Saturday, November 27, 2021

Take 3: My essay on Sivaranjaniyum Innum Sila Penngallum

A short story about a tumbler.  That was one of the things that filmmaker Vasanth S Sai recalled fondly in a commemorative speech on writer Balakumaran.  He went on to elaborate on how Balakumaran, during an outdoor shooting of “Punnagai Mannan”, had brought with him a tumbler that would serve to remind him of his wife.  And that Balakumaran had created a short story around it, infusing the inanimate object with a lot of life.  An avid reader, Vasanth too, over the years, has mastered the art of finding much depth, beauty and meaning in the minutest of details.  With immense assurance, he lets his camera dwell on minutiae for just enough time for a viewer to drink in the details without ever feeling the need to spoon-feed them.  In this anthology, he skillfully adapts three stories (by Ashokamitran, Adhavan and Jeyamohan) and presents richly detailed portraits of three women who seek to find ways to rise above the system that rarely gives them the opportunity to breathe.

A chair, a diary and a trophy.  These are ‘objects’ that gain life during the course of the stories that feature them.  In the first story, the protagonist (played by a stupendous Kalieaswari Srinivasan) never sits in the sole chair of their modest home.  Even during afternoons when she is by herself, she sits beside the chair, never on it.  There is a superb shot where we see her seated on the floor, through the arms of the chair.  But by the time the story ends, her posture while comfortably ensconced on the chair, says a whole lot without a word being uttered.  The way Ilayaraja’s background gradually increases in intensity as the camera gets closer to her is a masterful audiovisual moment where Vasanth demonstrates, “show, don’t tell.”  But as mentioned previously, Vasanth is too secure a filmmaker to not know the difference between “show” and “show off.”  The shift in perspective of the camera is as gradual as the increase in intensity of the score.  (Spoiler ahead) We also realize, as the story wraps up, that the first time we see her smile is in her husband’s absence.  We are left to fill the gaps with our imagination but we are given enough detail to savor and reflect on.

In the second story headlined by Parvathy Thiruvothu, the lead character is rather happy and well-settled at the beginning of the story.  She lives in a joint family setup where she seems to be respected and loved, not least of all by her nephew, through whose perspective we see the tale unfold.  Their relationship is underlined through the most lifelike of gestures such as the gifting of a geometry box.  The manner in which the kid asks her to hug him is delightfully sweet.  So is the amusing “netta Mani…kutta Mani” conversation.  We get an early hint of resentment in the way her sister-in-law refers to her mockingly as “Elizabeth maharani.”  Early on in a scene outside her room, notice how Parvathy waits for a split-second for her sister-in-law to leave along with her.  It is a subtle character-establishing moment where we see that the Parvathy character is acutely aware of her space.  Later on, an issue regarding her diary snowballs into something monstrous with damaging implications. 

The diary and the perceptions around her rights are, as with the first story, focused on just enough to give us something to mull on while Vasanth trusts us with some blanks to fill on our own.  In what is a departure from the typical cinema grammar that we are used to, he does not always give us the payoffs that we are used to.  For instance, there are at least three instances towards the end where we wonder why Parvathy does not make eye-contact with her nephew.  Does the boy feel guilty?  How does Parvathy feel about the kid now?  They do not have a final moment that offers a neat closure to their relationship or for the story, for that matter.  But isn’t that how life is?  Do we always get the goodbyes and the catharses that we get to see in fiction? 

And in the final story, we get to witness a character who does not, on the surface, seem to undergo the hardships of the characters in the first two stories.  But we slowly see how the life that had been chosen for her – not by her – has saddled her with a plethora of familial duties and responsibilities with rarely an instance where anyone seems genuinely interested in her needs and desires.  But the character’s core trait is internalization.  She rarely speaks a word more than is necessary for her to get through her chores, be it instructions for her daughter - the two disparate moments involving the small vs big “Ra” in “Karka Kasadara” is a fine example of Vasanth’s  attention to detail – or responses to her man-child of a husband. 

Sivaranjani (the central character of the third story) internalizes all her emotions from anguish to ecstasy.  And Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli turns in an enormously moving performance.  Be it the longing look at the athlete in the playground, the nuanced manner in which she says that she would have “bought” her trophy or the way her eyes widen when she sees the school kids applauding a little ‘feat’ of hers, her work in this film deserves a lot of praise.  In this segment too, Vasanth leaves it to us to determine what will be the future of the lead character.  Is she content with the little joys of her domestic life?  Or will the little bus chase serve as a spark to revive the athlete in her?  What we are left with is a ray of hope as seen in Lakshmi Priyaa’s contained smile as she walks back.

The cinematographers Ravi Shankaran and NK Ekhambaram offer stellar support to the director.  The aforementioned shots of the chair in the first story are astounding yet unobtrusive.  The craft never overshadows the story.  Even with respect to the much celebrated single-take sequence – I timed it; it lasts an astonishing 4 minutes and 24 seconds – in the third story, it is only when we reflect on it do we realize that we ‘experienced’ the exhaustion of Sivaranjani and that we did not get yanked out of the mood of the sequence by the precise choreography.  As paradoxical as it may sound, the craft is as understated as it is palpable.  And as mentioned earlier, Ilayaraja’s score is marvelously in sync with the look and feel of the first story.  In the third story, his score for the moment when Sivaranjani prepares to leave the dilapidated godown, is pitch-perfect.  Although I must say that for the bus chase scene, I preferred the version that I had watched in the NY film festival with just ambient sounds – a special shout-out to sound designer Anand Krishnamoorthi.  Somehow the dramatic flourish of Ilayaraja’s score here didn’t seem as impactful as the grunts and the heavy breaths of the version that I had watched previously. 

In the final analysis, Sivaranjaniyum Innum Sila Penngallum is an immensely fulfilling experience from both a form and content point of view.  I had remarked earlier this year that his “Payasam” episode in the Navarasa series was just an appetizer for the wholesome meal that was Sivaranjaniyum… Now, I will sign off with the hope that this film is the harbinger of a new innings for him where he makes profound, personal films.  Balakumaran may have brought to life a tumbler in his short story.  But having watched this film, it is my tumbler of joy that is brimming!


The film is streaming on Sony Liv in India.  Outside of India, it is available on the Simply South app.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

That hour was ours

It had been a while since I had spoken to one of my mentors.  I had played phone tag with him for a while.  On a weeknight last week, it was past 10 pm when we finally connected.  It had been a while.  But as is often the case with people with whom you have a genuine connection, the customary pleasantries swiftly made way for a meaningful conversation.  I shall hasten to add that ‘meaningful’ mentor-mentee chats do not have to be dour and didactic.  They can be in fun in fact.  In what has been a running in-joke for the past two decades (!), he pulled my leg about a love-hate relationship of mine that invariably required third-party peacemaking efforts.  Minutiae specific to a relationship can be meaningful in a sense, correct?

More importantly, I had shared a recent development in my life with him via e-mail.  During our hourlong chat, he proceeded to inquire deeper in a manner where he effortlessly demonstrated the difference between sincere interest and superficial curiosity.  Very mindful of the privileges that he had rightfully earned in our relationship, he asked about my finances and whether I was saving and spending in a ratio that would be deemed acceptable by him. (Let me just say that the answer rarely is an unequivocal, “yes!”)  By the time I hung up after our one-hour conversation, I experienced a smattering of emotions.  I felt…how do I say it?  Let’s start with, I felt real.  I felt grounded.  I felt a little special.  Real, grounded and special.  Let me elaborate on the first two in a way that makes the third self-explanatory.

I have known this person since the day I was born.  Let’s scratch that.  I was probably kicking and screaming the day I was born.  He knew me since the day I was born.  But the virtues of longevity get washed away by the tides of time if there is not a sustained investment in a relationship.  Reflecting on his impact on me over the four decades of my existence, I thought of how, at each stage of our relationship, there was something specific to that age that I could recollect about or associate with him.  Be it the time in 1991, when he surprised me with a Jansport backpack because I loved stationery items.  Or how, that same trip, he laughed when I asked him “who his company chairman was!”  Or, when as a teenager, I told him, “I want to do a PhD like you” without knowing how to answer his next question: “PhD in what?!”  How when I was in my undergrad, he minced not even one syllable when giving me a dressing down for poor grades in one semester “on account of being distracted.”  How I took upon the task, as a twenty-something kid, of feeding his child cereal during a family function.  How when I told him during a Masters course that “The class average is 85.  I scored 90!”  Only for him to famously quip, “The mean is fine.  What was the standard deviation?!”  How he once told me that I had put on weight despite seemingly having an exercise routine and my thinking to myself, “That is so thoughtful of him” instead of being offended.  How he asked me to save up money instead of buying my "dream car" soon after getting my first job.  There are many more instances than I can possibly list here.  But the unifying thread that ties all these stray memories is the fact that they were all something real.  And they meant something to me at every juncture in my life.

It gave me a strange but definite sense of pride in thinking that these were instances that were very specific to my relationship with him.  Others might have had similar experiences in their relationships.  But for me, reflecting on the snapshots of our relationship over time resulted in my piecing together a montage that was uniquely ours.  The specificity of the details showed how much he cared to be something meaningful to me through the highs and lows of my life.  The details may have sometimes been seemingly trivial.  But they were real.  They were ours.  And only ours.

The other dominant feeling that I had experienced was that of feeling grounded.  I feel that we all need a few people in our lives who will say things to us in a way where we know that they placed more of a premium on being honest with us than wanting to please us.  I have been witness to people across both the professional and personal settings who, thanks to progress that they have made or success that they have experienced, struggle to keep themselves grounded.  Hubris seems to knock humility out without much effort.  As a result, they are sometimes unrecognizable from a previous, more likeable version of them that I had been fortunate enough to witness in the past.  And I would remind myself of the dictum, “Don’t dish out something that you can’t take.”  I remind myself of how certain people like my mentor have achieved great success in their professional life and have helped many like me in myriad selfless ways yet are completely humble about their achievements and their generous deeds.  To them, goodness, kindness and an attitude sans arrogance are just second nature.  They do not know another way of life.  Reminding myself of them keeps me striving to be rooted in things that are meaningful, as minute as they might sometimes seem. 

And special? Yes, of course.  It is an incredibly special feeling to note that I have people in my life who derive joy from my smiles, who help me summon strength from within by being there beside me, who teach me little life lessons by demonstrating, not posturing, who hear with their ears and listen with their heart.   Yes, we are all fundamentally more similar than we think we are.  Yet we can choose to extract happiness from the ingredients that make a relationship unique, at least in our little microcosm of the world.  For instance, that recent one-hour conversation with my mentor.  You might have had similar ones with your mentor.  And no, I was not there.  But guess what, you weren’t in the one I had with my mentor.  That hour was ours.  And only ours!

Monday, November 1, 2021

Short in the Arm: Thoughts on "Morsels of Purple"

Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar, the author of “Morsels of Purple”, has an uncanny knack.  She draws the reader into her worlds with economy of words, yet packs them with detail after intricate detail.  How a daughter, not the men in the family, knows that “crumbs collect in the folds of skin” under a father’s neck.  How a husband pays scant regard to a post-it note, “Lunch in the Instapot.”  How a mother scrubs her son’s shaving foam from the sink.  The book is a compilation of 54 pieces of flash fiction, all short pieces between a paragraph and three pages in length.  The book is filled with the kind of detail that go beyond cliches, swiftly and elegantly establishing the mood of the individual pieces.  But where her writing truly steps into a different plane altogether are the carefully chiseled lines that mark key moments in her stories.  I lost count of the number of such phrases that truly jolted me from the relaxing rhythms of the stories and the vivid imagery, to make me pause at times, stun me into silence at others.

“The rains, which I hold inside, start.”

“There’s no ring on his finger, not even an indent of one.”

“My mother visited once.  I didn’t know she knew where I lived.  Or, whether I lived.”

The three lines quoted above are from different stories, yet they have a commonality.  There is not one unnecessary word in any of them.  Not one fancy or flowery turn of phrase.  Yet their impact, in the context of the pieces, is indelible.  One of the chief pleasures of Sara’s writing is that despite being similarly stunned at several places across separate stories, I could rarely see any of these profoundly impactful lines coming my way.  That is because she does not follow any fixed template.  One of the most spectacular pieces is one titled, “What if.”  True to the title, the entire one-page piece is a series of questions, culminating in a riveting finish. (The phrase, “island of our mattress” was especially astonishing.) You almost get the sense of these pieces writing themselves, that is how unforced and organic they are!

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There are some lively, amusing pieces such as “Rose Jam” and “The Watchmaker.”  The aforementioned eye for the keen detail shines brightly in these pieces.  But “Morsels of Purple” will be remembered by me for a long time for mainly three stories– “The Spring Rain”, “Dear Abu” and “How to live with an alcoholic husband.”  I very nearly teared up reading the first two and was amazed by the third piece in which each line starts with “when” –a rather painful journey is captured in a series of increasingly forceful lines.  “The Spring Rain” is a searing account of a woman who has gone through something unimaginable yet finds closure in the most unexpected manner.  (The “rains” line I cited above is from this story.) “Dear Abu”, as the title suggests, is about the feelings of a daughter towards her father.  The visual impact that the writing conjures – a case in point is how the Dad “stood at the gate with a torch in your hand, shining its light on each taxi…” – casts a spell.  The contrast between the last paragraph and what precedes it is a masterful example of ‘show, don’t tell’ that marks Sara’s writing.

As I reflected on the book in its entirety, I got the feeling of the whole being more than the sum of its parts.  And here's why.  With several of the pieces, I was able to not only experience a journey of sorts but was also able to luxuriate in some of the little life lessons and learnings that I took away from them.  In that sense, my personal journey with some of these pieces extended beyond the few pages that I spent with them.  And it was only a small fraction of the pieces that did not work for me.  It was either because they were a little too direct, sans Sara's customary vividness of prose or element of surprise (“Not forever, Snowman” for instance).  Or they were a tad predictable like “The Milkman.”  The misses, as I mentioned, are few and far between, certainly not enough to detract from the rich pleasures that are to be had in the book. 


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