Wednesday, January 17, 2018

What’s app, Visu Sir: An audio interview with filmmaker Visu

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article on Visu’s films.  I had written pretty much all of what I wanted to about his style of filmmaking.  But the more I thought of some of his films, the stronger my urge was to get his perspectives on certain elements of his films.  And thanks to director Suresh Krissna, I was able to get his contact information.  After a few messages, I approached him for an interview on the phone.  In response, he requested me to send questions via Whatsapp since he could answer them during his downtime.  Within just two days of my sending him my thoughts and questions, I got a series of audio files neatly organized under my questions.  First things first - Thank you so much, Visu Sir, for your thoughtful, timely, candid and lucid answers.  Here’s wishing you the best of health and a wonderful 2018!

Readers…err…listeners: Enjoy!

Note: The audio files sometimes take a minute to appear on the post (depending on your connection).  Also, if clicking on the play button doesn't launch the audio, click on the expand icon at the far right of the audio frame to open up the mp3 files in a different window.  Please drop me a note if you have any trouble playing the audios.

Playing the Protagonist vs. one of the Characters:



S. Ve. Sekhar, the humorist and the character actor:



Approaching a Theme from Different Angles:



Writing Scripts for Other Directors (Both Original Scripts and Remakes)



The Role of Music:



Today’s Scripts:



Parting thoughts from Visu:

Friday, January 12, 2018

“Imperfect” but important – Reflections on Sanjay Manjrekar’s autobiography

March 1, 1992.  Brisbane.  India versus Australia.  1992 World Cup.  Ardent Indian cricket fans from that era will never forget this game.  Due to the ill-conceived rain rule, India had three overs knocked off their chase for a reduction of only two runs from the target.  India had their back to the wall when Sanjay Manjrekar walked in at the fall of Kapil Dev’s wicket.  What followed was scarcely believable, even for his admirers, yours truly included.  Manjrekar looked like a man on a mission – he had this quiet intensity that I loved.  He toyed with the bowlers, especially big Merv Hughes, playing with a kind of controlled aggression that he displayed consistently between 1990 and 1992.  This 47 off 42 balls is arguably one of the great innings of his stop-start 74 ODI career. (He played 37 Tests.)  Neither his innings nor this match had a happy ending.  He was runout by a howitzer throw from Craig McDermott.  And India lost the game by one run. 

The context of this innings was in line with his career – he was rarely a part of a settled winning unit.  There was no doubt of his talent.  But owing to a failure to work out pragmatic, sustained solutions to his issues and an unwillingness to rise above or work around a myopic, uninspiring management, Manjrekar’s career was a case of ‘what could have been.’  But that is what makes his autobiography, quite aptly titled Imperfect, a riveting read.  It is an honest, authentic, introspective memoir of a man who was and is tough on himself.  The fringe benefit of reading this book is that it raises vital questions on the myriad types of sportsmen, and people in general, and the fears, insecurities and motivators that rarely are the same for two people.

The book is peppered with stories and anecdotes that are sometimes touching (the chapter on his father is actually quite gut-wrenching) and other times amusing – his account of Azharuddin-led team meetings will have even Azhar in splits!  But the best parts of this book are the ones shed light on his dark days as a player.  This is clearly the voice of a man that went through his share of struggles, not always emerging victorious.  I also regard this book as a cautionary tale. 

Cautionary because it is absolutely essential for everyone in any walk of life, not just cricket, to take a look in the mirror to see if they have the wherewithal to deal with their struggles, be it technical or mental, and determine if there is a need to seek external support.  I am reminded of a lovely line from the movie, Burnt – “There is strength in needing others, not weakness.”  It requires courage and a willingness to step outside one’s comfort zone to seek advice and to act upon it.  As Manjrekar himself mentions on multiple occasions, not everyone has the steely resolve, unmatchable genius or even the single-minded focus of a Sachin Tendulkar.  It is deeply saddening to read about the sorry state of affairs of Indian cricket in the early 90s - the prima donna attitude of some of the seniors, the utter lack of communicative skills of their captain or the tactless insensitivity of a coach who yelled at a spinner for having had a bad game.  All of this is to say that Manjrekar did not have the most conducive environment or those selfless mentors to help him work out his issues with technique or confidence. 

Manjrekar, with an endearing lack of self-pity, shares simple but revealing details without force-feeding them to the reader.  He is also disarmingly frank about his own mistakes, such as his arrogance following his heady days in Pakistan.  That he learned from the follies and was a more empathetic captain later is symptomatic of a man that was not inflexible.  He was just…imperfect.

Something else that leapt at me from between the lines was that Manjrekar came across as a man that did not seem to be able to relish his ‘wins’ enough.  An account of how he felt when he reached his first Test century (against West Indies in their home turf) was something that was conspicuous by its absence in the book.  Of course, the acts of omission and commission are the prerogative of the author.  But from my own life experiences, I have learned that during times of success, it is important for the mind to have enough fodder from the fruits of one’s labor for it to have the strength to deal with the tougher battles.  And from this book, I never knew if Manjrekar ever told himself enough that he had to build upon his successes, to take a quiet moment to maybe watch his own highlights to notice what he did do right.  It would not have been an exercise in vanity as much as it would have been something that fed his self-belief further and helped him exorcise any demons, be it of his tough childhood or his technique-related worries.  By the same token, he also is candid about how he could never emulate a Ravi Shastri who once decided to steadfastly cut out the cover drive to minimize his risk against Kapil Dev’s potent outswingers.  Grinding it out during tougher times should not be conflated with being so hard on yourself that you paralyze yourself and curtail your resurgence after a fall. 

Irrespective of your opinion of Manjrekar the player or commentator, this book is a compelling read.  Manjrekar appears to be in a phase of his life where he is enjoying himself in his profession (as a commentator) with a kind of relaxed, detached attachment.  This attitude has helped him tell the story of his journey where the source of happiness was a destination, a goal, not the journey itself.  By looking back at the potholes, the slips and the accidents of his journey, he has granted himself a license for a smoother ride now.  That the book makes the reader evaluate or reevaluate their own path is a testament to the power of his writing and the clarity of his thinking. 


Manjrekar walks in at the 27:18 min point:

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Afloat in New Waters

2017 has been a fantastic year.  It has also been quite mystifying.  Let’s rewind to a conversation that I had on Jan 1 with my dear friend as I was bidding goodbye to him.  I had had a memorable reunion with my group of friends.  My wife and child had been unable to join me since we had other family visiting our place.  As my friend and I hugged, he noticed that I was feeling downbeat.  It had been three years since I had met the guys and the thought of another wait was making me feel heavier than my weight suggested.  He said to me, “I know you are feeling low.  But remember that your family is waiting to receive you back home.”

In response, I smiled and said, “This may sound simplistic, even a little sappy.  But that’s a different part of the heart!”  Almost a year has passed by.  And I still think of that line that I uttered.  What I didn’t realize on that day was that this whirlwind of emotions was not a standalone entity; rather, it was an usher to a deeper whirlpool that was sucking me in.  Being a single child was something that I had dismissed as a mere fact of life.  Now it was starting to be a sentiment.  So, I gave it its rightful space in my mind, not pretending to be oblivious to its existence.  By letting it simmer for a while, I began to formulate some thoughts around it.  After all, I had to learn to let thoughts float as opposed to letting them sink me. 

The first stream of thoughts that I experienced was in a pool of wistfulness.  My friends are a wonderful set of people- warm, funny and generous.  But as distances, familial priorities, work commitments all vie for space, it is unreasonable, futile even, on my part to dwell on times when distances were manageable and the feeling of being an integral part of a friend’s life was a definite charge for me to lead my own life.  The feeling that every dear friend is just a call or a whatsapp message away is a reassuring one.  But as they say, sometimes what is near might seem quite afar.  When my 49-year-old Aunt passed away without much warning, my friends rallied around me beautifully.  It is lovely to have someone chosen by you, not related by blood, be a core part of your life.  It is yet another thing to be a part of someone else’s life.  And with their constantly evolving set of priorities and responsibilities, I see it almost as my own duty to be gracefully accepting of being more on the periphery of a loved one’s expanded circle.  But as a result, that “part of the heart” feels emptier, yet paradoxically heavier. 

The parallel torrent of emotions that floods my mind is around the passing away of my Aunt in October 2016.  A well-wisher in whom I confided recently about the spate of these new feelings asked me to think in a more focused manner about the death of my Aunt and its effects on me.  I think about my Aunt a lot but not in this context.  Following my well-wisher’s advice, I introspected a little more and realized that even though I had never quite taken my Aunt for granted, her presence in my life had been more akin to the sky than a rainbow.  It was so constant, so predictable, so unassuming that I hadn’t fully appreciated its value while it lasted.  The heavens had come crashing down last October and had pierced through yet another “part of the heart.”  But the fact that my Aunt had been a motherly figure, a sister, a friend all rolled into one meant that her absence was now going to make me swim alone in the sea of memories and the oceanic legacy that she has left behind.

Alas, there is a nuanced yet discernible difference between feeling ‘alone’ and feeling ‘lonely.’  I tell myself that to experience fleeting, disquieting thoughts might be okay as long as I learn to deal with them.  Acceptance and empathy are trustworthy lifeguards.  And above all, I tell myself that the very reason I am able to stay afloat is due to the buoyancy gifted by my loved ones. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Visu(al) Medium: Musing on Visu’s films

In a recent interaction between film critic Baradwaj Rangan and producer G Dhananjayan, the two of them discussed the dearth of true ‘directors’ in Thamizh cinema.  Directors that could take something on paper and use all the cinematic tools at their disposal to stage -- “staging” is a term that Rangan often uses in this context -- a scene in a manner that is befitting the audiovisual medium of cinema.  During the course of that conversation, Rangan mentioned that directors of the 1960s and 70s like Bhimsingh made entertaining films but that those would not really fit the definition of pure ‘cinema.’  If he had gone on talk about the 80s, I have little doubt that he would have mentioned Visu in the same breath.

The way I see it, filmmakers were mostly products of their system.  Belonging to an entertainment culture that had strong roots in theatre, it was not rare for directors and producers in the 60s through the late 70s to adapt stage plays.  Several of K Balachander’s films were adaptations of his plays – Edhir Neechal was probably the most famous instance.  But KB gradually took to the ‘visual’ component of the audio visual medium.  His landscapes too changed and he skillfully utilized the settings (sometimes in an overt way, no doubt) to help tell a story.  Two examples that spring to mind are the waterfalls in Achamillai Achamillai and the boulder in Oru Veedu Iru Vaasal.  KB also had a tremendous ear for music and was a master at situational songs.  This was another element that helped him in his quest to embrace the tools that cinema afforded him.

In the early 80s, KB took Visu under his wing and had the latter script films that he produced, like Netrikann, Mazhalai Pattalam and Thillu Mullu (a remake of Gol Maal).  At this time, directors like ‘Muktha’ Srinivasan (Shimla Special) and SP Muthuraman (Kudumbam Oru Kadhambam) directed movies that were written by Visu.  Very swiftly, Visu became an actor-writer-director with Manal Kayiru in 1982.  (The lack of real cinematic polish in a Kudumbam… when compared to a Manal Kayiru makes me think that even if Visu had continued as a writer alone, his films would have still come across as photographed plays, owing to paucity of pure ‘directors,’ the ones that Rangan alludes to.) 

Starting in 1982 up until the mid-90s, Visu evolved into a prolific filmmaker but unlike KB, he never quite let go of his theatrical staging ways.  He was extremely popular among the middle class movie watching folk in an era where TV viewing was restricted to Doordarshan!  Since the serial-watching audiences of today once went to the theatres, he had a built-in audience.  It is more accurate to state that he earned that audience.  He told their stories.  As dramatic as the movies may have been and as simplistic as some of the resolutions to the knots were, his target audiences lapped up his offerings gleefully.  He very rarely resorted to the kind of crude, contrived villainy and caricatures that was seen in the masala films of the day and even the ghastfully written TV dramas of today, to move his stories forward.  Quite a few of his films did not work for me – the characters in his lesser efforts seemed to be mere one-note mouthpieces for the themes that he wanted to flesh out.  But let me take the apogee of his career, Samsaram Adhu Minsaaram, to elaborate on what aspects of his brand of films still hold appeal to me.

Samsaram… is an honest account of the trials and tribulations of a middle class family.  Some are seemingly stock characters but notice closely and you will see that they have shades that reflect the depth of the writing.  The brother played by Chandrasekar is a case in point.  He is an obedient son, obedient to the point that he resists from talking to Lakshmi (his sister-in-law) following the showdown between his father (Visu) and brother (Raghuvaran).  He has an element of male chauvinism too.  He forces his wife (an educated woman) to tutor his brother, who is not exactly the brightest bulb in the room.  When she speaks to him openly about the lack of intimacy between the two of them, he chides her rather crudely.  But later, when she is down with chicken pox, he tends to her lovingly.  Now, one could argue that he is trying hard to balance his affections for the different members of the family.  But he is no saint.  And the way he talks to his wife (on the road, after she has walked out on him) is truly despicable.  It is only when Lakshmi knocks some sense into him does he realize the error of his ways.  The character arc is superbly done.  Even though he is not ‘allowed’ to talk to Lakshmi, he listens to her well-meaning advice.  Their interaction in the climax is a poignant little segment.  And the way Lakshmi says, “Neenga kooda enna yaemathiteenga Thambi” is deeply moving.  The Chandrasekar character fits in beautifully into the core theme of the film.  Vairamuthu’s lines illustrate this at markedly different points - the “minsaaram” that is “samsaram” can provide as much light as it can lead to acute shocks.

Another reason why I prefer Samsaram… (and Kudumbam Oru Kadhambam) over all his other films was that Visu was not the main protagonist.  By being one among several characters, I actually felt he liberated the writer in him to move the story through narrative arcs rather than preachy dialogues.  This movie is an actor’s showcase for Lakshmi and she delivers one of the great performances of her checkered career.  Known mostly for an overemphatic acting style, when the writing was in top gear (Sila NerangaLil Sila ManidhargaL, for instance), Lakshmi’s performances could be equally arresting.  In Samsaram… she plays the role at just the right pitch, elevating Visu’s writing considerably.  She is especially wonderful in the climax where she conveys the pain of being alienated for no fault of hers.  Where Visu’s films sometimes don’t work for me is when resolutions to sensitive issues are simplistic and convenient.  But here, the actions of the Lakshmi character convey myriad messy emotions without neatly wrapping up everything.  As a result, despite the theatrical manner of staging, the drama itself comes across as lifelike. 

No write-up on Visu will be complete without a mention of his dialogues.  Famous for his long-winded alliterative, repetitive style of dialogues, Visu was equally a master of the pithy line.  Sample these from Samsaram… - “Rendu vishyathula kaNakku paaka koodathu…Appa Amma-vukku podra soaru…Akka thangaiku seiyyara seeru.”  Another gem from the climax – “Kootu Kudumbam-ngaradhu oru nalla poo madhiri...adha kasakittom...apram moondhu paaka koodathu.”  When viewed today, these scenes do look and sound dated to most people.  But I find these sharp lines redolent of an era where a strong script was a sturdy pillar that held a movie aloft. (It is nice to see that in 2017, there has been an enviable mix of style and substance in movies like Maanagaram.)

Yes, Visu’s films lacked cinematic finesse.  His roots in theater were the charge (“minsaaram”) that short circuited his wholehearted adoption of the visual medium.  But it is these same roots that ensured that the best of his scripts had a spark that was uniquely his.  And for that, I feel a strong need to give him his due. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Anchors in Stormy Seas: Thoughts on piety and rational thought

It was a balmy spring morning.  So balmy that one would have excused the daffodils in case they chose to sleep in and miss their turn to bloom.  My mother was driving to the temple on the interstate at a speed that was a tad above the speed limit but not fast enough to interest the nearby cops.  Meanwhile on a perpendicular road, another driver decided that the traffic rules did not apply to her and chose to drive right past a stop sign…into my mom’s car.  My mom, the cops, the daffodils and most importantly, the airbag were all shaken out of their idyll.  I was in Pittsburgh, working on a group project with my classmates when dad called.  My reaction, once I got to know that mom had escaped with some bruises, was, “Why did she meet with an accident when she was going to, of all places, the temple?”  Dad’s reaction was just a little different – you know the minute difference between chalk and cheese?  He said, “Just be happy that she was driving to the temple.  It was God that saved her.”

A few thousand miles away, a man in his early 30s had not heard great news from his sister's doctor.  Actually, the doctor herself was not great news – she was a fraudster who sadly did not find other professions to swindle people out of their hard earned money.  So, for the next few years, they had to suffer from the effects of needless surgeries and their related side effects.  The man, a nonbeliever, spent countless hours gleaning relevant research materials to identify the best course of treatment, giving short shrift to his own career.  They then happened upon a doctor who, thanks to his skill and kind-heartedness, scripted a heartwarming end to a rather dark chapter in their life -- the sister recovered fully and the brother revitalized his career.  And what happened to the charlatan?  Nothing untoward as far as I know (but that really is beside the point).

My parents are equal opportunity believers.  Of the plethora of Hindu Gods, they have never shied away from worshipping any deity.  In essence, they have never fenced themselves within the confines of our subsect of Hinduism.  In the late 90s, my Dad experienced an inexplicable but definite affinity towards Lord Muruga.  He started worshipping Muruga with the kind of passion and vigor that seemed strong even for his standards.  One night, he started writing a supplicatory poem on Muruga.  But here is the thing.  There was nothing in the poem for him.  He did not pray for himself or ‘ask’ for anything in particular.  The verses were strongly rooted in values.  Sample the first two lines – Aganthai Azhiponey Poatri, Aganthooimai ALiponey Poatri…  It roughly translates into a plea to remove all traces of arrogance and bless people with purity of heart.  

To me, these people that I have mentioned above represent the best of either ends of the theism spectrum.  They are very clear about their anchors.  Whenever turbulence strikes their life in any way, shape or form, they know when and how to drop anchor.  Their anchors are sturdy, unwavering and help them weather many a storm.  One anchor might be carved out of rational thought, the other out of religious beliefs.  But they contribute largely to the steeliness of their owners.  I also find it enormously touching that they use the anchors to lend solid support to their close relationships.  I recently read a quote by author Anna Quindlen that “grief is a whisper in the world and a clamor within.”  I have been witness to these people utilizing what is best known to them to acknowledge and act upon their loved ones’ needs.  In essence, their authentic reactions, as different as they may be from one another, are musical notes played lovingly to gently silence the painful internal "clamor."  If in one case the instrument is passionate prayers, in another case is deep thoughtfulness.  Both have a rightful place in this world because, after all, they are utilized in service of the most noble value of all – selflessness. 


Sunday, November 19, 2017

Vulnerability, c/o The Self

“Why did they have to wait 23 years to send this?”  That was my instantaneous reaction when my grandma told me that my grandpa’s best friend’s nephew had sent her a clip from a home video that featured my grandpa, who had passed away in 1994.  We did not own a camcorder when he was alive so, in essence, it had been 23 years since I had heard his voice.  It felt surreal, to see this clip.  His square, black glasses, the neatly ironed dhoti, that thicker-than-good-filter-coffee Brahmin accent and the faster-than-Usain-Bolt manner of speaking.  It was all there.  Of course, I knew that this rush of emotion was going to be fleeting.  But as with the many wondrous surprises of life, I wanted to zone in on that.  I wanted to zoom in ever so slightly, ever so carefully into this handful of moving images and drink in that happiness that I was experiencing.  A strange feeling occurred then - I felt a little vulnerable.  Suddenly, that well-meaning but hard-nosed friend called reality woke me up and said, “Get over it.  He is gone.” 

Right, he was gone.  No one is denying that.  But at the moment, I did not want to deny myself my vulnerability.  I did not feel the need to yank myself out of the mixed feelings evoked by that video.  I once read in a Time magazine snippet that taking pictures during vacations do not really distract us from experiencing the moment; rather, they help us encapsulate the joy of being at a particular place and make us want to transport all our positive emotions into a frame.  (Of course, if the purpose of taking the snap is vanity of any kind, that is different.)  Similarly, I was recording in my mind the myriad emotions that I was going through after watching the video.  All of the emotions deserved their place. 

I felt the need to share my vulnerability with people that I picked from my near and dear.  The prompt reactions from two people in particular were wonderful to see and hear.  One said that she was happy for me that I had seen this, that it was a perfect ‘gift’ for me for having written the “In Pursuit of Meaning” write-up, which I published on the blog that day.  Another reaction was from a dear friend who said that he experienced similar emotions when someone dug up a video clip of his grandpa, who had passed away recently.  Kindred spirits and empathy – these are beautiful things.  The fact that it taken has taken me a month after watching the video to write this was because I am over that vulnerability now.  Making these feelings public does not seem to be a big deal now.  But on that day, when I was feeling a certain way, trusting a few people with my emotions and having that trust vindicated by some genuinely sweet reactions felt nice.  But there is corollary to this.  When it comes to expressing vulnerability, you have to choose, you have to guard.  Why?

The reason is simple.  It is utterly unreasonable for one to expect everyone else to be sensitive and empathetic to every little thing that crosses your mind. To counter that, one has to keep in mind Sheena Iyengar’s magnificently eloquent words, “Be choosy about choosing and you will choose well.”  By identifying a few core values or things that you are sensitive about, you free yourself to even have jokes cracked about other things.  If you communicate it clearly, most people will understand that apart from a few topics, that you are a good sport and that you are not touchy about everything under the sun.  But by the same token, if you are sensitive about something, it behooves you to guard that like a precious jewel in a locker.  By trusting the few people that I knew would react sensitively to my emotions around my grandpa’s video and by not sharing it with all and sundry at that time, I was guarding myself and my emotions.  But have I always done that?  I wish! 

My writing is something that I hold very dear to me.  I do not have illusions of being a great writer or a perfect one.  But it is something that I relish greatly.  I used to share links to my write-ups with a much wider set of people than I do now.  A few people used to take great pleasure in needling me and making fun of the fact that I felt the need to share links to my write-ups even when they were not interested in reading them.  I even tried hard to explain that certain write-ups were on topics close to me but no amount of explaining made an iota of difference.  Fair enough.  So, I stopped sending them the links.  After all, if they were interested, they would take the effort to read my blog.  Maybe the links were an annoyance so, why bother them.  As simple as differential equations!  But after I had stopped sending out the links, when in a group setting, one of these people interrupted a conversation that I was having with someone else (who likes my writing) and made an insulting remark.  It was intended to be a joke.  But as much of a sport that I can be for many things, this was not something that I wanted to let pass.  So, I politely turned and remarked that I was talking to someone that was genuinely interested, who actually wanted to talk to me.  The conversation ended there without anyone feeling hurt.

At the other end of the spectrum was a well-wisher that respected my skills but wanted to offer me some constructive criticism.  She told me that she had equivocated because she knew how passionate I was about writing.  But I told her that I was actually overjoyed to receive feedback, because she had earned my trust.  I assured her that as much as I enjoy writing, what I enjoy even more are meaningful suggestions to help me write better and thereby derive even greater pleasure out of it. 

While in the earlier instance, I was able to politely let the interrupting person know what I felt and continue to have a healthy relationship, there have been other instances where I have distanced myself from a person or a group because I either felt that I was being taken for granted or I had made the mistake of trusting someone with my vulnerabilities, naively and prematurely.  Since I have become increasingly non-confrontational by nature, I resort to just moving away.  But what I have realized over time is that vulnerabilities can be the cause for separation but they can also be, in a delightfully sweet manner, the reason for intimacy. 

It is one thing to share your vulnerability with a close one.  It is yet another, more fulfilling, aspect of relationships that you end up becoming closer to someone because you appreciated their thoughtful response to you sharing something personal.  I have fortunately been blessed with both types of relationships.  Especially the latter kind also makes people want to share their own sensitivities that are dear to them.  Of course, I am no saint and I have, on occasion, been insensitive to people during times when a little more understanding on my part would been a lot more apropos.  But I have, over time, tried to learn and love my loved ones deeply, unconditionally, non-judgmentally.  After all, the common ground that is fostered by sharing is a fertile one for the growth of a relationship since it is sowed with the seeds of trust, empathy and unconditional affection. 


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Aaha turns 20!

Thoughts and memories about Aaha, a comedy drama directed by Suresh Krissna, that was released on Oct 30, 1997.  These are not listed in any particular order.  At the end of the write-up, I have embedded the youtube video of the movie, marking the scenes that I have referenced.
  • On the eve of Diwali in 1997, I stumbled upon some pre-release promotions on TV.  KT Kunjumon’s big budget disaster Ratchagan was one among them.  Amidst these releases was a small movie with a big heart.  At least, that is what the promos, which included the 10,000-wala scene, promised.  That surely was what the movie delivered.  Aaha ensured that I was going to have a cracker of a Diwali!  I watched the movie at the Anna Theatre twice.  Once with my family and the second time with my friends.  Some memories have to be co-created.  Aaha was certainly one.  Years later, a bunch of my friends, including some of their family, took a day train to Bangalore to attend the wedding reception of one of our gang members.  En route, one of us started spouting dialogues from the movie.  My friend’s sister started recounting some of her favorite lines.  Even another friend’s Dad, who was reticent by nature, joined the fun, much to our surprise.  The conversation made the rather uncomfortable seats on the train painless.  Is this what is called a ‘feel’ good movie?! 
  • I have always reckoned that Aaha is ‘Crazy’ Mohan’s best work as a dialogue writer.  Some of his collaborations with Kamal Hassan have probably resulted in even bigger laughs.  I think I know why.  The other movies made me laugh, yes.  But Aaha is the movie that makes me smile.  It is not a nuance.  There is a world of difference.  This movie was sweet but not syrupy.  Every smile is well-earned.  Every tear is worth shedding.  And the dialogues play no small part in this respect.
  • The scene that takes the Well-earned Smile award, among many tough contenders, is the Antakshari sequence.  Each actor gets a song that is totally in line with their character and their age.  Banupriya’s graceful dance movements for “Ottagatha Kattiko,” Srividya’s “Maraindhu Irundhu Paarkum…,” the Paati’s “Delhi-ku raja” all are memorable in their own way.  There is a bit of amateurishness in the dancing which makes the sequence all the more endearing and lifelike.  Of course, the moment that takes the cake, the icing and the candles for the best ear-to-ear grin is Banupriya singing, “Azhagiya Raghuvaraney!”  His reaction is even more priceless.
    • Honorable Contender for the Smile award goes to the Gokulashtami sequence.  Several funny lines mark this scene.  But what makes this truly special is how the family members interact with one another.  They laugh at each other’s jokes (note Banupriya’s cute reaction to Rajiv Krishna’s “aruvadhavadhu kalyanam” joke) and pass on the savories casually.  The staging is as well-done as the writing, which seamlessly transitions into serious drama with the Vijaykumar-Delhi Ganesh argument. (The late Ananthu co-wrote the screenplay with Suresh Krissna.)
  • Beyond the smiles, there are, of course, some big laughs in Aaha.  Famous for his imaginative, witty puns, Mohan’s writing is in top gear here.  Be it the “pul tharai…puliyotharai” comment, the “bar attached, nee detached” remark or the hilarious “thayir vadai” joke, the laughs are fast and frenetic.  But the biggest laughs come in…of all scenes, a death scene.  The exchange that the Thatha has with Delhi Ganesh has so many laughs that the ink in Mohan’s pen probably had a tough time keeping pace with his flow of thoughts!
  • Raghuvaran turned in one of his great performances in this movie.  Mature and measured, his character is superbly etched.  He rises to the occasion.  And for a tall man, he stands even taller in the climax sequence where he and the equally marvelous Banupriya vie for acting honors.  They both deliver crisp monologues that are rendered with modulations of voice that are sublimely effective.  Notice the way Raghuvaran says, “She is no more, Pa.”  The choking of his voice is understated and works just for that reason.  Banupriya is a little more demonstrative but in keeping with her character, the way she says, “Enaku idhayame illa-nu nenachutteLe, idhu nyayama” is, in equal measure childlike and deeply affecting. 
    • It takes acting and writing of tremendous skill to make a comic sequence work after all the dramatic highs achieved in these monologues.  But that magic happens at the very end of the movie, that gets a fitting finish, courtesy of Delhi Ganesh.  His “gul gul jil jil mal mal” joke leads to a big laugh that makes you wipe your tears away.  But here’s the thing.  Both the laughs and the tears seem absolutely genuine, neither out of place despite one following another. 
  • Thanks to the stars lining up (or rather, subtitlist Rekhs lining them for me!), I managed to interview director Suresh Krissna last year.  I have written about my interview in this blog.  He probably smiled at the end of the interview at the thought that I was probably the only person to not ask him a single question about Baasha and had the bulk of the conversation focused on the making of Aaha and his friendship with the late Raghuvaran.  Click here for the interview.  Thank you, once again, SK Sir for your kindness of thought and gesture.  (The stars lined up in another way too.  I am married to 'Crazy' Mohan's niece!)
  • Aaha is probably the only Tamil movie known to me that has a cast of brahmin characters that are neither caricatures nor employed to make any statement about casteism or religious beliefs.  Even classics such as Sethu and Vedham Pudhidhu which featured brahmin characters at their core and treated them mostly with respect and dignity, did not shy away from utilizing stereotypes to suit their needs.  If the heroine in Sethu is the typical docile girl used as contrast to the rugged hero, there are several characters in Vedham Pudhidhu with exaggerated accents and narrow-minded attitudes.  Of course, a writer is not obliged to showcase the people of a particular community as angels.  But I am merely making the observation that the characters in these two well-made movies belonged to this community for very specific plot-based reasons.  But sometimes, to not touch upon something overtly is a statement in itself.  Aaha, by never quite dwelling on the fact that the characters were brahmins, actually gives a reason to cheer for this community.  They are portrayed as three-dimensional characters, with their virtues and foibles, no more, no less. 
  • The one off-key performance in Aaha was Sukanya’s.  I felt that she should have been reined in a lot more.  Because the dying character being preternaturally chirpy is a cliché.  But the actress that strikes a discordant note with her performance makes up for it with heart-rending grace notes in the hospital sequence.  Raghuvaran’s emoting too is controlled, moving and riveting.  
    • Speaking of Raghuvaran, it is a pity that he died young.  It is a testament to his acting skill that even though I didn’t know him personally, I find it hard to watch the climax now.  His character is assumed to be dead but returns miraculously.  Too sad that miracles are restricted to the screen.  (Click to read my post titled, “Remembering Raghuvaran.”)
  • One of the smaller joys of Aaha is the importance given to even the minor characters in the ensemble cast.  The Thatha, Paati and Kavithalaya Krishnan – he plays a driver, who is treated as an extended member of the family -- all have their moments.  I found it especially sweet that Krishnan’s character was a part of the Aavani Avattam rituals performed by the family.  There is no fuss made about or prominence given to his inclusion, which makes us smile at the kindhearted generosity of the family. 
  • There are two physically challenged characters in Aaha, one played by the grandpa who is hard of hearing.  (And the other is the kid sister who uses a crutch to walk.)  Even though the Thatha’s hearing is the butt of several funny jokes, there is something about these actors delivering the lines that ensure that the jokes don’t come across as mean-spirited.  In a touching moment, the grandpa is the only one in the wedding scene who notices that something has gone awry.  His lines to Rajiv Krishna are unforgettable.  And it is only fair that the movie that starts off by introducing him as the “senior citizen” of the house, ends with a funny joke focused on him!  
Happy Birthday, Aaha!  You are one of a kind!  Movies like you are hard to find!

Time points for the scenes (in the video link below):
  • A cracker of a Diwali -- 10:45 min point
  • “There must be some reason for everything!” -- 34:20
  • All-inclusive Aavani Avattam! -- 1:06:24
  • Ananthachari…err, Anthakshari -- 1:13:25 
  • Gokulashtami at Gurukripa -- 1:22:15
  • The dying patient wants to live longer -- 2:15:24
  • The Thatha's touching lines -- 2:23:18
  • The memorable monologues by Raghuvaran and Banupriya -- 2:35:52