Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Sanity Mirror

“…that was my first lesson on how what you feel inside is less important than what you show to the world.”
In a recent write-up of his, film critic Baradwaj Rangan recounted the passing away of his paternal grandpa.  On that day, to get away from the immense sadness, he and his cousins had gone to a movie theater.  In no way was the act meant to be disrespectful to the departed soul.  But in recollecting the harsh reactions from his family, he wrote of how he might not have been judged as negatively had he chosen to go to the beach.  In the write-up, he also described the overdose of social scrutiny as bothersome yet inevitable.  I found myself nodding for a few reasons which I shall explore further, but not before I share one more quote with you.

“I like me.  My wife likes me.  My customers like me.  Because I am the real article.”
These lines were uttered by the great comedian and character actor John Candy.  Watch the clip below at the 46-second point.  Notice how tentatively he utters the, “I like me” line.  It is a poignant moment because not everyone will have the disarming honesty that it takes to utter that line.  In this sublime acting moment, Candy conveys pain for sure.  But listening to his monologue intently, we realize that despite the hurt caused by Steve Martin’s abrasiveness, Candy would rather remain true to himself.  The tenderness of tone and softness of voice stem really from his inner tranquil.

The thread that stitched these two disparate thoughts in my mind was that of quiet assurance.  While the notion of ‘perception is reality’ is sometimes hard to shake off, what should matter more to us is our own perception of ourselves than that of an external force.  As I grow older, the people that I observe as possessing that quiet assurance are those that take the time to look at themselves in what I would like to call the sanity mirror!

Indulge me by imagining yourself staring into a mirror.  You are the only person in focus.  Now imagine yourself staring into a mirror – the difference now is that there is a bevy of people that are standing behind you.  The second mirror is arguably more representative of the overexposed world that we live in.  While there are myriad joys that technology affords us, the increased connectivity may not always equate to meaningful connection.  But even if that were the case, it is an uphill task to look into the more sane mirror all the time, by blocking out the surrounding crowd.

For me personally, a happy middle ground is a mirror where I allow not a crowd but a select set of people to stand beside me.  These are people whose opinions of me, I care about deeply.  I seek to emulate their way of life but in an authentic manner.  I seek to synthesize what I like about them and distill it into a version that feels true within.  Amidst my imperfections, faults and follies, the limited set of trustworthy well-wishers help me calibrate myself to an equilibrium. 

Truth to be told, I didn’t come to this middle ground that easily.  I used to worry considerably about how the entire world perceived me.  As a result, I tended to come across as overtly sensitive.  There had been times when I would struggle to find inner peace because the harder I tried to make myself understood, the tougher it seemed to please people around me.  With benefit of time and age, I do feel like that having the feedback loop restricted to a carefully chosen set of people, I am able to do two things.  I am able to silence the dins that detract from my efforts to seek an internal quiet.  I am also able to come across as more assured to those that mean the world to me.  I realized that as long as I am true to myself, the happiness I can possibly share with others comes organically rather than painstakingly.  To borrow Candy’s words, the more “I like me,” the more I will like others and vice versa!

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Lens and Sensibility: 20 years of Kandukondain Kandukondain

Rajiv Menon, the veteran ad filmmaker and master cinematographer, has directed three feature films till date.  Minsaara Kanavu (1997) is the weakest of the three, despite a magical musical score.  Sarvam ThaaLa Mayam from last year is, by a Corona-safe distance, the best of them, its highlights a delightful performance by Nedumudi Venu and an unforgettable mirudangam performance in the climax.  Sandwiched between the two in terms of timeline and quality is Kandukondain Kandukondain, which was released in May 2000. (I can sound cool and state that it is a loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.  But if I hadn’t bothered to check the wiki page, I may have even written, Pride and Prejudice because I have read an enviable zero novels in my entire life!)

The cast and crew of Kandukondain… is first-rate.  A cast headlined by Mammootty, Tabu, Ajith and Aishwarya Rai, a behind-the-scenes team comprising stalwarts such as Sujatha, AR Rahman and Ravi K Chandran, Rajiv Menon helmed what should have been a surefire winner.  But to me, this film will always be a qualified success.  While it has aged quite well, the problems that existed at the time of its release persist.  Sometimes movies speak to us differently as we age.  I don’t think age has brightened or dimmed the luster that exists in parts of the film, even if not for the entire duration.

Kandukondain… is the story of two sisters (Tabu and Aishwarya Rai) and the experiences that they go through in their romantic and familial life over the course of a few years.  Tabu’s love interest is Ajith, who plays an aspiring film director.  Aishwarya Rai initially falls in love with Abbas, an industrialist with a penchant for (awkardly) citing lines written by Bharathiyar.  Mammootty is an army officer who lost a leg while in Sri Lanka as part of the IPKF.  He develops feelings for Aishwarya Rai but maintains a dignified silence on account of the age gap.  She realizes the inherent goodness in him but spurns him at every turn until certain sour experiences make her realize the depth and meaning that was missing in her dreams and fantasies that had marked her limpid existence.

One of the strengths of Kandukondain… is the urbanity and delicacy of taste in the characterizations and the interactions among the lead characters.  Mammootty’s is a beautifully fleshed out character.  One who has seen his youth pass him by with his years in the army, who has been scarred physically and mentally.  But the amount of genuine, selfless emotion he infuses into his love for the impulsive, sharp-tongued Aishwarya Rai makes his character sparkle.  The actor too is in fine form, especially in the lovely scene in the hospital where he leans towards her and assures her that for the first time in his life, he would pray…for her recovery.  There is a line in Moondru Per Moondru Kadhal that goes, “Kadhal-ngaradhu kaekardhu illa…kodukardhu.”  Mammootty in this film is an embodiment of that line.  What also makes his character well-rounded is the light vein of humor and sarcasm, which sometimes he uses to obscure his true feelings. 
The hospital scene: 
(Click on play to go directly to the scene)

The Tabu – Ajith romance also has a very convincing arc.  They are two strong-willed individuals, one reticent, the other gregarious.  But the vulnerability of the Tabu character, the way she bears the ‘luckless’ tag with a quiet resignation and the manner in which she expresses an unwillingness to let go of Ajith in the end are layered strokes.  Strokes that writer Sujatha and director Rajiv Menon use to paint a lovely portrait of a woman who is part steel, part porcelain. 

Ajith plays a confident, hot-headed aspiring film director.  Born with a silver spoon, he chooses a life of struggle, unwavering in his vision of and commitment to the film he wants to make.  But the problem is that the actual movie he tries to make is a rip-off of Speed titled, Vegam! (That S. Ve. Sekhar chose this title for his son’s debut film is a joke in itself!)  We even have a character joke about the plot sounding vaguely familiar!  Even the scenes he enacts with Pooja Batra (who plays an action heroine, a fact that the film gleefully skewers!) have none of the conviction that he had projected in earlier scenes.  All this might sound like incidental detail.  But it is the kind of detail that distracts, the sort of nuance (or lack there of) that robs his quest off an element of pain that was brought out so well in Mugavari. (Of course, his character itself could be a subtle dig at filmmakers that place technique over substance.)

The only underwhelming parts of Kandukondain… are thankfully restricted to the first half, especially the Abbas-Aishwarya Rai romance.  Abbas maybe a much-ridiculed actor, especially for his laughable utterances in films like Padayappa.  But I had never dismissed him as an actor completely.  He could hold his own in a certain type of role – the kind of which he played in Kadhal Desam and Minnale.  But he is a complete misfit as a fanatic of Bharathiyar.  Vikram, who had lent his voice for him, would have been a much better choice, one that could mouth chaste Tamil verses in the same breath as casual English lines.  Abbas' scenes with Aishwarya Rai (also a Bharathiyar fan!) are amateurish and completely lacking in the charm and resonance of the other relationships in this film. 

Thankfully, the film is on firm ground in the concluding portions.  The break-up, the re-unions and reconciliations are all convincing.  Especially heartwarming is the way Aishwarya Rai and Mammootty confess their love for one another without using words like “love” or “kadhal.”  Instead, their cathartic moment is about inner beauty, the vagaries of fate and the inexplicable designs of the Almighty.  The final Tabu-Ajith scene in the apartment too is charming and brilliantly acted. (I vividly remember the applause in the theater when they hugged one another!)

The Aishwarya Rai-Mammootty staircase scene:

The Tabu-Ajith apartment sequence:

AR Rahman’s songs and Ravi K Chandran’s cinematography ensure that the film is an audio-visual treat to savor.  Chandran’s framing of the aforementioned hospital bed shot is especially exquisite.  There is a short vignette that features Tabu at work and Aishwarya Rai immersing herself in music.  Rahman’s fusion of carnatic and more modern music works wonderfully for this sequence.

Kandukondain… might not be a timeless classic.  But it is a rarity in the way solid material is brought to screen by a filmmaker with an urbane sensibility, visual finesse and stellar support from his cast.  For that reason, we have to be thankful for its existence.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Proximity Personified: Thoughts on my grandpa in a time of social distancing

I am sometimes amused with myself when it comes to the certainty and conviction with which I can talk about something completely hypothetical.  But indulge me a bit here, please.  My maternal grandpa passed on 26 years ago.  But I know without a shred of doubt – don’t tell me I didn’t warn you! – that he would have had absolutely no issues dealing with this COVID-19 imposed social distancing, lockdown, quarantine or whatever flavor of restriction that he had to deal with.  Until he passed on in 1994 aged 61, he lived in the same house he was born in.  He had a small, tightly knit family.  His best friend was one whom he had known since 5th grade.  He retired from the same bank that he had joined upon graduation.  His friend once quipped, “You have had one job, one friend and one wife!” (He had two daughters, one of whom was my Mom.  Another was my Aunt, who was as much a Mom to me – she sadly died in 2016.)

Did I tell you that he lived in the same house his entire life?  It is not just a fact.  The house was a pivotal character in the story of his life.  While my lovable grandma infused that home with warmth and hospitality, the house didn’t rest on any pillars – he was the pillar.  He exerted a quiet authority on the happenings of the house.  Everyone had their freedom, of thought, of expression.  As the patriarch of the house, he just took it upon himself to ensure that people respected each other’s boundaries.  He did this effortlessly because he practiced what he preached.  I shall share two examples to illustrate this – one an amusing one (hopefully) and one a slightly serious one.

He had this monthly routine to go to a stationery shop to buy office supplies. (Boy, what a creature of habit he was – he stuck to the same stationery shop for as long as that shop existed!) He would always make it a point to buy me some sundries from there.  I would eagerly wait for the car to enter the threshold and I would shamelessly rush to him to see what he had bought for me.  Anticipating my eagerness, he would have already set my stuff apart.  Of course, being the mischievous runt that I was, I would take note of what else he had bought for himself.  I would sneak into his office room in his absence but would always leave behind a piece of incriminating evidence. (Those damn residue from sharpened pencils were my arch nemesis!)  He would find out and admonish me, “WHY do you have to touch my items when I buy you the stuff you need!”  Since he was being totally fair, not once would I feel a sense of anger or hurt.

On another occasion, my father had gotten into a squabble with my Aunt when she was in her late teens; Dad was in his mid-thirties.  My Dad and my Aunt were very affectionate with one another.  My Dad indulged her a lot and she was more of an older sister to me.  My Aunt was also my grandpa’s pet.  On this occasion, my Dad and Aunt had gotten into a verbal volley.  My Dad had tried to discipline my Aunt, who was this carefree, happy-go-lucky girl.  My Aunt, who got testy after a point, hurled some colorful language at my Dad!  Later when my grandpa got to know of this, he called my Aunt and said to her, “You should not have spoken to Murali that way.  Apologize to him.”  Once she did, he then turned to my Dad and said, “What she did was wrong.  She has apologized.  But henceforth, please don’t interfere in her matters.  I’ll take care.”  What was remarkable was that both my Dad and my Aunt followed his advice to the letter, unquestioningly.  And things returned to normalcy.  They knew that he had an innate sense of fairness and an uncanny understanding of the space that people needed.

The other remarkable facet of him was that as much as he was a creature of routine, he dealt with the harder knocks of life with a mixture of acceptance and gumption.  He controlled what he could.  He never fretted about what he couldn’t.  I don’t think I had ever seen him sulk or be downbeat.  When he had a heart attack in 1985, he just took the setback in his stride, developing new physical activity routines, a modified diet and so on, in an unfussy manner.  In 1990 when a cataract was detected in my left eye, it was he and my grandma that took me to a preeminent ophthalmologist in my hometown in India.  And if my memory serves me right, during the next stationery shop visit, he bought me a couple of extra items to cheer me up! (Not that that stopped me from ‘exploring’ his office room!)

I admired the fact that he had possessions, interests and hobbies such as cars, watches, movies and classical music that kept him engaged and gave him happiness.  The joy he derived from these inanimate things was absolute, not relative to what others had.  As a result, his relationships with his close family members as well as his lifelong friend were pure, relaxed and free of manacles such as jealousy or insecurity.  He freely shared happiness with others because he had an inner pendulum that was never off equilibrium. 

So, why do I think that he would have been just fine with this COVID-19 situation?  He would have had a calming, reassuring influence on the ones around him.  He would have worked on lists of things to stock up.  He would have kept himself busy with his own interests.  He would have invented new, fun routines even if he had to be confined to the house.  He and his friend would have probably had each other on Whatsapp video while they walked in their respective houses instead of going for their daily walk together.  Above all, he would have understood the value of proximity in the truest sense of the word.  That joy from physical closeness with loved ones would be amplified by an emotional connection that had as its links, selfless love as well as respect for people’s spaces.  He truly embodied Kahlil Gibran’s immortal quote, “Let there be spaces in our togetherness.”  My grandpa, his wife, his friend have all left this earth for a better place.  But in the way he spread comforting vibes among his loved ones, he showed me that genuine affection and assured positivity spread faster than any virus can.