Sunday, September 24, 2017

Portrayal of women in Tamil Cinema: A few reflections

Disclaimer – This is not meant to be a comprehensive thesis.  I just wanted to record a few thoughts on this topic.  Your inputs and reactions are most welcome.

The characterization of Shalini (played by Amala Paul) in the recently released Velaiyilla Pattadhari-2 has drawn much flak.  This is in part due to its director (Soundarya Rajinikanth) being a woman.  But in all fairness, I think people, especially women, may not have been enamored with the role even otherwise.  Shalini, the adorable girlfriend from part-1, is now a nagging homemaker.  The dulcet voice from the earlier movie has been replaced with a shrill.  Dhanush, playing the husband, even breaks into a mock sobbing bout when Kajol asks an innocuous question, “Are you married?”  We are supposed to understand that he is henpecked!  Dhanush’s writing, which was quite a revelation in the Revathy-Raj Kiran portions of Power Paandi, exhibits nary a bit of that delicacy here.  The track is just played for easy laughs.  But probably owing to Dhanush’s genial screen persona these days and its stark contrast to the crudeness of some of his early day characters (like Thiruda Thirudi) I did not find the husband-wife interactions particularly offensive. 

Despite being the butt of her husband’s jokes, Shalini is very much her own individual, who decides when to work and when not to.  Living in the same house with her father-in-law, husband and brother-in-law, she might be the one preparing food (even in a makeshift kitchen on the terrace amidst floods) but she tells them what to wear, what groceries to buy, etc.  I do not mean to make all of this sound like the signs of deep women empowerment.  But in the male dominated world of Tamil cinema, I suppose that I feel the need to pick my battles.  And VIP-2 didn’t feel like one worth losing sleep over.  Even in the climactic portion, Dhanush’s words to Kajol about the equality of men and women did not sound condescending to me.  Rather, it felt quite genuine.  One could argue that in this day and age, even such a line is redundant.  But show me one modern day Tamil hero worth his salt that gives you the vibe that the heroine is on equal footing with them.  After watching the concluding portions of VIP-2, I was actually left with quite a pleasant feeling that even the seemingly villainous Kajol character was not shown as being ‘tamed.’  Instead, there was a bonding that happened in the most unexpected fashion.  Whether the writing of this segment was solid is a moot point but it felt like the writer’s heart was in the right place.

As I reflected on the portrayals of women that have impressed me over the years, it was hard to shake off a rather strong feeling.  And that was that anything that I deemed better than the status quo of the day had impressed me sufficiently that I did tend to give the filmmakers brownie points for at least striving to make something different, something more mature.  My oft-repeated example is Rhythm and movies of that ilk like Keladi Kanmani, Sigaram, etc.  I have been enormously impressed by the decency that is exhibited towards the women in these movies.  The women are portrayed as strong-willed individuals, with myriad shades, warts and all.  The characters are treated with immense dignity by the hero (by extension, the filmmaker, I feel).  But the one fault that is laid at the feet of directors like Vasanth is that the remarrying heroine is a virgin.  While I am not going to debate that, my own reaction to these movies has been largely positive just because I don’t get to see such cultured interactions in the average Tamil movie where the hero is deified and the heroine is objectified.  Of course, Tamil cinema has moved to an era where filmmakers like Gautham Menon have pushed boundaries, in the right direction I might add.  To me, the Ajith-Trisha interactions were easily the highlight of Yennai Arindhal.  The fact that Trisha had a child was exquisitely handled. (“Isha unakulla irundhu vandhava” was a particularly poignant line.)  In essence, respect shown to women in the movies should not come as a surprise to us.  It should be a given.  But until that happens in a movie industry that is, with reason, accused of glorifying stalking and reducing women to objects of male fantasies, let me savor the rare maturely handled movie, with all its virtues and flaws.

Having grown up on a staple diet of Mani Ratnam movies, I thought of how the typical Ratnam heroine has rarely, if ever, been a pushover.  Even a Meera Jasmine who is treated like dirt at several places by the Madhavan character in Aaytha Ezhuthu, has nerves of steel.  She is the most fascinating character in that movie.  She continually forgives Madhavan for his impulsiveness and his explosive temper.  But when, in her estimation, he crosses the line of conscientiousness, she gets an abortion done without telling him.  Whatever one’s opinion of that decision may be, it is hard to refute the fact that she is not a one-note character.  Where Madhavan explodes, she implodes.  While he might have a short fuse, her anger may be more measured but is every bit as intense as his.  All this is to say that when I sense that effort has been put into writing a well-rounded character for an actress, I walk away not only impressed but also a tad relieved.  That relief comes from the fact that human dramas will rarely seem balanced and realistic if only the male character comes across as well-written.

Whenever films like Magalir Mattum and Valla Desam (both unseen by me) with a female lead get released, there is always cause for cheer just by virtue of their difference from the norm.  As part of the promotions for these movies, we invariably also hear mentions of the rarity of women filmmakers. (For the record, both these films were directed by men.)  It is a perfectly valid lament.  For commercial considerations, an aversion to risk, the fear of being crushed by the male star juggernaut, an inherent male chauvinism or just plain ignorance, the majority of movies made by male directors do leave little for women to do.  Filmmakers like Karthik Subburaj (Iraivi), Seenu Ramasamy (Dharmadurai) and Ram (Taramani) have all attempted to showcase their heroines in varied shades.  Opinions have been polarized.  While a group of people (that I belong to) admire their guts to try something different and even admire the outputs for the most part, there have also been clarion calls for more sensitivity and depth (especially in the case of Taramani).  All these discussions remind me of how even a filmmaker of repute like Ratnam once admitted to having certain blind spots as a guy.  He cited the example of the second half of Roja, which had a scene where Madhubala (whose husband has been kidnapped by terrorists) is shown wearing bangles.  Ratnam recounted a conversation with a female friend of his who told him that a suffering woman would never have the motivation to wear bangles! 

While it is a small screen teleseries, Suhasini’s Penn is one of the rare works of a female filmmaker that shows us the kind of outputs that we will get with women at the helm.  Each of her characters, be it the mother and daughter (so marvelously acted by Srividya and Revathy), the recalcitrant daughter (played by Bhanupriya), the cheated woman (Geetha) and the most memorable, the Radhika character (who loses her husband in an accident) are all splendidly written, three-dimensional characters.  While the influence of Mani Ratnam in her direction is quite obvious, the writing by Suhasini is of high order.  Especially given that she had a little less than 25 minutes for each episode, her portrayals of these women are a joy to behold.  In my tribute to the late actress Srividya, I wrote that it is portrayals such as these that make me respect the women in my own life, to value their sacrifices, to treasure the lessons that they have taught me and to never hesitate to put them on their deserving pedestals.  I do think that it takes either a female filmmaker or a male with amazing depth of perception of women to evoke such a strong reaction. 

No write-up on women in Tamil movies will be complete without a mention of K Balachander.  Throughout the 1970s and 80s, he made several films with women as the protagonist, the fulcrum around which the plot levers turned.  Especially the second half of the 70s was a period when he had strong talents like Kamal Hassan play second fiddle to the women in his movies, a case in point being the memorable AvargaL.  To me, KB’s works were qualified successes.  I admired the different path that he took.  I even admired the guts and gumption displayed by some of his female characters.  But save Nizhal Nijamagiradhu, I found the latter portions of several of his movies to bend under the weight of the heavy themes and the portrayal of women as mouthpieces for empowerment.  A strong exception to this is Agni Saatchi, which I regard as the finest work of his long, illustrious career.  The female character in that movie undergoes unspeakable hardships.  But KB does something quite wonderful with the Sivakumar character.  He has the actor drop anchor while Saritha walks away with the movie.  But in having Sivakumar shower immense love on the Saritha character and support her through her psychological trauma, KB ‘says’ a lot of what there is to be said about the responsibility of men towards women.  A classic case of 'show, don’t tell,' Agni Saatchi is a must-see (even if a difficult watch) for lovers of meaningful cinema.  In Agni Saatchi, one scene that bothered me was how Sivakumar resists from divorcing Saritha only after he gets to know of her pregnancy.  His character toes his parents’ line a little too blindly in the sequence leading to this.  But I then tell myself that KB portrayed the Sivakumar character too as a human with his flaws, not as a cardboard cut-out for supportive men.  As Baradwaj Rangan pointed out recently in a discussion on KB, “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater."  Very true, for KB charted his own path that even modern day filmmakers rarely have the ability or willingness to take.

It is impossible to deny the responsibility that filmmakers have.  While it is unfair to target them and attribute all societal evils to what is put out on the silver screen, it is true that cinema is a pervasive, influential medium that has been used in Tamil Nadu for everything from a political platform to a mindless entertainment medium.  As critics like Rangan point out, the primary duty of a filmmaker is to tell a story powerfully, utilizing all the tools and techniques that this audio visual medium affords them.  But the ‘audio’ portions are things people hear, the visual parts are things that people see and retain.  A display of a basic level of respect doesn’t translate into portraying anyone as an angel.  As author Adam Grant once said, acknowledgement is the truest form of empathy.  To have filmmakers acknowledge the depth and complexity of women would be a meaningful augury for the future of this medium.  Even more so than the average book, images and sounds from a film do make an impact on the human psyche.  To the extent to which directors can tell stories without taking either gender for granted, not just cinema but also our society at large, will be richer for that. 


I didn't get to mention this in my write-up but this is one of my favorite scenes from Aasai.  The Suvalakshmi character sparkles here.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The depths of an actor’s persona

As I was watching, with rapt attention, a few scenes from Mahendran’s Mullum Malarum, two people that came to my mind were Satyaraj and the late Director Manivannan.  The duo had a long fruitful association which peaked in their 1994 blockbuster, the political drama Amaidhi Padai.  There were two parallels that I could see between Rajnikanth and Satyaraj in Mullum Malarum and Amaidhi Padai respectively.  The first, obvious similarity was that they turned in arguably their greatest performance in these two movies.  But digging deeper, I realized that the reason these actors scaled the zenith of their careers acting wise was that the directors in question not only understood their persona but also delved deep and deeper into it until there was no further facet to explore and not an extra shade left to project.

Released in 1978, Mullum Malarum was Mahendran’s debut as a director.  A writer of some repute (Thanga Padhakkam, Mogam Muppathu Varusham), Mahendran, in an interview with Bosskey, mentioned how he used to bemoan the fact that Rajni’s tremendous potential as an actor had scarcely met its match in his prior movies.  Prior to the movie being made, Rajni had been acting mainly in supporting roles, mostly as an antagonist, taking baby steps into the leading man territory.  But in the best of his performances till then – Moondru Mudichu, 16 Vayathinile or AvargaL – there was simmering anger.  You could always sense a dynamite ready to explode.  

Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There is a bomb under the table.  If it explodes, it is surprise.  If it doesn’t, it is suspense.”  In an inspired move, Mahendran decided that he would tease the audience by having a light next to the wick of the dynamite but would set it off only when needed.  What also benefited Rajni was that the director (who also wrote the movie) gave him a character that was essentially good-hearted.  In fact, the build-up to the Rajni – Sarat Babu confrontation is an exercise in skillful writing.  Sample the sequence (25:00 – 30:00 min point in the video below) where Rajni thrashes his colleague for attempting to tarnish his reputation.  If the actual beating of the hapless colleague is raw, messy and lifelike, what is enormously touching is the way he describes his affection for his sister.  What is also wonderful to watch is how in the montage scenes, Rajni is marvelously casual. (Watch him chat with the old women!)  The supporting cast, especially Samikannu, does a stellar job, proving to be an apt foil for the charged Rajni as he lets sparks fly.

Watch the 5-min sequence from the 25-min point:

Satyaraj had been a leading man through the late 80s and early 90s when Manivannan decided to bring back the villain in him to the screen.  Satyaraj’s fan base would have been just content to see an antagonist on screen.  But Manivannan was not content in just presenting any villainous character.  He envisaged the portrait of an evil man that was so consumed by thirst for power that he found it impossible to accommodate any goodness.  If you look past the legendary highlights of the movie like the election scene, you will see shades in this villain that are rarely seen in antagonists even these days.  This is especially true in the case of his relationship with his wife Sujatha.  He knows that she is a righteous person who doesn’t deserve to be killed.  Yet in his desperation and fear that she will turn into an approver, he orders his aide to kill him.  Satyaraj is brilliant in this scene, as the hunger for power kills any residual humanity in him.  Be it his last conversation with Sujatha or his casual orders to his henchman to kill her, he brings to life an evil man who is unable to curb the demon inside.  In a superb touch, he adds, “Please don’t torture her like you do your other victims.  Just slay her and let her die without suffering.”  This was Manivannan’s pen at its sharpest, not content with exploring the actor’s persona on the surface and instead, piercing it and tearing it asunder.

Start - 2:28 min point:

Mahendran, with Mullum Malarum, had introduced a style of writing where painting a leading man in shades of gray would actually make him seem human, warts and all, and not ‘heroic’ in the way prior leading men of Tamil cinema had been portrayed.  He probably noted in Rajni’s earlier films that the actor had built the persona of a loose cannon.  By keeping the movie strongly rooted in the sensitive brother-sister relationship, Mahendran is able to showcase the tenderness of the Rajni character.  This allows some of his character’s questionable actions, be it banging his wife’s head against the pillar or wanting to marry his sister off to an older man to get back at Sarat Babu, to be forgiven by the audience.  Even in the moving climactic sequence, Rajni’s ego co-exists with his abiding love for his sister.  Mahendran’s shaping of this character is so exquisite that we rarely realize while watching the movie that he has taken the actor’s persona and strengths and worked with it and around it. 

Watch from 4:15 (with a kerchief handy!)

Manivannan, on the other hand, probably realized that his best chance at making Satyaraj’s ‘performance’ work was to have him appear effortless and relaxed.  But it is a testament to his writing skill that he gives Satyaraj line after sizzling line that mixes acerbic wit and perceptive social commentary.  Since it is all tossed off with panache, the lines make us laugh but upon a bit of reflection, they make us think. Witness the scene where Satyaraj plots a caste-based riot.  In a scene that is hilarious on the surface, he touches upon religious fanaticism, caste-based factions and the sad state of affairs of the uneducated voting public.  But there is no highfalutin talk here about any of these heavy duty topics.  Manivannan, in a remarkable demonstration of ‘invisible’ writing, places all these issues into the safe hands of the master villain, who uses his dialogue delivery and casual body language to bring these lines to life.  In none of their earlier collaborations (such as 24 Mani Neram) was the villain much beyond a smiling assassin driven by base instincts.  But here, Manivannan tapped into the antagonist in Satyaraj and wrote his character as the personification of sociopolitical evil. 

5:30 min point -- 

Modern day directors like Karthik Subburaj – his casting of SJ Suryah in Iraivi was a masterstroke – and Pushkar-Gayathri (the duo behind the sensational Vikram Vedha) do use actors purposefully to fit their vision.  For them, yesteryear doyens like Mahendran have set high standards.  These directors that do want to shape the future of Tamil cinema will do well to revisit the work of masters who have invested time and effort into their writing, casting and making inspired choices in their direction.  If history can repeat itself more often, then the influx of directors into the pantheon of great Tamil filmmakers will happen at a much faster pace.


Friday, September 1, 2017

Thank Goodness for Roger Federer - A guest post by Nand V. Kumar

The following is an article written by my friend and colleague Nand V. Kumar.  It was so beautifully written that I requested that I host it on this blog since Nand hasn't started blogging yet.  Thank you, Nand.  It is a privilege to post this article here. - Ram


Tennis has changed a lot lately. The courts are slower, the rackets larger, the strings tighter, the serves faster, the balls fluffier, the grunting louder, the baseline rallies longer, the fans rowdier, and the sportsmanship rarer. It is no longer a gentleman’s game that it once was. Genteel has morphed into brash, and power has replaced finesse. Promising younger players complaining of boredom and/or premature burnout are now emblematic of the decorum and discipline the game appears to have lost forever. And yet, right in the thick of the change, the remarkable resurgence of a remarkable tennis player has allowed us to pause, recalibrate and rejoice.

Thank goodness, we have Roger Federer.

When Federer steps on a tennis court, none of the above matters. His game straddles different eras like a veritable time machine. If one is lucky enough to catch Federer in the zone and in full flight (there is nothing more resplendent in all of sport), one just might see the past, present, and, yes, the future, coalesce into a display of shot making brilliance so out of the mainstream that one can only marvel at his inventiveness and audacity. Improbably angled crosscourt forehand slice winners, no-look backhand flicks on the full stretch, and spinning squash shots out of no-man’s land are interspersed with sublime shots of controlled aggression on both flanks of the court. Federer is that rare breed of player who evokes nostalgia and anticipation in equal measure. His hybrid game, an unlikely amalgam of finesse and high-powered tennis from current and past eras, takes us back to the future, to a place unlike any we have ever known. Andre Agassi summed it best several years ago when he said, “Federer plays a game with which I am not familiar.”

PeRFection, the monogrammed sign that pops up ubiquitously whenever and wherever Federer is playing, is not just a fan appreciation thing, it gets to the core of his personality, both as player and human being. Astonishingly enough, almost twenty years on the tour and 93 titles later, Federer believes there is still room for improvement. He stepped away from competitive tennis for six months last year, not so much to heal the body but to heal the mind and rekindle his passion for the sport. He came back in January this year with a purpose and a plan; the purpose, to start winning again, especially on the big stage at the majors. The plan: to walk on the court without the burden of expectation, to be aggressive, and “to play the ball…not your opponent.”

If you think an old dog cannot learn new tricks, you simply have not watched a reincarnated Federer lately. Remember the fifth set at the Australian Open final? Down a service break against his biggest nemesis, Federer went on a tear, winning five straight games to snatch (pardon the cliché) an improbable victory from the jaws of defeat. It was arguably the best five games he ever played. He was fearless and free-wheeling throughout the match, but during that five-game stretch, he literally abandoned all caution, stepping in on second serves, taking the ball early, hitting his backhand with impunity, and charging the net at the earliest invite. One commentator on ESPN exclaimed Federer was “flying around the court again now.” The joie de vivre that had been missing from his game in recent years was back, and Federer was at the summit once more. Six months later, in July, Federer went on a tear yet again to win a record eighth Wimbledon title without dropping a set. Writing in The New Yorker after that match, Louisa Thomas eloquently states, winning (for Federer) “seems like a natural consequence of a more general joy.”

There is no tennis champion, past or present, who has embraced life on the tour (and beyond) with as much affirmation of joy as Federer. The racket throwing moments of his youth are long gone, replaced now with a genuine sense of wonder, not just over his own achievements but those of his fellow players as well. When he plays, he is calm and serene, almost Buddha-like. During practice, his relaxed and casual demeanor on the outside belies a steely resolve on the inside. He is a stickler for rules (and excellence), for which the purists love him. If injured he will not play, and if he plays he will not quit midway during a match. He does not wear his celebrity on his sleeve when he hangs out with younger players in the locker room or invites them to be his hitting partner. He hobnobs easily with ball boys and girls and throws pizza parties for them even when he loses. He displays an air of quiet exuberance when he talks to the press, for whom he always somehow makes time. Most endearing of all is the fact that he travels with his family as much as he does (wife, parents, two sets of twins) not just because he can, but because for him the joy of tennis also means having them around as much as possible.

Greatness in most fields of artistic human endeavor is absolute. How can you compare Rembrandt with Picasso or Mozart with Beethoven? You cannot put genius on a scale and assign a numerical value to measure one versus the other. Greatness in tennis is for the most part relative, with grand slam titles, weeks at number one, and head-to-head performance serving as primary differentiating markers. And then we have Federer. All the talk one hears about Federer being the greatest of all time (or not) misses the point altogether. To compare him with others on relative measures is to troll. He is as much an artist as he is a tennis player. His balletic movement and grace on the tennis court compel references to Baryshnikov and Nureyev, so how can relative numbers alone capture the full measure of a man who has brought so much joy to the world?

The final grand slam tournament of the year gets under way in New York tomorrow. Federer may or may not win an unprecedented sixth US Open title, but that the spotlight continues to be on him at this late stage in his career (he turned thirty-six earlier this month) is in itself a celebration of a remarkable athlete and his continuing legacy.