Saturday, July 25, 2020

Missed Spotlights #3 – Sruthi in KB’s Kalki

Several tributes poured in two weeks back in honor of K Balachander’s 90th birth anniversary.  Many films were discussed and dissected.  For a filmmaker who boasted of such a rich oeuvre, it is impossible to achieve comprehensiveness in the true sense of the word.  But one film that I sincerely feel that deserves more attention is KB’s Kalki, released in 1996.  I remember reading some fairly positive reviews.  The film ran for over 100 days.  Sure, it has flaws.  It is overwrought in parts.  The music, for a KB film, is mediocre.  One of the lead characters (Rahman) comes across as terribly one-note.  And a key plot point is reminiscent of Sindhu Bhairavi.  Yet, it is far from a film that can be dismissed.  The three female characters, played by Sruthi, Geetha and Renuka, are all superbly detailed.  The actors all do full justice to their roles that are diverse from one another.  But in my book, the best of them is the titular character played by Sruthi. 

When on song, K Balachander was a master at establishing plucky characters with an economy of scenes.  Be it Seetha slapping a lecherous old man in a movie theater (Unnal Mudiyum Thambi) or Suhasini turning all inquisitive in the middle of a concert (Sindhu Bhairavi), KB made his audience sit up and take notice of his female leads swiftly.  Sruthi in Kalki sparkles right from the beginning.  One of the best scenes in the film is the sequence where she calms down an agitated former policeman (Thalaivasal Vijay, in a splendid cameo) who brandishes a gun in a supermarket.  She, like other shoppers, is stunned initially.  But the moment she hears of his sad past, she sets her basket aside, approaches him and…kisses him, upon him requesting her.  One can go into the rights and wrongs of the decision she takes.  But for who this character is, this is just about the perfect character establishment scene.  It is also a crucial scene for another reason.  Geetha sees her in action here and is drawn to her because she sees a trait in Kalki that she doesn’t possess – boldness. 

16-min point in the video:

Upon hearing the horrors and trauma of Geetha’s marriage and divorce from Prakashraj and her yearning for a child, Sruthi hatches a plan to get close to Prakashraj, who is now married to Renuka.  She becomes pregnant with his child and decides to ‘gift’ the child to Geetha.  Rahman plays an aspiring film actor who is hopelessly in love with Sruthi.  If that plot is KB-esque in spirit, the way Sruthi essays her role does not really have the stamp of the KB film performance.  And I mean that as a compliment. 

There are some films where I felt like the lead actors and actresses had some all too familiar tics and quirks.  These mannerisms, some endearing, some annoying, made it appear as though the actors were simply acting out instructions and not blending with the characters.  To me, that made some truly three-dimensional characters – on paper – appear as two-dimensional on the rectangular screen.  No such problems are evident with Sruthi’s acting here.  Apart from the customary KB eye-squint at a couple of places, her performance comes across as authentic and in sync with her characterization.  As a result, Kalki comes across as a flesh-and-blood character.  The way she essays this scene (below) is a case in point.  Her agitated movements in the house, the relief upon seeing Rahman and the slaps on his face all come across as absolutely real.  KB’s lines sizzle, especially the manner in which Kalki berates birthday celebrations. (Trivia: After Thillu Mullu, this is the second KB film that features the word, bourgeois!)

1 hr 20 min point in the video:

Sruthi’s performance is especially measured in the rather dramatic concluding portions.  There is tremendous conviction in the way she utters KB’s piercing dialogues.  Especially these two lines – “Naan senjathu than right-nu solla varle, aana naan senjathu thappu illa.”  And, “Karpa vida conviction perisa thonichu.”  It takes an actor of special talents to not only rise above good material but also lift the material itself from paper to screen convincingly.  Sruthi possessed that talent.  Too sad that no other filmmaker in Tamil gave her meaningful material. 

2 hr 25 min point in the video:

Kalki remains a footnote in KB’s illustrious career.  And whatever its flaws may be, I think it deserves more attention.  It is a rare film that makes a mockery of Tamil cinema’s sickening obsession with the virginity of its female characters.  Even the way the film ends is refreshing, for a KB film. (Spoiler alert: The fact that it doesn’t have a tragic ending, in a way, is a statement too against patriarchal notions of purity and virginity.)  Above all, the lead actress turns in a performance that is arresting from start to finish.  And that is reason enough to shed a bit of light on this sadly underrated film. 

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Goodbyes and Beyond

My parents and I had stayed over at my maternal grandparents’ house the night before.  On the morning of March 20, 1994, we were getting ready to leave to our apartment.  My grandpa was going about his usual pre-walk routine – I remember that he used to wear a rather spiffy pair of squeaky-clean sneakers which I envied. (I was a 12-year old who played street cricket.  Enough said.)  I was glued to the TV set in his bedroom because India had started to play quite well against New Zealand in a Test match.  He was mildly annoyed that I was watching TV first thing in the morning.  And then he went to his office room to pick up a couple of sundries while I went downstairs to get ready to leave with my parents.  I drank my Bournvita - three scoops of the powder and two spoons of sugar. (I had a sweet jaw in addition to having a sweet tooth, I think.)  I bade farewell to my grandma and got into the car.  When my Dad was about to pull away, I exclaimed, “Stop, I’ll come right back.”  And I rushed upstairs to my grandpa’s office room, hugged him and said, “Poitu varen, Thatha.” (A loose translation would be, "See you later, grandpa.")  He responded with a surprised smile.  And I rushed back to the car.  Of all the times I had taken leave of him, I don’t ever remember hugging him.  I have no idea why I did that day.   

Today marks 88 years since my grandpa was born.  March 20th of this year was the 26th anniversary of his passing away. (He met with a freak but fatal accident during his walk that day.) I have written considerably about or around my grandpa in this blog and elsewhere.  So, the rest of this write-up is not going to be about him.  Instead, a stream of thoughts flowed through my mind about goodbyes that I wanted to record.

Right off the bat, let me offer a confession.  I am terrible at goodbyes, especially with people who are far away from Pennsylvania (where I live).  At the end of any trip where I have spent time with my loved ones, I feel incredibly heavy.  I dread the moment where I have to say, “see you soon” or…”poitu varen.”   As much as I know that technological advances have made it easier to keep in touch, none of that seems to matter at that moment.  At the risk of sounding terribly sappy, I shall share a simplistic but intensely personal theory of mine.  I sincerely believe that every one of my loved ones – family or otherwise – occupies a distinct, irreplaceable part of my heart.  My personal and professional circles have evolved over time.  Yet the ones that matter, matter.  For instance, I might be visiting a close cousin of mine during a work trip.  At the end of the work trip, I would, after all, be returning to my home, to my family.  But in my simplistic view of my little world, the quality time spent at my cousin’s place made that part of my heart swell with joy and gratitude for my cousin’s existence.  That when it comes to bidding goodbye, I feel numb, I feel empty.  Yet, it’s not a feeling that I would trade for anything.  That is because  there is a magical little phase that extends beyond the goodbye.

When I am on the train, car or plane ride post the trip, I let the emotions of that trip pervade my being.  I focus very specifically on the memory, registering it to the best of my abilities.  I tell myself that just being part of my loved ones’ world is a gift in itself.  I then start to think more practically about how I can, of course, continue to keep in touch via phone, Whatsapp and so on.  It is the strong yearning for that continuity, to have a shared present that also pushes me to have meaningful dialogue with people when I meet them after a gap.  That is not to suggest a mutual exclusivity with the fun elements of interpersonal interactions which have their own joys.  But I do make an attempt to inquire about the things that mean something to them while striving to encapsulate the highs (and sometimes lows, as applicable!) of my life in the time that had elapsed since my prior meeting with them.  It is that continuity that softens the impact of the separation and offers an assuring thought in the mind that I am part of a shared journey that had just witnessed its latest stop.  What felt like a period at the time of the goodbye starts to feel like a comma. 

Of course, I would be lying if I said that every memory is a rosy, joyous one.  That every goodbye has been at the end of a pleasant, enjoyable series of interactions.  I suppose that the emotions experienced in the wake of a visit or a trip is a reliable enough litmus test to gauge any changes in value and importance of a relationship at that point in time.  If the “magical little phase” that I described earlier is replaced by a haunting, upsetting, nightmarish passage of time, then that is a message in itself.  That phase after a trip, at least in my mind, is not just an opportunity to judge others.  More importantly, that is the time to assess my own behaviors and actions.  If I had acted in a way that would have upset others, then I know that I must make every attempt to assuage others' feelings of hurt in a timely, thoughtful manner.

As I reflect on that goodbye on March 20th twenty-six years ago, I reckon that the most obvious thing that I need to remind myself is that life is a boon that is too precious, at times, too short.  That mocking the best laid plans for our journey are those vagaries of fate.  Instead of engaging in the futile exercise of questioning those glorious uncertainties of life, we are much better off shaping our journey with meaningful punctuations before the full stop arrives.

PS: Some of the thinking around "punctuation" and "full stop" in this article is inspired by Kamal's line in Nammavar - "Mutrupulli illaadha vaakyam bore adikum illa."  See link below for the scene where he says this: