Sunday, January 29, 2017

Magic of the Montage: A piece on my favorite montage song sequences in thamizh cinema

In an interview with Bosskey, legendary director Mahendran made an interesting observation.  He mentioned his ambivalence towards songs in the movies.  While, as a music lover, he could rarely resist the temptation of including Ilayaraja’s scintillating songs in his movies, the thought of picturizing them made him extremely uncomfortable.  As a filmmaker who firmly believed in realism – quite often, the stark, brutal side of realism – songs were anathema to him because their inclusion in his movies meant that he was going against the grain of what he tried to achieve with his style of storytelling.  But as he started out as a director with Mullum Malarum (1978), he arrived at a compromise that was remarkable for how stunningly different it was from the status quo of the songs of that era.  And, that was the idea of the montage sequence for songs, sans formal dance choreography.  Of course, there is a lot of visceral thrill in witnessing an intricately choreographed dance sequence.  But for the purposes of this post, I have compiled 10 of my favorite montage sequences in thamizh cinema.  (These are just listed in chronological order.)  These are just some brilliant numbers; that is a given.  Instead, I’d like to focus a little more on the actual picturization.*

“Senorita” from Johnny (1980; Director: Mahendran) - One of the most joyous sequences committed to film, every element of this song  is perfectly coordinated.  The music that syncs with the clicking of the scissors (Rajnikanth plays a barber), SPB’s irresistibly enthusiastic rendition of the line, “Poomethai poduginra vaasa pushpangaL”, Rajni’s antics at the 1:58 min point, are just some of the things that make this song a delectable concoction. 

“Anthi mazhai” from Raja Paarvai (1981; Director: Singeetham Srinivasa Rao) – This was probably the song that made people christen Kamal Haasan, kadhal mannan!  This song sequence is perfectly symptomatic of what a sweet, aesthetically shot romance Raja Paarvai is.  The part from 2:55 – 3:10 is astounding, given the limited resources that must have been available back in 1981!  And, Kamal and Madhavi holding that transparent umbrella together– who came up with that idea?  So beautiful, so tasteful that the rain gods would have felt the need to work extra hours just for that device to be opened for this couple!  Barun Mukherjee’s cinematography (especially from 1:17-1:30) is as extraordinary as Ilayaraja’s tune is mesmerizing. 

 “Poongatru” from Moondram Pirai (1982; Director: Balu Mahendra) – The apotheosis of Balu Mahendra’s illustrious career as a cinematographer and director, Moondram Pirai is a fine example of what results when the actors, director and the music director are all simpatico.  The way the sequences are filmed and edited almost give the feeling that the director and the music director conceived this audio visual treat in one session, with one providing the music and the other coming up with the corresponding visuals!  The way the train track segment (starting at the 2:29 min point) is shot is a case in point.

“Sangeetha swarangaL” from Azhagan (1991; Director: K Balachander) – Director K Balachander was a master at coming up with novel situations for the songs in his movies.  This song does a marvelous job of capturing the closeness and the sensuality of a couple that is falling in love.  Though the whole sequence just involves the two of them on the phone, the way this song is shot is exquisite.  Mammooty and Banupriya are charming in an effortless manner.  And, I loved the way the song ends with the Doordarshan news tune!  Sometimes reality shakes people up from a dream in the most mundane manner possible! 

“Nivetha” from Nee Paathi Naan Pathi (1991; Director: Vasanth) – A song with no lyrics, “Nivetha” more than amply compensated for the lack of words with pictures that spoke a thousand of them in every frame.  The visuals are pleasing and the editing, seamless, and result in an experience that is sheer poetry in motion. 

“Vetri Nichayam” from Annamalai (1992; Director: Suresh Krissna) – Rags-to-riches-in-one-song is an oft-used, sometimes abused, trope in the world of masala movies.  But “Vetri Nichayam,” owing to the fact that it was one of the first of its kind, packs quite a punch.  Through a series of crisp vignettes, the song makes a powerful impact, carrying forward the momentum from some of the dramatic sequences prior.  And, a suave, casually understated Rajni doesn’t hurt either!

“Mettu Podu” from Duet (1994; Director: K Balachander) – Another one from the rich collection of KB’s songs, “Mettu Podu” is sheer sensory magic.  My favorite part of the song is when Prabhu and his family gather in their living room to watch their own song on TV (starting at the 4:26 min point below).  Just the way the family members' reactions are showcased, goes to show that with some thoughtfulness, it is possible to paint an evocative sketch that complements the audio portions of a song.

“Pachai kiLigaL” from Indian (1996; Director: Shankar) – A director that’s known to stretch the limits of grandeur (though not always in an aesthetic manner, in my opinion), Shankar created a tremendous impact in the flashback sequence in Indian by just sticking to good storytelling.  “Pachai kiLigaL” is a fabulously shot song on a small family that live in the idyll of a village and enjoy simple pleasures.  Kasthuri is especially moving in the engagement scene (starting at the 3:32 min point).  As an aside,  I just wish that Shankar had reined his urges to indulge in unnecessary graphics  - the ‘flying’ pen is an example of the more is less in Shankar’s cinema!  The actors were doing just fine in this song until Shankar’s graphics department took over!  Nevertheless, the song is indeed special in a whole host of other ways.  

“ILangaathu veesuthey...” from Pithamagan (2003; Director: Bala) – The king of gore, violence and tragedy, director Bala, has the knack of surprising his audiences with sprinkles of sweetness, warmth and gentle humor.  He extends it to song sequences like “Maalai En Vethanai” (Sethu), “Munpaniya” (Nanda) and this one, from Pithamagan.  The impact of Ilayaraja’s glorious composition is enhanced by the visuals of Bala and his cinematographer, Balasubramaniem. 

“KangaL irandaal” from Subramaniapuram (2008; Director: M. Sasikumar) – James Vasanthan shot to fame with his mellifluous number, only to flatter to deceive, with none of his subsequent works (barring maybe the “Oru Vetkam” song from Pasanga) even in the ballpark of this stunning creation.  We get some lovely visuals that fit the tune like a glove, especially the portion where Samudrakani approaches Jai and Swathi during their surreptitious meeting at the temple (starting at 3:29 below).  The first time I watched this, my heart was in my mouth.  Kudos to Sasikumar for injecting a bit of suspense into a melody, of all things!  And, that head bob of Jai’s – please don’t start wondering how that became so popular.  It just was popular, that’s it!


* PS: Since it is impossible for me to figure out the relative contributions of the director and the choreographer, I have given credit for the picturizations to the director with the belief that it is, after all, their vision that is being brought to life by the crew.  

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Madras movie theater experience: Fun memories of watching movies in Madras

“Wait a minute!  All this serious stuff is fine.  But you have also had some incredible fun at the movies.  Why not write about that too?”  That’s what I said to myself last week, a few days after I published my post on Iruvar.  As I gratefully accepted all the positive feedback on that write-up, I also felt the urge to revisit another set of my memory cells, related to my decade-long memories, starting from the late 80s, of Madras’ cinema theaters.  I first need to provide some context.  I lived in Madras – yes, good ol’ Madras, not the C word that it got transformed into – for 17 years from 1981, when I was welcomed into this world by the same maternity ward nurses that rejected Raja Paarvai and celebrated Murattu KaaLai!  As I took baby steps in my house, so did Kamal, in Bollywood with Ek Duje Ke Liye.  By the time I was six, two things happened –my family felt comfortable taking me to the movies that they wanted to watch.  And, alarm bells went off in Kamal’s head to wake him up from his Bombay dreams; he decided that he would make new dreams right out of Madras and started working on some path breaking movies, which my family really admired.  What this meant was that starting around the time of the release of Nayagan (Diwali, 1987), I used to tag along with my grandparents and my parents to pretty much every movie that they wanted to watch.  Mind you, this was the pre-satellite TV era.  Heck, I don’t even think DD-metro was on air back then, let alone Koffee with DD! 

My admiration for Kamal began in the post-Nayagan phase itself.  But truth to be told, I was not the Kamal Daasan that I am now!  I used to equally enjoy Rajni’s masala movies.  Maapillai at Albert Theater was quite something, especially the pre-intermission feisty exchange with Srividya; the fans screamed until the elders in the audience lost their hearing completely.  I even remember going to the now-defunct Sapphire theater to watch Mohan Lal and Mammooty movies without subtitles, without understanding Malayalam!  An hour into the Mohan Lal starrer His Highness Abdullah, my Mother exclaimed, “Bore adichu thallardhu!  Kalambalaam!”  (“I am bored stiff.  Let’s leave!”)  My grandpa was enjoying the movie and didn’t want to leave.  And, I don’t know if I enjoyed the movie or if it felt nice to ‘support’ my grandpa but I said, firmly, “Naanum varra maaten!” (“I am not coming either!”)  And, I very proudly stayed with my grandpa throughout the movie, savoring the corn puffs purchased during the intermission as much as what ensued on screen!  My mother and grandma,  meanwhile, left the theater in an auto during the intermission!  As my age approached double digits, I have a feeling that I understood movies a little better.  I remember being impressed with serious fare like Thalapathi (Diwali, ’91) and Marupadiyum (Pongal, ’93).  But it was only years later that I took movie-watching as seriously as I do now.  Save the occasional Balu Mahendra or the KB movie, it was still the mainstream entertainer that I looked forward to, in those days.  Speaking of Thalapathi, I have fond memories of my Aunt (who passed away in October) and Uncle  who would take me to preview screenings of GV and Mani Ratnam productions.  My Uncle is a chartered accountant who partnered with the late GS (GV and Ratnam's brother) and so, I would tag along with them to not only catch the movies but also glimpses of the stars.  I still remember Suriya, during the premiere of Nerukku Ner, as a gawky youngster who looked as star struck as I was!  Well, that was 20 years ago!  

Devi Theater / Cineplex (Image Courtesy of
My mid-teens were when I started watching movies with friends.  Sathyam and Devi theaters were our frequent haunts, followed by Woodlands and less frequently, Shanthi or Albert.  Given how passionate we could get about our favorite actors and actresses (especially the latter!), a heated argument was always lurking in the corner.  We would needle one another, argue vehemently as though our lives depended on it and would stop only when another friend would step in to gently remind us about dinner plans!  The friends in our group had wildly varied tastes – some of us were huge fans of Aishwarya Rai, others hated her, some of us liked to watch the occasional artsy movie, others preferred commercial entertainers – and we used to exhibit very little respect for each other’s tastes!  Years later, when my erudite Uncle taught me the term, ‘De gustibus non est disputandum’ I told him that I wished he had shared that with me when I was in my teens!  In the 90s, Praarthana was an open-air theater that opened in the outskirts of the city.  Once the novelty wore off, it was not a favorite of mine because I was invariably disappointed with the acoustics.  But still, watching Vaali (during a trip to India, in the summer of ’99) along with friends was a memorable experience.  Not just for the movie – which was fantastic – but one of my friends started bashing Simran as a hopeless actress, much to the chagrin of others!

An annoyance or pleasure, depending on your tolerance level and interest in that particular movie, was to watch movies amid all the sarcastic remarks of those smart alecks in the crowd.  While I admit to being occasionally peeved with those comments (in a movie like Kuruthi Punal, which had me riveted), I have also experienced guilty pleasure thanks to the sheer audacity and the wit of those comments.  In the dramatic climax of Alai Payuthey, as Madhavan pleads to an unconscious Shalini to wake up, a restless friend of mine hooted, “Yendhru Shalini Yendhru!”  Years later, when I was watching Chandramukhi in a packed theater in Southern California, there was a scene where Prabhu says, “Saravanan, ungaluku e-mail la message vandhuruku.”  To this, an audience member reacted – rather loudly, I might add – “Pinne, e-mail la message varaama masaal-vadai ya varum?!”  (Now, how do I translate that to English without losing the magnitude of the irreverence?  I’m not even trying!)  It was in Southern California but I felt transported to Madras in a matter of seconds!  By the same token, it is sheer magic to watch a movie that’s working for an audience, in a theater in Madras.  Chennai-600028 (part 1) was one of the first movies that I watched with my wife.  What added to the fun element was that we also had one of my best friends for company.  While laughing along with the audience at Shiva’s perfectly timed one-liners was fun, what was especially memorable was the theater erupting hysterically at the start of the “Saroja Saaman Nikkalo” song. 

Video capturing fans’ reactions during the intermission scene of Baasha:

As I revisit these memories in my mind, I realize what a fun, communal experience movie-watching in a theater in Madras has been.  Things have changed over the years with the advent of upscale malls, outrageous parking fares, perfectly upholstered seating, snazzy lighting, western food, online booking, etc.  That’s all well and good.  But my memories are of a different type of city that seemed to possess a different ethos.  The evolution of the theaters, the audiences that frequent them, the amount of money spent there, all form a microcosm of the city's evolution.  It doesn’t matter if the changes have been for better or for worse, overall; they are what they are.  I am just thankful that the city’s theaters afforded me the luxury of pleasant memories.  These scenes from my childhood and youth, be it with my family or friends, seem to play quite vividly on my mind’s screen even now, as nicely as the movies played out on the silver screen back then!  And, that’s the end!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

20 years of Iruvar: My journey with the movie

Adhigaaram…Aatchi…Padhavi-ngardhu oru Poruppu; Aayutham Illa,” says one youngster, his eyes filled with hope, his heart brimming with idealism.  His friend replies, “Varumai Ozhiyanum…Illaamai Ozhiyanum.”  A couple of decades later, the two of them head opposing political parties, with one party worker claiming that the level of corruption in one party is 10 times worse than that of the other.  A few years later, one of the two friends, in the last stages of his life, feels the need to sit next to the other at a wedding.  Seated next to each other, they don’t exchange words.  The outward silence is probably the result of a thousand voices in both their heads, as they encapsulate the five decades of their friendship into five minutes.  A friendship that, over time, lost its innocence as a result of the trappings of realpolitik, jealousy and insecurity.  In those few minutes, the friends that had lost sight of their wide eyed dreams, slip into a joint reverie.  The next day, one of them passes away peacefully in his sleep.  The other delivers a stirring soliloquy.  End of movie.

Seen one way, Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar is the tale of a friendship that never lost its ‘core’ despite potent forces – some of them circumstantial, others character foibles - chipping away at every side of it.  In the world of thamizh cinema, where characters and relationships are invariably painted in terms of black and white, Ratnam weaves a magnificent tapestry, so vast in its expanse, yet so nuanced in its shades, and knits it with such loving attention to detail that it makes for a new, enriching experience for a viewer every time he or she sees it.  

As the saying goes, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  As the two friends – Mohan Lal and Prakash Raj, giving the performances of their illustrious careers – gain celebrity status and political mileage, it is touching to see them almost struggle to retain the essence of their being from their younger days.  This is especially true in the case of the Mohan Lal character.  He rose to fame and power from humble beginnings.  So, he is especially sensitive about hunger and people (irrespective of social status) being well-fed.  In a scene where Revathy (playing Prakash Raj’s first wife) introduces her shy family members as fans of his, he promptly asks, “Neenga elaam saaptaacha?”  Years later, when he (now, the Chief Minister) orders for his friend to be arrested, he first says to the police officer that it’s not really a “victory” since his old friend is now in jail.  And, he adds, “Saaptacha?”  This moment is acted and directed in a completely understated manner, which is exactly why it resonated so profoundly. 

With Iruvar, the thing that I have noticed is that as time passes by, the movie ‘speaks’ to me differently.  As I look at my own relationships with my loved ones over time, I see that familial priorities, longstanding friendships, professional ambitions, materialistic desires, a quest for inner peace, all vie for space in my mind and heart.  Cutting through everything, I sometimes pause to ask myself whether I still retain that ‘core’ of my being - that I mentioned earlier in the context of the leads of Iruvar - while growing up and trying to be, not act, mature.  It is an important question, at least for me.  And, it’s a testament to the invisibility (a term that I read in a write-up by Baradwaj Rangan) of Ratnam’s filmmaking that the movie has never appeared to shove anything down my throat; instead, it allows me to luxuriate in my own thoughts and questions that result from the movie-watching experience.  

For all its audiovisual splendor, be it AR Rahman’s mesmerizing music (this is one of Rahman's best background scores too), the glorious cinematography by Santhosh Sivan or the marvelous artwork by Sameer Chanda, Iruvar has very few moments where these aspects call attention to themselves.  (An exception in point is the “Unnodu Naanirundha” sequence.)  Instead, the movie mostly invites us to watch the lives of these characters unfold in ways that they themselves could have scarcely imagined.  This approach is a reason why Ratnam comes across as an extremely mature filmmaker here, one who is in complete sync with his collaborators, working to ensure that every element contributes strongly to the cinema verite feel.  This approach was, in fact, one of the issues that I used to have with Iruvar.  Earlier, I used to feel that, for the first time in his career, Ratnam’s approach to a film and its characters came across as a little - for the lack of a better word - cold.  Certain movies move me, certain movies make me laugh but I guess with Iruvar, over time, the  movie has made me do two things – one was to reconcile to the fact that imperfections in the lead characters will always make them less endearing to audiences.  The other was to have the willingness to move away from the the evocation of pronounced emotion, to evaluate the worthiness of a movie.  

Pronounced emotions were probably on the diametrically opposite end of the acting spectrum as Mohan Lal and Prakash Raj were, in this movie.  If not for anything else, just to watch these two performers interact with one another in their scenes together, is one of the joys to be had in Iruvar.  A case in point - there are two similar, yet contrasting scenes in the first and second halves of the movie.  In both scenes, Prakash Raj is in the middle of a speech when adoring crowds gravitate towards the Mohan Lal character (the camerawork is stupendous; the camera literally sways in the direction of the Mohan Lal character).  In the first scene, Prakash Raj affectionately invites him on stage.  But in the second scene, which happens years later, Lal enters the arena late on purpose to test the magnitude of his following.  In this scene, Prakash Raj has to conceal his anger and instead, sport a faint smile in front of the huge crowds!  Just the way in which the duo play these two scenes is a case study in understatement of performances.  Several other members of the cast turn in solid performances – most notably Aishwarya Rai, playing two strong, contrasting characters equally well; Tabu, acing the short but strong role of the second wife of the Prakash Raj character; Nasser, playing the mentor to the two leads.   But to me, Iruvar was, is and will always remain the story of the two friends. 

As a huge admirer of Ratnam’s work, I sometimes experience a sense of wistfulness when I go back in my mind to the January of 1997 when Iruvar opened to a disastrous commercial response.  Of course, Ratnam moved on to explore other genres and constantly reinvent himself with various degrees of success.  But I do genuinely feel sad that, save a richly deserved National Award for Prakash Raj, the movie garnered true critical acclaim only over the years, to become a sort of cult favorite among critics and cineastes.  Beyond a point, it ceases to matter to me.  Because, every genuine movie lover makes a movie his own, irrespective of what others say or feel.  To me, Iruvar is a movie that I will continue to cherish, for the simple reason that the movie – as immutable as the outputs of this medium are – has metamorphosed over time to mean something different, something deeper.  That, I suppose, is sometimes more than enough!  Thank you, Team Iruvar.


The following is a cartoon sketched by Ravishanker (aka Zola) - I think it's brilliantly done!  Thank you, Ravishanker!


I don’t think this was the official trailer of the movie as the title of the video suggests.  But the video is cut very well indeed:

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Handle with Care: Thoughts on managing talent and handling success

For all its faults, especially around the issue of authenticity, Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” is a riveting read.  The book, which I read recently, transports the reader to the Hollywood of the 1970s where brilliant, sparkling talents such as Francis Ford Coppola (director of The Godfather, among other classics) shone like a star, only for the world, and probably themselves, to realize that they were shooting stars who were meant to light up the silver screen all too ephemerally.  These creators had no idea how to handle the money but more importantly, did not know how to deal with their success, their newfound creative freedom or the constant array of sycophants that surrounded them.  But given that many of us might not have the spotlight on us with the amount of lumen that showbiz afforded (or, cursed?) these people, let us leave these easy riders and raging bulls in their place.  Let’s instead shift our attention to average people – talents no doubt, but someone that you might see on a bus, not on a billboard – and everyday issues relating to talent, success and failure. 

As I have lived, studied and worked in a variety of settings, I have had the fortune of seeing people in various walks of life that are talented in myriad ways.  I have come to realize that the people that I admire the most are the ones that don’t take their talent for granted.  They are the ones that realize that circumstances might not always work in their favor, people might not always be fair, and others’ prejudices might stand in their way.  But they know that instead of letting their wounds fester, they sometimes have to bide their time and continue to hone their talents.  They recognize the perils of superficiality and empty posturing.  They seem to be acutely aware of a talent that they possess, coupled with the realization that the value of a gift is maximized not only by fleeting zings of inspiration but also by old fashioned grunt work.  I have seen this quality in a star cricketer like Rahul Dravid.  But I have also seen this trait in even my Toastmasters speaking club, where certain fellow speakers practice diligently, realizing that not every speech might become a Gettysburg address.  But they wisely realize that the constancy of practice can balance the variability associated with luck, circumstances and other extraneous factors.  These people – stars in their own right - engage in an activity for the sheer pleasure of engagement and self-satisfaction, with awards and rewards being happy by-products, a sort of a fringe benefit, not the real reason to engage in an area where they exhibit talent. 

Another element of managing one’s talent that I reckon is sometimes given short shrift is taking in praise, criticism and ridicule all with equanimity.  Randy Pausch famously remarked, “Your critics are the ones telling you they still love you and care.”  It is a much more layered statement than an initial impression might suggest.  That’s because critics come in all shapes and forms – some are well-meaning and have a way with words; others are genuine people that might lack tact; some resentful folks know where it hurts you most and jab you there; others are people whose approval you seek, that give you apathy instead; and, of course, there are those social climbers that proffer empty praise, expecting to piggyback on your success.  That was not even an exhaustive list, by the way!  As one’s talent flourishes, it is vitally important to find out those ‘true’ people whose feedback you benefit the most from.  If one can be open, egoless (or at least, with minimal ego) and can listen to well-meaning advice from a peer or a mentor, then they keep maximizing their chances to evolve, to adapt and to learn from mistakes.
The reason why Lakshmy Ramakrishnan’s Ammani left such a lasting impression on me was its emphasis on looking inward for peace and joy.  The exquisite “Mazhai Ingillaye” song underscores this.  The first line goes, “Mazhai Ingillaye…Veyyilum Illaye…Vanavil Vandhadhey…”  (“There is no rain, no sunshine, yet I see a rainbow”)  Weeks after I watched this movie, this theme got stuck in my mind.  That has partially to do with how I regard the thoughts and emotions that come with success that was spawned by the exhibition of a particular talent.  The movie made me reflect on how external validation of what we do might feel nice, but in order to steadily, stably and fully realize our talents, it is vitally important that we travel inward.  That we look for that drive where we are able to cruise along, assured but not overconfident in our abilities, applying the brakes when necessary, to scan, to reflect and cut out all the external noise.  This way, we blunt the ability of an external factor to cause a dent on our confidence.  And, this would, in turn, mean that we can travel with our talents for as long as the fuel of our desires allows us.