Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Six of a kind

“It is harder to be kind than clever.” 

Of all the quotable quotes that I have read in the past decade or so since I started reading non-fiction, this has to be near the top.  I think it is especially pertinent in the modern era of active social media platforms.  The comforts of online anonymity have increasingly given people the (wrongful) license to be snarky, hurtful and sometimes, downright nasty.  Of course, even outside of online interactions, we have all been at the receiving end or sometimes, the giving end of unkind words or behaviors.  But as I see and observe those increasingly rare acts of kindness, small or large, I do feel compelled to shine some spotlight on acts and words that have made a tremendous impact on me.  In some instances, I have not been part of the interaction but I may have seen or heard about it.  I have also tried to stay out of some deeply personal stuff because…well it’s too personal, you see!  With those disclaimers out of the way, here are six acts of thoughtfulness, in no particular order.

         -- My grandfather worked for a bank for close to 40 years.  His job paid him decent, if unspectacular money.  My Mom was his first child.  When my Aunt was born 11 years later, my grandpa’s best friend visited his house to see the baby.  But before he left, he offered some advice to my grandpa - that to raise two daughters, he would be able to do so more comfortably if he had some supplemental income.  He urged my grandfather to invest some of his savings to start a small-scale industry. (My grandpa heeded his advice.)  What I thought was incredibly touching was how my grandpa’s friend not only wanted to partake in his friend’s happiness but also took the time to think through a future for him and his family.  That he went beyond surface-level affection was what the depth of their relationship was all about. 

     -- My fifth standard Maths teacher Ms. Sundaravalli Subramaniam was not amused when I started sobbing.  I had scored 55/100 in my half-yearly exam in a subject that I loved dearly.  I couldn’t believe that I had made a royal mess of the paper.  In my school (in India), one had to score at or above 60% in every test and exam during a year to get what was called the “Merit Card.”  By ‘virtue’ of my score, I had lost my chance for that year.  She did not console me with any sweet words.  Rather she admonished me for being playful and not focusing enough.  She added that just because I ‘lost’ the merit card should not detract attention from my efforts for the annual exam.  During the next three months, she took extra care to ensure that I was well-prepared for the final exam.  At times, I was reminded in a ‘friendly’ (!) manner that I shouldn’t be letting Maths…err…history repeat itself!  So, I had written the (final) Maths exam.  A few days later, when I was in the exam hall for another exam, she dropped in and casually asked the invigilator, “Where is Ram Murali?”  In front of the entire class, she said, “You have done beautifully well in your Maths exam.”  What it did to my morale – do I need to tell you?!

      -- A few years ago, during a health crisis, I had to take a few days off work without any notice.  I had sent the briefest of e-mails to my manager about this unplanned break.  Within minutes, she wrote back to me, asking me to not worry about work.  That was nice.  But what, to me, was even more special was when she promptly sent a note to the rest of my team as well as the internal stakeholders of our group to not send me any e-mails until she said otherwise.  That all requests intended for me had to be routed to her until further notice.  I came back to work to a rather surprisingly sparse inbox.  She had essentially backed up her words with swift, concrete action.  Her brand of empathy-dipped sweetness is something that I humbly salute, especially for how rare it is.

   -- My mother had lost her only sibling, my Aunt Shoba, in October 2016.  She had come back from India (she lives in the US) after arguably her most painful trip – my Dad was still back in India.  Upon my Mom’s arrival, one of her close friends hugged her and said, “Please consider me your sister.”  This may sound dramatic or cinematic to you – it sounded like soothing music to my Mom’s ears.  She had been feeling completely distraught and bereft post the untimely death of her kid sister.  And for a friend to assure her that while her loss was irreplaceable that she was going to help her fight the vacuum, was love of the deepest kind – of the giving sort.  My Mom's friend realized that the magnitude of the void left by the departed is at its maximum immediately afterwards.  And by giving her the gift of time, she did her part to fill that lacuna at least partially.  It was not mere words – to this day, my Mother’s friend has stuck to the spirit of the promise she made in 2016.

   -- In the Hindu tradition, it is custom to not celebrate festivals for a year following the passing on of a loved one.  Amidst all the fireworks during Diwali of 2016, my grandma’s house was dark in more ways than one.  I had texted our family friend Director Vasanth to call on my grandmother since my parents and I had returned to US by then and she was by herself.  A few minutes later, he responded – “I already did.”  Even before my request, he had gone to her place.  My grandma was visibly touched by his words to her– “I can understand how you must be feeling.  Of course, you would not feel like celebrating.  But please prepare a dish that Shoba liked to eat.”  Not only did he give her a way of concretizing her grief but he understood that age-old traditions could sometimes come in the way of engaging in meaningful ways of coping.

      -- I sincerely believe that meaningful friendships with people of the opposite gender can go a long way towards helping us refine ourselves and make us more well-rounded as a person.  There are needs, concerns, perspectives, vulnerabilities, strengths that a friend of the opposite gender can open our eyes to, if we are willing to look.  I have known this particular friend since my undergrad years in Memphis.  We have seen each other through highs, lows, immense joy, intense grief.  Over the years, she has given me a lot of well-meaning advice that fell into the 'she didn't have to but she did' category.  On one of my trips to Memphis, during a chat over coffee, she looked at me intently for a few seconds.  She said, "I am so glad that you look healthy now.  The last time I saw you, you looked so gaunt that I was worried that you were going through a health issue."  I was so touched by her almost-maternal attitude as a friend.  I have received my share of mean-spirited comments on my looks, girth, etc. as a youngster.  So, for someone to focus on my health as opposed to cosmetic stuff was very poignant.  She, as with my grandpa's friend and my Mom's buddy, continues to show me that deeper the emotional foundation, the stronger the bond. 

I could go on to write about many more people who have touched me and my near and dear with their genuineness and depth of character.  For now, I will simply say that I am blessed.  Truly blessed.

PS: The "kind than clever" quote is attributed to Jeff Bezos.  I didn’t mention his name at the outset given the mess that he has created for himself in recent times - I thought it would be distracting to put his name at the start of the article!  Well, the words still ring true even if the person behind them has done quite a bit to discredit himself.

Friday, January 11, 2019

The river continues to flow: Reflections on "Mahanadhi" 25 years after its release

It was 25 Januaries ago that one of the most important films in my life hit the theaters.  Matters of taste are extremely subjective.  But let me just say that if I were to pick five movies that made me cherish good cinema, appreciate understated acting and applaud perceptive writing, on top of that list would be Mahanadhi.  It is a film that chalked its place in my subconscious over the years and has stayed there.  And at the risk of engaging in hyperbole, I will say that this movie helped me find and refine the film fanatic in me. 

Reams of film essays have focused on various aspects of the film.  Such is the density of thought and the delicacy of expression.  There are several emotionally devastating moments that make this movie a rather tough experience.  But it is a testament to the institution that is Kamal Haasan that I make myself go through this experience time and again, only to be awestruck at the impact that a fictional tale can make.  I think that the reason is that Kamal Haasan, as a writer, usually transports the viewer to the worlds he creates – Devar Magan, Kuruthi Punal, Hey Ram, Virumaandi, Anbe Sivam all feature milieus and situations that are not exactly familiar to the lay person.  But aided by his carefully sculpted scripts, Kamal the actor made you invest in the extraordinary situations that the protagonists found themselves in.  But the reason Mahanadhi is in a different league altogether when it comes to emotional resonance is because Kamal does not take the viewer to his world; he brings his world to the viewer. 

By making the protagonist a very unheroic character - in the cinematic sense of the word - and by writing situations that are rooted in realism, even if of the gut-wrenching kind, and above all, adopting an acting style that is an exercise in understatement, Kamal ‘brings’ the characters right next to us.  He gives us the feeling that we are watching the proceedings as a helpless, invisible observer.  Nowhere else have I felt a two-dimensional screen project the happenings in a film to me as Mahanadi did…and still does.  Without wearing any weird glasses, I have experienced the most fulfilling three-dimensional experience every time I revisit this film!

When people talk about Mahanadhi, they invariably refer to the sadness.  But look closer, you will realize that there is a lot of goodness in the movie too.  Kamal’s life is made miserable by a slew of detestable antisocial elements.  But at the same time, he is surrounded by a worldly-wise mother-in-law (SN Lakshmi), a caring jail warden (Rajesh), a woman that loves him deeply (Sukanya), to name a few.  Of the lot, the late SN Lakshmi stands tall.  There is no artifice in her performance.  For a veteran artiste who had acted in much more melodramatic fare in the 60s and 70s, she is remarkably restrained.  She sells every moment that she is on screen, especially the lovely early morning scene where she offers Kamal some sage advice in the most loving manner possible.    

Click on Play to go to the SN Lakshmi scene:

Even as the movie descends into one emotional abyss after another, it is continually peppered with moments of pure, humane goodness.  When Kamal is beaten black and blue by the constables, the kind-hearted Rajesh gifts him a book of Bharathiyar poems.  And the stirring lines which end with "...naan veezhven endru ninaithayo" do more justice to this scene than any dialogue could possibly have. (Bharathiyar's inspirational poetic verses feature in the climax too.)  And as harrowing as the sequence in the prostitution house is, what stands out is the innocence of the daughter (of one of the prostitutes) who applies sindoor on the forehead of Kamal’s daughter once she is rescued.  Kamal’s reaction here is one of the most priceless images ever committed to film.

Light at the end of the tunnel:

MS Prabhu’s cinematography brings to mind Mani Ratnam’s words about the craft behind a movie – “It is okay if viewers don’t recognize something as long as they sense it.”  His work is especially stellar in the prison sequences.  His close-ups of Kamal’s face in the hauntingly bittersweet scene with his daughter is a case in point.  Kamal’s instinctive reaction when his daughter falls at his feet is a brilliant piece of emoting, one that is captured in an unobtrusive manner by Prabhu’s camera.  His camerawork in the brothel is astounding – note the overhead shots through the narrow lanes.  It brings a sense of claustrophobia and heightened anxiety as Kamal searches for his daughter.

"Kaveri enga?":

Ilayaraja, as is his wont, comes up with a magnificent background score for the emotionally charged scenes.  My favorite piece of his actually plays during the action sequence in the prison.  The violin piece, even as Kamal beats Shankar to a pulp, is a wail that perfectly describes the mindset of the Kamal character – he is not resorting to violence out of rage; the blows are a byproduct of immense pain.  It takes a perceptive genius to understand the nuances of Kamal’s writing and as always, Ilayaraja rises to the occasion. 

Raja's use of violin in a stunt sequence:

Finally, a word about Kamal’s dialogues, which he co-wrote with Ra. Ki. Rangarajan.  Kamal’s penchant for weaving in his personal views into his writing is well-known.  Here too, indignation that is vented out in tirades against societal evils, rationalistic thoughts, a mention of Mahatma Gandhi are all there.  But there is not a single place where any of these lines or thoughts stick out like a sore thumb.  Every discourse about the ills pervading the society flows organically from a situation faced by the character.  While the conversation that Rajesh, Poornam Vishwanathan and Kamal have in Rajesh’s house features several sharp lines, it is the late-night outburst of Kamal that seamlessly blends searing intensity and emotional poignancy.  

"Nallavanuku kedaika vendiya ella mariyadhaiyum...":

It has been 25 years since Mahanadhi hit the screens.  Many of the themes are undeniably – even unfortunately - relevant in this day and age.  The movie, named after a river, not only continues to lead us to a stream of tears but also makes us marvel at its oceanic depths.  The experience might make us feel drowned in a whirlpool of sorrow but thanks to several standout moments of goodness, it buoys us to the surface too.  That a creator can command such attention and involvement is a tribute to not just the filmmaker but also to cinema itself. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Year-Round Lights

It is that time of the year.  The holiday lights gradually get turned off.  Work kicks off in top gear.  Plus, I am not a fan of the winter.  I don’t especially care for shoveling snow or wearing so many layers of clothing that I sometimes feel like even a sweaty Spiderman suit will not be a much worse option.  I can’t complain about the weather this season - it has been quite bearable.  But as I look back at 2018, I am happy that it’s over.  My grandma’s massive heart attack exactly a year ago – yes, 24 hours into 2018, we were already dealing with a crisis – and her subsequent passing on in May cast a rather long shadow on the rest of the year.  Her passing on reinforced one of my beliefs about my kind of grieving– that as time progresses, the pain of separation from the departed increases rather than dwindling.

“I am sure that the path that lies before you will have moments of joy and this pain will slowly be pushed away by time."  These were the first words of an e-mail that my mentor had sent me at the time of a personal tragedy several years ago.  I derived great comfort out of that line at the time.  But as you can see, it is quite the opposite of how I feel about the departed.  Whenever I think of people that have left me, I think of how I have several decades ahead without their sunny, comforting presence.  Yes, I do realize that elders, as much as I hate it, have to go sometime.  I realize that it is one of the most certain of certainties.  And in the case of my grandma, I did get comfort out of the fact that she had lived a long life, been part of all of my life’s highs and lows until her clock decided to stop ticking.  Add to that the fact that she had suffered quite a bit in the last couple of years of her life physically and mentally (her daughter predeceased her in 2016) meant that her death felt like deliverance from pain.

But let’s go back to my mentor’s words for a moment.  It is the very process of going through the pain that has helped me realize that regardless of when or whether any pain gets truly “pushed away by time” it is a set of meaningful relationships that is the primary source of the “moments of joy” that he mentioned.  It is true that I get immense happiness from things like a well-made movie, a thought provoking book or a project well-executed at work.  Not all of my happiness is dependent on people around me.  But I realized that be it with my near and dear, extended family or friends, having heart-to-heart conversations, sharing moments of vulnerability, receiving authentic affection, getting thoughtful advice were all gifts that I received in abundance this year. 

The true magic of connection happens when a bond is established at a significantly deep part of the mind.  It is a lot more reliable and enduring than surface-level frivolity.  This is not to say that life is all about meditative stuff – boy, that would be the real-life equivalent of a badly made art film!  I am just saying that where there is true depth of emotion, the moments of fun get amplified.  In such cases, the scents of memories grow increasingly fragrant with time.  Else, the fun is akin to the fragrance of a perfume – pleasant but transient.  And I am fortunate that in 2018, I have had the fortune of spending quality time with people that have lent my year immense meaning.  As much as I realize that inner strength is what truly endures, they have been external forces that have given me strength when I needed it the most.  Some through words, some through gestures, some by virtue of just being there - sometimes that’s all it takes.  Of course, I always hope that I reciprocate all of that.  But this is about them, not me. 

I realize that I have not gone into any specifics about the kind of impact that people have made on me.  I have not mentioned names or identified people by relationships.  If you will, excuse me this one time for being more general than specific.  In this write-up, I really wanted to capture the vibe that 2018 leaves me with – amidst waves of despair and suffering that fate can sometimes hurl at us, meaningful relationships are a bulwark that we can rely on.  That is the brightness that lights up dark days.  That is the incandescence that makes us see and sense inner glow all year round, not just during the holiday season.    

Happy 2019, folks!