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!