Monday, April 30, 2018

Flash of Brilliance – An essay on flashback sequences in Tamil cinema

Here is the thing about one of the famous tropes in Tamil cinema – the flashback.  Sometimes it actually makes no logical sense, especially when it involves a song sequence.  Sample the scene that leads into the freedom struggle segment in Indian.  Sukanya, playing the ageing wife of the former freedom fighter Senapathi (memorably essayed by Kamal Hassan), asks the CBI officer in disguise, “What the hell do you know about freedom struggle?”  The story goes back 50 years to the pre-independence era.  A rousing 20-minute sequence follows.  We then cut back to the present scene involving Sukanya.  So, let’s think – what would she have been narrating to the officer?  That she danced to “Kappal Yeri Poyaachu” and changed costumes a dozen times to reflect the myriad ethnic Indian wear?!  But I can bet my life’s debt…err, earnings…on the fact that not one member of the packed audience at Satyam Theater was thinking this way back in 1996 when the movie was released! 

The flashback sequence packs a tremendous punch, not missing a single emotional beat despite all the grandeur and special effects.  This sequence is meant to offer an explanation for the violent ways of the protagonist.  The emotional wallop is complete in a second flashback in the second half featuring his daughter Kasthuri.  If the freedom struggle portions sowed the seeds for violence as a justifiable means to a utopian end, the village portions ensure that our emotional investment in Senapathi is complete. (Even here, did Senapathi, who had a corrupt doctor at the edge of his knife, tell him, “We sang and danced to the lovely ‘Patchai KiLigaL’ song?”  Of course, I don’t need an answer!)  Now we are not only empathizing with him but also rooting for him to take out the corrupt, societal weeds the way he deems appropriate. 

The flashback has been a part and parcel of the grammar of Tamil cinema.  It is an efficient way to reveal the motivations of a character.  It is a tool that allows writers to chart a narrative arc, while achieving a dramatic high.  It also forces them to be economical.  For instance, the delightful Karthik segment in Mouna Raagam plays for only 24 minutes from start to finish.  Yet Karthik made a career out of playing variations (not always nearly as well written, of course) of this character!  These segments allow the writers to build to an episode within the bigger picture, with a climax of its own, even if it means a tone that is different from the rest of the film.  Though not regarded a commercial classic the way Indian is, the standalone segment in Jeans is a standout.  Radhika steals these scenes with her expansive performance, her diction, her body language and her piercing stares all fitting in perfectly with her character, one that has shades of gray.  (It is a testament to her skill as a performer that she made her abrupt transition in the second half work.) Up until this flashback sequence, Jeans meanders along.  It is with this short, powerful segment that Shankar ensures that the first half doesn’t come across as totally slight.

Never one to shy away from experimentation, K Balachander used the flashback to great effect in several of his movies.  One of his greatest efforts AvargaL, worked precisely because of the back and forth nature of the storytelling.  Told linearly, it would not have worked nearly as well in giving us glimpses into the complex, sometimes confused mind of the lead, played splendidly by Sujatha.  This narrative form allowed KB to establish the specter of the Rajnikanth character looming ominously over the life of Sujatha.  This brings a sense of urgency to the narration, making us wish for her happiness and for her to end up with a man (played with finesse and restraint by Kamal) that has a sad past of his own. 

The one kind of flashback that I am not a fan of is the one where a sad scene opens a movie, only for us to immediately travel back in time.  Even in undisputed classics such as 16 Vayathinile, I find it to serve little purpose except to forewarn us to a sad end.  In movies like Mudhal Mariyadhai, Housefull and Duet, the initial scenes give away a little too much.  In the marvelous cult classic Hey Ram, it works both ways.  The present day scenes offer a telling counterpoint to the communal violence of the pre-independence days.  But it is the same narrative style that, at least for me, robbed the crucial shootout sequence (where Shah Rukh Khan ends up losing his life) of tension.  Thanks to the present day scenes that had preceded this, I knew that nothing untoward would happen to the Kamal character.  The one movie where the solemn-first-scene trope worked exceptionally well was Bharathi Kannama.  The old character played by Vijaykumar is apparently waiting for his daughter and son-in-law to return.  We think that Meena (his daughter) and Parthiban (her love interest) will return.  What happens in the climax, of course, is entirely unexpected and all the more stunning because of the skillful setup.

The other aspect about flashbacks that I find to be especially important is the build up.  The best of writers find the most appropriate places to introduce the flashback segments.  The twin flashbacks in Rhythm are placed at just the perfect place in the narration, allowing us to relate deeper to the central characters, leading to an intermission where each of them have learned about the passing away of the other person’s spouse and the tragic coincidence.  Of course, the flashback of flashbacks is the one in Baasha.  The entire first half is essentially an 80-min lead-in to the unforgettable introduction of the don character and his bĂȘte noire Raghuvaran. 

As the newer generation of writers and directors strive to make a mark in Tamil cinema, I hope that they use but not abuse flashbacks that can, when conceived and executed thoughtfully, really help them achieve peaks in their narration.  They just have to flash back to the classics of Tamil cinema to see how it was done effectively.  And of course, by coming up with ingenious ways of incorporating flashbacks (Rang De Basanti is probably unsurpassed in this aspect) they will only be flashing forward to a glorious era of cinema!


PS: If you are a fan of Raghuvaran and have not seen this flashback in “Thulli Thirindha Kalam” do me and yourself a favor by watching this. (You don’t need to watch the entire movie to understand what happens in this segment.) It starts at the 1 hour 48 min point and lasts around 25 minutes.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

"Kutty" - A little girl's huge tragedy

Articles and tweets on the horrific Asifa tragedy have made me feel rather depressed in recent days thinking of the world in which kids live.  In a Whatsapp exchange, my Aunt remarked, “Don’t trust your child with anybody!”  Of course, it might sound hyperbolic but such is the fear that these acts of depravity put in our minds.  As I saw one of those hauntingly innocent pictures of little Asifa, my mind went back to Kutty, the remarkable debut feature of Janaki Viswanathan that was released in 2001.  In case you have not seen the movie, let me tell you that there is zero graphic content.  The eventual fate of the little girl, played marvelously by Shwetha, is heartbreaking.  Sometimes leaving something to our imagination tends to be a lot more haunting than showing something on screen.  I will hasten to add that Kutty is not a one-note depressing movie.  I remember smiling quite a bit owing to the sweetness of several of its characters.  There is not a trace of manipulation in this movie – the movie flows like a rivulet through joy, hope and despair. 

An adaptation of a story by Sivasankari, Kutty tells the story of its titular character, a little girl who leads a limpid childhood in an idyllic village.  She is the apple of her father’s eye. (The father is essayed by Nasser, who makes you want to give him a hug in the sequence where he pacifies his daughter.) To him, the little joys of parenting help vivify their tough lives.  But her mother (Eashwari Rao who turns in the performance of her short career) is a little more worldly wise, constantly urging her husband to let go of his pampering ways.  Fate strikes when the father dies in an accident.  Struggling to make ends meet, the mother is forced to send Kutty to Chennai as a domestic help for an upper middle-class couple, played by Ramesh Aravind and Kousalya.

In Chennai, the couple treats her with affection but their son and Aravind’s mother (MN Rajam, who makes you want to give her a tight slap, throwing respect to the winds) ill-treat Kutty to the point where she wants to escape the house.  This leads to the sequence that left me not only misty eyed but also made my eyes bereft of any more tears to shed, the day I first watched the scene.  It is the scene where Kutty requests the kindhearted shop owner – Vivek is fantastic in this short role – to write a letter to her mother to come rescue her.  But here’s the catch - she does not know the address.  We, in the audience, are in Vivek’s shoes, watching helplessly as the girl breaks down. 

Start watching at the 39-sec point:

The movie also offers, in an understated manner, social commentary on the way even seemingly good natured people (like the ones played by Aravind and Kousalya) take the easy way out and don’t always do what is in the best interests of society at large.  This is illustrated in a sharply perceptive scene where Kousalya talks to her colleagues about Kutty’s plight and the evil of child labor.  All this happens while a school-age kid delivers them tea! 

Above all, the huge reason memories of this movie refuse to be erased by the waves of time is that it skillfully juxtaposes goodness with sadness and poses difficult questions.  How a kid’s body and soul must be protected with utmost care in a world where the juggernaut of antisocial elements can crush innocent souls, leaving many a victim in its wake.  Kutty cautions us that for goodness to flourish, it has to co-exist with caution and heightened awareness.  It is a testament to the skill of the writer-director that the movie never feels preachy or didactic.  Like a seasoned filmmaker, the debutant director tells a story unflinchingly, trusting us to pause, reflect and most importantly, act on the messages packaged organically within the construct of the story.  It is a certainty that these messages have to sink in deeply for humanity to stay afloat.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Goodbye, Chennai

If you know me really well, you already know this – I hate goodbyes.  This whole separation business - I easily go bankrupt!  My mind goes so numb that you would think that I am anesthetized.  My heart sinks so deeply, even the Titanic would watch me go past her!  This effect gets amplified further with time and distance.  I was in Chennai recently for a short trip.  The primary purpose of my visit was to spend time with my ailing grandma, who was recovering from a cardiac arrest.  I was also able to spend time with quite a few of my extended family and close friends, spanning the age spectrum from my 13-year old cousin to my grandma’s 93 year-old cousin!

These warm, emotionally munificent people have all enriched my life in ways that I have lost count of.  But from this trip, I have distinct memories of three types of people - the octa / nonagenarians, my parents’ generation and finally, some genuinely kind people who were relative strangers till my first meeting with them (which happened this trip).  

My grandma, her sisters and sisters in law are not getting any younger.  I took a picture with them and sent it to my family members with the note, “Gold doesn’t get old!”  Makes for a nice caption, I guess.  But really, I was just thankful that I could see them and spend quality time with them.  They may have lost the vim and vigor of their younger years.  But they seem to make up for lost verve with nerves of steel that help them face the inevitability of infirmity.  Some of them, such as my grandma and her older sister, have had to bear the loss of one of their children in recent years.  But in their long lives, they have faced many a crucible that has hardened their resolve.  It was rather touching to see how they cared for each other, knowing when and how to offer support in an unquestioning, unconditional manner.  As my wife mentioned in her write-up, it is through support, prayers and wishes that we, in a younger generation, can do our bit for the people who have spent the majority of their lives caring for their families, spending very little time focusing on themselves.  

It was not only the people my grandma’s age but also thoughts about folks in my parents’ generation that made me feel heavy as I left the shores of Chennai.  Especially moving was the way my guru asked me to capture the year-and-a-half that had passed by since our last meeting, through anecdotes, in the 90 minutes that I spent at her place. (She happens to be an Aunt of mine; technically, the Aunt part should come first but she is my teacher in so many ways that 'guru', to me, comes first!)  I later remarked to my wife that visits such as this felt so, for the lack of a better term, pure.  In this competitive, cut-throat world, I find it increasingly rare to come across people that feel such unbridled joy at just your mere presence, that any success that you share with them seems to be received as their own.  Incidentally, during this trip, a friend quoted a lovely line that lyricist Vaali had written – ...pirar uyarviniley unakirukkum inbam, ivai anaithilumey irupadhuthaan deivam. (There is divinity in the true pleasure that you derive out of someone else's success/progress.)  Now you know why I seem to deify my guru – there is no other way to see her and people like her!  In my eyes, they stand so majestically tall that, in their presence, I feel like I am standing at the bottom of a waterfall, their purity of thought and emotion washing over my own flaws and foibles, at least momentarily.  

Thanks to one of my other Aunts, I was able to meet her friends, a few of whom are in the film industry.  At an evening gathering that my Aunt had arranged, I was again, a lucky recipient of immense kindness.  While in the car, my Aunt heaved a sigh of relief as she told me, “You know, Ram.  Ever since I got to know your arrival date in Chennai, I have been praying every day at the temple that your grandma should remain healthy.  I knew that you would have been devastated if something untoward had happened.”  If that was generosity of one kind, what moved me equally was the generosity of emotion on display by her friends, all of whom I had been meeting for the first time.  The concern that they showed towards my grandma, wishing her well and offering to pray on her behalf, was deeply poignant.  Similarly, I was able to spend time with both a close friend and confidant of 25 years as well as a friend from this blog (cartoonist Ravishanker) whom I was meeting for the first time.  The vibes of warmth and friendship assumed equally meaningful proportions despite the vast difference in the length of the relationship.

As I reflect on my trip, I only have all these people to blame (!) for how I felt at the end of my trip.  But I know that I must be thankful that they are all part of a larger journey of mine, one where they show me how to live well, love unconditionally and achieve the truest form of happiness.  Vaali is probably grinning ear to ear from up above at his lines being immortalized by all these folks.

On that happy note, till we meet again, goodbye Chennai.  And thanks for all the memories.