Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Throwing Light on the Shadow: An essay on Iravin Nizhal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 15, 2022

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

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

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

Skin over Milk (image courtesy of

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

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


Link to order the book:

Saturday, July 2, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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