Why every movie buff should just STFU and celebrate Baahubali 2

India’s unity is in its diversity. Yeah right. So is ADMK’s unity now. Common, who are we kidding here. We’ve always been a nation bifurcated as north Indians and south Indians, not just geographically; but psychologically as well. The condescension has been mutual and over the years of being cultivated as polished global citizens, become subtle and sub-conscious. The only places we embrace each other’s identity wholeheartedly is in the cuisines. Sights of north Indians thronging dosa joints and south Indians making beelines to break naan outside north Indian restaurants, being case in point. Outside this, the only things that get us together are the Independence day, cricket matches( thanks to IPL the regionalism has sunk in here too) and festivals.(not anymore, given that the same historical episode falls on different dates on either sides of the Vindhyas.)

So cinema is no exception to this. Movies made in the Hindi language are respectfully called as hindi cinema- given the “Hindi is the national language up your throat” rhetoric  -and movies made in every other language are marginalized under the umbrella of regional cinema. So it’s no surprise that not beyond 5% of the people in a state come out to the theaters to check a movie out. So if you take a Dangal which is the highest grossing movie in the history of Indian cinema, it has managed to bring in a footfall of close to 4 crore people out of the total population of 134 crores, which is a mere 3%. Let’s take the worst case scenario that out of the entire population, only 20% comes to the theatre at all. Even then the most popular mainstream movie in a long time has managed to bring in a mere 15% into the halls. All this goes to show that you might have several dubbed versions, go on whirlwind promotional tours and learn to say “thank you” in a new language on reality shows; but notwithstanding these cutesies the people would continue to see you as a stranger and your movie as an effort in Chinese for which they’ll have to shell out their demonetized currencies.
These deeply embedded bottlenecks have to be taken into context to acknowledge Baahubali-2’s historic showing at the ticket windows; not just in terms of commerce, but culture as well. It is for the first time since the conjuring of Indian cinema, has a movie been perceived as being “pan Indian”, galvanizing the nation as a whole. It’s not just performed like a Salman Khan movie in the North but as a Rajnikanth starrer in the south

So what is it about Baahubali-2, that has made it into such an endearing sensation. Is it the scale? Probably; but there have been other movies like the Dhoom movies or Robot, which have had the scale, given their budgets. Bigger the budget, higher the vantage of scale to mount the film on, one might think. But few films come close to being set on the dizzying imagination as B2. Take for instance a scene that segues into a song sequence. The lead pair’s on a ship. The actress has a parallel thought. No surprises for what it culminates to next. But how it does is the deal breaker. The masts come down on either sides of the ship to flap as gigantic wings, to fly along with the sea gulls into the skies, where clouds scurry along as horses on either sides. These are stuff dream tutorials are made of.

We are a generation that has kowtowed to western imagination. We would quiz each other on Star Wars trivia, dedicate our coming off age to Rowling and worship Tolkiens for “his precious” and wake up before the rooster to keep abreast with GOT happenings. When it comes to myth, Greece has been cooler because Hollywood has made many a million dollar A-lister parades in that space. And the proper nouns are lot more lighter on the tongue and have a ring to them over draught beer. Achilles, Adonis and Thermopylae any day over Arjuna, Krishna and Kurukshetra, right?

Thanks to religion and philosophy, cutting close to mythologies in our backyard; we’ve not taken an instant curiosity to them, outside our moral science classes. As a result not many of us know of the marvelous anecdotes they bore in them of love, greed, desire and betrayal. About the masculine alpha males who strutted across the face of earth with unmatched prowess or the powerful women who  were active practitioners of progression even before feminism was needed in this part of the world. Amar Chitra Kata managed to uphold the spirit of the country’s mythology for a while, but it was a comic book and couldn’t grow beyond the school.
The characters in Baahubali are written with a strong heartland appeal, with easily digestible traits to connect to. They’re  distinct individuals with strong personalities and clear belief systems akin to the central characters of Ramayana and Mahabharatha. And the sequences are often tip of the hat accounts. Like the way Sivagami carries a new born through a river, similar to Vasudeva carrying Krishna between a split river. Or the way Kattappa is a mute spectator, who’s loyalty is different from his conscience akin to Bhishma. Or the more obvious central plot of feuding cousin brothers akin to Mahabharatha. It’s all there, but as homage, in spirit, in another form in a fictional land.

S.S.Rajamouli imbues his male protagonists with a certain virile charm, that’s been missing in our cinema ever since it started pandering to the diaspora abroad. They’re dhoti clad, with distinct mustaches and not five o’ clock shadows, brawny and not lean and manly, not boyish. There’s this moment in the movie where Bahubali walks into the court, his gait in rhythm to the invigorating chants in the score to the aid of his cornered wife’s. The drama that precipitates from there to a confrontation is stuff goosebumps are made of. For the first time in a really, really long while I saw sheer delirium in the theatre for a way a moment in a movie was staged. Not for a star doling out a punchline.
If the men partake in the drama, women create it. The women in the movie, Sivagami and Devasena are the fulcrums around which the men function. They’re strong, opinionated,intimidating and majestically feminine.

With such big feet, big shoes need to be there to fit in. The narrative has to have the gravitas deserving of such strong protagonists. Rajamouli’s screenplay stages these characters with such blue eyed adulation, imbuing the proceedings with the necessary friction and conflict. The interval sequence is one such scene designed with a keen sense of dejavu, as a homage to the acclaimed interval block from the previous movie. The circumstances that culminate into the half way point in the two films are entirely different; one is to do with the erection of a giant statue of a king in the present and the other is his coronation in the past. Yet they both overlap in terms of spirit in a common point of conflict.

There are some subtle suggestions of providence, be it the pseudonym Bahubali assumes which later happens to become his son’s name. Or the way the movie ends poetically, with the journey coming to an end in the place it all started. These are grace notes. decorative intentions on the fringe of an already masterful painting. Baahubali is much more than an overpriced behemoth its price tag suggests. It’s way more than the “why Katappa killed Bahubali” itch. It’s much more than an unprecedented fiscal success story it has come to be. It’s just not a movie, but an experience. A cerebral expedition into the childlike mind of its creator. A triumph of his audacity to look beyond the commercial commonplace. A case study on why sometimes great ideas don’t necessarily need a language to be appreciated. Jai Mahishmathi!

Sakhavu- A well intentioned ode to communism

Even before the word go, the movie takes off as the opening credits roll as dilapidated strips of footage and newspaper cuttings on communism- international and local – to the loud cries of war bugles and rusty voices intended at summoning the very spirit of communism from every soul in the theatre, notwithstanding the butter popcorns and coke by them. So even before the screen begins to come alive- before the red on the screen can dry up – we exactly know the side between left and right, the movie’s headed. No surprises there. In these kind of doff-of-the-hat vehicles, all we expect is a compelling tale to chronicle the journey of a man towards his idealistic culmination; without being alienated. The moment Nivin Pauly appears on screen as this man, we’re rest assured about not being alienated.

He’s storming out of the house, late in the night over a fight with his mother. Fight over a strand of hair in his food. Extracting the funny side from domestic duress has been Nivin’s chief constituency and he does it here as well. He plays Krishnakumar a.k.a Kichu, a wayward loser with no aim in life. In short, his favorite alter ego that he’s endearingly played to great effect many times, without a change of wink.(Oru Vadakkan Selfie, Thatathin Marayathu and Premam from the top of the head)  The usual gullible friend/ accomplice in crime, Nivin’s exploitation of him, their combined idiosyncrasies in public places and Nivin being the sporting ass of jokes; all of the accouterments find a place here as well. What’s different about Sakhavu is the scaffolding that he holds on to, doesn’t come in the form of love, like it usually does. Unlike his previous outings, the happy-go-lucky portions are subplots to warm up to another story. A lofty, grimmer one about Sakhavu Krishnan(Nivin again with  a Gemini Ganesansque persona).

Sakhavu is in the ICU in the same hospital, Krishnakumar has come to give blood…rather pull another stunt towards becoming district secretary of SFK, a communist party. In the process gets acquainted with a friend of his, stationed outside. It is through this man that we get to know about the person lying inside and crowd praying outside.

A person who dedicated his whole life to give a theory, the sanctity of practice. To turn it into an uplifting tool from being a fiction of utopia. Sakhavu Krishnan used communism as a powerful instrument to create conversations between exploited and exploiters. This stretch of the movie uses the usual tropes: establishment versus poor scenarios, strikes outside the factory gate,galvanizing monologues to large gatherings, the police nepotism to affluent and even the lock up torture sequences. But what fleshes these sequences are the finesse with which they’re handled. The old wine is not only served in a new bottle, but served tastefully. We get this wonderfully staged fight in the night, where light and sound are put to good effect to create the necessary intrigue. Not to mention well written lines like the one he claims Sakhavu(Comrade) before his name to be the surname that depicts his caste and creed.
Through these portions we come to know of this individual, who is looked upon as a saint by a legion of well wishers, as he lies unconscious in the ICU of an obscure government hospital. We just don’t know him by his teachings or the anecdotes alone anymore, we know him by his instincts and intentions as someone to root for.

There’s a beautiful narrative device at play as Krishnakumar gets to know about the story of Sakhavu Krishnan. His friend prologues with a precursory that they spoke and looked the same, sometimes. Moments later Krishnakumar proudly glances at himself in the mirror, as we move back in time to see Sakhavu, as him. Just as he so narcissistically would visualize , while listening to one anecdote after another. Even towards the movie’s end, when both men are in the same room, we’re not shown Sakhavu. Probably he looks different. Probably they both are doppelgangers. Probably not. It’s not that important after all.The movie leaves this ambiguity to brew in us, as Krishnakumar walks out with Sakhavu in him. Their resemblance has transcended beyond superficial.

This line from Kaththi comes to mind, that explains communism as one’s awareness of next idli after his hunger being another man’s. Sakhavu takes this culinary metaphor to indicate communism as well. After the point of realisation, Krishnan tells his mom that he’s coming home for dinner. She says there’s only morning’s food left. And he is okay. From staging a walk out over a strand of hair on his food, to going back to eat whatever is left without; we see the entire of his transformation, as his priorities change with him.

Kaatru Veliyidai- Of air, style and no substance

The week before the movie’s release, Mani Ratnam’s interviews with almost every film tracking space worth its salt occupied our bandwidth. And every question directed at the auteur was adorned by a “Mani Sir” before it. The reverence is understandable, given the legacy of the man before. The adulation, even more, given that most of the interviewers were from this generation that was raised on a staple diet of his films. We yardsticked our dressing with his heroes. We tweaked our pick up lines to resemble the ones in his movies. The epidemic of monosyllabic enunciation spread from there. Our romantic moments had his songs play in our mind. Our uptight chested respect to disapproving dads drew from his movies. Our idea of classy, cool, romance, respect, revolution were some form of a tip of hat to his sensibilities. It would be safe to assume that Ratnam’s oeuvre not just captured, but fashioned the imagination of an entire generation.
Beyond their social impact, his films have served as case studies for cinephiles in this part of the  world. He was our Kubrick and Scorsese before our sensibilities could gauge their nuances. So Mani Sir, he is!

But the admiration is mostly for his extensive body of work, peach of which stopped a decade before. Have a look at the movies that’ve come in the last decade, barring Guru and OK Kanmani, none managed to resonate with the audience. He’s not someone we valuate in terms of collections or returns, he’s beyond mere commerce. His movies are an experience, more than a source of entertainment. This experience is what has some how not felt overwhelming off late, be it the inconsistent Raavanan( which was more a vanity project to reflect Vikram’s acting chops, if not his moistened triceps.) or the insipid Kadal.

His core constituency has been the tasteful deconstruction of human relations into palatable drama. Often than not, his dramas have had the just-another-person at their core. It’s the portrayal of their idiosyncrasies, shenanigans, justifications to be a certain way that has made them endearing to us. Take for instance Prakash Raj‘s Ganapathy uncle from OK Kanmani, a slow moving septuagenarian who nonchalantly loves his Alzheimer hit spouse with very little fuss. Shining light on the often overseen contours of normalcy has been MR’s strength. Most of his memorable characters have been white or black. That’s why his VC- who exists in the grey in-between -from KV gets lost in translation, much like his Veera from Raavanan. Ratnam writes these characters with truckloads of complexities without a prologue or a back story, that what comes on screen is often than not confusion. Because not just are we expected to muse on his unique creations now, but also to empathize with their quirks without being a part of their beginnings.

It’s not a prerequisite to have a back story. A movie can span across a short time or its central characters can take off from their current state of minds and brew through the course of it’s running time. A plot driven movie like say, Ayutha Ezhuthu can afford to take that path. A character driven movie cannot. We cannot identify with a Velu Nayakar without seeing the anecdotes from his early life. These episodes make him the man he comes to be before us. This is where KV falters. It’s largely a character driven plot with very little happenings than the whirlwind romance between two people, one of whom is a Bharathiyar quoting chauvinist, who practices his misogyny in the garb of romance. To digest his anomalies as they keep coming, while on the go, with no rhyme or reason, is a little too much to expect out of an audience that’s outside one’s own imagination.

We’re supposed to travel with VC’s psychological journey. Partake in his epiphanies. Root for him. Hope for him to change.Yearn for him to get together with Leela. What we instead end up getting invested in are the artifices like his fixation with his aviator glasses, the actor’s apparent weight loss, his grooming and an eternal grimace that says,”freshly minted out of Madras Talkies“. There’s so much posturing, especially involving the lips(to accentuate his debonairness), that it makes Sivaji Ganesan‘s lip concussions look like a smirk.

And what’s with casting a bunch of talented actors in disposable cameos. Seeing actors like Shraddha Srinath and Delhi Ganesh scattered as passing scenery in the main proceedings felt bad. But RJ Balaji as a surgeon walks away with the credits for being the most miscast member of the film, with him not just struggling to act, but to act sophisticated as well.

The deployment of elaborate symbolism(mountains, sky and landscape serve their bit as metaphors) , mirrors as perspective giving devices and the weird positions in which the lead pair strike lengthy conversations come across as avant-garde gimmickery, as they don’t flow organically into the scheme of things. So this shot of Leela and VC lying on a tastefully knit kashmiri carpet, with their outlines being crimson lit as they murmur to the floors, feels like a wallpaper than a scene.

Rahman’s tantalising songs and the serrated score does way more to the movie, than the movie does to it. But that’s been the case for a while now with Ratnam’s outings, where the music serves as an exquisite fresco on the ceiling to distract after the food turns out bad.

Every great creator has a point, from where he chooses to either call it a day or continue ahead to eventually taint his legacy. RGV went beyond that point. Sachin did that in search of an elusive hundredth hundred. We know how those pursuits turned out. Should Mani Ratnam continue further, only time will tell or the ticket sales definitely will. As far as Kaatru Veliyidai(breezy expanse) goes, it seemed like the title was referring to the space above my head- the breezy expanse – where most of the movie went.