Saturday, February 27, 2021

Missed Spotlights #7: Chokkalinga Bagavathar in Veedu

“Are Tamil indies finally having a moment?” tweeted film critic Baradwaj Rangan.  Looking at his tweet, I was feeling rather wistful thinking of fabulous filmmakers such as Balu Mahendra and Mahendran.  And how they would have thrived and been even more prolific had a funding system been in place for low budget, honest, non-mainstream films.  I wonder if Balu Mahendra would have ever felt the need to make ‘commercial compromises’ such as item numbers in any of his films.  I would like to think that even some of the subjects (freemakes such as Julie Ganapathy and Rettai Vaal Kuruvi) that he would have chosen would have been better.  Most importantly, we would have gotten to see more films that showcased artistes who were superb talents yet didn’t quite fit into the commercial mold.  An artiste like, say Chokkalinga Bagavathar. 

Thanks to Balu Mahendra, we got the opportunity to see him in two classic films, Veedu and Sandhya Raagam and in a hilarious avatar in the comedy classic, Sathi Leelavathi. (You have not lived till you have seen him contrast an underwear and a loin cloth.  The former is “wear and tear” and the latter is “tear and wear!”)  But the film where I fell hook, line and sinker for his spontaneous, measured acting style was Veedu. 

In Veedu, he does not just portray a grandpa who is affectionate.  Balu Mahendra writes his Thatha as a three-dimensional human being who is funny, caustic, even angry in a couple of instances.  When Archana suggests to him that her partner (a delightfully casual Bhanu Chander) will aid her in her efforts to build their house, he scoffs at her.  When she wants to sell jewelry, he chides her and barks that he will hear the proposal no further.  But best of all are the scenes where he mixes sagacity with humor.  When the kid sister, in the middle of the road, stops walking because her older sister refuses her a room for herself, he gently ribs her, “Baaga Pirivinai elaam apram paathukalaam.  Mudhal-la veedu kedaikkatum!” 

They say that one’s eyes are the windows to the soul.  It is one thing to, in real life, feel for something and reflect it in our eyes.  It is another matter altogether for an actor to internalize the emotions in a character that they are essaying and project it in their eyes.  And Bagavathar was an expert at it.  And one has to look no further than his final sequence where he visits the house as it is being built.  As he is about to step into the house, he quickly stops himself and steps in with his right leg first (for auspicious reasons).  It is such a common practice that it makes one smile.  His smile as he walks the house is so gentle and so moving because we have seen the travails of the family till then.  The way he expresses his gratitude to the construction worker Manga (Pasi Sathya) is deeply affecting.  Notice the way he exclaims, “Manga!”  And the way he thanks her is devoid of the artificiality that is unfortunately too well known to mainstream Tamil Cinema.  This entire sequence is such an acting tour de force whose impact lingers indelibly.  When he passes on, it is impossible to not sob along with Archana (who turns in a stellar performance, herself).

Click on 'Play' to go to the house entry sequence:

Actors like Chokkalinga Bagavathar were rarely given their due in Tamil Cinema.  Plum roles eluded them somehow.  We can only rue the fact that they didn’t have the luxury of an indie film environment or an active parallel cinema movement to provide fodder for their enormous talents.  But I suppose we can look at the cup (of joy, offered by their works) half-full and be thankful for at least a limited set of films that stand the test of time.  And Veedu certainly is a timeless arthouse classic.  While the Bagavathar character never got to live in the house built in this film, it is his presence that fills Veedu and our hearts permanently.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Wrists and Risks: A fanboy's perspective on Mohammad Azharuddin

Feb 8th, 1993.  I was supposed to have been in a cheerful mood, but I was feeling and acting rather crabby.  It was my Mom’s birthday.  And my Dad had promised to take us to dinner at a restaurant at Park Sheraton.  I loved the food there but neither the birthday celebrations nor the promise of a sumptuous dinner had remote appeal.  The reason for my irritability?  I couldn’t get to see the Indian cricket team in person!  What exactly made me feel that sense of privilege and entitlement despite having no personal or professional connections to the team?  Blame my grandpa’s brother, whom I referred to as CT.

After returning from school at around 3 pm, I had called CT to get his thoughts on India’s prospects in the upcoming Test at Madras.  After all, India had won the first Test in Calcutta handsomely.  The man whose captaincy – and arguably, his place in the team – was in jeopardy, had flicked, caressed and driven the hapless bowling attack for a glorious innings of 182.  That man, of course, was Mohammad Azharuddin.  CT casually said to me that a friend had mentioned that the Indian cricket team was at the Chola Sheraton hotel and that Azhar and others were making themselves quite accessible to fans.  In a rather hurried, impolite manner, I said, “Seri CT, phone-a vei!” (“Okay CT, hang up!”)  I looked up Chola Sheraton in the telephone directory and called the hotel reception desk.  The receptionist ensured that I received prompt karmic comeuppance – “They are not here.”  I just barked, “Hello, hello!”  The guy had long hung up! 

I now had the rather onerous burden of accompanying my parents to dinner, for my Mom's birthday, at a fancy restaurant.  As I walked into the hotel, I saw a tall, rather familiar-looking gentleman clad in a cream-colored shirt, his khakis neatly tucked in.  It was Javagal Srinath!  Shrieking like a kid (I suppose I was a kid; I was 11 then) I screamed, “Appa, adhu Srinath pa!”  Never one to be shy, I just went up to him and said that I was a huge fan of his. (Looking at my rotund structure, I am sure he was left with no doubt.)  Less than 22 yards ahead, I saw The Indian Cricket Team gathered around a table next to the pool.  Zero security, I might add.  In the middle was a cake and the captain who was celebrating his birthday.  Amidst this euphoric feeling, I also had the time to think, “CT, it was Park Sheraton, not Chola Sheraton!” 

I was overjoyed to get the autographs of Srinath, Sachin Tendulkar, manager Ajit Wadekar (who gently asked me if I bowled or batted.  Thank heavens, he didn’t ask me if I did either well!) and of course, Azhar.  I wished him a happy birthday with 182 times as much as excitement than I wished my Mum.  In that typically rushed manner, he thanked me and obliged me with an autograph, even indulging me in my request to make out the autograph to my name.  Suffice to say that I had trouble sleeping that night.

Years later, in 2000, I had trouble sleeping one day too.  In 1993, I was so wired.  In 2000, I felt electrocuted.  When I read in the papers that Azhar had been found guilty of match-fixing, the cricketing part of my heart crumbled into 182 pieces.  The man whose wristy strokes had given me much pleasure gave me so much pain now that my own wrists would have shown no pulse.  Of course, I was not foolish enough to think that every game that India had lost was thrown by Azhar.  But the innocence of my cricket had been demolished irreversibly.  I felt cheated, not out of money but of pure emotion and unbridled passion that I had for the game.  Suddenly cricket didn’t matter anymore.  At least not that day.  It took a combination of the old guard of Srinath, Sachin and Kumble along with the younger lot of Ganguly, Dravid and Laxman to gradually restore faith and joy in the game for me.

I am neither a legal expert nor someone with inside information on the match-fixing scandal.  I choose to believe, based on what I have read and heard, that Azhar indeed had indulged in match fixing.  I may be wrong, I don’t know.  But I would rather not let affection for the sport or joy that he gave me as a batsman cloud my judgement.  I choose to believe that he had fixed matches.  And for that, I felt – and continue to feel in a residual manner- hurt, angry and let down in equal measure.  The Indian cricket fan of the 90s was already used to the disappointment of the team faring badly and unpredictably especially when the team traveled overseas.  When we went through defeats, there was a sense that sooner or later this team of clearly talented individuals would click as a unit rather than rely unreasonably on the genius of Sachin Tendulkar.  Azhar the batsman, was someone who would surprise me, frustrate me and infuriate me all at the most unexpected of times.  Even Eden Gardens, his favorite ground, was not immune to this unpredictability.  To me, the fateful 1996 semi-final was not lost when Sachin got out for a masterful 65.  It was when Azhar got out for a duck.  Nevertheless, hope never sank for true-blue fans like me until 2000.

The Azhar who had scored a scintillating 93 in a losing cause against the Aussies in the 1992 World Cup.  The Azhar who had set the Hooghly river on fire with his 109 against the Proteas in 1996.  The Azhar who had brilliantly caught Cummins off Sachin's bowling to seal a tie against the West Indies in 1991.  The same Azhar who gave the ball to Sachin two years later to steal the Hero Cup semi-final.  Above all, the Azhar whose autograph I treasured more than those money bills that swayed him towards match-fixing.  When he took risks as a batsman, sometimes he failed.  Many a time, he succeeded in demoralizing the opposition attack and delighting cricket connoisseurs.  When he took those morally repugnant risks in the world of match-fixing, the means were not to an end that served anyone besides himself.  But the pain that he ended up projecting onto cricket fans spread far more aggressively than any virus that could cause a pandemic.  These thoughts all co-exist uncomfortably in my mind.  And that is because both the ecstasy and the despair were real.  

Happy birthday, dear Azhar.  It was nice to have met you in 1993.  Thank you for the autograph.  I just wish some memories hurt less.