Thursday, February 9, 2017

High-class behavior: Musing on truly ‘classy’ people

My Aunt was 49 when she passed away last October.  Memories of her pervade my mind from time to time, tightly packed and vying for space, akin to water molecules in a cube of ice.  As I begin to zone in on the specifics of some of those memories, the tightly packed moments melt into a free flowing stream of thoughts related to a particular facet of hers.  Very recently, I smiled to myself, thinking of how she always had a teenager’s gawkiness.  She could be totally clumsy with the food on her plate.  She could be standing near the threshold of our house and yet the way she hollered out, “Amma!” could wake my grandma up even if the latter was in the other corner of the house, taking a siesta.  She giggled in a way that made it impossible to distinguish between her and her 12-year old daughter.   Her gait was so rapid, so rushed that it was a wonder that she didn’t trip, fall and end up in a doctor’s office every week.  All these descriptions might evoke just an endearing, childlike person and not a classy person, necessarily.  But to me, she was truly classy, of a different kind.  And I am not even referring to her impeccable sartorial choices or her perennially perfect coiffure.  In my mind, the sheer class that she had, stemmed from something much deeper, something incredibly genuine.

In 2007, I had gotten married through the arranged marriage process. A month after my wedding was my Uncle’s birthday.  My Aunt, my Uncle and their daughter took me and my wife to Savera for dinner. In the presence of my wife, she told me, “Never, ever hesitate to say ‘sorry’ when you are wrong.  It will be important for Nandu (my wife).”  Kindly pause.  And, reread that.  As I reflect on that moment, I realize that she could have spent the better part of dinner either confabulating with my wife or just teasing me.  But she didn’t.  She felt that in the incipient stage of my marriage that I must know to acknowledge my imperfections, have the grace to apologize and learn from my mistakes.  That one line of hers has been one of the guiding principles of my marriage and I can see how “important” it has been for my wife that I acknowledge and introspect whenever I err.  Be it with her choice of words or the timing and thoughtfulness of that gesture, that discussion at Savera is one of several incidents where my Aunt came up with a concoction of something thoughtful and mature.  And to me, that was class, in the most meaningful sense of the term, a lot more meaningful than someone that only possessed an aristocratic mien and nothing deeper. 

That is not to suggest that people from the upper strata of the society that have a dignified bearing, do not have true class.  As a matter of fact, I have been witness to someone that belonged to the upper class – owing to his social and financial status – display true class.  That was my grandpa’s great friend, who was a wealthy industrialist.  My grandpa, on the other hand, lived a very comfortable lifestyle but was nowhere in the league of his friend when it came to wealth.  But it was a difference that existed just on paper, not in either of their minds, which I thought was remarkable, given the fact that their friendship lasted from their middle school years until my grandpa’s death (at the age of 61) in 1994. 

Their relationship makes me think of another trait that I have always associated with class – assuredness.  Both my grandpa and his friend felt so assured of themselves that they had neither insecurities nor the need to vulgarly display wealth.  That sense of contentment with what they had, made them relaxed.  Relaxed in a manner that would let them enjoy the sunshine of happy moments, withstand the storms of turbulent times and let their friendship offer a protective umbrella that prevented each other from getting drenched in the rains of sadness when their family members went through issues, health wise or otherwise.  It also made them thoughtful in ways that beggar belief.  After my Aunt (my grandpa’s second child, after my mother) was born, my grandpa’s friend was supposed to have given him a pep talk that with two daughters, he must start taking savings and investments seriously, and encouraged him to consider small scale industry to supplement his income.  It was advice that my grandpa took seriously and started a small factory that lasted more than 30 years, until after his death too.  Just the thoughtfulness exhibited by his friend (who was then just in his early 30s), instead of just wishing my grandparents on the arrival of a newborn and lavishing them with a gift, is something that makes me feel quite humbled.  

As I reflect on the class that my grandpa and his best mate exhibited, despite their class differences, the more I feel like I should be conscious of my words and actions.  I say this because as I progress in my career, make more money and acquire more tangible assets, it is perfectly acceptable to enjoy these material possessions for what they are.  But I should also never fail to realize that it is those intangible assets – those admirable traits demonstrated by people like my Aunt, my grandpa or his great buddy – whose value never depreciates over time.  As a lover of watches, I might occasionally allow myself the indulgence of a nice timepiece on my wrist.  It should make me feel nice, that’s all.  But the more I wear these acquisitions lightly, the lighter I can feel, hence making me more grounded, more stable.  Again, that stability will lead me to being less self-absorbed and more giving in myriad ways.  These people that I have written about, are sadly no longer with us.  But, in my personal and professional lives, I continue to see people that exhibit graciousness*, generosity and gratitude in equal measure.  To emulate them would be my best bet if my goal were to make an impact on a loved one’s life in the manner of my Aunt, at Savera.  That would be the kind of class that persists, even after someone leaves this world.  That would be the type of class that lingers, even after the watch stops ticking.

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* My first version of the write-up had the word "gracefulness" here.  After seeing Anu Warrier's comment below, I feel that "graciousness" is the more appropriate term for what I was trying to convey.  Thank you, Anu!  

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Magic of the Montage: A piece on my favorite montage song sequences in thamizh cinema

In an interview with Bosskey, legendary director Mahendran made an interesting observation.  He mentioned his ambivalence towards songs in the movies.  While, as a music lover, he could rarely resist the temptation of including Ilayaraja’s scintillating songs in his movies, the thought of picturizing them made him extremely uncomfortable.  As a filmmaker who firmly believed in realism – quite often, the stark, brutal side of realism – songs were anathema to him because their inclusion in his movies meant that he was going against the grain of what he tried to achieve with his style of storytelling.  But as he started out as a director with Mullum Malarum (1978), he arrived at a compromise that was remarkable for how stunningly different it was from the status quo of the songs of that era.  And, that was the idea of the montage sequence for songs, sans formal dance choreography.  Of course, there is a lot of visceral thrill in witnessing an intricately choreographed dance sequence.  But for the purposes of this post, I have compiled 10 of my favorite montage sequences in thamizh cinema.  (These are just listed in chronological order.)  These are just some brilliant numbers; that is a given.  Instead, I’d like to focus a little more on the actual picturization.*

“Senorita” from Johnny (1980; Director: Mahendran) - One of the most joyous sequences committed to film, every element of this song  is perfectly coordinated.  The music that syncs with the clicking of the scissors (Rajnikanth plays a barber), SPB’s irresistibly enthusiastic rendition of the line, “Poomethai poduginra vaasa pushpangaL”, Rajni’s antics at the 1:58 min point, are just some of the things that make this song a delectable concoction. 

“Anthi mazhai” from Raja Paarvai (1981; Director: Singeetham Srinivasa Rao) – This was probably the song that made people christen Kamal Haasan, kadhal mannan!  This song sequence is perfectly symptomatic of what a sweet, aesthetically shot romance Raja Paarvai is.  The part from 2:55 – 3:10 is astounding, given the limited resources that must have been available back in 1981!  And, Kamal and Madhavi holding that transparent umbrella together– who came up with that idea?  So beautiful, so tasteful that the rain gods would have felt the need to work extra hours just for that device to be opened for this couple!  Barun Mukherjee’s cinematography (especially from 1:17-1:30) is as extraordinary as Ilayaraja’s tune is mesmerizing. 

 “Poongatru” from Moondram Pirai (1982; Director: Balu Mahendra) – The apotheosis of Balu Mahendra’s illustrious career as a cinematographer and director, Moondram Pirai is a fine example of what results when the actors, director and the music director are all simpatico.  The way the sequences are filmed and edited almost give the feeling that the director and the music director conceived this audio visual treat in one session, with one providing the music and the other coming up with the corresponding visuals!  The way the train track segment (starting at the 2:29 min point) is shot is a case in point.

“Sangeetha swarangaL” from Azhagan (1991; Director: K Balachander) – Director K Balachander was a master at coming up with novel situations for the songs in his movies.  This song does a marvelous job of capturing the closeness and the sensuality of a couple that is falling in love.  Though the whole sequence just involves the two of them on the phone, the way this song is shot is exquisite.  Mammooty and Banupriya are charming in an effortless manner.  And, I loved the way the song ends with the Doordarshan news tune!  Sometimes reality shakes people up from a dream in the most mundane manner possible! 

“Nivetha” from Nee Paathi Naan Pathi (1991; Director: Vasanth) – A song with no lyrics, “Nivetha” more than amply compensated for the lack of words with pictures that spoke a thousand of them in every frame.  The visuals are pleasing and the editing, seamless, and result in an experience that is sheer poetry in motion. 

“Vetri Nichayam” from Annamalai (1992; Director: Suresh Krissna) – Rags-to-riches-in-one-song is an oft-used, sometimes abused, trope in the world of masala movies.  But “Vetri Nichayam,” owing to the fact that it was one of the first of its kind, packs quite a punch.  Through a series of crisp vignettes, the song makes a powerful impact, carrying forward the momentum from some of the dramatic sequences prior.  And, a suave, casually understated Rajni doesn’t hurt either!

“Mettu Podu” from Duet (1994; Director: K Balachander) – Another one from the rich collection of KB’s songs, “Mettu Podu” is sheer sensory magic.  My favorite part of the song is when Prabhu and his family gather in their living room to watch their own song on TV (starting at the 4:26 min point below).  Just the way the family members' reactions are showcased, goes to show that with some thoughtfulness, it is possible to paint an evocative sketch that complements the audio portions of a song.

“Pachai kiLigaL” from Indian (1996; Director: Shankar) – A director that’s known to stretch the limits of grandeur (though not always in an aesthetic manner, in my opinion), Shankar created a tremendous impact in the flashback sequence in Indian by just sticking to good storytelling.  “Pachai kiLigaL” is a fabulously shot song on a small family that live in the idyll of a village and enjoy simple pleasures.  Kasthuri is especially moving in the engagement scene (starting at the 3:32 min point).  As an aside,  I just wish that Shankar had reined his urges to indulge in unnecessary graphics  - the ‘flying’ pen is an example of the more is less in Shankar’s cinema!  The actors were doing just fine in this song until Shankar’s graphics department took over!  Nevertheless, the song is indeed special in a whole host of other ways.  

“ILangaathu veesuthey...” from Pithamagan (2003; Director: Bala) – The king of gore, violence and tragedy, director Bala, has the knack of surprising his audiences with sprinkles of sweetness, warmth and gentle humor.  He extends it to song sequences like “Maalai En Vethanai” (Sethu), “Munpaniya” (Nanda) and this one, from Pithamagan.  The impact of Ilayaraja’s glorious composition is enhanced by the visuals of Bala and his cinematographer, Balasubramaniem. 

“KangaL irandaal” from Subramaniapuram (2008; Director: M. Sasikumar) – James Vasanthan shot to fame with his mellifluous number, only to flatter to deceive, with none of his subsequent works (barring maybe the “Oru Vetkam” song from Pasanga) even in the ballpark of this stunning creation.  We get some lovely visuals that fit the tune like a glove, especially the portion where Samudrakani approaches Jai and Swathi during their surreptitious meeting at the temple (starting at 3:29 below).  The first time I watched this, my heart was in my mouth.  Kudos to Sasikumar for injecting a bit of suspense into a melody, of all things!  And, that head bob of Jai’s – please don’t start wondering how that became so popular.  It just was popular, that’s it!

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* PS: Since it is impossible for me to figure out the relative contributions of the director and the choreographer, I have given credit for the picturizations to the director with the belief that it is, after all, their vision that is being brought to life by the crew.  

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Madras movie theater experience: Fun memories of watching movies in Madras

“Wait a minute!  All this serious stuff is fine.  But you have also had some incredible fun at the movies.  Why not write about that too?”  That’s what I said to myself last week, a few days after I published my post on Iruvar.  As I gratefully accepted all the positive feedback on that write-up, I also felt the urge to revisit another set of my memory cells, related to my decade-long memories, starting from the late 80s, of Madras’ cinema theaters.  I first need to provide some context.  I lived in Madras – yes, good ol’ Madras, not the C word that it got transformed into – for 17 years from 1981, when I was welcomed into this world by the same maternity ward nurses that rejected Raja Paarvai and celebrated Murattu KaaLai!  As I took baby steps in my house, so did Kamal, in Bollywood with Ek Duje Ke Liye.  By the time I was six, two things happened –my family felt comfortable taking me to the movies that they wanted to watch.  And, alarm bells went off in Kamal’s head to wake him up from his Bombay dreams; he decided that he would make new dreams right out of Madras and started working on some path breaking movies, which my family really admired.  What this meant was that starting around the time of the release of Nayagan (Diwali, 1987), I used to tag along with my grandparents and my parents to pretty much every movie that they wanted to watch.  Mind you, this was the pre-satellite TV era.  Heck, I don’t even think DD-metro was on air back then, let alone Koffee with DD! 

My admiration for Kamal began in the post-Nayagan phase itself.  But truth to be told, I was not the Kamal Daasan that I am now!  I used to equally enjoy Rajni’s masala movies.  Maapillai at Albert Theater was quite something, especially the pre-intermission feisty exchange with Srividya; the fans screamed until the elders in the audience lost their hearing completely.  I even remember going to the now-defunct Sapphire theater to watch Mohan Lal and Mammooty movies without subtitles, without understanding Malayalam!  An hour into the Mohan Lal starrer His Highness Abdullah, my Mother exclaimed, “Bore adichu thallardhu!  Kalambalaam!”  (“I am bored stiff.  Let’s leave!”)  My grandpa was enjoying the movie and didn’t want to leave.  And, I don’t know if I enjoyed the movie or if it felt nice to ‘support’ my grandpa but I said, firmly, “Naanum varra maaten!” (“I am not coming either!”)  And, I very proudly stayed with my grandpa throughout the movie, savoring the corn puffs purchased during the intermission as much as what ensued on screen!  My mother and grandma,  meanwhile, left the theater in an auto during the intermission!  As my age approached double digits, I have a feeling that I understood movies a little better.  I remember being impressed with serious fare like Thalapathi (Diwali, ’91) and Marupadiyum (Pongal, ’93).  But it was only years later that I took movie-watching as seriously as I do now.  Save the occasional Balu Mahendra or the KB movie, it was still the mainstream entertainer that I looked forward to, in those days.  Speaking of Thalapathi, I have fond memories of my Aunt (who passed away in October) and Uncle  who would take me to preview screenings of GV and Mani Ratnam productions.  My Uncle is a chartered accountant who partnered with the late GS (GV and Ratnam's brother) and so, I would tag along with them to not only catch the movies but also glimpses of the stars.  I still remember Suriya, during the premiere of Nerukku Ner, as a gawky youngster who looked as star struck as I was!  Well, that was 20 years ago!  

Devi Theater / Cineplex (Image Courtesy of IndiaCatalog.com)
My mid-teens were when I started watching movies with friends.  Sathyam and Devi theaters were our frequent haunts, followed by Woodlands and less frequently, Shanthi or Albert.  Given how passionate we could get about our favorite actors and actresses (especially the latter!), a heated argument was always lurking in the corner.  We would needle one another, argue vehemently as though our lives depended on it and would stop only when another friend would step in to gently remind us about dinner plans!  The friends in our group had wildly varied tastes – some of us were huge fans of Aishwarya Rai, others hated her, some of us liked to watch the occasional artsy movie, others preferred commercial entertainers – and we used to exhibit very little respect for each other’s tastes!  Years later, when my erudite Uncle taught me the term, ‘De gustibus non est disputandum’ I told him that I wished he had shared that with me when I was in my teens!  In the 90s, Praarthana was an open-air theater that opened in the outskirts of the city.  Once the novelty wore off, it was not a favorite of mine because I was invariably disappointed with the acoustics.  But still, watching Vaali (during a trip to India, in the summer of ’99) along with friends was a memorable experience.  Not just for the movie – which was fantastic – but one of my friends started bashing Simran as a hopeless actress, much to the chagrin of others!

An annoyance or pleasure, depending on your tolerance level and interest in that particular movie, was to watch movies amid all the sarcastic remarks of those smart alecks in the crowd.  While I admit to being occasionally peeved with those comments (in a movie like Kuruthi Punal, which had me riveted), I have also experienced guilty pleasure thanks to the sheer audacity and the wit of those comments.  In the dramatic climax of Alai Payuthey, as Madhavan pleads to an unconscious Shalini to wake up, a restless friend of mine hooted, “Yendhru Shalini Yendhru!”  Years later, when I was watching Chandramukhi in a packed theater in Southern California, there was a scene where Prabhu says, “Saravanan, ungaluku e-mail la message vandhuruku.”  To this, an audience member reacted – rather loudly, I might add – “Pinne, e-mail la message varaama masaal-vadai ya varum?!”  (Now, how do I translate that to English without losing the magnitude of the irreverence?  I’m not even trying!)  It was in Southern California but I felt transported to Madras in a matter of seconds!  By the same token, it is sheer magic to watch a movie that’s working for an audience, in a theater in Madras.  Chennai-600028 (part 1) was one of the first movies that I watched with my wife.  What added to the fun element was that we also had one of my best friends for company.  While laughing along with the audience at Shiva’s perfectly timed one-liners was fun, what was especially memorable was the theater erupting hysterically at the start of the “Saroja Saaman Nikkalo” song. 

Video capturing fans’ reactions during the intermission scene of Baasha:


As I revisit these memories in my mind, I realize what a fun, communal experience movie-watching in a theater in Madras has been.  Things have changed over the years with the advent of upscale malls, outrageous parking fares, perfectly upholstered seating, snazzy lighting, western food, online booking, etc.  That’s all well and good.  But my memories are of a different type of city that seemed to possess a different ethos.  The evolution of the theaters, the audiences that frequent them, the amount of money spent there, all form a microcosm of the city's evolution.  It doesn’t matter if the changes have been for better or for worse, overall; they are what they are.  I am just thankful that the city’s theaters afforded me the luxury of pleasant memories.  These scenes from my childhood and youth, be it with my family or friends, seem to play quite vividly on my mind’s screen even now, as nicely as the movies played out on the silver screen back then!  And, that’s the end!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

20 years of Iruvar: My journey with the movie

Adhigaaram…Aatchi…Padhavi-ngardhu oru Poruppu; Aayutham Illa,” says one youngster, his eyes filled with hope, his heart brimming with idealism.  His friend replies, “Varumai Ozhiyanum…Illaamai Ozhiyanum.”  A couple of decades later, the two of them head opposing political parties, with one party worker claiming that the level of corruption in one party is 10 times worse than that of the other.  A few years later, one of the two friends, in the last stages of his life, feels the need to sit next to the other at a wedding.  Seated next to each other, they don’t exchange words.  The outward silence is probably the result of a thousand voices in both their heads, as they encapsulate the five decades of their friendship into five minutes.  A friendship that, over time, lost its innocence as a result of the trappings of realpolitik, jealousy and insecurity.  In those few minutes, the friends that had lost sight of their wide eyed dreams, slip into a joint reverie.  The next day, one of them passes away peacefully in his sleep.  The other delivers a stirring soliloquy.  End of movie.

Seen one way, Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar is the tale of a friendship that never lost its ‘core’ despite potent forces – some of them circumstantial, others character foibles - chipping away at every side of it.  In the world of thamizh cinema, where characters and relationships are invariably painted in terms of black and white, Ratnam weaves a magnificent tapestry, so vast in its expanse, yet so nuanced in its shades, and knits it with such loving attention to detail that it makes for a new, enriching experience for a viewer every time he or she sees it.  


As the saying goes, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  As the two friends – Mohan Lal and Prakash Raj, giving the performances of their illustrious careers – gain celebrity status and political mileage, it is touching to see them almost struggle to retain the essence of their being from their younger days.  This is especially true in the case of the Mohan Lal character.  He rose to fame and power from humble beginnings.  So, he is especially sensitive about hunger and people (irrespective of social status) being well-fed.  In a scene where Revathy (playing Prakash Raj’s first wife) introduces her shy family members as fans of his, he promptly asks, “Neenga elaam saaptaacha?”  Years later, when he (now, the Chief Minister) orders for his friend to be arrested, he first says to the police officer that it’s not really a “victory” since his old friend is now in jail.  And, he adds, “Saaptacha?”  This moment is acted and directed in a completely understated manner, which is exactly why it resonated so profoundly. 


With Iruvar, the thing that I have noticed is that as time passes by, the movie ‘speaks’ to me differently.  As I look at my own relationships with my loved ones over time, I see that familial priorities, longstanding friendships, professional ambitions, materialistic desires, a quest for inner peace, all vie for space in my mind and heart.  Cutting through everything, I sometimes pause to ask myself whether I still retain that ‘core’ of my being - that I mentioned earlier in the context of the leads of Iruvar - while growing up and trying to be, not act, mature.  It is an important question, at least for me.  And, it’s a testament to the invisibility (a term that I read in a write-up by Baradwaj Rangan) of Ratnam’s filmmaking that the movie has never appeared to shove anything down my throat; instead, it allows me to luxuriate in my own thoughts and questions that result from the movie-watching experience.  

For all its audiovisual splendor, be it AR Rahman’s mesmerizing music (this is one of Rahman's best background scores too), the glorious cinematography by Santhosh Sivan or the marvelous artwork by Sameer Chanda, Iruvar has very few moments where these aspects call attention to themselves.  (An exception in point is the “Unnodu Naanirundha” sequence.)  Instead, the movie mostly invites us to watch the lives of these characters unfold in ways that they themselves could have scarcely imagined.  This approach is a reason why Ratnam comes across as an extremely mature filmmaker here, one who is in complete sync with his collaborators, working to ensure that every element contributes strongly to the cinema verite feel.  This approach was, in fact, one of the issues that I used to have with Iruvar.  Earlier, I used to feel that, for the first time in his career, Ratnam’s approach to a film and its characters came across as a little - for the lack of a better word - cold.  Certain movies move me, certain movies make me laugh but I guess with Iruvar, over time, the  movie has made me do two things – one was to reconcile to the fact that imperfections in the lead characters will always make them less endearing to audiences.  The other was to have the willingness to move away from the prism of the navarasas and the evocation of pronounced emotion, to evaluate the worthiness of a movie.  

Pronounced emotions were probably on the diametrically opposite end of the acting spectrum as Mohan Lal and Prakash Raj were, in this movie.  If not for anything else, just to watch these two performers interact with one another in their scenes together, is one of the joys to be had in Iruvar.  A case in point - there are two similar, yet contrasting scenes in the first and second halves of the movie.  In both scenes, Prakash Raj is in the middle of a speech when adoring crowds gravitate towards the Mohan Lal character (the camerawork is stupendous; the camera literally sways in the direction of the Mohan Lal character).  In the first scene, Prakash Raj affectionately invites him on stage.  But in the second scene, which happens years later, Lal enters the arena late on purpose to test the magnitude of his following.  In this scene, Prakash Raj has to conceal his anger and instead, sport a faint smile in front of the huge crowds!  Just the way in which the duo play these two scenes is a case study in understatement of performances.  Several other members of the cast turn in solid performances – most notably Aishwarya Rai, playing two strong, contrasting characters equally well; Tabu, acing the short but strong role of the second wife of the Prakash Raj character; Nasser, playing the mentor to the two leads.   But to me, Iruvar was, is and will always remain the story of the two friends. 

As a huge admirer of Ratnam’s work, I sometimes experience a sense of wistfulness when I go back in my mind to the January of 1997 when Iruvar opened to a disastrous commercial response.  Of course, Ratnam moved on to explore other genres and constantly reinvent himself with various degrees of success.  But I do genuinely feel sad that, save a richly deserved National Award for Prakash Raj, the movie garnered true critical acclaim only over the years, to become a sort of cult favorite among critics and cineastes.  Beyond a point, it ceases to matter to me.  Because, every genuine movie lover makes a movie his own, irrespective of what others say or feel.  To me, Iruvar is a movie that I will continue to cherish, for the simple reason that the movie – as immutable as the outputs of this medium are – has metamorphosed over time to mean something different, something deeper.  That, I suppose, is sometimes more than enough!  Thank you, Team Iruvar.


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The following is a cartoon sketched by Ravishanker (aka Zola) - I think it's brilliantly done!  Thank you, Ravishanker!


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I don’t think this was the official trailer of the movie as the title of the video suggests.  But the video is cut very well indeed:

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Handle with Care: Thoughts on managing talent and handling success

For all its faults, especially around the issue of authenticity, Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” is a riveting read.  The book, which I read recently, transports the reader to the Hollywood of the 1970s where brilliant, sparkling talents such as Francis Ford Coppola (director of The Godfather, among other classics) shone like a star, only for the world, and probably themselves, to realize that they were shooting stars who were meant to light up the silver screen all too ephemerally.  These creators had no idea how to handle the money but more importantly, did not know how to deal with their success, their newfound creative freedom or the constant array of sycophants that surrounded them.  But given that many of us might not have the spotlight on us with the amount of lumen that showbiz afforded (or, cursed?) these people, let us leave these easy riders and raging bulls in their place.  Let’s instead shift our attention to average people – talents no doubt, but someone that you might see on a bus, not on a billboard – and everyday issues relating to talent, success and failure. 

As I have lived, studied and worked in a variety of settings, I have had the fortune of seeing people in various walks of life that are talented in myriad ways.  I have come to realize that the people that I admire the most are the ones that don’t take their talent for granted.  They are the ones that realize that circumstances might not always work in their favor, people might not always be fair, and others’ prejudices might stand in their way.  But they know that instead of letting their wounds fester, they sometimes have to bide their time and continue to hone their talents.  They recognize the perils of superficiality and empty posturing.  They seem to be acutely aware of a talent that they possess, coupled with the realization that the value of a gift is maximized not only by fleeting zings of inspiration but also by old fashioned grunt work.  I have seen this quality in a star cricketer like Rahul Dravid.  But I have also seen this trait in even my Toastmasters speaking club, where certain fellow speakers practice diligently, realizing that not every speech might become a Gettysburg address.  But they wisely realize that the constancy of practice can balance the variability associated with luck, circumstances and other extraneous factors.  These people – stars in their own right - engage in an activity for the sheer pleasure of engagement and self-satisfaction, with awards and rewards being happy by-products, a sort of a fringe benefit, not the real reason to engage in an area where they exhibit talent. 

Another element of managing one’s talent that I reckon is sometimes given short shrift is taking in praise, criticism and ridicule all with equanimity.  Randy Pausch famously remarked, “Your critics are the ones telling you they still love you and care.”  It is a much more layered statement than an initial impression might suggest.  That’s because critics come in all shapes and forms – some are well-meaning and have a way with words; others are genuine people that might lack tact; some resentful folks know where it hurts you most and jab you there; others are people whose approval you seek, that give you apathy instead; and, of course, there are those social climbers that proffer empty praise, expecting to piggyback on your success.  That was not even an exhaustive list, by the way!  As one’s talent flourishes, it is vitally important to find out those ‘true’ people whose feedback you benefit the most from.  If one can be open, egoless (or at least, with minimal ego) and can listen to well-meaning advice from a peer or a mentor, then they keep maximizing their chances to evolve, to adapt and to learn from mistakes.
                                                                                            
The reason why Lakshmy Ramakrishnan’s Ammani left such a lasting impression on me was its emphasis on looking inward for peace and joy.  The exquisite “Mazhai Ingillaye” song underscores this.  The first line goes, “Mazhai Ingillaye…Veyyilum Illaye…Vanavil Vandhadhey…”  (“There is no rain, no sunshine, yet I see a rainbow”)  Weeks after I watched this movie, this theme got stuck in my mind.  That has partially to do with how I regard the thoughts and emotions that come with success that was spawned by the exhibition of a particular talent.  The movie made me reflect on how external validation of what we do might feel nice, but in order to steadily, stably and fully realize our talents, it is vitally important that we travel inward.  That we look for that drive where we are able to cruise along, assured but not overconfident in our abilities, applying the brakes when necessary, to scan, to reflect and cut out all the external noise.  This way, we blunt the ability of an external factor to cause a dent on our confidence.  And, this would, in turn, mean that we can travel with our talents for as long as the fuel of our desires allows us.

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Monday, December 19, 2016

Talent hidden in plain sight - Thoughts on actor Prabhu

Commercial success can be a double edged sword, as far as thamizh cinema is concerned.  On the one hand, it can give the people associated with that success tremendous clout and can act as insurance to guard them during any subsequent misfires.   But the flip side is that there is invariably pressure to make films in a similar milieu, with similar characters.  It is very rare to find a Mani Ratnam who had the guts and confidence to follow up a heavy duty Nayagan with a feather light Agni Nakshathram.  In the case of Prabhu, P. Vasu’s Chinna Thambi was probably the best thing that happened to him…and the worst.  While it gave him tremendous boost as a saleable hero (he had been succeeding primarily in dual-hero films till then), what happened as a result is that he acted in scores of films set in the rural milieu.  It was not a bad thing per se because he looked the part and acted well in most of his movies, some good, others not so good.  But the success of Chinna Thambi meant that his urbanity was rarely seen on screen. And, in 2005, Chandramukhi happened.  Though a roaring success for Prabhu’s production company, the “Ena Koduma Saravanan” line that he uttered in dramatic fashion found its way into the annals of infamous thamizh cinema lines, along with its numerous impressions that followed.  But as an avid movie lover that watched his rise in the late 80s to the mid-90s, I would rather not have him merely associated with that line, hence this piece.

Mani Ratnam was probably the first director to showcase Prabhu’s sense of style.  An aesthete par excellence, Ratnam gave Prabhu a wonderful role in Agni Nakshathram.  As the older son of a bigamist, with a temper that could leave yoga teachers scratching their heads, Prabhu was excellent in the role of Gautham…sorry, Gautham Vishwanath! Long before Kamal Haasan in Kuruthi Punal, it was Prabhu in Agni… who made Aviator sunglasses fashionable!  Prabhu exuded style and attitude in the amazingly shot confrontation scenes (see first video below) with Karthik.  But, I liked him equally in the sequence where he plays a protective older brother to his step-sister.  Especially lovely is the understated manner in which he reacts to Tara calling him, “Anna.” 



Prabhu collaborated with Ratnam in two more movies – Anjali and Raavanan – playing character roles.  While I am not a huge fan of the modern-day Ramayana adaptation, I enjoyed Prabhu’s understated performance in Anjali.  Again, the role of an ex-convict which could have been overwrought and overplayed, was etched beautifully by Ratnam and played well by Prabhu.  (I am not embedding any videos since Anjali is a heartbreaking movie that I don’t want to revisit.)

As I had mentioned in last week’s post, Prabhu was also very good in Kaliyugam, directed by the late K Subaash, who had assisted Ratnam before making his debut as a director in this movie.  Prabhu played an upright police officer whose family life is ruined by the villains.  Not exactly a novel theme but Subaash sure did inherit at least some of his mentor’s sense of style and this resulted in a slick, no-nonsense thriller.  The scene where Prabhu prepares upma for his son was a funny one where his comic sense is given good fodder.  Subaash also made the part-comedy, part-thriller Uthama Purushan with Prabhu.  This was a role to which Prabhu brought a mix of sophistication, underplay and gentle humor.  Watch the climax (starting at the 2 hr 10 min point) where he first earnestly apologizes to Revathi and then flirts harmlessly with Radhika and you’ll know what I am talking about!


Two other aspects of Prabhu’s performances that deserve mention are his comic timing and dance skills.  Blessed with the gift of comic timing, he could really supplement good written material with myriad expressions and great dialogue delivery.  A comic performance in the later years of his career that I loved was his turn as a henpecked husband in Charlie Chaplin.  The scene (link below) where he shifts the blame, after getting caught red-handed by his wife, is a hoot.  His genial onscreen persona meant that he invariably shared great chemistry with his co-actors be it Sathyaraj (Manivannan’s Chinna Thambi Periya Thambi) or Coundamani (Thedinen Vandhadhu being my favorite).  He was also a scene stealer in Sirai Chaalai, where he shared screen space with Mohan Lal.  A grim drama for the most part, the film received tremendous impetus thanks to Prabhu's sharp, witty one liners.  The best part of his performance was that the humor didn't stick out like a sore thumb.  (He was also excellent in some of the serious scenes - for instance, the one where he apologizes to Mohan Lal for being responsible for the punishment that the latter received at the hands of the inhumane jailer.)

Start watching at the 1 hr 8 min 42 sec point:

When it came to dancing, Prabhu – despite his girth – could execute his steps very gracefully.   One of my favorite memories of the late 80s is the “Vaanam Enna” song from Vetri Vizha, where he matched Kamal Haasan’s steps effortlessly.  He also inherited his father’s illustrious genes for ‘performing’ in a song.  Similar to how Sivaji Ganesan would come out with wonderful expressions to match TMS’ singing, Prabhu infused a lot of life into his songs by the way he expressed himself.  “Thuliyile” from Chinna Thambi was one.  But one of his splendid performances in a song was in the “En Kadhale” song from Duet.  His expressions in this song (especially when he plays Anjali Anjali on the sax, at the 3:10 min point in the video below) are marvelous. 


In recent years, as a character actor, he has not gotten too many opportunities to display his considerable talent.  Nevertheless, in well-written (even if relatively brief) roles such as 3 (I loved the scene where he disbelievingly asks Dhanush, “Mokkai-ya?!”) and Something Something…, he has acquitted himself admirably.  But really, as an actor, he deserves to be known for more than just the nincompoop of his largest hit or the line that he uttered in Rajni’s 2005 blockbuster.  If that is all that we associate him with, therein would lie the true kodumai

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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Dishyum, dishyum! -- A piece on some of my favorite stunt sequences in thamizh cinema

The recent passing away of director K Subaash (Chathriyan, Ezhaiyin Siripil, Sabash and others) made me go on a youtube binge of scenes from some of his films.  As I was watching clips from a few of his films – most notably, Kaliyugam, which led to my writing this piece – I realized that I was not fast-forwarding some of the action sequences.  It dawned on me that there were two reasons for this – one was that the action sequences looked surprisingly slick for their time and had aged a lot better than I thought they would.  And secondly, and this was important to me, the stunts seemed real.  None of the unnecessarily rope-induced acts of gravity defiance.  None of those computer effects that sometimes make the stunts look more like video game effects these days.  They were just supremely well-choreographed and you got a sense of space, movement and more importantly, emotion.  I say emotion because my mind went back to what Mani Ratnam once said about not shooting his song sequences outside India (in response to a question from Baradwaj Rangan).  He talked about how songs, to start with, stand outside the story to an extent.  To further transport – literally, I suppose! – the characters to alien lands would mean that the audience was being pulled further away from the milieu of the story.  One could apply Ratnam’s logic to stunt sequences too – they are an accepted part of the grammar of Indian cinema.  Grammar, by its nature, has boundaries.  And, to the extent to which the boundaries are respected even as directors and stunt choreographers utilize modern technologies, the more arresting the stunts will be.  So, without further ado, let me list a few action sequences from thamizh movies that I have really enjoyed over the years. 

The underground sequence in Kaliyugam:
As mentioned above, one of the sequences that I had remembered from the Prabhu-Raghuvaran starrer Kaliyugam, more than two decades after I had seen it, was the stunt sequence in the underground tunnel, choreographed by the late Vikram Dharma.  The lens work by YN Murali is quite stunning here, especially the moments where the theepandham is the sole source of light.  Prabhu, for all his girth, is surprisingly quick with his movements and matches the stuntman (Ponnambalam?) for skill and agility. 

Watch from the 1 hr 10 min point:

The Rajnikanth introduction scene in Thalapathi:
At the time of its release, Thalapathi was accused of featuring gratuitous violence.  While that point could certainly be debated, what, to me, is hard to debate is the actual quality of the action scenes and their value as a storytelling tool.  Rajnikanth’s introduction in this fight sequence in the rain was raw and brutal.  The fact that the murder of the henchman comes back to haunt him later is a reason why this setup, where his rage is unleashed, is so important. 

Watch from the 1:58 min point:

The climactic fight sequence of Thevar Magan:
Kamal Haasan and Mani Ratnam were probably the two people most responsible (or guilty, depending on how you look at it) for bringing bloody, realistic violence to tamil cinema with their Nayagan.  Instead of choosing something from Nayagan, I wanted to choose this scene from Thevar Magan because I truly believe that Nayagan just marked the start of a period where Kamal went from strength to strength, exploring frontier after unexplored frontier in various facets of cinema.  When it comes to action sequences, Kamal has been – and, not entirely unjustifiably – accused of just coming across as masochistic and bloody for the sake of it.  But if you observe keenly, a lot of his stunt sequences do come with a sense of purpose.  And, no better example of that than the climax of Thevar Magan.  Just the sheer dynamics of it are awe-inspiring – the protagonist that just doesn’t want to fight versus a villain whose bloodlust has consumed him.  This is brought out in gripping fashion by the action choreographer (Vikram Dharma, again) and the cinematographer (PC Sreeram).

Watch from the 2:30 min point:

The opening sequence of Gentleman:
The year 1993 witnessed two of the most stunning action spectacles to grace thamizh cinema.  One was Thiruda Thiruda and the other was Gentleman.  Both these films featured brilliantly shot sequences on a train.  But I picked the sequence from Gentleman because the build-up to it (with the jeep chase) features some intelligent maneuvers and some scintillating background music by ARR - the score when Arjun takes off his beard is fantastic.  Though this scene does have some gravity-defying moments like Arjun’s jeep flying over the train (yes, you read that right!), it is still a fine exhibition of perfect masala movie action that requires just a little bit – not dollops – of suspension of disbelief.  What makes it even more impressive is that this grand sequence is what opens the movie.  What a start for Shankar, the director, who made his debut with this movie.  Wish he had retained his sensible instincts (with respect to action) from this movie and had respected the laws of gravity a little more in his latter movies!  (Remember the ridiculous flying cars in the Prarthana theatre sequence in Sivaji?!)

Watch from the 5:40 min point:

The pre-intermission sequence of Baasha:
Rajnikanth once joked in an interview that he had a tough time understanding Mani Ratnam (while making Thalapathi) since the latter wanted him to showcase certain emotions even during the fight sequences.  The intermission sequence of Baasha shows that whatever lessons Rajni may have learned from Ratnam certainly stuck!  Because he is at the peak of his powers not only as a star but also as a forceful actor, bringing out the hitherto unseen (to his family and to us in the audience) side of the don.  Simple lines like “Ulley Po” have become the stuff of legends!  If you notice, the actual stunts themselves aren’t exactly novel but the sound design (my favorite being the train sounds that accompany Yuvarani’s stunned expression) and the cinematography (by the late PS Prakash) add to the amazing visceral impact. 

Watch from the 1:40 min point:

The martial arts sequence in Anniyan:
I reckon that to fans of Shankar’s early work, Anniyan featured the best of him as well as the worst.  While the crux of the story held intrigue and his usual commercial elements – especially the rollicking comedy by Vivek – were intact, one could argue that it was with this movie that Shankar started to take steps and then eventually, leaps out of the bounds of realism and even basic cinematic logic and started relying increasingly on visual splendor.  While Anniyan contained some outlandish ideas (especially the huge conference that Anniyan assembles), one sequence stood out for me – the stunt sequence at the martial arts facility.  Sure, he did include some over-the-top Matrix style effects but the hand-to-hand combat is stunning and even the time-freeze cinematography is used imaginatively without being overdone.  My favorite moment was where the camera freezes mid-air and circles around Vikram and Sadha – not exactly the kind of realism that I crave but then again, with a Shankar film, I was thankful that with this sequence Shankar tried at least a little to rein in the urge to behave like a computer geek that had taken over Lucasfilm! 

This video contains the entire sequence but my favorite part is the mano a mano duel at the 4:40 min point: 

I sincerely hope that as filmmakers try to expand their vistas and break global boundaries (like "Kaaka Muttai" and "Visaranai" did recently) that action sequences are placed strategically within the framework of the movie and play out at a pitch that is not incongruous with the rest of the movie.  Why not have special effects in service of the stunts that, in turn, move the story forward?  The combination of realism and emotion-driven stunts would indeed be the most potent one-two punch that discerning movie goers would crave!

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