Monday, December 19, 2016

Talent hidden in plain sight - Thoughts on actor Prabhu

Commercial success can be a double edged sword, as far as thamizh cinema is concerned.  On the one hand, it can give the people associated with that success tremendous clout and can act as insurance to guard them during any subsequent misfires.   But the flip side is that there is invariably pressure to make films in a similar milieu, with similar characters.  It is very rare to find a Mani Ratnam who had the guts and confidence to follow up a heavy duty Nayagan with a feather light Agni Nakshathram.  In the case of Prabhu, P. Vasu’s Chinna Thambi was probably the best thing that happened to him…and the worst.  While it gave him tremendous boost as a saleable hero (he had been succeeding primarily in dual-hero films till then), what happened as a result is that he acted in scores of films set in the rural milieu.  It was not a bad thing per se because he looked the part and acted well in most of his movies, some good, others not so good.  But the success of Chinna Thambi meant that his urbanity was rarely seen on screen. And, in 2005, Chandramukhi happened.  Though a roaring success for Prabhu’s production company, the “Ena Koduma Saravanan” line that he uttered in dramatic fashion found its way into the annals of infamous thamizh cinema lines, along with its numerous impressions that followed.  But as an avid movie lover that watched his rise in the late 80s to the mid-90s, I would rather not have him merely associated with that line, hence this piece.

Mani Ratnam was probably the first director to showcase Prabhu’s sense of style.  An aesthete par excellence, Ratnam gave Prabhu a wonderful role in Agni Nakshathram.  As the older son of a bigamist, with a temper that could leave yoga teachers scratching their heads, Prabhu was excellent in the role of Gautham…sorry, Gautham Vishwanath! Long before Kamal Haasan in Kuruthi Punal, it was Prabhu in Agni… who made Aviator sunglasses fashionable!  Prabhu exuded style and attitude in the amazingly shot confrontation scenes (see first video below) with Karthik.  But, I liked him equally in the sequence where he plays a protective older brother to his step-sister.  Especially lovely is the understated manner in which he reacts to Tara calling him, “Anna.” 

Prabhu collaborated with Ratnam in two more movies – Anjali and Raavanan – playing character roles.  While I am not a huge fan of the modern-day Ramayana adaptation, I enjoyed Prabhu’s understated performance in Anjali.  Again, the role of an ex-convict which could have been overwrought and overplayed, was etched beautifully by Ratnam and played well by Prabhu.  (I am not embedding any videos since Anjali is a heartbreaking movie that I don’t want to revisit.)

As I had mentioned in last week’s post, Prabhu was also very good in Kaliyugam, directed by the late K Subaash, who had assisted Ratnam before making his debut as a director in this movie.  Prabhu played an upright police officer whose family life is ruined by the villains.  Not exactly a novel theme but Subaash sure did inherit at least some of his mentor’s sense of style and this resulted in a slick, no-nonsense thriller.  The scene where Prabhu prepares upma for his son was a funny one where his comic sense is given good fodder.  Subaash also made the part-comedy, part-thriller Uthama Purushan with Prabhu.  This was a role to which Prabhu brought a mix of sophistication, underplay and gentle humor.  Watch the climax (starting at the 2 hr 10 min point) where he first earnestly apologizes to Revathi and then flirts harmlessly with Radhika and you’ll know what I am talking about!

Two other aspects of Prabhu’s performances that deserve mention are his comic timing and dance skills.  Blessed with the gift of comic timing, he could really supplement good written material with myriad expressions and great dialogue delivery.  A comic performance in the later years of his career that I loved was his turn as a henpecked husband in Charlie Chaplin.  The scene (link below) where he shifts the blame, after getting caught red-handed by his wife, is a hoot.  His genial onscreen persona meant that he invariably shared great chemistry with his co-actors be it Sathyaraj (Manivannan’s Chinna Thambi Periya Thambi) or Coundamani (Thedinen Vandhadhu being my favorite).  He was also a scene stealer in Sirai Chaalai, where he shared screen space with Mohan Lal.  A grim drama for the most part, the film received tremendous impetus thanks to Prabhu's sharp, witty one liners.  The best part of his performance was that the humor didn't stick out like a sore thumb.  (He was also excellent in some of the serious scenes - for instance, the one where he apologizes to Mohan Lal for being responsible for the punishment that the latter received at the hands of the inhumane jailer.)

Start watching at the 1 hr 8 min 42 sec point:

When it came to dancing, Prabhu – despite his girth – could execute his steps very gracefully.   One of my favorite memories of the late 80s is the “Vaanam Enna” song from Vetri Vizha, where he matched Kamal Haasan’s steps effortlessly.  He also inherited his father’s illustrious genes for ‘performing’ in a song.  Similar to how Sivaji Ganesan would come out with wonderful expressions to match TMS’ singing, Prabhu infused a lot of life into his songs by the way he expressed himself.  “Thuliyile” from Chinna Thambi was one.  But one of his splendid performances in a song was in the “En Kadhale” song from Duet.  His expressions in this song (especially when he plays Anjali Anjali on the sax, at the 3:10 min point in the video below) are marvelous. 

In recent years, as a character actor, he has not gotten too many opportunities to display his considerable talent.  Nevertheless, in well-written (even if relatively brief) roles such as 3 (I loved the scene where he disbelievingly asks Dhanush, “Mokkai-ya?!”) and Something Something…, he has acquitted himself admirably.  But really, as an actor, he deserves to be known for more than just the nincompoop of his largest hit or the line that he uttered in Rajni’s 2005 blockbuster.  If that is all that we associate him with, therein would lie the true kodumai


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Dishyum, dishyum! -- A piece on some of my favorite stunt sequences in thamizh cinema

The recent passing away of director K Subaash (Chathriyan, Ezhaiyin Siripil, Sabash and others) made me go on a youtube binge of scenes from some of his films.  As I was watching clips from a few of his films – most notably, Kaliyugam, which led to my writing this piece – I realized that I was not fast-forwarding some of the action sequences.  It dawned on me that there were two reasons for this – one was that the action sequences looked surprisingly slick for their time and had aged a lot better than I thought they would.  And secondly, and this was important to me, the stunts seemed real.  None of the unnecessarily rope-induced acts of gravity defiance.  None of those computer effects that sometimes make the stunts look more like video game effects these days.  They were just supremely well-choreographed and you got a sense of space, movement and more importantly, emotion.  I say emotion because my mind went back to what Mani Ratnam once said about not shooting his song sequences outside India (in response to a question from Baradwaj Rangan).  He talked about how songs, to start with, stand outside the story to an extent.  To further transport – literally, I suppose! – the characters to alien lands would mean that the audience was being pulled further away from the milieu of the story.  One could apply Ratnam’s logic to stunt sequences too – they are an accepted part of the grammar of Indian cinema.  Grammar, by its nature, has boundaries.  And, to the extent to which the boundaries are respected even as directors and stunt choreographers utilize modern technologies, the more arresting the stunts will be.  So, without further ado, let me list a few action sequences from thamizh movies that I have really enjoyed over the years. 

The underground sequence in Kaliyugam:
As mentioned above, one of the sequences that I had remembered from the Prabhu-Raghuvaran starrer Kaliyugam, more than two decades after I had seen it, was the stunt sequence in the underground tunnel, choreographed by the late Vikram Dharma.  The lens work by YN Murali is quite stunning here, especially the moments where the theepandham is the sole source of light.  Prabhu, for all his girth, is surprisingly quick with his movements and matches the stuntman (Ponnambalam?) for skill and agility. 

Watch from the 1 hr 10 min point:

The Rajnikanth introduction scene in Thalapathi:
At the time of its release, Thalapathi was accused of featuring gratuitous violence.  While that point could certainly be debated, what, to me, is hard to debate is the actual quality of the action scenes and their value as a storytelling tool.  Rajnikanth’s introduction in this fight sequence in the rain was raw and brutal.  The fact that the murder of the henchman comes back to haunt him later is a reason why this setup, where his rage is unleashed, is so important. 

Watch from the 1:58 min point:

The climactic fight sequence of Thevar Magan:
Kamal Haasan and Mani Ratnam were probably the two people most responsible (or guilty, depending on how you look at it) for bringing bloody, realistic violence to tamil cinema with their Nayagan.  Instead of choosing something from Nayagan, I wanted to choose this scene from Thevar Magan because I truly believe that Nayagan just marked the start of a period where Kamal went from strength to strength, exploring frontier after unexplored frontier in various facets of cinema.  When it comes to action sequences, Kamal has been – and, not entirely unjustifiably – accused of just coming across as masochistic and bloody for the sake of it.  But if you observe keenly, a lot of his stunt sequences do come with a sense of purpose.  And, no better example of that than the climax of Thevar Magan.  Just the sheer dynamics of it are awe-inspiring – the protagonist that just doesn’t want to fight versus a villain whose bloodlust has consumed him.  This is brought out in gripping fashion by the action choreographer (Vikram Dharma, again) and the cinematographer (PC Sreeram).

Watch from the 2:30 min point:

The opening sequence of Gentleman:
The year 1993 witnessed two of the most stunning action spectacles to grace thamizh cinema.  One was Thiruda Thiruda and the other was Gentleman.  Both these films featured brilliantly shot sequences on a train.  But I picked the sequence from Gentleman because the build-up to it (with the jeep chase) features some intelligent maneuvers and some scintillating background music by ARR - the score when Arjun takes off his beard is fantastic.  Though this scene does have some gravity-defying moments like Arjun’s jeep flying over the train (yes, you read that right!), it is still a fine exhibition of perfect masala movie action that requires just a little bit – not dollops – of suspension of disbelief.  What makes it even more impressive is that this grand sequence is what opens the movie.  What a start for Shankar, the director, who made his debut with this movie.  Wish he had retained his sensible instincts (with respect to action) from this movie and had respected the laws of gravity a little more in his latter movies!  (Remember the ridiculous flying cars in the Prarthana theatre sequence in Sivaji?!)

Watch from the 5:40 min point:

The pre-intermission sequence of Baasha:
Rajnikanth once joked in an interview that he had a tough time understanding Mani Ratnam (while making Thalapathi) since the latter wanted him to showcase certain emotions even during the fight sequences.  The intermission sequence of Baasha shows that whatever lessons Rajni may have learned from Ratnam certainly stuck!  Because he is at the peak of his powers not only as a star but also as a forceful actor, bringing out the hitherto unseen (to his family and to us in the audience) side of the don.  Simple lines like “Ulley Po” have become the stuff of legends!  If you notice, the actual stunts themselves aren’t exactly novel but the sound design (my favorite being the train sounds that accompany Yuvarani’s stunned expression) and the cinematography (by the late PS Prakash) add to the amazing visceral impact. 

Watch from the 1:40 min point:

The martial arts sequence in Anniyan:
I reckon that to fans of Shankar’s early work, Anniyan featured the best of him as well as the worst.  While the crux of the story held intrigue and his usual commercial elements – especially the rollicking comedy by Vivek – were intact, one could argue that it was with this movie that Shankar started to take steps and then eventually, leaps out of the bounds of realism and even basic cinematic logic and started relying increasingly on visual splendor.  While Anniyan contained some outlandish ideas (especially the huge conference that Anniyan assembles), one sequence stood out for me – the stunt sequence at the martial arts facility.  Sure, he did include some over-the-top Matrix style effects but the hand-to-hand combat is stunning and even the time-freeze cinematography is used imaginatively without being overdone.  My favorite moment was where the camera freezes mid-air and circles around Vikram and Sadha – not exactly the kind of realism that I crave but then again, with a Shankar film, I was thankful that with this sequence Shankar tried at least a little to rein in the urge to behave like a computer geek that had taken over Lucasfilm! 

This video contains the entire sequence but my favorite part is the mano a mano duel at the 4:40 min point: 

I sincerely hope that as filmmakers try to expand their vistas and break global boundaries (like "Kaaka Muttai" and "Visaranai" did recently) that action sequences are placed strategically within the framework of the movie and play out at a pitch that is not incongruous with the rest of the movie.  Why not have special effects in service of the stunts that, in turn, move the story forward?  The combination of realism and emotion-driven stunts would indeed be the most potent one-two punch that discerning movie goers would crave!


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

To Cricket, With Love

I told myself, “You couldn’t possibly be getting goose bumps.  After all, there is not a single player on the ground!”  But no, the goose bumps were absolutely real, as I set foot into Lord’s, a cricket ground that is considered “The Home of Cricket.”  I was in London recently for a business trip and just two hours after I checked into my hotel on Sunday, I walked to the ground for a 100-minute tour.  It was a tour that I had booked online (or so I thought, as you will discover soon).  As I approached the ground, I started seeing signs that pointed to the ground.  I started feeling a little nervous.  Don’t ask me why.  Then, I approached the booth to pick up my tour badge.  And, the elderly lady behind the counter asked, “What’s your confirmation number, Sir?”  I pathetically replied, “Ma’am, I didn’t get my confirmation number via e-mail.”  (Note to self – there is a reason why the “PrtSc” button exists on the keyboard!)  She politely but firmly responded, “There is not much I can do without a confirmation number, Sir.  And, we are sold out.”  Sold out?  This was the last tour of the day.  Plus, I had work the next day and I had to travel to Birmingham the day after.  I pleaded to her, “Ma’am, I am an ardent fan of cricket.  I have come from the USA and I am here for a very brief visit.  Could you please accommodate me?  I can buy a ticket now!”   Einstein’s theory of relativity was proven beyond doubt for the next two minutes when she was on the phone with the tour guide – two minutes seemed more like 120,000 milliseconds!  She got off the phone and said, “Credit card please!”  Credit card?  I would have given my entire bank balance for this ticket!  Brilliant, as the British like to exclaim! 

Lord's (Photo Courtesy cell phone!)
I walked through the pavilion, the England dressing room, the visitors’ dressing room and the players’ balcony.  That balcony where Kapil Dev, with his toothy grin, held the 1983 World cup trophy aloft.  That balcony where the cheekily irreverent Krish Srikkanth blissfully smoked a cigarette as players were celebrating the win.  That balcony where Sourav Ganguly decided that it was too warm and took his shirt off.  (Of course, I am kidding about the warmth part!)  The tour guide mentioned that Ganguly had been fined his entire match fee for that act.  I am sure that Ganguly considers that the best money that he has foregone!  I was feeling so euphoric, so light that I could have been levitating!  I then looked at the famed honors board.  Players’ names go up there on the board when they score a century or take five wickets.  As I saw the names of some of my favorite cricketers – Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Ian Botham, Rahul Dravid, to name a few – I was gleaming with pride.  And by the time, I heard the tour guide say, “This is where Sachin sits,” pointing to a place in the visitors’ dressing room, my euphoria entered stratospheric heights!  After I profusely thanked the staff for accommodating me, I took a stroll outside the ground, just internalizing and reflecting on the sheer joy that the visit gave me.  As if there was any confirmation needed, I realized that I didn’t just enjoy the game, didn’t just look to get entertained by it.  I loved it.  Absolutely LOVED it.

The love stems from the fact that the game has given me a lot and has taught me a lot.  My own cricketing skills have ebbed and flowed over the years.  But that’s not really the point.  The game has given me some of my best friends with whom I would not have bonded as much if not for the love of the game.  The game has made me fight with my friends (when we were younger) when things got really close.  Over the years, the game has made me see value in cherishing victories (be it when playing or watching) with others.  But it has also made me see the beauty in the grace that comes from accepting a hard fought defeat.  It has taught me to reflect, to introspect when things go wrong; and I am not talking just about cricket.  It has taught me that failure can sometimes be a very hard-nosed but an undoubtedly perspicacious teacher.  That to maximize one’s ability is of paramount importance.  As I have matured, I could see that the game kept teaching me ethics - that it is not okay to cheat, be it ball tampering or match fixing or whatever other means.  I could even see that what I enjoyed was not watching people sledge but players putting an arm around an opponent following a close game.  The players – they are the ones that make the game what it is.  Not the rulebooks, not the colorful jerseys, not the lit-up stumps, not the scorecards, not the records.  The captains that become great leaders through a combination of skill, strategy and psychological acuity.  The players that become great followers through a mix of talent, industry and fortitude.  As much as they make or break the game, it behooves every player, irrespective of their stature or level of the game, to respect the game for what it gives them.  It is not okay to tarnish it in any way, shape or form.  As Mr. Spiderman said, “With great power, comes great responsibility!”

Ashes 2005 - Andrew Flintoff consoling Brett Lee after England's narrow win in the Birmingham Test (Photo courtesy of "The Telegraph")
While I admit to feeling indignant and getting furious at the Indian team whenever it lost (especially if the game was there for the taking), I realized over the years that the people in the game that have inspired me aren’t always the monstrously talented ones that broke records and scaled tall peaks.  It was also those indefatigable workhorses (like Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath) that were rarely in the limelight but yet worked hard and played passionately.  They have taught me a thing or two about putting in one’s best foot forward and, as Harsha Bhogle once eloquently said, “...perfect the process of performance and don’t allow the pressure of the result to choke your performance.”  Does it apply to things beyond cricket?  No prizes for guessing the answer.

As I reflect on all of the highs and lows that I have experienced, watching my favorite players succeed at times and fail at others, I realize that cricket, as a sport, is like religion, to a large extent.  Cricket is capable of bringing great unity and great divisiveness.  But it is essential to see that a rival is different from an enemy.  Those that ‘get’ the core of what it is – be it cricket or their religious faith - can see its full beauty and get comfort from it.  Those that misuse it for their own advancement, like some players or administrators that we have all read about, bring a sense of shame to their country and those that believe in them.  Not too dissimilar from politicians that play the religion or caste card for their own gain.  After all, if cricket is like a religion, a cricket ground is akin to a shrine.  Eureka!  That explains the goose bumps that I experienced.  Lord’s, the “home of cricket”, is in fact an important shrine of the religion that is cricket.  Am I glad that I was granted entry! 

Cricket, I love you.  Truly, madly, deeply…
I also bow to you.  Sincerely, passionately, respectfully…


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Deep-rooted beliefs

“It reassured me, and it felt like a hug from a time machine.”  That is how fellow blogger Anusha described (in a recent write-up titled, “A Personal Odyssey”) the feelings that sounds from a mosque evoked in her, given that she had spent her formative years in Kuwait.  This evocatively coined phrase led to my reflecting on my own roots.  And, the deeper I thought, the more I realized that a lot of my deep-rooted beliefs about a diverse set of things such happiness, contentment, love, loss, friendship, spirituality, education, work, have actually metamorphosed quite significantly over time.  At first, that might sound paradoxical.  Deep-rooted beliefs, by their definition, aren't supposed to mutate, you might think.  But from family to friends, from mentors to peers, from authors to bloggers, the people that collectively shape my thinking are too many to keep count of.  While I do derive immense pleasure from the element of surprise that an open mind gifts me, I also realized something else.  That the elements of my being that tend to be the most fulfilling and gratifying are those that are tied strongly to my roots.  Just like how it is absolutely essential to continually water the root of a plant, continual learning actually helps make the beliefs firmly rooted, retaining the broad strokes even when the colors have changed!  And, as we ‘grow,’ it is absolutely important to acknowledge our ‘roots’ – be it a high school teacher that inculcated certain values in us or an author that made you flesh out your thoughts on a particular topic with an amazingly counter-intuitive insight. 

A high school teacher.  I didn’t pull that out of thin air.  I have actually been the lucky ‘student’ that learned a thing or two about not only the subject matter but also about higher order things from truly special people.  The high school teacher is an Aunt of mine who tutored me in Physics.  The thing that I continue to admire about her is her calm, collected nature.  Even when I use to give her grief with my lack of work ethic at that time, she would handle me in a firm but polite manner, never letting her decibel level go beyond a certain range.  Something that makes me respect her even more is the fact that she had lost both her parents in an airplane accident when she was in her teens.  It was something that she has never mentioned to me.  It amazes me that she has never had an ounce of self-pity ever.  She just focuses on being warm, loving and nurturing to anyone that has the fortune of knowing her.  As I have gone through the highs and lows of my own life, I have kept in constant touch with her, making it a point to spend quality time with her and her loving kids whenever I go to Chennai.   Thinking of her and talking to her consistently do two things to me.  One is, I get a sense of satisfaction of keeping her informed of my development as a person and as a professional.  It makes me feel close to my roots.  And secondly, it makes me appreciate the boon that is life.  That despite the fact that she had to endure a significant, unfortunate life event in the formative years of her life, she developed into a role model.  By being amazingly and consistently positive and centered, she makes me look up to her - as much as I might feel indignant when unfair things (such as the untimely loss of a loved one) happen that it behooves me to shower my loved ones with as much genuine love and affection as I can, while staying composed during challenging times.  Am I there at the lofty pedestal that I place my teacher on?  No, I am not.  Do I think I will get there eventually?  I will try with utmost sincerity, for I have the responsibility of paying it forward.

An ill-informed belief that I used to have was that loved ones should accept me completely, unequivocally, warts and all.  And, I would balk at suggestions to, for instance, control my temper, retorting impulsively, “This is who I am.  You ought to accept me.”  To change meant that I was moving away from the core of who I was, I would say.  But as I mellowed down a tad, I began to realize that it was not the roots that I was sticking to.  It was more the weeds!   I began to realize that anything that made loved ones feel less loved was actually inimical to the core of who I was.  That to feel a sense of entitlement and demand impunity was both callous and cowardly.  As a result, personal development is something that I invest a lot of time in. That is where being open to getting inspired by the unlikeliest and unfancied sources helps me.  

As I look to the future, I hope that people that comprise my roots can continue to see me grow personally and professionally.  This way, I can live in the present and yet continually experience the loving, comforting hug of that "time machine!"

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The glimpses of humanity in “Mahanadhi”

As Kamal Haasan turns 62 today, Nov 7th, I want to rewind the clock 22 years in time to the Pongal of 1994 when “Mahanadhi," written by Kamal and directed by Santhana Bharathi, was released.  Viewers, with some of the limited pre-release publicity, probably thought that Kamal was making a family drama, no more no less.  But as the turnstiles opened on January 14th, what people got to experience was the most potent wrench ever to wreak havoc on their gut.  This was soon seen as a fictionalized account of the slimiest side of society ever; a story of a simple man, Krishnaswamy (essayed by Kamal), whose journey starts off in a beautiful Camelot, only to take twists and turns into the ugliest lanes of society.  The journey did end with a ray of hope back in that village where the story originated.  But by then, the viewer felt bare minimum consolation. 

Over the past two decades, I have watched “Mahanadhi” umpteen times, rarely experiencing anything less than an emotionally draining experience.  But a couple of months ago, I revisited parts of the movie because I was writing an article on my favorite ‘smaller’ scenes in Tamil cinema.  The Kamal – SN Lakshmi interactions had always moved me deeply.  So, for that article, I recounted the early morning sequence after Kamal realizes the error of his ways, in trusting a woman with questionable values.  As I watched more of the movie, a thought crystallized in my mind.  That “Mahanadhi” was not just a tale of the darker side of our society.  It seemed, in equal measure, a story of hope, humanity, empathy and above all, the responsibility that we have towards fellow human beings.  In short, Anbe Sivam!  Let me try and illustrate, with a few examples.

The friend’s remarks:  One of the events that sets the story into motion is Kamal’s well-to-do friend visiting his house.  As Kamal sees the sophistication evident in his friend’s kids (who are settled in London), he starts to think of a better future for his family beyond the idyll of his village.  This is depicted in a lovely scene when Kamal’s friend takes leave of him and Kamal’s son asks him for a similarly expensive car.  I found the writing to be exquisite here.  Especially for how Kamal’s friend treats him in a casual but not condescending manner, especially in the way he apologizes for an insensitive remark on Kamal’s wife who had died young. 

Watch from 2:28 – 5:30:

SN Lakshmi’s characterization: “Mahanadhi” has to be the movie with the loveliest portrayal of a mother-in-law character, played by the great SN Lakshmi.  Kamal’s scenes with the seasoned veteran are a joy to behold.  Be it in the way he addresses her as ‘Amma,’ or in the way she requests him – a widower- to get remarried, it is a delightfully understated relationship that was brought to life by the acting and the writing. (Kamal wrote the story and screenplay, while he co-wrote the dialogues with Ra Ki Rangarajan.)  Watch this scene where SN Lakshmi teases him playfully, owing to his eagerness to see Sukanya’s photograph.  Goodness.  Pure and simple goodness.

Watch from 1:30 – 3:06:

Another scene where the Kamal – SN Lakshmi relationship comes to the fore is the delicate, moving sequence when the family visits Kamal in jail after his daughter has come of age.  Amidst all the sadness that pervades the scene are two touching moments.  One where SN Lakshmi says, “Naan thirupathi-ku mottai podartha vendiruken maaple…”  and the other where she apologizes for renting out the house.

Watch from 0:27 – 2:23:

“Naan Veezhvaen Endru Ninaithayo?”: Fans of K Balachander will realize that the Bharathiyar poem cited in a perfectly situational manner in “Mahanadhi” was probably Kamal’s homage to his mentor, given KB's fondness for Bharathiyar.  The timing of the poem’s inclusion here is as perfect as it is thought provoking.  As I had mentioned earlier, one of those hidden-in-plain-sight elements of “Mahanadhi” that I finally started to see was the emphasis on the responsibility that we have towards fellow members of the society.  In this context, the Bharathiyar poem here is like a whiplash, with the Kamal character finding much-needed inspiration at a key moment in his life where he has to bear the one-two punch of societal evil and quirk of fate, without falling down.  Who better than Bharathiyar to urge him to not be felled?  (As an aside, this poem is brought back in an equally appropriate manner in the climactic sequence at the hotel terrace.)

Watch from the start until the 33-sec point:

The kindness of a stranger-exhibit I:   One of the oft-used tropes in thamizh cinema is the portrayal of rich people as monsters and underprivileged people as innocent and gullible.   Truth to be told, “Mahanadhi” does have sequences that utilize this trope.  But the writing is so splendid that the scenes play out in a completely unfussy manner, with the characters remaining just that – characters, not mouth pieces to make larger points.  The “Thalaivasal” Vijay scene is a case in point.  His character doesn’t even have a roof over him, yet offers protective cover to Kamal’s son (who had gotten lost earlier).    What could have been a cliched scene is lifted by some gentle humor and understated sentiments.  The scene has a perfect lead-in, with Kamal raising several tough questions about society, without knowing that the answer actually lay in humans having the most basic of values – kindness.  That he is pleasantly surprised minutes later, lends the late night scene extra poignancy.

Watch from 2:47 of clip 28 till the end of clip 29:

The kindness of a stranger-exhibit II:  Discerning movie goers will probably never forget the prostitution house sequence where Kamal rescues his daughter.  It is one of the most deeply affecting sequences ever to find its way to screen.  But when I watched this scene recently, I noticed a subtext here that I had not realized was there.  That, to ensure that humanness doesn’t become a rare commodity, we ought to be looking out for those that need to be given a lifeline or a lending hand.  And, in this sequence, the lady that pays the pimp Rs. 5000 to let go of Kamal’s daughter is that angel that rescues Kamal.  Savor that irony for a second.  She herself is in a prostitution house and yet, feels the need to help a father in distress.  This has to be Kamal’s most unheroic moment ever.  Which is why his acting is all the more remarkable.  This scene has an utterly poignant end where her daughter applies sindoor on the forehead of Kamal’s daughter.  (Actually, one overlooked aspect of “Mahanadhi” is the progressive nature of the movie.  In the world of thamizh cinema that can, sometimes, be very regressive in its approach to its women characters, this movie ends with Kamal's daughter, a victim of prostitution, being happily married to the son of the jailor, played by Rajesh.)  

Watch from 4:06:

As I sit back and reflect on this movie, I am reminded of Parthiban’s lovely line, “Innoruthar irukum varai yaarume anaadhai alla.”  The way I look at it, we sometimes have to be that “innoruthar.” And, I must thank Kamal and his “Mahanadhi” for making me think of what I owe my fellow human beings. From up above, both Bharathiyar and K Balachander would be smiling with pride as they think of what Kamal accomplished with "Mahanadhi."  That, in itself, is as good a birthday blessing as Kamal could possibly get!


Acknowledgment: Sincere Thanks to Anu Warrier for letting me adopt her style of recounting impactful moments from her favorite movies.  A wonderful writer, she blogs at

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The undeniable importance of grieving

Minutes after landing at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, I see a text message that my 49-year old Aunt has passed away.  No, it doesn’t come as a surprise; to see ‘her’ is the reason why I am in India in the first place.  I had been prepared for the devastatingly sad event by my family who told me the previous day that she was on life support and that she would not survive.  I don’t have much time to let anything sink in because I have a very short transit.  As I board my connecting flight to Chennai, why is it that I feel a sudden urge to encapsulate of all of my memories of my Aunt into a few minutes as though I am running a highlights reel in my mind?  It’s a strange feeling that the mind goes into overdrive while the rest of the body feels anesthetized.  Numb.  Totally numb.  Slowly the numbness wears off.  And, seething anger towards a supreme power (“supreme” and “power” seem such unlikely terms in the wake of a death) that I hope exists up above, is one of the first emotions that I feel.  Then I land in Chennai and see some of my family members at the airport.  Suddenly, I snap out of the maelstrom of emotions.  “There are people to console,” I tell myself.  To begin with, an 80-year old mother that has lost her daughter, a 12-year old daughter that has lost her mother.  Surely their loss is greater than mine, I convince myself. 

In the next few hours, I see every close family member and every meaningful friend that my Aunt had.  Some of her friends are people that attended my first birthday celebrations.  So, you can get a sense for the history we share collectively.  As the final rites are performed, I see everyone consoling everyone else.  Some of my Aunt’s friends console me and my other family members.  Another family member, probably with the hope of squeezing out every ounce of grief, extends to a friend that most comforting of gestures – a hug.  All this while, I feel like I am in an entirely quiet zone, continuing to run that highlights reel in my mind.  Finally, I accompany my Uncle, my parents, my Aunt’s friends and a few other family members to the crematorium.  That is where it hits me.  The sight of people getting my Aunt prepared to be turned into a pot of ashes yanks me out of my own daze.  And, that maelstrom of feelings that I had been experiencing, finds my eyes to be an apt conduit to erupt out of.  I am incredibly thankful for the fact that one of my Aunt’s dear buddies of 30 years, is nearby – equally submerged under the weight of his emotions – to ensure that I feel that I am not alone.  An hour later, what gets submerged is the pot of ashes in the nearby Besant Nagar beach as the priest overseeing the final rites directs my Uncle to have his back to the waters as he throws the pot over his shoulders.  Watching this rather pointed direction from the priest, one of my Amma’s cousins comments, “We are a very practical people.”   Are we?  More on that in a bit.

Cut to the present…

It’s been nearly three weeks since the above events happened.  And, I feel like I have had a complete grieving experience.  Sure, my Aunt’s memories will be in my mind continually for the rest of my life given what an important mother figure, sister figure and friend she was in my life.  But the short term impact of this life event taught me a few important lessons.  One is what Professor Morrie Schwartz mentioned in the wonderful, illuminating book on life, loss and death, “Tuesdays with Morrie.”  When asked by his student as to how he dealt with grief, he talked about how he faced it head-on, going through it and coming out the other side.  (I pictured going through a dark tunnel to see light at the end.)  When reflecting on my experience from three weeks ago, I realized the importance of fully being aware of one’s grieving process, identifying what works for you– some internalize while just focusing on the happy memories, others cry out loud, some wail about the unfairness of it all, others ruminate on the science around the illness – and immersing yourself fully, never once having the fear of being judged.  As with every theory, there is an exception.  And, that exception is that, while it is critically important to experience one’s own grief fully, it is also important to balance it with a focus on being there for others whom you think need you. 

Talking of being there for others, what also comes to mind are the people in the extended family and acquaintances (outside of the immediate circle) that call on the surviving family members.  In thamizh, there is a term called, “dhukkam vijarikardhu.”   I have never understood the true meaning of this term.  It translates into (bad) English as, “Asking about your sadness.”    People that call on the near and dear of the deceased, I feel, have a responsibility.  And that responsibility is to walk the tightrope walk between expressing your own sadness and giving strength and expressing support.  And, I feel that I saw people on both sides of this balance.  I remained a mute spectator as I witnessed my family listening to a few well-meaning but ill-timed comments from certain people.  Comments such as one from an old family member to my grandma -“What is the use of you and me living when she (my Aunt) is gone?”  Surely, not the advice that the Doctor ordered for my grandma, you would think.  

But all these reflections aside, that anger that I experienced towards the Almighty, thinking of the unfairness of it all, still persists.  And, that’s okay.  My family gives me the permission to ask my own unanswerable questions, trusting me to live with life’s glorious uncertainties, with those seemingly cruel vagaries of fate, all while assuming that things will look up, that there is some reason for these things to happen.  I haven’t accepted any ‘theory’ or ‘explanation’ for why this thing had to happen.  For the time being, I continue to face my own tough questions.  And, I continue to celebrate the life of my Aunt in my mind, over and over.  The show is over.  But the highlights will continue to play...

Friday, September 16, 2016

Surging Ahead Thoughtfully: An essay on the professional side of my father

It was with the unfettered excitement of a toddler that I started reading “Surge," a book written by Sushila Ravindranath, on the course of industrial growth in Tamil Nadu, India.  As I turned the pages feverishly to the chapter on the TVS group, I saw that my father Murali Sundararajan was quoted at length in this chapter.  As a son, my heart swelled with pride for the same reason why the late Randy Pausch was thrilled to see his name in the world book encyclopedia (as an expert on virtual reality).  Mr. Suresh Krishna, Chairman of the TVS group, had personally recommended to the author that my father be interviewed since Appa had been instrumental in the growth of the exports division of Sundaram Fasteners (a TVS group company).  I saw this gesture by Mr. Krishna, and Appa being quoted in the book as a just token of recognition of three things that defined him as a professional – his extensive world knowledge, his fearless enterprise and his carpe diem attitude.

Appa studied mechanical engineering at Guindy Engineering College.  After graduating in 1975 at the age of 21, he entered the industry and made meaningful strides in the area of marketing.  He never studied marketing in school; he didn’t have to!  He was born to be a marketer.  Friends, relatives and former colleagues of Appa who knew him then are amazingly consistent in how they describe him – that he was extremely enterprising, spirited, with an abundant gift of the gab but also warm, generous with his time and very giving.  As I have progressed in my professional life, I have not only understood and appreciated his gifts better.  But I can also see how he has continually honed his talents and has been proactive when it came to his professional development.  Be it in simpler things such as poring over the newspaper every morning to other things such as expanding his knowledge network, learning from his professional mentors and being actively engaged in professional societies (such as heading a trade panel in CII and serving as the VP of the Indo-ASEAN Chamber of Commerce), he left no stone unturned in maximizing his potential as a professional without losing sight of the people factor. 
As Appa tells the author of “Surge,” he was entrusted with taking initiatives for the development of the fledgling exports division of Sundaram Fasteners (in India) in the 80s.  He quickly realized that products from developing countries like India and China were frowned upon by countries like the US and the UK because there was an inherent safety (or lack thereof) bias towards those products.  Since he was keeping himself abreast of the latest industry trends (mind you, this was in the pre-internet era), he realized that the ISO 9000 certification was something that Indian firms had hardly invested in.  And, he saw that as a chance to make a statement.  And, what a resounding statement it was!  Thanks to him pushing his management to invest more in quality control and getting international accreditation, he lowered…scratch that…broke barriers and shifted the inherent biases of the global purchasers (of his company’s products), favorably.  As a result, the exports department of Sundaram Fasteners flourished.  So, the person that was making meaningful strides in his career up until now was now making giant leaps!  And, to make those leaps across continents, he required dollops of help from several airline pilots!  Because as part of his work, Appa traveled to North & South America, Europe, Africa and pretty much every key market in Asia.  (As an aside, while all this travel certainly furthered his professional ambitions, it has taken a toll on his health.  And hence, I keep policing him, to stay healthy!  He listens to me…sometimes!)

As I had written in an earlier blog post about Professor Robert Kelley, the core components of the Star Performer model (one of the most meaningful outputs of Dr. Kelley’s research work) are (1) taking initiative (2) building one’s knowledge network and (3) engaging in self-management to assess one’s strengths and areas for development.  Dr. Kelley describes these as three of the key things that make stars shine brightly.  As you can see from what I’ve written about Appa, he clearly nailed the star performer model.  What amazes me is that he did all of that instinctively, much before the star performer model came into existence! 

The speech that I gave at Appa’s 60th birthday celebrations back in 2014:

As I think of the myriad ways in which he has inspired me, I must say that apart from his professional smarts, the seamless, natural manner in which he has weaved in people into his world is what truly sets him apart among the seasoned professionals that I have seen.  He remains to this day, extremely grateful – in a vocal, demonstrative manner – to the people that have helped him develop in various stages of his career.  And I have also seen him help a lot of people across various levels, climb up the corporate ladder, with his extremely thoughtful gestures and generous advice.  As I look forward to reading the rest of “Surge,” I will do so with a sense of gratitude thinking of how Appa has surged ahead in his career, thereby giving me several comforts that I used to take for granted in my youth.   But it is one thing to surge alone but it’s another thing to help other people soar together with you.  By continually and generously paying it forward, he has given the greatest gift that any of his mentors could ask for.  And that, by itself, is reason enough to give an ISO-type certification for remarkable quality, to this exemplary marketer!  

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Treasure Hunt: A collection of my favorite ‘smaller’ scenes from thamizh cinema

Back in the 90s, Sun TV used to host a program where celebrities would pick four or five of their favorite scenes from thamizh cinema.  You had the usual suspects.  The Nizhalgal Ravi funeral scene from Nayagan.  The panchayat scene from Devar Magan.  The throwing of the gauntlet scene in Annamalai.  But as a rabid movie fanatic, I have the tendency to re-watch some of my favorite movies.  Even if not in their entirety, I do revisit portions of a lot of my favorites from time to time on youtube.  And, what strikes me is how some smaller moments seem to just leap off the screen like never before.  I wonder if it has to do with the fact that my mind has subconsciously registered the bigger scenes so much that I seem to have more capacity to notice and cherish the smaller golden moments that have a glitter of their own.  I’ve picked six such little treasures that were hidden in plain sight all along that I noticed on a repeat viewing.  Take a look and see if you enjoy these little moments as much as I did:

A Rajni – Shoba interaction in Mullum Malarum (1978):              
There are certain actors that I think are incapable of being inauthentic in any way.  They are just so wonderfully grounded and real, in terms of looks, in terms of performance.  Shoba – that marvel of an actress that met with a tragic, untimely end – was one such performer.  She was magnificent in every frame that I have seen her in, in classics like Nizhal Nijamagiradhu and Azhiyadha KolangaL.  But the pinnacle of her career was the role of Valli in Mullum Malarum.  Her innocent face, her impish smile and seemingly childlike nature are fully utilized by director Mahendran.  This sequence below is an example of how un-cinematic she was.  It is a cute interaction between brother and sister.  Notice how seamlessly Rajni and Shoba transition from an emotional moment (when Shoba reminds him of their younger days) to a lighter conversation.  Rajni is also marvelously understated and casual.  I especially love the way Rajni says, “Apdiye Valli…andha ponnukum oru kalyanam panni vechudlam!”

Watch from 3:29 min point:

The “chi chi…drama” moment in Michael Madana Kamarajan (1990):
One of the reasons for the enduring appeal of MMKR is that the movie is so densely packed that even on repeated viewings, there is invariably the odd joke that one may have missed in a previous viewing, that would make them smile or even laugh out loud.  One such easter egg that popped out to me when I watched the movie last year was the scene after the fire rescue sequence, where Kushboo gifts Kamal (the Raju character) with a piece of miniature art.  Kushboo and Kamal make this an impossibly cute repartee, with Crazy Mohan’s wordplays (“kalai arisi” for instance) aiding them in full measure.  My favorite moment in this sequence is where Kushboo asks Kamal about his artistic interests.  The educated Kushboo character asks, “Painting?  Sculpture?” and the uneducated, na├»ve Raju instinctively replies, “Chi chi…drama.”  It is such a spontaneous, hilarious reaction, one that shows that comedy is absolutely serious business, that it takes a lot of detailing – in the way a close up is shot, in the way one actor modulates his delivery, in the way another actor reacts – to make a comic moment work. 

Watch from 24:24 min point:

SPB’s “thank you” in Sigaram (1991):
Sigaram has to rank at the top of the list in thamizh cinema when it comes to sensitive portrayals of a husband-wife relationship.  On screen, SPB has always come across as an affable presence.  And, in Sigaram, the late writer-director Ananthu (a close associate of KB and a mentor of Kamal) makes full use of that persona.  SPB also rises to the occasion, imbues his character (that of a successful music director with a supportive wife and an alcoholic son) with warmth and sincerity.  One of the things I noticed is the respectful, cultured manner in which he interacts with his wife, played by Rekha.  Both SPB and Rekha are in glorious acting form, bringing to life an ageing couple still very much in love but dealing with a tough situation with their son.  There is a small scene where SPB tells Rekha about his upcoming trip to Singapore.  Right from the way he says, “thank you” when she offers a cup of coffee to the way she says that music is his “kavasam,” it is a very lifelike conversation that doesn’t come across as a dialogue written on a sheet of paper.  To borrow one of Baradwaj Rangan’s terms, the “invisibility of the writing” is perfectly demonstrated here.

Watch from 5:36 min point:

The delightfully sweet early morning sequence in Mahanadhi (1994):
Mahanadhi is easily one of the most gut-wrenching cinema experiences that I have ever had.  There are several moments from the movie that flit past my mind from time to time just when I come across as a reference or a song from the movie.  But if you watch the movie closely, there are actually several moments of just pure goodness amidst all the privation and the squalor.  One such sequence is the early morning sequence after Kamal Hasan realizes the error of his ways, in trusting a woman with questionable values.  He returns home late night from a party, only to be welcomed by his mother-in-law, who says that the kids skipped dinner because of him getting delayed.  Be it the way Kamal tenderly hugs his sleepy daughter and asks, “Adi pattudicha?” or the way the brilliant SN Lakshmi advises Kamal (I love the way she joyfully says, “Kaapi kudikreengala?”), this is one of those moments that always reminds me of Roger Ebert’s immortal words – “It is not sadness in the movies that moves me.  It is goodness.”

Watch the entire clip:

The temple scene in Rhythm (2000):
When I finished watching Rhythm back in 2000, I knew I had witnessed something truly special.  As I had noted in an earlier write-up, one of the greatest gifts of director Vasanth is his ability to bring his worlds to me (as opposed to another favorite of mine, Kamal, who transports me to his worlds).  The reason I hold Rhythm in very high regard is the way Vasanth strips away anything cinematic from his scenes and instead, grafts scene after scene with such depth of emotion that ring so true because of being devoid of sensationalism and melodrama.  All this despite the thematic content of the movie actually lending itself to that kind of overstatement.  One of the more lovely scenes in Rhythm is the one at the temple where Arjun’s parents (played by that inimitable genius Nagesh and Vatsala Rajagopal) request him, a widower, to consider remarriage.  Nagesh is in sublime touch in this scene, expertly mixing humor with a touch of emotion.  Notice the way the Amma gently holds Arjun’s face and asks, “Engalukaaga kalyanam pannika koodaatha?” 

Watch from 0:38 min (If time permits, also watch the scene from the 8:05 min point where Nagesh and his wife have a charming little moment where they exchange acknowledging glances):

The “Dey, Amma da” scene in Kaaka Muttai (2015):
Just like how the crow’s egg of the title is a little treat to the kids in the movie, this movie is full of delicious little treats.  Director Manikandan’s Kaaka Muttai is an adorable little movie that’s filled with lovable characters and wonderfully written scenes that boast of both crackling humor and real, understated emotions.  Just before the climactic sequence, there is a scene where the mother reunites with the kids that ran away from the house owing to the pressure and glare of their sudden publicity, owing to the fact that the video of a pizza shop’s owner slapping the older brother, has gone viral.  When they run away seeing the police, the mother hollers out to them.  The younger kid, recognizing the mother’s voice, stops immediately and says, “Dey, Amma da!”  He goes to hug his mother.  But the older brother is a little more unsure whether the mother has forgiven him.  And, when the mother sports a small smile indicating that all is well, the kids start smiling too.  What could have been a sappy scene is elevated by some exquisitely controlled emoting from Aishwarya Rajesh – who is the undoubtedly the most natural performer among current actresses - and the child actors, Vignesh and Ramesh who deservedly won the National Award.  (Youtube clip not available)


Saturday, September 3, 2016

Measuring Happiness on an Absolute Scale

One of the joys that I experience in life is that of someone being genuinely happy for another person.  I don’t always have to be the recipient of such generosity (though I must confess, it feels nice when that happens!) but it gives me a tremendous high when I see someone looking and sounding genuinely appreciative of or happy for someone else.  But if I were to observe the world around me, I do find it in scarcity.  Of course, whenever I hold a mirror to myself instead of just a holding a magnifying glass on the society that I am part of, I see my imperfections too, both past and present.  But I sincerely feel that of the areas that I have to work on to become a better human being, being generous may not be one of them.  This is not to suggest that I am a saint.  I have, especially in my younger days, had streaks of selfishness, self-absorption and jealousy.  But I do believe that over the years, I have grown a little more assured of myself, a little more focused on what I truly want to achieve.  Which is perhaps why I feel a little less tolerant of those that still seem to struggle to completely hold their own, feel driven by a constant need to brandish their sharply pointed knives of sarcasm and smugness.  Is it the case that in an increasingly competitive world that people are uncomfortable with how tall they stand that they constantly look to the side to see who is taller and see if they can pull that person down?  Which leads me to the question - why does the height of your happiness have to be measured on a relative scale?  Why not instead measure it on an absolute scale? 

Image Courtesy of

If I were to adjust the focus of my magnifying glasses and look with a little more perspicacity, I realize that some people make it a point to live life in a carefree manner.  In order to not be weighed down by the burdens of adulthood, they puncture anything serious that balloons in front of them.  In those people, I can sense a casual irreverence, the unwillingness to take things too seriously.  It is actually a sheer joy to be in their midst.  I have seen them pass comments on others that may come across as a tad insensitive or disrespectful.  But once you get to know them, you realize that it is never to hurt or to not be genuinely happy for someone else.  Instead, it is the notion that anything that’s not feather light is too heavy for them!  They might needle you but the needle is meant to just a prick the bubble of seriousness, not create a wound that festers. 

Contrast this to another type of person that I’ve come across – the hardcore competitive person who starts to worry about others’ successes and joys.  This is where I struggle the most.  And, it is not because I just can’t relate it.  It is because I can actually relate to it.  It took me years of toiling hard in my academic life – especially during my MBA days from 2007 to 2009- and my professional life to realize that even a minute that I spend looking away from the sights that I’ve set for myself and start to feel even an iota of jealousy about others in the professional or personal setting, is a minute wasted.  As I had written in an earlier blog post*, freeing up myself of these extraneous factors has allowed me to be happier and more generous towards others.  Also, it is one thing to look around, to get inspiration from others in different walks of life.  But it is another thing to start to feel small when someone else is rising in front of your others.  The people that I sincerely admire in both my personal and professional life are the ones that can exert the tremendous self-control that it takes to just look at maximizing their own potential, staying laser focused on their goals and looking around just enough to learn, to grow and live life in an even better way.  It is an area where I feel like I’ve come a fair way from the days of my brash youth.  But as with everything else, I am sure that I can evolve even further.  For the time being, let me just cherish the heights of happiness that I have been blessed with!

* If time permits, read my companion piece on this topic:

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Inspirations (22 of 25) - Director Mani Ratnam

As I was getting inundated with tweets and write-ups celebrating 30 years of Mouna Raagam, something struck me.  That the biggest service that Mani Ratnam has rendered thamizh cinema, above anything else, has been in terms of taste.  As I was recollecting moments from Mouna Raagam, I was thinking of how there had been directors like Sridhar, Balu Mahendra and Mahendran that had tremendous sense of aesthetics and a cultured, even urbane, approach towards making films.  But when I think of the director who consistently exhibited class and style in filmmaking, Mani Ratnam has been the aesthete par excellence. 

Image Courtesy of

I could list umpteen examples of his mastery over the medium, the exquisite detailing of his frames and the rich production values of his films but I choose as my primary exhibit, not the famous NizhalgaL Ravi death scene or the ‘avana nirutha sol…naan nirutharen’ sequence from Nayagan.  (Also because if I get started on Nayagan, I can't talk about anything else!)  Instead, it’s the Nilave Vaa  song from Mouna Raagam.  This sequence, to me, speaks volumes about what made Ratnam stand apart from other directors when it came to presenting a splendid audio visual experience.  The lead-up to the song is the segment where Revathi asks for a divorce seven days into her marriage and her husband (played by Mohan) chooses to oblige.  There are a number of things Mani Ratnam-ish that this song evoked for me when I listened to it during my early morning walk today.

First, the belief that even when the theme had been presented earlier (in movies like Andha Ezhu Naatkal & Nenjathai Killathey), the confidence of Ratnam that he could tell the story in a way that was uniquely his*.  This is something that we would see in movies like Nayagan.  Sure, it is inspired by The Godfather.  But cite one thamizh movie pre- Nayagan where a don sported a shirt and dhoti instead of a gaudy suit and oversized sunglasses (even for midnight, indoor sequences!) and you will start to realize that Ratnam’s presentation and movie making are things that we sometimes tend to give short shrift to, as we dismissively talk about the sources of his inspiration. 

Going back to Nilave Vaa, the other thing that it made me think of, is the seamless manner in which he integrated a song into the film, in this case, to underscore the pain of the protagonist.  Be it in Ilayaraja’s lovely tune or Vaali’s incredibly poignant lines ("Amaadiyo nee thaan innum siru pillai…thaangathama nenjam neeyum sonna sollai"), the song weaves magic on the senses.  And, by the time you factor in PC Sreeram’s glorious cinematography, the audiovisual experience is so complete, so evocative. (In the video below, my favorite shot is at 2:12 when we hear the words, "sollil vaithaai mullai.")

Of course, the reason why I can’t just focus on the Nilave Vaa song to write about Ratnam is because I would not be able to talk about the other thing that made him totally unique – the cuteness of his romances.  In the wake of the unfortunate murder of Infosys employee Swathi, an unfortunate victim of stalking, there have been a lot of discussions online about the influence of movies.  Even Ratnam’s movies like Dil Se have been invoked in certain forums as an example of a hero relentlessly stalking a heroine.  I am not going to argue for or against Ratnam here.  Of course, Ratnam’s heroes have not all been paragons of virtue.  I mean, in Idhayathai Thirudathey, Nagarjuna coolly plants a kiss on Girija’s cheek 10 seconds after he gets to know her name!  But I find it hard pressed to come up with an example where Ratnam shot a romantic sequence in a distasteful manner…including the aforementioned kiss!  It may have to do with the fact that his female leads have always had minds of their own, strong convictions and have been unafraid to be brutally honest about their failings…in short, his female leads have always been fleshed out and lifelike.  And, despite his heroes wooing and chasing the subjects of their adoration, it’s invariably portrayed in a lovable manner, which makes us overlook their selfishness and maybe even their smugness and instead, enjoy their cool confidence.  Of course, as a guy, I run the risk of trivializing something that a girl might find offensive.  But I am yet to come across a girl who has not found Ratnam’s romances sunny and funny.  So, if you take away the reel-life-real-life connections for a moment, you will see that his romances can be an intoxicating mix of sweetness and sensitivity…or in his own words (from Mouna Raagam), “style…grace…charm!”

In recent years, Ratnam has taken a lot of chances away from his comfort zone, venturing into movies like Raavanan and Kadal with limited critical and commercial success.  As a respectful fan of the Ratnam of the ’86-’01 period (Mouna Raagam to Kannathil Muthamittaal), while I appreciate his taking chances and going beyond the tried and tested, what has been disappointing for me at times is the surprising lack of emotional resonance with his characters.  Even in a movie like Thalapathi that had its critics who felt that the Rajnikanth-Mammooty friendship was not established well initially, the scene outside the police station was shot so well, was acted so marvelously that it took me all of those twenty seconds where Rajni says, “en kitte onney onnu thaan iruku…en uyiru” followed by Raja’s scintillating music, to fall for the characters.  While I continued to admire the craft so evident in movies like Guru and Raavanan, I just did not feel as much empathy for his characters like I did before.  Which is why when I watched OK Kanmani last year, more than the sheer joy that the romance gave me, it was the fact that there were characters like Prakash Raj and Nithya Menen that I could care for, whom I wanted to feel happy by the end of the movie, that made me brim with joy and pride as a fan of Ratnam's works. 

As a guy that grew up in Chennai in the 80s and 90s (before moving to the US in ’98), my movie-going experiences and interest in the movies – not just watching them but also understanding the art, the craft, the writing and the making – were largely influenced by the likes of Ratnam, Vasanth and other filmmakers that made me appreciate good, tasteful cinema.  It is as a result of them that I dug deeper to watch the works of directors who inspired them – Mahendran, Balachander, Balu Mahendra and Coppola, to name a few.  So, I have to be thankful for filmmakers like Ratnam for inspiring me to appreciate their art form, truly, madly and deeply.  Thank you, Mani Sir, for the choices you have made as a filmmaker and for the choices that you have helped me make as a movie goer.


* Reference: Conversations with Mani Ratnam by Baradwaj Rangan

Friday, August 12, 2016

How mighty is the pen in Thamizh cinema?

Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive thesis about an exhaustive list of writers; rather, it's just a collection of some of my thoughts.

I watched Samudrakani’s Appa last Thursday.  And, I woke up Saturday morning to the sad news of the great ‘Vietnam Veedu’ Sundaram passing away.  Sundaram, for those that might not know him, wrote three back-to-back classics with Sivaji Ganesan – Vietnam Veedu, Gnana Oli and Gowravam (which he directed) - in the early 70s.

Image Courtesy of "The Hindu"

Samudrakani dedicated Appa to K Balachander, one of the finest writers in thamizh cinema.  He might as well have dedicated the movie to Sundaram and every writer that meant something to thamizh movies.  This is not to say that Appa is a classic or even an instance of Samudrakani scaling a peak as a writer.  But the film is a throwback to an era where writing meant something.  It’s a very thoughtfully written film.  There are some lines that pack tremendous punch.  Alas, there’re the stagey and preachy elements that so many critics lament about.  More on that later.  But my point is, love it or hate it, there is no denying the fact that writing was given paramount importance by the filmmaker.  Even if you could argue that the content did not hold appeal to you, there was something about the flow of the screenplay and characterizations that made it abundantly clear that Samudrakani approached his subject matter with utmost sincerity even if what was on paper was not completely transformed into a wholesome cinematic experience. 

Evaluating a movie in terms of its form and content is an approach that I adopted ever since I first read some of Baradwaj Rangan’s pieces.  It is a very simple yet meaningful way of evaluating movies.  But where I am not on the same page – in fact I am not even in the same book! – with Rangan is when it comes to the relative importance of the two.  The well-informed critic that Rangan is, is invariably pained by Thamizh cinema not going to the next level in terms of form – that we don’t have enough directors who have a sense of the medium and the tropes that must be used purposefully.  He has written multiple times that if he were to only get one of the two, then it would be good craft even if the content is not spectacular.  It’s a completely fair point.  But it’s not something that I agree with. I'll tell you why.  

Veteran filmmakers like Mahendran as well as newer directors like Karthik Subburaj are forces to reckon with because of the mastery that they exhibit over form.  But we have several other filmmakers that get by with content that is sometimes inane, sometimes misogynistic, sometimes downright irresponsible that I feel like saying that if I can watch a film that exhibits complete mastery over both form and content (Udhiri PookaL and Iraivi, to name two completely different movies where I both  loved the subject matter and admired the craft) then that’s great.  But if I can get only one from a director, please give me content…any day of the week.  When I see films like Trisha Illana Nayanthara become huge successes and films like Appa become average performers, it pains me.  It is not because I am such a prude that I won’t watch adult humor.  It is just that Trisha Illana... was painfully unfunny – the jokes weren’t even built up well and there seemed to be nothing in the writing to reflect thoughtfulness around the structure or characterizations.  Contrast that with Appa– sure, it’s stagey.  Sure, it even looks and sounds outdated.  But there is some solid writing that lifts several scenes.  I watched this movie last Thursday.  And, over the weekend, several of the thoughts and - gulp! - "messages” from his movie made me think of my own role as a parent.  That is the success of a filmmaker, using a powerful art form to make someone introspect.  And, that, my dear reader, is also responsible film making.  Even if he might score 10/50 for form, it’s at least 40/50 for content.   50/100 - Let my glass be half-full this way. 

Image Courtesy of “The Indian Express."

The passing away of another industry stalwart this week – writer, lyricist and producer Panchu Arunachalam- is also a sad, yet timely reminder of a time when writers were given a lot more importance than they are today.  Arunachalam was the writer of most of Rajnikanth’s blockbusters in the late 70s and 80s.  Even when Kamal Hassan decided to go berserk in the commercial sense, Arunachalam was at the fore, writing movies like Sakalakala Vallavan.  During the 80s, there were other respected writers like R. Selvaraj (Mudhal Mariyadhai), P. Kalaimani (Gopurangal Saivadhillai), Visu (apart from being a director, he also wrote the screenplay and dialogues of movies with stars, like Rajni in Nallavanuku Nallavan) and AL Narayanan (Vazhve Mayam, Kaaki Chattai).  Writers like Arunachalam and Kalaimani had turned producers as well.  In what was truly a sign of prominence given to the writer, Mudhal Vasantham, directed by Manivannan, ended with a card that flashed, “A film written by P. Kalaimani.”  If you think that the content of these movies was nothing spectacular, you may be right in your own way.  But these writers ensured that there was a sense of coherence in the screenplay and some good use of thamizh in their dialogues, sometimes even creating a bit of an emotional connect despite the high masala quotient (Nallavanuku Nallavan, for instance).  Also, that was one type of film that they wrote.  Arunachalam, for instance, also helped create some truly meaningful cinema in that period.  The same person that wrote Sakalakala Vallavan also wrote movies like the sensitive Aarilirundhu Arubadhu Varai, in which Rajni turned in a delightfully understated performance, and helped shape the screenplay and dialogues of powerful dramas like Mann Vaasanai and Pudhumai Penn.

Those last two movies that I mentioned lead me to think about something else that Rangan has written about.  And, that is, how directors like Martin Scorsese have worked with writers like Paul Schrader, shaping the writer’s content according to their tastes and sensibilities to come up with a product that bears a writer’s stamp that’s blended with the director’s vision.  Our directors like Bharathiraja, Mani Ratnam and Shankar have routinely worked with preeminent writers like Selvaraj, Sujatha and Balakumaran to create some timeless classics.  This points to the need for a systemic change in thamizh cinema that celebrates directors and actors and very rarely gives writers their due respect.   And, it is that respect and recognition that we afford to current and future writers that would make the souls of writers like Vietnam Veedu Sundaram and Panchu Arunachalam truly rest in peace.