Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Ninaivellam Nineties - Top Trends in Tamil Cinema in the 1990s

Chathriyan.  Michael Madana Kamarajan.  Chinna Thambi.  Devar Magan.  Roja.  Amaidhi Padai.  Naatamai.  Baasha.  Aasai.  Indian.  Kaadhal Koattai.  Aaha.  Mudhalvan.  Sethu. 

How about that for variety?  The 90s was a decade when, as I look back, there was an embarrassment of riches for Tamil movie lovers.  Sun TV and several other TV channels would make a significant impact on entertainment media in general.  But a lot of quality filmmakers churned out films at a fairly fast clip when compared the serious filmmakers and major heroes of today.  But this was also a decade that probably led to Kumaravel’s hilariously perceptive line (in Azhagiye Theeye) about Tamil cinema – “Thamizh naatula mattum than da Xerox copy ku kooda kai thatuvaange!”  Thankfully some classics like Devar Magan were mercifully spared of the ignominy of poor imitations.  But many successful films of that decade would spawn a ‘trend.’  The resultant films would invariably range from well-crafted films that just followed a genre template to lazily done rehashes of the same core material.  Without further ado, let me list a few seminal films and trends of that decade.  Not all the films listed are cinematic classics per se.  But they were important films of that decade in their own way.

The Country ComaLi
Chinna Thambi was probably the best thing that happened to Prabhu…and the worst.  The film featured a titular character who didn’t have a clue about nuptial knots – I suppose he was the original ComaLi!  As preposterous as the theme was, the film was a runaway success that gave tremendous commercial impetus to the careers of Prabhu and Khushboo.  But it also led to several films set in the village featuring rural plebeians overcoming domineering antagonists - Radha Ravi made quite a career out of these roles!  And what was lost for the most part (save the occasional Duet) was the inherent urbanity of Prabhu, which was quite delightful to watch on screen.  In fact, I remember watching Vasu’s Senthamizh Paatu where Sukanya and Prabhu gave each other stiff competition as they reached for the freezing end of the IQ spectrum.  Several of these films were redeemed to a large extent by some scintillating musical scores.  For your listening pleasure, here is one of my favorite numbers from that decade:

Rags to riches, Riches to rags
I am trying to think if it was Rajnikanth or Vikraman that led to this series of films where a rousing 5-minute song was all that it took for a hero’s bank balance to skyrocket. (Thamizh Padam featured an uproarious spoof of this conceit.)  While some of these films were earnest and others featured convincing transformative character arcs, this trend became a tiresome routine.  Even as recent as Lingaa (2014), you could witness huge swings in the financial pendulum of the hero. 

The jury is out…under a tree!
One of the most genially spoofed lines in Tamil cinema is, “Naatamai...theerpa maathi chollu,” uttered by ‘Erode’ Soundar in KS Ravikumar’s 1994 film.  Films such as Vedham Pudhidhu, Chinna Counder and Devar Magan had already featured well-written, deftly staged ‘panchayat’ scenes.  But it was not until Naatamai that this type of scene became truly a rage.  I will leave it to you to decide if this sequence has aged well.  But it is safe to say that Coimbatore was to the 90s what Madurai (post Paruthi Veeran) was to 2000s Tamil cinema.

A don by any other name
Pudhiya Paadhai (1989) set the template for an antihero in the first half turning over a new leaf in the second.  But the granddaddy of all templates was born on Pongal day in 1995 when we first got hints that auto driver Manickam might have another name.  The gradual escalation in tension leading to a spectacularly explosive intermission point, in turn, led to a second half where we got to see the Don Baasha.  Scores of films followed this style of storytelling.  But the impact achieved by Baasha has been quite impossible to surpass or even match.  The first of its kind is always special, I suppose. 

Vigilante to a T
If ever a schema for a screenplay has been followed dutifully by its creator (Shankar) and other filmmakers until the present day, it is the vigilante justice plot lines drawn for Gentleman back in 1993.  To lend credence to Kumaravel's line, even the titles would be similar - if Shankar made Indian, Saravana Subbiah made Citizen.  Last I heard, a hardcore Shankar fan is making a film against Trump's foreign policies titled, Permanent Resident.  Just kidding.  But don't be surprised if my words ever come true.

“Solli Kadhal…Solaama Kadhal…Solliyum Sollama Kadhal”
The quote above is from Kandukonden… where Mammootty gives an aspiring filmmaker (Ajith) tips on what type of film to make.  This witty line written by Sujatha crisply summarizes the last four years of the 1990s when ‘different’ love stories were in vogue.  It all started with Kadhal Koattai.  Of course, the movie would never work now in an age where nobody writes letters anymore and cellphones are omnipresent.  But in 1996, the film certainly worked wonders, especially the second half where Ajith and Devyani keep bumping into each other without realizing that they have corresponded through letters earlier.  The movie was a blockbuster and won national awards.  What happened next?  A heroine became obsessed with the eyes of the hero (Nee Varuvay Yena…), a hero would sever his tongue (I wish that was a typo but you know, Sollamale exists), a heroine would scream into a telephone in the middle of a hospital ward (the climax of Kaalamellam Kadhal Vazhga….), a guy would search for a girl with a mole on her navel (Ninaithen Vandhai)  Which one of these was most preposterous?  I would vote for the following scene:

Models of Song Picturizations
If the commercial films of the 80s invariably included glamorous dance numbers featuring actresses like Silk Smitha, the 90s were the era of models from the north.  Mani Ratnam’s films had featured actresses like Kuyili, Shantipriya and then models like Sonu Walia and Anu Agarwal in foot tapping numbers.  Shankar, in his song sequences, starting with Gentleman up until now, uses and occasionally abuses special effects like a kid in a toy store.  One of the best song sequences of the 90s, even accounting for the tacky graphics in the end, was the Akkada song in Indian.  The costumes (by Sarika for Kamal Hassan and Manish Malhotra for Urmila) and photography (by Jeeva) were done with a kind of panache that has gradually faded out of Shankar’s song picturizations over time. 

Switching Tracks
In the past couple of decades, comedy has been mostly integrated into the core story of films, with comedians mostly acting as a friend of the hero.  But in the 90s, the comedians mostly had a separate track that had a tenuous link to the main plot.  Coundamani and Senthil had many a memorable track in the first half of the decade while Manivannan was the numero one among the funny men post the release of Ullathai Allitha.  Several comedy tracks come to mind but one of the most beloved sequences is the one from Suriyan, which featured what has become a stock phrase in colloquial Tamil – “arasiyal la idhelaam saadharnamappa!”

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Flash-forward Thirty Years

I am good friends with a septuagenarian.  Despite an age gap that exceeds 30 years, I have often found that he and I can strike meaningful conversations about family, friendships, films, politics and so on.  But most importantly, there is a kindred spirit, shared values and similar perspectives on the relationships that matter most.  I have shared his anger against hypocrisy and his lack of tolerance for unprincipled people.  When I would sometimes reflect on my conversations with him, I would sheepishly grin at myself.  For sensing loads of righteousness in the way he spoke and wondering whether I was seeing a bit of myself in him and vice versa!  Three decades on, would I want to be perceived by a 38-year old the way I perceive him now?  The answer is certainly more nuanced than a simple yes or no. 

A double-edged sword that I take out of my mental scabbard often is my inflexibility with certain core values.  Just like how obsessive-compulsive people get a comfort out of a certain routine, I find tremendous inner comfort with the familiar rhythms of my mind.  There are certain beliefs that I have on topics like honesty, gratitude, empathy, relevancy and priority where I haven’t quite changed with age.  I embrace change, ambiguity and uncertainty in my professional life in an equanimous manner – I know that and have received enough positive feedback on the same.  But there are things in my personal life that I value so passionately and guard so vociferously that the ‘comfort’ I mentioned earlier comes at such a great cost that any inward-facing victory would seem pyrrhic. 

As I have mentioned in several write-ups, professor Sheena Iyengar did me a great service by urging me to “be choosy about choosing” in order to choose well.  As a result, I know that my obsessions are few but deep.  I have seen some people admire the constancy of character that they have witnessed in me over the years.  I have equally witnessed others - or sometimes, the same people! -  driven to frustration that I have stayed put when the sizes of the circles of trust and relative positions have evolved over time.  And I find that okay because I know that for my part, I am making an effort to “choose” my priorities or inflexibilities in a reasonably thoughtful manner.  And there are several elements of personal development such as anger management, listening empathetically and acting with purposeful awareness where I know that constant evolution is a must.  I don’t let mental inertia stymie personal growth in those aspects.  So, a refusal to change, in essence, is something that I restrict to a few areas.  And I am almost certain that the elderly gentleman thinks of himself this way!

I am sure that he wonders, in silence and aloud, why people begrudge his occasional refusal to budge when in fact, he moves with much mental alacrity most of the time.  But having interacted with him, I know the one area where I want to be different from him.  I want to be happier with the choices I make.  I don’t think he quite is at the level of peace where he wants to be.  As he takes gingerly steps in the twilight of his life, he looks back at the path traversed and the people that have disappeared from sight with a mixture of sadness and anger.  As a result of looking back too much, his steps forward are a lot less surefooted than his intelligence deserves.  In essence, a corollary to what Professor Iyengar says would be, ‘Be choosy about choosing.  Once the choices are made, be choosy about how you react to the consequences of those choices.’ 

When I reach his age, I hope to make the world brighter in a small way for the ones that have trusted me enough to spend time with me, listen to me, share my pains with generosity and theirs with graciousness.  And along the way, we hopefully share some laughs too.  After all, a soul rests in peace only when the life that preceded it is lived with inner harmony.