Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Time (to) Travel

HE seems so near, yet so far. 

Today marks the 25th death anniversary of my maternal grandpa.  But no, this post is not about him.  Or my memories of him.  I was speaking to a well-wisher about how no dam could be big enough to withstand the gush of memories that my mind was getting inundated with.  She smiled and responded, “You live in the past quite a bit, don’t you!  And you seem to get quite a bit of comfort out of it.”  I don’t think I can credibly deny that!  But let’s dig deeper.

As I type this, I am several thousand feet above sea level.  I am traveling.  And I am ‘traveling.’  When I do get time to myself during work-related travels, I work, read or write.  When I work, I’d like to think that I am reasonably focused.  But when I read or write (non-fiction mostly), I invariably take a sojourn to dwell on memories.  Memories of a time when a significantly higher number of near and dear were alive.  Thoughts on the departed are akin to miniscule points on a longwinded path that I have to turn, squint and put on a pair of binoculars to look at.  Whereas memories that involve people who are still alive and a part of my life in some form are like pages of a taut screenplay.  The dots didn't appear to always connect in ways that we could predict but they did. 

The most pleasant memories of this kind are those of vital, transformative moments in my life which were enabled by people that had immense emotional intelligence and generosity.  It is a deeply fulfilling experience to be able to express my gratitude to people who penned meaningful thoughts in my book, drew upward arcs in my professional life or infused bright colors into the sketch of my personal life.  I am nobody without them.  And I continue to feel incredibly Lilliputian in front of them.  It is a soothing feeling to have continuity and longevity.  For instance, some of my mentors are people that I have known for decades.  There are past memories for sure.  But there is also a distinct present which makes me look forward to tomorrow with hope and promise.    

But the dulcet sounds of kind words delivered with grace by my heroes sometimes co-exist uneasily with harsher sounds caused by troublesome relationships.  I have made peace with the imperfections of relationships that didn’t always pan out the way I wished for them to.  As I grow older, I try not to let the weight of memories bulldoze the defenses that I have built for myself.  Because it is absolutely vital to not only live in the present but also to be acutely aware of the existing version of the self and the current version of the ones around us.  To accept the inevitability of change ranks only second in terms of importance as a determinant of lasting peace of mind.  To me, even more important is the refusal to dwell on the past if the present does not stack up to it in some way, shape or form. 

One of my favorite parts of the amazingly inspirational “Option B” is the part where Sheryl Sandberg recounts a touching poem of God interacting with a man.  The man asks God why there were two pairs of footprints in his path during good times and only one pair during times of adversity.  The man wondered whether God had abandoned him when he needed Him the most.  To that question, God responded that during times of adversity, the only footsteps you saw were of God himself – He was carrying the man (and his burdens, I guess).  Sandberg has a different interpretation of this rather striking visual.  To her, the second pair of footsteps represented the trustworthy well-wishers among her family and friends.  During good times, they walked beside her.  During times of adversity, they walked behind her.  I like Sandberg’s version better.  Because her explanation, to me, conjures up the present and how every step of her journey is marked by the definite, reliable presence of the people she regards as her near and dear.  To fall back on someone, they have to be right behind you when you need them. 

That to me is what makes any past memory of living, everyday heroes worth dwelling on.  There is a strong sense of comfort from a shared present.  As a result, when I turn to look back at shared memories of these heroes, I do so with the subject of the memories right beside me.  Or, as Sandberg suggests, right behind me during times of adversity.

In a sense, these memories are so far, yet so near.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

A glimpse of Kamal’s vision: Reflections on “Raja Paarvai”

It was a sign of things to come.  The year was 1981.  Less than 10 years from making his debut as an (adult) actor, Kamal Haasan had made his 100th film.  Granted, he had acted in a slew of films as a child.  But nevertheless, his prolificacy was undeniable.  By 1981, he was a bonafide star with a growing fan base.  This was affectionately referenced in the Sakalakala Vallavan song – “College Teenage PenngaL Ellorkum En Meedhu KanngaL!  His acting talent was given ample fodder by the likes of his mentor K Balachander, Bharathiraja and Balu Mahendra.  But until his debut home production Raja Paarvai, he had rarely gotten the opportunity to shape a movie as much as he did here.  Raja Paarvai was one of the early examples of Kamal’s hunger to make cinema that was off the beaten path, cinema that brought forth to screen an aesthetic representation of solid content. 

For Raja Paarvai, Kamal was heavily involved in the creative process right from the writing, surrounding himself with some dazzling talents – fantastic screenwriters such as Ananthu, novelist Balakumaran, RC Sakthi and his friend Santhana Bharathi are credited as his collaborators.  He recruited the veteran Kannadasan to pen the scintillating “Azhagil Azhagu Dhevadhai” while he also sought out a relative newcomer at the time (Vairamuthu) to write Ilayaraja’s glorious, timeless melody, “Andhi Mazhai Pozhigiradhu.”  Possibly inspired by the marvelously natural cinematography of Balu Mahendra and Ashok Kumar, he roped in Barun Mukherjee.  The lens work in Raja Paarvai has stood the test of time like very few other movies of that era have – the lighting, especially in the song sequences, is exquisite.  The actors appear with minimal makeup and in tastefully designed, elegant costumes.  This is most evident in the case of Madhavi – contrast how she looks in this film with how she appeared in garish costumes and layers of horrendous makeup in “Kaaki Chattai” which was released four years…later and you will realize the refined taste at play in this movie.  Even the editing, with the seamless dissolves and segues into subsequent scenes (Santhana Bharathi explained this detail in a recent interview) are unlike anything that was seen in Tamil cinema. 

At heart, Raja Paarvai is a simple love story of a visually impaired violinist (Kamal) who falls in love with an aspiring writer (Madhavi).  Her Dad and brother oppose this match while they get support from her grandpa (LV Prasad, with a mischievous smile and a twinkle in his eye) and his friend Y Gee Mahendra (in one of his best performances, astutely mixing spontaneous humor and solid dramatic acting).  His shrewd stepmother has plans of her own for him and he resists it at every stage, detesting her very presence.  Despite the fairly straightforward nature of the plot, it is the treatment of the subject that makes the picture a memorable experience.  Rarely has a film focused on the minute joys of falling in love.  This film drips with sweetness, especially in the first half. 

To me, Raja Paarvai will always be special for the 20-minute sequence that captures the events on Kamal’s birthday, from dawn to dusk.  From Madhavi being mesmerized by the violin rendition – it’s impossible not to, for its one of Raja’s great instrumental pieces – to the time Kamal is insulted by her boorish Dad or the lovely, tender moment with the kid in the school who saves a piece of chocolate for Kamal, this entire stretch is great cinema.  The writing, acting, staging, background score all cohere superbly.  Especially stupendous is the culmination of this sequence where Kamal barks at Madhavi, only for her to break through his defenses.  The way this sequence is shot and acted is bound to make the most hard-hearted viewer spellbound.  The antics of Mahendra, after they drop Madhavi at her house, are an added bonus, especially the way he says, “Enaku adutha maasam!”

Click on “Play” to go to the start of the aforementioned 20-minute stretch:

The second half features a magical, ingenious scene where Madhavi is desperate for her father to leave town.  She is pacing the house frenetically while everything around her moves in slow motion.  Raja’s flute is in perfect sync with the movements.  This rather simple scene, where a girl flees the house as soon as her Dad is out of sight, is an apt example of what I said earlier – whatever seems simple on paper is brought to life with immense care and thoughtfulness. 

Click on “Play” to go directly to the time-less scene:

The movie’s weakest portions are when Kamal and Madhavi are separated.  The humor becomes a tad forced and the drama feels overblown.  The drunken revelry and the subsequent brawl, for instance, are overlong and sloppily staged.  This especially sticks out like a sore thumb given the remarkably tight writing that preceded this part of the movie.  But as I cavil about this ineffective segment, the climax (which is heavily inspired by The Graduate) comes to the rescue.  It is a  heartwarming scene where we cheer loudly for the pair that we had been rooting for all along. 

Alas, the movie fared poorly at the box office despite all the critical acclaim.  It put Kamal severely in debt and it forced him to act in commercial films that ranged from the fairly entertaining Thoongathey Thambi Thoongathey to some irredeemable dreck like Andha Oru Nimidam.  True, he did have the occasional gem like Moondram Pirai and Salangai Oli.  But from 1981 till 1987 (when Nayagan and history were made) Kamal’s progress as an actor and auteur had been checked by the commercial disappointment of Raja Paarvai.  But as is the case with quite a few of Kamal’s artistic ambitions, Raja Paarvai has built a sizable cult legacy over the years.  I suppose that the delayed recognition is a sign that we open our eyes to his efforts much slower than what his farsightedness deserves!