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.

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Swades- A journey through self and beyond

Early on we find Mohan addressing the press in NASA about cities his initiative would have an impact on. He goes about, “ San Francisco, Latin Mexico, New Delhi…” , dispassionately. Delhi doesn’t resonate ethnic familiarity. It’s another piece of geography. A mere statistic. He’s as Indian as a Mira Nair movie.
The very mention of India in a press conference- after returning from a trip there – towards the film’s closure, unsettles him. It’s no mere “another” country anymore. It’s his; he its. It’s the pin that made contact with his carefully cultivated American bubble. Swades is bookended by these two press conferences. It’s the story of a man’s search for his mother, that ends in his motherland. It traces an individual’s metamorphosis from being a condescending first world citizen to someone crushed by the stench of third world reality, which was easier to digest as editorial observations over English breakfast.

Where do I start? Do I talk about the audacity of the role reversal employed, where the leading lady is chivalrously let to tie dhoti to an almost emasculated hero; who’s regarded as a deity of fluffy romance in the country’s heartlands. Or do I talk about the spectacle, simple thoughts are translated into onscreen like the “Yeh Tara, Woh Tara” song sequence. Just a few nimble limb movements here, a few facial sparkles there. A song with stars as metaphors under a night sky sprinkled with glittering stars, rendered by a nimbus star in an ominous form. It’s as transcendental as poetry gets on the big screen.

Neither the obscene budgets nor the more obscene promotions(hawking) of these days were there to flex, but he was nonchalantly wearing his superstardom like a good perfume. His charm was organic, not laboured. If Khan’s the film’s face and heart, Rahman’s music is the pulse and soul. Rarely do we get a musical score that follows the story like a solicitous shadow, never once intending to precede or side step for attention. It grows with the protagonist; melting with him; simmering with him; hoping with him and hurting with him. It fashions the western finesse to the eastern sensibilities of the film’s milieu. Swades is a fine example of what happens in a legitimate marriage between the song and dance trope and narrative dexterity.

And a special mention, actually a very special mention to Gayatri Joshi. The deadpan way in which she competes with SRK’s calculator, her implosive consent to his boisterous overtures, her outbursts of child ego while being possessive of Kaveriamma or the dollops of grace she adds to the chiffon saris. She brings so much dignity to Geeta, doing more to the role than it does to her. Not often do we get an actress who makes us feel guilty in a wet dream.

Mohan’s starting to scratch beyond the surface of paper patriotism, when Kaveriamma sends him to collect rent arrears from a farmer. To him it’s just an expedition, another rustic journey to a rudimentary hamlet . But she knows more. She knows it would make him go off the deep end on a journey of self discovery. On his way there he travels on a boat, standing with a glint of amusement in his eyes, distant from the other modest passengers. He doesn’t disrespect them. He just doesn’t belong.

He meets the farmer, through him meets with every ugly truth inundating a nation-  poverty, casteism, apathy – he only knew of at an ethnicity and number-of-rivers basis till now.He came to India with first world problems like guilt from not being able to stay in touch with his foster mother. His project in NASA addressing the issue of global water scarcity that hitherto swelled his chest slowly fades away to inprominence as he gazes skywards, from the ground reality of a third world peasant’s backyard. A young boy sprinting helter skelter, to sell water for 25 paise adds further salt to his wounded soul.
On his way back, he returns a different man on the same boat. He’s humbled by the guilt of ignorance about a country he claimed to be a part of; humbled by the knowledge that the “humble” lives led in its heartlands was in fact euphemism to the collective sufferings. Legs folded, he’s seated among the other modest beings on the boat. The distance between them had crumbled. In fact it now feels like a crime. “They” becomes “we”, as he becomes Indian.

Rahman and me

This is one debate, I’m sure has often crept into our conversations as to who among Ilaiyaraja and Rahman is a bigger musical genius; when some of us- who proclaim to know a little more about mainstream film music beyond “airchecks” -gather for collective slaughtering of idle time. And it is funny to see this seemingly inconsequential topic turn from being just an objective discourse to a personal war of affiliation à la “Believers vs Atheists” , with the passage of time .
I’ve always maintained the stance that both are greats in their own regards, not just diplomatically, but as a solicitous patron to both their creations.

To me this is similar to comparisons between Sivaji Ganesan and Kamal Haasan or Gavaskar and Tendulkar as to who among them is better. There’s always been this congenital curiosity among all of us to pit legends of a similar field from different eras against each other to derive a silver lining to our respective tastes.

When faced with the one-up manship conundrum – I’ve always picked Kamal over Sivaji, Sachin over Gavaskar and Rahman over Raja without having to ponder much.
I’ve revered Sivaji’s prowess in many a movies, my favourite among them being Rajapat Rangadurai that tugged at my heart in places that I didn’t know of till then. Who can forget the thespian’s that’s-how-it’s-done performance in Devar Magan alongside Kamal.
Everytime I’ve watched the highlights of Gavaskar taking the battle to the mighty West Indies of the eighties with sinewy craftsmanship, my respect for him grew manifold corroborating his placement among the “all time greats”.Ditto with Ilaiyaraja, everytime I’ve heard his evergreen background score from Johnny  or the eternal Mandram Vantha Thendraluku from Mouna Ragam; I get an idea about the stuff legends are made of.

So there’s no discounting the contribution of these doyens to their respective fields and the sway they held over the imagination of an entire generation. So like Sivaji and Gavaskar, Ilaiyaraja in my head belongs in a little aloof “Hall of Fame”. And like Kamal and Sachin, Rahman’s music belongs in a personal space that resonates of familiar nostalgia. They were the Sun that rose on my horizon. They were the pied pipers that lured me into the charm of their arts. Their work was the walker the connoisseur in me held to take his baby steps .

PALLAVI-childhood and chinna chinna aasai

I’m just a little older than Rahman’s musical journey that started in 1992, the same year my younger sister was born; my first fondness for film music was born to the tunes of Chinna Chinna Aasai from Roja, with the visuals of Madhubala’s shenanigans in the village remaining etched indelibly in my head.
His music was my favourite toy back then that I used to play with. As I grew, it grew in stature too –from a toy to an inebriant. If Kanuku Mai Azhagu from Pudhiya Mugam was a balm to this thing I now acknowledge to be my soul, Chikku Bukku Raiyile from Gentleman was this anthem that fashioned railway stations and stalking as cool things for times to come.

My childhood was marked by fond anticipation for the release of the next album from Rahman, who used to be my Santa back then with goodies to the ears. Every album would play on infinite loop till such time the tape would come off the cassette in protest, by which time the lyrics would’ve registered into my parlance.
Kathirika Kathirika from Duet made an affable-cherubic uncle out of Prabhu who sounded like honey, like Urvasi Urvasi from Kadhalan put Prabhu Deva and Anorexic youngsters on the map.
That was a time when light music concerts were in vogue and there was a band that went by the name of Sadhaga Paravaigal, that performed Eduda Antha Sooriya from Pudhiya Mannargal as their curtain raiser. Hearing that was my first tryst with adrenalin and the ability of my hair on arms to raise.

Rahman has been notorious for single-handedly luring me and a lot others in my age group to buy tickets to many a crap-fest predominantly starring Prabhu Deva like Mr.Romeo and Love Birds on the sheer magnetism of the songs. But have to admit that watching Prabhu Deva simmer like butter on a pan  to the tune of Romeo Attam Potal from Mr.Romeo was sheer goose bump giving catharsis.

This was a time, when audio cassetes and CDs came along with scrip that carried lyrics of every song in the album. It was part of popular culture back then to memorise songs by listening to them with an eager eye on the lyrics with a surgeon’s precision.

So when I was in the process of naively getting acquainted to lines like Nee Pogum Theruvil Angalai Vidamaten, Sila Pengalai Vida maten(I won’t let men come on the streets you parade, some women too) from Telephone Manipol in Indian or Pasuvinai Pambu Endra Satchi Solla Mudiyum, Kambinil Visham Enna Karakava mudiyum?(One could testify about a snake near a cow, not poison its udder) from Vidukathaiyo in Muthu, I really didn’t understand the poetry or the context of what I was parroting. To me they were mere scaffolding to song’s tune. I had to wait till puberty to appreciate the metaphorical perversion and the silk draped sorrow, woven intricately in the lines by wordsmiths like Vairamuthu and Vaali.

What ten years of schooling couldn’t manage to do, a few Rahman songs did. Hindi suddenly felt like zephyr on the ears, the articulation of every syllable seemed like music independently. It was no more the grumpy second language from school competing for my attention, courtesy Rangeela. I had to understand what a lovelorn Aamir Khan was moping about on the streets in Kya Kare Kya Na Kare.
By the time Dilse came, I knew where to and on whom to use Mein Yahe Tukudoon Me Jee Raha Hoon(I’m living as broken pieces here?) from Ae Ajnabi. Such was the influence of my Rahman on my life. I almost learnt a language out of the curiosity to appreciate a tune’s contours effectively.

ANUPALLAVI-adolescence and acquaintance to the heart of a song

As I grew, so did he. I had by then bookmarked every important chapter in my life with a Rahman song. I was no more the star struck kid who was too smitten by the bout of magic received, to effectively deploy it. I had learnt to respond and react to a mood of a song. I started making my own playlist of Rahman songs, that I exactly knew when to play to rig an emotion. Rahman turned from being a Santa, to a favorite uncle like figure who would gift me with relevant things according to the phase I was in.

So the chocolates and teddy bears made way for geometry boxes and Enid Blyton books.

I started appreciating nuances of neglected gems in every album. I wasn’t swept by the wave of a super hit song to overlook the better song of an album. With Rahman, this was all the more relevant, for the gem of the album would often be hidden among instant hits of popular appeal.
Take for instance the case of Minsara kanavu, it was a blockbuster album with all saccharine songs that the arabianesque-uniquely rendered Thanga thamarai Magale got neglected at the time of its release. Same with  Luka Chuppi from Rang De Basanti  that went under the debris of other immensely popular tracks. These earworms are much like cult classic films that went unnoticed during their time, to only find eternal reverance from another generation much later.

There is this popular perception about the impact of Rahman’s songs, that they initially go above one’s head on the first listen and with every passing listen, they stick to you like a tick for time to come.
Rahman’s song are structured like concentric circles with the core held in the center. At first listen, one feels like so many things are happening in the song, apart from the vocal course and meaning beheld. But with every listen, every layer tends to peel away as an artifice letting you a little closer to its core. Once the pulp of the core is reached, the hitherto artifices seem to feel organic to the progress that they don’t feel like isolated blasts of sounds anymore, but a catalyst to the listening itself.
Dil Gira Dafatan from Delhi-6 being a fine example to this phenomenon.

CHARANAM-adulthood, musical massages for the soul

Like in the case of every long pursued habit, my taste for music became seasoned. It was no more just an exorbitance-a cool thing to flaunt but a customized utility that marked my persona. From being merely a pair of dancing shoes, it had turned a balm to the soul.

Rahman was no more a soft spoken outsider from his interviews, he was a friend, philosopher and guide through his music that would befriend, philosophize and guide. He turned from being a favorite uncle to a confidante in the family who I could go to, hopeful of empathy.

So the geometry boxes and Enid Blyton books paved way for relationship perspectives and soul searching trips.

Since the mid-2000s, Rahman frequently started coming up with divine songs of Sufi flavor that were deviced as qawalis or mass chants that invigorated a lot of serenity within. From mainstream numbers I had started to acknowledge the impact they were having on this entity within, objectified to be my soul.
So when Hrithik’s Akbar broke to that transcendental dance in the finale of Khwaja Mera Khwaja from Jodha Akhbar, I exactly knew what he was going through. Notwithstanding the fact they had a strong Islamic undercurrent, they made it to a playlist called “Divine”, that I would listen to on my daily trips to my pet temple.

There’s this common misconception that a creation has to be watered down to permeate to the lowest common denominator of patronage i.e a song has to be simple for it connect with the masses. Because for a song to become popular, it must be imitable by a layman. Trust Rahman’s to find this middle ground between being popular and purist, without having to subvert the chastity of a genre.
Like in the case of Ay Hairathe Ashiqui from Guru – a seamless wedding between a succulent tune and a Hindustani ghazal or with the dandy sounding Omana Penne that lets Malayalam recitals and techno vocals coexist in an inimitably addictive blend from Vinnaithaandi Varuvaya.

What my unflinching patronage to Rahman made me was a more creative and perceptive person than I would’ve turned out. So by the time I started to use trimmer on my face, I had a fair idea about the syntax of a song, the ability to deconstruct it to Pallavi and Charanam, sieve counterfeits from counterpoints and relate one song to its close doppelganger.

By now what I was looking for in Rahman’s albums had moved beyond mainstream appeal. Not sure, If I was looking for  music to mimic mood or mood to mimic music.
When during a tumultuous time after break-up, I would ensconce in the serrated lines-Meri Bebasi Ka Bayan Hai, bas chal raha na is gadi from Aur Ho in Rockstar or resort to the warm confines of Tu Khuja from Highway on a mind trip of self-discovery.
These songs stood like mirrors before my soul, making me familiar to myself.

Law of averages is this dispassionate diktat that doesn’t even spare the greatest of men, dragging them from highs to lows to average them to reality. And like with the case of every other legend, Rahman’s prowess now seems to have dwindled with time. Was it a result of chopping off his long locks, change in sensibilities or the fact that he had set the bar too high in my head. Only time will tell.
For now, every time I listen to an abysmal offering of his from his recent outings, say Lingaa or 24, I keep comforting myself that he’s the same man who’s work features in my G Drive in a folder called “Work of God”.