Sunday, August 29, 2010

Indian Film Classics II: Karagaattakaran (1989) Tamil

“Karagaattakaran” is one of the greatest romantic comedies in Tamil film history. In Indian film history for that matter. It is one of the most formulaic films ever – it has a good-hearted hero, beautiful heroine, side-kicks, villains, misunderstandings, fights, song and dance, mother-son sentiment, and a climax that resolves everything and ends with multiple weddings. But calling this film formulaic is like calling the rain in monsoon formulaic – yeah, it is the monsoon season and it is supposed to rain – water droplets leaving the clouds and reaching the earth – but, such a description totally misses the point and the poetry of the rains. If rain in the monsoon season is formulaic, then “Karagaattakaran” is formulaic as well.

And the same team has tried over and over again to re-create the magic- only in vain. It happens only when it happens – that is why it is called magic – not when you desperately want it to happen. Gangai Amaran, the director, has directed countless films before and after this, with the same hero, Ramarajan, with the same technicians, but lightning struck only once- but, what a day it turned out to be. Actually, “Karagaattakaran” itself is a sort of remake of the old Tamil film “Thillana Mohanambaal”, but the remake is way ahead of the original in entertainment value and pure fun.

Muthaiyan (played by Ramarajan) is a Karagattam dancer (a folk dance form of Tamil Nadu, for the non-thambi people), who travels with his troupe to a village to perform in the temple mela. Kamaatchi (Kanaga) is the lead dancer in the local Karagattam troupe and she is denied a chance to perform at the same mela. (She rebuffs the indecent advances made by the village head-man (Santhana barathy) towards her with a slap, and the head-man punishes her by snubbing her troupe and inviting Muthaiyan's troupe from a nearby village to perform in this year's festival.)

Kamaatchi's manager who is also her brother-in-law confronts Muthaiyan during his performance, riles up the atmosphere, and arranges for a match-up between him and Kamaatchi. Inspite of the strained atmosphere, Muthaiyan and Kamaatchi slowly but steadily fall for each other. Each, guarding their professional terrain, teases the other, exchanges playful banter, and ever so gently falls in love. The villains intervene and complicate things, and misunderstandings and sentimental blackmail intervene and complicate things, and in the end, with God's blessings, and after dancing for an Amman song, things fall in place, and love and peace and a "subham" ending prevail.

What makes this film work? The Goundamani-Senthil-Kovai Sarala comedy track. Ilayaraja's blistering soundtrack and a simple story told competently. Let's start with Goundamani-Senthil comedy track - both being part of the same Karagaattam troupe, (Goundamani being the senior) and Senthil trying to be subversive and sight-adhichufy and route-vuttufy (or in other words, woo) Kovai Sarala and ending up crossing Goundamani. Goundamani is a comic genius. One of the best comedians in the world. (Yes, I said the world.) There are some comedians whose comedy works when the material is good. Some people make scenes funny just by being there, irrespective of the material (think Goundamani). Him saying things in English is funny, his dancing is funny (Ullathai Allithaa anyone?), the way he looks at Senthil is funny, and let's not even get into the insults he hurls at Senthil - if a poet can think of so many ways to describe anyone's head, he would be lauded as the most imaginative poet ever. And Senthil plays perfect counterfoil. See him head-down, giving sheepish, guilt-laden glances when Goundamani corners him. He is the silent notes in between Goundamani's musical notes that make this symphony a symphony.

The film starts with the director approaching Ilayaraja requesting him to sing the title song for sentimental reasons. The title song is a lot of fun - where the entire cast and the crew are introduced, sans make-up. One thing you notice is that, almost the entire crew is clad in veshti-shirt. It's a movie made in a different time - the time when there were a dedicated team of junior artists (some of them are good, but some of them just ham-up the dialogues and look dutiful and inert in the background) and back-up dancers, before the time of TV serials and foreign-location songs. The time when films started with a shot of a temple or idol, with a character saying "Ellarum nalla irukkanum thaayee…" (let everyone prosper, mother goddess…).

And Ilayaraja was at his peak and produced a scorching soundtrack. One of the songs is so good (Maanguyile Poonguyile) that it is used twice in the film (and once more wouldn't have hurt the film - when the film was first released, many theaters did play it one more time on audience demand). And Ramarajan is the hero of the film - for all the flak that he gets for being immobile during songs in other films, he is the most convincing dancer in this one. He emotes well, and fights well- in my opinion, he was an underrated hero, banished to serve the B and C centers. Yes, he wears lipstick and some "jigna" on his face, and has a mustache that looks pencil-drawn -so what…he is a very functional hero and can deliver when required.

There are two objects on earth that are visible when seen from the moon - the Great Wall of China and Ramarajan's shirts. He wears shirts that have so many bright eye-popping colors in them, they make you wince and wonder about the possibilities of nature. His shirts make Govinda's wardrobe look like that of a conservative banker. And, if you scrape the make-up off of Kanaga's face, you can probably apply make-up for a town of 300 women for a year (the fact that she looks good in spite of this paint-job is another point).

The film came out of nowhere and stayed in theaters for over a year. People were wracking their brains about what this film has that makes it work big time. I don't think we know the answer yet. The film moves in a brisk fashion. The dialogues capture the nayyandi-loaded (playfully taunting) banter in villages, interspersed with the world class comedy track. Even the villains know that it is a breezy fun film - they appear, do their job of creating havoc- but don't linger around - they get their punishments from hero/God/circumstances and move on.

The film hasn't aged a bit. It is just as fresh today as it was when I saw it first. This film will never appear in the Time/New York Times 100 best films of all time, nor will it ever be praised by world famous critics (who wouldn't have watched it). It never had any chance of winning an Oscar when it was released. But this film will be watched by Tamilians world over for a long time to come (and there are Tamilians in pretty much every country on the map), and it will provide entertainment and spread joy in those households. For me, that speaks volumes about the success of the film- more than any award could ever mean. Maanguyile…Poonguyile...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bloom! flower Bloom!!

All the buds in the garden, perk up and listen. It is sunrise time, and the metrological dept. has announced that the sun will rise at 5.42 am today and all you damn lazy buds better bloom at exactly 5.42 am. Not a minute later, not 5 minutes later - exactly at 5.42 - GOT IT? Any later, you cease to be a flower and you will always remain the one that missed the sunrise.

What if it is cloudy today and I feel like blooming at 5.50 instead. Sorry - you will still be blemished, for life.

What if I want to see that sparrow that is flying hither and tither - it looks very pretty, you see. Sorry - NOPE.

What if I really really want to watch the other buds bloom - it is a beautiful sight you know - it is like seeing your life unfold right in front of you ;-) hehe, what say? Sorry - stop being poetic - it is not your job to be poetic, it is your job to be a flower that blooms at 5.42.

Kids, don't kid around. Your job is not to be a kid and goof around pointlessly - what is the point in that. Your job is to quickly pick up skills, as quickly and humanly possible, and start earning as much money as possible as early as you can. If you want to just be and learn intrinsically by doing things and observing things at your own pace, sorry- you are in the wrong place and in the wrong century for that matter.

You jackass middle-school, high-school students, the same goes for you too. What you should learn in 12th standard learn in 11th. Even better cram it in while you are still in 10th or 9th std. Wait, wait. You have those two empty months called annual holidays after your 8th std. exams- why not start then? Uh? You damn useless pinheads!

What do you want to become when you grow up? "Uh…i don't know…I like reading books and watching movies…may be, I'll become a…" Stop it you idiot, that was a rhetorical question. And moreover there are only three correct answers to that question - doctor, engineer and if you don't know any better, charted accountant. That's it. The world functions only because of these three professions, and you must become one of those. If you don't, the earth will part, and down you'll go and have to collect samples of magma for the rest of your life and burn in it.

"Hey…that's not a bad idea, I like playing with rocks and stuff, even collecting and analyzing them..may be I'll study geology and about magma and become a …"

Stop it, you empty-headed mud doll. I was using an imagery to drive some sense into you…not for you to let your imagination loose and get dangerous ideas!!! What nerve - this kid! Whoever has heard of anyone becoming a …and getting ahead in life.

There are relatives of mine, who used to come to me uninvited and start giving me advice as to how my 10th std exams (and later on it was the 12th std. exams and so on) is going to completely change my life, and how it is a make-or-break situation and not even God can save me if I bungle it. One of the most abundant natural resources in India is "free advice". Actually free, absolutely irrelevant, useless, advice.

My 10th exams came and went. My 12th exams also came and went. Nothing happened. My life didn't change. I just got into new classrooms, and met a few more people on the way.

I see students walk through fire when they are in their 10th or 12th std. They attend IIT coaching classes starting from kindergarten. A relaxed pointless afternoon is a distant dream for most students in that age. Countless thoughts and ruminations that should feed the imagination and help them grow and mature into full human beings will never occur or happen. They will remain locked in their over-pushed over-processing brains. It is a murder that will never be discovered.

Unclench your butts, parents. Let your kids breath. And let those locked-up thoughts blossom. It will be a different sunrise. But how will you know whether it is good or not unless you open your windows and let the light in.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Indian Film Classics I: Sagara Sangamam (Telugu) 1983

Have you walked down the aisles of Landmark or Crosswords? If yes, then you have walked very close to a gem, without noticing it. Although the gem might be in the form of a DVD and titled "Sagara Sangamam", it is a gem nevertheless. Some of the phenomenal talents of Indian cinema came together, and, magic happened. Thank god it happened when the cameras were rolling and we get to see it happen over and over again.

The wise sage of film criticism, Roger Ebert says that a great film is one in which there are three great scenes and no bad ones. The first half of Sagara Sangamam is packed with wall-to-wall great scenes.

Balu (Kamal Hassan) is a washed out dance critic who publishes a blistering critique of a performance by an upcoming danseuse Shylaja (S.P. Shylaja). He is called in by his publisher to apologize for his rudeness (as Shylaja's fiance is connected to the newspaper publisher). Balu makes no apologies, and in fact gives a blow by blow demo to Shylu and her fiance of what all she did wrong and how it should have been done. For this, he gets himself and his friend Raghu fired from the newspaper. (Raghu is an also-washed-out poet, now a proof reader, played by the eternal hero's friend in Tamil/Telegu cinema- Sharathbabu.)

Shylu's mom Madhavi (Jayapradha), catches this sole bad review of her daughter's performance and is intrigued to learn the identity of the reviewer. Madhavi and Balu have a history. In the early days, Madhavi had helped Balu in his dance career, and had grown close to him because of that, leading to an almost-romantic involvement. This is the first half of the movie.

The movie shuttles between the past and the present- with the flashbacks filling most of the first half. This part of the movie is about art - about a man who wants to pursue his art and nothing else, about his frustrations as to how the world receives his efforts, and how his friends help him to get his work out there.

In the flashback, Balu, after learning various other forms of dance like Bharatanatyam, Kathakali etc. goes to learn Kathak from a renowned teacher. He is received by an assistant who doesn't understand his language, and Balu ends up performing the purpose of his visit in dance moves to the assistant. He explains that he wants to learn from the master and has no money to pay him and will pay-back in kind, by serving the master. It is a pearl of a scene - mail me if you were not moved by it, I'll mail you back the part of your soul you might have lost years ago.

Raghu, hoping to help Balu stand on his own feet, finds Balu a job, assisting a choreographer for a Telugu film. Balu gets the job of choreographing for a beautiful song about Lord Krishna and he composes a soulful classical dance and performs it in front of the film director. And gets berated for spoiling the song. He is pushed to perform a dance with lot of "steps" in it and in which, the hero and heroine come tantalizingly close to kissing and the camera tilts to a vigorously shaking bush. The scene makes fun of the perceived "commercial compulsions" in making films, and does so in a barbed yet hilarious way.

Madhavi, who is an arts writer and photographer, comes into Balu's life. And instantly recognizes the talent and potential in him. She incrementally gets him the exposure that he richly deserves, but currently doesn't have or doesn't know how to get or cannot afford. Magazine articles and other odd favors culminate in her securing Balu a slot in the prestigious national dance festival to be held in Delhi. She teases him by bringing up the topic about the festival and mentioning that she has procured him an invitation for this year's festival. Balu lights up on hearing this, and eagerly goes through the year's line-up comprising of the top dancers in India. He flips the page and finds out that he is included as one of the lead performers. A masterfully done scene - with Illayaraja musically setting-up the scene and Kamal literally dissolving in front of us. The scene just melts you away. I have watched the movie over ten times, and this scene gets to me every single time. Watch how Jayapradha beautifully underplays this scene, and sets it up for Kamal to steal it, and Kamal scores an out-of-the-stadium-six.

That brings us to Jayapradha. One of the most beautiful actresses ever to grace Indian cinema (I am not the only one who thinks so, Satyajit Ray also thought so.) It is hard to find an actress who looks like her, has grace and could dance and act as well as she did. Some of the songs with her and Kamal are just an orgy of good looks, talent, dancing and emoting. It is hard to find a leading pair today who could match what Kamal and Jayapradha brought to the table in this film.

Another phenomenon to be mentioned is Ilayaraja. This film and its background score (not to mention the spectacular songs) should be compulsory course material for anybody who wants to do anything in film. Watch each scene and observe how Ilayaraja musically sets up the scene and adds layers to it, and fills in missing details and elevates the movie to an altogether different level. He makes us go through four/five different emotions within a single scene- all through his score. The man understands cinema like few other human beings do. Genius, thy alias is Ilayaraja.

Okay, confession time. I only told you the part-truth. I told you that the film is a gem, which it undoubtedly is. But the full truth is - it is a flawed gem. Seriously flawed at that. The second half is such a mess and loaded with ridiculous sumangali sentiment, kungumam sentiment, I don't know what to say.

The rest of the story is, when Balu and Madhavi realize that they are in love and are about to get-together, her father breaks it to Balu that Madhavi is already married, and as her in-laws demanded unreasonable dowry, she is forced to stay with her dad. And to top it off, the estranged husband shows-up exactly at the nick of time, and mouths some very gentlemanly dialogue (I was a coward then, I am trying to do penance for my sin by marrying off Balu and Madhavi - who the hell are you to marry them off, man). Wait, it gets more ridiculous.

Balu decides that Madhavi would be better off with her estranged husband, and does uncalled-for, unreasonable things like making Madhavi agree to be reunited with her husband. She goes off with her husband, and Balu is left to take refuge in the Bottle. And now through Shylu, Madhavi and Balu are connected again. Madhavi's husband has since passed away, and since Balu can't handle the truth and see Madhavi in peril (because she is minus kungumam, see), a drama is staged, wherein the above mentioned kungumam/sumanglai sentiment is utilized to death.

The melodrama and sentimentality of the second half almost destroys the film - only the memory that we have just seen such a spectacular first-half saves us from abandoning the film and running away. This has been a very hard review to write - how do you review a film that incites such extreme emotions in you. I cannot abandon the film because of it's pure genius first half, neither can I embrace it fully because of the misplaced sentiments. It is hard to invest so much in the characters, and care so much for them, and see them do dumb things. I guess, the answer is in accepting the fact that this is a spectacularly flawed gem of a film; spectacular in its flaws and a little bit more spectacular in its virtues.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Balsu Chronicles II: May the force be with you

It was a triveni sangamam of sorts where all the big alphabets of the city (DAV , SBOA, PSBB - KK, PSBB - MAIN, PS etc. etc.) came to merge and join the march towards destiny. We, a small contingent from the world famous (in Nanganallur) Modern School, would quietly but defiantly and proudly occupy our small territory in the classroom. Everyone waited in the common din and buzz for genius to strike.

After 2-3 hours of intense stuffing our brains with equations, chemical structures and concepts, we'd burst out of the class into the apparent vacuum around Satyamurthy school. Catch the bus (11 or 13 to Usman Road), catch the train to St. Thomas Mount/Palavanthangal and footboard our way out of the city and into the night, without a thought in our mind (other than straining our necks and looking for the the girls waiting on platforms to board the trains in the designated ladies compartment areas). Particularly overlooking the thought about the homework we just inherited from the class - which would involve at least a day's worth of effort to even honestly attempt. And, it goes without saying, we would hardly attempt to solve those problems before the next class.

Sometimes we got off easy - like the chemistry profs, Govi and Santhanam, who would treat us like adults, and not push too hard to hold us accountable. Other professors were not so gentle. Balsu-sir and TRS (our math prof) would first enquire about who had done the homework, and follow it up with walking around the class and randomly pulling out the notebook of the students to see whose claims had some truth in it. And god save the guy who claimed to have done it and had a blank notebook (majority fell in this category). Those moments were priceless - not even a $100 million Hollywood film can match the amount of pure drama, thrill and suspense packed in those moments.

Govi's class was a pleasure to sit through. A genial faced man with thin black rimmed glasses and an open smile, he made statements about chemistry that you wouldn't forget for the rest of your life ("chemicals are not gods, so don't capitalize them unless it is the beginning of the sentence"). Laced with humor, his classes made chemistry go down like hot gulab jamun with vanilla ice cream.

Balsu-sir's classes were altogether a different ball game. Surviving his classes was one thing- surviving his wit was something else. Acerbic, quick, rich in imagery, and devastating in its destruction. I don't know how he came up with all those put-downs and comments. The best part was you could see his eyes playfully twinkle right before he was going to deliver a zinger.

Balsu-sir was teaching Projectiles, when he caught a guy who hadn't done his homework. He flipped through the notebook and saw page after page of blanks. Before the student could react, he threw the guy's hardbound 192 page notebook out of the classroom - it sailed through the doorway and landed in the corridor with a shuffle. Balsu-sir continued "if you come to class again without doing the problems, you will follow the trajectory of the notebook".

His best line was "repulsion is the sure test of magnetism" - which means that if you and your friend have arrived at the exact same wrong answer for a problem, it is highly probable that one of you copied from the other - hence, repulsion is the sure test of magnetism.

His early tests were notoriously difficult. Scores like 7 out of 25 were considered decent. And while distributing the test papers, he would accompany each paper with his blessings: "scientists all over the world are trying to achieve it (zero kelvin), but you have achieved it - zero, here…."; one particular student he suspected had copied during the test - he singled him out and said…"Shankar meet me after the class, I am going to grind you into a pulp…" (the sight of that guy sitting in terror through the rest of the class was a sight to behold).

And the man would draw force diagrams like God. He drew the best looking force diagrams I have seen. You might be thinking…what?…force diagrams? Who gives a rat's behind how they look? But, I am telling you… it was something you should have experienced to understand. The man would lecture and you couldn't take your mind or eyes off him or what he says or his chalk marks. It was like seeing a suspension bridge being erected right in front of your eyes, in half an hour.

We learned. Remembered some and forgot most. Some among us went on to go to IITs (not me). Some were crazy enough and smart enough to crack JEE and get a hundred-odd rank when suffering severe diarrhea and stomach pains on exam day. Some among us went on to do other things in science and engineering. A few of us took up other careers. And for a few of us, the force stayed with us, long after.

Balsu-sir passed away a few years ago, and a few hundred students, spread around the world, had lumps in their throats on hearing the news. Articulate, well educated men were groping for words to express themselves. Thoughts came rushing, not following any particular trajectory. That period in our lives was evoked…and no one else to better embody those days than Balsu-sir.