The Kaapi after Kaala

It was a Thursday morning at 8:30 AM and we found ourselves in Matunga. The right thing to do under those circumstances was to immediately head to Cafe Madras or Cafe Mysore for some Idli, vada and coffee. We chose Mysore because you know, Underdogs. Which was ironic given we were walking down from Aurora Cinema, after catching the FDFS of Kaala at a conveniently timed 5:30 AM show. Clearly, overdog behaviour. But that wasn’t the oddest thing about that morning. Here were three men, who would bleed cinema if you cut them, but ten minutes and a few polite enquiries about Dalit symbolism in the film later, we were talking about weather, traffic and such, over the breakfast. Bordering almost on ‘no dog’ behaviour.

Which could have been partly because I did not have a dog in this fight. I did not grow up a Superstar fan. We were in the ‘other’ camp. The one that lost to Rajini’s films every Deepavali in box office collections, like Zimbabwe touring Australia. It is not about whether you will win, but by how much will you lose. So you can understand the fact that I was doing a FDFS Rajini film after more than a decade.

The festivities before the gates opened at Aurora set the tone beautifully. You gotta give it to the ‘Aussies’. They know a good time! As we entered the gates finally, dawn was breaking and rain was receding. We walked through a door that was dwarfed by a giant cut out of Kaala outside, which was so tall that one could only see his feet. The experience was more religious than cinematic.

The film begins with a riveting opening sequence – bull dozers Vs slum. But the drama isn’t coming from either. The scene is entirely fueled by the fire in Anjali Patil’s eyes. A fire that will see the film through at multiple points later. As the Hero is being called for to save the day, the fans break loose. This is Why they are here. The Entry. But Kaala is introduced as an aged uncle playing cricket with kids and losing his middle stump to a child’s delivery. I couldnt believe it and the fans obviously couldnt either. So decibels die down gradually. As a matter of fact, it will be another half hour or so before it will even resurface.

It is clear that Pa. Ranjith wants us to get used to ‘this’ Rajini. The one who doesn’t mind his son saving his life. One who doesnt mind being beaten up in a police station. The one who has grand children. The one who is lost in love. He wants us to get used to ‘this’ guy. But I wonder if it is too much to ask from the fans who just emptied a pot of milk on a wooden cut out at 5:00 AM. But Ranjith doesn’t stop there. He wants more. He wants us to feel the romance in Santosh Narayanan’s ‘Kannamma’, set on two people (Rajini & Huma) who we were introduced to us just five minutes back. He wants us to just imagine their entire backstory. He doesn’t even stop there.

If ten years back…scratch that. If last week, you had told me that there will be a Rajini film in which the villain kills his wife, sons, son’s girlfriend and best friend, beats him to pulp in a police station, not budge one bit to anything he wants, burns down his house and still be standing at the end of the film, or that Ranjith would make a Rajini film where Tamil seems force fitted, I would have asked you, “kya re! jokingaa?”. But this happens and Ranjith wants you to be OK with it. In fact, after all this, when Rajini walks into the villain’s den and delivers a punch dialogue that ‘you cannot kill me!!’, he wants the theatre to erupt with adrenaline and not laugh. Very pavlovian. Very ‘all are dog’ behaviour.

But then, Rajini looks like a million bucks! And is so much at home in his chair surrounded by grand children, romancing his wife, as he is on a bridge, killing the bad guys with one umbrella and much swag. He is at home in the backdrop of Santosh’s extraordinary hip hop meets metal OST. You do agree with Ranjith that he should do more of this. The most electrifying duo on screen is not Rajini and the villain, but the protagonist and his wife, essayed beautifully by Easwari Rao. Their romance is quite the soul of this film. And you do agree with Ranjith that there should be more of this.

The film is not replete with only Dalit symbolism. It doffs it’s hat equally to the Superstar as well. Rajini’s house for example is a strong character in the film, much like Annamalai or Dharmadurai or Yejaman. At a time when his nativity is being questioned politically, to have a character named Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, makes the film that much more personal to the star. And the drunk humour in the police station is reminiscent of the nineties, when it used to be a regular fixture. There is so much swag and chutzpah in this Kaala that he doesnt have to light a single cigarette. We can get used to this Shivaji Rao, Ranjith.

Kaala

As we exited Aurora cinema and stepped on to Bhimrao Ambedkar Road, there was only one question in my mind. Kaala is a film that you will watch for a few hours and discuss for many days. The film is about left ideology and Dalit human rights. It is not veiled that Rajini is just a vehicle. Everything else is just a vehicle. For many days to come, you will hear endlessly about these ‘easter eggs’ in the film – the number plate of his Mahindra Thar (BR 1956, which denotes the year B.R. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism), the fact that Nana Patekar’s character, dressed in white, does not drink the water offered to him in Rajini’s house, but the latter does it when the situation reverses, the Buddha viharam and the ‘Jai bheem’ flags in the set, the delectable way in which ‘Swachch Bharat’ has been satirized, the blue shirts inside his black suits, the ‘Raavana Kaaviyam’ book on Kaala’s desk, the fact that the villain refers to Kaala as the ‘Raavan’ and the instrument used to kill his family looks uncannily like a mace. And people will write books on that extraordinary climax. Some of these, you will notice while watching the film. Many, you will miss and would want to watch the film again, to appreciate and earn the goose bumps.

But as I gulped down the King size filter coffee at Cafe Mysore that morning, I couldn’t help thinking, why should such an important social commentary be so subtle? What is the crying need that prevents it from being more accessible? Is the Auteur’s style more important than the message itself? or does Ranjith feel the World is not yet ready for it. I am not even sure if they are ready for this Rajini. May be they arent. And may be, that is not important.

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Jallikattu – An entire week when Tamil Nadu had a solution looking for a problem

It was a pleasant January morning, close to the Marina beach. More than 30,000 people – of all ages, gender and from different parts of the state have been gathering there, every morning for 5 days in a row, to witness the fate of the country pan out.

No, I am not talking about Jallikattu.

The year was 1999. On Sunday, Jan 31st, India was chasing 298 to win the first test against Pakistan and at 50 for 2, things were looking ominous.  As Ravi would say, Wasim bhai was ‘making the ball talk’. Dravid had just survived a close LBW shout to a ball that straightened. The next one held its course. This was followed by arguably one of the most extraordinary deliveries in Test cricket ever, where the ball pitched in line with the leg stump and swung about 3 inches – the geometrically perfect deviation to miss Dravid’s outside edge and still kiss the top of the off stump. The crowd instinctively let out a collective wow, before reality sunk in and plunged them into a sea of silence. They would later give the Pakistan team a standing ovation as they took a victory lap for the only time in a foreign land (no, Dubai is not foreign). It was probably the game that earned them the tag ‘knowledgeable Chennai crowd’ – an acknowledgement that this audience could transcend beyond the naivety of patriotism and embrace the nuance of Sport.

There was nothing nuanced about the Jallikattu protests though, 18 years on. What was a purposeful, focused resistance on a local issue that started in Alanganallur the previous week, was the perfect, lighted matchstick to the dried haystack that was TN. The protest was an epic, public clash of two schools of thought, that were both enormously flawed. Or as Nolan might put it, it was “an unreasonable force colliding with an illogical object”.

The ban on Jallikattu itself was absurd and it needed to be protested. It was fairly evident that the people who wanted to ban the sport spent precious little time understanding it. For example, both the courts and the media often referred to the sport as bull taming – something that the sport doesn’t involve at all. The whole concept of ‘cruelty’ is also extremely subjective in a country where the meat industry is supported by more than two thirds of its population.

But the argument on the street was equally absurd. PeTA was made out to be this monster lobbyist who had bottomless funding and allies in governments across the globe to carry out their desires at will. That’s a bit like saying AK Hangal was the leading man in Sholay. Most people on the beach pronounced the words ‘vaadi vaasal’ for the first time (and most likely the last). And their overall understanding of the economics of the milk industry was poor. The scale of Jallikattu was too small to either create or destroy a milk consumption pattern and the indigenous breeds in question were anyway low yielding ones with no impact on production. It was basically a protest fuelled entirely by WhatsApp forwards. Only, it was no Tahrir square.

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(Image credit:NDTV)

This was certainly not the famed ‘knowledgeable Chennai crowd’. But something else was going on of historical significance.

For the first time ever, the people of TN did something out of character. They decided to give a fuck about governance. For people who are not familiar with the state, this is as rare an occurrence as Salman pursuing a quest for cinematic excellence or Mohanlal doing justice to a poetry reading of Gulzar. You see, TN has always looked at politics through the same lens as cinema. You need a hero, a villain and a large serving of drama. And oh, it is always someone else’s production. And the public’s job in both cases is to step into a box counter, pledge their allegiance and sit back for the entertainment.

Don’t get me wrong. TN has always taken care of itself, with or without a government – be it the Tsunami or the Chennai floods. But we have seldom taken on the Empire’s Dark Star. We never made it personal until January 2017.

And the new found rage was Beautiful. For an entire week, a state remained angry. Angry at a political class that had failed them. Angry at a republic that never respected its culture. Or its language. Angry that they had no more heroes left to trust. Angry that every institution around them (even auto rickshaws) had been compromised by the ruling class. Angry that the river that ‘ran’ through their capital city was actually a metaphor for the decay of the state itself. SO angry that they could not articulate any of these. And ‘Don’t ban Jallikattu’ seemed like a sufficient SOS for everything else.

No wonder we burnt ourselves out in a week. We ran out of articulations and the anger wore us down. The sense of occasion overwhelmed us and much like Nayan Mongia in the said test, the protestors holed out to square leg on the last day of the test.

It has been six months since the Jallikattu protests, but things have only gotten from worse to tragic, for this state. Nieces, nephews, friends and nephews of friends of the departed have announced themselves as the heir to the throne. Not because they want to, but because they can. An actor who has been so scared of failure for two decades continues to be delusional and insult the intelligence of an entire state. The national parties hover over the state like hawks waiting for its injured prey to breath its last. A legislative cabinet whose collective IQ can be challenged by a kindergarten class is settling down to ‘cash in’ on the two remaining years of elected office.

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(image credit: Hindustan Times)

The worst part? None of this is even veiled. This is the most unprecedented, unequivocal ridicule of a citizenry in recent memory. And until now, the said citizenry is still in the theatre, waiting for a climax. Not realizing that the film is about them.

Tamil Nadu can really use a really good revolution now. One that is not naïve but honest. One that is not indifferent but selfish. Or like the ‘Big Boss’ often says, one where we don’t feel leaders are from Mars, but our own streets and colonies.

A revolution that is all rage. And no bull.

The deafening silence of words

“Pujara square cut that ball, jumping into the air….the point fielder took the pace off it, but the ball will still reach the boundary. Pujara moves to 74 with that” – the commentator thundered into the microphone with these details, like he was reporting from the front lines of the Normandy Beach on June 6th, 1944. One can argue that the analogy is apt, because Pujara’s insurgency against the second new ball was a crucial battle for India to win and it could turn the tide of the overall war. The real problem though was that Sunny was ‘reporting’. Those 30 words added zero value to the audience who has already witnessed everything he said on HD Television. They might have as well watched it on mute.

For the untrained eye, the 540 balls bowled in a day of Test cricket could be mind numbingly uneventful. A bowler walks tens of yards to his mark, then runs in really fast and bowls one outside the off stump, only for the batsman to leave it alone, so the keeper could collect it and throw it back to the bowler, who will do this all over again.

Except, the bowler is not just running in. Every muscle motion in his action has been carefully chiseled at the confluence of science, art and the human spirit. It has been designed meticulously to add every fractional kmph possible on the ball, stopping just short of permanent damage to the bowler’s body.

He is not hurling just another spherical object. The cricket ball is the most romantic of sports accessories. The symphony that the leather can create with air, ground, saliva and sweat is the stuff that can inspire poetry.

So, when the batsman is leaving it outside his off stump, it is not lack of action. In the .45 seconds he had to make this decision of negotiating the object traveling towards him at 148 KMPH, he has factored in the trajectory of the ball, whether the shinier side is, which way the seam is positioned and hence which way the ball will swing. He has also analysed where it is likely to pitch, what the bounce in that area is and whether it has cracks. Subconsciously,  he has matched all this data with the location coordinates of his off stump and whether any of the aforementioned potentially compromises it’s well being. And then comes the “percentage”. If he could rock back on his right foot and caress the ball into the 12 odd meters between the gentlemen standing at point and covers, could he have enough time to run 22 yards? Probably. But then, the man at cover has a reputation and this ball is likely to travel towards his left, which is his ‘right’ side. Is one run worth the risk of losing his wicket at this stage of the game? NO. And that is when he lets it go past him.

.45 seconds can be a very long time.

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That is just one of the 540 battles that happen in a day. And all great battles need to be immortalised by great literature. That precisely is the role commentary plays in test cricket – it augments mere reality into high drama. No, I am not talking about the iconic moments – Richie Benaud on the underarm or Tony Greig on the desert storm. Those must be easy I assume for the orator. It is between those moments that you need an artist in the commentary box. To  paint the mental tension around a puff of dust, put a defence in context, spread-eagle the anatomy of a cover drive, notice a grip, a crack, create legends out of men, women and their exploits, smell a rain cloud, searche for irony in statistics, make you laugh, set the stage for a decision, notice wrists, make you cry…

But alas, what we have had on show in Indian commentary lately, has just been reportage. Stating the obvious, hyperbolic reverence of heroes and having stock lines to describe situations. There is rigour and dedication in it probably, but certainly no art. No wit. And as a result, it tragically takes away from the TV watching experience rather than add to it. I know that Murali Vijay stepping out to Lyon in the last over before lunch was a ‘lapse of concentration’. I know that ‘a wicket here could turn things around’. I know that ‘keeping the scoreboard ticking is important’ or that ‘it was a well directed short ball’. What I am craving to know is the story and the emotion behind them. The nuance of the incident.

Commentary is a relief to a game like music is for the movies. They both have to compliment each other. If Morricone or Ilayaraja had just played sad or happy music corresponding to the footage, those films would have lacked magic. Lacked the spell. I yearn for Ian Chappel’s insight or Bumble’s wit or Dada’s genius or Cozier’s trivia. Mostly, I think I just miss Harsha. Sorely.

Here is an example of what commentary can be:

As I type this line, I just heard “This is an important innings by Pujara. A big first innings lead for Australia would not have been good news” and some one else concurred “Yes, India getting a sense that something will happen in this game now”. Then went on to add “there is every reason to believe India might even take a lead now” (we are 16 runs behind at lunch with 4 wickets to go). Another just cracked a joke I believe, but I can’t remember what it was. Must have been a ‘brain fade’.

Pro tip: If you want something on audio that remotely matches the intensity in Pujara’s eyes today, may I recommend muting your TV and playing this instead:

 

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I have known him for the last 19 years.

I see him every time he is in town.
I know his entire family by first names.
I remember the exact year his father died.
I know of every major physical ailment he has had in his adult life. The back, the wrist, the tennis elbow and the shoulder.
I have always defended him in arguments with friends, family and enemies.
I love him.
I root for him!