Saturday, November 27, 2021

Take 3: My essay on Sivaranjaniyum Innum Sila Penngallum

A short story about a tumbler.  That was one of the things that filmmaker Vasanth S Sai recalled fondly in a commemorative speech on writer Balakumaran.  He went on to elaborate on how Balakumaran, during an outdoor shooting of “Punnagai Mannan”, had brought with him a tumbler that would serve to remind him of his wife.  And that Balakumaran had created a short story around it, infusing the inanimate object with a lot of life.  An avid reader, Vasanth too, over the years, has mastered the art of finding much depth, beauty and meaning in the minutest of details.  With immense assurance, he lets his camera dwell on minutiae for just enough time for a viewer to drink in the details without ever feeling the need to spoon-feed them.  In this anthology, he skillfully adapts three stories (by Ashokamitran, Adhavan and Jeyamohan) and presents richly detailed portraits of three women who seek to find ways to rise above the system that rarely gives them the opportunity to breathe.

A chair, a diary and a trophy.  These are ‘objects’ that gain life during the course of the stories that feature them.  In the first story, the protagonist (played by a stupendous Kalieaswari Srinivasan) never sits in the sole chair of their modest home.  Even during afternoons when she is by herself, she sits beside the chair, never on it.  There is a superb shot where we see her seated on the floor, through the arms of the chair.  But by the time the story ends, her posture while comfortably ensconced on the chair, says a whole lot without a word being uttered.  The way Ilayaraja’s background gradually increases in intensity as the camera gets closer to her is a masterful audiovisual moment where Vasanth demonstrates, “show, don’t tell.”  But as mentioned previously, Vasanth is too secure a filmmaker to not know the difference between “show” and “show off.”  The shift in perspective of the camera is as gradual as the increase in intensity of the score.  (Spoiler ahead) We also realize, as the story wraps up, that the first time we see her smile is in her husband’s absence.  We are left to fill the gaps with our imagination but we are given enough detail to savor and reflect on.

In the second story headlined by Parvathy Thiruvothu, the lead character is rather happy and well-settled at the beginning of the story.  She lives in a joint family setup where she seems to be respected and loved, not least of all by her nephew, through whose perspective we see the tale unfold.  Their relationship is underlined through the most lifelike of gestures such as the gifting of a geometry box.  The manner in which the kid asks her to hug him is delightfully sweet.  So is the amusing “netta Mani…kutta Mani” conversation.  We get an early hint of resentment in the way her sister-in-law refers to her mockingly as “Elizabeth maharani.”  Early on in a scene outside her room, notice how Parvathy waits for a split-second for her sister-in-law to leave along with her.  It is a subtle character-establishing moment where we see that the Parvathy character is acutely aware of her space.  Later on, an issue regarding her diary snowballs into something monstrous with damaging implications. 

The diary and the perceptions around her rights are, as with the first story, focused on just enough to give us something to mull on while Vasanth trusts us with some blanks to fill on our own.  In what is a departure from the typical cinema grammar that we are used to, he does not always give us the payoffs that we are used to.  For instance, there are at least three instances towards the end where we wonder why Parvathy does not make eye-contact with her nephew.  Does the boy feel guilty?  How does Parvathy feel about the kid now?  They do not have a final moment that offers a neat closure to their relationship or for the story, for that matter.  But isn’t that how life is?  Do we always get the goodbyes and the catharses that we get to see in fiction? 

And in the final story, we get to witness a character who does not, on the surface, seem to undergo the hardships of the characters in the first two stories.  But we slowly see how the life that had been chosen for her – not by her – has saddled her with a plethora of familial duties and responsibilities with rarely an instance where anyone seems genuinely interested in her needs and desires.  But the character’s core trait is internalization.  She rarely speaks a word more than is necessary for her to get through her chores, be it instructions for her daughter - the two disparate moments involving the small vs big “Ra” in “Karka Kasadara” is a fine example of Vasanth’s  attention to detail – or responses to her man-child of a husband. 

Sivaranjani (the central character of the third story) internalizes all her emotions from anguish to ecstasy.  And Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli turns in an enormously moving performance.  Be it the longing look at the athlete in the playground, the nuanced manner in which she says that she would have “bought” her trophy or the way her eyes widen when she sees the school kids applauding a little ‘feat’ of hers, her work in this film deserves a lot of praise.  In this segment too, Vasanth leaves it to us to determine what will be the future of the lead character.  Is she content with the little joys of her domestic life?  Or will the little bus chase serve as a spark to revive the athlete in her?  What we are left with is a ray of hope as seen in Lakshmi Priyaa’s contained smile as she walks back.

The cinematographers Ravi Shankaran and NK Ekhambaram offer stellar support to the director.  The aforementioned shots of the chair in the first story are astounding yet unobtrusive.  The craft never overshadows the story.  Even with respect to the much celebrated single-take sequence – I timed it; it lasts an astonishing 4 minutes and 24 seconds – in the third story, it is only when we reflect on it do we realize that we ‘experienced’ the exhaustion of Sivaranjani and that we did not get yanked out of the mood of the sequence by the precise choreography.  As paradoxical as it may sound, the craft is as understated as it is palpable.  And as mentioned earlier, Ilayaraja’s score is marvelously in sync with the look and feel of the first story.  In the third story, his score for the moment when Sivaranjani prepares to leave the dilapidated godown, is pitch-perfect.  Although I must say that for the bus chase scene, I preferred the version that I had watched in the NY film festival with just ambient sounds – a special shout-out to sound designer Anand Krishnamoorthi.  Somehow the dramatic flourish of Ilayaraja’s score here didn’t seem as impactful as the grunts and the heavy breaths of the version that I had watched previously. 

In the final analysis, Sivaranjaniyum Innum Sila Penngallum is an immensely fulfilling experience from both a form and content point of view.  I had remarked earlier this year that his “Payasam” episode in the Navarasa series was just an appetizer for the wholesome meal that was Sivaranjaniyum… Now, I will sign off with the hope that this film is the harbinger of a new innings for him where he makes profound, personal films.  Balakumaran may have brought to life a tumbler in his short story.  But having watched this film, it is my tumbler of joy that is brimming!

***

The film is streaming on Sony Liv in India.  Outside of India, it is available on the Simply South app.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

That hour was ours

It had been a while since I had spoken to one of my mentors.  I had played phone tag with him for a while.  On a weeknight last week, it was past 10 pm when we finally connected.  It had been a while.  But as is often the case with people with whom you have a genuine connection, the customary pleasantries swiftly made way for a meaningful conversation.  I shall hasten to add that ‘meaningful’ mentor-mentee chats do not have to be dour and didactic.  They can be in fun in fact.  In what has been a running in-joke for the past two decades (!), he pulled my leg about a love-hate relationship of mine that invariably required third-party peacemaking efforts.  Minutiae specific to a relationship can be meaningful in a sense, correct?

More importantly, I had shared a recent development in my life with him via e-mail.  During our hourlong chat, he proceeded to inquire deeper in a manner where he effortlessly demonstrated the difference between sincere interest and superficial curiosity.  Very mindful of the privileges that he had rightfully earned in our relationship, he asked about my finances and whether I was saving and spending in a ratio that would be deemed acceptable by him. (Let me just say that the answer rarely is an unequivocal, “yes!”)  By the time I hung up after our one-hour conversation, I experienced a smattering of emotions.  I felt…how do I say it?  Let’s start with, I felt real.  I felt grounded.  I felt a little special.  Real, grounded and special.  Let me elaborate on the first two in a way that makes the third self-explanatory.

I have known this person since the day I was born.  Let’s scratch that.  I was probably kicking and screaming the day I was born.  He knew me since the day I was born.  But the virtues of longevity get washed away by the tides of time if there is not a sustained investment in a relationship.  Reflecting on his impact on me over the four decades of my existence, I thought of how, at each stage of our relationship, there was something specific to that age that I could recollect about or associate with him.  Be it the time in 1991, when he surprised me with a Jansport backpack because I loved stationery items.  Or how, that same trip, he laughed when I asked him “who his company chairman was!”  Or, when as a teenager, I told him, “I want to do a PhD like you” without knowing how to answer his next question: “PhD in what?!”  How when I was in my undergrad, he minced not even one syllable when giving me a dressing down for poor grades in one semester “on account of being distracted.”  How I took upon the task, as a twenty-something kid, of feeding his child cereal during a family function.  How when I told him during a Masters course that “The class average is 85.  I scored 90!”  Only for him to famously quip, “The mean is fine.  What was the standard deviation?!”  How he once told me that I had put on weight despite seemingly having an exercise routine and my thinking to myself, “That is so thoughtful of him” instead of being offended.  How he asked me to save up money instead of buying my "dream car" soon after getting my first job.  There are many more instances than I can possibly list here.  But the unifying thread that ties all these stray memories is the fact that they were all something real.  And they meant something to me at every juncture in my life.

It gave me a strange but definite sense of pride in thinking that these were instances that were very specific to my relationship with him.  Others might have had similar experiences in their relationships.  But for me, reflecting on the snapshots of our relationship over time resulted in my piecing together a montage that was uniquely ours.  The specificity of the details showed how much he cared to be something meaningful to me through the highs and lows of my life.  The details may have sometimes been seemingly trivial.  But they were real.  They were ours.  And only ours.

The other dominant feeling that I had experienced was that of feeling grounded.  I feel that we all need a few people in our lives who will say things to us in a way where we know that they placed more of a premium on being honest with us than wanting to please us.  I have been witness to people across both the professional and personal settings who, thanks to progress that they have made or success that they have experienced, struggle to keep themselves grounded.  Hubris seems to knock humility out without much effort.  As a result, they are sometimes unrecognizable from a previous, more likeable version of them that I had been fortunate enough to witness in the past.  And I would remind myself of the dictum, “Don’t dish out something that you can’t take.”  I remind myself of how certain people like my mentor have achieved great success in their professional life and have helped many like me in myriad selfless ways yet are completely humble about their achievements and their generous deeds.  To them, goodness, kindness and an attitude sans arrogance are just second nature.  They do not know another way of life.  Reminding myself of them keeps me striving to be rooted in things that are meaningful, as minute as they might sometimes seem. 

And special? Yes, of course.  It is an incredibly special feeling to note that I have people in my life who derive joy from my smiles, who help me summon strength from within by being there beside me, who teach me little life lessons by demonstrating, not posturing, who hear with their ears and listen with their heart.   Yes, we are all fundamentally more similar than we think we are.  Yet we can choose to extract happiness from the ingredients that make a relationship unique, at least in our little microcosm of the world.  For instance, that recent one-hour conversation with my mentor.  You might have had similar ones with your mentor.  And no, I was not there.  But guess what, you weren’t in the one I had with my mentor.  That hour was ours.  And only ours!

Monday, November 1, 2021

Short in the Arm: Thoughts on "Morsels of Purple"

Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar, the author of “Morsels of Purple”, has an uncanny knack.  She draws the reader into her worlds with economy of words, yet packs them with detail after intricate detail.  How a daughter, not the men in the family, knows that “crumbs collect in the folds of skin” under a father’s neck.  How a husband pays scant regard to a post-it note, “Lunch in the Instapot.”  How a mother scrubs her son’s shaving foam from the sink.  The book is a compilation of 54 pieces of flash fiction, all short pieces between a paragraph and three pages in length.  The book is filled with the kind of detail that go beyond cliches, swiftly and elegantly establishing the mood of the individual pieces.  But where her writing truly steps into a different plane altogether are the carefully chiseled lines that mark key moments in her stories.  I lost count of the number of such phrases that truly jolted me from the relaxing rhythms of the stories and the vivid imagery, to make me pause at times, stun me into silence at others.

“The rains, which I hold inside, start.”

“There’s no ring on his finger, not even an indent of one.”

“My mother visited once.  I didn’t know she knew where I lived.  Or, whether I lived.”

The three lines quoted above are from different stories, yet they have a commonality.  There is not one unnecessary word in any of them.  Not one fancy or flowery turn of phrase.  Yet their impact, in the context of the pieces, is indelible.  One of the chief pleasures of Sara’s writing is that despite being similarly stunned at several places across separate stories, I could rarely see any of these profoundly impactful lines coming my way.  That is because she does not follow any fixed template.  One of the most spectacular pieces is one titled, “What if.”  True to the title, the entire one-page piece is a series of questions, culminating in a riveting finish. (The phrase, “island of our mattress” was especially astonishing.) You almost get the sense of these pieces writing themselves, that is how unforced and organic they are!

Image courtesy of Amazon.com

There are some lively, amusing pieces such as “Rose Jam” and “The Watchmaker.”  The aforementioned eye for the keen detail shines brightly in these pieces.  But “Morsels of Purple” will be remembered by me for a long time for mainly three stories– “The Spring Rain”, “Dear Abu” and “How to live with an alcoholic husband.”  I very nearly teared up reading the first two and was amazed by the third piece in which each line starts with “when” –a rather painful journey is captured in a series of increasingly forceful lines.  “The Spring Rain” is a searing account of a woman who has gone through something unimaginable yet finds closure in the most unexpected manner.  (The “rains” line I cited above is from this story.) “Dear Abu”, as the title suggests, is about the feelings of a daughter towards her father.  The visual impact that the writing conjures – a case in point is how the Dad “stood at the gate with a torch in your hand, shining its light on each taxi…” – casts a spell.  The contrast between the last paragraph and what precedes it is a masterful example of ‘show, don’t tell’ that marks Sara’s writing.

As I reflected on the book in its entirety, I got the feeling of the whole being more than the sum of its parts.  And here's why.  With several of the pieces, I was able to not only experience a journey of sorts but was also able to luxuriate in some of the little life lessons and learnings that I took away from them.  In that sense, my personal journey with some of these pieces extended beyond the few pages that I spent with them.  And it was only a small fraction of the pieces that did not work for me.  It was either because they were a little too direct, sans Sara's customary vividness of prose or element of surprise (“Not forever, Snowman” for instance).  Or they were a tad predictable like “The Milkman.”  The misses, as I mentioned, are few and far between, certainly not enough to detract from the rich pleasures that are to be had in the book. 

***

Amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09HLW3G8K/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_3DKCHR1CSB6E8VEFPNZ8

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

"I am irrelevant..."

Writer Sujatha had this amazing talent for the pithy yet sharp line.  In a scene from “Kandukonden Kandukonden” where a retired Army major recounts his past, the feisty heroine challenges him – “Aren’t you still alive?”  In response, he orders her to come forward, bends down, stares into her eyes and says, “You know what is worse than dying?"  And adds, "It is being forgotten.”  It is a stinging line that has lost none of its sheen and power in the last 21 years since I first heard it.  They say that death and taxes are two immutable certainties in life.  True.  But the inevitability of irrelevance merits further inspection too.

Let me clarify something right off the bat.  Yes, people – in various relationships, not just marriage - do drift apart owing to deep-rooted incompatibility.  Sometimes, there is a volcanic eruption that happens when things come to a head, hurling people in different directions.  At other times, fissures metamorphose gradually into schisms, eventually sinking the relationship.  That is not what I am choosing to dwell on here.  Instead, it is how I perceive the issue of relevance, or lack thereof. 

As I thought about some of the reasons why we seem to become irrelevant or less relevant over time, three things came to mind.  Distances.  Interests.  Commitments.  As I have reflected on people who have given me the sense of diminished relevance and importance over time, these are the reasons that I could hone in on.  I don’t claim exhaustibility here.  But I think these are sufficiently different from one another, to give me a framework to dig deeper.

Despite anything that we can say about the power of technology-enabled connectivity, there is a comfort to be had in the rhythms and routines enabled by proximity.  My grandpa and his best friend were born, lived in, and died in the same city.  My grandpa’s friend had traveled abroad for his higher studies but that was a miniscule fraction of their lives.  Mutual respect and genuine affection were the most significant drivers of the longevity of their kinship.  But the lack of distance was an undeniable enabler too.  The frequency of their interactions meant that they effortlessly became a very indispensable part of each other’s lives.  I sometimes bemoan the adverse impact that distances have on relationships.  Practical matters such as differing time zones and inability to travel without elaborate planning do rob us off the charm and magic of the in-person interaction.

An evolution in interests and tastes is another factor that make people drift apart without sometimes even realizing it.  Outside of our work lives, we all have limited time.  And in that time, we chose to focus on things that are sometimes unique to us, meaningful even.  But when shared interests erode over time, shared experiences dwindle.  I remember once in a group setting among people that I had known for decades, there was a discussion on a new topic that people assumed that I was not an expert on.  They were right in their assumption – I was no expert in that topic!  Fair enough.  I listened silently, chiming in with a tangential thought at times.  What was irksome was when I had started to speak about something that I had grown passionate about, it was greeted with a toxic mix of mockery and condescension.  Again, the root cause for the heartburn was not the lack of shared interest - it was lack of respect.  After all, if one truly meant something to us, we would at least exhibit a perfunctory interest in what excites them.  But growing differences in interests were detrimental to the relationship,  nonetheless.

And finally, commitments.  I would be remiss to not acknowledge the fact that as we age, we have duties and commitments that we absolutely cannot shirk.  We grow to expect that people who were once a more integral part of our lives might not get that sense anymore owing to what we focus our time on.  To make time for people who are not part of our day-to-day lives and livelihoods is not the easiest of tasks.  Distances making hearts grow fonder is an endearingly utopian thought.  Sadly, it sometimes is as far from everyday reality as mars is from the earth.  Sometimes, out of sight is indeed out of mind.  This is where we must acknowledge our blessings.  The people that take the time to send a note to say that something seemingly insignificant in their day reminded them of us.  Or people that know of something we are working on, send a note to check in on us.  These kind souls realize that thoughtful action and meaningful gestures don’t always take much time.  But the impact of those gestures lingers and brighten our days.

 As much as staying relevant and being given a sense of belonging are wonderful feelings to experience, two things are equally vital, if not more.  First, the stability gained by looking inward.  And secondly, the need to get into a giver mindset.  Looking within us is what lets us be comfortable in our shoes.  It lets us adapt to changing tastes and trends at a pace that works for us, sans fear of becoming irrelevant to others.  We must live our lives in a way that feels authentic to us.  At the same time, getting into a ‘giver’ mindset will liberate us from the pressures and disappointments associated with what others give or do to us.  Instead, we can choose to focus on what we can do to people that would benefit from our kindness- of word, thought and action.  If you take veteran filmmakers, for instance, some adapt well to changing trends and cater effectively to audience tastes over time.  Others stick to their methods, expecting the world to still respect them and treat their works with the same enthusiasm.  Yet another group of people turn into mentors for younger writers and filmmakers, hence paying it forward.  No one approach is right or wrong.  Whatever one’s attitude is, we must simply look to derive happiness and comfort from it.

As Sujatha suggested with his piercing line, being forgotten – or, as I interpret it, becoming irrelevant – is indeed painful.  But as actor-director Parthiban once wrote, “Innoruthar irukkum varai yaarume anaadhai alla.”  It loosely translates into, so long as there is at least one other person for you, no one should feel orphaned.  As I think about this line, I realize that it is one thing to expect to be the recipient of such generosity.  It is another, more fulfilling experience to be that person for someone else.  If I do that, then I can get totally comfortable with the thought, "I am irrelevant to some, yes.  But others are important to me."

Sunday, October 10, 2021

The star non-striker: A write-up on effective supporting acts in Tamil Cinema

I once had a conversation with director Vasanth on the actors in his films.  I told him that some of the performances in his films – and the performers who enacted the roles – had gotten much more visibility and encomiums than he did.  A case in point would be Prakash Raj in Aasai.  In response, he smiled and said that Sachin Tendulkar runs as hard when he is the non-striker as he does when he is on strike.  And that you need to work hard as a team to ensure success overall.  While the influence and impact of directors on performances are sometimes hard to gauge, what I find to be less difficult to assess is the impact of a supporting part.  I will hasten to add that this is not just about talented character actors.  This article is also meant to shed spotlight on some lead actors who have also aced the part of a foil in some truly memorable sequences.  Here are a half-a-dozen sequences (in reverse-chronological order) where I thought that while one actor shone brightly, the other actor playing a supporting part – at least in the context of this scene – enhanced the impact of a sequence gracefully, unobtrusively. 

Vijay Sethupathi in ’96 (2018)

In ‘96, there are several sequences where Trisha calls the shots.  The character of Jaanu is that of a woman who knows that she can take privileges with her childhood love interest Ram, played by Vijay Sethupathi.  As a result, Sethupathi’s performance takes on a bit of a willingly submissive shade in many of his scenes with Jaanu.  There are two sequences where the apparent focus is more on Trisha.  The first one is the scene outside the salon where Trisha calls him an “aambaLa naatukatta.”  The way he blushes – if you notice carefully, he is actually out of focus here – at the compliment is lovely.  Even more powerful is the forlorn face he sports once Trisha has narrated a version of the story that both wish had been true.  Again, Trisha’s scene really but the way Sethupathi’s reactions enhance Trisha’s performance is as ineffable as it is undeniable.

Click on 'Play' to get to VJS' best moments in the two scenes

Ramesh Kanna in Pammal K Sammandham (2002)

This list would be incomplete without the mention of a comedian.  It was nigh impossible to zero in on just one.  There are many strong contenders, such as Manivannan and Gemini Ganesan in Avvai Shanmugi, Nagesh in MMKR, Manorama in Aboorva… and so on.  But I chose Ramesh Kanna because I feel that he has rarely been given his due.  In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he came into his own as a comedian, acting in significant parts, exhibiting pitch-perfect comic timing in movies like Thenali and Nee varuvaay ena…He outdoes himself in PKS where he works very effectively with his co-actors.  He is especially hilarious in the scene where he cracks the hilarious Madras Eye joke.  Ditto for the exasperated, deadpan way that he mocks an inept actor.  Aram seiyya virumbu” will never be recollected in an unfunny manner anymore! 

 

Vatsala Rajagopal in Rhythm (2000)

Dear familiar readers - I just saw you roll your eyes.  Yes, no list is complete without Rhythm.  Guilty as charged. :)

Arjun’s mother in Rhythm not only speaks the most famous line of the movie but also has hands-down the most tender moment in the film.  As marvelous as she is in the “romba nalla paiyyan pa nee” scene, she is outstanding in the scene in the temple where he urges Arjun to remarry.  Watch her as she says, “ivaruku eppavume veLaiyaatu” following an amusing remark from Nagesh - it is utterly lifelike.  The moment that drips with tenderness is the one where she holds Arjun’s face and says, “engaLukaaga kalyanam pannika koodaatha?”  The easy chemistry she shares with veteran Nagesh is a joy to behold.  Nagesh repeatedly mentions the fact that they have been married 45 years.  It is a testament to their ability as actors that they give us that sense that they are family. 

Kamal Haasan in Thevar Magan (1992)

Kamal Haasan wrote and acted in Thevar Magan.  It is one of his strongest works as a writer.  But what makes this movie the classic it is, is that every actor from Sivaji Ganesan to Vadivelu has at least one sequence where they completely take control of the scene.  It is hard to look away, as they completely inhabit their characters and bring to life the razor-sharp lines written by Kamal.  Kamal, the actor, turns in a great performance, yes.  But he is equally secure to take the backseat in service of the story.  Be it the panchayat scene that belongs to Sivaji and Nasser, the photo frame scene that is owned by Gowthami or even the hospital sequence where Vadivelu turns in a masterful performance, Kamal generously lets his fellow actors bring their roles to life, while enhancing the scenes in his own little way.  Another instance is the way he moves behind the pillar in the memorable verbal volley with his father in the legendary "vethai naan poattadhu" scene.  Respect and dissent have never co-existed this impactfully.

I couldn't find a good clip from youtube.  But watch this little vignette from Poatri Paadadi... for an example of how naturally Kamal interacts with Sivaji.  You can sense the former's innate admiration for the latter:

Delhi Ganesh in Nayagan (1987)

One of Mani Ratnam’s nuanced observations of the recognition or lack thereof, of effort that gets puts into filmmaking was, “I don’t mind if viewers don’t notice it as long as they sense it.” (I am pretty sure I paraphrased it quite accurately.) Mani Ratnam’s films are hit or miss when it comes to impactful supporting performances.  While we have some brilliant supporting characters – both in terms of characterization and acting – such as Jaishankar in Thalapathi and Jayasudha in Alai Payuthey, we also have wasted performers such as Vivekh in Alai Payuthey and Delhi Ganesh in Iruvar.  Ganesh might have had an insignificant and forgotten part as an RMV-like persona in Iruvar.  But his performance in Nayagan is one for the ages.  He is always on the sidelines (except for maybe the hospital scene where he is injured) yet is never invisible.  Watch his performance in the famous NizhalgaL Ravi-death scene.  The way he requests Kamal to not see the charred body and especially the manner in which his voice quivers as he says, “Kozhandhai-ku neraiyya neruppu kaayam patrukku Naaykare…” is enormously moving.  He has, after all, seen Ravi since he was a kid.  So, the use of “kozhandhai” makes complete sense. 

"Kozhandhai-ku neraiyya neruppu kaayam patrukku"

Rajnikanth in Johnny (1980)

Rajnikanth, in the early stages of his career, made it a habit of stealing scenes with his effortlessly magnetic on-screen persona.  In movies like 16 vayathinile… and Moondru Mudichu, he had outperformed his co-stars by a distance in his scenes thanks to the shaping of his characters as well as his arresting performances.  As he came into his own as a star, he came across as an increasingly secure actor, one who seemed to know how to cede the spotlight to his fellow stars in service of a scene or the story arc.  He has extended this respect and courtesy to co-stars, character actors (Vadivukarasi in Arunachalam), villains (Raghuvaran, in many a film) and comedians (Coundamani in Mannan).  The crown jewel, to me, will be his performance in the proposal scene in Johnny.  It is Sridevi’s scene from start to finish.  But Rajni is beautifully expressive in this scene.  Right from the moment where he realizes that this could be an uncomfortable conversation to when he says, “pada padaa-nu pesitengaLe” he is quietly effective, even as his co-star walks away with the honors.  Yes, Sridevi nails this scene but she, as with the other actors I mentioned earlier, was handed the hammer by her helpful co-star!


Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Scaling a new peak: An essay on Sathyaraj’s performance as Periyar

My Twitter timeline was inundated recently with messages on the birth anniversary of Periyar, who was born on 17th September 1879.  The movie buff that I am, I was instantly reminded of the astounding performance that Sathyaraj had turned in, in the titular role of Periyar (2007).  More specifically, I remembered this moment where Periyar’s friend Rajaji visits him in Erode.  The way Sathyaraj hugs him and offers him a seat while standing himself, was an image that was stuck in my mind.  I found a youtube video of the film and went straight to that scene.  It is not an especially dramatic scene.  Revisiting it, I realized why that particular scene had been affixed to my memory cells.  It was Sathyaraj’s body language and dialogue delivery.  In this piece, I hope to shed light on his body language, which rarely gets the kind of space that is dedicated to his diction and dialogue delivery.

Yes, Sathyaraj and Periyar share similar physiognomy.  But Sathyaraj, in real life, does not even sound remotely like Periyar.  The accent, the style of speaking, the gruffness (in Periyar’s voice, lacking in the actor) are all completely different between the activist and the actor.  That is why Sathyaraj’s transformation is especially praiseworthy.  There was a scene in Amaidhi Padai where he mimics a range of public figures like Karunanidhi, MGR, Sivaji and…Periyar.  That, I suppose, should have given us a glimpse of what the actor might do in the role of Periyar.  But a throwaway mimicry scene is one thing.  A complete embodiment of a character is another challenge altogether.  And Sathyaraj truly rises to the occasion in Periyar

In this scene with Rajaji, the way he says, “Sandhosamunga…romba sandhosamunga…” is incredibly lifelike.  Also, the use of his hands while making his point to Rajaji is a superb demonstration of body language.  The ageing man holds onto his stick with one hand and gesticulates just the right amount when speaking of the politicians’ self-serving tendencies and the swiftness with which they switch allegiance.  Hand movements need to be purposeful and must accentuate the lines being delivered without serving as a distraction.  That is exactly what Sathyaraj does here. 

1:59:03 - The Periyar-Rajaji meeting

There is another well-written scene where K Veeramani (a miscast Vijay Adhiraj) runs a proposal by him around self-respect marriage.  Periyar notices the phrase “and tying of the thaali.”  And he requests Veeramani to correct it to say, “or” so that the thaali does not become a mandatory requirement of a self-respect marriage.  Sathyaraj leans in, in the manner of elderly people who do so to listen with intent and hear things audibly.  He proceeds to make the corrections while using his hands to help signal the difference between the draft text versus what he is proposing.  In this and several other sequences, Sathyaraj evokes the body language of an elderly man in a very unfussy manner.  The drooping shoulders, the trembling hands, the tentative gait (with the aid of the stick) are all nuanced, never once calling undue attention to itself.

2:33:20 - The "tying of the thaali" scene

A word on the initial portions of the film.  Sathyaraj was 53 when the film was made.  So, it must not have been easy to evoke the younger version of Periyar.  This is where Sathyaraj brings in his years of experience.  Ignoring the fact that he looked older than the age of the character (in the first half), he uses his voice sans gruffness, to evoke the vim and vigor of Periyar’s younger days.  He is especially impressive in the scene where he transforms into the khaadhi attire.  The proud walk brings to life a man who is comfortable in his new avatar.  My only grouse is that Sathyaraj’s accent and dialect for the early portions are inconsistent with the dialect he speaks later in the film.

Sathyaraj, in real life, is a man of strong views and an unwavering belief in rational thought.  His long association with his friend and comrade Manivannan, who was a fount of knowledge on rationalism, solidified his value system over the years.  Whenever Sathyaraj had a chance to express political views or rational thought on screen in films such as Paalaivana RojakkaLVedham PudhidhuAmaidhi Padai or Puratchikaaran, one could sense that extra energy in the performance, an edge, a conviction in the lines he was speaking.  And Periyar, in that respect, is Sathyaraj’s apogee as a rational thinking actor.  It is a testament to his skill that he doesn’t rely on just personal convictions and physical similarities.  And that he actually turns in a 'performance' that reflects the myriad emotions that the character goes through.

Periyar, as a film, may have flaws.  It is more a hagiography than a balanced biography.  The acting, other than Sathyaraj and Khushboo, rarely rises above the level of a low-budget period drama.  Even Vidyasagar is not really in form, be it with the songs or the background score.  Yet the film is an important chronicle of a very important, even if polarizing, personality.  And a lion’s share of the accolades should be laid at the feet of the tall actor who turns in a towering performance.  And as a diehard fan of the actor, I will simply exclaim, “Sandhosamunga…romba sandhosamunga!"


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!