Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Afloat in New Waters

2017 has been a fantastic year.  It has also been quite mystifying.  Let’s rewind to a conversation that I had on Jan 1 with my dear friend as I was bidding goodbye to him.  I had had a memorable reunion with my group of friends.  My wife and child had been unable to join me since we had other family visiting our place.  As my friend and I hugged, he noticed that I was feeling downbeat.  It had been three years since I had met the guys and the thought of another wait was making me feel heavier than my weight suggested.  He said to me, “I know you are feeling low.  But remember that your family is waiting to receive you back home.”

In response, I smiled and said, “This may sound simplistic, even a little sappy.  But that’s a different part of the heart!”  Almost a year has passed by.  And I still think of that line that I uttered.  What I didn’t realize on that day was that this whirlwind of emotions was not a standalone entity; rather, it was an usher to a deeper whirlpool that was sucking me in.  Being a single child was something that I had dismissed as a mere fact of life.  Now it was starting to be a sentiment.  So, I gave it its rightful space in my mind, not pretending to be oblivious to its existence.  By letting it simmer for a while, I began to formulate some thoughts around it.  After all, I had to learn to let thoughts float as opposed to letting them sink me. 

The first stream of thoughts that I experienced was in a pool of wistfulness.  My friends are a wonderful set of people- warm, funny and generous.  But as distances, familial priorities, work commitments all vie for space, it is unreasonable, futile even, on my part to dwell on times when distances were manageable and the feeling of being an integral part of a friend’s life was a definite charge for me to lead my own life.  The feeling that every dear friend is just a call or a whatsapp message away is a reassuring one.  But as they say, sometimes what is near might seem quite afar.  When my 49-year-old Aunt passed away without much warning, my friends rallied around me beautifully.  It is lovely to have someone chosen by you, not related by blood, be a core part of your life.  It is yet another thing to be a part of someone else’s life.  And with their constantly evolving set of priorities and responsibilities, I see it almost as my own duty to be gracefully accepting of being more on the periphery of a loved one’s expanded circle.  But as a result, that “part of the heart” feels emptier, yet paradoxically heavier. 

The parallel torrent of emotions that floods my mind is around the passing away of my Aunt in October 2016.  A well-wisher in whom I confided recently about the spate of these new feelings asked me to think in a more focused manner about the death of my Aunt and its effects on me.  I think about my Aunt a lot but not in this context.  Following my well-wisher’s advice, I introspected a little more and realized that even though I had never quite taken my Aunt for granted, her presence in my life had been more akin to the sky than a rainbow.  It was so constant, so predictable, so unassuming that I hadn’t fully appreciated its value while it lasted.  The heavens had come crashing down last October and had pierced through yet another “part of the heart.”  But the fact that my Aunt had been a motherly figure, a sister, a friend all rolled into one meant that her absence was now going to make me swim alone in the sea of memories and the oceanic legacy that she has left behind.

Alas, there is a nuanced yet discernible difference between feeling ‘alone’ and feeling ‘lonely.’  I tell myself that to experience fleeting, disquieting thoughts might be okay as long as I learn to deal with them.  Acceptance and empathy are trustworthy lifeguards.  And above all, I tell myself that the very reason I am able to stay afloat is due to the buoyancy gifted by my loved ones. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Visu(al) Medium: Musing on Visu’s films

In a recent interaction between film critic Baradwaj Rangan and producer G Dhananjayan, the two of them discussed the dearth of true ‘directors’ in Thamizh cinema.  Directors that could take something on paper and use all the cinematic tools at their disposal to stage -- “staging” is a term that Rangan often uses in this context -- a scene in a manner that is befitting the audiovisual medium of cinema.  During the course of that conversation, Rangan mentioned that directors of the 1960s and 70s like Bhimsingh made entertaining films but that those would not really fit the definition of pure ‘cinema.’  If he had gone on talk about the 80s, I have little doubt that he would have mentioned Visu in the same breath.

The way I see it, filmmakers were mostly products of their system.  Belonging to an entertainment culture that had strong roots in theatre, it was not rare for directors and producers in the 60s through the late 70s to adapt stage plays.  Several of K Balachander’s films were adaptations of his plays – Edhir Neechal was probably the most famous instance.  But KB gradually took to the ‘visual’ component of the audio visual medium.  His landscapes too changed and he skillfully utilized the settings (sometimes in an overt way, no doubt) to help tell a story.  Two examples that spring to mind are the waterfalls in Achamillai Achamillai and the boulder in Oru Veedu Iru Vaasal.  KB also had a tremendous ear for music and was a master at situational songs.  This was another element that helped him in his quest to embrace the tools that cinema afforded him.

In the early 80s, KB took Visu under his wing and had the latter script films that he produced, like Netrikann, Mazhalai Pattalam and Thillu Mullu (a remake of Gol Maal).  At this time, directors like ‘Muktha’ Srinivasan (Shimla Special) and SP Muthuraman (Kudumbam Oru Kadhambam) directed movies that were written by Visu.  Very swiftly, Visu became an actor-writer-director with Manal Kayiru in 1982.  (The lack of real cinematic polish in a Kudumbam… when compared to a Manal Kayiru makes me think that even if Visu had continued as a writer alone, his films would have still come across as photographed plays, owing to paucity of pure ‘directors,’ the ones that Rangan alludes to.) 

Starting in 1982 up until the mid-90s, Visu evolved into a prolific filmmaker but unlike KB, he never quite let go of his theatrical staging ways.  He was extremely popular among the middle class movie watching folk in an era where TV viewing was restricted to Doordarshan!  Since the serial-watching audiences of today once went to the theatres, he had a built-in audience.  It is more accurate to state that he earned that audience.  He told their stories.  As dramatic as the movies may have been and as simplistic as some of the resolutions to the knots were, his target audiences lapped up his offerings gleefully.  He very rarely resorted to the kind of crude, contrived villainy and caricatures that was seen in the masala films of the day and even the ghastfully written TV dramas of today, to move his stories forward.  Quite a few of his films did not work for me – the characters in his lesser efforts seemed to be mere one-note mouthpieces for the themes that he wanted to flesh out.  But let me take the apogee of his career, Samsaram Adhu Minsaaram, to elaborate on what aspects of his brand of films still hold appeal to me.

Samsaram… is an honest account of the trials and tribulations of a middle class family.  Some are seemingly stock characters but notice closely and you will see that they have shades that reflect the depth of the writing.  The brother played by Chandrasekar is a case in point.  He is an obedient son, obedient to the point that he resists from talking to Lakshmi (his sister-in-law) following the showdown between his father (Visu) and brother (Raghuvaran).  He has an element of male chauvinism too.  He forces his wife (an educated woman) to tutor his brother, who is not exactly the brightest bulb in the room.  When she speaks to him openly about the lack of intimacy between the two of them, he chides her rather crudely.  But later, when she is down with chicken pox, he tends to her lovingly.  Now, one could argue that he is trying hard to balance his affections for the different members of the family.  But he is no saint.  And the way he talks to his wife (on the road, after she has walked out on him) is truly despicable.  It is only when Lakshmi knocks some sense into him does he realize the error of his ways.  The character arc is superbly done.  Even though he is not ‘allowed’ to talk to Lakshmi, he listens to her well-meaning advice.  Their interaction in the climax is a poignant little segment.  And the way Lakshmi says, “Neenga kooda enna yaemathiteenga Thambi” is deeply moving.  The Chandrasekar character fits in beautifully into the core theme of the film.  Vairamuthu’s lines illustrate this at markedly different points - the “minsaaram” that is “samsaram” can provide as much light as it can lead to acute shocks.

Another reason why I prefer Samsaram… (and Kudumbam Oru Kadhambam) over all his other films was that Visu was not the main protagonist.  By being one among several characters, I actually felt he liberated the writer in him to move the story through narrative arcs rather than preachy dialogues.  This movie is an actor’s showcase for Lakshmi and she delivers one of the great performances of her checkered career.  Known mostly for an overemphatic acting style, when the writing was in top gear (Sila NerangaLil Sila ManidhargaL, for instance), Lakshmi’s performances could be equally arresting.  In Samsaram… she plays the role at just the right pitch, elevating Visu’s writing considerably.  She is especially wonderful in the climax where she conveys the pain of being alienated for no fault of hers.  Where Visu’s films sometimes don’t work for me is when resolutions to sensitive issues are simplistic and convenient.  But here, the actions of the Lakshmi character convey myriad messy emotions without neatly wrapping up everything.  As a result, despite the theatrical manner of staging, the drama itself comes across as lifelike. 

No write-up on Visu will be complete without a mention of his dialogues.  Famous for his long-winded alliterative, repetitive style of dialogues, Visu was equally a master of the pithy line.  Sample these from Samsaram… - “Rendu vishyathula kaNakku paaka koodathu…Appa Amma-vukku podra soaru…Akka thangaiku seiyyara seeru.”  Another gem from the climax – “Kootu Kudumbam-ngaradhu oru nalla poo madhiri...adha kasakittom...apram moondhu paaka koodathu.”  When viewed today, these scenes do look and sound dated to most people.  But I find these sharp lines redolent of an era where a strong script was a sturdy pillar that held a movie aloft. (It is nice to see that in 2017, there has been an enviable mix of style and substance in movies like Maanagaram.)

Yes, Visu’s films lacked cinematic finesse.  His roots in theater were the charge (“minsaaram”) that short circuited his wholehearted adoption of the visual medium.  But it is these same roots that ensured that the best of his scripts had a spark that was uniquely his.  And for that, I feel a strong need to give him his due. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Anchors in Stormy Seas: Thoughts on piety and rational thought

It was a balmy spring morning.  So balmy that one would have excused the daffodils in case they chose to sleep in and miss their turn to bloom.  My mother was driving to the temple on the interstate at a speed that was a tad above the speed limit but not fast enough to interest the nearby cops.  Meanwhile on a perpendicular road, another driver decided that the traffic rules did not apply to her and chose to drive right past a stop sign…into my mom’s car.  My mom, the cops, the daffodils and most importantly, the airbag were all shaken out of their idyll.  I was in Pittsburgh, working on a group project with my classmates when dad called.  My reaction, once I got to know that mom had escaped with some bruises, was, “Why did she meet with an accident when she was going to, of all places, the temple?”  Dad’s reaction was just a little different – you know the minute difference between chalk and cheese?  He said, “Just be happy that she was driving to the temple.  It was God that saved her.”

A few thousand miles away, a man in his early 30s had not heard great news from his sister's doctor.  Actually, the doctor herself was not great news – she was a fraudster who sadly did not find other professions to swindle people out of their hard earned money.  So, for the next few years, they had to suffer from the effects of needless surgeries and their related side effects.  The man, a nonbeliever, spent countless hours gleaning relevant research materials to identify the best course of treatment, giving short shrift to his own career.  They then happened upon a doctor who, thanks to his skill and kind-heartedness, scripted a heartwarming end to a rather dark chapter in their life -- the sister recovered fully and the brother revitalized his career.  And what happened to the charlatan?  Nothing untoward as far as I know (but that really is beside the point).

My parents are equal opportunity believers.  Of the plethora of Hindu Gods, they have never shied away from worshipping any deity.  In essence, they have never fenced themselves within the confines of our subsect of Hinduism.  In the late 90s, my Dad experienced an inexplicable but definite affinity towards Lord Muruga.  He started worshipping Muruga with the kind of passion and vigor that seemed strong even for his standards.  One night, he started writing a supplicatory poem on Muruga.  But here is the thing.  There was nothing in the poem for him.  He did not pray for himself or ‘ask’ for anything in particular.  The verses were strongly rooted in values.  Sample the first two lines – Aganthai Azhiponey Poatri, Aganthooimai ALiponey Poatri…  It roughly translates into a plea to remove all traces of arrogance and bless people with purity of heart.  

To me, these people that I have mentioned above represent the best of either ends of the theism spectrum.  They are very clear about their anchors.  Whenever turbulence strikes their life in any way, shape or form, they know when and how to drop anchor.  Their anchors are sturdy, unwavering and help them weather many a storm.  One anchor might be carved out of rational thought, the other out of religious beliefs.  But they contribute largely to the steeliness of their owners.  I also find it enormously touching that they use the anchors to lend solid support to their close relationships.  I recently read a quote by author Anna Quindlen that “grief is a whisper in the world and a clamor within.”  I have been witness to these people utilizing what is best known to them to acknowledge and act upon their loved ones’ needs.  In essence, their authentic reactions, as different as they may be from one another, are musical notes played lovingly to gently silence the painful internal "clamor."  If in one case the instrument is passionate prayers, in another case is deep thoughtfulness.  Both have a rightful place in this world because, after all, they are utilized in service of the most noble value of all – selflessness.