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: