Sunday, April 21, 2019

An elusive triangle: Reflections on interpersonal relationships

As we chatted over a cup of tea, my friend ‘drew’ a triangle with his fingers.  His right hand was at around his waist level, as he started moving his hand horizontally to simulate the base of the triangle.  As he chalked out the base, he paused and said, “Imagine that the two bases represent you and the other person in a relationship.”  Now, he proceeded to draw the rest of the triangle – the top of the triangle was at around his chest height.  He concluded by stating, “Now think of your relationship as the top of this triangle.  Both you and the other person are at the same level at the base, while the relationship is on a much higher pedestal than you are.”  That simple, eh?  You and I know that the world would be a far more utopian place if this were easy.  It is certainly not simple to chalk out this perfect equilateral triangle for all our key relationships.  But is it impossible? 

In a rather thoughtfully worded e-mail, a pal of mine wrote, “At a basic level, I think all relationships have to be equal for them to be successful.  And somewhere, they must fulfill some part of you and give you joy.”  The eloquence of these lines, to me, are matched by their profundity.  I say this because the fulfillment and joy that we experience are what make us afford the place at the top of the triangle to the bond itself.  As selfless as we can sometimes make ourselves out to be, how a relationship makes us feel is something we do place a tremendous premium on.  I suppose what this triangle theory - trademark will be granted to my friend! - urges us to do is to be secure about being on an equal plane with the other person while valuing the relationship itself to put it on a level much higher. 

When relationships turn sour, it invariably is a result of the balance between the axes of the triangle getting disturbed.  Once the distances become skewed, it requires a joint effort to bring the triangle back to its homeostasis.  When fissures appear in a relationship, from whatever little sagacity my age has given me, it is a monumental task if the burden were imposed on only one to seal the cracks.  Eventually resentment sets in, sometimes egos, and distances expand.  Surely, communication is of pivotal importance.  It takes a mix of great courage and sincere humility to express concerns about a relationship and seek a viable, sustainable solution.  I have been the lucky recipient of such correspondence – where I am told about my flaws in a way that gives me utmost confidence that the other person is not seeking to diminish my importance.  That the other person is, in fact, striving to keep the top of the triangle intact.

As a man with imperfections, I know that the one way to make up for our human frailties is to never hesitate to apologize.  This may seem like the simplest, bleedingly obvious statement to make.  But we all have had moments when we convince ourselves that it is infra dig to apologize.  Or even worse, ask, “Why should I be the one to apologize?”  Accounting for the fact that blame, at times, needs to be apportioned equally, a sincere apology sometimes gets put on the back burner only to paradoxically, yet precisely, be missed as a tool to douse a fire. 

As I reflected on this image of a triangle, I also thought of parents and children and whether this applied at all.  Selflessness is one of the much-haloed traits associated with parents.  But as Adam Grant notes in his thought provoking book, Give and Take, giving at the cost of the self, leads to enduring resentment.  As children age and mature into youth (mature youth is probably the father of all oxymorons!), astute parents realize that instead of talking down in a patronizing manner, a friendly arm-around-the-shoulder approach brings much more peace to the experience of parenthood.  I realize that this is a gross simplification given that parents have a tremendous role in guiding the next generation despite rapidly growing social media, overexposure to all sorts of information, good and bad.  But as an elderly well-wisher once told me, kids learn more from watching how parents behave than from ‘listening’ to their parents.  This makes me believe that the success of parents lies really in convincing their kids that they may talk from experience but are not placing themselves on a higher plane just on account of age difference.  That one of the bases of the triangle is the parent, the other the child, and their bond is right there on top!  And one can only hope that filial love and respect emerges as a deserving byproduct of this healthy bond. 

As I ruminate on this, I feel truly blessed with the depth of the select few meaningful relationships that I have.  There are times when I do place people on an elevated status owing to their character, generosity or their affection towards me.  And that’s okay, because they stand tall without making me feel small.  But the spirit of a bond – be it personal or professional – needs to be nourished in equal measure by both parties for it to be strengthened with time.  Back to my original question – is the achievement of a perfect equilateral triangle impossible?  Maybe so.  But for now, I’ll focus on the ‘try’ in the triangle!

Thursday, April 4, 2019

The first step of a 30-year journey: Revisiting Pudhiya Paadhai

Come April 14, it would have been 30 years since Pudhiya Paadhai released in the theaters to a rapturous response.  Making his debut as an actor, writer and director, Parthiban did not just make a splash with his effort.  Instead, he redefined the rules for jumping into uncharted waters!  The film is a raw, unflinching piece of cinema.  Tamil cinema had witnessed rowdy characters before – Kadalora KavithaigaL even had its lead character as one.  As Baradwaj Rangan once pointed out, the core theme of Pudhiya Paadhai is not too dissimilar to Sirai, which was released a few years prior.  But take away some underlying similarities in the core theme, every element of Pudhiya Paadhai reflected the originality, intelligence and above all, the sheer temerity of the filmmaker.

This is an incredibly gutsy, emotionally honest picture that dares to show sinners, sins and redemption in a way that is brutal, giving us a loud wake up call to the atrocities that pervade our nation-- atrocities about which we hesitantly read news items about, and do not do much other than feeling indignant and helpless.  But Parthiban brings it all in front of our eyes with powerful visuals and with a truly unique voice.  One may or may not find the moral compass or the theme – that of a rape victim reforming the predator by marrying him - acceptable.  But if one were to focus on the storytelling, performances and raw, gritty filmmaking, it is hard to deny that Tamil cinema had not quite seen anything like this before.  I suppose this was the first step for Parthiban but a giant leap for Tamil cinema!

Pudhiya Paadhai is the story of a misogynistic, antisocial beast who was abandoned in a roadside trashcan as an infant by his mother.  A childhood spent in poverty and hunger makes him hate the world around him.  The fact that he would do anything for money is less owing to greed and more stemming from a complete lack of empathy and emotion.  The character, in the first half, is selfish not because he loves himself but because he hates virtually everyone else surrounding him.  The black-and-white clips, Parthiban’s harangue after spotting a lady who tries to abandon her newborn (born out of wedlock), the shot signaling the intermission are all unforgettable moments.  These are symptomatic of a filmmaker who was assured about what he wanted to say and how he wanted to present it.

Click on 'play' to go to the late-night tirade scene:

The scene where Seetha – who is stupendous in this movie - forces her way into Parthiban’s house (right before the intermission) has some cinematic touches but still is a key scene and brings about a major twist to the story.  The subsequent sequence in the hospital where Parthiban is in a bed next to a dying rowdy is one of the many instances of the director’s exquisite emotional insight.  This is a thought-provoking scene that is directed and played with much conviction, helping Parthiban achieving the improbable task of making the audience believe in the rowdy’s change of heart.  The segment focusing on the newly married couple has a playful tone mixed with more serious sequences showing Parthiban’s gradual change in habits and overall character.  The scene where he falls at the feet of his wife is poignant – as the former thug bends down, he stands tall in our eyes.  The transformation, which was gradual and natural, is complete with this beautifully acted scene.

Click on 'play' to go to the aforementioned (feet) touching scene:

Parthiban’s dialogues for Pudhiya Paadhai are some of the finest ever heard in Tamil.  His lines are witty, funny, touching or daring depending on the needs of the scenes.  In choosing to flout political correctness and by writing dialogues with impetuous irreverence - the line about condoms is bound to shock the most audacious cine fan- he took a huge risk and in the process, reaped rich dividends.  Here was a filmmaker who announced in his very first movie that if he was going to say something, it was going to be said in his forthright, uncompromising style.

In addition to shouldering the burden of writing and directing the movie, Parthiban gives a spectacular performance.  He created not just a performance but a personality!  Though he played similar characters later in his career and did so with great panache, his work here is undoubtedly the crown jewel.  The terrifyingly believable portrayal of a rogue in the first half is such a sharp contrast with that of the kind-hearted husband in the second half.  He chalked out the arc of his character on a tightrope and yet walked it with the ease of a veteran. 
Three decades after its release, Pudhiya Paadhai still leaves me stunned.  For a filmmaker who blazed a trail very early in his career, Parthiban’s graph has not seen the kind of highs that we may have expected from him in 1989.  Some of his deeply honest works – Housefull and KudaikuL Mazhai come to mind – may have failed commercially while others like the delightfully quirky Kathai Thiraikathai Vasanam Iyakkam fared better.  But he continues to soldier on, never hesitating to experiment.  I suppose that for someone who dared to stray off the beaten track in his debut effort, the ‘paadhai’ may not always be predictably smooth.  Owing to occasional missteps, he has inevitably lost his way at times.  But with the spirit of a phoenix, he continues to rise from the ashes and find newer paths to traverse.