Monday, May 20, 2019

Made in Mylapore

Randy Pausch of “The Last Lecture” fame was waiting at a Doctor’s office.  Carnegie Mellon University had invited him to give what was to become a world-famous talk.  They had been sending him ‘gentle’ reminders to send in a talk title.  He hadn’t really arrived at a theme for this lecture.  And it suddenly dawned on him that all of what he wanted to achieve and eventually achieved were rooted in his childhood dreams.  Bingo!  Problem solved.  He titled his talk, “Really achieving your childhood dreams.”  A few days back, my childhood friend texted our group of friends with the sad news that his grandma had passed on.  To offer my condolences, I spoke to him and his Mom – the latter lives in Mylapore (a bustling neighborhood in Chennai, India for those that are unfamiliar with the city).  After I hung up, I was reminiscing about my own maternal grandma whose first death anniversary is May 22.  As you may know from previous write-ups, I used to call her Thathama.  She passed on a day before her 82nd birthday.  As I was reflecting on Thathama, I realized that most of what she was as a person and certainly a lot of what I remember of her could be traced back to her roots in Mylapore, where she was born and raised.  The more I thought of Mylapore, the more I seemed to see my grandma in it, and vice versa.  I could now relate to the sheer joy that Pausch experienced in his epiphany!

I have visited a couple of times the house where Thathama spent her formative years.  I don’t have many vivid memories of this place except for the fact that it was a quaint courtyard house.  Thathama’s brother’s family lived there until the 90s.  I honestly don’t even know the current state of that house.  But more than the house itself, I remember Thathama’s memories of the house.  She had lived with four sisters and two brothers.  She lost her Dad before she turned 10.  There was something very poignant about how she reminisced about her Mother.  She spoke of how from a young age, she could empathize with the pain of a relatively young widow who never remarried and on whom was the responsibility of raising several children.  She was extremely close to her siblings.  In fact, three of the sisters including Thathama died within five months of each other – one of them breathed her last less than two weeks before Thathama did.  Surely that was no coincidence, right?  I don’t have an answer.  But I feel that destiny played its part.  I remember Thathama’s anguish when her elder brother died of cancer in 1992.  What I remember even more was how she teared up at my upanayanam when she saw her brother who made it a point to attend despite having very little time left.  But don’t let the tears evoke the image of a weak person.  She had tremendous inner steel.  She had taken a lot of hard knocks in her life, starting with the early loss of her father, the unexpected death of her husband in a freak accident and her daughter predeceasing her, to name a few.  She may have fallen down many times.  But she never failed to get up.  More importantly, she never failed to rally around her family even when the magnitude of her loss was bigger than that of her family’s.  Her growing up in that house in Mylapore with her family and feeling a strong sense of responsibility towards her mother from her formative years – all of that laid the foundation of her deep empathy and resilience. 

Both her school as well as mine were in Mylapore!  She studied at Lady Sivaswami School.  But she never went to college.  I suppose that women going to college was not the norm in the 1950s.  Instead, she got married when she was 18.  Owing to the fact that she didn’t get educated beyond high school or her exposure extending beyond the confines of Mylapore, she was very insistent on top quality education for her daughters.  Despite belonging to a regular middle-class family, it was upon her insistence that my grandpa had my Mom join the Rosary Metric Convent.  To Thathama, a solid educational foundation was a surefire way of instilling confidence in her children.  This is not to say that that’s the only way of life.  I am just making the point that she wanted for her kids what she hadn’t gotten as a child. 

My childhood was spent pretty much entirely in my grandma’s house.  Even though my parents lived in other apartments and homes in Chennai, my ‘base’, so to say, was Thathama’s house.  It was very close to my school.  This meant that in primary school, when parents were allowed to bring lunch for kids in the large shed in my school, it was not my Mom (who was a working professional) who came – it was Thathama who would show up with steaming hot lunch!  One of my school friends thought that she was my mother.  I suppose he was not too far off!  Thathama packing my lunch was the norm up until I finished high school.  Of course, in addition to the food itself, she offered a lot of food for thought on education!  Not that I was always the most attentive listener.  She would waste no time in reminding me that I should work a lot harder to stack up to my Mom’s credentials.  Once, after my final exams, I was stacking a set of text books.  Back home in India, you could sell these books by the pound.  The heavier the book, the more money it would fetch.  So, I was joyously getting ready to make some money off the books that I couldn’t comprehend anyway.  Poker faced, she quipped, “Why don’t you wait until the results are out?!”  Over the years, I’d like to think that she developed a little more confidence in my aptitude.  My undergrad professor who attended my graduation told me later that he couldn’t quite comprehend why my grandma was sobbing uncontrollably.  I replied, “Tears of happiness, Dr. Jamison!”  It was more relief, now that I think of it! 

Anyone that staked claim to being a hardcore Mylaporean would have tasted the kaalathi kadai rose milk at least once in their lifetime.  This shop was within a stone’s throw of Thathama’s childhood home.  She had taken me many a time to this rather charmingly nondescript store that served this delectable beverage.  Both of us had a sweet tooth and it suited our palates just fine.  I have seen her enjoy the continental breakfast spread at hotels with equal relish.  But she never forgot the simple pleasures that she had experienced in her formative years.  I am glad that she made me a part of the times that she took a stroll down the memory lanes of Mylapore!  The other Mylapore place that was an integral part of her life was the vegetable market.  She took great delight in buying vegetables herself and striking a conversation with the shop owners that invariably extended beyond produce!  In fact, she seemed to be very familiar with all the shops in Mylapore that catered to my needs - be it Vijaya Stores (stationery shop), the Ambika appalam store or a tiny framing shop (whose owner proudly showed off photos with Vaali and TMS!) where broken frames - courtesy of yours truly - would be fixed in a matter of hours.

But the one place in Mylapore that will be forever associated with Thathama is the Srinivasa PerumaL temple.  Frequenting the temple on a daily basis was a habit that she cultivated when she was barely into her teens.  As a kid, I would shamelessly accompany her just for their delicious curd rice while uttering the same ‘saraswati namasthubyam’ regardless of the sannadhi that she took me to, much to her chagrin!  I would cheekily remark that the Gods in the different parts of the temple would communicate with one another and pass on my prayers.  I found it funny then; I am not sure she did.  When in my teenage years, following my grandpa’s passing away, I went through an extended phase where I felt incredibly indignant that the God whom Thathama prayed to every day had let her down so badly, so irreversibly.  She, of course, continued to pray as hard as ever.  But there was a phase when I would accompany her to the temple but would wait outside in the car, gleefully chatting with our chauffeur about how I was going to change the world for the better.  I am not sure if even my family or friends think that way, let alone the world!  

Last year, when I visited her in April, she was confined to the bed as a result of the massive cardiac attack that she had suffered in January.  But upon my family’s insistence on a particular auspicious day during that trip, I visited the temple.  I broke the ‘no photography allowed’ rule because I wanted to show a picture of the deity to Thathama on the phone.  If she couldn’t see the God that she had visited on a daily basis, then the God better come see her.  I don’t think it was the right thing to do but at the time, it felt like something I owed my grandma.  The temple priest yelled at me for not following the rules.  For a change, I was thick skinned and after offering an apology of an apology, I stepped out of the temple, picture safe and secure on my cell phone to show to Thathama.  She believed in the lord until the very end despite all the joys and sorrows of her life.  It was the anchor that allowed her to be the anchor for the family as it faced its share of happiness and despair. 

Thank you Mylapore, for how you shaped Thathama.
Thank you Thathama, for how you shaped me.

Monday, May 6, 2019

(He)Art Beats: Mahendran’s “Nenjathai Killathey”

Watching Nenjathai Killathey, which released in 1980, in 2019 is quite a joyous experience for any cineaste.  Not just for the glorious cinematography by Ashok Kumar, which was way ahead of its time.  Not just for the exquisite delicacy of taste in the writing and characterizations, which is a rarity even now 39 years after its release.  Not just for the scintillating score, the kind of which Ilayaraja usually reserved - not that it was needed elsewhere! – for the directors who respected the ‘visual’ aspect of cinema.  As I think that the movie is six months older than me (!), what is a fun, illuminating experience is how much this film, unlike any of Mahendran’s 11 other films as a director, inspired other filmmakers.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise really.  Because, truth to be told, Nenjathai… is probably the most ‘commercial’ of Mahendran’s works as a director.  There is a love story, there are comedy scenes that the film really doesn’t need, there is a dance number featuring an adolescent kid and a girl, there is even a climax scene at the airport!  But while Mahendran dabbles in more mainstream elements than was the norm for him, the nuance of the writing and the complexity of the relationships all ensure that the movie gives us plenty of glimpses of what makes Mahendran’s work stand the test of time. 

Andha 7 NaatkaL (1981), Mouna Raagam (1986), the Prashant-Ambika-Manivannan portions of Agathian’s Kadhal Kavithai (1998), all have thematic similarities to Nenjathai… Agathian even made a film of the same title about a prickly relationship between a self-indulgent man and the hurt he causes his love interest.  To give credit to these filmmakers, all of them had their own stamp on their material.  Mouna Raagam’s similarity is striking if you look at just the core theme – that of a girl, who is unhappy in her arranged marriage because of a failed love affair.  But the key difference is that in Mouna Raagam, Revathi gradually falling in love with her husband is completely intrinsic, influenced by nobody.  Whereas in Nenjathai…, Suhasini falling for Pratap Pothen doesn’t happen in a vacuum – the tragedy of a kid succumbing to cancer and Murthy’s subsequent words of wisdom to Suhasini are a case in point.  Even her former lover (played by Mohan) who is now married, comes back into her life, trying to convince her in a roundabout way, to be happy in her marriage. 

Click on Play to go to the 'words of wisdom' scene mentioned above:

It is quite fascinating to see the difference in how Mahendran and Mani Ratnam, both masters of the medium, tackle the same theme.  I prefer Mouna Raagam to Nenjathai… mainly because of Revathy’s performance and the Revathy-Mohan portions in the second half.  As wonderfully controlled as Suhasini is in Nenjathai…, I think Revathy was astounding in Mouna Raagam.  Small moments like the lead-in to the “Chinna Chinna Vanna Kuyil” song, were sprinkles of magic between the couple.  There is something beautiful about a love story that zooms in on just the couple, sans external forces.  In Nenjathai…, an outspoken, modern woman marries an equally broadminded man who knows of her love affair.  The fact that she doesn’t open up to him is not hard to digest – after all, complex human beings are rarely seen on screen.  But somehow her changes in attitude, dressing style and her final change of heart don’t have the kind of quiet conviction that I sensed in Mouna Raagam.  But that is not to discredit the writing of Mahendran, which has several other layers which I will delve into.

Suhasini gets top billing (that too in her debut feature, which is still rare for actresses in Tamil movies).  But the best characters in the film are that of Sarat Babu, as her doting yet pragmatic sibling, and Pratap Pothen, who plays her husband.  Sarat is stuck in an unhappy marriage and is fully aware, yet helpless, of the odious effects that his monster of a wife has on his sister.  (Agathian had a beautiful arc for the Ambika character in Kadhal Kavithai whereas the shrew remains untamed until the end in Nenjathai…) He finds solace in a platonic relationship with a woman who showers him with the kind of affection that is missing in his marriage.  When he realizes that his sister has fallen in love with a mechanic, he reasons out with her perceptively.  Mahendran, the writer, sparkles in this segment.  The way Sarat talks to her and subsequently enlists Pratap’s help, are instances of psychologically sound writing.  Ditto for Pratap’s reaction later when Sarat tries to intervene in their marriage and its discord.  The protective attitude of the husband is as endearing as the tough love of the brother is understandable. 

The protective husband meets the practical brother (Play to go directly to this scene):

Suhasini, Sarat and Pratap, all do some of their finest work in this movie.  Aided by SN Surendar’s superb voice work, Pratap is especially delightful.  And he has arguably the best line of the movie.  It is his response to Sarat when the latter apologizes for a no-frills wedding at the registrar office - “Kalyanam-ngaradhu manasuku therinja podhum.  Naama vazhara vaazhkai mattum ulagathuku therinja podhum.”  Especially for those that have only seen his over the top eccentricity on screen, Nenjathai… will be a revelation.  Even Murthy, known for his ribaldry as a comedian, has a great scene where he learns of his employee’s cancer diagnosis.  While affording due credit to the performers, it is impossible not to think of the director who shapes up their performances, especially given how rarely we saw/see actors bring in this kind of detailing and understatement to their acting.  Note how Pratap is constantly clinging to a pack of cigarettes – his smoking habit, exacerbated by the stress of his marriage, gets a payoff in a deeply moving scene where Suhasini oscillates between tending to him and resisting the urge to do so, during a coughing bout.

Murthy's finest moment as a character actor:

Ilayaraja’s background theme for the Pratap – Suhasini portions is reason alone to watch this film!  The theme fits perfectly with the slowly brewing anguish of the marriage. (Suhasini utilized this theme again for the Revathy episode of Penn, which she wrote and directed.)  The “Paruvame” song is one of the most breathtaking sequences captured on film.  Ashok Kumar’s images are inimitably picturesque.  My favorite scene from a photographic perspective though is the one at the registrar office.  The staging is beautifully done, especially the placement of Sarat Babu’s confidant.  She is in the background behind a window, yet Sarat catches a glance at her as she silently admires the newly married couple.  What better way of showcasing the fact that she is a part of Sarat’s life, but with a caveat.  The closeups that capture the expressions of Pratap and Suhasini make any dialogue in this scene redundant. 

Ilayaraja's heavenly score:

The registrar office scene:

With Mahendran’s passing away, there has been considerable interest rekindled in his films.  Nenjathai Killathey was his biggest commercial success.  That he achieved it without completely sacrificing his vision raises the question why he didn’t walk this tightrope more often.  But I suppose that a subset of his films will continue to offer ample, enduring evidence of his vision for the audiovisual medium that is cinema.  It is now up to the modern generation of thoughtful filmmakers to carry that forward. 

Two rather lovely scenes from Kadhal Kavithai - this is a good example of what inspiration is as opposed to imitation.  The Ambika character is modeled along the lines of the Shanti Williams character of Nenjathai Killathey.  But Agathian provides a lovely closure to his character, something that Mahendran doesn't bother with.  Neither approach is 'right' or 'wrong.'  They are just different.