Decoding the phenomenon called 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 in these depictions, 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 tease 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 actually 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 Thalapathi 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 Thalapathi. 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-a-bread-crumb laid back dialogue delivery; the effortlessness in dancing or the unbridled energy he brings to the funny 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

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“Sachin: A Billion Dreams”…A trip down the memory lane with the master

To be honest, I walked into the theatre skeptically. Just another manifestation of his narcissism I thought to myself. This predisposition has been there from the eve of of his retirement at Wankhede. As a fan, I didn’t like the exit. The sign off should’ve come on-field against a better opponent, not on a podium. And as far as the last speech, his bat should’ve done the talking like it always did, not him. But anyways, each man deserves to choose his time and manner of exit. All the more when the man is a man less and a demi-god more, like Sachin. From then crevices formed in my relation with him and cricket. So when the trailer came about a documentary movie on him, I plainly dismissed its necessity to exist.
But what happened in the dark, after the screen came alive was something I hadn’t signed up for. Mother time probably had woven the crevices together.It was so good to see him. My icon was talking to me. His life was mine to know. A vanilla account it was, but not a prosaic one. After so many years, the child in me got to have a conversation with the brightest star that had lit his sky.  I became ten again. Life became innocent as the screen became a time machine with the master in the driver’s seat.

What can you say to a man, who carries the voice of a billion people in his ears, to unsettle him?

– Ian Botham, on sledging Sachin

Looking at the many Sachin exploits unfold on screen again, felt like flipping through some fond love letters of a first love. As a nineties kid, the nostalgia is palpable. Every shot, personal. Each knock bookmarked an important chapter in my life and the country’s. We’ve seen adulation, fondness and even mad following being extended to some sports personalities. But nothing compares to the emotional entanglement the fans shared with Sachin. Here was a man, whose game was personal to an entire nation. On match days, his showing decided the appetite of a household, sudden sickness leaves in a school and turnout at the workplace. Not to mention the TRPs of sports channels.

That was an era , when one man was- unwillingly -bigger than the sport itself. The nineties was a precarious era for cricket in India, as one couldn’t exactly tell whether he was obsessed with Sachin because he played cricket or with cricket because it let Sachin play it. Because the solicitous national rhetoric that cut through the length and breadth of the nation during a match’s progress was- ” Is Sachin still there?“.
That’s how much a layman needed to know. He was rooting for India alright, but somehow his concern ended with Sachin. His heart veered along faithfully with the master, like a kite dancing to the rhythm of the winds.

Every time I’ve walked with him, I’ve felt like accompanying the king of a jungle.

– Virendar Sehwag on opening with him

Seen from the vantage of the euphoria the nineties held, cricket these days has become a dispassionate affair that celebrates generic consistency over genius. The constant utopia most cricketers are after- remarkable athleticism, the 15 % body fat and the wild reinvention of shots has no doubt added spunk to the sport, but eroded its old school charm. 350+ scores are chased down with disdain, but they’re half the humdinger a 250+ chase used to be in the nineties. Probably the rapid learning curve has removed the hallow behind a cricketer’s head. A Virat Kohli is a great batsman, probably will go on topple some of Sachin’s records one day. But that’s about it. A Dhoni is probably a little bigger than that. His off- field zen persona, the rag to riches narrative and the barbaric helicopter shots taken into account duly. He’s one of the chief architects of the Indian renaissance in cricket. With him came the concept of solidarity. Of team being bigger than an individual. Of each individual chipping in to do his bit. One would hit while one would consolidate. One would turn. One would slip in the quick middle overs and one would guide along till the other side of the finishing line. There’s a certain industrial quality with which the team operates.

But as passive observers on the aisles of history would tell, there’s nothing heroic in the tale of foot soldiers taking the war to an opponent. Winning is always sweet, that doesn’t change. But the stakes aren’t high, though the consequence looms. Swords swing. Metals cling. Bruises cut through the skin. Some times limbs roll. Some times heads fly. The grit is real. The valor is palpable, though generic. When victory ensues, their collective stature brings in celebration, though the throne remains unthronable. Such accounts remain embalmed in history as facts, well short of mythical stature.

Even Dhoni’s reputation as one of the game’s best finisher comes from his dogged consistency in discharging duties from a specific batting designation. We don’t panic when he’s on strike every time. We don’t bunk office every time he’s gone past the thirties. We don’t touch our chins twice before the TV, to just not jinx a century. We love him for his ability to win games, like every self-respecting fan of a sport would. But this adulation clearly originates from the love of the sport, than the sportsman. Nothing like the unreasonable romance with everything Tendulkar.

The nation got familiar with the human anatomy, each time Tendulkar was diagnosed with a new injury.

– Harsha Bhogle

The anecdotes in the movie humanize the legend. After all, like any of us, even he wallowed with guilt each time he lost. He might’ve been a cricketing demigod, but even he turned to God to overcome his tennis elbow injury. We come close to his hitherto unseen shades- like the like how he was this doting father who swore to not operate the diapers of his new born, the reluctant young man who couldn’t summon enough chivalry to respond to a smitten woman’s attention or how he took his brother vicariously with him each time he took stance. Through every vulnerability learnt, empathy grows for someone who was a stoic enigma.

It’s not a movie as much as an experience. It will make you smile. Tear up at times, overwhelmed with nostalgia. Warm you up with the familiarity of a favorite chapter from life and go – ” Sachin, Sachin!“, one more time.

Kaatru Veliyidai- Of air, style and no substance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The idiot before the box

Feet pointing ceiling wards, I’m tucked in a warm corner of a sofa in my hotel room in Bangalore. Warmth caused from my absolute deposition in similar position without a limb movement since the past one hour. So there’s this Kannada film-Kirik Party that I wanted to check out and as a result of which been in moot with my body; protesting its inertness and it, my audacity to get off the ass. However, with a little assistance from the balmy weather outside, the body wins and I’m left to turn to an old habit for solace-swapping channels.

The television comes alive the image of Rajini in a graceful bell bottom trouser. He’s slapping around his sister, who’s apparently lied to him about her romantic life, that he had come to know about. The scene’s reeking of chauvinism, but the man’s grace more than covers it up. His hair isn’t the messy pigeon nest it came to be a few years later with the superstar moniker, it’s parted from the side gracefully. Arulirunthu Aruvathu Varai is a movie for all seasons. It continues to remain so.

Probably one among either the movie or Rajini cause a sandwich craving.The hand meddles with the Swiggy app and moments later there’s a club sandwich that is room bound from a joint few kilometres apart. The mood changes. So does the channel.

Shahrukh is a bloody heap, yet he’s pummeling an army of blazer clad henchmen with conspicuous looking punks, that almost descend on their collars like hibernating rodents . All of them despite being the “bad” entourage, are thorough gentlemen. They patiently wait for their turns to get at our hero, ensuring he at no point does he have beyond one person to sink his fists into. And our hero gamingly hams along, with an eternal chin quiver. Baazigar is one of those delightful masala movies, where the hero’s moving in slow motion in a scene that is already shot in slow motion. An 8 metre rusted iron rod gets planted into his solar plexus, yet after a brief pause he manages to not only kill the villain with it; but limp a few miles to die on his widowed mother’s chiffon; leaving her with a corpse and a stained sari. The woman’s old, dependent, mentally unstable and now orphaned. But who cares about all that.All that matters is,she’s been avenged by her serial killer deceased son. “THE END” the screen screams before our mind begins to ponder further.

The sandwich makes its appearance and craving settles. Mood changes. So does the channel.

Aamir Khan’s deconstructing the definition of “book” to a painful detail to get back at a professor. He’s supposed to be a geek, but he plays it with the gawkiness of an alien that belonged in PK, nevertheless endearingly. Rancho is one of the most celebrated character of this generation and not without a reason. Watch him spiritedly explain the anecdote behind how the “Aal izz well” phase came into vogue, you know the stuff cult classics are made of.

I’ve watched 3 Idiots a million times like anyone else. So the channel changes before I begin to get sucked in once again.

A septuagenarian is frolicking with a certain sense of authority and a wig, heavier than it; with a girl younger than his molar tooth. The gentleman in point being Rajkumar, who’s apparently got his regime for diabetes mixed up with the choreographer’s vision, to come with something that looks like a form of non verbal exorcism.
I felt violated by the shenanigans. Thankfully most of the sandwich had made it past the digestive system. At least I had the luxury of changing the channel, my heart went out to the poor girl onscreen who was subjected to child abuse.

I get up to make myself a nice drink. Hmmm..the pleasure of solitude, fermented liquid on rocks and the company of a box with infinite entertainment.Channel changes.

Bhai’s bed bound, reeling from some pain. Something we’ve not seen in any of his several court appearances. What’s moved the mountain…rather who?
It’s not the blurry image of the deceased from Bandra pavement nor the blackbuck. It’s his muse, a lanky Anushka who’s apparently confronting the man about their skirmish from sometime back. He’s in tears. She’s gotten to him. It’s a beautiful scene from Sultan where he breaks down before his estranged wife in the most vulnerable point in life. The pain that separated them once, gets them back together.

Too mushy for a Bhai movie. Drink’s hit bottom. The limbs have become pleasantly lethargic. Eyes are in search of sleep. Mood changes. Channel changes.

“If the homo sapiens were in fact homo sapiens…is that why they’re extinct?”
“Joey, homo sapiens are people!”
“Hey, I’m not judging!”
I cracked up like I did the first time. Joey’s dumbness is addictive. To me, David Crane and Marta Kauffman, writers of Friends are demigods, much bigger in stature than Tolkiens and Rowling. While LOTR and Harry Potter had to resort to magic and an alternate world set in fantasy to capture the imagination of their subscribers, Friends mined its epicness from commonplace. There’s no gibberish, no scale and no convoluted subplots and backstories. Just a bunch of friends who live their lives with us. Or atleast made us feel that way. None of them are path-breaking actors by any standards. But tell you what, they needn’t be. Because we don’t know them, as much as the characters they’ve dissolved into before our eyes. So Ross doesn’t behave like Michael Schwimmer. Maybe Schwimmer is a lot like Ross.
That’s the thing about Friends, it gives you a sense that life would be great with every iteration. The dark corner in the bedroom wasn’t eerie anymore. No one was looking back at me from there. It was just my over imaginative head. I needed to rest, a early morning train awaits. The TV needed to as well.

Power off.

A night well spent.
.

Mani Ratnam- A master of imitation

There is this sweet spot in movie making that exists between imitation and inspiration that auteurs keep hitting from time to time. Nayagan is a wonderful case in point. Kamal and Ratnam’s doff-of-hat homage to Coppola’s Godfather, resulted in the creation of the most iconic characters in pop culture, Velu Nayakar. Nayakar was modelled on Corleone, looked like Varada Raja Mudaliyar and drew from Haasan’s persona. It was a thesis on effectively implementing a western trope to eastern sensibilities-staying true to both, without diluting the other. This was first among the many times, Mani Ratnam would go on to paint vivid pictures of inspiration on celluloid.

Sometimes the inspiration came from a peer’s work, like in the case of Mouna Ragam which is his interpretation of Bhagyaraj’s Antha 7 Naatkal. Mouna Ragam like A7N dealt with that icky space between a husband and his wife’s unrequited past romance. Like Rajeev, Mohan was a debonair gentleman who went out of his way to find a cozy spot for his wife outside the precincts of matrimony. They were dignified men, keen listeners content to be the number two in their woman’s life. Antha 7… was a colourful tale with comedy, romance, tragedy and drama operating in tandem under the vigil of a path-breaking screenplay that lent each central character with dignity and empathy. Mouna Ragam dialed up the wife’s disgruntlement, killed her ex and focused more on the evolution arc of the relationship with her husband, from being one of “kambilipoochi” like repulsion to a place of reverence. It felt like a vibrant Woody Allen film with a brilliant Ilaiyaraja score and a lot less cynicism.

Thalapathi was a case of inspiration from mythology and folklore. It was a contemporary adaptation of Karna’s life- his friendship with Duryodhana, tumultuous relation with his estranged mother and his administering of dharma, Rajni style. It audaciously plucked the essence of central characters from Mahabharatha and tossed them in and around the heat of Chennai’s vigilante establishments. It made for a riveting watch. Ditto with Roja, that spun the story of Satyava-Savitri against the backdrop of Kashmiri insurgency. The mythical anecdote suddenly assumed different shapes and connotations. It became a chest thumping account of a woman’s resilience. It also turned a sort of flagship movie on nationalism, courtesy the invigorating Tamizha Tamizha sequence. The subversion of Yama into a humane terrorist was another stroke of genius.

If some of Mani’s inspirations came from movies and some from mythology, some came from lives and times of personalities. Like the iconic Iruvar. It was his cinematic ode to the MGR-Karunanidhi saga. Like an overseeing conscience, it surreptitiously follows the journey of the two doyens of Dravidian politics through insignificance, friendship, one upmanship, envy, bitterness, ignominy and their eventual separation. It lets us partake in the head space of the two of the most fascinating men, as they traded blows at each other, lending relatability to prosaic anecdotes we’ve hitherto read and heard over the years, without taking sides.

And to bring to life, the story of how the founding stones of the nation’s biggest business empire were laid, as a fascinating personal account is no mean stretch. Guru did this and more. It gave us a manipulative protagonist who took to business like life and to life like business. Gurukant Desai was a capitalist subversion of Nayagan’s,”Nallu Peruku Naladhu na, Edhuvum Thapilla” commandment. The ruthlessness, the scant disregard for the rule book were all there, but unlike Velu Nayakar, all this doesn’t culminate in the path of altruism. Guru’s a scrupulous businessman. Period. When in a tight spot, he greases his way out. Like with every biopic worth its salt, Guru keeps us pondering from scene to scene, if this was Ambani or just Gurukanth. Ratnam never really bothers. He simply keeps blurring the line between the two.

Seen as a naive connoisseur of cinema, these are fascinating films with top notch production values, timeless performances, lilting scores. All in all, timeless pieces of art. If one wants to scratch beyond the surface,  then these are masterful retelling of popular lives, progressive deconstruction of folklore and “what-if” discourse of enigmatic personas. What better way to embalm the legend of MGR, than through Ratnam’s direction, Mohanlal’s acting and Rahman’s score?

Nallu Peruku Naladhu na, Edhuvum Thapilla“-If it benefits a few people, nothing’s wrong.

Kaabil- The drudgery of Hrithik’s acting

Moments into Kaabil I was distracted. Not by the little kids in the row before, having popcorn wars. Not by the bright display from the mobile, next seat. Not even by the incessant banter of a marwadi contingent looking for F row in the middle of B row. It was the sight of Hrithik playing a blind man.

His face encapsulates Michelangelo’s intensity half way into Sistine Chapel. Brows arced, it is a picture of focus. What is he doing? Making omelette.Nah….creating fresco with broken eggs on a pan. He’s got this industrious look plastered on his face whilst at even the most common of things, that it lends some unintentional curiosity to the activity. We begin to wonder when he opens a tap so emphatically, if he’s there for just the water or releasing its hidden potential as well. Or the time when he’s dicing vegetables purposefully,  if he’s sculpting them for a higher cause or just cooking.
Most emotions he doles out in the movie fall in the range contained between Akbar’s royal grimace to Krish’s righteous chin quiver. The ones which don’t fall in this space, fall under the I-blush-excessively-when-I-get-horny platter from Koi Mil Gaya.

The template of the story is older than a few mountains, alright. But where did the thumb rule of character establishment go? Appu Raja(Aboorva Sagotharargal) pitted a dwarf against a bunch of evil men, all bigger than him in stature and status. We were introduced to the dwarf’s vulnerability, his fragility earlier in the film; that we became invested and went on to root in his lopsided battle.

The fun of watching a protagonist with a disability lock horns with a mighty antagonist comes from his helplessness and the dexterity he brings in to make up for it. He has to be the mouse for most parts in the cat and mouse game they play. Which is one of the many places Kaabil falters. Its hero is a blind man with 18 inch biceps and a blonde streaked mane. He sports colour coordinated designer clothes and never puts a wrong foot down on the dance floor. Instead of leveraging his blindness as a bottleneck, it’s treated like a insignificant kitchen scar. I know the title means capable, but this is over-capable with a few exclamation marks.

And the aspiration to have these things scattered in a masala flick that intends to play to the gallery isn’t a crime. Just that their existence could’ve been ratified. Like showing him live with his granny who picks up his clothes. Have a few montages of him sweating it in the gym or even learning dance. These things lend credibility to the proceedings. Just stray shots of him sniffing a smell from a far away neighbour or that of mimicking Amitabh over phone only does as much as Deepika Padukone does to a deodorant in a commercial, as far as authenticity goes.

It’s not like Hrithik isn’t earnest. In fact if acting was measured by earnestness alone, he would probably be an acting demigod. And it doesn’t help that the director isn’t any visionary himself to make up for the lacunae with a taut screenplay or a novel story. He infuses the film with a distinct copious 80s sensibility and tropes.From raped heroine, vowing hero, political villain to fat landlines with circular dial; it’s all there. Just that it doesn’t have the old school charm of the era. Dabbang was stitched out of the same cloth, but Salman played Chulbul Pandey with such unabashed conviction, that a rusted script became rustic.

Kaabil needed its hero to be fluid, to have a blast like he did in his extremely popular debut vehicle. Instead he tries too hard and the symbiotic spontaneity goes amiss from the viewing experience. If the meticulous posturing during stunt sequences or the asthmatic enunciation of dialogues are anything to go by, Hrithik’s in his own avant garde project. And even beyond all this, every time I managed to con myself of the film being in this era by the constant sight of slim fit jeans, a hideous Baba bhajanesque track would come up to remind me of its expiry date.  .

My Vishwaroopam story

This isn’t about Kamal Hasan’s acting prowess, this isn’t about his legion of hardcore fans including me nor is it a factual dissection of the controversy over the ban on the film-Vishwaroopam. This is a memoir of the travails I undertook to make sure I watched the movie at any cost and the myriad experiences that ran across the mind asserting my relation with my matinee idol over the years as the miles in the journey kept multiplying with my bank balance and luck dwindling at a disturbing rate.

My dad had recommended a book called “The Secret” which talks about how the entire universe conspires to make you get what you desire, If you desire it from the bottom of your heart. I got to understand this concept explained in the book through this trip, though not pretty sure about how proud my dad would be about where I applied the same.

The Beginning:
Bookings for the movie set to release on the 25th starts as early as 18th night and before I could get a hold of myself, adrenaline gets the better of me and I end up booking for all five shows for the First Day(ironically I’m not a patron of the concept of overtime in work front).

As the release day nears the guilt of abysmal showing in my recently concluded exams gets dwarfed by Thalaivar hysteria from within and outside. That’s when the ban on the movie happens, as a micro mini section of anti-social elements get offended by their fantasy of the yet to be released movie being anti-them. Suddenly I’m a victim of animosity towards anyone from that community. Maybe that’s how a seasoned rationalist turns into a extremist in a jiffy for a strong personal reason, reasons my inner voice. All the lessons on democracy during the economics period from school time suddenly seem like an exercise on redundancy in a country filled with “touch-me nots” who have their individual remote controls to obstruct democracy.

It does always help to have wise friends with dated sense of humour at times of crisis, the inferno within cools down paving way for logical alternatives to tackle the ape of a mind from misbehaving. So I thought of the following course of actions to take:

Alternate #1 : Go on social networking sites, indulge in some finger pointing, get into some nasty arguments , express views, quote situational lyrics from the movie’s title track and feel self gratified like participating in WWE through play stations.

Alternate #2: For a person, who I look upto as my ideological Godfather would spitting into a common pool to show solidarity suffice or should I do something more worthwhile to show my love & respect. The Mission Telugu land is born!

MISSION TELUGU LAND- CHENNAI→VIJAYAWADA→HYDERABAD→NELLORE→ DISAPPOINTMENT→BACK HOME→PROUDER FAN

Along with my fellow kamalians- Naresh & Gautham, I embark on an overnight trip to Hyderabad where the movie is set to release. The air of mutual ridicule for this insanely mad decision makes way for typical hitting below the belt- guys banter with least regard to a senior citizen’s presence in the opposite berth in our lush sleeper coach heading to Vijayawada.
The news of the movie not releasing in Hyderabad reaches Vijayawada before our bus does. Over breakfast we brainstorm in unison to arrive at a decision to leave to Nellore from there to watch the movie after checking the schedules there.(god bless the visionary who made the cellphone smart with “apps” galore.)
Crusaders-I wouldn’t flatter ourselves, madmen- we almost were there….but diehards-we totally fitted the bill! Why else would this logistical/economical nightmare be vetoed by adults trained to advise other people on how to plan their finance?!
Thus we were enroute Nellore on a bus, which could best be described as one with moderate locomotive abilities on two and a half wheels. Trusting our karma more than the greenhorn driver who was parallelly evolving into a full fledged driver with every passing Kilometre all of us took a power nap.
My subconscious mind gets questioned in my sleep by my brain’s logical side as to whether this pointless madness is worth it?! Offended, my subconscious mind takes me down my memory lane to my first year in the world-Where am I??….I’m in a dark theatre playing some movie disturbing audience rightfully like every newborn does by crying. Crying stops suddenly when a face appears on the large screen- It is Kamal Hasan & that’s where the eternal connection began ,at Aboorva Sagotharargal in Kasi Theatre.

Bent on proving the brain’s conclusion erroneous, my subconscious mind takes me to my first few years as a kid & what did I do as toddler- chose a video cassette of “Singaravelan” over Funskool products unlike my fellow toddlers of that era. During my formative years, that movie was my alarm clock,routine, break from routine, my bribe for having healthy average tasting food and my lullaby.Had I watched “Thuruvilaiyadal” that many times instead,I might have had a limited edition pass to Mt Kailash to rendezvous with Lord Shiva.
I wake up as proud Kamalian after revelations from the ‘brain vs sub-conscious mind’ showdown in my memory lane.

We reach Nellore with the contingency looming large over the movie’s release yet again. Still we make it to the theatre expecting the nature to conspire some miracle out of the blue in honour of our persistence, but like acquaintances of a sinking patient outside the ICU we were getting prepared for the bad news.As expected the movie’s released got stalled & we had to return back to Chennai, heavier than when we left with bundles of disappointment.
Just when everyone around us thought the madness has settled down, the news of the movie releasing in Bangalore on Sunday come as whiff of fresh air to a panting sprinter. We wanted to go as the same group again, but Naresh had an “official” reason to back out of our road trip on Sunday. So this time around the wolf pack consisted of just Gautham and me & thus was born Mission Bengaluru!!

MISSION BENGALURU-
CHENNAI→BENGALURU→VISHROOPA DARISANAM→BACK HOME→MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

Our road trip begins in the nocturnal hours of Sunday, with Gautham driving his Girl friend equivalent i20 to the tunes of Vishwaroopam songs playing in endless loops. “God(Krishna) I pray to you that to give strength to my Thalaivar at these testing times and make sure the movie releases this time for sure in Bengaluru”.

Wait a sec…God!…thinking about God my mind slips into another purposeful trip down the memory lane as I fall asleep with Vishwaroopam songs being replaced by a pretentious tamil rap song with notorious lyrics likening girlfriends to various home appliances.

Where am I this time and what am I upto??….I’m with my uncle amidst a group of saffron kurta clad “sadhus” and septuagenarians on a seemingly endless pilgrimage(that I was arm twisted to attend in return for a fancy gear cycle), hopping from one holy place to another in pursuit of God within, paradoxically! This was our modus operandi in every place-The Guruji discusses the pastimes of the regional version of God in each respective Dham(religious place). This was followed by a graphical account of unfortunate demises of the Demons at the Lord’s hand and the metaphor of Demon used to describe normal civilians indulged in materialistic activities (such as going to office, driving a car, loving one’s family, eating onion and garlic, watching movies) and the dire consequences they had to face for their blasphemy in hell after life. The motto of the pilgrimage was to regard loving God as the highest purpose of our lives.

Then the event that would change my opinion on God forever happens- “Anbe Sivam” releases. The question I was looking for an answer throughout the entire duration of the pilgrimage gets a strong answer-“Love is God!”The ideals of the protagonist deeply get embedded in me forever. The religious accessories and rigmarole become redundant to me forever. Post that movie-I still love God….but I learn to see him in acts of love and stopped seeing harmless onions and cars as apostles of Satan.

I wake up to the revelations about my retrieved reformation from a God fearing person to a God loving one as we breeze into the beautiful city of Bengaluru.
We reach a multiplex with a not so subtle name called “Rockline Cinemas” and yes,the schedules are very much on-the forbidden fruit is available on platter and we succeed finally-Vishwaroopam it is!

The movie begins to play as we are unable to handle the over dosage of excitement flowing in our nerves, Thalaivar manifests on screen and our primal alter ego takes over and we jump and scream like how a marooned man would at the sight of a ship as the cosmetic layer of civilisation detaches paving way for the organic alter ego!!

Then the epic action sequence that gave me my sore throat happened in which Thalaivar performs high voltage stunts in a set piece which alone was worth the ticket price ….I gave my loudest cheer ever and lost my voice temporarily.
Then we returned back home, heavier than when we left….but this time with bundles of contentment notwithstanding the hoarse timber of my voice and my amateur attempts at dumb charades.

Under normal circumstances the trips we embark on usually take us to destination from where the places and people remain etched in our memory, but there are those rare trips where our mind takes a nostalgic road trip across various phases of our lives, blurring out every material manifestation we came across in that trip. This trip would always belong to the latter category, a prized memento in my memory trove reminding me of a time where I made inferences listening to my inner self.

I have experienced sore throat a million times in my life as a result of excessive indulgence in menial cold things like ice creams and cold drinks, but this sore throat took was memorable and would remain a cornerstone event of the year 2013 in my life forever, thanks to Thalaivar for the events that culminated to it.

Forgotten Classics-RAJAPAARVAI & GUNA

 

Nayagan,Thevar Magan, Mahanadi, Anbe Sivam are some of the movies which come to our minds when making connoisseur statements to a friend wearing Forrest Gump or Shawshank Redemption as a badge of honour on a lackadaisical Saturday night one upmanship, ensconced in the Kamal Hasan hall of fame. The realm of cinema is no exception to the adage-” While success as flawed as it is, has got many fathers.Failure as opulent as it may be, more often than not is an orphan”


This piece is about  his relatively underrated masterpieces-RajaPaarvai & Guna, which despite featuring in the sanctum sanctorum of many a movie lover’s collection including me for posterity, failed at the box office and went on to be inundated in the shadow of popular cinema in the coming years. 


RAJAPAARVAI:

Right from the oxymoronic title which translates to “Royal Vision” for a story about a blind man, this movie is as audacious as endearing classics get. This 100th film of Hasan that also marked his directorial debut is a story of a blind violinist played inimitably by Hasan himself who sees the world pompously, perched in the throne of his mind’s eye, hence the title.

This movie is a sort of an antithesis of the usual tropes of a disability movie, right from the gratuitous sympathetic-romantic angle, vulnerable protaganist and a melancholic finale intended at leaving a lump in the throat of the viewer.

Here, the protaganist is infact a narcissistic-brat, who’s made a daily routine out of intimidating naive people trying to lend him a helping hand,with his self assured-brash candour. To him, his self respect is the crutch he latches on to walk equally among normal men and gratuitous sympathy bestowed upon notwithstanding the genuinity, is the blindness that reminds him about his disability. The way he effortlessly wears his blindness like a crumpled shirt, is by far one of the coolest perspectives of the condition.

The movie is about how he ends up falling in love with a woman, who deconstructs his fortress of inaccessibility built upon misconceptions and insecurities, brick by brick while awakening to her own self discovery in the process of being his eyes.



GUNA:

This movie is about a senile man’s mission towards his soulmate-Abirami,a namesake from folklore of his formative years.Raised by a mother, a prostitute in the backdrop of rampant fleshtrade, Guna believes Abirami to be his route to salvation. Shuttling between an asylum and the custodianship of his maternal uncle who uses him for small thefts, he finally happens to come across his Abirami in an affluent girl while in a temple as a part of a heist. The divine trance he breaks into at her first sight, is put across in one of the most poetic cinematic depictions, with acting in it’s most unadulterated form punctuated to the mellifluous composition of Ilaiyaraja.

The next time he bumps into her, he kidnaps her to a dilapidated mansion on the top of  a relatively virgin part of a hilltop. From here on, the movie unfolds from the girl’s perspective with her being wary of his delusional ways at the outset, to go on to endear the obsessive love from the hooligan, an amenity that had eluded her affluence till then. 

In this set up, with mountains, wild vegetation and five sensed creatures for company, she reciprocates his primal love, with every layer of her sophistication peeling away to make her revel in the same pedestal as him, her maverick soulmate with brain of an eight year old.    
There’s this beautiful sequence in the movie before the finale, where Guna wants to write a letter to his love, Abirami but is an illiterate who can’t write. So he dictates this letter addressed to her, to her to write. This leads to the evergreen song-Kanmani Anbodu , which she sets to tune while writing to herself as dictated by him.In the end, with the ground below their relation shrinking with every passing moment with challenges galore, they jump off the cliff , to eternally be united at a place, elsewhere.





Papanasam- A master at work

Drishyam was a rare piece of cinema. It blended art and commerce; without having to  lay either on the altar of sacrifice towards upholding another. It was one of those movies that made the audience feel smarter from the edge of their seats, while unknotting to the bedrock of the mystery scene after scene. Thing with visceral genre of movies is that, while they tend to engage; seldom do we empathise with the plight of a protagonist.It is in this very aspect that, Drishyam is exclusive.
It stirs a storm and throws a family in its eye. Their survival through this tumultuous phase is designed like a game of chess, with a simpleton deploying a maze of deception to lead astray the legal system.
Drishyam was a memorable movie not just in Kerala, but throughout the south. The movie not only ran for months together in these parts, but triggered spontaneous remakes in every South Indian language. So when the news of the tamil remake starring Kamal Haasan broke; it was a mouth watering proposition for every fan of his; more importantly every fan of cinema.
The original starred Mohanlal as the protagonist-Georgekutty, a movie smitten-cable TV operator who bails his family our of a murder they had committed, scot free.What made things interesting was not just the prospects of seeing one doyen interpret a role made immortal by another; but the fact that Drishyam was a watertight plot driven movie with modest room for its hero to expand. It was always the plot above the characters, who dissolved in the flow of its narrative. There’s always been this accusation about  Kamal movies by some naysayers, , that his performance at times tend to hijack the movie while propelling it ahead; notwithstanding the peaches that they were.

So Kamal reprising the cable operator as Suyambulingam was not just a tight rope walk, but shone a light on the ability of a giant to bend down at the threshold of a glorious piece of art; to beautify it without looming large over it. Papanasam was a special movie also for the fact that, it brought to fore Kamal-the actor alone without the accoutrements that generally make his movies an exhibition of his versatility,at times reducing the director’s to a vestigial designation.
Last time this happened,we got Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu-a movie that didn’t warrant a thinking hat to appreciate the underlying subtexts. It was resultantly a very popular movie with the masses,reiterating the huge star that he was.

Papanasam easily got to rate among his most consequentials efforts, for carving a niche for itself as a masterpiece; despite staying honest to the original alongside classics like Kurudhipunal and Satya. Kamal’s Suyambulingam is an endearing man with a gift of the gab; speaking in a mellifluous Tirunelveli dialect(which aurally resembled a symphony composed in bullets) while not being smitten by movies. His portrayal was faced mostly with the same conflicts as Lal’s Georgekutty, yet had its own magic;managing to decorate without diluting.

This role was that of a small-towner’s, with a simplistic outlook towards life. Unlike Haasan’s earlier ventures, this jurisdiction wouldn’t let him wax eloquently in chaste english about abstract aspects of communism and his long lasting adherence to atheism- the meta movie aspects of a quintessential Kamal movie.
Suyambulingam is a man, who flaunts his agrarian roots with the length of the earthworms wriggling beneath his feet. Unlike the actor’s previous outing, where his real life persona often percolated into his reel life manifestations-even if seamlessly so-this one was diametrically opposite.
He wasn’t the compulsive global citizen that we’re used to seeing him play so often, with a fine blend of altruism and sarcasm. On the contrary here was a man-whose life revolved around his adorable family-to protect which he would go to any extent.(Even if it meant tripping to the other end of law).
The movie neither had a grand ambition about defusing a bioweapon or outsmarting a militant outfit; instead it had a family based out of a small town making conversations about a long pending trip to the city over breakfast and a miserly dad who hoped to pay for his daughter’s expensive excursion on a prorata basis.

While the average actor makes you appreciate his acting like an anxious kid performing a skit on the lookout for applause, a master makes you identify with his character’s plight through his acting. Haasan effortlessly is the latter.

His Suyambulingam is a vulnerable man. Vulnerable by his situation, not by ability. A trait you witness so often through the twinkle in his eye-as he deceives his way out of every investigative procedure. There’s a look of fluid contentment in his face- forged out of dexterity and relief- every time the investigation buys into his carefully crafted red herrings.
It is sheer bliss to watch the thespian essay an author backed role with such aplomb after a long time. He just doesn’t flesh out his character beyond the prosaic; but makes him a jolly good fellow with his own little charm, be it the way he gets heady while watching an erotic song or the fashion in which he cajoles his wife to bed-with a liberal dose of talc and innocence.

Papanasam is stroke of genius even if deconstructed to minute details forming its frills. Like the way it is bookended by the shot of Suyambulingam’s eyes-metaphorical of watching things unravel through his eyes; almost poetic given the fact that the movie deals with the deception he creates.

Kabali- A “what-went-wrong” deconstruction

Now that Kabali is out in the theatres and the fracas around it has settled down, people have started talking beyond the gargantuan hype surrounding the movie; and the feeling seems to largely be mixed- bordering from bafflement to disappointment. And a handful of the die-hard fans of Rajni seem to crying out foul, at the not-so-flattering air inundating the movie.
A marketing blitzkrieg carved out of planes plastered with Rajni’s face and silver coins forged with his impressions, can only go as far as kindling the curiosity of the hoi polloi, to check out the movie over its opening weekend. What transpires in the dark of the theatre, as the movie starts to interact with its audience is far removed from the hype held in the painted plane; that handheld them into the theatre in a frantic spell. The final taste that the chocolate leaves in the mouth is completely independent of the celebrity in the advertisement and the expensive foil wrapping it.

Honest marketing campaigns as they come, achieve the middle ground between preserving the true core of a product, while attempting to augment its reach. When the product rolls out, they manage to create a positive synergy to firm up its equity. This is probably where Kabali seems to have slipped.

Marketing is not an elaborate artifice, but a propaganda with a fiduciary angle to ensure an honest positioning of an underlying product. Hollywood employs this to great effect. Take for instance the case of Robert Downey Jr, easily the biggest star of this generation. The marketing campaign for a simple little movie starring him called, The Judge was diametrically different from the scale and tone of his Avengers movie. It was positioned as an emotional- court drama with a personal conflict at its heart. When it released the audience  didn’t feel deceived, as it catered to the niche it was made for who exactly knew what to expect from it. Imagine their plight had they gone in expecting an Ironman kind of a movie, to only find a vulnerable Downey Jr( sans his Tony Stark quirks) reconcile with a grumpy father in the backdrop of a lackadaisical small town.
Coming back to Kabali, going by the two teasers that went viral  to the numerous promotional initiatives creating the endless halo around the movie, one thing was clear. They were loudly reiterating the movie to be a quintessential Rajni fare with celebratory accoutrement on the lines of a Basha or a Annamalai. There was not an inkling about it being otherwise, as the color and scope fashioning the imagination of the prospective ticket buyer were far removed from an experimental movie that was not run of the mill.

About the countless memes doing rounds about feeling let down by Rajni not playing his larger than life self, that firmed his stratospheric stature. We go to a circus that touts the jumping through the flaming hoops by its exotic tiger as its flagship act. Suddenly the tiger wants to juggle like the monkey, much to the crowd’s bafflement. The attempt as noble as it is, wouldn’t sugarcoat the collective disappointment of the audience that had paid to watch the tiger’s deft defiance through the rings of danger.

Evaluation of a movie from the standpoint of the income and expenses of its producer isn’t an organic assessment of the taste it leaves, lingering in the minds of the audience as they step out of the theatre. For movie making is an art form that thrives beyond the jurisdiction of commerce, the flourish of which doesn’t depend on the coffer of the investors alone.
Kabali to me is an overpriced cola without its fizz, the fizz people were conned into paying for in hordes. I would anytime suggest a helping of Annamalai over the trivia of a painted plane carrying wealthy people masquerading as Thalaivar fans to an uninitiated person; to understand the aura of the phenomenon called Rajinikanth.