Sunday, November 20, 2022

Old Paths, New Roads: An essay on R Parthiban, post "Iravin Nizhal"

Now that Radhakrishnan Parthiban’s Iravin Nizhal (Shadow of the Night) is out on Amazon Prime, I decided to not just revisit the film.  But also take a moment to pause and reflect on one part of his directorial journey - the reformed sinner films.  Given his unending desire to travel unexplored frontiers, risk his talents and push his boundaries, I sometimes feel like we don’t give him the credit for his achievements or the leeway for the flaws in his works.  Arguing about certain basic facts – the fact that this is the world’s first non-linear single shot film – might be exercises in futility that self-proclaimed youtube ‘experts’ might engage in.  But having followed his career with keen interest from the 90s, I feel compelled to offer a defense of something that is a bit of an unfair judgement – that he keeps dishing out the same content despite wanting to innovate with form.

Firstly, it is imperative to acknowledge that some filmmakers have pet themes.  A theme is different from a story.  While Pudhiya Paadhai (1989) and Iravin Nizhal (2022) might have, at their core, a central character whose troubled childhood lays the foundation for all his moral depravity as an adult, the way the stories are told and the narrative arc themselves are vastly different.  In fact, the differences that age and maturity bring to a filmmaker are there to see.  

In an interview with Baradwaj Rangan, the latter asked Parthiban what he would do with the lead characters of Pudhiya Paadhai if he had a chance to revisit the film.  Pat came the reply that the film would start with the victim shooting the rapist.  If you think that that was a convenient answer given in an interview to earn brownie points for political correctness, then you haven’t seen his earlier reformed rowdyTM films and now, Iravin Nizhal.

In both Pudhiya Paadhai and Ulle Veliye, it is others that pay for the rowdy's sins.  If in his debut effort, his wife succumbs to a bomb blast where he was the target, in Ulle Veliye, it is a girl in the slum who commits suicide after lying about being a prostitute.  In Pachcha Kuthira, despite committing acts like chopping off an innocent man’s leg, the ruffian doesn’t even set foot in jail until the movie ends.  KudaikkuL Mazhai was the first film of Parthiban where crime and punishment are in close proximity to one another.  Even though the Singapore-returned character is a figment of the protagonist’s imagination, in ‘shooting’ the character – a concretization of a man ‘killing’ his evil side and absolving himself- Parthiban, the filmmaker, showed a marked departure from his earlier works.  And that evolution is complete in Iravin Nizhal. 

The lead character of Iravin Nizhal goes through unimaginable hardships as a child and as a youth.  The more depravity he witnesses, he experiences a strange dichotomy between being repelled by it and wanting to do it himself.  He succumbs to desires and temptations.  In reflecting on a harrowing episode, he notes, “Pasiyum paNam saarndha prachanaiyum than yenna ellaa vayasilayum verattikitte iruku.”  As much as we feel sympathy for the character, Parthiban also leaves us with a strong message – that sins will beget more sins.  And when one finally realizes the error of his ways, it might sometimes be too little too late.  In Iravin Nizhal, the fact that his daughter – the apple of his eye – begins to hate him is a powerful instance of karma hitting back hard and in a manner that hurts the most. 

Let’s examine the sequence of events here.  An inability to pay a loan leads to a tragedy.  The episode makes the character bitter and turns him into a loan shark.  And when a family commits suicide because of his incessant pressure, his daughter begins to hate him because it was the family of a close friend of hers.  Unable to digest the fact that the one genuine love of his life will never accept him again, he commits suicide.  The emotional logic and psychological reasoning here are exquisite.  And the message now is very different from Pudhiya Paadhai.  That one’s sins, if repeated over time, will insidiously chip away at their core until there is very little left.  In this context, the sublime "Paapam seiyyadhiru maname" is not just a dirge, it is a plea.

As I mentioned earlier, the themes of certain films might remind us of earlier works of a filmmaker.  But it is imperative that we not just see the starting point of a pathway, which might seem vaguely familiar.  Instead, we must also take the time to see the new roads that are painstakingly laid out from the same starting point.  The roads might take us on a journey that we might not have experienced previously.  Up until we willingly take the new road, we will commit the mistake of leaving important filmmakers like Parthiban in the shadow of the night instead of shedding the spotlight on them. 

Saturday, October 29, 2022

“Right choices, baby!” – A write-up celebrating 25 years of Aahaa!

Director Visu rarely spoke about films outside of his own works.  I had the fortune of knowing him in the last 2 ½ years of his life.  During the conversations and whatsapp chats, he was extremely candid in his self-assessment.  I could freely speak about what I felt were the flaws in his films.  It was easy because he was a tougher critic of his works than I was.  But the same Visu could become suddenly hesitant when I would broach a conversation about any other director’s films.  But a striking exception to that was the warm, loving way in which he spoke about director Suresh Krissna’s Aahaa.  An obvious reason why it was relatively easy to get him to talk about Aahaa was because it was Suresh Krissna who had introduced me to him.  But the true reason why he made an exception was because, as a writer, he loved the ensemble drama.  He described the film as, a “ramyamaana padam.  What makes Aahaa such an instantly appealing film that even Visu decided to make an exception? 

One of the greatest strengths of seasoned filmmakers is their ability to make the right choices.  They seem to know exactly whom to cast for what role, which talents to collaborate with behind the camera and in essence, know how to transform the germ of an idea onto the screen with conviction.  Prior to Aahaa, Suresh Krissna was known mostly for his action-packed dramas like Baasha, Annamalai and Sathya.  But he had shown his adeptness in making lighthearted films like Veera and Raja Kaiyya Vechaa.  But those lighthearted films felt light on the ‘heart’ aspect.  They were decidedly commercial.  And while they were entertaining, they didn’t quite touch a chord or move me.  But with Aahaa, all of that changed.  It didn’t happen by accident.  It was a result of a series of very conscious decisions.

Firstly, Suresh Krissna decided that he would move completely away from the conventional commercial mould to make a film that was all heart.  One of the chief pleasures of Aahaa is that the screen is filled with lovable characters.  Circumstances aside, there are no villains.  Even the crabby Vijayakumar is just a frustrated father who wishes that his son was a little more focused in life.  There is a lovely line about the Bhanupriya character in the delightful introduction sequence – “ivalluku elaarayum pidikum.  Adhanaal, ivallai elaarukum pidikum.”  Something similar can be said about the characters.  When the screen is filled with affability, warmth and people whose hearts are always in the right place, it is impossible to not like them and root for them. 

Having decided that he would make a drama focused on the highs and lows of a large joint family, Suresh Krissna had two immensely strong writer collaborators.  One was the late Ananthu, who cowrote the screenplay, which flows as smoothly as a river, beautifully segueing from one sequence to the next.  The bumps in the journey are extremely rare. (Some of the scenes featuring Sukanya are amongst the few missteps in the film.) The other one was a pillar that held the film aloft – dialogue writer Crazy Mohan. 

That Mohan was brilliant at humor is a fact, not an opinion!  For Aahaa, he wrote some of the best comic lines of his illustrious career.  It takes ingenuity of stratospheric levels to come up with puns like ‘un uyarathuku kick-u yerangarthuke 4 naallu aagum’ while admonishing a tall drunk!  Between that, the ‘thayir vadai’ joke, the ‘gul gul jil jil mal mal’ line, the death sequence (!), the list of memorable jokes in this film is so long that Aahaa could have very well been titled, Mohana Punnagai!  But what makes the peak of Aahaa even taller than his collaborations with Kamal Hassan is the profundity of many a line.  In the otherwise amusing grocery store scene, Mohan slips in one crisp yet terrific line about friendship, love and marriage – “Kaadhal-ngaradhu kalyanathuku munaadi kedaikara oru nalla natpu.”  It is sad that the writer is no longer with us.  But as the cliché goes, his writings will continue to contribute to his immortality. 

The grocery store scene:

One of the lesser-mentioned aspects of Aahaa is the polish of the filmmaking.  The reason why this film, despite being a ‘drama’, does not feel like a staged theater performance is that it is a sound film technically.  Talking of sound, the sound design is supremely effective.  So is the way the scenes are choreographed.  The huge house that is almost a character in itself, is utilized in its full glory.  The sequence that best demonstrates this confluence of sound design and scene choreography is the one leading to the death scene.   There are three events happening in parallel – just like in real life.  Srividya is offering coffee to her son.  Vijayakumar is attending to a phone call.  And Bhanupriya is getting her son ready for school.  In the foreground, Rajiv Krishna just listens to Vijayakumar say, “En son-a anupchu vekkaren.”    While we primarily hear the son remonstrate with his mother, in the background, we feebly hear Vijayakumar talking on the phone.  As he hangs up, Vijayakumar summons his son – to watch Rajiv Krishna’s anticipation increase, only to be brought back to earth, is a hilarious experience!  As they argue, Bhanupriya’s kid is ready for school.  And as the driver Krishnan picks up the kid, he rubs salt in Rajiv’s wound by saying, “Neengale correct-a sollitengale!”  Essentially, the characters from the three parallel events converge in an utterly seamless manner.  That we don’t notice the craft behind all this is the ultimate testament to the filmmaker.  He is there.  Yet he is not! 

"En son-a anupchu vekkaren..."

Another aspect of the film that reflects some truly inspired choices is the casting.  Every actor in the cast fits their role like a glove.  Special mention to Raghuvaran, Bhanupriya and Delhi Ganesh, who turned in some of the best work of their career for this film.  Given that Raghuvaran had played the hero and the villain, we could never be sure about his relationship with Sukanya until he delivers that searing monologue in the climax.  Bhanupriya always had an innate likeability.  But she doesn’t rest lazily on that.  She imbues her character with little lifelike touches – her kitchen conversation with Rajiv Krishna as he bites on a carrot, is a case in point.  It takes a special actor to utter a line like, “aamam, ivaru periya Kapil Dev” yet not make it sound insulting!  And Delhi Ganesh takes the jaangiri…err…the cake in the humor department.  He never failed to do justice to Mohan’s lines.  And in Aahaa, he is a hoot in the funny scenes and a reliable anchor in the dramatic sequences.  No other actor could switch between humor and drama as effortlessly as he does in the Krishna Jayanthi scene in Vijayakumar’s house. 

Bhanupriya, Raghuvaran and Delhi Ganesh in the climax:

Films like Aahaa are rare.  In their quest to make the next big pan Indian film (which sometimes ends up being a film panned throughout India), they forget Martin Scorsese’s words which were memorably quoted by Bong Joon Ho at the Oscars- “The most personal is the most creative.”  And it is the most universal too.  ‘Little’ films like Aahaa are amongst the films with the richest legacy and the most longevity.  It was a film that appealed to Visu back then.  It is a film that holds appeal even now, 25 years after its release.  Let us celebrate the film for all the joy that it has given us.  Thank you, Team Aahaa!  You made all the right choices in making this film the classic it is.  It is up to us to do the same and not forget about this film during our lifetime and beyond. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Two unsinkable ships: Thoughts on Thiruchitrambalam, Autograph and Thotta Chinungi

It is quite rare that I let my views on a topic cloud my opinion of a movie.  But it happened recently with Thiruchitrambalam.  I chose to not review it because I felt that I could not trust myself to look past my opinions of friendship, to review the film based on its own merits and demerits.  Thanks to the influence of serious critics like Baradwaj Rangan, I sincerely try to review a film based on how well the writer-director brings to the screen the story that she or he chooses to tell.  In that respect, Thiruchitrambalam probably deserves a much better review than the one that I would have written.  Why so?  Because I hated the final act of the film. (Spoilers ahead) Having invested in the friendship of Nithya Menen and Dhanush, to be told that she had harbored feelings of love all along, felt like a mighty letdown.  Though the stellar cast and their wonderful performances kept me engaged, I felt cheated.  Was it entirely the fault of the filmmaker? 

Let me start by saying that there have been films like Piriyadha Varam Vendum and Oh My Kadavule that have explored the space of a friendship metamorphosing into love and the tricky aspects of two close friends marrying one another.  The seemingly lightweight Kadhal Desam is mostly remembered for its songs.  “Muzhugathe ship-pe friendship than” is a line that is remembered in the context of the irresistible “Mustafa…” song.  But the film, as frivolous as it was, attempted to do justice to friendship as much as it was about love.  It featured a thought-provoking sequence where SPB assures Tabu that a good friend could make for a good spouse.  That she might want to marry her friend instead of hoping that her life partner will be a good pal to her.  Agree or disagree with what he said, it at least gave friendship the respect it deserved.  It felt like a logical conversation between a friendly Dad and a loving daughter.  In none of these movies did I feel the kind of negative emotions like I did with the concluding portions of Thiruchitrambalam. 

As I reflected on my feelings after watching the film, I realized that my unfavorable response really stemmed from the fact that this was not the kind of man-woman friendship that I enjoy watching on screen.  I realized that beyond the “vaa da” and “po di” kind of ‘casual’ remarks between friends, films that explored the depth of a friendship across gender are what truly appealed to me.  My bias was and is towards films where friends remained friends for the duration of a film.  In that respect, two films that have stayed with me for a long time are Autograph and Thotta Chinungi.  Sneha and Cheran in the former and Revathi and Karthik in the latter share the kind of bond that appeals to me not only as a moviegoer but also as a person.  While Autograph is a little more in-your-face in its depiction, the subtlety and sensitivity in Thotta Chinungi is an absolute delight. 

In Thotta Chinungi, Revathi and Karthik are friends from a young age.  A young Karthik loses his mom early in life.  Revathi and her brother are his only family.  Revathi marries Raghuvaran.  All is well until Raghuvaran starts developing feelings of possessiveness, insecurity and suspicion.  Writer-director KS Adhiyaman does a fabulous job of showcasing their relationship in a lifelike manner.  He balances the rhythms of daily life with just the right emotional beats.  There are sweet lifelike touches like Revathi addressing Karthik, “Sir” and Karthik casually sitting on her kitchen counter and chatting with her and Raghuvaran.  At the same time, when asked to describe his feelings for her, in a rather lovely scene, Karthik describes her as the maternal figure in his life.  When a situation involving Revathi’s brother escalates out of hand, Karthik takes him in.  But he does so in the most undemonstrative, non-judgmental manner.  In a stupendous bit of screenwriting, Adhiyaman makes Karthik’s love interest (played by Rohini) talk to Raghuvaran about Karthik and Revathi’s bond.  To have Karthik talk to Raghuvaran would have just not been as effective. 

What makes Thotta Chinungi resonate with me is not just the respect and dignity it affords to the friendship.  It is also how the relationship is tested severely.  And how the characters come out of it shining brightly.  In the aforementioned kitchen counter scene, Karthik nonchalantly mentions that simple joys like eating Revathi’s food and playing with her kid are all that he wants in life.  Later, in the climax, when Karthik almost walks away from the relationship to save Revathi and Raghuvaran’s marriage, Raghuvaran steps in and mentions the same line uttered by Karthik.  That is all that he says to reassure him that both his friendship and their marriage will be intact.  And the film ends with a closeup of Revathi smiling.  Simple yet striking.  Pithy yet profound.  Adhiyaman demonstrates that you don’t always need lectures on friendship for its worth to be understood by viewers.  And since it is a domestic drama and not a hero-centric film, all characters are given equal prominence.  As a result, the relationships are supremely well fleshed out.

Watch the scene at 32:22 and the climax at 2:17:49

Autograph, on the other hand, is vintage Cheran.  Cheran has never shied away from direct expression of feelings.  When he isn’t firing on all cylinders (as a writer), one gets the feeling that the characters are mere mouthpieces for what he wants to say to his viewers.  At his best, especially when he has the support of good actors, his characters spout lines that might sound preachy but they seem to own the lines with such conviction that the writer seems invisible.  That is exactly what happens in the case of Sneha and Cheran. 

Sneha comes into Cheran’s life at a time that he is going through a low phase.  He helps him rebuild his life, yes.  But despite Cheran being the film’s central character, this portion of the film is not just about the impact of Sneha on Cheran’s life.  It is also about her.  Nowhere is this demonstrated better than in the restaurant scene.  Prior to this, Sneha would have bumped into her former love interest. (We are told that she had attempted suicide when the relationship failed.) When Cheran mocks her, she slaps him.  Upon returning to her senses, she apologizes to him.  And explains that the reason she got mad was because she sees him as a pillar of strength that helped her face her fears and overcome her weaknesses. (Interestingly, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil… also featured a line where Anushka Sharma calls Ranbir Kapoor her “strength” and her lover her “weakness.”) Scenes like these breathe with so much life that later on, when Sneha speaks of their friendship in an idealistic manner, one gets the feeling that the character – and by extension, the director – has earned the right to be a bit preachy and philosophical. 

Click on Play to go to the restaurant scene:

The unconscious ability of good friends to know precisely when to say what to one another, their equally unshakeable confidence in communicating through silences, the undemonstrative yet unwavering displays of support and above all, the reassuring constancy amidst highs, lows, trials and tribulations.  These are what I truly find enriching in friendships, in life and on screen.  It is entirely unfair of me to expect Mithran R Jawahar (writer-director of Thiruchitrambalam) to showcase the kind of friendships that Adhiyaman and Cheran did.  But by the same token, movie viewing can be an intensely individual, personal experience as much as it is a communal one.  And the (friend)ships that will stay afloat in my memory sans any risk of sinking are the ones in Thotta Chinungi and Autograph.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

A review of Ponniyin Selvan (Part-1) - Guest Post by Anuradha Raghavan

It is rather unexpected that a person like me was asked to do a guest post reviewing Ponniyin Selvan Part-1 (“PSI").  I have watched a lot of good movies in Tamil but I am not one to be up to date on all the new Tamil movies.  In fact, I haven’t been to the theater to see a Tamil movie in twenty years!  But PSI – how could I not go see it in the theater?!  This is Ponniyin Selvan we are talking about!  The famous Kalki novel that everyone who grew up in Tamil Nadu would have known!  I have not read the novel.  But being someone who loves the Tamil language, I had to support this grand venture for sure.  I did my homework and read the story summary in detail and watched YouTube videos so that I could enjoy the movie and not focus on understanding the plot.  I wanted to watch the movie because I had not watched historical fiction in a long time.  I love listening to pure Thamizh being spoken.  Another reason for me to go watch PS1!

Did I love the movie? The movie was so hyped up in the media that I went in expecting some magic.  But  I came home wondering why I didn’t have that “Niraivu” (complete feeling).  Fragments of the movie stayed in my mind.  Karthi was good in his light-hearted ways.  Jayram was very capable in how he acted with great timing and flow.  The Ponniyin Selvan novel, as a movie, would have fared well with greater emotional depth had it been split into three parts.  It felt as if the director was vacillating between it being a crowd pleaser versus retaining a tight grip on his standards of movie making.  “Devaralan Aatam” song for example just did not fit in with the weighty feel of the story.  It seemed like a song that would fit in better in some other movie like Chandramukhi.  

Like the winter sky on a calm night, there were so many stars but their shine didn't come through because of how little time most of them had on screen.  Prakash Raj was lying down most of the time.  Prabhu was silently beaming next to Arulmozhi Varman.  Vikram’s dialogues were not befitting his stature as the possible successor when he talks about his heartache over Nandhini.  The heartache may have been real but the space given to bring it out was cramped. Aishwarya Rai was radiant but lacking spark because we were made to focus on her "beauty" with the warm glow of light on her face and the glittering jewels adding to it.  It reminded me of the photoshopped models on magazine covers.  I almost wish they had cast someone who would have brought out the conniving nature of that character a lot more.  Vidya Balan maybe?  Aishwarya Lekshmi’s costume in “Alaikadal” felt like I was about to watch “Nila Adhu Vaanathu mele” from Nayagan.  A dream song between Vikram and Aishwarya with words like “Narumugaye” would have fit in better.  I guess a sensuous song was thrown in to engage the masses?  Shobita Dulipala does not have a Tamilian face for her role as Vanathi and I wonder if there is a paucity of Tamil actresses for such prized roles.  Thankfully Trisha looking fresh as always was there to put a Tamil face there!

The cinematography was spectacular and carried the movie.  It reminds me of the times my son would remark that a doubles team won because one player carried the match and made them win.  Thotta Tharani’s experience and visual panache showed in the spectacular sets that made you feel like you could almost walk alongside the characters in those grand palaces.  But even Ravi Verman and Thotta’s  magic could not keep the attention of those who expected more for a whole three hours.  A catnap was needed in the last third of the movie to get through the rest of it.  The songs were good but not as catchy as some of ARR’s have been in the past.  The Tamil language used in the movie also had bits of colloquial Tamil thrown in small doses like light music tunes thrown in the middle of a serious kutcheri.  Why underestimate the masses?!  If they come to see a historical fiction movie, they will appreciate the synchrony in the imagery and language representing that era.

All said, I have to confess that I plan to go see the movie again with my family.  Why? Because it is the great Ponniyin Selvan and it is decently made even if did not measure up to the hype.  It gave us the excitement of seeing a grand historical fiction movie based on the great Raja Raja Chola.  It gives us a reason to look him up and learn about the great ruler and about the awe inspiring Brihadeeshvara Temple he built.  It reminds us that the complexities of human interactions and emotions were the same thousand years back. I am grateful to the director Mr. Mani Ratnam for bringing this novel to life. The amount of research he and his team have put into every detail in bringing it to life shows and it is much appreciated.  This movie demands a cerebral presence as it is to keep track of the many characters and twists in the plot.  When you talk to someone, if they say all the right words but you don’t feel the authenticity of emotion, you come back feeling like something was missing.  That is the feeling I had after watching this movie. 

Mr. Mani Ratnam is to blame for setting our expectations high because of how well made some of his past movies have been.  To this day when you think of the movie Nayagan, you feel connected to it.  Ponniyin Selvan as a novel has a cult following and has been talked about so much that even just attempting to make a movie has the trappings of a high bar to meet.  If Mr. Mani Ratnam could step back and view it in his home theater by himself away from his adoring fans and the high praise showered on him, he might be able to tighten it up and deliver an amazing PS2!  After all, for someone of his caliber who has money and success in great measure, if he doesn’t raise his own bar, what else is left?!

Sunday, September 25, 2022

The curious case of a time machine

Sep 22 was a tough day.  It is always painful when a ‘birthday’ gets converted into an ‘birth anniversary.’  But the pain is especially tough to bear when the person in question exited the world prematurely.  Such was the case with my dear friend and brother, Ramadhyani Narayanan – Dhyans, to me - who had passed on in 2020, aged just 40.  Not that we ever forget the departed souls.  But days such as Dhyans’ birthday or the day he passed on are tough reminders of a reality that, whether we choose to acknowledge, is…real.  I can look away.  I can even shut my eyes.  But as much as I wish for the gift to rewind to the moment before his death and prevent it, no, the clock doesn’t move in reverse.  Instead, I feel locked in a curiously designed time machine where the body is in the present, but the mind is in the past.  It is a time machine in which I feel suffocated and claustrophobic because of the uneasy dichotomy between the pleasantness of the shared past and harshness of the lonely present.  Have you been there?  Have you felt that?  Is there anything that can be done about it?  Let’s explore.

One of the best lines from Shankar’s Muthalvan is one uttered by Arjun’s father.  He wistfully says, “Life-la mattum our rewind button irundha evlo nalla irukum.” (“It will be ideal if life too, had a rewind button.”)  Minutes later, he loses his life in a ghastly bomb blast.  In deep anguish, that is one of the lines that instantly comes to Arjun’s mind.  It is a powerful scene, packed with genuine sentiment.  Let’s come up with an alternate version of that line – “It will be ideal if life too, had a fast-forward button.”  I say that because there is a sense of dread when a birth (or a death) anniversary of a loved one approaches.  On that day, our mind is brimming with thoughts and memories, almost waiting for the clock to turn to the next day so that the pain eases a little.  In the past few years when I have lost my Aunt (49) and friend (40) to premature deaths, I have realized that there is no benefit to be had from flinching from the thought of entering that uncomfortable time machine.  Is there an alternative?

Yes, there is.  Firstly, we must willingly get into that time machine.  And more importantly, we need to look around to see who is grieving as much as or more than us.  And make sure that we strap them into their seat belts before we get on.  Because it is vitally important to take a genuine assessment of the people who are hit the hardest.  And make sure that we humbly acknowledge what we owe to them versus what we can expect in terms of commiseration and consolation. 

We must engineer the time machine to not just have two modes – past and present – but also a third one, the future.  In other words, we need to concretize our grief in a manner where we eye the future and find ways to make the departed soul live on.  I remember when director Vasanth visited my grandma the first Diwali after my Aunt had passed on, he said to her, “I know that you will not be celebrating Diwali.  But why don’t you make her favorite dish?”  My grandma was immensely touched by his gesture. (So was I.)  Last year, Dhyans’ brother and I instituted an annual award for excellence in Math to celebrate the life of Dhyans who was a natural at Math.  These are but a couple of examples.  Your memories of your loved ones may be very different, leading to gestures that are unique, special, and deeply fulfilling to you. 

At the end of the day, the process of grieving is intensely personal.  One size does not fit all.  But my sincere opinion is that failing to acknowledge the pain, especially when it is amplified on certain days, is not a way to deal with it.  By looking at these days as opportunities to willingly pause to reflect, rejoice and recollect can be a surprisingly rewarding experience.  By investing our efforts in meaningful thoughts or gestures that pay a tribute to the ones who are no longer with us, we can make sure that the time machine also enables us to look at the future.  A future where we make our loved ones live on.  When we have taken mortality – at least in spirit - out of a supreme power’s hands, we not only empower ourselves but also the ones who are grieving the most.  Consequently, the ride in the time machine will feel uplifting, not suffocating and comfortable, not claustrophobic.    

Sunday, September 4, 2022

His steps were measured: A tribute to my paternal grandfather

The avid movie buff that I am, let us start with a film analogy.  There are certain classic films that bear repeat viewing.  On the first viewing, we might have walked away with a satisfied, even heady, feeling of having watched a supremely well-made film.  But it is on repeat viewings that we might get to appreciate the nuances and the understated details that we may have missed on the first viewing.  Raghavan Thatha, my paternal grandfather, would have turned 100 on September 23, 2022, had he been alive.  It has been more 15 years since he passed on.  Although I loved him dearly and admired him a lot while he was alive, it is as I age and as I introspect that I begin to see - to continue with my movie analogy - the full picture.

Five of Thatha’s six children, except for my father, were in the US when he and Paati moved to the US in 1989.  I was 8 years old then.  My memories of him from the late 80s are mostly of his lovely ranch house in Anna Nagar in Chennai.  It was a lovely home, one that I was fortunate enough to live in for a few years.  Everything about the house was graceful, understated, uncomplicated and strikingly elegant.  Much like its owner.  There was one large room that stretched from the entrance of the house and extended all the way to the kitchen in the back.  There was just a large wooden shelf that divided the living room and the dining room.  (Since Thatha disallowed food on the sofa, I always prayed that the TV commentators for cricket matches would be as vivid and descriptive as the ones on radio!)  The bedrooms were each to the right of the long room.  I used to study in Thatha's room.  Never once had I ever felt either disturbance or interference from him.  He just let me be.  I don’t think I appreciated that as much as I do now that I am an adult myself.

Another routine that Thatha and I shared back then was a Sunday trip to the Gymkhana club where he had been a longtime member.  The club had a swimming pool whose main attraction were the diving boards.  Everything about my dive was graceless, overstated, complicated and embarrassingly inelegant!  I don’t think I ever dove headfirst into the water.  It was always a jump, a thud, a splash, and a mess.  The only saving grace was that I never jumped onto anyone.  Amidst all this, Thatha would simply sit on a chair beside the pool and converse with my mother.  And when I was done, he would ask if I wanted to have a snack or chocolate milk. (For the record, I never said, “No” to anyone in matters of food or sweetened beverages.) 

By the time I came to the US in 1991 for an 18-day summer vacation with my Mom, he had lived in the US for nearly two years.  In retrospect, it is amazing how well he adjusted to life in the US.  He was 69 then.  He had gotten a drivers license and drove comfortably.  In fact, when my Aunt (who lived in Charlottesville back then) went to work, it was Thatha who drove us around, acting in a manner that confirmed that he had taken to the new place and the new style of living like a duck to water.  One of my fondest memories of that trip was the drive from New Jersey to Buffalo with my Chithappa, Chithi, Mom, Paati and Thatha.  I sat on Thatha's lap for quite a large portion of the drive, working out the Math problems that my Chithappa had tasked me with.  Thatha would help at times.  But he would invariably urge me to work it out myself.  And he would only help when I really needed it.  I think that gesture was symptomatic of the man himself.  He was an enabler who wanted to teach you how to fish, not catch the fish for you.  

After I had moved to the US, I got the opportunity to spend more quality time with him.  I feel immensely lucky that he was able to attend my graduation ceremony in 2002.  During my job search, Thatha would mail me job openings, sending me an encouraging note along with it.  When I landed a job, he wished me luck and urged me to have a good work ethic.  He firmly believed in being there as a reassuring presence.  His wisdom, as is the case with all those wise old people, manifested itself in action, not words. 

Another incident from 2002 that is impossible for me to forget is one related to his 80th birthday celebration.  I was peeved about something – completely unrelated to him – and had told my parents that I would not be attending the function.  Even though people tried to pacify me, I was quite adamant.  I had sent an e-mail to Thatha a few weeks leading up to the celebration that I would not be making it to the function.  In response, he did not try to emotionally manipulate me or force me.  He simply wrote that he hoped that something would change and that I would make it.  But that he would understand if I didn’t.  A few weeks later, the hotheaded me had cooled off and I had decided to attend the function.  I sent him another e-mail telling him that I would make it, after all.  In his reply- which I so wish that I had saved – he wrote me a long note stating how happy he was.  And that he was absolutely sure that I would attend.  As I reflect on how he behaved back then, I know that in him, I have someone whom I must emulate in more ways than one.  The grace was not just restricted to his dapper manner of dressing.

No write-up about Thatha will be complete without a mention of his style.  Whether it was a formal, professional attire or a traditional Indian outfit, Thatha’s style of dressing was impeccable.  The suits, the neatly ironed shirts, the white dhotis were all a delight to see.  And his English - both written and spoken - was stupendous.  He once requested me to type an e-mail on his behalf.  That was the first time that I had heard the word, "brethren!"  Listening to him spell it out for me was quite an experience!  There was a time in my 20s when I had issues with acne on my face and decided to switch to an electric razor.  He was the one that taught me how to use it.  After seeing his elaborate manner of preparing himself, I quipped, “Thatha, ipdi naan shave panna lunchtime ku than office poga mudiyum!” (“It will be lunch by the time I reach work if I shave this elaborately!)  He smiled and responded, “You can do it your way.  I just showed you the proper way!”  Just pausing to reread that line makes me appreciate his attitude even more. 

In his later years, we created new routines such as a Saturday morning visit to The Waffle House whenever we met up in Memphis.  When he and Paati were in my Aunt’s house in southern California in 2005, he and I used to go out every Saturday, sometimes to a restaurant, sometimes to a movie, sometimes both!  On one occasion, he came to my apartment.  I made him tea, hoping that he would like it.  I suppose it had not come out too well, for he simply said, “Sooda irukku!” (“It is hot”) When the temperature is the only thing mentioned, I guess something went awry!  All I remember are the twinkle in his eye and the gentle smile which made me accept his mischievous comment smilingly!

In his final years, he had slowed down in a deliberate manner.  The steps that were always measured were now literally so.  The gingerly manner of walking was as precautionary as it was a result of advancing age.  He was in control even when his body was starting to show signs of not supporting his mind ably enough.  He had sustained a back injury a few months before his end came.  When I last saw him in Memphis, he had to use a walking stick.  Yet when we went out to dinner, the innate energy and enthusiasm surfaced.  When his end came, it was in a manner that felt abrupt, given how healthy he had been till then.  But to not see him suffer in infirmity meant that we could truly celebrate the life that he had lived for 84 glorious years.

I wish he had been alive to celebrate his 100th birthday.  But since that was not to be, I at least wanted to use his centennial birth anniversary as an opportunity to pause and pay tribute to a man who was a lot deeper than one absorbed and appreciated at a superficial glance.  After all, well-made films are timeless regardless of when they are taken out of theaters.  Likewise, special human beings are immortal, regardless of when they leave this earth.  

Happy birthday, Thatha!  


Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The stage is set – Reflections on Visu Sir

One of the obvious risks of revisiting films from an earlier era is that they could feel a little dated.  Especially family dramas.  The mores of a society are not set in stone.  It is one’s hope that with time, conventions and norms are questioned and that we see progression, not regression.  At the same time, when we revisit films from a different time, we might want to first evaluate whether the treatment does justice to the chosen theme.  And then assess whether the treatment is strong enough to overlook any elements that make it feel dated.  This was the framework that I used to appraise the works of writer-director Visu.  Or, as I addressed him, Visu Sir.  Let me first talk about the creations before talking about the creator.

Kudumbam Our Kadhambam is one of his finest works as a writer. (The film was directed by SP Muthuraman.) It is an ensemble drama, featuring a medley of lively characters.  Visu was a master at looking at one issue from different vantage points.  Employment was the issue that he explored with much depth through the “kadhambam” of characters who, despite belonging to different families, are united by their inherent goodness.  Not to mention, their income-related struggles.  A working woman who wants to be a homemaker.  A homemaker who wants to work, to help make ends meet.  An elderly lady and her daughter, who have to shoulder the family’s burdens amidst two personifications of irresponsibility that are the father and son.  These are some of the contrasting roles that Visu wove into a taut screenplay. 

There is often the question of whether male writers do justice to the women that they write.  With Visu, I believe that he wrote female characters in such a way that his target audience could learn how they could thrive in a patriarchal society.  Even though the women in most Visu films did not step outside of or rise above a conservative setup, he almost always gave them strength of character and made them thrive or flourish, depending on the situation.  For instance, in Kudumbam… in a fit of anger, Shekar slaps Suhasini.  She does not slap him back.  But by the end of the film, she is the primary breadwinner of the family.  You could argue that what might have been truly ‘progressive’ would have been to show Suhasini go to work because she wanted to work, not because she needed to work.  But for a film set in a lower middle-class setup in 1981, to show that it was not infra dig for a man to not be the primary earning member was ‘progress’ in a small way.  In a sense, Visu chipped away at societal norms, even if he didn’t demolish them in service of a utopian future. 

Click on Play to go to the "Ena jaathi pa nee?" scene

Visu was associated with the advice-spouting, problem solver in many of the films that he wrote and directed.  But dig a little deeper, you will find that some of his best moments were in films where messy relationships did not get tidy little closures.  The climactic scenes of both the celebrated Samsaram Adhu Minsaram and the underrated Varavu Nalla Uravu are cases in point.  In fact, the climax of Varavu… is as shocking as it is powerful.  When Visu laments the fact that he had ‘lost’ his wife long before she died, one cannot help but see a bit of reason in his rather harsh decision.  Yes, Varavu… might feel overwrought as a drama.  But some of the scenes pack tremendous punch.  There is real bite in some of the exchanges between the Dad and his family. (Ditto for the contrapuntal scenes between Rekha and Kishmu – they bristle with power.)

5:20-min point:

Another convenient yet inaccurate assessment of his writing was that he was always verbose.  Yes, his dialogues could be wordy and even a bit repetitive.  But Visu was equally adept at quick wit, sharp repartee and, this might surprise you, brevity.  In Kudumbam…, the new tenant is being grilled by the occupants of the house.  Towards the end of the scene, one of them asks, “Aamam, enna jaathi pa nee?”  To which the tenant responds, “Yaezhai.”  Stunned silence follows.  Cut to a scene where Suhasini and Sumalatha offer him food.  Listening to his story, Kamala Kamesh offers to cook him meals at a subsidized rate (compared to restaurants).  He hesitates a little and says, “Neenge Brahmins…naan…”  And she responds, “Illa, naangalum unga jaathi thaan - yaezhainge.”  There is a certain rhythm to the dialogue that flows beautifully from one scene to the next.  But the lines are in service of the story, not standalone ‘punch’ lines.  Sample another line of his from Penmani AvaL Kanmani, uttered by Delhi Ganesh, who is in a pitiable state.  When urged by Visu to fight for his rights, he says, “Maanamum roshamum vayathuku kedaiyadhu.  Paasamum pandigaiyum ezhaiku kedaiyadhu.”  Crisp, yet striking. 

Yes, his filmmaking style was basic and strongly reflective of his stage background.  But an assessment of a film- an audiovisual medium – should be reflective of not just the form but also content, not just the style but also the substance.  Visu’s finest works were so compelling on the content front that I was – I still am – always willing to look past the deficiencies on the craft side of things. 

Now that I have written enough about writer-filmmaker Visu, a word about Visu Sir.  I was fortunate enough to have known him in the last two years of his life.  Whatsapp voice notes were his preferred method of communication.  He was a delight to interact with.  He shared with me some truly sagacious words of wisdom from his own life experiences.  Since they were from his personal life and since he is no more, I would like to refrain from sharing examples in this public blog.  The stories from his professional life were no less illuminating.  When I learned that AVM Saravanan had insisted on the Manorama character in Samsaram Adhu Minsaram for comic relief, I asked Visu Sir if he felt like he had compromised as a writer for commercial reasons.  His response was, “Saraswati veLeele pogaatha varaikum Lakshmi ulla varathukaana edhavadhu velai pannaa thappu illa.”  I thought that that was a wonderful way of describing his lofty standards and integrity as a writer and the kind of tweaks and suggestions that were acceptable to him. 

Visu Sir was an important, influential figure in the world of stage, cinema and later in television.  In a day and age where Tamil audiences get rich exposure to world cinema and develop a deeper understanding of the nuances of films, it is easy to forget the works of a writer and director of an earlier era whose creations were populated with commoners, their highs, lows, joys and despair.  But to forget him or assess his works unfairly is grave injustice to one of our most thoughtful creators.  Giving him credit where it is due is one surefire way of ensuring that his soul continues to rest in peace.  In writing this piece, I have tried to do my bit.  In reading this piece, you have done yours.  Thank you!     

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Throwing Light on the Shadow: An essay on Iravin Nizhal

That Radhakrishnan Parthiban is undoubtedly one of the most daring filmmakers in Tamil Cinema is probably the understatement of the year.  He has, over time, carved out a space that is all his.  The stories that he chooses to tell and the formats he tries to explore, are all so off the beaten path that you could say that every film of his could be titled Pudhiya Paadhai!  And Iravin Nizhal is arguably the most daring of all his attempts till date.  The film is a technical marvel.  That it is the world’s first non-linear, single shot film is something that we have been educated on in the promotions.  But the making video that is played before the film gives us the full picture of the extraordinary challenges and barriers that Parthiban and his team had to overcome to make this dream a reality.  The vision, the planning, the execution, the frustrations, and the ecstasy all make for such compelling viewing that the actual feature film that follows, has to compete with the making video for entertainment and engagement.

Right from his Pudhiya Paadhai days, Parthiban has, in an unflinching manner, managed to dissect and present characters who struggle to come out of the shadows of a sordid childhood.  With his wonderful Oththa Seruppu Size 7, which I regard as his best directorial work till date, another theme that he had explored with much depth was the deleterious impact of money, or lack thereof, on relationships.  One of the reasons why Oththa Seruppu worked remarkably well was because with the film’s entire focus on a single character, the introspections, reflections and revelations were examined in a superbly perceptive and focused manner.  Iravin Nizhal combines these themes and their impact on a man’s life.  It is an ambitious film not just in terms of the conceit of the single shot and the non-linear narration.  It is also a daring experiment in story telling because it trusts the viewer to watch with rapt attention as the character revisits several pieces of the rather unsolvable puzzle that his life has turned out to be.

If the investigation setup of Oththa Seruppu gave Parthiban the perfect platform for the solo act, a character holding a figurative mirror to his conscience and revisiting the highs and lows of his life is a perfect setup for the single shot narrative.  Since we are following a character’s mental journey, not a physical one, we accept the segues from one setting to another without questioning the logistical feasibility.  But the same cannot be said about the emotional impact.  Parthiban follows what Baradwaj Rangan coined as the “vignette” style (when he spoke to Mani Ratnam about Iruvar).  We get a whiff of several phases of his life.  On the one hand, given the depressingly dark territories that the story goes into, the vignettes work well in making the sequences palatable.  On the other hand, certain aspects like the impact of a child on the character transformation of a parent don’t get their due time on screen. 

The rough edges of this film are smoothed over by Parthiban’s powerful dialogues.  Whenever the single shot format limits the scope for performances, the dialogues more than ably compensate.  Be it his trademark puns (there are a couple of hilarious but unprintable ones!) or certain sharp lines like “naan manushana porandhu rendu varsham than aachu” in reference to his daughter, the dialogues are terrific.  And as a Parthiban fan, the couple of subtle references to his earlier work like the Rajabadhar death scene (happening in 1989 in this film’s timeline, the same year that Pudhiya Paadhai released) are thoroughly enjoyable.  And there are some nifty touches like the Shalini poster from Amarkallam in the background when the film’s timeline shifts to 1999. 

AR Rahman’s musical score, especially “Paapam Seiyyadhiru”, contributes to the film’s dramatic appeal in a magnificent manner.  The score helps us experience the inevitable tragedy of the central character in an almost poetic manner, despite the harshness of the visuals that unfold on screen.  Cinematographer Arthur Wilson and production designer RK Vijay Murugan are the two other pillars that hold Parthiban’s vision aloft.  The latter has created some truly ingenious set pieces – some of the transitions from one set to another are astonishing, especially the beach front – while the former finds the unlikeliest of angles to weave his camera in and out of.  Wilson’s work is especially splendid in the flashback sequences involving the kid.  The child goes through some ghastly experiences but Wilson’s camera angles and lighting are just perfect in showing us some of the unspeakable hardships while never feeling exploitative.

Parthiban’s efforts for Iravin Nizhal are so painstaking that it almost feels unfair to nitpick.  But even as we critically view the film, it is impossible to not acknowledge the palpable impact that the film’s narrative has on us, even within the restrictions of the format.  Future filmmakers might analyze Iravin Nizhal and make careful choices about the stories that would fit most optimally into this format.  But the seeds of that are undoubtedly sown by Parthiban. (To paraphrase Thevar Magan Sivaji, “Aana vedhai…Parthiban poattadhu!”)  And for proving his mettle as an intrepid experimenter, let us collectively throw as much spotlight on this film as possible so that he feels motivated to keep creating new paths for us to experience.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Rainy Daze: My essay on Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar’s “Skin over milk”

Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar is an amazingly observant writer.  To paint a picture in broad strokes is one thing.  To knit a yarn with lovingly woven threads is another skill altogether.  No prizes for guessing where the author of the brilliant “Morsels of Purple” falls.  While “Morsels of Purple” was a delectable collection of flash fiction pieces, “Skin over milk” is a quietly powerful novella about three sisters. 

Why did I say, “quietly powerful?”  It is because I have read my share of pieces where the outward explosions and catharses of characters are captured in a raw, in-your-face and unflinching manner.  The tone of “Skin over milk” is different.  Characters implode under the weight of patriarchal entitlements.  There is a mix of gorgeous poetry and minute observation in the way Sara captures pain.  One of the most exquisite lines in this book is a case in point – “The clouds rumbled as they emptied their moisture with a plunk-plunk-plunk on the tin shed but we let ours flow in silence.”  In fact, rain, beyond being a metaphor, is almost a character in the proceedings.  And it is a testament to Sara’s dazzling skill as a writer that she does not use it in convenient, cliched ways.  Nowhere is this more evident in an astonishingly effective line where a character likens her unbearable pain to “why clouds groaned.”

Skin over Milk (image courtesy of

But lest you think that the book is gloomy, let me assure you that it is anything but.  It is a story of empathy and inner steel in the face of adversity.  It is about living life with hope despite feeling indignant and helpless at times.  It is about finding joy in the little pleasures of life, even if it means the occasional creation of imaginary worlds within the real one.  Sara, for major portions of the book, does a splendid tightrope walk between bringing out the pain experienced by the sisters and their mother while doing so in a matter-of-fact manner, never milking a moment in a superfluous or indulgent manner.  As a result, we marvel at the acute observations, we feel the pain, we smile and laugh with the characters, all along feeling like an active participant in the proceedings, not a remote observer.  When a girl receives physical blows coupled with verbal abuse, the “words cut deeper than the leather belt” not just for her but for us too.  And when the characters engage in some harmless mischief with a rickshawallah, we smile impishly as though we were in on the act.

“Skin over milk” is proof that one need not pack a story with twist after twist for a read to be gripping.  Sometimes, choosing a seemingly simple narrative and examining pivotal moments with a microscope can draw a reader into the writer’s world just as compellingly.  And that is exactly what Sara does with this delightful little book.  The rain might have featured prominently in the book, but it is the readers that will want to shower the author with lavish praise.


Link to order the book:

Saturday, July 2, 2022

"It was time..." - Not another review of Vikram

I was five years old when the original Vikram was released.  In the early 90s, I watched the film for the first time on Doordarshan on a Sunday evening.  I was struck by a couple of things.  The coolness of the first half.  And the dumbness of the second half!  After a point, the film seemed to meander aimlessly, with the shoddy graphics in the climax a far cry from the rousing opening sequence where the rocket was captured by the villain.  So, the 1986 film was not one that I was especially fond of.  But the Kamal Hassan fanatic I am, when the first Vikram teaser (for the 2022 version, that is) was released, I somehow felt instinctively that it was going to be a better film.  Something told me – gosh, I sound like Anju in Keladi Kanmani! – that this would be, at the very least, a rollicking ride.  And when I watched the film on the second day of release, my cup of joy began to overflow.

As I mentioned in the title, no, this is not a review of the film.  It is very rare that I feel so much of ‘ownership’ (for the lack of a better term) of a film that I cannot trust myself to do a balanced analysis of a film.  It was because of the delirious state that I found myself in while watching the film.  With writer-director Lokesh Kanagaraj at the helm, it was not surprising to see the film get on with its business from the word, go.  The Pathala Pathala… song was hyped up beyond measure.  But in the actual film, truth to be told, it didn’t do much for me.  It was probably because I was waiting to see Kamal in ‘action’ (pun intended).  The moment where I said to myself, “There’s my Kamal” was the death scene.  The tears, the gesture to the crowd to leave, the easy-chair posture with the grandkid, were all moments where I was struggling to get into the drama of the scene.  Yes, the critics would say that great acting should make the actor fade out and become the character.  And Kamal’s acting in that scene is indeed great.  But I was not a critic (even a wannabe one) watching that scene.  I was a fan admiring his idol’s every move.

The much-celebrated pre-intermission scene made me rue the fact that I was not in a packed theater in Chennai.  I would have enjoyed the whistles and applause as much as the swagger and the action.  In that scene, I actually was enjoying Fahadh Faasil’s acting considerably.  There is a hint of a smile when he says that the Kamal character is not a myth anymore.   And I thought to myself, “This is Kamal’s first major sequence in this film.  And yet, he doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting!”  I was grinning from ear to ear thinking of films where Kamal had shouldered the lion’s share of the burden – in terms of time, thinking, effort, and even finances – and yet the rewards were hardly commensurate to the Himalayan effort put in.  Yet here he was, playing a role in a film where the director, his crew and the stellar ensemble cast were all playing vital roles in essentially creating a celebratory experience for him and his fans.  I was reminded of Sachin Tendulkar on the day of the World Cup final in 2011.  He hadn’t exactly done anything noteworthy on that day except score a couple of lovely boundaries in a short innings.  But after having carried him on his shoulders, Virat Kohli mentioned, rather eloquently and evocatively, that Tendulkar “carried the burden of the nation for 21 years.  It was time we carried him.”

There is a sequence in the second half where Kamal goes into a place of danger to fetch a bottle of milk for his grandson.  The way I was enjoying that action sequence was what convinced me that I should not dare write a review of this film.  You know why?  Had I been in more of a critic mode, I would have questioned the logic of that scene.  Was that milk powder not something that he could have gotten elsewhere?  Instead of taking on the villains, had he shown his gun to a security officer of a nearby supermarket, he could have spared a few broken bones and teeth!  But no, I was in no mood to question the logic of that decision.  Just to hear him say things like, “tough kudukkare” to his grandson, made it worth it.  And is there an Indian actor that can exclaim, “attaboy” with as much attitude as Kamal Hassan?

I must be thankful for the love that Lokesh Kanagaraj exhibits towards not only Kamal but also his body of work.  Apart from the slightly more obvious references to his earlier films, I liked the fact that the makeup of Kalidas Jayaram in the scene where he is tied to a chair evoked a similar scene with Arjun in Kuruthi Punal.  There is a certain grace and finesse that Lokesh displays in weaving in moments that never detract attention from his storytelling yet give fans of Kamal reason after reason to rejoice and relish the man’s return to the big screen.  To paraphrase a line from the title song, Nayagan meendum vandhu vittaan.  And how!

I remember The Hindu review of Nammavar where the critic had written, “Kamal has fought tougher screen battles before.”  That applies here too.  But the difference is that Nammavar, as good a film as it was, was not a commercial success.  Vikram has turned out to be one of the biggest blockbusters of Kamal’s career.  Just like no fan of Sachin really complained about the fact that he scored only 18 in that famous World Cup final, no true follower of Kamal is complaining about the fact that Kamal has “fought tougher screen battles.”  Kohli and company were more than happy to carry Sachin on their shoulders.  Thanks to Lokesh, we can do the same for Kamal.  Because…it is time.

Friday, June 17, 2022

C/O Support System

Whenever I see someone on Twitter post a tweet about feeling low, my response invariably involves two words – support system.  I might not know them personally.  But my hope is that my response urges them, if they have not done so already, to tap into their support network.  I don’t think any rule applies to everyone.  But I can aver that a core set of people whom you can bank on for sharing your lows and highs, is a vitally important ingredient in the recipe for peace of mind.  I state this based on experiences, be it my own or shared or observed.  Regardless of whether they are an introvert, ambivert or an extrovert, the ones in whom I observe immense centeredness, are the ones who have a set of people in whom they place tremendous amount of trust.  If this is so simple, why do we not do more of it?  Why do we still feel the burden of the world’s weight on our shoulders from time to time?  Why do we sometimes feel suffocated, heavy, and unable to think clearly?

To begin with, self-reliance, as a concept, is overrated.  Emotional independence is not a binary concept.  Instead, it is a spectrum that has, on the one end, people that have the requisite inner steel to take good care of themselves regardless of the highs or lows that they go through.  In the middle are the ones who rely on others for certain aspects of their lives but are self-sufficient for other matters.  At the other end of the spectrum are ones who have much reliance on a set of people to get through their lives.  Excitement or anguish, for these people, cannot exist in a vacuum.  It must be shared.  Every place in this spectrum has validity.  No position is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than others.  What matters is that we identify where we are in the spectrum, know when to tap into our inner reserve and when to unhesitatingly seek out the presence of the ones in whom we have entrusted our genuine emotions.

It is equally important for the ones who are a part of others’ support systems to realize where in the spectrum are the ones who seek their support.  If I know that I am an essential part of the support system of someone who really needs me to be an engaged listener on certain aspects of their life, then it behooves me to make time for them when those aspects of their life are amplified in importance.  People seek support in a variety of ways.  Sometimes it is to vent, at other times, it is to seek clarity.  Some seek advice, others seek perspectives from our own lives.  Regardless of what they seek, it is important that we know when to give, and how.  Our preferences don’t matter as much as their needs. 

One thing I especially admire in people who give out support, is their ability to push, coax and prod the recipient to think and identify a solution from within.  As they say, it is better to teach how to fish than buying them fish.  Of course, not all situations might lend itself to that kind of guidance but it is certainly a trait that I admire in people.  I also have tremendous respect for the ones who urge the people they support, to seek professional help, be it psychological, legal or any assistance that would get to the core of their issue.  When someone near and dear gives that sort of advice, we are bound to feel less worried about societal stigmas and antiquated notions.  Of course, as recipients of advice, we would want to filter it through our own sensibilities.  But nevertheless, it is wise to listen to the well-meaning advice of trustworthy people in our life even if it feels like it would take some effort on our part to execute on it.

At the end of the day, a support system, regardless of whether we are a giver or receiver or both, takes time, thoughtfulness and effort.  Support systems take time to blossom.  When they do, it is an absolute pleasure to be a part of them.  When they dissipate, due to reasons ranging from extreme ones such as death to moderate reasons such as incompatibility or milder causes such as lack of proximity or change in geography, it is essential to accept and acknowledge that lacuna and move on.  Of course, it is easier said than done.  But do we always have a choice?

As Emma Thompson observes in the movie Burnt, “There is strength in needing others, not weakness.”  We need to be comfortable with the fact that there will be times in our life that we may need others to help bridge the gap between our current state of mind and a healthier, peaceful state.  Despite all this, yes, we may feel the weight of the world on our shoulders.  But a reliable support system can lend a hand to share that burden.  They might not solve all our problems.  But for a fleeting moment, we can breathe easier, feel lighter and think clearer.  That's a start, not the end.