Saturday, October 29, 2022

“Right choices, baby!” – A write-up celebrating 25 years of Aahaa!

Director Visu rarely spoke about films outside of his own works.  I had the fortune of knowing him in the last 2 ½ years of his life.  During the conversations and whatsapp chats, he was extremely candid in his self-assessment.  I could freely speak about what I felt were the flaws in his films.  It was easy because he was a tougher critic of his works than I was.  But the same Visu could become suddenly hesitant when I would broach a conversation about any other director’s films.  But a striking exception to that was the warm, loving way in which he spoke about director Suresh Krissna’s Aahaa.  An obvious reason why it was relatively easy to get him to talk about Aahaa was because it was Suresh Krissna who had introduced me to him.  But the true reason why he made an exception was because, as a writer, he loved the ensemble drama.  He described the film as, a “ramyamaana padam.  What makes Aahaa such an instantly appealing film that even Visu decided to make an exception? 

One of the greatest strengths of seasoned filmmakers is their ability to make the right choices.  They seem to know exactly whom to cast for what role, which talents to collaborate with behind the camera and in essence, know how to transform the germ of an idea onto the screen with conviction.  Prior to Aahaa, Suresh Krissna was known mostly for his action-packed dramas like Baasha, Annamalai and Sathya.  But he had shown his adeptness in making lighthearted films like Veera and Raja Kaiyya Vechaa.  But those lighthearted films felt light on the ‘heart’ aspect.  They were decidedly commercial.  And while they were entertaining, they didn’t quite touch a chord or move me.  But with Aahaa, all of that changed.  It didn’t happen by accident.  It was a result of a series of very conscious decisions.

Firstly, Suresh Krissna decided that he would move completely away from the conventional commercial mould to make a film that was all heart.  One of the chief pleasures of Aahaa is that the screen is filled with lovable characters.  Circumstances aside, there are no villains.  Even the crabby Vijayakumar is just a frustrated father who wishes that his son was a little more focused in life.  There is a lovely line about the Bhanupriya character in the delightful introduction sequence – “ivalluku elaarayum pidikum.  Adhanaal, ivallai elaarukum pidikum.”  Something similar can be said about the characters.  When the screen is filled with affability, warmth and people whose hearts are always in the right place, it is impossible to not like them and root for them. 

Having decided that he would make a drama focused on the highs and lows of a large joint family, Suresh Krissna had two immensely strong writer collaborators.  One was the late Ananthu, who cowrote the screenplay, which flows as smoothly as a river, beautifully segueing from one sequence to the next.  The bumps in the journey are extremely rare. (Some of the scenes featuring Sukanya are amongst the few missteps in the film.) The other one was a pillar that held the film aloft – dialogue writer Crazy Mohan. 

That Mohan was brilliant at humor is a fact, not an opinion!  For Aahaa, he wrote some of the best comic lines of his illustrious career.  It takes ingenuity of stratospheric levels to come up with puns like ‘un uyarathuku kick-u yerangarthuke 4 naallu aagum’ while admonishing a tall drunk!  Between that, the ‘thayir vadai’ joke, the ‘gul gul jil jil mal mal’ line, the death sequence (!), the list of memorable jokes in this film is so long that Aahaa could have very well been titled, Mohana Punnagai!  But what makes the peak of Aahaa even taller than his collaborations with Kamal Hassan is the profundity of many a line.  In the otherwise amusing grocery store scene, Mohan slips in one crisp yet terrific line about friendship, love and marriage – “Kaadhal-ngaradhu kalyanathuku munaadi kedaikara oru nalla natpu.”  It is sad that the writer is no longer with us.  But as the cliché goes, his writings will continue to contribute to his immortality. 

The grocery store scene:

One of the lesser-mentioned aspects of Aahaa is the polish of the filmmaking.  The reason why this film, despite being a ‘drama’, does not feel like a staged theater performance is that it is a sound film technically.  Talking of sound, the sound design is supremely effective.  So is the way the scenes are choreographed.  The huge house that is almost a character in itself, is utilized in its full glory.  The sequence that best demonstrates this confluence of sound design and scene choreography is the one leading to the death scene.   There are three events happening in parallel – just like in real life.  Srividya is offering coffee to her son.  Vijayakumar is attending to a phone call.  And Bhanupriya is getting her son ready for school.  In the foreground, Rajiv Krishna just listens to Vijayakumar say, “En son-a anupchu vekkaren.”    While we primarily hear the son remonstrate with his mother, in the background, we feebly hear Vijayakumar talking on the phone.  As he hangs up, Vijayakumar summons his son – to watch Rajiv Krishna’s anticipation increase, only to be brought back to earth, is a hilarious experience!  As they argue, Bhanupriya’s kid is ready for school.  And as the driver Krishnan picks up the kid, he rubs salt in Rajiv’s wound by saying, “Neengale correct-a sollitengale!”  Essentially, the characters from the three parallel events converge in an utterly seamless manner.  That we don’t notice the craft behind all this is the ultimate testament to the filmmaker.  He is there.  Yet he is not! 

"En son-a anupchu vekkaren..."

Another aspect of the film that reflects some truly inspired choices is the casting.  Every actor in the cast fits their role like a glove.  Special mention to Raghuvaran, Bhanupriya and Delhi Ganesh, who turned in some of the best work of their career for this film.  Given that Raghuvaran had played the hero and the villain, we could never be sure about his relationship with Sukanya until he delivers that searing monologue in the climax.  Bhanupriya always had an innate likeability.  But she doesn’t rest lazily on that.  She imbues her character with little lifelike touches – her kitchen conversation with Rajiv Krishna as he bites on a carrot, is a case in point.  It takes a special actor to utter a line like, “aamam, ivaru periya Kapil Dev” yet not make it sound insulting!  And Delhi Ganesh takes the jaangiri…err…the cake in the humor department.  He never failed to do justice to Mohan’s lines.  And in Aahaa, he is a hoot in the funny scenes and a reliable anchor in the dramatic sequences.  No other actor could switch between humor and drama as effortlessly as he does in the Krishna Jayanthi scene in Vijayakumar’s house. 

Bhanupriya, Raghuvaran and Delhi Ganesh in the climax:

Films like Aahaa are rare.  In their quest to make the next big pan Indian film (which sometimes ends up being a film panned throughout India), they forget Martin Scorsese’s words which were memorably quoted by Bong Joon Ho at the Oscars- “The most personal is the most creative.”  And it is the most universal too.  ‘Little’ films like Aahaa are amongst the films with the richest legacy and the most longevity.  It was a film that appealed to Visu back then.  It is a film that holds appeal even now, 25 years after its release.  Let us celebrate the film for all the joy that it has given us.  Thank you, Team Aahaa!  You made all the right choices in making this film the classic it is.  It is up to us to do the same and not forget about this film during our lifetime and beyond. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Two unsinkable ships: Thoughts on Thiruchitrambalam, Autograph and Thotta Chinungi

It is quite rare that I let my views on a topic cloud my opinion of a movie.  But it happened recently with Thiruchitrambalam.  I chose to not review it because I felt that I could not trust myself to look past my opinions of friendship, to review the film based on its own merits and demerits.  Thanks to the influence of serious critics like Baradwaj Rangan, I sincerely try to review a film based on how well the writer-director brings to the screen the story that she or he chooses to tell.  In that respect, Thiruchitrambalam probably deserves a much better review than the one that I would have written.  Why so?  Because I hated the final act of the film. (Spoilers ahead) Having invested in the friendship of Nithya Menen and Dhanush, to be told that she had harbored feelings of love all along, felt like a mighty letdown.  Though the stellar cast and their wonderful performances kept me engaged, I felt cheated.  Was it entirely the fault of the filmmaker? 

Let me start by saying that there have been films like Piriyadha Varam Vendum and Oh My Kadavule that have explored the space of a friendship metamorphosing into love and the tricky aspects of two close friends marrying one another.  The seemingly lightweight Kadhal Desam is mostly remembered for its songs.  “Muzhugathe ship-pe friendship than” is a line that is remembered in the context of the irresistible “Mustafa…” song.  But the film, as frivolous as it was, attempted to do justice to friendship as much as it was about love.  It featured a thought-provoking sequence where SPB assures Tabu that a good friend could make for a good spouse.  That she might want to marry her friend instead of hoping that her life partner will be a good pal to her.  Agree or disagree with what he said, it at least gave friendship the respect it deserved.  It felt like a logical conversation between a friendly Dad and a loving daughter.  In none of these movies did I feel the kind of negative emotions like I did with the concluding portions of Thiruchitrambalam. 

As I reflected on my feelings after watching the film, I realized that my unfavorable response really stemmed from the fact that this was not the kind of man-woman friendship that I enjoy watching on screen.  I realized that beyond the “vaa da” and “po di” kind of ‘casual’ remarks between friends, films that explored the depth of a friendship across gender are what truly appealed to me.  My bias was and is towards films where friends remained friends for the duration of a film.  In that respect, two films that have stayed with me for a long time are Autograph and Thotta Chinungi.  Sneha and Cheran in the former and Revathi and Karthik in the latter share the kind of bond that appeals to me not only as a moviegoer but also as a person.  While Autograph is a little more in-your-face in its depiction, the subtlety and sensitivity in Thotta Chinungi is an absolute delight. 

In Thotta Chinungi, Revathi and Karthik are friends from a young age.  A young Karthik loses his mom early in life.  Revathi and her brother are his only family.  Revathi marries Raghuvaran.  All is well until Raghuvaran starts developing feelings of possessiveness, insecurity and suspicion.  Writer-director KS Adhiyaman does a fabulous job of showcasing their relationship in a lifelike manner.  He balances the rhythms of daily life with just the right emotional beats.  There are sweet lifelike touches like Revathi addressing Karthik, “Sir” and Karthik casually sitting on her kitchen counter and chatting with her and Raghuvaran.  At the same time, when asked to describe his feelings for her, in a rather lovely scene, Karthik describes her as the maternal figure in his life.  When a situation involving Revathi’s brother escalates out of hand, Karthik takes him in.  But he does so in the most undemonstrative, non-judgmental manner.  In a stupendous bit of screenwriting, Adhiyaman makes Karthik’s love interest (played by Rohini) talk to Raghuvaran about Karthik and Revathi’s bond.  To have Karthik talk to Raghuvaran would have just not been as effective. 

What makes Thotta Chinungi resonate with me is not just the respect and dignity it affords to the friendship.  It is also how the relationship is tested severely.  And how the characters come out of it shining brightly.  In the aforementioned kitchen counter scene, Karthik nonchalantly mentions that simple joys like eating Revathi’s food and playing with her kid are all that he wants in life.  Later, in the climax, when Karthik almost walks away from the relationship to save Revathi and Raghuvaran’s marriage, Raghuvaran steps in and mentions the same line uttered by Karthik.  That is all that he says to reassure him that both his friendship and their marriage will be intact.  And the film ends with a closeup of Revathi smiling.  Simple yet striking.  Pithy yet profound.  Adhiyaman demonstrates that you don’t always need lectures on friendship for its worth to be understood by viewers.  And since it is a domestic drama and not a hero-centric film, all characters are given equal prominence.  As a result, the relationships are supremely well fleshed out.

Watch the scene at 32:22 and the climax at 2:17:49

Autograph, on the other hand, is vintage Cheran.  Cheran has never shied away from direct expression of feelings.  When he isn’t firing on all cylinders (as a writer), one gets the feeling that the characters are mere mouthpieces for what he wants to say to his viewers.  At his best, especially when he has the support of good actors, his characters spout lines that might sound preachy but they seem to own the lines with such conviction that the writer seems invisible.  That is exactly what happens in the case of Sneha and Cheran. 

Sneha comes into Cheran’s life at a time that he is going through a low phase.  He helps him rebuild his life, yes.  But despite Cheran being the film’s central character, this portion of the film is not just about the impact of Sneha on Cheran’s life.  It is also about her.  Nowhere is this demonstrated better than in the restaurant scene.  Prior to this, Sneha would have bumped into her former love interest. (We are told that she had attempted suicide when the relationship failed.) When Cheran mocks her, she slaps him.  Upon returning to her senses, she apologizes to him.  And explains that the reason she got mad was because she sees him as a pillar of strength that helped her face her fears and overcome her weaknesses. (Interestingly, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil… also featured a line where Anushka Sharma calls Ranbir Kapoor her “strength” and her lover her “weakness.”) Scenes like these breathe with so much life that later on, when Sneha speaks of their friendship in an idealistic manner, one gets the feeling that the character – and by extension, the director – has earned the right to be a bit preachy and philosophical. 

Click on Play to go to the restaurant scene:

The unconscious ability of good friends to know precisely when to say what to one another, their equally unshakeable confidence in communicating through silences, the undemonstrative yet unwavering displays of support and above all, the reassuring constancy amidst highs, lows, trials and tribulations.  These are what I truly find enriching in friendships, in life and on screen.  It is entirely unfair of me to expect Mithran R Jawahar (writer-director of Thiruchitrambalam) to showcase the kind of friendships that Adhiyaman and Cheran did.  But by the same token, movie viewing can be an intensely individual, personal experience as much as it is a communal one.  And the (friend)ships that will stay afloat in my memory sans any risk of sinking are the ones in Thotta Chinungi and Autograph.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

A review of Ponniyin Selvan (Part-1) - Guest Post by Anuradha Raghavan

It is rather unexpected that a person like me was asked to do a guest post reviewing Ponniyin Selvan Part-1 (“PSI").  I have watched a lot of good movies in Tamil but I am not one to be up to date on all the new Tamil movies.  In fact, I haven’t been to the theater to see a Tamil movie in twenty years!  But PSI – how could I not go see it in the theater?!  This is Ponniyin Selvan we are talking about!  The famous Kalki novel that everyone who grew up in Tamil Nadu would have known!  I have not read the novel.  But being someone who loves the Tamil language, I had to support this grand venture for sure.  I did my homework and read the story summary in detail and watched YouTube videos so that I could enjoy the movie and not focus on understanding the plot.  I wanted to watch the movie because I had not watched historical fiction in a long time.  I love listening to pure Thamizh being spoken.  Another reason for me to go watch PS1!

Did I love the movie? The movie was so hyped up in the media that I went in expecting some magic.  But  I came home wondering why I didn’t have that “Niraivu” (complete feeling).  Fragments of the movie stayed in my mind.  Karthi was good in his light-hearted ways.  Jayram was very capable in how he acted with great timing and flow.  The Ponniyin Selvan novel, as a movie, would have fared well with greater emotional depth had it been split into three parts.  It felt as if the director was vacillating between it being a crowd pleaser versus retaining a tight grip on his standards of movie making.  “Devaralan Aatam” song for example just did not fit in with the weighty feel of the story.  It seemed like a song that would fit in better in some other movie like Chandramukhi.  

Like the winter sky on a calm night, there were so many stars but their shine didn't come through because of how little time most of them had on screen.  Prakash Raj was lying down most of the time.  Prabhu was silently beaming next to Arulmozhi Varman.  Vikram’s dialogues were not befitting his stature as the possible successor when he talks about his heartache over Nandhini.  The heartache may have been real but the space given to bring it out was cramped. Aishwarya Rai was radiant but lacking spark because we were made to focus on her "beauty" with the warm glow of light on her face and the glittering jewels adding to it.  It reminded me of the photoshopped models on magazine covers.  I almost wish they had cast someone who would have brought out the conniving nature of that character a lot more.  Vidya Balan maybe?  Aishwarya Lekshmi’s costume in “Alaikadal” felt like I was about to watch “Nila Adhu Vaanathu mele” from Nayagan.  A dream song between Vikram and Aishwarya with words like “Narumugaye” would have fit in better.  I guess a sensuous song was thrown in to engage the masses?  Shobita Dulipala does not have a Tamilian face for her role as Vanathi and I wonder if there is a paucity of Tamil actresses for such prized roles.  Thankfully Trisha looking fresh as always was there to put a Tamil face there!

The cinematography was spectacular and carried the movie.  It reminds me of the times my son would remark that a doubles team won because one player carried the match and made them win.  Thotta Tharani’s experience and visual panache showed in the spectacular sets that made you feel like you could almost walk alongside the characters in those grand palaces.  But even Ravi Verman and Thotta’s  magic could not keep the attention of those who expected more for a whole three hours.  A catnap was needed in the last third of the movie to get through the rest of it.  The songs were good but not as catchy as some of ARR’s have been in the past.  The Tamil language used in the movie also had bits of colloquial Tamil thrown in small doses like light music tunes thrown in the middle of a serious kutcheri.  Why underestimate the masses?!  If they come to see a historical fiction movie, they will appreciate the synchrony in the imagery and language representing that era.

All said, I have to confess that I plan to go see the movie again with my family.  Why? Because it is the great Ponniyin Selvan and it is decently made even if did not measure up to the hype.  It gave us the excitement of seeing a grand historical fiction movie based on the great Raja Raja Chola.  It gives us a reason to look him up and learn about the great ruler and about the awe inspiring Brihadeeshvara Temple he built.  It reminds us that the complexities of human interactions and emotions were the same thousand years back. I am grateful to the director Mr. Mani Ratnam for bringing this novel to life. The amount of research he and his team have put into every detail in bringing it to life shows and it is much appreciated.  This movie demands a cerebral presence as it is to keep track of the many characters and twists in the plot.  When you talk to someone, if they say all the right words but you don’t feel the authenticity of emotion, you come back feeling like something was missing.  That is the feeling I had after watching this movie. 

Mr. Mani Ratnam is to blame for setting our expectations high because of how well made some of his past movies have been.  To this day when you think of the movie Nayagan, you feel connected to it.  Ponniyin Selvan as a novel has a cult following and has been talked about so much that even just attempting to make a movie has the trappings of a high bar to meet.  If Mr. Mani Ratnam could step back and view it in his home theater by himself away from his adoring fans and the high praise showered on him, he might be able to tighten it up and deliver an amazing PS2!  After all, for someone of his caliber who has money and success in great measure, if he doesn’t raise his own bar, what else is left?!