gangster and his peace-loving daughter are at loggerheads with one another, unable to strike any common ground.  There are two lines that especially sizzle with power.  When an irate Kamal barks at Karthika, “Engendhu vandhichu indha kai neetra pazhakkam?”, his Man Friday Janakaraj aptly responds, “Namma kitte irundhu than!”  And recollecting his violent ways, Kamal says, “Thirupi adicha than adi-lendhu thappikka mudium…katti adicha than uyirode iruka mudiyum.”  These are intense, violent thoughts but when they are uttered by a feared don, they sound just right.

The other strength he possessed was an uncanny ability to deliver profound thoughts in a very accessible manner.  Mugavari was quite an amazing film at the time of its release.  It was not the kind of mainstream entertainer that Ajith was dishing out during his wave of success post Vaali.  It was a quiet tale of struggles faced by an aspiring music director, played with utmost conviction by Ajith.  Raghuvaran’s advice to him in the terrace scene is one where Balakumaran’s lines, underscoring the importance of hard work and persistence, were crisp yet memorable.  Apart from the lovely 'Gold at 10 feet' story, I especially like this line – “Inge jeikaley-na makku-nu solluvange.  Jeychitta luck-unu solluvange!” 

As I wrote earlier, there are some filmmakers that can get obsessed with form while sacrificing content.  While it is laudable that our cinema is moving away from excessively talky dramas that lacked finesse in craft, it is equally important to do the write...err...right thing and strike a balance.  Fine writers like Balakumaran and Sujatha are no longer with us.  But as we turn to their chapters in the history of Tamil cinema, we realize that the imprints left by their pen are indelible.  May budding filmmakers who aspire to stamp their impact on the medium take a leaf out of these chapters that were penned by these immortal authors. 

Continue to rest in peace, Balakumaran...

Friday, January 24, 2020

Angel in the detail: My review of Halitha Shameem’s “Sillu Karupatti”

Halitha Shameem’s Sillu Karupatti features a tape recorder, a shampoo bottle, a ring, a box of Pringles chips, a Johnson’s baby ad, a Cornetto ice cream air balloon, a bird-shaped key fob and an Alexa virtual assistant named, “Ammu.”  You must wonder why I would start a review listing a bunch of inanimate objects.  Good question.  My answer is simple.  If you have watched the movie, you will know that all of them acquire a life of their own.  Seen one way, they are animated objects.  Animated by a sense of warmth and affection that is infused into them by the superb writing and craftsmanship displayed by the director and her team.  If that is the life that the filmmaker imbues objects with, need I really say anything about the humanness, the charm and the lovability that she adorns her actors with.  I wrote “adorn” because Sillu Karupatti features some of the most beautiful characters that I have seen on film.  Beauty, not necessarily in just the cosmetic sense of the word.  But an inner glow that radiates from within the soul of the actors that lights up the entire screen.  To borrow the late Roger Ebert’s ecstatic reaction after watching Jerry Maguire, I wanted to “hug myself with delight!”

Sillu Karupatti is an anthology of four stories.  All four of them are ‘love’ stories, loosely speaking.  But none of them are frivolous or lightweight.  The underlying sadness or seriousness of some of the tracks is leavened with some marvelously written lines that drip with wit, understated humor and intelligence.  The bevy of actors, both the lead ones and the smaller characters, are all pitch-perfect.  There is not a false note in one of the performances, irrespective of length of the role. (Among the actors in minor roles, the misty-eyed nurse who holds a “Hope” sign was especially unforgettable.)

Among the actresses, Sunaina and Nivedhithaa Sathish come up trumps.  As I had written in my review of Marriage Story, implosion is much more difficult to portray than explosion.  Sunaina’s implosion of emotion in the verbal duel with Samudrakani is arguably her best work till date.  Her satisfied sigh in front of the mirror and her little “thank you” speech to “Ammu” in the final sequence are as incandescent as the candles in the scene.  Nivedhithaa brings an impishness and perkiness that, unlike the typical masala film heroine, is also balanced by common sense and street smarts.  Her affectionate hug of Manikandan in the terrace and her loving glances of him in the hospital bed are instances where the character sparkles, as does the actress.

Of the actors, Manikandan and Samudrakani are especially magnificent.  After Raghuvaran, Samudrakani has probably been my favorite character actor.  An advice-spouting do-gooder is how we have mostly seen him.  But in this film, he brings a disarming casualness to his performance.  I have never seen him exhibit shyness or childlike qualities as he does in such a winsome manner in Sillu Karupatti.  And Manikandan, who held his own in Kaala against the mighty Rajnikanth, turns in the most nuanced performance of this film.  His expressions alone are worth the ticket of this film.  Be it when he is writhing in pain, the befuddled look when a politician asks him to create a meme (pronounced, “mee-mee!”), the surprise he exhibits when he is compared to Charlie Chaplin, the delight having swallowed a piece of a tasty kulfi, the wistful look in the mirror as he strokes his hair, the joyous smile (and the way he says, “Nalla Sagunam”) while entering the hospital – these are all imprints on screen left by a consummate actor who is completely in sync with his director’s vision. 

If I were to pick the best of the four stories, it would probably be the Manikandan – Nivedhithaa one, owing to its incredibly sensitive handling of some very delicate topics without posturing or sermons.  On the other hand, I found the Leela Samson – Sree Ram track to be the least effective.  It is because I felt that this was one story that couldn’t attain the level of depth it needed in the amount of time that it had.  The thawing and growing affection in the relationship felt rushed to me.  I kept thinking that this story, to work effectively, deserved a movie of its own like the art house classic, Anthimanthaarai.

The cinematography and music are unobtrusively effective.  The background score (by Pradeep Kumar) is especially impactful in the kids segment where the tenderness of the longing glances is matched by the gentle score.  I especially enjoyed the photography (by Yamini Yagnamurthy) of the final segment.  In the scene featuring an inebriated Samudrakani, we first see him from a tipsy angle.  It is only then revealed that he is sitting in a merry-go-round in a playground!

As I reflect on the immense joy and satisfaction I derived from this film, I just wish that more actors and producers (like Suriya has with this film) support such efforts where the richness comes not from extravagant set pieces or exotic foreign locales and instead, comes from detailing, nuance and delicacy of the writing and film making.  It is films of this ilk that will not only endear themselves but also endure.  

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The King's Beats

En route to work on a bone-crunchingly cold morning, I wanted a jolt on top of what my chai would give me.  So, I turned the volume up to a level just below one that would attract nasty glances from fellow drivers.   Also, I wanted my eardrums to be functional enough to accommodate hi-hats and drums.  As I flipped through my collection, I had a very, very serious choice to make.  Was it going to be the Mozart of Madras or the King of Pannaipuram?  (Please don’t get all serious on me and tell me helpfully that this little panchayat town in Theni never had a royal family.)  I decided to have the aroma of my chai blend in with a whiff of nostalgia.  I chose to go with the King.  And before I could think too much, I came up with a list of percussion-heavy numbers where the king made his loyal vassals tap their feet even if they had three left-feet!

Here is a list of 10 of my picks in no particular order.  I will keep my descriptions to a minimum since words aren’t the point of this piece!

Kombula Poova Suthi  from Virumandi
One of the liveliest songs in a Jallikattu setting, this fast-paced number has some scintillating beats.  Kamal’s spirited rendition is the moar molaga on the koozhu! (Icing on the cake just felt wrong, sorry!)

Aiyya Oodu from Kaathaluku Mariyadhai
Manivannan was such a popular artiste in 1997 that he got an ‘introduction song’ in a film where the hero didn’t have one!  Ilayaraja’s joyous singing leavens some of the heavy-duty philosophical lines. (“Kannukettum thooram thooram…manusanathan kaanum kaanum” is my favorite of Pazhani Bharathi’s lines.)

The title song of Vikram
The film released 34 years ago when computers and synthesizers in Tamil film music were as rare as realistic make-up.  The typewriter keys clacking and seguing seamlessly into the beats is an absolutely magical start to this irresistibly catchy number.

Podhuvaga En Manasu from Murattu KaaLai
It is widely agreed that Murattu KaaLai was the film that heralded superstardom for Rajnikanth even though he had been christened “Super Star” two years before this movie (in “Bairavi”).  This song, rendered with incredible vitality by Malaysia Vasudevan, is a fitting anthem signaling the birth of the super star.

Ooru vittu ooru vandhu from Karagattakaran
Comedian Coundamani and company have a ball, thanks to Ilayaraja!  It is rather amusing to see the comedians dance while the hero – that master thespian and costume connoisseur Ramarajan – walks beside them!

Raja Rajathi Rajan Indha Raja… from Agni Natchathiram
Need I add anything to the first words of this song!

Das Das Chinapadas… from Kadalora KavithaigaL
The Ilayaraja – Bharathiraja combination resulted in many unforgettable chartbusters.  This film was the last of their collaborations before their split. (They would reunite 4 years later for En uyir thozhan.)  This song, set in a seaside milieu, features some rather modern beats that somehow don’t feel out of place. 

Poo malarndhida… from Tik Tik Tik
The mirudangam is one of my favorite percussion instruments.  My bias comes from the fact that I tried my hand at it for several years.  It took me a decade to realize two things – 1. music was the only part of my life where I was a good listener. (I actually feel bad for my family and friends, truly, deeply, sincerely!) 2. The sounds of mirudangam that I heard when others played seemed like noise when I did.  And when I listen to this marvelous fusion piece, I realize that I am better off listening a little more…at least in but not restricted to music!

Nenachu Nenachu… from Sethu
This is not a full-fledged song.  But this minute-long snippet is a mesmerizing expression of ecstasy.  (The visceral impact of the violent act at the end of this song has the same gut-wrenching impact now as it had on me 20 years ago when the film was released.)

Stereophonic Sannata… from Shamitabh
Aasaiya kaathula... from 1980 getting a facelift in a Hindi film in 2015 where Amitabh Bachchan was the ‘voice’ of Dhanush.  Can improbability be taken to a higher level?  Yes.  The song turned out to be a terrific, foot-tapping number!

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.