Friday, September 23, 2011

Inspirations (6 of 25) - Vasanth

Disclaimer – This write-up is more about Director Vasanth as an inspiration of mine rather than a critique of his movies.

A son is having dinner with his aged parents. The lighting in the dining room has a bluish tinge to it, suggestive of the blues that the family is going through but doesn’t always speak of. The father and son joke about how the dinner from the "carrier meals" person has a papad, supposed to be crunchy, that can be torn like paper! The mother meanwhile presents a glum look, upset about the fact that the girl that her son, a widower of five years, was interested in has disappeared without a trace. The son places his hands around his mother lovingly and says that it is her health that is of utmost importance to him. The mother slowly turns towards him and says, "Romba Nalla Paiyyan Paa Nee…Unaku Innum Konjam Nalladhu Nadakalaam." The son, without saying a word, pats her gently on her shoulder, walks to the restroom, looks into the mirror and says to himself, "Irundhaalum Poren-nu Oru Vaarthai Chitra Sollitu Poirukalaam…Illiya Mr. Karthikeyan?"

CUT…back to reality!

Now, that was the moment when I realized that in movies, something could be restrained yet incredibly powerful. There is a concept in filmmaking called mise-en-scene, where different elements of a scene have to come together to create the right mood. This was a term that I learned in a film analysis class that I took in my sophomore year in 1999. It was a year-and-a-half later when I watched this scene from that quiet, touching tale of love and loss that "Rhythm" is, that I experienced it. I had become quite the movie buff by the late 90s. Kamal Hassan routinely took me on sojourns into worlds that he created with his splendid acting. But Vasanth, as I realized with "Rhythm," was one that brought his worlds to me. The scene I've tried to describe above was the moment where I started to believe in realistic storytelling. As I've learned by watching movies over the years, presenting a slice of life is a lot more difficult than entertaining the audience. Mainly because our filmmakers either feel the need to spoon feed emotions so that we "get" them or find the urge to make "commercial" compromises too hard to resist.

I digress a little. This is about how Director Vasanth has "inspired" me. No, wait – I didn’t digress. Making me think about realistic cinema is inspiration in itself. Appreciation of an art form is an art in itself. Talk to Vasanth for a few minutes and you will see an erudite film critic lurking inside. I once had a conversation with him about "Kudaikkull Mazhai" that was as entertaining as a conversation about a movie can be. It helped that he thought it was trash and I thought it was a classic! So, how did I get to know the Director well?

Let's go back one more time to that scene. So, having been stunned by the power of such a quiet, beautiful moment, I watched the rest of the movie. And, I knew that I had watched something special. It stayed with me for quite sometime. I had watched the Director's earlier efforts and I knew about his checkered track record. While "Keladi Kanmani" "Aasai" and the first "Paadhi" (!) of "Nee Paadhi Naan Paadhi" impressed me a lot, "Rhythm" to me was something more. Serendipity, in the form of my Aunt Rekha, struck the next time I was in India in 2002. I happened to recollect a conversation with her wherein she'd mentioned visiting the sets of "Aasai." So, I asked if she could introduce me to Vasanth. She was kind enough to request her husband, my Uncle Hari, to do so. He then scheduled for us to meet Vasanth at the now defunct Drive-In. In my first meeting with Vasanth, what struck me was how the way he spoke was so close to the dialogues he wrote! I spoke to him about my love for "Rhythm" and at the end of the meeting, we had another one lined up…for the next day. He requested me to write about 10 movies that I had particularly enjoyed and to give it to him at our next meeting. So, I dutifully worked on my "assignment" and at the next meeting, I opened up a little more. I told him about the things in his films that I didn’t like because I felt he should know my honest responses. But to tell a Director that you don’t like a film of his is like telling a parent that you don’t think his or her baby is cute. But nevertheless, I think he appreciated my honesty, for I have had the pleasure of his friendship for nine years now.

There are two things that I have learned from him – dedication and resilience. He is a Director who absolutely loves his craft. An uncompromising auteur, his films are a study in the auteur theory that a film's Director should get the lion's share of the criticism, positive or negative. Study his films closely and you will see that pretty much all of the praise or the blame can be laid at his feet. If "Rhythm" boasted of a slew of lovely moments that moved the viewer, his screenplay for the concluding portions of "Ey! Nee Romba Azhagaa Irukkey" was the primary reason for its lackluster response. I say this to emphasize the fact that all his films bear the stamp of his vision. And to do so requires an uncompromising quest for perfection and unwavering dedication to one's vision, both of which Vasanth possesses aplenty.

Also, if you read the reviews of his films, you will find several mentions of impressive performances – even "Nee Paathi Naan Paathi," a critical and commercial failure, fetched Gowthami an award. But dig deeper, you will find that it is thanks to some exceptional characterizations that the actors have gotten the laurels that came their way. Prakash Raj's star turn in "Aasai" and Padmapriya's sensitive portrayal in "Sathum Podaathey" come to mind. It goes to show that the creator infuses life into his creations and trusts the audiences to respond without coming in their way.

I have written about how Vasanth has made me respect and cherish realistic cinema through his own dedication. I also mentioned resilience - having known him personally for the best part of a decade and having listened to the hardships that he had endured to bring his films to screen – at least four of his films dragged their feet for more than a year in their making due to financial or other obstacles – it has been motivational for me whenever something happens that makes me think, "Oh, that’s just unfair." He has met with critical successes, commercial failures and aborted projects and yet with steely nerves, he has bounced back time and again. The sine wave that he has gone through since "Keladi Kanmani" (released in 1990) could be the subject of a case study on resilience.

Vasanth will continue to make movies, some of which may become classics. Others might not. But I will always have "Rhythm."

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Inspirations (5 of 25) - Randy Pausch

If one video can make an indelible impact on a person’s outlook towards life and if one piece of literature could change a person’s life for the better, it has to be Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” and its companion piece, the book of the same title. Randy, a Carnegie Mellon Computer Science professor, succumbed to the dreaded pancreatic cancer in 2008, leaving behind his wife and three very young children. Here was a great man who, as he went deeper into the dark tunnel that is pancreatic cancer, shed a tremendous amount of light on the preciousness of the boon that is life. If you think that that’s hyperbole, let me ask you to stop reading and watch this video if you haven’t already done so. You can resume reading if you think you’d like to know how it changed my life.

Kicking self-pity and sadness out of the equation, Randy peppered his lecture and his book with plenty of stories that were primarily about how his accomplishments were rooted in his childhood dreams. How he encountered brick walls (one of his gems – “Brick walls are there for a reason: they let us prove how badly we want things”) and worked hard towards realizing his dreams. Among his dreams were to become a Disney Imagineer, which he did, and to play in the NFL, which he didn’t. Even in the case of the latter, he talks about how much he learned from just taking the game seriously and working hard at it (“Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted”). To Randy, everything in life was yet another “experience” that as a scientist, he would treat with an analytical frame of mind…everything, including cancer where he went through the most brutal of treatments to “buy some more time.”

One recurring theme in his lecture and book is the importance of people in his life. His relationships with his wife (“…a person whose happiness means more than mine”), parents (“I won the parent lottery”), mentor (who changed him in his undergrad years with one terrific line about arrogance-“Randy, it’s such a shame you are perceived as being arrogant; it’s going to limit what you will be able to accomplish in life”) and even his students (he took 15 of them on a trip to Disney after he got tenure, all expenses out of his pocket) all point to a person who valued people and was ever willing to learn his life lessons from them, while subconsciously imparting a few of his own.

Making Every Day Count

One of the biggest ways in which Randy has inspired me is to focus on things that I can control. His line, “You cannot change the cards you’re dealt, just how you play the hand” is something that I have pasted on my office desk in a prominent place so that whenever I feel like things are spiraling out of control for some reason, I can block out everything else and focus on what I can work on to improve the situation. When I look at that quote, I also think of the circumstances in which he gave the lecture. A dying 47-year old man and a father of three, all of whom were less than six, exudes such positivity and says, “I’m dying and I’m having fun. And I’m going to keep having fun every day I have left. Because there’s no other way to play it.” I say to myself, “If he could find joy in life, then we all jolly well can and should.” Looking back, I feel that I’ve followed his words more in a professional setting than in my personal life and it is something that I consider as an area of personal development. But as I’ve always maintained, what matters is that we keep trying.

Another area where I sincerely feel that I’ve changed thanks to Randy is to push myself out of comfort zones and explore virgin territories. Perhaps the “brick walls” quote has found its way to my subconscious! But I’ve found myself willing to try harder to get things while giving utmost respect to people because there's a line that separates a go-getter from a selfish, persistent person. A case in point was the effort that I put in to meet Dr. Sheena Iyengar, the author of a book that has also inspired me immensely. Before reading Randy’s book, I might’ve stayed content with a letter of appreciation to Dr. Iyengar. But her book was something that had such a tremendous impact on me that I felt that I should do more than just send a nice e-mail. And I was absolutely delighted (even if a tad nervous!) when I finally got a chance to meet her in person and let her know what I thought of the book.

Speaking at the CMU graduation two months before passing away, Randy said, “You don’t beat the Grim Reaper by living longer; you beat the Grim Reaper by living well.” The best possible tribute that we can pay to a person like Randy would be to live our lives well, to treat each dawn as a new beginning, put our heart and soul into what we do and most importantly, place our loved ones above everything else. The rest of the stuff will all take care of itself. How do I know for sure? Because in Randy's case, it was the Grim Reaper that lost.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Inspirations (4 of 25) - Krish Srikkanth

Andy Roberts and menace were like Siamese twins. The great West Indian pace bowler not only sent down extremely quick deliveries but also chills down the spine of many a batsman. In 1983, he was not as quick as he was in the 70s but was still a very nasty proposition to handle. In the 1983 World Cup final, on a bowler friendly Lord's wicket, he, along with the equally devastating Joel Garner, was creating hell for the Indian batsmen. Having dismissed the great Sunil Gavaskar early on, Roberts must have fancied his chances against Gavaskar's less technically correct partner. But Krishnamachari Srikkanth (or Cheeka, as he is affectionately known) had other ideas. In fact, he only had one idea - go after the bowling. And, he did that in such belligerent fashion that spectators must have wondered whether he was playing on a different wicket. He cut, drove, pulled and hooked Roberts, Garner and Michael Holding with a complete lack of fear. But one stroke stood out. And, it rightfully found its place in the annals of Indian cricket - the square drive off Roberts. The quick reflexes and the hand-eye coordination that he had in his youth were in full flow in this magnificent shot off a fantastic pace bowler. That lack of fear, the sheer joy of playing attacking cricket and the love that he had for his team and the game are all what made Cheeka one of my cricketing heroes.

Cheeka, The Entertainer - No place for fear

I'll wager a bet that when Cheeka came into the Indian team in 1981, he must have made Gavaskar think, "If I can only play like him and score the amount of runs that I score, I'll have a lot more fun!" Gavaskar was a model of perfection. His technical correctness, his unwavering concentration and his insatiable appetite to occupy the crease for long hours made him the rock of the Indian batting line-up for 16 years. But at the other end was someone who was as much of a contrast to Gavaskar as night is to day. Cheeka was not exactly copybook, he could easily get distracted and to him the way he made runs was more important than the number of runs he made. Try anything else different, he would fail. It was very rare that Cheeka would take too much time to get his eye in. It was either his day or it wasn't. As Ravi Shastri recently said of him, "No half measures!" Study Cheeka's scores and you will find that if he didn't get going in his initial few overs, he would end up with scores like 5 off 39 balls! But on days like the aforementioned 1983 World Cup final, he was unstoppable by anyone...except himself!

To me and many of his fans, Cheeka's appeal was not about making mountains of runs consistently over long periods of time. Rather, it was his carefree approach to the game that drew people towards him and his game. Cricket, being the unifying religion it is to Indians, can bring a lot of joy to people and Cheeka's cavalier, almost reckless approach, was one such source of joy. His enjoyment of the game was thoroughly infectious. Watch the videos of his 50s or 100s and you'll find him routinely smiling in a goofy manner at bowlers that he would've just smashed out of the park. It was extremely rare that he engaged in a war of words with the opposition fielders either. I wouldn't have been surprised if he was saying to them, "Hey, wasn't that a good shot?!" Sure, he could exasperate you by playing a premeditated slog and getting out to a mediocre bowler. But such was the affection that he enjoyed amongst his fans that they would throng the stadiums to watch him play in the hope that he would click that day, even if briefly.

Of all the innings that Cheeka has played, the one that has given me maximum pleasure even on repeated viewings is the one that even he regards as the finest ODI innings he has played - his 57 against England in the 1985 World Championship of Cricket. One of those days when he was timing the ball extremely well, the innings is filled with glorious strokes. A thoroughly entertained Richie Benaud described him as "the guy who's just flinging his bat and doing it with such skill!" His lofted off-drive off Richard Ellison is, even now after 26 years, a sight to behold.

As with Sachin, one of the things about Cheeka that I really admired was the respect that he had for his fans. When he played in Chennai, it was customary for him to raise his bat to the D stand after he reached 50 because they supported him to the hilt from his younger days. During and after his playing days, he has always been casual and down-to-earth with fans of the game, for he knows that the game is played for them. That realization is something that is lost on many players but it is that realization that has always kept Cheeka humble and grounded.

Cheeka, The Inspiration - No place for "masks"

I've always liked Cheeka as a player and as a person (I've had the pleasure of knowing him from my early teens). But one line that Harsha Bhogle wrote of Cheeka in his biography of Azhar is the reason why he figures among my "inspirations." Talking of Cheeka's brief stint as captain of India in the 1989-90 season, Bhogle wrote, "As a captain and as a person, he never wore a mask and you always knew where you stood with him." I find that to be one of the most inspirational things ever said of a leader. And, it is a testament to Cheeka's personable nature that in spite of his very short stint as the captain of India, he is regarded by Kapil Dev as the best captain that Dev has played under. That line of Bhogle's is one that always rings in my mind whenever I think of fostering a sense of belonging within the team that I work for, even if I am not the leader. Cheeka's transparency, honesty and the regard he had for his fellow players must have been just a natural extension of his personality. And, it is indeed sad to note that the ugly face of cricket politics reared its head to cut short his stint as captain. That he failed with the bat on the tour of Pakistan gave the selectors an easy excuse to sack him.

He made a comeback after almost two years and played some fine innings in the 1991-92 World Series Cricket tournament. But his failures in the Test series against Australia and the 1992 World Cup hastened his exit from the game. What he might have achieved had he had an extended run as captain in the early 1990s is a matter of conjecture. But what is for sure is that he would have backed his players to the hilt and would have gone any lengths to give them the impression that nothing could "mask" his innate transparency. That wonderful quality of his is what has inspired me the most.

Giving Back to the Game

After his retirement, Cheeka has been associated with the game in many ways. While he has never garnered too much praise as a commentator, his work with the next generation in varied roles, be it as a coach or selector, has been stellar. He maintains the same forthright, no-nonsense approach that he had as a player and it has been a matter of great pride to him that as the current Chairman of the Indian selection committee, he has seen India lift the World Cup again after 28 years. As an ardent cricket lover, it is great to have a selector who doesn't regard himself as bigger than the game and instead, just looks to pick the best side and finds happiness in their successes. And, it is equally gratifying to note that one of my cricketing idols retains that youthful zest that he had for the game 25 years ago. And, along the way, he has taught me a thing or two about being a leader of men.

PS: Here're some highlights from his brilliant 116 at Sydney (1985-86)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Inspirations (3 of 25) – Kamal Hassan

There are very few people who draw people not only towards themselves but also towards what they do. A Sachin Tendulkar can make everyone from a maid servant to a millionaire talk of the cricket World Cup win as a personal achievement. Similarly, Kamal Hassan is an actor who has made me not only enjoy and admire his work but also made me appreciate cinema as an art form. And, thanks to his stellar work in so many movies that form a part of his illustrious oeuvre, he has shown me the power of cinema to lift people from their worlds, transport them to another and make them laugh, cry, think…basically, every emotion that he wants them to experience. In a way, I am a willing puppet in his hands when I watch a movie of his.

The Initial Years (1973-1982) - Two Inspirations, Four Great Roles

It is common knowledge that it was K. Balachander's "moadhara kai" that gave Kamal the "kottu." What is not that well-known except for hardcore fans is that it was the late Anathu (an associate and confidante of KB) that kept pushing Kamal in his early years and made sure that his raw energy and abundant, innate talent was channelized through strong, varied and well-written roles. Encouraging Kamal to be a thinking actor, Ananthu made Kamal watch international movies and got him interested in the making of movies right from scripting to production. The respect that Kamal and Rajnikanth had for Ananthu was evident in how they acted in a truly experimental film like "Avall Appadithaan," an underrated classic, at Ananthu's behest.

To me, there were four movies that were released even before Kamal turned 30 that I checked out years later (since I wasn’t even born at the time of their release!) that give us initial glimpses of the fantastic actor that he is now.

The first of which is the well-known "16 Vayathinile" were he played a village simpleton with unfettered energy and scant regard for his image as a good-looking hero. His great performance as Chappani boasts of several unforgettable scenes, the most memorable of which are the "Aatha Aadu Valathuchu…" scene and the sequence where he (wearing a piece of loin cloth and nothing else!) vents his anger against the Doctor that Sridevi is attracted to.

The second is "Avargall" where he acted as Janardhanan (more well-known as Johnny), a do-gooder who helps Sujatha recover from a bad first marriage. He learned ventriloquism for this KB drama, an early example of his desire to bring something extra to his roles. But his best moment in this movie had nothing to do with this skill. Watch him in the scene where he says to Sujatha, "KaadhalNiraivu Kodukara Sandhoshatha Vida Kaadhal Ninaivu Kodukara Sandhosham Adhigam." Sheer genius at work!

Two of my other favorites from his initial years are "Raja Paarvai" and "Moondram Pirai." The former was a landmark movie…only for ardent fans of cinema. Consider this. It was a flop at the box office and won no major awards at the time of its release. Yet, like "Avall Appadithaan" and many more of his movies to come, it was a case of Kamal daring to venture into completely virgin territory with no fear whatsoever. His first home production, "Raja Paarvai" was an attempt at a romance that was so far away from the trends of that day that it won him the hearts of a small but loyal audience. To me, it is the sweetest romance of Thamizh cinema, a movie that is content with letting us spend time with two lovers, hopelessly in love with each other. The entire sequence which takes place on his birthday is one for the Gods! His feelings of hurt at being insulted by Madhavi's parents, his tenderness with the little girl at the Blind School, his anger at Madhavi for trying to console him and his subsequent reactions to her genuine expression of love all are enacted with a kind of subtlety and minimalism that was way ahead of Tamil Cinema's acting grammar of that day. The power of this subtlety was exploited to the hilt by Balu Mahendra in his "Moondraam Pirai" for which Kamal won the National Award. His fabulous performance in the climax is known to have fetched him the award but other small scenes such as the one where he goes in search for Sridevi and kneels down in front of a roadside Pillaiyaar and his expressions in the "Kanney Kalaimaaney" song are all small gems in their own right.

The Uncertain Phase (1982-1987)…and the Comeback

There was a period following the stupendous success of "Ek Duje Ke Liye" when Kamal shifted his focus to Hindi cinema. But a combination of long shooting schedules, underperforming movies and poorly written roles (except maybe "Saagar") all made his association with Hindi cinema a short-lived one. Though he did appear in hits like "Kaaki Chattai," "Oru Kaidhiyin Diary" and "Punnagai Mannan," these years in the mid-eighties were what Kamal considers his stagnation phase. "Saagara Sangamam" (dubbed in Thamizh as "Salangai Oli") was an exception- an exceptional movie that combined his Bharatanatyam skills and acting talent in a terrific way. Go no further than the scene where Kamal shows SP Shailaja (and us!) what graceful dancing is all about.

After the years of discontent and frustration, Kamal made a magnificent comeback with "Nayagan," a performance that left people stunned, speechless and made him hit a peak as an actor that some think that even he hasn’t scaled again (something that I humbly disagree with!). His performance as Velu Nayakar has to be seen and experienced to be believed. In humanizing the character of the Don, he and Mani Ratnam combined forces to make one of the most riveting character dramas of all time. Kamal, with his acting prowess, grabs us from his first scene and we stay with him right up to the climax. There are too many fantastic scenes to list but if I were to pick one, it would be the "Avana Nirutha Sol…Naan Nirutharen" scene. The way he goes into a fit of rage seeing his daughter slap his Man Friday (played superbly by Janakaraj) and his attempts to explain himself are moments when the dialogues, acting, cinematography and direction are all in perfect harmony. Of course, no mention of "Nayagan" is complete without the scene of Kamal's reaction to Nizhalgal Ravi's death. A picture's worth a 1000 words, they say. This video is worth a lot more! Watch. Admire. Salute (3:30 min point)

For the Love of Cinema (1987-Present)
Post "Nayagan," Kamal grew in confidence to such an extent that he would go on to make movies with a kind of headlong momentum, frequently taking on multiple responsibilities such as writer, singer and lyricist and experimenting obsessively with make-up. Sometimes, he would win awards and box-office success. Sometimes, he would crash, burn and then rise like a phoenix. This complete unpredictability has made him a fascinating actor to follow.

He has made, through a hugely successful collaboration with playwright "Crazy" Mohan, commercially successful entertainers like "Aboorva Sahodharargall," where he played a dwarf with effortless ease and the zany, comedy classic "Michael Madhana Kamarajan," where the four roles, especially the Palghat cook Kameshwaran, and the smartness of the screenplay give us belly laughs even now. But at the end of the day, Kamal makes films to try and satiate his insatiable creative urges. The commercial movies and comedies are to keep the cash registers ringing so that he can go back to making the kinds of movies he wants to make. The following are two good examples:

In 1992, he acted in "Singaravelan," a light, mindless and harmless comedy. A few months later, he followed it up with "Devar Magan," one of the best movies ever made. People call "Nayagan" an adaptation of "The Godfather," which it is. "Devar Magan" was his homage, as a writer, to his idol, Mario Puzo. The movie takes the structure of "The Godfather" and takes the father-son relationship to a memorable level, thanks to the powerhouse performances of him and Sivaji Ganesan. Kamal, a huge fan of Ganesan, made only this one movie with the latter but it's amazing to think how much the duo achieved in such limited screen time together. This scene, with the two greats, is probably the best possible demonstration of controlled histrionics:

The other example is from 2002-03. Following the commercial disaster of "Hey! Ram" Kamal ventured into movies that were meant to earn him some box-office success. To this extent, he made some middling comedies like "Thenali," "PKS" and "Panchathanthiram." But after the last two mentioned movies were made in 2002, he was desperate to make a movie that required his acting chops more than comic sense. And, the result was "Anbe Sivam." Featuring one of his greatest performances as an actor, the film, with his understated, casual acting and a slew of quotable lines by Cartoonist Madan, will go down as yet another instance of the viewing public giving a raw deal to Kamal (the movie was a colossal failure at the box office). But Kamal has bounced back from too many movies of this kind to be bogged down.

I've written about several memorable roles essayed by Kamal. But if I were asked to list one movie where I laughed when Kamal laughed and cried and when he cried, it has to be "Mahanadhi." The thing that made "Mahanadhi" even more hard hitting on a personal level than "Nayagan" or "Devar Magan" was how down to earth Kamal's role was. The acting, the situations and the dialogues were all extraordinary yet touching a chord with their complete believability. Kamal's performance in the scene below is one instance of what I meant by my "puppet" comment in the first paragraph (4:15 min point)

Great as an actor. As a creator?

I must mention that I admire Kamal, the actor a lot more than Kamal, the writer. Inspired by his close friend RC Sakthi, Kamal took writing seriously even in his early days and has written some magnificent scripts such as the aforementioned "Devar Magan" and "Anbe Sivam." But some of his stories and screenplays are either heavily derived from English movies or are lacking in tautness. While "Aboorva Sahodarargall" and "MMKR" had fantastic, intelligent screenplays, his work in "Aalavandhan" and "Manmadhan Ambu" left a lot to be desired.

As a dialogue writer, Kamal can range from brilliant to bizarre, from incisive to trite. His dialogues in "Devar Magan" are the stuff of legends. But his overuse of English in movies like "Hey! Ram" have definitely made him appeal to niche audiences and alienate the rest. But as a Director, Kamal dazzled us with "Hey! Ram" and "Virumaandi," exhibiting complete command over the medium and coming up with sparkling touches that would have made KB proud. A case in point is the flash forward in "Hey! Ram" from the wild elephant on the streets of Calcutta to the scene in Srirangam with the "Padham Kondu Nadathum…" verse in the background which also talks about a wild one without a mahout.

Final Thoughts

It was in the 90s, in my late teens, when I watched "Nayagan" once and I stopped being just a fan of movies and became an admirer of him, his work and as I said earlier, began to appreciate cinema as an art form. That was when I started not only watching movies but also analyzing them, writing reviews and doing things like reaching out to Director Vasanth (through my Aunt) because I thought "Rhythm" was a great film and that the creator should know that I thought so! To this day, I strongly feel that a serious movie watcher does not get nearly as much respect as an avid reader but being a fan of Kamal, I am of the belief that I should do what I believe in and am passionate about and not worry too much about what people think.

That is Kamal for you – a tremendously gifted actor who follows his convictions and expects us to come along. The gains from this "journey" with Kamal have been plenty. Thank you, Kamal, for making me love cinema the way you do!

PS: In 2007, my dream of meeting Kamal was realized, thanks to "Crazy" Mohan (my wife's Uncle), who took me to AVM Studios to meet him. My friend Balaji has a nice write-up on the meeting:

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Inspirations (2 of 25) - Sachin Tendulkar

If there is a person that makes you think that the impossible is possible and yet goes about accomplishing it with a humility that dwarfs his tall achievements and incredible talent, would that person have any difficulty in inspiring you? Well, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar clearly hasn’t had issues on that front! For a person that made his debut in Pakistan in 1989 at the age of 16 and is now on the brink of a hitherto unheard of 100 international centuries, Sachin has continued to inspire a generation of Indians that no matter what the situation is, as long as he is around, defeat is not an option.
Sachin came into the Indian team at a time when the BCCI was at loggerheads with senior members of the team and made Mohammad Azharuddin the captain in 1990. Never known for his tactical nous or tactfulness with people, Azhar was like a fish out of water as captain in his early days, especially on foreign waters. But what the world sat up and took notice of was that amidst the mess that the Indian team was in, there was a curly haired teenager who was tackling bounce, swing, pace and spin all with equal finesse and grace in spite of being groomed on flat and slow Indian pitches. Having missed out on becoming the young Test centurion (in Napier in his second Test series), Sachin had to wait six more months to notch up his maiden Test hundred in Old Trafford, an innings filled with sumptuous strokes played with such ease that it seemed unmindful of the pressure of saving the Test, which he and Manoj Prabhakar managed through a fine partnership on the final day. It was to be the first of umpteen knocks where he was to help India avoid the blushes.

Early Impressions
I started actively following cricket in the 1991-92 season and Sachin easily became my favorite cricketer. India lost the 5-Test series against Australia 0-4 but Sachin emerged as a batsman whose technique and temperament belied his age. One of my earliest happy memories – and they weren’t too many of those in his early days for he was invariably part of the losing side – was India winning the ’92 World Cup game against Pakistan. Sachin, with his measured 54*, guided the Indian innings and with a bit of help from Kapil Dev, India managed a decent total of 216. Sachin also contributed to the defense of the total with some contained bowling, picking up the key wicket of Aamer Sohail.

While India flourished at home, they floundered so badly overseas that they picked up the tag of poor travelers. Throughout the 90s, Sachin continued to be the silver lining amidst the darkness as far as overseas Tests were concerned. But in 1994, the combination of serendipity and open minds led to one of the seminal moments in ODI cricket history. Till then, Sachin had underperformed in the limited overs format mainly because he usually came down the order when there were few overs left and never had a chance to properly get his eye in. But in a series in New Zealand, Navjot Sidhu woke up with a stiff neck before the second ODI. Sachin, who was the vice-captain then, requested Azhar and coach Ajit Wadekar for a chance to open the innings. He quickly added that he would never come to them again if he failed. Well, he never had to!

With his breathtaking innings of 82 off just 49 balls, Sachin set the benchmark for opening batsmen in ODIs. He went from strength to strength as an opener, notching up some fine innings in the 1996 World Cup where India suffered the ignominy of a semi-final defeat against Sri Lanka amid scenes of chaos and fury where the match had to be awarded to the Lankans owing to crowd trouble. As a cricket fanatic, it was very hard to digest but what was harder to stomach was the fact that my hero’s heroics were in vain…yet again.

Born to show the way, not to lead
As a Sachin fan, I was obviously delighted when the Indian selectors made him captain in 1996. But what we were to soon realize was how he was just not cut out to be the captain. Javagal Srinath recounted years later in an interview that one of the reasons Sachin failed as a captain was that he could never understand why other, more mortal teammates could never reach the high standards that he had for himself. While Sachin was always the consummate professional and the quintessential team man, marshalling troops and calling the shots did not come naturally to him. While he had a streak of ruthlessness as a batsman – he could attack or defend at his will – the same did not extend to his approach to captaincy. While an encouraging word for teammates was never far away, the burdens of defeats weighed too heavily on him. The defeat in the West Indies in 1997 when India failed to chase a meager total of 120 was one of his darkest days as a captain and player.

But in 1998, freed of the reins of captaincy, Sachin came back into his own as a player. In addition to continuing to feature in the dreams of youngsters all over the world, he also made his way into the nightmares of Shane Warne, courtesy a mighty thrashing in the Test series in India. Harsha Bhogle once said of Ravi Shastri that the latter “maximized what God gave him!” This is something that applies to Sachin as well. The kind of preparation that he put in to this Test series – he practiced with leg spinner Sivaramakrishnan to counter the threat of balls that would be pitched in the rough- was demonstrative of how Sachin was acutely aware of the work ethic and hard work that was needed to maximize his God given talents.

It was in Sharjah where he transcended mortality as a batsman. Fighting an uphill battle with very little support, Sachin masterminded two magnificent chases that remain etched in the memories of all Indian fans. To me, those were two days when he made us believe, as I wrote earlier, that anything was possible. With these two incredible innings under tremendous pressure, he showed youngsters of impressionable age that with talent and single minded determination you could set the bar where you wanted it to be. He couldn’t blaze a trail as a leader but he had now carved the way to improbable victories.

The late 90s also marked the emergence of players who, along with Sachin, formed the famed Indian batting quartet – Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly. Their consistency and solidity meant that Sachin no longer had to shoulder the burden of batting alone. But time and again, he would remind people that he was still a step above the rest and would be the deciding factor at key moments. Never was this in more evidence than a sultry day in Chennai in 1999 when he scored 136 against Pakistan, an innings of great skill, temperament and fortitude. The kind of affection that Sachin enjoyed amongst his fans was also seen in the way thousands of people shed a tear – like he did – more at his effort going in vain than India losing to arch rival, Pakistan. I say this because the Chennai crowd gave the Pakistanis a standing ovation after the 12-run defeat.

The Indian team of the 2000s, under the captaincy of Ganguly, showed a marked improvement in their overseas performances. And, for Sachin fans, this meant that we could see him in victorious sides more often. The 2003 World Cup final was a case of so-near-yet-so-far as Sachin’s efforts (with 673 runs, he was the highest run getter and the Man of the Series) were crushed by the Australian juggernaut. That day, India was a distant second and we only had fond memories of the group game against Pakistan (where he scored a brilliant 98) to savor from that World Cup.

So, what sets Sachin apart?
So, what is it that makes him an inspirational figure in addition to being a cricket hero who’s given me great viewing pleasure? To me, it’s his personality – the humility and the unassuming nature in the face of all his achievements – that makes me admire him even more. Respectful of his teammates to a fault (much to the joy of mimicry artistes like Vikram Sathaye!), he is also known to treat the cricket loving public in a warm, welcoming manner. Once in Sharjah, a fan invaded the field after he had scored a century. Even though it may have broken his concentration, he still had the generosity to gesture to a security guard to let the rabid fan go without any censure. Acutely aware of the joy that Indians derive from cricket, he dedicated his innings of 103* against England in 2008 when India successfully chased 387, to the victims of the Mumbai tragedy.

Sachin’s ability to reshape his game in the 2007-08 season following an extended slump has resulted in an awe-inspiring “second innings” of sort. His ability to pace his innings around attacking marauders like Virender Sehwag has given him an extra dose of solidity that has taken away a bit of his old aggressive instincts but has served the team well. Of course, it has not slowed him down too much for he managed the seemingly impossible task of scoring 200 in a 50-over game! His successes in the past four years have been just rewards to his willingness to analyze himself and change his approach by stepping out of his comfort zone. I always look at this transformation of his as a feedback loop at my workplace whenever I feel stuck in a rut or hesitate to step outside tried-and-tested territories.

The recent World Cup win where we could finally see Sachin in what he desired the most – to be a part of a World Cup winning squad – was an example of how we placed him above the team, literally and figuratively! Because the thought that Sachin, now 38, might not figure in another World Cup made us root for the Indian team stronger than ever. Being lifted by his team mates in the victory lap was a fitting tribute to the man who, as Virat Kohli so eloquently put it, “shouldered the burden of the nation for 21 years.” It was also the moment that made Sachin’s career complete for fans like me. When Sachin retires, he will leave a huge void but we can comfort ourselves with the thought that the memories of his years of toil in an underperforming team that marked the first half of his career were erased by some stunning team victories in the latter half. And in the process, he showed us that dedication towards what you do will get its due rewards in time. Thank you, Sachin, for allowing us to cherish the splendor of the tall peaks that you’ve scaled.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Inspirations (1 of 25) - Dr. Sheena Iyengar

In the early 1980s, Sunil Gavaskar came out with a book titled, "Idols" in which he wrote about his favorite cricketers. In addition to doing a fantastic job of writing about the cricketing skills of his idols, Gavaskar brought a personal touch to his writing wherein he dedicated significant amount of space to the difference that they made to him either through personal interaction or just pure inspiration. This led me to thinking about the people that have "inspired" me. I use this term loosely because the way a cricketer would inspire is wholly different from how a writer would. So, in this series that I've titled "Inspirations," I have chosen to write about 25 people - in no particular order - that have inspired me in different ways. I have also chosen to not write about family and friends because the source of inspiration might not be known or accessible to the reader. It is my hope that the list will go beyond 25 people but for starters, 25 is my goal. Without further ado, here's the first in the series - Dr. Sheena Iyengar.

Introduction - "What, a 20-min presentation on choice?!"

A Professor at the prestigious Columbia Business School in New York, Dr. Iyengar is a preeminent expert on choice. Last year, I happened to check out her presentation on the importance of choices. Before I clicked on the link, my instinctive reaction was, "Does choice really merit a 20-min presentation?" but I was curious nevertheless. Am I glad that I made the choice to view the presentation! As she talked about choices from varied perspectives such as culture and commerce, I got so much into it that I wanted more. A google search and 30 seconds later, I realized that not only did choice merit a presentation but also it did a book called "The Art of Choosing" written by Dr. Iyengar!

Introspection - "Sugar=good. Root canal=bad. Too much of sugar?"

The book is a terrific read with a plethora of research analyses, amusing anecdotes and a multitude of ways to view ourselves in terms of the choices that we make and how we perceive the choices as well as the process of choice making.

If we consider the two interconnected systems that are involved in our decision making, we get some surprising insights. Dr. Iyengar calls these “automatic system,” the one that works on a sensorial and subconscious level, and the “reflective system” that works on a rational and conscious level. She writes about how the former makes associations such as “Sugar=good” and “Root canal=bad” but it’s the latter that makes the reasoning, “Too much of Sugar can lead to a Root Canal!” It is startling to read that 95% of our behavior happens to be subconscious and “automatic.” She describes a study involving 30 NYU students who were divided into two groups and were asked to make sentences out of five words that they were given. One set of students were given words that were descriptors or stereotypes of the elderly and the other group were given words sans any references to the elderly. All of the participants were then directed to the hallway to get to the elevator. The experimenters set this up and monitored them. It is revealing to note that the first group took 15% longer to get to the elevator, showing how “automatic” associations regarding elderly people and speed of walking influenced their walking style without them truly realizing it.

In contrast to the automatic system, the reflective one is something that we need to consciously tune into and to do so, she notes, “…requires motivation and significant effort.” One kind of effort that could prove “significant” is introspection. We often act and choose in ways that are driven by our needs to feel consistent with our identity since we see “choices as realizations of the attributes of the chooser.” But it makes sense for us to identify – through introspection – the core values that we hold close to our heart and achieve consistency between identity and choices at a high level. This sharper focus would free up a lot of energy that we can channel into our reflective system which is something that we have to, true to its name, reflect on! When introspecting, we must also realize that others’ perceptions of us are filtered through the “lens of their own experience” and that accounts for how people react to the choices we make. After all, rarely do we make our choices in a vacuum.

Inspiration - "Be choosy about choosing and you will choose well."

After I finished reading the book, I wanted to get an opportunity to meet Dr. Iyengar in person to tell her how much this book has meant to me. And, I had the fortune to do so in a recent business trip to New York. I got a 30-minute appointment with her where I got the chance to share my thoughts on the book and ask her about her speaking engagements on the topic, Leading by Choice ( At the end of our conversation, she gave me the updated soft cover version of the book. On the first page, she wrote, “Be choosy about choosing and you will choose well” – an incredibly succinct and eloquent choice of words!

One of the biggest ways in which Dr. Iyengar has inspired me is to make an effort to reflect on my core values and put things into perspective. Her section on the reflective system has made me think of the several petty things over which I have lost sleep, argued with people and angered myself and others. I see how the beauty of my life and the joy of living can be derived from everyday minutiae – be it a moment to drink in the tranquil of the sky or an instant to surprise my wife with a spontaneous hug. But I have tried to repeatedly tell myself that it is the satisfaction of sticking to certain core values and the resultant choices that lend a certain sense of purpose, which in turn, lets me fully relish the rapture of the little moments. Anything outside of this core should only bring me unexpected gains in terms of happiness and not an ounce of grief, dissatisfaction or rancor. It is an area of personal and professional development where I know that I have a fair distance to go to reach the immense inner peace that this line of thinking can bring but at least I get happiness from my pursuit. After all, the journey, more than the destination, is what matters!