Friday, October 30, 2015

Inspirations (18 of 25) – The late actress Srividya

At a recent Toastmasters Speaking Contest, I was asked by a fellow Toastmaster as to what inspires me the most.  I mentioned to him that it was people that demonstrated grace and dignity during times of adversity.  The people that I was thinking of in real life were the likes of Sheena Iyengar and the late Randy Pausch who battled health-related setbacks (loss of vision in Iyengar’s case and terminal cancer in Pausch’s case) to do some stellar, inspirational work in their own ways.  But outside of non-fiction, a huge source of motivation for me has been the movies.  I think that it takes a tremendous amount of skill for a creator to bring to life a story in a two-dimensional medium with three-dimensional characters that leap out of the screen directly into our consciousness.  If my earlier write-up on writer-director Vasanth was an example of a creator whose tales touched, moved and inspired me, my piece on Kamal Hassan was essentially a tribute to an artiste who could bring to life a character with amazing nuances and shades.  Actress Srividya, who unfortunately succumbed to cancer in 2006, falls in the latter camp as a performer who, with her eyes, voice and expressions, did more than full justice to the characters that she was entrusted with portraying on screen.  As trite as it may sound, she became those characters on a lot of occasions.

With due respect to the people that actually wrote her characters and the directors that helped shape her performances, I always found Srividya to be an actor who could make any character of hers completely grounded and realistic.  Despite having worked with a wide range of directors with varied tastes and qualities, Srividya was an amazingly consistent and reliable performer.  The reason she goes from being just an actor that I liked to an actor that I found “inspiring” was the way she portrayed pain on screen.  My simple reasoning is that for one to be moved or motivated by something that is inherently unreal - as cinema is- the performer has to behave as though the events (on screen) were happening right next to us or make us think of a person or event from our real lives.  Because good cinema has the power to make us think about the finer aspects of relationships and the meaningful ineffables of life such as sacrifice and selflessness.  And the way Srividya played her roles such as a pampering grandmother, stern-but-well-meaning mother, a doting spouse or a loving sister, there was no way you could not think of the women in your life and be respectful of their feelings, be thankful for their love, be acknowledging of their sacrifices and be sensitive to their pain.

From her rich and varied oeuvre, if I were to pick a half-a-dozen of her roles that I found to be the most unforgettable, it has to be “Aboorva RaagangaL”, “Aboorva SahodharargaL”, “Keladi Kanmani”, “Nee Paathi Naan Paathi”, “Kaadhaluku Mariyaadhai” and Suhasini’s Penn (a telefilm where she played Revathi’s mom).  As I look back at these movies, her screen time varied from probably 10 minutes to 100 minutes.  But the onscreen time that she needed in order to make an impact was never a significant factor because her eyes sometimes needed just a matter of seconds to arrest you.  The aforementioned "Penn" is a fine example.  In the course of a 25-min telefilm (superbly written by Suhasini), Srividya brought to life a Mom from her 30s to her 50s and showed how a Mom's feelings towards her daughter could change as they both age.  Given the number of times that I have watched this, I have never failed to tear up in the climactic sequence.  But more importantly, I have always spared a moment to think of how, in an argument, one's near and dear might mean well but their deep love for us might actually prevent them from expressing things in a saccharine sweet fashion that might hold momentary appeal.  Watch this video to see why I hold her in such high regard:

Another reason why I wanted to salute Srividya was because she thrived in an environment that really didn’t carve a niche market for older actors the way Hollywood does.  The fact that a Robert De Niro (aged 72) or a Meryl Streep (66) are able to get plum roles and the fact that a Revathy or a Srividya rarely got meaty roles beyond a certain age is as stark a contrast as you will ever find.  There was absolutely nothing lacking in talent in either of these Indian actors.  It is just that filmmakers (with rare exceptions like Balu Mahendra’s “Sandhya Raagam”) or maybe even the audience could not care less about watching seasoned thespians in meaningful lead roles and would rather watch ditzy girls from Mumbai prance around in skimpy costumes.  It is a testament to Srividya’s talent that she made a lasting impression despite being the odds stacked against her favor. 

From what I have read about Srividya, I also gather that her personal life left her many a scar, both physical and emotional.  Maybe in the movies she found an outlet to portray all the pain that she experienced as a person.  In one of those tragic ironies of life, it was probably her anguish and suffering that metamorphosed to something, even if on celluloid, that could actually make somebody a little more sensitive towards the pain and sensitivities of others.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Inspirations (17 of 25) - Rahul Dravid

Of all the cricketers that have inspired me in various ways, Rahul Dravid has to be the one that serves as the perfect one, even more so than Sachin Tendulkar.  While Tendulkar lifted the spirits of an entire nation and an entire generation with his sheer brilliance, Dravid’s evolution is what makes him even more inspirational.  I say that because not every one of us may be as naturally gifted in our respective fields the way Tendulkar seemed right through his career (though this is certainly not meant to take anything away from Tendulkar’s famed work ethic and dedication to his cricket).  And a closer look at Dravid’s evolution as a cricketer should give several reasons to believe in one self and optimize one’s potential. 

By the time he called time on his glorious career, Dravid did not score one run less than what he could have.  Not one run.  In amassing almost 25,000 runs at the international level, he stretched himself well beyond what may have been his comfort zone at the start of his career.  In fact, he kept expanding his zone of comfort to the point that there seemed no room for further expansion that when it was time for him to call it quits, he could step back and marvel at the ‘wall’ (as he was called affectionately for the stability of his batting and the near impenetrability of his defense) of fame that he had created painstakingly. 

When Dravid began his career, his batting was one of the most pleasing sights in cricket but that was when you were watching him in Tests.  In one-dayers, barring a few glimpses like his valiant century in a losing cause against Pakistan in Chennai in ‘97 (a game that I had the misfortune [since India lost badly] of watching live!), he found the going tough because he just could not go beyond his classicism and correctness.  It made for painful watching all the more so because he was a sheer pleasure to watch in Tests.  But in the early 2000s, he worked on his game so seriously that in both formats he started to flourish and became the anchor for the batting side.  It was not just his well-developed technique but also his wonderful attitude that served him well.  Starting with his unforgettable 180 in the Kolkata Test of 2001, he went from strength to strength, continually crafting magical innings in the most testing of situations.

Having grown up watching cricket in the 90s where the Indian team lacked severely in temperament, it was a welcome change to watch Dravid, VVS Laxman, Sourav Ganguly and of course, Tendulkar all combine to form a batting line up that supplemented their ability with oodles of positive attitude and a never-say-die spirit.  It was extremely gratifying for loyal fans of the Indian cricket like me to watch players like Dravid and Laxman fight as true team players, excelling individually but never losing sight of the team’s goals.  And Dravid demonstrated his commitment to his team in myriad ways.  A case in point is him taking the initiative to keep wickets – again to the best of his abilities - despite the physical strain, just to create an extra batsman or bowler slot for the team.  It was also amazing how he would always create new personal goals that would benefit the team.  This was never more evident than in his efforts to improve his slip fielding.  The fact that he holds the record for maximum number of catches in Test cricket is not only a testament to his longevity (having played 164 Tests) but also his amazing consistency in the field despite the heavy workload he shouldered as a batsman. 

As a captain, Dravid had mixed success, enjoying hard-fought victories such as the Test series in England in 2007 but also experiencing tremendous pressure following India’s ignominious early exit from the 2007 World Cup.  Even though he had the benefit of a much stronger team than Tendulkar, he still chose to quit as a captain to focus on his batting and fielding.  In hindsight, it was not a bad decision since his successor Anil Kumble was a stronger leader even if it was for a brief period.  And, of course, MS Dhoni was able to take the team to stratospheric heights especially in one-dayers.   All the while, Dravid, despite combating age and dimming reflexes, could recover from slumps and contribute quite handsomely, as was evident in his three centuries - all in losing causes - in the 2011 series in England.

The other facet of Dravid that I really admired was his dignified behavior on and off the field.  He was always a picture of class, dignity and centeredness (with very few exceptions) despite having gone through innumerable highs and lows as an individual and as a team.  My friend once told me about how in the early 2000s, one of his friends had created a website for Dravid.  And Dravid, after having seen the website and been impressed by the content, invited this person to dinner as a token of appreciation.  It was just an example of how grounded and humble he was a person.

As we look back at the two greats Dravid and Tendulkar, the latter’s career was akin to an emerging skyscraper gifted to him by God with a solid foundation and a dozen floors on top of which Tendulkar kept adding floors at amazing speed and with grace and stability.  By the time Tendulkar finished work on his skyscraper, he had exceeded the heights that were far beyond anyone’s imagination and the skyscraper was so tall that he had to sprain his neck to look down at the next tallest skyscraper.  But Dravid, on the other hand, was the man entrusted with building a protective fort, with God having given him just a factory full of bricks and the gift of patience and perseverance.  He quickly cemented his reputation by closing every crack through the most disciplined of methods and by the time he completed his fort, there was not one visible crack.  He just had to stop further work because he had exhausted every muscle in his body.  If we take a leaf out of his book (should I say, a brick out of his wall?!) we working professionals must work hard, smart and push ourselves towards self-created goals that by the time we retire, we can have a satisfied sigh.  Being a huge fan and admirer of Dravid, even if I can’t create a fort, I will certainly go beyond building castles in the air!