Sunday, March 31, 2024

After the waterworks: A hopeful essay on grieving

Long-time readers of the blog will be familiar with my fondness for my maternal grandfather.  For those of you reading this and not as familiar, my grandpa died in a freak accident in 1994 when I was 13 years old.  I was extremely close to him.  I probably did not realize it then.  But I think I took it for granted that I would just grow up under his steadying influence.  His sudden death shocked me.  It shook me.  But not in a way that I find it easy to express.  Recently, his 30th death anniversary just came and went.  I did not cry.  I did not dig up any photographs of his.  I did not really reminisce about him with anyone on that day.  But the realization that I got to keep a little of him whereas he took a lot of me when he went, was a palpable one.  The heaviness was akin to the blockage of a heart that needed a stent and balloon to keep it functioning.  So, what makes me retain the lightness of heart amidst the burden of his passing?

Before answering that question, I’d like to revisit the period after Thatha passed away.  After the wailing.  And after the waterworks.  It is safe to say that the period starting from a few days after an unforeseeable event like a premature death, are the hardest for the near and dear.  My grandpa was survived by my grandma, their two daughters, sons in law and an only grandchild (at the time), which was, of course, yours sorrowfully.  Regardless of his passing on, there was a routine for everyone.  My parents, Uncle and Aunt had to return to work.  I had to go back to school.  Thathama (that’s what I called my grandma) had a house to run.  But once the flood of tears subsided, the drought of emotion took over the house.  The sadness in the air was as hard to concretize as it was real.  There was a certain numbness felt by everyone.  The huge set of people who came on the day of his passing on and for a few days afterwards could, of course, not keep showing up every day to express condolences.  But there was something that I noticed about the small set of the people in the inner circle who kept showing up.

You know what they did so wonderfully well?  I just answered that.  They showed up.  My grandpa’s best friend and his family, my grandpa’s brother and his family, my grandma’s sister, her sister-in-law, a nephew of hers, a niece…the list is not that long but they played a hugely important role in our recovery.  They just came to our house consistently and spent time with us.  I honestly do not remember any pearls of wisdom that they shared about grieving or how to cope.  They just were there.  They let my grandma be.  They knew that she had to lead the rest of her life without a partner that had just been a rock-solid pillar of support for her in 40 years of marriage.  Sometimes when my grandma needed her space, they would not disturb her.  They demonstrated something that Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote about years later.  That the platinum rule of supporting grieving people is that you treat them the way they want to be treated.

I was not that young that I did not notice all this but I was young enough to not quite comprehend everything.  And for my part, I bottled a lot of my grief within me.  I never reached out, even to my loving family or my caring extended family, for much emotional support.  I don’t even remember saying as much as, “I miss Thatha a lot.”  Not that my family ignored me.  Far from it.  They would sometimes wonder why I didn’t express myself much despite being so fond of him.  I even remember, in 1995, during my Thatha’s birth anniversary, I did not join my family on a visit to an orphanage.  When my Mom asked me whether it was not disrespecting the memory of someone whom I respected a lot, I just bumbled something along the lines of, “I have to study for tomorrow’s assignment.” (Yeah right!)  I do not have an answer to the question why I never opened up much.  But I have an answer on how I eventually did.

It was during my late teens when I started to open up about missing my grandfather a lot.  I would speak to my family as well as my friends about it.  It all started with a visit to the hospital where he died.  A friend of mine was undergoing a surgery there.  I was very hesitant to visit the same place.  But when I told my Mum about it, she responded that if at all I wanted to internalize the spirit of my grandpa, that I must visit my friend.  Thatha’s friendship of 50 years with his dearest friend, the late Mr A. Sivasailam (Sivasailam Mama, to me) was one of the things that defined his life.  That day when I visited the hospital, was a bit of an epiphany for me.  One that has helped me grieve a lot more effectively.  And fortunately or unfortunately, has helped me deal with other life-altering events like the passing on of my Aunt. 

When I lose someone, I genuinely try to remember what they stood for.  And how they wanted or rather, would want me to lead my life.  Earlier, I used to put an undue amount of pressure on myself to almost mimic them.  And I would get frustrated when I did not experience the kind of peace that I craved.  But I realized over time that I had to put my intentions through the filter of circumstance as well as the character of people that I interact with.  As a result, I have been able to almost customize certain kind of behaviours where I try to capture the spirit of the loved ones who have left me. 

But what I have learned the most from the people who supported us during trying times 30 years ago was the need to be a shoulder to the ones who truly need us during times of grieving.  Especially in the period after the initial shock.  I have realized that that is when and where the grieving ones truly need us.  The outward silence they sometimes project is a by-product of a thousand voices in their mind.  Voices that sometimes they don’t know how to respond to.  Voices that sometimes raise questions about the purpose of life, about the fond memories of the loved ones that can never be recreated or about basic things that have to be sorted out – finances, logistics, new routines, etc.  Above all, the questions around leading a life without the one who has left us prematurely.

I have seen that the most thoughtful of supporters do so by being there and by gently prodding the survivors to take steps into creating a new normal and a new purpose for their living.  When my grandma (who never got a college education) decided to take over as the proprietor of the small factory that my grandpa had built so lovingly, people such as Sivasailam Mama and his equally loving family members, ensured that she was able to execute my grandpa’s vision to the best of her abilities.  That she did so for more than 20 years after my grandpa’s passing was a testament to her willpower as well as the thoughtful support of her trusted circle. (In an unfortunate repeat of events, when my Aunt predeceased my grandma, the latter found solace in caring for her granddaughter.)  As the line in Rhythm goes, “Death is not the end.”  Especially not for the ones who have to keep going.

So, back to the question of what makes me retain the lightness of heart amidst the burden of my Thatha’s passing?  The first is, a willingness to make an invisible yet meaningful line of connection to him by striving to imbibe his spirit, in essence the ‘soul’ (pun intended) of his character.  And secondly, to reach out to people who grieve for reasons of their own.  After all, giving is one of the most sustainable forms of healing. 

All said and done, I do miss you a lot, Thatha.  I wish you hadn’t left me so early. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Realistic Fantasy: A retro review of Shankar's Indian (1996)

As a 90s kid growing up in Chennai, it was impossible to not notice the humungous splash that Director Shankar was creating with his initial films.  Gentleman (1993) and Kadhalan (1994) were poles apart in terms of content – I dare say, quality too. (The latter is one of my least favorite films of Shankar.)  But with the level of grandeur, be it in action, song sequences or just the canvas overall, Shankar was creating a unique brand for himself.  It was in his third film where Shankar truly fired on all cylinders.  Indian, which I reckon as his best film till date, is not only a magnificent spectacle which made for a terrific theatre experience but also one of the best scripts ever written in service of commercial cinema. 

A common aspect of Gentleman and Indian was the vigilante being hunted down by a committed officer.  But where Charan Raj was a bit of a cinematic caricature, Nedumudi Venu is superb.  Aided by Nasser’s voice, Venu is dignity personified.  If you notice in lesser films, the intelligence of these officers never truly comes out.  Even in a well-made film like Ramana, the investigating officers were made to look like fools in order to make the Yugi Sethu character shine.  Whereas here, Venu’s character is the law-enforcing counterpoint to the violent brand of justice meted out by the Indian Thatha character, essayed, of course, with great style and conviction by Kamal Hassan.  Nowhere is this brought out better than the scene where Venu says that he, as a person, is an admirer of Indian Thatha but as a CBI officer, he is and will always be honesty personified.  The scenes where he goes from “meticulous” to “meticulous, old man” to “meticulous, old terrorist” are among the finest investigation scenes in Tamil cinema.  It is thanks to the sparkling intelligence of these sequences that the film acquires its seriousness amidst the commercial additions.

The key difference between his earlier films like Indian and Muthalvan versus his most recent works was that he and writer Sujatha brought a lot of painstaking detailing to what were inherently scenes straight out of a fantasy.  Take the TV station scene for instance.  How a septuagenarian could break into a TV studio, film a murder and manage to get it telecast is, if you think about it, nonsensical.  But the amount of details that are packed, the explanation given around the Philippines-based telecaster all point to one admirable trait – Shankar did not want the audience to feel that their intelligence was insulted.  It was as if he set out to demonstrate that if at all an elderly gentleman were to go about making a razor-sharp (!) statement and telecast it during Oliyum OLiyum time, this is probably how he would do it!

Of the two flashbacks in the film, the Kasthuri portions are short but impactful.  The actress too turns in a fine performance.  But it is in the freedom fighter flashback where the magical mix of great writing and top-notch production values happens.  Jeeva’s cinematography in the black and white scenes is masterful, especially the professionally shot war scene.  The sets, the costumes, the purposeful use of graphics are all epic in nature.  I love the little moment when Senapathi (a follower of Subhas Chandra Bose) shoots a puppet and later apologizes for it.  It is a character-defining moment that shines light on the depth of his patriotic fervor.  AR Rahman's "Kappal Yeri Poyaachu" in the flashback is a marvel. (The film, incidentally, also has one of his best background scores.)

Indian is not a perfect film by any means.  Shankar’s early films had some disgusting ‘male gaze’ scenes like the introduction of Manisha Koirala here.  His characterization of the women in his films have rarely left an impact.  The two heroines here are little more than eye candy.  Only Sukanya has a meaty role.  But even her character is subject to the gratuitous sensationalism in the riots scene. (Sukanya recollected in an interview that she had serious issues with how the sequence was shot.)  Shankar’s weakness in writing romantic scenes is evident here too.  He tries to obscure that weakness by making the scenes comic.  But as a result, Manisha pleading with the senior Kamal to spare his son resonates purely because of Sujatha’s great dialogue, not due to her characterization or their romance.  As an aside, that scene is one where Sujatha’s pen is sharper than Indian Thatha’s knife, especially the lines, “avanuku valika koodathu-nu meesai-ya ezhandha Senapathi inaiki avana ezhaka mudivu pannittan.  Unna vida enaku thaan ma ezhappu jaasthi.” 

Weaknesses aside, Indian remains an instance of a grand spectacle where style doesn’t trump substance.  The trailer of Indian-2 doesn’t look nearly as fresh or exciting as the original was.  But let us hope that even if the film doesn’t live up to the exalted standards of the original, that it doesn’t diminish its legacy.  Because Shankar’s films may have gotten bigger and grander in terms of visuals and graphics.  But it was in Indian where the expensive and exclusive fabric of the production was truly the by-product of a yarn that was ‘meticulously’ spun by its writing team.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Sapta Sagaradache Ello - My reflections on the two films (Side A and Side B)

I have been a movie buff for a long time.  And I have a pretty good memory of the initial impressions that films created on me when I was young.  And how over time, the same films spoke differently to me.  Even with classics, it would be the same product, of course.  Still the same motion picture of stunning beauty.  Just that the beholder changed, with age, maturity (I can only hope!) and experiences.  Not that good films become bad or vice versa.  They just seem different.  My critical style has evolved too, I feel.  I am not a film critic who looks at a film with a pure, non-judgemental eye, just looking to evaluate the worth of the craft and judge the film solely on the basis of whether the film did justice to the chosen content.  I am just an aspiring writer who likes to write with honesty about what a film did to me, be it making me smile, laugh, cry or just making me ponder.  As I think of Hemanth Rao’s two-film series, “Sapta Sagaradache Ello,” I have a plethora of thoughts and emotions.

First things first.  The films are supremely well-made.  Hemanth Rao’s handling of the actors and his staging of scenes, be it the dreamy moments at the beach, the raging conflicts (both physical and otherwise) or the tender moments, are all reflective of a director who is absolutely surefooted.  The trio of lead actors - Rakshit Shetty, Rukmini Vasanth and Chaithra Achar - all have moments where they bring their characters to life, tearing asunder the screen and leaping into our subconscious.  The three of them have mobile faces that revel in the minutiae of expression.  It would be unfair to pick a favorite, for the three of them are very different as actors.  Rakshit is endowed with a pair of eyes that allow him to convey pain without a single word uttered.  Rukmini is fantastic during the quieter moments where she has to project the character’s quiet strength, yet leave us with no doubt on how she feels about life forcing her to satisfice.  Chaithra is fantastic at delivering her lines, packing them with searing emotion. (There is a scene where she burns down something precious to the Rakshit character.  The way Chaithra expresses her anger, anguish and helplessness all at once, is brilliant.)  

Side A, as a film, worked better for me than did Side B.  The best kind of dramas are the ones where you get the feeling that the film just wrote itself.  The character’s actions just drive the plot with inexorable momentum.  In Manu (Rakshit) and Priya (Rukmini), we have a pair of lovers whom we root for from the get go.  Every act of betrayal by the people they trust almost hurt us on a visceral level.  We go from a light sense of unease to absolute desperation by the end, hoping for them to reunite.  Even as the conclusion of Side A left us stunned speechless, we still anticipated Side B to see what kind of redemption, if there was one, was in store for them.  Even if they did not marry each other, could they somehow find peace with their new normal, after Manu steps out of prison?

Side B is as well acted as Side A, if not better.  Chaithra Achar as Surabhi, has the best of the roles and she turns in an incredibly honest performance as someone who lets the beats of her heart drown out all the rational words that her mind is trying to speak.  To its credit, the film does full justice to the Surabhi character.  And it shows how brutally unfair Manu is to her.  Surabhi’s piercing lines, as she tries to guess Manu’s true motivations and her indignant tirade are all delivered with fiery passion.  In doing so, the director ensures that not for a moment do we even remotely excuse Manu’s behavior towards her.  

But that sense of a character’s actions feeling authentic to them, felt missing in the way Manu tries to create an impact on Priya’s life, but without being transparent about it.  As this part of the plot of Side B unfolded, I felt a bit distant.  Instead of being willingly sucked into - like I was in Side A - Manu’s chosen path to redemption and peace, I found myself observing from an arm’s length, the path he took.  I am not a fan of characters following others without their knowledge, under the pretense of doing them good.  Even the word “pretense” feels unfair because all Manu is trying to do is to somehow regain for Priya and for himself all that he lost in his years in prison.  Even aside my prejudice and bias, just given how familiar we became with Manu in Side A, the road that he takes does not seem like a completely natural extension of the character.  The invisible writing of Side A seemed missing here.  The plot points and twists now seemed a little less organic and more deliberate.    

The climax of Side B though feels just right on many levels.  The desperation, as Manu searches for Surabhi, ensures that the acts of violence do not come across as gratuitous.  The action sequence is tense because we feel like no one is invincible and the stakes are incredibly high.  For the scene to shift from raw action to tender poetry is not a transition that is easy to pull off.  But director Hemanth manages it supremely well.  And by the time the film ended, I felt nearly as drained as I was at the end of Side A. 

In Side B, I may not have felt as swept away by the wave of emotion as I did in Side A.  But as a two-film series, "Sapta Sagaradache Ello" is akin to a ship that takes you through incredibly choppy waters, creating a purposefully intense experience.  You might not always be aligned with the path that it takes.  But it is also a journey that you willingly undertake since you know that the captain and his crew know exactly how to navigate through the storms and bring you safely home.