On the need to protect culture and women from 90ml

I recently saw an interview of a renown film producer, where he spoke at length about how he felt repulsed about a film like 90 ml and his guilt about not condemning a  similar adult comedy that released a while ago. He seemed genuinely disturbed about the taint women talking lesbianism, lighting cigarettes and quaffing alcohol willy nilly onscreen. might bring to the Tamil culture.

Titanic ran for an entire year in this country. And the nude sketch sequence and the love making in the car were witnessed by lakhs of Indian families that hitherto thronged the theatres with similar fervor only for a Barjatya/Vikraman film. So the myth about making films for “ladies” and “family audience” was busted. As far as nudity and sex fit in aesthetically to the scheme of things, they weren’t complaining. But instead of breaking the taboo, Titanic remained a lone anomaly in an oxymoronic country obsessed with navel and cleavage of actresses, while continuing to worship its several goddesses.

As far as the culture of a place goes, it’s a fluid concept. A begged, borrowed and stolen thing on the constant lookout to usurp newer aspects, extramural into its scheme of things.What we observe as culture of our time is nothing but a recent addition in the pile of similar iterations stacked one over the other. Its relevance exists only till the next paradigm shift adds another layer over it. So it absolutely makes no sense to become romantically involved with something as ephemeral as culture.

The times we live in is characterised by Whatsapp conversations, breakneck speed inter-connectivity to one another,unfiltered-hassle free access to porn, heightened sexual awareness and alcohol soaked weekends to name a few things off the top of my head. Live in denial under the rock for as long as you want, but this is the continuum which most likely will extend into the distant future. And as you guys keep censoring cuss words and cleavages in movies, hundreds of porn sites, graphic shows like Game of Thrones are going to be made and consumed parallelly.

And coming to the joke of protecting…rather preserving women dignity onscreen, nothing really destroys a self respecting woman’s dignity than the bad cardboard roles that are written, almost as an after thought. Forget brawn, she doesn’t have brains of her own. In mainstream cinema, she either has to be his object of desire, his fluffy distraction from higher purpose or a damsel in distress waiting for her proverbial rescuer to arrive, if not his muse. One way or another she has to satellite around him. Even our most beloved movies tow this line. Seriously, why did a revolutionary film like Indian need two exotic North Indian actresses fighting for Kamal’s attention? Why did Padayappa keep snubbing Neelambari‘s advances? Was it because she was sophisticated, wore her heart on her sleeves, was chivalrous enough to make the first move or was not the kind of woman who would put up with her man categorizing womankind by the lakeside? And the sad part is this trend seems to continue in most mainstream movies till this very date. Case in point being a Mersal or Kaththi. Take the women out of these films, you wouldn’t miss a beat. So where were these woke activist types all this while?

Women empowerment isn’t merely a Wonder Woman, Irudhi Suttru, Dangal or a Mahanati. It is also a 90 ml. Why should she be moving mountains all the time, train for a sports tournament, do things deemed consequential onscreen to earn one’s respect. Why can’t she tend to her below the belt pangs, be turned on or have an inebriated conversation with her cohorts? Why can’t she just scratch her itch and not be judged for that. Why should that itch come with only one man or only as an expression of true love. Why can’t it be mere lust? Promiscuity isn’t an exclusive male franchise after all.

With regards to low brow adult comedies like Hara Hara Mahadevaki and Irutu Arayil murattu Kuthu doing really well, there’s nothing to get alarmed about. These are like the American Pie movies that were made in Hollywood. They aren’t meant for a well rounded man with a regular sex life or for viewing with one’s family. They cater to the section of the youth grappling with their puberty and coming to terms with their sexuality. They are meant to be crass. They are supposed to be riddled with innuendos and suggestive visuals. They’re designed to titillate. Not to provoke one’s thought, but his penis. And I seriously don’t understand what’s wrong with an A rated movie doing that? And something’s psychologically twisted with being irked about the fact that these movies can’t be viewed with one’s mother and sisters. And if the society wasn’t teeming with misogynists, chauvinists and hypocrites, the director wouldn’t have used a pseudonym after all.

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Peranbu- A moving love letter to love itself

Nature is an ubiquitous aspect in Peranbu. It’s there, literally in every frame, when it’s not doing the rounds figuratively in the metaphors doled out. It’s the inundating solicitous character that constantly lends to the mood of the drama, while not contributing to it. It’s even a motif and only fittingly finds itself in the name of every chapter, the movie is deconstructed into.

So Amudhavan’s wife elopes, leaving him stranded with his spastic daughter, who has hitherto been a distant scenery in his convenient life in a land far off, that has let him be the secondary parent. And like that, life quickly becomes the middle part of a sandwich, between a condescending society and a special child, who screams(quite literally) for attention, to only reject it. This conundrum makes him take up a life of isolation, devoid of judgement in the wilderness. Trapped with a spastic daughter, who is yet to acknowledge his territory, the solace in the woods is initially unsettling. But then with time, the healing begins. It comes fortuitously in the form of a trapped sparrow, he helps set free. She opens up a little and he gets a gist. Next, he turns up with a pet horse and her face gleams up. He gets a pattern. It’s through nature, can he decipher her.

He stops trying to understand her, begins embracing her with her imperfections. Slowly the imperfections melt into uniqueness. A bond develops. Prejudice melts. Rough edges begin to soften at nature’s chisel. We see a restless man mellow down. A creature of urbanisation, finding peace in his primal self. We never really know whether the woods brought this out in him or merely facilitated this transition, explicitly. We just get a sense of this through Mammootty’s internalised performance, which is just about visible enough to be felt. It is around the half way mark, we get to see the largehearted man he has turned into in the empathy he displays to a couple who’ve just conned him. As this newly minted man on the cusp of another identity, he returns to the chaos of the city with his daughter to only get asked more questions.

His spastic daughter on the verge of womanhood begins expressing herself lasciviously. He’d doubled up as mother and father in the woods. Changed her tampons even. The boundless nature around them had rendered gender minuscule, helped him move past the icky line. But there’s only so far a man can go as far as the needs of his daughter go. And it doesn’t help that this phase comes in a place with it’s constant four walled judgement , trained spirit of survival and an absolute intolerance to anything deemed extraordinary. It’s at this point that Meera, a transsexual sex worker— personifying the very ambivalence in his mind — enters his life. Unlike other men, he neither judges her for who she is or what she does. And through this relationship, he learns to— at least tries — grapple with his daughters sexual needs objectively without getting offended.

In the end, the journey of self discovery that began when his wife eloped comes a full circle, with him starting a family with Meera. Every conventional distinction he’s been taught to make between- right and wrong; man and woman; appropriate and inappropriate blur out as he happily observes the two unique women in his life bond. Amudhavan finally becomes a man capable of unconditional love(Peranbu).

Petta- The Rajni movie we all deserved

I think I was in the ninth, when my entire school was making a variant of “the cow” with their fingers, while a horde of auto-rickshaw rears read “Known is a drop, unknown is an ocean”. Baba euphoria had taken over the city and I couldn’t wait to watch it on its opening day. I guess it was my first Rajni movie in theatre on the opening day. But anticlimactically it turned out to be a damp squib. But one thing that was palpable was the aura of this person in the dark of the theatre. The movie was filled with humanly impossible stretches, but nothing really seemed to deter the electricity in the air. Make no mistake, I’d watched a ton of Rajni movies before this, but nothing compares to the experience of being in a frenzied theatre, that too at the cusp of adulthood. Some years passed and Chandramukhi came, which  exactly wasn’t a quintessential Rajni film. It was a plot driven remake, in which he was a catalyst and not the centerpiece. Then came Sivaji, which simply put, was a train wreck barring a few moments. It heralded a partnership with Shankar, in which they made soulless tent pole movies where the Superstar was buried under layers of VFX, towering budgets and tumbling skyscrapers. Then started another even more problematic collaboration with Ranjith that yielded a bunch of neither-here-nor-there movies. These movies touched upon the marginalization of the Tamil diaspora, making the Superstar a broken messiah minus the trademark mojo, who was neither super nor a star. If the Shankar movie diminished his aura under constant spectacle, Ranjith movies went one step ahead and neutralised it.

So you can understand the cynicism when Petta was announced with Karthik Subbaraj, another avant garde kind of filmmaker. I was prepping for another snore fest with identity crisis. But it all changed in the wee hours of the tenth of January this year.

Right from the opening fight sequence I knew I was in for something special. We are introduced to an unassuming(cough) warden’s carnage— verbally and then visually —as a gang of thugs get decimated in an enclosure, while various profiles of the decimating silhouette alone are revealed, eventually building up to Thalaivar smirking at us. Coming to think, even King Kong  and Godzilla don’t get built up this way.
I’ve never seen a movie since Padayappa that has treated him with such reverence. He’s not only written as some sort of a guardian angel, but consistently framed like one, as his silhouette appears from or dissolves into a sepia beam of light.

There are so many things worked for me, that I don’t really know where to begin. Like this moment he’s asked to play cupid to a young couple. He gets overwhelmed and then implodes. It’s a meta moment. History’s repeating, both within the context of the movie and his oeuvre. For be it, Dharmathin Thalaivan. Nallavanuku Nallavan  or even Padayappa, how many times has he been assigned this role.

There were these little directorial touches that we rarely come across in a Rajni film. Like the one where he’s in the mess kitchen narcissistically relishing his own cooking and talking about doing things with love, as we’re introduced to a couple making out. I even loved this stretch before an action block, which has “Malarnundhu Malaradha” playing in an archaic transistor as a subplot about long lost siblings is about to kick in.

Even the costumes fit in beautifully this time. The jackets, cardigans, turtlenecks, the characteristic round necks under unbuttoned shirts, winter boots that hitherto made no sense in the midsummer of cities, factories and villages, make sense in this foggy ecosystem, that seems to have been carefully crafted for Thalaivar to look and dress a certain way.

Petta promised to get one “Rajnified“. That is exactly what it achieves as an unapologetic homage to its star, with a doff of hat at almost every turn. Some subtle and some blatant, the film is filled with Easter eggs, be it his name from Mullum Malarum, the fake snake alarms from Annamalai, the koan studded life instruction song, the mouth organ from Padayappa and even the “Oole Po”(go inside) moment from Basha.
And I couldn’t help but notice the myriad uncanny resemblances to Basha in particular. The way his character’s look is styled in the present. his past as a dreaded gangster in which he loses his best friend, who also happens to be a Muslim. And did I mention the fact that this best friend’s son is called…. Anwar?

But my favourite moment of the lot has to be the manner in which the climax pans out with a band performing  “Raman Andalum” from Mullum Malarum that gradually segues into “Marana Mass” from this film as Rajni’s character continues to dance ecstatically. It pretty much summarizes the purpose of the entire movie, a nostalgic jog down the memory lane for an entire generation of fans.

Why 2.0 did not work for me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Roast of Vivegam

Earlier on in the movie, Ajith aka Thala ambushes an international weapons exchange in a tent, between an American and an European( on the basis of their appearance alone). Set to the tune of a grungy score, the sepia reflection from the explosions outside accentuate his silhouette sincerely from head to toe, when one of the alarmed men ask him who he is.

That’s enough for him to break into one of the many unhurried existential koans in chaste Tamil, with scant regard to the understanding of his audience in the tent or us.
Moments later he’s surrounded on top of a dam from all directions by an army of hundreds of gun men— mind you, all true blue pale skinned foreigners — when he again begins to talk to himself, probably in an endeavor at breaking the fourth wall about why one can never lose till he “never ever gives up”. Healthy life policy alright. But why did he have to enunciate so languorously, such pearls of wisdom in Tamil from an era Valluvar was yet to hit puberty; that too in the midst of a firangi military ambush?

Such misplaced lines in ill placed situations isn’t the only problem with Vivegam. Thing is it wants to do too many at once. Be a bondesque spy thriller, a spousal relationship manual, motivational material and fodder for humor, that comes dead on arrival.
Take for instance the continuous reiteration of the chemistry between Yazhini and AK. The stretch involving her packing his clothes voluntarily for a mission is point enough to reassert their compatibility. Especially in what is striving to be a taut spy thriller, where she essentially serves as a light subplot to humanise our protagonist. But she keeps popping up from time to time like a malicious pop up from a recently closed porn site, during bike chases to enquire about his well being. During gun shoots, where he’s hanging by a branch to confirm his time of arrival. And in the finale, to sing along to enliven a hand to hand combat. I won’t be surprised if over time, Vivegam makes its way to recommended therapy in marriage counselling.

Also the director doesn’t believe in the basic intelligence of the audience or in the concept of leaving some things to their imagination. Most of the scenes play like three dimensional power point presentations. So for example if a character talks about poverty you see a slab of a poor naked child on the left bottom of the screen. Or if they’re talking about earthquake you see an earthquake GIF following solicitously. Imagine a graphically created phoenix glide across the screen, on the prompt of “phoenix” as a subtle metaphor of our hero.

Vivegam is also one of those times you feel like you’re in the front row of a “spoken tamil” class, with participants from Gujarat, Pakistan, America and Africa competing with one other to mangle the language to an unrecognizable extent. The sheer unintentional fun of seeing Vivek Oberoi converse in Tamil, in a post coital tone with Ajith is alone worth the price of the ticket.

Vedalam, the previous collaboration of this duo was no masterpiece, but it had a lot of money shots for the die hards. It was content with providing lousy entertainment, with little regard to both, subtlety or logic. It’s genre let it leverage its star’s wattage to expand to the hilt within the milieu. But Vivegam strives at every step to subvert the spy genre to the “mass” sensibility, while ensuring that the fans of the star are tickled enough.
So there are these mandatory montages of sugar/BP induced slo-mo long strolls which have become typical of this actor; public safety awareness messages sandwiching every action block and the hapless central villain diligently servicing the hallow behind our hero in each board room conversation with his nefarious colleagues. Vivek Oberoi does the honours, mouthing these campy lines with little remorse, with the expression of a freshly minted dad outside a maternity ward.

Vivegam is a little way too verbose for a spy thriller. The thing is it would’ve been the same, even if it were a Visu film.

The rise and rise of Thalapathy

It was 1992. I was four, when my sister was born.Yet another actor was born along with her in Tamil films, about whom I knew a very little. Rightly so. It was part of the Kamal-Rajni era, where their combined clout was so large that it was often mistaken to be the Tamil film industry itself. There were other actors with a recall value as well, but none brought in the delirium like they did. So when I saw a lanky youngster with a barely legible mustache, caper by a dabba in Vishnu to “Thota beta rotu mela…”, it didn’t catch my attention. But what did, was the information that appeared in yellow font from no where onscreen to diligently notify-“Intha padalai padaiyavar ungal Ilayathalapathy Vijay“(This song is sung by your Ilayathalapthy Vijay). This wasn’t the fourth wall being broken as a cinematic device of story telling like in Woody Allen movies. This was unabashed propaganda topping what was already a propagandist movie.  So leave alone being a fan, I was far from acknowledging his choice of profession. Little did I know then that I would become a fan of his some day.

1996-2003

I had grown up. So had Vijay’s stature as a bankable actor slowly. He was no more the obscure star. I happened to realize that he lived in my neighbourhood as well. The sight of hapless admirers setting tent outside his Virugambakkam bungalow to catch a glimpse of him, had become a regular feature over the weekends. The rough edges were starting to smoothen. The shirts with boardgame depictions paved way to classier ones. It’s his sharp dressing that springs up to my memory when I reminisce of this period , like the woodlands green shirt tucked into crisp beige trousers that ended exactly where the shoes began in the  “Bharathiku Kanamma” number from Priyamudan. He was some sort of an icon back then itself.Whatever he wore in the movie, made it’s way to the streets. Suddenly you could see a lot of young men wearing their shirts without rolling the sleeves up or buttoning. It was how he would wear his full sleeves. No wonder Coke made him the face of their campaign.
You could see him play myriad dimensions of the love-struck archetype in a slew of extremely popular love stories, which went on to cement his stake in his core constituency- the youth. Be it Poove Unakaga,Love Today, Kadhalukku Mariyadhai or Thulatha Mananmum Thullum; we could distinctly see an extremely likable leadman nonchalantly shoulder the movie till its climax. Not to mention his nimble movements in the songs that had a following of their own.

‘An unemployed youth figuring life, love and responsibilities’ was the common narrative that was peddled in most movies that came since the turn of the millennia. If Kushi had him dodging love and ego, Badri was about a wastrel’s self discovery from a corner he gets pushed by life. His character were all  identifiable, flawed men we could not just root for; but relate to. If youngsters saw themselves, elders; their sons.
Another undeniable aspect about his movies were the chartbuster songs. Even if a Vijay movie was bad, the songs would be good. The same album would have a great Gazal type melody like say a-“Nee Katru Naan Mazhai” which would coexist in absolute harmony with an “Akuthe Akuthe” kind of a song. There would be that one irrevernt song in every film, which would turn out to be that year’s anthem like “Al thotta Boopathy” or “Coca Cola Brown color“. What made his dance numbers special was the sheer joy of watching him match every beat with feather footed grace. Take “Minnalai Pidithu” from Shahjahan, with minimal hand movements, all he does is slide with his feet. Just simple movements done so gracefully. Nothing more. But the synergy it creates with the song, is sheer bliss.

2004-2010

There are some memories that stay continue to remain young, even when you’re all grown up. One such memory was my first day experience in Udhayam Theatre. The excitement in the air was so electrifying, that one could’ve lit bulbs with it. When the hood came off and Velu goes-“Indha area, antha area….”, the theatre went bonkers. No one could hear a thing in the succeeding few minutes. That day I knew what delirium meant. Ghillli was that movie that gave him the license to get away with the things he does these days.

From being the identifiable guy of an entire generation, he had become their alter ego. His movies were a sort of a wish fulfillment exercise for them. The “Ilayathalapathy” moniker had gained gravitas. His choice of movies had changed. They were no more soft frothy affairs close to the imperfections of life. Be it Pokiri or Thirupachi– his movies were starting to often be set in gravity-less provinces in the director’s head -they doffed their hats to the one-man-against-the- system trope. He could do anything onscreen and get away with wolf whistles.

Imagine this scenario -Man smears 40 grams of turmeric on his face and runs down an army of henchmen like a plague, in broad daylight. And none of the onlookers crack the man behind this elaborate disguise.  Ridiculous right! Well this is a famous set-piece from Thirupachi. With anyone else it would’ve been fodder for  endless parody, but with him it became a memorable “mass moment”.

2011-2017

The first part of this phase was particularly painful for not just a diehard fan, but an average movie buff. Vijay was dealing exclusively in disasters; Kuruvi, Villu, Sura; each one more painful than the previous. These were not mere flops in terms of business parlance alone. Sachein and Vaseegara weren’t runaway hits during their times as well, but there was a grace in their failure. Not an air of mockery, like the one that eclipsed the release of each one of these forgettable movies.

We knew he deserved much better than this and so did we. It was only a matter of time before he bounced back.He was only a film away. We knew that. That film happened to be Thuppaki. It was a kickass film, no doubt whatsoever. But more importantly it was a star’s reassurance to his backers. It had no trappings of his previous failures. It never made the mistake those films did, of trying to show off his star wattage like a flourescent torch. It instead wore it like a perfume. And Thalapathy was back to where he belonged.

I’m an avid movie watcher and a huge fan of Kamal Haasan Yet none of this has come in the way of my love for Thalapathy. It’s not like he makes- or even tries to -an Anbe Sivam or a Midnight in Paris every now and then. Yet there’s something about his persona I can’t put a finger on, that I’m drawn to like a moth to fire. A quality so endearing that you step into a theatre each time in the hope of bringing down the roof.  Don’t know if it’s his characteristic chewing-an-eternal bread laid back dialogue delivery; the effortlessness dancing or the unbridled energy he brings to the loghter moments. Or it simply stems from the fact that he hails from the same neighborhood as me.

Maybe. Maybe not. All I know is I love him and would always be there for the very first show with sleep deprived eyes, to scream my lungs out to cheer for him.

For the ones who condescend him, I would suggest a viewing of Holiday starring Akshay Kumar; a  lifeless remake of Thuppaki. You’ll know, what Vijay did to do that film. There’s only so much that can be written. So much that can be directed. But after a point, it takes a true blue star to carry a blockbuster beyond the screens. He’s always done it. And done it with style.

Intha Deepavali super collection ‘ngana