Monday, May 24, 2010

Thalapathy- an actor conglomeration beyond compare

"Niruthanum...ellathayum niruthanum," are words that have been enshrined in Tamil film history, with movie spoofs, TV channel soaps and even other Tamil movies that were released later, having been influenced by the scene, the setting and the response that it elicits. For Tamil film aficionados worth their salt, the movie with which the dialogue is synonymous needs no introduction, however, for the uninitiated; it is the Rajnikanth, Mammooty, Arvind Swamy starrer, Thalapathy (the general/commander), a movie that stands out on more than one count. With Mani Ratnam as its director, this is something that has to be expected.

If Thalapathy has remained in public memory, despite around twenty years after its release, it cannot be denied that its music has played a vital role in doing so, amply justified by the fact that a tweaked version of the hoot of a steam engine bringing to mind, S Janaki’s rendition of the song ‘Chinna thaayaval’. Probably, no other Kollywood release can be identified or associated with a piece of music whose duration is roughly equal to half of a cell-phone alert. (The clinker of bells/triangle in Nayakan being a lone exception).

Thalapathy has many firsts to its credit. This was the first collaboration between Superstar Rajnikanth and Mani Ratnam. This was also the first movie that had Rajni sharing screen space with the Malayalam screen idol, Mammooty. Also, this movie marked the debut for an unheralded Arvind (who would go on to become popular as Arvind Swamy and also as Mani's mascot in his upcoming ventures) and Amrish Puri's debut as an antagonist in the Tamil film industry. Unfortunately, this was the last movie that had Mani and 'Maestro' Ilayaraja working together. In hindsight, it seems that the decision was a well-thought one. For a music composer by name Alla Rakha Rahman might never have been unearthed and Tamil music might never have got an additional reason for mp3 downloads and torrents!

The plot of Thalapathy is a careful cinematic adaptation of the Karna-Duryodhana plot in the Indian epic, the Mahabharatha, where Karna's loyalty towards Duryodhana, despite knowing that the Pandavas, Duryodana's arch rivals, were his own brothers, forms the crux of the movie. The characters, settings and the plot have been etched out keeping in mind, the interests of Rajnikanth's die-hard fan base, a director's nemesis or in most cases, his manna from the heavens. The director circumvents the obstacle posed by the demise of Karna and Duryodhana in the epic, whose exact adaptation in the movie would tantamount to suicide. This forms the necessity for an additional character, Kalivardhan (Amrish Puri). Additional sub-plots such as Draupadi's rejection of Karna and Karna coming face to face with his mother, Kunti, have been adapted to form a movie that would please not only the die-hard Rajni buff, but also the discerning movie critic.

The introduction scenes of the three leading characters in the movie- Surya, Devaraj and Arjun, makes for an interesting study. It could be argued that the triumvirate characterisation in Thalapathy could possibly have formed the basis for a movie that he would make much later, Aayitha Ezhuthu (Yuva in Hindi and Telugu). This scene in any Rajnikanth movie is a film in itself and is usually accompanied by a burst of euphoria that may include a song/a punch dialogue (unique to every movie of his), a fight sequence, or a combination of one or more of these. This being a Mani Ratnam movie, where even the agitated of the emotions are conveyed in the subtlest manner possible, we have Surya (Rajnikanth), an orphan, cast away by his mother in a train, making an introduction in the form of a fight sequence set in rain, minus the verbal bravado. Surya's opponent in the fight sequence (whose name is Ramana, to be told later) is almost an equal but gets overpowered ultimately.

In contrast, the scene where Devarajan (Mammooty), a la Robin Hood, who dispenses justice, makes his introduction, can be described as muted or understated. He makes an almost submissive entry into the hospital where his henchman Ramana has been admitted, however, his facial expressions are reminiscent of a Don Corleone of Coppola’s Godfather or a Velu Nayakan of Mani’s own Nayakan. The intense emotions that run deep whenever he utters a word or simply looks up at the doctor who tries to bar his entry into the clinic, make up for the passive construction of his visage.

The other lead character in the story, Arjun (Arvind Swamy), the deputy commissioner of the town, gets introduced to the viewer when he arrives at a crime scene at night, where Surya and Devaraj's henchmen have hacked a policeman to death in broad daylight at the city centre. The parallel unfolding of scenes where Arjun gets appointed as commissioner in a ceremony and Surya committing an act of murder, should send a portentous signal to the viewer of an imminent conflict between the two. (I suspect that Mani had earlier employed this technique in Agni Natchathiram, where Prabhu gets appointed as ACP at an investiture ceremony and his half-brother, Karthik, is busy playing basketball.)

The movie has many stand-out scenes to its credit, (which is an obvious understatement!). If all such scenes need to be listed out and analysed, Google should perhaps consider doubling its server storage! However I choose to elaborate on three stand-out scenes from the movie.

Scene 1: Deliberations at the collector's office
Devarajan and Surya have been called in for a tete-a-tete with Arjun, the district commissioner. The discussion begins with accusations thrown and slowly morphs into an verbal encounter, when Arjun asks the duo to stop their activities (Remember Niruthanum...?), finally eliciting a curt response from Devarajan who bluntly refuses to do so and walks out with his entourage in protest, leaving pale-faced Arjun seething with rage. It is not about the confrontary nature of the dialogue that makes this a memorable one. What stood out was the manner in which Devaraj replies back to his adversary across the table, almost like a dormant volcano that has just erupted. The split-second silence that follows makes way for Ilayaraja's score, with the trumpet ensemble melting its way like hot chocolate sauce over a cup of vanilla ice-cream...the scene is simply meant to be savoured (as its analogy is also meant to!)

Scene 2: A dawn for Surya (not to be confused with its Pakistani-daily namesake!):
Kalyani's (Srividya) husband, Jaishankar (surprisingly, whose character does not have a name), meets Surya and reveals to him the truth about his mother. Surya, who at once, refutes the fact, realises that it could be the truth and loses his emotion (yes, he does cry, although, in his inimitable style of covering his eyes or looking away from the camera). It must be said that this could be the rarest of the scenes where Rajni has emoted to the fullest, which makes it even more special. The parting shot of the conversation takes place in the backdrop of the rising sun, metaphorically symbolising the dawn of realisation upon Surya.

Scene 3: The showdown with the mentor
Devarajan gets wind of Surya's rendezvous with Arjun's father, and prods him to kill Arjun for having suffered ignominy at his hands. Surya hesitates and tries to side-step the issue. This infuriates Devarajan, who taunts Surya by asking him whether he is concerned about Subbulakshmi (Shobana) becoming widowed in the process. Surya squirms around and is uneasiness personified when he cannot take it any further and reveals the truth about Kalyani being his mother and Arjun, his brother. A shell-shocked Devarajan asks his protege as to why did he not join his family, when Surya replies back, "Yena naan un nanban." (because I am your friend). It is the expression of shock on Mammooty's face that steals the show, reducing him to tears, with his heart swelling with pride over the unconditional loyalty shown to him by his deputy.

The flamenco-styled guitar twangs, leading to a burst of violins in consonance in ‘Rakamma kaiya thattu’ should alone have led to its nomination as the most popular Asian soundtrack in a BBC survey, a few years ago, ahead of AR Rahman’s ‘Chaiyya chaiyya’. For the statistician, this song also marked the debut of Prabhu deva as a choreographer. ‘Sundari kannal oru seidhi’, my personal favourite, is bound to haunt listeners day after day, year after year after the song stops playing. Set in the Carnatic raga Kalyani and sung by SPB and S Janaki, the picturisation of ‘Sundari…’ alternates between Surya waging a battle in traditional Japanese war attire and romancing his lady-love, Subbulakshmi (Shobana). 'Kaattukuyilu manasukkulla' not only manages to get the leading stars of yore on screen, but also the voices behind them- SPB for Rajnikanth and KJ Yesudas for Mammootty, which in itself, is a conglomeration of sorts.

Casting coups are the norm in all cinematic ventures of Gopal Ratnam Subramaniam (that is his real name by the way!). Be it the Mohan-Revathi-Karthik triangle in Mouna Raagam, (that has many parallels with his only movie in Kannada, Pallavi Anupallavi) or the star studded cast in movies such as Agni Natchathiram or Iruvar, Mani revels in utilising unwieldy casts to his advantage. Veteran actors Jaishankar, Srividhya, Bhanupriya and Geetha excel in supporting roles, not to mention Subbulakshmi, who is torn between the love for her would-be suitor and affection to her father. Her pairing with Rajni is a far cry from that in K Balachander's Rajni-Raghuvaran starrer, Siva. Arguably, Subbulakshmi, a student of the Classical Arts, should have been the easiest of the characters to be enacted by Shobana, the real-life dansuese. Should Mani ever be in possession of a regiment, or at least, a bunch of scouts, he would have successfully overthrown and deposed, dictators of many a banana republic around the world with this attribute of his!

It is of little wonder that Thalapathy continues to remain in public memory almost two decades after its release!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Move aside, will ya?

Oram Po- one for the 'movies are for entertainment' class

Sophistication is the hallmark of the protagonist in any Tamil movie. He can put to shame a battery of Perry Masons with his loquaciousness, conduct explorations that can make an Indiana Jones look like a school-kid at a playground, and at the same time, find time to seduce all the PYTs, leaving behind the older species for the likes of James Bond or any character straight out of an Irving Wallace novel. So, when the hero is portrayed as someone sweating even for his ten minutes of fame, eyebrows are bound to be raised. More so, if the movie in question is the Arya-Pooja starrer Oram Po.

With the CD cover of the movie showing Arya standing beside an auto in a khaki-coloured dress, the first impression one tends to gather is that it could be a rip-off of Superstar Rajnikanth’s Baasha or maybe the late MGR-starrer Rickshawkkaran. Thankfully, though, the movie wasn’t one of those maddening archetypes that offer a satiating experience to macho-movie aficionados, with a mindless plot and an equally mindless antagonist who is outfoxed completely by the hero, no matter how complex the idea his ever-scheming mind might come up with.

In fact, what probably makes Oram Po tick along is the ever-pervading humour, both in the plot, as well as in the dialogues. The plot goes about in a light-hearted manner, describing the travails of an auto-driver, who wagers for auto races, gets drunk, has a troubled relationship with his sweetheart (especially after they do it!) and faces a mounting debt… all of these do not point to a healthy 'family' script (also known as a movie that can be viewed by the entire family and yet, not pose any feelings of discomfort to anyone). It however, manages to position itself as a well-mediated satire on life, flattering the viewer as well, thanks to the well-entrenched stereotypes that most potboilers have churned out in the past.

In fact, references that the auto receives in the movie’s songs are as sarcastic as they can are humour-inducing. Lyrics from the songs Gun-ganapathy thaan… and Kozhi kaalu… ensure that the viewer does break out into a grin. The names of the characters, the setting (the other side of Chennai, that does not boast of Tidel Park or Spencer’s Plaza), names such as Son of gun (John Vijay), Bigle (Lal Jose) or Supply (Jegan) and the aspirations of the characters (watching a movie at the front row of Satyam theatre or talking to RJs of local FM stations are wannabe ambitions), tend to lend a perception of depth to a shallow plot. The fact that the villain-cum-chief comedian of the movie, Son of gun, receives more footage and gets to deliver the choicest of the dialogues in the Tirunelveli-dialect of Tamil, should only add to the already burgeoning list of surprises.

Double-entendres form an integral part of the movie and it must be agreed that the brand of humour dished out in the movie teeters between the sarcastic and provocative. Consider this: A boy comes up to Chandru, who has just won an ‘auto’ race and says that he would like to emulate him when he grows up, to which he replies , "I wanted to become a pilot in my childhood and ended up as an auto driver. If you aspire to become an auto driver now itself, you might not even become a screw-driver!!" Another humorous quote, uttered by Son of Gun, goes as follows: “Palapazhathula kottai irukkuna ella aambalaiyum palapazhamnnu solla mudiyuma (Just because the jackfruit contains seeds, can a male be likened to a jackfruit)?” One scene that takes the cake is where Rani’s parents are worried about her innocent ways, and are discussing her matrimony with Bigle, when in fact, she is getting too intimate with Chandru in auto, and that too, in a manner most preferred by her!

Filmstars such as S J Surya and the not anymore hot Namitha receive more than just a friendly swipe. The song Idhu enna maayam (sung by Shankar Mahadevan and Alka Yagnik) parodies the opening scene in the song Pudhu vellai mazhai in Roja, where Aravind Swamy encloses Madhubala’s (Madhoo) eyes and opens it gradually, revealing to her a vast expanse of snow-clad mountains; Chandru opens Rani’s eyes similarly, only to show a man urinating against a wall, thankfully with his back turned toward them!

As if this weren’t enough, directors Pushkar and Gayatri have reserved their best for the climax, where Chandru emerges victorious in a manner that would least befit a Tamil movie hero. And yes, the movie does feature an item number, keeping in mind the tradition recent successful releases have been following.

So, should the reader of this blog watch Oram Po after all? The answer lies in the fact that India is still a democracy and we are free to make our decisions. So there!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

TV programs during Indian festivals: An insult to human intellect

The reader is asked to go through the following sequence of events and identify the common thread running in them.

  • You are greeted by a traditional musical performance early in the morning, either a vocal rendition or an instrumental performance.
  • This is usually followed by a tete-a-tete with the latest entrant in the page 3 circuit, who attempts to burst into at the snap of a finger and, on an average, tries adjusting his/her's hairdo at a minimal rate of 45 times per minute.
  • A news bulletin is usually our next item on the itinerary that focuses on the murders committed in the past three decades, the patterns that are being followed in doing so, the expressions on the visages of the deceased, prior to their autopsies, presenting a strong argument for exterminating the news anchor.
  • This is followed by an interaction with women in bright saris and garish make-up, who offer predictions for the year/month/day ahead (take your pick!). My mom used to scare me in my childhood that my eyes would go blind if I ever uttered a lie. Are these television presenters some Arnie-like Terminator clones, who replace their eyes after every telecast? Must make a mental note and enquire about this with James Cameron. I'll be back with that later!
  • The subsequent program on our list is a mind-blowing coverage (I'd assure you that you would exclaim that "Aren't I out of my mind?") of the latest releases in the box-office, usually in the form of a 'Top-10 countdown', with inputs from hysterical crew members, morose technicians (purely understandable!) and Janus-faced box-office analysts, who gloss over glaring omissions in the movie with a supposed air of superiority (readers are asked not to exhibit any emotion when these critics utter sentences similar to, "When examined closely, this film uses picturisation techniques that were also used in the Academy-award winning movie, Grovelling in the garbage...").
  • Since we have been talking about movie-exclusives, how can we ever miss out on the screening of a movie? Usually captioned as the movie that is being screened on the telly for the "First time in the history of Indian television", a recent blockbuster, whose plot includes at least five songs, a dozen fight sequences, a romantic triangle, in addition to an item number, is screened in the midst of a hailstorm of advertisements, that could make even the staunchest couch potato fish out his almost forgotten ‘new year resolution’ diary to make a detailed entry to give up watching the idiot-box forever!

If you identify the event/ occasion in question as the Cannes film festival or much closer home, as the IIFA film festival, think again, for the answer is much simpler. Cutting the agony short, the schedule mentioned above would fit the description of the ‘special-package’ TV listings of any of our multitudinous satellite channels on occasions of national significance such as Diwali, Makara Sankranti or even Independence Day! Restricting this discussion to Tamil satellite-TV channels (the same holds good for its other language counterparts), one can easily observe that the common link between the programs is cinema, movies, films or motion pictures (and its synonyms!).
A few may be inclined to scoff that life needs its share of glamour and that the 'traditional' mentality leaves no room for creativity or 'out-of-the-box' thinking, leaving one with opinionated, dull thinking. "Everything needs to move on and evolve," they may aver. Agreed, but isn’t there a limit? A proverb (or rather, its gist) says that even nectar must be consumed with moderation, which can be considered as a corollary to the term 'to be taken with a pinch of salt'. Where is the 'pinch' in this case? All we see are mountains and peaks of content that are either venerated or scorned by the public, with no room for the 'middle path'. What is even more regretting is the fact that such TV channels that claim to be the voice or pulse of the nation's population are, in fact, effecting a drastic change in the sensibilities of the public, by creating an identity that festivals are invariably synonymous with TV programs interlinked with Kollywood.

I am in no way advocating austerity; let media groups go ahead and make a killing with their astronomical air-time rates on such occasions, but can’t they make provisions for screening at least a single program that informs viewers about the significance of the festival in concern? The age of information has definitely benefited lives across the nation in a positive manner. It has led to an increase in the awareness levels of the common man, the aam-aadmi, definitely an encouraging sign for the nation. With the glut of information made available to us, it can be said with absolute certainty that we are goading the public to readily ingest such pabulum-inspired shows.

However, a situation where the average school-kid may guide you on F-1, proffer advice on the best bike to purchase and explain why Man-U's fortunes in the Premier League had largely to do with Wayne Rooney's performance, but draw a blank when questioned about the significance behind Indian festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi or Holi is not difficult to portend.
Given a choice, I'd rather opt for the state-controlled, mundane and utterly insipid DD-Pothigai over Sun-TV or Jaya-TV any day.