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. :)

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