Thursday, December 21, 2023

Peace it Together

“The truth is, something about you makes me feel calm, or more centered or something.  And I could use that.”

These lines were uttered by Anne Hathaway to Robert de Niro in the delightful movie, “The Intern.”  The scene in which this exchange takes place is actually a rather casual one where Hathaway acknowledges the steadying influence of her “intern.”  But revisiting this scene recently made me pause and reflect on the significance and relevance of the sentiment expressed.  

I am 42 years old.  If I were to create a word cloud on what I sought as, say a 22-year old, words such as ‘excitement’ and ‘happiness’ would probably appear in font size 72.  The rush of adrenaline felt when I sped away in my first car, only to receive a traffic ticket from a genial cop, was probably symptomatic of the rush of blood of youth in general.  We all needed someone to slow us down!  When we would talk about someone we had a crush on, we would use terms like, “oh, my heart skips a beat.”  Poor thing that little heart, we taxed it to…our heart’s content!  I was, by and large, responsible. (Those who have known me for a long time - please note, as you snicker, that I wrote, “by and large”!) So, I really do not have any regrets about that phase of life.  But things change.

Flash forward to the present, I know that as I go through the ups and downs of adulthood, the quest is more for peace, inwardly felt, outwardly expressed.  I have realized that I can have more control over peace than I can about happiness.  But at least for me, I have to work towards it.  As a non-believer, I am reliant on what is within and around me for that peace.  Upon introspection, I could narrow down two things that can make or break that inner balance that I seek.  The first is, giving ourselves the time and space to travel inward.  And the second is, carefully choosing, thoughtfully nurturing and fiercely protecting our circle of trust.  These two elements are not mutually exclusive.  But they are distinctive enough to warrant separate mention.

I firmly believe that it is vitally important to invest in our physical and mental health.  As we grow older, as responsibilities increase, we need to be able to be in a physical shape and mental state to weather more storms than we did during the relatively shielded existence of our younger days.  In order for us to be able to fulfill our responsibilities, be it personally or professionally, we truly need to be able to have strength of the mind and of the body.  To do so, it is imperative that we focus on the things that keep our physical and mental health in check.  This may vary from working out in the gym to going on a long drive, listening to melodious music.  The means don't matter, the end does.  Because if we let our mind atrophy and our shoulders droop, how can we be a shoulder for someone to lean on?  Many a time, our self-preservation becomes a casualty in our desire to keep checking the never-ending to-do lists of our life.  If this doesn’t get checked off, neither can other items be.

And the second contributor to our peace is a carefully chosen circle of trust.  As we grow older, we must ask ourselves the tough question whether we are spending time with and on the ones who have a positive or at least a neutral impact on our level of peace.  If that is not the case, it is best to shield ourselves from the people who have a negative impact on us.  The boundaries of our circle of trust cannot be so rigid that that immutability paralyzes us psychologically.  We will, over time, have to be keenly aware of whom we trust our emotions with and who has stopped earning that trust.  We need to be aware that the ones within our circle are the ones that may not necessarily make us skip a beat.  Instead, they do the far more difficult job of actually ensuring that our hearts beat at a steady cadence.  We must identify these people, treasure them, make them feel our gratitude and pay their generosity forward.  

At the same time, we have to force ourselves to have a very detached view towards anyone outside of that circle.  That detachment helps in cases where a certain amount of exposure to them is unavoidable due to societal or professional obligations. In order to safeguard ourselves, we have to be doubly careful to not let anyone outside of our coveted circle feel like they have the privilege to hurt us.  I remember telling a former colleague about creating a mock ballot for kids at the time of elections, to teach them the concept of voting.  He wrote to them, “Choose wisely, kids.”  That advice extends to adults too.  If we don’t choose, we lose.

Now, at 42, I know exactly the words that will be conspicuous in that word cloud that describes what I seek. It may not be as exciting or adventurous as the one from 20 years ago.  But the knowledge that I can, through my actions, have more control over it than the things that I sought in my younger days, is an immensely comforting, calming thought.  And just like Anne Hathaway in “The Intern”, I could use that!

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Hearing the unspoken word

It was heartbreaking to watch director Vikraman’s interview today.  The filmmaker who once churned out blockbusters on a yearly basis, spoke with great pain - and one must say, with immense grace - about the plight of his wife.  A dancer, she has been bedridden for five years.  As a result, Vikraman took the decision to stay away from films or film union activities to be by his wife’s side.  What was especially poignant was how he spoke about the distress with such equanimity.  As was the case with his films, his words were filled with hope for a better tomorrow.  But amidst this deeply moving conversation, one set of questions and Vikraman’s answers made me pause.  It was the portion on the Tamil film fraternity.

When the anchor asked him if people in the film world had reached out to him to offer support, he mentioned a few names.  But you could see that the majority of the actors that he had worked with have not made him feel supported.  Vikraman tried his best to be tactful and sensitive.  But if you observe closely, you could feel his pain.  He did not complain or sound resentful.  It was just impossible though, to look past the apparent lack of care and concern from an industry that he had been such an important part of.  Again, my intention is to not berate anyone in particular.  I shall not engage in an exercise to take names.  Because my intent is to go beyond the actual stars and directors to talk about something deeper.  And that is the notion of reaching out.

The busyness of our lives is the reason that we mostly cite for not reaching out.  But I am firmly convinced that we can make time for the things that we want.  We make the mistake of assuming that the depth and meaning of every conversation are directly proportional to the time that it will take out of our schedule.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  We only have to revisit in our mind those brief exchanges, on Whatsapp or the phone, to realize how someone’s words or gestures gave us a respite from our woes.  

The other reason (excuse?) that I often hear is, “I wasn’t sure if you would be okay if I inquired about you.”  If we break it down, there are just three scenarios here.  One is, we had no idea that someone is going through a tough phase.  Two is, we are not sure.  And three, we know with absolute certainty that they are beset by some issue, personal or professional.  The three scenarios have something in common.  None of these scenarios prevents us from asking a simple question, “Are you doing okay?”  Worst case, the other person might not be ready to open up.  And that is fine.  In the deeply thought-provoking book, “Option B”, authors Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant make a distinction between the golden rule of relationships and the platinum rule of grief.  The golden rule is, treat others how you want to be treated.  The platinum rule is, when someone is going through trying times, treat others how they want to be treated.  So, if someone is not reciprocating your gesture of extending a hand to them, let them be.  The knowledge that you care will, in most cases, make them open up to you eventually.  But in my book, to not ask is to not care.

I have been the recipient of great generosity and deep thoughtfulness from people in my little world who give me the impression that I matter.  It is not something that I take for granted.  For I have had relationships where I thought that I ceased to matter.  I may be right.  I may be wrong.  But a sustained feeling of my unspoken words not being heard made me feel like the pain in my spoken words would not matter either.  But that is okay.  As we grow older, we learn.  We get better at spotting who ignores, who hears, who listens with their ears and who cares with their heart.  And it is so vitally important that we look inward to ensure that we can do our bit to make someone’s day brighter, smile wider and their burdens lighter.  That is exactly what I hope the film fraternity does for Vikraman and his family.  That is what I hope all of us do for one another.  That is when the positivity and goodness of Vikraman’s films will be recreated in the real world.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The heartbreak of 1996

 We just refused to believe that it could go any other way.  You really have to blame Sachin Tendulkar.  We genuinely believed that through his individual brilliance, India could win the 1996 cricket world cup.  He never said so.  He just made us believe so.  With him, he carried the hopes of a billion fans.  Even before he had taken the world by (sand)storm in 1998, he still made us think that one individual alone could take the team to victory.  Not that we had a dearth of talent really.  Be it dependable batters like Mohammad Azharuddin and Navjot Sidhu, clean strikers of the ball like Ajay Jadeja and star bowlers like Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath, the team was no slouch.  But back then, two things were scarce in that team.  It was not talent, it was self-belief.  And it was leadership.  Sure, there was a piece of batting or bowling magic here or there.  But when it truly mattered, few rose to the challenge like the way Sachin did.  That it was entirely unfair to him was something that we fans realized only when he had others like Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid lessen his burden in the second half of his career.  But let’s stay in 1996.

The teams were divided into two groups of six each.  India were in a group with Sri Lanka, Australia, West Indies, Zimbabwe and Kenya.  The warning signs were there in the group stage itself.  We lost to Sri Lanka and Australia in a manner that exposed the team’s shortcomings brutally.  Mind you, Sachin scored an incandescent century against the Lankans and a brilliant 90 against the Aussies.  But the bowlers were leaking runs like cracked buckets.  The batsmen were all looking patchy.  As scores of anecdotes from players over the years confirm that in Azhar, we had a captain whose strategic abilities, enterprise and leadership were things that existed solely in our imagination.  Azhar was struggling for runs himself.  And just seemed incapable of trying anything out-of-the-box or even a tad different. (I am not counting the lame attempt to bowl Anil Kumble in the first 15 overs.) 

I might sound harsh when talking about Azhar.  But you only have to observe the power of the leaders in previous cups, especially Imran Khan.  He had led the Pakistan team from out of nowhere to lift the cup in 1992.  A consummate leader is an inspiration, a strategist, a tactician and someone who leads the way.  Azhar in 1996 was none of this.  But similar to 1992, we all saw a glimpse of what could happen when we cohered as a team, in the match against Pakistan.  Unlike 1992, Sachin did not even make a significant contribution. (A scratchy 31 off 59.) But it all came together for a magical day.  Sidhu’s anchor, Jadeja’s spark, Venkatesh Prasad’s gall.  It was all heady (but as we were to discover later, transient).  It was always a wonder to me why this team only rarely came together this powerfully and confidently.  We won a high-octane quarter-final versus Pakistan with Sachin hardly contributing anything.  Why was this an exception?  Why did we fans have to resign to the capriciousness of this team?  I have only questions, no easy answers.

The highlight:

I remember the heartbreak of the semi-final like it is happening in front of my eyes now!  People mention Aravinda de Silva’s dazzling counterattack.  Sure, it left us stunned.  But when he was dismissed, SL was only 85/4.  We just watched in silent horror as their middle-order calmly and coolly took them to 251.  Did we try anything different?  Couldn’t Srinath have been brought back for a quick burst instead of Jadeja bowling 5 expensive overs? (Srinath only completed 7 of his 10 overs.) Why the conservatism in going with an Ashish Kapoor who was tidy but rarely penetrative instead of Venkatapathi Raju who was a more attacking option?  Sure, the SL side had plenty of left-handers but Raju was no slouch versus southpaws. (Remember him tying Brian Lara in knots in 1994?)  And the batting that fell like a stack of dominoes after Sachin got out was, in retrospect, no big surprise.  How often in the 1990s did we really win when he did not take us all the way?  All of these painful recollections make Virat Kohli’s words post the 2011 win even sweeter - “He has lifted the burden of the nation for 21 years.  It is time we carried him on our shoulders.”  

The heartbreak:

As we go back in time, sure, many world cup wins have been on the back of glittering individual performances.  But if you observe keenly, the team coming together was what well and truly took the teams over the finish line.  Sure, Wasim Akram’s magic deliveries swung the match Pakistan’s way in 1992.  But what would he have had to bowl with if not for Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Inzamam ul Haq, not to mention his own batting.  In the 1996 final, Aravinda de Silva turned in an all-round performance for the ages.  But remember that they were led by a man - Arjuna Ranatunga -  who was willing to go any lengths to defend his bowler who had been accused of throwing.  How can we measure the impact that such leadership has on a team’s spirit?  In that final, remember that with Ranatunga expertly marshaling them, the other spinners choked the Aussies too.  Remember that Asanka Gurusinha played a superb supporting knock of 65 to help Aravinda stabilize the innings.  Many of us recollect Sanath Jayasurya and Romesh Kaluwitharana’s pyrotechnics in the 1996 world cup.  But remember that both of them failed with the bat in the semi-final and final.  And yet SL won.  

As I think about my own journey as an Indian cricket fan, I am filled with gratitude for a leader like MS Dhoni, batsmen like Yuvraj Singh and bowlers like Zaheer Khan who, through their sustained individual brilliance, also coalesced as a team, to win the world cup that Sachin wanted so badly.  You might wonder why is it that for all my talk about the team being of paramount importance that my happiness of 2011 is associated with Sachin, when there were so many other heroes.  It is because it was Sachin who made us hope against hope in the 1990s that India would win as long as he was there.  It is because we 90s cricket fans fell in love with Sachin before we fell in love with India as a team.  We knew but just didn’t realize that cricket is a sport of 11 players a side, not one champion and ten others.  That for a team to practically rest on one shoulder was grave injustice to the man carrying the burden.  That is why we see the 2011 world cup win as a sort of tribute to Sachin.  But as I reflect on 1996 now, with the benefit of time and maturity, I can be a bit gracious and admit that the best team, not the best individual, won the 1996 world cup.  And that team was Sri Lanka.  It could not have gone any other way.

Monday, September 4, 2023


 “We expect such people to be around.” 

Those were the succinct words of a friend when I shared how tough it was to swallow the untimely, premature passing on of my Aunt.  That pithy response summarized what I had been struggling to verbalize.  It made me dwell on the rather uncomfortable idea of mortality.  As I clawed my way back from a rather downbeat state of mind, the fact that I am 42 and ‘middle aged’ made me feel more introspective and less anxious.  Arguably a result of my being an Indian movie buff, my thoughts centered on the notion of interval - or its slightly more sophisticated-sounding synonym, intermission.

I began to think less about the longevity of my journey or that of my near and dear.  Instead, I began to reflect on, in movie parlance again, the ‘first half’ of my life.  This blog post is too limited and too public a platform for me to compile all the highs and lows of the life that I have lived till now.  But there is one recurring theme in my life that I wish to shed light on.  And that is a sense of belonging. 

To look one in the eye and make them feel like they matter is a trait in people that I am truly grateful for.  As I think of the closest members in my family, the most respected mentors in my life (both personal and professional), the dearest friends who are a family of their own, one common trait that I observe is that they know exactly how and when to give me a sense that I matter.  Whenever I crumble, they don’t piece me together.  Instead, they stand by me, empowering me to stitch myself again. They are the ones that let my stream of tears flow while being acutely aware that the handful of droplets are actually symptomatic of a flood of emotion that they are refusing to let me get submerged in.  That the apparent weightlessness of the tears is inversely proportional to the weight of emotion that is being lifted off me. They are the ones that celebrate my successes in a way where I know that their appreciation is genuine, sans jealousy or resentment.  They are the ones that proffer sincere, timely advice whenever I err, constantly looking to make me strive to be the best version of myself.  

As heady as I feel about all these wonderful folks, I am readily aware that what I just captured is just about receiving.  Receiving love, receiving concern, receiving advice.  As I look at the 'first half' in an honest manner, I feel like I have received more than I have given.  No, that is not a falsely modest statement, I assure you.  I sincerely feel like the second half of my life should be about fostering a sense of belonging.  Enabling people like I was empowered in the first half.  Loving people in the selfless, giving ways in which I was and am loved.  Sharing perspectives with people in a manner where they feel like I am sitting beside them, not preaching from a lofty pedestal.

As I think about genuine, selfless people like my Aunt who are no more, I realize that they are still “around” even after they are gone.  That is their legacy.  In the second half of my life, I would like to ensure that I give my loved ones the feeling that I am always “around”, enveloping them in the warm manner in which I have been protected all along.  That way, the ‘reviewer’ - be it God or one’s own conscience - looks at the picture and gives a verdict that both halves were coherent, feel-good and meaningful!

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

"Whatever it is you wish for": A tribute to Padma Athai (1961-2023)

‘Bommathai’ - that is what I apparently used to call my Aunt Padma when I was a toddler.  I honestly don’t remember much of that phase.  But if I were to take a guess, Padma Athai probably relished the mispronunciation of her name as much as she enjoyed our interactions when I spoke to her as an adult in well-enunciated thamizh.  The guess would not be too inaccurate, for Athai always believed in letting people be, as long as they were within the bounds of honesty and propriety.  As I replay the vignettes of my shared moments with her through the years, the thing that strikes me is how she was, at every stage of my life, genuinely interested in learning about what made me happy in that phase.  And how she was ever so gentle in expressing love, care and concern.

Rewind to June 1994.  She was living in the US and was visiting India with her family. (A loving husband and two adorable kids.  The kids were adorable and affectionate back then.  They are adorable, affectionate and responsible role models now.)  I lived in Chennai with my parents at that time.  I was eagerly looking forward to spending time with them, especially my little cousins.  And during that trip, while I bonded fabulously with her son, the younger one refused to come anywhere near me!  What was worse for me was that the little one was extremely fond of our neighbors!  I was genuinely upset about it.  Padma Athai could have dubbed me childish or at least teased me gently.  And that would not have been wrong per se.  But as a recent favorite quote (attributed to Atul Chitnis) of mine goes, “You are never remembered for doing what is expected of you.”  Athai actually sat me down and explained that sometimes little kids - her daughter was just 3 ½ at that time! - behave in ways that are not going to appear reasonable to older people.  She assured me that my cousin would definitely bond with me over time.  And that did happen, even if not during that trip!  Years later, we used to joke about how my cousin gave preferential treatment to our neighbor.  But as I reflect on Athai a little more, I see that she just let me be the 13-year old kid I was, while subtly making me see reason.

Athai, at a family wedding in 2010

In 1998, when my parents and I moved to the US, I had more opportunities to visit and spend time with her.  Another distinct memory that I have is of my maternal grandma from India calling us at Athai's home.  Athai immediately told my Mother, “Manni, please tell Maami that you will call her right back from our number.”  Kids of this generation will not quite comprehend what was so special about that gesture.  But back in 1998, there were no free Whatsapp calls or Facetime.  International calls to and from India were expensive.  But Athai was spontaneous, generous and above all, unfussy about her spontaneity and generosity.  She was a giver in the most understated, casual manner.  

Athai was someone who derived happiness from the joy and success of others.  I remember when I did well during my undergrad and graduate years, Athai’s notes of appreciation for any of my achievements, regardless of significance, would drip with genuineness.  I could feel the genuineness not just in her exquisite choice of words or in the sweetness of her voice.  Beyond all that, it came from the purity of her thought which is extremely hard to concretize but equally hard to miss if you care to look for it.  I just re-listened to her voice note for my birthday this year where she wished me “the very, very best of health, peace of mind, happiness and whatever it is you wish for.”  The “whatever it is you wish for” seems to perfectly exemplify who she was as a person.  What mattered to her was whether we achieved happiness on our terms.  She probably thought it was too presumptuous of her to assume that she knew exactly what made me happy.  

As wonderful as she was at expressing genuine elation devoid of filters, biases, prejudices or jealousy, Athai was also extremely empathetic towards people when they were going through a low phase.  She would expertly walk the tightrope walk, not being pushy or inquisitive, yet expressing her support in no uncertain terms.  10 years ago, I had to undergo a back surgery.  She wrote me a mail as soon as she learned about it from my grandmother.  In her note, she wished me well.  While asking about the nature of the surgery, she prefaced her question with, “Hope I am not being intrusive if I ask you.”  As my Aunt, she could have just asked me about the operation.  But no, she seemed so instinctively respectful of people’s spaces and choices.  Knowing her, she would have been perfectly okay had I chosen to not divulge the details of my surgery.

Another trait that I instantly associate with her is humility.  An accomplished CPA, she never really spoke, unless asked, of the achievements of hers or her family.  Before I had traveled to the US with my Mom in 1991, my Dad told me that Athai had cracked a tough exam and had scored "85%."  During the trip, I duly congratulated her.  She was probably surprised that I even knew about it.  She smiled and asked, "Yaaru, Murali sonnaana?  84 thaan, 85 illa!"  The reason I remember this detail 32 years later is because I was struck by the humility of her response.  But then, that was who she was right through her life.  Honest, humble and focused on her loved ones, not the self.

The last time I saw Athai was at a family wedding last year.  I had not really been in a position to attend the wedding since things were hectic at work.  But I attended since my Uncle urged me to attend and surprise everyone.  It was so wonderful to see her after a long time.  The care, the concern, the kindness were all intact as always. (Not that I expected it to be any different.) I just did not know that my goodbye at the end of the trip would be the last time I bid farewell in person.  I suppose that I have to be grateful for the fact that my Uncle's prodding meant that I got the opportunity to see her one last time.  Mysterious are the vagaries of fate and the ways of this world, I suppose.

Athai - you told me that I could get 'whatever it is I wished for.' 

I wish that you are in a better place, sans any of the physical pain that you had to endure recently. 

I wish for Uncle and the kids to have the strength to lead life with their strong, indelible memories of you. 

I wish for the light of your spirit to glow brightly in our hearts for the rest of our lives. 

I wish this world would be a kinder place to pure, noble souls like you who deserved to live much longer lives. 

Above all, I just wish you were here, Bommathai.  I will miss you.

Saturday, June 3, 2023

What will I remember? - Thoughts on "Modern Love Chennai"

It has been a few days since I watched “Modern Love Chennai.”  There is one image that refuses to leave me. It is that of TJ Bhanu on the hospital bed, wordlessly checking on her newborn with a mix of anxiety, fear and hope that the child should not have the eye condition that she has.  Of the six stories in this anthology, this episode - titled “ImaigaL” - is the best.  On top of the stellar performances by the lead pair (Ashok Selvan plays Bhanu’s husband) and the beautiful writing, the reason I liked this story the most was because this was the one that felt most “modern” to me.

That is because “ImaigaL” (directed by Balaji Sakthivel) is the episode that affirms my thought that modern is a way of thinking and acting.  Modern is not necessarily about the clothes you wear, the language you speak, the places you mingle in.  In my book, something that shakes the status quo for the better is what is modern.  And if I stick to that criterion, “ImaigaL” is unquestionably modern.  A man marries a woman with the knowledge that she is going to gradually lose her vision.  The fact that he would like to marry her despite this condition is presented matter-of-fact sans any overt emphasis.  Even when he has a disagreement, he immediately realizes the error of his ways and is not hesitant to kneel down apologetically in the middle of the road.  There is a small yet meaningful moment where we see him awake while his wife and kid are asleep.  We get to know later that he was actually thinking of her passion for the ‘veeNa.’  How often have we seen a male character on screen so insistent on being a tool for genuine, abiding empowerment.  If Bhanu sparkles in her author-backed role, Ashok Selvan too is wonderful in playing a foil.  This pair of mature performances is the best thing about this anthology.

Bharathiraja’s “Paravai Kootil Vaazhum MaangaL” is arguably the first time in Bharathiraja’s entire career where the creator is an invisible presence.  Known for his emphatic style of narration and his signature touches, he has experimented with a style of narration that was his friend Balu Mahendra’s (whom he has dedicated this to) forte.  This is the tale of a married man who falls out of love with his wife and falls for another woman.  While the direct conversations and the philosophical lines do work, I wish the story had done more justice to the pain felt by the Ramya Nambeesan character.  For instance, we hear her tell Vijayalakshmi (who plays the ‘other’ woman with remarkable dignity) that her initial reaction to Kishore breaking the news, was quite intense.  A quick vignette would have had more impact than the line uttered by her. But I will remember this segment for the two contrasting selfies that dovetail seamlessly, to capture the arc of the three main leads.

“Lalagunda BommaigaL” directed by Raju Murugan adopts a lightweight approach to some rather serious issues.  I liked how the lead character is shown as shrugging off betrayals and disappointments and is looking to rebuild her life.  The ending was unexpected but the quirky finish was in sync with the tone of the rest of this short.

“Kadhal Enbadhu Kannula Heart Irukara Emoji” will work better for movie buffs than others.  Ritu Varma is cast against type but she finds the right pitch for her performance, being perky without overdoing the ditziness.  Varma plays a die-hard movie buff who sees a bit of the movies creep into every element of her life.  I liked the fact that she is not shown as having to shed that bit of craziness in order to be happy.  Sometimes one gets the sense that a filmmaker crafts zany characters to have laughs at their expense.  That is not the case here.  Thanks to the surefooted writing of Reshma Ghatala and the direction of Krishnakumar Ramakumar, we smile with her, not laugh at her.  And that makes for a feel-good experience.

“Margazhi” (directed by Akshay Sunder) is a lovely story of a high school girl who develops feelings for a boy in her class.  Balaji Tharaneetharan’s writing is exquisite and captures the psyche of the adolescent kids in a dignified manner.  Tamil Cinema has had its share of cheap, exploitative films set in the high school milieu.  “Margazhi” is a class apart.  The focus is on getting into the mind and heart of the girl who is going through a tricky period of her student life.  The way the story concludes feels just right in its balance of closure and open-endedness.  Something that is so symptomatic of the way things play out in that stage of life.  Ilayaraja’s beautiful score captures the beats of the heart as well as it does the moments where the heart skips a beat!

And finally Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s “Ninaivo Oru Paravai." His two full-length feature films “Aaranya Kaandam” and “Super Deluxe”, both splendid films, were as offbeat and bold as “Ninaivo Oru Paravai.”  But they had two things that this segment does not have - a narrative flow that kept us hooked and characters (as unconventional as they were) that we were interested in.  It is not necessary for lead characters to be likable per se.  But they need to be interesting enough for us to be invested in their story. (Sri Priya from “AvaL Appadithan” comes to mind.) Here, the in-your-face lines and the supposedly ‘shocking’ moments left me completely unmoved and strangely disengaged.

I recently came across a thought-provoking quote attributed to Atul Chitnis - “You are never remembered for doing what is expected of you.”  This applies to both filmmakers as well as the characters in their films.  The most memorable love stories in this anthology are the ones where the surprises spring onto us in a pleasant way, gently setting aside mores and conventions and, in their place, ushering in fresh thinking.  If that is not “modern”, then I do not know what is!

Monday, May 1, 2023

Two Diamonds in a Sea of Gems - My essay on Ponniyin Selvan (Part 2)

Disclaimer: I have not read Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan as yet.  This is my review of Mani Ratnam’s film, Ponniyin Selvan (Part 2).

This is it.  This is the Vikram performance that we have all been waiting for.  The monstrously talented actor who has acted in scores of forgettable films in the last two decades, finally gets a role that is befitting his talents.  We saw glimpses of what Mani Ratnam could do with Vikram in Raavanan and in Ponniyin Selvan-1 (PS-1).  But those feel like appetizers to what he serves us in Ponniyin Selvan-2 (PS-2).  Even though the actor did not feature in the Navarasa series, his performance is an exhibition of all the rasas.  His eyes do much of the work.  Whether he expresses anguish over his lost love, relief in hearing good news about his brother, disappointment in seeing his friend seemingly turn against him, arrogance in entering a palace or disdain when seeing his lover’s husband, Vikram’s powerful eyes tell their own story.  Coupled with his fantastic diction and assured body language – you have not lived as a movie buff till you have seen him in his final scene – his performance is one for the ages. 

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, pitted against the powerhouse that Vikram is, manages to hold her own in bringing to life a character that has more than a few shades of gray.  Mani Ratnam has always been a master at ensuring that the human side of antagonistic characters are fleshed out.  That even when we may not quite agree with them or root for them, that we understand their psychological motivations.  Thanks to the balanced writing and Aishwarya Rai’s superbly controlled performance – the quiet, internalized intensity is a riveting contrast to Vikram’s raw, unhinged portrayal -  what we see is a person driven by rage and fury of her own but one who knows fully well that she is not doing right by the ones that truly love her.  With a slew of minute expressions, firm but measured delivery of the lines and a regal presence overall, Aishwarya Rai turns in her best performance yet.  At the end of the day, it is the scenes featuring Vikram and Aishwarya Rai that give the film true emotional depth.  Depth that is sadly missing in the rest of the film. 

The machinations, the political intrigue and the battle for power were all set up perfectly in PS-1.  I went into PS-2 hoping that the plot would unravel in a way that would do justice to the central themes and the seemingly powerful characters.  But in my estimation, PS-2 flatters to deceive.  Mani Ratnam, along with his co-writers Jeyamohan and Kumaravel, had established the core traits of the key characters in PS-1.  But apart from Vikram and Aishwarya Rai, none of the other characters truly get their due.  They appear when the plot needs them to step in and offer a few expositions.  Except for a couple of lovely little moments – the one featuring Trisha and a blindfolded Karthi is vintage Mani Ratnam – there were many moments where what I saw on screen was inelegant writing staged in a way that tried, but failed, to obscure the shallowness of the writing.  The hurried way in which Vinodhini makes Aishwarya Rai recall her past or the rushed manner in which key truths are exposed in the scene on the ship, made me wonder if Mani Ratnam felt that everything outside of Vikram and Aishwarya Rai were incidental loose ends that needed to be tied, even if clumsily.

You know that a film is not quite working for you the way it should when the lines spoken are actually supposed to sting but you are sitting in a theater unmoved.  Jeyamohan comes up with some fantastic lines.  (Having not read the novel, I am attributing the lines to the credited screenwriter.) One line goes, “ArasargaL sollum poiyai arasiyal enbargaL.”  Some of Jayam Ravi’s idealistic lines in the climactic portions are splendid.  Yet the scenes in which they are housed never seem to make them pop out of the screen, say the way Sivaji Ganesan’s “aana vedhai…naan pottadhu” line exploded onto you from within the narrative of Thevar Magan.  And speaking of the written and spoken word, the diction of some of the actors (the “La” and “Zha” sounds were rarely heard from some of the actors!) left much to be desired.

Ravi Varman’s cinematography and Mani Ratnam’s staging too worked best in the scenes with Vikram and Aishwarya Rai.  There is a marvelous shot of the duo framed in a tight close-up which, by itself, increases the intensity of the moment manifold.  Ditto for AR Rahman’s searing background score for their scenes together.  All this serves to underscore my point that when done in service of powerful, nuanced writing, every element of a film’s craft will shine. 

Alas, PS-2, for me, will be remembered for two unforgettable characters brought to life by two shining performances in a film that should have been about much more.  And given the array of dazzling talents behind and in front of the camera, this experience is akin to two shiny diamonds glistening on a surface where the rest of the gems are hidden underneath.  

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Cent per cent Genuine: A tribute to my paternal grandmother

70/100.  That was how much I scored in my quarterly Math exam when I was in 7th grade.  When I was a school student, I would hesitate more to share a low Math score with her than I would with my parents.  After my ordinary performance in that exam, instead of telling her that I would work harder the next time, I made the mistake of telling her that my low score was due to a “few silly mistakes.”  She wasted no time in asking me how exactly could one score just 70% due to a few innocuous mistakes.  With her razor-sharp memory, she recounted the umpteen distractions – cricket, tennis, movies, to name a few – that had arguably done some damage to my preparations!  But here’s the thing – even as a hot-headed 11-year old, I knew not to argue with her. 

Trust me, I was much happier that day than my somber expression suggests!

When one has had a lifelong association with a loved one, it is a tough task to encapsulate the shared memories, the moments of truth, and capture the core spirit of the person with mere words.  My paternal grandmother Indira Raghavan passed away yesterday, leaving behind a score of memories.  But amidst all her virtues and values, it is her forthrightness, honesty and above all, genuineness that I will remember her most for.

Years later, when I had moved to the US in the late 90s, I had picked up this habit of calling one friend in India every weekend.  I had struck a 'deal' with my parents that I would speak for no more than 15 minutes.  Paati knew this.  You must remember that these were pre-Whatsapp days, where long distance calls were quite expensive.  One on occasion, I was quite enjoying my conversation with a friend.  Even though Paati was not in the same room, after I had come out, she asked me the duration of my call.  I said to her that it was probably a half-hour or so.  Pat came the reply that I had spoken for close to 45 minutes!  And that it was my Dad’s hard-earned money that I was squandering through my carelessness.  Again, I don’t remember having much of an argument with her.  I suppose I didn't want to make two wrong calls the same day!    

I am not sure that I realized at the time of these two incidents.  But I think that I must have sensed the quality in a person that makes us swallow the bitter pill – sans any coating of sugar – of forthright advice.  And that quality is genuineness.  Indira Paati did not have an iota of fakery in her.  Everything about her from affection to advice was genuine.  That she walked the talk, made her words and gestures of tough love, resonate and register.  She was a master of attacking the behavior, not the person.  I don’t remember ever being called any names or adjectives.  All I remember of those conversations are her precise directions on what to do and what not to do.

During my upanayanam...

Her genuine displays of love and affection too, were seen in more of actions and gestures than words.  For instance, she knew that I loved ilai vadaam. She would tirelessly make them for me in the stove, as I waited eagerly to peel them off the banana leaves that she would hand me in the kitchen.  When I had visited my Aunt in Charlottesville in 1991, Paati and Thatha were with her.  Thatha and my Aunt had picked up me and my Mom up from the train station.  I was a bit disappointed that Paati had not come to the station.  Upon reaching my Aunt’s home I realized that Paati was in the kitchen preparing ilai vadaams for me.  Since she couldn’t procure banana leaves there, she made them on Ziploc bags.  I don’t remember if I appreciated her thoughtfulness and ingeniousness as much as I should have. (Knowing me, I probably started gobbling the vadaams even before washing my hands!)

Paati was deeply pious.  That was hard to ignore.  But when one looked beyond her love for temples and her dazzling mastery of prayers and scriptures, it was easy to see that her type of piety reflected her personality.  In a simple, organized manner, she prayed and read religious books with a single-minded belief in the superpower, without tying her prayers to outcomes, wishes or desires.  It was piety of the purest kind.

Over the past 6 years, her health had been deteriorating.  It was difficult to see her in a state that was a stark contrast to her former self.  Of course, age-related ailments and infirmity are painful to see from close quarters.  But what we had was the gift of time with her.  I am filled with gratitude for having been born in her family, to have witnessed her virtues and values firsthand.  In letting her go to a happier, pain-free place up above, I tell myself that my best tribute to her would not be this article.  It would be in the way I lead the rest of my life, seeking to emulate the way she lived hers.

Paati, I may have scored only 70/100 on that day.  But your score for genuineness was certainly 100/100.  Rest in peace.  I will miss you.

Monday, March 27, 2023

9 points: Lessons from the 1992 Cricket World Cup

1991-92 was a glorious time to be initiated into cricket.  I was 10 years old and in sixth standard, in school.  Sachin Tendulkar was 18 years old and the gold standard in cricket!  A 5-Test series and a triangular ODI series were the twin preludes to the 1992 ODI World Cup down under.  Amidst the shambles that was the Indian batting line-up, Sachin was setting the tone for the decade to follow.  If he was in, India could win.  If he was out, the rest was a rout.  Pardon the painful alliteration but you get the gist!  But as much as Sachin was every Indian cricket fanatic’s hero, the tourney itself offered riches that extended beyond the lone star of the Indian team.  

The format of the 1992 World Cup was strikingly simple.  9 teams.  Everyone played everyone else.  If you won, you scored two points.  If the match was tied or washed out, the teams shared a point.  (That the latter was going to be a decisive factor was something that even the world’s best gamblers would not have bet a penny on.)  And the top four teams on points would play in the semi-finals.  Among the semi-finalists, New Zealand scored 14 points, England 11, South Africa 10 and Pakistan…9.  Yet it was Pakistan who ended up lifting the cup.  As I reflect on what made Pakistan win the cup and how some of the other teams lost key games (or in the case of India, lost the plot!), there are 9 lessons that I wish to recollect from the cup. 

9. “Teams win matches, not individuals.”

That was the title of the then Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin’s column for The Indian Express the day after India bowed out of the tourney with 5 measly points from 8 games.  While he makes some valid points in his article in a rather candid manner, what he failed to state was that he, as the leader, did little to make the 10 other members cohere as a team.  Their solitary bright spot was against the eventual winners, Pakistan.  Though Sachin was the man of the match, several Indian batsmen and bowlers had bright moments.  It was a team win.  But that was at Sydney, arguably India’s favorite ground in Australia.  But when their best laid plans came apart in the face of a Brian Lara attack or a Mark Greatbatch assault, there was no leadership, no novel tactics, no teamwork.  India’s lack of progress was not for lack of players who could not march.   It was because they did not have any directions. 

8. The Proteas’ Inequation: The Whole > Sum of its Parts

Both New Zealand and South Africa turned in some stellar performances in the world cup.  South Africa, despite not having the cheek of the Kiwis, was a team whose whole was more than the sum of its parts.  They did not have any superstars in their batting line-up.  Yet, led by the warhorses Kepler Wessels and Peter Kirsten, they put up competent totals.  Their bowling was painfully homogenous – everyone seemed to bowl right-arm medium pace!  But they had a star in the lightning-quick Allan Donald.  And they had the jaunty Jonty Rhodes in the field.  Even if they failed to reach the finals, the fact that they reached the semis despite their long apartheid-related isolation from cricket was an example of how to function as a team and punch above their weight.  The exact opposite of the Indian team, I hasten to add.

7. Nature Strikes Twice.  Sometimes thrice.

Every cricket fan who claims to be one would be familiar with the infamous rain rule of this world cup.  Where the chasing team, in the event of rain, had their target reduced by the number of runs scored in the least expensive overs they bowled.  The rain kept taking turns helping and hurting the teams.  There is this prevalent myth that the washed-out game against England (where they were all out for 74 and yet secured one point) was the biggest factor in Pakistan reaching the semis with 9 points.  It is only partially true.  They were in a superb position against South Africa, with Inzamam-ul-Haq in sublime form, when the rain made 211 from 50 overs, 194 from 36.  That they lost by only 20 runs should tell you that they could have bagged two points if not for the rain.  So, no, let’s not deprive them of due credit. 

But the Indians were the ones most hurt by the rain.  If they got lucky versus Zimbabwe, they lost the Australia fixture because of the rain and did not get a chance to bag two points against a weak Sri Lankan side.  I suppose luck or lack thereof doesn’t always come with any reasons or explanations.  It just is, good or bad!

6. The Puzzle of Bits and Pieces

Commentator and former cricketer Sanjay Manjrekar incurred the collective wrath of a nation when he called Ravindra Jadeja a “bits and pieces” player.  I am not sure if he would have been denied entry into the Buckingham Palace had he said the same about some of the English players.  For this tournament, they picked the likes of an ODI specialist like Dermot Reeves and a restrictive off-spinner like Richard Illingworth.  While these players were no slouch in the format and did make a reasonably positive impression, they did not have the match-winning class of England’s own David Gower, the doughtiness of a Mike Gatting or the mischief of a leg-spinner like Pakistan’s Mushtaq Ahmed.  In essence, these bits and pieces players did fit into the puzzle assembled by their captain Graham Gooch.  But they did not have the x-factor in them to puzzle the opposition.

5. Don’t think out of the box.  Just throw out the box.

New Zealand’s innovations, be it Dipak Patel’s opening spells as a tidy off-spinner or Mark Greatbatch’s blitzkriegs as an opening batsman, are the stuff of legend.  Like England, the Kiwis too had ODI specialist bowlers like Gavin Larsen, who excelled on their slow, low pitches.  But the difference was what they did with these players.  Martin Crowe did things like giving bowlers two to three over spells and constantly rotating them and…yes, puzzling the opposition.  It was as though the captain did not want to beat his opposition as much as he wanted to outwit them.  His batting, of course, was a huge factor in helping his team outmaneuver every opposition except, of course, Pakistan.  It took the genius of an Inzamam-ul-Haq – his 60 off 37 in the semi-final still ranks as one of ODI’s greatest knocks - to knock them out.

Onto the final four.  I am dedicating all four of these to Pakistan, out of respect for their unlikely yet amazing victory.

4. Luck is where preparation meets opportunity

It is one of several life lessons that Randy Pauch shared in his “Last Lecture.”  Sure, Pakistan had their slices of luck during the tournament.  While Martin Crowe’s injury preventing him from leading their defense in the semi-final is often cited as a lucky turn of events for Pakistan, what is often ignored is that Crowe would have ideally chased after winning the toss since they were making mincemeat of their opposition while chasing.  But on the day of semi-final, rain was predicted.  Fearing the rain Gods a little and the rain rule a lot, Crowe decided to bat first.  So, you could argue that things were loaded in Pakistan’s favor.  Yes, they had luck.  But luck alone did not win them matches.  In the league phase, they were the only team to beat New Zealand.  And in the semis too, it took the temperamental genius of Inzamam and the steadying influence of veteran Javed Miandad to push them over the line.  So, yes, they had the opportunity offered by lady luck.  But boy, were they prepared to make full use of it!

3. Short-term gains are as bad as long-term losses

Can you imagine Wasim Akram slowing down his pace?  No, that is not a rhetorical question.  It was posed in a way to Imran Khan after a league game.  The reason being that Akram had had a torrid time with no-balls and wides in the initial phase of the tournament.  He had raw pace but zero control.  But while Imran Khan may not be an eloquent speaker, he was an astute leader and a clear thinker.  He made the point that Akram’s core strength was his pace.  And he did not want his protégé to lose that.  He knew that he had others like Aqib Javed to steady the ship even if Akram went off-kilter.  He knew that Akram could sway matches as much as he swung the ball.  And swing, swerve and sway were exactly what he did, at blistering pace.  Ask Allan Lamb or Chris Lewis if you’d like!  When we pause to reflect, one realizes that a clear-headed leader who has no place for myopia in his vision, will see everything ten steps ahead of others.  And that is what Imran did with Akram.  If not for liberating Akram to bowl to his strengths, he may have made him feel shackled.  Instead, he unleashed the ‘cornered tiger’ onto an unsuspecting opposition!

2. Trusting them more than even they ever will  

Both Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mushtaq Ahmed have waxed eloquent on Imran around how much he placed faith in their abilities.  Just like Sunil Gavaskar used Laxman Sivaramakrishnan as an attacking wicket-taking option in 1985, Imran knew that he could not expect consistency or steadiness from Mushtaq as much as he could, guile and mischief.  Similarly, he had seen enough early signs of Inzamam that despite a strictly ordinary performance (save the gallant effort versus South Africa) in the league stages, he pushed Inzamam to play the semi-final despite him feeling unwell.  The impact of placing trust cannot be easily measured.  But by the same token, it is equally undeniable. 

1. “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

This quote, attributed to author Paulo Coelho, was embodied by Imran Khan and his fierce, single-minded determination.  Of all the 9 captains, it is possible that Imran wanted this Cup the most.  He wanted it badly.  He wanted to win this, to raise funds for the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital, named after his mother who died of cancer.  He had tried once in 1987 but failed to go past the semis.  At 40, this was his last chance by a distance.  His individual contributions in this cup are noteworthy but they were hardly World Cup-winning material.  But he was Captain Exemplar in the way he anchored the mercurial yet brilliant team through troubled waters, to glory.  His own anchor was the Cancer Hospital.  He wanted it badly.  And the universe helped him achieve it.


Sunday, February 26, 2023

25 years of Swarnamukhi

Good actors are chameleons.  They can slip into any role effortlessly, internalizing the spirit of the character and projecting a three-dimensional personality that leaps out of a two-dimensional screen.  There are some actors with whom – for better or for worse- the viewing public associates a certain persona.  There is a certain comfort associated with that persona.  A certain expectation when the audience buys a ticket at the turnstiles.  What the lesser directors do is take the easy way out and depend almost entirely on the persona of the actor.  The wiser of the creators realize that the persona is just a solid foundation on which they can mount their films.  Radhakrishnan Parthiban is one such actor with a persona.  The glib, witty, fast-talking character is something that he has made his own.  Of course, there are several films (either of his own creation or others’) where he broke out of the mold – Housefull and Azhagi instantly come to mind.  But his collaboration with the supremely talented KS Adhiyaman led to one of his greatest performances.  The film is the memorable Swarnamukhi, which was released 25 Februarys ago.

In the title credits of the film, the director thanks Parthiban for his extensive inputs into the story and dialogues into the film.  Even without this thoughtful acknowledgement, one can sense that Parthiban made the character of Pandian completely his own.  The usual plethora of witty repartees is on full display.  His interactions with Prakash Raj are especially priceless.  The latter, a scene stealer himself, is totally overshadowed by Parthiban in this film.  The characterization and the performance take equal credit for the one-man show of Parthiban.  Right from his Pondaati Thevai days, he has played characters whose feelings of love are rarely, if ever, superficial.  While his exchanges with Devyani in the flashback are fun, starting with the act of violence that sends him to jail, one realizes that this is not yet another love story.

The characterization of Pandian is truly unique.  The man – unreasonably, one hastens to add – believes that despite three years of not knowing his whereabouts that the love of his life would still be waiting for him.  Since he had been in jail with the singular thought of reuniting with her, he blindly trusts that she too would have been waiting for him.  That a man could have entered her life is a thought that just doesn’t register with him.  This premise leads to a sparkling set of scenes in the second half.  In addition to the sharp dialogues, the screenplay too flows beautifully once Pandian reenters Swarna's life.  Every scene is a result of a character feeling a certain way and moving the story forward.  For instance, when Devyani hesitatingly conveys to Parthiban that Prakash Raj may have fallen for her, he does not even bother to ask her if she feels the same way!  Instead, he goes to mercilessly taunt Prakash Raj – the scene with the auto driver is a riot!  And when Devyani expresses anguish about being stuck between two men, her mother goes to Parthiban’s house to explain the harsh reality to him.  That sequence is what makes this film utterly unforgettable.  

The epoch of Swarnamukhi is the eight-minute stretch that spans two scenes starting with the one in Parthiban’s room.  Right from the moment that Fathima Babu breaks the news that her daughter may have fallen for another man, Parthiban’s reactions from surprise to anger to shock to anguish are spellbinding.  Watch him smear his face with the ‘kari’ (to convey the 'moonjila kariya poositaa' feeling) and look around the room where he has written her name all over.  The helplessness writ largely on his face is haunting.  His powerful eyes are as arresting as they have ever been on screen.  The second is the scene right after this where he confronts Devyani.  Starting from the piercing stare and the way he beats himself with the slippers, Parthiban’s body language and dialogue delivery are stupendous.  Several of the lines are not only sharp but also intensely observant.  Note the way he says, “Enaku irukardhu chinna manasu thaan, aana andha manasu muzhuka nee thaan iruke.”  The manner in which his voice trembles by the end of the line is stirring to watch.

A gamut of expressions

Click on 'Play' to go to the beginning of the stretch that I have written about:

Synergistic actor-director collaborations are rare in Tamil cinema.  When they happen, it is an unforgettable experience for viewers because even without knowing exactly who contributed what to a particular scene, we can sense that something special has unfolded.  We can dissect such movies to our heart’s content, calling attention to specific elements such as the writing, acting and other departments of filmmaking.  But while we are watching the film, everything coheres so seamlessly, so magically, immersing us in a swell of hard-hitting emotions.  The impact of the creation subsequently is undeniably enduring.  During the aforementioned confrontation scene, Parthiban proclaims, “Moonu varusham illa, muppathu varusham aanalum enakaage nee kaathitrukanum.  Adhaan kaadhal.”  Along similar lines, be it 2 years or 25 years, the impact of emotionally wrenching films does not wane.  And that’s what we call a classic.