Wednesday, April 18, 2018

"Kutty" - A little girl's huge tragedy

Articles and tweets on the horrific Asifa tragedy have made me feel rather depressed in recent days thinking of the world in which kids live.  In a Whatsapp exchange, my Aunt remarked, “Don’t trust your child with anybody!”  Of course, it might sound hyperbolic but such is the fear that these acts of depravity put in our minds.  As I saw one of those hauntingly innocent pictures of little Asifa, my mind went back to Kutty, the remarkable debut feature of Janaki Viswanathan that was released in 2001.  In case you have not seen the movie, let me tell you that there is zero graphic content.  The eventual fate of the little girl, played marvelously by Shwetha, is heartbreaking.  Sometimes leaving something to our imagination tends to be a lot more haunting than showing something on screen.  I will hasten to add that Kutty is not a one-note depressing movie.  I remember smiling quite a bit owing to the sweetness of several of its characters.  There is not a trace of manipulation in this movie – the movie flows like a rivulet through joy, hope and despair. 

An adaptation of a story by Sivasankari, Kutty tells the story of its titular character, a little girl who leads a limpid childhood in an idyllic village.  She is the apple of her father’s eye. (The father is essayed by Nasser, who makes you want to give him a hug in the sequence where he pacifies his daughter.) To him, the little joys of parenting help vivify their tough lives.  But her mother (Eashwari Rao who turns in the performance of her short career) is a little more worldly wise, constantly urging her husband to let go of his pampering ways.  Fate strikes when the father dies in an accident.  Struggling to make ends meet, the mother is forced to send Kutty to Chennai as a domestic help for an upper middle-class couple, played by Ramesh Aravind and Kousalya.

In Chennai, the couple treats her with affection but their son and Aravind’s mother (MN Rajam, who makes you want to give her a tight slap, throwing respect to the winds) ill-treat Kutty to the point where she wants to escape the house.  This leads to the sequence that left me not only misty eyed but also made my eyes bereft of any more tears to shed, the day I first watched the scene.  It is the scene where Kutty requests the kindhearted shop owner – Vivek is fantastic in this short role – to write a letter to her mother to come rescue her.  But here’s the catch - she does not know the address.  We, in the audience, are in Vivek’s shoes, watching helplessly as the girl breaks down. 

Start watching at the 39-sec point:

The movie also offers, in an understated manner, social commentary on the way even seemingly good natured people (like the ones played by Aravind and Kousalya) take the easy way out and don’t always do what is in the best interests of society at large.  This is illustrated in a sharply perceptive scene where Kousalya talks to her colleagues about Kutty’s plight and the evil of child labor.  All this happens while a school-age kid delivers them tea! 

Above all, the huge reason memories of this movie refuse to be erased by the waves of time is that it skillfully juxtaposes goodness with sadness and poses difficult questions.  How a kid’s body and soul must be protected with utmost care in a world where the juggernaut of antisocial elements can crush innocent souls, leaving many a victim in its wake.  Kutty cautions us that for goodness to flourish, it has to co-exist with caution and heightened awareness.  It is a testament to the skill of the writer-director that the movie never feels preachy or didactic.  Like a seasoned filmmaker, the debutant director tells a story unflinchingly, trusting us to pause, reflect and most importantly, act on the messages packaged organically within the construct of the story.  It is a certainty that these messages have to sink in deeply for humanity to stay afloat.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Goodbye, Chennai

If you know me really well, you already know this – I hate goodbyes.  This whole separation business - I easily go bankrupt!  My mind goes so numb that you would think that I am anesthetized.  My heart sinks so deeply, even the Titanic would watch me go past her!  This effect gets amplified further with time and distance.  I was in Chennai recently for a short trip.  The primary purpose of my visit was to spend time with my ailing grandma, who was recovering from a cardiac arrest.  I was also able to spend time with quite a few of my extended family and close friends, spanning the age spectrum from my 13-year old cousin to my grandma’s 93 year-old cousin!

These warm, emotionally munificent people have all enriched my life in ways that I have lost count of.  But from this trip, I have distinct memories of three types of people - the octa / nonagenarians, my parents’ generation and finally, some genuinely kind people who were relative strangers till my first meeting with them (which happened this trip).  

My grandma, her sisters and sisters in law are not getting any younger.  I took a picture with them and sent it to my family members with the note, “Gold doesn’t get old!”  Makes for a nice caption, I guess.  But really, I was just thankful that I could see them and spend quality time with them.  They may have lost the vim and vigor of their younger years.  But they seem to make up for lost verve with nerves of steel that help them face the inevitability of infirmity.  Some of them, such as my grandma and her older sister, have had to bear the loss of one of their children in recent years.  But in their long lives, they have faced many a crucible that has hardened their resolve.  It was rather touching to see how they cared for each other, knowing when and how to offer support in an unquestioning, unconditional manner.  As my wife mentioned in her write-up, it is through support, prayers and wishes that we, in a younger generation, can do our bit for the people who have spent the majority of their lives caring for their families, spending very little time focusing on themselves.  

It was not only the people my grandma’s age but also thoughts about folks in my parents’ generation that made me feel heavy as I left the shores of Chennai.  Especially moving was the way my guru asked me to capture the year-and-a-half that had passed by since our last meeting, through anecdotes, in the 90 minutes that I spent at her place. (She happens to be an Aunt of mine; technically, the Aunt part should come first but she is my teacher in so many ways that 'guru', to me, comes first!)  I later remarked to my wife that visits such as this felt so, for the lack of a better term, pure.  In this competitive, cut-throat world, I find it increasingly rare to come across people that feel such unbridled joy at just your mere presence, that any success that you share with them seems to be received as their own.  Incidentally, during this trip, a friend quoted a lovely line that lyricist Vaali had written – ...pirar uyarviniley unakirukkum inbam, ivai anaithilumey irupadhuthaan deivam. (There is divinity in the true pleasure that you derive out of someone else's success/progress.)  Now you know why I seem to deify my guru – there is no other way to see her and people like her!  In my eyes, they stand so majestically tall that, in their presence, I feel like I am standing at the bottom of a waterfall, their purity of thought and emotion washing over my own flaws and foibles, at least momentarily.  

Thanks to one of my other Aunts, I was able to meet her friends, a few of whom are in the film industry.  At an evening gathering that my Aunt had arranged, I was again, a lucky recipient of immense kindness.  While in the car, my Aunt heaved a sigh of relief as she told me, “You know, Ram.  Ever since I got to know your arrival date in Chennai, I have been praying every day at the temple that your grandma should remain healthy.  I knew that you would have been devastated if something untoward had happened.”  If that was generosity of one kind, what moved me equally was the generosity of emotion on display by her friends, all of whom I had been meeting for the first time.  The concern that they showed towards my grandma, wishing her well and offering to pray on her behalf, was deeply poignant.  Similarly, I was able to spend time with both a close friend and confidant of 25 years as well as a friend from this blog (cartoonist Ravishanker) whom I was meeting for the first time.  The vibes of warmth and friendship assumed equally meaningful proportions despite the vast difference in the length of the relationship.

As I reflect on my trip, I only have all these people to blame (!) for how I felt at the end of my trip.  But I know that I must be thankful that they are all part of a larger journey of mine, one where they show me how to live well, love unconditionally and achieve the truest form of happiness.  Vaali is probably grinning ear to ear from up above at his lines being immortalized by all these folks.

On that happy note, till we meet again, goodbye Chennai.  And thanks for all the memories.


Monday, March 26, 2018

Thathamom: A guest post by my wife Nandu

Paati in Tamil means grandmother.  But I don’t think my husband has ever addressed his maternal grandma that way!  At around the time I got married to him through the arranged marriage process 11 years ago, I was told by his family members that when he barely started speaking, he called her, “Thathamma.”  And since no one, starting with Thathamma, had the heart to correct him, the moniker stuck.  As I got to know her better and heard more stories of Ram's childhood, I remarked to him that she should be called Thathamom as she was a most integral part of Ram’s childhood, showering him with unconditional maternal love and affection. 

Thathamom with my beautiful mother-in-law
For anyone that knows Thathamma, they will agree that she is not the quintessential Tambram grandmother.  She is very cool, loves to eat out, be it Mumbai chaat, South Indian tiffin varieties or even ice cream.  A few years ago, when she visited us in North Carolina, we took her to an ice cream place.  She really enjoyed the experience and smilingly remarked the next day, “I don’t mind going there again!”  Of course, Ram being the strict grandson (!) that he is, said that sugary stuff was not good for her health.  Well, I couldn’t convince him because he seemed to have a watertight argument – she was diabetic!  One of the other things that I like about Thathamma is that she is very religious and ritualistic but finds a way to make that coexist with modern thoughts and broad mindedness.  Once, during the concluding portions of a rather long winded prayer meeting, she said to me that I probably would not feel comfortable wearing a saree for such a long time and urged me to change into casual clothing.  I thought that that was very genuine and generous of her.

Thathamma’s life revolves around her grand kids- as a kid, my husband was pampered beyond words by her.  After Ram’s aunt had a daughter in 2004, Thathamma was very involved in her upbringing.  I have some very fond memories of her visits to the US where I enjoyed being the subject of the same kind of affection that Ram and his cousin enjoyed.

Thathamma is not only a wonderful cook but also a lovely host.  Her cutlet, pongal and sandwich (which she calls “chilly cheese toast”) are all to die for!  In fact, while I enjoyed his previous write-up, “Warmly Served” the only bone I had to pick with Ram was that he did not write enough about Thathamma.  She embodies every virtue that he wrote about in that article.  Her generosity of spirit as a host is very symptomatic of her as a person.  She is just a very giving soul, in general. 

But this giving soul needs something from all of you readers now – your prayers.  On January 1st 2018, Thathamma suffered a massive cardiac arrest.  By the grace of God, she survived but she is still recovering slowly, as it has taken a heavy toll on her quality of life.  For a person that lost her husband 24 years ago and her second child 18 months ago, this health crisis is too heavy a burden.  Not a day passes by without all of us praying for her continued recovery.  Dear reader, if you are religious, pray for her.  If you are not, it doesn’t matter - just think happy thoughts for her.  For a person that has personified giving for 82 years, it is time to get all the strength, of body and of mind, to deal with this health crisis. Something tells me that she will come out of this healthier.  After all, I need to buy her the ice cream that my husband once denied her!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Warmly Served

Summer of 1993 – I was still a year away from entering my teens.  My Aunt (who passed away in 2016) and Uncle had moved temporarily to an apartment building just two streets away from where my grandparents lived.  Technically, I did not ‘live’ at my grandparents’ place.  But…well, you get the idea!  The tradition must have been in place before I was born because for as long as I can remember, my grandma, my Mom and my Aunt always made vengaya sambar (sautéed shallots mixed with lentils) and potato curry every Sunday for lunch. 

My Aunt loved to have the cake and eat it too!  My Mom offers the cake, while my grandma admiringly watches on.  There I am, with my eye on the cake.  They say that you can tell the foodies early!
During the period that my Aunt had moved close by – thank heavens that the construction of their house took a long time! – I would go to their place every Sunday for lunch.  She was a fabulous cook.  Funnily enough, she would invariably make tasty curries, delectable side dishes but make a bit of a mess of…of all things, rice!  I once remember that when she offered my Uncle water during a meal, he joked, “Don’t bother!  The rice is watery enough!” (Poor thing, she must have turned off the pressure cooker a tad early!)  But as I have mentioned elsewhere, she was a sport.  So, she would laugh off her own clumsiness.  Her smiling countenance was the usher to an enjoyable hour during which she would, at times, gently rib me for my lack of work ethic.  As I think about it, it was not so gentle!  Nevertheless, she enjoyed taking that privilege with me.  Sometimes I would bristle, at other times I would turn a deaf ear.  (Neither reaction, I suppose, was very mature!) 

She and my Uncle then moved into their house which was farther from our place.  Somehow my Sunday routine was broken.  I never thought much of that until I was revisiting some of those moments in my mind, after she left us.  My memories of 1993 taught me an important life lesson that food is a matter of comfort more than taste.  Of course, as was her wont, she never said this to me.  As I reflect on my interactions with others, I can safely say that not everyone has stacked up to her in this respect.  I don’t expect them to but some of my negative experiences have taught me to be more appreciative of welcoming, hospitable folks.  Even among my near and dear, while I take privileges, I try to not be insensitive.  This is one area where I strive to emulate my father - he never fails to acknowledge and thank the cook in question for every meal of his, even if prepared by my Mom, grandma or my wife.  It might sound like overkill but as I emulate him, I just look at it as giving people their due for the time and effort put into preparing a meal.

My Aunt's daughter - clearly, enjoyment of food runs in the family! (This pic is from Dec 2012)
An incident that happened in my late teens which I find impossibly hard to erase from my memory was a visit to an acquaintance’s place.  I was not invited for a meal.  But as we struck up a conversation – I may have had some blind spots here, to be abundantly honest – I thought that everybody was having a fun time.  One of the members of the host family urged that I stay for lunch while another made a long face…that I noticed.  But instead of politely refusing the offer and leaving right then, I inexplicably stayed back.  And trust me, hunger or a rapacious appetite were not the reasons I stayed back.  I just did not have the sureness of foot to act decisively and leave in an unfussy manner.  Some delicious items were on offer at the table – heck, the rice was very well cooked here! - but even now as I think of that incident, I want to eject every morsel that went into my system that day.  Since then, I have been exposed to all permutations and combinations (good meal / unfriendly host, tasteless meal / delightful host, and so on) and I have come to the natural conclusion that the vibes matter the most.  The taste of the food is a nice-to-have. (For the record, during this incident, the person that made the face did not have to cook a thing; the meal was ready and was made by someone else.  And, the family were very wealthy and had good support staff - no paucity of food issues there either!)  

On the other hand, I have grown more sensitive to the fact that there are times when meals for guests are imposed on a member of the household by a spouse, a parent or even a child.  That especially if only one person is preparing a meal for others, that it is utterly unreasonable for me as a guest to expect them to not look harried or overworked.  I try my best to avoid putting people in that situation.  Thanks to the aforementioned incident, I dine at a person’s place only when I trust them to the hilt.  When I am unsure, I visit people outside of typical meal times so that I can leave before someone even broaches a conversation about a meal.
Of course, I have close, trustworthy friends and extended family members who have made me feel welcome.  And my blind spots too have thankfully dwindled in size.  They say that hindsight is 20:20.  But I have realized that heightened awareness can be also be a reliable pair of lenses to view this world through.  It is my sincere desire to act sensitively, decisively and empathetically when I visit people.  And as a host, I hope that I am able to make people feel loved, welcomed and valued when they visit me.  Those vibes that they hopefully experience, more than the aroma of the chai that I make, are what will make my Aunt smile from up above and know that the lessons ‘taught’ in 1993 have been indelibly imprinted in my mind.  The mind that bottles the scents of my memories of her.  Scents that extend far beyond those that wafted from her vengaya sambar.  

Sunday, February 25, 2018

No Strings Attached: Thoughts on Loyalty and Gratitude

In my early years, gratitude was a value that I could see on display in pretty much every close member of my family.  To be grateful to God for every positive event in our lives was an unshakable belief for some of them.  But the kind of thankfulness that I respected in them even more was that shown towards fellow human beings.  I routinely saw them be conscious of those extended family and friends who had helped them during trying times and be respectful of senior colleagues in the workplace that had mentored them in the incipient stages of their career.  In my own life, I have been the lucky recipient of each of these kinds of largesse.  And in my formative years, as much as I was a pampered single child, I was always expected to – no excuses or pampering there whatsoever! – acknowledge the people who were making an impact in my life, irrespective of the magnitude of the gesture or sentiment. 

This blog is too public a place (even for a relatively ‘open’ person like me!) for me to dwell too much on my immediate family, close friends and all the beautiful ways in which they have touched my life.  But across family, friends, peers, mentors in academia, work colleagues, and even people that I don’t know personally (authors and filmmakers, for instance), I am especially grateful for three things – moral support, well-meaning advice and inspiration for a different way of thinking. 

I am blessed with family and friends that are a diverse set of people.  But in their own way, they have, during times of distress, always given me the impression that I have people to whom my happiness means much.  As a recipient of this generosity, I have observed that I must not only respect people for support that is extended to me but also be mindful of the fact that forms of expression differ from person to person.  Some are eloquent, others may be awkward verbally but let their actions speak not ‘loudly’ but calmly and comfortingly.  But somehow the ineffable magic of empathy seems to differ only in language, not in intent, and certainly not in the secure feeling that I derive out of them.  I keep telling myself that I must be thankful for thoughtfulness of all types. 

The second thing that I am grateful for is meaningful advice.  As a person and as a professional, I have received advice, solicited and otherwise, of all kinds.  I may have an ego but I feel like I do have the humility to keep it in check when someone offers me constructive criticism.  At work, a senior colleague of mine gave me some sharp words of advice.  She asked if I wanted it sugar coated.  When I smilingly refused the offer of the coating, she threw the pill right at me, so to say!  She wanted me to give across more confident vibes at meetings, appearing prepared and looking ready to be in the driver’s seat, ready to move the conversation in the way I wanted, while factoring in inputs.  She gave me some concrete suggestions such as arriving to a presentation 10-15 minutes early to set up the projector, have an agenda slide up and be dialed in early enough to welcome remote participants.  None of this is rocket science but then again, we must only ask ourselves how often we find commonsensical things to be hidden in plain view! 

My colleague also did something that I find thoughtful givers of advice do – she gave me high level advice, some concrete suggestions but stopped there, asking me to ruminate and customize it.  She had the perspicacity to realize that any advice will stick and become a habit only when the receiver owns it, makes it authentic and gives shape to it in his or her way.  At certain meetings, for instance, I started creating a “Questions for Discussion” slide to foster discussion and seek input.  This was not something that she had specifically mentioned.  But it was only because of her planting the seed of preparation in my mind that I was now making new ideas germinate. 

Whenever I finish reading a book or watching a movie that has had a positive impact on me, I am filled with a tremendous sense of gratitude for its creator for the spark of inspiration that they light in me.  I especially have a lot of affection for creations that are grounded and true to life and, in the case of books, relatable.  Sheena Iyengar’s The Art of Choosing, Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, Anu Hasan’s Sunny Side Up and Adam Grant’s Give and Take and Option B (co-written by Sheryl Sandberg) are all works that have meant a lot to me.  They inspire me to think differently, to act differently.  Grant’s Give and Take is a case in point – this is the book that taught me to distinguish a ‘matcher’ (who indulges in a reciprocal but transactional relationship with people) from one whom he calls an ‘other-ish giver.’  These are people that are giving by nature but are aware of the fact that giving cannot come at their own expense.  They realize that giving can happen even when it is not at the expense of their own interests.  These people exercise self-control, demonstrate will power and are much wiser than those givers who ignore their self-interest altogether and end up feeling resentful and burnt out.  This is something that I can actually apply to not only my workplace but also my personal life.  I feel like I am able to make truly selfless givers be a little more focused on their own welfare despite having an inherent focus on others’ interests. 

Above all, Give and Take makes me see gratitude from a fresh perspective.  As I reflect on the book and try to personalize it, I see givers and receivers of support in a new light.  I have been fortunate enough to be on both sides of the fence.  In the few instances that I am in that blessed position to be a giver, I feel like I must have the self-control to emulate my colleague – offer support but neither spoon feed much nor expect the recipient to act upon everything to the letter.  As long as the core of the advice or the essence of the support is received in the spirit the giver intended, there is not much more that the giver should obsess about.  And as a receiver, it is imperative to do three things – to be grateful for the gift (of all kinds) received, be perceptive enough to customize it and be generous enough to pay it forward.  That way there are no strings attached by anyone.  But, quite magically, a never-ending chain of positivity, empathy and nurturing would envelop this world in a secure, sustaining manner.  It may be a utopian thought but I would rather try hard and even fail occasionally rather than regret missed opportunities owing to the lack of effort.  That would be my way of repaying the debt to the inspirations that have graced my life.


PS: Sincere thanks to one of the readers of this blog for suggesting this title when I shared the topic.  The person wanted to remain anonymous.  While I want to respect that, I couldn’t not thank this person, especially given the chosen topic!

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.