Why 2.0 did not work for me

That large bird surveilling the city’s sky looked vicious. It felt that real when seen through the 3D glasses, that I even fended a few times from my seat. The mere sight of a sea of mobiles ringing together, before hacking into a victim was perversely a beautiful sight to behold, notwithstanding the underlying element of gore. I watched it in a theatre, the seats of which vibrated every time these killer phones came alive in unison. The production value was top notch, though I could’ve done with a little less of being in the face. It’s a visual experience as much an aural one. 2.0 had all the kitschy elements you find in a Michael Bay tent pole. But something was amiss. No denying the spectacle it was, but it was a kind of soulless affair which keeps throwing things at us in the hope that something would stick. And the same can be said about Shankar’s 2.0 version, post Anniyan.

Take for instance, the Chennai we see. After Kadhal Desam’s cutting edge PCOs and ice cream bearing trees, it’s probably the most wildly imaginative depiction of Chennai. The roads are bordered with glass castles and skyscrapers, constantly beautifying the city’s skyline, with only police stations,Thirukazhikundrum and Lalita Jewellery outlets looking like precincts of good old Chennai. Glad that they kept talking months without years. The Chennai in 2.0 reminded me of heroines from the director’s movies. They might be called Thenmozhi, Susheela, Sana, Diya, Madhu. And these women might be village belles, Mylapore bound TamBrams, a break inspector’s daughter, if not S.Ve.Sekar’s. But one thing that unites them all is the fact that they look absolutely alien to us and belong in a set in Mumbai.

All the Shankar tropes are in place here as well: system wronging an individual. Individual making futile attempts to fix the system. System ignoring individual. Individual turning into a vigilante force who choreographs really cool looking murders, while not breaking into statistical sermons. Just that this time around, the hero isn’t the said individual, but the villain. Suddenly we’re left with a moral conundrum of whose side to take: that of a smart ass humanoid saying corny things or a bird loving dead man who has been wronged. This screws up with our reflexes, when blows are traded. We don’t know to wolf whistle or feel bad. And it doesn’t help that the scientist who makes all these humanoids is one of the blandest cardboard characters ever conceived.

Ideally these futuristic exodus movies will have a modest human as the story’s hero, thrust in the middle of things beyond his control or comprehension. He would be scurrying— through gladiatorial bouts between towering creatures as skyscrapers tumble and tectonic plates open up —from one set piece to another. It is through this character’s travails and his eventual triumph, that we empathize and become invested in these out worldly happenings. This is what, in my opinion went wrong with 2.0. After a point, the movie becomes all about the one upmanship between a robot and a ghost. Robot throws things. Ghost throws things back. Ghost transforms into fancy things. Robot transforms into fancier things. There’s absolutely no human perspective. Rinse. Repeat. And apparently we’re supposed to make do with reaction shots of random junior artists and smaller/fancier robots turning up to save this robot. As a result, we feel no real connection. We don’t really care who comes on top. And quickly we begin to feel like being trapped inside a video game, which just wouldn’t stop.

Another aspect in Shankar films I’ve been peeved off late are the juvenile dialogues.
If it was “Six ku aprom Seven da, Sivaji ku aprom yavan da?” or “Ivanga ellam city la top ten rowdies” in Sivaji, it is, “Number one. Number two lam papa vilaiyatu. Naan eppome Super one.” or “King of birds, king of robots is coming” here.
Writing with children in mind is one thing. Writing childlishly is another. Understood you’ve set out to create a humanoid that plays out to the gallery, but should it speak like an angry fifteen year old every time it’s rubbed the wrong way?

And last but not the least, Rajni. He’s one of those rare actors you watch and instantly realise that it’s almost impossible to hate him. Seeing him look like a kati roll wrapped in aluminium foil or a transsexual DJ in a shady Thailand pub is deeply unsettling.We’re witnessing the evening of his career. But what hurts is the grace without which it is happening. His version 2.0 also like Shankar’s has been a pale shadow of his once illustrious self. The signature sonic gait has slowed considerably. The baritone that had given content for a generation’s T-shirt graffiti is shaky. Age seems to have had the better of him, finally. And it doesn’t help that the directors off late seem hell bent on tainting the halo. Barring Sivaji, Rajnism seems to have got lost in translation in the last decade or so. Be it Chandramukhi where Jothika overshadowed him, the VFX addled Endhiran, the forgettable Lingaa, the unnecessarily over serious socio-political hotchpoch that Kabali was or the angry anti-Hindutva blog that Kaala‘s script was, the spotlight seems to have shifted. He isn’t the guy who does the heavy lifting anymore. It’s either another character, a concept or the director’s ideology which hogs the centre stage, with him being a cog in its service. Not a bad thing at all, for an uninitiated movie buff maybe. But ask the three generations of fans, who’ve been raised in stories that were there in Rajni films and not Rajni there in stories, they would strongly disagree.

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Vada Chennai- A fable of Karma,destiny, cause and effect

My face was gleaming with that radiance as I was walking out of Vada Chennai, which usually comes at the end of an overwhelming piece of cinema. It was delicious. I hadn’t felt this content in a while at the cinemas. On the way back, as the high had subsided, I was musing on the myriad blood dripping episodes, over and over again. There was just one underlying thread, one direction all the chaos condensed towards; an overarching motif- Karma. Suddenly the tea bag I had appropriated from the office pantry seemed like a bad idea.

To me, Karma has always been this Utopian watchdog fantasy propogated by a bunch of altruists to keep anarchy at bay. Do good, you’ll be done good. Fuck up, Karma will chase you like a rabied dog to bite you back. This LHS equals RHS— sooner or later —symetry of dividend accruing over deeds seemed too mythological for my vision, that’s been trained in the commonplace of “nows” and “hows”. But Vada Chennai got me pondering, what with the history repeating with the unhurried fuss of shifting tectonic plates. Every event not only has a cause and effect, but with time goes on to cause and effect something or someone else. Like a grand betrayal of a bunch of cohortst that ebbs into a gory murder. None of them, aware enough about what they’ve set to motion. All of them do go on to graze greener pastures at the other end of this severe moral compromise, but not at the price they had set aside. Each of them gets earmarked, sized up from the moment they betrayed; swung their knives. The backstabber begets a backstabber, both literally and figuratively. A casual stabber casually gets stabbed back in time. The once underdog opposers of the establishment eventually go on to become one, to only find themselves opposed, again by an underdog. Every happening in the present, seems to be an echo from the past. Even the seemingly insignificant domestic designs- like the timid younger brother of a numero uno or the self reference to an anchor at the end of a tussle with a cop. The stray events that seem so, at least when they occur, go on to form meticulous cogs in an unforgetting wheel. Seen in retrospect, after the storm settles, it all seems like a part of an elaborate, dense design put together by destiny ever so slowly, that we don’t really know the sea bed these sediments were coming together for.

Who knew I would end up walking out with a new found reverence for Karma after a gangster flick. But that’s what god cinema does, it surprises you in ways you can’t imagine. It lends fresh perspective to predispositions. It becomes cathartic. And what better way to learn life, than as a mute witness to the life of others.  Thank you Vetrimaaran for sharing this epic tale of love, betrayal, revenge and self discovery, Karma feels like a fathomable poetic justice, not the alien eastern promise it used to be.

Roast of Aravindha Sametha Veera Raghava

After seeing Aravindha Sametha Veera Raghava, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the thought train that would’ve inundated Trivikram’s head and the kind of discussions that would’ve gone into the story discussion.

Cast a Shruti Haasan prototype, but with a nice tan and give her a masculine name……Aravindha! Tick
Next…let’s cast a erstwhile comedian who’s grown like a tree and give him a rather feminine name……Neelambari.Tick
Wow…that’s some severe blend of novelty and irony there. The catharsis has begun, Agnyaathavasi is a distant nightmare……I hope.
Now what about the title, it needs to empower the fairer sex and the tiger fans,all at once, while sounding mythical and cool.
Aravindha met Veera?….that’s like Harry met Sally, plagiarism is a subtle art, plus this movie involves thigh pounding fascists and that’s too urban sounding.

Hears Radha Sametha Krishna playing on the radio, across the balcony where the story development is taking place.

Yes. Yes. Got the title. Aravindha Sametha Veera Raghava. And we let a VFX dove flap its wings to make the title appear. Masterpiece. My pen hasn’t hit menopause.

A bunch of ADs enter the room.

“I’ve always cast ailing/wheelchair bound patriarchs in my movies. But that’s changed. This one’s different. I need a matriarchal presence in this fascistic chaos. How would that woman, who played a similar part in Ramleela be?
“How about Ramya Krishna guruji, she’s a solid actress and knows the language too”, an AD faintly chips in from a corner.
“It might be a Telugu movie. It might be peppered with chaste telugu words and analogies throughout its run time. But what’s an epic without irony. And what better irony than casting Bollywood A-listers with not the slightest inkling of what they’re speaking, as an emotional dubbing artist slogs in tandem to them chewing gum. It worked with Mukesh Rishi, Boman Irani, Paresh Rawal and I don’t see why it should be any different with Supriya Pathak ?”

“Now that’s sorted. How do the titular character meet? Meet-cute or we make the nature conspire their bonding in a rather, dramatic fashion?”
“Casually guruji, like a few run-ins, probably a common friend, conversations and eventually they fall for each other like regular people.”, AD sipping on green tea.

“We don’t have time for all that. She runs from goons. Young tiger rescues her obviously. And she makes him smile, so he decides to move in with her family because he likes that.”
“WT…..Wow”, AD’s spilt his green tea in disbelief, while falling off his bean bag.

“And remember Sunil’s track from Jalsa, were he keeps misunderstanding his doctor’s advice over phone. Same way, this Aravindha chick keeps saying random crap, but it ends up giving young tiger life altering epiphanies. To make matters interesting, she’s an anthropologist doing research on fascism. Her laptop’s got some cool evolution art on its rear to add credence to this claim. And through all this, she doesn’t know she’s housing a fascist scion at home. Wow, I’m on fire.”

The ADs slow clap, as the din of falling standards fill up the air conditioned room.

“Ok guruji, now that young tiger’s in the city, how do the enemies come to know of his whereabouts?”, an AD quizzes.
“Destiny operates in mysterious ways.”, Trivikram giggles.
“Guruji!?”
“Heroine’s brother has got a story telling competition at school and our hero tells his own tragic story with pseudonyms instead. The kid wins the contest. The published story reaches the villain. He unleashes his unbathed cabal of hooligans on the poor kid.And we have a path-breaking action block in the kid’s school corridors.”

“Interval. Let’s break for lunch.”

“Heat of the summer on my neck…..chirping of the birds above.”
“Guruji?”
“He came at me with the speed of a cheetah……truth is like the murmur of the earthworm….cool of the moon kissed night sky”
“Guruji, where you going with this?”
“I need these lines to come in the movie.”
“Guruji, but this is 2018 and we’re making a contemporary movie, people don’t speak this way and it’ll look odd.”
“Ask Tarak to make a morose, semi-constipated face and look towards the camera empathetically while doling out these lines, it will add gravitas. They’ve seen the tiger roar, not wax metaphorically. It’s a Trivikram celluloid after all.”

“Where do we use the Peniviti song, there’s no place for it?”, AD bites his tongue tip.
“I’m glad you asked. We show the relationship with his mother and how home sick he’s become through montages and subtle choreography.”
“Guruji, but the only conversation he’s had with his mother through the movie running time is a goodbye without eye contact.”
“Emotions needn’t be shown, they have to be felt. And more importantly, that’s the job of a chartbuster song with emotional lyrics, right?”
“Yes guruji.” AD feels numb as he can hear his brain cells crack up.

Agnyaathavaasi was an one off. This one’s a winner. I’ve reinvented the wheel. In fact I’m the wheel. And my pen can squirt ink.

“Script locked. Let’s go for shoot.”

“Jai Mahishmathi!”, ADs implode with a straight face.

A love letter to Sathyam

Whether watching movies in Chennai grew, as a habit due to Sathyam or Sathyam grew due to the habit is one egg-hen conundrum for every Chennaite. What we all know is it is a beloved place, that feels like a home away from home while we go to watch movies. The “Main Screen” is ours. It’s butter popcorn is ours. In short it’s ours.
Here are a few reasons from the top of my mind, about what makes it a cut above the rest.

A landmark to a generation’s love for movies
Usually places that keep doing what they set out to fairly well. become landmarks over a period of time. While the generic landmark comes in handy while navigating from one place to another, there are a few that come to become landmarks to a phase of life, identity or a passion to every soul in a place. Sathyam that way is very personal landmark to Chennai’s movie watching habit. As a millennial, I’ve seen it stand witness to the beginning of theatre going habit to many, cultivating love for films in some, while curating the same in the seasoned. It is safe to say that, watching movies suddenly became a cool activity in this part of the world, thanks to Sathyam. And it’s surprising to see it’s undeterred impact on the next generation as well. Along with Bessy, Marina and ECR, it’s among the non-negotiably integrated identities of the city; the sentiment which probably lead to the widespread fracas and dissent on social media when news of a takeover by PVR made its way.

“To watch a movie you could go anywhere, but to be in one, you had to be at Satyam.”
Ask any self respecting movie buff in Chennai, what wee hours of Wednesday means to them,  phat would come the response- “Sathyam’s upcoming Friday schedule.“. It’s that time of the week, you ought to be glued to the SPI app to land good seats for catching up with a biggie on its opening weekend. Chennai and its suburbs might be mushrooming with theatres— both, single screens and multiplexes — but everyone of them is an eternal second choice to Sathyam. If watching a FDFS of a big star’s movie is in itself a big deal, watching it at Sathyam is even bigger. So what is it that makes Sathyam the cherry on top of a cinematic experience? Is it the immersive experience they bring in each screen, be it quality of projection or their intricately designed surround sound systems. Or is it their sinful butter popcorn and cold coffee. Not to mention, the dim-lit regal rest rooms with king size mirrors, built to pamper the garden-variety narcissist within each patron. We can never pick one reason.

Ersatz pulse to a movie’s health
Off late it’s becoming increasingly difficult to judge a movie’s credential. Every Friday sees the release of a new movie and several reviews and reviewers, calling it divine,good, bad and ugly according to their whims and fancies. With everyone with a grammar and a smartphone rendered reviewer, the objectivity to this thing that masquerades as word of mouth in social media has become blurry. But people who know Sathyam, know better. If a movie’s booking status is lush green on a weekend, it’s a rejected disaster. If it’s a sea of red on a Tuesday evening, you know it’s a bonafide blockbuster. If it’s a solid movie with growing word of mouth, you would see it climb from a smaller screen to a bigger one. The vice versa applies to a god awful movie. In short, this is the pulse to hold, to know a movie’s health.

And the obvious value for money
I remember walking into the Palazzo for the first time, the jaw kept dropping as the chandeliers suspended from the steep ceiling; the embellished walls and the tasteful lighting made me feel like a pygmy stepping into an opera house. I had similar feelings when Escape opened. All their properties feel swanky, each with a certain allure and personality, while continuing to feel like Sathyam. I’m not sure if the pricing cap is a thing of their making or not, but I’m surprised by the mere fact that their price continues to remain extremely affordable as they keep setting the bar, higher and higher as far as quality of experience goes. You couldn’t agree more, if you’ve been to multiplexes in other cities. The novelty doesn’t exist, leave alone at this level. The experience feels extremely franchise bound, not to mention impersonal. And did I say, you ought to pay a little more than a flight ticket over a weekend, to get a movie ticket?

Geetha Govindam- A highly entertainining, yet problematic movie

I remember this one particular interview of Vijay Devarakonda. It was on the heels of the release of Arjun Reddy, which was quickly turning into an avalanche of sorts in Indian cinema. It wasn’t one of those padded-insulated vanilla affairs, in the sense that it did away with the usual vanity riddled surface level enquiries . It was intentionally uncomfortable and there was no beating around the bush.

But what caught my attention was the grace with which these questions were handled. Vijay Devarakonda spoke about the sanctity of kissing and how it was different from sex and lust. While the anchor went on a condescending tirade, enumerating the number of cigars stubbed, drugs abused and liquor bottles emptied— not to mention the cuss words spoken to the fairer sex —through the movie’s running course, here was a man preserving the movie’s dignity and intention, while holding on to his own in great style. Suddenly Arjun Reddy felt more than just a movie. It was a moment. It marked the victory of a piece of art forged with the highest form of dedication and passion, by well intentioned gentlemen who wore their hearts on their sleeves. And there was finally a hero, who didn’t need weird monikers before his name, to join the galaxy littered with a lot of lineage produced stars. It was heartening to see someone among us occupy the ivory towers.

That’s probably why Geetha Govindam didn’t work for me as much. Agreed, not every other movie is going to be an avant garde offering. But there were some plot contrivances that didn’t just feel cliched, which is totally fine as far as I enjoy my popcorn. They were problematic. Take for instance, the creepy manner in which the hero attempts a selfie in a moving bus, with a girl who’s asleep. Or how he later chastises a similarly(or even more) disturbing display of fondness by another girl. Or the worst of all, how the girl from the bus returns his favour with an attempted selfie while he’s asleep or her reason to fall in love with him.
These aren’t mere jolly good overtures that can be brushed under the rug, for some innocent comic relief like the movie nudges us into buying with its feel good staging and musical cues. These are outright displays of disturbing behaviour, with dollops of double standards. When would our mainstream filmmakers understand that being creepy ain’t cute?

In a movie like Arjun Reddy, sex, substance abuse, expletives blended organically with the narrative . They set the mood. They were the fizz to his cola. They weren’t mere vanity prone idiosyncrasies and indulgences, but scaffolding that held the protagonist together in that dark phase of his life. While they would act as an ersatz crutch, they would eventually come to cause his fall. In a way, they completed his character arc. In other words their reason to exist was justified. Unlike the overall stalkery and creepiness that get doled out as innocent acts of romance in Geetha Govindham.

Let me make one thing clear. I’m not some tightly-wound prude who polices the conduct of onscreen activities for a want of a better identity. I step into a mainstream film, with my brains left far behind. I’ve got no problem buying into loopholes and cinematic liberties, as far as it is entertaining. I was one of those people who fell in love with the violent sequence by the waterfall, in which Bahubali confronts Avanthika with her femininity. It was sensual and done in good taste. And more importantly, it felt aesthetic given that it was a periodic film.

None of this is to say that GG doesn’t entertain. It delivers big time on all counts. The songs are gorgeous. It’s got some really great production value that renders each frame with a screensaver quality. The performances are terrific across the board. It’s just the fact that I found it hard to stomach the ticks that came along as innocent or incidental. All the more from the guy who gave me Pellichoopulu and Arjun Reddy. And not to mention, that interview.

Kamal Haasan- The star finally descends from his sky

I remember the night before the bookings opened for the first Vishwaroopam. Trust me, it was a bloodbath and in a matter of few minutes the entire weekend including Monday was sold out. People who tried getting tickets for the first weekend in any self respecting theatre in Chennai would agree with me. Friends and acquaintances were in touch with one another over phone to see if there was an eleventh hour ticket favour to extract. As Aandavar fans, it was both, a proud and restless time to be. The movie hadn’t released in the state for an entire week, but the reviews from overseas(where it had released) were overwhelmingly positive. It was embroiled in convoluted controversies, political and religious, with the ruling govt and several fringe outfits. But ask any fanboy of the actor who has been around long enough, he would vouch that this was the kind of trailer that generally precedes a storm in the theatres. Some memories from this phase would go on to bookmark this chapter as an extremely special one, as far as crazy display of love for a star goes. Like the powerful speech by the man himself from his Alwarpet office’s terrace, addressing an angry crowd of loyalists to keep calm and disburse. Or the fact that thousands— like yours truly, who were too lazy to cast vote in a polling booth next door —went to other states to catch a dekho, for we just couldn’t just afford to see him vulnerable and helpless. We were the minions chipping in to move the mountain for him. Unsurprisingly, these glitches didn’t deter the hype and earth shattering response it got at the ticket windows, when it finally released in the state. The lines from the title track,”Thadaigalai Vendre, Sarithiram padaipavan, Gyanabagam Varugiradha” assumed a gravitas beyond the context of the film.

This part of the world, we celebrate….scratch that, worship our movie stars as demigods if the endless shower of milk on fifty feet cutouts are anything to go by. We like them in their abodes as inaccessible larger than life beings, who come alive only in their 70MM extensions sporadically, which we catch a glimpse of at ungodly hours in the dark of nondescript theatres. That’s the reason for the fourth wall breaking dialogues and winks to exist in these star vehicles. Not as devices to further the story’s cause, but to ensure that the theatrical experience is an endorphin addled affair.
While in most parts of the world, movies are merely a source of entertainment and an exercise to pass time; here they’re that and a lot more. They’re extremely personal. They’re personality forming devices, that lend dimensions to other wise modest men with nothing home to write about. Ask the millenials, we would tell you what being a Kamal fan meant to a friend who was a Rajni fan and vice versa. Often than not, a room with the two of them felt like a pressure cooker about to burst upon. These weren’t mere individuals who wore make up and took up pseudonyms in front of the camera. They stood for a certain preference in art form. A certain sensibility. And the cold war between the two legions were largely, two school of thoughts coming against each other in an never ending one-upmanship, veiled on the surface as hits vs flops and expletives conversations. At the heart of all this, was the fact that the two stars in question, were in a distant sky from where they would descend to the silver screens to compete and at times interact with one other, through their movies and fans. Beyond this they existed through their songs and popular lines, scripting popular culture in tandem with their whims and fancies. They wouldn’t give interviews. Their public appearances were few and far between. They wouldn’t put their weight behind commercial brands like their peers in the north. Only information available to their respective core constituencies were through grapevine and unverified gossip, leaving everything else to one’s imagination; endowing them with an enigmatic aura. While one did everything to keep this intact, the other did everything in his power to break away from the mould.

In a culture of worship, the God remains ensconced in the sanctum sanctorum, while his devotees form a beeline outside to catch a glimpse. This status quo changes, the moment the God steps out to the streets. The paradigm changes. No more do they need to look up to someone who’s amongst them. He becomes amythical. His accessibility dissolves their devotion. And the religion crumbles.

For ardent followers like me, this phase that started a few years ago, came as a surprise when the hitherto elusive star started opening up, in fact a little too much. There was a time I remember, when I had to wait for a rare cover story in Vikatan to get a glimpse of his recent looks in a film or his two cents on an issue. Since I couldn’t read in Tamil that fluently and it was a Haasan interview, I remember asking my grandma to do the honours. It all started I guess, when he came on Super Singer. Seeing him in that program felt inexplicably wrong. His king size stature felt bizarre and out of place in a show involving amateur singers. The idea behind it was so uncanny. The thought that the Kamal Haasan needed a prime time slot in a household show, to reach to the masses felt redundant and unsettling. I slighted it as an one off occurence. But more was to come.

He was at every other film event or they happened in his backyard, quite literally. Then Twitter happened or he happened to it. And endless chaste Tamil/English limericks and cryptic tweets starting making their way into our timelines. From talking about him on social media, to talking to him there; it had come a full circle. From inhabiting our imagination, to leaving nothing to it, my God had stepped out of the sanctum sanctorum. From then on it’s been a slow painful exercise in alienation and detriment. First we got to see him in an hitherto unseen ad campaign for Pothy’s. Then came the advent into small screen with Big Boss, a show designed as an antithesis for everything his body of work stood for. He was ubiquitous- in posters, hoardings, TV spots and newspapers, only that this time, none of this marketing avalanche concerned a film starring him. Then came the last straw, his political entry. Whatever little was left of that once comet-sized aura, was gone. Call it a job hazard, but he was available in every district  and on every stage in it; every terminal and every memorial. Switch on the TV, he was there. Switch it off, he was there on Youtube. Come out of it, he was tweeting about an ongoing crisis. And like that, my favourite star-mentor was doing everything in his power to dismantle the halo around his head.

No wonder, the bookings for Vishwaroopam-2 were lacklustre at the ticket windows. I was appalled to see the movie open with a video about his poltiical party. This was not the Kamal I revered. It was the first show and the theatre was brimming with die hard fans, who were waiting to wolf whistle at his first appearance; which came in the form of a three minute documentary of his recent political outings. By the time his character, Wizam appeared onscreen the steam had already run out. Maybe like the movie, this phase is also a sequel starring the star of the first film, but with an altogether different stature and a different role to play. It was after all natural for the Sun to set on this horizon as well, just that it took close to six decades for the evening to come.

 

Goodachari- A loving ode to the spy genre

In the initial portions of the movie we’re shown Arjun a.k.a Gopi as an orphaned child; he constantly keeps asking about his deceased father to his foster one, to only be met with loud silences in return. This keeps happening as they keep moving from one place to another as he struggles to come to terms, with this sudden permanence of change in his life. In the process we see him harden from within. We understand the place from which he would go on to make an unconventional career choice with frantic devotion. Goodachari is the recent addition to Telugu cinema’s dalliance with hitherto untouched genres. These movies are not just made with a solicitous finger on the check boxes that have come to become mandatory of a genre, but with a feverish passion as avant-garde offerings that manage to please the masses as well. Kshanam by the same writer(Adivi Sesh) was one such gem in the thriller space. It put a civilian in the centre of a whodunit involving the missing child of his former lover. This time around the stakes get higher. It’s just not a personal mission and he’s an actual professional with a license to kill. Though in hindsight— the narrative dexterity, the emotional conflict, the eleventh hour smarts, the powerful woman prototype and the unrequited romance of both the movies do overlap, albeit with their own reasons to exist.

I smiled at the doff of hat to the Kingsman movie, the way the secret bureau here is also set in the basement of a Tailorman store. This is where we see our greenhorn protagonist get molded with the manners that maketh him the eponymous hero of the movie. Be it the Bond or Bourne movies, we are introduced to the agent as an already savvy pro with some serious hand combat techniques in the middle of an ongoing crisis. Each time a diplomatic figure is saved from an assassination attempt or a continent from being nuked in those films, the believability comes from the credibility of the franchise. Goodachari explores the “how” and “why’ of a spy’s invincibility in the genre.The training portions, in which we see the spy getting raised, brick by brick drip with authenticity. We for once see the gruel. The sweaty, clumsy parts of these portions usually play as montages, set to the tune of a pulsating number in the end of which we get the transformed self of the protagonist as the last note of the song lands. This film doesn’t resort to such genre conveniences. It takes the hard route and celebrates these messy moments, as these are the scaffolding that would hold this man together when he’s hung out to dry. We’re constantly hand held in these portions, through every deceit and modus operandi that would come in to play later on. When Arjun’s learning how to clock locate men from his superior, it’s just not him, but us as well. Later when we see him do a number on a bunch of thugs with his pistols, we buy that for this very reason.It is to the credit of these portions that we buy his espionage, as he slides from one tight situation to another, like a slab of butter on a pan. The pleasant surprise is the tight rope walk of being intelligent without being indulgent that is done in style, while remaining high concept and international.

I also loved the emotional beats involving his father. They lend him with a relatable vulnerability, that is hard to come by in a guy who is shown to do macho stuff with both his eyes closed.  His identity is a lie. His biological father becomes a lie, memories of who would continue to haunt him. It’s the same memories he leverages as a trump card when nothing’s going his way. These thoughts seem to constantly cloud his judgement. While they do motivate him initially to become a spy, they ensure there on that it’s not a cakewalk. This play around these stray paternal epiphanies, raises the stake for the red herring that comes our way in the end. This is not the “nation before everything” trope, we’re so used to. It does operate within the tick tock survival template a la the Bourne movies. But instead of the stone cold mercenary, we get a vulnerable man on the go, figuring out the spy in him, as theories become applications and professional blurs into personal.

It’s not often that you walk out these movies with a sense of satisfaction often reserved for course altering cinema. Who said spy thrillers, especially the ones churned  from this part of the world have to be campy, cliché riddled affairs? They can be imaginatively written puzzles as well— with a symphonic quality —that acknowledge the intelligence of the lowest common denominator in the audience while staying true to the genre. And if the standing ovation in my theatre was anything to go by, the audience did like being taken seriously for once. Bring the missions on.

 

Chi La Sow- field notes on romance

Off late I’ve been drawn to Telugu cinema with a renewed fervour, the same way I was to Malayalam a while ago— like a moth to bulb warmth — when younger movies with a hitherto unseen suspension of vanity and delectable finesse took over. I guess my dalliance with Telugu films got rekindled with Pelichoopulu that quickly turned into a reverential romance with Arjun Reddy, Rangashthalam, RX 100, Ee Nagaraniki Emaindi coming in regular bouts. The most heartening aspect of these films is that they felt international, despite being set local. The craftsmanship was gorgeous. The musical score though exquisite, was content to be ambient in the backdrop. The texture; the finish and the cinematic devices employed were often than not to further the cause of narration and imbue a certain poetic rhythm, than as a vapid exercise in indulgence and showboatery.  Chi La Sow is the recent offering to swell this very exquisite list.

It starts in a fourth wall breaking sequence, with a little twist. The hero isn’t just talking to us, he’s talking with his alter ego as well, that vicariously seems to hurriedly be going through his emotions. Is a night enough to make a  life altering decision? Does a person brew over time to become a soulmate or the first instincts can be acted upon? The movie addresses these questions with an organic nonchalance, hard to come by in this space. We have a twenty something protagonist who’s peeved by the constant matrimonial enquiries inundating him, to only find himself drawn to a woman who comes out of one such meet and greet. Fairly-cliched been there, seen that sort of a story one might think. But what sets it apart is the conversational manner in which we get to know the couple much like the Before movies. Like those movies, this one too focuses largely on these two over an unhurried evening of interactions, discoveries and tantrums. And their undistracted chemistry is so damn palpable, that it feels like a bulb might come alive between them.

You empathise with the guy, who goes from being tightly wound to an unabashed romantic in a fairly short span of time. His predispositions about matrimony peel off— layer by layer —as the girl goes from one anecdote to another rendering herself vulnerable before him. Masks come off. And like that the social protocol becomes personal for him. His antennas come on. For someone who was prepared to reject even a woman with movie star looks, he gets confronted instead with shortcomings of a real girl who threatens to become the love of his life. The girl for once comes across as a “telugu ammayi”, not picked out of a Ludhiana line up.  She comes with her own emotional baggage, that sits on her chest like a giant toad. Even her smile which almost feels like a laborious afterthought is never quite wholehearted. It feels like a honed diplomatic courtesy, than a natural expression of glee. Loss and impermanence seem to have been a  recurring motif. That’s probably why she starts playing hard to get,the moment she gets to know of his interest. This is her way of pinching herself hard. In a life where nothing’s come easy, she for once wants to be pursued,wooed and won over. She’s just not testing him, but this windfall benevolence in an otherwise unrewarding life.

It’s not often that you see insecurities— albeit not from a place of malice —brought alive onscreen to lend a quite dignity and allure to a woman; who we’ve gotten used to seeing as either a dumb hot chick, damsel in distress or a crossover between the two. At least in this part of the world, nine out of ten times. There’s this beautiful scene towards the end that depicts her state of mind, where he keeps knocking at her door to be let in, to only realise that it was never closed in the first place. If this is not poetry, few things are.

Roast of Kaala

We’ve often seen visual metaphors employed in great movies as a narrative device, to drive home a thought or reflect a state of mind through images alone- like a dried up pond to depict lack of prosperity or an insect caught in a spider web when a character’s caught in a convoluted mess. Then we have the not so subtle ones like a dog seated under a table standing in for an underdog. Kaala falls under this category. Rajni’s Kaala is constantly seen in a black sabari malai costume. He’s constantly sporting a pair of shades and even drives a black jeep while talking things like “Uzhaippin vanam karuppu“(Colour of labour is black). This excess doesn’t stop here, but goes on to become a character defining tool throughout the running time. All white skinned folks that show up onscreen— men, mongrels and idlis —are bad, vulgar, close minded and racist; while the dark skinned ones are hard working good Samaritans, extremely broad minded and liberal. And most importantly, apostles of dravidianism.

The movie feels like those drowsy post lunch history periods in school. In fact it opens with one such anthropological AV, which resembles those state govt sponsored documentaries  that played in single screens to get electrical subsidies.

To the movie’s credit it constantly keeps trying to reinvent the wheel, but often than not keeps finding itself in the “unintentionally funny” territory. Take this for instance, a bunch of nondescript dudes show up to rap jack-shit, every time someone’s murdered graphically. We’re shown a suspended corpse of a young bloke, moments later to only see this motley bunch, agony rap below the very post he’s hung from. Leave the fact that this neither turns out cool nor novel, but the very idea feels very wrong and inappropriate, like the thought of Kamal preceding over a Ganapathi Homam.

Another thing that got me curious was the love track between Rajni and Huma Qureshi. What’s it with Ranjith and the recurring motif of estranged elder couples. If Kabali focused on a separated husband and wife, who later unite to the tune of Mayanadhi, this one pedals the unrequited romance in Kaala’s life. Every time they cross paths— or for that matter even their neighbors or their dried clothes or pets — the Kannama track solicitously cues us to soak in the poetry of their epic tragedy, even if we’re just interested in checking our phones. This track feels like those complimentary welcome drinks that accompany a buffet, to only spoil the appetite.

Fascinating things happen through the course of movie(not in a nice way), that your head keeps oscillating from “what the fuck” to “yaaawwwnnn”. Agreed Dharavi is a microcosm of India, but here every character that pops out on the screen sounds like they’ve stepped out from different Mani Ratnam movies from different eras with weird ethnic accents.
Another such gem is that Hari dada apparently kills Kaala’s dad in front of his eyes in his wedding and still both of them go through an extremely polite meet and greet when they meet decades later. Not often do you see such big hearted compassion in a mainstream feature centred around a thug, who not just forgives, but offers a welcome drink to his father’s killer.

I’m all for looking at ancient folklore through the prism of today’s socio political ecosystem. This is a beautiful way to dust the cob webs, while keeping the core embalmed in relevance. Thalapathy did this. So did Rajneeti. While the protagonists were demigods and demons in their spirits, they came in the skins of flawed mortals. This made for a fascinating marriage between myth and mainstream. Storytelling was the sole focus behind these unions. These interpretations were removed of malice or mischief of any kind. Objectivity was the only scaffolding that held them together. They never were a artifice to drum out personal agenda or a pet prejudice. That’s what was the most hurtful part about Kaala. The Rama-Ravana play that goes with absolute prejudice. Dandakaranya Nagar, regular shots of Rama idol with dramatic musical cues from Conjuring movies. And the self referencing of Rajini as a one headed Ravana. The list goes on.It could’ve been an angry blog or a drunken stupor, but the fact that this was made as a mainstream theatrical greenlit by the mascot of “spiritual politics” has to be the among the biggest ironies of the decade.

The dravidian agenda gets doled out myopically, subverting the Ramayana from being good vs evil or even righteous husband vs his wife’s abductor to North vs South, Class vs Crass and white vs black, like the myth was only about these things leaving it like an orange sucked of all its pulp, to only be called bitter. A progressive Ravana as opposed to a chauvinistic Rama who expects women to touch his feet. The statement against centuries of patriarchy is an absolute necessity, but not in this fashion; not as a gun that pulls another bullet at the heart of the ideological another Hindu god. And the parallel narration of Ramayana in the climax as the Ravana personifying  Kaala, gets decimated head by head reeks of perversion and deep rooted hatred.

Okay, let’s leave aside the problematic sub texts and the reams of political incorrectness, does it at least work as a simple minded Rajni movie? No. The power play between him and the villain is lopsided, but not in the way we’re used to in a Rajini film. Every time he opposes Hari Dada, he gets pummeled down with greater force. He throws ego tantrums, the villain obliterates his family members like rag dolls. He warns the villain, the villain acknowledges with a bomb that reduces his dear hamlet to ashes and charred survivors. He takes the battle to the streets, the villain kills him over a early morning prayer without moving a finger. The moral victory they were going for in the end, comes almost as an ambiguous after thought.
Remember that iconic scene from Padayappa, where he pulls a swing from the ceiling. Now imagine the same scene had that swing fallen on Rajni’s head instead or had one of his sidekicks done it for him. Kaala essentially turns out as either this movie or that.

 

 

 

 

 

Stalking and stalker anthems in Indian cinema

Love has been around ever since the times of Adam’s testicles and pheromones. Starting carnally in its primal form- lust; it underwent an arc of evolution that moved in tandem with man stepping out of the wild, into civilization and his old habits getting chipped in their edges. Religion was sieved from collective superstition; instruments from blunt objects, agriculture from earth coincidences, vegetarianism from compassion and love from lust. All of this was born from his yearning to put a euphemistic label on everything around, to touch his culture with sophistication. And more importantly to distance himself from his neanderthal self from a past, not long before.

Though love dates back to a time much before marriage, it took up to the beginning of the 19th century for it marry it. And in India, it was not until the 1970s that it really came out in the open. So well intentioned men lurking by the street corners for months and even years in well ironed clothes, with or without vanilla lined “love-letters”, at a cordial-calling distance from the object of their love was the baby step in romance. Conversations were hard to come by between the opposite sexes in a hyper conservative parent-run society, so such bold display of fondness had to accrue in visual plateus and written correspondences. Then times changed, people became progressive. Or pretended to, at least. Phones came in. Restaurants with “family rooms” happened. But still popular culture(read movies) continued to romanticize a man tailing a woman of his interest with dogged devotion to an extent of idealism.
These were movies in which men didn’t bother making conversations, leave alone be chivalrous. They would just follow the woman to an extent she almost felt violated, then levitate to a dream sequence when their eyes met and eventually propose. Often than not these misguided sequences were set to the tune of chartbuster songs that made the hero, an instant alter ego of many a youth who thought from between their legs. And like that, stalking was born again as an art form, which would in a matter of time turn into a modus operandi in many a crime scenes and an eternal seed capital of the pepper spray industry.

Here are some of my favourite stalker anthems, that did their part in furthering this noble cause.

Jaadu Teri Nazar

This was the song, that gave wings to a hitherto frowned upon social activity and almost managed to put it in Naukri’s listing. This was from a time when SRK was a passive stalker, before he would go on to become a household name who playfully threw brassiere at women as an ice breaker, as hordes and hordes of families cheered for him.
Anyways, coming back to the song. This song has got the novelty of the stalkee constantly being on the pursuit of her stalker as he hides and hits on her through the song. Please note the excitment with which Juhi Chawla jumps from one corridor to another of her campus, as the song moves from one suggestive metaphor to another; with little inkling about the fact that substandard poetry doesn’t necessarily ratify psychotic behaviour. The song ends with the evasive stalker finally turning up at her window from behind, to sneak a peak at her changing clothes. Classy stuff!
Had she paid close attention to the words of the song, instead of waltzing around like a bunny on steroids the whole time, she would’ve known that the singer wasn’t exactly the candlelight dinner kinda guy. Next time anonymous poetry makes your way in musical form, keep the pepper spray ready.

Khalibali

This has got to be the most imaginative stalker anthem that there is. A busy tyrant king, just based on the hearsay description of a perverted priest, Raghav Chetan(That name alone is a redflag), decides to wage a war on a kingdom to hit on its queen, who he hasn’t seen. Purely based on the credibility of the said priest who was ousted from the very kingdom for peaking into the royal bedroom to get his late night jolly. Sounds like the prologue of a medieval porn movie right? No. This shit did happen apparently. So this tyrant king becomes so preoccupied in the priest’s fantasy of this queen, that he breaks into a neurotic song and dance routine, to celebrate his yearning…scratch that..craving for this woman he’s never ever seen the silhouette of, with his entire army of soldiers who seem to share his sentiment, given their fervor. From stalking neighborhood women, to stalking imaginary beauties in neighbourhood kingdoms to having an entire army dance to your tune, quite literally, this is stalking Sultanate style.


Do DIl Mil Rahe Hain

This is probably the most decent entry to this list. But only relatively, still creepy as fuck. This song gives a refreshing spin to the stalking paradigm with the guy’s friend diligently stalking the couple from one shrub to another, one dark haveli corner to another as they struggle to find privacy as he relentlessly channels his inner Kumar Sanu. The entire setting is so wrong, not to mention super weird, as each of the couple’s activities(eye contact, hand holding, sneezing, burping, farting etc) are underscored by their friend’s painfully descriptive rendition from an arm’s length distance. Unable to get past him in reality, they finally escape into a dream sequence to hit base one, to only solicitously be followed by the friend’s voice in the dream realm as well. Poor them!

Be careful about the third nipples, eleventh toes, fifth wheels during dates. Especially the ones with a guitar habit and good hair.