Saturday, September 4, 2021

Missed Spotlights: Urvashi in Irattai Roja

Urvashi has made a career out of stealing movies from right under the nose of her co-stars.  Khushboo once recounted her experience working in Vanaja Girija.  The film’s title referred to a pair of sisters played by Khushboo and Mohini.  Urvashi did not even feature as a ‘lead’ per se.  She makes her entry only mid-way into the film as a bumbling maid servant.  But Khushboo mentioned, with grace and admiration, that Urvashi had completely stolen the scene(s) with her impeccable comic timing.  If that is the case for a film where she makes an extended appearance in the second half, then imagine her impact in a film where she plays the role around which the plot pivots.  That is exactly the case with Irattai Roja.  But as resplendent as she was, she still deserves a lot more spotlight for her spectacular performance than what she has gotten in the 25 years since the film released.

This film is a remake of a Telugu film, unseen by me.  But I can bet my Netflix subscription that the actress who played the same role would have not done as much justice to it as Urvashi did.  Urvashi sunk her teeth into the tricky yet juicy role with aplomb.  She plays the character of a wife who agrees to a ‘deal’ with another woman (Khushboo, who is excellent, but is pitted against a great actress at the peak of her powers).  The proposal which she agrees to is to have her husband (Ramki) marry Khushboo in exchange for Rs. 1 crore.  In the hands of an ineffective actor, this role could have turned into a shrill, repulsive, one-note caricature.  But Urvashi plays it just right.

That Urvashi has astounding comic timing is undeniable.  There are so many scenes where she has us in splits, most notably the ‘jodi porutham’ scene with Visu.  She is hilarious, as she mispronounces “Prime Sports” as “Brain Spot” and proudly talks about going to Nasik to see freshly minted currency!  The way she grabs the mic and launches into a tirade is especially rib-tickling.  As entertaining as her performance is in several such sequences, that is not what sets her apart.  It is the ability to switch gears in a matter of seconds.  Tonal shift is something elusive for lesser actors.  Whereas Urvashi is a master at it.  A case in point is the birthday party sequence which starts off lightly.  But as she watches her kid feed the piece of cake to Khushboo, she loses her cool.  Ramki rubs it in further as she continues to lose face in front of the crowd.  She switches from comedy to drama effortlessly.  Such is her likeability and the expert shaping of her character that we feel bad for her instead of treating it as well-deserved comeuppance.

The "Jodi Porutham" sequence:

Another example of expert juggling of tone is the rather serious scene where Urvashi realizes her folly and tries to renege on the 'deal' that she had struck with Khushboo.  This scene has several sharp lines delivered by Urvashi.  But it is rather remarkable that a big laugh comes across as completely organic.  It is the part where Urvashi asks her Dad (Vennira Adai Moorthy, who is superb) for advice.  In this case, Urvashi remains in character while we find it impossible to not laugh at Moorthy’s reaction.  It takes an actress of Urvashi’s caliber to know when to push which buttons in service of a scene, while neither sacrificing the essence of the sequence nor losing the opportunity for a laugh to lighten the moment.

The Urvashi-Moorthy interaction:

The movie’s dialogues were written by the late N Prasannakumar, who wrote several of Vivekh’s tracks such as Run and Manadhai Thirudi Vittai.  Urvashi once mentioned (in the context of Vanaja Girija, also written by Prasannakumar) that she would take the time to collaborate with the script writer.  I don’t know much about the making of Irattai Roja.  But the fruits of the actor-writer collaboration are there to see on screen.  In addition to the big moments, be it comic or dramatic, there are several casually tossed-off lines that showcase the efforts of a writer who leaves no stone unturned even in the little moments.  For instance, the way the film ends.  When surprised by a friend of hers, she spontaneously shifts to broken English, only to revert to normalcy in a jiffy.  Prasannakumar’s contributions to such scenes are sadly forgotten.  Writers who work well with actors and directors need to be nurtured and encouraged so that they don’t end up as footnotes or entirely edited out altogether from analyses of film.

"Happy Tears" 

Urvashi’s ample talents have been provided fodder by filmmakers who understand her full range of capabilities.  I was especially pleased to see her in a deeply affecting role in the recent Soorarai Poattru.  Filmmakers and writers will do well to continue to tap into her acting chops.  Of course, there is always danger of her walking away with all the honors.  If you don’t trust me, ask Khushboo!

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Delicacy of touch: My review of Vasanth S Sai's Payasam

The happiness, success and clout of his nephew Subbu are cause for much jealousy and resentment for his Uncle (Delhi Ganesh).  But by all accounts, Subbu is a fair, kind, affable man who deserves none of this hatred.  In his very first scene, he adoringly looks at his daughter, who is about to get married, and spontaneously asks, “Chithappa paatharo unna?” in the kindest of tones.  Later, he gifts his Uncle a coat and falls at his feet to get his blessings.  Instead of blessing him generously, Ganesh takes a jab at his girth – “Unaala mudiyadhu da, paavam!”  The film alternates expertly between giving us enough glimpses of the goodness of Subbu and his Uncle’s abhorrence.  Even the song “Kannoonjal” includes a line on Subbu– “Ullathile vanjam illa uththaman petra kumari.”  But here is what is truly special about this film – none of this detailing is in your face.  That is one of the chief pleasures of Vasanth S Sai’s Payasam - the delicacy of touch.  A film focused on evoking the tricky emotion of ‘disgust’, this film weaves in a staggering amount of detail unfussily, in its short running time. 

Payasam is an adaptation of a T. Janakiraman story set in the 1960s.  1965 to be precise.  Vasanth lovingly adapts it for the audiovisual medium.  The period details, from the utensils to the leather watch worn by the bridegroom, are evoked in an unobtrusive manner.  At the same time, the film shows great restraint in spotlighting a particular community and its attitudes towards a girl (Aditi Balan) who has lost her husband at a young age.  There is a lot of respect and affection showed towards her.  The way the bride hugs Aditi on seeing her hold something in surprise for her, is a lovely moment.  Even the head cook is kind in the way he tells her, “Inge nikkadhe, pogai varum.”  At the same time, her sad plight is not glossed over.  There is a supremely well-staged moment where the cook offers an elaborate explanation for the wedding payasam, as he is preparing it.  While he does it, the camera slowly moves its focus to Aditi’s face – the actress is remarkably restrained yet effective in this scene.  No huge display of emotion but we see a forlorn figure who has resigned to her situation.  This offers a stark contrast to the emotions felt by the Dad, who refuses to come to terms with the unfortunate situation of his daughter. 

Vasanth displays a sureness of foot in the way he shapes Delhi Ganesh’s character.  Yes, the man harbors quite a bit of negativity towards someone who is essentially a good Samaritan.  Yet we never dislike him.  Especially affecting are his moments with his wife (an utterly charming Rohini) – even the surprise about her appearance is revealed in a matter-of-fact manner, in tune with the rest of the film.  The way Ganesh’s voice quivers when he says, “Poyittiye dee thangam…” is a marvelous bit of dialogue delivery.  He is fabulous in the final scene where he realizes that his daughter knows what he has done.  His tentative body language, where he desperately avoids eye contact, is brilliantly done.  This surely ranks among one of Ganesh’s greatest performances of a long, illustrious career. 

The technical elements cohere stupendously in service of the story.  Sathyan Sooryan’s cinematography deserves much praise.  I loved how the camera is out of focus for a few seconds before showing us Delhi Ganesh and Rohini on the banks of the river.  It perfectly underscores the actor’s frame of mind.  And masterful is the 2 ½ minute tracking shot which ends in Ganesh doing something that reveals the full extent of his resentment.  Ditto for the music (Justin Prabhakaran) and the background score.  Typically, the background score is used to accentuate an emotion.  In Payasam, the background score and sound design (Anand Krishnamoorthi) are used more to bring us into the milieu as active participants, not passive observers.  For instance, the 2 ½ minute shot that I just mentioned is not accompanied by a suspenseful music.  Instead, we hear the nadaswaram in the background.  If anything, the lack of an overtly emphatic score amplifies the impact of Ganesh’s act.  At the same time, there is a mellifluous violin piece that plays during the two scenes where see the bride and Aditi interact with one another.

Payasam is a must-see for connoisseurs of meaningful cinema.  It has much finesse and much heart.  ‘Disgust’ might be the rasa that the film strives to spotlight.  But sheer ‘delight’ is what Vasanth’s top drawer writing and direction evoke.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

No missed calls, please

I believe that film directors are invariably terrific conversationalists.  The ones that I have had the fortune of meeting in person have given me food for thought on topics that extend beyond cinema.  C Prem Kumar, the director of 96, is one such deep thinker.  In an interview with Abhishek, he casually tossed off a line that was pregnant with meaning.  Prem said, “UngaLoda pazhamai…ungaLode kadantha kaalam ungaLuku solradhuku konjam vishyam vechrukum…” (It roughly translates into, "Your past will have a set of learnings for you...")  It set me off on a trail of thought around the kind of evolution that I am comfortable with vis-à-vis what I cannot subscribe to. 

I am fully aware of the fact that nostalgia brings it with a pair of flimsy, rose-tinted glasses.  We sometimes revisit past events, norms and mores with more fondness than they deserve.  And that sometimes is okay if it serves the purpose of giving us lightness of heart to keep us going in the present.  Since both the past and the present have their positives and negatives, it is imperative that nostalgia be balanced with evolution.  It is a dangerous thing to live so much in the past that it paralyzes the present.  At the same time, it is important to resist the temptation to be callously dismissive of the past.  A sense of balance is as necessary as it can be elusive. 

Interpersonal connection is one area where I constantly wage this internal tug of war.  Really, it is not a ‘war’ as much as it is a sense of discomfiture.  Let me explain.  Through my childhood, youth and adulthood, I have seen quite a stunning evolution in technological advancements that aid communication.  I have used rotary phones as a kid.  Cordless phones were a huge source of amusement since for the first time I had privacy while talking on the phone. (How could my parents possibly hear my ‘spirited’ exchanges with my friends around whether Sachin Tendulkar or Brian Lara was the greatest cricketer of all time?!)

When I moved to the US in the late 90s, I wrote letters and sent handwritten greeting cards to my near and dear back in India.  Since calls from the US to India were charged by the minute, I would pick one person every weekend and would rotate amongst them for a lengthy call every weekend.  My paternal grandma would offer well-meaning advice and a stern warning in the same breath – “Bill-u romba aagardhu, phone porum Ram!” ("Be mindful of the phone bill!")  Cell phone plans had ‘free’ minutes with a finite limit.  Video calling was the stuff of science fiction.  Internet connection was dial-up.  The strident sounds that emanated from the bulky computer as one connected to the internet were tolerable only because of the dulcet sounds of new mail notifications that followed.  The feeling of connectedness that e-mails provided was sheer magic. 

Over the years, cell phones have evolved into a world unto themselves.  With seemingly unlimited minutes and data available at our fingertips, with the utilitarian and entertainment value of the apps expanding continually, phones have become an enormously indispensable part of our lives.  Thanks to a plethora of technological innovations, connectivity has become significantly more convenient.  But as I always maintain, connectivity and connection are not the same.  Just because we can connect does not mean that we do. 

Let me revisit Prem’s quote.  What it truly means to me is that we must continually charge ourselves with separating the core from the externals, the substance from the style, the enduring from the ephemeral.  It is fine for us, for instance, to enjoy the benefits and pleasure that our smart phones give us.  But we must ask ourselves the question, what from our past have we chosen to leave behind and if we are comfortable with our choices?  For instance, in the past, I needed to meet up, talk on the phone and/or exchange e-mails to share things about me and ensure that I learned about the things that mattered.  Now I can send a Whatsapp message or share a picture, video or leave a voice note.  But am I really ensuring that the spirit of the relationships stay intact over time, with all these changes? 

The charm of an in-person exchange over a caffeinated beverage might be impossible to recreate with a brief asynchronous Whatsapp exchange.  And in this increasingly fast-paced world and sheer distances, it might not even be feasible to do much beyond the periodic chat messages.  That is a reality that we would do well to accept.  Yet, amidst all the obstacles, it is possible to ensure that we do not lose the depth that is so vital to the key relationships in our life. 

I sometimes would feel wonderful seeing a “Hope all is well” message from someone I trust.  The perceptive ones know that to genuinely connect with the other person in a relationship does not take hours on the phone.  A thoughtful four-word message might be what it takes.  But so often, I see more and more people engage in frivolity and meaningless forwarded messages as a way of convincing themselves that they are keeping in touch with the people to whom they matter.  I am not opposed to sharing a laugh over a witty meme or the like.  What irks me is when people adopt a dismissive attitude to obscure a complete lack of depth and try to convince others that one must change with changing times.  We are all different in terms of the degree to which we stick to what has worked in the past as well as our attitudes towards change.  But I stick to my conviction that the core of a relationship, the vibes of assurance and the feelings of security that we jointly etch must not be erased by the winds of change. 

I subscribe to Prem’s thinking that the positive artefacts of our past need to be given due respect.  We need to, of course, be cognizant of the ways in which our society has evolved, sometimes using, at other times abusing the tools and services we have at our disposal.  It is essential to lose certain regressive attitudes and norms from the past because not everything from the past is positive or rosy.  At the same time, it is imperative to not lose certain core elements of ourselves in search of what is considered ‘cool’ or ‘modern.’  Scientific advances, technological innovations, novel services are all means, not an end.  At the end of the day, whether we choose to channel these advances in service of enhanced human connection – that is a call we need to take.  If we fail to demarcate between the means and the end, well, that is a missed call that no service provider can prevent. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

A matter of chance?

I have always maintained that pretty much everything that one needs to learn about life can be found in Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture.”  Such is the case with the topic of ‘luck.’  Pausch observes, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.”  The statement drips with pithiness and profundity in equal measure.  As I reflect on the numerous instances where I have been blessed with “opportunities”, be it in a personal or a professional setting, I find one common ballast to all the buoyant moments – people, and their kindness.  Several people have opened doors for me.  Doors that have led me into castles of joy or havens of peace. 

As I chalk out a list of moments from my professional life where I have considered myself fortunate, the one common theme is how people took a chance on me.  I have gotten job opportunities where my prior background did not exactly align to the requirements.  But a hiring manager might have sensed a mix of potential and passion in how I might have made a case for myself.  While I can take a portion of the credit, I would be incredibly remiss if I were to be oblivious of the risk that the person would have taken, when ‘safer’ choices may have been on offer.  The “preparation” part might not be sufficient but is absolutely necessary.  We need to, as Harsha Bhogle eloquently says, exhibit a combination of “ability, attitude and passion.”  It is hard to find a trifecta of success factors more potent than this.  If the “opportunity” part of luck is the uncontrollable, “preparation” certainly is not.

In my personal life too, I have been incredibly lucky to have a small set of people who share their vulnerabilities with me.  Of all the things that I can feel lucky about, why did I choose vulnerabilities?  The answer is simple.  They didn’t have to, but they chose to.  To share their deepest fears, insecurities, and above everything, giving us the license to be a shoulder for them to lean on.  I have felt immensely lucky whenever I have been given these privileges.  It is an honor to be entrusted with one’s vulnerabilities.  They say that eyes are the windows to a soul.  Eyes filled with tears, be it of anguish or of happiness, are akin to the center of a courtyard house.  A bird’s eye view might suggest an open layout.  But only a trusted visitor would gain actual access to it.  There are the same people with whom I can share my highs and lows without fear of resentment or judgement.  As I introspect about my meaningful relationships, it is hard to pinpoint who among us was the first person to share something significant.  But nevertheless, when the sharing is both ways, the bond is immeasurably, inextricably strengthened.

While I consider ‘luck’ in the personal and professional settings to be of different flavors, some of the fundamental ingredients are identical.  The generosity of spirit that characterizes people who take a chance on me and give me an “opportunity” to be part of their trusted circle, be it a team at work or the inner circle of a friend.  The presence of psychological safety and the absence of judgement that give us the confidence to let the truest version of ourselves shine.  And the “preparation” part is what we bring to the table.  In the workplace, it is our commitment to put our best foot forward, to adapt with agility and act with empathy for our coworkers.  In our personal lives, we must be prepared to do something very similar.  That is, to bring the authentic, unfiltered version of ourselves to the people that matter.  If the elements of this concoction are in the right portions, then the end product of luck is rarely a matter of chance. 

Monday, June 21, 2021

That's immaterial: Reflections on material possessions

I shall get something out of the way.  No, the takeaway from this write-up is not that there are myriad little pleasures in life that money can’t buy.  While it is certainly a laudable line of thinking, I choose to delve a little deeper into the topic of material possessions than resort to the convenience of a noble thought.  Truth and reality are more complex and multilayered than nobility. 

Cars.  Watches.  Sunglasses.  Fountain pens.  Shirts.  These are, in no particular order, some of the material possessions that I derive great joy from.  I take great care in ensuring that they are well-maintained and despite my butter fingers (my ‘dropped’ phones will narrate a tragic tale if you ask them), I rarely, if ever, misplace or scratch the items on this list.  I have, more than once, been completely enamored with something that I have seen online or in a store that I subsequently take considerable effort saving up money for. (This has happened quite often with watches.) Despite the objects being seemingly inanimate, they seem to acquire a magical life of their own.  They make me smile, feel good about myself and add a spring in my stride.  The painstaking process of refilling ink in a fountain pen, testing its quality on a notepad, the winding of an automatic watch.  These little routines never come across as chores to me because I enjoy the process inside out.  Sample this.  I recently bought a pen since I thought that it had a faint resemblance to the one used by Kamal Hassan in the movie, "Indian."  And I wrote “Indian” in Tamil to test it out, the way Kamal signs off Nedumudi Venu’s petition for the thamarai pattayam!

All of this might sound sunny and heady.  But the catch here is that we don’t live in an island by ourselves.  We don’t live in a world where we just admire our own possessions.  Deep down, to some degree, we seek validation of our choices.  I am sure there are exceptions so, let me speak for myself instead of generalizing.  I do enjoy genuine compliments.  As much as I experience tremendous intrinsic happiness from material possessions, I do smile when someone recognizes an effort that I may have put into color-coordinate a watch and a shirt. (Yes, I do spend some time on stuff like that!) What I have realized over time is that if I derive even a wee bit of sunshine from external validation, I must be equally prepared for the darkness that stems from sarcasm, meanness and negativity.

Let me begin by saying that I am sure I have come across as sarcastic or hurtful.  I am sure that I have said something about a person’s taste or choices of clothing or accessories that have hurt them.  As I have grown older, it is my sincere hope that I have become a kinder person, one who is not averse to taking feedback and course correcting.  I do think that conversations around material possessions are dicey territory.  I have been blindsided on a few occasions by comments that I perceived to be completely unwarranted and hurtful.  People can get so passionate about an object of their liking that they can give off the vibe that if you don’t subscribe to that thought, that your choices are subpar.  My Uncle once shared this Latin phrase, “De gustibus non est disputandum.”  It means that matters of taste should not be disputed.  Easy to say - I mean, it's not easy to pronounce but you know what I mean! -  but hard to implement, correct?

To me, the X standard (I would say "gold" but please fill in the gem or stone of your choice) for someone acting with true ‘class’ was my maternal grandpa’s best friend, Mr. Sivasailam.  My grandpa was a middle-class bank employee, completely contented man who lived life on his own terms.  Sivasailam Mama was an industrialist who headed a large group of companies.  I have witnessed first-hand the grace with which he carried himself.  The socioeconomic differences between them existed on paper, not once besmirching the exquisitely woven fabric of their friendship.  Whenever Mama bought a new car, he would take us all for a drive, even taking the time to explain to a kid like me the new features of the car.  I would look at it all with wide-eyed wonder.  Now, my wide-eyed wonder is a result of introspecting on how he never once made me or anyone in my family feel ‘lesser’ in any way.  In a utopian world, everybody would be like him.  Alas, we don’t live in one.

While we don’t live in islands by ourselves, we can create small mental islands where only a select few are allowed in.  These are the ones with whom we must share the joys that we experience from anything material (or intangible, for that matter).  We also owe it to the people whom we invite to our islands to feel psychologically safe enough to share their own sources of pleasure, whatever they may be.  Above all, to make them feel like they have the privilege to push back and question our choices.  I remember a well-meaning Uncle of mine telling me in no uncertain terms to not buy a car that I was eyeing.  He told me that I should act more prudently.  Not only did I heed his advice – I ended up buying that car 11 years later – but I am thankful for the fact that when I finally ‘earned’ it (after saving up a little more like he advised me to), the ‘success’ tasted sweeter.  If we create these little spaces in our mind with a select few with whom we feel safe, we immunize ourselves to any hurt that anyone else could cause us.  And if someone whom we consider as part of our trusted circle ends up hurting us repeatedly, we can then alert ourselves to answer the question of whether they merit(ed) inclusion in the circle in the first place.

One bit of advice that I have received (from Professor Sheena Iyengar, author of “The Art of Choosing”) that I never tire of repeating is, “Be choosy about choosing and you will choose well.”  It applies to the number of people we choose to include in our trusted circle, the ones with whom we share any highs that we may derive from the things we achieve, items we buy, etc.  There is a certain amount of respect that we all earn by wearing not only our learnings but also our earnings lightly.  I have seen my grandpa’s friend live his life in a way where his relationships and his acquisitions co-existed peacefully without markedly encroaching each other’s territory.  By genuinely respecting the people around him, the value of his asset that was genuine class appreciated till the very end of his life, and beyond.  I suppose that when someone loves her or his loved ones so thoughtfully, whether or not they also love material possessions…well, that’s immaterial!

 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Off the beaten path: My Memories of Parthiban’s Housefull

 Prologue

It was the Fall of 1998.  My parents and I had just moved to the US after I had completed high school in Chennai.  My Dad’s work had brought us to the US.  More specifically to Memphis, Tennessee.  As my parents worried about the logistics of starting afresh in a new country, I had my own concerns.  One of the chief questions was, how exactly was I going to keep in touch with Indian cricket and Tamil movies?  For cricket, I had to resign to checking thehindu.com for daily updates. (Cricinfo happened later, if my memory serves me right.) For Tamil movies, luckily, there was an Indian store that rented out VHS cassettes.  

What also helped my literary interests was the availability of Anandha Vikatan!  My parents somehow found a way to get the magazine shipped to our home.  I loved the previews and reviews offered by the magazine.  It was during one such quest for cinema knowledge (!) that I happened upon a striking still of an old man.  Salt and pepper hair, with an emphasis on the salt, metal-rimmed glasses, a walrus mustache, this man looked vaguely familiar.  Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was one of my favorite actors, Radhakrishnan Parthiban. 

I read about his upcoming film, Housefull, that he starred in, wrote, directed, and produced.  It was advertised as a thriller set in a movie theater.  This was a time when cell phones had not become prevalent.  So, the plot made sense.  Bombs are planted in a movie theater.  But oblivious of being at peril, the audience is engaged in watching the film while the police, the bomb squad and most importantly, the theater owner (played superbly by Parthiban) strive to rescue the people inside and, if possible, salvage the theater too.

I anticipated this film with much eagerness.  I had gone to India for a 3-week trip in December.  But I was saddened to hear that I had to fly back a day before the film’s release for Pongal 1999.  Those were the days before youtube reviews, Twitter posts and social media frenzy.  For most films, one had to wait for a while for the reviews and reports to come in.  I slowly got the sinking feeling that the mostly glowing reviews were not translating to box office receipts for the film.  Nevertheless, I wanted to check out the film.  There it was in the cassette rack, one fine Friday afternoon in late February.  No sooner had we arrived at our house than I rushed to the video cassette player with the tape in hand.  I told my folks that I did not want to be interrupted for the next couple of hours, for I had finished my homework. (This last detail, I am a bit unsure, but let’s go with my memory anyway!)

The film

This film had me hooked right from the title score.  It is a haunting piece, one of Ilayaraja’s unfortunately forgotten scores.  Raja was and continues to be a master of establishing the mood of a film with his title score.  For Housefull, his title score is not suggestive of a thriller.  Rather, the score comes off as gentle and tender, reflective of the fact that at the heart of the film is a soft-hearted man who must deal with an impending danger to the love of his life, his movie theater. 

The film is an ensemble piece that features a slew of actors with their own subplots and arcs.  A love story featuring an energetic Vikram and a perky Suvalakshmi.  An emotional back story for the theater owner and his former wife.  An amusing comedy track featuring a bumbling crook, played by Vadivelu.  A policeman and a bomb squad lead working in concert to devise a plan to save the theater and the audience.  A visually-impaired man who ‘watches’ the film in his mind’s eye.  A fully pregnant woman and her rickshaw-driver husband. (In what is testament to Parthiban’s yen for the minute detail, we see this husband as an auto driver at the start of the film before the flashback begins.)  At times, one does get the feeling of Parthiban packing the film with too much detail and too many characters.  Equally valid is the argument that he finds a way to make them all cohere as part of his narrative, with no loose ends.  Every character has either logistical significance as part of the rescue operation or an emotional arc that has a satisfying closure.  Apart from Parthiban’s Aiyya character, which I will get to in a bit, my favorite of the lot is his Man Friday played by Nair Raman.  He makes us smile at many places with his staunch loyalty and worldly-wise attitude but also makes us misty-eyed with his performance in the scene where Aiyya gives him and other theater employees a sum of money, requesting them to leave the premises.

Amidst these colorful characters, the anchor of this film is Parthiban’s Aiyya.  Parthiban reserves the best lines of the film for himself.  The lines have, in equal measure, potency and profundity.  Sample this.  When he realizes that he cannot afford to make the police officers act in haste, he likens their situation to that of a surgeon who must remain calm even when a patient is fighting for her or his life.  If this is an appropriate analogy for the situation, equally apropos is the way he describes his theater as “en amma…en kozhandhai.”  When a well-meaning police officer urges him to leave the premises to a safer setting, he says, “Ipo thane sonnen, indha theater en amma, en kozhandhai.  Unga Amma-vuko kozhandhai-ko serious-na apdiye uttutu poiduvengaLa.  Angaye irundhu poraada maatenga.  Enakum apdi thaan.”  Fans of his acting style marvel at his felicity with words.  But it is important that we don’t mistake the accessibility of his language for lack of depth.  For this film, Parthiban eschews his fast-paced manner of talking in favor of a more measured delivery befitting an old man.  And he sparkles in this character where he cast himself against type.

Technically, Housefull is one of Parthiban’s most accomplished films.  If Ilayaraja’s background score elevates the bomb diffusing scenes to great heights, MV Panneer Selvam’s camerawork is of high standard.  There is an enormously poignant scene where Aiyya, upon realizing that his theater is in serious danger, stretches out his arms almost as if to envelop the theater.  The camera behind Aiyya gives us a stunning view of the theater.  The artwork too (by RK Nagu) of the theater is exquisite.

The irony and the ingenuity of this film’s climax deserves much praise.  Right from Pudhiya Paadhai, Parthiban has given us some powerful images and lines featuring infants and kids.  Ditto for the climax of Housefull that features an infant sobbing in the middle of the road.  Parthiban’s expression upon realizing that the infant is on the movie screen and not in the theater, is one that left a lump in my throat.  The loss of Aiyya’s life makes a statement on the futility of violence in a way no amount of dialogue can. (It is deeply moving that throughout the film, Aiyya keeps saying, "Oru usuru kooda poga koodathu." In the end, it is only his life that is lost to senseless violence.)

Epilogue

Cut back to the scene in Memphis.  Once I finished watching the film, I could not stop gushing about it.  I wanted to meet the creator who had given me a movie experience that I well and truly relished.  But I did not know Parthiban nor did I know anyone who knew him.  A couple of years later, on a trip to India, I bought his book, KirukalgaL.  In it, was a bookmark that contained the address and phone number of his office.  I wrote a 10-page letter and mailed it (you know, snail mail existed; it still does!) from Memphis to his address.  It was located at Temple View apartments.  But since the bookmark said, ‘Kovil Noakku Kudiyirupu’ in Tamil, I wrote the same in English!  It is a miracle that the letter reached him!  A few weeks later, to my utter surprise, he sent me a handwritten response, with the words, “En thiramai saarndha ungaL thirunaayvum anbu soozhndha kadithamum kanden!”  My day, week and month were made!

During subsequent trips to India, I tried to reach him on the phone, in vain.  And then, my luck and persistence both paid off.  When I once called him from Pittsburgh (where I was doing my Masters), luckily his office aide put me through to him.  That conversation was the first of many that I have had the fortune of having with this creator some of whose works have meant much to me.  Most recently, I met with him in 2019 after the release of Oththa Seruppu Size 7.  They say that the daring of the youth tends to metamorphose into a more measured approach as people age.  But with Parthiban, with age, the temerity and the yen to experiment have only grown manifold.  I just hope that unlike Housefull, his ambitious ventures receive the awards and the rewards they deserve, at the time of release, not later.  It is not just important that technology has evolved from the days of VHS cassettes; our audience appreciation for pathbreaking films must evolve too! 

Monday, May 17, 2021

Un paere theriyadhu - A compilation of brief but impactful roles

Have you ever watched a movie and reflected on a small moment that either touched you or made you smile?  Not one featuring the lead actor or even the key supporting cast.  Instead, an actor in a much smaller role, one whose name you probably don’t even know.  It is the mark of a skilled writer that he or she can etch a role that might not have much screen time, but its impact endures.  Without further ado, here are some of my favorite fleeting moments that fit this description.  The title of this write-up notwithstanding, in some cases, I do know the actor’s name, in others I don’t.

The flight passenger in Uyare… (2019)

Uyare… is a movie that already soars high thanks to its ever-fabulous lead actress, Parvathy Thiruvothu.  She is incandescent in a role that goes through the horrible experience of – spoiler alert – an acid attack.  Thanks to her friend (an utterly charming Tovino Thomas), she gets the job of an air hostess.  In her first flight, an elderly gentleman asks her, “Excuse me, young lady.  What is your name?”  When she replies, he politely asks her, “Can I give you a hug?”  The gentle manner in which he hugs and pats her is so endearingly avuncular.  The scene ends on a lovely note when he requests her for a cup of piping hot coffee.  Even the way he bobs his head at the end is delightfully sweet.  If I ever were to meet this actor, I would ask, “Excuse me, gentleman.  What is your name?”

The nurses in Sillu Karuppatti (2019)

To put a twist on the Forrest Gump line, Sillu Karuppatti is a box of candies where you always know that you are going to get something delicious.  Every actor creates an impact, from the perky kid that accompanies Maanja to the kids that play Sunaina-Samudrakani’s children.  Among these little gems are the nurses that tend to the Manikandan character as he undergoes treatment for his cancer.  The teary-eyed nurse that holds the ‘hope’ sign for Manikandan is a standout – in an unfussy manner she shows the compassion that can make a nurse-patient relationship a memorable bond.  So is the other nurse that lovingly says to Manikandan that she was scared that he’d fly away.  When he starts laughing and grimaces (due to the stitches), she smiles and requests him to not exert himself.  Again, I don’t know their names.  But what’s in a name when the impact is this indelible.

The Subash character (actor Balaji) in Aruvi (2017)

Aruvi is filled with characters that have quirks and idiosyncrasies.  As hard as it is to look beyond Aditi Balan’s riveting performance, there are other bright spots too.  The character of Subash (played by actor Balaji) is one of them.  Balaji’s comic timing is amazingly precise in the dumb charades sequence.  His antics are a hoot, my favorite being his reaction to Aditi giving him a completely obscure movie title to meme.

Sister Vanessa in Anbe Sivam (2003)

In Tamil Cinema, we have all been conditioned to scenes in the Church setting accompanied by some truly amateurish acting and even more ridiculous sounding piano music.  But in Anbe Sivam, we get a rather memorable character in the kind-hearted Sister Vanessa, who helps Kamal recuperate from a horrendous accident.  She is wonderful in the blood donation scene where she calmly reassures a hyperactive Madhavan.  I also like the little moment where she brushes Kamal’s forehead and says, “You are looking handsome.”  

Meet Sister Vanessa:

Nafisa (Iravati Harshe) in Hey! Ram (2000)

If this film deserved a National Award, more than direction or writing or acting, it deserved an award for casting. (Yes, I know that there isn’t one such award; just saying!) This densely-packed – in terms of content and people – film contains a bevy of truly impressive actors in all parts, small and big.  Be it Hema Malini as Kamal’s mother-in-law, the impish lady that played his Aunt, Vaali who played his Uncle, the actor who played the tailor, every actor looked their part and essayed it well.  Near the top of the list is actress Iravati Harshe who played Shah Rukh’s wife, Nafisa.  Similar to Kuruthi Punal and Manmadhan Ambu, the Kamal character treats his friend’s wife as his own sister.  Their relationship isn’t given much screen time but in the limited time, Harshe nails the part of a woman who loses his husband to communal violence.  She is especially brilliant in the scene where she speaks to Gandhi about her husband's death.  Also, her reaction to hearing from Kamal that Shah Rukh might be gravely injured, tugs at one’s heart. 

Shankaran (Dasarathi) in Vedham Pudhidhu (1987)

I am cheating a little here since the kid who played Charu Hasan’s son in this film had a rather big role.  But he isn’t exactly a well-known actor.  As an adult, he would go on to become a voice artiste.  But Dasarathi turns in a marvelous performance as the kid who is mature beyond his years and has to overcome one adversity after another.  Bharathiraja has been an ace at casting unknown actors and making them look completely at home on screen.  Such is the case with Dasarathi, who imbues his role with an arresting sense of calm and poise, and deserves a bit more spotlight than what he has gotten till date.  If you think I am exaggerating, check out this scene where he makes Sathyaraj revisit his ingrained habits.

The Reddy brothers in Nayagan (1987)

Nayagan is an obvious trendsetter in many ways, one of which is casting.  Everyone in Nayagan looks his or her part and sounds authentic.  For three key antagonists in his film, Mani Ratnam cast three real-life siblings – RN Sudharshan, RNK Prasad and RN Jayagopal (two of them would reappear as siblings in MMKR).  Not only are they menacing but clearly look like brothers.  Oh wait, they are brothers!

Judge Bharathi Kannan (TS Raghavendar) in Sindhu Bhairavi (1985)

K Balachander took great effort in ensuring that he gave actors in small parts some distinctive quirks.  Sometimes the quirk factor was too in-your-face to come across as organic and authentic.  But when he got it right, few could match him.  Such is the case in Sindhu Bhairavi.  The actor Raghavendar, who plays the role of a judge, was also a music director in real life.  KB puts that to good use in this rather amusing scene where he sings the same words in different tunes to suit MGR, Sivaji, Rajni and Kamal.  The actor too enjoys himself immensely.

Click on Play to go to the aforementioned scene featuring Raghavendar:

The barber (Samikannu) in Udhiri PookaL (1978)

Mahendran strived hard to break the shackles of melodrama that had prevented Tamil Cinema from achieving recognition beyond the region.  The best of his works are great testament to the notion that to make art genuinely universal, you make it truly rooted and authentic.  To achieve this goal, he cast actors very thoughtfully.  One of his favorites was actor Samikannu, who turns in a fabulous performance in a rather small role, but one with an arc.  Throughout the film, he requests the Archana character to give him permission to cut her son’s hair.  She keeps procrastinating but when she dies, he has to tonsure the son’s head for ritualistic reasons.  The way he enacts this scene is a fine example of how Tamil Cinema is filled with jewels whose names might be unknown but whose luster is bright and permanent.