Sunday, February 11, 2018

Pillars of Support – An essay on character actors in Thamizh Cinema

Nayagan, one of the indisputably great classics of Thamizh cinema, is best remembered as Kamal Hassan’s acting tour de force.  As they say, classics are not ‘made’; they happen.  It is nearly impossible to find something in the movie that does not work.  By the same token, there are numerous facets of the film that are a godsend for discerning film lovers to dwell on.  The sparkling supporting cast is certainly one.  Let us take the example of the veteran Delhi Ganesh. 

In Nayagan – the ultimate one-man show, you might think – Ganesh plays the role of a loyal aide of Kamal’s.  Starting at around the 40-minute point, he appears almost throughout the movie.  He is always on the sidelines but is an unobtrusive but definite presence.  A case in point is the funereal scene following NizhalgaL Ravi’s death.  As much as the actual breaking down of Kamal at the end of the scene brings a lump in our throat, the entire build-up to the moment is what makes it truly unforgettable.  

At the start of the sequence, Kamal’s Nayakar character sees Ganesh and other familiar members in his household.  As he starts seeing unusual visitors, he slowly but surely realizes that something unimaginably tragic has happened.  The first big shocking moment is when he sees a covered dead body from the balcony.  There is silence all around; nobody is expressing their grief lest they give it away to Nayakar.  His son is dead.  He knows it but is hoping against hope that something else has happened.  As Kamal nears the body of his son, Ganesh, in a quivering voice says, “Vendaam Naaykare…kozhandhaiku nerupu kaayam nerayya patruku…”  What Ganesh’s comment adds to the impact of this scene is hard to quantify but there is no denying the fact that it is one of the pillars that holds this monumental scene aloft.  I also found it extremely natural that he says “Kozhandhai-ku” instead of ‘Surya-ku’ (the name of the Ravi character).  Without much effort, it says a lot about the fact that the beloved son of the Don is dead.

Supporting actors have always had their place in Thamizh cinema.  Of course, the quality of the writing has been so wildly variable that on the one hand you might have stock, one-dimensional characters that are played by actors that are shoehorned into a stereotype.  The blame has to be laid at the feet of writers and directors more than the actors themselves.  While a Saranya, for instance, plays the same wisecracking yet affectionate mother in film after film, it is the same Saranya that turned in a National Award winning performance for a nuanced portrayal of a layered character in Thenmerku Paruvakaatru. 

In the commercial masala entertainers, it is rare to see well-written roles for character actors.  In the lesser movies, they are on hand to boost the hero, spout glorifying lines and exist to be either killed, to drive sympathy, or spout a supposedly inspiring line to motivate the hero.  But even here, it is heartening to see an actor like Dhanush give ample screen space to a talent like Samudrakani to shine in a massy movie like Velaiyilla Pattadhari-2.  While VIP-2 was not exactly a classic, it was fun to see Dhanush play with stereotypes.  Samudrakani, the actor and filmmaker, has a preachy side to him. (Some would argue that it is not really a “side!”)  While Dhanush (who also wrote the film) writes such lines, he adds a humorous twist to them.  In one of those patented father-son terrace conversations, Kani gives a short inspirational speech about an inventor who failed numerous times before he invented the light bulb.  All well and good except for the fact that he references Einstein!  At the end of the scene, Dhanush thanks him for the words of wisdom, while quipping that it was a certain Thomas Edison who invented the bulb, not Einstein!  The scene has some good lines, makes us think and also makes us smile.  It is not only Dhanush’s thoughtful writing but also Kani’s geniality that makes the scene work.  

It is in the realm of the smaller films that character artistes truly get to shine.  Writers, I think, feel liberated without the constraints of having to pander to a ‘mass’ hero.  Since the accent is on the storytelling rather than focusing on a star, writers frequently come up with some fine chracterizations.  The actors too rise to the occasion and make a mark in these ensemble dramas.  In the past decade, Pasanga (Jayaprakash), Kaaka Muttai (the entire cast really) and Maanagaram (Charle) spring to mind as movies that were lifted to great heights by some superb work by an ensemble cast.  

In a conversation with Crazy Mohan, when we were talking about Kadhalika Neramillai, he made an interesting observation.  He said that in addition to the hilarious script, what he saw as a stroke of genius was how director Sridhar and writer Chitralaya Gopu really placed the comedy in the hands of the supporting cast like Baliah and Nagesh, giving them tremendous screen time and scope, while giving the straighter, lighter romance scenes to the inexperienced actors like Ravichandran.  He observed that even in the scenes where Muthuraman (playing one of the leads) was in the guise of an old man that it was Baliah, with his sycophancy, who stole the show.  I suppose that in this instance the pillars stood as tall as minarets!  

To me, character actors across the range of films, be it big budget films or small personal dramas, should be given due prominence.  After all, true ‘heroes’ are the ones that touch the lives of people in a meaningful manner.  The lead character played by Arjun in an emotional drama like Rhythm left a lasting impression on me not only because of Arjun the actor – he turns in a remarkably restrained performance – but also because of seniors like Nagesh and Lakshmi playing lifelike characters.  Even in a big budget movie like Devar Magan with two powerhouses in Kamal and Sivaji, even smaller roles such as Kaaka Radhakrishnan’s and Vadivelu’s were memorable.  It was only because Vadivelu aced the hospital scene that we could get glimpses into the futility of the Kamal character’s efforts in reforming the villagers.  Size of the role and screen time rarely matter in these instances where the writing is top notch.

Nasser, Saranya, MS Bhaskar, Jayaprakash, AadukaLam Naren, Sampath Raj, Kishore, Anupama Kumar, Vinodhini, Ramesh Thilak – (to name a few) they are all actors capable of transforming good writing into riveting scenes.  It behooves writers and filmmakers to invest time in shaping their characters thoughtfully.  That would be the best tribute to the character actors of earlier eras like Nagesh, SV Ranga Rao, VK Ramaswamy, Major Sundarrajan, Srividya and even our beloved Raghuvaran who are no longer with us but whose powerful roles, irrespective of their length, helped them achieve immortality. 

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Confidence With No Dents

Wearing a blue striped suit with matching trousers, a lightly starched whiter-than-white shirt and a perfectly double-knotted red tie, Pat walked onto the stage.  Spring was the season and spring was in his stride as he shook hands firmly with the master of ceremonies, who unobtrusively exited the stage.  The stage was Pat's.  The spotlight was on him.  500 pairs of eyes looked at him in unison.  What shone brighter than the spotlight was his smile, as he began his speech.  It was a 7-minute speech at a Toastmasters Speaking Contest.  The topic doesn’t matter, for what stood out was the relaxed air, the calm assurance and the easy demeanor of someone who knew exactly where that line was.  That thick line that separates confidence from arrogance.  That dark line that places smug haughtiness on one side and disarming honesty on the other.  Everything from his unfussy body language, clear organization of his content and perfectly paced manner of delivering his lines was evocative of a conversation with a familiar friend.  Predictably, 500 pairs of hands clapped together as he exited the stage.  The almost musical applause was a fitting tribute to a perfectly pitched speech.

In her remarkably insightful book Quiet, Susan Cain does a tremendous job of giving due credit to people whose confidence may not be visible at first glance.  She sheds light on the steely nerves of those people that are masters of internalization.  There could be a flamboyant salesman who may give the vibe that he has the world at his feet.  But there could also be a quietly confident software engineer whose lack of demonstrativeness belies an inner foundation that’s as solid as brick.  Not that we have to choose between genuine, authentic flamboyance and unassuming assuredness.  Both have their rightful place in this world.  What we need is the perspicaciousness to distinguish between a rock-solid foundation and a faux veneer that obscures a shaky foundation. 

Amidst bombastic, rabble rousing politicians, the leaders that elevate themselves into iconic status are the ones like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. that were laser-focused on their goals, had the invaluable gifts of patience and persistence and above all, displayed honesty and earnestness.  Even on a much smaller scale, in my personal and professional lives, I have much admiration for those people whose confidence seems to emerge from within, instead of something that looks forcibly projected.  I have wondered if it is sense of purpose that separates the shallow from the deeper waters that different types of people seem to swim in.  I don’t have an answer.  But I especially respect people of a certain kind - ones who are driven by truth, a genuine interest in the growth of their fellow human beings, be it in the professional or personal setting, and an urge to learn continually, be it skills or self-management.  These people seem to possess true inner strength which, in turn, seems to metamorphose into confidence of an enduring, not to mention endearing, kind.  Whether or not they are vocally demonstrative is besides the point – after all, expressions of all forms merit existence as long as they are authentic.  In fact, the subtitle of Cain’s book is, “The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.”  So, go figure!

On the other hand, there are a few people that I have encountered at work, personal life and my speaking club that either vocally or tacitly conveyed a lack of confidence in what they are doing.  Taking public speaking as an example, it is easy to come across people that shudder at the thought of getting on a stage in front of an audience and giving a speech without stumbling.  Not everyone is Pat.  But Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither was Pat's felicity.  Having been part of my club for the past seven years, I can safely attest to the fact that the demons are within, not in the crowd in front!  Sports commentator Harsha Bhogle was at his eloquent best when he wrote, “Make perfect the process of your performance and don't allow the pressure of the results to choke your performance.”  By investing energy in the actual act of practicing, one can keep fears at a healthy distance.  At least from my own speaking experiences, I have felt the fears and apprehensions vanish…or at least wait outside the auditorium until I am done with a speech!  When you choose topics that are close to your heart, the innate passion dwarfs the pressure, at least temporarily.  And when you have enough practice by talking about things that truly matter to you, the “process of your performance” gets optimized for even professional presentations that are impersonal to an extent.

I feel fortunate to have been blessed with people in my personal and professional lives that have believed in me.  It is a wonderful feeling to be told that you matter, that your work matters, that your existence makes a difference.  Of course, this is not to suggest that honest, constructive feedback should not be given due prominence.  But to have a deep, abiding sense of purpose can drive people to achieve great heights.  I can only hope that in my own life that I can get to pass it forward to those that need the confidence…or even those that would simply appreciate the trust.  For some, their self-belief is akin to a home that is financed, designed and constructed by themselves.  Others might appreciate a brick here, a brick there, a lending hand that helps cement their structure.  Either ways, a sturdy foundation is built, one that can’t be dented by the pernicious storms of fear and self-doubt.

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.