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:


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.

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Cameos in an ensemble drama

William Shakespeare and lyricist Vaali were absolutely right!  The former wrote, “All the world’s a stage…” while the latter observed, “We are puppets in the hands of the Almighty and he manipulates the strings in the puppetry of our life.” (Pardon me, but that’s my best attempt at translating the “Naayagan melirundhu…” lines from “Ellorum Sollum Paatu.”)  I think of my own life as an ensemble drama.  My microcosm of this world is comprised of a small set of people.  I place a lot of premium on the longevity of relationships.  Like the key characters in a well-made ensemble drama, the core set of people in my life may not be a part of every scene.  But they are an integral, indispensable part of the plot, showing up at key junctures, either by themselves or with others, to add meaning to the drama.  Upon deeper reflection, I also realize that my ‘theater’ has had its share of memorable cameo appearances.  Like Sarojini ma’am from PS Senior Secondary School.  Like the ticket collector on a train in France.  Like Dr. Jim Jamison’s daughter in Memphis.  Like…yes, the list goes on.  But out of respect for your time, I will shed light on just these three cameos. 

It was towards the end of the school year.  I was in fifth standard.  I had a summer vacation that I was really looking forward to.  On that muggy afternoon in April, I was in school, running around with a couple of friends during our PT class when I slipped and fell.  And fell how!  The pudgy kid I was, I gave the phrase, “bend under its own weight” a new meaning in the way I landed on my side, my ear getting smashed against the floor, exacerbated by the fact that my glasses that rested on my ear, broke into pieces.  I don’t quite remember why I was running so fast.  What I remember more vividly was that after hitting the floor with a thud, I could barely limp.  Since there was significant bleeding behind my ear, I was taken by Sarojini ma’am, our PT teacher, to the tiny room towards the front of the school that had first-aid supplies.  While I was given some basic assistance, she also obtained my home number, spoke to my grandma and asked her to pick me up from school to go to the doctor’s office.  She kindly reassured me that I would recover swiftly.  I sobbingly asked her, “Ma’am, I hope I can still go for my summer vacation.”  She laughed out loud, exclaiming, “The annual exams are a week away!  Look what you are worried about!”  She waited until my grandma came.  And upon her arrival, calmly spoke to her, handing over my school bag and walking with me to the car.  The unflappable, unfussy way she handled the whole situation is something I still remember 31 years after it happened.  Thank you, Sarojini ma’am. 

“Merci” and “au revoir” are the only French I know.  That I had to either learn French or play dumb charades better was evident during a summer trip to France.  I was on an overnight train, traveling between two cities.  The air conditioning system in the train must have been designed to simulate life in Antarctica.  When the ticket collector stopped by, I could barely get the ticket out of my pocket to hand over to him.  I quickly realized that we did not have a common language.  I tremblingly murmured, “Cold…cold…”  He thought that I had a cold and in a quizzical tone, he asked, “Cold?” while simulating what sounded like a hybrid of a sneeze and a cough.  In response, I exaggeratedly shivered, shaking my head for good measure!  Rapidly bobbing his head up and down to gesture to me that he understood, he said, "okay, okay, okay, I come back."  He returned in a couple of minutes and handed to me an impeccably folded blanket.  He asked, “This okay?”  I grinned ear to ear, palpably feeling better.  His kindness enveloped me with as much warmth as did the blanket.  Merci, monsieur!

Long-time readers of this blog will know my mentor Dr. Jim Jamison from Memphis.  What you probably don’t know is that his family is just as thoughtful and empathetic as he was.  The news of his passing on was conveyed to me on the phone by one of his sons-in-law, also named Jim.  I was outside a grocery store when he called to share the news.  While I was enormously moved that Dr. Jamison had given my contact information to him in preparation for an inevitability, I was overwhelmed with shock and sadness.  Yes, he had been undergoing treatment for cancer.  And yes, there was a reasonable chance that he may not survive his latest course of treatment.  Nevertheless, the news meant that I had lost a significant person in my life - my mentor, my guide, my moral compass.  I subsequently traveled to Memphis for the memorial service.  While I knew that the magnitude of the family’s grief was humungous, the way they recognized my loss and felt the need to partake in my grieving, was something inexplicably touching.  Referring to Dr. Jamison’s daughter, his son-in-law wrote to me in an e-mail, “Becca wants to make sure you know that you are one of her dad’s kids – part of the family, one of her siblings via mathematics.”  All I can say is that Dr. Jamison would have been smiling from up above.

As I reflect on these people, I must, of course, reiterate that this list of walk-on appearances in ‘The Ram Murali Show’ is too long to capture in one essay.  At the same time, to pause and think of these people and their words, actions and gestures could do two things for us.  Firstly, it could remind us of the stamp of kindness that enables the transfer of positivity among human beings.  And secondly, it could urge us to think about how we could pay that kindness forward.  What Shakespeare and Vaali didn’t tell you, which I will (!), is that while we may be a key character in our own show, we could play impactful cameos in someone else’s!