Sunday, August 20, 2017

And there was silence

Sanjay was the only child of a cricket player who went on to represent India.  But one didn’t have to know a thing about the sport or his father Vijay to get to know him because he never played or followed cricket.  His mother Lakshmi never had an issue with that.  What she had an issue with but rarely voiced was the chasm that existed between her religious beliefs and his atheistic leanings.  He would accompany her to temples but wait outside until she was finished.  She would pray for a bit more quiet to silence the din in Sanjay’s mind, a place where events from 1998 routinely paid a visit and played off-key notes.


March 20, 1998.  MAC stadium in Chennai, India. 

The stadium emanated heat like a frying pan.  Beads of sweat ran across Vijay’s forehead.  The heat was not the only culprit; the game had come down to the wire.  His opposition needed 16 runs to win off the last six balls, a stiff but not impossible task.  After he made changes to the field, he sprinted to his fielding position, barely a few feet away from the batsman. 

No sooner had the bowler completed his delivery stride than the batsman hit the ball in Vijay’s direction with the ferocity of a howitzer.  The ball traveled at a pace that even a cricketer blessed with Vijay’s reflexes could not stop the ball from hitting his forehead.  His wail echoed all around the stadium, most notably in the direction of Lakshmi who had been watching this from the pavilion, with six-year old Sanjay seated on her lap.  As Vijay collapsed, she rushed to his side. 

The clock in the hospital seemed frozen.  Lakshmi’s stomach felt like the insides of an overpowered blender.  She was surrounded by her family and Vijay’s teammates.  Meanwhile, Sanjay was at home wondering why his grandparents had come to spend the night with him.  As the doctors and nursing staff flitted in and out of sight, Lakshmi chanted prayers under her breath.  The silence was sickening; she could hardly hear her own prayers.  24 hours passed.  It felt more like 86,400 seconds.  The doctor walked up to her and said something that she heard but could barely register.  Regaining the voice in her mind, she signed a consent form.  As she got up from her chair, she shook the doctor’s hand and said, “Thank you for trying your best, Doctor.”

March 20, 2017.  MAC stadium again. 

Lakshmi held a gathering every year on this day, where she presented cash awards to three budding cricketers.  She alighted from her car along with Sanjay and her husband Anil – she had remarried in 2003. 

During the course of the ceremony, the batsman who had struck that unfortunate, fatal blow 19 years ago, walked up to Sanjay.   

He put his arm around Sanjay’s shoulder and said, “Sanjay, you know, I felt so miserable the day Vijay left us.  I wanted to quit the game.  But the day after the funeral, Lakshmi visited my house.  She comforted me and my wife that what had happened was an accident, that my going on to play well for India would be the best tribute to her husband, a person who simply loved the game, almost reverentially.  I don’t remember her exact words but they meant a lot to me, my career and my life.  And I thought you must know that.”

Sanjay smiled faintly and replied, “Thank you, Uncle.”

After the ceremony, as they approached their car, Sanjay said to Anil, “Pa, I need some time to myself.  Could you drive back home and I’ll come later?”

Anil smiled, patted him on his cheek as Lakshmi responded, “Don’t be late, okay?”

Sanjay went back into the desolate stadium.  Save the bees buzzing around, there was not a sound to be heard.  He stood behind the ropes, in front of the pavilion.  For a few seconds, his eyes were fixed on the area around the 22-yard pitch located at the center of the magnificent stadium.  He sat down on the grass and gazed at the stillness of the azure sky, vast in its expanse and rich in its simplicity.  He looked at the center pitch again and sported a smile.  By now, even those nearby bees couldn’t punctuate his silence.

Nowadays, whenever he accompanies Lakshmi, Sanjay continues to wait outside the temple.  But then, the means never mattered to Lakshmi.  


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Autograph Memories

Note: For the scenes described below, I have pointers to the specific portions of the youtube video (of the full movie) just above the snapshots.  The youtube video is embedded at the bottom of the article.  Thank you, Anu Warrier, for introducing me to your style of movie essays - that's the format that I have adopted for this piece.

A bunch of friends are having a get-together at a restaurant.  They await the arrival of Divya, the lone girl in their group.  She walks in wearing a checked shirt, carrying a backpack, sporting an unfussy hairstyle, her hair kept in place by a black band.  Looking a little pensive, she apologizes for being tardy.  When her friend inquires, she responds by stating that she bumped into her former beau.  As he (wrongly) guesses the nature of the meeting, her face slowly turns red.  Unable to digest her friend’s comments, she stands up in the middle of the restaurant and creates a bit of a scene, slapping her friend.  Regaining composure, with her eyes welling up, she explains to him that the reason she could face her ex was because of the security that his friendship offered her.  This explanation, coming from a girl who had attempted suicide after being spurned by her boyfriend, says a lot that there is to be said about the ability of a genuine friendship to offer a sturdy pillar of support when the emotional foundation of a person is on shaky ground.  Sneha, the actress playing the role of Divya, handles this scene exquisitely.  Anger, sadness and strength all form part of the gamut of emotions she undergoes in this sequence.  She expresses and internalizes in equal measure – this balance is what makes her performance in Autograph the crown jewel of her career. 

Scene starts at the 2:03:40 min point

This ‘balance’ deserves elaboration especially because the creative brain behind this movie – writer and director Cheran – is not known for understatement.  Cheran’s movies invariably elicit polarizing opinions.  Some find them unbearably preachy but others find them sweetly old fashioned.  Irrespective of the camp one belongs to, it is hard to deny the strength of some of his characters.  Actors like Parthiban who can internalize effectively (Bharathi Kannamma) can serve as a counterpoint to the dramatism (sometimes loudness) of the scenes, making the characters lifelike and the sequences more realistic.  Never has this been illustrated better in Cheran’s oeuvre than in Sneha’s masterful performance here.  An actress blessed with large, expressive eyes, Sneha had the acting chops to make her emoting look effortless.  Rarely did she look awkward on screen because she seldom tried to oversell a moment.  But on the other hand, for tragic sequences, she used every facial muscle to bring the moment to life.  The scene where she realizes that her mother has passed away is a case in point.  Especially poignant is the way she cradles her mother, tearing up uncontrollably.  It is raw, powerful emotion erupting out of a face that looks like it stored each iota of sadness in every cell only for them to tear asunder.

Sequence begins at the 2:14:21 min point

Two other moments deserve mention because Sneha, at first glance, might appear to do very little.  But owing to the thoughtful writing and deft direction, she is resplendent.  The first of this is the brief scene outside the orphanage where she has decided to live, following the death of her mother.  Her friend Cheran is a little upset with her decision but understands and respects her choice, describing the inevitability of separations in a relationship.  We hear her voice (splendid voice work by Savitha) in the background as she talks affectionately, almost reverentially, about her friendship with him.  The casualness of Sneha’s body language is in perfect contrast to the heavy duty lines that we hear in the background.  As I mentioned earlier, you need a natural like her to make this kind of drama work.

2:19:36 min point -- 

The other moment is in the climax at the wedding hall.  In a small but lovely moment sans any dialogue, Sneha teases Cheran for removing his beard.  The impish smile is just about perfect given the comfort level that exists between them.  Again, this is an instance of a talented actor bringing a touch that helps make the character well-rounded. 

2:36:30 min point -- 

In the hero-dominated world of Tamil cinema, it is rare to find well-fleshed out characters for women.  But upon closer inspection, the true torchbearers of sensible cinema have always invested their female leads with agency.  Seasoned veterans like Balachander, Mahendran, Mani Ratnam and Vasanth to the latest generation of filmmakers like Karthik Subburaj (Anjali and Pooja Devariya in Iraivi) and Seenu Ramasamy (Tamanna in Dharmadurai) may have had markedly different filmmaking styles.  But the one common aspect of these perspicacious creators is their vision to project their women through the lens of feminism and not just through the male gaze which can be sometimes be covered with the blinders of chauvinism and sexism.  It is when we see roles such as Sneha's in Autograph that we see the value of this thoughtfulness.  Sincere thanks to Cheran and to Sneha for giving me such an abiding memory of a well-etched character in an unforgettable movie. 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Meet my Philosopher

4 pm at the Starbucks near the Germantown Mall in Memphis.  The time and place have not changed since 2001.  As is always the routine, I arrive a few minutes early and get a seat near the window.  As I see her walk towards the store, I head out to open the door for her. 

In the late 90s, the US immigration authorities had opened their doors for her and her family to enter this country as refugees from the Middle East.  Sincere thanks to them, for I have known her since our undergrad days in Memphis.  It was in 2001 that I moved out of Memphis.  And every time I return there to visit my parents, the meeting with Awaz is the one inflexible appointment on my calendar.

We order our teas and settle into our chairs. 

She looks at me for an extra fraction of a second and says, “You look healthy.”

I smile at the observation and reply, “You’ve lost a ton of weight.  Are you enjoying your yoga sessions?”

“Oh yes, I am.”

As we pick up our teas, the conversation shifts to my wife Nandu, who couldn’t join me on that trip. 

“So, how is Nandu doing?” she asks.

“She is good.  Since the last time we came here, I think she is much happier.  You can ask her if you’d like!”

Her smile reaches her blue-green eyes and her sigh of relief is definite, even audible!


On our previous trip to Memphis eight months prior, Nandu had taken Awaz into confidence and shared with her a few details of our arguments and squabbles, seeking her advice.  The root cause had been my inflexibility and tendency to impose my value system and beliefs on Nandu.

It had been a rather delicate balancing act for Awaz.  She said to Nandu – in my presence, I might add - “You both mean a lot to me.  You might feel sad and disappointed with his recent behavior.  But just remember that he is a good guy.  Both of us know that.”  Awaz then turned towards me, looked at me intently and said, “You are my best friend.  So, I am going to take the privilege to tell you what you could do differently.  I am even okay if you get angry with me.  But I feel it is my responsibility.  You have to see things more from her perspective…”  And she proceeded to tell me in the sweetest, most polite manner that I was being incorrigible! 

In the period between the two trips to Memphis, there were several instances when arguments would be nipped in the bud because Nandu would gently remind me of Awaz’s advice.  And for her part, Nandu began to cut me slack because of Awaz’s suggestion to be a tad more patient with me. 


4:25 pm.  As we indulge in our marble loaves, I rib her, “Remember, you and Nandu gave me a 10/10 for how good a friend I am and a 6/10 for how good of a spouse I am to Nandu!  How about revising that score, Philosopher?” 

(‘Philosopher’ was the nickname that I had coined for Awaz during the previous trip!)

“Hmm, I’ll have to ask Nandu if she would give you an 8,” she says gleefully.  And to rub it in, adds, “Maybe an 8.2 - how about that?!”

“That’s so generous,” I quip.

After we confabulate for a while, it is time to leave.  As we walk out of the store, I feel heavier than usual, not really wanting to bid goodbye.  I should actually be feeling light, I tell myself.  I had acted on some well-meaning advice from a dear friend and as a result, my wife is quite happy.  So am I. 

As we hug each other, she says, “Please tell Nandu that I am so happy for the two of you.”

I choke a little and faintly respond, “Sure.  Do visit us in Philly.”

As I drive back to my parents’ home in Memphis, thoughts about Awaz flood my mind like the aftermath of a broken dam.  I realize that the heaviness that I had felt a little earlier was the result of my feeling overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for a friend that understands me deeply.  So deep that she had made me introspect and realize that a relationship rooted in non-judgmental behavior and sprinkled with generous doses of empathy will lend a protective shadow when things heat up.

Akin to the predictable cadence of waves on a balmy Spring day at the shore are the vibes of understanding from a genuine friend.  Sure, there are things that must be completely private between a husband and wife.  But there are times when a voice of reason from a caring soul can sometimes be that wave that touches you, urging you to securely hold your partner’s hand, while washing away any feelings of rancor. 

I then pick up the phone, intending to ask Nandu if she would give me an 8.2!  We talk for a few minutes.  For some reason, the question feels unnecessary.  And I leave it at that!


I am pleased and honored to have gotten into the top three list in this week's non-fiction grid.  Sincere thanks to everyone that voted for me. 

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.


Monday, May 15, 2017

Between the Lines: A few thoughts on long-distance friendships

Handwritten greetings.  There is something about putting pen to paper.  Something in that ink – yes, I still use fountain pens – makes thoughts flow, I suppose!  Sending greeting cards along with a one-page letter via postal mail is a habit that I have had for the past 18 years.  My Chinna Thatha, who passed away rather suddenly in 2005, used to send me handwritten cards when I was young.  I even remember how he used to sign off – “Out of natural love and affection, R Varadarajan.”  I somehow found the word “natural” enormously touching.  I wonder if it is the rather special feeling that his cards gave me that made me pick up this habit.  18 years ago.  That was when I completed high school.  That was when I left the shores of Chennai and migrated with my parents to the US.  And that was when I bid goodbye to my group of friends at the Anna International Airport.  These friends form a very important part of my identity.  The space that I give myself on this blog is incredibly Lilliputian for me to start writing about each of them.  But there is one facet that I think I can do justice to – the long distance aspect of friendships.

Save a short period when one of these friends and I were roommates, I have not lived in the same city as any of them in these past 18 years.  All of them except one (who lives in Dubai) live in the US, none within a decent drivable distance.  Of course, thanks to technological advances, communication itself has become easier.  But the truth is, we live in a fast paced world.  As familial responsibilities and professional ambitions vie for time, space, not to mention energy, there are periods of silence.  Amid these stretches of time, handwritten wishes for birthdays are a mere tool that breaks the silence ephemerally.  It is a fleeting voice of emotion, an expression of a genuine sentiment.  But there are lot more spaces between the lines, so to say.  And, owing to extended periods with minimal communication, it is not a question of reading between the lines.  It is a question of filling in the blanks. 

Where there is trust, the process of filling in your own blanks works in the most fulfilling kind of way.  With this set of friends, the blanks have been akin to those pregnant pauses between two notes of scintillating, evocative music.  But outside of this group, I must say that I have had instances where the gaps have been filled with so much resentment and bitterness that the residual sadness has been analogous to the seemingly interminable pauses during a funeral dirge.   And, I would be utterly dishonest if I were to not take a fair share for the blame for relationships that went awry.

A couple of months back, I sent a card to a friend from my high school gang for his birthday.  In my usual one-page letter, I recounted how much a recent meeting, after three years, meant to me.  It was the first time after my Aunt’s passing away that I had met him.  He had, in an unfortunate coincidence, lost his Uncle in the intervening period.  When we had met, we spoke of our respective grieving experiences until the wee hours of the morning.  And in my card, I wrote that that meant much to me.  So, you would think that he would respond at least with a Whatsapp message that he received the card.  Well, you’d be wrong. (His wife, thankfully, acknowledged the card!)  But the funny thing is that I did not feel an iota of anger.  And trust me, I was not known for subtlety and understatement in the early years of our friendship.  Somehow, I just knew instinctively that the letter made him smile.  He might have shown it to his parents who are visiting him.  Or maybe he thought it was too sentimental and didn’t know how to respond!  I have no idea.  But there was something very satisfying about the fact that I could, in my mind’s eye, see him open the card and pause to reflect on its contents.  The 'blank' felt anything but that.  And I must thank my friend for having invested so much in our friendship that even in the absence of a response, I walked away with a special feeling.

Outside of this group, I have also had relationships where a failure to invest in quality time in one another during times of need and a lack of judgment around when the silences were too prolonged, proved to be a fatal one-two punch to the core of the friendship.  The mistakes that I made were twofold.  I assumed that the foundation of the relationship was unshakable.  As a result, I found it difficult to accept a changed dynamic that stemmed out of a strong reaction to perceived apathy on my part.  And worse, I did not make enough of an effort to communicate, not just talk, with the people concerned.  After a while, the blanks ceased to exist.  Not for a good reason – the ‘sentence’ just ended abruptly.  Every healthy relationship has as a core, a few hallmarks, a few traits that lend a unique kind of beauty to it.  When that core foundation of trust is shaken, the friends cease to be secure pillars of support to one another.  The pillars just collapse in a heap.  And the resultant rubble is a painful sight.  Which pillar collapsed quicker is an utterly needless question.  And so, pointing fingers can be an indulgent but ultimately futile exercise.

One of the reasons why Anu Hasan’s “Sunny Side Up” meant a lot to me was because she wrote honestly about failed friendships where each person had given the other a long enough rope and yet both parties felt like they were at the end of their tether.  Reflecting on my own successful and doomed friendships, I thought about the importance of exercising judgment and cutting some slack when it mattered the most.  But the book also gave me a sense of comfort and even closure, that as long as I am conscientious, I have to sometimes accept that certain relationships weren’t meant to last a lifetime.  That I am better off focusing on the lessons learned.  That if I keep watering the roots of my relationships with consistent sprinkles of trust, honesty, humor and empathy, the friendships will continue to be the deep-rooted and protective.  Then the birthday cards and one-page letters simply punctuate the silences in an immensely gratifying manner.  Even a friend’s failure to respond to a greeting just serves to then fill a blank with an amusing thought that culminates in the most comforting of punctuation marks - an exclamation point!