Monday, May 1, 2023

Two Diamonds in a Sea of Gems - My essay on Ponniyin Selvan (Part 2)

Disclaimer: I have not read Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan as yet.  This is my review of Mani Ratnam’s film, Ponniyin Selvan (Part 2).

This is it.  This is the Vikram performance that we have all been waiting for.  The monstrously talented actor who has acted in scores of forgettable films in the last two decades, finally gets a role that is befitting his talents.  We saw glimpses of what Mani Ratnam could do with Vikram in Raavanan and in Ponniyin Selvan-1 (PS-1).  But those feel like appetizers to what he serves us in Ponniyin Selvan-2 (PS-2).  Even though the actor did not feature in the Navarasa series, his performance is an exhibition of all the rasas.  His eyes do much of the work.  Whether he expresses anguish over his lost love, relief in hearing good news about his brother, disappointment in seeing his friend seemingly turn against him, arrogance in entering a palace or disdain when seeing his lover’s husband, Vikram’s powerful eyes tell their own story.  Coupled with his fantastic diction and assured body language – you have not lived as a movie buff till you have seen him in his final scene – his performance is one for the ages. 

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, pitted against the powerhouse that Vikram is, manages to hold her own in bringing to life a character that has more than a few shades of gray.  Mani Ratnam has always been a master at ensuring that the human side of antagonistic characters are fleshed out.  That even when we may not quite agree with them or root for them, that we understand their psychological motivations.  Thanks to the balanced writing and Aishwarya Rai’s superbly controlled performance – the quiet, internalized intensity is a riveting contrast to Vikram’s raw, unhinged portrayal -  what we see is a person driven by rage and fury of her own but one who knows fully well that she is not doing right by the ones that truly love her.  With a slew of minute expressions, firm but measured delivery of the lines and a regal presence overall, Aishwarya Rai turns in her best performance yet.  At the end of the day, it is the scenes featuring Vikram and Aishwarya Rai that give the film true emotional depth.  Depth that is sadly missing in the rest of the film. 

The machinations, the political intrigue and the battle for power were all set up perfectly in PS-1.  I went into PS-2 hoping that the plot would unravel in a way that would do justice to the central themes and the seemingly powerful characters.  But in my estimation, PS-2 flatters to deceive.  Mani Ratnam, along with his co-writers Jeyamohan and Kumaravel, had established the core traits of the key characters in PS-1.  But apart from Vikram and Aishwarya Rai, none of the other characters truly get their due.  They appear when the plot needs them to step in and offer a few expositions.  Except for a couple of lovely little moments – the one featuring Trisha and a blindfolded Karthi is vintage Mani Ratnam – there were many moments where what I saw on screen was inelegant writing staged in a way that tried, but failed, to obscure the shallowness of the writing.  The hurried way in which Vinodhini makes Aishwarya Rai recall her past or the rushed manner in which key truths are exposed in the scene on the ship, made me wonder if Mani Ratnam felt that everything outside of Vikram and Aishwarya Rai were incidental loose ends that needed to be tied, even if clumsily.

You know that a film is not quite working for you the way it should when the lines spoken are actually supposed to sting but you are sitting in a theater unmoved.  Jeyamohan comes up with some fantastic lines.  (Having not read the novel, I am attributing the lines to the credited screenwriter.) One line goes, “ArasargaL sollum poiyai arasiyal enbargaL.”  Some of Jayam Ravi’s idealistic lines in the climactic portions are splendid.  Yet the scenes in which they are housed never seem to make them pop out of the screen, say the way Sivaji Ganesan’s “aana vedhai…naan pottadhu” line exploded onto you from within the narrative of Thevar Magan.  And speaking of the written and spoken word, the diction of some of the actors (the “La” and “Zha” sounds were rarely heard from some of the actors!) left much to be desired.

Ravi Varman’s cinematography and Mani Ratnam’s staging too worked best in the scenes with Vikram and Aishwarya Rai.  There is a marvelous shot of the duo framed in a tight close-up which, by itself, increases the intensity of the moment manifold.  Ditto for AR Rahman’s searing background score for their scenes together.  All this serves to underscore my point that when done in service of powerful, nuanced writing, every element of a film’s craft will shine. 

Alas, PS-2, for me, will be remembered for two unforgettable characters brought to life by two shining performances in a film that should have been about much more.  And given the array of dazzling talents behind and in front of the camera, this experience is akin to two shiny diamonds glistening on a surface where the rest of the gems are hidden underneath.  

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Cent per cent Genuine: A tribute to my paternal grandmother

70/100.  That was how much I scored in my quarterly Math exam when I was in 7th grade.  When I was a school student, I would hesitate more to share a low Math score with her than I would with my parents.  After my ordinary performance in that exam, instead of telling her that I would work harder the next time, I made the mistake of telling her that my low score was due to a “few silly mistakes.”  She wasted no time in asking me how exactly could one score just 70% due to a few innocuous mistakes.  With her razor-sharp memory, she recounted the umpteen distractions – cricket, tennis, movies, to name a few – that had arguably done some damage to my preparations!  But here’s the thing – even as a hot-headed 11-year old, I knew not to argue with her. 

Trust me, I was much happier that day than my somber expression suggests!

When one has had a lifelong association with a loved one, it is a tough task to encapsulate the shared memories, the moments of truth, and capture the core spirit of the person with mere words.  My paternal grandmother Indira Raghavan passed away yesterday, leaving behind a score of memories.  But amidst all her virtues and values, it is her forthrightness, honesty and above all, genuineness that I will remember her most for.

Years later, when I had moved to the US in the late 90s, I had picked up this habit of calling one friend in India every weekend.  I had struck a 'deal' with my parents that I would speak for no more than 15 minutes.  Paati knew this.  You must remember that these were pre-Whatsapp days, where long distance calls were quite expensive.  One on occasion, I was quite enjoying my conversation with a friend.  Even though Paati was not in the same room, after I had come out, she asked me the duration of my call.  I said to her that it was probably a half-hour or so.  Pat came the reply that I had spoken for close to 45 minutes!  And that it was my Dad’s hard-earned money that I was squandering through my carelessness.  Again, I don’t remember having much of an argument with her.  I suppose I didn't want to make two wrong calls the same day!    

I am not sure that I realized at the time of these two incidents.  But I think that I must have sensed the quality in a person that makes us swallow the bitter pill – sans any coating of sugar – of forthright advice.  And that quality is genuineness.  Indira Paati did not have an iota of fakery in her.  Everything about her from affection to advice was genuine.  That she walked the talk, made her words and gestures of tough love, resonate and register.  She was a master of attacking the behavior, not the person.  I don’t remember ever being called any names or adjectives.  All I remember of those conversations are her precise directions on what to do and what not to do.

During my upanayanam...

Her genuine displays of love and affection too, were seen in more of actions and gestures than words.  For instance, she knew that I loved ilai vadaam. She would tirelessly make them for me in the stove, as I waited eagerly to peel them off the banana leaves that she would hand me in the kitchen.  When I had visited my Aunt in Charlottesville in 1991, Paati and Thatha were with her.  Thatha and my Aunt had picked up me and my Mom up from the train station.  I was a bit disappointed that Paati had not come to the station.  Upon reaching my Aunt’s home I realized that Paati was in the kitchen preparing ilai vadaams for me.  Since she couldn’t procure banana leaves there, she made them on Ziploc bags.  I don’t remember if I appreciated her thoughtfulness and ingeniousness as much as I should have. (Knowing me, I probably started gobbling the vadaams even before washing my hands!)

Paati was deeply pious.  That was hard to ignore.  But when one looked beyond her love for temples and her dazzling mastery of prayers and scriptures, it was easy to see that her type of piety reflected her personality.  In a simple, organized manner, she prayed and read religious books with a single-minded belief in the superpower, without tying her prayers to outcomes, wishes or desires.  It was piety of the purest kind.

Over the past 6 years, her health had been deteriorating.  It was difficult to see her in a state that was a stark contrast to her former self.  Of course, age-related ailments and infirmity are painful to see from close quarters.  But what we had was the gift of time with her.  I am filled with gratitude for having been born in her family, to have witnessed her virtues and values firsthand.  In letting her go to a happier, pain-free place up above, I tell myself that my best tribute to her would not be this article.  It would be in the way I lead the rest of my life, seeking to emulate the way she lived hers.

Paati, I may have scored only 70/100 on that day.  But your score for genuineness was certainly 100/100.  Rest in peace.  I will miss you.

Monday, March 27, 2023

9 points: Lessons from the 1992 Cricket World Cup

1991-92 was a glorious time to be initiated into cricket.  I was 10 years old and in sixth standard, in school.  Sachin Tendulkar was 18 years old and the gold standard in cricket!  A 5-Test series and a triangular ODI series were the twin preludes to the 1992 ODI World Cup down under.  Amidst the shambles that was the Indian batting line-up, Sachin was setting the tone for the decade to follow.  If he was in, India could win.  If he was out, the rest was a rout.  Pardon the painful alliteration but you get the gist!  But as much as Sachin was every Indian cricket fanatic’s hero, the tourney itself offered riches that extended beyond the lone star of the Indian team.  

The format of the 1992 World Cup was strikingly simple.  9 teams.  Everyone played everyone else.  If you won, you scored two points.  If the match was tied or washed out, the teams shared a point.  (That the latter was going to be a decisive factor was something that even the world’s best gamblers would not have bet a penny on.)  And the top four teams on points would play in the semi-finals.  Among the semi-finalists, New Zealand scored 14 points, England 11, South Africa 10 and Pakistan…9.  Yet it was Pakistan who ended up lifting the cup.  As I reflect on what made Pakistan win the cup and how some of the other teams lost key games (or in the case of India, lost the plot!), there are 9 lessons that I wish to recollect from the cup. 

9. “Teams win matches, not individuals.”

That was the title of the then Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin’s column for The Indian Express the day after India bowed out of the tourney with 5 measly points from 8 games.  While he makes some valid points in his article in a rather candid manner, what he failed to state was that he, as the leader, did little to make the 10 other members cohere as a team.  Their solitary bright spot was against the eventual winners, Pakistan.  Though Sachin was the man of the match, several Indian batsmen and bowlers had bright moments.  It was a team win.  But that was at Sydney, arguably India’s favorite ground in Australia.  But when their best laid plans came apart in the face of a Brian Lara attack or a Mark Greatbatch assault, there was no leadership, no novel tactics, no teamwork.  India’s lack of progress was not for lack of players who could not march.   It was because they did not have any directions. 

8. The Proteas’ Inequation: The Whole > Sum of its Parts

Both New Zealand and South Africa turned in some stellar performances in the world cup.  South Africa, despite not having the cheek of the Kiwis, was a team whose whole was more than the sum of its parts.  They did not have any superstars in their batting line-up.  Yet, led by the warhorses Kepler Wessels and Peter Kirsten, they put up competent totals.  Their bowling was painfully homogenous – everyone seemed to bowl right-arm medium pace!  But they had a star in the lightning-quick Allan Donald.  And they had the jaunty Jonty Rhodes in the field.  Even if they failed to reach the finals, the fact that they reached the semis despite their long apartheid-related isolation from cricket was an example of how to function as a team and punch above their weight.  The exact opposite of the Indian team, I hasten to add.

7. Nature Strikes Twice.  Sometimes thrice.

Every cricket fan who claims to be one would be familiar with the infamous rain rule of this world cup.  Where the chasing team, in the event of rain, had their target reduced by the number of runs scored in the least expensive overs they bowled.  The rain kept taking turns helping and hurting the teams.  There is this prevalent myth that the washed-out game against England (where they were all out for 74 and yet secured one point) was the biggest factor in Pakistan reaching the semis with 9 points.  It is only partially true.  They were in a superb position against South Africa, with Inzamam-ul-Haq in sublime form, when the rain made 211 from 50 overs, 194 from 36.  That they lost by only 20 runs should tell you that they could have bagged two points if not for the rain.  So, no, let’s not deprive them of due credit. 

But the Indians were the ones most hurt by the rain.  If they got lucky versus Zimbabwe, they lost the Australia fixture because of the rain and did not get a chance to bag two points against a weak Sri Lankan side.  I suppose luck or lack thereof doesn’t always come with any reasons or explanations.  It just is, good or bad!

6. The Puzzle of Bits and Pieces

Commentator and former cricketer Sanjay Manjrekar incurred the collective wrath of a nation when he called Ravindra Jadeja a “bits and pieces” player.  I am not sure if he would have been denied entry into the Buckingham Palace had he said the same about some of the English players.  For this tournament, they picked the likes of an ODI specialist like Dermot Reeves and a restrictive off-spinner like Richard Illingworth.  While these players were no slouch in the format and did make a reasonably positive impression, they did not have the match-winning class of England’s own David Gower, the doughtiness of a Mike Gatting or the mischief of a leg-spinner like Pakistan’s Mushtaq Ahmed.  In essence, these bits and pieces players did fit into the puzzle assembled by their captain Graham Gooch.  But they did not have the x-factor in them to puzzle the opposition.

5. Don’t think out of the box.  Just throw out the box.

New Zealand’s innovations, be it Dipak Patel’s opening spells as a tidy off-spinner or Mark Greatbatch’s blitzkriegs as an opening batsman, are the stuff of legend.  Like England, the Kiwis too had ODI specialist bowlers like Gavin Larsen, who excelled on their slow, low pitches.  But the difference was what they did with these players.  Martin Crowe did things like giving bowlers two to three over spells and constantly rotating them and…yes, puzzling the opposition.  It was as though the captain did not want to beat his opposition as much as he wanted to outwit them.  His batting, of course, was a huge factor in helping his team outmaneuver every opposition except, of course, Pakistan.  It took the genius of an Inzamam-ul-Haq – his 60 off 37 in the semi-final still ranks as one of ODI’s greatest knocks - to knock them out.

Onto the final four.  I am dedicating all four of these to Pakistan, out of respect for their unlikely yet amazing victory.

4. Luck is where preparation meets opportunity

It is one of several life lessons that Randy Pauch shared in his “Last Lecture.”  Sure, Pakistan had their slices of luck during the tournament.  While Martin Crowe’s injury preventing him from leading their defense in the semi-final is often cited as a lucky turn of events for Pakistan, what is often ignored is that Crowe would have ideally chased after winning the toss since they were making mincemeat of their opposition while chasing.  But on the day of semi-final, rain was predicted.  Fearing the rain Gods a little and the rain rule a lot, Crowe decided to bat first.  So, you could argue that things were loaded in Pakistan’s favor.  Yes, they had luck.  But luck alone did not win them matches.  In the league phase, they were the only team to beat New Zealand.  And in the semis too, it took the temperamental genius of Inzamam and the steadying influence of veteran Javed Miandad to push them over the line.  So, yes, they had the opportunity offered by lady luck.  But boy, were they prepared to make full use of it!

3. Short-term gains are as bad as long-term losses

Can you imagine Wasim Akram slowing down his pace?  No, that is not a rhetorical question.  It was posed in a way to Imran Khan after a league game.  The reason being that Akram had had a torrid time with no-balls and wides in the initial phase of the tournament.  He had raw pace but zero control.  But while Imran Khan may not be an eloquent speaker, he was an astute leader and a clear thinker.  He made the point that Akram’s core strength was his pace.  And he did not want his protégé to lose that.  He knew that he had others like Aqib Javed to steady the ship even if Akram went off-kilter.  He knew that Akram could sway matches as much as he swung the ball.  And swing, swerve and sway were exactly what he did, at blistering pace.  Ask Allan Lamb or Chris Lewis if you’d like!  When we pause to reflect, one realizes that a clear-headed leader who has no place for myopia in his vision, will see everything ten steps ahead of others.  And that is what Imran did with Akram.  If not for liberating Akram to bowl to his strengths, he may have made him feel shackled.  Instead, he unleashed the ‘cornered tiger’ onto an unsuspecting opposition!

2. Trusting them more than even they ever will  

Both Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mushtaq Ahmed have waxed eloquent on Imran around how much he placed faith in their abilities.  Just like Sunil Gavaskar used Laxman Sivaramakrishnan as an attacking wicket-taking option in 1985, Imran knew that he could not expect consistency or steadiness from Mushtaq as much as he could, guile and mischief.  Similarly, he had seen enough early signs of Inzamam that despite a strictly ordinary performance (save the gallant effort versus South Africa) in the league stages, he pushed Inzamam to play the semi-final despite him feeling unwell.  The impact of placing trust cannot be easily measured.  But by the same token, it is equally undeniable. 

1. “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

This quote, attributed to author Paulo Coelho, was embodied by Imran Khan and his fierce, single-minded determination.  Of all the 9 captains, it is possible that Imran wanted this Cup the most.  He wanted it badly.  He wanted to win this, to raise funds for the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital, named after his mother who died of cancer.  He had tried once in 1987 but failed to go past the semis.  At 40, this was his last chance by a distance.  His individual contributions in this cup are noteworthy but they were hardly World Cup-winning material.  But he was Captain Exemplar in the way he anchored the mercurial yet brilliant team through troubled waters, to glory.  His own anchor was the Cancer Hospital.  He wanted it badly.  And the universe helped him achieve it.


Sunday, February 26, 2023

25 years of Swarnamukhi

Good actors are chameleons.  They can slip into any role effortlessly, internalizing the spirit of the character and projecting a three-dimensional personality that leaps out of a two-dimensional screen.  There are some actors with whom – for better or for worse- the viewing public associates a certain persona.  There is a certain comfort associated with that persona.  A certain expectation when the audience buys a ticket at the turnstiles.  What the lesser directors do is take the easy way out and depend almost entirely on the persona of the actor.  The wiser of the creators realize that the persona is just a solid foundation on which they can mount their films.  Radhakrishnan Parthiban is one such actor with a persona.  The glib, witty, fast-talking character is something that he has made his own.  Of course, there are several films (either of his own creation or others’) where he broke out of the mold – Housefull and Azhagi instantly come to mind.  But his collaboration with the supremely talented KS Adhiyaman led to one of his greatest performances.  The film is the memorable Swarnamukhi, which was released 25 Februarys ago.

In the title credits of the film, the director thanks Parthiban for his extensive inputs into the story and dialogues into the film.  Even without this thoughtful acknowledgement, one can sense that Parthiban made the character of Pandian completely his own.  The usual plethora of witty repartees is on full display.  His interactions with Prakash Raj are especially priceless.  The latter, a scene stealer himself, is totally overshadowed by Parthiban in this film.  The characterization and the performance take equal credit for the one-man show of Parthiban.  Right from his Pondaati Thevai days, he has played characters whose feelings of love are rarely, if ever, superficial.  While his exchanges with Devyani in the flashback are fun, starting with the act of violence that sends him to jail, one realizes that this is not yet another love story.

The characterization of Pandian is truly unique.  The man – unreasonably, one hastens to add – believes that despite three years of not knowing his whereabouts that the love of his life would still be waiting for him.  Since he had been in jail with the singular thought of reuniting with her, he blindly trusts that she too would have been waiting for him.  That a man could have entered her life is a thought that just doesn’t register with him.  This premise leads to a sparkling set of scenes in the second half.  In addition to the sharp dialogues, the screenplay too flows beautifully once Pandian reenters Swarna's life.  Every scene is a result of a character feeling a certain way and moving the story forward.  For instance, when Devyani hesitatingly conveys to Parthiban that Prakash Raj may have fallen for her, he does not even bother to ask her if she feels the same way!  Instead, he goes to mercilessly taunt Prakash Raj – the scene with the auto driver is a riot!  And when Devyani expresses anguish about being stuck between two men, her mother goes to Parthiban’s house to explain the harsh reality to him.  That sequence is what makes this film utterly unforgettable.  

The epoch of Swarnamukhi is the eight-minute stretch that spans two scenes starting with the one in Parthiban’s room.  Right from the moment that Fathima Babu breaks the news that her daughter may have fallen for another man, Parthiban’s reactions from surprise to anger to shock to anguish are spellbinding.  Watch him smear his face with the ‘kari’ (to convey the 'moonjila kariya poositaa' feeling) and look around the room where he has written her name all over.  The helplessness writ largely on his face is haunting.  His powerful eyes are as arresting as they have ever been on screen.  The second is the scene right after this where he confronts Devyani.  Starting from the piercing stare and the way he beats himself with the slippers, Parthiban’s body language and dialogue delivery are stupendous.  Several of the lines are not only sharp but also intensely observant.  Note the way he says, “Enaku irukardhu chinna manasu thaan, aana andha manasu muzhuka nee thaan iruke.”  The manner in which his voice trembles by the end of the line is stirring to watch.

A gamut of expressions

Click on 'Play' to go to the beginning of the stretch that I have written about:

Synergistic actor-director collaborations are rare in Tamil cinema.  When they happen, it is an unforgettable experience for viewers because even without knowing exactly who contributed what to a particular scene, we can sense that something special has unfolded.  We can dissect such movies to our heart’s content, calling attention to specific elements such as the writing, acting and other departments of filmmaking.  But while we are watching the film, everything coheres so seamlessly, so magically, immersing us in a swell of hard-hitting emotions.  The impact of the creation subsequently is undeniably enduring.  During the aforementioned confrontation scene, Parthiban proclaims, “Moonu varusham illa, muppathu varusham aanalum enakaage nee kaathitrukanum.  Adhaan kaadhal.”  Along similar lines, be it 2 years or 25 years, the impact of emotionally wrenching films does not wane.  And that’s what we call a classic. 

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Single Take #2 - “If Thatha retires, what do we do?”

1990 was a memorable year for my mother’s side of the family.  This was the year that my Aunt (my Mom’s only sibling, who passed on in 2016) got married.  It was a festive few months between her engagement (June) and wedding (September).  My grandparents’ house would be filled with wedding-related items.  Friends and relatives who were part of the wedding planning efforts would flit in and out of the house.  The stove in the kitchen was perpetually turned on.  One sinister – and utterly irresponsible, I shall add – thought that I had was that I could totally flop in my quarterly exams and could conveniently shift the blame onto my family for not helping out enough with my preparations. (What actually happened was…why don’t you take a guess?) But in between the engagement and wedding, something significant happened.  My grandpa retired from his job in July.

You might wonder what was so significant about someone retiring from his job.  It was actually quite straightforward.  Thatha had worked for The Reserve Bank of India from 1954 until 1990.  He had turned 58 in July, refused the offer of an extension and happily retired without a crease in his forehead.  All the creases were appearing on the broad forehead of his pudgy 9-year old grandson, yours truly.  At his retirement dinner, I was the only one who appeared unhappy.  When my family checked on me, I responded, in all seriousness, “If Thatha retires, what do we do?  Will we become poor?  Retirement means we will not have any money, no?  Why are we eating at this restaurant now?”  Everyone at the table burst into simultaneous laughter.  I was reassured by my Thatha that life will not be a struggle.  That everything from the dinner to my Aunt’s wedding will be paid for!  I was also gently reminded that my parents were working professionals as well.  That the family’s fate did not depend on just Thatha, his job or his pension payments!


One of my fondest memories of that dinner is the son-in-law of my grandpa’s friend narrating the delightful “kozhu kozhu kanne” story to me.  I don’t remember if it was to cheer me up.  But by the end of the dinner, I was taking great pleasure in being able to recite all the lines in the story to anyone who cared to listen.


Those last three words.  That’s really it.  “Cared to listen.”  That is really why this dinner stands out in my memory as fresh as this morning’s filter coffee.  I was never given the feeling that me, my words or my worries – as amusing as they seem now – did not matter to my family.  My Thatha knew that it was my fondness for him that made me tie our entire future to his employment.  Even when the table erupted with laughter, I never got the vibe that my feelings were trivialized or ignored.  Their laughter was just a spontaneous adult reaction to a kid’s innocent inquiry.  That an Uncle chose to regale me with a story despite having no need to give me the time of day at a dinner party, warms my heart when I think about it.  These might all seem like minutiae.  But just like how scientists in a lab discover wonders through a microscope, we can all do the same through the magnifying lens of introspection.  Seemingly little moments will seem wondrous.  32 years from the dinner, several of my near and dear are gone – my grandparents, their best friends, even my Aunt.  I don’t remember what I ate on that day.  But their kindness and thoughtfulness certainly gives me plenty of food for thought on how I can pay that goodness forward. 

Friday, January 27, 2023

Single Take #1 – No questions asked

Note to readers – I am starting a series titled, “Single Take.”  These sketches will be shorter than my usual blog posts.  I will be alternating between the short and the longer write-ups just as an experiment.  I would welcome any feedback and constructive criticism.  Happy reading!


I finally understood what religious people experienced when they entered the premises of a temple.  Thanks to the efforts of journalist S Shiva Kumar, I was allowed inside Ilayaraja’s studio in Chennai.  As I stood outside the building, only a glass door separated me and him.  I saw him.  More accurately, “I saw HIM.”  The security guard let me know that I should stand next to him until HE would wave at him.  Much to my amusement, he said, “Why don’t you move to my left so that you are not in Aiyya’s line of sight?  Once Aiyya waves to me, I shall let you in.”  I said to myself, “Ram, no, don’t try to respond with some lame, ‘witty’ remark.  You are going to soon be let inside ILAYARAJA's studio.  Just follow instructions to the letter.”  So, I did.  While I waited, I asked the guard for any tips he could offer.  Among other things, one piece of instruction stood out – “Keep your volume down.”  If he had only listened to the beats of my heart, he would have been scurrying to buy cotton balls for even the drummers in the studio.

The King must have waved to his guard.  For the latter told me, “Aiyya koopadraru.  Ulla poanga.”  As I entered the studio, the maestro gave me a hint of a smile and gestured me to sit down.  As I took my seat, the first words out of my mouth were, “I don’t have any questions for you, Sir.”  In response to the quizzical look, I continued, “Sir, I have grown up on your music.  Your music has meant the world to me.  And I wanted to use this opportunity to see you in person and thank you for what you have given me.”  I picked two of his songs that have touched the innermost recesses of my soul – “Ellorum Sollum Paatu” and “Nalam Vaazha” from Marupadiyum.  And I emphasized that these two songs, among countless others, have touched me, lifted me, inspired me.  I told him that there was something inexplicable about his music that set it apart from anything else that reaches my ears.  A smile here and a word there were what he offered in return to my monologue that was really a thanksgiving speech.

After a few minutes, I requested him for an autograph and a photograph.  He agreed to both.  Oh, the security guard had given me instructions for that too.  I was supposed to come outside and mime the clicking of a camera.  And he would then ask the person sitting next to him to go inside and take a picture. (Why I couldn’t ask the other person myself is a thought that crossed my mind.  But I was wise enough to not argue!)  Did I follow those instructions?  You bet.  To the letter.  As I thanked HIM and walked outside, I could understand how the pious folks in my circle would beam with happiness after exiting a temple.  The ‘darshan’ would have given them peace and tranquility.  It would have given them the cathartic reassurance that a superpower exists, to give them the strength to lead their lives, inclusive of its highs, lows and everything in between.  The fanatics would even exclaim, "Don't you question the existence of God."  Well, 35 days have passed since my visit.  The impact still lingers.  And guess what, I didn't question at all!

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Fully charged

“Charge” is a word that I think of quite often and quite deeply.  No, it is not about that ominous bar at the top of the device that I carry in my pocket.  Instead, it is a word that I remember from the commencement speech that Randy Pausch gave weeks before he died of pancreatic cancer.  He mentioned that the university President “asked me to come and give the charge to the graduates. I assure you it’s nothing compared to the charge you have just given me.”  Just the presence of considerate college staff and earnest students who were on the cusp of something special, gave a dying man a certain “charge.”  Several things can give us the kind of “charge” that Randy spoke about.  But I doubt if there are any that endure, uplift, comfort and secure us the way kindness does.

As a new year commences, it is but natural for us to reflect on the previous year’s happenings, the highs, the lows, the best practices, the lessons learned and set resolutions and goals for the year.  I rarely indulge in any activity that involves disciplined listing of things.  I don’t seem to derive joy or fun from listing accomplishments.  Or reflecting on a set of disappointments either.  What I instead do, is let my mind freewheel in search of one dominant emotion or thought that seems to persist in the mind, refusing to budge.  As I reflect on 2022, that emotion has been kindness. 

Among the things that I am grateful for, one of them is people who provide frameworks to organize my thoughts.  While social scientists like Adam Grant revel in tools like two-by-two grids to distinguish between different groups, I also find perceptive writers (for movies or otherwise) offer us a line or a phrase that is simple on the surface yet seems to drive us in the direction of common sense.  In that respect, writer-director C Prem Kumar (of ’96 fame) has been a remarkable inspiration.  It is an unfussy line in a poetic scene between Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha where he asks if she is happily married.  Her response is wonderfully poignant.  And more importantly, thought-provoking.  She says, “I am not sure if I am happy.  But I am at peace with myself.” (It sounds much nicer in Thamizh – “Sandhosham-aa irukena na…nimmadhi-ya iruken-nu sollalam.”)  It has been a very important line in my life ever since I heard it for the first time four years ago.

It is because, in my opinion, peace is a lot more controllable than is happiness.  The attainment of peace can truly be a quiet, personal, inward journey.  Whereas happiness, at least to me, seems to depend more on circumstances and other external factors.  Even as I reflect on 2022, yes, there were several moments of joy.  But as I think about the few rough patches in the year, I feel that, for the most part, I was able to be at peace with myself and my microcosm of the world.  That is because of the kindness that I saw in its most pristine form, sans blemish. 

Just like a variety of types of people make up this world, kindness too comes in different flavors.  Some express it in well-chosen words, others express it through thoughtful gestures and yet another set of people offer it in silences, just being there for us when we need them.  As I introspect on last year, I consider myself blessed to have been the recipient of kindness in all these forms, and more.  Instead of sharing the more obvious, overt acts, I shall just share one small memory that will be indelible for me for years to come.  I was having a particularly difficult day and broke down near the entrance of my house.  The person in question walked up to me, held me tightly and urged me to finish tearing up before entering the house so that I would not have to be seen by everyone inside.  He offered a few words of assurance, put his hand over my shoulder and walked inside with me.  Imagine a phone that was devoid of power, to be fully charged in a minute.  That is exactly what happened then. 

Of course, life is not just about acknowledging and appreciating acts of kindness.  It is as much about giving, if not more.  And from what I have learned from those innately kind souls, the key to giving kindness effectively is rooted in one element.  It is in how well we can transmute our feelings of empathy for a person into words, actions or gestures that touch the innermost core of what the other person is experiencing.  To place ourselves in the shoes of another person is easier said than done.  But if we were to truly get to the heart of what is disturbing another person, then we will come up with the right avenue to exhibit our kindness.  The person I mentioned above knew what was disturbing me and realized that what I needed at that moment was the license to tear up without fear of judgment.  He knew that I needed a shoulder, not a solution.   As a result, he enabled me to, in fact, strengthen myself post the catharsis.

As I look ahead to 2023, I seek comfort from the fact that I have people who give me that charge in many a form.  I am equally fortunate that I have been able to be that charge when a few close ones have needed my support.  In both cases, I tell myself that kindness can be the controllable element amid the vagaries of fate and the uncertainties of life.  It can be the constant amidst several variables.  In essence, it can be that supercharger that ensures that we are quickly up and running.