The house (or two) of Raja Ravi Varma’s muse

On a heritage walk after very, very long, one that was promoted as a cultural roundabout around Mumbai’s Royal Opera House, I got to see and learn about a bunch of things: the Theosophical Society’s building where legendary Hindustani singers performed and recorded their songs, the very building where the painter SL Haldankar made his famous ‘Woman With the Lamp’ using watercolours in one sitting, one of the first establishments that started the music-classes-for-all concept in Bombay (perhaps in India as well), the Imperial Theatre (which has now, sadly, turned into a crumbling house for C-grade adult flicks), the headquarters of the Swastik League (founded by a man who naively thought Hitler’s party was truly a nationalist, socialist cause), the workshop of the sculptor who was given the task of sculpting Shirdi Sai Baba’s statue from the only two known photos of the saint (clicked by his close friend that too), a congregation hall funded by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and many other significant houses and chawls, before finally coming back full circle to the walk’s titular venue — currently owned by the Kathiawar royal family, we were told.

Actually the most important lesson for me was to never venture out in mid-June in Mumbai without my umbrella, even if the IMD predicted no showers to come.

But the one thing that stood out for me (and the others) in the glorious weather was a concrete grey house on Kennedy Bridge that bore an entry plate that simply read ‘Mistry Clinic’.

We were just across the road. Our guide flicked open a file full of laminated colour and black-and-white printouts (as he did at previous points), stopped somewhere midway and held it up for all to see: a vintage portrait of a gorgeous Maharashtrian lady.

The face doesn’t instantly strike you, but she was the model for almost all of Raja Ravi Varma’s renditions of Hindu goddesses, draped in their (quite anachronistic) nine-yard Maharashtrian sarees, standing or sitting in giant lotuses and against the backdrop of (as a professor told me earlier) European landscapes.

Her name was Anjanibai Malpekar, who Wikipedia dutifully informs was born in Goa, and was a proponent of the Bhendibazaar Gharana school of music. And her famous disciples include Kumar Gandharva and Kishori Amonkar.

But brushing that aside, this ‘Mistry Clinic’ is where she once stayed and posed for Ravi Varma, apart from having had a whirlwind affair with the painter (who was a full 16 years her senior) and causing something of a storm in late 19th-century Bombay — okay, maybe not as stormy as Ketan Mehta’s ‘Rang Rasiya’ would have you believe. I wondered if those inside the clinic were aware of their building’s significance in India’s art (and gossip) history.

Even though we left Anjanibai behind as we proceeded with our walk, she was not willing to let go of us, it seemed. Further down the road and many turns later, we found ourselves in a beautiful old lane that led to a colony of houses. The guide flicked open his file of photos once again. This time, it was a black-and-white portrait, only much clearer, of a geriatric, bespectacled widow in white. It was Anjanibai once again. She had spent her last years (she lived up to a ripe 91) in a house right at the end of the lane.

As the guide was narrating his story, a frail old woman in a yellow saree, clutching a red cloth bag, curiously joined in, staring at the portrait in the file. Every heritage walk gets its share of inquisitive onlookers who either try tagging along or leave in boredom. But this lady was clearly fixated. The guide warmly decided to entertain her.

“Do you know who is the woman in the photo?” he asked her.

Maybe she can get to know a bit of her neighbourhood’s history, he must’ve thought.

“Woh Anjanibai Malpekar hai,” she calmly answered with a smile.

I can safely say everyone was damn impressed, adulating her with a stream of “arrey, arrey” and “wah, wah”.

And then she said, “She’s my grandmother!”

I think that was one of the most momentous and serendipitous occasions any heritage-enthusiast group must’ve had, coming into contact, in some way, with the subject of their fascination.

Anyhow, that’s how this utterly sweet moment was captured — our guide, grandmother Malpekar and the ever-smiling Vidya ji, in front of dadi-ma’s final home.


More cinema, less preaching 

Someone recently put up this tweet congratulating Aamir Khan for subtly dealing with several societal issues in his latest production, Secret Superstar (starring Zaira Wasim of Dangal fame). I found myself nodding to it very vigorously.
The plot is seemingly simple: a young girl studying her class X wants to be a Bollywood playback singer but her orthodox, middle-class upbringing doesn’t allow much elbow room to even consider it as a part-time career option.

Underneath that surface lies several layers — domestic abuse, female foeticide, single parents, inter-religious school crushes (the lead character belongs to a Muslim family), routine instances of Bollywood sexual harassments … basically, a whole bunch of topics that we all love to shove under the carpet everyday. But here’s the thing: none of them scream out loud on your face. Nor are they spelt out by a star who puts himself on a raised platform. It fits snugly within the story arc. This is very much a mainstream movie and has a good serving of every item on a traditional Indian emotional buffet. It was supremely satisfying. Has Aamir Khan perfected the art of delivering a movie with several messages? Can all the mainstream Tamil filmmakers (Samuthirakani, nudge, nudge) actually take a cue from him?

Mersal, as with every other Vijay film from the past decade or more, screams ‘soora gethu Thalapathy’ from the word go. The good news was it was less annoying than Bairavaa. It’s a tale of revenge, in case you haven’t watched it. It’s also a fight against the overall healthcare industry, for their corrupt practices and lack of empathy. The hero’s wet dream is free, universal medicaid for all. Nothing wrong with it. Except it’s also doubling up as Vijay’s political bandwagon and reinforcing this annoying ‘Tamizhan da!’ pride (can’t begin to describe how much this pseudo concept sickens me).

It’s 2017, and our directors cannot think beyond the format of a TV interview or an (apparently) rousing speech outside the courtroom where the hero unburdens his chest of all the half-baked statistics borrowed from FB posts and whatsapp forwards. All of which stands out independently of the plot. This must be the laziest method of breaking the fourth wall. Why bother with the false veil of a three-hour film? Just do one of those Put Chutney-style rants, guest-starring Thalapathy. We can alternately do a Thala version for the self-belief and life motivation audience segment. Simple.

How much longer will this Shankar-on-steroids assault go on? The era of Ramana and Mudhalvan is over. Done, dusted. Go home and do a rewrite. It’s almost certainly a flash in the pan that you managed to provoke some thin-skinned politicians and get this undeserved extra PR for a most mediocre piece of cinema.

But that was the plan all along, wasn’t it? We who rant about it are the jokers in the end. Sigh. Vaazhga Tamizh

Scribble #01

It just hit me after a long time that the title of this blog is supposed to reflect quick thoughts, bullet points and ideas that I would write down now and then rather than a carefully thought-out post that would end with a link to an edited version published somewhere. 

So this is really the first of the rough scribbles that might not carry any meaning or context to what’s happening in real-time news — which I think I’ve had enough of. Although, I must admit most of what we think or write about these days must be synced to ‘trending hashtags’ on social media if you want your audience to really read anything. That’s quite sad. 

Maybe there will be a time when we’re all reading with complete attention and not get distracted by the countless notifications from pages open on parallel browser tabs.  But I’ve been inundated enough to let my mind float away from something I started reading — God knows when — or watching, leaving it unfinished for another package of information, usually higher on the list of priorities (work, what else) but not necessarily as enjoyable. It’s almost like being forced to two-time a loved one. A virtual bookmark or a ‘like’ is supposedly the marker of promised return. It eventually piles up into this tiresome list, pushing its non-existent weight on your head: “I’m still here. I’m still … here.” 

And maybe you’d say: “Yeah, hold on. I’ll be right with you. After I finish with this one, and the one after, if it doesn’t lead me to something else.”

Review: Half Girlfriend

Early in Mohit Suri’s Half Girlfriend, based on Chetan Bhagat’s novel of the same name, we see a to-do list of items chalked out on a blackboard (in very good handwriting, it must be said) in order for one to acquire good command of English: watch English movies, listen to English songs, read English books etc. If it were only that easy, especially for someone from a far-flung town in Bihar trying to … impress his girl from the creamiest social layer in south Delhi? Nah, that’s been done before. 

Our hero Madhav Jha (Arjun Kapoor), the burly basketball player who gets into a not-so-suspiciously named university named St. Steven’s through its sports quota, aspires to be the change his small town, Simrao, needs. “Myself coming from village,” he says in front of an interview panel of three men with stiff upper lips (the sort whose day-to-day living room conversations would commonly include sentences like “exasperated farrago of outright lies”). But he is not the stereotypical working-class struggler you see in movies like Raanjhanaa. He has royal blood, this aspiring sociologist and scion of a yesteryear Raja who has been brought up by a single mother, Rani Sahiba (Seema Biswas). She has taught him never to accept defeat but to defeat defeat — a weak line that attempts to string together the whole film — and speak from the heart. 

And so he does, upon seeing the beautiful Riya Somani (Shraddha Kapoor) checking off several trademark Bollywood heroine must-dos such as walking into the rain in slow motion, singing to herself and coming down a flight of stairs dressed in designer gowns. She huffs and puffs only in English, has dysfunctional parents (extra credits for not casting a drunk Ronit Roy as the violent father) and dreams of singing in a New York City bar. All this emotional outpouring is done, strangely enough, atop New Delhi’s India Gate, where Riya seems to have easily snuck up for many years (CISF be damned). In addition to rolling my eyes after cliched ‘cute’ exchanges, I was concerned about a potential bullet from a security guard’s gun whizzing past the couple.  

In a rather refreshing manner, Riya does not shun him for his (forced) Bihari accent replete with “noejj”, “toejj”, “bhery” and comically misplaced gerunds. At her birthday party, set in her extravagant backyard, she tells him: “This is how my life is, but this is not me.” But Madhav is overly naive and gets lopsided ideas about love, consent and relationships from his half-baked roommates. 

Never mind the clandestine crawl of his hands over hers in the dark of a theatre or his tight wrist hold and finishing shove when in a fight. Boys will be boys, as some political patriarchs say up north, right? It was Riya, after all, who allowed him to  became her hangout buddy, her movie companion, her sober friend-cum-driver who ensures she gets back home safe but also tries to slip in a kiss when she’s visibly high. She admits that she is halfway to becoming something more than a friend and hence the ridiculous justification of the movie’s title. 

Madhav, otherwise would be the perfect role model for his prohibition-imposed State (a teetotaler) and our central government (‘beti bachao, beti padhao’, he ends his speech in the United Nations a few years after college. Yes, you read that right). 

To be fair, Madhav’s pursuit of championing social change was right there from the beginning. It only took a breaking of the heart to set him on course again. After the inevitable reunion in the second half that also involves a hilariously-bad VFX cutout of Bill Gates’ face, the story takes a tragic twist and escorts us from Patna, Simrao and all the way to New York City for a predictable finish. 

At some point, it felt as though this film turned from plain water into a strange cocktail of Karan Johar with splashes of Imtiaz Ali. There are eleven songs (all of them hardly impressive), rendered independently by six different composers — Phir Bhi Tumko Chaahunga” by Arijit Singh and “Stay a Little Longer” by Anushka Sahaney stand out because they are relentlessly rehashed every 15 minutes.  

Despite the heavy baggage of Bollwyood cliche, both Arjun Kapoor and Shraddha Kapoor give spirited performances that hit the ‘just right’ spot and make Half Girlfriend, well, half-likable. They have perhaps cracked an acceptable formula to portray Chetan Bhagat characters. Only time will tell when they announce the cast of One Indian Girl

A sleuth’s tale

Book review: Arthur & Sherlock — Conan Doyle and the creation of Holmes

It was 130 years ago that the world was introduced to a lanky, sharp-eyed sleuth by the name of Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, John Watson. He certainly was not the first of his kind to appear in literature. So what makes him — with his distinctive pipe and deerstalker cap — the default image of the very word ‘detective’? (Even today,  when you punch in the word on Google, it is Holmes’ silhouette that pops up first).


Michael Sims’ Arthur & Sherlock — Conan Doyle and the creation of Holmes (Bloomsbury, 2017) narrates the fascinating tale behind the conception of the most portrayed literary human character in film and TV. Vigorously researched, the book contains a good deal about Arthur Conan Doyle’s childhood and upbringing in the Scottish city of Edinburgh, his natural affinity for storytelling and most importantly, how his time period coincided with the growth of scientific reasoning and the shift from poetry to fiction as a respectable form of literature — all of which were essential to his work’s success.

Sims divides his book into three parts: Conan Doyle’s early years and entry into medicine, his literary influences and eventual rise to fame with Sherlock Holmes. A good amount of information comes from Conan Doyle’s memoirs and Sims has carefully pointed out tributes the former has paid to authors, especially Edgar Allen Poe, in his writings. Some similarities in sentences (of Doyle’s) border on plagiarism and would not be taken so kindly today. But then, even the concept of copyright was unheard of in Georgian and Victorian times.

Conan Doyle’s portrayal, his rise from abject poverty to a not-so-successful physician to infamous author, is most empathetic. He lives on a shoestring budget in Portsmouth, subsists on canned beef and bread, stocks up basic furniture on credit and struggles to find patients. Yet, he refuses financial help from his mother. One can almost relate, even today, to the plight of a bachelor, fresh out of college, trying to find his own feet in another city. But what a leap of faith it must have been, in the 1870s, to pause studies and take up an unpaid internship as a doctor onboard a ship sailing in the Arctic or along the western African coastline. He slowly realises he can make more money through these experiences than slogging it out to become a surgeon of repute. That too turns out to be easier said than done; his first attempts at short stories face rejection or return a pittance.

The storyteller in Sims seems to be a trivia aficionado, embedding gems of information that some might find inconsequential: how the surname Doyle derived from the Anglo Norman D’Oil, a short history of Edinburgh’s slums, the etymology of ‘diphtheria’, the story of Beeton behind the Beeton’s Christmas Annual in which Sherlock Holmes debuted (this man also famously published the controversial novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin). But the tales, especially of Conan Doyle’s mentor, the legendary Dr Joseph Bell whom he acknowledges as the primary inspiration for Holmes, and of the genre’s precursors (Poe’s Auguste C Dupin, Voltaire’s Zadig and an unlikely biblical protagonist) are unputdownable.

Despite all the heavy stuffing, Sims’ writing is most accessible and perhaps, at times, lacks the exciting punch it should ideally have had. William Dalrymple once compared his style of writing after arduous research to Chinese cooking, “where three-quarters of the time is spent on chopping things up and the actual cooking takes very little time.” Sims seems to have overdone his cooking with Arthur & Sherlock in certain chapters, with redundant statements (“Thomas Babington Macaulay was Arthur’s favourite writer” appears many times), rambling into inconsequential tangents that force us to exclaim like Sherlock Holmes himself: “What the deuce would it be of any use to me?” He has also left us turning pages in vain, in search of why Conan Doyle ‘killed’ his detective at Reichenbach and how public pressure forced his revival. We see paragraphs dedicated to origins of Gregson, Lestrade and Irene Adler but not Moriarty!

In all fairness, Sims’ work is nothing less than a labour of love and an extraordinary resource for fans of crime fiction. It is a must-have for all Sherlockians and possibly, for history buffs impinged with some love for literature.

An edited version of this piece can be found here in The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

The K.V. Anand interview

He entered the film industry in 1994 as a cinematographer and ended up winning a national award for his work on debut. Ten years and 13 projects later, he settled into the director’s chair and gave us hits like Ayan and Ko . K.V. Anand, now 51, is waiting to release his sixth film, Kavan, starring Vijay Sethupathy, Madonna Sebastien and T. Rajender.  Edited excerpts from an interview:

What’s happening with Kavan right now?

I’m editing the ‘Oxygen’ love song. My team saw the first cut and said it was pretty good. But I feel I can improve it further. That will happen during the rerecording. We need to make things slick and fast for the audience.

Speaking of fast-paced films, did you see Si-3?

No, no. But Kavan doesn’t have that much of action. It’s more to do with an ordinary man dealing with a situation.

You earlier said Kavan is about a David vs Goliath conflict, where a common man is pitted against a powerful entity. What else can you reveal about it?

Kavan literally translates as a tool used to aim at a target — like how David used a catapult and stone to bring his adversary down. Goliath is in the form of a corporate giant and an ordinary guy is pitted against it. Vijay Sethupathy fit that bill.  This script wouldn’t have worked with a superstar like Suriya, Vijay or Ajith.

You also have a new team to assist you …

Yes. Instead of Harris Jayaraj, Hiphop Adhi is the music director. The cinematographer is Abhinandan and Kabilan Vairamuthu has contributed to lyrics, story and screenplay. The reason for this change is … when you’ve worked with the same team over the years, we end up agreeing on what everyone says. I wanted to break with that familiarity. The only person who has remained constant in my team is editor Antony because he and I differ on everything under the sun except the food we eat.

Why have you chosen HipHop Tamizha specifically among the new crop?

I had my eyes on Ghibran and Imman too, but he was the only one who was free. There’s a great difference in the way he approaches music. Harris composes music in an almost meditative, transcendent state. With Adhi, there’s a playfulness in his tunes, there’s unpredictability. In Thani Oruvan, he has done a  fantastic job with the BGM and songs. I think a substantial amount of the film’s success is owed to him. My feedback to him simply was that lyrics were not discernible in his music; he said this is what youngsters like these days. But we made some compromises with each other.

We hear you rewrite your scripts as many as five or six times. Where does this quest of perfection arise from?

From my critics, especially those who work with me. Most of the time, you have a lot of jalra cases. But then, some of them conclude that it is only criticism that I like and give me an overdose of it.

How much of a critic are you of your own work?

I can’t watch my old films on screen or on the TV. I can’t sit through even 10 minutes of them, all the mistakes start appearing. The film that I’m making currently, I can always try to improve it as much as possible.

Which of your earlier films would you say were most satisfactory to you?

Ko and Maatraan.

Ko was based on a lot of experiences from your time as a photojournalist.  Tell us a bit about that part of your life.

When I was doing my BSc in physics in 1985, I had applied to become Junior Vikatan’s student reporter. I was rejected. Then, I began freelancing for Kalki and as part of their reportage series, went to many districts to cover civic issues. I hardly went to click photos of heroes or heroines. My very first assignment was in Thindivanam where my reporter and I had to interview a doctor who complained about poor government hospitals facilities. He was none other than Dr. S. Ramadoss (founder of Pattali Makkal Katchi). I went on to click more than 1000 pictures for Kalki (including 110 cover photographs). I freelanced for Illustrated Weekly and India Today also. I didn’t apply to The Hindu because they would never give bylines for photographers unless you were sent abroad to cover sports.  Only India Today promised a byline and good money. So I applied for a full-time job there. In my mind, I thought I would get it and settle there for the rest of my life. I didn’t get it.  So I showed my portfolio to P.C. Sreeram, who at that time was working on Nayagan. I loved his work and ended up assisting him for three years before he recommended me to Priyadarshan for Thenmavin Kombath (a Malayalam film).

Does your approach differ when you work for a different film industry where the language isn’t the same?

Not much. For cinematographers, there’s no need for a language. For Malayalam (films), I had no problem. But, in Hindi, I always had assistants would would translate what was required and convey it to me. Even there,  some directors, such as Mansoor Khan, would write and work in English primarily. During the shooting of Thenmavin Kombath, the brief we got was that it would be set in a village on the border of Karnataka and Kerala with no electricity. The only source of artificial light would be from the lanterns outside people’s houses. We set things up to suit that.

It has been nearly 10 years since you wielded the camera for a major film. Your last such project was Sivaji. Do you miss it? Would you handle the camera again?

Definitely. When I run out of a script. In fact, Shankar — who is a good friend — asked me to join his team for Rajinikanth’s 2.0. This was immediately after I had wrapped up Anegan. I asked him what the timeframe was. He said it would be a year. I didn’t mind but I wanted to know if he was starting it immediately. He said no. So I said it would be difficult because I had my upcoming (directorial) projects too.

Did you wish that you had been a cinematographer for some of the films during that gap?

I’m not sure. I would’ve loved to have been a part of Gautham Menon’s films or with Mani Ratnam, my favourite director. Good cinematography is not just about showing landscapes but within a single room too. Like in the case of OK Kanmani. Three things combine to give good visuals in a film: cinematography, costumes and art direction. If you want to show something in a very tasteful way, say a person standing in front of a green wall, then he shouldn’t be wearing an eye-popping red. That becomes jarring … like how that Punjabi actor looks like in Messenger of God.  The only person in control of those three elements is the director.

What was it like to direct Vijay Sethupathy?

He’s a very sharp fellow when he listens to narrations. He gave a couple of good suggestions as well. At the same time, he’s a very simple man who avoids being pretentious. That’s why he fit the Kavan character — someone who doesn’t immediately attack back when he gets hit but instead tackles it in a different way.  The film is a reflection of our society, how some things have become a part of everyday life … like bribing a cop or just paying to get things done.


And that anger is what comes out in your films?

Not anger. Me, I’m just numbed out by these things. Shankar’s Anniyan … that was anger. Whatever maturity I have is because of my reading of newspapers and meeting a lot of people. And travelling — nothing teaches you life like travelling alone.

You managed to keep your love for pulp fiction on the side as well

Well, yes. I took photographs for SuBa’s novels (SuBa is the nom de plume of writer duo Suresh and Bala). Their works had a lot of blood and mystery like James Hadley Chase novels. And I tried to give that effect to their covers by imitating P.C. Sreeram’s styles, like how he did it for Agni Natchatiram. I also loved reading comics: Irumbu Kai Maayavi (Tamil version of The Steel Claw) and Spiderman. Only after college did my reading taste turn a bit more serious.

How is a veteran director like you finding it to compete with the new generation of filmmakers who are churning out content non-stop?

Whether a film makes Rs. 30 crore or Rs. 40 crore, only the content matters. It’s not just about the message but also packaging it with entertainment. Even in the case of a project with a very small budget like Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru, the director, a 22-year-old boy, gave us a good, sharp film. There were no songs or anything extra.  One pattern is clear: we need to move at breakneck pace and the audience want us to cut to the chase. The challenge is to add romance and comedy within this limited timeframe. People are definitely ready to see good films. We just have to ask ourselves whether we’re providing them with any.

Are you also cued into the forms of quality digital content available on the internet?

I’m a big fan of Netflix serials — Marco Polo, 24, House of Cards and Narcos … what a fantastic series! It is so realistic, almost like a documentary. A fat gangster (Pablo Escobar) who’s a loving father and loving husband but still kills so many people.

Would you be interested in directing something like that if someone approaches you with a script?

In my career as a director, I’ve been approached by lots of top producers and heroes to do films that suit their image. I’ve turned them down. I need my own script. I can’t just go to Ooty or Kodaikanal and form a story there for the hero’s sake … I can’t do it and I won’t do it. I may do a bad film but it will be planned, scripted and executed my way.

An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2017 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

An attempt at explaining the inexplicable

This post is a reply I gave to a fellow journalist based in New Delhi who asked me to explain Rajinikanth (includes some strong portions that I deliberately chose not to give)

I’m not exactly a fanatic but I have to say there is something about the way he looks that attracts people to him, almost like a magnet. I have seen about 90% of his movies (including the black and white ones) and there are certain things that most people agree on: the man CANNOT dance, his onscreen persona — at least in the post 90s era — has been largely preachy, blatantly patriarchal, tilting towards the spiritual and sometimes very cringeworthy. But the audience loved it. And he delivered punchlines like none other. He still does to some extent. His signature walk, the way threw a cigarette and caught it between his lips (he’s replaced it with a chewing gum now to cultivate a more responsible image), and his natural timing for comedy made him a perfect package for most directors. But above all, and this is my personal view, I think he was able to channel a rage that was prevalent among many men of his generation and put it into his characters. He was Tamil cinema’s Angry Young Man. And naturally the perfect choice to essay Amitabh Bachchan’s roles in Tamil remakes of his films.

Rajinikanth was the underdog, the voice of the subaltern (finally got to use this word!), the man of the masses. He was and continues to be the paragon of simplicity for many. That goes for both his onscreen and offscreen avatar. And Tamil people love a rags-to-riches story. They embraced him without question. They have willingly tried offering their lives for him. They love the fact that he doesn’t pretend to be someone else when the camera is not rolling. That he refuses to wear a wig in public and avoids ostentatious clothing appeals all the more to the common man. His ways of dealing with the most powerful people in the State have been nothing short of epic. On the professional front, he has always expressed himself as a “director’s actor”, is never considered a control freak, and has always been respected for his punctuality and commitment to shooting schedules — something that is found rarely in today’s generation of actors and actresses.

As he transitioned from being cast as a villain to a hero, he was slowly molded into a larger-than-life protagonist (he otherwise, almost always, played second fiddle to Kamal Hassan) by directors like S.P. Muthuraman, P. Vasu, K.S. Ravikumar and later, Shankar. There was no going back. The man was an assured hit. There was no such thing as Rajinikanth fitting into a role anymore. He was the dazzling star, the rest — script, supporting roles simply needed to orbit around him. With every film came a king-size cutout of the man; fans would climb dangerous heights to worship his ‘idols’ with milk or even beer. There was too much at stake with every release and immense pressure to satisfy the raging crowd. They had to have their opium of Superstar’s swag.

I have, of course, experienced this high in theaters many times. All you have to do is wait for the opening credits.

The letters R-A-J-N-I scrawl out in their most familiar style, between ‘SUPER’ and ‘STAR’ which appear like a dot-matrix printer’s output. The Star Wars text crawl can go screw itself. Everything else in the universe gets blanked out for those 20-odd seconds. Goosebumps are induced, fingers turn into whistles, and any semblance of paper becomes confetti. The rest of the movie is just a joyride, probably like a hippie experiencing an incredibly good LSD trip. If you arrive inside the cinema hall on the first-day-first-show of a Rajini movie as a serious connoisseur, just head right back out the door. Dialogues get drowned in hooting and cheering, song sequences mean you break into a dance as well and the guy playing the baddie gets showered with a volley of your finest abuses. These are sacred templates that no one dares interfere with.

All this was a rabbit hole into which the actor Rajinikanth fell into somewhere during the course of finding immortality on celluloid. His onscreen persona has to have equal, if not more swag than the previous. If it doesn’t, like his last two releases (Kochadaiiyaan and Lingaa) or even the forgettable Baba, chaos prevails. His fans go home disappointed, their pilgrimage to the screen halted. His critics snigger, “how long can the old geezer fool people that he is young?”. Rajinikanth, the man, has to pacify theatre owners and producers. He has to compensate them for their losses. And probably head to the Himalayas and ponder over existential questions.

The writing on the wall is there for all to see. Rajini is as old as our Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His wig on film has not greyed (until now at least) like he has in life. Consumers are now exposed to more quality entertainment than ever. And they have developed a taste for a bit of authenticity in their cinema too. Rajini’s angry-old counterpart in the north, meanwhile, is already a good ten years into playing age-appropriate roles. So why not him too?

Kabali‘s director Pa Ranjith comes as a breath of fresh air in these troubled times for thalaivar. He says he wants to bring back the actor that is Rajinikanth as he saw him in the 1978 film Mullum Malarum (Ranjith had not even been born then) while simultaneously satisfying his army of fans. Personally, I think his ambitions are far-fetched. Mullum Malarum marked an important transition in Rajini’s life. He was not the cunning villain anymore. But he wasn’t the good guy either. He was the oppressed, fighting a battle against existing systems dominated by the fair-skinned bosses. Strangely, that same battle played out against him as the film was being produced. The financier who belonged to a class of businessmen was dead against a dark-skinned man being the central character of the film. The director persisted, saying no one else will do. Rajini’s heart had already sunk by then. His salary of Rs.13,000/- wasn’t of primary concern anymore. The performance had to be all or nothing. We know how that turned out in the end.

In 2016, Rajini has little to lose. The yardstick set by his previous two flops seems unprecedented in an otherwise legendary career. There is really nothing to prove anymore. And yet, the juggernaut rolls on. 

The pre-booking slots for the film have opened a week ahead of its release and have sent servers crashing. One of my colleagues, a man in his 50s who sits next to me, was surprised by my attempts to somehow get a reservation. “It’s surprising,” he said. “I could understand the frenzy Rajini caused when his film released during my time. But even now … ?”

I guess that somehow explains why Rajini is what he is.

Review of Amma: Jayalalithaa’s journey from movie star to political queen

Why do some people fascinate us beyond reason? In a bare-all age, is it foolish to retain an air of enigma around you? Or does it add to the myth-making that draws people to you?

Vaasanthi’s biography of Tamil Nadu’s current Chief Minister (Amma: Jayalalithaa’s journey from movie star to political queen) seems to ask this exact question towards the end of the book:

“Amma doesn’t quite realise how Tamil Nadu has changed since she first entered politics. There is a huge social churning going on among the youth, now exposed to the Internet and WhatsApp.”

Amma is completely absent from any such digital extensions. Her party, the AIADMK, arrived on Twitter only in February 2014 and was not even a verified account until early this year.

Of course, the publishers (Juggernaut Books) also seem to have pushed the ‘go’ button just before the results trickled in for the 2016 Tamil Nadu Assembly Election. The gamble seems to have paid off.

The author in her acknowledgments concedes that she has “only tried to decipher Jayalalithaa’s many-layered personality. She is too complex and reserved to reveal herself fully.”

Amma is, without a doubt, a fascinating read for anyone with a remote interest in politics or in just the person that is Jayalalithaa. The book is meticulously researched and the author mixes a good amount of histrionics with the linear narrative. The introductory chapter especially is tailor-made for an opening scene if Jayalalithaa’s biopic is ever made in the foreseeable future.

The book delights the trivia aficionado with bits such as this: “On 24 March 1984, MGR announced that Jayalalithaa had been nominated  for the Rajya Sabha. The seat given to her … was Number 185, the same that C.N. Annadurai had occupied when he was an MP in 1963.” Another tidbit traces the origins of the practice of prostration — which her party cadre exhibit with full gusto — to one Mr. K.A. Sengottaiyan, an old party hand from MGR’s time (he’s just won his seventh Assembly Election from Gobichettipalayam). After she was sworn in as Chief Minister for the first time in 1991, “Sengottaiyan, a newcomer to the cabinet, fell at her feet. Other junior ministers went further and prostrated themselves full length on the floor before their deity. A new cult of leader worship had been initiated. And the male world that had tried to put her down was now at her feet!”

That conspiring male world was present in both the DMK and the AIADMK, right from the time Jayalalithaa stepped into the big, bad world of politics, as the book would tell you. Chapter-after-chapter, Vaasanthi constructs a storyline that gives the reader a picture of a tender woman who is repeatedly punctured by acts of betrayal and humiliation — be it a 13-year-old ‘Ammu’ (Jayalalithaa’s childhood nickname) being done in by an eavesdropping milk vendor for playing host to the flirtatious activities of a neighbour or the pretty face of the party who was snubbed by her leader when she needed his support the most. And not to forget, the pathetic levels of patriarchal discourse from her opponents that she endured.

Amma, nonetheless, is a required read for those who want the most complete and balanced telling of Jayalalithaa’s story. That it equips you with a firmer grip on Tamil Nadu’s (and India’s) politics is an added bonus.

For the most part, the biography seems to be constructed from bits of jigsaw puzzles gathered from a handful of sources: the late ‘Film News’ Anandan, her classmates from Church Park Convent and R.M. Veerappan, who made it his life’s mission to rid MGR of Jayalalithaa’s influence. The rest is almost common knowledge, pieces that belong to an already complete picture of the hardened woman we are familiar with today. But a few answers remain elusive. Was she really wedded to the Telugu actor Shoban Babu — an already married man with a teenaged son? Does she wear a bulletproof vest underneath that caped sari? Why did she adopt a son from the Thevar community — genuine maternal sentiment or political convenience? This is where your guess is as good as Vaasanthi’s. No one really knows. And the bigger puzzle might never be completed.

The edited version of this article can be found here.

Shelf Help – For Information or pleasure? That is the question

A column for The Hindu on … quizzing. Thanks to Radhika for pressing me to write after long. 

“We always read for one of two things — information or pleasure”.

My college English professor often spouted this fountain of obvious wisdom every now and then. But I don’t think I used to think, back then at least, that the two could go hand-in-hand. What was important for an 18-year-old me was to read facts for what they were and recollect it in my head during quizzes to score points. These points were very important, especially when there were cash prizes at stake — a difference of 5 points could mean a potential loss of Rs. 2,500 or in the case of business quizzes with plump sponsors, multiple times of that.

So the natural thing thing to do (at least what some of us thought back then) would be to keep your daily dose of Wikipedia completely disconnected from your reading of say, Paulo Coelho or Jhumpa Lahiri (“What question could possibly arise out of the boring Interpreter of Maladies?”). The dry Wikipedia-and-old-trivia-books-mugging method persisted for most of the time. And that’s how most college quizzes used to function. You see a keyword in the midst of all the text on the projector slides and hit the buzzer.

“This started as Galvin Manufacturing Corporation in Illinois, …”



“The blue agave found in Mexico …”

“TEQUILA!” (The liquor is made from that plant)

And then when you seek to unlock new levels of awesomeness on the bigger stages (the open quizzes), you hit a roadblock. There are some questions so beautifully framed and possibly, so complex that there would be no way you could have answered it without having read the piece of associated literature. These were nothing like your college quizzes — most of which were set in the twelfth hour and scraped from older powerpoint presentations. There was considerable amount of research that had gone into setting them. A major portion of that effort required reading books (fiction, non-fiction, pulp thrillers, comics … the whole lot). And after several occasions, the goal was no longer about brownie points. It was about whether you remembered the story behind why you actually knew the answer. This is slightly relatable to that feeling Dev Patel’s character has when he keeps giving right answer after right answer on the quiz show in Slumdog Millionaire. He hasn’t scoured through Wikipedia articles and infused trivia in his brain; there’s actually a story behind every answer. An emotional connect, be it joy, sadness or even anger. And nowhere is this more relatable than reading a good book that narrates facts in the most recollective style of prose. Sample this:

“In France, a chemist named Pilatre de Rozier tested the flammability of hydrogen by gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one’s face.”

― Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Chances are you’ll never forget Rozier’s name from now. I can’t say the same if you encountered him on Encyclopaedia Brittanica though.

I had a fractional Slumdog Millionaire moment once in high school: “Who was the first man to set foot on the Hipparchus Crater on the Moon?” read the question. When I noticed teams before us were listing out possible names of astronauts from the Apollo Missions and were not getting any affirmative reaction from the quizmaster, I picked up the mike and said: “Tintin”.

That was possibly the greatest moment of ecstasy I felt back then. You needed to have read Destination Moon in-and-out to crack that one.

Another memorable one (although this was on an online forum) was when someone asked: “What reason do travel guides usually give to unwary tourists when they want to know why temples like Khajuraho have erotic sculptures?”

The answer: ‘So that the people, in the aftermath of the bloody Kalinga War, would be aroused to reproduce and get back the population on track.’

How much ever apocryphal this story seems, this is exactly what a character named Mr. Kapasi says to an NRI family who come heritage-hunting in that boring book — Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri.

An edited version of this article can be found here.

The problem with Papanasam


I’ll begin with a disclaimer before I proceed, lest I (accidentally) draw any ire from the angry horde of Ulaganayagan fans: This is just a rant, it might be flawed (in your eyes obviously) and no, I don’t hate Kamal for whatever he does. I just like picking on him when he thinks he’s being too cool for film school — but he isn’t and is actually being reduced to a parody of his former self.

I’ve always questioned myself why this schadenfreude for this man has generally been on the upside in recent times (yes, a lot of us feel happy when his attempts at creating a magnificent spectacle of film-making fails spectacularly). We know it is not healthy but it is also representative of a cinema-going society with reduced tolerance for bullshit, who are willing to call it so without fear. Uttama Villain, in this sense, was nothing short of a cinema scam. Papanasam is Kamal’s immediate saving act. But here too, one can’t help but notice the unhealthy hangover of a man inebriated (and overflowing) with cinema occasionally creeping into what is otherwise a very well-made remake of the Malayalam original.

Uttama Villain was nothing short of a cinema scam. Papanasam is Kamal’s immediate saving act.

I tried my best to avoid reading detailed reviews of Papanasam but some collisions were inevitable. Almost all of them seemed full of praise and certainty that the movie stands out on its own (90% true). After sitting through roughly a couple of hours and 45 minutes, certain realisations dawn on you. The lead character is a man who has learnt everything in life from watching cinema (who else but Kamal could be the real-life personification of this?). So trust Kamal to take it an extra step forward: not only is his knowledge of cinema encyclopedic, but the character himself was born in a theatre while his mother was watching a flick in the 1970s. First cringe moment.

His wife (Gauthami, who’s actually done a very decent comeback to the big screen) asks him whether he thinks of himself as a kaadhal mannan. I’ve lost count of how many times that reference has popped up in every Kamal film. Cringe moment number two. That moment sort of makes a haunting comeback after a breakfast scene, when Kamal and Gauthami — both visibly aged — are lost in each other’s deep, loving gaze; two pairs of eyes resting on puffed-up sacks, locked into each other. And our kaadhal mannan winks in slow motion, thinking he’s still exuding his charm from the late eighties. More cringe.

papanasam-tamil-movie-asha-sarath-pictures-00220There’s the usual subtle reference to the groin region, in true Kamal style: he asks the corrupt constable to zip his pants up (“Neenga modhalla moodunga … zip ah”), and later mocks the same person as one who truly resolves itches, anywhere on the body (“Avare solraaru la, arippa theerpaaru nu … enga arippu irukku nu sollunga, avaru aripaaru”). The second one can be slotted into the classic Kamal “dirty joke” category, and has appeared in an almost similar form in Virumaandi.

Drishyam-movie-new-stills-(18)8355In Drishyam, Mohan Lal eschews all this and sticks to his cool self. No fuss, no additional self-references from previous movies. The composure with which his character handles tense situations is brilliant to say the least, only because Lal underplays it. There is this genuine dollop of childlike innocence to many of Lal’s onscreen characters. He just needs to give that sheepish wide display of his pearly whites clenched together (its all the more funny when he’s got a thick mustache) and we really feel like smiling along. And he doesn’t need to even to try hard if the goal is to achieve a tear-jerker of a scene.

Why is it, by default, assumed that mainstream Tamil film scripts would not click if they are subtle?

The argument that both Kamal and Lal approach their characters in different ways has been used to death. Shouldn’t it basically work the way the director (Jeethu Joseph, for both Tamil and Malayalam versions) envisioned his script? Here’s where Joseph readily admits that it is Kamal who best knows the pulse of the Tamil audience and hence agreed to make it more “emotional” for that sake.

Now we really need to address this question: Why is it, by default, assumed that Tamil film scripts (mainstream ones at least) would not click if they are subtle? Why is it that we always need to overdo things to achieve impact? Why is that in Manichitrathazhu, when Dr. Sunny Joseph (the ever-subtle Mohan Lal again) plainly manages to knock off a cup of poisoned tea from Suresh Gopi’s hand, Rajinikanth’s Dr. Saravanan has to leap and fly in slow motion before he does the same in Chandramukhi? Why, as an established director such as Mani Ratnam has often asked, can’t subtle realism be applied outside of artsy movies? The answer: it can.

Trust me, the best parts of the movie lie in scenes where Kamal really underplays himself — whispering to the roadside hotel owner about approaching the sub-inspector before clearing his throat and saying it louder, folding his palms and giving an acknowledging goodbye nod to the police after they question him at his house, a small confirming grunt when Gauthami asks if she goofed up during the interrogation and coaching the family to maintain their cool in times of danger.

The best parts of the movie lie in scenes where Kamal really underplays himself

All this momentarily goes for a toss during scenes where his character guffaws or suddenly decides to let tears flow. This effort is more pronounced just before the climax when he meets IPS Geeta Prabakar and her husband for one last time. All of Kamal’s facial muscles automatically twitch into motion; he channels his inner Velu Nayakan and Krishnanswamy (from Mahanadi) but stops before they pour out as wails. Thankfully. He, in fact, is not even subtle when he indirectly confesses about his guilt. Almost the entire point of keeping a secret and getting roughed up with his family is lost.

Ah, yes. That reminds me. Okay, so the roughing up scene in Papanasam was more brutal than in the original one, especially when Kalabhavan Mani cracks Kamal’s thumb in a way so cruel only the Kamal of Kuridhi Punal or Aalavandhaan could’ve conceptualised it. And when his younger daughter makes contact with it while hugging him, Kamal goes into his “aaaaahhh!” (it hurts but it’s okay darling) mode.

In conclusion, I’m not going to blow this up into a “Lal is better than Kamal” debate for two reasons: a) Because I know he is and b) The Malayalam original is always better. You can watch it right here, legally. You decide for yourself.