Friday, September 20, 2019

The one-day champ – Reflections on Shankar’s Mudhalvan

Realistic fantasy.  That was the title of my review of Shankar's Mudhalvan when I wrote it 20 years ago.  His realistic fantasy trifecta of that decade – Gentleman, Indian and Mudhalvan – all sprouted from wishful thinking of some sort.  Free education for all, corruption free society, a squeaky-clean government.  But apart from the grandeur, what truly made the films work was Shankar’s eye for detailing.  As his stories took fantastic flight, his screenplays grounded his characters.  In Indian, what you remember is not Indian Thatha flying out of an exploding airplane and looking dapper in a suit in the next scene!  What still makes the film work are elements like the superbly written investigation scenes, the inventiveness of and research behind the varma kalai and so on.  This balance was achieved in superlative fashion in Mudhalvan.  A story of a ‘one-day CM’ – a brilliant conceit in itself – was brought to life with some sizzling dialogue, a fast-paced but intricately detailed screenplay and memorable performances, especially by the antagonist.

I did enjoy parts of Anniyan, Sivaji and the first installment of Endhiran.  But none of those film stack up to the painstaking believability that Shankar infused into this film.  In comparison, these other films come across as lazily written.  In MudhalvanShankar sucked you into the story so powerfully that he didn’t, for a moment, seem like he was requiring us to suspend disbelief.  Three extended sequences stand testimony to this – the riots, the interview scene and the one day for which Arjun assumes the post of Chief Minister.

The riots are sparked off by a seemingly innocuous but testy exchange between a bus driver and a student.  The way it snowballs into a humongous law and order issue is shot with immense sure-footedness, utilizing a documentary-style, hand-held cinematography by KV Anand.  The way the Chief Minister exercises his authority (“No arrest, no tear gas!”) is as believable as it is scary.  Even the use of graphics to evoke the traffic jam is purposefully done as opposed to some of the laughable gimmickry that Shankar has indulged in his recent films.  The ‘effects’, in essence, are in service of the story, not the other way.

The interview sequence, which runs for more than 10 minutes, was, is and will always be a showcase for the virtuoso villain Raghuvaran.  This was during a phase of his career where he looked very healthy (and not the weak, gaunt self he was in his final film Yaaradi Nee Mohini).  It added gloss to his persona, which was unmistakably majestic, something that served this movie very well indeed.  The casual arrogance, the authority, the bit of fear when is caught red-handed, the subsequent throwing of the gauntlet, Raghuvaran nails them all.  As much as the dialogue aids him, this entire sequence is a lesson in body language.  The way he gets out of the car and nods to the policeman who opens the door, the dismissive way he asks, “Thambi paeru?”, the explanation of a Chief Minister's responsibilities, are all delivered with his trademark panache.  Note the condescending, almost teacher-like gesticulation while he renders the thirukuraL couplet (“Agalaadhu anugaadhu…”).  Compare this with the spineless characterizations and the inept performances of the antagonists in Shankar’s recent films and you will see the stark difference.  They just don’t make them like Raghuvaran anymore.

The interview sequence:

And finally, the events of the one day that Arjun gets to be Chief Minister.  As far fetched as some of his ideas are, script writer Sujatha’s considerable effort to include crisp, minute detail lends credibility to the grandiose ideas.  The sales tax payments, the “Hello CM” TV show – after all, Arjun works for a TV Channel - and the “omnibus order” that Arjun suggests for the en masse job suspensions.  All of this ensure that we watch the events unfold with a kind of edge-of-the-seat thrill that we would experience in a positive dream.  In the present day of horrendous governance in the state, Mudhalvan seems fresh and relevant, which is sad in a way!

One-day CM in action:

The rocket-like pace of the first half of Mudhalvan meant that the second half had an impossible height to stack up to.  And structurally too, the end of the first half was a climax in itself with the arrest of Raghuvaran.  As a result, the second half suffers from having to almost restart a story where the one day’s dream becomes a reality.  And it doesn’t pack nearly as much punch as the first half.  There are very few moments when the intelligence of the director comes to the fore, the short and sweet conclusion of the movie being one.  And the listless romance, one of Shankar’s enduring weaknesses, drags the film down further.  But the momentum of the first 80 minutes leaves us with such a high that the significantly weaker latter portions don’t derail the movie totally.  But the slower second half does seem akin to the gingerly movements of a lander as it nears a lunar surface.

Writer Sujatha, Raghuvaran and Manivannan have all passed on, relatively young too.  All of them contributed handsomely to the success of this film like they did to advance Tamil cinema in their own way.  The film fanatic’s heart aches for these trailblazers.  But such is the magic of the medium that they live on in the silver screen, their stamps very much indelible.  That Shankar worked with such a monstrously talented team and shepherded them in the direction of his goals, betray a thinking leader at work.  As a fan of Shankar’s early works, I hope that he recovers the ground that he has lost in the past decade, his big budget extravaganzas not withstanding.  Shankar’s canvas has grown manifold but the clarity of the sketch seen in Mudhalvan has rarely been replicated.   

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Scents of Kindness

A while ago, I wrote an article titled, “Six of a kind” where I elaborated on a few ways in which people have touched my life.  In a recent conversation, I was recollecting a simple meal that I had enjoyed at a cousin’s place in the early nineties.  I don’t even know if it qualifies as a story or even an anecdote.  But hang in here with me.  My reliving memories of that meal brought back a rather warm, fuzzy feeling of belonging that my cousin’s grandpa gave me.  As I look back, some memories give me a rather good feeling about the people that I am blessed with.  Without further ado, let me zone in on a few such transient yet indelible - indelible, at least for me - moments, starting with, of course, Mr. Gopalan.

Mr. Gopalan – That was my cousin’s grandpa’s name.  He was a self-made man, an extremely successful professional who lived in a luxurious home in the posh Poes Garden neighborhood in Chennai.  From what I remember of him, he was always impeccably dressed and had a very soft, dignified demeanor.  Their home had a large wooden, oval-shaped dining table where he and his wife had hosted many a sumptuous meal.  There was this one time in the early 90s when he had on his plate warm white rice with some ghee on it.  When I thought that he was going to start mixing some sambar (lentil curry) as is customary, he simply mixed the ghee with the rice and started eating.  When I curiously asked him about it, he gently smiled and asked, “Haven’t you eaten nei saadham (ghee rice)?”  When I responded with a bit of a blank (aka dumb) stare, he said, “Try it along with me – I am sure you will like it.”  And my cousins and I all enjoyed the meal with him.  I don’t think I ever became a fan of nei saadham.  But the taste of his kindness lingers.

Leg spin is injurious to health – Familiar readers of this blog will recognize my CT (my nickname for my grandpa’s brother, lest you think I am referring to a scan!).  I would like to think that I love cricket more than it loves me.  As hard as I tried, I don’t think I was ever great at the game.  But I surely did, and continue to, enjoy the thrill of bowling.  Despite my sizable girth, I was quite a useful medium-pace bowler.  But if you were a cricket fan in the 90s, the only two Indian bowlers that gave you sustained joy were Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath.  Unhappy with my ability to successfully ape Srinath, I thought to myself, “Why not try and imitate the other fellow from Karnataka?”  Easy peasy?  Yeah right!  But never one to give up easily, I practiced quite hard.  After a few days, I was determined to show off my newly acquired skill – my keyboard just protested at me for using the word ‘skill’ – to my CT.  So off I went on a Sunday morning to their place.  They had this long passage adjoining their house – cricket pitch, surely?  I brought him, my Chinna Paati and their daughter outside and started bowling.  At first, he was wondering if the only thing spinning was my head.  But he egged me on to bowl more.  I did, for an hour-and-a-half.  When we then went into their house, I was writhing in pain.  My shoulder hurt terribly – damn you Kumble for your 619 wickets!  CT immediately took out an ointment and massaged my shoulder for a good 15 minutes while encouraging me to continue bowling the way I enjoyed.  He surely didn’t have to.  But he did.  I never became a Kumble.  Then again, did Kumble have a CT?  I hope so but I doubt!

Happy Holidays – A couple of years back, I changed jobs within my company.  I had gotten the news in early December.  I promptly called my mentor in Chennai to share this with her and seek her blessings.  As we were wrapping up the conversation, I told her that I was looking forward to the 10-day winter break as an opportunity to unwind.  With her customary thoughtfulness, she actually spoke about what my break from work meant to my wife.  She said, “This 10-day break is when you will be home during the day.  So, it will hopefully be a good break for her too, from her routine.”  I still remember how the seemingly casual remark made me think a little deeper about how I had been self-centered in my comment and how she gently opened my eyes and tacitly urged me to be a little less focused on the self.  My physics teacher surely knows a thing or two about reflection!  (Happy Teacher’s Day, Aunty.)

Murali, it’s time to leave – One of the gifts that his favorite Almighty has bestowed upon my Dad is a set of friends who truly care about his health.  Until a few years ago, he had a cavalier disregard for his health despite being a diabetic.  Sleep was optional.  Meals were taken only when his stomach screamed like an irate Bigg Boss participant.  His good friend Sandip Bose Mullick had seen a lot of this.  When we visited London in 2002, my Dad took me to Sandip Uncle’s house.  We had a lovely evening at their place, replete with a rather delicious North-Indian meal prepared by his wife.  If his wife exhibited tender sisterly affection towards my Dad, Sandip Uncle was Mr. Tough Love.  Knowing my Dad’s erratic sleeping habits, he said to him, “Murali, I know we are all having a good time.  But you should catch the next train and go get some sleep.”  When his wife asked him to maybe consider being a little more polite, he retorted, “No, he will just compromise on his sleep.  He just won’t take care of his health unless I force him.”  In the same breath, he looked at my Dad and said, “Murali, go use the rest room if you need to!  We’ll leave in 10 minutes to the station!”  On the train ride back to the hotel, my Dad was waxing eloquent about the kindness and hospitality of Sandip Uncle’s wife.  I interrupted him and responded, “Yes, I agree.  But Appa, don’t take for granted Sandip Uncle’s thoughtfulness either.”  I don’t think he did, but I just wanted to be doubly sure!

Sit next to me – A favorite utterance of many elderly folks that I know is, “En pakkathula okkaru. (Sit next to me.)”  Some might say it for practical reasons because their hearing isn’t top notch – blame it on the transistors that they held to their ears too closely- but I find the way they say this to be incredibly sweet.  In 2005, I had flown to India to attend my friend’s wedding.  Minutes after I entered the marriage hall, my friend told me that his maternal grandma wanted to speak with me.  Usually people wanted to speak with me when I had committed a mistake!  But this was different.  His grandma was seated on a bench as I approached her.  When my friend introduced me to her, she smiled luminously and actually thanked me for “coming all the way from America.”  After inquiring about my travel and my family, she then said to me and my friend, “Ipdiye irungo.” (A poor, literal translation would be, “Be the same way.”)  As I recall this, I am grinning ear to ear, thinking of how it was a mix of a blessing and advice conveyed in all of two words.  Oh, and by the way, she did say, “En pakkathula okkaru.”