Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A prayer for Stacey

The message on the onesie read, “Fabulous, just like Mommy.”  There was one to make the Dad happy too - “Handsome like Daddy.”  Next to the onesies was a humidifier shaped like a penguin.  Beside that was a gray swaddle cloth.  A changing pad at the edge of the table was wrapped and the card on top read, “Poopsie!”  And there was, of course, the “Goodnight Moon” book.  These were items placed on the table in a conference room at Stacey’s workplace.  Several blue colored balloons floated around.  On the table was a red velvet cake with a message that read, “Congrats Mary!”  Sporting a light-pink shirt, gray suit and matching pants, Stacey was placing candles on the cake.  She was a 48-year old marketing manager who had a team of five.  As one of her team members walked in with homemade cupcakes, Stacey looked up and smiled.  A friend of mine once mentioned that when one smiles genuinely, their eyes smile too.  He even mentioned the name of the smile – the Duchenne smile.  That is difficult to pronounce – I’d rather call it the Stacey smile.

The rest of Stacey’s team had been tight-lipped about the baby shower.  As a result, Mary was genuinely surprised when she walked into the room to the cries of “surprise!”  With an impish smile, Stacey said, “Mary, now you know why the meeting invitation said ‘must attend’ in the subject!” 

As people settled down to enjoy the refreshments, one of the newer members of her team asked, “Stacey, do you have kids?”

With a faint smile – no, it did not reach her deep hazel eyes – she replied, “No, I don’t.”  She quickly added, “Try the cupcakes.  They are fabulous!” 

As people were getting ready to leave, she said to Mary, “Ping me when you are ready to leave.  We will help load everything into your car.  Why don’t you plan to work from home tomorrow?  We can move our one-on-one to Monday.”

Mary gently hugged her and said, “This was so sweet of you.  I really appreciate it!”

Later that evening, as soon as Stacey got into her car, she took her phone out of her handbag to take it off vibrate mode.  She spent a couple of extra seconds looking at her husband Ron’s photograph.  Ron had been traveling for work.

She texted him: “Hey Ron, I miss you.  Is there a chance that you can come back a little earlier than planned?”

Within a few seconds came a response: “Hi honey, you ok?”

“Oh yes, I am totally fine :)  I just felt like talking to you.  By the way, Mary’s baby shower went off really well.  The kid looked so beautiful today.  So glad that we didn’t have anyone squeal!  Mary was genuinely surprised, I thought!”

“Cool!  Let me see if I can get on an earlier flight.  Ciao!”

Ron was able to advance his return journey and instead of arriving the next day, he returned home late night.  Stacey was asleep on the couch, with her reading glasses still on, and her book on her lap.  He took her glasses off gingerly, kissed her on her forehead and whispered, “Hi sweetie!”

Resting her head on his lap, she asked, “Hey…did you have dinner?”

“I did.  But the steak was as underprepared as my vendor’s presentation!”

She grinned and said, “I am too lazy to go upstairs.  Why don’t we just doze off here?”

He patted her on her cheek and responded, “Sure, let me go upstairs and get some pillows and a blanket.”

A little later, he walked over to their yoga room and squatted on his mat with his eyes closed.  He felt that his short internal monologues which could sometimes be a quiet prayer, helped him unwind before retiring for the night.  It was a routine that he had started around ten years ago following a difficult phase for him and Stacey, one during which visits to gynecologists and fertility clinics were frequent. 

As Ron eased into his posture, he felt blank at first.  And then thoughts around something specific started to traipse across his mind.  What he prayed for that night was...well, that’s between him and Stacey.

Note: Names have been changed for privacy reasons.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

"Dr. Jamison, I am scared!"

“Steve, I am seriously addicted to coke!” 

These were words that I had uttered to my good friend Steven Stewart during the first month of my undergrad at The University of Memphis.  I had lived in India till I completed my high school.  I then migrated to the US with my parents in 1998.  Chennai and Memphis – just about the only similarity I could find between my hometown and my new town was that they both belonged to the southern region of their respective countries!  Pescatarians will be up in arms if I claim to have felt like a fish out of water.  And they would be right – it surely felt worse! 

Soon after landing in Memphis, I was to figure out that Southern accents don’t sound the same in India and the United States!  But it was to get much better.  Plus, living under the protective roof that my parents blessed me with, it did not feel right to complain.  So there I was, taking tentative steps into the beautiful, lush green campus.  I quickly made some friends, one of whom was Steve. 

A few weeks into the semester, Steve and I were walking to the library to work on a homework assignment.  It was a rather muggy afternoon.  I was feeling quite parched.  And as I approached the vending machine outside the library, I made the proclamation rather loudly!  Steve’s face was as frozen as the carrot on a snowman’s nose.  It took him a few interminable seconds to realize that I was referring to diet coke, my soft drink of choice!  As he saw the stunned look on other students’ faces, he helpfully pointed out that ‘coke’ was slang for cocaine and that it was best not to use the word “addicted” alongside!  As one’s face was being thawed, the other’s face was getting frostbite!  My embarrassment was so acute that I was almost in tears and I excused myself!  I had to see Dr. Jamison right then!  Dr. James Jamison – he was my Math professor.  He was to be a lot more to me in the years to come. 

I took Dr. Jamison’s Calculus class in my first semester.  In one of the happiest accidents of my life, I was supposed to be in another section but I was so green that I couldn’t even figure out the error until I received a letter late in the semester stating that I had not attended class all semester.  Of course, I hadn’t…in the section that I was supposed to sit in!  I was in Dr. Jamison’s class all along.  A professor in his 50s (at that time), he at first seemed to be a little distant, but unmindful of that, I kept asking questions in the middle of his lectures with a standard opening line, “I have a doubt.”  It was standard practice in schools in India to say “I have a doubt” when one has a question for a teacher.  But Dr. Jamison had no clue what I was saying.  I am sure my thick Indian accent wouldn’t have helped my cause!  After a couple of weeks, during his office hours, he gently asked me why I used the word “doubt” when all I was asking was a simple question.  The thoughtfulness that he exhibited in not embarrassing me in front of my classmates and instead asking me in private, was the first of many meaningful things that he had done for me in my life.  The person that seemed a little distant initially was now making me feel closer to my new home.  So it was only natural that on the day that I spoke unabashedly about an addiction, that I felt the need to rush to his office!

With sweat dripping from my forehead – no, the hot weather wasn’t the only culprit! – I knocked on his door.  Much to my relief, he was there.  When I narrated to him this incident, he laughed out loud.  But he immediately added, “It is okay, Ram!  You can laugh!”  In response, I asked, “I am scared of talking to anyone now.  What if I commit more blunders?”  He was silent for a couple of minutes.  But he then said, “Go to the Educational Support Program office.  I will send them a note.  Go enroll as a tutor!”

I was incredulous.  Here I was talking about being scared and he was asking me to become a tutor.  When he saw the disbelieving look on my face, he said, “Ram, you are very good at Math.  Go and teach.  Your love for Math will help you overcome your fear of speaking.”  Even though I was not sure of myself, I trusted him blindly and joined the program (that was designed to help struggling freshman students) as a tutor.  Before I left his office he added, “But remember, you might make mistakes.  Just remember to laugh.  Just remember to learn.  That’s it!”  Years later, I was awarded the “Outstanding Teaching Assistant” award during my MBA at Carnegie Mellon University.  No prizes for guessing the person that I called right after the ceremony.

The equation of his life had the unwavering constant of grace.  In a similar vein, in the sixteen years that I knew him, the equation of my life had a constant amidst several variables – his presence.  I am glad that even after I left Memphis, we stayed in touch.  I am glad that he saw me achieve great successes.  And I am glad that he made me see my failures as a passing phase.  I just wish that his cancer had not added a variable that morphed the equation of my life into an unsolvable inequation on November 28, 2014.  May your soul continue to rest in peace, Dr. Jamison.  I have one last ‘doubt’ – “Why did you have to leave us so early?”

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

An Original: Reflections on Sathyaraj’s performance in Vedham Pudhidhu

“People talk about how certain products are Made in India or Made in China.  Similarly, I was made by Manivannan” – these were the words of Sathyaraj in an interview where he paid a tribute to his dear friend, the late director Manivannan.  There is no denying the fact that their collaboration yielded us many a rich cinematic experience ranging from political dramas like Amaidhi Padai to interesting thrillers like Vidinja Kalyanam or 24 Mani Neram.  In his interviews, Sathyaraj has showered encomiums on Manivannan for shaping his dialogue delivery as a villain and for giving him some of the most sizzling dialogues ever written for screen.  While Amaidhi Padai till date remains one of the greatest villainous turns in Thamizh cinema – it certainly is Sathyaraj’s best performance – to me, his role as Balu Thevar in Bharathiraja’s Vedham Pudhidhu remains his finest work as a leading man.  Multilayered, nuanced and boasting of an arc that merits a place in any serious discussion on screenwriting, this is a marvelously etched character that is done full justice to by the great actor.

One thing that I have noticed about Sathyaraj is that his abundant talent shines through in the works of directors who allow him to appear relaxed on screen.  Contrary to what we have seen of his work in P Vasu’s films – some of which were admittedly hugely successful – his real strength and charm comes from understatement.  We have seen this facet of his more in his antagonist roles.  But Vedham Pudhidhu is a movie where he exhibited this in a positive role.  The initial portions establish his character of a principled atheist, one who worships his fellow human beings.  But Bharathiraja does the right thing by adopting a light tone for the initial scenes.  This does two things – there is heavy duty drama to follow; by then we are primed to accept the behaviors of the leads.  More importantly, the changes in the Balu Thevar character come across as very natural and not preachy because we know the place he is coming from.  The introductory scene of Sathyaraj, for instance, is a perfect example of the effortless charm that the actor brings to the role.  He is spouting lines on his lack of belief in God and alluding to the meaninglessness of caste-based factions.  But watch how there is a certain amount of playfulness that envelops the heavier themes without obscuring them.

As I was revisiting certain scenes from the movie, I realized that there is not a single performance by another actor that I was reminded of.  Specifically, Sathyaraj’s dialogue delivery – his manner of speaking his villainous lines in other movies may have been shaped by his lifelong friend.  But his measured way of speaking, with impeccable diction, with just the right amount of pauses and inflections, is completely original and is on display in its full glory in Vedham Pudhidhu.  Of course, the contributions of Bharathiraja, the director, must not be underestimated.  But the way Sathyaraj brings certain scenes to life with just his dialogue delivery is a pleasure to watch.  The panchayat sequence is a case in point.  Leading up to the scene, he calls upon the different groups separately to make them see the error of their ways.  His expression of anger is controlled.  Then, in the panchayat scene, he brings it all together in a crisp but meaningful monologue.  His posture, with his legs folded, is just perfect for the setting.  And his line on the thamirabarani river is superbly delivered.

Start watching at the 2:35 min point:

The best scene in the movie is one involving another master performer, Saritha.  The Dad has just rescued the son (Raja) and his love interest (Amala) from a deeply embarrassing situation.  The Mom (Saritha) is furious that the son has put her husband through this ordeal.  The girl’s Dad (Charuhasan, in his career-best role) has come to plead to Balu Thevar that his girl not be pursued by Balu’s son.  Struggling to balance his love for his son and his duty towards his fellow beings that he places on a pedestal, Balu assures the Dad that his girl will not be disturbed anymore.  Sathyaraj’s body language, facial expressions and the crack in his voice when he says, “…Balu Thevanuku pazhakkam ille” are a perfect showcase for students of acting to watch.  The detailing here is perfect.  Prior to seeing Charuhasan, Sathyaraj is seated comfortably in an oonjal and later walking the room as he talks to Raja and Saritha.  But after he has made the promise to Charuhasan, he sits in a chair in the corner of the room, unable to come to grips with the possible repercussions of his promise.  Once again, his method of delivering the lines does full justice to what was on paper.  When he says, “nadanthurukarthe vaera,” there is power and assurance.  But when he immediately adds, “Aana andha manushan kai yendhi illadaa ninaaru” there is a certain softness that he brings to his delivery.  Nearly 30 years after its release, this sequence still holds tremendous power and most of the credit should go to Sathyaraj's stellar acting.

The highlights - 4:16 - 4:42, 5:02 - 5:16, 5:33 - 5:43

The movie and the character itself peak in the climactic sequence.  His plea to the villagers to spare Charuhasan’s kids has the right mix of his own firm convictions and the acceptance of his diminished status in the face of the villagers’ equally unshakable beliefs in superstitions and rituals.  Sathyaraj’s performance is masterful here, with his use of hands, when making his points, minimal and purposeful. 

Vedham Pudhidhu may have its share of flaws.  But Sathyaraj is the anchor and his top drawer acting is the reason to watch this movie, whatever one’s religious sentiments may be.  This is a perfect exhibition of sensible writing and assured direction blending with one of the great performances by a leading man.  Sathyaraj may have been “made by Manivannan” but this Balu Thevar is certainly made by Sathyaraj!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Portrait of my CT

My grandpa’s younger brother did not have any grandchildren of his own.  While in her late 20s, his daughter – his only child - had made the decision to stay unmarried.  She chose to lead a life that was completely dedicated to social activism and writing.  Conversations about her marriage were minimal.  After a while, they ceased to exist.  As far as typical father-daughter interactions in middle class India were concerned, this was as far from the norm as Chennai (my hometown, in India) is from Chicago.  After all, this is the land of arranged marriages.  But CT never cared much about societal norms.  CT – that was short for Chinna Thatha which, in my native language, refers to a grandfather’s younger brother.  CT is the kind of nickname that a kid will coin right before filing for creative bankruptcy.  I was that kid.  But somehow, miraculously, he found it cute and so, the name stuck. 

CT was a short man.  In small part due to genetics and in no small part due to his lovely wife’s delectable cooking, he was a tad overweight.  A lightly starched cotton shirt and a neatly ironed dhoti (a traditional Indian garment) comprised his preferred attire.  He applied coconut oil to bring some discipline to the thick shocks of hair that he was blessed with.  His ranch house in Chennai was built in the 1960s.  I especially loved the pillars near the threshold.  It was not an ostentatious home and was beautiful precisely for that reason.  The warmth and glow of the home came not just from the large open windows.  There was an inexplicable coziness in the off-white, worn-out sofa.  CT and his home were not dissimilar to one another.  Both derived their richness from their simplicity.  Both gave you the feeling that you were a welcome addition to their existence just by virtue of being in their vicinity.  Both belonged to an earlier era, yet had aged gracefully, exuding a sense of stability and unfussy perfection. 

CT was 44 years older than me.  It is a fact – not an opinion, mind you – that I was his favorite among the kids in our extended family!  Cricket - the sport, not the insect – was the durable glue that cemented our bond.  Both of us loved the game.  He got me to be not only passionate about the sport but also think about it deeply.  He would occasionally give me some nuggets of wisdom around leadership and teamwork based on his vast knowledge of the game.  But since I adored the sport and its players, it never came across as didactic.  Plus he was a fabulous raconteur, telling stories with the right mix of facts and spice.  One of his favorite stories was that of an Indian cricket team captain who refused to kowtow to the authorities and fought for his team over the miniscule salaries that were paid to the players.  The captain paid the price for his recalcitrance and lost his place in the team while the other players got a discernible hike in pay.  CT would say that the panjandrums who felt victorious destroying the captain’s career had actually lost a bigger battle.  It was years later that I could understand why this story resonated with him.  CT had quit his fledgling career as a lawyer because he could not stand the corruption and dishonesty that ran rampant in his practice.  He decided that the fight was not worth it because the system would not accommodate the values that he stood for.  He later had a fulfilling career as a marketer for an alloy manufacturer. 

Acceptance.  As I think of the one word that I would associate most with CT, it is ‘acceptance’ that scrolls across my mind in font size 72, especially as it relates to his attitude towards his daughter.  His unshakable belief was that freedom was not something that he had to give my Aunt.  Rather, within the bounds of conscientiousness, he believed that she owned her freedom of thought, choice and expression and he saw it as his duty to not impinge on that.  My Aunt’s choices, be it the decision to stay single, have communist leanings or espouse atheism were all unconventional for the mores of the society around her.  But CT respected every one of her choices wholeheartedly.  He was a deeply pious Brahmin (a subsect of Hindus) but he proudly announced to me one day that my Aunt’s latest book was her best work yet.  The book’s title – Towards a Non-Brahmin Millennium.  This, coming from a person that spent 45 minutes every morning in his prayer room, was remarkable.  The acceptance of the space that he believed was his daughter’s stemmed from a quiet assurance about his own space.  That, I believe, was empowerment of a special kind.  If I grow up to be half as thoughtful a parent to my son, then I am sure that CT will be happy with my parenting abilities. 

On Saturday, January 22, 2005, he stepped out of his house and suddenly collapsed, never to get up.  He had had a fatal cardiac arrest.  He was 67.  Just about the only comforting thought that I have about CT’s rather sudden death is the fact that he did not undergo any suffering.  It was an abrupt end to a meaningful chapter in my life.  But as we all know, the themes of a book often get established in important chapters.

Continue to rest in peace, CT.  Just know that I miss you.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Yes, I have regrets

I make very good chai tea latte, I am told.  But I have not made a single cup of tea for my grandpa.  He used to relish his evening cup of tea, as he confabulated with his childhood friend.  He passed away rather suddenly in an auto accident in 1994 - he was 61, I was 13.  Had I made tea for him, he would have enjoyed the taste, aroma and the gesture in equal measure. 

When I was a high school student in India, my Aunt was going through a personal crisis.  The details are not important.  Sure, the rest of the family rallied around her.  But I reckon she would have appreciated a little more empathy from me.  I was young.  I was brash.  These are not excuses for insensitivity.  It is how I was back then.  My Aunt passed away last October at the age of 49.  Did she know that I was sorry for my callousness as a teenager?

I did not get that yellow graduation cord in 2002.  At Carnegie Mellon University, students who graduate with honors are presented with a yellow cord around their neck at the time of getting their certificate.  When I did my Masters, our Grade Point Average (GPA) had to be at or above 3.75 out of 4.  In my last semester, I had done well enough to recover from a slump.  My GPA ended up being 3.71.  Or so I thought.  One of my professors sent out an e-mail stating that there was an error in the grading of the final exam.  Recalculations were done.  And my grade for that course changed from a B+ to an A-.  My revised GPA was three point seven four.  Why could I not be left with a 3.71?  Why did I have to miss out on that yellow cord by 0.01, the minimum possible difference?  Of course, I could have worked even harder to not let this near miss happen in the first place.  In the final analysis, I had done well but graduated without honors.  Without that yellow cord, I might add.

I got a very polite letter from the Fuqua School of Business in 2007.  When I was applying to business schools, the one school that I fell in love with at first sight was Fuqua at Duke University.  The curriculum seemed fantastic and the vibes that I experienced when I visited the school were magical.  As I walked out of the interview, I said to myself, “I belong here.”  But after enduring an excruciating period of being on the wait list, I was informed that I had been not admitted.  

Regrets about loved ones, regrets about close misses, regrets about not getting something I desired – yes, I have had regrets.  But there are a few reasons why those thoughts don’t pervade too many recesses of my mind.

Last December, I had gone to Atlanta to meet with some of my friends.  These are friends that I have known since high school.  I was meeting with them after three years.  Before the trip, I felt this inexplicable but strong urge to make tea for them.  So, after getting permission from the friend who hosted us, I took my loose tea, tea press, kettle and milk frother all to Atlanta!  And I made tea for them twice a day for the duration of my trip.  Especially memorable was a moment during a late night session of board games when one of my buddies asked if I could make tea.  It felt nice.  As the tea was brewing, one of my regrets was being vaporized. 

After completing my high school, I had moved to the US in 1998.  My Aunt continued to live in India.  In my early years in the US, along with homesickness came a pang of guilt.  And for the rest of her life, I was a much nicer nephew to my Aunt.  To her, true munificence stemmed out of thoughtfulness of gesture rather than any expensive gifts.  I understood this and spent quality time with her.  I just wish I had more time with her.  One of the things that she wished for was that I be a good husband to my wife.  Ever since she passed away, I have made sincere attempts to go the extra mile to make my wife feel special, cared for and loved in a purer, unconditional manner.  I have a feeling that my Aunt will be smiling from up above.  That beatific smile of hers that I cannot see in person anymore obscures a regret that I do not feel anymore. 

I did not do my MBA at Fuqua.  Instead, I went back to Carnegie Mellon, to their Tepper School of Business.  When I graduated in 2009, I had finished with a GPA that ensured that something could go around my neck when I received my diploma - a luminous yellow cord. 

Some stories have a neat little ending.  Others do not.  But we can, along with destiny, co-author a sequel that completes the story in an unexpectedly fulfulling manner.  

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Train of thought: A piece on train sequences in Tamil cinema

The early 2000s was a period when I was discovering old classics of Kamal Hassan.  His work, from the late 80s till Hey! Ram, had consistently left me mesmerized.  So much so that I craved more and started evincing keen interest in his early movies, especially with stalwarts like K Balachander.  I had watched Arangetram, Aboorva RaagangaL and Nizhal Nijamagiradhu.  I felt like Nizhal… was the movie where he truly came into his own as an actor.  Gone was the gawkiness of the earlier movies.  It was replaced by a newfound refinement, especially in his body language.  I liked him even more in AvargaL, in the strong role of a kindhearted person, whose love for a divorced woman goes unrequited.  

In the climactic sequence of AvargaL, which takes place at the train station, there is not a lot of dramatic tension.  But for the first time, I realized how one could use the location to underscore an emotion, to highlight the pangs of separation.  I had, of course, watched Kamal’s brilliant performance in the climax of Moondram Pirai before.  That sequence was, needless to say, an amazing showcase for his acting talent.  But I think I was so entranced by Kamal’s emoting that I felt that the location just played a supporting role.  In AvargaL though, there is very little demonstration of emotion by Kamal or Sujatha.  Kamal has to internalize his own pain as he lets go of her.  And the train that gradually picks up pace, magnifies the impact of his sadness and yearning.  As one person embarks on a new ‘journey’, the other one continues his travel, alone, without a meaningful destination in sight. 

Trains have been used a lot in Tamil movies, sometimes in a clichéd, lazy manner, at other times not so.  The closed setting has been used to add to the sensuality of a romance.  The setting has been used skillfully to establish the subtext of a journey of two characters slowly falling in love or drifting apart.  On other occasions, trains have been used as a fitting backdrop to evoke a sense of fun and camaraderie.  They have been used to give an extra shot of adrenaline in superbly choreographed action pieces.  There have also been some magnificently choreographed songs on a train or at a railway station.  And as mentioned earlier, they have been used as an effective backdrop for climactic scenes.  For each of romance / love, action, fun, songs and climax, I have listed below a few noteworthy scenes that I can recollect, recommending one video for each category.  Chug along...err, read on!

Romance / Love Story:

Noteworthy Movies:
  • ·         Alaipayuthey
  • ·         Rhythm
  • ·         The Prasanna – Kanika interaction in Five Star
  • ·        The Suriya – Sameera Reddy romance in Vaaranam Aayiram
  • ·        The Sarathkumar – Jyothika scenes in PatchaikiLi Muthucharam
My pick: The Suriya – Sameera Reddy scene in Vaaranam Aayiram

It’s hard to out beat the romance quotient of a sequence where the guy strums the guitar to Ilayaraja's "En Iniya Pon Nilave" and dedicates it to his newfound love in a train, with rain to boot!  

  • ·         “Raja…” from Agni Natchathiram
  • ·         Chikku Bukkufrom Gentleman
  • ·         “Vellarika…” from Kadhal Koattai
  • ·        “Chayya Chayya…” from Dil Se… / Thayya Thayya… from Uyire…
  • ·         “Omana Penney…” from Vinnaithandi Varuvaaya
My pick: “Chayya Chayya…”

Amar Varma (Shah Rukh Khan) has fallen in love at first sight and wants the world to know that he is over the moon.  Well, he is over the train!  What a way to clue the viewer in to the mood of the protagonist!  AR Rahman’s foot-tapping tune is done full justice to by the choreographer Farah Khan and cinematographer Santhosh Sivan.  My two favorite shots start at 2:14 and 5:18.  Both are shot from outside the train and yet done in an amazingly synchronous manner.  Three things are in motion - the camera, the dancers and, of course, the train!

Let me post the original for the fans of Dil Se… instead of posting the dubbed Tamil version.  I am cheating a little but hey, I am not giving out National Awards here!

  • ·         Senthoora Poove
  • ·         Gentleman
  • ·         Thiruda Thiruda
  • ·         Kuruthi Punal
  • ·         Endhiran
  • ·         Lingaa
My pick: Senthoora Poove

I will vote for Senthoora Poove since it was the first of its kind in Tamil and the action is supremely well-choreographed.  It is heartening to think that there was actually a time when Vijaykanth had respect for Newton.

The train action portions start at around the 7-min point:

  • ·         Balaiya’s antics in Thillana MohanambaL
  • ·         Vadivelu’s chain snatching comedy in Aasai
  • ·         The journey to Thiruvaiyaru in Anniyan
  • ·         The friends and family trip in Chennai-28 Part-2
My pick: Anniyan

With due respect to the inimitable Balaiya, Vivek’s jokes are rip-roaring fun.  I remember watching Anniyan in a crowded theatre and the audience erupted in laughter at the Kamal Hassan kiss reference.  Even the way Vivek touches Vikram’s tuft is hilarious.

Climactic Sequence:
  • ·         AvargaL
  • ·         Moondram Pirai
  • ·         GopurangaL Saaivadhillai
  • ·         Mouna Raagam
  • ·         Thevar Magan
  • ·         Kadhal Koattai
My pick: Thevar Magan

Trains appear in four scenes in Thevar Magan, each signaling a step out of his comfort zone for the Kamal character – (1) his entry to the village (2) his send-off of Gowthami amid the riots (3) his final scene with Gowthami that ends with her peck on his cheek that is helpfully pointed out later, by his wife and (4) the astonishingly powerful climax.  Vaali’s lines form a kaleidoscope of emotions – despair, guilt and hope. (“Nallavazhi nee thaan solli yenna laabam?  Sonnavathane Soozhndhadhindru Paavam…Kalangathey Raasa…Kaalam Varattum…”)  It is not just Kamal but the entire cast that emotes wonderfully, including the supporting cast like Revathi, SN Lakshmi and Renuka.  Kamal prostrating in front of them is a gesture loaded with meaning.  What is he seeking – forgiveness? Blessings?  I reckon it is redemption.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Simran’s finest hour: A review of her performance in Kannathil Muthamittaal

Indira is a mother of three kids, one of whom is an adopted child.  She agrees to accompany her husband Thiruselvan to Sri Lanka in search of the adopted daughter’s biological mother.  A couple of days after they land, the three of them go on a bus journey to a village as part of this quest.  As they board the bus, Amudha, the daughter, decides to take a nap.  Thiru asks Indira, “Are you thinking of our kids back home?”  Indira, resting her chin on Thiru’s shoulder, responds, “For the sake of one child, we have left two back home.  I hope they are doing well.  I wonder how my father is taking care of them single handedly.”  Her response is honest but in an equally spontaneous moment, she quickly adds, “Amudha is still asleep, right?”  Simran, the mother, plays this little scene so exceptionally well that you could just watch this scene without any audio, look at her expressions, and understand what she is communicating to her husband. 

I recently revisited Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittaal (2002) and was struck by how I could not think of a single performance by an actress in Tamil in the past 15 years that I regard as better than this.  Aishwarya Rajesh in Kaaka Muttai, Priya Mani in Paruthi Veeran and Anjali in Kattradhu Thamizh (in that order) come close.  And one could even argue that these three actresses dubbed in their own voice for these movies whereas Deepa Venkat was the voice artist for Simran in Kannathil… But there are several moments of sublime internalization by Simran in this difficult role that makes her performance truly stand out.  More than the voice - Deepa Venkat does a fine job here, no doubt - it is her face and body language that speak volumes.  And for that, her performance in this movie deserves to be regarded as a crown jewel in any analysis of modern Tamil cinema.

The oonjal scene where she tries to answer Amudha’s (Keerthana, who won a richly deserved National award) questions about her biological mother and how and why she was adopted is a scene where the writing, acting, cinematography and production design all come together in the most cohesive, undemonstrative way.  In a recent interview, when asked if viewers might miss paying attention to all the technical aspects that bring a scene alive, Mani Ratnam thoughtfully remarked, “It is okay if they don’t notice it; as long as they sense it, that’s enough.”  I have watched Kannathil… multiple times in the past decade and I suppose I had always “sensed” how exquisite this scene was.  But it was only during this recent viewing that I paid attention to Simran’s minute, purposeful changes in body language that so perfectly suited the lines that she was delivering in this scene.  When Amudha asks a rather painful question (“Was I in a trash can when I was retrieved?”) she looks away uncertainly.  When the kid says, “Will you abandon me?” she hugs her tightly.  And when the kid wants further reassurance, she looks her in the eye and comforts her.  The scene has a deeply poignant end when Amudha asks, “Why did you tell me now?  You could have told me later.”  Indira knows that it is a question better left unanswered and just continues to hold on to her daughter in a comforting posture.  And Ratnam, ever the master of song placement, makes this scene lead to the soothing melody, “Oru Dheivam Thandha Poove…” 

Another sequence that merits a closer look is the railway station one.  Amudha, feeling confused and uncertain about her future, has run away from the house.  But thanks to a good samaritan, the parents receive a call that the kid is at the railway station.  While being informed of the daughter’s whereabouts on the phone, Indira pleads to the caller, “Please be with her till we come.”  En route to the station, Thiru tries to dismiss her feelings and asks her to stop crying.  Despite her vulnerabilities, she is an inherently steely person.  So she asks him to mind his own business.  And at the station, once she spots the kid, she looks intently, with pain, disappointment and even a bit of anger.  After they return home, as Amudha tries to apologize for her act, Indira, overcoming her own anger, hugs and kisses her in a loving manner.   And in a truly lifelike moment, she adds that she has to finish her chores!  Emotional upheavals or not, life goes on.  Simran is incandescent in this sequence, displaying myriad changes in tone in a seamless, artless, affecting manner.

It’s been a few days since I finished watching the movie.  And I reckon that apart from the stupendous level of acting by Simran, it is the way in which Mani Ratnam shaped the character that has led to my feeling compelled to dwell on her performance.  Simran appears in the movie with minimal make-up, simple but elegant clothing, hair not nearly as perfectly coiffed, as was the case in her other movies.  But her radiance in this movie comes from the intrinsic elements that she brings to the screen as well as these externals that result from Ratnam’s sure-footed shaping of her character and performance.  And the result of this truly artistic collaboration is a deeply fulfilling experience.