Monday, December 16, 2019

Different Folks, Same Strokes

Let us start with three completely unconnected conversations that span fictional and real spaces.

The first happens in a rather touching sequence in the episode of the Amazon series Modern Love, starring Catherine Keener and Andy Garcia.  They are former lovers in their forties, married – not to one another – who bump into each other.  When recollecting their doomed, “untested” romance, Keener observes, “The idea of you just got me through a lot in life.”  And later adds, “It’s the purest, most concentrated stuff.” 

The second is a father-son chat that happens in the Samudrakani drama, Appa.  A 10th grader confides in his father the rather puzzling imbalance he experiences whenever he sees a female classmate.  The Dad smiles and asks him to invite the girl to their place.  He offers a cup of coffee to each of them and urges them to converse in a civil, mature manner.  Having sowed the seeds of a genuine friendship, the Dad urges the son to never accumulate any ‘toxins’ in his body.  That a friendship that has its roots in thoughtful conversation and deep understanding, has the power to ‘purify’ our system. 

The third is a conversation that didn’t happen on screen.  It was a chat with a friend about visiting a distant relative who is undergoing treatment for cancer.  A few disclaimers - I had not accompanied my relative for her treatment.  I had not cooked her a meal.  I had not taken care of any chores while she was in the hospital.  I enumerate these because I know of people that touch her life in these very definite, selfless ways.  What I did was nothing special or particularly tangible, I confess.  During a recent trip to my hometown, I had just visited her, spent some quality time with her and shared several moments of mirth.  She has a stupendous fighting spirit.  So, it’s not even as though I lifted the morale of a morose person.  But the positive vibe of that meeting has lasted with me for the two weeks that have elapsed since the meetup happened.  Her smiling face has meant something to me.  And the hopeful visage of her caregivers refuses to leave my mind as well.  In these past two weeks, when I have started to complain or get crabby about things that are far less daunting than being the recipient of oncologic treatments, memories of that visit seem to tap me on my head as if to exclaim, “Really, are you this full of yourself?!” 

You must be wondering if there is even a tenuous link that connects these three disparate conversations.  To me, it is the notion of purity.  It is the idea that there invariably exists something – be it an ideal love, a fulfilling friendship or a human connection – in our lives that can bring or restore a sense of equanimity and equipoise to our minds.  We just have to discover it for ourselves, for it sometimes is hidden in plain sight.  At times, we wrap ourselves in a blanket of meaningless mundanity when we should be discovering beauty in the big picture that astonishingly steely human beings draw right in front of our eyes.  A case in point are the survivor and her supporters that I mentioned above.  The truth is that the ‘big’ picture is comprised of smaller strokes of meaningful minutiae sketched out jointly by people and their loved ones.  As seen above, this could be a true friend, a love interest, a caring relative.  In each instance, there is something very pristine, giving and outward that in turn combine to give inner peace. 

As somebody that has rarely been able to find an internal anchor in an invisible supreme power, I feel an urge to depend on abiding bonds with people to keep myself grounded and centered.  Through blood relationships or otherwise, I have certainly been blessed with the presence of several people who, through just being themselves, give me an anchor of purity.  That, as Catherine Keener acutely observed, can get us through life in a way that feels not just good but also right. 

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Politically Incorrect: Reflections on RK Selvamani’s Makkal Aatchi

The politics genre in Tamil cinema boasts of some true gems amidst a slew of wannabes.  I have lost count of the number of films that take cheap shots of contemporary issues without wit, depth or meaning. To do satire well, you have to have a grasp of the source material that extends beyond mere surface-level detail.  Manivannan was a master at this.  He was a well-read, societally conscious filmmaker who, at his best, carried a pen that was much sharper than the Hattori Hanzo sword in Kill Bill!  There is a reason why his Amaidhi Padai is still hailed as the best political film in Tamil cinema.  For instance, he understood the futility of caste-based violence so well that he skewered it mercilessly in the film.  Not far behind is his erstwhile assistant RK Selvamani.  It pains me to note that there is not much literature (even online) on his 1995 film Makkal Aatchi, which I reckon, is the best film of Selvamani’s checkered career. 

Makkal Aatchi is the story of a petty thief (Mammootty) who, through a mix of a huge slice of luck and dollops of street-smart intelligence of his confidante and advisor (R. Sundararajan), becomes the chief minister of the state.  He is a bumbling crook who can’t believe his luck, not a cunning politician covetous of power.  Roja plays his love interest.  Mammootty steps into the parlous world of politics without quite knowing what’s in store with his fellow politicians.  Anandaraj, Radharavi, Livingston and Mansoor Ali Khan are all embodiments of realpolitik, not averse to double-crossing and shifting allegiance to suit their needs.  All is fine and dandy for Mammootty as long as he is corrupt.  But when he decides overnight to turn a new leaf – and the reason packs tremendous punch – his life becomes miserable. (The twist around his wife is also superbly written.  It blindsides us but is convincing nevertheless.)

What sets Makkal Aatchi apart from many other political films are the many subtexts that Selvamani and his writers embed into the film.  Small time crooks and rowdies are jailed, yet scores of blatantly corrupt politicians get away with murder (literally so).  Big money and dirty politics get intertwined so much that to escape from that stifling net becomes an impossibility once you are caught in it – to hell with noble intentions!  A woman’s infidelity and a man’s lust setting a series of heinous activities in motion speaks volumes to the base instincts that shake the core foundations of humans.  A man’s drinking habit, which on the surface seems an acceptable foible, ends up assuming gargantuan proportions.  It is a testament to the intelligence of the story author (P Kalaimani), the felicity of the dialogue writer (Liyakath Ali Khan) and the vision of the director that all these themes are part of a cogent plot, not a series of disparate elements.  

A word about the written word.  Liyakath Ali Khan’s pen must have the same ink as that of Manivannan’s!  The dialogues are spectacular.  This is a talky film.  But you never get overwhelmed by the verbosity because the zingers keep coming at a fast clip.  The Anandaraj-Radha Ravi confrontation is especially memorable.  The way Anandaraj threatens Livingston (“Nee paadai-la yeranuma illa maedai-la yeranuma nu mudivu panniko!”) and the manner in which the latter kowtows to him are as scary as they are sharply delivered.  But the dialogues sparkle the brightest in the sequence where Mammootty decides to mend his ways.  The genuineness of emotion displayed by the actor is supported in no small measure by the potency of the lines he delivers.  The traffic signal comment hits a raw nerve, especially because so many of us have lived through it. 

Selvamani also gets the casting just right.  Every actor in this film inhabits their part with much assurance.  Mammootty is charmingly casual in the first half and delivers a knockout performance in the aforementioned reformation scene.  Roja lights up the screen not just with her dancing in the irresistible “Melooru Maman” song but also in the late-night scene where she makes dinner for Mammootty.  He is the man of her life, whom she hastily got married to the wrong person for what she thought was the right reason.  It is not only a deeply poignant scene but one that has complex emotions associated with it. (I wish Selvamani had dwelled a little more on this fascinating relationship.)  Among the antagonists, Anandaraj walks away with the acting honors.  He makes a menacing presence and displays controlled aggression throughout. 

Selvamani’s films boasted of superlative technical values and here too, his sense of grandeur is seen throughout the film.  MV Panneerselvam is a sadly underrated cinematographer who has done some fine work in films like this one and R Parthiban’s Housefull.  The tracking shots and the top-angle shot (from the tree) make even a slum look appealing in the “Melooru Maaman” song.  The shots in the climax where the camera follows a raging crowd from the sidelines are brilliantly executed.  Ilayaraja’s background score is magnificent in places.  My favorite piece is the one that marks the end of the titles (6:52-min point in the video above).  The beats of the percussion instruments are epic in nature but the score ends with a violin piece that evokes the eventual sad fate of the well-meaning protagonist.  It takes a music director of his stature to come up with such a short piece that is in line with the arc of the lead character. 

Makkal Aatchi was received well commercially and critically upon its release.  But the film and its politics, which are (sadly) relevant even today, deserves more recognition and shelf life.  Despite being Manivannan’s assistant, Selvamani branched out to be very much an original filmmaker.  With Makkal Aatchi, he created what deserves to be regarded as a well-deserving companion piece to his guru’s finest film in the same genre.  The two great minds executed differently but certainly thought alike! 

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Oththa Seruppu Size 7: A one-derful cinematic experience

Oththa Seruppu Size 7 features Parthiban’s finest acting moment till date.  In a journey that began in 1989, he has lit up the screen on several occasions.  The falling-at-his-wife’s-feet scene in Pudhiya Paadhai, the emotionally wrenching harangue in Devyani’s house in Swarnamukhi, the arms-widely-spread posture in Housefull when he sees his beloved theater, come to mind in a flash.  But he eclipses them all in this film in the small, quiet moment with his psychologist.  She has surprised him, in their first meeting, by referring to his “beautiful wife.”  With barely a hint of a smile, a little hesitation while saying “ava…”, a light shrug of his shoulder, he takes us right into the soul of the character.  It is such a gorgeously acted moment that spans a matter of seconds.  Blink or squint too hard, you are bound to miss the delicacy of the nuance.  But observe it, you will savor it and remember it.  For me certainly, that moment is not fading out of mind anytime soon.  Neither that moment nor this movie, I must add. 

Charitable critics of Parthiban have, in the past, praised his ‘different’ attempts while griping that save some disparate sparks of brilliance, that his films did not entertain them or hold their attention for the entire duration.  Of course, tastes vary.  But I dare anyone to an academic argument about the coherence and cohesion of Oththa Seruppu Size 7.  The different cinematic elements like sight and sound all come together in a never-before-seen manner.  This is a very complete picture, one that features Parthiban the actor, writer and director at the peak of his talents. 

The plot of this film is a seemingly simple one – a man who is accused of murder is interrogated by the police.  The film, except for a few stray shots of a room outside where his son is waiting for him, never leaves the scene of the investigation.  And as you may already know from the promos, Parthiban is the only one who is seen on screen.  One of the elements that aids Parthiban, the director, tremendously is his use of props.  Through years of watching Tamil cinema, we have come to associate certain objects with the police station.  Glass cups, lathis, walkie talkies, photos of Gandhi.  Parthiban deftly utilizes all these in his inimitably ingenious manner – the photograph of Gandhi even has an arc with a touching closure.  Ramji’s cinematography is stupendous.  And it is not just the more showy shots like the sun-bathed protagonist or the view through the glasses.  If you observe closely in the first scene with the psychologist, the camera’s gaze follows Parthiban’s lips and eyes.  The invisible craftmanship gets a superb payoff in a later scene when Parthiban thanks the psychologist for observing his eyes and trusting him.  Resul Pookutty’s sound design is another pillar that this film rests on.  Be it the sounds of a wedding or a dying man wailing, the sound design blends seamlessly into the narrative. 

While it is true that Ramji and Resul are pillars that the director rests his film on, the foundation is pure Parthiban.  What brings his singular vision to life are his dialogues.  It is not easy to write lines for a character who has the bulk of the responsibility to move the plot ahead without losing the core emotion.  The lines at times sizzle with wit, drip with humor and at other times, brim with poignancy.  The detailing is astounding.  A seemingly innocuous “PerumaL Thunai” on a piece of paper acquires meaning later on.  Note the way he requests the police to not use a rusty pin to open his son’s eye drops.  In a move that betrays his yearning for a more ideal marital life, he urges the policeman to not take his wife’s affection for granted.  Above all, the vivid imagery evoked by the sounds is matched by his lines.  Take the vaazhapoo vadai scene, for instance.  The description of his romance with his wife in the kitchen is as tasteful as the aroma and flavor of the vadai that he evokes – incidentally, we don’t see these lentil cakes at all!  He just trusts the audience to complete the audiovisual experience in their minds. (Even the two scenes in Kandukonden… that featured these vadais didn’t have such an impact on our taste buds!)

Did I mention earlier that the picture of Mahatma Gandhi gets a moving closure?  That is quite a bit of an understatement if you have watched the climax.  No sooner had Parthiban uttered, “Gandhi ode siripula arthame maariruku” than I felt a lump in my throat.  It takes a supremely thoughtful filmmaker to resist the temptation to milk sadness and instead, project goodness.  In doing so, Parthiban commands our attention, drives our emotion for two hours all by himself.  In essence, he does not just stand alone.  He stands apart.  

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Dear Comrade, I bow to you

I am neither a film tracker nor a trade guru.  All I know from several tweets and news articles is that Bharat Kamma’s Dear Comrade did not fare too well commercially.  I am not going to engage in the futile exercise of analyzing what might have dimmed its commercial prospects.  Instead, let me focus on why it is one of the most important modern day films made about man-woman relationships.

Dear Comrade is the story of Bobby and Lilly, a couple who fall in love.  Nothing novel or revolutionary about that.  But their love story has shades, nuance and depth that have been seldom witnessed on screen.  Bobby, essayed by Vijay Deverakonda is an angry young man.  Nothing earth shattering about that either.  We have seen Vijay portray similar shades in Arjun Reddy.  But what sets Dear Comrade apart is the arc of his character.  He is a rebel without a cause who develops one.  Anchorless at the start of the film, his character discovers himself and realizes what will give his relationship with Lilly enduring fulfillment.  Initially, he is a belligerent college-going kid who resorts to violence at the drop of a bat…err…hat.  The bat, hat, the feather in the cap are all Lilly’s (Rashmika Mandanna), the best etched character of the film.  She is a gifted cricketer who falls for Bobby but lets go of him when she realizes that his impulsiveness and aggression could wreck their future.  They break up, but her future, in cricket and otherwise, is wrecked by an unexpected source.

Years pass by and Bobby and Lilly reunite under trying circumstances. (Spoilers ahead; skip to next paragraph to avoid spoilers.) Lillly, a silent, suffering victim of a horrific MeToo incident, shuns cricket and sinks into deep depression.  This is where Dear Comrade starts to glitter luminously.  Sure, it is Bobby who aids her recovery.  But he seeks to empower her, not just ‘rescue’ her.  He shows her a path but is content following her, not leading her.  He seeks to be a pillar for Lilly to lean on, not a crutch for her to rest on.  In short, Bobby is one of the most secure, thoughtful leading men you have ever witnessed on screen. 

For a while, Lilly refuses to acknowledge what Emma Thompson eloquently said in the movie, Burnt – “there is strength in needing.”  She initially distances herself from her demons, choosing silent, solitary suffering in order to avoid public humiliation.  Sure, it is the criminal who stunted her professional growth who deserves all the shaming, not her.  But as we have seen in real life, it is easier said than done.  Justice is not delivered to victims of MeToo on a silver platter.  The male-dominated society that we unfortunately belong to is far from being conducive to victims who speak the truth, who seek justice.  As a result, Lilly’s initial silence (which she addresses in the climax) is real, painful yet perfectly understandable.  Bobby, and by extension the film, refuses to judge Lilly.  The standout acting moment of the film, to me, is the sequence where Bobby hugs Lilly tightly after hearing the truth about her past.  The lead pair is marvelous in this scene, as they are during the entire film. 

The fact that Bobby wants Lilly to fight the fight herself despite her unwillingness to do so, could be seen both ways.  That he is imposing something on her that she does not want.  Or that he wants her to not lose sight of her first love, cricket.  He realizes that deep down she would rather be playing the game than sitting in the balcony of her house, watching young kids play.  Regardless of whether you think he does the ‘right’ thing for Lilly, it is hard to argue one thing.  His focus is on her, as he seeks to bring out her innate temerity that she had lost sight of because of a misogynistic official.  The cheek and the audacity that he saw in her when he fell in love are what he wants her to be identified by, not fear and cowardice. 

I realize that I have written very little about how well-crafted the film is.  Yes, the film features wonderful acting, thoughtful staging and unobtrusively gorgeous cinematography.  A case in point is the poetry recital scene in the first half.  When Bobby starts reciting an earnest but painfully trite poem, the split-second reactions of Lilly and her sister (a casual, understated Shruti Ramachandran) are captured by the photography and precise editing.  There is as much beauty in these little scenes as that sheer portrait of a frame where we see Bobby and Lilly kiss while leaning out of a window.  But to me, the craft of this film, as good as it is, is second only to the delicacy of the writing.

I hope that as a fictional creation, Dear Comrade is regarded as an important societal advance.  After all, thought provoking films not only offer a reflection of where society is but also an opinion of where it should head.  This is a film that offers hope to victims of MeToo and a charge to the family and friends of the survivors.  That they have a responsibility to offer meaningful, abiding support sans judgement.  That the film accomplishes this by telling a poignant story instead of preaching to us, is yet another reason why we should continue to treasure it. 

Dear Comrade, I am sorry we let you down when you released in the theaters.  But rest assured that we won’t forget you until we see the change that you have dared us to dream of.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Have you heard of SR Sivakami?

Let me guess.  You probably have not.  If you have, you are (a) an even crazier movie buff than I am or (b) you knew her personally or worked with her. 

Let’s try a slightly easier question – have you seen K Balachander’s Agni Saatchi (1982) or his tele serial Kai ALavu Manasu (circa 1995)?  SR Sivakami played Saritha’s mother-in-law in the former and Lyricist Vaali’s wife in the latter.

I recently revisited select episodes of Kai ALavu Manasu on youtube.  And without my realizing it, I was actually skipping the Prakash Raj-Geetha portions – that is the main story, after all! – to go to the scenes featuring Vaali and Sivakami.  Their subplot is classic K Balachander.  They are a lovable elderly couple who care deeply about each other, traditional in demeanor but modern in thought.  Their only son Kandhan whom we never see even a photograph of – yes, classic KB – is in the peacekeeping force in Somalia.  This is the pre-internet, pre-smart phone era.  So, the occasional letter or the rare phone call is the extent of their interaction with their only child.  One day, Vaali gets the news that the son has died.  Vaali’s world comes crashing down.  But here’s the twist – he decides to hide the news from his wife for as long as possible.  In the meanwhile, the couple offer strong support to the romance of a Kannada boy (Ramji) with a Tamilian girl, a union that is opposed by the girl’s martinet father. 

The phone rings, the heart beats (Click on play to go to the scene):

It is the scenes where Sivakami does not know what Vaali and us in the audience know, where the actors glow.  Vaali was a fine, spontaneous actor, one whose potential was largely untapped.  And Sivakami is stupendous in these scenes.  Her growing anxiety, the nagging sense that something is amiss and the short-lived joy at seeing the newspaper clipping (that the troops in Somalia are homebound), are all handled by her with tremendous finesse and conviction.  She is completely natural, doesn’t strike a single false note and makes us tear up in the scene where she sweetly tells Vaali that she will make him chapathi and korma as promised, after returning from the temple.

The chapathi scene (at 7:05) and the heartbreak sequence (at 20:50):

She goes into a near comatose state upon hearing the news of her son’s death.  But upon seeing Ramji and his newly-wed wife, she thinks that he is her son.  (Years later, Radha Mohan would traverse this kind of an arc with the MS Bhaskar character in Mozhi, with equal poignancy and controlled, impactful theatrics.)  Sivakami is a joy to watch in these scenes too.  She brings an innocent, childlike quality.  The way she talks about the past travails of her son in Somalia is enormously touching, especially since we know the truth.  KB does the right thing by leaving this thread in that state of new normal.  After all, the dots connect in real life in unexpected ways. 

A new lease of life (Click on play):

The Vaali – Sivakami portions of Kai ALavu Manasu serve to reinforce what Hollywood discovered eons ago.  That character actors who receive prominence and backing of screenplay authors will bring out shades of emotion that you will never see in conventional lead roles.  (In the Bedroom, for instance, was entirely focused on an elderly couple looking to avenge the death of their only child.)  The Tamil film industry continues to be heavily hero-oriented, with every meaningful role for even a lead actress – forget about character actors – being cause for celebration.  That should be an everyday occurrence, not an exception.  But we must be thankful for the fact that Tamil cinema has been blessed with filmmakers that wanted to go beyond conventional heroism and fake machoism to showcase emotions that are real and rooted.  They knew that they had actors like SR Sivakami.  She may not be with us – she passed on in 2010.  But with films featuring strong female characters like Aruvi and ensemble dramas with strong character actors like Managaram achieving critical and commercial acclaim, there is hope.  But we need more.  That way, more SR Sivakamis will be known to a wider audience, not just crazy movie buffs who think out loud on their blogs!

A tribute to her in The Hindu, from 2010:

Friday, September 20, 2019

The one-day champ – Reflections on Shankar’s Mudhalvan

Realistic fantasy.  That was the title of my review of Shankar's Mudhalvan when I wrote it 20 years ago.  His realistic fantasy trifecta of that decade – Gentleman, Indian and Mudhalvan – all sprouted from wishful thinking of some sort.  Free education for all, corruption free society, a squeaky-clean government.  But apart from the grandeur, what truly made the films work was Shankar’s eye for detailing.  As his stories took fantastic flight, his screenplays grounded his characters.  In Indian, what you remember is not Indian Thatha flying out of an exploding airplane and looking dapper in a suit in the next scene!  What still makes the film work are elements like the superbly written investigation scenes, the inventiveness of and research behind the varma kalai and so on.  This balance was achieved in superlative fashion in Mudhalvan.  A story of a ‘one-day CM’ – a brilliant conceit in itself – was brought to life with some sizzling dialogue, a fast-paced but intricately detailed screenplay and memorable performances, especially by the antagonist.

I did enjoy parts of Anniyan, Sivaji and the first installment of Endhiran.  But none of those film stack up to the painstaking believability that Shankar infused into this film.  In comparison, these other films come across as lazily written.  In MudhalvanShankar sucked you into the story so powerfully that he didn’t, for a moment, seem like he was requiring us to suspend disbelief.  Three extended sequences stand testimony to this – the riots, the interview scene and the one day for which Arjun assumes the post of Chief Minister.

The riots are sparked off by a seemingly innocuous but testy exchange between a bus driver and a student.  The way it snowballs into a humongous law and order issue is shot with immense sure-footedness, utilizing a documentary-style, hand-held cinematography by KV Anand.  The way the Chief Minister exercises his authority (“No arrest, no tear gas!”) is as believable as it is scary.  Even the use of graphics to evoke the traffic jam is purposefully done as opposed to some of the laughable gimmickry that Shankar has indulged in his recent films.  The ‘effects’, in essence, are in service of the story, not the other way.

The interview sequence, which runs for more than 10 minutes, was, is and will always be a showcase for the virtuoso villain Raghuvaran.  This was during a phase of his career where he looked very healthy (and not the weak, gaunt self he was in his final film Yaaradi Nee Mohini).  It added gloss to his persona, which was unmistakably majestic, something that served this movie very well indeed.  The casual arrogance, the authority, the bit of fear when is caught red-handed, the subsequent throwing of the gauntlet, Raghuvaran nails them all.  As much as the dialogue aids him, this entire sequence is a lesson in body language.  The way he gets out of the car and nods to the policeman who opens the door, the dismissive way he asks, “Thambi paeru?”, the explanation of a Chief Minister's responsibilities, are all delivered with his trademark panache.  Note the condescending, almost teacher-like gesticulation while he renders the thirukuraL couplet (“Agalaadhu anugaadhu…”).  Compare this with the spineless characterizations and the inept performances of the antagonists in Shankar’s recent films and you will see the stark difference.  They just don’t make them like Raghuvaran anymore.

The interview sequence:

And finally, the events of the one day that Arjun gets to be Chief Minister.  As far fetched as some of his ideas are, script writer Sujatha’s considerable effort to include crisp, minute detail lends credibility to the grandiose ideas.  The sales tax payments, the “Hello CM” TV show – after all, Arjun works for a TV Channel - and the “omnibus order” that Arjun suggests for the en masse job suspensions.  All of this ensure that we watch the events unfold with a kind of edge-of-the-seat thrill that we would experience in a positive dream.  In the present day of horrendous governance in the state, Mudhalvan seems fresh and relevant, which is sad in a way!

One-day CM in action:

The rocket-like pace of the first half of Mudhalvan meant that the second half had an impossible height to stack up to.  And structurally too, the end of the first half was a climax in itself with the arrest of Raghuvaran.  As a result, the second half suffers from having to almost restart a story where the one day’s dream becomes a reality.  And it doesn’t pack nearly as much punch as the first half.  There are very few moments when the intelligence of the director comes to the fore, the short and sweet conclusion of the movie being one.  And the listless romance, one of Shankar’s enduring weaknesses, drags the film down further.  But the momentum of the first 80 minutes leaves us with such a high that the significantly weaker latter portions don’t derail the movie totally.  But the slower second half does seem akin to the gingerly movements of a lander as it nears a lunar surface.

Writer Sujatha, Raghuvaran and Manivannan have all passed on, relatively young too.  All of them contributed handsomely to the success of this film like they did to advance Tamil cinema in their own way.  The film fanatic’s heart aches for these trailblazers.  But such is the magic of the medium that they live on in the silver screen, their stamps very much indelible.  That Shankar worked with such a monstrously talented team and shepherded them in the direction of his goals, betray a thinking leader at work.  As a fan of Shankar’s early works, I hope that he recovers the ground that he has lost in the past decade, his big budget extravaganzas not withstanding.  Shankar’s canvas has grown manifold but the clarity of the sketch seen in Mudhalvan has rarely been replicated.   

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Scents of Kindness

A while ago, I wrote an article titled, “Six of a kind” where I elaborated on a few ways in which people have touched my life.  In a recent conversation, I was recollecting a simple meal that I had enjoyed at a cousin’s place in the early nineties.  I don’t even know if it qualifies as a story or even an anecdote.  But hang in here with me.  My reliving memories of that meal brought back a rather warm, fuzzy feeling of belonging that my cousin’s grandpa gave me.  As I look back, some memories give me a rather good feeling about the people that I am blessed with.  Without further ado, let me zone in on a few such transient yet indelible - indelible, at least for me - moments, starting with, of course, Mr. Gopalan.

Mr. Gopalan – That was my cousin’s grandpa’s name.  He was a self-made man, an extremely successful professional who lived in a luxurious home in the posh Poes Garden neighborhood in Chennai.  From what I remember of him, he was always impeccably dressed and had a very soft, dignified demeanor.  Their home had a large wooden, oval-shaped dining table where he and his wife had hosted many a sumptuous meal.  There was this one time in the early 90s when he had on his plate warm white rice with some ghee on it.  When I thought that he was going to start mixing some sambar (lentil curry) as is customary, he simply mixed the ghee with the rice and started eating.  When I curiously asked him about it, he gently smiled and asked, “Haven’t you eaten nei saadham (ghee rice)?”  When I responded with a bit of a blank (aka dumb) stare, he said, “Try it along with me – I am sure you will like it.”  And my cousins and I all enjoyed the meal with him.  I don’t think I ever became a fan of nei saadham.  But the taste of his kindness lingers.

Leg spin is injurious to health – Familiar readers of this blog will recognize my CT (my nickname for my grandpa’s brother, lest you think I am referring to a scan!).  I would like to think that I love cricket more than it loves me.  As hard as I tried, I don’t think I was ever great at the game.  But I surely did, and continue to, enjoy the thrill of bowling.  Despite my sizable girth, I was quite a useful medium-pace bowler.  But if you were a cricket fan in the 90s, the only two Indian bowlers that gave you sustained joy were Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath.  Unhappy with my ability to successfully ape Srinath, I thought to myself, “Why not try and imitate the other fellow from Karnataka?”  Easy peasy?  Yeah right!  But never one to give up easily, I practiced quite hard.  After a few days, I was determined to show off my newly acquired skill – my keyboard just protested at me for using the word ‘skill’ – to my CT.  So off I went on a Sunday morning to their place.  They had this long passage adjoining their house – cricket pitch, surely?  I brought him, my Chinna Paati and their daughter outside and started bowling.  At first, he was wondering if the only thing spinning was my head.  But he egged me on to bowl more.  I did, for an hour-and-a-half.  When we then went into their house, I was writhing in pain.  My shoulder hurt terribly – damn you Kumble for your 619 wickets!  CT immediately took out an ointment and massaged my shoulder for a good 15 minutes while encouraging me to continue bowling the way I enjoyed.  He surely didn’t have to.  But he did.  I never became a Kumble.  Then again, did Kumble have a CT?  I hope so but I doubt!

Happy Holidays – A couple of years back, I changed jobs within my company.  I had gotten the news in early December.  I promptly called my mentor in Chennai to share this with her and seek her blessings.  As we were wrapping up the conversation, I told her that I was looking forward to the 10-day winter break as an opportunity to unwind.  With her customary thoughtfulness, she actually spoke about what my break from work meant to my wife.  She said, “This 10-day break is when you will be home during the day.  So, it will hopefully be a good break for her too, from her routine.”  I still remember how the seemingly casual remark made me think a little deeper about how I had been self-centered in my comment and how she gently opened my eyes and tacitly urged me to be a little less focused on the self.  My physics teacher surely knows a thing or two about reflection!  (Happy Teacher’s Day, Aunty.)

Murali, it’s time to leave – One of the gifts that his favorite Almighty has bestowed upon my Dad is a set of friends who truly care about his health.  Until a few years ago, he had a cavalier disregard for his health despite being a diabetic.  Sleep was optional.  Meals were taken only when his stomach screamed like an irate Bigg Boss participant.  His good friend Sandip Bose Mullick had seen a lot of this.  When we visited London in 2002, my Dad took me to Sandip Uncle’s house.  We had a lovely evening at their place, replete with a rather delicious North-Indian meal prepared by his wife.  If his wife exhibited tender sisterly affection towards my Dad, Sandip Uncle was Mr. Tough Love.  Knowing my Dad’s erratic sleeping habits, he said to him, “Murali, I know we are all having a good time.  But you should catch the next train and go get some sleep.”  When his wife asked him to maybe consider being a little more polite, he retorted, “No, he will just compromise on his sleep.  He just won’t take care of his health unless I force him.”  In the same breath, he looked at my Dad and said, “Murali, go use the rest room if you need to!  We’ll leave in 10 minutes to the station!”  On the train ride back to the hotel, my Dad was waxing eloquent about the kindness and hospitality of Sandip Uncle’s wife.  I interrupted him and responded, “Yes, I agree.  But Appa, don’t take for granted Sandip Uncle’s thoughtfulness either.”  I don’t think he did, but I just wanted to be doubly sure!

Sit next to me – A favorite utterance of many elderly folks that I know is, “En pakkathula okkaru. (Sit next to me.)”  Some might say it for practical reasons because their hearing isn’t top notch – blame it on the transistors that they held to their ears too closely- but I find the way they say this to be incredibly sweet.  In 2005, I had flown to India to attend my friend’s wedding.  Minutes after I entered the marriage hall, my friend told me that his maternal grandma wanted to speak with me.  Usually people wanted to speak with me when I had committed a mistake!  But this was different.  His grandma was seated on a bench as I approached her.  When my friend introduced me to her, she smiled luminously and actually thanked me for “coming all the way from America.”  After inquiring about my travel and my family, she then said to me and my friend, “Ipdiye irungo.” (A poor, literal translation would be, “Be the same way.”)  As I recall this, I am grinning ear to ear, thinking of how it was a mix of a blessing and advice conveyed in all of two words.  Oh, and by the way, she did say, “En pakkathula okkaru.”


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Ninaivellam Nineties - Top Trends in Tamil Cinema in the 1990s

Chathriyan.  Michael Madana Kamarajan.  Chinna Thambi.  Devar Magan.  Roja.  Amaidhi Padai.  Naatamai.  Baasha.  Aasai.  Indian.  Kaadhal Koattai.  Aaha.  Mudhalvan.  Sethu. 

How about that for variety?  The 90s was a decade when, as I look back, there was an embarrassment of riches for Tamil movie lovers.  Sun TV and several other TV channels would make a significant impact on entertainment media in general.  But a lot of quality filmmakers churned out films at a fairly fast clip when compared the serious filmmakers and major heroes of today.  But this was also a decade that probably led to Kumaravel’s hilariously perceptive line (in Azhagiye Theeye) about Tamil cinema – “Thamizh naatula mattum than da Xerox copy ku kooda kai thatuvaange!”  Thankfully some classics like Devar Magan were mercifully spared of the ignominy of poor imitations.  But many successful films of that decade would spawn a ‘trend.’  The resultant films would invariably range from well-crafted films that just followed a genre template to lazily done rehashes of the same core material.  Without further ado, let me list a few seminal films and trends of that decade.  Not all the films listed are cinematic classics per se.  But they were important films of that decade in their own way.

The Country ComaLi
Chinna Thambi was probably the best thing that happened to Prabhu…and the worst.  The film featured a titular character who didn’t have a clue about nuptial knots – I suppose he was the original ComaLi!  As preposterous as the theme was, the film was a runaway success that gave tremendous commercial impetus to the careers of Prabhu and Khushboo.  But it also led to several films set in the village featuring rural plebeians overcoming domineering antagonists - Radha Ravi made quite a career out of these roles!  And what was lost for the most part (save the occasional Duet) was the inherent urbanity of Prabhu, which was quite delightful to watch on screen.  In fact, I remember watching Vasu’s Senthamizh Paatu where Sukanya and Prabhu gave each other stiff competition as they reached for the freezing end of the IQ spectrum.  Several of these films were redeemed to a large extent by some scintillating musical scores.  For your listening pleasure, here is one of my favorite numbers from that decade:

Rags to riches, Riches to rags
I am trying to think if it was Rajnikanth or Vikraman that led to this series of films where a rousing 5-minute song was all that it took for a hero’s bank balance to skyrocket. (Thamizh Padam featured an uproarious spoof of this conceit.)  While some of these films were earnest and others featured convincing transformative character arcs, this trend became a tiresome routine.  Even as recent as Lingaa (2014), you could witness huge swings in the financial pendulum of the hero. 

The jury is out…under a tree!
One of the most genially spoofed lines in Tamil cinema is, “Naatamai...theerpa maathi chollu,” uttered by ‘Erode’ Soundar in KS Ravikumar’s 1994 film.  Films such as Vedham Pudhidhu, Chinna Counder and Devar Magan had already featured well-written, deftly staged ‘panchayat’ scenes.  But it was not until Naatamai that this type of scene became truly a rage.  I will leave it to you to decide if this sequence has aged well.  But it is safe to say that Coimbatore was to the 90s what Madurai (post Paruthi Veeran) was to 2000s Tamil cinema.

A don by any other name
Pudhiya Paadhai (1989) set the template for an antihero in the first half turning over a new leaf in the second.  But the granddaddy of all templates was born on Pongal day in 1995 when we first got hints that auto driver Manickam might have another name.  The gradual escalation in tension leading to a spectacularly explosive intermission point, in turn, led to a second half where we got to see the Don Baasha.  Scores of films followed this style of storytelling.  But the impact achieved by Baasha has been quite impossible to surpass or even match.  The first of its kind is always special, I suppose. 

Vigilante to a T
If ever a schema for a screenplay has been followed dutifully by its creator (Shankar) and other filmmakers until the present day, it is the vigilante justice plot lines drawn for Gentleman back in 1993.  To lend credence to Kumaravel's line, even the titles would be similar - if Shankar made Indian, Saravana Subbiah made Citizen.  Last I heard, a hardcore Shankar fan is making a film against Trump's foreign policies titled, Permanent Resident.  Just kidding.  But don't be surprised if my words ever come true.

“Solli Kadhal…Solaama Kadhal…Solliyum Sollama Kadhal”
The quote above is from Kandukonden… where Mammootty gives an aspiring filmmaker (Ajith) tips on what type of film to make.  This witty line written by Sujatha crisply summarizes the last four years of the 1990s when ‘different’ love stories were in vogue.  It all started with Kadhal Koattai.  Of course, the movie would never work now in an age where nobody writes letters anymore and cellphones are omnipresent.  But in 1996, the film certainly worked wonders, especially the second half where Ajith and Devyani keep bumping into each other without realizing that they have corresponded through letters earlier.  The movie was a blockbuster and won national awards.  What happened next?  A heroine became obsessed with the eyes of the hero (Nee Varuvay Yena…), a hero would sever his tongue (I wish that was a typo but you know, Sollamale exists), a heroine would scream into a telephone in the middle of a hospital ward (the climax of Kaalamellam Kadhal Vazhga….), a guy would search for a girl with a mole on her navel (Ninaithen Vandhai)  Which one of these was most preposterous?  I would vote for the following scene:

Models of Song Picturizations
If the commercial films of the 80s invariably included glamorous dance numbers featuring actresses like Silk Smitha, the 90s were the era of models from the north.  Mani Ratnam’s films had featured actresses like Kuyili, Shantipriya and then models like Sonu Walia and Anu Agarwal in foot tapping numbers.  Shankar, in his song sequences, starting with Gentleman up until now, uses and occasionally abuses special effects like a kid in a toy store.  One of the best song sequences of the 90s, even accounting for the tacky graphics in the end, was the Akkada song in Indian.  The costumes (by Sarika for Kamal Hassan and Manish Malhotra for Urmila) and photography (by Jeeva) were done with a kind of panache that has gradually faded out of Shankar’s song picturizations over time. 

Switching Tracks
In the past couple of decades, comedy has been mostly integrated into the core story of films, with comedians mostly acting as a friend of the hero.  But in the 90s, the comedians mostly had a separate track that had a tenuous link to the main plot.  Coundamani and Senthil had many a memorable track in the first half of the decade while Manivannan was the numero one among the funny men post the release of Ullathai Allitha.  Several comedy tracks come to mind but one of the most beloved sequences is the one from Suriyan, which featured what has become a stock phrase in colloquial Tamil – “arasiyal la idhelaam saadharnamappa!”

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Flash-forward Thirty Years

I am good friends with a septuagenarian.  Despite an age gap that exceeds 30 years, I have often found that he and I can strike meaningful conversations about family, friendships, films, politics and so on.  But most importantly, there is a kindred spirit, shared values and similar perspectives on the relationships that matter most.  I have shared his anger against hypocrisy and his lack of tolerance for unprincipled people.  When I would sometimes reflect on my conversations with him, I would sheepishly grin at myself.  For sensing loads of righteousness in the way he spoke and wondering whether I was seeing a bit of myself in him and vice versa!  Three decades on, would I want to be perceived by a 38-year old the way I perceive him now?  The answer is certainly more nuanced than a simple yes or no. 

A double-edged sword that I take out of my mental scabbard often is my inflexibility with certain core values.  Just like how obsessive-compulsive people get a comfort out of a certain routine, I find tremendous inner comfort with the familiar rhythms of my mind.  There are certain beliefs that I have on topics like honesty, gratitude, empathy, relevancy and priority where I haven’t quite changed with age.  I embrace change, ambiguity and uncertainty in my professional life in an equanimous manner – I know that and have received enough positive feedback on the same.  But there are things in my personal life that I value so passionately and guard so vociferously that the ‘comfort’ I mentioned earlier comes at such a great cost that any inward-facing victory would seem pyrrhic. 

As I have mentioned in several write-ups, professor Sheena Iyengar did me a great service by urging me to “be choosy about choosing” in order to choose well.  As a result, I know that my obsessions are few but deep.  I have seen some people admire the constancy of character that they have witnessed in me over the years.  I have equally witnessed others - or sometimes, the same people! -  driven to frustration that I have stayed put when the sizes of the circles of trust and relative positions have evolved over time.  And I find that okay because I know that for my part, I am making an effort to “choose” my priorities or inflexibilities in a reasonably thoughtful manner.  And there are several elements of personal development such as anger management, listening empathetically and acting with purposeful awareness where I know that constant evolution is a must.  I don’t let mental inertia stymie personal growth in those aspects.  So, a refusal to change, in essence, is something that I restrict to a few areas.  And I am almost certain that the elderly gentleman thinks of himself this way!

I am sure that he wonders, in silence and aloud, why people begrudge his occasional refusal to budge when in fact, he moves with much mental alacrity most of the time.  But having interacted with him, I know the one area where I want to be different from him.  I want to be happier with the choices I make.  I don’t think he quite is at the level of peace where he wants to be.  As he takes gingerly steps in the twilight of his life, he looks back at the path traversed and the people that have disappeared from sight with a mixture of sadness and anger.  As a result of looking back too much, his steps forward are a lot less surefooted than his intelligence deserves.  In essence, a corollary to what Professor Iyengar says would be, ‘Be choosy about choosing.  Once the choices are made, be choosy about how you react to the consequences of those choices.’ 

When I reach his age, I hope to make the world brighter in a small way for the ones that have trusted me enough to spend time with me, listen to me, share my pains with generosity and theirs with graciousness.  And along the way, we hopefully share some laughs too.  After all, a soul rests in peace only when the life that preceded it is lived with inner harmony.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A dance, a trance, a memory: An essay on Lakshmy Ramakrishnan’s “House Owner”

It is raining cats, dogs and snakes outside.  An elderly couple breaks into an impromptu dance in their kitchen.  This sequence is intercut with a dance performed by the same couple at a much earlier phase in their life.  There is an adorable moment when the elderly lady can’t quite hold a pose.  But she tries gamely.  She is in a state of bliss amidst the seemingly huge imperfection that has marked the couple’s present state – the husband, a retired army officer, is suffering from Alzheimer’s.  And then, he suddenly snaps out of the wondrous reverie.  He can’t recognize the lady as his wife.  What is still imprinted in his mind is the image of the much younger girl that he fell head-over-heels in love, even if the marriage itself was arranged.  In a fit of disgust, he throws a tantrum and some flour on the wife for good measure.  The wife loses her temper but only for a split-second.  She knows that it is not the husband’s fault.  Amidst the heartbreaking moment, she focuses on a practical detail – she has to change.  Life has to move on.  It is this kind of detailing that sets Lakshmy Ramakrishan’s “House Owner” apart.  The nuance not only brings the drama to life but also right next to us.

This couple – essayed by Sriranjini and ‘AadukaLam’ Kishore as the elderly pair and Lovelyn Chandrasekhar and ‘Pasanga’ Kishore as the younger version – becomes imprinted in our minds slowly but surely.  The wide-eyed wonder of the younger couple is a stark contrast to the world-weariness and exhaustion of the older pair.  This is never expressed in any dialogue.  Even the transitions between the past and present are done seamlessly, purposefully.  Seemingly incidental details like a non-existent snake in a pond assume gargantuan proportions later on.  Minutiae like the fear and apprehension of Lovelyn in the darkness and the subsequent role reversal as they age are just put out on the screen but never force-fed to us.  In that sense, Lakshmy Ramakrishnan trusts the audience to pay attention and to be patient – the details unravel gradually (as they should), not in a rush. 

She reposes the trust of the audience manifold in the concluding portions, which play out like a thriller, one that makes our hearts ache, not race.  There was a point in the climax where I turned my eyes off the screen, for the tension was unbearable.  Without spoiling the movie for you, I will just say that the images and sounds are bound to haunt even the heartless viewer. 

M Ghibran comes up with a background score that is just about the perfect complement for the images on screen.  And the images themselves?  The art direction (by the director herself with Captain Chandrasekar) and the cinematography by Krishna Sekhar are in sync in a way that would make the PC Sreeram – Thotta Tharani pair of the ‘80s proud.  If you think that that is hyperbole, then you haven’t watched the climax of this film closely.  The technical brilliance of the crew behind the screen is matched by the ability of the actors on screen.  Sriranjini is the prime reason the climax works so powerfully.  Lakshmy Ramakrishan’s voice work perfectly suits her– the Palakkad-accented Tamil is lovely to listen to.  (My favorite line – “Nelam ellam vallam!”; translation: the floor is full of water!)  Kishore (Senior), through his circumspect body language, essays the retired army officer role with much assurance.  His best performing moment comes in the aforementioned dance sequence.  The younger couple too strike an easy, likeable chemistry.  Kishore (Junior) nails the ‘ponnu paakara’ scene – the way he silently expresses joy with a suppressed smile seeing his wife-to-be is wonderfully done.  And Lovelyn is excellent in the party scene where she conveys awkwardness without overdoing it. 

(Spoiler ahead) - I had an interesting conversation with a friend, who wished that the ending was positive, that the film could have ended with a ray of light, that could have offered hope to couples where one is suffering from Alzheimer’s.  Of course, the way a tale concludes is the prerogative of the writer.  What I took away from the movie was encapsulated in a scene featuring Lovelyn and Kishore.  The latter, having returned unscathed after serving in the army, mentions to her that given the uncertainties of his profession that it is his intent to enjoy every minute that life affords them.  It’s a beautifully written scene, one whose seriousness is punctured with a delightfully sweet response from the wife, who admires the English spoken by the husband than paying much attention to the content.  But as a viewer, I thought of this scene during my chat with my friend.  Life is sometimes shorter than we plan for it to be.  And it behooves us to savor every moment by loving our loved ones deeply.  This is stated explicitly nowhere in the film.  But the magic of the medium is such that the same film plays differently for different people.  As much as I felt a strange sense of upliftment during the bittersweet ending of the director’s previous effort, “Ammani” I was thankful (for the lack of a better term) for the poignancy evoked by this film’s conclusion. 

I admired the director’s debut feature “Aarohanam” quite a bit.  I enjoyed only parts of her sophomore effort, “Nerungi Vaa…Muthamidathey.”  I was stunned by “Ammani,” which I reckon, is her best film yet – the “Seththathu Saalamma” line knocked a punch in my gut like few other movies have managed.  “House Owner”, her fourth effort, is a profoundly thought-provoking experience.  It doesn’t have the more instantly accessible pleasures of “Ammani” (like the irresistible “Mazhai Ingillaye…” song).  But it is a mature film that wants to go deep into the minds and hearts of the lead characters, and by extension the audience.  That it succeeds handsomely is a testament to the vision and conviction of the filmmaker.

The protagonist of “House Owner” may have suffered from Alzheimer’s.  But it will be nigh impossible to forget this movie.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Dear Men in Blue: An open letter to the Indian cricket team

My dear men in blue,

First things first - Thank you!

It has been a sheer pleasure ‘following’ you throughout this 2019 world cup.  Even though many of us could not be in England physically, our thoughts, prayers and emotions were with you every day and every minute in your journey.  I shall leave the more technical analyses of your performance to the cricket pundits.  I will, in this letter, just tell you what I took away from this experience. 

What stands even taller than some of your run rates is the way you continually looked like one tightly-knit unit.  When MS Dhoni dove to his right to take a sharp catch, Yuzvendra Chahal bowed to him in a gesture that at once suggested respect and unfettered joy at an ageing master throwing up a pleasant surprise.  I will remember Hardik Pandya winking at a teammate after scalping a wicket with his patented slow bouncer – the smile reached his eyes quicker than Jasprit Bumrah’s yorker usually reached the stumps.  Isn’t that a sign of genuineness?  Trust me when I say that those smiles were infectious. 

Team pic taken from Virat Kohli's tweet:

Every time a tough question or two was thrown at the captain leader Virat Kohli about a team mate’s purported error, what we heard was not apportioning of blame.  Instead, what he offered was a measured response that addressed the issue without attacking the person.  Excuses were not given for errors of judgment.  Rather, human fallibility was acknowledged as a part of professional sport in the most mature manner possible.  In short, this may be a relatively young side but as a team, you exhibited an enviable mix of youthful exuberance, energy, playfulness yet never losing focus on your goals as a team or missing an opportunity to be guided by the more senior players in the team.  When confidence mixes with humility, the resultant cocktail is not intoxicating in a trippy way but rather, invigorating in a balanced manner. 

I was certainly worried when you lost the monstrously dangerous Shikhar Dhawan early on to injury.  But you somehow coped, managing replacements without being rigid.  You, of course, know that the middle order frailties will have to be addressed swiftly.  But I must say that up until today, the spectacular top order ensured that – this car analogy will make Dhoni happy, I hope! – you raced off the blocks with controlled acceleration, knowing when exactly to press the brakes so as to retain control.  Alas when the top order crashed into the brick walls erected by New Zealand’s nifty bowlers and fielders, the damage was nearly irreversible. 

The fact that Ravindra Jadeja and Dhoni showed such indomitable spirit and fought until the very end is something that budding professionals like me will take to our own work lives.  As your friend Harsha Bhogle thoughtfully stated once, the trifecta of “ability, attitude and passion” are the key ingredients of success.  We weren’t successful today – I say “we” because feel like I should partake in failure as much as we derive surrogate happiness from your successes.  But the spirit, the intent and the willingness to try your best to succeed was a ‘success’ in itself.  Just that in the group phase, this spirit resulted in victories.  But today that was not to be. 

I know that you must all be deeply disappointed that you will not be playing in the finals at Lord’s.  That is okay.  This is not the last tournament that will be staged by the ICC.  The “attitude” and “passion” that you all have aplenty will ensure that in due course that your “ability” will fetch commensurate results quicker than you think is feasible.  For now, please remember my idol Randy Pausch’s words – experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted. 

Over the last few weeks, you have given us immense happiness by representing the nation the way you did.  It is time for us to meaningfully express gratitude and reciprocation by being there for you during this hour of sadness.  You have our unqualified support as you learn from this experience and continue to take Indian cricket to stratospheric heights.  May tomorrow be a brighter day.  For now, safe travels.  Rest up and recharge.  We will back with you before you know it.

With much love, gratitude and respect,
Yours cricketfully,
Ram Murali