In Kaatru Veliyidai, the auteur’s worst and best work ever!

There is a scene in Kaatru Veliyidai when Dr. Illyas (RJ Balaji’s character) is speaking to Nidhi (Rukmini Vijayakumar) and he asks her how Leela (Aditi Rao) is able to forgive someone as flawed as VC (Karthi) over and over again and manage to have limitless love for him. By the time that scene played out, I had already been squirming in my seat for over half an hour and was truly disconnected from the plot. So the question seemed like something I could stand up and ask the other 249 people in the hall that night. Only, it will not be about Leela but Mani himself. Why is it that we, his audience, continue to look forward and patronise his work, even when it has been many years since we last related to his narrative? I am sure it is not a simple answer.

Kaatru Veliyidai is an overwhelming sensory experience. Ravi Varman (true to his name) brings to us the most visually stunning piece of cinema made in this country in more than a decade, by some distance. But that is not new. Mani has always, almost compulsorily had that extraordinarily beautiful handwriting – cinematography, music or sound design. Except, it comes together in KV, better than ever. There is a scene where the two protagonists are standing next to a jeep on top of a hill, in momentary silence and I would be lying if I told you I did not feel the gush of a cold mountain breeze and shiver a little inside the Chennai theatre. Aditi (aided beautifully by Krithika Nelson’s exquisite dubbing), shines through in a surprisingly impactful performance by a female protagonist. Surprising as they together pull off the ‘looking lost in love’ and ‘sounding lost in love’, with extraordinary authenticity. The scene in which she is humming while making tea for her grandfather and then stepping out at the sound of a fighter jet whizzing past is sublime.

Silverscreen.in Copyrighted Photos

The one who seems completely out of touch though is the writer himself. The mind that penned films that eventually became pop culture for an entire civilisation, seems to struggle to connect anymore. Not with a different generation, but the one that knows him intimately as a creator. He has always erred on the side of brevity when it comes to dialogues and his characters have mostly been comfortable switching between their native slang and poetic Tamil. This streak in them has mostly been for the effect, for a great one liner that heightens a scene, rather than something that is organic and native to the character itself. And we have always enjoyed that. The prospect of an auteur presenting world class cinema to us, rooted so much in our sensibilities has always been exhilarating and we have lapped it up instantly. And proudly.

However, Tamil cinema has moved on. We are bang in the middle of a unique revolution, one where we have willingly traded aesthetics for the rough edges and compromised poetry for authenticity. It is the age of Kumararaja and Vijay Sethupathi. One where the school of Mahendran has already married that of Mani Ratnam and Balachander has already stepped out onto the fields with Bharathiraja. So no, we cannot relate to a Hero who yells ‘kaatru veliyidai kannamma’ from a mountain top or calls his girlfriend “chella kili” or a character referring to her friend’s love by saying ‘avalukku avar mela oru kannu’. It breaks the spell and if you try, you can hear people shifting in their chairs. It is probably blasphemy, but I have often wondered this week if KV would have resonated better as a film with someone else’s lines.

But it is also among the writer’s best.

In between the unreal lines is a real, significant departure. There is an extraordinary scene in the film when Leela and VC fight over a snow storm – a fight between rationale and romance. This one scene is the film in itself. It is also screen writing at its best.

While Mani is not new to a flawed male protagonist, he has very rarely dived this deep. While Velu Nayakkar or Lallan or Mouna Raagam’s Divya are all flawed, we rooted for them. Much like Brando’s legendary ‘Stanley’ from ‘A Street Car Named Desire’ – a film that is an obvious influence in many of Mani’s leading men. But not this man. Mani’s VC is a case study and I would pay to buy a book on him. And so is his Leela. Flawed in her naivety.  While flawed protagonists by themselves are not ground breaking, what is new is that the love itself is mis-shaped. It is the real Kargil in the script – one fraught with landmines and one that shouldn’t exist.  In a land of stories where Love is above all else, this is a beautiful departure. And for a writer / director who has always been comfortable on the surface of any issue, this is significant. One just wishes that we could have cared about these two people more in the couple of hours we spent with them.

Mani ratnam Thalapathy

Which brings me to the craft.

While it is evident that Mani Ratnam’s audience don’t connect with his stories any more, the reason for this ironically seems to be the director actually trying to better himself as a story teller. Exhibit A: In Baradwaj Rangan’s recent book, Mani talks at length about his thought process during the making of Guru: “…you have to, without being hurried and you also have to move in chunks. You cannot have a lot of moments and rush through each of them. Ten years back, may be…..it is better to choose the right ones and linger on them….If we can get it in one simple emotional moment, then it seems enough instead of dwelling…”. There is enough evidence in his last three films to suggest that he is moving towards more “efficiency” in story telling. In this effort to create tighter narratives, I wonder if somehow the soul has been subconsciously traded.

I left the theatre after watching KV, with a sense of longing. Like being unable to relate to your childhood friend anymore. With each passing film, the director and writer that I grew up with, whose work I used to long for, seems to matter less and less. But like with all relationships, I guess we will continue to look forward. Clearly, nothing else explaing the packed theatres on a weekday night in a Chennai suburb. By the time the next release happens, I am sure the Leela in me would have forgiven my VC – my man from Venus Colony!

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Trip.

There is a scene in Imtiyaz’s ‘Highway’, in which Alia is sitting on a rock in the middle of a potent river, that is overwhelming both in its flow and in its roar. She starts laughing uncontrollably, one that is soon overcome by tears. The soulful brilliance of being one with nature and the painful absurdity of life as she has lived it until then…she gets it. We get it as well, for it is not just her reflection at that moment but ours too (Even the guy next to me who was on the phone telling his friend “aa raha hoon’ since intermission, paused for a few seconds). There is neither a background score or lines in that scene. Just a cut from her to the river and back. It is for moments like this that we go to the movies. Thank you, Mr. Ali.

‘Highway’ is a simple film that is bound to be many things. More number of friends (than you would like), will talk about how they cant believe ‘Alia was the same girl who was in SOTY’. Some will tell you they saw a lot of ‘Jab we met’ in this film. A few ‘elites’ will even tell you how the film is ’15 mts longer than it should be’. Everyone will discuss the locations and Delhiites might fondly remember their drives to Spiti or Leh. And everyone will talk about Alia and her interpretation of this character, more than anything else. And not a single time would it be undeserved.

I hope they mention Aarti Bajaj, who dances with your mind and pulls out cuts that make this film almost genre-less. I hope many mention the Hariyanvi who plays the male lead so beautifully. In the scene at the bus stand where he smiles in the film for the first time, you can almost feel the actor’s relief that a writer has finally given him a part that he could sink his teeth into. Or the original score. I feel this is one of Rahman’s best as far as background scores go – something that he has always treated like Sachin would, his bowling – indifferently. I hope they mention the casting. And mention it many times, because a film like this relies on the world that the supporting cast creates, more than the protagonists who wander in it. The Durgesh Kumars (Aadoo) and the Pradeep Nagars (Tonk) of this film who dont even have an IMDB page yet, make you wonder how this director / casting director combo went so wrong with a leading lady famously in their last outing.

Above all, I hope many who have watched this film, remember it for the honesty of the writer, director. Nothing epitomizes that more than the last scene. What a way to call for the curtains! You can tell that this is a story told told almost exactly the way it was conceived. Much like the brownish water gushing out of an irrigation hose that Alia dips her face into in one of the scenes, this is pretty much direct from the ground. And that makes this film an ‘experience’ you should make time for. This is (like a famous motorcycle brand’s tag line), a ‘Trip’.

Getting the drift…

Why talk about a film that you saw three full weeks back? Because I can? I should? it was important enough to be documented? No. It is more like ‘I somehow still remember how I felt after watching this film and so I need to get this thing off my chest’.

There is a scene in Mani Ratnam’s ‘Kadal’ (Ocean), conveniently set in a prison, in which the character played by Arvind Swamy is dressed in White and the one played by Arjun, in black. I am led to believe that it was apparently because they represent Good & Evil in the narrative. This nuance has as much depth as the practice of buying blue or pink balloons, depending upon the new born’s gender, when you go to visit the parents in the hospital. And this is the kind of fare you are dished out throughout this film. How and when did Mani Ratnam get so simplistic? What motivates him to make a film like Kadal? A few years back, I swore to never say that a film was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – only whether I ‘liked’ it or not. So this is largely from the eyes of a fan, who doesn’t quite understand the job description of a film ‘critic’.

‘Kadal’ has one of the most stunning soundtracks by Rahman in the last year. The genre is so diverse that when you listen to it for the first time, you wonder how the blues, rap and jazz is going to blend in with the rustic Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) fishing hamlet, where the film is set in. Turns out, it is not just the genre. If you listen to the lyrics, it is as though the songs themselves were written for a different film. For example, the title track ‘Magudi’ is about a woman talking to a man who she is obviously smitten by. This is overlaid on a scene where a prostitute’s son is being shunned by his own society. ‘Nenjukulle’ – another song that is in the words of a woman hopelessly in love with her man is filmed as a duet where the man is in love and the woman might or might not even know it, given her mental condition.

Kadal starts off with a blast. One of the most powerful and intriguing first 30 mts of any Tamil film that I have seen in the recent past. A mother (who the society considers immoral) has just died and is given a customary burial by her lover, on the beach. Her child looks on. The makeshift wooden box being used as a coffin is too small to fit her legs and so they break and badger it in. The child cries.The theatre chokes and your subconscious mind whispers – ‘welcome back, Mr. Ratnam’. The film probably has many such moments, later on. May be I missed them or they did not register. Because somewhere in the next one hour, I stopped caring for the child, who is by then a man and the protagonist. And the others.

Talking of others, there is one actor who is obviously relishing every scene that he is in. The amazing Arjun – one of the most underrated Indian actors, who has consistently surprised the Tamil audience over the years (with films like ‘Kurudhipunal’, ‘Rhythm’ & Mudhalvan), is among the few to survive the screenplay and come out of it largely unscathed, even though the lines have been particularly unfair to his character. To watch him in the opening scenes as a priest who indulges in ‘sin’ and generally seen having a good time, is one of the few convincing and enjoyable moments in the film.

‘Kadal’ is actually the least Maniratnam-ish film that Maniratnam has made. The writing doesnt have his strong footprints. Jayamohan’s script and dialogues are so rooted that you hardly find the typical ‘Ratnam’isms like truncated, anglicized sentences or out-of-the-blue references to Subramaniya Bharati’s works. There is so much attention to detail (especially to the local slang and life), that you often sit up and wonder whether you are actually in the middle of a classic. But after a point, you just avoid ‘sitting up’ altogether.

I recently read a book about Maniratnam. While largely forgettable, the book (which is written as an interview with the director) conveyed something very important in the journey of this creator. It seemed like as a story teller, he was becoming more and more conscious of efficiency and is ready to sacrifice indulgence for objectivity. You could see a lot of this in Guru and Raavan, where you almost wish the film would linger more on the characters so you start to love or hate them – at the least, just care about them. I wonder whether somewhere in this ‘correction’, the artist was killed by the ‘management graduate’.

The climax of the film is shot amazingly well on a fishing boat, which is inexplicably sailing in the middle of a storm. No one really knows why it is there and where it is headed. Ironically, you feel pretty much the same way about the script which by then has drifted beyond the horizon for you. You feel lost. I was told a week after by a friend, that the film is essentially about Good Vs Evil and largely inspired by Dante’s work (the association apparently goes beyond the character ‘Beatrice’). I dint get it. May be this film was meant for a more ‘evolved’ audience. I am just the lowly ‘paying public’, who thought a film titled  ‘Kadal’ will actually have more ‘Ocean’, than just in the climax. I walked out tired and parched.

Parting ways – a weekend with Blessy & Farhadi

Watching a film is a lot like having a drink. You soak in a bit of your soul in it, there is almost always a hangover, the experience can be enthralling or nauseating and most importantly, you should never mix two kinds successively. I did and it was brilliant.

I have never seen any of Asghar Farhadi’s films before and so the first time I heard about it was from the awards circuit. I have loved and worshiped Iranian film makers over the years (like millions of others globally) and like everybody else, have wondered endlessly about the seemingly effortless magic they have been able to weave around human and social drama, time and time again. So, when I sat down to watch ‘A Separation’, I was ready for moving, profound cinema – the kind that your mind sub-consciously prepares itself for the moment it sees olive leaves on a DVD cover.

What I was not prepared for though was a stunning piece of film that gave me one of my most intimate experiences ever with cinema. Two minutes into it, the audience is introduced to the most important character in the film – the green glass door of a house that will host four beautiful, yet tragically and dis-harmonically juxtaposed characters: A husband and wife contemplating a divorce, a pregnant mother who enters their life as a maid and their daughter (played wonderfully by Sarina Farhadi – the auteur’s own daughter).

A simple incident of the maid leaving the husband’s aged father alone for a few hours to go for a doctor’s check-up, spawns a series of turns that include a miscarriage, a divorce, and a murder charge. Though dramatic, these elements are weaved together in a screenplay with emotions that the audience is always able to relate to. To borrow from the inimitable Roger Ebert – “The film involves its audience in an unusually direct way, because although we can see the logic of everyone’s position, our emotions often disagree”. Farhadi uses his craft so well to bring us closer to his characters: A large part of the film has been shot from the POV of a judge hearing the case (metaphorically putting the audience in the jury throughout the film); The husband’s father – suffering from Alzheimer’s goes around as a mute (and probably the only) witness to everything that happens in the house; The most important scene in the film – when the husband encounters the maid for the first time, happens in a fleeting moment that the audience themselves don’t take note of and hence cant judge any of the characters. These and many more.

Barely a day later, I decided to watch another film which cannot be more different from ‘A Separation’ but yet is similar in so many ways.

Blessy – like the Iranian talents I worship, is a master of his craft; Both films are anchored on a divorce; Some of the most talented actors in their respective countries carry the load of both the films; And both narratives revolve around a lie that is simple yet tragic and relationships that are precious, yet fragile.

But unlike ‘A Separation’, ‘Pranayam’ is not a spell. It is a journey. The movie has many distractions like Anupam Kher and Jayapradha, whose brilliant performances are marred by the fact that they are lip syncing in a language that they don’t speak. And like the numerous interludes in the form of songs that are not always montages. The end in both the movies also represent two different sensibilities – ‘A Separation’ ends as a comma, where the audience is not fully aware of what happens next (and they needn’t be as well)  while Pranayam ends with a closure – a logical culmination of all threads (which equally needn’t have to be the case as well).

‘Pranayam’ is probably one of the merrier films to come from the Blessy school, which boasts of powerhouse classics like ‘Tanmathra’ – that Mohan Lal considers his best ever and ‘Brahmaram’. In ‘Pranayam’, the writer in Blessy traverses a path that I can safely say isn’t oft taken in Indian cinema and explores the relationship between three wonderful human beings, played by Lal – a retired professor who is paralyzed partially, Anupam Kher – a retired, single father and Jayapradha – who had divorced Kher’s character Achutan forty years back and is now married to Lal’s Mathew. While the film has a lot of other not-so-well-written characters (like Achuthan’s ever-smiling grand daughter, who we cant figure out whether indifferent or doting) occupying the screen in the first half, it is the bond between these three that carries it to the end and also weaves the magic.

 

The first thought to hit me post the film was the casting decision, especially between Lal and Kher. It was so tempting to imagine the actors swapping their roles, but it also makes a lot of sense this way. Kher’s Mathew would have been too restrained and Lal’s Achutan would have reminded us of numerous roles the actor has done before. What Kher’s rendition and Blessy’s writing have done is to make Achutan, a character you would instantly fall in love with and remain loyal to. And the bond Kher and Lal create on screen proves yet again, the difference between actors and Masters.

The film doesn’t lose itself in flashbacks and stays true to the present – much like human memory itself. And the sense of practicality of the three characters is so real, it is unnerving. ‘Pranayam’, like ‘A Separation’ will stay with you for months if not years, because like all great cinema – it stays honest to the Human story. The rest are details.

a film by Maniratnam

I think it was 1987. One summer night, I lifted my head from my home work to see two see two men on television, talking in a strange Tamil-English tongue, about a national award their film received. I was just a kid, but even then I was quite militant about the correct pronunciation of my mother tongue. But something about these guys was very endearing and I remember going back to my homework, thinking that they were probably from a different state.

That was Mani Ratnam and GV, talking about ‘Mouna Raagam’. I saw the film eventually after many years, on VHS. Thats how we normally watched film at the Nagarajan household. Going to a theatre was pretty close to a vice for a student and the only exceptions were Kamal Haasan and Balachander – our ‘white list’. You see, my dad was regimental about his views on cinema, but he did have taste.
1987 was a strange year. I was in 6th Standard and my world was rapidly changing in front of my eyes. We lost the World Cup. I finished reading the best book ever written (I was quite convinced at that time!) – ‘Detective Dog Ranjha‘. I fell in love with Keerthana. I saw ‘The Last Emperor‘ and decided I wanted to make films for a living. I scored my first 100% in Maths (It will also be the last time). Quite a year for a sixth grader, no?
The year was not quite done yet. On a stormy monsoon night, I came out of Devi theatre with tears in my eyes. Velu Nayakkar had just been killed. Both me and the skies were bawling. And my stone-hearted dad was pulling me along to the bus stand, with my mother and sister trailing. Dont these people have a heart? Such a good man has just been killed so needlessly and they want me to board a crowded 17A with water pouring in from every hole on its roof?
I have seen Nayakan about a million times after that and strangely, I was not surprised when Time magazine decided it had to be among the best 100 films on the planet.
I think The Ritual started about that time. My family did not miss watching a single Mani Ratnam film in theatre for many years after. He slipped in with ease into the white list. The Ritual usually began with me and my sister listening to the advertisements on All India Radio – the 30 mts slot that was sponsored every Sunday night at 8:30 PM. Later on in life, when the Nagarajan household became economically liberalized, we even started buying the soundtrack before hand and let Ilayaraja soak our senses in his symphonies.
Then came the posters. Ah what posters! Finally, a man who appreciated white. A man who understood that a poster is not about what you fill it with – It is about what you dont.
Then came the anticipation. During the bus rides to college, the morning run, minutes before u sleep and other times when you let your mind be. What is it gonna be like? How would be have shot this song? who is this new girl? why is this Madhu Ambat and not PC?
Then the film happened. The seat that was carefuly bargained for, with the box office assistant. The biscuits from home. And then the multiple emotions.
mmm…wow….what?…wow….huh!…mmm.
Then the reviews on Ananda Vikatan. And then, the hangover.
I am no more a 6th grader. I dont think Maniratnam will feature in my list of top five film makers. I have matured enough to hate him – some times. But he is an inseparable part of a generation of film goers. Their psyche and their taste. My psyche and my taste.
Even today, as I get ready to watch Raavanan in a couple of hours from now, I am living the ritual. And I know that a Maniratnam film is not measured in hours, but in weeks and months.

The magic of cinema

This is an excerpt (My most favorite part) from the book “Conversations – Walter Murch & the Art of Editing Film” by Michael Ondaatje – author of The English Patient. It is long & calls for TREMENDOUS patience, but trust me, it is totally worth it.

(FYI, Walter Murch is the first guy ever to have been credited for ‘Sound Design’ and he is the editor of films like Godfather – I, II & III, Apocalypse Now, THX 1138, English Patient, Talented Mr. Ripley, Conversations & Unbearable Lightness of Being).

Murch: There’s a great game–I forget whether we’ve talked about it–Negative Twenty Questions?

Ondaatje: No, we haven’t talked about it.

Murch: It was invented by John Wheeler, a quantum physicist who was a young graduate student of Niels Bohr’s in the 1930s. Wheeler is the man who invented the term “black hole”. He’s an extremely articulate proponent of the best of twentieth-century physics. Still alive, and I believe still teaching, writing.


Anyway, he thought up a parlour game that reflects the way the world is constructed at a quantum level. It involves, say, four people: Michael,
Anthony, Walter, and Aggie. From the point of view of one of those people, Michael, the game that’s being played is the normal Twenty Questions–Ordinary Twenty Questions, I guess you’d call it. So Michael leaves the room, under the illusion that the other three players are going to look around and collectively decide on the chosen object to be guessed by him–say, the alarm clock. Michael expects that when they’ve made their decision they will ask him to come back in and try to guess the object in fewer than twenty questions.
Under normal circumstances, the game is a mixture of perspicacity and luck: No, it’s not bigger than a breadbox. No, you can’t eat it….Those kinds of things.

But in Wheeler’s version of the game, when Michael leaves the room, the three remaining players
don’tcommunicate with one another at all. Instead, each of them silently decides on an object. Then they call Michael back in.
So, there’s a disparity between what Michael believes and what the underlying truth is: Nobody knows what anyone else is thinking. The game proceeds regardless, which is where the fun comes in.

Michael asks Walter: Is the object bigger than a breadbox? Walter–who has picked the alarm clock–says, No. Now, Anthony has chosen the sofa, which is bigger than a
breadbox. And since Michael is going to ask him the next question, Anthony must quickly look around the room and come up with something else–a coffee cup!–which is smaller than a breadbox. So when Michael asks Anthony, If I emptied out my pockets could I put their contents in this object? Anthony says, Yes.
Now Aggie’s choice may have been the small pumpkin carved for Halloween, which could also contain Michael’s keys and coins, so when Michael says, Is it edible? Aggie says, Yes. That’s a problem for Walter and Anthony, who have chosen inedible objects: they now have to change their selection to something edible, hollow, and smaller than a breadbox.


So a complex vortex of decision making is set up, a logical but unpredictable chain of ifs and thens. To end successfully, the game must produce, in fewer than twenty questions, an object that satisfies all of the logical requirements: smaller than a breadbox, edible, hollow, et cetera. Two things can happen: Success–this vortex can give birth to an answer that will seem to be inevitable in retrospect: Of course! It’s the —-! And the game ends with Michael still believing he has just played Ordinary Twenty Questions. In fact, no one chose the —- to start with, and Anthony, Walter, and Aggie have been sweating it out, doing these hidden mental gymnastics, always one step ahead of failure.
Which is the other possible result: Failure–the game can break down catastrophically. By question 15, let’s say, the questions asked have generated logical requirements so complex that nothing in the room can satisfy them. And when Michael asks Anthony the sixteenth question, Anthony breaks down and has to confess that he doesn’t know, and Michael is finally let in on the secret: The game was Negative Twenty Questions all along. Wheeler suggests that the nature of perception and reality, at the quantum level, and perhaps above, is somehow similar to this game.

When I read about this, it reminded me acutely of filmmaking. There is an agreed-upon game, which is the screenplay, but in the process of making the film, there are so many variables that everyone has a slightly different interpretation of the screenplay. The cameraman develops an opinion, then is told that Clark Gable has been cast in that part. He thinks, Gable? Huh, I didn’t think it would be Gable. If it’s Gable, I’m going to have to replan. Then the art director does something to the set, and the actor says, This is my apartment? All right, if this is my apartment, then I’m a slightly different person from who I thought I was: I will change my performance. The camera operator following him thinks, Why is he doing that? Oh, it’s because… All right, I’ll have to widen out because he’s doing these unpredictable things. And then the editor does something unexpected with those images and this gives the director an idea about the script, so he changes a line. And so the costumer sees that and decides the actor can’t wear dungarees. And so it goes, with everyone continuously modifying their preconceptions. A film can succeed in the end, spiralling in on itself to a final result that looks as if it has been predicted long in advance in every detail. But in fact it grew out of a mad scramble as everyone involved took advantage of all the various decisions everyone else had been making.