Why NGK didn’t work for me at all

I remember a recent interview in which an actress was talking about the unconventional methods of acting she had picked from Selvaraghavan while filming NGK like not blinking, to avoid diluting the emotional intensity of a scene. There’s also this fascinating discussion which springs to mind, involving Selva and Baradwaj Rangan which gave me an insight into his style of working, the process that goes behind shaping the psyche of his protagonists. So with all the accrued curiosity I could gather I finally caught up with NGK on opening day. I’m not sure, but somewhere around the halfway mark I felt I enjoyed the interviews about the movie, the anecdotes about how it got made than the movie itself. The word middling comes to mind. Scratch that, half-baked explains what I felt much better.

The movie is about an educated man grappling with the politics around him, one knew as much from the trailer, so no surprises on that front. Somehow politics has become an ubiquitous motif in the past few years in movies this side of the country; political awareness seems to be the new “in” thing, what with brooding youngsters across platforms discussing (don’t even ask me about their level of understanding though) “social” causes, marginalization, representation in between cricket, celebrity wars and memes. That explains why off late, there are more politically motivated protagonists than usual leading the proceedings. It’s the new license to flex, to go anti establishment and come across as a cool messiah in the process. We saw it in Sarkar, Bharat Ane Nenu, LKG and now NGK.

In my opinion, there’s still a lot of fodder left to be juiced in this genre. After all, the “larger than life” aspect comes with the territory itself. When in another run of the mill masala movie, the protagonist has to be elevated with dramatic sequences as a hero, a leader of the masses. A lead man who is playing a cabinet minister or say a CM, is de facto all of that and more which makes it an automatic breeding ground for “mass” movies.

There are a few kind of movies that can be made here. One where the politics is the milieu in a personal, character driven story like an Iruvar, where an arc assumes shape an runs parallel to the journey of its lead and we find ourselves in their head space. And then there are these movies where politics is the grand central piece holding the proceedings together and the personal trajectories are merely incidental and in service to this larger scheme. A Rajneeti or NOTA fall into this bracket. These movies keep dropping stats, mimicking current affairs with pseudonyms and give a vicarious sense of going through political happenings with a fairy tale solutions. And there’s the third kind, which combines the best of both worlds, giving us an entertaining story of the protagonist while informing us in detail about the politics inundating his ecosystem. Here, both the personal and politics take turns to become cogs in each other’s wheels. Kodi or Sarkar come to mind in this space.

Coming back to NGK, it falls in the middle of nowhere. It’s neither a character study of its eponymous protagonist, his grand scheme, his personal journey and the close ones in it nor is it a intricately put together political movie which gives us a fresh perspective to the politics of his constituency which we didn’t already know of. It’s a laboured exercise in bizzareness, that strives to be a cult classic in every frame, with a motley bunch of broken characters displaying varying degrees of weirdness. Their collective range of emotions is somewhere between the third joint and being possessed by a confused spirit. Their decibel level is either a screech or a scream, depending on how abnormal the scene is. There’s this particular sequence, where NGK comes back from a really tight spot. Wide open glassy eyes, a weird smirk of an accomplished pedophile plastered across his face and a dance movement that would make tribal mating movements look sophisticated, Surya’s performance feels like the SOS call of a possessed man with a really heavy stone suspended from his balls, trying to recreate Dhanush’s “Divya Divya” moment from the director’s Kadhal Kondein.

Characters can’t be interacting among each other in an abnormal manner without an extraordinary reason to be that way; loose ends and loop holes cannot just exist and be deemed to be hidden symbolism that warrant a shameless rewatch because the film’s supposedly avant garde. There’s a difference between dropping hints, leaving some plot points open for interpretation and lazy writing that doesn’t give a rat’s ass to the viewer’s intelligence. Playing with the viewer’s imagination and leaving most things to his imagination are not the same thing.

Agreed, politics is a grey area and the characters cannot be black and white. They can be amoral, ambivalent, complicated and even unpredictable, as far as there’s a method to the madness or a “why”, even a small-flickering one lurking at some turn over the course of the screenplay to tie up the idiosyncrasies. Otherwise, they’re just a bunch of weird people, you couldn’t care lesser about, doing random shit with no rhyme or rhythm whatsoever.
There’s this litmus test I usually have for finding whether a movie with an antihero/unconventional hero works or not. If by the climax, a movie makes me feel bad, disturbed, overwhelmed, vicariously happy about the victory of evil in his form or at least like the rug was pulled from under my feet, I walk out a satisfied man. But if the only thing that lingers in the end is the after taste of butter popcorn, gratitude for not being an insomniac or a sincere hope for the director to be straight jacketed, you pretty much know how much the movie worked.

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Bharat- Of all things Bhai and nice

Fifteen minutes into the movie, there’s this stretch in a circus involving a bike, a death defying race, a clueless character who has the gumption to even think of outdoing Bhai in a Bhai film on Eid and Bhai. We’re prepped for an adrenaline gushing gratuitous race for him to defy, both death and gravity to go past the finish line first, to bring up the “Slow Motion” song.(With the round the clock promos, nothing onscreen is enigmatic anymore. Plus it’s a Bhai movie, predicting a song placement isn’t rocket science exactly.) So as expected Bhai does win. But how? The stakes are dialled up. He leaps over two speeding cars that come his way on the WALL OF THE WELL a la Spidey, to climb atop his bike on the other side to complete the victory lap. Again,this dalliance with speeding motor vehicles doesn’t happen on flat ground, but on the motherfucking wall of a circular well. And the response, uninterrupted wolf whistles! Now tell me how many people can pull this off and get away with whistles.
Salman is an emotion that personifies all things larger than life; an alter ego, an actor we love enough to overlook his inability to act. All of this is another way of saying, he’s one of the last surviving superstars of Indian cinema. Watching Bharat made me realize this yet again.

Normally, actors draw their identity from the characters they play, whereas with Salman it’s always the opposite. He doesn’t dissolve into the role, but it dissolves into him, drawing from his persona. What is on display isn’t the acting chops, but textbook narcissism which somehow seems to be drawing men to it by the million, in a state of trance that usually precedes an elongated orgasm. That’s the thing about phenomenons, they get harder with each attempt to get to the bottom of. And what people don’t understand, they begin to resent. They get on a high horse and condescend the admirers/supporters of a personality, by branding them a certain way.  Like with Salman fans, who are collectively assumed to be  misogynistic deviants who worship and emulate the toxic charm of an iffy celebrity who’s far from being a model citizen. We saw this presumptuous elitism backfire on the Modi haters this elections. And looking at the opening figures of Bharat, it’s an encore at the movies for Salman haters as well.  There’s no rational way to gauge a popular wave, than humbly acknowledging it from the other side.

Coming back to Bharat, first things first. Age finally seems to be catching up with Bhai. Especially in the initial portions, when he’s playing a young man. And the fact that a much younger actress plays his mother and an even younger one plays his love interest makes this more atrocious than it already is. Bhai, love you to the moon and back. But please be a little, just a little age appropriate onscreen. That said, he totally rocks the five ‘o’ clock shadow and the salt ‘n’ pepper. Not to mention the swag and screen presence which seem to be intact.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there has been another director in the recent past who’s leveraged Salman’s persona as holistically as Ali Abbas Zafar. When most collaborators with Salman can’t resist the temptation to keep pulling the trigger, Ali knows when not to. Be it Sultan, Tiger or now Bharat, he seems to imbue Bhai with a touch of innocence, vulnerability, fragility, heart that lend a new dimension to the larger than life characters he portrays, which make us not just hoot, but root for him. If the breakdown before the mirror in Sultan was beautifully vulnerable, there’s a similar emotional high point here in the preclimax, where the actor within completely overtakes the star.

And I think screaming like a neanderthal who’s ass is on fire, every time Bhai’s shirt comes off isn’t going out of vogue. Agreed, one’s more likely to stumble upon a gym than a pebble these days and being muscular isn’t that big a deal as it used to be. But the ritual of straight men going nuts at the first sight of Bhai’s exposed torso, is a very personal heave of nostalgia. An unsophisticated, primal doff of hat to the beloved legacy of a man, whose body of work is inseparable from his body.

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.

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.

A love letter to Sathyam

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

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

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

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

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

Geetha Govindam- A highly entertainining, yet problematic movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kamal Haasan- The star finally descends from his sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Deconstruction of Baahubali 2’s movie review by Anna MM Vetticad

Anna MM Vetticad launching into her diatribes a.k.a reviews against movies that dare to have sequences autonomous to her value systems has been a regular Friday matinee feature for a while now. If an actor is much elder to an actress or even worse, if an actress’s character arc shapes up on screen in a certain way distant from what Anna had in mind, she would jump in to the rescue of woman fraternity at large. Cry out foul. Condescend the director’s audacity and even question the collective intent of men to wolf whistle for such violation. One might then ask as to what happened at all to the original purpose of reviewing the movie with objectivity. Answer is, it becomes incidental. A Trojan horse to ethical police; to euphemise predispositions which would’ve been plain rants of a woman with misplaced self righteousness without the scaffolding of cinema. So if the anti romeo squads have taken over UP to take the country to a dark age, people like Anna have taken over social media to precipitate prejudice with giant magnifying glasses in their hands to pin point fault lines in mainstream narratives, that are made largely without malice, to play to the gallery.

If a lead man does a shirtless sequence- a song or a stunt -she’ll go on about it in painful detail like an European traveller about Taj Mahal. Poor woman’s just articulating her attraction to a desirable man, right. But if the same movie has an actress performing a sexy song, all hell will break loose. She’ll pounce on it, call it downright sexist and distasteful from the vantage of her high horse of feminism. Anyone calling out the obvious double standards would be rounded off as a troll or its closest interchangeable form now, a bhakt. And just like that, from being a deconstruction of the movie alone, it would become about the intention of the director, whether he is a safe person for a girl to go on a date in the evening and which party might be vote for, given his affiliation.

The idea of women promiscuity is a thing of a progressive-feminist world, agreed. But then why name call the male promiscuity, that too in its most passive vicarious manifestation of ogling at actresses in well choreographed hot songs? If someone ogled at Vidya Balan in Kahaani, then it’s an issue. But if they didn’t in a Dirty Picture, then it’s unnatural. It all comes down to presentation. Different films present different characters, differently, as simple as that.

You can’t go into a Sultan or a Bahubali with the expectation found after a bout of Angry Indian Goddesses, the previous day. The former movies have a different agenda, a different story to tell, a different ecosystem and an entirely different(rather huge) demography to cater to. They can’t have women empowerment in the top of their manifesto as you would’ve liked and they shouldn’t, to be honest.

So after Baahubali-The Beginning you made a huge fuss about the sequence involving Avantika and Shivudu, so much that you went on even call it ” The rape of Avantika” in an award winning piece.
Let me ask you this, in a movie based in a time, thousands of years from now in Ancient India how did you expect a guy to approach a woman he liked? How is a tribal guy who climbs mountains in spare time supposed to display chivalry: Quote Shelley? Open doors for her or foot bills? Flaunt knowledge during quantum physics class in college or power dress to work? Ask her out on a date and then wait for her to make her move?
Let me tell you this, leave thousand years back. This finesse to approaching a woman wasn’t there a few generations back in India when courtship was a mockery before the “first night” of wedding. Taking all of this into account, the era the movie is set in and the primary designations of the protagonists, that sequences involving Shivudu and Avantika are not just tastefully written, but imaginatively conceived as well. First he risks his life and climbs a mountain in search of her. Next, he deftly paints on her arm  from under water while she’s asleep and continues to paint the same art on her shoulder from above a tree .And lastly when she finds out and comes charging at him, he waltzes around every sword wield to deflect her aggression to only confront her with the beauty she was denying to be, with every iteration of escape. She glances at her new self, falls in love with it and the man before, after coming to know the distance he had gone to find her. They break into a song, which ends with their consummation. Love is made. And he goes on take up her life’s purpose to be his. Their relation is so much more passionate, organic and romantic than the courtships that come out of matrimonial sites or Bollywood. Why this had to be equated to an act of rape is beyond me.

Irony died twice when I read these nuggets of insight from your recent review which was yet another chest thumping piece of feminism and radicalism, where you had written and I quote-

“As is always the case, each viewer’s response to the film depends on her/his priorities. My priority, I admit, is not #WKKB but #DRTOHS: does Rana take off his shirt (in the film, as he has for the posters)? Answer: yes he does. For good measure, so does Prabhas.
In the way it is told, #WKKB is not as dramatic a revelation as expected. #DRTOHS, on the other hand, is absolute paisa vasool.”

Read the full article here- http://www.firstpost.com/entertainment/bahubali-2-hindi-movie-review-baahubali-2-rating-cocktail-of-visuals-terrible-acting-closeted-conservatism-3411488.html

While you cried out foul on the objectification of women in the first part, you’ve done nothing but that in your review of the second part. At least that movie was not made with this as the single point agenda, unlike your review. But who cares, as far as a crusader of feminism is at the helm and the target is a bunch of men, right?

Film critic that you claim to be, try telling yourself this, every time you walk into a theatre –

“I see my god in the temple if I’m a believer or in the mirror(or nowhere at all) if I’m an atheist. Where I don’t definitely expect to see him is in the movies. When I don’t expect English movies to be a microcosm of my belief system, it makes little sense for me to expect representation in movies made in my backyard. The characters in the movies can behave in a way I would never in a similar situation, but that would not weigh on my movie watching objectivity. I would compare movies with movies in similar genre and not with parallel thoughts in my head or a news making national headline. Last of all I would try and be the Utopian version of myself with all the virtues I expect the world to possess, not try and inculcate the same into the vision of a creator who’s put his heart and soul into it or a hapless movie buff who might read my review.”