Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Revisiting a Classic: Thoovanathumbikal

There are certain movies which you like when you watch them for the first time, certain movies which grow on you every time you watch them and certain others which always intrigue you and every viewing of the movie only adds to the aura surrounding the movie. Padmarajan’s classic Thoovanathumbikal (1987 – Dragonflies in the Spraying Rain), based on his novel Udakappola, belongs to that rare category of cinema which is immensely intriguing and grows on you each time you watch it – there are probably so many interpretations and explanations to this story and every time you watch it, you discover a new angle to it.

When I first watched Thoovanathumbikal in the mid-90s, it did not make much sense to me and the only thing fascinating to me was Sumalatha and the music of the movie. (My lack of knowledge of Malaylam was also a hindrance, of course). After a few half baked attempts at watching the movie , I finally downloaded and watched it in entirety recently and I must confess, it swept me away. The romance, the complexity of the characters, the aura in Padmarajan’s script and the fabulous music kept me glued to the movie for a long time even after the movie had ended.

Thoovanathumbikal is a complex movie juxtaposing the characters of three strong willed protagonists – Jayakrishnan (Mohan Lal), Clara (Sumalatha) and Radha (Parvathy) – into the background of a small town in Thrissur. It explores the complex web of love, sex and jealousy that binds these three characters, as their lives clash. Jayakrishnan is a young man who lives a double life – one as a big farmer in his village and the other as a quasi-hero in the town, where he has innumerable friends. He falls in love with Radha, only to be chided by her, assuming that he is just another flirt.

Later, through a friend (a character who technically qualifies to be a pimp but manages to evolve into a much more respectable soul in Padmarajan's hands), he meets Clara, a woman who wants to escape from the drudgery of poverty by turning into prostitution. After being spurned by Radha, he finds solace in Clara’s arms and that develops into a fascinating relationship – a relationship which I must confess that has never been fully clear to me. Admired by his sincerity to love (Oru penkuttiyudeyum nashathinte thudakam ennuludi aavarthene enikkoru prarthana undaayirinnu, oru penkuttiydeyum virginity njan kaarnam illathavarthune enikku nirbandham aayirunnu, angane sambhavichal aa penkuuti aavum pinne angootu anthyam vere ente oppom undav njan oru shapatham aduthudayirunnu), she finds it difficult to reject his marriage proposal and so Clara just disappears from his life because, she does not want to spoil his life by becoming his wife as she has already become a sex-worker.

In the meanwhile, Radha learns more about Jayakrishnan and falls in love with him – his small town heroics and dual life serving as a strong attraction. Clara, however, continues to torment his thoughts and he is not able to commit fully to Radha when she decides to reciprocate his love. Eventually, Clara realizes that if their relationship is not terminated, it would destroy all their lives and so she gets married and bids a final adieu to Jayakrishnan’s and Radha’s life.

Jayakrishnan and Clara are unforgettably romantic and have a relationship which is hard to explain and understand. It is a relationship – unethical, unwelcomed by any society and unbelievable to a common audience - which any film maker will think twice before filming. Padmarajan gives it very strong romantic overtones, especially when compared to the other relationship with Radha. The use of rain as a metaphor (explicitly mentioned and felt by the protagonist) creates a natural aura about their relationship and it acts invisibly in the background, driving their relationship. At every important point when they communicate or meet, it rains which slowly dries up as they move away. You know that their relationship carries clouds of uncertainty but it makes you ask for more.

Clara is undoubtedly one of the most interesting characters that I have seen in all these years of cinema. She is strong willed, free spirited and has no qualms in treading the path that she believes is the best one for her. She escapes from the crutches of a useless parental relationship by getting into prostitution and later on gets married to a widower, only to help Jayakrishnan. Now, such a character could typically be a sob story woman, with a strong element of pathos and sympathy underlying her character. However, Padmarajan creates a Clara with whom you develop a sense of bonding, someone without stereotypical negative or depressive shades.

The fact that she’s actually a prostitute is not very explicitly portrayed and for the viewer, she remains a mystery woman. She remains independent till the end, capable of taking decisions fearlessly, without any sense of guilt - Enthayallum nashikkum, enna pinne anthasayittu nashichudde, aasha thirthu nashichudde. I wonder if men like this character because she represents a woman, who does not seek a commitment but is available at all times (ideal situation!!!).

Jayakrishnan and Radha have a Hide-and-Seek relationship which evolves as the film proceeds. She has strong faith in him and is willing to accept the nature of his relationship with Clara, as long as it remains in the past. But the ever lurking presence of Clara creates an element of doubt in their relationship and it requires Clara’s initiative to put that to rest. The film is pretty bold, without drawing any moral judgments on any of the characters and startles us with the independent ideas expressed. It is ironic that a movie 22 years back is so much more progressive than the current stuff being churned out.

While Padmarajan’s script is brilliant and the cast puts in a stellar performance, a special mention must also be given to the excellent music (songs as well as background music). The music has a character of its own and it creates a tension that is present throughout the movie. The performances are truly top-notch; Lal is absolutely brilliant as a confused young man, torn between his love for Clara and Radha while Sumalatha immortalizes the character of Clara. All these attributes come together to make Thoovanathumbikal a movie par excellence, which has withstood the passage of time and still weaves a magic among the viewers of Malayalam cinema.

Malayalam cinema is at cross roads now as it struggles to attract audience to theatres. The brilliance and intellect of the 70s and 80s and early 90s has been substituted by mindless mimicking of Tamil and Hindi cinema. We have never more acutely felt the loss of stalwarts like Padmarajan, Bharathan and Lohithadas than now and as I watch Thoovanathumbikal, the pain is so much more evident.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Minimum City

(Courtesy - Mario Miranda)
I keep telling myself that I will not rail against the city that has accompanied me for a greater part of my career but don’t blame me if I need to react after dear Devika goes on and on boisterously about Chicago. C’mon, isn’t it embarrassing that despite tall claims of being one among the fast growing economies in the world, we can’t even provide a decent infrastructure to the people who struggle to make it happen?

One of the first places that I saw when I landed in Mumbai (in 2004) was the Borivilli Railway Station. Now, feeling like a stranger in a new city can be expected but this was like the height of everything that I had seen in my life till that time-an avalanche of human flesh leeching the platform and storming every train that came by till I realized that if I had to reach office every day, I’d have to accept that if you were to live in Mumbai, you had to live this way.

Struggle is a way of life in these trains and I became a victim of self-pity for those 2 years when I used the Central Railway, in my daily sojourns from Powai to Lower Parel. My knees bore a major brunt of the stress that was imposed by scores of plebeians, who seemed to find some sadistic pleasure in venting their pressure on this hapless passenger, while the rest of the body went through such myriad convolutions that it substituted my need for exercise everyday (Of course, PP and I called the experience equivalent to jackivekkan every day in the train).

My next peak of pleasure was experiencing the turbulence of that wonderful station-Kurla –the Central-Harbour meeting point. God knows, how I have felt so small by this creation of HIS – a place so spectacularly unkempt and dirty that all my benchmarks of cleanliness were swept singularly off my table.

One day, when I was trying to get off the train while returning from Nerul, I could not do so and lo behold, some kind Samaritan decided to help me in no uncertain terms by giving me a nice little kick and I found myself lying flat on my stomach, parallel to the platform face and observing it at a very close range. But the humble man in me thanked HIM that no one had actually trampled me in this ocean of humanity – a Mumbai learning, be grateful and find happiness from such simple pleasures in life.

Till I witnessed this city at the age of 23, I was in awe about Mumbai. Danny Boyle had not made an entrance till then and the Internet revolution was slowly making its presence felt and I remained a youngster as exposed to the cleanliness of Mumbai as Indian batsmen to the swinging ball overseas.

Having come from a small and non-descript village in Kerala, where real estate prices are just as steep as the rising ball in Indian pitches and lived in a big Central Government accommodation all my life, I was suddenly thrown into the big, bad world of Mumbai’s housing scene. So, you had flats with sizes less than the size of the drawing room of my house but twice the rental – Christ, can there be a greater puncturing of one’s ego than living in such a place. But then, you take heart from the fact that you are the not the only one – just so many d***heads living together and sharing accommodation in each square tract of land.

So, with a decent regular bank account and savings, I struggle to find myself a good housing in Mumbai, while my family and peers in the rest of the World live dreams bigger than my flat. DJ arrives from Pondicherry and his first comment when he enters the flat is – Entha de, veedu thodangiya munpe thanne kazhinno?? (The house is finished before it even started). I feel small that I live in such a cramped place but at a healthy rent of 11,000, all I can manage is a 400 sq feet house (or it lesser?).

My brother in Bangalore pays a lesser rent and lives in a flat 3 times larger than this humble abode but when I cry hoarse lamenting for a 2 BHK or more space, fellow Mumbaikars wonder what’s wrong with me. They take a stroll into the house and congratulate for me for managing to get such a house (furnished accommodation) at such a price, in the heart of the city.

They just can’t figure what I would do with so much extra space – they’d rather believe that anything more than this can be made into another room. I have calculated that I am paying about Rs 27 per square feet here while bro pays about Rs 8.50 – wipes out all the differential income that my MBA is supposed to generate for me. But can’t blame them; Space is such a premium object here that if you find a house, especially, close to the office, then you are in the so-called lucky group – the group whose traveling time is less than an hour.

But what about my fundamental Right to Breathe? Colleagues have a smirk on their face when I talk about luxuries in life like Oxygen; probably, why actually businesses like Oxygen bars actually flourish. I am kind of scared at how the world actually would be for the Next Generation – breathing derivatives, maybe!!!

I remember Vir Sanghvi, in an article in the SUNDAY, saying how having lived in Mumbai and Kolkatta, he missed the happening feeling and crowds of Mumbai. Sorry, mate, I am not able to relate to this sense of nostalgia, where I am inundated by teaming millions from all places and if I dare to complain, my boss (I assume he is joking) remarks that half the credit for this population explosion is due to Non-Marathis like me who have taken away the opportunities of the poor Marathis..Tch..Tch…

Angst and gratitude lessons from Mumbai to be continued in future posts….

Monday, July 13, 2009

Passenger - A Review

After about 75 days of its release, Ranjith Shankar’s taut thriller Passenger finally made its away to the shores of Mumbai, as it thirsts for the song of monsoon. My friend wanted to go for Shortkut but I convinced him to watch Passenger and in hindsight, he agrees that it is a wise decision.

Ranjith Shankar, an IT professional, finally does justice to a genre hitherto untouched by Malayalam cinema for reasons beyond my comprehension – the thriller genre. This is a slick socio-political thriller, without the silly trappings of either the Amal Neerad School of Technology or the Shaji Kailash School of Dramatics. It is a simple, well-told thriller that brings a set of performers on the platform of the Southern Railways and skillfully weaves a plot, without a second of unnecessary drama.

The film begins on a slow note and runs parallel on 2 tracks – one chronicling Satyanathan’s (Sreenivasan) life as he goes through his daily journey from Nellayi to Ernakulam and back, with his friends while the other takes a peep into the lives of a socially sensitive lawyer-journalist couple as they take on the might of the Home Minister. But this slow note helps in building the momentum as it sets into motion rhythmically the characters of the various individuals in the film – the protagonists as well as the others like Satya’s friends and family.

One eventful day, destiny suddenly conspires to throw the three central characters together and their lives suddenly change. Sathyanathan is a daily train commuter, who having fallen asleep one late night misses his home town station. Waking up, he meets Advocate Nandan Menon (Dileep), who is heading to a hotel room where he would be alone for the night, since his wife Anuradha (Mamta Mohandas) is away on an assignment, covering a news story. This forms the turning point for the story as it suddenly throttles forward, altering forever the path of their lives.

Story wise, what is told is nothing new – corruption in the higher echelons and the hero exposing this malaise has been beaten to pulp by the likes of Ranjith, Shaji Kailash, Madhu and the rest of their ilk. But what differentiates Passenger is the script which sticks to the plot faithfully linearly, hinting at issues like corruption, terrorism and harassment of women . There are no songs and the mandatory sidekicks are thankfully absent, but the movie manages to keep you riveted to the screen and interest never lags. Even the ending is minus any usual pyrotechnics and the ordinary man returns to where it all began - his train journey.

Sreenivasan and Dilip play their characters with restraint, giving them a quite sense of dignity. The Common Man (portrayed in a totally different but equally effective role by Naseruddin Shah in “A Wednesday”) has his moments and it is these moments which carry the movie. Mamta Mohandas is gladly underplayed and she works her way well in the movie. Nedumudi Venu is sufficient as the taxi driver while Satyanathan’s friends do not have much to do but help in propelling the story with their lively banter. The train itself plays an important character in the movie - Bollywood films have paid homage to the local train as the lifeline of the city, but it hasn’t happened in Malayalam.

But my vote for the best performance in the movie is Jagathy, who plays the scheming Thomas Chacko, the corrupt Home Minister. We all know that Jagathy is a brilliant actor but haven’t we lost count of the number of times he has played silly sidekicks in movies and done roles that are best consigned to the dustbin? Here, he emerges tall as a corrupt Minister who talks smoothly – there is a calmness in the way he talks which adds an extra dimension to the role of the villain who has been played to death by Janardhanan, Siddique (with his innumerable make ups), Narendra Prasad etc.

There are many moments in the film which capture the mood of the State and gives that feeling of déjà vu – Sathyanathan’s mother interrupts his daily TV watching in time to watch ‘Devi Mahathmyam’, she keeps sending SMSs to the Idea Star Singer. At regular intervals, his wife reminds to buy a packet of tea and berates him on his inability to go beyond the rigmarole of his normal routine; while he enjoys the quite life around temple festivals and Ulsavams.

While the movie talks to the Common Man, it also rightfully raises questions on the role of the media in the affairs of the State. As Thankamma Rajan points out in the movie, for years there have been agitations against the quarrying and sand mining but the media never bothered but the moment there is a sexual harassment allegation, the story became hot news – so much for the bravery of the New Age Media. Indeed, it reflects poorly on a State where the biggest news stories have been sex scandals like the Suryanelli case, Vithura case and the Kozhikode “ice-cream parlour case”.

There are certain loose ends in the movie but trust me; you’d like to forget them because the movie brings in a whiff of fresh air in an ailing Malayalam film industry that is going through its worst periods of identity crisis. Passenger shows a way out of this rut – bring in a fresh script, inject in credible characters and lo behold, you have a recipe to bring back the bored audience back to the theatres.

I just hope that Ranjith Shankar does not go the K Madhu way (after a CBI Diarykurippu and a Jagratha, he lost his way and become a clone of Shaji and Ranjith) or even the Amal Neerad way if SAJ is any indicator – let us keep our fingers crossed and hope that he continues on this path.