Friday, April 21, 2017

An Ode to the Written Word

The time was 5:16 am.  I was in deep slumber yesterday when the rather unpleasant din from my alarm shook me up a little.  Yes, I do have my superstitions.  My alarm times have to add up to 12.  No, that is not my lucky number.  It was my grandpa’s.  Please don’t ask me to rationalize.  I already said it – it’s a superstition!  So, I walked downstairs to my kitchen, opened the blinds and saw that it was quite perfect for an early morning jog.  After doing my yoga, I was putting on my socks and shoes to head out.  Next to my chair, I noticed the latest edition of TIME.  On the cover was a picture of the enterprising COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg.  Next to her profile picture were the words, “Let’s talk about grief.”  Grief.  It is a topic that I don’t take for granted.  I could hazard a guess that it was about the loss of her husband (who had passed away at the age of 47).  I wanted to read it right then.  But I equivocated for a few seconds – do I want to read that article?  Or, do I want to go out running?  I chose the latter because I have a certain fondness for the orange sky in the mornings.  But even as I stepped out, I did not turn on my iPod, as is my wont.  As the tea was brewing in the kitchen, so were my thoughts around the headline that I had just seen.  I asked myself, “How does a person like Sandberg, who has such a pivotal role to play in one of the most game-changing companies on the face of earth, balance work and personal life in the wake of a tremendous tragedy?”

By the time I had returned, I sat down, with my chai in hand, to read the article.  I had the answer to my question: Sandberg threw herself back into work, while not being oblivious of her grieving experience.  There was one line in the article that was poignant and eloquent in equal measure – “Dying is not a glitch of the human operating system; it’s a feature.”  Yes, that is true – it’s just that this “feature” features in certain systems way before it should or when we are least expecting it.  This is one operating system that has no consistency across units, no reliability and no testing that could make it foolproof!  The fault therein lies in the inventor, I mused.  But my point (finally!) is that the written word made me pause, reflect and it made me…write!  Let me elaborate…

The first non-fiction book that I read was Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” back in 2008.  Up until then, I had written a few short stories and several movie reviews.  But I had never written much about things that meant something to me, things that bothered me or things that I wanted to be.  It was in the summer of 2010 that I read Sheena Iyengar’s “The Art of Choosing.”  Pausch (who passed away in 2008) and Iyengar have since then become the two great influences of my life.  Not only did they inspire me in certain enduring ways – Pausch for making me focus on the right things professionally and personally, Iyengar for making me prioritize in ways that I had scarcelyimagined – but they also inspired me to get inspired!  I realized that the wider I opened my eyes and put on the lens of perspective gifted to me by different writers (be it bloggers, critics or book authors) that the world, starting with that person in the mirror, could be seen differently.  I also realized that by writing about people like Iyengar (who was the first in my “Inspirations” series), that I was fleshing my thoughts better and making it personal.  That is why after every book that I read, I allow myself a period of rumination instead of going to the next book.  I let the book sink in and see what else I can learn from it and execute on at home or at work.

When I write non-fiction, it typically falls into two categories – film related or about topics or people that mean something to me.   When it comes to analyzing films, I usually have my thoughts fleshed out in my mind prior to writing a piece – my write-ups are just my expressions of reaction, be it awe (“Rhythm”), admiration (“Kaatru VeLiyidai”) or sometimes, just plain irritation (“Kandhasamy”).  But when it comes to, say a person, a book or an area of personal interest (such as talent management) that I want to write about, the writing begins, the thoughts follow.  When I am lucky, the thoughts become epiphanies. (At least, to me they are epiphanies!)  One of my articles which had a bit of a therapeutic value for me was my piece on grieving that I wrote following my Aunt’s passing away last year.  I started the piece knowing that I just wanted to vent about my grief but by the time I ended it, I had, to an extent,  come to peace with myself.  My last line of that piece went, “The show is over.  But the highlights will continue to play...”  It is a line that I am glad that I wrote.  Because it helps me reconcile to the fact that I will see my Aunt only in my mind’s eye, for the rest of my life.  (Now you know why Sandberg’s piece made me perk up yesterday even before the sun did.)  And it is my hope that people that read my pieces – especially the non-film related ones- walk away with something that makes them think or even smile.  Also, the best part of the blog sphere is that the traditional one-way communication from an author to a reader has transformed into a dialogue between the two.  And that dialogue is a gift that keeps on giving.  And I must thank those that engage, sometimes indulge, me in that two-way conversation.

As I look back, the written word – both mine and that of others - has been a lock that has offered closure on certain issues; it has been a key that helps me unlock certain mysteries – such as theism- that I can't necessarily solve but at least appreciate and accept the complexities of.  It has been the foundational stone of friendships that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.  And it has been a pillar that has sometimes supported my drooping shoulders.  So, with this write-up, I profusely, sincerely thank writing itself!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Kaatru VeLiyidai – a movie review

There is a sensational scene in Mani Ratnam’s Kaatru VeLiyidai where VC (Karthi), a fighter pilot, takes Leela Abraham  (Aditi Rao Hydari, playing a Doctor) on a ride on one of his planes.  While the plane is still on the ground, Leela reveals something about her sibling, a connection that VC never knew existed.  VC requests her repeatedly to smile – he comments that the siblings have a very similar grin – making Leela conscious.  Nevertheless, she secretly enjoys the extra attention that this revelation has led to.  As the plane’s engine revs up, the camera shakes vigorously and then steadies up as the plane takes flight. (We get the feeling that we are on the flight with them!)  Overcome by the beauty of the snow-kissed mountains and basking in the flickering of her heart’s lamp, Leela’s defenses are lowered for the first time, and certainly not the last. 

This sequence, which ends outside Leela’s house (when VC drops her off), is an example of so much that is good about this movie – a complex romance set in the time of the Kargil war - as well as the elements that don’t work.  First and foremost, Aditi’s magnificent performance - she owns this movie.  Her ability to confidently hold lengthy close-up shots, switch expressions in a matter of seconds and project feelings of strength, disappointment and vulnerability all equally well, are truly awe-inspiring.  This scene, as is the movie, is this actor’s showcase.  Secondly, the staging and the cinematography.  The frames that Ratnam and cinematographer Ravi Varman compose, deserve approbation not only for the beauty of the visuals but also a certain ineffable quality that they bring to the movie.  Soul, perhaps?  Just the way this flight scene and several other sequences are shot, take us to the emotional core of many moments than the way those sequences were written. 

But one marvelous performance and superb staging alone cannot make a movie.  As I think beyond these two elements, some of the issues of Kaatru VeLiyidai come to the fore.  Firstly, Karthi’s uneven performance.  It is a challenging role for him, no doubt.  This character is not soaked in shades of white and is markedly different from any of the roles that he has played thus far.  And, I didn’t know where to lay the blame for the weakness of his performance - at his feet, the writer’s or just the fact that his casting didn’t work.  Maybe it’s a combination of more than one factor.  Actors like Karthik (in his heyday), Madhavan and Dulquer Salman have a twinkle in their eye and an easygoing onscreen persona that bring a certain amount of effortless charm to their acting.  But they can also go a step further and combine that innate persona with a certain edge, resulting in a magical concoction.  Karthik in Agni Natchathiram, Madhavan in Aaytha Ezhuthu and Irudhi Sutru, Dulquer in Kali, are instances of the persona of the actor finding a perfect match in a multi-layered role.  That sadly is not the case with Karthi here and the struggle shows on screen.  Be it the scene outside Aditi’s house where he sings a song or the seemingly interminable monologue at the dinner table where he tries to allay the concerns of Aditi’s parents, there is something constantly off-key about him in Kaatru VeLiyidai.  It is a relief that he makes the all-important climactic sequence work; he is fantastic here.

As I mentioned earlier, the staging of some of the sequences is so fabulous that it overshadows the writing at times.  That is a good thing because I found the writing to be similar to Karthi’s performance – sparkling in some parts, unconvincing in others.  The episode featuring Karthi’s family, for instance, is written horribly.  The purpose of this extended sequence is to show the origins of Karthi’s selfishness and shades of a male chauvinistic attitude (despite an innate goodness).  But the writing is so clunky that the emotional resonance is zilch.  Had Karthi’s confrontation with his father and Aditi at the hospital worked, our empathy for his character would have increased manifold.  (To see how this can be done effectively, watch the “Raji madhiri ponnu” episode of Suhasini’s Penn, where Raghuvaran plays a spoiled child who inherited bad habits from his Dad.  It is available on Youtube.)

The sequence where Karthi escapes from the Rawalpindi prison is, again, a deftly shot action sequence with a scintillating background score.  But this sequence should have evoked the level of tension of the Shah Rukh - Kamal Hassan soda factory sequence in Hey Ram.  Instead, I was appalled at the apparent effortlessness (with the police firing from all sides) with which Karthi goes to the back of the truck.  Sure, he is supposedly a fearless fighter pilot but a little more tension would have been more apropos.  I mention this in the context of the writing to underscore the fact that the staging, at times, doesn’t find an able partner in the content.  And that hurts the movie.  When we should be witnessing VC's desperation to get back to Leela, we instead see someone escape from a prison in another country as though he is playing a video game.

But when the writing works, as is the case with the plane sequence that I mentioned at the start, the result is memorable.  This is also the case with some of the scenes with more depth.  The pregnancy scene is one where it all comes together beautifully.   This scene – as opposed to the unbearable dinner table monologue – is one that has a stunning start, slowly building tension and an unforgettable conclusion.  As the camera gently zooms in from up above, moving towards the two characters lying in bed, the drama – aided by the splendid lines – intensifies.  The actors too don’t miss a beat here, explaining their stance in a manner that seems just right, given the nature of their characters. 

The other reason why I think this movie didn’t transcend from a supremely well-crafted, interesting romance into a classic is because outside of Aditi and (to a much lesser extent) Karthi, none of the characters registered.  While one might think that it is not a huge factor in a movie that is laser-focused on its lead pair, I beg to differ.  Strong supporting characters can add a lot of weight to the drama.  And the good ones will even do things to enhance the lead actor’s performance.  Let me explain.  Delhi Ganesh appears in this movie in a miniscule role as Aditi’s grandpa.  But there is no presence.  It is no fault of this great actor; it’s just that there is nothing for him to do except be around.  Contrast this to another example featuring the same actor.  In Nayagan – the ultimate one-man show, you might think – Ganesh plays the role of a loyal aide of Kamal’s.  In none of the scenes does he have a great deal to do.  But in the crucial funeral scene, as Kamal nears the dead body of his son, Ganesh gently says, “Vendaam Naaykare…kozhandhaiku nerupu kaayam nerayya patruku…”  What it adds to the impact of Kamal’s performance is hard to quantify but the impact is absolutely real.  There is not one such moment here featuring the talented Ganesh, RJ Balaji, Rukmini or the wooden non-actors that play Karthi’s family members.  And, Kaatru VeLiyidai is poorer for that.

As I walked out of the movie, there were frames that kept flitting in and out of my mind’s eye.  It is a testament to Ratnam’s ability as a filmmaker that so many differing thoughts were occupying my mind in lieu of a simple, “I enjoyed it” or “No, I hated it.”  But it is the same Ratnam that has given me more fulfilling experiences.  So, at the end of the day, Kaatru VeLiyidai might have fallen short of the Himalayan peaks scaled by not only Karthi’s planes in this movie but also several of Ratnam’s previous ventures.  But he surely does take us on one hell of a ride.  

Saturday, April 8, 2017

To (Na)sser, with love: Reflections on actor and director Nasser

In a Whatsapp group that I am a part of, there were recently a slew of comments on actor Nasser, with some that knew him well extolling his virtues as a person and others familiar with his rich body of work picking their favorite performances.  I resisted from commenting because I felt that I would struggle to capture the extent of my awe and respect for him as an actor, in a few comments on Whatsapp.  (I do not know him personally so I will stick to talking about his performances.)  In an illustrious career that has spanned 32 years since his debut feature “Kalyana AgathigaL” (directed by the late K Balachander), he has essayed a variety of roles, many significant, others not so memorable.  But as I reflect on the range of his performances – not just the roles themselves – it does make my jaw drop.  That is because of how he has invariably played his roles at a pitch that is absolutely right for the tone of the movie and the style of filmmaking.  And what adds luster to his performances is how he invariably manages to bring even stereotypical characters come to life with little touches, adding shades and nuances, but rarely calling out undue attention to the process of his performance.  Instead, as the cliché goes, he dissolves into the character.  For an actor that is seen so often on screen, that is no mean task.

Let me take three examples to illustrate this –Thevar Magan, Bombay and Jeans.  In Thevar Magan, he played the pugnacious antagonist whose hatred for Sivaji Ganesan’s family runs so deep that you could be swimming down vertically all day and still not reach rock bottom!  Starting from his first scene, where he is forcefully dragging a hound by its leash, there is something raw and bestial about his character.  Even the “thoongura mirugam...” lines seem superfluous, that’s how well he plays the role.  The panchayat scene where he insults Sivaji is one where his body language and dialogue delivery are stupendous.  Forget the vitriolic lines, just the way he says, “thaamadham aayrichu…” without apologizing for being tardy sets up the confrontation superbly.  Of course, due credit has to be given to the writing (Kamal Hassan) and direction (Bharathan).  In Jeans, he played the role of Siamese twins that are identical only in looks.  The climax where he turns around and stares hard at his brother for duping him (the brother’s reaction is even more priceless) was so superbly done that you could be forgiven for thinking that Nasser has a secret twin brother that the world doesn’t know about! 

Watch his expressions starting at 2:37 - 

But to me, one of his greatest performances has to be that of Aravind Swamy’s father in Bombay.  I have always felt that his character arc conveyed the essence of Bombay even more than the travails of Aravind Swamy’s family and the final religious union scene.  He plays a staunch, religious, ritualistic Hindu who even taunts his Muslim rival (Kitty) by asking for bricks with the name “Ram” inscribed on it!  Mani Ratnam’s detailing of this character is exquisite.  He even manages to infuse gentle, unforced humor into scenes such as the one where Nasser dresses up his grandkids in traditional Hindu outfits, (with three streaks of holy ash on their foreheads, no less!) as he welcomes Kitty to Bombay!  I love the moment where Kitty exclaims, “Yah Allah” and Nasser promptly replies, “Siva siva!”  But by the end of the movie, not only has he accepted his daughter-in-law but also realizes the error of his ways and the futility of religious fanaticism when Kitty rescues him outside the temple.  The final scene of this character – he retrieves the Holy Quoran even as he is fighting for his life amidst the riots – is one that showcases the power of cinema and its ability to evoke a lump in one’s throat.

Thanks to Kamal Hassan, we have also seen some great comic performances from Nasser.  Be it in Magalir Mattum, Avvai Shanmugi or Mumbai Express, his comic turns have been a great pleasure to watch because he can run the gamut from being poker faced and deliver funny lines (Mumbai Express) or go completely zany as in the case of the other two movies.  There is a scene in Magalir Mattum where he attempts to gift a saree to his subordinate Revathi only to be excoriated by her.  Unable to bear the insult, he goes in front of the AC vent in his office to let the cool air blow on his face.  His expressions –having lost his face – are a joy to behold.  And this scene has an even crazier finish (scripted by “Crazy” Mohan) as he is caught red handed by his wife as he is hitting on the maid servant (played wonderfully by Rohini).  A far cry indeed from Maya Thevan of Thevar Magan

See his expressions at the 30:30 min point:

As a director, he has made some genuinely interesting films such as Avatharam and Dhevadhai.  But the commercial failure of his lesser efforts like Pop Carn has made him move away from direction.  In the context of his directorial capabilities, I feel like I have seen only glimpses of his potential, instead of an entire 2 ½ hour stretch of sustained excellence.  The court scene in Avatharam, the picturization of the “Oru NaaL…” song in Dhevadhai and Mohan Lal’s confrontations with Simran in Pop Carn have all been rare strokes of brilliance on canvases that were envisioned with thought, painted with care and yet something felt missing in the overall picture.  But on the flip side, the lack of commercial pressure (owing to some of his past failed productions) have freed him up to be relatively choosy as an actor and to make a strong impact in roles such as the lovable patriarch of Saivam.

In his fourth decade as an actor, he deserves to be treated with much respect by directors who must resist from casting him in clichéd roles to get their sometimes ill-conceived ventures a patina of respectability.  Instead, as the next generation of writers and filmmakers such as Karthik Subburaj and Narein Karthik weave fresh tales, they must look to knit more tailor-made roles deserving of Nasser’s stature.  And by doing that, they can ensure that we, in our Whatsapp groups, can stop revisiting the past to pick his best performances!