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 https://saraspunyfingers.com)

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:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0B4FV35VG/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_FPQX4PQWGYQYP80VZNS3

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.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Beyond the Cheek: An essay on some unique aspects of Kris Srikkanth

In a world of witty youtube channel names, “Cheeky Cheeka” is just about perfect for former Indian captain and chairman of selectors Kris Srikkanth.  Merriam Webster helpfully defines “cheek” as “insolent boldness and self-assurance.”  If you have watched the best of his innings for India – I rate his 57 versus England in 1985 and his 116 against Australia in 1986, both at Sydney, as his best – you will find it hard to disagree with the attribution.  And beyond the on-field exploits, the insouciance that marks his interviews, speeches and video vignettes, are a delight to many admirers like me.  But Srikkanth is one of those people whose outwardly carefree nature sometimes makes us lose sight of the depth of character.  This essay is an attempt to dig a little deeper, to showcase the depth and profundity that you may have missed.

The 57 vs England (Listen to Bill Lawry exclaim, "He doesn't even run!" at the 57-sec point)

The genesis of this essay was the video he released today about Sachin Tendulkar.  He tosses off detail that another person would have used as an excuse to turn the spotlight unto himself.  Two cases in point from the 1989 tour of Pakistan.  Indian cricket had been embroiled in payment-related issues between the players and the Board. (Srikkanth wrote about it 18 years after it happened.) But when a worried Tendulkar, who was making his debut in the series, approached Srikkanth to discuss the dispute, Srikkanth assured him that he would not be impacted by it.  Srikkanth (30) was nearly twice as old as Sachin (16) back then.  And as a senior, Srikkanth had exhibited an almost paternal attitude towards the kid.  

Ditto for the way Srikkanth, at the start of the series, promised Sachin that he would play all 4 Tests.  This seems insignificant now, given that Sachin’s legend has been cemented for eternity.  But for a 16-year old kid that failed in his first Test (he was out for 15), the security afforded by constancy would have done wonders for his confidence.  Sachin scored his first 50 in the next Test.  And he never looked back.  If you think about the professional setting, when a company is going through a crisis and a leader has his employees’ back and walks the talk, imagine the ease with which the employees can silence the extraneous noise.  That is what Srikkanth did for Tendulkar back then.  True to character, Srikkanth does not dwell on his pivotal role in allaying the concerns of the youngest member of his team.  But I shall dwell away!

The protective attitude was something that Srikkanth extended to not only Sachin but also the seniors who were front and center of the payment dispute.  Srikkanth wrote, years later, that when the then BCCI president urged him to take a second XI team, he flatly refused.  He wrote, rather touchingly, "I was the representative of my players.  At that moment, I wanted to do my best by them.  I could not betray the people whom I might have had differences with from time to time, but who were also the people I considered my mates."  That the Board, in their wise old ways, dropped him for his batting failure in one series – we do know of players being given a slightly longer rope, don’t we? – is a rather unflattering example of the unfairness of the system back then.  Srikkanth, through those two trying years out of the Indian team, maintained a dignified silence.  Of course, when he came back, his form tapered off after a successful WSC series and his career wound down with a whimper.  But if we are focused on higher order things such as character, loyalty and long-term friendship, Srikkanth, by getting dropped, may have lost the battle but he certainly won the war.  The lack of bitterness at his ill treatment and his warm camaraderie with peers like Kapil Dev three decades after the end of his career are all elements of his character that we must not lose sight of. (It was a delight to see these 1983 world cup heroes celebrate his birthday last December.)

Another trait of Srikkanth that we take granted for, is his positivity.  Let’s admit it.  It is hard to be as consistently positive and nonchalant like him.  We dismiss preternaturally positive people as frivolous.  We only do ourselves a disservice by not seeking to emulate that energy.  It is safe to state that Srikkanth’s effervescence is consistent, unforced and intrinsic.  It was on full display in his batting histrionics, it was evident in the way he fielded, it was there to be seen in the way he cheered for bowlers when they took wickets. (Former wicketkeeper Syed Kirmani once ribbed him about wearing spiked shoes and stepping on him in a moment of ecstasy, post a wicket!)  And age has done nothing to rob him off his sparkle.  His commentary style is a reflection of that personality.  When he says “avan” instead of the more respectful sounding “avar”, it is not a sign of disrespect.  Instead, the colloquiality is a byproduct of artlessness.  The heady mix of positivity, cheer and transparency deserves to be treated with respect and admiration instead of being perceived as a lack of seriousness or focus. (For the record, you don’t top-score in two humungous ODI finals without a sense of focus!)  Harsha Bhogle summed it up best when he wrote of Srikkanth, "As a captain and as a person, he never wore a mask and you always knew where you stood with him." 

His mentorship of the subsequent generations of players is another aspect of his personality that seldom gets attention.  From Sadagopan Ramesh to Ravichandran Ashwin, the memories shared of Srikkanth tend to focus on his candor, forthrightness, his genuine advice and generous acknowledgement of their talents.  The great VVS Laxman, in his autobiography, mentions Srikkanth’s encouraging words during a tough phase and how their religious nature helped solidify their bond.  Even outside of cricket, voice artiste and motivational speaker Ilango (he happens to be visually impaired) shared how Srikkanth inspired and created an opportunity for him to channel his strong voice, thereby shedding spotlight on a talent that has luckily not gone unnoticed.

In the movies, we have a subconscious tendency to not treat well-made light films with the respect they deserve.  In society, we tend to often take lighthearted people lightly.  I once read, "lighthearted is not the same as lightweight."  Casualness can coexist with commitment.  Frivolousness can coexist with focus.  Temerity can coexist with thoughtfulness. 

In short, yes, Cheeka may have a surfeit of cheek.  But as an inimitable inspiration, there is nothing that Kris Sri…can’t do!

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Normalizing new normals

Starting in July 2013, I was preparing for a new normal.  I don’t know if I quite thought about it that way at the time, but I think that is what I was doing.  My maternal grandma – I called her Thathamma since I was a toddler until she passed on in 2018 – underwent a bypass surgery in Chennai.  The surgery was a rude shock to her and the family.  The operation was successful and Thathamma recovered quite well.  After moving to the US in 1998, I don’t think I had ever failed to be in active contact with her.  But post her surgery in 2013, I decided that I would call her every day and speak to her at least briefly.  I don’t think I verbalized it, but I interpreted the surgery as a reminder that she was not going to be around forever. 

Thathamma had two children – my mom and my maternal aunt, who was 11 years younger than my mother.  I was very close to my aunt as well.  As I liked to say, my aunt was a sister, friend and mother rolled into one.  Post Thathamma’s surgery, my aunt – who also lived in Chennai – on occasion, would pick up some of my daily calls if she happened to be in the house too.  If I was in a rush, I would tell her, “Shoba, I’ll talk to you later.  Put Thathamma on the phone.  Let me say, Hi.”  Subconsciously, I knew – or I thought so – that I had more time with my aunt than I did with Thathamma.  Then, something unexpected happened.  In October 2016, Shoba passed away, aged 49.  Nobody saw that coming.  I certainly did not.  Yes, she had had some health issues but not for a moment did anyone think that she would die.  She did.  A world without Shoba was not a new normal that I was prepared for.  Nobody in the family or her close circle of friends were, for that matter.  If I had known, I would have prioritized speaking to her on the phone a little more.  But how was I supposed to know?

Over time, I have realized the truth in that wonderful saying about the best laid plans of mice and men going astray.  Not to sound nihilistic, but it is true that there will be times in our life that new normals will be imposed on us.  Through circumstance.  Through fate.  Through destiny.  Through whatever.  If a new normal is unexpectedly positive, we can, of course, rejoice in it.  But if it is not, we are better served accepting it with as much grace as our hearts will allow it.  I am not a perfect man.  I am not always as gracious or as graceful as I would like to be.  But I sincerely believe that the way I went through the grieving process post Shoba’s death was a rare instance where I dealt with an unexpectedly negative development with considerable equanimity.  It was because I realized that the shocking new normal of existence post Shoba’s death was going to be hard for me, yes.  But it was going to be much harder for Shoba’s daughter and Thathamma, who were 12 and 80 respectively, at that time.  Finding inner peace, not happiness, was my immediate goal post Shoba’s death.  I strove, and at times, forced myself to channel my grief in service of those who needed to be shielded from uncontrollable sadness.

We live in a world where there is a tremendous, almost nauseating, emphasis placed on happiness.  The need to look happy, the urge to flaunt one’s happiness through smiles even during instances where inner unrest prevent the smile from reaching the eye.  As I wrote earlier, if we are to place more of a premium on internal peace, we may actually achieve happiness along the way.  Happiness, in a purer form, unsullied by the pressures of society.  I sometimes think that we almost expect and demand that life be a bed of roses.  In my initial phase of living in the US, I remember hearing quite a few of my friends use the phrase, “Shit happens.”  Not the most eloquent, flowery words but it is something that has stayed with me.  Unexpected stuff happens.  Sure, there may be life lessons to be learned if any of it was avoidable.  But in circumstances where things are well and truly beyond our control, we will do ourselves and our loved ones a service by prioritizing two things - outward acceptance of the situation and an inward journey towards finding peace. 

As I reflect on my own life, I know that I am still a work in progress. (Thank you, Will Smith, for that coinage.) As Anu Hasan once remarked, it is not the ones that fall that fail.  It is the ones that don’t get back up that truly fail.  Yes, fate might slap us in the face when we least expect it. (Sorry, Will Smith, for alluding to the Oscar slap!)  But if we can get back up, while lending others a hand, then we might succeed in adjusting to new normals in a fulfilling manner.  

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

The artiste’s voice – an essay on Chinmayi’s voice work in “Satham Podaathey”

The second half of Vasanth’s “Satham Podaathey” is a rather gripping experience.  It is not a thrill-a-minute ride.  Instead, Vasanth painstakingly follows the antagonist (Nitin Sathya) in the latter’s quest to abduct the heroine (Padmapriya).  He locks her up in a room – the lengths to which he goes to make it soundproof are as scary as they are novel.  Eventually it is through a PVC pipe that the protagonist (Prithviraj) discovers the presence of his wife.  This is a truly memorable sequence.  Given the travails of the lead pair, we truly celebrate the reunion.  Yes, the acting and staging are top-notch.  But what deserves the spotlight that was not afforded to it in the 15 years since the movie’s release was the astounding voice work of Chinmayi for Padmapriya. 

In the aforementioned sequence, Chinmayi had to bring to the fore a mix of relief and disorientation in the voice, given the locked-up state of the Padmapriya character.  Her desperate pleas (“Ravi, naan maadi mela iruken”) and her expression of gratitude to her spiritual guru (Note the way she wails, “Ramana ramana…”) are incredibly effective.  If I am correct, I had read that a part of a PVC pipe was brought to the dubbing studio and Chinmayi had to speak into it to simulate the effect.  Such efforts that are in service of a scene to add to the sense of verisimilitude deserve special praise.  As Mahendran once said, in a tribute to Vasanth, a good director is one who lets the film speak for itself during its running time.  But at the same time, makes us think of his efforts after we watch the film.  Vasanth, in his typically understated manner, uses his mastery of sound design to add to the effect of this scene.  In Chinmayi, he finds an ally who brings his vision to life in an emphatic manner.

In another hard-hitting (pun not intended) sequence where Padmapriya is physically abused by Nitin Sathya, the camera shows very little, letting the wails and screams do their job in establishing the plight of Padmapriya.  Again, this is a scene where Chinmayi’s work is powerful.  At the end of the sequence, even the tremulous expressions are just right, without being overdone.

In sharp contrast to these intense scenes are the soft, dignified romantic portions.  The scene that takes the cappuccino is the one in the coffee shop.  If Yuvan’s gentle score wonderfully establishes the character’s growing attraction, Chinmayi’s voice brings out the silent yet palpable desire of the character.  The way she says, “unga mugatha paatha poi solluvenge-nu nenakave illa…” After a pause, she adds, “Paathi poi kooda.”  It is a delightful moment where the line, the actress’ expression, the background score and the voice artiste’s evocative work all combine to create magic on screen.  Ditto for the scene where Padmapriya gifts Prithviraj an embroidered t-shirt.  When asked if the “R” in the shirt refers to his name (Ravichandran), she responds, “I think you are a nice person, you are a wonderful person.”  Such a line can fall flat if not for the right intonation and emphasis.  And Chinmayi nails it, as she does the part where Padmapriya speaks of her guilt (having returned a child to the orphanage).  Again, a vignette that could have become dramatic and overblown is given subtle treatment by the director, with support from his voice artiste.

In recent years, Chinmayi has had to pay a heavy price in her pursuit of justice.  One hopes that justice prevails, even if delayed.  And that movie and music fans can savor a rich body of new work instead of having to go to the past (like I have).  I hope that there comes a day when Chinmayi rejoices in a new normal, a future where injustice is a thing of the past, a new dawn that makes her delete the words, “strangled songbird” from her Twitter profile.  “Satham Podaathey!” – a great movie title, yes.  But that is not what we should say to people who want to come out with the truth. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Triumphant Smiles: A review of "Badhaai Do"

The Sridevi character in English Vinglish watches films to learn the nuances of the language.  While watching a particular film, she comes across the word, “judgmental.”  Puzzled by the word, she requests her niece to explain its meaning.  Later, in a speech, she uses this word in the most appropriate manner possible.  I thought of this while watching Badhaai Do.  To let people be, to let their inner beauty shine, to accept their choices without any judgement whatsoever.  Are these not the ultimate expressions of genuine, unconditional love?  In the case of this exquisitely made film, I walked away with the feeling that the director Harshavardhan Kulkarni and his team of writers are absolutely in love with the lead characters that they have created.  The film is an incredibly important advance in the context of gay and lesbian relationships being portrayed in Indian cinema, with sensitivity, grace and nuance.

One of the film’s biggest strengths is the balance that it strikes between idealism and everyday reality.  The film does not take the easy way out in conjuring a utopian world for its lead characters.  While it acknowledges the gradually changing landscape in India, it also does an astounding job of showcasing the challenges and issues that continue to persist.  One of the fabulously etched arcs in this film is that of the girl’s father (Nitesh Pandey).  At first, he breaks his girl’s heart by failing to understand her or accept her orientation.  But by the end of the film, he realizes the error of his ways and through a small but meaningful gesture, makes peace with her.  By showing the initial, harsh response of the parent, the director gives us an example of how lack of understanding can crush the spirit of a child.  But by showing his transformation, we also get to see how the biggest gift that a parent can give a child is acceptance of their choices in a non-judgmental way. 

Another undeniable plus of this film is the gorgeous way it shows the leads falling in love with their respective partners.  The sequence where Suman (Bhumi Pednekar) makes up an excuse to see Rimjhim (Chum Darang) at the hospital is shot in a delightful manner.  Ditto for the sequence where Shardul (Rajkummar Rao) meets Guru (Gulshan Devaiah) for the first time.  The ecstasy on Shardul’s face and the silent realization that he is falling for someone is wonderfully captured on screen.  The musical score plays no small role in adding to the beauty of these sequences. 

‘Show, don’t tell’ is a rule of thumb that filmmakers are advised to follow.  It is especially difficult in movies such as Badhaai Do where the temptation to editorialize or preach might become hard to resist.  But the director treads this adeptly by just focusing on telling a story and trusting the audience to take away the themes that the film is focused on.  For instance, the adoption angle.  The film establishes Suman as a character who loves and adores children.  The scenes that follow, do their job in establishing the challenges in India for the gay and lesbian community in adopting a child.  But by rooting the whole subplot in Suman’s desire to raise a child, the film becomes less of a commentary and more of a story. 

There is not one false note among any of the performances.  Every actor inhabits their part with much assurance.  Both Rajkummar Rao and Bhumi Pednekar are sublime, especially in the scenes with their respective families after the family members get to know of their orientation.  The way Rajkummar sobbingly hugs his mother is a standout moment.  Bhumi too is astonishingly effective in the late-night scene with her Dad.  Suman’s anguish is conveyed mainly through her quivering voice and silent tears.  There is also a quiet little moment where she sees an infant.  Joy that radiates from within is not easy for an actor to project.  That’s precisely what Bhumi does in this sequence.  Every member of the supporting cast is pitch-perfect too, effortlessly slipping into their roles.  Especially noteworthy is the performance of Sheeba Chaddha, who plays Shardul’s mother.  Her character might not be the brightest bulb, but the guilelessness of the character is brought out beautifully by the actress, sans any overemphasis. 

The final frame of the film feels just perfect.  The smiles of the characters speak volumes.  These smiles aren’t the superficial ones that mark the end of wannabe feel-good films.  These smiles result from the characters achieving the pinnacle of happiness after all their struggles, both within and those imposed by a narrowminded society.  These smiles are a byproduct of finally being able to be with not only their loved ones but also being able to do so with the blessings and wishes of those that mean the world to them.  These smiles reflect a triumphant feeling of the present that gives them hope for a bright future.  By the time the end credits roll, the audience will realize that these smiles are transposed onto them as well.  That infectious positivity is what Badhaai Do radiates so effectively. 

Kudos, team!

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

A 11-minute tour de force: An essay on Nagesh in Nammavar

When you have an actor like Nagesh with such a rich body of work, it is easy to forget their roles in films that didn’t achieve commercial success or attain the status of a classic.  Nammavar (1994) was a commercial failure at the time of its release.  Even over the years, it has not attained the kind of cult status as some of Kamal Hassan’s commercial failures have, like Raja Paarvai, Hey! Ram or Anbe Sivam.  If my assessment is correct, the film has a small but loyal fan base.  I think it is a fine film, with a plethora of polished performances.  In sharp contrast to his other films of that period, Kamal, despite headlining the cast, took on a subtly supporting role in many of the scenes, exhibiting just enough emotion to serve as a counterpoint to the more demonstrative acting of others.  This choice worked very well, given his character in the film.  That of a well-meaning but curt professor, one whose brusque nature is more of a self-imposed shield to guard himself from any sympathy or pity owing to his health condition.  The second most impactful performance in this film was that of Gautami’s who essayed her charming role with utmost conviction.  But the actor who, in the span of a few minutes, leaves a lasting impact is one who has been an idol of Kamal all his acting life – Nagesh.

Until the film is past the two-hour mark, there is hardly much of a trace of what is to come from Nagesh.  He plays professor Prabhakar Rao, a pragmatic man, who has resigned to functioning, even if not thriving, in the system that he finds himself in.  Unlike the Kamal character, he does not think that he can effect much of a change and by-and-large, wants to stay out of trouble.  This does not mean that he is morose or world-weary.  On the contrary, he enjoys the little pleasures of life such as dancing with gay abandon with his daughter. (The dance with his daughter has the most heartbreaking of payoffs in the end.) He stands by the Kamal character in the latter’s pursuit of a healthy environment in the college.  But the moment his daughter warns Karan (by suggesting that she will beat him with her slipper), he is slightly nervous and wary of the implications of her act.  Of course, Nagesh, being the consummate actor that he is, just drops hints, saving the true gamut of expressions and gestures until the pre-climax.

The dance sequence with his daughter:

From the time he tentatively enters Kamal’s house, worried about his daughter’s absence till the moment he collapses in anguish at the cemetery, it is a 11-minute extended sequence that is entirely focused on him.  And what an arresting performance he delivers.

When he first enters Kamal’s house, he is apologetic to a fault, seeing Gautami.  To the point that he offers to return later, despite his daughter’s absence.  It is a psychologically acute observation.  Because when we are in despair, we often tend to exhibit that extra bit of tentativeness towards everything.  At the police station though, he erupts when the inspector urges him and Kamal to check whether the girl who was arrested on charges of prostitution is the girl they are looking for.  The force with which Nagesh barks, “Inspector!  You should know whom you are talking to” is the first sign that such an accusation – even if false – is an unforgivable affront to his and his family's dignity.  When he sees his girl in the lockup, he collapses to the chair.  (In order to not disrupt the emotional flow, the scene shifts straight to Kamal’s house, sparing us the police formalities.)

There is a touching visual of Kamal and Nagesh leaning against the gate.  This is again, from a psychological perspective, a delicate nuance.  When we are in the throes of depression, sometimes a quiet moment with a trusted one can offer the kind of solace that words can’t.  In this scene, Nagesh’s voice modulation is masterful.  Listen to the way he says, “Thalai-la ezhuthu” after a pause.


The sequence that opens the next morning is what truly lifts Nagesh’s performance to a different plane altogether.  This is unlike any grieving scene that we have witnessed in Tamil Cinema.  I remember reading that Kamal’s advice to Nagesh was, “You should not cry but you must make the audience cry.”  And how.  Starting with how he grabs Senthil and asks in a commanding tone, “Nirmala-va da?  Nirmala-va?” Nagesh has us in a trance.  Once he enters the house, he does not let out a wail.  Rather he is totally discombobulated.  He does not bother reading her suicide note out loud, as is usually the case in such scenes.  He just tosses it saying, “enna ezhavu da idhu.”  If one of the most poignant visuals of this film is Nagesh lying down on Kamal’s lap, equally moving is how he asks Kamal, “ipo naan ena pannuven (Kamal gracefully cedes the spotlight to his senior actor, exhibiting just the right amount of emotion.  Note his response to Nagesh’s statement about death.  It rings true, given that he is battling cancer.)


At the crematorium, the way Nagesh dances, as I noted earlier, is heartrending, given how much he had enjoyed dancing with his daughter.  And after bottling up all the emotions, he completely lets go once he finishes his imaginary dance.  This is the first time he sobs, in the entire sequence.  And it is only the stonehearted that will not join him in his tears.  We, in the audience, feel as emotionally drained as he is.  And is that not the ultimate testament to a great actor? 

In these 11 minutes, Nagesh gives us a glimpse of what made him so special.  The National Award for the best supporting actor was more than a fair reward for his tour de force, for it is a performance that has retained its immortality beyond the actor’s life. 

Click on 'Play' to witness 11 minutes of Nagesh's sustained brilliance:

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PS: It was Guru Somasundaram’s comment on Nagesh in Nammavar, in his recent interview with Baradwaj Rangan, that spurred me to write this article.