Wednesday, March 18, 2020

A modern-day blessing: My thoughts on the delightful “Oh My KadavuLe”

Exquisite expressions.  Precise casting.  Thoughtful writing.  Splendid staging.  As I was barely getting out of the heady feeling that this quartet of strengths displayed in Sillu Karupatti gave me, here comes a modern-day love story that has all those strengths and an element of whimsy.  The incredible gamut of emotions evoked masterfully by debutant writer-director Ashwath Marimuthu brought to mind a line from Mozhi uttered by MS Bhaskar (who has a great role here; more on that later) – “Mark my words, this boy will go places!” 

Oh My KadavuLe is the story of…hold on.  I am not going to go into the details of the plot.  Suffice to say that the pivotal characters are played by Ashok Selvan, Ritika Singh, Vani Bhojan, MS Bhaskar and Sha Ra.  MS Bhaskar plays Ritika’s Dad.  Sha Ra plays a childhood friend of Ashok.  Somewhere in here are Vijay Sethupathi and Ramesh Thilak playing two of the most charming cameos you will ever see.  Who these people are, the chances they get, the second chances they get and the lessons they learn in the process are what this film is about. 

Above depicting longstanding friendships, unconditional love, a complex marriage all with such humor, delicacy and conviction, this film stands tall for yet another reason – the truth in the characters.  Every syllable uttered by these actors rings true and every gesture feels right.  In some scenes, the dialogues sparkle.  Case in point is MS Bhaskar’s monologue on the origins of his company.  Now, MS Bhaskar is one of those actors who can deliver an extended stretch of dialogue with effortless ease.  So yes, the casting is just right.  But the lines given to him are moving and authentic.  It makes us almost hang our head in shame (like Ashok does) for having laughed at what he does for a living. 

It is not just the dialogues but also the expressions, body language of the actors and the purposeful use of background score, where you can sense an assured director’s orchestration.  There is a scene in the second half where Ritika comes to Ashok’s room after a conversation with his parents.  The manner in which he puts his arm around her and holds her tightly is one of the most beautiful expressions of affection that I have witnessed on the Tamil screen.  By that point in the movie, clearly a lot of conflicting feelings are on Ashok’s mind about Ritika and this gesture just about perfectly conveys that.  Another beautifully quiet moment is when Ashok drops off Ritika at her place after their trip to Kerala.  Ashok’s expressions in this scene are controlled and nuanced.  Any dialogue or overdone background score would have spoiled this moment – this is an actor’s moment and the writer and director make way.  And in the slightly whimsical scenes, the background score is playful and delightfully catchy.  As I reflect on these moments, it is abundantly clear that the filmmaker is in complete control of his craft, knowing which of the tools in his audio-visual armamentarium to bring  to the fore in service of a scene. 

Oh My KadavuLe also packs a lot of delicious little details that are a joy to behold.  The “FLAMES” t-shirt worn by Ashok, the way he corrects himself and calls MS Bhaskar “Uncle”, the casually dismissive way Ritika describes the VTV intermission scene, Vani’s fondness for the open-air theater and how a birthday ‘gift’ is brought to life there are just a few instances. 

Apart from Ashok who turns in his best, most measured performance till date, Ritika and Vani are cast perfectly and do full justice to their roles.  Ritika is an actress who is utterly lacking in the annoying self-consciousness that some actresses possess.  Her disarming on-screen persona is perfect for her role as Noodles Mandai…err…Anu.  Vani has a quieter but equally well-rounded character and her face brings out a sense of hidden pain marvelously. 

As a fan of well-made cinema, movies like Oh My KadavuLe are a blessing.  One of lyricist Vaali’s lines that often plays in my mind’s ear is, “Naayagan mel irundhu noolinai aatuginraan…naamellam bommai endru naadagam kaatuginran…”  In the world of films, a writer-director might be the puppeteer who spins a yarn to hold the actors and make them sway a certain way.  But really, in the hands of a master filmmaker, I, as a member of the audience, am the puppet.  A willing puppet whose emotions are controlled by the filmmaker and his or her team.  And for those that willingly surrender to the magic of the medium, Oh My KadavuLe is…heaven-sent.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Si-Lens: A few quiet moments captured on Tamil screen

In an interview with Bosskey, the late Mahendran had recounted his formative years in Ilayangudi.  He was a fan of the Tamil cinema of the 50s, which boasted of truly impressive, at times incessant, dialogue.  This was the decade when Tamil cinema was branching out of musicals into more social dramas.  Writers like Mu. Karunanidhi and Sakthi Krishnaswamy were making a mark with their pen in unprecedentedly powerful fashion.  Mahendran had truly enjoyed the talky films to the hilt.  During a conversation with his Uncle, the latter urged him to watch more English films.  It was only after he started watching films from the West did Mahendran develop a bit of an aversion towards excessive dialogue.  To his credit, he stuck to his convictions when he became a Director two decades later and gave us a handful of mesmerizingly memorable audiovisual experiences.  In this piece, I am going to list a few moments from Tamil cinema where it was a combination of expression, body language, cinematography and background score that weaved magic.  Dialogues, in these sequences, were functional, minimal or non-existent. 

Shoba in Mullum Malarum
It is impossible to create this sort of a list without a tribute to the master storyteller that I mentioned above.  This film and Udhiri PookaL are filled with several stunning moments of silence.  One of the most haunting visuals committed to the silver screen featured that shooting star, Shoba.  She slowly, painfully realizes that her brother has had a hand amputated.  Her expressions ranging from joy to realization to shock to despair are brought out in sublime fashion by her.  Rajni does very little and graciously cedes the spotlight to his co-star.  And she is incandescent.

Note: for all the videos below, clicking on Play will take you to the scenes I write about:

Sivaji Ganesan in Mudhal Mariyadhai
Sivaji Ganesan was referred to as ‘nadigar thilagam.’  Many fans of his work remember him for his remarkable dialogue delivery and crystal-clear diction.  But that scarcely does justice to the depth and breadth of his acting chops.  You would have to watch him keenly in some of the smaller moments to realize how beautifully expressive he could be, with very little dialogue.  One of my favorite moments in Bharathiraja’s Mudhal Mariyadhai is the scene where he is disgusted with his wife’s gesture while serving food.  He quietly moves away.  And the moment he steps out of his house, he drinks in the beauty of his surroundings.  The joy on his face is a delight to behold.

Saritha in Achamillai Achamillai
There is a beautiful line in Dil Se where Shah Rukh Khan describes the eyes of Manisha Koirala.  He loves them yet hates the fact that the deeper he looks, the stronger the realization that there are more depths to plumb.  KB probably felt that way about Saritha.  Watch this scene where she acts entirely with her eyes.  Sure it’s a showy piece of histrionics.  But it is impossible to look away.

Ilayaraja in Sethu
Consistent with the previous headers, I should have probably titled this, “Abitha in Sethu.”  But as moving and expressive as she is, many portions of Sethu, this one included, are totally owned by the King.  In concert with Ratnavelu’s marvelously purposeful camera movements, the impact of Sethu endures, warts and all (especially in the realm of toxic masculinity).

Prakashraj and Mohanlal in Iruvar
For a film set in an era where the oration and rhetoric swayed the voting and movie-viewing public en masse, Iruvar boasts a plethora of visually arresting moments.  One of the telling contrasts is evidenced in the pair of scenes where Prakashraj is on stage while Mohanlal makes a delayed entry.  In the second scene, it is clearly established that Lal arrives late on purpose to test the strength of his following.  Prakashraj’s expressions in this scene are nuanced and measured.

The first scene - the young idealists:

The second sequence - power corrupts…absolutely!

SPB in Sigaram
Tamil cinema has been witness to many death scenes that have spanned the spectrum of loudness from incredibly quiet to deafeningly loud.  On the quiet end of the spectrum is one of the most poignant scenes in Sigaram – SPB’s wife Rekha is dead while he is away in Singapore on a concert trip.  What happens once he returns is what is captured in this sequence which features no background music, just a few ambient sounds.  Director Vasanth once told me that writer Anuradha Ramanan, in a conversation on Rhythm, death and loss, mentioned the “silence that comes with death.”  That phrase is what comes to mind in this scene, especially the portion where SPB enters an empty house.

Kamal Haasan and Amala in Pesum Padam
And finally, the movie with probably the most apt title about silence ever, Pesum Padam!  A film where the actors ‘spoke’ volumes through their eyes, their body language and purposeful gestures.  My favorite is the scene in the handicrafts shop where Kamal ‘picks’ a earring for Amala.  These two fine actors share such cute, crackling chemistry that any dialogue would have felt completely redundant!