Thursday, October 30, 2014

Inspirations (16 of 25) - Baradwaj Rangan, Film Critic and Author

Let’s assume that you have an annual pass to a museum.  Driven by an inexplicable passion for art, you go there every weekend, roam around and stare at painting after painting.  Each time you look at a particular favorite of yours, you experience a high but struggle to find the right reasons or words to express what it is about the painting that yanks you out of the present and lifts you to a different plane.  But one day, you pick up a newspaper and read an exquisitely crafted write-up on this work of art and it changes your perceptions of art, makes you dig deeper, makes you question certain choices that the artist would have made and helps you engage your intellect as opposed to just your senses.  In this case, is it just the artist that has inspired you?  What about the author of that write-up?  What is his role in your enriching your experience?  Is he an inspiration as well? 

National award winning film critic Baradwaj Rangan, through his intelligent, witty and thought provoking essays on film and filmmakers has certainly enriched my movie watching experience manifold.  I wrote about Kamal Hassan earlier in my Inspirations series and how he routinely – for well beyond the duration of a movie - transported me to the worlds that he was creating as a writer and as an actor. (“Mahanadhi” is a case in point.)  But in Rangan, I see a person that will help me traverse the worlds that are created by an actor or a director, respectfully question the paths, twists and turns and yet, never hesitate to express my unabashed admiration and love for the works of a creator. 

With my strong interest in writing and my even stronger interest in watching movies, Rangan’s write-ups make me enjoy my two strong passions to the fullest.  But more importantly, they help me articulate my own thoughts.  I will give you an example.  In his wonderful book, “Conversations with Mani Ratnam,” he routinely discusses casting choices from Vijaykumar in “Agni Natchathiram” to Manisha Koirala in “Bombay” and Jayasudha in “Alai Paayuthey.”  Up until I read the book, I had never quite thought of what may have gone into casting certain actors for certain roles, be it the major or the minor ones.  Then, when I watched “Jigarthandaa” and “Madras” recently, I appreciated one casting choice while questioning another.  In “Jigarthandaa,” one of the hilarious segments involve an acting coach who teaches the basics of acting to a gangster.  A little known character actor was cast in the role.  And, he did quite well too.  But I felt that the director Karthik Subburaj should have chosen a better known actor, say one like Nasser who is known to take acting very seriously and played off his image.  I thought that a well-known face would have lent the role more gravitas.  On the other hand, I liked the fact that Jayabalan (the antagonist from “AadukaLam”) was cast in what was actually a minor role in "Madras."  The fact that his face adorned the huge wall that became the bone of contention to two warring factions in the movie made me appreciate the Director for his choice.  He utilized Jayabalan’s image from “AadukaLam” well and ensured that the wall (with his image) gained a life of its own during the movie.

With his keen observations and thoughtful word choices, he has also made me look at movies that I have loved immensely over the years, through a fresh set of eyes.  His write-up on "Anbe Sivam" and the chapter in his book on “Nayagan” are two examples.  As much as I love “Anbe Sivam” and had come to terms with its minor flaws, he made me think about Kamal’s indulgences as a writer while not losing sight of his wonderful performance as an actor.  And, one of the things that you will notice in his writings is a certain respect for filmmakers that strive to make good, even if flawed, cinema.  His write-ups on Selvaraghavan’s works may make people think that he cuts too much slack for Directors with unique touches but imperfect execution.  But dig deeper, you will see that he does not turn a blind eye to the flaws in, say a “Mayakkam Enna,” a flawed film, yes.  But a fascinating character study nevertheless.  Thanks to his writings, I have been able to think deeper about the disparate elements that combine to make a whole picture rather than just giving a one-dimensional, “I loved it” or “I hated it” kind of a response.  

The intelligence and intellect doesn’t mean that his writing does not have an element of fun.  Wit, understated humor and occasional cheeky irreverence all mark his work.  For instance, he concluded his scathing review of "Anjaan" with the following line - "You go in expecting a meal and you end up with a… toothpick."  

If I were to pick one element of his writings that I generally disagree with, it's his writings on movies and filmmakers from an earlier era.  While he undoubtedly respects a Sridhar or a Sivaji and appreciates a "Motor Sundaram Pillai" and Sivaji's understated acting in that movie, I wish some of his writings would also incorporate some more context and history that may make the current generation appreciate the works of an earlier generation.  For instance, I remember reading that he was not a huge fan of Sridhar's works except for the music and cinematography.  Of course, he is entitled to his opinions of Sridhar's movies.  But I also wish that he had written about how Sridhar's dialogues and direction heralded a new era where conversations were unfussy (as opposed to the dramatic, long-winded dialogues of the "Manohara" days) and how he essentially sparked off a wave of triangular (and sometimes even quadrangular!) love stories.

All said and done, you must be wondering what is so inspirational about a person that helps me experience movies better.  Well, one of my favorite lines in “Sindhu Bhairavi” is one uttered by Suhasini to Sivakumar – “Neenge oru genius; naan oru veri pudicha rasigai!” If you remember that scene, you will remember the kind of high that Suhasini experiences as a rabid fan of music, one who is yearning to learn and evolve…just as a fan, not as a creator.  Well, Rangan helps me channel my ‘veri pudicha rasanai’ for the movies in new ways.  If I am the movie equivalent of the art fanatic roaming the halls of the museum, then he is the newspaper critic giving the wanderer some very good direction!  And that I find to be truly inspirational in its own way.

Start watching at 18:18