Friday, September 25, 2020

He stood tall: Reflections on SPB & “Sigaram”

SP Balasubramaniam leaves behind a deluge of memories that threaten to flood the mind for many more days to come.  But in a strange way, when artistes pass on, I tend to instinctively zone in one abiding memory that becomes even more indelible.  With MSV, it was “Kanaa Kaanum KangaL Mella…” from Agni Saatchi.  In the case of Vaali, it has been and will always be, “Ellorum Sollum Paatu” and “Nalam Vaazha” from Marupadiyum.  Ever since I heard the news of SPB’s unfortunate demise, my thoughts have been focused on Ananthu’s Sigaram (1991).  SPB played the role of a music director in the film, was the music director for the film and sung one of his most soulful numbers, Vannam Konda Vennilavey…To say that he excelled in each of these roles is not just hyperbole in the wake of his death.  Rather, it is an honest opinion that I would like to record amidst all the tributes that are overflowing online.

The title Sigaram refers to Damodaran, a highly successful music director.  He has a loving wife (the talented Rekha turns in a lovely performance) but his only child (Anand Babu) is an alcoholic.  The joys and lows of a successful professional with immense sadness in his personal life, are brought out beautifully by SPB.  He imbues every scene and every line with immense warmth and grace.  Listen to him confess to his colleague (NizhalgaL Ravi) that his son “is committing the longest suicide.”  It is a great line but the tenderness with which SPB utters it is what makes it tug at our heartstrings.  In fact, every scene of SPB and Rekha is a delight to behold.  SPB’s onscreen persona (from all accounts, his real-life character too) has mostly been that of a genteel, delicate, respectful man.  And Sigaram, much like his other celebrated roles, is a showcase for his acting abilities.  There is a wonderful little sequence where SPB seeks Rekha’s permission to go to Singapore for a concert.  Right from the way he thanks her for giving him coffee, to the mischievous “contraceptive” comment, he plays this scene with endearing artlessness.

Pretty much every aspect of the Vannam Konda Vennilavey… song is remarkable.   The context for the song (one that Damodaran composes for a film), the tune and the lyrics are all encapsulated into the first five minutes of the film.  But especially poignant are the two scenes where we hear snippets of it later in the film.  One is the scene where visually challenged kids visit an ailing Damodaran and sing a few lines for him.  It is a very KB-esque moment. (Ananthu was KB’s Man Friday for several decades.)  Even more poignant, especially now that SPB has left us, is the sequence where Damodaran returns from Singapore following his wife’s death.  The way Ananthu utilizes silence to build up to the cathartic moment where SPB breaks down, is a masterful demonstration of cinematic technique in service of stupendous acting.  Sigaram is filled with many such moments, big and small, where the writing, filmmaking and acting are top notch.  Not many may have savored these moments, which is why I chose to highlight this film for my tribute. 

As I reflect on the innumerable pleasures that SPB the 'sigaram' gave me as a singer, actor and composer, two phrases from Vannam Konda Vennilavey… assume added significance now:

Vinniley Paadhai illai…Unnai Thoda AeNi illai…

Rest in peace, Sir.  And thank you for the memories.


You will have to open the video in youtube to watch the film.  Here're the sequences/songs I referenced in the article:

The context for Vannam Konda Vennilavey... (1 min 41 sec point)

The husband-wife interaction (1:03:16 min point)

The kids singing "Vannam konda..." for SPB (1:48:31 min point)

The stillness and silence of death (1:09:10 min point)

Friday, September 11, 2020

Missed Spotlights #4: The seniors in Nee Paathi Naan Paathi

Film critic Baradwaj Rangan’s delightful two-part interview with director Vasanth touched upon his 30-year journey as a filmmaker.  The conversation touched upon Vasanth’s moments of glory as well as despair.  Vasanth too was in a completely philosophical, reflective frame of mind as he analyzed the pluses and minuses of his films.  More so than has been the case in any interview of his, there was a fair amount of discussion on Nee Paathi Naan Paathi (1991), his sophomore effort.  The film did not receive the encomiums or the commercial response of his astonishing debut, the much feted Keladi Kanmani.  29 years post release, Nee Paathi... is instantly associated by many with the marvelous, ingeniously picturized Nivetha… song.  But this is not a film that can be written off easily.  Far from it, actually.  And that is because it features a quintet of fantastic performances, starting with Gautami and four senior actors – Manorama, Srividya, Jaishankar and Delhi Ganesh. (Sulakshana is good too, but these four are splendid.)  Truth to be told, Gautami’s controlled, riveting portrayal of a complex character deserves a post of its own.  So, I shall focus on the senior citizens who truly drive the plot forward in the first half.

Jaishankar is married to Sulakshana but has a longstanding extramarital relationship with Srividya.  Gautami is their daughter.  Delhi Ganesh and Manorama play Rahman’s parents.  While the former is a friendly, lenient father, the latter is a proud martinet who is staunchly opposed to the concept of a ‘love marriage.’  Gautami and Rahman fall in love, knowing fully well that their marriage is not going to take place under easy circumstances.  The reactions of the seniors to their love affair are varied and superbly showcased on screen.  While Srividya and Delhi Ganesh are enthusiastic in their support, Jaishankar is quietly supportive.  But the ticking time bomb in this story is Manorama.  There is genuine suspense in Delhi Ganesh’s attempts to unite Gautami and Rahman.  We know that his ploy is dangerous and that Manorama, when she realizes the truth, is going to explode.

Once the character establishment is accomplished in an economy of scenes, the plot really kicks in at the end of the Kaalamulla varai… song.  Gautami, even in a moment of unbridled passion, pauses and requests Rahman that they consummate their relationship only after getting married. (Gautami is terrific in this scene, as she is in the entire film; Vaishnavi’s voice work too is pitch-perfect.)  That sets off the plot into motion.  Save a couple of comedy sequences featuring Janakaraj, the stretch, starting from this scene (at the 49-min point in the video below) up until the intermission is a series of scenes of sustained brilliance in terms of writing, staging and performances.  Vasanth, an ace at writing and fleshing out elderly characters, is in glorious form in these scenes.

Delhi Ganesh steals the lighthearted scenes with his customary gusto.  He is equally good in the terrace scene where he urges Rahman to elope with Gautami.  Jaishankar is supremely effective in the scenes where he apologizes to Srividya and pleads with Manorama.  Manorama sinks her teeth into the mother role with relish, delivering her sharp lines with utmost conviction.  Watch the sequence in the kitchen where she burns a photograph of Gautami.  The force with which she washes her hands and flings the towel are in perfect sync with the lines she utters.  But the best of them all, arguably my favorite female performer of all time, is Srividya.  Her work in this film sadly went unnoticed.  She is enormously moving in the scene where she recounts all her life’s mistakes and holds herself responsible for Gautami’s plight. 

As Vasanth himself admitted in the Rangan interview, we miss these characters sorely in the second half.  (Once they elope at the intermission point, the milieu shifts to Ooty and becomes the story of Rahman, Gautami and Heera in the absence of these seniors.)  It is easy to be wise after the event.  Nevertheless, it is not hard to foresee the kind of stabilizing influence these anchors could have had on the second half, much like Nagesh, Vatsala Rajagopal and Lakshmi had in Rhythm.  As Vasanth noted in the interview, the copious notes he wrote following the mixed reactions to Nee Paathi Naan Paathi certainly had its effect on his later films.  

Strong supporting characters are a pleasure to behold.  They bring a sense of verisimilitude that is lacking in films whose sole purpose is to glorify the protagonist.  But in order to achieve heightened realism, it is imperative that all characters, big or small, come across as living, breathing individuals on screen, not just in service of the leads.  Vasanth has demonstrated this over and over in his films.  Actors like Poornam Vishwanathan (Aasai), Raghuvaran and Shanti Krishna (Nerukku Ner) are few of his character actors who had roles with their unique characteristics, idiosyncrasies and most importantly, arcs.  By creating a narrative arc for a supporting character, a Director is signaling that he is interested in following these people through the course of their journeys.  And the journey that we take with the seniors for at least the first half of Nee Paathi Naan Paathi is a meaningful ride, one that deserves more than a speck of light.