Thursday, December 31, 2020

Big Shoes to Fill - A tribute to my dear friend Dhyans

When some people pass on, I get the strong, unshakeable feeling that the ideal person that could nurture me through the grieving process is that person itself. The magnitude of the loss and enormity of the vacuum created by them are so large that only that person – in their absence, their memories – will help gradually fill the void over time. That is exactly how I feel now that my friend since second grade has left me prematurely, irreversibly. While people’s views on death might be variable, could we agree at the outset that 40 is no age to go?

Ramadhyani Narayanan – Dhyans, to me - was an incredibly important person in my life. We were classmates in Chennai from 2nd grade till the 11th. After we finished school (1998), we had never lived in the same city. Our respective journeys took us to places such as Memphis, Irvine, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Hyderabad, Dubai, Mumbai and so on. Never were we in any of those cities together except for when we visited each other in a couple of these places. I don’t know if the lack of proximity in fact made us more ‘responsible’ as friends. We never, ever lost touch with one another. Through our respective life experiences - joys, lows, unfettered elation, unbearable despair – I just knew that there was this fellow that I could always count on. And let me hasten to add, this was a comfort that he gave me even before technological conveniences such as Whatsapp existed.

The Dhyans that I befriended in 2nd grade was not the Dhyans that I interacted with recently. Of course not, you might think. He was 7 then. He turned 40 this year. What I meant was that I have had the sheer luxury of seeing different faces of this marvelous person over the different phases of our lives. He has, at different times, been an impish guy, a happy-go-lucky chap, a daredevil, a risk taker, an insouciant fellow and, in recent times, an incredibly mature, thoughtful person whom I could turn to for measured, personalized advice on any topic. The golden thread that tied the different knots in the story of our life had been his understated affection and immense kindness. He was incapable of meanness. Read that line again. The guy did not have an unkind bone in his body. And if you knew that, his ‘what you see is what you get’ approach to relationships was impossibly endearing, never infuriating.

Two stories that I shall share will hopefully reveal both the lighter side and the more thoughtful side of Dhyans.

The first one happened in November 2005 when we had gone to a mutual friend’s wedding reception in Bangalore. We had traveled as a big gang by train to Bangalore. And while returning, only the two of us were traveling. We had never traveled by air together and we decided to indulge ourselves. The morning of the return flight, instead of preparing to go to the airport, we went to the open ground in our friend’s apartment complex to play cricket! We knew that we were cutting it close but how could we possibly miss a game of cricket? We didn’t.

I am happy to report that I was the first to signal that we were behind the eight ball - not in terms of run rate in the game that we lost - in terms of preparing for our air travel. Dhyans could care less. Not only did he want us to finish the game but also insisted that we eat the piping hot breakfast that our friend’s Mom had lovingly prepared for us. Bangalore road traffic and two hours later, “Boarding closed, gentlemen” was the unambiguous verdict from the airline official. Did that faze Dhyans? Nope. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Vidra, train pidichikalaam!” And off we went to the train station and hopped onto a train whose every junk food item we tasted by the time we reached Chennai hours later. In hindsight, I am just glad that I got to spend six hours with him on the train rather than one on the flight. Life is too short to not be shared enough, you know.

The second story that I would like to share is from 2018. My grandma was in a bedridden state following a massive heart attack. I was seeing Dhyans after a few years. He mentioned to me that he would come to my place at a certain time. I had stepped out only to return a little late. Dhyans was already at my place. I saw his big boots outside the house but couldn’t spot him in our living room. A few seconds later, I saw him by my grandma’s side, gently giving her palms a massage because she had been experiencing excruciating pain. It is not just the gesture that touched me but the casual, unfussy style in which he said, “Dey, Thathama thinks that your massage is no good!” And he turned towards my grandma asking for her confirmation, which she happily gave him. And for the rest of that trip of mine, whenever Dhyans was in the house, he was my grandma’s unofficial physical therapist, exhorting her to do stretching exercises in his absence and assuring her that she would convalesce. She didn’t recover, passing away two months later. But the fact is that Dhyans had alleviated her pain in a manner only he could. Did I say he wore big shoes? Yes, not shoes that can be filled easily.

I constantly complain how the saturation of social media makes us want to just shed spotlight on the peaks of our lives. Dhyans never had time for that kind of superficial brandishing. He was much too deep for that. He wanted to share with and partake in the heights and depths of people whom he trusted. And what more, he extended that kindness to my entire family as well, not just my grandma.

I am grateful you existed, Dhyans. You were one of a kind. Thank you for being there with me and for me till your last day. You know, I could get through this phase better only if you were here.

Rest in peace, my friend, my well-wisher, my brother.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Tamil (Film) Matrimony: A light read on wedding scenes in Tamil Cinema

Courtrooms.  Train Stations.  Wedding Halls.  These three are arguably the oft-visited locations for climactic sequences in Tamil movies since its inception.  I suppose that in their own way, they give writers and directors a setting to heighten the dramatic tension.  A while ago, I had written about the different ways in which trains had been utilized in the movies.  It’s time to show wedding sequences the same love.  As I began to reflect on wedding scenes in Tamil movies, I realized that they spanned the gamut from sublime to hilarious to downright ridiculous.  Hop on.  Let’s take a fun ride to a wild variety of settings – caves, churches, temples and more!

The hilarious:

Sundar C has had a checkered career, headlined by some undisputed comedy classics like Ullathai Allitha but also marred by clunkers like Action and Ambala.  Janakiraman is a rather hilarious but sadly forgotten comedy film of his.  The wedding sequence is an extremely well-choreographed farce, with some rib-tickling lines, my favorite being Manivannan’s exasperated comments to the priest.

The ridiculous:

If you were an ardent Tamil movie fan, you would have seen this coming.  Chinna Thambi would sing in a dulcet voice for every occasion from a baby’s birth to an oil bath. (I am being factual, not facetious.  The situation for the “Uchanthala” song was three muscular men taking an oil bath!)  Yet the guy ties the sacred thread around the heroine’s neck but doesn’t realize that he is marrying her.  If you find this sequence unintentionally funny, for a real skewering, you must check out S Ve Sekar’s spoof, Periathambi.)

The dramatic:

From Vidinja Kalyanam to Thaali Pudhusu, there are films that extend the wedding connection right up to the title.  Scores of films over the decades have utilized the wedding hall setting for dramatic impact.  The dialogue-less climax of AvaL oru Thodarkathai is a masterful piece of direction by K Balachander.  But to me the ‘dramatic’ wedding scene that I find to be the best staged and the most touching is the one directed by his disciple Suresh Krissna, in Aahaa.  The wedding takes place in a house, not a wedding hall.  Every character, big or small, gets an opportunity to shine.  Sometimes, true, enduring beauty lies in minutiae.  Among all the beautifully written vignettes, the Thatha’s inquiry to the hero is a luminous gem of a moment that is as unexpected as it is poignant. 

The coolest:

Strains of Mangalyam Thandhuna… has accompanied many a wedding but when it’s set to tune by AR Rahman, directed by Mani Ratnam and captured by PC Sreeram, it is hard to find something cooler.  A surreptitious wedding has never made one grin harder than the one in Alaipayuthey. 

The romantic:

When the wedding guest Kamal Hassan hollers, “NANCY!” at a church in the middle of Nancy's wedding, you know that her bridegroom doesn’t stand a chance.  He didn’t!  Of course, the girl eloped in full view of her family and the guests! 

I know that this scene is a straight lift from The Graduate.   Nevertheless, the charming screen presence of Kamal Haasan, ably supported by LV Prasad and Y Gee Mahendra, makes this a truly special finish to a delightfully sweet romance.  Raja Paarvai didn’t get the love that it deserved at the time of its release.  But 39 years later, the film has aged as gracefully as its lead actor.

The registrar office:

I think people that get married at the registrar office owe a debt of gratitude to Tamil Cinema for showcasing it, normalizing it, even romanticizing it!  There are far too many registrar office sequences like the ones in Aboorva Sahodarargal, Aasai, Vaali and Kaadhal that have carried incredible emotional and dramatic heft.  But to my knowledge, the first ever Tamil movie scene at a registrar office was in Nenjathai Killathey.  Suhasini plays the reluctant bride-to-be.   Her brother Sarat Babu is accompanied not only by his wife but also a woman with whom he shares a platonic but misunderstood relationship.  Ashok Kumar’s framing is exquisite – the grilled window separating Sarat and the lady symbolizes an almost invisible barrier separating them.

The sublime:

Didn’t I mention a wedding in a cave?  As surreal as it may sound, it is one of the most magnificent emotional highs that I have experienced in a Kamal Haasan film.  Everything about the scene coheres.  Right from Balakumaran’s poetic explanation of “pournami” (“Manasu neranja naaL”) to Roshini’s response to Kamal’s inquiry about the rituals, everything fits into what is a perfect culmination of Guna’s inchoate yet taintless love for his ‘Abirami.’  It would have been a shame had their union been showcased in any conventional manner.  Because it is not a “manidha kaadhal” after all.

And that’s it for the year, folks.  Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Guest post, by Aleida Rosete: Escape from Cuba

In these times when we have all been exposed to family separation due to COVID, I want to share a true life experience. This is my experience and am sure that there are thousands like it that took place in the 1960s. My parents did the most unselfish thing that they could ever have done to ensure that their two precious daughters were not indoctrinated into the Communist thoughts. For, you see, my family lived in Cuba in the 1960s when Castro came to power. My parents immediately recognized that the regime was not one under which they wanted to live and not a system to bring up their daughter. They decided to process the papers to get our visas to come legally into the United States – the land where opportunity and freedom existed. 

My sister and myself were given the ability to leave Cuba; however, my parents were not granted this permission – they were to come sometime later at an unknown date. Concurrently, my godmother and her son (my cousin) had presented their papers and were granted the ability to leave the country. My sister (6 at the time) and myself (9 at the time), along with my godmother and cousin, were able to proceed with getting the departure dates ready. My parents were strong, staunch individuals (I am not sure that I would have been that strong) who took us to the airport and had to leave us to go into the “pecera” (the fish bowl) by ourselves with my godmother and cousin. They had spoken to my sister and I the night before and told us that they were not coming with us and that my sister had to listen to what I was telling her to do.  This was the day I became an adult and knew I had a real responsibility for my sister’s well-being. 

The Pan Am plane came and was being prepared for our flight to Miami. Mom and Dad would come by the “pecera” and blow kisses and hugs through the glass which, of course, we returned. We had a short flight to Miami. My godmother and cousin deserted us by the luggage carousel – can you imagine discarding two helpless little angels, not looking back to see what would happen to us. My father had a good friend in Miami who went to the airport to meet us and wondered where my godmother and cousin had gone. He and his wife were in charge of the teenage housing for one of the Catholic refuge camp that had been opened for children being sent to the US from Cuba by themselves. Thank God for their being at the airport. They were granted approval to bring us to the refuge camp and keep us under their care. This was during the celebration of Christmas (Little Kings Day), so they ensured that we celebrated as if nothing had changed. But, it had – my parents weren’t there and we had no household to claim. 

Within a week, my sister and I were given a ‘scholarship’ to a Catholic Orphanage in Ohio. Within a matter of two weeks, we had become individuals in a foreign country not knowing the customs or the language and living in an orphanage even though we were not orphans. 

We reunited with our parents much later. But that topic is for another write-up!


Ram's note - Aleida, thank you so much for sharing your deeply moving, immensely inspirational story of humanity amid adversity.  Your amazingly positive spirit is something that I shall continue to be in awe of.  Thank you for giving me the honor of posting your story for the blog.  
With much affection and admiration,

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Missed Spotlights #6 - Savitha Reddy's voice work in Parthen Rasithen

More so than has been the case with other dubbing artistes, Savitha Reddy has been one whose work has received a fair share of recognition in the past 20 years.  She shot into prominence with her astounding work behind the mic for Simran in Vaali.  Simran had essayed an incredibly complex role, that of a woman caught between an extremely good man and his twin-brother, a lustful beast.  The character’s heart was filled with love for the former and (rightful) contempt for the latter.  And Savitha’s voice had played no small role in helping bolster the impact of Simran’s performance.  But to me, the film that stands out as the best testimony of the quality and power of her work is Saran’s Parthen Rasithen. 

Parthen Rasithen is the story of two vastly different characters in love with the same man (Prashanth).  The Simran character is a feisty, fiery one, in sharp contrast to the timid Laila – Savitha dubbed for both of them!  When Simran realizes that her love is going to go unrequited, she goes about chalking out a devious plan and finally, reveals her cards at the most inopportune moment for Prashanth. 

The scene where she reveals her plan and her love for Prashanth is a memorable one.  Savitha’s voice is in lockstep with Simran’s terrific performance.  Simran’s character is not evil, just an obsessive one who has as much pain in her heart as steely determination.  This is revealed beautifully by both the actress and the voice behind screen.  Observe the way Simran places a stethoscope on her chest and says, “Shankar…Shankar…  The shriek right afterwards where she barks, “Unaku puriyadhu…” is superbly delivered.  As the sequence progresses, the juxtaposition of pain and mad fury escalates.  Especially poignant is the way Simran grabs Prashanth’s shirt and says, “Naasama poga…una thedo thedu-nu theditaaLe…  Savitha’s voice cracks just a little to reveal the pain but the clear enunciation and the changes in tone are beautifully done. 

Equally effective is the scene where Simran taunts Laila.  By now the Simran character has switched the gears of obsession and desperation up many notches.  And she decides to threaten Laila with dire consequences.  This is a rather scary sequence where she orders Lawrence to disrobe Laila.  Simran is in dazzling form in this scene; so is Savitha.  There are several standout lines written by Saran, none more powerful than, “Ena mela paakareKrishna Paramaathma vandhu pudava kudupaar na…”  Also, the manner in which Savitha delivers the, “Unai pudavaiyil paarka aasai” line reveals the full magnitude of Simran’s scorn. (It was a line uttered by Prashanth earlier.)  The way Simran pinches Laila’s cheek while uttering the line is a non-violent but an intense moment nevertheless.  This is another instance of the acting on screen and the acting behind the mic being in perfect sync.  That Savitha dubbed for Laila too and the voice sounds vastly different from the voice for Simran speaks volumes (pun intended!) of her talent.

That sync between the voice artiste and the actor is achieved only when there is complete dedication on both fronts.  There have been many instances where an actress’ lip sync goes awry and it is left to the voice artiste to repair the damage done on screen! (Check out pretty much any of Shriya’s movies for a demonstration!)  But as Baradwaj Rangan mentioned in his recent interview with Simran, the latter has been one that takes great pains to ensure that the lip sync, or lack thereof, never serves as a distraction.  When the actress inhabits the character she is playing with the kind of conviction that Simran does, I am sure that it is a pleasure for the dubbing artiste to complement the efforts with their voice.  I was equally chuffed that Simran graciously acknowledged the contribution of voice artistes like Savitha and Deepa Venkat.  To me, Parthen Rasithen and Savitha’s voice work will be a crown jewel for both Savitha and Simran.  In short, Parthen RasithenKaetten Rasithen!