Friday, February 22, 2019

Standing Firm in Infirmity

Bittersweet.  That is the word that best summarizes my feelings when I flip through any photo album from the past.   The more distant the memories captured by an album, the longer the list of loved ones that are not with me anymore.  It is an inevitability, yes.  But it is sad nevertheless.  Sadder is the fact that there are some elderly members of the family who are still alive...but only just.  Owing to a health crisis of some sort, their emasculated body, face and eyes are a pale shadow of a former self.  A voice that was able to enunciate words in a manner that was as clear as a crystal in a showcase would now evoke a throat that is impaled by broken glass.  A majestic gait would be replaced by shoulders that droop so much that we will start questioning the accuracy of the height scale.  But it is the eyes that say nothing but reveal everything.  A piercing stare that seemed to burst out of every tissue of the eye now seems like a bottomless pit.  The deeper we look, the stronger the pain we experience.  Alas, the emptiness in their eyes paradoxically fills our own eye lids with a liquid that was designed to make us feel lighter.  But beyond all the physical devastation is the steel of their resolve.  The spirit that refuses to bow – drooping shoulders not withstanding- to the health issues that drain them of their vim, vigor and vitality. 
My mentor Dr. Jim Jamison was a personification of that positive spirit.  In the last ten years of his life, he had two different types of cancer, multiple stem cell transplants and a bypass surgery.  No amount of adversity seemed to mount a challenge to the innate grace and poise that he possessed as a human being.  The hearty laugh was always round the corner.  Earlier, he used to have calculus problems that featured himself as a character.  The problems would start off along the lines of, “The bearded fat man was working on an 10-feet ladder when his wife hollered out.  As he slipped…”  During exams, you see, it was distracting to have such an entertaining story and figure out how to create equations around it!  After he underwent chemotherapy and lost all his hair for a while, he quipped, “I suppose I now have to have my problems describe a bald, gaunt man!”  Years later, when he was sequestered in a hospital post a transplant, he made it a point to keep himself mentally agile – he started penning a paper!  It was the year after he was first diagnosed with cancer that he worked on a book that he co-wrote- “Isometries on Banach Spaces.”  I joked with him that I would buy the book only after I understood what the title meant. (Sorry Dr. Jamison, I still haven’t figured it out!) 
During his last months – he passed on in 2014 – he remained hopeful but was never delusional.  He had a nagging feeling that the cancer was going to fell him.  But as Randy Pausch eloquently remarked, “We don’t beat the Grim Reaper by living longer, we beat the Grim Reaper by living well.”  In that respect, Dr. Jamison certainly had the last laugh.  I vividly remember my last meeting with him.  My family and I had gone to his place to invite him for my father’s 60th birthday celebrations.  He was seated in his favorite chair with a blanket over him.  Yet as I was leaving, it was he who was emanating warmth with his bear hug.  The fingers that had firmly held so many pieces of chalk over four decades could barely hold a pen now.  Yet the tenderness of his hug wrote my last memory of him indelibly.  He called later to apologize for being unable to attend the function – no, it didn’t come as a surprise.  Months later, he went to the hospital for his final treatment.  And that was that.

Whenever I have had back issues in the past or felt weak physically, I would have the tendency to get cranky and irritable.  I would remind myself of how my mentor was able to exhibit such equanimity in the face of a literal life-and-death situation.  Not that I would immediately mend my ways!  But I would pause and smile to myself thinking of him.  The amount of power that he derived from a laser-sharp focus on what he could control helped him withstand the debilitating effects of things that he couldn’t control.  As much as he derived strength from the moral support he received from family and friends, it was he who led us down the painstaking path of graceful acceptance of life's unsolvable problems.  I suppose my Math teacher taught me not just how to count but what really counts.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Food for thought - a piece on food-based sequences in Tamil Cinema

As I watched ’96 for the umpteenth time, I paused at the rather lovely scene where Trisha cooks a late-night meal for Vijay Sethupathi.  What was remarkable was how utterly unsentimental the scene was.  Trisha simply asks, “Okay vaa?”  To this, Vijay gestures that it is delicious, while adding, “Enga Amma samaicha maari iruku.”  My mind went back 34 years in movie time to 1985 when the great Sivaji Ganesan says pretty much the same thing to Radha.  The situations are completely different – in Mudhal Mariyadhai, Ganesan is married to a cantankerous woman (that underutilized powerhouse Vadivukkarasi).  He finds succor in a much younger woman who showers on him the kind of maternal love that he had been bereft of, all those years.  I then racked my brain to think of a few songs and sequences where food played a role, even if tangentially or laterally. (I steadfastly refuse to devote any space in my blog to the numerous booze sequences that have pervaded Tamil cinema in recent years!)

Without further ado, here is a list of sequences that I was able to recollect.  Bon Appetit!

The “Mudhal Mariyadhai” scene:

“Athi kaai kaai kaai…alangaai vennilave…”
I am no expert on Kannadasan but he is at his ingenious best in this song, my favorite line being, “Elakaai vaasanai poal engaL ullam vaazhakai!”

“Kalyana Samayal Saadham!”
The granddaddy of all food-based songs, the highlight of this number is Trichy Loganathan’s joyous, uninhibited singing.  The most amusing part of this song is when the actor opens his mouth expecting the food to fly in, only to grimace at an empty plate!  The nonchalance with which SV Ranga Rao throws out the plate is a sight to behold!

“Nitham nitham nelluchoru!”
A foodie is asked to sing a song by her husband on the first night of their marriage.  What does she do?  She sings about food!  The livewire Fatafat Jayalakshmi was such a wonderful contrast to the demure Shoba in this movie – it’s a tragedy for not just their families but also for Tamil cinema that both of them (in their personal lives) ended their lives when they were young.  Both of them achieved immortality onscreen though with their stellar work in a limited number of movies.  “Mullum Malarum” features great performances by both of them.  Watch Jayalakshmi’s unfettered body language and gestures– they are playful but never obscene.  Watch this song also to see how beautifully Rajnikanth plays second fiddle.  The song is Jayalakshmi’s showcase and Rajni lets it remain so.

There is plenty of food…in the mind
K Balachander’s “Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu” is a deeply thought-provoking movie.  But unlike his more serious fare like “Achamilllai…Achamillai” and “Thaneer Thanneer” there is a lot of humor that leavens the film but without diluting the impact of the theme.  The scene where Kamal, S. Ve Sekhar and Dileep pretend to be having a sumptuous meal is one such.  Despite Sekhar’s funny antics, there is tremendous underlying sadness.  KB the writer walks the tightrope walk expertly, with no small help from his monstrously talented cast.  There is a companion sequence where Sridevi cooks a meal, only for an unexpected tragedy to strike.  The saying, “Kai-ku ettinadhu vaai-ku ettaama poachu” has never been brought to screen in as poignant a manner.

Click on ‘Play’ to go to the aforementioned scene:

“Ena Samayalo”
A Carnatic-based song on food?  Sounds tough?  Well, Ilayaraja is the music director.  Need I say more?  SPB is in peak form here, bringing to life hilarious lines like, “Rasam thaa…paadu vasantha!”  Chitra joins in the fun too, letting loose in a way that was quite rare for her.

“I mean what I mean"..."But they can’t be so mean!”
You, the reader, could have filed a lawsuit against me had I omitted this sequence from this write-up!  One of the timeless comic scenes committed to film, Crazy Mohan’s dialogues are done full justice to by Kamal Haasan and the inimitable Delhi Ganesh. (PS: I love the title of this youtube video: “Something fishy!”)

Begging for alms…by serving a meal
For a brief while in the early 90s, RV Udhaykumar was a force to reckon with.  He was at his best when he worked with writers like MS Madhu (“Kizhakku Vaasal”) and R Selvaraj (“Chinna Counder”) as opposed to films where he wrote the script himself (I despise every moment of “Yejaman!”)  “Chinna Counder” was an especially impressive artistic treatment of a commercial subject.  There is a sequence where Sukanya, who is deep in debt, invites the villagers to her house – the custom is that they leave money underneath the plantain leaf.  It is a strange-sounding custom and I do not know if it is indeed a practice in any community.  But Ilayaraja lifts the scene to great heights with his background score.  And the actors too play the scene with strong conviction.

You don’t lie to AGS Ganesan!
I remember reviews of “Aaha” stating that Delhi Ganesh reprised his MMKR role.  True, he plays a cook here.  But Ganesh’s character is a lot more fleshed out and has several more shades than his role in MMKR.  He has the best lines in the movie.  While my favorite pithy one-liner of his is, “Apram pul tharai puliyotharai aaydum,” this scene in the marriage hall features Ganesh at his sparkling best.  Mohan’s one-liners fly thick and fast and Ganesh catches and delivers every one of them with panache!

Click on ‘Play’ to go directly to the wedding hall scene:

Food is a matter of…comfort
One of the lesser-known sequences in this list, Prithviraj and Gopika are absolutely brilliant in this scene.  An aspiring director is married to a once-famous actress and is taunted by the film fraternity for exactly that reason.  As he offers food to his wife, he shares his sorrows in the sweetest manner possible.  There is something inexplicably comforting about food during moments of anguish and this film understands this and delivers a truly moving experience.

Click on ‘Play’ to go to the dining table scene:

I realize that this is not an exhaustive list but if you recollect other sequences where food played a role, please share them in your comments.