Sunday, October 29, 2017

Aaha turns 20!

Thoughts and memories about Aaha, a comedy drama directed by Suresh Krissna, that was released on Oct 30, 1997.  These are not listed in any particular order.  At the end of the write-up, I have embedded the youtube video of the movie, marking the scenes that I have referenced.
  • On the eve of Diwali in 1997, I stumbled upon some pre-release promotions on TV.  KT Kunjumon’s big budget disaster Ratchagan was one among them.  Amidst these releases was a small movie with a big heart.  At least, that is what the promos, which included the 10,000-wala scene, promised.  That surely was what the movie delivered.  Aaha ensured that I was going to have a cracker of a Diwali!  I watched the movie at the Anna Theatre twice.  Once with my family and the second time with my friends.  Some memories have to be co-created.  Aaha was certainly one.  Years later, a bunch of my friends, including some of their family, took a day train to Bangalore to attend the wedding reception of one of our gang members.  En route, one of us started spouting dialogues from the movie.  My friend’s sister started recounting some of her favorite lines.  Even another friend’s Dad, who was reticent by nature, joined the fun, much to our surprise.  The conversation made the rather uncomfortable seats on the train painless.  Is this what is called a ‘feel’ good movie?! 
  • I have always reckoned that Aaha is ‘Crazy’ Mohan’s best work as a dialogue writer.  Some of his collaborations with Kamal Hassan have probably resulted in even bigger laughs.  I think I know why.  The other movies made me laugh, yes.  But Aaha is the movie that makes me smile.  It is not a nuance.  There is a world of difference.  This movie was sweet but not syrupy.  Every smile is well-earned.  Every tear is worth shedding.  And the dialogues play no small part in this respect.
  • The scene that takes the Well-earned Smile award, among many tough contenders, is the Antakshari sequence.  Each actor gets a song that is totally in line with their character and their age.  Banupriya’s graceful dance movements for “Ottagatha Kattiko,” Srividya’s “Maraindhu Irundhu Paarkum…,” the Paati’s “Delhi-ku raja” all are memorable in their own way.  There is a bit of amateurishness in the dancing which makes the sequence all the more endearing and lifelike.  Of course, the moment that takes the cake, the icing and the candles for the best ear-to-ear grin is Banupriya singing, “Azhagiya Raghuvaraney!”  His reaction is even more priceless.
    • Honorable Contender for the Smile award goes to the Gokulashtami sequence.  Several funny lines mark this scene.  But what makes this truly special is how the family members interact with one another.  They laugh at each other’s jokes (note Banupriya’s cute reaction to Rajiv Krishna’s “aruvadhavadhu kalyanam” joke) and pass on the savories casually.  The staging is as well-done as the writing, which seamlessly transitions into serious drama with the Vijaykumar-Delhi Ganesh argument. (The late Ananthu co-wrote the screenplay with Suresh Krissna.)
  • Beyond the smiles, there are, of course, some big laughs in Aaha.  Famous for his imaginative, witty puns, Mohan’s writing is in top gear here.  Be it the “pul tharai…puliyotharai” comment, the “bar attached, nee detached” remark or the hilarious “thayir vadai” joke, the laughs are fast and frenetic.  But the biggest laughs come in…of all scenes, a death scene.  The exchange that the Thatha has with Delhi Ganesh has so many laughs that the ink in Mohan’s pen probably had a tough time keeping pace with his flow of thoughts!
  • Raghuvaran turned in one of his great performances in this movie.  Mature and measured, his character is superbly etched.  He rises to the occasion.  And for a tall man, he stands even taller in the climax sequence where he and the equally marvelous Banupriya vie for acting honors.  They both deliver crisp monologues that are rendered with modulations of voice that are sublimely effective.  Notice the way Raghuvaran says, “She is no more, Pa.”  The choking of his voice is understated and works just for that reason.  Banupriya is a little more demonstrative but in keeping with her character, the way she says, “Enaku idhayame illa-nu nenachutteLe, idhu nyayama” is, in equal measure childlike and deeply affecting. 
    • It takes acting and writing of tremendous skill to make a comic sequence work after all the dramatic highs achieved in these monologues.  But that magic happens at the very end of the movie, that gets a fitting finish, courtesy of Delhi Ganesh.  His “gul gul jil jil mal mal” joke leads to a big laugh that makes you wipe your tears away.  But here’s the thing.  Both the laughs and the tears seem absolutely genuine, neither out of place despite one following another. 
  • Thanks to the stars lining up (or rather, subtitlist Rekhs lining them for me!), I managed to interview director Suresh Krissna last year.  I have written about my interview in this blog.  He probably smiled at the end of the interview at the thought that I was probably the only person to not ask him a single question about Baasha and had the bulk of the conversation focused on the making of Aaha and his friendship with the late Raghuvaran.  Click here for the interview.  Thank you, once again, SK Sir for your kindness of thought and gesture.  (The stars lined up in another way too.  I am married to 'Crazy' Mohan's niece!)
  • Aaha is probably the only Tamil movie known to me that has a cast of brahmin characters that are neither caricatures nor employed to make any statement about casteism or religious beliefs.  Even classics such as Sethu and Vedham Pudhidhu which featured brahmin characters at their core and treated them mostly with respect and dignity, did not shy away from utilizing stereotypes to suit their needs.  If the heroine in Sethu is the typical docile girl used as contrast to the rugged hero, there are several characters in Vedham Pudhidhu with exaggerated accents and narrow-minded attitudes.  Of course, a writer is not obliged to showcase the people of a particular community as angels.  But I am merely making the observation that the characters in these two well-made movies belonged to this community for very specific plot-based reasons.  But sometimes, to not touch upon something overtly is a statement in itself.  Aaha, by never quite dwelling on the fact that the characters were brahmins, actually gives a reason to cheer for this community.  They are portrayed as three-dimensional characters, with their virtues and foibles, no more, no less. 
  • The one off-key performance in Aaha was Sukanya’s.  I felt that she should have been reined in a lot more.  Because the dying character being preternaturally chirpy is a cliché.  But the actress that strikes a discordant note with her performance makes up for it with heart-rending grace notes in the hospital sequence.  Raghuvaran’s emoting too is controlled, moving and riveting.  
    • Speaking of Raghuvaran, it is a pity that he died young.  It is a testament to his acting skill that even though I didn’t know him personally, I find it hard to watch the climax now.  His character is assumed to be dead but returns miraculously.  Too sad that miracles are restricted to the screen.  (Click to read my post titled, “Remembering Raghuvaran.”)
  • One of the smaller joys of Aaha is the importance given to even the minor characters in the ensemble cast.  The Thatha, Paati and Kavithalaya Krishnan – he plays a driver, who is treated as an extended member of the family -- all have their moments.  I found it especially sweet that Krishnan’s character was a part of the Aavani Avattam rituals performed by the family.  There is no fuss made about or prominence given to his inclusion, which makes us smile at the kindhearted generosity of the family. 
  • There are two physically challenged characters in Aaha, one played by the grandpa who is hard of hearing.  (And the other is the kid sister who uses a crutch to walk.)  Even though the Thatha’s hearing is the butt of several funny jokes, there is something about these actors delivering the lines that ensure that the jokes don’t come across as mean-spirited.  In a touching moment, the grandpa is the only one in the wedding scene who notices that something has gone awry.  His lines to Rajiv Krishna are unforgettable.  And it is only fair that the movie that starts off by introducing him as the “senior citizen” of the house, ends with a funny joke focused on him!  
Happy Birthday, Aaha!  You are one of a kind!  Movies like you are hard to find!

Time points for the scenes (in the video link below):
  • A cracker of a Diwali -- 10:45 min point
  • “There must be some reason for everything!” -- 34:20
  • All-inclusive Aavani Avattam! -- 1:06:24
  • Ananthachari…err, Anthakshari -- 1:13:25 
  • Gokulashtami at Gurukripa -- 1:22:15
  • The dying patient wants to live longer -- 2:15:24
  • The Thatha's touching lines -- 2:23:18
  • The memorable monologues by Raghuvaran and Banupriya -- 2:35:52

Sunday, October 15, 2017

In Pursuit of Meaning

470 milliliters.  That was the quantity of blood drawn from my body during a drive conducted at the local church.

3 liters.  That was the amount of blood that my Aunt lost in the days leading up to her death this time last year. 

As the days of the calendar trudged through the end of September, several disconnected thoughts traipsed through my mind.  I wanted to do something ‘meaningful’ on her death anniversary.  Donating blood in the honor of someone dear who had died of hematologic complications – that was, to me, a token of remembrance that would have made her smile.  But after my blood was drawn and the bandage was applied, I asked myself whether I had done enough.  The more complicated question was, how exactly would I define ‘enough?’

I work in the oncology group of a pharmaceutical company.  I have seen videos of metastatic patients – in layman’s terms, patients whose cancer has spread to different parts of their body.  I have wondered if these patients tried to encapsulate their entire lives’ memories, regrets and wishes all into a show reel.  Do they, especially the ones that are on the younger side, experience a sense of desperation?  How do they see their tradeoffs -- work in favor of family or family in favor of friends?  These decisions that they had perceived as the ingredients of a balanced life – do these choices, in retrospect, seem to have resulted in pyrrhic victories?  Or, do they have a satisfied sigh that they had balanced, with the grace of a ballet dancer and the skill of a tightrope walker, the components of their core?  That they had dealt with the surprises of life with equanimity that prepared them for their toughest physical and psychological battle.

Apart from truly old people at the end of their lives, I don’t think many, with the exception of terminally ill patients, would have the ‘luxury’ of an extended introspection, with the finiteness of their lives an immediate reality, not a fact of life.  By the same token, it is these patients that face a tough battle if they start taking sojourns in the dark recesses of their mind.  If they start assessing their life as one that has not been well-lived, it would be akin to an architect looking at his magnum opus and wanting to demolish it in a day and build it from scratch in a week. 

They live on...
The four people whose photographs are a part of my prayer room are my maternal and paternal grandfathers, my grandpa’s brother and my Aunt.  One was 84 and died while in good health, with minimal suffering.  One was 67 when he stepped out of his house, experienced a massive cardiac arrest.  One was 61 when he was involved in a freak car accident, while living for less than an hour in the realization that his end was nigh.  And my Aunt was 49 and was unconscious in the hospital for a week before passing away.  She probably did not know that she, despite her health complications, was going to leave this world.  None of these people had the experience of a patient with a terminal condition who knew roughly how long their final lap was.  But I am certain that all four of them passed away with barely any regrets.  Their lives, some short, others longer, were well lived and they were well loved.  It was because they loved well.  Their love for their family and friends was as unconditional as it was comforting.  They had the grace to acknowledge their foibles, took life seriously but not so seriously that they did not have their share of laughs.  Their innate generosity meant that they gave more than they took.  In essence, in their own authentic ways, they had done enough by the time fate intervened and decided that their time was up.      

I suppose I have my answer there.  Donating blood in my Aunt’s memory is not going to be ‘enough’ per se.  But it is the equivalent of a brick, not an architectural marvel.  It is a series of these little bricks that will help me construct a sturdy monument, a structure that despite when my end comes, be it 49 or 84, is a creation that I would look at with a sense of accomplishment.  In essence, the pursuit of meaning is rendered redundant when the journey is comprised of bits of the actual goal.


10/20/17 Update -- I came in second in this week's popular vote.  There was no editor's pick but I was happy to be cited in the week's round-up.  See excerpt below as well as the link:

“One way to keep the reader’s attention is to have a strong central theme, object, or phrase to tie your essay to. If you can signal this theme in your title, it’s even better – like the repetition of sounds and letters in this poem, it will create moments that stick in your reader’s head without you having to be obvious about HEY THIS IS MY THEME WORD. Ram did it this week with numbers, but you can use whatever works for your idea.”