Sunday, June 30, 2019

Vivekh is Awake – An essay on actor Vivekh

If you stake claim to be a fan of good cinema and have an interest in Tamil films, then you better have watched the recent “Vellai PookaL.”  One of the best-written thrillers in recent times, the film has a jaw-dropping twist at the end that is so powerful, so convincing and so unexpected that it forces you to forgive the mercifully rare missteps in this movie.  The pleasures of witnessing a well-crafted film are aplenty in the movie.  The ingenious twist astonishes us for sure.  That is the cerebral gratification offered by the film.  So, kudos to first-time filmmaker Vivek Elangovan.  But even he would be the first to admit that the primary reason the memories of the film lingers in one’s mind long after the end credits roll is the riveting, controlled performance of its lead actor Vivekh. 

Unlike unidimensional comedians, Vivekh has always been a well-rounded, thinking comic actor.  Right from his early roles in K Balachander’s movies such as his 1987 debut feature Manadhil Urudhi Vendum, Pudhu Pudhu ArthangaL (which featured the famous, “Iniki Seththaa NaaLaiku Paal” line) and Oru Veedu Iru Vaasal, there was a certain amount of intelligence and wit in the humor.  In an interview, Vivekh mentioned that KB, during the shooting of Oru Veedu…, spotted a rainbow.  Wasting no time, he asked his cinematographer to capture its splendor and then shot a close-up on Vivekh, asking the latter (who plays a writer’s assistant) to ad lib a few lines about a rainbow.  Quick to seize the opportunity granted by his mentor, Vivekh came up with the following gem:

Vannangal Koartha VaLaindha Malar-aa…Vaanam Aditha Water Color-aa…
Arjunan Vilenum Kanavu Poster…Andavan Than Idharku Drawing Master!

In the 1990s, his career stuttered, his limited roles in movies like Veera going almost unnoticed.  A year before he skyrocketed to fame with Vaali, he had a wonderful role in Saran’s Kaadhal Mannan.  Playing a friend of Ajith’s who is staunchly opposed to the very idea of love, Vivekh’s characterization was fresh, a stark contrast from that of comedians whose sole reason for existence was to help the heroes in their attempts to woo the heroine.  The humor was unforced, his lines were sharp and his chemistry with veteran MS Viswanathan was quite delightful.  Having worked closely with Saran on the making of the film, he was even credited with associate direction credits for this film. 

Of course, 1999 came.  Vaali released.  On the merit of writing and acting in some side-splittingly funny scenes, Vivekh quickly became Tamil cinema's busiest comedian.  And Thirunelveli, released the next year, set the template – and standard - for his humor for the years to come.  Mixing social consciousness with sardonic dialogue, his scenes were undeniably the sole highlight of an otherwise unremarkable film.  Over the next few years, he went from strength to strength, writing some of his scripts but also working with one of the most unheralded comic writers of them all – the late Prasanna Kumar, the writer behind the splendid humor in Run, Manadhi Thirudi Vittaai, Pennin Manadhai Thottu among other films.  His collaboration with Shankar has spanned three films till date – Boys, Anniyan and Sivaji.  He was in dazzling comic form in Anniyan, the train scene a real hoot, specifically the “Kamal Sir” comment!

After being prolific for a few years, his output in films diminished at the same time that he evinced keen interest in his passion project – the Green Kalam, focused on planting trees.  In 2014, he turned in a brilliant performance in Naanthan Bala in a serious role, which was applauded by critics but was not commercially successful.  I state this because had the movie set the cash registers ringing, similar roles may have come his way.  They say, better late than never.  That is exactly what has happened with Vellai PookaL. 

There is a stupendously acted sequence in Vellai PookaL where Vivekh breaks down in the solitude of his son’s house.  I watched the film on Amazon Prime.  I would have loved to have watched this in the theater; I can wager a bet worth the film ticket that there would have been pin-drop silence during and applause after the end of this sequence.  His dialogue delivery is as refined as it has ever been, the power of lines like the "Test match" line being brought to life by the actor with a conviction of his own.  Vellai PookaL has received several encomiums from critics and fans alike.  I hope that this film kicks off the next phase of Vivekh’s career.  Of course, it takes many a perceptive filmmaker to be the “drawing master” to help chalk out a new path in support of an actor and comedian par excellence.  And they need to look no further than Vellai PookaL for a testament of his immense ability.  

Friday, June 14, 2019

Beyond the Laughs - A tribute to 'Crazy' Mohan

I had the pleasure of driving 'Crazy' Mohan, 'Maadhu' Balaji and their troupe member Vasu back from a staging of “Chocolate Krishna” during their visit to the US in 2012.  In this play, as fans know, he played the titular role of Lord Krishna.  En route home, he glanced at the GPS in my car, turned to his brother and said, “GPS na God Positioning System.  HE will guide us in the right direction as long as we follow him unquestioningly!”  That moment was so symptomatic of the man.  He could conjure a pun out of nowhere.  He could create a joke out of nothing.  In another instance, we were driving through AVM Studios at a time when the AVM family was going through a partitioning of familial assets.  Looking at a huge wall erected in the middle of the studio, he quipped, “Chettiar kattina studio la paaru.  Great Wall of China maadhiri idhu Great Wall of Naina!”  But to those that knew him well, he was a lot deeper than the hilarity suggested.  The moniker of ‘crazy’ fit his screen persona well.  It even fit his happy-go-lucky real-life personality.  But he was deeper than that.  A lot deeper.

Hilarity – that was the gift that God bestowed on him. 
Loyalty - that was the gift he bestowed on his family and friends. 
Artistry – that came so naturally to him that you almost got the feeling that his paintings painted themselves. (Balaji once joked on Koffee with Anu, “Chinna vayasula avan paint adichathuku aprama naanga sevutha paint adikanum!”)
Poetry - that is where his deep piety shone like a newly polished diamond.  One of his most masterful poems was the following:

Paiyyan Mannai Thindraal Veiyyathe…
VaaykuL Paar…
Vaiyyam Theriyaavitaal aiyyame illai…
Nee Yashodhai Alla…

That last line is gorgeously understated and loaded at once.  Every child being akin to God has never been more profoundly expressed.  Over the past decade or so, he decreased his output for theater and cinema.  But he had elevated himself to another plane – his poetry, which often dwelled on spirituality, became his forte.  In his style, we could say, “Munaadi Drama, Ippo RAma!”

One of his best speeches:

In my interactions with him, he has always emanated the kind of sweetness and warm vibes that mark the best of his plays.  I have seen him enjoy the simple pleasures of life like the spontaneous hug of a child or a well-prepared cup of coffee.  His needs were as basic as his thinking was advanced.  His demeanor was as simple as his mistaken-identity screenplays were complex.  His ego was as miniscule as the monuments of his talents were huge.   Alas, the span of his life was as short as his character stands tall.  But in this hour of grief, it behooves us to reflect, internalize and spread the joy that he gave us. 

Joy he gave us aplenty.  For a kid born in Chennai in the early 80s, audio cassettes of his plays were a constant fixture in the house.  I vividly remember my Aunt and I listening to “Return of Crazy Thieves” and rewinding the tape to the immortal “B.A. Paashandi” line numerous times till the tape wore out!  On stage, I remember marveling at the ingenious structures of his play where the plot unraveled in hilariously unpredictable ways.  People wax eloquent about his dialogues but if you think deeper about his plays, the plots were deliciously convoluted sans any confusion.  The eye doctor clinic sequence in “Madhil mel maadhu” is a case in point.  What is absolutely magical is that the entire sequence plays out so well even on just audio even though there is plenty happening in the scene with multiple characters entering and exiting the scene.  He had complete command over the medium which is why it rankles me when people dismiss humorous plays as ‘thunuku thoranam’ (string of jokes).  His was a fertile mind that combined intricate plotting with inimitably witty dialogue and it behooves discerning critics to give credit where it is due.

His writing for movies peaked with his collaborations with Kamal Haasan.  If you think about it, Kamal’s films up until “Aboorva SahodharargaL” (his first collaboration with Mohan, in 1989) never had the kind of zaniness that we were going to witness in the next 15 years up until 2004 with “Vasool Raja” which was the last of their credited combinations. (Mohan was heavily involved in the scripting of subsequent efforts like “Dasavatharam.”) Kamal understood the breadth and depth of Mohan’s talents and contributed handsomely as an actor and screenplay writer.  Their synergy was the stuff of legends.  And in “Michael Madana Kamarajan,” “Avvai Shanmugi” “Sathi Leelavathi” and other comic classics, we have to reflect on how even if the creator dies, the imprints left by the ink of his pen never dries.

But to me, Mohan gained true immortality with not any of his Kamal collaborations but with “Aaha,” which, to me, was his best work as a screen writer.  Some of his collaborations with Kamal Hassan have probably resulted in even bigger laughs.  But "Aaha" remains very special.  I think I know why.  The other movies made me laugh, yes.  But “Aaha” is the movie that makes me smile.  It is not a nuance; there is a world of difference.  This movie was sweet but not syrupy.  Every smile is well-earned.  Every tear is worth shedding.  And the dialogues play no small part in this respect, especially Banupriya’s interactions with Rajiv Krishna.  Even the advice-laden lines like the cute scene in the supermarket are laced with Mohan’s witty lines.  And beyond the smiles, there are, of course, some big laughs in “Aaha.”  Famous for his imaginative, witty puns, Mohan’s writing is in top gear here.  Be it the “pul tharai…puliyotharai” comment, the “bar attached, nee detached” remark or the hilarious “thayir vadai” joke, the laughs are fast and frenetic.  But the biggest laughs come in…of all scenes, a death scene.  The exchange that the Thatha has with Delhi Ganesh has so many laughs that the ink in Mohan’s pen probably had a tough time keeping pace with his flow of thoughts!  It is deeply saddening to think that the writer who made us laugh in a death scene is now making us shed tears with his own final journey. 

Highlights from the highlight of his film career - "Aaha"

Of all the scenes that featured in his movies, the one scene that I wish were to be replicated in life would be the last scene of “Aaha” where the eldest brother, thought to have passed away, appears in the house much to the shock and joy of his family members.  Of course, that’s wishful thinking.  But it is certainly something that reminds us of the imperfections of life and the gratifications of art.  It also reminds us of how the God Positioning System takes us in paths that we find hard not to question.  But with HIS untimely demise, all we can do is to treat him as the one whose values we espouse, to chalk out our own path.  And that GPS will never, ever fail to guide us in the right direction.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Worship the Art: Thoughts on the Ilayaraja controversy and idol worship

The irony of the title will not be lost on those that know me.  I am one of the most passionate movie buffs that you will have the pleasure of knowing – many may say, ‘pain of enduring’ but let me look at the full half of the glass!  But I don't always stop with just watching the films.  I have, through contacts, persistence, serendipity or a combination of all of these, met a considerable number of film folks from writers to directors to actors.  The root cause of this urge to reach out to them is the fact that their art gives me tremendous joy.  Movies and music are a very important part of my life.  A few years ago, ‘Crazy’ Mohan offered a profound, even moving explanation of humor and its role in society.  He opined that the profundity of novelists, intellectuals and social workers were all akin to a surgery that was performed by these social doctors on society; humor was the anesthesia.  By itself, it may not have intrinsic value but without it, surgery is impossible.  In a way, movies are the anesthesia for my life.  As much as it is the intention of filmmakers to evoke a reaction, visceral or cerebral, movies are a parallel stream of consciousness.  They exist on a different plane.  Yet they are a calming influence that help me keep myself centered.  And what about the people that create this parallel universe for me?  Are they akin to God?

For creators, being deified is not only an honor but also a burden.  But in a lot of cases, they only have themselves to blame.  There are very few filmmakers in Tamil cinema who consciously avoid the spotlight or the public adulation (Mani Ratnam is a case in point).  Some like singer Chinmayi utilize social media to make themselves accessible to people, especially for important social causes like the #MeToo movement.  But a lot of celebrities live off the idol worship, the sycophancy, the constant shower of praise, some empty.  They believe that their prima donna behaviors are a natural byproduct of their genius.  That civility, empathy and respect are all things that people can pray for but not expect from them the way they can of lesser mortals.  In here lies the dilemma that we fan(atic)s face – we have a choice.  We can choose our boundaries.  We can choose to keep the art at an arm’s length and the artist at a barge pole’s length.  And to point of this write-up, we can choose the subject of our worship –the art or the artist?  Alas, the inexorable pull of the medium can be too hard to resist for some.  And yes, I admit – I have had my challenges too!

The recent video of Ilayaraja acting in a rude, insensitive manner towards a security person during his concert should not come as any surprise.  I am not going to delve into the rights and wrongs of his behavior.  The poor security officer was in a state of shock.  Singer Mano stepped into defuse the situation but not before gesturing to the officer to fall at Ilayaraja’s feet!  Of course, the officer didn’t have to.  He could have stated his rationale and exited the stage.  But it is impossible to imagine the pressure he must have felt in front of a humungous crowd, standing next to a man who is worshipped as a God, hailed as a king of music.  The ‘God’ gave evidence that he is just a human being, with his own flaws and foibles. 

I have had several memorable exchanges with filmmakers and actors.  I have been mesmerized and awestruck to be in their presence.  I have had mostly pleasant interactions.  In some instances like with Director Vasanth, I have had longstanding friendships that sprouted from my love of their art.  But there have been other instances – I will not mention names – where I have seen the subjects of my adoration behave or say things that have rubbed me off the wrong way.  I have simply distanced myself from them.  I know of friends who cannot stand to watch the film of a much-respected artist whose actions and behaviors (in real life) left a bitter taste – Woody Allen is a case in point.  It is a very, very valid choice - after all, we have to respect our instinctive reactions in such cases.  Others go to the other extreme, ignoring these things completely with a laser focus on the art itself.  They have even made public statements to this effect.  I find myself somewhere in the middle.  I certainly don’t think that a work of art can or should obscure unacceptable behaviors.  But the truth remains that I can watch (or listen to) the creations without the ghosts of the creators’ dark sides looming over me.  After all, it is the art that gives me joy. 

It is the art that moves me.  It is the art that uplifts me.  The artists come second.  If I know some of them and they are nice to me, that is an added bonus, a privilege that I don’t take for granted.  But by the same token, I think that celebrities have responsibility too.  Let me hasten to add that I am not about to act as moral police.  All I am saying is that they cannot assume that the adoration of their art must co-exist with a condoning of their behaviors.  They don’t have to act or sound angelic.  But the written and unwritten rules of societal interaction apply to them too.  But as long as we deify them, we will continue to unwittingly imply that they are the exception to these rules.  So, as fans, I think we must empower ourselves to create a healthy distance from creators while knowing that if we want to get any closer, we are subconsciously signing up to take risks that come with the territory.  That, I think, will be a lot easier than to sit back and expect celebrities to mend their ways and act in ways that stack up to the heights that their art take us to.  After all, the parallel universe that they create for us is easier to enter into and exit from.  If we only remember that while they may have created it, we own it now!