Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The loners stand apart: Thoughts on Halitha Shameem's "Loners"

Writer-Director Halitha Shameem packs a lot into a film.  I don't mean lengthy dialogues or busy frames.  I am referring to the density of thought and intricate detail that she includes in a way that, in her words, is "connection seeking, not attention seeking."  The connection is between not just the lead characters but also between us and the film itself.  Her 30-min segment is titled "Loners" and it is a part of "Putham Puthu Kaalai Vidiyaadha", the latest Tamil anthology on Amazon.  Her love for detailing ensures that nothing comes across as cliched or uninteresting.  The way she stages a wedding that is relayed on Zoom, for instance.  An instrumental version of "Aanandham..." plays unobtrusively in the background.  Nothing significant but the little touches contribute immensely to the verisimilitude that she strives for.  In an online group discussion where supposedly, the point is that the lead pair sees each other again, an elderly lady makes a lovely point about "slowing down", before she signs off.  But such details are the peripherals.  The crux is a poignant, thought-provoking account of a boy and a girl bonding in a deep, giving manner.  That strong crux is akin to the chocolate core of a Cornetto, to use a "Sillu Karupatti" reference, except that the entire contents are a delight to savor, not just the chocolate.

Halitha Shameem's use of English is liberal but it never comes across as artificial or unnecessary.  I truly believe that terms such as "empathy", "vulnerability", "toxic positivity" and phrases such as, "I feel you" might have come across as stilted if translated into Tamil.  The language spoken has to fit the milieu and as was the case with "Sillu Karupatti", the mix of Tamil and English feels completely organic.  Halitha weaves together free-flowing conversations that gradually solidify the bond between the lead characters.

And speaking of the leads, Lijomol Jose and Arjun Das are stupendous.  Having watched Lijomol in "Sivappu Manjal Patchai", "Jai Bhim" (her scene in the commissioner office alone, is worth an acting award) and now "Loners", it is not difficult to predict that she will go places. (Yes, I know I sound like Professor Gnanaprakasm in "Mozhi!") Halitha not only shapes her character but also shapes her performance with a sure hand.  There are two moments in the store sequence that are an exquisite combination of thoughtful writing and splendid acting.  The first is the moment where the characters take off their face masks.  Even though they just met in front of the store, seeing each other after removing their masks feels like a second introductory moment.  And the camera lingers on Lijomol's and Arjun's faces, capturing their bashfulness beautifully. (Without saying anything, the moment makes a statement about how in-person interactions have evolved in the COVID world).  The second is the way Lijomol steals a glance at Arjun when he is looking down.  It is a small yet wonderful bit of acting and staging.  Halitha is fast proving to be an ace in staging these minute moments, trusting us viewers to not miss the nuances.  And Arjun is superbly controlled in the moment where he breaks down, expressing a mix of guilt and regret about his friend.  The importance of catharsis is also brought out in a deeply affecting manner.  Arjun's voice has already become the stuff of legend.  But he is no lazy actor to rest on his innate strength.  Instead, he channels it in service of a well-fleshed out character where he uses his voice to bring out the anguish of the character very effectively.  I hope that the work of these actors opens the doors for many such well-written roles, for they are fully capable of delivering on the trust placed in them.

That Halitha, the writer, is a deep thinker is obvious in the moments such as when Arjun and Lijomol speak about the fake positivity that co-exists uneasily with the tragedy that the pandemic has unleashed on humanity.  But it is a testament to the confidence of the writer that she keeps slipping in important ideas without being overt about them.  A case in point is the way Arjun asks Lijomol if he could join her for her grocery run in person.  He asks first.  She says, yes.  He still takes the effort of asking if she is sure about it.  That little interaction says what we, as a society, need to hear about 'consent' without making a big deal about it.  Even when he proposes an idea for her line of work, he does it with such humility (modestly stating that he is just customizing the concept of open-air theaters) and such dignity, even going as far as to request her to excuse him for any presumptuousness.  That little bit speaks volumes of respect and courtesy that we owe to fellow human beings, without calling undue attention unto itself.  

It is a pleasure to be able to witness the emerging filmography of a filmmaker like Halitha Shameem right from the start of her promising career.  Her "Aelay" did not work for me as well as "Sillu Karupatti" and "Poovarasam Peepee" did.  With "Loners", she has given viewers a deeply fulfilling experience to savor and reflect on, without spoon feeding us.  It is with much anticipation that I look forward to her "Minmini" and other future works because the strains of positivity in her films are addictive in a healthy way, not "toxic"! 

Monday, January 17, 2022

“Bread and jam, please!” – An anecdote and some reflections

“Just give me two days”, was my father’s polite request to me.  On my two-month trip to India in the summer of 2007 – I had quit my job, to start my MBA that Fall - Dad asked that I accompany him to temples in and around Madurai and Trichy.  He said that he wanted me to take two full days out of my trip, travel time included, for this journey where he probably hoped that my piety levels would go beyond chanting ‘Saraswati nabasthubyam’ at every temple regardless of the deity in front of me.  The temple trip itself came a few weeks into my sojourn in Chennai.  By that time, I had indulged myself in a variety of south Indian and north Indian delicacies, both at home and at restaurants.  And a gamut of savory and sweet items had been entertained by my generous palate.  Upon landing in Madurai, the breakfast at the hotel was no different.  I don't remember the menu in too much detail.  All I can say is that lunch felt superfluous.

Oh, I forgot to tell you that I imposed a ‘condition’ - why is that word inextricably linked to Visu and S. Ve. Sekhar?! - on my Dad.  I told him that for the two days in Madurai and Trichy, that I needed breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner at proper times.  You would think that I could take that for granted.  But past trips of this sort had taught me one thing.  When traveling with religious people, their fierce desire to ensure no missed darshans (“thera poatruku” pronouncements were usually as solemn as a dirge) meant that hunger and thirst fell by the wayside.  Not for me.  I need(ed) my calorie intake at regular intervals to prevent me from getting cranky.  On this trip, both Dad and I stuck to our respective promises.  I got my meals on time.  He got His Holiness Yours Truly to ‘religiously’, uncomplainingly follow him to every temple. 

On the second day of the trip, we were to visit the Kasim-Babu brothers, a nadhaswaram-playing duo who lived in Trichy.  Dad was on the phone with them the evening prior to coordinate plans for the next morning.  Mr. Kasim must have apparently shared their menu for brunch.  Because Dad responded, “Oh, idly, dosai, poori, potato.  All this is plenty!”  He stole a glance at me when I said, “Appa, I just want bread and jam, please!”  My rationale was that I had indulged in rich foods all my trip that I wanted a simple breakfast for a change.  But my Dad, whose snicker was effortlessly relayed from Madurai to Trichy over the phone, said to Mr. Kasim, “Oh, my son is saying that he won’t eat all that.  He only wants bread and jam!”  After he kept the phone down, I wondered how it would have been received at the other end.  I always tried extra hard to ensure that people back home would not get the sense that my time away from India had made me the stereotypical, snobbish 'US return' that we have all seen in the movies.  But I thought to myself, “Great!  They are probably wondering, ‘Look at this guy who passes on poori and potato and comes all the way to Trichy to eat bread and jam!’”  That evening, I was sulking endlessly, telling my Dad that he should have offered at least half an explanation for the bread and jam request!  He alternated between laughing it off and assuring me that they would not mistake me. 

The next morning when we went to their house, Mr. Kasim, upon greeting me, said, “Bread jam vaangi vechutom, Pa.  Don’t worry!”  My face turned as red as strawberry jam.  I took great pains to explain myself.  He smiled and said, “Hey, I am just pulling your leg.”  We excused ourselves after a very pleasant couple of hours in their company.  Three years later, I saw him at the upanayanam function of my cousin.  My chief concern was that he shouldn’t remember me as Mr. Bread Jam.  He thankfully didn’t, and just spoke fondly of the nice time that we had at their place. 

Reminiscing about this incident also brought back a spate of emotions and memories of visiting people - especially those older than me - back home.  People whose smiles reached their eye, whose warmth radiated from within their inner core and touched my heart.  I found it enormously touching whenever they would request me to encapsulate the highlights of my life in the intervening years, in a few minutes.  I learned over time that, to them, the gaps between my trips to India were akin to simple ellipses separating two phrases.  And during my time with them, it was their sincere desire to fill in the gaps so that they could feel caught up.  (Sure, technological advances have made the process of keeping in touch easier.  But it is hard to beat the charm of an in-person visit, is it not?)  As I recollect some of the elderly folks who are no longer alive, my heart brims with gratitude for their generosity and thoughtfulness.  The visits themselves may have been short.  But the aftertaste of their generosity lingered for much longer than did the sweetness of the strawberry jam that I sometimes demanded!