Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Eyes Wide Open

The nurse opened the door with great alacrity.  She was swift but not rash, opening the door just enough to let herself in.  My grandma, my grandpa’s best friend, my parents and I were a few feet away from the door.  The nurse watched us askance before quickly shutting the door.  While everyone else looked in the direction of the entrance of the hospital awaiting a senior doctor, I saw through the miniscule opening that the nurse had left open for a fraction of a second, a sight that hides permanently behind my eyelids.  Whenever my eyes would shut, the doors of that hospital room would open widely behind them.  Inexplicably, much wider than the actual sight that the nimble nurse permitted me.  It was the sight of the doctor and his support staff pounding on my grandpa’s chest, as he slipped away rapidly. 

He was 61, and in very good health.  He had gone for a walk to his best friend’s daughter’s place, tried to test-drive their newly acquired SUV and in the process, rammed the car into a wall.  His spleen got ruptured and within two hours of this rather freak accident, he was gone.  Just like that.  No warning, no proper goodbyes, nothing.  The sprightly old man who had gone for a walk in the morning was a pot of ashes submerged in the nearby beach by the end of the day. 

Meanwhile, a sea of tears engulfed my grandma.  She was 58 then.  Having married my grandpa when she was 18, they were in their 40th year of a very happy marriage.  Her wailing lasted days, not hours.  But I misread one thing as inaccurately as an inept stock broker.  I thought that his death was going to crush her.  Far from it.  Within a month, when my family was deep in thought around the future of the factory that my grandpa had owned, she stepped in and said, “It was his labor of love.  I shall be the proprietor.  I may have only finished high school but I will learn the ropes and continue to run this instead of shutting shop.”  That was a moment of great truth to me.  Truths, really.

I could see two things.  Some people have a veneer of strength that obscures a frail inner structure.  Grandma was the opposite.  The tempest that had threatened to demolish her very existence only ended up proving how strong her inner structural foundation was.  The cruel twist of fate that I thought was paralyzing her on multiple fronts was, in fact, strengthening her resolve to stand on her feet and move forward, taking along her fellow sufferers, despite the magnitude of her suffering being much larger. 

The second thing I learned from her was something captured eloquently in the movie, Burnt - “There is strength in needing others, not weakness.”  When my grandpa passed on, my grandma did get a lot of moral and emotional support from family members and trusted friends.  She did share her grief with others.  As a teenager, I shut my eyes only to open a window for the unfortunate incident to play continually in my mind’s eye.  Whereas, my grandma shut the door on grief only after she had come face to face with it.  That she was not averse to getting people’s support and yet very quickly, stepped in to take over my grandpa’s factory showed that she leaned on people, perceiving them as transient pillars of support, not permanent crutches.  There are, of course, some people who possess tremendous inner resolve to deal with crises themselves.  To get back on their feet, they do not rely as much on external support.  That is strength of another kind, but not the only kind.  I say this because there continues to be a popular misconception of people seeking support – of various kinds, be it therapy or personal outreach – as weak.  People need the license to go through tragedy and adversity in their own way.  As providers of support, we only have to help ensure that their wounds don’t turn into indelible scars that incapacitate them permanently.

Last month, my grandma passed on, aged 81.  This time, my eyes were wide open.  I registered my grief, while striving to provide support to my mother and 13-year old cousin who were most affected by this.  I did not have to look far for inspiration – it was hidden in plain sight in our own home until May 22, 2018. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

Goldies: A piece on elderly characters in Tamil Cinema

“Gold is old” – so went my caption that accompanied a snap of a few elderly members of my family, including my late grandma.  No sooner had I sent this picture to my Aunt than she replied with a term of endearment to refer to them – goldies!  Ever since we had that whatsapp exchange, the term stuck with me.  So much so that it made me pick a half-a-dozen characters in Tamil cinema who just meet two criteria!  The characters essayed by the actors must have been elderly, even if the actors themselves weren’t.  And, the characters should have been, in my opinion, well fleshed out, serving as more than just a prop or cheerleader for the lead character.

Kamal Haasan in Indian
Kamal Haasan was no stranger to playing elderly characters.  Kadal MeengaL was released in 1981 when he was just 27!  Of course, in Nayagan (1987), he portrayed an elderly don for almost half the movie with minimal makeup, relying more on body language and voice modulations to bring an old man to life.  But it was in Indian where an elderly character was elevated to an unforeseen iconic status.  “Indian Thatha” actually sounds rather cheesy but I doubt that anyone that actually saw the movie would have said that.  Indian was as much as a Shankar movie as it was a Kamal movie – the taut screenplay featuring a brilliant investigation, razor sharp dialogues (by the great Sujatha) and a sense of grandeur that serviced the plot rather than stand out clumsily were all Shankar in vintage form.  But Kamal did full justice to Shankar’s characterization, exhibiting a sense of panache that was rarely seen in elderly characters.  This scene is one of my favorites, especially the nonchalance with which he combs through his hair with his fingers in the middle of an action sequence!

Srividya in Nee Paathi Naan Paathi
One of Vasanth’s great strengths as a writer is the authenticity he brings to elderly characters.  Right from Keladi Kanmani, Aasai and of course, Rhythm, he has always populated his movies with strong supporting elderly characters, individuals with traits, quirks and flaws that make them three-dimensional.  Some of his finest moments as a writer came in Nee Paathi Naan Paathi where he created a quintet of memorable characters played by Jai Shankar, Sulakshana, Delhi Ganesh, Manorama and Srividya.  In the movie, Jai Shankar is married to Sulakshana but has a child (Gowthami) out of wedlock with Srividya.  Delhi Ganesh and Manorama play the parents of a boy (Rahman) that Gowthami is in love with.  Manorama staunchly opposes the match.  Watch this marvelous 7-min segment.  Srividya’s performance is deeply affecting, especially the way she says, “Morandu pidikathe ra.”

Radha Bai and Judge Rajagopal in Aaha
One of the most lovable elderly couples seen on screen, Radha Bai and Judge Rajagopal were given some funny, heartwarming exchanges in Aaha.  In the opening sequence, they are introduced aptly, succinctly – “Gandhi-ku Kasturba, Sethurama Iyer-ku Lakshmi AmmaL!”  Though the Paati makes fun of the Thatha’s hearing (or lack thereof), the actors play it so sweetly that it never comes across as mean spirited.  They are especially lovely together in the delightfully staged Gokulashtami sequence (that begins at 1:22:15):

‘Pyramid’ Natarajan in Alai Payuthey
Natarajan’s character in Alai Payuthey was one of a kind.  He was neither a martinet that chastises a wastrel son nor a cloyingly affectionate father.  He played an upper-middle class advocate that has abundant self-confidence, bordering on hubris.  He was especially effective in this superbly nuanced sequence (that starts at 5:00) where he lets his self-admitted superiority complex get the better of him.

Chokkalinga Bagavathar in Veedu
The late Balu Mahendra created three unforgettable characters for the greatly underutilized talents of Chokkalinga Bagavathar – Veedu, Sandhya Raagam and Sathi Leelavathi.  Bagavathar was in glorious comic form in Sathi Leelavathi – his explanation of the difference between a brief and a loin cloth brought the house down.**  But Veedu was in a different league altogether.  A tableau of simple human emotions, the movie had several poignant scenes featuring an old man, who simply wants to see his granddaughter build a home. 

This simple scene – the grandpa visits their under-construction house and silently admires it - never fails to make me tear up.  In fact, the actor really isn’t doing much.  But owing to the understatement of emotion and Raja’s tremendous score (from his album “How to Name It”), not to mention Balu Mahendra’s famed natural lighting, this is one of those quiet scenes that speaks volumes of its creator and his collaborators.

Jayaprakash and Thulasi in Pannaiyarum Padminiyum
Modern day Thamizh cinema owes a bit of gratitude to heroes like Vijay Sethupathi and Sidharth.  It is hard to find such assured leading men who concede significant screen space to senior actors.  Though the former and Aishwarya Rajesh have a charming little romance track in Pannaiyarum…, it is undoubtedly Jayaprakash and Thulasi that have the meaty roles, having scene after delicious scene infused with gentle humor and crackling chemistry.  They are so cute as a couple that even the leading actors’ romance fades into the background.  And rightfully so.  This is the seniors' movie and the actors well and truly own it. 

** - In case you don’t know the joke, watch this video, starting at 5:30 -- https://youtu.be/TgmjuY2eoNI