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?

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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.