Saturday, June 8, 2024

Nailing the little moments – An essay on “Blue Star” and “Por Thozhil”

It had been a few months since I had caught any of the newer Tamil film releases.  I had missed watching “Blue Star” and “Por Thozhil” in the theatres.  And even when I caught them on OTT, it was later than usual for me.  But maybe because of the little lacuna in my watching new films, I watched these films with a rather fresh pair of eyes, which is not a luxury that I had when I would inundate myself with films.  “Blue Star” and “Por Thozhil”, in terms of content, are vastly different from one another.  But a common aspect of both films is their remarkable ability to generate immense power and impact – of different kinds – in the smaller moments.

Let us start with “Por Thozhil.”  It is an investigative thriller (directed by Vignesh Raja) featuring stupendous performances by the lead cast and a surprise (with the casting choice, that is) antagonist.  It is an intelligent whodunit that peels the layers of the investigation gradually, while demanding the audience’s attention and respecting their intelligence.  Sarath Kumar (who is fantastic) plays a world-weary cop with a back story that we are only given hints of.  He clearly suffered physical abuse as a child.  Usually, we get vignettes or at least a stirring monologue to capture a glimpse of the gory past.  Here, there is a superb little scene where Sarath refuses to excuse the antagonist’s actions that may have been the result of a sordid past.  The writing is so precise that we are not left to imagine much but it doesn’t spoon feed us to the point of exhaustion either.  We are expected to fill in the blanks.  The gentle romance between Ashok Selvan and Nikhila Vimal also has its moments.  Even after the former has rescued the latter, there are no dramatic gestures expressing gratitude.  Instead, a wheelchair-bound Nikhila simply cracks a joke that is a nod to the awkwardness that Ashok had confessed to earlier.  These little moments have a certain finesse that make the film international standard in terms of quality.  

“Blue Star” (directed by S Jayakumar and presented by Pa Ranjith) is a tale of a group of youngsters overcoming oppression by staying united and focused on displaying their talents, in this case, cricketing talents.  Ashok Selvan, who stars in this film too, displays a remarkable maturity in his performance.  Whether he is insulted, indignant, cared for, loved for, or feeling triumphant, there is not a single false note or overdone moment.  Shanthnu Bhagyaraj and Prithvi Rajan too, are delightfully nuanced in their performances.  There is a pair of scenes where Shanthnu visits the home of Ashok, where this understatement adds to the gloss of their performances and the filmmaking.  In the first scene, Shanthnu, who oversees loan recoveries, calls out Ashok’s mother by name, in an intentionally disrespectful manner.  The way Ashok broods over it, you can feel his anger and helplessness in equal measure.  In a later scene where Shanthnu visits them, he is a lot gentler and more respectful.  He calls Ashok’s mother, “Ma.”  He realizes that the trepidation of Ashok’s mother is a result of his rude behavior in the past and instantly comforts her without saying much.  And the casual manner of interaction suggests, without stating it loudly, that all is well between them. 

The gentle humour not feeling out of place in both these films, which are serious subjects, is also testament to the delicacy of the writing and staging.  In “Por Thozhil”, there is a scene where Ashok narrates the rather amusing origins of him becoming a policeman.  If Ashok is pitch-perfect in his narration of the funny story, Sarath is equally wonderful in his reaction shots, where he is completely in character.  During the moments where Ashok puts his bookish knowledge to good use in the investigation, watch Sarath’s reactions – the silent nods and the contained expressions are fabulous.  Having watched Sarath turn in mostly demonstrative performances, “Por Thozhil” was a pleasant surprise.  In “Blue Star”, the romance between Ashok and Keerthi Pandian features a couple of light-hearted moments where the quiet glances speak volumes.  A case in point being the scene where Keerthi plays cricket joyously. 

In “Blue Star” there are some moments where the antagonists screaming “thagudhi” and insulting Ashok and their gang feels a little loud when compared to the tone of the rest of the film.  A subtler approach actually works better in registering the oppression and inequality felt by the lead characters.  For instance, if you notice the first cricket game where Shanthnu recruits pros from a university, it is clear that they look down upon him, not joining in any of the celebrations and acting dismissively when he offers them cricketing suggestions.  These moments work better than the sniggers and louder insults.  What I admired was how the theme of unity was brought to the fore during the quieter moments.  I especially liked how Ashok and Shanthnu display solidarity with one another and their groups, once they realize that their disunity will only do them a disservice, in their quest for progress.

Overall, both “Por Thozhil” and “Blue Star” were refreshing examples of how a ‘less is more’ approach can work just as well as, if not better than, a louder style of filmmaking, ensuring that the core themes register in our minds.  The filmmakers as well as the actors in these films seemed to have come together with a shared vision of what good looks like and have executed them flawlessly.  With this resultant synergy, they have collectively ensured that I better not miss any of their future releases or even be delayed in reviewing them anymore!

Friday, May 17, 2024

Meet My CP

Dear reader, you absolutely need to know about my Chinna Paati, whom I have referred to as CP for as long as I can remember.  Before I get to the why, let’s briefly meet Sushila Paati.  She was born in 1940.  She completed a bachelor’s degree in Sanskrit – this detail would play a rather key role in my life, as you will learn!  At the age of 21, she married my maternal grandpa’s younger brother.  There is a rather adorable picture of my mother seated next to the newly married couple.  Even at 21, CP’s instinctively maternal nature leaps out of the picture.  I don’t have the picture to upload here but take my word for that.

CP & her husband- my creativity truly overflowed in my childhood, so I christened him CT, short for Chinna Thatha! – were a lovely couple.  As you entered their beautiful ranch home in T Nagar, their smiles opened the door to you even before they physically opened the gate.  Without them ever stating it, you could tell that they had much mutual respect.  He pronounced her name as though the ‘i’ was silent.  His dependence on her was as striking as it was adorable.  He depended on her but never took her for granted.  CP respected him but not in a subservient way.  They were very much equals in their relationship, which I am not sure was an assumed norm for Indian couples from that generation.  CT ensured that her responsibilities as wife and mother did not define her.  Her likes, dislikes and preferences all mattered to him.  For instance, CP’s reading habit was never a casualty amidst her household responsibilities.  CP reciprocated that respect, and how. 

All Smiles - CT, CP and their daughter, Geetha

I was always fond of CP since I was very young.  But two things – one positive and one tragic – happened in the early 1990s which cemented my bond with her indelibly.  I developed a love for cricket in the early 1990s.  CP is not just a fan of cricket; she is a knowledgeable critic of the game.  Before the 1992 world cup, I spent hours talking to CP and CT on the phone, learning about the game and developing a passion for it.  Cricket is an important part of my life.  The seeds for that were sown in the sprawling garden of their house!  

I vividly remember an incident from the 1992 world cup.  I had watched India’s final game versus South Africa at our house.  India had already been knocked out of the WC.  But when India lost the game which I felt they could have won – in retrospect, I was wrong; they never stood a chance! – I created a big ruckus in the house.  Without wasting an extra microsecond, my Mom dialled CT’s number and said, “Chithappa, speak to your grandson.  I can’t handle him!”  It took CT’s power of persuasion to calm me down!  I do not remember what CP said to me, but I am sure she consoled me with her trademark kindness sans any judgment.  That is the thing about her that I recollect with gratitude – even when I was young, she spoke with me, never talked down to me.

The second reason why my bond with her was cemented for life was that when my grandpa died, I had a week to go for my eighth standard final exam.  My parents, my grandma and my Aunt were all in a state of shock but also had to take care of a lot of rituals and procedures following Thatha’s sudden death.  It was CP that took me under her wing and ensured that my preparations for the exam were not unduly affected by the tragedy.  She would take me to a quiet corner of the house and made me focus and study, while never failing to acknowledge the gravity of the tragedy and its impact on me.  A couple of years later, when I was in serious danger of flunking my Hindi board exam, she used her proficiency in the language to help me tide over my struggles.  She did it in her usual unassuming manner.  But the phone bills from those months will narrate a story of their own!

Even after I moved to the US, I never failed to keep in touch with them.  CT’s sudden demise in 2005 had an impact on her that lasts till this day.  She is still the same kind person and over time, she has had to reconcile to the loss.  But those who know her from before know that there was never an iota of sadness in her eyes when he was alive, which you can sometimes detect now.  But the largehearted person that she is, she continues to accept all my Aunt’s (the renowned writer and activist Va Geetha, whom I have written about in my piece on CT) friends as her own, just like she accepted her husband’s brother’s grandson as her own.

As an 83-year-old, CP might not have the vim and vigor of her younger days.  Her movements might be a little more circumspect than before. (Then again, her steps have always been measured.) Her mind has not lost its unfussy sharpness.  And her heart continues to beat for her loved ones.  As someone who is grateful for all the things that I have learned from her about cricket and many things beyond, let me use this opportunity to convey my wish that CP at 83*, scores a century.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

After the waterworks: A hopeful essay on grieving

Long-time readers of the blog will be familiar with my fondness for my maternal grandfather.  For those of you reading this and not as familiar, my grandpa died in a freak accident in 1994 when I was 13 years old.  I was extremely close to him.  I probably did not realize it then.  But I think I took it for granted that I would just grow up under his steadying influence.  His sudden death shocked me.  It shook me.  But not in a way that I find it easy to express.  Recently, his 30th death anniversary just came and went.  I did not cry.  I did not dig up any photographs of his.  I did not really reminisce about him with anyone on that day.  But the realization that I got to keep a little of him whereas he took a lot of me when he went, was a palpable one.  The heaviness was akin to the blockage of a heart that needed a stent and balloon to keep it functioning.  So, what makes me retain the lightness of heart amidst the burden of his passing?

Before answering that question, I’d like to revisit the period after Thatha passed away.  After the wailing.  And after the waterworks.  It is safe to say that the period starting from a few days after an unforeseeable event like a premature death, are the hardest for the near and dear.  My grandpa was survived by my grandma, their two daughters, sons in law and an only grandchild (at the time), which was, of course, yours sorrowfully.  Regardless of his passing on, there was a routine for everyone.  My parents, Uncle and Aunt had to return to work.  I had to go back to school.  Thathama (that’s what I called my grandma) had a house to run.  But once the flood of tears subsided, the drought of emotion took over the house.  The sadness in the air was as hard to concretize as it was real.  There was a certain numbness felt by everyone.  The huge set of people who came on the day of his passing on and for a few days afterwards could, of course, not keep showing up every day to express condolences.  But there was something that I noticed about the small set of the people in the inner circle who kept showing up.

You know what they did so wonderfully well?  I just answered that.  They showed up.  My grandpa’s best friend and his family, my grandpa’s brother and his family, my grandma’s sister, her sister-in-law, a nephew of hers, a niece…the list is not that long but they played a hugely important role in our recovery.  They just came to our house consistently and spent time with us.  I honestly do not remember any pearls of wisdom that they shared about grieving or how to cope.  They just were there.  They let my grandma be.  They knew that she had to lead the rest of her life without a partner that had just been a rock-solid pillar of support for her in 40 years of marriage.  Sometimes when my grandma needed her space, they would not disturb her.  They demonstrated something that Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote about years later.  That the platinum rule of supporting grieving people is that you treat them the way they want to be treated.

I was not that young that I did not notice all this but I was young enough to not quite comprehend everything.  And for my part, I bottled a lot of my grief within me.  I never reached out, even to my loving family or my caring extended family, for much emotional support.  I don’t even remember saying as much as, “I miss Thatha a lot.”  Not that my family ignored me.  Far from it.  They would sometimes wonder why I didn’t express myself much despite being so fond of him.  I even remember, in 1995, during my Thatha’s birth anniversary, I did not join my family on a visit to an orphanage.  When my Mom asked me whether it was not disrespecting the memory of someone whom I respected a lot, I just bumbled something along the lines of, “I have to study for tomorrow’s assignment.” (Yeah right!)  I do not have an answer to the question why I never opened up much.  But I have an answer on how I eventually did.

It was during my late teens when I started to open up about missing my grandfather a lot.  I would speak to my family as well as my friends about it.  It all started with a visit to the hospital where he died.  A friend of mine was undergoing a surgery there.  I was very hesitant to visit the same place.  But when I told my Mum about it, she responded that if at all I wanted to internalize the spirit of my grandpa, that I must visit my friend.  Thatha’s friendship of 50 years with his dearest friend, the late Mr A. Sivasailam (Sivasailam Mama, to me) was one of the things that defined his life.  That day when I visited the hospital, was a bit of an epiphany for me.  One that has helped me grieve a lot more effectively.  And fortunately or unfortunately, has helped me deal with other life-altering events like the passing on of my Aunt. 

When I lose someone, I genuinely try to remember what they stood for.  And how they wanted or rather, would want me to lead my life.  Earlier, I used to put an undue amount of pressure on myself to almost mimic them.  And I would get frustrated when I did not experience the kind of peace that I craved.  But I realized over time that I had to put my intentions through the filter of circumstance as well as the character of people that I interact with.  As a result, I have been able to almost customize certain kind of behaviours where I try to capture the spirit of the loved ones who have left me. 

But what I have learned the most from the people who supported us during trying times 30 years ago was the need to be a shoulder to the ones who truly need us during times of grieving.  Especially in the period after the initial shock.  I have realized that that is when and where the grieving ones truly need us.  The outward silence they sometimes project is a by-product of a thousand voices in their mind.  Voices that sometimes they don’t know how to respond to.  Voices that sometimes raise questions about the purpose of life, about the fond memories of the loved ones that can never be recreated or about basic things that have to be sorted out – finances, logistics, new routines, etc.  Above all, the questions around leading a life without the one who has left us prematurely.

I have seen that the most thoughtful of supporters do so by being there and by gently prodding the survivors to take steps into creating a new normal and a new purpose for their living.  When my grandma (who never got a college education) decided to take over as the proprietor of the small factory that my grandpa had built so lovingly, people such as Sivasailam Mama and his equally loving family members, ensured that she was able to execute my grandpa’s vision to the best of her abilities.  That she did so for more than 20 years after my grandpa’s passing was a testament to her willpower as well as the thoughtful support of her trusted circle. (In an unfortunate repeat of events, when my Aunt predeceased my grandma, the latter found solace in caring for her granddaughter.)  As the line in Rhythm goes, “Death is not the end.”  Especially not for the ones who have to keep going.

So, back to the question of what makes me retain the lightness of heart amidst the burden of my Thatha’s passing?  The first is, a willingness to make an invisible yet meaningful line of connection to him by striving to imbibe his spirit, in essence the ‘soul’ (pun intended) of his character.  And secondly, to reach out to people who grieve for reasons of their own.  After all, giving is one of the most sustainable forms of healing. 

All said and done, I do miss you a lot, Thatha.  I wish you hadn’t left me so early. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Realistic Fantasy: A retro review of Shankar's Indian (1996)

As a 90s kid growing up in Chennai, it was impossible to not notice the humungous splash that Director Shankar was creating with his initial films.  Gentleman (1993) and Kadhalan (1994) were poles apart in terms of content – I dare say, quality too. (The latter is one of my least favorite films of Shankar.)  But with the level of grandeur, be it in action, song sequences or just the canvas overall, Shankar was creating a unique brand for himself.  It was in his third film where Shankar truly fired on all cylinders.  Indian, which I reckon as his best film till date, is not only a magnificent spectacle which made for a terrific theatre experience but also one of the best scripts ever written in service of commercial cinema. 

A common aspect of Gentleman and Indian was the vigilante being hunted down by a committed officer.  But where Charan Raj was a bit of a cinematic caricature, Nedumudi Venu is superb.  Aided by Nasser’s voice, Venu is dignity personified.  If you notice in lesser films, the intelligence of these officers never truly comes out.  Even in a well-made film like Ramana, the investigating officers were made to look like fools in order to make the Yugi Sethu character shine.  Whereas here, Venu’s character is the law-enforcing counterpoint to the violent brand of justice meted out by the Indian Thatha character, essayed, of course, with great style and conviction by Kamal Hassan.  Nowhere is this brought out better than the scene where Venu says that he, as a person, is an admirer of Indian Thatha but as a CBI officer, he is and will always be honesty personified.  The scenes where he goes from “meticulous” to “meticulous, old man” to “meticulous, old terrorist” are among the finest investigation scenes in Tamil cinema.  It is thanks to the sparkling intelligence of these sequences that the film acquires its seriousness amidst the commercial additions.

The key difference between his earlier films like Indian and Muthalvan versus his most recent works was that he and writer Sujatha brought a lot of painstaking detailing to what were inherently scenes straight out of a fantasy.  Take the TV station scene for instance.  How a septuagenarian could break into a TV studio, film a murder and manage to get it telecast is, if you think about it, nonsensical.  But the amount of details that are packed, the explanation given around the Philippines-based telecaster all point to one admirable trait – Shankar did not want the audience to feel that their intelligence was insulted.  It was as if he set out to demonstrate that if at all an elderly gentleman were to go about making a razor-sharp (!) statement and telecast it during Oliyum OLiyum time, this is probably how he would do it!

Of the two flashbacks in the film, the Kasthuri portions are short but impactful.  The actress too turns in a fine performance.  But it is in the freedom fighter flashback where the magical mix of great writing and top-notch production values happens.  Jeeva’s cinematography in the black and white scenes is masterful, especially the professionally shot war scene.  The sets, the costumes, the purposeful use of graphics are all epic in nature.  I love the little moment when Senapathi (a follower of Subhas Chandra Bose) shoots a puppet and later apologizes for it.  It is a character-defining moment that shines light on the depth of his patriotic fervor.  AR Rahman's "Kappal Yeri Poyaachu" in the flashback is a marvel. (The film, incidentally, also has one of his best background scores.)

Indian is not a perfect film by any means.  Shankar’s early films had some disgusting ‘male gaze’ scenes like the introduction of Manisha Koirala here.  His characterization of the women in his films have rarely left an impact.  The two heroines here are little more than eye candy.  Only Sukanya has a meaty role.  But even her character is subject to the gratuitous sensationalism in the riots scene. (Sukanya recollected in an interview that she had serious issues with how the sequence was shot.)  Shankar’s weakness in writing romantic scenes is evident here too.  He tries to obscure that weakness by making the scenes comic.  But as a result, Manisha pleading with the senior Kamal to spare his son resonates purely because of Sujatha’s great dialogue, not due to her characterization or their romance.  As an aside, that scene is one where Sujatha’s pen is sharper than Indian Thatha’s knife, especially the lines, “avanuku valika koodathu-nu meesai-ya ezhandha Senapathi inaiki avana ezhaka mudivu pannittan.  Unna vida enaku thaan ma ezhappu jaasthi.” 

Weaknesses aside, Indian remains an instance of a grand spectacle where style doesn’t trump substance.  The trailer of Indian-2 doesn’t look nearly as fresh or exciting as the original was.  But let us hope that even if the film doesn’t live up to the exalted standards of the original, that it doesn’t diminish its legacy.  Because Shankar’s films may have gotten bigger and grander in terms of visuals and graphics.  But it was in Indian where the expensive and exclusive fabric of the production was truly the by-product of a yarn that was ‘meticulously’ spun by its writing team.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Sapta Sagaradache Ello - My reflections on the two films (Side A and Side B)

I have been a movie buff for a long time.  And I have a pretty good memory of the initial impressions that films created on me when I was young.  And how over time, the same films spoke differently to me.  Even with classics, it would be the same product, of course.  Still the same motion picture of stunning beauty.  Just that the beholder changed, with age, maturity (I can only hope!) and experiences.  Not that good films become bad or vice versa.  They just seem different.  My critical style has evolved too, I feel.  I am not a film critic who looks at a film with a pure, non-judgemental eye, just looking to evaluate the worth of the craft and judge the film solely on the basis of whether the film did justice to the chosen content.  I am just an aspiring writer who likes to write with honesty about what a film did to me, be it making me smile, laugh, cry or just making me ponder.  As I think of Hemanth Rao’s two-film series, “Sapta Sagaradache Ello,” I have a plethora of thoughts and emotions.

First things first.  The films are supremely well-made.  Hemanth Rao’s handling of the actors and his staging of scenes, be it the dreamy moments at the beach, the raging conflicts (both physical and otherwise) or the tender moments, are all reflective of a director who is absolutely surefooted.  The trio of lead actors - Rakshit Shetty, Rukmini Vasanth and Chaithra Achar - all have moments where they bring their characters to life, tearing asunder the screen and leaping into our subconscious.  The three of them have mobile faces that revel in the minutiae of expression.  It would be unfair to pick a favorite, for the three of them are very different as actors.  Rakshit is endowed with a pair of eyes that allow him to convey pain without a single word uttered.  Rukmini is fantastic during the quieter moments where she has to project the character’s quiet strength, yet leave us with no doubt on how she feels about life forcing her to satisfice.  Chaithra is fantastic at delivering her lines, packing them with searing emotion. (There is a scene where she burns down something precious to the Rakshit character.  The way Chaithra expresses her anger, anguish and helplessness all at once, is brilliant.)  

Side A, as a film, worked better for me than did Side B.  The best kind of dramas are the ones where you get the feeling that the film just wrote itself.  The character’s actions just drive the plot with inexorable momentum.  In Manu (Rakshit) and Priya (Rukmini), we have a pair of lovers whom we root for from the get go.  Every act of betrayal by the people they trust almost hurt us on a visceral level.  We go from a light sense of unease to absolute desperation by the end, hoping for them to reunite.  Even as the conclusion of Side A left us stunned speechless, we still anticipated Side B to see what kind of redemption, if there was one, was in store for them.  Even if they did not marry each other, could they somehow find peace with their new normal, after Manu steps out of prison?

Side B is as well acted as Side A, if not better.  Chaithra Achar as Surabhi, has the best of the roles and she turns in an incredibly honest performance as someone who lets the beats of her heart drown out all the rational words that her mind is trying to speak.  To its credit, the film does full justice to the Surabhi character.  And it shows how brutally unfair Manu is to her.  Surabhi’s piercing lines, as she tries to guess Manu’s true motivations and her indignant tirade are all delivered with fiery passion.  In doing so, the director ensures that not for a moment do we even remotely excuse Manu’s behavior towards her.  

But that sense of a character’s actions feeling authentic to them, felt missing in the way Manu tries to create an impact on Priya’s life, but without being transparent about it.  As this part of the plot of Side B unfolded, I felt a bit distant.  Instead of being willingly sucked into - like I was in Side A - Manu’s chosen path to redemption and peace, I found myself observing from an arm’s length, the path he took.  I am not a fan of characters following others without their knowledge, under the pretense of doing them good.  Even the word “pretense” feels unfair because all Manu is trying to do is to somehow regain for Priya and for himself all that he lost in his years in prison.  Even aside my prejudice and bias, just given how familiar we became with Manu in Side A, the road that he takes does not seem like a completely natural extension of the character.  The invisible writing of Side A seemed missing here.  The plot points and twists now seemed a little less organic and more deliberate.    

The climax of Side B though feels just right on many levels.  The desperation, as Manu searches for Surabhi, ensures that the acts of violence do not come across as gratuitous.  The action sequence is tense because we feel like no one is invincible and the stakes are incredibly high.  For the scene to shift from raw action to tender poetry is not a transition that is easy to pull off.  But director Hemanth manages it supremely well.  And by the time the film ended, I felt nearly as drained as I was at the end of Side A. 

In Side B, I may not have felt as swept away by the wave of emotion as I did in Side A.  But as a two-film series, "Sapta Sagaradache Ello" is akin to a ship that takes you through incredibly choppy waters, creating a purposefully intense experience.  You might not always be aligned with the path that it takes.  But it is also a journey that you willingly undertake since you know that the captain and his crew know exactly how to navigate through the storms and bring you safely home.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Peace it Together

“The truth is, something about you makes me feel calm, or more centered or something.  And I could use that.”

These lines were uttered by Anne Hathaway to Robert de Niro in the delightful movie, “The Intern.”  The scene in which this exchange takes place is actually a rather casual one where Hathaway acknowledges the steadying influence of her “intern.”  But revisiting this scene recently made me pause and reflect on the significance and relevance of the sentiment expressed.  

I am 42 years old.  If I were to create a word cloud on what I sought as, say a 22-year old, words such as ‘excitement’ and ‘happiness’ would probably appear in font size 72.  The rush of adrenaline felt when I sped away in my first car, only to receive a traffic ticket from a genial cop, was probably symptomatic of the rush of blood of youth in general.  We all needed someone to slow us down!  When we would talk about someone we had a crush on, we would use terms like, “oh, my heart skips a beat.”  Poor thing that little heart, we taxed it to…our heart’s content!  I was, by and large, responsible. (Those who have known me for a long time - please note, as you snicker, that I wrote, “by and large”!) So, I really do not have any regrets about that phase of life.  But things change.

Flash forward to the present, I know that as I go through the ups and downs of adulthood, the quest is more for peace, inwardly felt, outwardly expressed.  I have realized that I can have more control over peace than I can about happiness.  But at least for me, I have to work towards it.  As a non-believer, I am reliant on what is within and around me for that peace.  Upon introspection, I could narrow down two things that can make or break that inner balance that I seek.  The first is, giving ourselves the time and space to travel inward.  And the second is, carefully choosing, thoughtfully nurturing and fiercely protecting our circle of trust.  These two elements are not mutually exclusive.  But they are distinctive enough to warrant separate mention.

I firmly believe that it is vitally important to invest in our physical and mental health.  As we grow older, as responsibilities increase, we need to be able to be in a physical shape and mental state to weather more storms than we did during the relatively shielded existence of our younger days.  In order for us to be able to fulfill our responsibilities, be it personally or professionally, we truly need to be able to have strength of the mind and of the body.  To do so, it is imperative that we focus on the things that keep our physical and mental health in check.  This may vary from working out in the gym to going on a long drive, listening to melodious music.  The means don't matter, the end does.  Because if we let our mind atrophy and our shoulders droop, how can we be a shoulder for someone to lean on?  Many a time, our self-preservation becomes a casualty in our desire to keep checking the never-ending to-do lists of our life.  If this doesn’t get checked off, neither can other items be.

And the second contributor to our peace is a carefully chosen circle of trust.  As we grow older, we must ask ourselves the tough question whether we are spending time with and on the ones who have a positive or at least a neutral impact on our level of peace.  If that is not the case, it is best to shield ourselves from the people who have a negative impact on us.  The boundaries of our circle of trust cannot be so rigid that that immutability paralyzes us psychologically.  We will, over time, have to be keenly aware of whom we trust our emotions with and who has stopped earning that trust.  We need to be aware that the ones within our circle are the ones that may not necessarily make us skip a beat.  Instead, they do the far more difficult job of actually ensuring that our hearts beat at a steady cadence.  We must identify these people, treasure them, make them feel our gratitude and pay their generosity forward.  

At the same time, we have to force ourselves to have a very detached view towards anyone outside of that circle.  That detachment helps in cases where a certain amount of exposure to them is unavoidable due to societal or professional obligations. In order to safeguard ourselves, we have to be doubly careful to not let anyone outside of our coveted circle feel like they have the privilege to hurt us.  I remember telling a former colleague about creating a mock ballot for kids at the time of elections, to teach them the concept of voting.  He wrote to them, “Choose wisely, kids.”  That advice extends to adults too.  If we don’t choose, we lose.

Now, at 42, I know exactly the words that will be conspicuous in that word cloud that describes what I seek. It may not be as exciting or adventurous as the one from 20 years ago.  But the knowledge that I can, through my actions, have more control over it than the things that I sought in my younger days, is an immensely comforting, calming thought.  And just like Anne Hathaway in “The Intern”, I could use that!

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Hearing the unspoken word

It was heartbreaking to watch director Vikraman’s interview today.  The filmmaker who once churned out blockbusters on a yearly basis, spoke with great pain - and one must say, with immense grace - about the plight of his wife.  A dancer, she has been bedridden for five years.  As a result, Vikraman took the decision to stay away from films or film union activities to be by his wife’s side.  What was especially poignant was how he spoke about the distress with such equanimity.  As was the case with his films, his words were filled with hope for a better tomorrow.  But amidst this deeply moving conversation, one set of questions and Vikraman’s answers made me pause.  It was the portion on the Tamil film fraternity.

When the anchor asked him if people in the film world had reached out to him to offer support, he mentioned a few names.  But you could see that the majority of the actors that he had worked with have not made him feel supported.  Vikraman tried his best to be tactful and sensitive.  But if you observe closely, you could feel his pain.  He did not complain or sound resentful.  It was just impossible though, to look past the apparent lack of care and concern from an industry that he had been such an important part of.  Again, my intention is to not berate anyone in particular.  I shall not engage in an exercise to take names.  Because my intent is to go beyond the actual stars and directors to talk about something deeper.  And that is the notion of reaching out.

The busyness of our lives is the reason that we mostly cite for not reaching out.  But I am firmly convinced that we can make time for the things that we want.  We make the mistake of assuming that the depth and meaning of every conversation are directly proportional to the time that it will take out of our schedule.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  We only have to revisit in our mind those brief exchanges, on Whatsapp or the phone, to realize how someone’s words or gestures gave us a respite from our woes.  

The other reason (excuse?) that I often hear is, “I wasn’t sure if you would be okay if I inquired about you.”  If we break it down, there are just three scenarios here.  One is, we had no idea that someone is going through a tough phase.  Two is, we are not sure.  And three, we know with absolute certainty that they are beset by some issue, personal or professional.  The three scenarios have something in common.  None of these scenarios prevents us from asking a simple question, “Are you doing okay?”  Worst case, the other person might not be ready to open up.  And that is fine.  In the deeply thought-provoking book, “Option B”, authors Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant make a distinction between the golden rule of relationships and the platinum rule of grief.  The golden rule is, treat others how you want to be treated.  The platinum rule is, when someone is going through trying times, treat others how they want to be treated.  So, if someone is not reciprocating your gesture of extending a hand to them, let them be.  The knowledge that you care will, in most cases, make them open up to you eventually.  But in my book, to not ask is to not care.

I have been the recipient of great generosity and deep thoughtfulness from people in my little world who give me the impression that I matter.  It is not something that I take for granted.  For I have had relationships where I thought that I ceased to matter.  I may be right.  I may be wrong.  But a sustained feeling of my unspoken words not being heard made me feel like the pain in my spoken words would not matter either.  But that is okay.  As we grow older, we learn.  We get better at spotting who ignores, who hears, who listens with their ears and who cares with their heart.  And it is so vitally important that we look inward to ensure that we can do our bit to make someone’s day brighter, smile wider and their burdens lighter.  That is exactly what I hope the film fraternity does for Vikraman and his family.  That is what I hope all of us do for one another.  That is when the positivity and goodness of Vikraman’s films will be recreated in the real world.