Monday, April 25, 2016

Remembering Raghuvaran

It’s funny how some actors become such an integral part of our lives, growing up.  You get used to their voice, their smile, their mannerisms and above all, a certain aura that they possess.  I have always been an incurable cinema fanatic.  But over the years, I would like to think that I developed a taste for things that are rooted in reality.  Sure, I do continue to enjoy well-made masala fantasies but where my heart truly lies as a moviegoer is in cinema where the creator’s lens that was intended to capture the lives of the characters also doubles up as a mirror that makes me view myself and the world I live in with a little more acuity.  

A lot of people remember Raghuvaran as the unforgettable villain from many a memorable movie.  As a villain, he was absolutely terrifying.  Those performances were the result of his uniqueness, which came from his expert understanding and use of silences, voice modulation, expressions and body language.   I still watch in awe the interview scene from “Mudhalvan” (where he may have lost the CM post but simply stole the show!) or the famous “I know…I know…” sequence from “Puriyadha Pudhir.”  But those were still performances.  Performances that were played in a way that was absolutely right in terms of pitch for the kind of dramas or melodramas that they were a part of.  But the Raghuvaran that I remember is that controlled performer, who brought tremendous depth, dignity and nuance to some well-written but tough-to-play characters.  His parts in “Anjali”, “Thotta Chinungi”, “Aaha”, “Thulli Thirindha Kaalam” (the flashback portions), “Mugavari” and “Yaaradi Nee Mohini” are the kind of roles that etched him indelibly in my mind even now, eight years after his untimely death.*
Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

Tall, lanky and blessed with powerful eyes, Raghuvaran cut a dashing figure.  He used his physicality in a way that very few performers did.  He had tremendous control over his body language and knew how to do just enough with his body and voice to create an august presence.  Take for instance the climactic portion of “Aaha.”  He is simply tremendous in this scene.  He plays a character that has made some questionable decisions in a relationship outside of his marriage.  (The movie very intelligently leaves it to us to determine whether the relationship is platonic or is an affair.)  But start watching at the 2 hr 34 min point of the video below.  In explaining his stance (starting at the 2:35:50 point), he does a splendid job of making us understand the reasons for the character’s supposed imperfections.  Just note the way he delivers the line, “She’s no more, pa.”  Absolutely lovely and invested with a kind of emotion that's so...Raghuvaran-ish!  It is in roles such as this one and the one in “Thotta Chinungi” where he played human characters - replete with strengths and imperfections - where he was absolutely a class apart.  With his rich repertoire, he was a showcase for everyday ‘heroes,’ the ones that were the fruit of the discerning mind’s labor, not of fantastic imaginations. 

The other reason why I absolutely adored Raghuvaran’s roles that had more shades of white than black was the way he played the scenes where he transforms the outlook of other characters.  For a moment, I resisted the word ‘advice’ since it sometimes carries unfavorable connotations in thamizh cinema!  But in movies like “Anjali” and “Mugavari,” Raghuvaran did a marvelous job of narrating stories or offering advice in a way that didn’t sound like a tiresome sermon and instead, sounded like the words of a wise, well-meaning soul.  In fact, of the number of times I have been to a theater, not once have I seen a crowd hoot or holler when Raghuvaran played a straight scene like the one below (it starts at 1:10) from “Mugavari.”  Usually, there was stunned silence.  And that was probably the result of that ‘aura’ that I mentioned earlier. 

It may sound like exaggeration but the people that know me know that this is absolutely true.  But the fact is that I genuinely miss Raghuvaran even though I never knew him personally.  Whenever I happen upon a scene of his on TV, my comment is usually along the lines of, “Anyaayama poitaan.”  You could say that it’s because I take movies way too seriously.  But it is also possible that he made a lasting impact.  Sometimes these actors have a way of sneaking up your subconscious in your formative years and staying there.  I think with the aforementioned roles and the way he played them, Raghuvaran did just that.  I guess that’s why people get comfort out of the immortality that the silver screen bestows upon the departed.  So, thank you, cinema.  And, miss you, Raghuvaran. 

*PS - I have read quite a bit about his problems with alcohol addiction.  Well, what can I say except that I wish he had recovered from his addictions to live a longer life.  :)

*PS #2 - my sister suggested that this post will be incomplete without at least one of these videos.  So, here you go, Minnu!  (Readers - she's such an admirer of Raghuvaran that my phone plays the interview scene music when she calls!)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

“Sunny Side Up” – Reflections on Anu Hasan’s book

I remember a conversation with my writing instructor Ed Barr wherein he told me that if I can be “authentic” and “honest” when recollecting my real life experiences (in the case of non-fiction) or channeling them (in the case of fiction), then there’s a strong chance that there are enough people that have had similar experiences that I would not have to worry about the material resonating with people.  Mr. Barr’s words came back to me like a flash when I found myself completely engrossed while reading Anu Hasan’s book “Sunny Side Up.”  In one of the chapters of the book titled “Anger, Impatience and Me”, Anu writes, “Every time I lose my temper, I feel as though I have lost a battle.  Then again, each time I fight for control for a little bit longer than before.  So, there is some consolation.”   That’s her.  But that’s me as well.   And, I am certain that I am not the only reader that felt that line striking a chord.  I finished reading this book a few days ago.  But I couldn’t start penning my thoughts on the book immediately.  And that’s because of the stunning honesty with which Anu explains her character flaws such as anger.  Ever since I finished the book, I feel like I look at myself in the mirror that fraction of a second longer, reflecting on my strengths and being honest about my failings.  But more importantly, the book has plenty of examples that make me comfort myself that as long as I “fight” for the kind of “control” that Anu writes about, as long as I am cognizant of my flaws and work towards rectifying them that I can optimally enjoy my journey with the loved ones that travel with me.

Image Courtesy of Amazon

Anu’s book is put together with disparate, self-contained chapters– some of the standalone sections like the bison episode are delightful - that don’t lead to subsequent ones.  This format is just perfect for the book because the key objective of the book, as the title suggests, is to make us see joy in everyday trivialities.  But as in life, this book is a blend of lighthearted stuff along with some serious material like divorce.  And, Anu does justice to both.  The chapter on her divorce is sensitively written without an iota of sensationalism.  This chapter gives us just the right amount of detail, just enough to make us ponder over what our priorities in marriage should be.  The focus on sharing her story and sharing the lessons that she learned lends a remarkable air of credibility to her thoughts.  This, coupled with the clarity of her thoughts and the balanced views, makes for a much deeper reading than what I was prepared for.  One of her lines in this chapter goes, “…divorce is indeed an option but we should remember that it’s the last one.”  That succinctly states a lot of what there is to be said about successful marriages.  (Anu remarried and from how she describes her husband in the book, she sounds happily married now.)  And, the “Divorce” chapter has a touching end where we get to hear about her mother-in-law giving her pound-for-pound some of the best advice that I have heard for modern day, married couples.  (I won’t spoil it for you by revealing it in case you haven’t read the book.)

There are several other chapters such as the ones on friends, parents and even appearance, where see glimpses of her straightforward nature, the zest for life and the desire to learn continually.  The chapter titled “Appearance and Image” resonated with me strongly.  As someone that was the butt of many a joke as an overweight child (and even in my early 20s), I could appreciate Anu’s desire to  deal with insulting and insensitive comments in a mature manner.  It’s not something that I had always dealt with in a dignified manner.  I used to get into arguments and tiffs, invariably questioning (in not exactly poetic language!) whether the people in question had the right to make such comments.  It was only when I was 23 when I lost all of my excess weight.  But even now (I am 34), I obsess over not putting on even a pound of weight lest all those comments resurface.  I have sometimes been unreasonable and obsessive.  For instance, I have a food scale (yes, it measures the food in grams!) which drives my family nuts and understandably so.  Although I have never succumbed to any crazy diets or unhealthy exercise routines, I have sometimes eaten less than I should have because I was worried about the number on the weighing scale the next morning.  But reading Anu’s book definitely made me think twice about my obsession with weight, waist size, BMI, etc.  I have started to say to myself that to remain healthy should be my top priority.  That I should continue to place importance on staying fit but with a little more enjoyment and a little less fear. 

As the book neared its end, I wanted more.  I didn’t want the book to end since there was just so much detailing, so many sunny moments and so many nuggets of wisdom delivered with understated elegance.  As I wrote earlier, even after I finished the book what lingered were the positive vibes of the book and the power of those perceptive moments like the one on divorce that I had cited earlier.  I was reminded of Roy Goodman’s famous words – “Happiness is a way of travel, not a destination.”  Thank you, Anu, for sharing your journey with us.   


Friday, April 1, 2016

The National Award for the Best 'Dialogue Writer' goes to Ilayaraja

Dear blog reader: No, that was not a typo in the header!  As fans of Ilayaraja celebrate his National Award, what sprang to mind was a press meet with Director Mahendran (of classics such as "Mullum Malarum" and "Udhiri PookaL").  In the interview, he said, "Ilayaraja, with his background score, is the 'dialogue writer' for my movies."  At first, it might sound like empty flattery.  But dig deeper, you'll understand Mahendran's comment better.  Mahendran was among the path breakers in thamizh cinema in the late 70s that understood that truly good cinema had to be an audio-visual experience and not just a collection of scenes involving non-stop dialogue.  He was part of a wave of filmmakers like Bharathiraja and Balu Mahendra to whom music - both songs and background score- was a significant trope used to underline signature moments and emotions.  And, in Ilayaraja, they had someone who understood exactly how music had to contribute to this audio-visual experience.

In this post, I have compiled 10 sequences (in no particular order) with Ilayaraja's background score that should give you a sense for what he added to a scene.  I have focused more on having a variety of moods that he enhanced with his background score.  I hope that with your comments, you can add more scenes that may be your personal favorites.

Before I get started with my list, a huge thanks to all those people that had uploaded these videos to youtube.

1 of 10 - Bharathi:
There's a beautiful scene in "Bharathi" where the poet visits the house of a Christian (played by "NizhalgaL" Ravi) for a meal.  His orthodox Brahmin wife Chellama (a superb Devyani) goes along but is extremely uncomfortable to eat in the house of someone who is not a brahmin.  Raja's score does two things at the same time - the slow but strong beats emphasize Bharathi's strictness and simmering anger at his wife's refusal to eat while the softer veenai subtly underscores Chellama's discomfort.

Start watching at the 9-min point:

2 of 10 - AaN Paavam:
Raja's bgm is the reason why the engagement scene works so beautifully.  The shyness, the hesitation and the subsequent joy that both parties (Pandiyan and Seetha) experience is brought out in true Raja-esque fashion.

3 of 10 - Johnny:
It's hard to find a love story in thamizh cinema as delicate as the one involving Rajni and Sridevi in "Johnny."  And, Raja's use of violins to showcase a gamut of emotions from ecstasy to sadness and the piano, used nicely to emphasize Sridevi's childlike nature, are reasons why this track tugged at your heartstrings.  Oh, by the way, this was directed by Mahendran.  Now you know why he referred to Raja as his 'dialogue writer.'  (As an aside, Mahendran's actual dialogues in this scene are exquisite too.)

Start watching at the 3:20 point:  (If you have time, watch the whole video.  It's worth it!)

4 of 10 - Chathriyan:
This proves that Raja can do 'mass' as well as he can do 'class.'  The background score for the training portions are sheer adrenaline overdose.

Adrenaline rush starts at 4:55:

5 of 10 - Sethu:
It is a testament to the power of Raja's music that I didn't want to go anywhere near the climactic portions of "Sethu" when I was revisiting some of his scores.  I was just scared that I would feel a sense of heaviness that would take hours to overcome!  So, I stuck to this scene where Vikram bullies Abitha.  Notice the lively score when he's ragging her.  But notice the equally lovely score at the 2:26 min point that essentially says, 'En manasula pattampoochi parakudhu' without a single word uttered.

6 of 10 - Chinna Counder:
One of Raja's skills that is rarely mentioned is his ability to add value to comic scenes.  In this scene where Vijaykanth carries the bag of a city-bred guy, Raja's music is perfectly in sync with the visuals, esp. the moment where the villagers pass the matchbox to him.

The fun begins at the 10:10 min point:

7 of 10 - Guna:
Noted film critic Baradwaj Rangan was the person that truly made me appreciate the value of Raja's bgm.  The following is an excerpt from a comment from Rangan on the score of "Guna."  I don't think I can express it better.  Rangan wrote, "Now, however good Kamal is, he can only summon up the “awestruck” part of what he’s feeling. How do we, the audience, know about the “divinity” aspect? Through the score — which “tells” us WHAT about this woman is making this man awestruck."

The 'divinity' - of the moment, the acting and the music - begins right at the start of the video:

8 of 10 - Mouna Raagam:
Raja's title scores invariably do a fantastic job of drawing the viewer right into the mood and tone of the movie.  And, what better example than "Mouna Raagam."  The music showcases the perky nature of Revathy, the tragedy of the Karthik episode as well as the delicate nature of the Mohan-Revathy relationship.

9 of 10 - Hey! Ram:
A fellow commenter in an online forum recently asked me for a good example of "internalization" by an actor.  I immediately thought of Kamal in "Hey! Ram."  This is the story of a man who is besieged by guilt.  Guilt at not only the loss of his near and dear (like his wife and friend) but also his own reactions to their loss and his unfair assessment of Gandhi being the cause of his wife's death.  A key moment in his transformation occurs when Gandhi says the same thing that his dying friend had told him.  ("I am willing to take all this communal hatred in the form of a bullet if with that bullet, I am promised that people will bury this hatred.")  Not only does Raja's title score (first video below) set the stage for the drama to unfold.  But he also brings back this theme music in the scene where Kamal looks at himself in the mirror of a bathroom (which is the start of the second video below).  This is where Kamal, the consummate actor that he is, internalizes his repentance and his yearning for redemption and lets Raja's score do the rest.

10 of 10 - Muthal Mariyadhai:
One of Bharathiraja's greatest accomplishments in "Muthal Mariyadhai" was to portray the depth of love that a man experiences in a relationship outside of his (failed) marriage without suggesting anything physical. (The word "nesam" used in the "Vettiveru Vaasam" song is just perfect.)  The scene where Sivaji and Radha attempt to catch fish is a case in point.  Their joy in catching the fish after attributing the catch to their joint "raasi" was brought out by the king in brilliant fashion.

Watch from 1:45 to 3:20:

As mentioned earlier, this is not meant to be an exhaustive list.  But hopefully this would have given a sense for how Raja helped script the success of a variety of films by writing 'dialogues' in a language that's his and entirely his.  For that, the recent national award for the best background score is merely a small, delayed token of appreciation of his genius.  But, as they say, it is better late than never.