Thursday, December 31, 2020

Big Shoes to Fill - A tribute to my dear friend Dhyans

When some people pass on, I get the strong, unshakeable feeling that the ideal person that could nurture me through the grieving process is that person itself. The magnitude of the loss and enormity of the vacuum created by them are so large that only that person – in their absence, their memories – will help gradually fill the void over time. That is exactly how I feel now that my friend since second grade has left me prematurely, irreversibly. While people’s views on death might be variable, could we agree at the outset that 40 is no age to go?

Ramadhyani Narayanan – Dhyans, to me - was an incredibly important person in my life. We were classmates in Chennai from 2nd grade till the 11th. After we finished school (1998), we had never lived in the same city. Our respective journeys took us to places such as Memphis, Irvine, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Hyderabad, Dubai, Mumbai and so on. Never were we in any of those cities together except for when we visited each other in a couple of these places. I don’t know if the lack of proximity in fact made us more ‘responsible’ as friends. We never, ever lost touch with one another. Through our respective life experiences - joys, lows, unfettered elation, unbearable despair – I just knew that there was this fellow that I could always count on. And let me hasten to add, this was a comfort that he gave me even before technological conveniences such as Whatsapp existed.

The Dhyans that I befriended in 2nd grade was not the Dhyans that I interacted with recently. Of course not, you might think. He was 7 then. He turned 40 this year. What I meant was that I have had the sheer luxury of seeing different faces of this marvelous person over the different phases of our lives. He has, at different times, been an impish guy, a happy-go-lucky chap, a daredevil, a risk taker, an insouciant fellow and, in recent times, an incredibly mature, thoughtful person whom I could turn to for measured, personalized advice on any topic. The golden thread that tied the different knots in the story of our life had been his understated affection and immense kindness. He was incapable of meanness. Read that line again. The guy did not have an unkind bone in his body. And if you knew that, his ‘what you see is what you get’ approach to relationships was impossibly endearing, never infuriating.

Two stories that I shall share will hopefully reveal both the lighter side and the more thoughtful side of Dhyans.

The first one happened in November 2005 when we had gone to a mutual friend’s wedding reception in Bangalore. We had traveled as a big gang by train to Bangalore. And while returning, only the two of us were traveling. We had never traveled by air together and we decided to indulge ourselves. The morning of the return flight, instead of preparing to go to the airport, we went to the open ground in our friend’s apartment complex to play cricket! We knew that we were cutting it close but how could we possibly miss a game of cricket? We didn’t.

I am happy to report that I was the first to signal that we were behind the eight ball - not in terms of run rate in the game that we lost - in terms of preparing for our air travel. Dhyans could care less. Not only did he want us to finish the game but also insisted that we eat the piping hot breakfast that our friend’s Mom had lovingly prepared for us. Bangalore road traffic and two hours later, “Boarding closed, gentlemen” was the unambiguous verdict from the airline official. Did that faze Dhyans? Nope. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Vidra, train pidichikalaam!” And off we went to the train station and hopped onto a train whose every junk food item we tasted by the time we reached Chennai hours later. In hindsight, I am just glad that I got to spend six hours with him on the train rather than one on the flight. Life is too short to not be shared enough, you know.

The second story that I would like to share is from 2018. My grandma was in a bedridden state following a massive heart attack. I was seeing Dhyans after a few years. He mentioned to me that he would come to my place at a certain time. I had stepped out only to return a little late. Dhyans was already at my place. I saw his big boots outside the house but couldn’t spot him in our living room. A few seconds later, I saw him by my grandma’s side, gently giving her palms a massage because she had been experiencing excruciating pain. It is not just the gesture that touched me but the casual, unfussy style in which he said, “Dey, Thathama thinks that your massage is no good!” And he turned towards my grandma asking for her confirmation, which she happily gave him. And for the rest of that trip of mine, whenever Dhyans was in the house, he was my grandma’s unofficial physical therapist, exhorting her to do stretching exercises in his absence and assuring her that she would convalesce. She didn’t recover, passing away two months later. But the fact is that Dhyans had alleviated her pain in a manner only he could. Did I say he wore big shoes? Yes, not shoes that can be filled easily.

I constantly complain how the saturation of social media makes us want to just shed spotlight on the peaks of our lives. Dhyans never had time for that kind of superficial brandishing. He was much too deep for that. He wanted to share with and partake in the heights and depths of people whom he trusted. And what more, he extended that kindness to my entire family as well, not just my grandma.

I am grateful you existed, Dhyans. You were one of a kind. Thank you for being there with me and for me till your last day. You know, I could get through this phase better only if you were here.

Rest in peace, my friend, my well-wisher, my brother.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Tamil (Film) Matrimony: A light read on wedding scenes in Tamil Cinema

Courtrooms.  Train Stations.  Wedding Halls.  These three are arguably the oft-visited locations for climactic sequences in Tamil movies since its inception.  I suppose that in their own way, they give writers and directors a setting to heighten the dramatic tension.  A while ago, I had written about the different ways in which trains had been utilized in the movies.  It’s time to show wedding sequences the same love.  As I began to reflect on wedding scenes in Tamil movies, I realized that they spanned the gamut from sublime to hilarious to downright ridiculous.  Hop on.  Let’s take a fun ride to a wild variety of settings – caves, churches, temples and more!

The hilarious:

Sundar C has had a checkered career, headlined by some undisputed comedy classics like Ullathai Allitha but also marred by clunkers like Action and Ambala.  Janakiraman is a rather hilarious but sadly forgotten comedy film of his.  The wedding sequence is an extremely well-choreographed farce, with some rib-tickling lines, my favorite being Manivannan’s exasperated comments to the priest.

The ridiculous:

If you were an ardent Tamil movie fan, you would have seen this coming.  Chinna Thambi would sing in a dulcet voice for every occasion from a baby’s birth to an oil bath. (I am being factual, not facetious.  The situation for the “Uchanthala” song was three muscular men taking an oil bath!)  Yet the guy ties the sacred thread around the heroine’s neck but doesn’t realize that he is marrying her.  If you find this sequence unintentionally funny, for a real skewering, you must check out S Ve Sekar’s spoof, Periathambi.)

The dramatic:

From Vidinja Kalyanam to Thaali Pudhusu, there are films that extend the wedding connection right up to the title.  Scores of films over the decades have utilized the wedding hall setting for dramatic impact.  The dialogue-less climax of AvaL oru Thodarkathai is a masterful piece of direction by K Balachander.  But to me the ‘dramatic’ wedding scene that I find to be the best staged and the most touching is the one directed by his disciple Suresh Krissna, in Aahaa.  The wedding takes place in a house, not a wedding hall.  Every character, big or small, gets an opportunity to shine.  Sometimes, true, enduring beauty lies in minutiae.  Among all the beautifully written vignettes, the Thatha’s inquiry to the hero is a luminous gem of a moment that is as unexpected as it is poignant. 

The coolest:

Strains of Mangalyam Thandhuna… has accompanied many a wedding but when it’s set to tune by AR Rahman, directed by Mani Ratnam and captured by PC Sreeram, it is hard to find something cooler.  A surreptitious wedding has never made one grin harder than the one in Alaipayuthey. 

The romantic:

When the wedding guest Kamal Hassan hollers, “NANCY!” at a church in the middle of Nancy's wedding, you know that her bridegroom doesn’t stand a chance.  He didn’t!  Of course, the girl eloped in full view of her family and the guests! 

I know that this scene is a straight lift from The Graduate.   Nevertheless, the charming screen presence of Kamal Haasan, ably supported by LV Prasad and Y Gee Mahendra, makes this a truly special finish to a delightfully sweet romance.  Raja Paarvai didn’t get the love that it deserved at the time of its release.  But 39 years later, the film has aged as gracefully as its lead actor.

The registrar office:

I think people that get married at the registrar office owe a debt of gratitude to Tamil Cinema for showcasing it, normalizing it, even romanticizing it!  There are far too many registrar office sequences like the ones in Aboorva Sahodarargal, Aasai, Vaali and Kaadhal that have carried incredible emotional and dramatic heft.  But to my knowledge, the first ever Tamil movie scene at a registrar office was in Nenjathai Killathey.  Suhasini plays the reluctant bride-to-be.   Her brother Sarat Babu is accompanied not only by his wife but also a woman with whom he shares a platonic but misunderstood relationship.  Ashok Kumar’s framing is exquisite – the grilled window separating Sarat and the lady symbolizes an almost invisible barrier separating them.

The sublime:

Didn’t I mention a wedding in a cave?  As surreal as it may sound, it is one of the most magnificent emotional highs that I have experienced in a Kamal Haasan film.  Everything about the scene coheres.  Right from Balakumaran’s poetic explanation of “pournami” (“Manasu neranja naaL”) to Roshini’s response to Kamal’s inquiry about the rituals, everything fits into what is a perfect culmination of Guna’s inchoate yet taintless love for his ‘Abirami.’  It would have been a shame had their union been showcased in any conventional manner.  Because it is not a “manidha kaadhal” after all.

And that’s it for the year, folks.  Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Guest post, by Aleida Rosete: Escape from Cuba

In these times when we have all been exposed to family separation due to COVID, I want to share a true life experience. This is my experience and am sure that there are thousands like it that took place in the 1960s. My parents did the most unselfish thing that they could ever have done to ensure that their two precious daughters were not indoctrinated into the Communist thoughts. For, you see, my family lived in Cuba in the 1960s when Castro came to power. My parents immediately recognized that the regime was not one under which they wanted to live and not a system to bring up their daughter. They decided to process the papers to get our visas to come legally into the United States – the land where opportunity and freedom existed. 

My sister and myself were given the ability to leave Cuba; however, my parents were not granted this permission – they were to come sometime later at an unknown date. Concurrently, my godmother and her son (my cousin) had presented their papers and were granted the ability to leave the country. My sister (6 at the time) and myself (9 at the time), along with my godmother and cousin, were able to proceed with getting the departure dates ready. My parents were strong, staunch individuals (I am not sure that I would have been that strong) who took us to the airport and had to leave us to go into the “pecera” (the fish bowl) by ourselves with my godmother and cousin. They had spoken to my sister and I the night before and told us that they were not coming with us and that my sister had to listen to what I was telling her to do.  This was the day I became an adult and knew I had a real responsibility for my sister’s well-being. 

The Pan Am plane came and was being prepared for our flight to Miami. Mom and Dad would come by the “pecera” and blow kisses and hugs through the glass which, of course, we returned. We had a short flight to Miami. My godmother and cousin deserted us by the luggage carousel – can you imagine discarding two helpless little angels, not looking back to see what would happen to us. My father had a good friend in Miami who went to the airport to meet us and wondered where my godmother and cousin had gone. He and his wife were in charge of the teenage housing for one of the Catholic refuge camp that had been opened for children being sent to the US from Cuba by themselves. Thank God for their being at the airport. They were granted approval to bring us to the refuge camp and keep us under their care. This was during the celebration of Christmas (Little Kings Day), so they ensured that we celebrated as if nothing had changed. But, it had – my parents weren’t there and we had no household to claim. 

Within a week, my sister and I were given a ‘scholarship’ to a Catholic Orphanage in Ohio. Within a matter of two weeks, we had become individuals in a foreign country not knowing the customs or the language and living in an orphanage even though we were not orphans. 

We reunited with our parents much later. But that topic is for another write-up!


Ram's note - Aleida, thank you so much for sharing your deeply moving, immensely inspirational story of humanity amid adversity.  Your amazingly positive spirit is something that I shall continue to be in awe of.  Thank you for giving me the honor of posting your story for the blog.  
With much affection and admiration,

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Missed Spotlights #6 - Savitha Reddy's voice work in Parthen Rasithen

More so than has been the case with other dubbing artistes, Savitha Reddy has been one whose work has received a fair share of recognition in the past 20 years.  She shot into prominence with her astounding work behind the mic for Simran in Vaali.  Simran had essayed an incredibly complex role, that of a woman caught between an extremely good man and his twin-brother, a lustful beast.  The character’s heart was filled with love for the former and (rightful) contempt for the latter.  And Savitha’s voice had played no small role in helping bolster the impact of Simran’s performance.  But to me, the film that stands out as the best testimony of the quality and power of her work is Saran’s Parthen Rasithen. 

Parthen Rasithen is the story of two vastly different characters in love with the same man (Prashanth).  The Simran character is a feisty, fiery one, in sharp contrast to the timid Laila – Savitha dubbed for both of them!  When Simran realizes that her love is going to go unrequited, she goes about chalking out a devious plan and finally, reveals her cards at the most inopportune moment for Prashanth. 

The scene where she reveals her plan and her love for Prashanth is a memorable one.  Savitha’s voice is in lockstep with Simran’s terrific performance.  Simran’s character is not evil, just an obsessive one who has as much pain in her heart as steely determination.  This is revealed beautifully by both the actress and the voice behind screen.  Observe the way Simran places a stethoscope on her chest and says, “Shankar…Shankar…  The shriek right afterwards where she barks, “Unaku puriyadhu…” is superbly delivered.  As the sequence progresses, the juxtaposition of pain and mad fury escalates.  Especially poignant is the way Simran grabs Prashanth’s shirt and says, “Naasama poga…una thedo thedu-nu theditaaLe…  Savitha’s voice cracks just a little to reveal the pain but the clear enunciation and the changes in tone are beautifully done. 

Equally effective is the scene where Simran taunts Laila.  By now the Simran character has switched the gears of obsession and desperation up many notches.  And she decides to threaten Laila with dire consequences.  This is a rather scary sequence where she orders Lawrence to disrobe Laila.  Simran is in dazzling form in this scene; so is Savitha.  There are several standout lines written by Saran, none more powerful than, “Ena mela paakareKrishna Paramaathma vandhu pudava kudupaar na…”  Also, the manner in which Savitha delivers the, “Unai pudavaiyil paarka aasai” line reveals the full magnitude of Simran’s scorn. (It was a line uttered by Prashanth earlier.)  The way Simran pinches Laila’s cheek while uttering the line is a non-violent but an intense moment nevertheless.  This is another instance of the acting on screen and the acting behind the mic being in perfect sync.  That Savitha dubbed for Laila too and the voice sounds vastly different from the voice for Simran speaks volumes (pun intended!) of her talent.

That sync between the voice artiste and the actor is achieved only when there is complete dedication on both fronts.  There have been many instances where an actress’ lip sync goes awry and it is left to the voice artiste to repair the damage done on screen! (Check out pretty much any of Shriya’s movies for a demonstration!)  But as Baradwaj Rangan mentioned in his recent interview with Simran, the latter has been one that takes great pains to ensure that the lip sync, or lack thereof, never serves as a distraction.  When the actress inhabits the character she is playing with the kind of conviction that Simran does, I am sure that it is a pleasure for the dubbing artiste to complement the efforts with their voice.  I was equally chuffed that Simran graciously acknowledged the contribution of voice artistes like Savitha and Deepa Venkat.  To me, Parthen Rasithen and Savitha’s voice work will be a crown jewel for both Savitha and Simran.  In short, Parthen RasithenKaetten Rasithen!

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Louder than words

The more I reflect on people that inspire me, the stronger my conviction that I am but an amalgam of all the perspectives that I have gained.  Perspectives shape choices that we make which, in turn, are a large part of who we are.  But there is a difference between inspiration and parroting.  Given the richness and diversity of perspective that I have access to – thanks to people, books and yes, even films - my job is akin to that of a film director who is given a script by a scriptwriter.  My job is to be alert, capture the essence of what I receive and distill it through my own sensibilities.  

As I think deeper about the people that I look up to, a trifecta of traits come to mind – quiet assurance, decisive action and understated focus on people around them.  I probably listed that in reverse.  Because they never lose focus on their near and dear, they spring into action at the right times and do so with an understatement that merits much spotlight but invariably evades it.  Let me now ensure that at least a few spotlights don’t miss their target!  Without further ado, as directors holler at the beginning of a shot, “action!”

Episode #1 - My Chinna Paati (whom I affectionately call, CP; I have written about her husband in this blog) recently turned 80.  As I was reminiscing about her and my childhood days, one memory stood out.  I was in 8th grade when my grandpa passed away unexpectedly at the relatively young age of 61.  The entire family was in a state of shock, a state from which recovery was not going to happen within a week.  But within a week was when my final exams were going to begin.  In order to earn a certificate called the Merit Card, we had to score at or above 60% in every test and exam and appear for every exam at the scheduled date and time.  Up until then, I had had a decent academic year.  And as my immediate family was reeling under the effects of the tragedy, my CP took it upon herself to coach me for the week leading up to and during the week of the exams.  Amidst the wailing and the priests who were working with my family on the rituals, she would gently usher me into my study room and “revise” every subject.  And when I did indeed get the certificate months later, I knew that I had no reason to gloat over it.  Because the person that truly made it happen never made a fuss about it.

Episode #2 - 2006 is not a year of which I have many fond memories.  The year ended quite well but I did experience considerable pain in the first half of it.  I was in a rather depressed state following a setback.  My paternal Aunt, who lived in the same area, unhesitatingly asked me to move in with them until I resolved my situation.  I have always been very close to her and so, in a way, I should not be surprised at her generosity.  But the fact that my Uncle too extended the same warmth, affection and courtesy without batting an eyelid, is something for which I am truly grateful.  The fact that they had an infant to take care of, makes it even more remarkable.  For the next three months, not only did they give me a secure roof to stay under but also nurtured me through my highs and lows.  If not for them, there is a strong chance that I might have sunk into a depressive phase.  Despite the timeliness of their gesture, in these fourteen years, I have not heard my Aunt or Uncle mention this period even once.  And when I do, they just smile and dismiss it off as “not a big deal at all.”  And on that rare occasion, I vehemently disagree with them!

Episode #3 - Another Aunt of mine did something for me back in 2018 that was seemingly intangible but priceless as far as I was concerned.  My maternal grandma had suffered a major heart attack on New Year’s.  She had been in a critical condition for weeks and returned home in a much-compromised state and remained bed-ridden for the next few months.  My parents had been in India for the first few weeks following the hospitalization.  And it was in March that I had planned a weeklong trip to India.  During my trip to India, my Aunt told me that she had prayed everyday for my grandma’s health.  No surprises there, knowing my Aunt.  But what truly warmed my heart was her following line – “I would pray everyday that she should definitely survive until you come because I know you would have never gotten closure if something untoward had happened prior to your arrival.”  The specificity and thoughtfulness of my Aunt’s prayer taught me that piety is enormously touching when it is personalized.  I may not be a believer but I certainly believe in the divinity of genuine human emotion.

I can write about many more people whose actions have spoken volumes of their character and the abiding impact they have made on me as a person.  For now, on the eve of Thanksgiving, I shall give my thanks to these people specifically.  I do so with the knowledge that they represent the values for which many other inspirations of mine stand.  On that note, as Directors like to say, “that’s a wrap!” 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 8, 2020

95 years young: A tribute to my grandaunt

When I learned that my grandaunt passed away today, the first question I posed was whether she died peacefully, painlessly.  She did.  I was glad.  Padma Mami breathed her last, aged 95, in her home in Chennai.  I have, of course, known her all my life.  You know how certain memories, when revisited through the mind’s eye, appear fresh and different from what we may have actually experienced when the events happened.  One of my early memories of Mami that left a lasting impression was a phase in 1992.  I was 11.  She had lost her husband to cancer.  I remember visiting her place with my grandma.  As the two were commiserating with one another, I don’t think I did much other than silently observe the two of them taking turns consoling one another.  One had lost her husband, the other her brother.  What I remember of that phase was how she gradually rebuilt herself, after a loss that was irreversible.  Her steely spirit wrapped the bandage of determination that gradually obscured the wounds of her broken heart.  The impish smile and the twinkle in the eye returned, slowly but surely.

I had always addressed her, “Mami” (aunt).  That was just because I had observed my parents, my Aunt and their cousins address her that way.  I just followed suit.  She never bothered to correct me or tell me that I must call her, “Paati” (grandma).  I suppose I should have only been surprised had she objected!  She was far too casual for that.  She possessed an innate knack of breaking down the barriers- some real, others imagined – that can separate people of different generations.  I think I know why.  It is because she listened as attentively as she spoke engagingly.  She was interested in things that meant something to me, be it marketing, cricket or the movies!  She kept abreast of changing tastes and trends without feeling compelled to shake up the elements of her core.  She was too sagacious to make that kind of a false choice.  And I admired her for that. 

In the past few years, when my grandma and two of her sisters all went through the unspeakable tragedy of losing a child each, Padma Mami stood by them like a rock.  She knew that being by their side was more important than saying anything profound, to nurse them through their grieving.  Looking back at the interactions that they had with one another, I see that their wisdom routinely manifested itself in action, not words.  And that is something that people in my generation can truly learn from.  In our eagerness to advertise our lives on the plethora of available social media, we sometimes forget to pause.  To think more deeply of the actions and gestures that could matter more than images or words that we dish out like candy.  Whenever I feel tempted to say, “they don’t make them like them anymore” I stop myself.  That is because I feel it behooves me to internalize and pass on what I have learned and observed of these wise young souls.

Every time I have gone to India in the past two decades (since I moved to the US), I have made it a point to visit and spend quality time with Padma Mami.  Not every meeting might have been filled with nuggets of wisdom or advice.  But through observation of her freeness of spirit, warmth of emotion and quiet self-assurance despite the inevitability of infirmity, I have invariably walked away from those meetups with a smile, a sense that all is well with the world.  Now that Mami has left us to reunite her husband after 28 years, it is time for me to celebrate her life and the values I remember her by.  As my idol Randy Pausch once said, “We don’t beat the Grim Reaper by living longer; we beat the reaper by living well and living fully.”  Padma Mami – you did a damn fine job of giving the Grim Reaper a one-two punch.  May your soul rest in peace and bless all of us. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

A bloody good movie! - A review of "Kuruthi Punal"

Diwali 1995 offered a delectable variety for moviegoers across genres.  If Muthu was a typical commercial vehicle for Rajni, Makkal Aatchi was a rare highlight for RK Selvamani, post his early hattrick of successes.  But the film that I will remember for its cracking fireworks will be PC Sreeram’s Kuruthi Punal.  An official remake of Drohkaal, it is a gripping, violent film.  That it is also thought provoking at many places is a reason why the film stands above other action films.

The plot of Kuruthi Punal is uncomplicated.  Two best buddies, Aadhi (Kamal Haasan) and Abbas (Arjun) plan a covert operation to infiltrate a militant group headed by Badri (Nasser).  The success of their effort, Operation Dhanush, hinges on their protégé Siva (Arvind Krishna) and his ability to earn the trust of Badri's gang and pass on valuable information to Aadhi and Abbas.  The trials and tribulations of this pair, the impact that this operation has on them and their families, is depicted in a gritty, focused manner. 

The absence of songs is not the only element of Kuruthi Punal that we can adduce as evidence of the filmmaker’s convictions.  This is a taut, tight film that is interested in delving deep into the characters’ psyche and motivations instead of framing a good vs evil battle.  The film focuses as much on the vulnerability of the protagonists as it does on their bravery.  As a result, there is none of the instant gratification of the traditional police stories.  This talky film demands a bit of patience and reflection of the viewers.  Also, as was seen in films like Thani Oruvan decades later, the film is brave enough to have a sharp, quick thinking antagonist.  In fact, it is the Badri character who, especially in the latter portions, calls the shots in the brinkmanship between law and outlaw.  So, even though the film’s posters may have reeked of bravado and style, the actual film is a meditative exploration of the highs and lows of the protagonists.

Actor Madhavan once quoted Kamal as saying that, “it is okay to take the back seat in service of a film.”  That is exactly what Kamal does here.  Even though Arjun may have had limited screen time, it is his Abbas character that sparkles at several places.  It is his sacrifice that spares Kamal’s family of a certain death at the hands of the Surendar character.  There is a lovely moment where Arjun excoriates Kamal (“What shit are you talking, man?”) where you witness that unspoken privilege that their friendship offers him.  Their relationship is showcased beautifully.  Little choices like them wearing identical outfits, Arjun saying, “En Siva romba getti…I am sorry, nambo Siva” are all instances of a kinship being projected in an unfussy manner.  Kamal, as a writer, has always been fond of depicting a sibling-like relationship between a man and his friend’s wife. (This was seen in Hey Ram, Dasavatharam and Manmadhan Ambu as well.)  And Geetha’s (who plays Arjun’s wife) outburst as she tugs onto Kamal is a deeply poignant scene.  Kamal, the actor, gracefully cedes the spotlight to his fellow actors in these scenes because of the demands of the script.

Of course, the man that steals the spotlight, its bulbs and wires, is Nasser.  In what is arguably his career best performance, he turns in a searing portrayal of an antagonist who is “driven by ideology.”  Notice his body language change in the scene where he realizes that Kamal has identified him as the leader of his group; it is a bravura performance.  He is the core around which the plot pivots in the second half.  Fully aware of the responsibilities Kamal and PC have placed on his broad shoulders, he rises to the occasion with an incredibly arresting performance. 

Like Kamal the writer, the entire technical crew contributes handsomely to the singular vision of the film.  Be it the sound design (for the first time in Tamil cinema, the sound of bullets feel real), PC's stupendous cinematography (especially the interrogation scenes) and Mahesh’s rousing background score, they all work in perfect unison with one another.  Together they enhance the film’s impact in a thoroughly professional manner, never once calling undue attention or yanking the viewers out of the mood of a scene.

The violence in the last 45 minutes of the film is intensely graphic.  But as with all the other elements of the film, the unflinching violence does not feel out of sync with the story.  Starting with Nayagan, Kamal has rarely shied away from realistic violence.  Even if one could argue that he overdoes it from time to time, it is impossible to not register the impact of it when it fits into the script as organically as it does in Kuruthi Punal. 

Watching it 25 years after its release, the film has aged incredibly well, its central themes still largely relevant.  Kuruthi Punal is a good example of what characterizes Kamal Haasan’s best works – they stand the test of time because they were ahead of their times to begin with.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Viral Positivity: A review of "Putham Pudhu Kaalai"

COVID-19 has had an adverse impact on the lives and livelihoods of people across industries and social strata.  The film industry is clearly one of the affected ones, with stalled releases, closed theaters and a minimal amount of shooting.  Amidst the general dreariness comes an Amazon Prime release with a sunny, hopeful title – Putham Pudhu Kaalai.  It is an anthology that showcases the works of five supremely talented filmmakers.  The common threads that spin these disparate yarns are positivity, hope and redemption.  And all five stories take place during the lockdown. 

The segments are helmed by Sudha Kongara, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Suhasini Mani Ratnam, Rajiv Menon and Karthik Subburaj.  Of the five, two made a terrific impact on me, for entirely different reasons.  Two others were, in my mind, qualified successes.  And one was a disappointment.  Here are my more detailed thoughts on the stories.

ILamai Idho Idho (Directed by Sudha Kongara) – A tale of two middle-aged people contriving an opportunity to spend time with one another, this short features some terrific acting by veterans Jayaram and Urvashi as well as a charming young pair in Kalidas Jayaram and Kalyani Priyadarshan.  While the ambition of the conceit is laudable, the film suffers from trying to accomplish too much in too little time.  One of the chief pleasures of films that focus on senior actors is the opportunity to listen to them explain their life’s choices, wants and desires.  The premise, which involves two younger actors as well, does not get fleshed out well.  There are some sparkling moments of humor such as Jayaram doing an impression of a yoga retreat teacher - Urvashi’s measured expressions during this phone conversation are priceless.  But on the whole, the short has a half-baked, rushed feel.  The closure is akin to a door shutting abruptly than the smooth, delicate movement that this story demanded.

Avarum Naanum- AvaLum Naanum (Gautham Vasudev Menon) – The awkward sounding title aside, this is my favorite of the five stories.  This is a poignant, powerful story of a grandfather (MS Bhaskar) and his granddaughter (Ritu Varma) reuniting in the former’s house and spending quality time with one another.  Gautham Menon brings writer Reshma Ghatala’s script to life with a sureness of foot, despite the material not being in his tried and tested zone as a director.  The milieu, the posh surroundings and the English lines might sound familiar.  But the character of the grandfather, superbly played by MS Bhaskar, is not the type that you typically see in GVM’s films.  Here, the director is content to let the camera focus observantly on the main characters.  There are none of the frills or indulgent stylizations that have marred some of his previous work. (The staging of the pre-intermission scene of Neethane En Ponvasantham comes to mind.)  But the detailing, be it Bhaskar’s black leather watch or the “Lost in Math” book on his desk, is immaculate. 

If GVM’s goal was to tell an honest story with utmost conviction, he surpasses his goal handsomely.  And he is aided in no small measure by MS Bhaskar.  Bhaskar is the master of the monologue.  Be it talking about a toilet business in Oh My KadavuLe or his dead son in Mozhi, he can show remarkable restraint and let out just the right amount of emotion at just the right times.  His extensive experience as a voice artist is amply evident in his modulations.  He delivers an enormously moving talk about his daughter and her excellence in music.  The casual way in which he talks about rubbing shoulders with a doyen like Abdul Kalam is in sharp contrast to the way he speaks about his immense pride in his daughter and the incalculable loss that he had suffered.  This scene is a character acting tour de force.  Full credit to Ritu Varma for playing an apt foil to this powerhouse without losing the identity of her character. 

Coffee, Anyone? (Suhasini Mani Ratnam) – This story features an elderly couple where the husband assumes the role of the primary caretaker for his ailing wife.  Their three daughters are inherently good, well-meaning human beings who are poles apart from one another in character.  In the short running time, Suhasini expertly establishes these characters. 

Some of the lines snap and sizzle with truth, wit and wisdom.  For instance, Kathadi Ramamurthy’s line about the futility of assessing what is right vs wrong, drips with profundity.  Anu Hasan glows in the scene where she tells her mother about her long-awaited pregnancy.  Sruthi Haasan nails the video call scene. (The pottu on the laptop is a delightful little touch.) But Suhasini, the actor, plays her role at a pitch that just doesn’t feel right.  Her overemphatic style of acting feels like it belongs to another era.  For instance, the way she acts when woken up by her sister, feels completely false.  Ditto for the reaction to her sister’s pregnancy.  But as a writer, she takes very few missteps.  The psychological reasoning and motivations of the characters all feel just right.  Sruthi Haasan’s resentment owing to being a late child, is especially realistic.  Though the ending may be a bit twee, the rays of hope and faith do shine brightly nevertheless.

Reunion (Rajiv Menon) – This was my least favorite of the five stories.  This was all the more disappointing because Menon’s previous work, the magnificent Sarvam ThaaLa Maayam, was a film whose impact lingered for days after I had watched the film.  A tale of two friends who rekindle their relationship in unexpected circumstances, Reunion had very little that resonated with me. 

None of the performances - Andrea Jeremiah, Sikkil Gurucharan and Leela Samson – are especially memorable.  While Andrea is able to bring out the rebellious, maverick spirit of her character, she is unable to do justice to the quieter, more vulnerable moments.   Beyond the nerdy appearance that fits the Doctor’s character like a glove, Gurucharan does not have the effortless charm or lightness of touch that would have made his interactions with Andrea more spontaneous.  And I may be in the minority.  But I find Leela Samson as an actor with limited range who plays every role of hers at the same pitch.  While there are a couple of tender moments between her and Andrea, I could not resist the thought that a better actress like Radhika would have brought more heft to the admittedly well-written character.  And Menon’s writing too felt surprisingly shallow at places.  Substance addiction is too loaded a subject to be addressed in a couple of perfunctory vignettes.  Even the “I will seek professional help” line felt like a throwaway comment.  In short, Reunion would have benefited from a little more realism and a little less forced positivity.

Miracle (Karthik Subburaj) – A wildly entertaining little story of two crooks, this is Karthik Subburaj at his humorous best as he delivers yet another witty tale with his trademark twists and turns.  Bobby Simha seems to turn up as a performer only when Karthik is at the helm.  And he sinks his teeth into the role, having fun on screen after a long time.  Matching him step for step is his partner in crime, Sharath Ravi - here is an actor with impeccable coming timing, to watch out for.  The two, along with the director, have oodles of fun – ditto for the audience- in a segment where neither the story nor its cast takes itself too seriously.  While this may be a lighthearted, slight effort, it is still a sharp, smart film that does not take the audience’s intelligence for granted.   

Overall, Putham Pudhu Kaalai is a fine start for filmmakers who want to invest the time, effort and money in anthologies with multiple perspectives on a subject or a theme.  The good news is that as long as they care to look, there are stories abound for filmmakers to pick from.  And that thought makes me feel as positive as I did watching this anthology.  

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Missed Spotlights #5 – Raghuvaran in Thotta Chinungi

Most leading men of Tamil cinema have an inexplicable reputation for staying away from playing characters with shades of anything other than white.  On those rare occasions that they play a baddie, they feel compelled to also play a more traditional heroic role.  The exceptions are few and far between such as Ajith in Mankatha.  But even setting aside potential negative market implications of playing a villain, even playing characters that have flaws seem to make these men develop cold feet.  We have to be thankful to character actors such as Prakashraj for having the luxury to portray well-fleshed out characters that are not saddled with the pressure of being squeaky-clean.  But in my book, the man that blazed the trail for such characters was Raghuvaran.  While he played the traditional villainous characters memorably in movies like Baasha and Mudhalvan and straightforward, good men in films like Mugavari, where he created a niche was playing characters that made difficult life choices.  Be it hiding the existence of a child in Anjali, surreptitiously reviving ties with a former love interest in Aahaa, he was marvelous in well-written, complex roles.  Near the top of that list is his character in KS Adhiyaman’s Thotta Chinungi. 

Raghuvaran in Thotta Chinungi

Raghuvaran plays the role of a vulnerable man who gets to marry the love of his life (an excellent Revathi).  But post marriage, he starts to lead a life of disappointment and resentment.  Revathi’s tacit, unspoken love for her husband is in sharp contrast to the latter’s expectation of a demonstrative, nurturing, maternal woman.  Adhiyaman shows remarkable maturity in showcasing these two characters, both inherently good but vastly different in thought and expression.  Adding further complexity to this relationship are Revathi’s close friend (Karthik, turning in a mature performance) and her brother (Nagendra Prasad).

It is a lot easier to play a character that tears up outwardly when compared to playing a role where one has to project inner anguish on screen.  I have often felt that certain actors have a way with their eyes that makes it easy for them to project inner pain.  And Raghuvaran was a master at that.  The eyes that could unleash uncontrollable rage in antagonist roles could project vulnerability equally well.  And add to that a voice that could crack just the right amount to bring out the emotion of an atrophied heart, Raghuvaran’s performance in Thotta Chinungi becomes spellbinding. 

Four sequences merit mention.  These are important points in the arc of Raghuvaran's character.  As disparate points, they are remarkable enough.  But as dots that help sketch the arc of his character, they form parts of a deeply satisfying and profound experience.  The first one is a casual sequence in the kitchen where Karthik barges in uninvited.  Raghuvaran is taken aback but pays attention to Karthik’s every word and gesture.  Karthik utters a casual line about Revathi’s cooking and her future child that Raghuvaran memorably reiterates in the final scene.  The second is the scene in the middle of the night where the volcano implodes.  Raghuvaran collapsing onto the sofa as he blunders backwards is a masterful exhibition of body language in service of an emotion.  The third sequence is the one where Raghuvaran dissects his own character in a conversation with his sister – the “nallavana kettavana” phrase, to me, is as impactful here as it was in Nayagan.  And the fourth one is the climax where he reconciles with Karthik.  There are no grand gestures or flowery prose.  Just a simple restatement of a desire that had been expressed by Karthik (in the kitchen scene).  The economy of words and nuance of expression join hands to wrap up the movie on a delicately emotional note.

I once had the opportunity to interact with Anu Hasan after reading her delightfully sunny book, “Sunny Side Up.”  In that conversation, I had told her that the reason I liked the book over many other non-fiction books was her candor.  The frank self-analysis of herself gave me the impression of a friend sitting beside me and sharing life experiences as opposed to someone preaching from a pedestal.  I state this because that is how I demarcate between image-conscious heroes and bold character actors who play lifelike characters.  Raghuvaran might not be alive anymore.  But he has left behind such an important body of work.  An oeuvre that is filled with characters who have ‘taught’ their own life lessons by just projecting human experiences in an honest, authentic manner.  That is the sort of lesson that is loaded with meaning.  That is the kind of impact that endures indelibly despite the winds of time.


The four sequences that I cited are at the following points in the video below:

32:10 min, 1:39:05 min, 2:11:50 min, 2:18:20 min

Friday, September 25, 2020

He stood tall: Reflections on SPB & “Sigaram”

SP Balasubramaniam leaves behind a deluge of memories that threaten to flood the mind for many more days to come.  But in a strange way, when artistes pass on, I tend to instinctively zone in one abiding memory that becomes even more indelible.  With MSV, it was “Kanaa Kaanum KangaL Mella…” from Agni Saatchi.  In the case of Vaali, it has been and will always be, “Ellorum Sollum Paatu” and “Nalam Vaazha” from Marupadiyum.  Ever since I heard the news of SPB’s unfortunate demise, my thoughts have been focused on Ananthu’s Sigaram (1991).  SPB played the role of a music director in the film, was the music director for the film and sung one of his most soulful numbers, Vannam Konda Vennilavey…To say that he excelled in each of these roles is not just hyperbole in the wake of his death.  Rather, it is an honest opinion that I would like to record amidst all the tributes that are overflowing online.

The title Sigaram refers to Damodaran, a highly successful music director.  He has a loving wife (the talented Rekha turns in a lovely performance) but his only child (Anand Babu) is an alcoholic.  The joys and lows of a successful professional with immense sadness in his personal life, are brought out beautifully by SPB.  He imbues every scene and every line with immense warmth and grace.  Listen to him confess to his colleague (NizhalgaL Ravi) that his son “is committing the longest suicide.”  It is a great line but the tenderness with which SPB utters it is what makes it tug at our heartstrings.  In fact, every scene of SPB and Rekha is a delight to behold.  SPB’s onscreen persona (from all accounts, his real-life character too) has mostly been that of a genteel, delicate, respectful man.  And Sigaram, much like his other celebrated roles, is a showcase for his acting abilities.  There is a wonderful little sequence where SPB seeks Rekha’s permission to go to Singapore for a concert.  Right from the way he thanks her for giving him coffee, to the mischievous “contraceptive” comment, he plays this scene with endearing artlessness.

Pretty much every aspect of the Vannam Konda Vennilavey… song is remarkable.   The context for the song (one that Damodaran composes for a film), the tune and the lyrics are all encapsulated into the first five minutes of the film.  But especially poignant are the two scenes where we hear snippets of it later in the film.  One is the scene where visually challenged kids visit an ailing Damodaran and sing a few lines for him.  It is a very KB-esque moment. (Ananthu was KB’s Man Friday for several decades.)  Even more poignant, especially now that SPB has left us, is the sequence where Damodaran returns from Singapore following his wife’s death.  The way Ananthu utilizes silence to build up to the cathartic moment where SPB breaks down, is a masterful demonstration of cinematic technique in service of stupendous acting.  Sigaram is filled with many such moments, big and small, where the writing, filmmaking and acting are top notch.  Not many may have savored these moments, which is why I chose to highlight this film for my tribute. 

As I reflect on the innumerable pleasures that SPB the 'sigaram' gave me as a singer, actor and composer, two phrases from Vannam Konda Vennilavey… assume added significance now:

Vinniley Paadhai illai…Unnai Thoda AeNi illai…

Rest in peace, Sir.  And thank you for the memories.


You will have to open the video in youtube to watch the film.  Here're the sequences/songs I referenced in the article:

The context for Vannam Konda Vennilavey... (1 min 41 sec point)

The husband-wife interaction (1:03:16 min point)

The kids singing "Vannam konda..." for SPB (1:48:31 min point)

The stillness and silence of death (1:09:10 min point)

Friday, September 11, 2020

Missed Spotlights #4: The seniors in Nee Paathi Naan Paathi

Film critic Baradwaj Rangan’s delightful two-part interview with director Vasanth touched upon his 30-year journey as a filmmaker.  The conversation touched upon Vasanth’s moments of glory as well as despair.  Vasanth too was in a completely philosophical, reflective frame of mind as he analyzed the pluses and minuses of his films.  More so than has been the case in any interview of his, there was a fair amount of discussion on Nee Paathi Naan Paathi (1991), his sophomore effort.  The film did not receive the encomiums or the commercial response of his astonishing debut, the much feted Keladi Kanmani.  29 years post release, Nee Paathi... is instantly associated by many with the marvelous, ingeniously picturized Nivetha… song.  But this is not a film that can be written off easily.  Far from it, actually.  And that is because it features a quintet of fantastic performances, starting with Gautami and four senior actors – Manorama, Srividya, Jaishankar and Delhi Ganesh. (Sulakshana is good too, but these four are splendid.)  Truth to be told, Gautami’s controlled, riveting portrayal of a complex character deserves a post of its own.  So, I shall focus on the senior citizens who truly drive the plot forward in the first half.

Jaishankar is married to Sulakshana but has a longstanding extramarital relationship with Srividya.  Gautami is their daughter.  Delhi Ganesh and Manorama play Rahman’s parents.  While the former is a friendly, lenient father, the latter is a proud martinet who is staunchly opposed to the concept of a ‘love marriage.’  Gautami and Rahman fall in love, knowing fully well that their marriage is not going to take place under easy circumstances.  The reactions of the seniors to their love affair are varied and superbly showcased on screen.  While Srividya and Delhi Ganesh are enthusiastic in their support, Jaishankar is quietly supportive.  But the ticking time bomb in this story is Manorama.  There is genuine suspense in Delhi Ganesh’s attempts to unite Gautami and Rahman.  We know that his ploy is dangerous and that Manorama, when she realizes the truth, is going to explode.

Once the character establishment is accomplished in an economy of scenes, the plot really kicks in at the end of the Kaalamulla varai… song.  Gautami, even in a moment of unbridled passion, pauses and requests Rahman that they consummate their relationship only after getting married. (Gautami is terrific in this scene, as she is in the entire film; Vaishnavi’s voice work too is pitch-perfect.)  That sets off the plot into motion.  Save a couple of comedy sequences featuring Janakaraj, the stretch, starting from this scene (at the 49-min point in the video below) up until the intermission is a series of scenes of sustained brilliance in terms of writing, staging and performances.  Vasanth, an ace at writing and fleshing out elderly characters, is in glorious form in these scenes.

Delhi Ganesh steals the lighthearted scenes with his customary gusto.  He is equally good in the terrace scene where he urges Rahman to elope with Gautami.  Jaishankar is supremely effective in the scenes where he apologizes to Srividya and pleads with Manorama.  Manorama sinks her teeth into the mother role with relish, delivering her sharp lines with utmost conviction.  Watch the sequence in the kitchen where she burns a photograph of Gautami.  The force with which she washes her hands and flings the towel are in perfect sync with the lines she utters.  But the best of them all, arguably my favorite female performer of all time, is Srividya.  Her work in this film sadly went unnoticed.  She is enormously moving in the scene where she recounts all her life’s mistakes and holds herself responsible for Gautami’s plight. 

As Vasanth himself admitted in the Rangan interview, we miss these characters sorely in the second half.  (Once they elope at the intermission point, the milieu shifts to Ooty and becomes the story of Rahman, Gautami and Heera in the absence of these seniors.)  It is easy to be wise after the event.  Nevertheless, it is not hard to foresee the kind of stabilizing influence these anchors could have had on the second half, much like Nagesh, Vatsala Rajagopal and Lakshmi had in Rhythm.  As Vasanth noted in the interview, the copious notes he wrote following the mixed reactions to Nee Paathi Naan Paathi certainly had its effect on his later films.  

Strong supporting characters are a pleasure to behold.  They bring a sense of verisimilitude that is lacking in films whose sole purpose is to glorify the protagonist.  But in order to achieve heightened realism, it is imperative that all characters, big or small, come across as living, breathing individuals on screen, not just in service of the leads.  Vasanth has demonstrated this over and over in his films.  Actors like Poornam Vishwanathan (Aasai), Raghuvaran and Shanti Krishna (Nerukku Ner) are few of his character actors who had roles with their unique characteristics, idiosyncrasies and most importantly, arcs.  By creating a narrative arc for a supporting character, a Director is signaling that he is interested in following these people through the course of their journeys.  And the journey that we take with the seniors for at least the first half of Nee Paathi Naan Paathi is a meaningful ride, one that deserves more than a speck of light.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

The currency that matters

“Simple living and high thinking were slowly replaced by simple thinking and high living.” 

This one line by journalist Suresh Menon best summed up the sheer tragedy of cricketer Mohammad Azharuddin’s career and his role in the match-fixing crisis of the late 1990s.  In my own personal and professional life, I have encountered people on all ends of the spectrum encompassing the different combinations of quality of thinking and standard of living.  In some instances, the same people have, at least in my mind, gone from one part of the spectrum to another. 

I have had my share of growth, stagnation and dips in my life.  These have had a direct bearing on the level of confidence that I experience internally as well as the comforts that form part of the externals. (Although in the case of confidence, or lack thereof, and its relation to success or failure, it’s hard to gauge what is the chicken and what is the egg.)  I would be lying if I said that it is only the ineffable minutiae of interpersonal interactions that have mattered to me.  There have indeed been material possessions such as watches and cars that have given me much joy. 

There are times when I do set my sights on the next ‘best’ (I am using that term loosely) thing that I want to acquire in due course of time.  I am certain that there have been instances (hopefully few and far between) when I may have come across as boastful or appearing incapable of having my head connected to my shoulders or my feet rooted to terra firma.  Over time, upon reflection, I have felt compelled to find ways to internalize and compartmentalize the joys that I derive from material possessions.  Successes are best shared with a small set of trustworthy people.  In this day and age of social media overexposure, there is constant pressure to advertise and amplify moments of happiness for public consumption.  In the tradition of most life lessons, the crucibles of character precede the lessons learned.  I have passed on some occasions, failed on others.  But the lessons have mostly stuck.  And arguably, the most important learning has been around the currency of relationships.

Several social science papers and articles have characterized time, trust, words and gestures as reliable currencies of trusted relationships.  Based on the relationships that I have had, be it family or friends, respect is the most reliable barometer of a relationship.  Respect is the currency that appreciates in value in relationships that flourish.  And I think of respect both in terms of the self and respect for the other person.  Both are important.  I sincerely believe that we need to have a healthy amount of respect for ourselves in order to develop a quiet confidence that, in turn, enhances our relationships.  A healthy amount of self-respect eclipses the odious effects of insecurity that can incapacitate a relationship.  And an inherent respect in the other person can reduce differences in lifestyle choices (or ‘quality’, again defined loosely) to a mere fact, not a factor.  Deep-rooted respect is what makes us genuinely savor the ingredients that make the other person happy, not what we define as the recipe for happiness or success. 

The benchmark for a relationship that existed indelibly despite socioeconomic differences, tastes, interests and tangible comforts, was the friendship that my maternal grandpa – a lifelong employee of Reserve Bank of India- had shared with his best friend, the chairman of a conglomerate. (Neither of them is alive.)  Pretty much everything that I have written above are the result of introspection through observation (and many an anecdote) of what I reckon to be the gold standard of a relationship.  A kinship where equality was defined in terms of the amount of respect, affection and security afforded to one another. 

I do hope that in the autumn of my life that I would get to relish and reflect on relationships like the one my grandpa and his friend shared.  Thanks to them, I know that it is possible to let the quality of “high thinking” co-exist peacefully with the elements of “high living.”  The odds remain high as long as the currency of respect does not get demonetized.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

I was born in 1961

1981.  That was the year I was born.

Indian cricket and Tamil movies.  Those have been my two passions ever since my age entered double-digits.  I would like to think that I am a keen observer of the game, not just in its present form but also its history.  Ditto for the movies.  In my little bookshelf, I have autobiographies of cricketers Bishan Bedi, Sunil Gavaskar and actor Sivakumar.  Sometimes, I wonder how much more I would have admired cricketers, actors and filmmakers from the 70s had I been born much earlier.  So, welcome to my whimsical time capsule.  Buckle up…

1961.  That was the year I was born ;)

And here is a team of 10 people comprised of Indian cricketers and Tamil film personalities that my mind is teeming with as I think of my favorites from my formative (!) years.

Sunil Gavaskar: Who else can I open with?  I was 10 when Sunny made his debut in the West Indies.  774 runs in his first four Tests with four centuries.  Critics would say that this West Indies line-up did not have the likes of Sir Wesley Hall or Charlie Griffith.  But is there another Indian batsman except his brother-in-law GR Vishwanath who could stand up to pace with conviction?  It was not until the mid-to-late 70s that Indian batsmen like Mohinder Amarnath played pace bowling with conviction.  And apart from his batting, just the way Sunny carried himself on and off the field was absolutely delightful to watch.  An air of unconscious assurance, confidence and let’s admit it, a bit of arrogance.  You could tell that he knew that he was good.  His brutally honest opinions of cricketers like Farokh Engineer in his autobiography (which I read in 1976, as a 10th grader) are a must-read.  The cricketer of my school years.

Sivaji Ganesan: The SG of Tamil movies follows the SG of cricket.  I was 12 when Gowravam came out.  What an experience that film was.  I remember the trip to Shanthi theater with my family.  There was no 'dolby' sound then; Sivaji's baritone did not need one.  Kids and critics of this generation find his acting style too loud and theatrical.  I was too young when Motor Sundaram Pillai and Uyarndha Manidhan came out.  But I revisited those during re-runs thanks to a guy in my school who had a keen ear for good cinema even back then- Baradwaj Rangan.  Let me just say that Sivaji could be subtle if he wanted.  He could be measured and graceful.  Too bad that the Mahendrans and Balu Mahendras did not work with him.  But as I said, Gowravam – that was the movie that made me a fan of his.  Two incredible performances as a barrister (whose name, incidentally, was Rajnikanth) and his innocent, honest nephew.  He was special to us.  History better be a little kind to him.   

Kamal Haasan: He burst onto the scene as an adult actor in Arangetram, which was released the same year as Gowravam did.  I despised him in the film.  His role was that of an ingrate.  How much I hated him owing to his character versus his performance in that film, I am not clear.  But it was not until Nizhal Nijamagiradhu released 5 years later, that I felt that he was complete as an actor.  Utterly refined and assured, he displayed a body language that suggested he had become a veteran by the time he was 25.  The scene where he dances in front of Sumitra’s students was unforgettable. (Strangely, he smokes more in this film than the rest of his filmography put together.)

Bishan Singh Bedi: Suresh Menon’s incisive, definitive “portrait” of him (as the title of the biography reads) could have actually been titled, “Bishan: No inhibition.”  One of the true artists of slow bowling, he was arguably one of the most outspoken cricketers that India has ever produced.  He took on not only batsmen but also authorities, captains, other bowlers (he openly accused the English team of tampering with the ball with Vaseline back in 1976, which by all accounts, led to the scuttling of his county contract) and more.  He may not have always done the ‘right’ thing (if there is ever an easy way of determining that) but his heart was rarely in the wrong place.  Statistics don’t always tell the full story but they do capture at least some of the essence- as a left arm spinner, Bedi ranks fourth among the top Test wicket takers.  There is a lovely story in the book about how he sobbed buckets when one of his wards died in an unfortunate accident.  Menon’s words are even more poignant – “Passion and compassion came together that day.”  Those are the elements of his story make Bedi the person we loved and sometimes loved to hate.  I am glad that radio commentary back in the day helped me visualize the beauty of his bowling until Youtube videos in recent years confirmed that what I had imagined was indeed real.

Mahendran: If ever there was a filmmaker who walked the talk, it was Mahendran.  Disgusted with how talky Tamil cinema was (and being honest about contributing to it, in his work as a dialogue writer), when he got the opportunity to become a director, he showed how cinema must be made.  He started off on a terrific note with Mullum Malarum but Udhiri PookaL is the apogee of Mahendran, the filmmaker.  A quiet, stirring tale of immense emotional devastation, the film’s power is best summed up in a scene featuring a supporting actor (played by Samikannu, an actor who deserved a lot more love and a lot more work when he was alive).  He plays a barber who, during the course of the film, keeps requesting Archana that he give her kid a haircut.  She keeps postponing it.  And when its time for him to use his paraphernalia, he is emotionally paralyzed.  He shed tears on screen.  We did, off screen.

Ilayaraja: For kids of a later generation, 1992 was a test of their loyalties.  AR Rahman vs Ilayaraja.  For teenagers of my generation, MSV vs Raja was our loyalty battle.  Thankfully, many people of my generation loved them both equally.  Both were masters of melodies: Kanaa Kaanum KangaL vs Thalaiyai Kuniyum Thamarai – I can’t pick one.  The tie-breaker, to me, is Raja’s background score.  Mahendran once referred to Raja as his “dialogue writer.”  Enough said.

One of Raja's best bgm scores (Bharathi's authority and Chellama's discomfort come together in this peace so unobtrusively, with the beats and the veeNai):

Srividya: She was the best actress of that generation yet, rarely played the lead actress.  A tumultuous personal life didn’t exactly help here either.  But later generations who would wax eloquent about the powerful eyes of actresses like Saritha and, much later, Kajol, had no clue what they were missing if they were unfamiliar with Srividya’s eyes and her rich body of work.  The most expressive pair of eyes that one could hope to see, fortunately, her talent was noticed in later years in supporting roles.  May her soul rest in the kind of peace that she probably did not experience while she was alive.

Kapil Dev: I was fortunate to have watched some of the best Indian spinners while also witnessing the arrival of the man who gave swing bowling a fair amount of meaning.  Not to mention the fact that he taught us who a genuine all-rounder was.  There is a hilarious anecdote from his first tour of Pakistan.  He was sent in as night-watchman, one whose job was to defend his wicket late in the day.  But here is the catch.  He actually did not know what the term meant.  Literally so.  Ignorance was indeed blissful…to the spectators, not his captain.  He hit a couple of huge sixes instead of defending stoutly!  Later he confessed to his roommate EAS Prasanna that his big hitting was not out of disrespect for the captain’s orders!  Disrespect was something he reserved for the bowlers who dared to bowl at him when he was in full flow.  And when he led India to the 1983 World Cup win, even Test purists like me gravitated reluctantly, inevitably to the shorter version of the game. (Cricket aficionados now find the 50-over version not short enough.)  The cricketer of my college years!  

Sivakumar: Sivakumar to Tamil Cinema was what Mohinder Amarnath was to Indian Cricket.  Rarely flashy but incredibly dependable and hardworking.  There may have been bigger stars but Sivakumar is one who has flickered for a much longer time than many.  His current passion as an orator is a very natural extension of him as an actor who had an affinity for the written word.  He was never insecure to cede spotlight to his fellow leads.  Lakshmi, Sripriya, Saritha, Sulakshana and Suhasini all benefited from his willingness to work well with his actresses who sometimes had the author-backed roles.  In sharing his routines (in real life) that include yoga, walking, preparing for speeches (which he delivers flawlessly without any written aids), he continues to serve as a model senior citizen.  As someone turning 60 next year, I do have a thing or two to learn from him.

K Balachander: By the time, I started watching films, Sridhar was already on the decline, only showing sparks of his talent in films like ILamai Oonjaladigradhu.  K Balachander was the one who stood out as a director.  He had a stamp.  Sometimes the stamp was so big, it obscured the postcard.  Mahendran once wrote, “A good filmmaker makes you forget about its creators during the film.  You should blend with the happenings on screen.”  K Balachander sometimes gave one the feeling that he was not as secure about letting the happenings on screen ‘speak’ for themselves.  His ‘touches’ sometimes were slaps on the face.  But it is impossible to not acknowledge how different he was from his contemporaries.  He wanted to tell bold stories.  He wanted to break tried-and-tested notions of what an actress must do.  He truly broke new ground with situational songs.  I may not have admired him as much as I did Mahendran and filmmakers of his ilk but I certainly respected KB for what he did for Tamil Cinema.

Thank you for taking the ride with me in my time machine.  It's time to hop off.  Adios. :)