Thursday, July 29, 2021

No missed calls, please

I believe that film directors are invariably terrific conversationalists.  The ones that I have had the fortune of meeting in person have given me food for thought on topics that extend beyond cinema.  C Prem Kumar, the director of 96, is one such deep thinker.  In an interview with Abhishek, he casually tossed off a line that was pregnant with meaning.  Prem said, “UngaLoda pazhamai…ungaLode kadantha kaalam ungaLuku solradhuku konjam vishyam vechrukum…” (It roughly translates into, "Your past will have a set of learnings for you...")  It set me off on a trail of thought around the kind of evolution that I am comfortable with vis-√†-vis what I cannot subscribe to. 

I am fully aware of the fact that nostalgia brings it with a pair of flimsy, rose-tinted glasses.  We sometimes revisit past events, norms and mores with more fondness than they deserve.  And that sometimes is okay if it serves the purpose of giving us lightness of heart to keep us going in the present.  Since both the past and the present have their positives and negatives, it is imperative that nostalgia be balanced with evolution.  It is a dangerous thing to live so much in the past that it paralyzes the present.  At the same time, it is important to resist the temptation to be callously dismissive of the past.  A sense of balance is as necessary as it can be elusive. 

Interpersonal connection is one area where I constantly wage this internal tug of war.  Really, it is not a ‘war’ as much as it is a sense of discomfiture.  Let me explain.  Through my childhood, youth and adulthood, I have seen quite a stunning evolution in technological advancements that aid communication.  I have used rotary phones as a kid.  Cordless phones were a huge source of amusement since for the first time I had privacy while talking on the phone. (How could my parents possibly hear my ‘spirited’ exchanges with my friends around whether Sachin Tendulkar or Brian Lara was the greatest cricketer of all time?!)

When I moved to the US in the late 90s, I wrote letters and sent handwritten greeting cards to my near and dear back in India.  Since calls from the US to India were charged by the minute, I would pick one person every weekend and would rotate amongst them for a lengthy call every weekend.  My paternal grandma would offer well-meaning advice and a stern warning in the same breath – “Bill-u romba aagardhu, phone porum Ram!” ("Be mindful of the phone bill!")  Cell phone plans had ‘free’ minutes with a finite limit.  Video calling was the stuff of science fiction.  Internet connection was dial-up.  The strident sounds that emanated from the bulky computer as one connected to the internet were tolerable only because of the dulcet sounds of new mail notifications that followed.  The feeling of connectedness that e-mails provided was sheer magic. 

Over the years, cell phones have evolved into a world unto themselves.  With seemingly unlimited minutes and data available at our fingertips, with the utilitarian and entertainment value of the apps expanding continually, phones have become an enormously indispensable part of our lives.  Thanks to a plethora of technological innovations, connectivity has become significantly more convenient.  But as I always maintain, connectivity and connection are not the same.  Just because we can connect does not mean that we do. 

Let me revisit Prem’s quote.  What it truly means to me is that we must continually charge ourselves with separating the core from the externals, the substance from the style, the enduring from the ephemeral.  It is fine for us, for instance, to enjoy the benefits and pleasure that our smart phones give us.  But we must ask ourselves the question, what from our past have we chosen to leave behind and if we are comfortable with our choices?  For instance, in the past, I needed to meet up, talk on the phone and/or exchange e-mails to share things about me and ensure that I learned about the things that mattered.  Now I can send a Whatsapp message or share a picture, video or leave a voice note.  But am I really ensuring that the spirit of the relationships stay intact over time, with all these changes? 

The charm of an in-person exchange over a caffeinated beverage might be impossible to recreate with a brief asynchronous Whatsapp exchange.  And in this increasingly fast-paced world and sheer distances, it might not even be feasible to do much beyond the periodic chat messages.  That is a reality that we would do well to accept.  Yet, amidst all the obstacles, it is possible to ensure that we do not lose the depth that is so vital to the key relationships in our life. 

I sometimes would feel wonderful seeing a “Hope all is well” message from someone I trust.  The perceptive ones know that to genuinely connect with the other person in a relationship does not take hours on the phone.  A thoughtful four-word message might be what it takes.  But so often, I see more and more people engage in frivolity and meaningless forwarded messages as a way of convincing themselves that they are keeping in touch with the people to whom they matter.  I am not opposed to sharing a laugh over a witty meme or the like.  What irks me is when people adopt a dismissive attitude to obscure a complete lack of depth and try to convince others that one must change with changing times.  We are all different in terms of the degree to which we stick to what has worked in the past as well as our attitudes towards change.  But I stick to my conviction that the core of a relationship, the vibes of assurance and the feelings of security that we jointly etch must not be erased by the winds of change. 

I subscribe to Prem’s thinking that the positive artefacts of our past need to be given due respect.  We need to, of course, be cognizant of the ways in which our society has evolved, sometimes using, at other times abusing the tools and services we have at our disposal.  It is essential to lose certain regressive attitudes and norms from the past because not everything from the past is positive or rosy.  At the same time, it is imperative to not lose certain core elements of ourselves in search of what is considered ‘cool’ or ‘modern.’  Scientific advances, technological innovations, novel services are all means, not an end.  At the end of the day, whether we choose to channel these advances in service of enhanced human connection – that is a call we need to take.  If we fail to demarcate between the means and the end, well, that is a missed call that no service provider can prevent. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

A matter of chance?

I have always maintained that pretty much everything that one needs to learn about life can be found in Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture.”  Such is the case with the topic of ‘luck.’  Pausch observes, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.”  The statement drips with pithiness and profundity in equal measure.  As I reflect on the numerous instances where I have been blessed with “opportunities”, be it in a personal or a professional setting, I find one common ballast to all the buoyant moments – people, and their kindness.  Several people have opened doors for me.  Doors that have led me into castles of joy or havens of peace. 

As I chalk out a list of moments from my professional life where I have considered myself fortunate, the one common theme is how people took a chance on me.  I have gotten job opportunities where my prior background did not exactly align to the requirements.  But a hiring manager might have sensed a mix of potential and passion in how I might have made a case for myself.  While I can take a portion of the credit, I would be incredibly remiss if I were to be oblivious of the risk that the person would have taken, when ‘safer’ choices may have been on offer.  The “preparation” part might not be sufficient but is absolutely necessary.  We need to, as Harsha Bhogle eloquently says, exhibit a combination of “ability, attitude and passion.”  It is hard to find a trifecta of success factors more potent than this.  If the “opportunity” part of luck is the uncontrollable, “preparation” certainly is not.

In my personal life too, I have been incredibly lucky to have a small set of people who share their vulnerabilities with me.  Of all the things that I can feel lucky about, why did I choose vulnerabilities?  The answer is simple.  They didn’t have to, but they chose to.  To share their deepest fears, insecurities, and above everything, giving us the license to be a shoulder for them to lean on.  I have felt immensely lucky whenever I have been given these privileges.  It is an honor to be entrusted with one’s vulnerabilities.  They say that eyes are the windows to a soul.  Eyes filled with tears, be it of anguish or of happiness, are akin to the center of a courtyard house.  A bird’s eye view might suggest an open layout.  But only a trusted visitor would gain actual access to it.  There are the same people with whom I can share my highs and lows without fear of resentment or judgement.  As I introspect about my meaningful relationships, it is hard to pinpoint who among us was the first person to share something significant.  But nevertheless, when the sharing is both ways, the bond is immeasurably, inextricably strengthened.

While I consider ‘luck’ in the personal and professional settings to be of different flavors, some of the fundamental ingredients are identical.  The generosity of spirit that characterizes people who take a chance on me and give me an “opportunity” to be part of their trusted circle, be it a team at work or the inner circle of a friend.  The presence of psychological safety and the absence of judgement that give us the confidence to let the truest version of ourselves shine.  And the “preparation” part is what we bring to the table.  In the workplace, it is our commitment to put our best foot forward, to adapt with agility and act with empathy for our coworkers.  In our personal lives, we must be prepared to do something very similar.  That is, to bring the authentic, unfiltered version of ourselves to the people that matter.  If the elements of this concoction are in the right portions, then the end product of luck is rarely a matter of chance. 

Monday, June 21, 2021

That's immaterial: Reflections on material possessions

I shall get something out of the way.  No, the takeaway from this write-up is not that there are myriad little pleasures in life that money can’t buy.  While it is certainly a laudable line of thinking, I choose to delve a little deeper into the topic of material possessions than resort to the convenience of a noble thought.  Truth and reality are more complex and multilayered than nobility. 

Cars.  Watches.  Sunglasses.  Fountain pens.  Shirts.  These are, in no particular order, some of the material possessions that I derive great joy from.  I take great care in ensuring that they are well-maintained and despite my butter fingers (my ‘dropped’ phones will narrate a tragic tale if you ask them), I rarely, if ever, misplace or scratch the items on this list.  I have, more than once, been completely enamored with something that I have seen online or in a store that I subsequently take considerable effort saving up money for. (This has happened quite often with watches.) Despite the objects being seemingly inanimate, they seem to acquire a magical life of their own.  They make me smile, feel good about myself and add a spring in my stride.  The painstaking process of refilling ink in a fountain pen, testing its quality on a notepad, the winding of an automatic watch.  These little routines never come across as chores to me because I enjoy the process inside out.  Sample this.  I recently bought a pen since I thought that it had a faint resemblance to the one used by Kamal Hassan in the movie, "Indian."  And I wrote “Indian” in Tamil to test it out, the way Kamal signs off Nedumudi Venu’s petition for the thamarai pattayam!

All of this might sound sunny and heady.  But the catch here is that we don’t live in an island by ourselves.  We don’t live in a world where we just admire our own possessions.  Deep down, to some degree, we seek validation of our choices.  I am sure there are exceptions so, let me speak for myself instead of generalizing.  I do enjoy genuine compliments.  As much as I experience tremendous intrinsic happiness from material possessions, I do smile when someone recognizes an effort that I may have put into color-coordinate a watch and a shirt. (Yes, I do spend some time on stuff like that!) What I have realized over time is that if I derive even a wee bit of sunshine from external validation, I must be equally prepared for the darkness that stems from sarcasm, meanness and negativity.

Let me begin by saying that I am sure I have come across as sarcastic or hurtful.  I am sure that I have said something about a person’s taste or choices of clothing or accessories that have hurt them.  As I have grown older, it is my sincere hope that I have become a kinder person, one who is not averse to taking feedback and course correcting.  I do think that conversations around material possessions are dicey territory.  I have been blindsided on a few occasions by comments that I perceived to be completely unwarranted and hurtful.  People can get so passionate about an object of their liking that they can give off the vibe that if you don’t subscribe to that thought, that your choices are subpar.  My Uncle once shared this Latin phrase, “De gustibus non est disputandum.”  It means that matters of taste should not be disputed.  Easy to say - I mean, it's not easy to pronounce but you know what I mean! -  but hard to implement, correct?

To me, the X standard (I would say "gold" but please fill in the gem or stone of your choice) for someone acting with true ‘class’ was my maternal grandpa’s best friend, Mr. Sivasailam.  My grandpa was a middle-class bank employee, completely contented man who lived life on his own terms.  Sivasailam Mama was an industrialist who headed a large group of companies.  I have witnessed first-hand the grace with which he carried himself.  The socioeconomic differences between them existed on paper, not once besmirching the exquisitely woven fabric of their friendship.  Whenever Mama bought a new car, he would take us all for a drive, even taking the time to explain to a kid like me the new features of the car.  I would look at it all with wide-eyed wonder.  Now, my wide-eyed wonder is a result of introspecting on how he never once made me or anyone in my family feel ‘lesser’ in any way.  In a utopian world, everybody would be like him.  Alas, we don’t live in one.

While we don’t live in islands by ourselves, we can create small mental islands where only a select few are allowed in.  These are the ones with whom we must share the joys that we experience from anything material (or intangible, for that matter).  We also owe it to the people whom we invite to our islands to feel psychologically safe enough to share their own sources of pleasure, whatever they may be.  Above all, to make them feel like they have the privilege to push back and question our choices.  I remember a well-meaning Uncle of mine telling me in no uncertain terms to not buy a car that I was eyeing.  He told me that I should act more prudently.  Not only did I heed his advice – I ended up buying that car 11 years later – but I am thankful for the fact that when I finally ‘earned’ it (after saving up a little more like he advised me to), the ‘success’ tasted sweeter.  If we create these little spaces in our mind with a select few with whom we feel safe, we immunize ourselves to any hurt that anyone else could cause us.  And if someone whom we consider as part of our trusted circle ends up hurting us repeatedly, we can then alert ourselves to answer the question of whether they merit(ed) inclusion in the circle in the first place.

One bit of advice that I have received (from Professor Sheena Iyengar, author of “The Art of Choosing”) that I never tire of repeating is, “Be choosy about choosing and you will choose well.”  It applies to the number of people we choose to include in our trusted circle, the ones with whom we share any highs that we may derive from the things we achieve, items we buy, etc.  There is a certain amount of respect that we all earn by wearing not only our learnings but also our earnings lightly.  I have seen my grandpa’s friend live his life in a way where his relationships and his acquisitions co-existed peacefully without markedly encroaching each other’s territory.  By genuinely respecting the people around him, the value of his asset that was genuine class appreciated till the very end of his life, and beyond.  I suppose that when someone loves her or his loved ones so thoughtfully, whether or not they also love material possessions…well, that’s immaterial!


Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Off the beaten path: My Memories of Parthiban’s Housefull


It was the Fall of 1998.  My parents and I had just moved to the US after I had completed high school in Chennai.  My Dad’s work had brought us to the US.  More specifically to Memphis, Tennessee.  As my parents worried about the logistics of starting afresh in a new country, I had my own concerns.  One of the chief questions was, how exactly was I going to keep in touch with Indian cricket and Tamil movies?  For cricket, I had to resign to checking for daily updates. (Cricinfo happened later, if my memory serves me right.) For Tamil movies, luckily, there was an Indian store that rented out VHS cassettes.  

What also helped my literary interests was the availability of Anandha Vikatan!  My parents somehow found a way to get the magazine shipped to our home.  I loved the previews and reviews offered by the magazine.  It was during one such quest for cinema knowledge (!) that I happened upon a striking still of an old man.  Salt and pepper hair, with an emphasis on the salt, metal-rimmed glasses, a walrus mustache, this man looked vaguely familiar.  Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was one of my favorite actors, Radhakrishnan Parthiban. 

I read about his upcoming film, Housefull, that he starred in, wrote, directed, and produced.  It was advertised as a thriller set in a movie theater.  This was a time when cell phones had not become prevalent.  So, the plot made sense.  Bombs are planted in a movie theater.  But oblivious of being at peril, the audience is engaged in watching the film while the police, the bomb squad and most importantly, the theater owner (played superbly by Parthiban) strive to rescue the people inside and, if possible, salvage the theater too.

I anticipated this film with much eagerness.  I had gone to India for a 3-week trip in December.  But I was saddened to hear that I had to fly back a day before the film’s release for Pongal 1999.  Those were the days before youtube reviews, Twitter posts and social media frenzy.  For most films, one had to wait for a while for the reviews and reports to come in.  I slowly got the sinking feeling that the mostly glowing reviews were not translating to box office receipts for the film.  Nevertheless, I wanted to check out the film.  There it was in the cassette rack, one fine Friday afternoon in late February.  No sooner had we arrived at our house than I rushed to the video cassette player with the tape in hand.  I told my folks that I did not want to be interrupted for the next couple of hours, for I had finished my homework. (This last detail, I am a bit unsure, but let’s go with my memory anyway!)

The film

This film had me hooked right from the title score.  It is a haunting piece, one of Ilayaraja’s unfortunately forgotten scores.  Raja was and continues to be a master of establishing the mood of a film with his title score.  For Housefull, his title score is not suggestive of a thriller.  Rather, the score comes off as gentle and tender, reflective of the fact that at the heart of the film is a soft-hearted man who must deal with an impending danger to the love of his life, his movie theater. 

The film is an ensemble piece that features a slew of actors with their own subplots and arcs.  A love story featuring an energetic Vikram and a perky Suvalakshmi.  An emotional back story for the theater owner and his former wife.  An amusing comedy track featuring a bumbling crook, played by Vadivelu.  A policeman and a bomb squad lead working in concert to devise a plan to save the theater and the audience.  A visually-impaired man who ‘watches’ the film in his mind’s eye.  A fully pregnant woman and her rickshaw-driver husband. (In what is testament to Parthiban’s yen for the minute detail, we see this husband as an auto driver at the start of the film before the flashback begins.)  At times, one does get the feeling of Parthiban packing the film with too much detail and too many characters.  Equally valid is the argument that he finds a way to make them all cohere as part of his narrative, with no loose ends.  Every character has either logistical significance as part of the rescue operation or an emotional arc that has a satisfying closure.  Apart from Parthiban’s Aiyya character, which I will get to in a bit, my favorite of the lot is his Man Friday played by Nair Raman.  He makes us smile at many places with his staunch loyalty and worldly-wise attitude but also makes us misty-eyed with his performance in the scene where Aiyya gives him and other theater employees a sum of money, requesting them to leave the premises.

Amidst these colorful characters, the anchor of this film is Parthiban’s Aiyya.  Parthiban reserves the best lines of the film for himself.  The lines have, in equal measure, potency and profundity.  Sample this.  When he realizes that he cannot afford to make the police officers act in haste, he likens their situation to that of a surgeon who must remain calm even when a patient is fighting for her or his life.  If this is an appropriate analogy for the situation, equally apropos is the way he describes his theater as “en amma…en kozhandhai.”  When a well-meaning police officer urges him to leave the premises to a safer setting, he says, “Ipo thane sonnen, indha theater en amma, en kozhandhai.  Unga Amma-vuko kozhandhai-ko serious-na apdiye uttutu poiduvengaLa.  Angaye irundhu poraada maatenga.  Enakum apdi thaan.”  Fans of his acting style marvel at his felicity with words.  But it is important that we don’t mistake the accessibility of his language for lack of depth.  For this film, Parthiban eschews his fast-paced manner of talking in favor of a more measured delivery befitting an old man.  And he sparkles in this character where he cast himself against type.

Technically, Housefull is one of Parthiban’s most accomplished films.  If Ilayaraja’s background score elevates the bomb diffusing scenes to great heights, MV Panneer Selvam’s camerawork is of high standard.  There is an enormously poignant scene where Aiyya, upon realizing that his theater is in serious danger, stretches out his arms almost as if to envelop the theater.  The camera behind Aiyya gives us a stunning view of the theater.  The artwork too (by RK Nagu) of the theater is exquisite.

The irony and the ingenuity of this film’s climax deserves much praise.  Right from Pudhiya Paadhai, Parthiban has given us some powerful images and lines featuring infants and kids.  Ditto for the climax of Housefull that features an infant sobbing in the middle of the road.  Parthiban’s expression upon realizing that the infant is on the movie screen and not in the theater, is one that left a lump in my throat.  The loss of Aiyya’s life makes a statement on the futility of violence in a way no amount of dialogue can. (It is deeply moving that throughout the film, Aiyya keeps saying, "Oru usuru kooda poga koodathu." In the end, it is only his life that is lost to senseless violence.)


Cut back to the scene in Memphis.  Once I finished watching the film, I could not stop gushing about it.  I wanted to meet the creator who had given me a movie experience that I well and truly relished.  But I did not know Parthiban nor did I know anyone who knew him.  A couple of years later, on a trip to India, I bought his book, KirukalgaL.  In it, was a bookmark that contained the address and phone number of his office.  I wrote a 10-page letter and mailed it (you know, snail mail existed; it still does!) from Memphis to his address.  It was located at Temple View apartments.  But since the bookmark said, ‘Kovil Noakku Kudiyirupu’ in Tamil, I wrote the same in English!  It is a miracle that the letter reached him!  A few weeks later, to my utter surprise, he sent me a handwritten response, with the words, “En thiramai saarndha ungaL thirunaayvum anbu soozhndha kadithamum kanden!”  My day, week and month were made!

During subsequent trips to India, I tried to reach him on the phone, in vain.  And then, my luck and persistence both paid off.  When I once called him from Pittsburgh (where I was doing my Masters), luckily his office aide put me through to him.  That conversation was the first of many that I have had the fortune of having with this creator some of whose works have meant much to me.  Most recently, I met with him in 2019 after the release of Oththa Seruppu Size 7.  They say that the daring of the youth tends to metamorphose into a more measured approach as people age.  But with Parthiban, with age, the temerity and the yen to experiment have only grown manifold.  I just hope that unlike Housefull, his ambitious ventures receive the awards and the rewards they deserve, at the time of release, not later.  It is not just important that technology has evolved from the days of VHS cassettes; our audience appreciation for pathbreaking films must evolve too! 

Monday, May 17, 2021

Un paere theriyadhu - A compilation of brief but impactful roles

Have you ever watched a movie and reflected on a small moment that either touched you or made you smile?  Not one featuring the lead actor or even the key supporting cast.  Instead, an actor in a much smaller role, one whose name you probably don’t even know.  It is the mark of a skilled writer that he or she can etch a role that might not have much screen time, but its impact endures.  Without further ado, here are some of my favorite fleeting moments that fit this description.  The title of this write-up notwithstanding, in some cases, I do know the actor’s name, in others I don’t.

The flight passenger in Uyare… (2019)

Uyare… is a movie that already soars high thanks to its ever-fabulous lead actress, Parvathy Thiruvothu.  She is incandescent in a role that goes through the horrible experience of – spoiler alert – an acid attack.  Thanks to her friend (an utterly charming Tovino Thomas), she gets the job of an air hostess.  In her first flight, an elderly gentleman asks her, “Excuse me, young lady.  What is your name?”  When she replies, he politely asks her, “Can I give you a hug?”  The gentle manner in which he hugs and pats her is so endearingly avuncular.  The scene ends on a lovely note when he requests her for a cup of piping hot coffee.  Even the way he bobs his head at the end is delightfully sweet.  If I ever were to meet this actor, I would ask, “Excuse me, gentleman.  What is your name?”

The nurses in Sillu Karuppatti (2019)

To put a twist on the Forrest Gump line, Sillu Karuppatti is a box of candies where you always know that you are going to get something delicious.  Every actor creates an impact, from the perky kid that accompanies Maanja to the kids that play Sunaina-Samudrakani’s children.  Among these little gems are the nurses that tend to the Manikandan character as he undergoes treatment for his cancer.  The teary-eyed nurse that holds the ‘hope’ sign for Manikandan is a standout – in an unfussy manner she shows the compassion that can make a nurse-patient relationship a memorable bond.  So is the other nurse that lovingly says to Manikandan that she was scared that he’d fly away.  When he starts laughing and grimaces (due to the stitches), she smiles and requests him to not exert himself.  Again, I don’t know their names.  But what’s in a name when the impact is this indelible.

The Subash character (actor Balaji) in Aruvi (2017)

Aruvi is filled with characters that have quirks and idiosyncrasies.  As hard as it is to look beyond Aditi Balan’s riveting performance, there are other bright spots too.  The character of Subash (played by actor Balaji) is one of them.  Balaji’s comic timing is amazingly precise in the dumb charades sequence.  His antics are a hoot, my favorite being his reaction to Aditi giving him a completely obscure movie title to meme.

Sister Vanessa in Anbe Sivam (2003)

In Tamil Cinema, we have all been conditioned to scenes in the Church setting accompanied by some truly amateurish acting and even more ridiculous sounding piano music.  But in Anbe Sivam, we get a rather memorable character in the kind-hearted Sister Vanessa, who helps Kamal recuperate from a horrendous accident.  She is wonderful in the blood donation scene where she calmly reassures a hyperactive Madhavan.  I also like the little moment where she brushes Kamal’s forehead and says, “You are looking handsome.”  

Meet Sister Vanessa:

Nafisa (Iravati Harshe) in Hey! Ram (2000)

If this film deserved a National Award, more than direction or writing or acting, it deserved an award for casting. (Yes, I know that there isn’t one such award; just saying!) This densely-packed – in terms of content and people – film contains a bevy of truly impressive actors in all parts, small and big.  Be it Hema Malini as Kamal’s mother-in-law, the impish lady that played his Aunt, Vaali who played his Uncle, the actor who played the tailor, every actor looked their part and essayed it well.  Near the top of the list is actress Iravati Harshe who played Shah Rukh’s wife, Nafisa.  Similar to Kuruthi Punal and Manmadhan Ambu, the Kamal character treats his friend’s wife as his own sister.  Their relationship isn’t given much screen time but in the limited time, Harshe nails the part of a woman who loses his husband to communal violence.  She is especially brilliant in the scene where she speaks to Gandhi about her husband's death.  Also, her reaction to hearing from Kamal that Shah Rukh might be gravely injured, tugs at one’s heart. 

Shankaran (Dasarathi) in Vedham Pudhidhu (1987)

I am cheating a little here since the kid who played Charu Hasan’s son in this film had a rather big role.  But he isn’t exactly a well-known actor.  As an adult, he would go on to become a voice artiste.  But Dasarathi turns in a marvelous performance as the kid who is mature beyond his years and has to overcome one adversity after another.  Bharathiraja has been an ace at casting unknown actors and making them look completely at home on screen.  Such is the case with Dasarathi, who imbues his role with an arresting sense of calm and poise, and deserves a bit more spotlight than what he has gotten till date.  If you think I am exaggerating, check out this scene where he makes Sathyaraj revisit his ingrained habits.

The Reddy brothers in Nayagan (1987)

Nayagan is an obvious trendsetter in many ways, one of which is casting.  Everyone in Nayagan looks his or her part and sounds authentic.  For three key antagonists in his film, Mani Ratnam cast three real-life siblings – RN Sudharshan, RNK Prasad and RN Jayagopal (two of them would reappear as siblings in MMKR).  Not only are they menacing but clearly look like brothers.  Oh wait, they are brothers!

Judge Bharathi Kannan (TS Raghavendar) in Sindhu Bhairavi (1985)

K Balachander took great effort in ensuring that he gave actors in small parts some distinctive quirks.  Sometimes the quirk factor was too in-your-face to come across as organic and authentic.  But when he got it right, few could match him.  Such is the case in Sindhu Bhairavi.  The actor Raghavendar, who plays the role of a judge, was also a music director in real life.  KB puts that to good use in this rather amusing scene where he sings the same words in different tunes to suit MGR, Sivaji, Rajni and Kamal.  The actor too enjoys himself immensely.

Click on Play to go to the aforementioned scene featuring Raghavendar:

The barber (Samikannu) in Udhiri PookaL (1978)

Mahendran strived hard to break the shackles of melodrama that had prevented Tamil Cinema from achieving recognition beyond the region.  The best of his works are great testament to the notion that to make art genuinely universal, you make it truly rooted and authentic.  To achieve this goal, he cast actors very thoughtfully.  One of his favorites was actor Samikannu, who turns in a fabulous performance in a rather small role, but one with an arc.  Throughout the film, he requests the Archana character to give him permission to cut her son’s hair.  She keeps procrastinating but when she dies, he has to tonsure the son’s head for ritualistic reasons.  The way he enacts this scene is a fine example of how Tamil Cinema is filled with jewels whose names might be unknown but whose luster is bright and permanent.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Wit and Wisdom: A detailed analysis of Manivannan's Amaidhi Padai

The Tamil Nadu assembly election results are due in May.  That seemed like a good enough excuse – not that I need one! – to revisit the best political film ever made in Tamil Cinema, Manivannan’s Amaidhi Padai (1994).  There have been strong contenders like Mudhalvan and Makkal Aatchi.  But Amaidhi Padai remains the pinnacle.  The film is an amazing blend of trenchant wit and solid drama.  The laughs, the tears, the thrills and the chills are all woven seamlessly into an astonishingly fluid narrative.  As opposed to my other reviews, I have chosen to analyze this movie in more detail.  So, please stay with me through this attempt at a detailed dissection of an important film.

The context

Manivannan was going through a rather lean patch in the early 90s.  Though there were the occasional marginal successes like Therku Theru Matchan, Manivannan’s films were a pale shadow of some of the powerful dramas that he made in the 80s.  I attribute it to two reasons.  One was that Sathyaraj had become a bona fide hero.  So, Manivannan could write neither character roles for him nor villainous parts.  And there were very few other actors that could truly do justice to Manivannan’s direction style.  Though he had made some undisputed classics like Ini Oru Sudhandhiram (with Sivakumar in the lead), Manivannan seemed to reserve his best for Sathyaraj and vice versa.  The two of them shared an unparalleled personal and professional chemistry.  But with the trappings of a ‘hero’, Sathyaraj had become limited in what he could offer Manivannan.  And the second reason was that Ilayaraja had – I am unsure of the reason(s) – not scored the music for any of Manivannan’s films between the late 80s and early 90s.  Manivannan himself confessed to packing his scenes with way too many dialogues because he felt that he did not have the luxury of impactful background scores with other music directors.  But with Sathyaraj agreeing to play a villainous character and Raja scoring the music, Manivannan could rely on the two big pillars that rested on the foundation of his script, lifting the film to great heights.  And thus, Amaidhi Padai was born.

The plot of Amaidhi Padai

A son sets out to avenge the cruel injustice that his biological father had meted out to his mother.  In an interview Sathyaraj once observed that the underlying plot of Mr. Bharath and Amaidhi Padai were fundamentally same but that the treatments were so different that one can hardly spot a similarity between these two films.  It is as much a chalk and cheese observation like the claim that some people make around Minsara Kanna and Parasite!  As mentioned earlier, Amaidhi Padai takes the loose ‘revenge’ template but uses it just as an excuse to chart the arc of its antagonist, right from his humble beginnings to his meteoric rise and the inevitable downfall.

The initial portions

The first 20 odd minutes of the film focus on the son (also played by Sathyaraj) and his upcoming engagement with a sweet, innocent girl (Ranjitha).  These portions remind one of Bhagyaraj’s antics with Sulakshana in Thooral Ninnu Poachu.  The light romance leads to the important engagement scene where Sathyaraj is insulted for being an ‘illegitimate’ child.  That, in turn, paves way for the flashback where his grandpa explains the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his birth. 

The Sathyaraj-Ranjitha romance is not especially noteworthy.  But a word about the title song, “Vetri Varudhu.”  It is a rousing number, no doubt.  But paying close attention to the lyrics that Manivannan obtained from poet Ponnadiyan, one instantly recognizes his socialist ideals – Enakum unakum thalaivan thondan naamada… - and his love for his fellow Tamils.  The lines, vaethu manidhan namadhu inathai ozhikkiran…nam naatu manidhan ivanum uyirai edukiraan…” are a terrific one-two punch.

The title song:

The transformation of Ammavasai

The introduction of the Ammavasai character is where Amaidhi Padai begins to truly set itself apart.  From his very first scene, the viewer realizes what the ink of Manivannan’s pen had been yearning for the years prior – a powerful antagonist.  The scenes that depict the gradual rise of the ambitious, cunning Ammavasai are a character establishment tour de force.  We don’t see just a one-dimensional personification of evil.  We witness the growth of a man who is driven by greed and covetous of power, loyalties and gratitude be damned!  Manivannan’s lines that drip with sarcasm and intelligence play no small part in establishing the shrewdness of the Ammavasai character.  And Sathyaraj begins to show us exactly what we had missed in some of his traditional hero roles – the sheer casualness of his body language and dialogue delivery.  Effortlessness is something that is very difficult to achieve on screen.  It requires an actor to completely trust himself and act seemingly oblivious of a camera or a need to ‘perform’.  But Sathyaraj, the villain, was a master at this.  Note the way he delivers lines such as this -  Mudiyum-nu nenachuthunalathan vellakaran poayi nilavula kaal vechutange. Mudiyadhu-nu nenachathunalathan naama innum nela soaru ootikitrukom!”  There is a certain rhythm to Manivannan’s lines that is done full justice to by Sathyaraj. 

Arguably the film’s most vaunted sequence is the election scene.  Manivannan’s conception of this scene is truly ingenious.  The striking visual of Sathyaraj easing into the chair (with his steadily increasing lead over his opponent) is accompanied by a score that similarly increases in intensity, to culminate in a majestic saxophone piece.  In what is a stamp of true genius, Raja uses the same tune with more beats and trumpets when Sathyaraj Senior is reintroduced as the ageing MLA.  The man is a lot more powerful at that juncture and the grand, scintillating background music underscores that.

The election scene:  
The background score for the Sathyaraj Senior introduction:

The handful of scenes that portray Kasthuri falling for Sathyaraj don’t feel nearly as convincing, but the gullibility of her character does serve its purpose in advancing a key plot point – that of her carrying his child out of wedlock.  Amidst such powerful dramatic scenes such as the panchayat scene where Sathyaraj denies any association with Kasthuri, the ‘item’ number with Vichitra seems to be a completely unnecessary commercial compromise, the kind of which have thankfully made their way out of Tamil Cinema.

The Son Rises…So does the Father

Once the grandpa narrates the story of his evil father, the son decides to avenge his mother’s death.  While he assures his grandparents that he will not do anything foolhardy, we do see the stage set for a battle of the son against his father.  The scene with SS Chandran features one of my favorite lines in this film.  As he talks about the death of this daughter (during childbirth) he says, “Naan peththa pillaya selavu kanakula ezhudhittu…ava peththa pillaya varavu kanakula vechutu andha oora vittey kilambiten.”  He could have just said, “Once my daughter died, I just left my hometown with you, my grandson.”  But it is a testament to Manivannan’s felicity with words that such a simple scene is elevated by some sharp dialogue.

In what is another example of economy of scenes to establish a character, Sathyaraj Senior’s feisty wife Sujatha gets just two scenes that show us the depth of her character and her role in the conflict in the second half.  One is the scene where a party worker asks them to name his newborn – she names the girl child, Thaayama after the woman that her husband cheated!  And the second is the short flashback scene the night of their wedding.  When Sathyaraj threatens to chop her leg, she wryly observes, “Oru kaalathula enge veetu watchman, ulla kaal eduthu vecha vettiduven-nu ungala paathu sonnan.  VeLeela kaal eduthu vecha vettiduven-nu neenga enna paathu solreenge!”  In scenes such as this and many others in the second half, Sujatha shows us what a fantastic yet underutilized character actress she could be.  It is a measure of Sathyaraj’s towering presence as the villain that it is easy to forget that it is the Sujatha character that is a worthy adversary to him more than the character of the son.

The seeds of the riot are sown

The first half concludes with a riveting scene featuring an astrologer who pays for his astrology consultation with his own life!  The foundation for the second half is laid with the caste-based riot connived by Sathyaraj.  He hatches a devious plan to distract the voting public away from his own failings as a leader.  In what is a trope that was utilized by Shankar years later in Mudhalvan, the self-serving politician engages in the kind of brinksmanship that would result in huge loss of life and property to advance his own agenda.  This is where the satirical element of Amaidhi Padai shines brightly.  Be it tossing off throwaway lines such as, “Mael jaadhi naaynge…andha naaynge-ngaratha azhuthi sollanum” or casually evoking the demolition of Babri Masjid, the writing is in top gear in these scenes.  For a satire to truly work, the writer has to get to the depths of the target that he has set out to skewer.  Amidst all the laughs that the director-actor duo serve us here, it is imperative to not miss the serious issues that they bring to the fore such as the futility of caste-based violence. 

The conflicts – both personal and political – escalate

The son reenters the picture as part of the reserve police that is tasked with controlling the riots.  The father – son meeting scene is a memorable one.  This is a scene where father and son engage in a verbal duel, one sincerely expressing his idealism and the other brazenly verbalizing the realpolitik that he stands for.  But before they start conversing, there is a stupendous background score that accompanies the visuals where the son ‘introduces’ himself to his father.  Sathyaraj Senior’s expressions are delightfully nuanced, as is his shrieking, “Junior!”  

The father-son verbal duel:

The conflict escalates and Sathyaraj Senior decides to eliminate every obstacle in his path of political glory.  As heartless a person as he is in this movie, he realizes that he is committing a grave sin by ordering his henchman to kill his own wife.  There is a beautifully acted scene where Sathyaraj realizes that it will be his final goodbye to Sujatha.  He knows that she doesn’t deserve to die.  But he is so intoxicated with political power that he just cannot stop himself.  The manner in which Sathyaraj pauses and turns towards Sujatha to see her one last time is strangely moving.  It is a shade of this evil incarnate that adds a human dimension to the character.  It is moments like these that should not be overlooked as we celebrate the humor and satire of Amaidhi Padai.  It is as much a powerful drama with three-dimensional characters as it is a political film.

Sujatha's final scene:

For how superb the conflicts are built up, the d√©nouement of Amaidhi Padai remains a crushing disappointment.  Seemingly unable to decide whether he wants to let the villain or the hero deliver the coup de grace, Manivannan wrongly opts for the latter.  I have always wondered why the villain didn’t deliver on his earlier words that if he realizes that he is about to fail politically, he will commit suicide.  Was it because that kind of a climax would have reminded us too strongly of Pagal Nilavu?  Or, was it because Sathyaraj, still a leading hero in Tamil Cinema, had to be the one to deliver the knockout punch to the villain (also played by him)?  Whatever the origins of this climax are, it is just not a fitting end to this classic.  But the impact of the prior 2 ½ hours is so strong that the film has stood the test of time and continues to rightfully be regarded as a classic.

Manivannan is no more.  He died way too young.  But with films like Amaidhi Padai, he has left behind a body of work that may have had its share of misses.  But when he got into his zone, there were very few that could match his level of razor-sharp writing or surehanded direction.  And with creative collaborators like Sathyaraj and Ilayaraja, he knew exactly how to bring his vision to life.  It is the sort of ‘life’ in a creation that makes its creator immortal even after he passes on.

Miss you, Manivannan Sir.  My sincere thanks for Amaidhi Padai.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Shot Stories – A compilation of 10 unbroken takes in Tamil Cinema

Having just finished reading Glenn Kenny’s intricately detailed book, “Made Men” on the creation and enduring impact of The Goodfellas, I revisited key sequences from the film.  One of which was the stunningly shot Copacabana sequence.  It is a bravura 3-minute sequence filmed as a single “shot.” (In case you didn't know already, according to Wikipedia, a shot is “continuous footage or sequence between two edits or cuts.”)  This set me thinking about Tamil cinema sequences where I felt very little or no little ‘cuts’ between shots.  And as I began compiling a list of shots of considerable length, I was amazed at the dazzling array of performances or feats of cinematography that Tamil Cinema can boast of.  Without further ado, here is a list of 10 examples that I have compiled.

1.  Sivaji Ganesan in Parasakthi (1952)

The granddaddy of all Tamil cinema monologues, this court sequence is not shot in one shot.  But there are very limited cuts.  As a result, we get to relish the power and rhythm of Karunanidhi’s lines - the “thadaagam” line takes my breath away every time I watch this – and the diction and intonation of Sivaji Ganesan’s dialogue delivery.  To think that this was Ganesan’s on-screen debut gives me goose bumps.

2.  Nagesh and Baalaiyya in Kadhalika Neramillai (1964)

As with Parasakthi, this rib-tickling sequence is not filmed in one shot.  But again, there is very little cutting.  The manner in which Nagesh tees up his story, replete with his sound effects, and the gradual escalation in tension on Baalaiyya’s face is so delightful that any more cuts would have robbed this sequence off its charm.

3.  Saritha in Achamillai…Achamillai…(1984)

Saritha’s eyes - that’s the shot.  This shot is the actress' showcase, to display a gamut of expressions with her large, powerful eyes.  The sound design, for a film made in 1984, is exceptional.  You can ‘see’ all the off-screen events in your mind’s eye.

4.  Kamal in Gunaa (1991)

If there was ever a character establishment scene where the cinematography (Venu) and writing (Balakumaran), not to mention the scintillating performance, came together seamlessly, this is it.  Thanks to Kamal’s ability to deliver his lines with exquisite modulation while walking in a circular motion, the emotional wallop of Gunaa is unsurpassed.  The circular motion is not just a gimmick.  It purposefully takes us into the disturbed mind of the protagonist instantly.  

5.  Rajni in Annamalai (1992)

The book, “My Days with Baasha” co-written by director Suresh Krissna and Malathi Rangarajan is a truly illuminating read.  We tend to take starry vehicles for granted, not always valuing the decisions taken by the behind-the-scenes unsung heroes.  In the Annamalai portions of the book, the director details how, in the crucial confrontation sequence, instead of cutting too much or moving in a more conventional round trolley fashion, the camera first moves from right to left (starting from behind NizhalgaL Ravi) gradually zooming in and out of Rajni, drawing a neat triangle.  PS Prakash’s camera movements are smooth, unobtrusively but palpably enhancing the intensity of the searing Rajni monologue.

6.   The route to the hideout in Roja (1992)

This is the earliest instance I remember of a steadycam shot.  As Santhosh Sivan's camera moves steadily on the rocky path (Rahman’s background score is superb) towards the hideout, we experience not just a dazzling display of cinematography but a gradual build-up of tension as we get to see where Aravind Swamy is held hostage.

1:09:08 min point in the video below:

7.  Parthiban in Swarnamukhi (1998)

There is an unforgettable scene in this film where Fathima Babu visits Parthiban to request him to gracefully exit her daughter Devyani’s life.  A flurry of emotions from shock to anger to indignation to devastation envelops Parthiban.  This is where the actor summons all his acting chops.  The manner in which he implodes with grief (once Fathima Babu leaves the house) is deeply moving – the way he collapses to the floor is just about the perfect finish to this scene.  Click ‘Play’ to go to the part of this scene that happens in one unbroken shot. (While you are at it, check out the next scene in Devyani's house as well. Parthiban is stupendous in that scene too.)

8.   Raghuvaran in Mugavari (2000)

When Raghuvaran tells a story, you don’t cut away. You just sit and listen.  That’s exactly what director Durai did with this lovely story that he narrates.  Balakumaran’s lines are profound – inga jeikala-na makku-nu solluvange…jeichitta luck-nu solluvange.  And PC Sreeram’s camera lovingly captures a master character actor at work.

9.   Prabhu Deva – Raju Sundaram in Pennin Manadhai Thottu (2000)

One of India’s finest dancers and his brother, an equally brilliant choreographer, come together for this foot-tapping number.  For a little over a minute, they move together in perfect sync, perfectly utilizing the props in the slum.  None of the dance steps are particularly noteworthy but the gay abandon with which they dance as a duo makes this song rather irresistible.

2:39 min point in the video below:

10. The birthday scene in Kannathil Muthamittaal (2002)

One of my favorite character establishment sequences, this scene is captured all in one shot, focusing on Keerthana and her family members, quickly establishing the impishness of the kids, the pragmatism of the mother and the impulsive nature of the Dad. This scene is especially effective as a prelude to the adoption scene.   The camera movements are gradual and the actors ‘behave’ on screen in such a way that it does not look staged at all.  It is no wonder Mani Ratnam’s craft is admired as much as it is!

I could not get the Tamil version of this scene. Click on "Play" to go directly to this scene.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Smiles and Levity: Thoughts on Sathi Leelavathi

From time to time, I revisit at least bits and pieces of films that resulted from the legendary combination of Kamal Hassan and Crazy Mohan.  Tamil Cinema has had its share of immensely symbiotic pairings of actors with writers or directors such as Karunanidhi – Sivaji Ganesan, Manivannan – Sathyaraj and, most recently, Vetri Maaran and Dhanush.  In that pantheon lies, without a doubt, the partnership of Kamal Hassan with Crazy Mohan.  Just counting the credited ventures, starting with Aboorva SahodharargaL until Vasool Raja, they had a 15-year period where they were at the peak of their powers, individually and combined. (I am ignoring the fact that Kamal played a cameo in Mohan’s big-screen debut, Poikaal Kuthirai.) Helmed by Balu Mahendra, a filmmaker with his own stamp, the team weaves a tale that earns all its hearty laughs with elegant, healthy, intelligent humor.  That it also has emotional moments that work supremely well is a reason I chose to revisit this movie.

Sathi Leelavathi is the tale of a happy family that is torn apart by a man’s infidelity.  The couple in question are Ramesh Aravind and Kalpana.  Heera plays the other woman in Aravind’s life.  Kamal Hassan is his friend who catches him at an inopportune time, yet struggles to balance his loyalty to his friend and his respect for and responsibility towards his friend’s wife.  If you read that synopsis with no knowledge of this film, you will be forgiven for wondering where exactly the ‘comedy’ in all this is, given the seriousness of the plot.  Tone is something is that is difficult to achieve when a film tries to make shifts from serious to comedy or vice versa.  But Sathi… manages to achieve a superb balance throughout, expertly juggling different tones, never a shift coming across as jarring.  The restaurant scene with Kamal and Heera is a case in point.  Kamal makes some thoughtful observations about the complications and implications of an extramarital affair.  But the laughs are there too, especially with how he has a cheat sheet on his lap for reference! 

Another reason Sathi… is a rarity in Tamil cinema is that it is a true ensemble drama.  There has been the odd Mudhal Vasantham or Aaha.  But it is creditable that even with stars like Kamal in the mix, all of the main cast get opportunities to shine in the serious and comic moments.  Ramesh Aravind, Kalpana, Heera all have their moments.  Chokalinga Bagavathar has a couple of rib-tickling moments too, his comparison of an underwear (“wear and tear”) and a loin cloth (“tear and wear!”) vying for the second funniest line in the film.  But it is the pairing of Kamal Hassan and Kovai Sarala that is sheer comic gold.  Speaking a flawless kongu dialect, the two of them are an unlikely pairing – full credit to Kamal for making a case for her casting despite Balu Mahendra’s initial, vehement objection.  But they make it work and how!  Right from the “Marugo marugo” song to the rip-roaring climax, the two of them share crackling chemistry.  They have some of the best lines in the film.  Sample this – when Kamal says to her, “Brake pudikala” she shoots back, “Ennaye pudikala…brake pudikala-na yenna poachu!”  They also bring to life a couple that shares an easy chemistry, with moments such as Sarala grabbing Kamal’s glasses to prevent him from fidgeting with it.   

While Kamal and Sarala hog the honors for the comic portions of the movie, Kalpana is the anchor that ensures that the emotional moments are on solid ground.  She is magnificent in the scene where she asks Ramesh Aravind an array of tough but fair questions.  She is equally adept in the enormously entertaining scene in Kamal’s house where she orchestrates the slightly chaotic climax.  Did I tell you that the Thatha’s line took second place for the line of the film?  That’s because the funniest exchange belongs to Kalpana and Kamal:

“Andha Priya-va oruthan bayngarama love panraan nu vechukunga…”

“Adheyn ondra purusan…”

“Ondra purushan aavadhu, rendra purushan aavadhu, kandraavi!”

That is the master of puns Mohan in his element, aided ably by the actors delivering the lines!  (It is sad that neither Mohan nor Kalpana is alive, both going way too early.)

There may be other films in the Kamal Hassan – Crazy Mohan combination that might be loaded with bigger laughs.  But Sathi Leelavathi is an undisputed comedy classic that makes us feel for its characters too.  That is because this film is not just full of laughs but is also full of heart.