Sunday, February 25, 2018

No Strings Attached: Thoughts on Loyalty and Gratitude

In my early years, gratitude was a value that I could see on display in pretty much every close member of my family.  To be grateful to God for every positive event in our lives was an unshakable belief for some of them.  But the kind of thankfulness that I respected in them even more was that shown towards fellow human beings.  I routinely saw them be conscious of those extended family and friends who had helped them during trying times and be respectful of senior colleagues in the workplace that had mentored them in the incipient stages of their career.  In my own life, I have been the lucky recipient of each of these kinds of largesse.  And in my formative years, as much as I was a pampered single child, I was always expected to – no excuses or pampering there whatsoever! – acknowledge the people who were making an impact in my life, irrespective of the magnitude of the gesture or sentiment. 

This blog is too public a place (even for a relatively ‘open’ person like me!) for me to dwell too much on my immediate family, close friends and all the beautiful ways in which they have touched my life.  But across family, friends, peers, mentors in academia, work colleagues, and even people that I don’t know personally (authors and filmmakers, for instance), I am especially grateful for three things – moral support, well-meaning advice and inspiration for a different way of thinking. 

I am blessed with family and friends that are a diverse set of people.  But in their own way, they have, during times of distress, always given me the impression that I have people to whom my happiness means much.  As a recipient of this generosity, I have observed that I must not only respect people for support that is extended to me but also be mindful of the fact that forms of expression differ from person to person.  Some are eloquent, others may be awkward verbally but let their actions speak not ‘loudly’ but calmly and comfortingly.  But somehow the ineffable magic of empathy seems to differ only in language, not in intent, and certainly not in the secure feeling that I derive out of them.  I keep telling myself that I must be thankful for thoughtfulness of all types. 

The second thing that I am grateful for is meaningful advice.  As a person and as a professional, I have received advice, solicited and otherwise, of all kinds.  I may have an ego but I feel like I do have the humility to keep it in check when someone offers me constructive criticism.  At work, a senior colleague of mine gave me some sharp words of advice.  She asked if I wanted it sugar coated.  When I smilingly refused the offer of the coating, she threw the pill right at me, so to say!  She wanted me to give across more confident vibes at meetings, appearing prepared and looking ready to be in the driver’s seat, ready to move the conversation in the way I wanted, while factoring in inputs.  She gave me some concrete suggestions such as arriving to a presentation 10-15 minutes early to set up the projector, have an agenda slide up and be dialed in early enough to welcome remote participants.  None of this is rocket science but then again, we must only ask ourselves how often we find commonsensical things to be hidden in plain view! 

My colleague also did something that I find thoughtful givers of advice do – she gave me high level advice, some concrete suggestions but stopped there, asking me to ruminate and customize it.  She had the perspicacity to realize that any advice will stick and become a habit only when the receiver owns it, makes it authentic and gives shape to it in his or her way.  At certain meetings, for instance, I started creating a “Questions for Discussion” slide to foster discussion and seek input.  This was not something that she had specifically mentioned.  But it was only because of her planting the seed of preparation in my mind that I was now making new ideas germinate. 

Whenever I finish reading a book or watching a movie that has had a positive impact on me, I am filled with a tremendous sense of gratitude for its creator for the spark of inspiration that they light in me.  I especially have a lot of affection for creations that are grounded and true to life and, in the case of books, relatable.  Sheena Iyengar’s The Art of Choosing, Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, Anu Hasan’s Sunny Side Up and Adam Grant’s Give and Take and Option B (co-written by Sheryl Sandberg) are all works that have meant a lot to me.  They inspire me to think differently, to act differently.  Grant’s Give and Take is a case in point – this is the book that taught me to distinguish a ‘matcher’ (who indulges in a reciprocal but transactional relationship with people) from one whom he calls an ‘other-ish giver.’  These are people that are giving by nature but are aware of the fact that giving cannot come at their own expense.  They realize that giving can happen even when it is not at the expense of their own interests.  These people exercise self-control, demonstrate will power and are much wiser than those givers who ignore their self-interest altogether and end up feeling resentful and burnt out.  This is something that I can actually apply to not only my workplace but also my personal life.  I feel like I am able to make truly selfless givers be a little more focused on their own welfare despite having an inherent focus on others’ interests. 

Above all, Give and Take makes me see gratitude from a fresh perspective.  As I reflect on the book and try to personalize it, I see givers and receivers of support in a new light.  I have been fortunate enough to be on both sides of the fence.  In the few instances that I am in that blessed position to be a giver, I feel like I must have the self-control to emulate my colleague – offer support but neither spoon feed much nor expect the recipient to act upon everything to the letter.  As long as the core of the advice or the essence of the support is received in the spirit the giver intended, there is not much more that the giver should obsess about.  And as a receiver, it is imperative to do three things – to be grateful for the gift (of all kinds) received, be perceptive enough to customize it and be generous enough to pay it forward.  That way there are no strings attached by anyone.  But, quite magically, a never-ending chain of positivity, empathy and nurturing would envelop this world in a secure, sustaining manner.  It may be a utopian thought but I would rather try hard and even fail occasionally rather than regret missed opportunities owing to the lack of effort.  That would be my way of repaying the debt to the inspirations that have graced my life.


PS: Sincere thanks to one of the readers of this blog for suggesting this title when I shared the topic.  The person wanted to remain anonymous.  While I want to respect that, I couldn’t not thank this person, especially given the chosen topic!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Pillars of Support – An essay on character actors in Thamizh Cinema

Nayagan, one of the indisputably great classics of Thamizh cinema, is best remembered as Kamal Hassan’s acting tour de force.  As they say, classics are not ‘made’; they happen.  It is nearly impossible to find something in the movie that does not work.  By the same token, there are numerous facets of the film that are a godsend for discerning film lovers to dwell on.  The sparkling supporting cast is certainly one.  Let us take the example of the veteran Delhi Ganesh. 

In Nayagan – the ultimate one-man show, you might think – Ganesh plays the role of a loyal aide of Kamal’s.  Starting at around the 40-minute point, he appears almost throughout the movie.  He is always on the sidelines but is an unobtrusive but definite presence.  A case in point is the funereal scene following NizhalgaL Ravi’s death.  As much as the actual breaking down of Kamal at the end of the scene brings a lump in our throat, the entire build-up to the moment is what makes it truly unforgettable.  

At the start of the sequence, Kamal’s Nayakar character sees Ganesh and other familiar members in his household.  As he starts seeing unusual visitors, he slowly but surely realizes that something unimaginably tragic has happened.  The first big shocking moment is when he sees a covered dead body from the balcony.  There is silence all around; nobody is expressing their grief lest they give it away to Nayakar.  His son is dead.  He knows it but is hoping against hope that something else has happened.  As Kamal nears the body of his son, Ganesh, in a quivering voice says, “Vendaam Naaykare…kozhandhaiku nerupu kaayam nerayya patruku…”  What Ganesh’s comment adds to the impact of this scene is hard to quantify but there is no denying the fact that it is one of the pillars that holds this monumental scene aloft.  I also found it extremely natural that he says “Kozhandhai-ku” instead of ‘Surya-ku’ (the name of the Ravi character).  Without much effort, it says a lot about the fact that the beloved son of the Don is dead.

Supporting actors have always had their place in Thamizh cinema.  Of course, the quality of the writing has been so wildly variable that on the one hand you might have stock, one-dimensional characters that are played by actors that are shoehorned into a stereotype.  The blame has to be laid at the feet of writers and directors more than the actors themselves.  While a Saranya, for instance, plays the same wisecracking yet affectionate mother in film after film, it is the same Saranya that turned in a National Award winning performance for a nuanced portrayal of a layered character in Thenmerku Paruvakaatru. 

In the commercial masala entertainers, it is rare to see well-written roles for character actors.  In the lesser movies, they are on hand to boost the hero, spout glorifying lines and exist to be either killed, to drive sympathy, or spout a supposedly inspiring line to motivate the hero.  But even here, it is heartening to see an actor like Dhanush give ample screen space to a talent like Samudrakani to shine in a massy movie like Velaiyilla Pattadhari-2.  While VIP-2 was not exactly a classic, it was fun to see Dhanush play with stereotypes.  Samudrakani, the actor and filmmaker, has a preachy side to him. (Some would argue that it is not really a “side!”)  While Dhanush (who also wrote the film) writes such lines, he adds a humorous twist to them.  In one of those patented father-son terrace conversations, Kani gives a short inspirational speech about an inventor who failed numerous times before he invented the light bulb.  All well and good except for the fact that he references Einstein!  At the end of the scene, Dhanush thanks him for the words of wisdom, while quipping that it was a certain Thomas Edison who invented the bulb, not Einstein!  The scene has some good lines, makes us think and also makes us smile.  It is not only Dhanush’s thoughtful writing but also Kani’s geniality that makes the scene work.  

It is in the realm of the smaller films that character artistes truly get to shine.  Writers, I think, feel liberated without the constraints of having to pander to a ‘mass’ hero.  Since the accent is on the storytelling rather than focusing on a star, writers frequently come up with some fine chracterizations.  The actors too rise to the occasion and make a mark in these ensemble dramas.  In the past decade, Pasanga (Jayaprakash), Kaaka Muttai (the entire cast really) and Maanagaram (Charle) spring to mind as movies that were lifted to great heights by some superb work by an ensemble cast.  

In a conversation with Crazy Mohan, when we were talking about Kadhalika Neramillai, he made an interesting observation.  He said that in addition to the hilarious script, what he saw as a stroke of genius was how director Sridhar and writer Chitralaya Gopu really placed the comedy in the hands of the supporting cast like Baliah and Nagesh, giving them tremendous screen time and scope, while giving the straighter, lighter romance scenes to the inexperienced actors like Ravichandran.  He observed that even in the scenes where Muthuraman (playing one of the leads) was in the guise of an old man that it was Baliah, with his sycophancy, who stole the show.  I suppose that in this instance the pillars stood as tall as minarets!  

To me, character actors across the range of films, be it big budget films or small personal dramas, should be given due prominence.  After all, true ‘heroes’ are the ones that touch the lives of people in a meaningful manner.  The lead character played by Arjun in an emotional drama like Rhythm left a lasting impression on me not only because of Arjun the actor – he turns in a remarkably restrained performance – but also because of seniors like Nagesh and Lakshmi playing lifelike characters.  Even in a big budget movie like Devar Magan with two powerhouses in Kamal and Sivaji, even smaller roles such as Kaaka Radhakrishnan’s and Vadivelu’s were memorable.  It was only because Vadivelu aced the hospital scene that we could get glimpses into the futility of the Kamal character’s efforts in reforming the villagers.  Size of the role and screen time rarely matter in these instances where the writing is top notch.

Nasser, Saranya, MS Bhaskar, Jayaprakash, AadukaLam Naren, Sampath Raj, Kishore, Anupama Kumar, Vinodhini, Ramesh Thilak – (to name a few) they are all actors capable of transforming good writing into riveting scenes.  It behooves writers and filmmakers to invest time in shaping their characters thoughtfully.  That would be the best tribute to the character actors of earlier eras like Nagesh, SV Ranga Rao, VK Ramaswamy, Major Sundarrajan, Srividya and even our beloved Raghuvaran who are no longer with us but whose powerful roles, irrespective of their length, helped them achieve immortality. 

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Confidence With No Dents

Wearing a blue striped suit with matching trousers, a lightly starched whiter-than-white shirt and a perfectly double-knotted red tie, Pat walked onto the stage.  Spring was the season and spring was in his stride as he shook hands firmly with the master of ceremonies, who unobtrusively exited the stage.  The stage was Pat's.  The spotlight was on him.  500 pairs of eyes looked at him in unison.  What shone brighter than the spotlight was his smile, as he began his speech.  It was a 7-minute speech at a Toastmasters Speaking Contest.  The topic doesn’t matter, for what stood out was the relaxed air, the calm assurance and the easy demeanor of someone who knew exactly where that line was.  That thick line that separates confidence from arrogance.  That dark line that places smug haughtiness on one side and disarming honesty on the other.  Everything from his unfussy body language, clear organization of his content and perfectly paced manner of delivering his lines was evocative of a conversation with a familiar friend.  Predictably, 500 pairs of hands clapped together as he exited the stage.  The almost musical applause was a fitting tribute to a perfectly pitched speech.

In her remarkably insightful book Quiet, Susan Cain does a tremendous job of giving due credit to people whose confidence may not be visible at first glance.  She sheds light on the steely nerves of those people that are masters of internalization.  There could be a flamboyant salesman who may give the vibe that he has the world at his feet.  But there could also be a quietly confident software engineer whose lack of demonstrativeness belies an inner foundation that’s as solid as brick.  Not that we have to choose between genuine, authentic flamboyance and unassuming assuredness.  Both have their rightful place in this world.  What we need is the perspicaciousness to distinguish between a rock-solid foundation and a faux veneer that obscures a shaky foundation. 

Amidst bombastic, rabble rousing politicians, the leaders that elevate themselves into iconic status are the ones like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. that were laser-focused on their goals, had the invaluable gifts of patience and persistence and above all, displayed honesty and earnestness.  Even on a much smaller scale, in my personal and professional lives, I have much admiration for those people whose confidence seems to emerge from within, instead of something that looks forcibly projected.  I have wondered if it is sense of purpose that separates the shallow from the deeper waters that different types of people seem to swim in.  I don’t have an answer.  But I especially respect people of a certain kind - ones who are driven by truth, a genuine interest in the growth of their fellow human beings, be it in the professional or personal setting, and an urge to learn continually, be it skills or self-management.  These people seem to possess true inner strength which, in turn, seems to metamorphose into confidence of an enduring, not to mention endearing, kind.  Whether or not they are vocally demonstrative is besides the point – after all, expressions of all forms merit existence as long as they are authentic.  In fact, the subtitle of Cain’s book is, “The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.”  So, go figure!

On the other hand, there are a few people that I have encountered at work, personal life and my speaking club that either vocally or tacitly conveyed a lack of confidence in what they are doing.  Taking public speaking as an example, it is easy to come across people that shudder at the thought of getting on a stage in front of an audience and giving a speech without stumbling.  Not everyone is Pat.  But Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither was Pat's felicity.  Having been part of my club for the past seven years, I can safely attest to the fact that the demons are within, not in the crowd in front!  Sports commentator Harsha Bhogle was at his eloquent best when he wrote, “Make perfect the process of your performance and don't allow the pressure of the results to choke your performance.”  By investing energy in the actual act of practicing, one can keep fears at a healthy distance.  At least from my own speaking experiences, I have felt the fears and apprehensions vanish…or at least wait outside the auditorium until I am done with a speech!  When you choose topics that are close to your heart, the innate passion dwarfs the pressure, at least temporarily.  And when you have enough practice by talking about things that truly matter to you, the “process of your performance” gets optimized for even professional presentations that are impersonal to an extent.

I feel fortunate to have been blessed with people in my personal and professional lives that have believed in me.  It is a wonderful feeling to be told that you matter, that your work matters, that your existence makes a difference.  Of course, this is not to suggest that honest, constructive feedback should not be given due prominence.  But to have a deep, abiding sense of purpose can drive people to achieve great heights.  I can only hope that in my own life that I can get to pass it forward to those that need the confidence…or even those that would simply appreciate the trust.  For some, their self-belief is akin to a home that is financed, designed and constructed by themselves.  Others might appreciate a brick here, a brick there, a lending hand that helps cement their structure.  Either ways, a sturdy foundation is built, one that can’t be dented by the pernicious storms of fear and self-doubt.