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