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!