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.

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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.

Bharat Ane Nenu- The most potent Mahesh Babu film after Pokiri

It was a sultry Saturday evening in Summer 2006, we Tamil guys had landed ourselves, plum middle row seats at Jayaprada for Pokiri. A Telugu friend had dragged us into this, over another Tamil film which all of us wanted to check out. This was my first Telugu big screen experience. Hitherto, familiarity with Telugu films involved loud-jarring footage at stay-overs,of rotund elderly uncles doing things, one generally has come to associate with a chimp on cocaine and Spiderman movies. So I wasn’t specifically upbeat when the screen came alive. But moments into the film, my prejudice changed, as air bound vegetables paved way for Mahesh Babu. He was nothing like the last Telugu hero I remembered- The punk; the shirt folded over a long sleeved tee; the swag; the devil may care attitude; the laid back dialogue delivery, like chewing betel mid-slumber; the effortless larger than life persona, made me an instant fanboy. For a while after that, he was suddenly everything I wanted to be subconsciously. I went for a bunch of his movies after that, even enjoyed Dookudu a lot, loved every bit of SVSC, didn’t understand the euphoria around Srimanthudu and felt bad when Spyder(I’m one among the handful who enjoyed it for its ambition) tanked. But nothing came close to the Pokiri experience as far as the MB persona goes.

So mind was a bit of a mixed bag, when the morning show of Bharat Ane Nenu commenced. Another Utopian story of a proverbial leader, served masala style, I thought to myself, from the trailers. For how better is it going to get from Leader or Mudhalvan, which form the realistic to commercial bandwidth around political-one man narratives. Then this scene happened minutes into the movie. Bharat’s driving his car and gets to know the people he’s about to rule, through the chaos they make around traffic signals. The means doesn’t seem to matter to them, everyone’s just preoccupied to get to the other end. This traffic signal’s a microcosm of the people’s attitude It’s a beautiful visual metaphor of falling civil standards. These are the kind of scenes that make you sit and take notice of a commercial movie’s integrity.

Bharat is an upright guy, not necessarily uptight, notwithstanding the monochromatic power clothing. He’s a creature of details. Look at how he finely moves his name plate, just enough to be in a straight line with his seat, on his first day as CM. MB plays him with characteristic dignity, lackadaisical arrogance and elusiveness, just enough to remain endearing, with accessible reverence. But that’s MB from any social gathering in reality. But it really doesn’t matter. The real and reel life elusive persona play off each other nicely, creating a synergy, larger than life. Like his contemporary Vijay, after all these years, MB too has still got some amount of boyish charm left in him, while going over men deliverables in fallen patriarchal set ups.

I loved Mirchi. It was raw, intense and unabashedly mainstream, with no other ulterior motives to pull. To me Srimanthudu wasn’t as spontaneous cinematically. It was overwrought with an Utopian central deceit. Janatha Garage was a much better mainstream experience, but again Siva was chewing more than he could swallow, trying to be environmentally conscious, while making a Thalapathysque film with a triangular love track and what not. In that sense, Bharat Ane Nenu doesn’t try too hard to be any particular thing, in the process finds it own distinct voice. It’s a simple story, narrated with a grand vision in a freely flowing style.

Wolf whistles are born, when a great story marries a superstar. But that’s the thing about stardom. It can be worn like a flourscent shirt, loud and on the face. Or can be worn like a perfume, subtle and classy. He’s amongst the rare breed that does the latter.  All of this is another way of saying, “Mahesh Babu is back. And in style.”

 

Why “The Office” is the most inimitable sitcom ever

 

Allusions to some Dwight and “that’s what she said” kept making their way into my earspace at the coffee stalls, months ago, from a bunch I didn’t have much regards for. Probably another pompous TV show that these people talk about, just loud enough to be associated with its viewing, like keeping one’s wrist bent enough in a room to draw attention to the dial of a fancy watch while talking in an impression making exercise.

I was intrigued a little bit. So went back to my desk and looked up Dwight and got to know that he was a character from a show called “The Office“. I was glad it had ended five years before. I make it a point to avoid watching anything that is a part of an ongoing fad. I somehow find it below me to watch something because a larger crowd binges on it. And also I like to trip on, savour moments, conversations at the end of a long lazy day. So verbose, conversational shows strewn with dark humour and sarcasm are my kind of poison. Not the plot heavy ones with diabolic twists and turns.

I started watching it, the same night. It opened with mild piano interludes trickling over a shot of everyday traffic till we, in a moment come across a board  that says “Scranton Welcomes You”, confirming the city the traffic belongs to as we move to a wall that reads “Dunder Mifflin”, before going in to show the people that constitute Dunder Mifflin, Scranton. This unfussy opening credit establishment from macro to micro nothingness had such an understated charm to it. I immediately knew I was watching something special. Even now, every time I hear the opening credit, my face automatically becomes a lit up smiling emoji.

In one of the initial episodes, Michael’s assembling a team to play basketball and he looks at Stanley(A black guy) and says,”Ofcourse” racially obviating his inclusion into the team. Offended, Stanley quickly confronts Mike, “Ofcourse! What’s that supposed to mean?”  who quickly refutes saying that, while an employees tells him he heard him say that. For the uninitiated, Mike says more inappropriate things in a day than Trump on cocaine, would in a year.

The shit storm doesn’t stop there, it spirals downward further when he’s asking someone to be a cheerleader for the game. That’s when Phyllis(a fat middle aged woman) volunteers, to be met with this beauty from Mike-“Oh Yuck.. That’s more worse than you playing.
A moment of uncomfortable silence ensues, as the camera pans to Phyllis’s blood drained  pale face and back to a nervous Mike.

That’s basically how every episode pans out, from one grand Mike screw up to another, reaction shots and my favourite- a serene fourth wall breaking rant in a different tangent altogether.

Steve Carroll’s Michael Scott stands tall as the centrepiece of the endearing catastrophe that “The Office” is. He’s not the atypical TV protagonist we’re used to, in the sense that he doesn’t come with a hero’s halo or a fallen angel narrative crutch. Usually these shows, most shows including Friends, Two and a half Men, Big Bang Theory or Californication,House or Boston Legal if I were to consider workplace dramedies, ensure that a central character’s shown as a cool anomaly, endowed with a great repertoire of wicked sarcasm, often mouthing signature punch lines with an ability to draw the fairer sex in hordes, like moths to a halogen bulb. Every anecdote is built around carefully in an endeavour to not just humanise these flawed gentlemen, but paint them larger than life in a world short of odd ball allure. These people can be part of earth altering goof ups, day to day screw ups, get reality checks and even get their asses handed over occasionally; but make no mistake, can never be an ass of a joke or of questionable niceness. Never! You can hear the prompt laughters in the background, see them being rejected by a hot chick every now and then; fall with their legs stretched skywards or dipped in dirty brown water. But somehow the treatment will distill the air of mockery, to keep their “funny man” sex appeal untainted.

This is where Michael Scott is different. A whiff of fresh air…err fart. He’s the consistent butt of all jokes from start to end at Dunder Miflin. He’s this dimwitted loser,petty,morally ambivalent, offensive, sexist, racist guy who is awful with women, easily intimidated and wears his foot in mouth like a badge of honour. Often than not, you’re not just laughing with him, but at him.

All of us would have been a part of some meeting or the other at our workplace. But trust me, nothing comes close to the ones conducted in the Conference room at Dunder Mifflin.

There’s this time when his super boss wants the entire organisation to stay digitally connected and hands over blackberries to everyone. Mike sees it as a threat and a form of ageism. He immediatly convenes a meeting in the conference room to address “Age discrimination” at work place.
There are printed pictures of Ben Kingsley, old woman from Titanic and Tom Hanks from Big( because the printer ink ran out) adorning the wall.(I’m not making any of this up) He then invites the founder, an 87 year old man to talk on the occasion.(Did I tell you Mike loves interrupting and hates listening to others?)And as the poor man loses his train of thought from one boring anecdote to another, Mike restlessly cuts in to his speech abruptly and asks him,” If he’s got a ride back home?” The old man says,”I came here in a cab.” Mike responds with, “Perfect. Thanks for coming.” The old man asks, “Could you get me another cab…” To which Mike responds by slamming the door on him with “Excellent…..Inspirational, what have we learned today ….

Most jokes in The Office land at that fleeting space between, offensive, insensitive and howlarious. The humour is dry  and has a everyday quality to it, largely due to the  voyeuristic way in which the entire show plays out. Most episodes progress from one mess to another,from one inappropriate statement to another, one shenanigan to another with each concerned character breaking the fourth wall from time to time. Unlike the broader style of acting that we’re used to, where we expect to be hinted by a funny man like say a Chandler from Friends through body language or facial concussions, before every joke, most of the humour in The Office comes as an afterthought. The slapstick tropes hit us instantly here as well, like a parkour stunt going wrong. But the best jokes here are the ones that tempt us to play them back in our heads again and again, as WTF becomes crazy funny. Each episode is filmed solicitously with a certain handheld quality, putting us in a breathing distance between happenings and conversations, like a fly on the wall. Not before we come to terms with the side of the happenings we’re on, laughing our asses off like a conventional audience of comedy.

Take this episode for instance. It’s Phyllis’s wedding.

It opens with Mike sneaking in from behind the bride’s maids for a picture. (Did I tell you Mike’a the most narcissistic creature that there is?)He’s talking to us. He says, “Phyllis has asked me to push her father’s wheelchair down the aisle. So I’m co-giving away the bride. Since I’m paying her salary, I’m paying for the wedding. It’s a big day for Phyllis. But a bigger day for me. Employer of the bride!

Yes. I put Michael in the wedding.“Phyllis talks exasperatedly to us “That was the only way I was getting six week off for my honeymoon.

Moments later we know why she was so worried about him being at her wedding.

Mike breaks into her change room to make her comfortable and does everything else. He starts with, “If you wanna vomit, it’s ok. Because I just did.”  She begins to sweat. He carries on with a straight face, “Do you want to talk about tonight? About pleasing Bob. Lot of pressure.” She’s now squirming in her seat and before she can get to respond, he concernedly asks, “Phyllis, did you break wind? That’s a natural reaction. It’s your wedding and you’re nervous.” Shocked, she responds with a , “That wasn’t me.
Unperturbed by her discomfort he continues talking to her before he sighs, “That is pungent….. I lost my train of thought.” before trying to adjust her hair to cover a bald patch, while being led out of the room.

Occasionally, The Office is a box of surprises. The oddball characters behave/misbehave in their settled rhythm together and apart, doing things in a certain way, expected of them in given situations. But there are times they pull the rug from under.

Pam’s paintings are displayed at an at exhibition and they largely meet with a lukewarm response from coworkers and critics. She’s crest fallen, when Mike walks in. Looks at the paintings. Points to one particular painting of their office and says,” How much? I do not see a price.” Surprised Pam asks him if he really wants to buy it. Mike, with eyes still fixated on the painting says, “Those are my windows. That’s my car. That’s our Building. And we sell paper….(tears up) I’m really proud of you.

Overwhelmed by his kind words she hugs him. We’re surprised, by the nice things, the right things that came out of that mouth for once. We weren’t expecting that. The warmth in the moment starts to linger, before a startled Pam asks him, “Do you have something in your pocket?” A long awkward silence ensues, before he responds, “Chunkies.” The embrace ends with a shot of her shocked face. And like that, a random moment of bonding segues back to the inappropriate humor that we’re used to.

I know The Office is an oddball phenomenon that’s better experienced, than explained. I’ve still gone ahead and tried to recollect some stuff from the top of my head- episodes, memories and feelings. But trust me, I can go on forever till it becomes TMI.
Yes, I’ve spoken extensively about Michael Scott and not the others. But that’s how I’ve watched it unfold, from his perspective. To me Mike epitomises The Office. That’s why I didn’t watch the last two seasons after he left. But that’s me. Maybe another person might trip on the absolute weirdo Dwight is. Some might be suckers for the free flowing Jim and Pam romance. Some might just like the synergy of the entire bunch. But whatever it is, The Office is inimitable TV; a gift that keeps giving. If you can manage to keep a straight face, while Mike slips his burnt foot into a MRI machine, you’re Buddha or chronic depressed.

Mourning Sridevi and falling human standards

It was an usual morning, blank and staring back. Usual, till I heard my sister scream from the room next. I had never seen her so agitated before. She was animatedly trying to wake my bed-bound grandmother up, who had tipped over to the other side only moments ago. She had literally seen the two of us from the time we were palm sized womb fluid covered creatures till the time we could adult around in the evening of her second childhood. To me she was the ersatz world till I could step out into the one with roads and traffic rules. She was the guardian angel who never minded being taken for granted, while continuing to unconditionally give. We always get the chance to say goodbye to our close ones, before leaving out of town, before going out for dinner or even before hanging up. It’s the saddest of ironies, that we never really get to say the one goodbye that actually matters in the end.

The room was filled with stench, her bed was wet. The bowels are the last to ditch to one, bringing indignity to death. We carried her to the hall, like moving a furniture that once used to be animate, where she lay on display for all to mourn for hours together. That place by her wooden corpse, was the longest and hardest of minutes of my life. And the crematorium, where the engulfing  fire summarized her into a compact urn was the last kick at the groin of an already numb heart.

Mind you this was a woman, who had died close to her eighties, a death all of us were expecting to come sooner or later.

Now imagine a hale and healthy middle aged woman, who while attending a wedding is let down by her coronaries in the middle of her bath to drown to her demise. Terrible, right. Imagine the shock of her husband of many years moments after the freak death, from outside the bath. His helplessness. Shattering, right.
Now imagine the woman in question- looks dialed up to a celestial extent, fame the size of a comet and wealth a little more than a third world nation’s GDP. Does the extent of tragedy feel watered down, by the quality of life that preceded the moment of death.No. Does the fact that she’s the second wife of the man outside, strip the tragedy off her death. No. Should the glamorous high flying lifestyle of her husband render him immune to the gravitas of the situation. Hell no.

Then why can’t we let Sridevi’s death be solemn. Hours after the outbreak, we had lowlifes solicitously spreading conspiracy theories, mostly involving excessive Botox, like vengeful syphilis ridden sex workers. Some news channels, went  a step further, to recreate the damned last bath with morphed images of the actress. Everyone wanted a piece of the coverage, even if it meant the bereaved family’s peace of mind was collateral.

The human code of conduct is a constantly evolving doctrine— that exists parallel and within the subjective law of the land — kept abreast with evolving understanding of rights and wrongs, with some taboos that’re alone eternally carved in stone like- no incest, no cannibalism, no non consensual intercourse and no drawing pleasure from a death to name a few. While the rights and wrongs are to make the world a better place to live, the taboos are intended at keeping away the primordial chaos that existed in the caves.

That’s exactly what got me worried about with the coverage of Sridevi’s death. The violation of a taboo that wasn’t to be slighted with. And the tumbling standard in humanity that ensued. Yes, her metier was mainstream and vanity prone. She was a fascinating creature. A seductress who drove hordes of men and gentlemen into weak knees and sweaty indiscretions over two generations. Such actresses and their personal lives are prone to constant public discourse and curiosity, agreed. It’s okay to be inundated by the heights of their irony tower from the streets. Even mock its dwellers out of envy.  No tectonic plates dislocate. But that card isn’t a hall-pass to orchestrate a mocking circus over a funeral. As much as we would swear to the contrary, wealth and fame no matter how much, fail to insulate one’s family from the sting of their demise.

Mind you, these are not naive snafus to be overlooked as uncouth behavior. These are major red flags that mark the breaking point of a morally infertile generation, on the cusp of degeneration. Of slipping human values, like turds of a wet rock. Of the constant inorganic labour to make everything cool. Of the inexplicable itch to make a meme out of a monument. Of  endlessly looking over the shoulder,  with little room for introspection. Violating a dead person’s dignity is not much different from rape. We don’t need to guilt trip. We don’t need to debate. We just need to ruminate on the acceptability of our behavior. And if we feel don’t feel that proud,it’s about time we change. For karma is a bitch that’s been around since the time of dinosaurs.

Arjun Reddy- The anatomy of a heart break

His suffering is personal, let him suffer.”, Arjun’s grandmother tells midway into the latter portion of the movie. That pretty much is the length and breadth of Arjun Reddy, a cinematic ode to yet another romantic left high and dry. Just that he isn’t yet another guy. And this ain’t yet another chronological account of his self destruction that ensues a failed relation.
AR is one of the rare movies that serves as an epitome, bottling up the personality of its protagonist. Like him, its rough on the edges, uncouth without an iota of polish or political correctness. It’s a rugged, in the face account of a hopeless romantic with the constant stench of his inebriation to suffering.

His entitlement exists in this fleeting space between self respect and ego. And his state of mind keeps see sawing from self pity to self loathing.In Arjun we get a rare tragic hero, whose idealism doesn’t end with the matter of hearts alone, but trickles to ickier spots of everyday life. Like his unreasonable expectation of ‘dignity’ of non commitment in a heated moment with an attractive woman. Or the brutal show of honesty in a career ending juncture that puts his backers in a spot of bother. These are moments that don’t exist to persuade us to agree with this guy. If anything, they make you loathe him more. But by now you’ve become privy to the suffering he inflicts as an ointment on his wounded soul. While empathizing with his close ones who’re pulled along like rag dolls in this masochistic pursuit.

We’ve got quite a lot of films that’ve come out of this ecosystem, but none get as down and dirty with the psyche of a heartbroken soul as AR does. While most movies trace this downward spiral of a breakup from an objective fly on the wall perspective, AR abruptly drops us in the middle of his lonely world, devoid of a modicum of humor,hope or purpose. We get a panoramic view of this handcrafted hell of his, with the life of his friends, family and his pet even, being torn apart as collateral damage.

The love story that plays as a flashback is whiff of fresh air. It’s an imperfect love story between two incongruent young things. For once between a better looking guy and an ordinary girl. She’s timid, he’s flamboyant.  He exudes attitude, if not cigarette smoke. She well, contemplates and breathes. The contrast between them keeps piling up as their unusual chemistry begins to manifest. There are innocent moments in this portions like the awkwardness that precedes their first kiss. They’re seated next to each other. Fingers entangle in an undramatic way. And he changes position to make his legs face her, only before adjusting his inners along with the jeans from his crack. Then the first kiss trickles. The next one. And the next one, before the dam breaks in a series of montages.

For a movie intending to serve as an ode to torn hearts and fractured souls, AR effortlessly oozes so much spunk and attitude. Mind you, it’s not the usual showboating you find in such auteuristic attempts, but aesthetic appeal that comes organically from dexterity of scene conceivement and unconventional character arcs. Take for instance, a scene in the present where Arjun’s shown smoking in his dingy living room with heavy metal in the background, that segues seamlessly in the music of his Enfield’s engine in an episode from the past.

It’s refreshing to see a movie operating in the old-wine-in-a-new-bottle territory with such panache, moulding every aspect of its narrative from a clay chaster than cliche- a cool granny with an unconventional perspective to things, a conservative brother who beats up in a show of concern, a girl who continues with her extended awkward hug with scant regard to the guy’s growing discomfort, the wallowing friend who looks for his friend’s sign off on his romance days before his marriage , the college gang war that ends in a cigarette and not to mention the man who solicits sex from random women as “physical help” to his ailing heart.

AR feels like a doff of hat to everyone who’s ever been in a self respecting relationship once and seen it burn before them into unrecognizable pieces of nostalgia, only to be locked in a distant part of their memory. It celebrates the purity of those painful bouts of churn in the stomach. The morning awakenings to the eternal gloom of nothingness. The alcohol soaked mind trips. The condescension of every seemingly functional relationship around for the want of a better sport. The friend who babysat with blind eyes and deaf ears to each and every shenanigan. The glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. And the long drawn out redemption. AR is a colossus to the bitter sweetness of love failures. An eulogy of sorts to the deceased love story, buried deep within.