Tuesday, October 26, 2021

"I am irrelevant..."

Writer Sujatha had this amazing talent for the pithy yet sharp line.  In a scene from “Kandukonden Kandukonden” where a retired Army major recounts his past, the feisty heroine challenges him – “Aren’t you still alive?”  In response, he orders her to come forward, bends down, stares into her eyes and says, “You know what is worse than dying?"  And adds, "It is being forgotten.”  It is a stinging line that has lost none of its sheen and power in the last 21 years since I first heard it.  They say that death and taxes are two immutable certainties in life.  True.  But the inevitability of irrelevance merits further inspection too.

Let me clarify something right off the bat.  Yes, people – in various relationships, not just marriage - do drift apart owing to deep-rooted incompatibility.  Sometimes, there is a volcanic eruption that happens when things come to a head, hurling people in different directions.  At other times, fissures metamorphose gradually into schisms, eventually sinking the relationship.  That is not what I am choosing to dwell on here.  Instead, it is how I perceive the issue of relevance, or lack thereof. 

As I thought about some of the reasons why we seem to become irrelevant or less relevant over time, three things came to mind.  Distances.  Interests.  Commitments.  As I have reflected on people who have given me the sense of diminished relevance and importance over time, these are the reasons that I could hone in on.  I don’t claim exhaustibility here.  But I think these are sufficiently different from one another, to give me a framework to dig deeper.

Despite anything that we can say about the power of technology-enabled connectivity, there is a comfort to be had in the rhythms and routines enabled by proximity.  My grandpa and his best friend were born, lived in, and died in the same city.  My grandpa’s friend had traveled abroad for his higher studies but that was a miniscule fraction of their lives.  Mutual respect and genuine affection were the most significant drivers of the longevity of their kinship.  But the lack of distance was an undeniable enabler too.  The frequency of their interactions meant that they effortlessly became a very indispensable part of each other’s lives.  I sometimes bemoan the adverse impact that distances have on relationships.  Practical matters such as differing time zones and inability to travel without elaborate planning do rob us off the charm and magic of the in-person interaction.

An evolution in interests and tastes is another factor that make people drift apart without sometimes even realizing it.  Outside of our work lives, we all have limited time.  And in that time, we chose to focus on things that are sometimes unique to us, meaningful even.  But when shared interests erode over time, shared experiences dwindle.  I remember once in a group setting among people that I had known for decades, there was a discussion on a new topic that people assumed that I was not an expert on.  They were right in their assumption – I was no expert in that topic!  Fair enough.  I listened silently, chiming in with a tangential thought at times.  What was irksome was when I had started to speak about something that I had grown passionate about, it was greeted with a toxic mix of mockery and condescension.  Again, the root cause for the heartburn was not the lack of shared interest - it was lack of respect.  After all, if one truly meant something to us, we would at least exhibit a perfunctory interest in what excites them.  But growing differences in interests were detrimental to the relationship,  nonetheless.

And finally, commitments.  I would be remiss to not acknowledge the fact that as we age, we have duties and commitments that we absolutely cannot shirk.  We grow to expect that people who were once a more integral part of our lives might not get that sense anymore owing to what we focus our time on.  To make time for people who are not part of our day-to-day lives and livelihoods is not the easiest of tasks.  Distances making hearts grow fonder is an endearingly utopian thought.  Sadly, it sometimes is as far from everyday reality as mars is from the earth.  Sometimes, out of sight is indeed out of mind.  This is where we must acknowledge our blessings.  The people that take the time to send a note to say that something seemingly insignificant in their day reminded them of us.  Or people that know of something we are working on, send a note to check in on us.  These kind souls realize that thoughtful action and meaningful gestures don’t always take much time.  But the impact of those gestures lingers and brighten our days.

 As much as staying relevant and being given a sense of belonging are wonderful feelings to experience, two things are equally vital, if not more.  First, the stability gained by looking inward.  And secondly, the need to get into a giver mindset.  Looking within us is what lets us be comfortable in our shoes.  It lets us adapt to changing tastes and trends at a pace that works for us, sans fear of becoming irrelevant to others.  We must live our lives in a way that feels authentic to us.  At the same time, getting into a ‘giver’ mindset will liberate us from the pressures and disappointments associated with what others give or do to us.  Instead, we can choose to focus on what we can do to people that would benefit from our kindness- of word, thought and action.  If you take veteran filmmakers, for instance, some adapt well to changing trends and cater effectively to audience tastes over time.  Others stick to their methods, expecting the world to still respect them and treat their works with the same enthusiasm.  Yet another group of people turn into mentors for younger writers and filmmakers, hence paying it forward.  No one approach is right or wrong.  Whatever one’s attitude is, we must simply look to derive happiness and comfort from it.

As Sujatha suggested with his piercing line, being forgotten – or, as I interpret it, becoming irrelevant – is indeed painful.  But as actor-director Parthiban once wrote, “Innoruthar irukkum varai yaarume anaadhai alla.”  It loosely translates into, so long as there is at least one other person for you, no one should feel orphaned.  As I think about this line, I realize that it is one thing to expect to be the recipient of such generosity.  It is another, more fulfilling experience to be that person for someone else.  If I do that, then I can get totally comfortable with the thought, "I am irrelevant to some, yes.  But others are important to me."

Sunday, October 10, 2021

The star non-striker: A write-up on effective supporting acts in Tamil Cinema

I once had a conversation with director Vasanth on the actors in his films.  I told him that some of the performances in his films – and the performers who enacted the roles – had gotten much more visibility and encomiums than he did.  A case in point would be Prakash Raj in Aasai.  In response, he smiled and said that Sachin Tendulkar runs as hard when he is the non-striker as he does when he is on strike.  And that you need to work hard as a team to ensure success overall.  While the influence and impact of directors on performances are sometimes hard to gauge, what I find to be less difficult to assess is the impact of a supporting part.  I will hasten to add that this is not just about talented character actors.  This article is also meant to shed spotlight on some lead actors who have also aced the part of a foil in some truly memorable sequences.  Here are a half-a-dozen sequences (in reverse-chronological order) where I thought that while one actor shone brightly, the other actor playing a supporting part – at least in the context of this scene – enhanced the impact of a sequence gracefully, unobtrusively. 

Vijay Sethupathi in ’96 (2018)

In ‘96, there are several sequences where Trisha calls the shots.  The character of Jaanu is that of a woman who knows that she can take privileges with her childhood love interest Ram, played by Vijay Sethupathi.  As a result, Sethupathi’s performance takes on a bit of a willingly submissive shade in many of his scenes with Jaanu.  There are two sequences where the apparent focus is more on Trisha.  The first one is the scene outside the salon where Trisha calls him an “aambaLa naatukatta.”  The way he blushes – if you notice carefully, he is actually out of focus here – at the compliment is lovely.  Even more powerful is the forlorn face he sports once Trisha has narrated a version of the story that both wish had been true.  Again, Trisha’s scene really but the way Sethupathi’s reactions enhance Trisha’s performance is as ineffable as it is undeniable.

Click on 'Play' to get to VJS' best moments in the two scenes

Ramesh Kanna in Pammal K Sammandham (2002)

This list would be incomplete without the mention of a comedian.  It was nigh impossible to zero in on just one.  There are many strong contenders, such as Manivannan and Gemini Ganesan in Avvai Shanmugi, Nagesh in MMKR, Manorama in Aboorva… and so on.  But I chose Ramesh Kanna because I feel that he has rarely been given his due.  In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he came into his own as a comedian, acting in significant parts, exhibiting pitch-perfect comic timing in movies like Thenali and Nee varuvaay ena…He outdoes himself in PKS where he works very effectively with his co-actors.  He is especially hilarious in the scene where he cracks the hilarious Madras Eye joke.  Ditto for the exasperated, deadpan way that he mocks an inept actor.  Aram seiyya virumbu” will never be recollected in an unfunny manner anymore! 


Vatsala Rajagopal in Rhythm (2000)

Dear familiar readers - I just saw you roll your eyes.  Yes, no list is complete without Rhythm.  Guilty as charged. :)

Arjun’s mother in Rhythm not only speaks the most famous line of the movie but also has hands-down the most tender moment in the film.  As marvelous as she is in the “romba nalla paiyyan pa nee” scene, she is outstanding in the scene in the temple where he urges Arjun to remarry.  Watch her as she says, “ivaruku eppavume veLaiyaatu” following an amusing remark from Nagesh - it is utterly lifelike.  The moment that drips with tenderness is the one where she holds Arjun’s face and says, “engaLukaaga kalyanam pannika koodaatha?”  The easy chemistry she shares with veteran Nagesh is a joy to behold.  Nagesh repeatedly mentions the fact that they have been married 45 years.  It is a testament to their ability as actors that they give us that sense that they are family. 

Kamal Haasan in Thevar Magan (1992)

Kamal Haasan wrote and acted in Thevar Magan.  It is one of his strongest works as a writer.  But what makes this movie the classic it is, is that every actor from Sivaji Ganesan to Vadivelu has at least one sequence where they completely take control of the scene.  It is hard to look away, as they completely inhabit their characters and bring to life the razor-sharp lines written by Kamal.  Kamal, the actor, turns in a great performance, yes.  But he is equally secure to take the backseat in service of the story.  Be it the panchayat scene that belongs to Sivaji and Nasser, the photo frame scene that is owned by Gowthami or even the hospital sequence where Vadivelu turns in a masterful performance, Kamal generously lets his fellow actors bring their roles to life, while enhancing the scenes in his own little way.  Another instance is the way he moves behind the pillar in the memorable verbal volley with his father in the legendary "vethai naan poattadhu" scene.  Respect and dissent have never co-existed this impactfully.

I couldn't find a good clip from youtube.  But watch this little vignette from Poatri Paadadi... for an example of how naturally Kamal interacts with Sivaji.  You can sense the former's innate admiration for the latter:

Delhi Ganesh in Nayagan (1987)

One of Mani Ratnam’s nuanced observations of the recognition or lack thereof, of effort that gets puts into filmmaking was, “I don’t mind if viewers don’t notice it as long as they sense it.” (I am pretty sure I paraphrased it quite accurately.) Mani Ratnam’s films are hit or miss when it comes to impactful supporting performances.  While we have some brilliant supporting characters – both in terms of characterization and acting – such as Jaishankar in Thalapathi and Jayasudha in Alai Payuthey, we also have wasted performers such as Vivekh in Alai Payuthey and Delhi Ganesh in Iruvar.  Ganesh might have had an insignificant and forgotten part as an RMV-like persona in Iruvar.  But his performance in Nayagan is one for the ages.  He is always on the sidelines (except for maybe the hospital scene where he is injured) yet is never invisible.  Watch his performance in the famous NizhalgaL Ravi-death scene.  The way he requests Kamal to not see the charred body and especially the manner in which his voice quivers as he says, “Kozhandhai-ku neraiyya neruppu kaayam patrukku Naaykare…” is enormously moving.  He has, after all, seen Ravi since he was a kid.  So, the use of “kozhandhai” makes complete sense. 

"Kozhandhai-ku neraiyya neruppu kaayam patrukku"

Rajnikanth in Johnny (1980)

Rajnikanth, in the early stages of his career, made it a habit of stealing scenes with his effortlessly magnetic on-screen persona.  In movies like 16 vayathinile… and Moondru Mudichu, he had outperformed his co-stars by a distance in his scenes thanks to the shaping of his characters as well as his arresting performances.  As he came into his own as a star, he came across as an increasingly secure actor, one who seemed to know how to cede the spotlight to his fellow stars in service of a scene or the story arc.  He has extended this respect and courtesy to co-stars, character actors (Vadivukarasi in Arunachalam), villains (Raghuvaran, in many a film) and comedians (Coundamani in Mannan).  The crown jewel, to me, will be his performance in the proposal scene in Johnny.  It is Sridevi’s scene from start to finish.  But Rajni is beautifully expressive in this scene.  Right from the moment where he realizes that this could be an uncomfortable conversation to when he says, “pada padaa-nu pesitengaLe” he is quietly effective, even as his co-star walks away with the honors.  Yes, Sridevi nails this scene but she, as with the other actors I mentioned earlier, was handed the hammer by her helpful co-star!