Thursday, May 25, 2017

Train of thought: A piece on train sequences in Tamil cinema

The early 2000s was a period when I was discovering old classics of Kamal Hassan.  His work, from the late 80s till Hey! Ram, had consistently left me mesmerized.  So much so that I craved more and started evincing keen interest in his early movies, especially with stalwarts like K Balachander.  I had watched Arangetram, Aboorva RaagangaL and Nizhal Nijamagiradhu.  I felt like Nizhal… was the movie where he truly came into his own as an actor.  Gone was the gawkiness of the earlier movies.  It was replaced by a newfound refinement, especially in his body language.  I liked him even more in AvargaL, in the strong role of a kindhearted person, whose love for a divorced woman goes unrequited.  

In the climactic sequence of AvargaL, which takes place at the train station, there is not a lot of dramatic tension.  But for the first time, I realized how one could use the location to underscore an emotion, to highlight the pangs of separation.  I had, of course, watched Kamal’s brilliant performance in the climax of Moondram Pirai before.  That sequence was, needless to say, an amazing showcase for his acting talent.  But I think I was so entranced by Kamal’s emoting that I felt that the location just played a supporting role.  In AvargaL though, there is very little demonstration of emotion by Kamal or Sujatha.  Kamal has to internalize his own pain as he lets go of her.  And the train that gradually picks up pace, magnifies the impact of his sadness and yearning.  As one person embarks on a new ‘journey’, the other one continues his travel, alone, without a meaningful destination in sight. 

Trains have been used a lot in Tamil movies, sometimes in a clich├ęd, lazy manner, at other times not so.  The closed setting has been used to add to the sensuality of a romance.  The setting has been used skillfully to establish the subtext of a journey of two characters slowly falling in love or drifting apart.  On other occasions, trains have been used as a fitting backdrop to evoke a sense of fun and camaraderie.  They have been used to give an extra shot of adrenaline in superbly choreographed action pieces.  There have also been some magnificently choreographed songs on a train or at a railway station.  And as mentioned earlier, they have been used as an effective backdrop for climactic scenes.  For each of romance / love, action, fun, songs and climax, I have listed below a few noteworthy scenes that I can recollect, recommending one video for each category.  Chug along...err, read on!

Romance / Love Story:

Noteworthy Movies:
  • ·         Alaipayuthey
  • ·         Rhythm
  • ·         The Prasanna – Kanika interaction in Five Star
  • ·        The Suriya – Sameera Reddy romance in Vaaranam Aayiram
  • ·        The Sarathkumar – Jyothika scenes in PatchaikiLi Muthucharam
My pick: The Suriya – Sameera Reddy scene in Vaaranam Aayiram

It’s hard to out beat the romance quotient of a sequence where the guy strums the guitar to Ilayaraja's "En Iniya Pon Nilave" and dedicates it to his newfound love in a train, with rain to boot!  

  • ·         “Raja…” from Agni Natchathiram
  • ·         Chikku Bukkufrom Gentleman
  • ·         “Vellarika…” from Kadhal Koattai
  • ·        “Chayya Chayya…” from Dil Se… / Thayya Thayya… from Uyire…
  • ·         “Omana Penney…” from Vinnaithandi Varuvaaya
My pick: “Chayya Chayya…”

Amar Varma (Shah Rukh Khan) has fallen in love at first sight and wants the world to know that he is over the moon.  Well, he is over the train!  What a way to clue the viewer in to the mood of the protagonist!  AR Rahman’s foot-tapping tune is done full justice to by the choreographer Farah Khan and cinematographer Santhosh Sivan.  My two favorite shots start at 2:14 and 5:18.  Both are shot from outside the train and yet done in an amazingly synchronous manner.  Three things are in motion - the camera, the dancers and, of course, the train!

Let me post the original for the fans of Dil Se… instead of posting the dubbed Tamil version.  I am cheating a little but hey, I am not giving out National Awards here!

  • ·         Senthoora Poove
  • ·         Gentleman
  • ·         Thiruda Thiruda
  • ·         Kuruthi Punal
  • ·         Endhiran
  • ·         Lingaa
My pick: Senthoora Poove

I will vote for Senthoora Poove since it was the first of its kind in Tamil and the action is supremely well-choreographed.  It is heartening to think that there was actually a time when Vijaykanth had respect for Newton.

The train action portions start at around the 7-min point:

  • ·         Balaiya’s antics in Thillana MohanambaL
  • ·         Vadivelu’s chain snatching comedy in Aasai
  • ·         The journey to Thiruvaiyaru in Anniyan
  • ·         The friends and family trip in Chennai-28 Part-2
My pick: Anniyan

With due respect to the inimitable Balaiya, Vivek’s jokes are rip-roaring fun.  I remember watching Anniyan in a crowded theatre and the audience erupted in laughter at the Kamal Hassan kiss reference.  Even the way Vivek touches Vikram’s tuft is hilarious.

Climactic Sequence:
  • ·         AvargaL
  • ·         Moondram Pirai
  • ·         GopurangaL Saaivadhillai
  • ·         Mouna Raagam
  • ·         Thevar Magan
  • ·         Kadhal Koattai
My pick: Thevar Magan

Trains appear in four scenes in Thevar Magan, each signaling a step out of his comfort zone for the Kamal character – (1) his entry to the village (2) his send-off of Gowthami amid the riots (3) his final scene with Gowthami that ends with her peck on his cheek that is helpfully pointed out later, by his wife and (4) the astonishingly powerful climax.  Vaali’s lines form a kaleidoscope of emotions – despair, guilt and hope. (“Nallavazhi nee thaan solli yenna laabam?  Sonnavathane Soozhndhadhindru Paavam…Kalangathey Raasa…Kaalam Varattum…”)  It is not just Kamal but the entire cast that emotes wonderfully, including the supporting cast like Revathi, SN Lakshmi and Renuka.  Kamal prostrating in front of them is a gesture loaded with meaning.  What is he seeking – forgiveness? Blessings?  I reckon it is redemption.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Simran’s finest hour: A review of her performance in Kannathil Muthamittaal

Indira is a mother of three kids, one of whom is an adopted child.  She agrees to accompany her husband Thiruselvan to Sri Lanka in search of the adopted daughter’s biological mother.  A couple of days after they land, the three of them go on a bus journey to a village as part of this quest.  As they board the bus, Amudha, the daughter, decides to take a nap.  Thiru asks Indira, “Are you thinking of our kids back home?”  Indira, resting her chin on Thiru’s shoulder, responds, “For the sake of one child, we have left two back home.  I hope they are doing well.  I wonder how my father is taking care of them single handedly.”  Her response is honest but in an equally spontaneous moment, she quickly adds, “Amudha is still asleep, right?”  Simran, the mother, plays this little scene so exceptionally well that you could just watch this scene without any audio, look at her expressions, and understand what she is communicating to her husband. 

I recently revisited Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittaal (2002) and was struck by how I could not think of a single performance by an actress in Tamil in the past 15 years that I regard as better than this.  Aishwarya Rajesh in Kaaka Muttai, Priya Mani in Paruthi Veeran and Anjali in Kattradhu Thamizh (in that order) come close.  And one could even argue that these three actresses dubbed in their own voice for these movies whereas Deepa Venkat was the voice artist for Simran in Kannathil… But there are several moments of sublime internalization by Simran in this difficult role that makes her performance truly stand out.  More than the voice - Deepa Venkat does a fine job here, no doubt - it is her face and body language that speak volumes.  And for that, her performance in this movie deserves to be regarded as a crown jewel in any analysis of modern Tamil cinema.

The oonjal scene where she tries to answer Amudha’s (Keerthana, who won a richly deserved National award) questions about her biological mother and how and why she was adopted is a scene where the writing, acting, cinematography and production design all come together in the most cohesive, undemonstrative way.  In a recent interview, when asked if viewers might miss paying attention to all the technical aspects that bring a scene alive, Mani Ratnam thoughtfully remarked, “It is okay if they don’t notice it; as long as they sense it, that’s enough.”  I have watched Kannathil… multiple times in the past decade and I suppose I had always “sensed” how exquisite this scene was.  But it was only during this recent viewing that I paid attention to Simran’s minute, purposeful changes in body language that so perfectly suited the lines that she was delivering in this scene.  When Amudha asks a rather painful question (“Was I in a trash can when I was retrieved?”) she looks away uncertainly.  When the kid says, “Will you abandon me?” she hugs her tightly.  And when the kid wants further reassurance, she looks her in the eye and comforts her.  The scene has a deeply poignant end when Amudha asks, “Why did you tell me now?  You could have told me later.”  Indira knows that it is a question better left unanswered and just continues to hold on to her daughter in a comforting posture.  And Ratnam, ever the master of song placement, makes this scene lead to the soothing melody, “Oru Dheivam Thandha Poove…” 

Another sequence that merits a closer look is the railway station one.  Amudha, feeling confused and uncertain about her future, has run away from the house.  But thanks to a good samaritan, the parents receive a call that the kid is at the railway station.  While being informed of the daughter’s whereabouts on the phone, Indira pleads to the caller, “Please be with her till we come.”  En route to the station, Thiru tries to dismiss her feelings and asks her to stop crying.  Despite her vulnerabilities, she is an inherently steely person.  So she asks him to mind his own business.  And at the station, once she spots the kid, she looks intently, with pain, disappointment and even a bit of anger.  After they return home, as Amudha tries to apologize for her act, Indira, overcoming her own anger, hugs and kisses her in a loving manner.   And in a truly lifelike moment, she adds that she has to finish her chores!  Emotional upheavals or not, life goes on.  Simran is incandescent in this sequence, displaying myriad changes in tone in a seamless, artless, affecting manner.

It’s been a few days since I finished watching the movie.  And I reckon that apart from the stupendous level of acting by Simran, it is the way in which Mani Ratnam shaped the character that has led to my feeling compelled to dwell on her performance.  Simran appears in the movie with minimal make-up, simple but elegant clothing, hair not nearly as perfectly coiffed, as was the case in her other movies.  But her radiance in this movie comes from the intrinsic elements that she brings to the screen as well as these externals that result from Ratnam’s sure-footed shaping of her character and performance.  And the result of this truly artistic collaboration is a deeply fulfilling experience.


Monday, May 15, 2017

Between the Lines: A few thoughts on long-distance friendships

Handwritten greetings.  There is something about putting pen to paper.  Something in that ink – yes, I still use fountain pens – makes thoughts flow, I suppose!  Sending greeting cards along with a one-page letter via postal mail is a habit that I have had for the past 18 years.  My Chinna Thatha, who passed away rather suddenly in 2005, used to send me handwritten cards when I was young.  I even remember how he used to sign off – “Out of natural love and affection, R Varadarajan.”  I somehow found the word “natural” enormously touching.  I wonder if it is the rather special feeling that his cards gave me that made me pick up this habit.  18 years ago.  That was when I completed high school.  That was when I left the shores of Chennai and migrated with my parents to the US.  And that was when I bid goodbye to my group of friends at the Anna International Airport.  These friends form a very important part of my identity.  The space that I give myself on this blog is incredibly Lilliputian for me to start writing about each of them.  But there is one facet that I think I can do justice to – the long distance aspect of friendships.

Save a short period when one of these friends and I were roommates, I have not lived in the same city as any of them in these past 18 years.  All of them except one (who lives in Dubai) live in the US, none within a decent drivable distance.  Of course, thanks to technological advances, communication itself has become easier.  But the truth is, we live in a fast paced world.  As familial responsibilities and professional ambitions vie for time, space, not to mention energy, there are periods of silence.  Amid these stretches of time, handwritten wishes for birthdays are a mere tool that breaks the silence ephemerally.  It is a fleeting voice of emotion, an expression of a genuine sentiment.  But there are lot more spaces between the lines, so to say.  And, owing to extended periods with minimal communication, it is not a question of reading between the lines.  It is a question of filling in the blanks. 

Where there is trust, the process of filling in your own blanks works in the most fulfilling kind of way.  With this set of friends, the blanks have been akin to those pregnant pauses between two notes of scintillating, evocative music.  But outside of this group, I must say that I have had instances where the gaps have been filled with so much resentment and bitterness that the residual sadness has been analogous to the seemingly interminable pauses during a funeral dirge.   And, I would be utterly dishonest if I were to not take a fair share for the blame for relationships that went awry.

A couple of months back, I sent a card to a friend from my high school gang for his birthday.  In my usual one-page letter, I recounted how much a recent meeting, after three years, meant to me.  It was the first time after my Aunt’s passing away that I had met him.  He had, in an unfortunate coincidence, lost his Uncle in the intervening period.  When we had met, we spoke of our respective grieving experiences until the wee hours of the morning.  And in my card, I wrote that that meant much to me.  So, you would think that he would respond at least with a Whatsapp message that he received the card.  Well, you’d be wrong. (His wife, thankfully, acknowledged the card!)  But the funny thing is that I did not feel an iota of anger.  And trust me, I was not known for subtlety and understatement in the early years of our friendship.  Somehow, I just knew instinctively that the letter made him smile.  He might have shown it to his parents who are visiting him.  Or maybe he thought it was too sentimental and didn’t know how to respond!  I have no idea.  But there was something very satisfying about the fact that I could, in my mind’s eye, see him open the card and pause to reflect on its contents.  The 'blank' felt anything but that.  And I must thank my friend for having invested so much in our friendship that even in the absence of a response, I walked away with a special feeling.

Outside of this group, I have also had relationships where a failure to invest in quality time in one another during times of need and a lack of judgment around when the silences were too prolonged, proved to be a fatal one-two punch to the core of the friendship.  The mistakes that I made were twofold.  I assumed that the foundation of the relationship was unshakable.  As a result, I found it difficult to accept a changed dynamic that stemmed out of a strong reaction to perceived apathy on my part.  And worse, I did not make enough of an effort to communicate, not just talk, with the people concerned.  After a while, the blanks ceased to exist.  Not for a good reason – the ‘sentence’ just ended abruptly.  Every healthy relationship has as a core, a few hallmarks, a few traits that lend a unique kind of beauty to it.  When that core foundation of trust is shaken, the friends cease to be secure pillars of support to one another.  The pillars just collapse in a heap.  And the resultant rubble is a painful sight.  Which pillar collapsed quicker is an utterly needless question.  And so, pointing fingers can be an indulgent but ultimately futile exercise.

One of the reasons why Anu Hasan’s “Sunny Side Up” meant a lot to me was because she wrote honestly about failed friendships where each person had given the other a long enough rope and yet both parties felt like they were at the end of their tether.  Reflecting on my own successful and doomed friendships, I thought about the importance of exercising judgment and cutting some slack when it mattered the most.  But the book also gave me a sense of comfort and even closure, that as long as I am conscientious, I have to sometimes accept that certain relationships weren’t meant to last a lifetime.  That I am better off focusing on the lessons learned.  That if I keep watering the roots of my relationships with consistent sprinkles of trust, honesty, humor and empathy, the friendships will continue to be the deep-rooted and protective.  Then the birthday cards and one-page letters simply punctuate the silences in an immensely gratifying manner.  Even a friend’s failure to respond to a greeting just serves to then fill a blank with an amusing thought that culminates in the most comforting of punctuation marks - an exclamation point! 


Friday, May 5, 2017

Memories of Melodies: Thoughts on music director Vidyasagar

As a school kid growing up in Chennai in the mid 90s, I had two temptations that were incredibly hard to resist.  One was soft drinks.  Pepsi and Coca Cola fought tooth and nail with one another to increase my glucose levels.  The second temptation was to even harder to resist – to engage in spirited, though ultimately meaningless, debates on the quality of AR Rahman’s music.  It sounded different.  But were the outputs of his keyboard better than the magic of the maestro’s harmonium?  Much money was squandered on audio cassettes (they existed, I promise!) and much valuable time was spent away from differential equations and organic chemistry!  Amidst all this was a music director named Vidyasagar that caught my attention.  Hmm, scratch that.  Amidst all this was a song – the marvelous melody, “Malare Mounama…” – that made people pause during their heated Raja vs. Rahman conversations.  I remember listening to this song on Sun TV, then learning that the movie’s name was Karnaa and then finding out that the man that mesmerized me with this beautiful composition was Vidyasagar.  But the best part was that just when I thought that this man might find it very difficult to surpass the peak that he had scaled with “Malare…”, he proved me wrong.  Time and again.

I bought the audio cassette of Karnaa and played it so often that batteries for my walkman needed a separate line item in our household budget!  As lovely a song as “Malare…” was, I realized that I equally enjoyed the “Puththam Pudhu Desam” number in the same album.  I was recently listening to “Puththam Pudhu…” and was stunned by how this song was catchy and melodious at the same time.  Sung by two greats SPB and S Janaki, this song starts off sounding like a catchy duet but by the time it gets to the charanam, Vidyasagar has seamlessly transformed it into a melody, only to soar again with the “kaadhal endru sonnaal…” bit.  Karnaa did fairly well and he got a few subsequent offers in Tamil.

But an unfortunate, unwritten rule in Tamil cinema has been to stick to a nonexistent correlation between the success of a movie and the worth of a technician.  And so, a slew of box office failures meant that Vidyasagar had to find work in Malayalam and other languages outside of Tamil.  While I have heard anecdotally of his stellar work in Malayalam, I had rarely listened to any of his non Tamil language songs.  It was with his fantastic work in Snehithiye (2000) that he well and truly resurfaced in Tamil movies. (Thank you, Priyadarshan!)  And for close to a decade, he went from strength to strength, working in many commercially successful, critically praised movies with good directors, big stars and most importantly meaningful stories (Anbe Sivam, to cite one example) that gave him tremendous impetus to come up with some delightful tunes.  

It is rather sad that, again, the box office fate of some of his movies in the past few years have meant that he is rarely seen – heard, to be more precise – in Tamil anymore.  I can only hope that, true to his name, he gets opportunities to showcase his oceanic knowledge of music.  I wish that filmmakers, with an eye for melody, don’t turn a blind eye to his abilities.  Alas, this might just a plea yelled out in a vacuum.  But the fact that I felt a strong, inexplicable need to record my lament is really the result of all the pleasure that his music has given me.  It pains me that I need to go back in time, instead of enjoying newer pleasures that his music is fully capable of gifting listeners.  For now, I will leave you with a dozen of my favorite Vidyasagar songs.  

Sincere thanks to all the youtube video owners.  Be warned – the visuals don’t always stack up to the aural delights!  So, I have assigned a picturization score for the songs - let's call it PS.  On a scale of 1-5, 1 signifies an eye sore and 5 denotes a visual delight.

1. "Malare Mounama" from Karnaa (PS - 3)

2. “Puththam Puthu Desam” from Karnaa (PS - 1)

3. “Thaamara Poovukum” from Pasumpon (PS - 3)

4. “Vennilave Vellai Poove” from Sengottai (PS - 1)

5. “Devadhai Vamsam” from Snehithiye (PS - 5)

6. “Kadhal Vandhadhum” from Poovellam Un Vaasam (PS - 4)

7. “Theradi Veedhiyil” from Run (PS - 4)

8. “Poo Vaasam” from Anbe Sivam (PS - 5)

9. “Aalanguyil” from Parthiban Kanavu (PS - 5)

10. “Sudum Nilavu” from Thambi (PS - 3)

11. “La La La” from Poi (PS - 3)

12. “Kaatrin Mozhi” from Mozhi  (PS - 5)