Friday, January 24, 2020

Angel in the detail: My review of Halitha Shameem’s “Sillu Karupatti”

Halitha Shameem’s Sillu Karupatti features a tape recorder, a shampoo bottle, a ring, a box of Pringles chips, a Johnson’s baby ad, a Cornetto ice cream air balloon, a bird-shaped key fob and an Alexa virtual assistant named, “Ammu.”  You must wonder why I would start a review listing a bunch of inanimate objects.  Good question.  My answer is simple.  If you have watched the movie, you will know that all of them acquire a life of their own.  Seen one way, they are animated objects.  Animated by a sense of warmth and affection that is infused into them by the superb writing and craftsmanship displayed by the director and her team.  If that is the life that the filmmaker imbues objects with, need I really say anything about the humanness, the charm and the lovability that she adorns her actors with.  I wrote “adorn” because Sillu Karupatti features some of the most beautiful characters that I have seen on film.  Beauty, not necessarily in just the cosmetic sense of the word.  But an inner glow that radiates from within the soul of the actors that lights up the entire screen.  To borrow the late Roger Ebert’s ecstatic reaction after watching Jerry Maguire, I wanted to “hug myself with delight!”

Sillu Karupatti is an anthology of four stories.  All four of them are ‘love’ stories, loosely speaking.  But none of them are frivolous or lightweight.  The underlying sadness or seriousness of some of the tracks is leavened with some marvelously written lines that drip with wit, understated humor and intelligence.  The bevy of actors, both the lead ones and the smaller characters, are all pitch-perfect.  There is not a false note in one of the performances, irrespective of length of the role. (Among the actors in minor roles, the misty-eyed nurse who holds a “Hope” sign was especially unforgettable.)

Among the actresses, Sunaina and Nivedhithaa Sathish come up trumps.  As I had written in my review of Marriage Story, implosion is much more difficult to portray than explosion.  Sunaina’s implosion of emotion in the verbal duel with Samudrakani is arguably her best work till date.  Her satisfied sigh in front of the mirror and her little “thank you” speech to “Ammu” in the final sequence are as incandescent as the candles in the scene.  Nivedhithaa brings an impishness and perkiness that, unlike the typical masala film heroine, is also balanced by common sense and street smarts.  Her affectionate hug of Manikandan in the terrace and her loving glances of him in the hospital bed are instances where the character sparkles, as does the actress.

Of the actors, Manikandan and Samudrakani are especially magnificent.  After Raghuvaran, Samudrakani has probably been my favorite character actor.  An advice-spouting do-gooder is how we have mostly seen him.  But in this film, he brings a disarming casualness to his performance.  I have never seen him exhibit shyness or childlike qualities as he does in such a winsome manner in Sillu Karupatti.  And Manikandan, who held his own in Kaala against the mighty Rajnikanth, turns in the most nuanced performance of this film.  His expressions alone are worth the ticket of this film.  Be it when he is writhing in pain, the befuddled look when a politician asks him to create a meme (pronounced, “mee-mee!”), the surprise he exhibits when he is compared to Charlie Chaplin, the delight having swallowed a piece of a tasty kulfi, the wistful look in the mirror as he strokes his hair, the joyous smile (and the way he says, “Nalla Sagunam”) while entering the hospital – these are all imprints on screen left by a consummate actor who is completely in sync with his director’s vision. 

If I were to pick the best of the four stories, it would probably be the Manikandan – Nivedhithaa one, owing to its incredibly sensitive handling of some very delicate topics without posturing or sermons.  On the other hand, I found the Leela Samson – Sree Ram track to be the least effective.  It is because I felt that this was one story that couldn’t attain the level of depth it needed in the amount of time that it had.  The thawing and growing affection in the relationship felt rushed to me.  I kept thinking that this story, to work effectively, deserved a movie of its own like the art house classic, Anthimanthaarai.

The cinematography and music are unobtrusively effective.  The background score (by Pradeep Kumar) is especially impactful in the kids segment where the tenderness of the longing glances is matched by the gentle score.  I especially enjoyed the photography (by Yamini Yagnamurthy) of the final segment.  In the scene featuring an inebriated Samudrakani, we first see him from a tipsy angle.  It is only then revealed that he is sitting in a merry-go-round in a playground!

As I reflect on the immense joy and satisfaction I derived from this film, I just wish that more actors and producers (like Suriya has with this film) support such efforts where the richness comes not from extravagant set pieces or exotic foreign locales and instead, comes from detailing, nuance and delicacy of the writing and film making.  It is films of this ilk that will not only endear themselves but also endure.  

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The King's Beats

En route to work on a bone-crunchingly cold morning, I wanted a jolt on top of what my chai would give me.  So, I turned the volume up to a level just below one that would attract nasty glances from fellow drivers.   Also, I wanted my eardrums to be functional enough to accommodate hi-hats and drums.  As I flipped through my collection, I had a very, very serious choice to make.  Was it going to be the Mozart of Madras or the King of Pannaipuram?  (Please don’t get all serious on me and tell me helpfully that this little panchayat town in Theni never had a royal family.)  I decided to have the aroma of my chai blend in with a whiff of nostalgia.  I chose to go with the King.  And before I could think too much, I came up with a list of percussion-heavy numbers where the king made his loyal vassals tap their feet even if they had three left-feet!

Here is a list of 10 of my picks in no particular order.  I will keep my descriptions to a minimum since words aren’t the point of this piece!

Kombula Poova Suthi  from Virumandi
One of the liveliest songs in a Jallikattu setting, this fast-paced number has some scintillating beats.  Kamal’s spirited rendition is the moar molaga on the koozhu! (Icing on the cake just felt wrong, sorry!)

Aiyya Oodu from Kaathaluku Mariyadhai
Manivannan was such a popular artiste in 1997 that he got an ‘introduction song’ in a film where the hero didn’t have one!  Ilayaraja’s joyous singing leavens some of the heavy-duty philosophical lines. (“Kannukettum thooram thooram…manusanathan kaanum kaanum” is my favorite of Pazhani Bharathi’s lines.)

The title song of Vikram
The film released 34 years ago when computers and synthesizers in Tamil film music were as rare as realistic make-up.  The typewriter keys clacking and seguing seamlessly into the beats is an absolutely magical start to this irresistibly catchy number.

Podhuvaga En Manasu from Murattu KaaLai
It is widely agreed that Murattu KaaLai was the film that heralded superstardom for Rajnikanth even though he had been christened “Super Star” two years before this movie (in “Bairavi”).  This song, rendered with incredible vitality by Malaysia Vasudevan, is a fitting anthem signaling the birth of the super star.

Ooru vittu ooru vandhu from Karagattakaran
Comedian Coundamani and company have a ball, thanks to Ilayaraja!  It is rather amusing to see the comedians dance while the hero – that master thespian and costume connoisseur Ramarajan – walks beside them!

Raja Rajathi Rajan Indha Raja… from Agni Natchathiram
Need I add anything to the first words of this song!

Das Das Chinapadas… from Kadalora KavithaigaL
The Ilayaraja – Bharathiraja combination resulted in many unforgettable chartbusters.  This film was the last of their collaborations before their split. (They would reunite 4 years later for En uyir thozhan.)  This song, set in a seaside milieu, features some rather modern beats that somehow don’t feel out of place. 

Poo malarndhida… from Tik Tik Tik
The mirudangam is one of my favorite percussion instruments.  My bias comes from the fact that I tried my hand at it for several years.  It took me a decade to realize two things – 1. music was the only part of my life where I was a good listener. (I actually feel bad for my family and friends, truly, deeply, sincerely!) 2. The sounds of mirudangam that I heard when others played seemed like noise when I did.  And when I listen to this marvelous fusion piece, I realize that I am better off listening a little more…at least in but not restricted to music!

Nenachu Nenachu… from Sethu
This is not a full-fledged song.  But this minute-long snippet is a mesmerizing expression of ecstasy.  (The visceral impact of the violent act at the end of this song has the same gut-wrenching impact now as it had on me 20 years ago when the film was released.)

Stereophonic Sannata… from Shamitabh
Aasaiya kaathula... from 1980 getting a facelift in a Hindi film in 2015 where Amitabh Bachchan was the ‘voice’ of Dhanush.  Can improbability be taken to a higher level?  Yes.  The song turned out to be a terrific, foot-tapping number!

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Marriage Story: A door closes, a window opens

When reading a bit about Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, I happened upon this headline from The Telegraph – “Marriage Story should be compulsory viewing for any parent heading for divorce.”  While I don’t disagree with the title, I also think it does scarce justice to the film.  If you think that is hyperbole, then let me place for your consideration the scene of this year, the performance of 2019 and the most ‘real’ line ever written about a crumbling relationship.  It is Scarlett Johansson and her controlled implosion at the office of her lawyer (Laura Dern, in a scene-stealing turn herself).  Towards the end of her harangue, Johansson observes wistfully, “He didn’t see me as something separate from himself.”  The amount of truth, pain and sting in that line is symptomatic of this film. 

The singular, stellar achievement of the writer-director is that he doesn’t vilify either of the leads or just take one person’s point of view as the two (Adam Driver plays the male lead) go through the last stages of their marriage.  It is an incredibly tough task to pull us towards two characters who are gradually distancing themselves from one another.  Our loyalties are with both as we get enough glimpses into their strengths, foibles and weaknesses.  The fact that the couple doesn’t let their divorce proceedings eclipse their humanity is one of the poignant elements of the film – watch Johansson’s response to Dern shifting a 50-50 arrangement to a 55-45 one (in her favor).  That the film offers pregnant pauses while zooming in on these moments instead of rushing through them speaks to the trust that the filmmaker places in the audience.

The scenes with the lawyers (Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda) are fascinating and scary in equal measure.  The brute force of some of the arguments, the casual throwaway lines and the lawyer-client dynamics offer a very compelling counterpoint to some of the simplicity, genuineness and empathy that the couple try to retain in their household amidst some tough decisions.  While Dern has the juiciest lines, Alda’s world-weariness and avuncular attitude are endearing to watch. 

But at the end of the day, this film is about its leads.  The director paints them both in a light enough shade of gray to not make them unlikable yet three-dimensional enough to make their interactions immensely relatable.  The film’s most striking visual involves the two of them closing a wheeled gate together, while standing on either side of it.  The glances they exchange towards each other while shutting the door, so to say, gently but definitely on one another, are moving.  

The film may be about two people – or rather three, counting their kid – going through a period of closing a door to one another.  But while doing so with a sureness of foot and delicacy of emotion, the movie affords us a chance to open a window into our own soul.  To assess and reassess our own choices in the relationships that mean something to us.  And to make sure that we ask ourselves tough questions in a timely manner.  As Johansson’s misty-eyed reaction to a key decision of Driver’s in one of the concluding scenes suggests, it is our timely choices that make us who we are.  And to the extent to which we factor in the self and our loved ones without too much of a skew in either direction, the more satisfying those choices will be.  In essence, the film’s finale is really a starting point.  A starting point not just for parents heading for a divorce but also for couples wanting to take their relationships to greater heights while plumbing the emotional depths of one another.  In short, it is “compulsory viewing” for all adults in search of meaning in relationships.