Sunday, December 18, 2011


Anoop Menon has a fascination for moral anarchy and his movies stretch the elasticity of marriage before releasing it just at the end to allow the institution to survive the stress of the demands on it. Just as an unmarried Stephen Louis (Jayasurya) questions the sanctity of relationships in his column in the women’s magazine he writes for, eligible bachelor Anoop Menon probes it on the larger screen – both of them have the benefit of objectivity while looking at it.

Mohan Lal in Pakal Nakshatrangal is extremely callous and skeptical about relationships, Anoop Menon in Cocktail looks for fun outside marriage while Jayasurya in Beautiful knows that he has no future in a marriage and Praveena suggests that ‘marriage is just a license for an extra-marital affair’.

Stephen Louis is a lonely millionaire who does not allow his physical limitations to undermine his state of mind. He spends most of his life on a wheelchair and knows that the people around him only care for his wealth but reckons that this wealth ensures that he has nothing to worry about. He does not ask for any sympathy and is content to enjoy the beauty of life in his own puckish and voyeuristic style, impishly smiling his way through it.

A chance encounter with a struggling artiste John (Anoop Menon) in a restaurant draws Stephen to him. John needs money to finance his music album and sister's education and he is willing to play the role of a singer-cum-friend but soon, they manage to cement a deep friendship. Their idyllic life goes on without ripples until the beautiful Anjali (Meghna Raj) appears on screen.

And what an appearance she makes! As Stephen and John watch Jayakrishnan visualizing the wet and beautiful frame of Clara amidst heavy rain and Johnson’s haunting music in the immortal Thoovanathumbikal, a rain-drenched Anjali makes an appearance on the screen that leaves them gaping in wonder at the sight of this enticing seductive woman. No words are exchanged and the silence says it all and the director breaks off for the interval followed by a funny reference to the song Anjali Anjali. Picture perfect!!!  

Stephen and John share a wonderfully unique chemistry that is brought to life by the humour in the script. If Thoovanathumbikal brings Anjali, the director uses Sholay to welcome John into his life. The need for such a friendship is conveyed but there are no great words exchanged – it is simply implicit. 

Their lives are a perfect contrast – a carefree differently abled millionaire who has no qualms about what the future has in store for him and a struggling artist who is worried about an uncertain future. One man’s need for company is matched by the other’s need for money but over a period of time, the relationship grows multi-fold and John is reluctant to tap his friend for his fiscal problems. Stephen demands no sympathy and is keen to love life in the company of somebody who can be trusted but John has his own demons to be exorcised.

Now this may have been a melodramatic tear-jerker or even a feel good story of touching friendship but the plot takes a quick turn towards the end turning into a crime caper. The movie has an airiness of a dark, quirky little short story set in a remote little town in Europe. Now transport this backdrop to Kochi and visualize the plot and it works quite well (the feel of a Coen Brothers film sans the violence). 

The climax arrives quite suddenly reminding me of the Hitchcock classic Rope where the whodunit mystery is unraveled in the spur of the moment. (I am not comparing it to any Hitchcock movie but simply recording what I felt while watching the climax). However the film sputters when it tries to manufacture motives for different characters to commit a crime. The director makes a deliberate attempt to mislead the audience by playing up the troubles of the surrounding cast and their actions but this is not convincing. But to be fair to VK Prakash, the whodunit part is not the most important part of the narrative but just a culmination of events that drive the plot that far.

Beautiful lives up to its name as we soak in the splendor of a world that is extremely beautiful. The camera repeatedly stares at Stephen’s spotlessly white mansion which is lashed frequently by the spraying rain; John lives in a furniture shop but the interiors have a classy feel, the lens lingers lovingly over a ravishing Anjali accentuating her beauty, the music wafts gently on the surface (lyrics by Anoop himself) and the rain sweeps across unhurriedly creating an atmosphere that is at once dark but blissful.

It rains incessantly in the movie but the rain is not a disturbance, it builds the atmosphere gently and creates an aura of lush emotions which are unexplored and gentle (whether it is Stephen experiencing rain for the first time or when it caresses Anjali as it comes down). This external beauty is however in contrast to the moral ambiguity of its characters who have their own dilemmas and compulsions in life which mars their beauty.

The movie is sensuous but the sensuousness lurks in the background and the camera does not play Peeping Tom. Witness the scene where Anjali takes bath; we hear the sounds of the door opening and closing and the water splashing, coupled with a brilliantly rendered dialogue (Nee kulichivo da..illa..Njanum kulichitilla..Aval kuli thodangi...). Or when Stephen stares in anticipation at the maid Kanyaka (Tesni Khan in a nice little cameo) mopping the floor, the song Poykayil from Rajashilpi plays on the TV screen; no skin show or double meaning dialogues is used but the intensity of the male desire is conveyed effortlessly.

Beautiful is beautifully written and there is no torrential downpour of words when a drizzle is needed (in contrast to The Dirty Picture); infact, it is quite economical with words. Short pauses, lingering music and a moody background showcase the emotions. John and Anjali share very few words and even when he proposes, it is an abrupt on the spot reaction that is unanticipated. John, Anjali and Stephen form an odd little alliance, with sexuality bursting at its seams and when it finally ruptures at the end, there is a certain irreverence in the way it is accepted.

Through Beautiful, Anoop Menon cocks a snook at morality in Kerala, without being too judgmental. In his own words – ‘There are people who are still strung to obsolete principles of morality, about what should be welcomed and what should be ostracized. But we too have changed with time and the average Malayali too is aware of the switch in social scenario. The Malayali who has read OV Vijayan and VKN knows about all the shades of life. Only a minority sticks to the format of primordial morality and the rest are ready to face life as it is. For me Beautiful is a revolt against the moral norms set by this minority.’

Beautiful is yet another New Generation Malayalam movie, continuing the trend of  Traffic, Salt N’Pepper and Chappa Kurishu – movies that are creating a new grammar in Malayalam cinema..Does the redemption of Malayalam cinema lie in its youth and urban roots?

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Dirty Picture

There is a scene in The Dirty Picture when Reshma urf Silk tells her bĂȘte noire director Abraham that movies sell only because of three reasons - ‘Entertainment, Entertainment and  Entertainment’. It is a dialogue that probably symbolizes what director Milan Luthria has in mind when he creates this supposed biopic that would have unraveled the phenomenon called ‘Silk Smitha’.

The Dirty Picture is supposed to be India’s answer to Boogie Nights (atleast that’s what Ekta Kapoor would like us to believe) but it limits itself to Silk's ascent. The movie invests in entertainment – it has loads of punch lines which ensures that every minute the audience has something to holler about and Vidya Balan has the chutzpah to carry out the role with aplomb. But beyond the entertainment, it fails to create an emotional connect to the character – her tragedy is a private one (just like in real life) and it’s a pity that while the director takes interest to show her rise to the top, he is not too keen to help us understand the decline. It’s a bumpy fall that happens suddenly and no explanations are sought – the audience is expected to understand that what goes up comes down one day.

The difficulty of making a movie that speaks in one language and telling a story in another creates an identity crisis. It’s worth wondering whether the movie had to be based in Tamil Nadu when the only thing that seemed Tamil were the posters, hoardings, costumes of the supporting cast and junior artists while all the main characters seemed to revel comfortably in Hindi (the way names like Muthu and Selvaganesh are pronounced is annoying).The movie speaks in Hindi (and I don’t mean the dialogues) and exudes the language in all references which are divorced from the realities of what you see on the screen.

Since a decision was made to base it in the South, the movie attempts to create the the Tamil tinsel world of the 80s. But Milan is not interested in depicting reality; you see it is entertainment that he is after. So, what emerges is essentially Bollywood cloaked in the guise of Tamil cinema and the result is a mishmash that purely entertains. Stereotypes abound and caricatures role the roost but Silk is an exception; she sounds impeccable even in English despite her not so urbane background. Suryakanth (Naseeruddin Shah) is an aging superstar with numerous amorous escapades who looks like a wannabe Quick Gun Murugan and fits to the T perceptions of superstars from the south (Exactly the same issue that I had in the buffoonish depiction of the principal in The 3 Idiots).

Since the movie would be seen primarily by an audience not familiar with the backdrop, it may not matter as a whole. But I’m amused when someone in the audience finds ‘Selvaganesh’ a funny name while someone else thinks that the hero is modeled on Rajinikanth (for no apparent reason but his gun fighting scene). When you have painted all these men as caricatures whom the audience would love to mock at, is there any possibility of objectively analyzing Silk’s actions?

There is no way you can root for any other character and the director is clear that Silk and Silk alone matters in the movie, at the expense of others. When she launches into a tirade against the hypocrisy of people in a stage function, she is suddenly thrust into the role of an embodiment of a heroic woman who takes on the entire industry, which sits uneasily on her. Being brash and street smart maybe, but as a symbol of a victimized woman, it does not cut ice.

In a first half that encapsulates the rise of a plain but ambitious Jane into a starlet with an attitude that borders on arrogance, Vidya pulls of a casting coup and makes us want to believe that Silk actually traversed this path as she rode to the top. In a well-crafted scene, where the audience troops into the theatre just for her song and leaves the hall immediately afterwards, she realizes the hold that she could have on a sex-starved audience (this is immediately after the star Suryakanth tells her that the crowds only care for him and she has no relevance at all). She is gung-ho of her ability to draw audiences to the theatre by her asset display but at the same time realizes that being an actress is just a dream that is beyond her.

The potentially most interesting phase could have been between Silk and the avant garde director Abraham who detests her as somebody who represents everything that is wrong with commercial cinema. But their interaction is fleeting and while the chemistry works we do not know how the transformation happened? Where did the love angle come in suddenly? Is it when Abraham realizes that his cinema never connected to the masses (‘Mein apni hi picture dekhte so gaya') and compromises or was it just an after- thought that emerged when the director realized that Emraan’s character was going nowhere? It was an opportunity to explore this connect between these two persons who worked in two different spectrums of cinema and are separated by social and class perceptions of good and bad but sadly, this thread is left hanging.

The below-the-belt humour is funny but I was tired by the number of over written one-liners inserted in the plot. Why was it necessary to throw in a punch line every time a character spoke; can’t you have people talking normally, without always wanting to suggest something voyeuristic? Being subtle is clearly not the writer’s strength but there is a limit – was every alternate line in the script written in Comic Sans Font Bold and Underlined 36 Size font so that the audience understands that they are watching a Dirty Picture?

Vidya Balan puts in a brave performance that will win her awards (breaking stereotypical roles = winning awards) but the limitations of the script limit the scope of the performance. She learns the lessons of the trade quickly enough and leverages her abilities to the maximum – witness the brazen usage of her sexual power as she stalls the traffic at a journalist’s party. She’s Erin Brockovich magnified in the first half who loses steam after some time because she has nothing more to add; as she spirals rapidly downward (very rapidly in the movie), we are unable to empathize with her character. The cleavage and the boobage are there for people to leer at often (thankfully without being vulgar) but the soul of the performer is missing.

Yes, there are hints of financial problems, competition from other vamps and even other heroines but we are unable to sense the insecurity that she feels. Why does she torpedo a perfectly going life for no apparent reason? We do not invest in her emotionally, especially in the second half, to connect to her demise and so when the end comes, I’m busy looking at my watch rather nonplussed at the death. We know her as a brash uninhibited starlet who is not prone to strategizing but we don’t know her as a person; her fears, her turmoil, her loneliness and the things that would help us understand better are set aside to depict only an external manifestation of her problems.

The tragic life of Silk Smitha needed more attention but just as her screen presence was limited to only the fleeting lust value she gave in a movie, the movie merely skims over her true self. While people discreetly watch scenes that border on titillation (and we are not talking of men alone), we refuse to acknowledge it but are quick to paint these women as loose characters who have no place in our civilized society. Those who exhibit themselves to the audience are sluts but we are ‘honourable’ because we enjoy these only in the darkness. Well, this movie is about ‘entertainment’ and Silk as an entertainment object only, so the tragedy is lost somewhere deep inside.. 

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Joining the Fatherhood Club

On a quiet, little warm Monday morning at 10.05 AM on October 24th, I joined a quiet uncommon and unassuming league of men in the world who are fathers. She was in a hurry and despite a chance to be born on a more famous day like Children’s Day (her original due date), she chose to gate crash into earth and throw all our schedules out of gear. A night earlier, as I spoke to S, there were no indications that she had decided to be born to us ahead of schedule but then who has ever said that Family Planning was an accurate scientific pursuit.

Under normal circumstances, the points of emotional crisis for a man and a woman are probably different – for a man, it is when he retires and for a non-working woman, when her kid leaves the home in pursuit of a job or more critically, a marriage; so the child leaving the parent will always happen, so some of us may wonder whether this ‘perceived happiness’ is worth it? I remember asking S a long time back why women ever wanted to be mothers when there was so much pain involved and she tried to reason something about maternal emotions and joy which I have never really understood.

I know couples who have opted out of parenthood and I don’t want to stand on a pedestal and claim that they are missing out on something that we are experiencing. We take informed decisions based on what we want out of life and we can be happy even if we don’t have to follow suit like everyone else – this is not a right or wrong decision but make sure that you are fully aware of the consequences of the decision either way. Parental and relatives’ compulsions always exist in India but you must go for it if both of you want it and not someone else. After all, you are primarily responsible for taking care of the child and the baby should not be a way to buy peace.

Anyway, in Feb this year, after we had agreed to expand our two member family, we realized that we were expecting a visit from the stork in the second week of November. S was happy while I remained in my normal state of blissful stoicism; by now thankfully, she had understood that this was not a negative reaction but more in tune with the way I approach such moments.

The moment the doctor confirmed the news of our impending parenthood, we were showered with advice from all quarters – some glad that we were joining the band wagon, some wondering why we wanted to do so and others indifferent about but still advising us as a matter of formality. Ss iron levels were quite low; most women in India are anaemic so it’s not exactly a bolt from the blue discovery but iron levels of 5.5 are still pretty low and needs iron pumping. So, she was injected iron through IV regularly to boost iron levels and leafy vegetables made a more conspicuous presence in our diets.

The first 3 months had its share of morning sickness which can be distressing as a young husband to see, especially when S was alone at home but I think we did ride through it without too many difficulties. Helping extensively in the household is important during these times (not to suggest that this should not be done otherwise) and except for the occasion of the passing away of her grandfather, it was largely manageable even though it was just the two of us in Bombay. As they say, keep the wife happier during these times so that the entire process goes through smoothly and the baby comes through under pleasant circumstances. Eventually, in July, I left her in Palakkad to spend a prolonged relapse into bachelorhood in Bombay.

Oct 23rd was a Sunday whose only claim to fame was that it was our marriage anniversary (2nd). S was quite tired that day and when we spoke at night, she mentioned experiencing pain in her legs but this was not out of the ordinary and so we left it at that. The next day morning, FIL suddenly called up at around 6 AM saying that S had been admitted in the hospital due to bleeding early in the morning and that the doctor suspected  that she was experiencing labour pains. It woke me up amidst not so happy dreams after a late night viewing of Oru Minnaminunginte Nurunguvettam where the female protagonist dies during pregnancy!!! But I was still unsure on what to do; I had heard of women staying in hospital for a week or so and returning without anything happening and so I wondered what if it were the same situation?

I went about my daily work until at around 10.20, FIL called again and informed that it was a normal delivery and it was a baby girl! And just like that I was now a father!!! S was fine but the network was poor in the hospital room and so I could talk to her only once I reach the hospital. Of all the people, I wanted to tell my father first that I had become a father but unfortunately, he was not contactable and by the time, I could reach him, he had got the news…

I reached Palakkad the next day morning but I spent a lot of time during the journey imagining how I had to react. Would she look at me, smile at me, show any signs of recognition? When I hold the baby, would I panic or would there be joy – an unprecedented event had happened in our lives but was I up to the moment? S had already written-off my reaction to the event; she strongly suspected my ability to embrace moments of happiness (she reckons that the Lokpal Bill has a greater chance to get me animated than seeing the baby)!!! Life would never be the same again as she takes centre stage in our lives; was I ready to step back from being individualistic?

I entered the room a little before she turned a day old and there she lay in front of me - a tiny lump of pink flesh in a huddled state, blissfully unaware of the commotion of people trooping in and out at regular intervals in adjacent rooms and ours. A soft, fluffy mass of flesh of 3 kg who had been created by HIM from absolutely nothing was in deep slumber. But of course, this was no defining cinematic melodramatic moment; I felt completely normal, concerned more at the condition of S than the baby.

I had never seen such a young baby in my life so far and was more scared of hurting her than feeling her. During the course of the next week after being discharged, I held her occasionally on my lap (holding in my hands needs one more leap of courage) and spent a lot of time observing her as she kicked wildly in the air and performed complex yogic postures with ease – sweet little moments!!!

The common reaction that you get from people other than congratulations is asking how you feel now. I am unsure on how to answer the question; honestly, there is no seventh heaven feeling, no inclination to break into a jig and shout aloud but a state of quiet little happiness and even relief that the end of the delivery, both are safe and sound and there’s nothing to worry. But this is not dismissive of the thought of fathering a child – as DJ had told me earlier, let her recognize you and then you realize how different the perspective becomes.

This is not a sudden feeling, bonding comes through with time and rushing into passing judgments on how one must feel is not proper. But you can’t deny it, it was my..our baby and even with closed eyes, she drew herself to me. It’s kind of unexplainable but babies do manage to quieten you and absorb your senses when they are present – there is no umbilical cord between a father and a baby, it probably forms gradually as she recognizes you as the man responsible for her existence on this earth.

When I wondered about what does it mean to be a dad, this conversation between Lal and Nedumudi Venu in Dasharatham came to my mind – can’t explain this better, especially when he says ...ente makkal appachannu villikumbol swargathil irikkinu poleya....

While I am constrained to use words like ‘our  bundle of joy’ and ‘cute’ (who’s ever seen or heard of a baby who isn’t cute - even I was cute when young, can you beat that???), there was a tinge of happiness on seeing her – this little thing will call me ‘Achcha’ (yes Achcha only and not Dad!!!) and look to me in future to guide her in her life (will she?). I realise that I still keep referring to her as ‘it’ which will fade only once we decide a name for her (which is probably the only parental privilege that modern day parents may have - giving a name to their kids!!!). 

Many of us are inclined to attribute a lot of our failings to our upbringing but when we have our children, we realise how skewed an assessment it is. It is pretty easy to blame someone else for our problems than take responsibility for our actions, I presume…Time will tell us how well we were able to justice to this responsibility...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Indian Rupee

23 years after we saw CP struggle to make it big in the world of construction contract business in Vellanakalude Nadu, Ranjith takes us to the world of JP – Jayaprakash (Prithviraj), who along with his friend CH (Tini Tom) try to establish themselves in the cut throat competition of real estate brokerage business. The landscape has changed across two decades, the stakes are much higher and the money involved runs into crores (cr as referred to in the movie). The movie is not about land corruption (something that Ividam Swargamanu focused on) but more on the desire of middle class youth who try to become rich and make it big in life in quick time.

JP and CH run a small time broker agency in a run-down office near Palayam vegetable market in Kozhikode. They are small time folks primarily acting as sub-brokers in the city, under the aegis of bigger players like Rayan and Joy. The commissions that they receive for the deals that they receive are meager and they dream to make it big one day.  JP believes that his luck has changed when Achutha Menon (Thilakan), an old man appoints them as brokers to sell his property. The deal goes down the drain but Achutha Menon stays back with them and advises them as they pocket their first real income after arm-twisting a client. Through a mega deal with Gold Pappan, they aim for the sky but the spiraling circular flow of crores and its effects makes them realize the folly of their actions.

Indian Rupee has a free-flowing script and keeps you entertained throughout and there isn’t a dull moment anywhere in the movie. The satire crackles throughout and the references to public entities (Shashi Tharoor, ICICI) and incidents throughout make it easy to relate to it (though I did think the reference to Pranchiyettan was a bit contrived). There is an underlying social commentary on religion, land politics, black money, NRIs and old age which is thankfully not preachy but engages us at different levels. Conceptually, the movie acts as a prequel to Pranchiyettan since the primary objective is making money, either by hook or crook - social respect would only be next on the agenda.

Ranjith shifts the plot from Thrissur in his last movie to his home town Kozhikode here and the dialect plays an important role in bringing life to the city. We are able to relate to all the characters and realize that this story could just have happened in our neighbourhood. The world and lingo of real estate is brought very close to us and we see the amount of money that is floating around which could have been frightening, if it were not entertaining. He does not show any form of corruption which is high in this sector but I guess there is an underlying assumption, even acceptance, that when vast sums of money crosses hands, some of the palms need greasing and so there is no need perse to show it.

JP is a likeable character whom you root for even though he is devoid of scruples. He is willing to arm-twist a client into making money, pay off company agents to get deals and even get involved in fake money to pursue his dreams. At a personal level, he shirks responsibility back at home by fleeing home when people come to see his sister and has borrowed money from his mother but sunk the money. But Ranjith still presents him as a struggler who needs to do all this to survive in the tough world and the question of right and wrong are not so important – maybe it’s to do with the world that we now live in that we empathize with this character. Maybe it explains why we empathized with CP and wished he followed the right path but we accept JP and want him to succeed. Prithviraj carries the role with aplomb and fully justifies the faith that Ranjith reposes on him –a role that will be noticed after his act in Vaasthavam.

Achutha Menon’s character confused me a bit as I tried to understand what exactly Ranjith wanted to convey through him. He is an intellectual who’s bitter with all the –isms of the times that he has lived in and finds himself at the crossroads of his life with no support with him. He advises JP and CH in their deal to ‘threaten’ their client and himself tries to cheat his son by selling their house but the need for money is provided as a justification for his actions. Ranjith probably envisioned him as a sort of conscience keeper for JP as he attempts his dealings but am not very clear about this.

While Achutha Menon’s intervention in JPs house ensures a dowry-free marriage for his sister (in a tad preachy sequence), this is the only act that gives him that halo – otherwise, he remains just an old man who tries his best to keep his family afloat. Similarly the usage of the Gandhi bhajan Vaishnav Jan to Tene Kahiye attempts to create a moral aura that does not exist. He is an important character, no doubt, in the plot but it looks as if a few critics have given him a greater relevance in the movie than can be understood.

Glad to see Thilakan on screen after a long time and I hope we see more of him now, especially in these times when Malayalam cinema has been losing its great artists regularly. His presence adds solidity and earnestness to the character and when JP asks him the question Evada aayirunnu ithrim nallu, Ranjith prompts us to put this question to Thilakan. Jagathy as Gold Pappan is a scene stealer (think he is the first choice for directors who create odd ball characters now) in his cameo as a spend thrift millionaire while Tini Tom needs to thanks Ranjith for discovering him as an actor and he picks up from where he stopped in Pranchiyettan.

There are a couple of scenes which are unnecessary in the plot (I always find this with a Ranjith movie) like the doctors get together and the song and the ones involving Achutha Menon’s family. JPs family itself disappears in the 2nd half and the entire plot begins to revolve on a 85 Cr deal that has many takers. The deal itself gets sabotaged due to reasons that are unconvincing (Pappan’s haste to get the money the same day is not very clear) and his demands seem more driven by the needs of the story than that of the deal.

While there is big money involved in the entire set of operations, it felt awkward when lakhs and crores are bandied about loosely without any worry. A future brother-in-law giving 50 Lakhs or a doctor feeling not too bitter about having to give 25 Lakhs makes the entire flow of money look so simple and insignificant, which is never going to be the case. The movie ends in a nice little finale but I am unable to buy the need for a flashback or Lalu Alex explaining the story to the people who visit him, looking for JP.

There are a few such pinpricks here and there but at the end of it, I left the theatre content after watching watching a well-crafted movie – something that Ranjith has a made a habit in his second innings. In his works, he represents a film maker restoring the glory of the 80s in a more traditional style (reminiscent partly of the Sreenivasan film of thought) unlike the newer crop of directors that we have seen lately. This is August Cinema’s second production after Urumi and we hope to see more interesting stuff from it…

***Incidentally, Shaji Natesan (the third person behind August Cinema along with Prithviraj and Santosh Sivan) plays a cameo in the movie as the NRI who buys the mall eventually…

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Can an individual love two different persons at the same time? What does the word ‘love’ with its several connotations mean when one touches the autumn of one’s life? It is apt that a greying state discovers that romance exists beyond youth and so Pranayam follows a movie like Salt N' Pepper – from middle aged romance to old aged romance.

Pranayam is set in an urbane backdrop where a married woman meets her ex-husband after several years and then she and her husbands (current and ex) forge a relationship that enriches and heals their lives. The protagonists are all well over the hill physically but they carry the same pangs of emotions that youngsters have. The presence of two men and a woman does not make it a triangular love story; yes, there are hidden tensions and jealousies which however evaporate quickly enough because of the progress of time.

Achutha Menon (Anupam Kher) is a lively and childlike character who takes joy in small things in life but considers himself a loser, both professionally and personally. He lives a lonely, almost nomadic life with his son Suresh (Anoop Menon) throughout his life. They both find emotional solace in each other but Menon is never able to overcome the void created by his divorce. Meeting his wife Grace (Jaya Prada) after several years touches a raw chord and sets the ball rolling for a relationship which acts as a healing for years of suppressed emotions. It is a quiet little performance and the gracefulness and chirpiness that Anupam brings to the character makes the audience largely root for him; however, I did think that Rizabawa’s dubbing seemed a little heavy at times for Kher.

Mathews (Mohan Lal) is bedridden and needs his wife’s help on a day-to-day basis to accomplish most tasks but their love is just as robust as ever. As a retired Professor of Philosophy, he is a man of words and this gives the director the opportunity to give him the best lines. He is an intellectual who immerses his life in books and music after he suffers a stroke that paralyses him one side. He is less despondent than Menon and believes in living life to the fullest and has a sense of self-assuredness, despite his disability. A lesser actor may have been easily carried away and gone overboard but Lal is marvellously restrained as he achieves a delicate balance between the dramatic and understated overtones of his performance.

Grace’s silence and eyes speak more than her words which are measured and uncertain. She is unsure of her emotions and is caught in an inner turmoil at being in a situation between the two most important men in her life. She is an unblemished beautiful woman with vulnerabilities who tries to balance her conflicting sense of emotions. She is just about comfortable going along with the flow of life with the knowledge that the love of Mathews will ensure that she is on the right path. The quiet, unassuming dignity which goes along with the pain and guilt of a tortured soul that Jaya Prada brings to the character makes it a fabulous performance.

The first half is raw and lingers aimlessly at times and it is only in the second half that the movie settles firmly on a saddle. The younger generation romance of Menon and Grace does not fit in with the scheme of things; considering that Blessy does not take pains to explain the real marital conflict that they faced, this phase of events has no real meaning in the movie. The younger generations get a raw deal and their characters are undermined at the expense of the protagonists, something that could have been avoided.

Blessy actually does well in not trying to get into the nitty gritties of the past – all the conflicts of the past have no meaning now as they live life in the twilight zone. The only hints that we get at the problems that they had reflect out of the assessment of the characters at different points – like Mathews saying that Grace is always enthusiastic at the beginning of every venture but unwilling to take it to completion or Grace remarking that it is so typical of Menon to make much of a fuss about things which later on turn out to very insignificant.

The relationship between the three characters is fascinating and a courageous one for the director because he steps into an area infested with social taboos. But the script ensures that the sanctity of marriage and the thought of love outside marriage do not come into conflict with each other (something that Mathews reminds Grace when he says Alassam​ayi thurannitt​a vaathililo​ode pranayam ariyathe kadannu varum).

There are no simple solutions to past mistakes but hard truths that need to be accepted – something that the three of them slowly accept but the society finds difficult to understand. However, the battle lines, so as to say, are initially drawn – the first time Mathews meets Menon, he clearly asserts his role by conspicuously exhibiting affection towards his wife which she reciprocates later on when she refuses to accompany Menon to a place without her husband.

Guilt is a critical feeling that drives the plot along with the emotion of love. Menon carries the guilt of taking away his son from his wife and not doing enough to sustain their marriage life while Grace shares an equal sense of despondency at having lost her family. In a brooding moment, while throwing stones into the sea, Menon explains that the second throw always goes further than the first because there is a determination to better the first throw the next time – a nod to the success of Grace’s marriage.

Mathews understands that while his wife remains faithful to him, she cannot overcome the truth of Menon being the first man in her life; there is a small pain that he carries (manassil oru karadu) that he wishes to heal when Menon re-enters their lives. The movie ends on a sad and surprising note; was it the sudden outburst of long held pains and emotions or a sense of guilt or a sense of relief that brought about the sudden finale? The cynical side of me was asking whether the ending was a throwback to the 70s and 80s when deliberate tragedies were the hallmark of Malayalam cinema.

There is a genuine absence of melodrama which helps Pranayam convey its emotions very delicately to us without taking any sides. When Grace and Menon meet each other, there is no avalanche of words or music; it is a quiet gentle talk between two persons who have suddenly run into each other after years of running away from each other. It is due to the maturity zone that they find themselves in that any talk about the past or current situation is without any rancour or anger – it is an almost peaceful understanding that things need not have been this way if only…Even when there is a demise at the end, the emotions remain under wraps and quite subdued (echoing Mathew’s comment that death is not an abrupt end, but rather a gradual progression towards an inevitability where we die every minute).

The script however stutters when it deliberately tries to elevate their love for each other by drawing our attention to the next generations. Blessy goes ballistic in his treatment of Mathew’s daughter and son-in-law who seem to be present in the movie only to create a sense of anger of tension, even when there is no room for it. The need to create an antagonistic environment just to justify certain actions is unwarranted and does not jell with the rest of the mood of the movie.

Watching Pranayam reminded me of MTs Oru Cheru Punchiri where the ripening of old age is celebrated by the small quarrels and dialogues between the old couple in the movie; by contrast, Blessy invests less in the dialogues and focuses on the visuals that accompany Mathew and Grace in their relationship. Their body language, touches and affectionate gestures also drive a similar point but with a greater visual impact; even physical intimacy is conveyed which is rather unusual for Indian filmmakers who shy away from bringing the thought of sex after a certain age.

Even when Grace and Menon come together, there is just that slight degree of discomfort which submerges slowly into the wave of emotions that drives the two people. Towards the end, even when they hug each other, it comes across as a natural gesture without creating any guilt in anyone’s mind.

Love, old age and death are central themes in Pranayam and in unison they create a silent melody that lingers along for most of the movie. At a social level, the movie tries to understand love at multiple levels – between a man and woman, husband and wife, son and father and one man and another. Sadly, the word love has such a superficial presence in our vocabulary that we limit its boundaries and restrict it. Does every relationship need to be limited by coining a word for it? Can love not exist simply in absolute terms as an abstract emotion that we will never fully be able to comprehend because of the narrowness of our vision?

Pranayam is arguably Blessy’s most accomplished and ambitious movie so far. An unhurried plot that sweeps gently along with fabulous performances makes it a treat. Nevertheless, I reckon that the movie would have a very polarizing set of audience - for or against types and is not everyone's cup of tea.

P.S In an interview, Blessy mentioned that when the story was narrated to the 2Ms, Mammootty was keen to do Menon’s role while Lal was interested in Mathew’s role!!! Interesting thought that..

Monday, August 22, 2011

Impressions on an Agitation....

The chips were always stacked up against the Government – a poor old septuagenarian messiah vs the black hands of the Government was an unfair battle from a media coverage and public empathy perspective. It was a no-win situation for the Govt but it did not help that they committed hara-kiri and managed to make themselves the laughing stock of the nation.

Hasn’t the Congress ever thought of collective bargaining or were they so drunk in the stupor of arrogance and out of touch with the man on the street that it thought that AH was just another old man who would be forgotten quickly enough and so there was no need to indulge him in a civil fashion. For a party that merely takes orders from the top, it may have been tough to understand the meaning of moral superiority.

UPA is isolated now as it has to battle an army of protestors and an Opposition waiting to strike but they have just themselves to blame for not including a single member of the Opposition on the drafting committee. The party probably did not want to share credit with anyone else and tried going alone and now when they have egg on their face, they realize that they have to fight it out themselves.

Forget about the moral angle to the entire sequence of events; you’d think that the Congress had some kind of a strategy to fight AH but it managed to dig a hole and crawl into slowly at first and then rapidly. Without the presence of Sonia Gandhi, is the party totally rudderless (assuming that they’d have done the right thing if she were there ofcourse)? The Crown Prince has been silent throughout assuming that it’s better to blame a lost cause on the PMs head than take any action (their spin doctors still managed to give him credit for releasing Anna!!!); the same attitude that led the PM to fix the responsibility of the mishandling of the situation on the Delhi police.

For years now, we have had this spectacle of an arrangement between the ‘honest’ PM and St. Sonia taking the party together – an arrangement that worked well for them as well as onlookers. Finally, it looks like the time has come to sever this umbilical cord and get somebody else onto the throne. PM, the gentleman image has served you long enough and it’s time for a forced renunciation now – get somebody at the helm who can actually act. Rahul may not be my choice but if Congressmen can stay united only under him, so be it; no more mukhotas are needed.

Dear Rahul, if the Congress party looks at you as a future PM, you need to speak up. You cannot pick and choose your revolutions only looking at the safe areas to score brownie points; so you cannot go to Bhatta- Parsaul and Pune and make long winding assertions but choose to stay silent when your government is being thrashed around by the entire country. You let Manish Tewari and a few other jokers go berserk in their attacks and be slaughtered by the remarkable campaign of Team Anna.

We have seen enough of Kapil Sibal and Abhishek Singhvi now; they have managed to weave legal spin as much as possible but for God’s sake, show some spine, stand up and talk if you really want people to take you seriously (Ideally, this appeal should be to the PM but you know..). Are you waiting for the dust to settle down, sacrifice the PM and then step in with a noble gesture of getting Anna’s fast broken and get everyone’s applause?

There is a broad consensus that it was the Government’s bungling that has brought the issue so far but it is also the failure of the Opposition that has resulted in the ‘civil’ society taking the matter into its arms. The UPA has lost all its authority and is rudderless but where is the BJP in the midst of this entire din? It has neither taken a stance on the bill or made any attempts to resolve the logjam but has been enjoying the show from the sidelines. The party badly misses a Vajpayee kind of statesman like figure who can appeal to the masses and even talk to Team Hazare (the kind of credibility that the current Parliament lacks). Maybe a Nitish Kumar can step in and help in assuaging this public angst (would have suggested Modi but his image makes him a polarizing figure).

In the midst of all the upheaval that I see around me in the nation, it is difficult to stay unmoved and detached as a wave of emotions sweeps across the political fabric of this country. I have been oscillating from one side to another regularly unsure on what side I find myself in. Though my brain tells me that ‘Anna way or no way’ approach is not in sync with democratic principles, my heart asks me whether there was any other way?

When lakhs (let’s call it thousands for Karan Thapar’s sake) hit the roads with a sort of vengeance, can we simply disregard it hiding under the cloak of constitutionalism and Parliament? If different versions of the bill have been lying in the cans for more than 40+ years, does it not reflect the failure of the elected representatives? Yes, the people on the streets do not understand the Lok Pal and its intricacies but their protest is the only tangible way to tell the powers-at-the-top that they need to be heard (Agreed that the agitation has gone overboard on any occasions like the Anna-is-India and timeline based demands but it gives the Govt an opportunity to act mature, put aside egos and show magnanimity in handling the issue and actually win over people).

No one thinks that the bill will eradicate corruption and to that extent, the JLP bill may backfire (remember the much-maligned Anti-Defection Law was drafted by Shanti Bhushan) because of its grandiose design but the voice of the people is a voice of desperation and frustration, a voice that says we have a role even beyond the ballot box. It is this voice that the State needs to recognize and provide a platform, otherwise we will see more such agitations. If the Government had been able to communicate properly its views on the bill, it would not have come to an us vs them situation, where even strands of intelligent opposition are being attacked. This coupled with the fact that the principal opposition is not able to present an alternative has led to a vacuum in the polity, which the civil society is trying to fill, albeit in spurts.

We are the world’s largest democracy but simply providing universal suffrage does not suffice – we need to evolve into a participatory democracy from an electoral democracy. Every 5 years, we vote a leader into the Assembly and Parliament but till the next election, we have no role to play in the day-to-day governance of the state. Decisions taken in the House have no relation with what happens in our lives even though they affect us. I’d see the protest not in terms of the JLP or even corruption (though it is the rallying point) but in terms of how millions in this country feel alienated in the decision making process in the country. If all this action translates into some kind of mechanism where we feel responsible (even accountable) for governmental decisions and have a concrete say in it, it would be the real victory of the agitation.

But let us not push it a point of no return where even if a compromise is desired, it cannot be achieved because the legions of supporters will not settle for anything other than total victory. The point has been made well enough for the polity to understand that citizens cannot be taken for granted and it’s time to move to a more conciliatory rather than confrontational approach; while rhetoric works well to get in mass support, a more nuanced approach is needed to break the current logjam and accept other points of view. Team Anna has to be careful not to snatch a loss from the jaws of victory by its dogmatic and sanctimonious posturing which is taking us to a rather uncalled for chaotic situation.

Unlike the Arab Spring, the objective here is not toppling a government but a strong  moral show of strength in tackling political apathy. So, once the target is achieved, there is a danger that this triumph will be short-lived and the hubris will evaporate just as quickly as it was created. The anger can crystallize into either an apolitical or political movement but it should hopefully not be an anti-political movement as it is now. Eventually, only when the politics of the land undergoes a transformation (this is where electoral reforms are a key), a true change will emerge. Otherwise, we need to keep searching for an Anna like figure to rally people around on every issue that concerns us.

I am neither in favour of the JLP or the Government bill and look forward to the debate in the Standing Committee to come up with its recommendations. The Govt is responsible for the current impasse but Team Anna and followers have been quite adamant, jingoistic and inflexible in their approach towards resolving this, so hope good sense prevails!!!

Image courtesy -

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Racing to Annihilate Corruption

As the race to annihilate corruption heats up, Anna Hazare and team have started off on their next hunger strike to combat the Government’s lackadaisical attitude on the Jan Lokpal Bill. But as the middle class, in desperate search of a messiah, follows the Pied Piper in his mission, a doubt lingers on whether there isn’t an undue haste being followed in trying to pass a Bill that has emerged as a rallying point for citizens frustrated with corruption.

Anna Hazare’s prior Jantar Mantar manoeuvre won him fans across but more importantly put the limelight on corruption in a way that we have not seen in decades. It led to the Government climbing down from its stand on the Lok Pal and instituting a combined committee to re-draft the bill. The Bill has now reached the Parliament and the Parliamentary Standing Committee has invited Anna and team to present his views on the subject.

Governments across the world are normally subject to multiple forms of pressure from all kinds of lobbies like the press, judiciary, corporates and others. The Indian civil society (if such a homogeneous group exists) has been a more passive pressure group; even the most virulent representatives like Arundhati Roy and Medha Patkar have been debated in the media only and left untouched by a vast stretch of the population (middle class urban population to be more precise) but the Anna group has successfully managed to create a support base amongst this crowd.

Facebook, Twitter and 24x7 news have ensured that the public is fed on a constant diet of anti-corruption capsules. So you have slogans like “If you are not with Anna and Team, you are with the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats of our country"(Bush would approve!) and “We can’t afford to fail this time. For if we fail, we may never get another chance. It is now or never”. While I am honestly cynical about this business of eradicating corruption with a  magic wand, it must be said that despite the obvious theatrics behind all this sloganeering and ideas (my personal favourite is the Give a Missed Call and Support the Movement), it is wonderful to see people actually talking and thinking about it and forcing the Government to do something about this.

The Government’s position is an open goal post and indefensible; the UPA is at the nadir of its popularity and the multiple scams which leap out of papers and TV sets have reduced it to a motley group with zero credibility. It does not help that the PM is perceived to be a man with no voice and the voices that matter are not available on any public discourse (anyone’s seen a Sonia or Rahul Gandhi interview?). The opposition is practically non-existent in terms of performance and despite the Government giving away its advantage on a platter, the weak knead Opposition is unable to anything about it. In such a position, you cannot blame the civil society for filling in the vacuum and acting as the moral guardian. You'd think that by now our politics would be mature enough to accept dissent but the hara-kiri done in trying to tackle Anna Hazare makes the Government look totally ridiculous and out of touch with people's sentiments.

So, Team Anna has stepped into the Opposition’s shoes and done great service in pitching across an important voice missing all these years – the voice of the electorate. The ruling party realizes that he has the masses behind him and so needs to be taken seriously and so we had the charade of a Joint Drafting Committee that arrived on a consensus that nobody understood. But somewhere in the din of the Anti-Corruption movement (is it one?), there is a concern that the movement is side-stepping its own principles and attempting to bulldoze its own version of the bill in undue haste, bypassing the norms of democracy.

Team Anna has called the proposed bill a Joke Pal and ridiculed its namby-pamby way of trying to tackling corruption. This may be true but the fact that is that the team has a chance to voice their concern in the Standing Committee of the Parliament and so changes can still be incorporated. The RTI Act which was widely touted as a victory of the civil society movement underwent 153 amendments in the standing committee before emerging into the form it now finds itself in.

The team would also be well-advised not to mix the business of governance with popular support and attempt to play to the gallery. It is ridiculous when top cop Kiran Bedi comes to NDTV and suggests that the NDTV opinion polls and their own polls indicate the mass support behind the movement and so their version must be passed; the team even talked about a referendum to gauge public support on their stand. The notion of a people's court to settle issues in a plural society is fraught with dangers. Is public support (assuming that the support exists beyond urban netizens) and rhetoric the basis on which public policy needs to be drafted in this country? If this was the criterion, you’d probably have death penalty as a popular form of punishment and moral policing as an important police activity…

The Jan Lokpal Bill has undergone 40+ revisions and Arvind Kejriwal says that they are open to suggestions but the Team is critical of the Government for not accepting their bill in toto and does not seem to be receptive to any changes in it. Not supporting the Anna movement does not tantamount to supporting the Government at all; staunch public warriors like Aruna Roy and Harsh Mander have expressed serious misgivings about the form of the proposed bill and have in fact even proposed an alternative in the form of a basket of reforms to tackle corruption (haven’t seen much reporting on this other than in the Tehelka).

Democracy is a messy business but it’s probably the best way to clean the mess that we find ourselves in. It is naive and even arrogant (at times) to assume that this is a black and white debate and that there is only one set of people who knows what is best and so the rest should follow. The Mumbai blasts in the 90s led to the demand of a stringent anti-terrorist law and POTA replaced the TADA but now in hindsight, most parties have taken a position against it and agreed that there needs to be more safeguards to protect its misuse while many others have said that the existing Criminal procedure Law in the country is good enough to handle the issue.

We have seen the Lok Ayukta in Karnataka, the CAG in the 2G and CWG scams and institutions like the Election Commission and the higher judiciary make an overall impact on the state by their interventions; so we may not necessarily require a super cop to manage our affairs here. A Frankenstein monster who bosses over everyone can be a terror but does the bill have relevant safeguards ( look back at the terror unleashed by Edgar Hoover as the first director of the FBI) or will it even actually do what it set out to do - tackle corruption? This is debatable but is there a room for even such a debate or are the emotions running so high that we cannot tolerate anyone questioning the proposals?

Anna Hazare’s role in pushing corruption to the forefront of the Indian political debate is arguably immense but there is a danger of overdoing his actions and pushing the envelope just too far that is making many his supporters/well-wishers wondering whether the wise men have not chewed off more than they can swallow. The hysteria created in the initial fast has sky rocketed the expectations of the public and they want the death knell to be sounded now but can the artists keep performing for an audience that has begun to relish the idea of a magic wand and may not be willing to accept the complexities of the process involved?

Yes, the final objective is noble but that does not absolve us from acting responsibly and taking the right path. No one says that the path needs to be dismantled but there is a line that needs to be drawn between what can be the role of unelected and unaccountable civil society member and a Parliamentarian? I know we are skeptical about the role of the Parliament but let’s not forget that the same set of people implemented the RTI Act and many other important pieces of legislation.

The parliamentary way of doing things is understandably not the fastest or most glamorous way to do so (the Dravid rather than Sehwag way) but in a democracy, the fairest way to proceed is deploying faith in the parliament, while pressure groups continue to exert their influence on Governments. We cannot bypass institutions in favour of individuals; it may work perfectly well in one scenario but it sets a precedent which becomes difficult to follow. So, yes, Anna and team must continue with all their good work but it must draw a line between the rule of the civil society and that of an elected representative and not become a mirror opposite of the Government in its actions.

To quote Aruna Roy –
I think it’s democratically and politically immature to demand that one take a simplistic and black-and-white position on this. This is what governments have always being doing with us. You are seen as either with them or against them. For instance, if you fought for land rights you were described as a Maoist and a votary of violent revolution. We cannot do the same thing ourselves, but we are. We are not allowing ourselves the luxury of the rich debates and nuanced thinking that has been our strength. Pluralism has been the strength of the so-called civil society. We cannot sacrifice that. I don’t care what happens to the Government but it’s wrong for the people of this country, it’s wrong for democracy and that’s why we have decided to speak from the NCPRI. 
Image Courtesy -

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Salt N' Pepper

With a name like Salt N' Pepper and a tagline like Dosa Undakiya Katha, you have a broad idea on what to expect as you step into the cinema hall. But despite all pre-conceived notions of the movie, the movie pleasantly surprises you as it takes you through an appetizing sojourn via a variety of tastes as it tries to tell a rather understated romantic tale which has its origins in the humble dosa.

The movie cooks a romance between a middle aged couple – a graying archaeologist and a dubbing artiste, both of whom find solace in food. Age old insecurities and frustrations ensure that they are unwilling to face each other until the very end when they finally agree to meet in a museum (actually expected a restaurant) and accept the fact that they share something in common which goes beyond gastronomic juices.

Kathali Parambil Kalidasan (Lal), is an unkempt archaeologist who likes old things: he uses an old Premier Padminini ‘Mandakini’ car (Mandakini even features in the film’s closing credits!!!) that has a life of its own, along with a dysfunctional radio that works in spurts. His house has a beautiful antique look to it and the furniture, paintings, telephone and other appliances all have an archaic look to it. He lives in the past and digs out the history of others while his story is buried somewhere down there with cooking and food being the only bright sparks in his life.

At the other end is Maya Krishnan (Shwetha Menon), a bespectacled spinster who has a chovva dosham jatakam and so her marriage remains an unfulfilled dream. As a dubbing artiste, she remains perpetually in the background just like her aspirations, lost in the wilderness of her age. A wrong number mobile call for a Thattil Kutti Dosa brings these two foodies together but their insecurities leads them to use younger substitutes in the form of Manu (Asif), Kalidasan's nephew and Meenakshi (Mythili), Maya's roommate. This creates misunderstandings, confusion and conflict which is eventually resolved in a slightly contrived ending.

The Thattil kutti dosa brings them together and the Joan’s Rainbow Cake, a delicious multi-layered cake created by a French housewife waiting for her soldier husband to return during World War II, helps them in discovering their affections for each other. As the cake gets baked, the Second World War comes to an end and the world around Kalidasan and Maya also turns sweeter. (While the Joan’s Rainbow cake certainly looks appetizing, just wondering wouldn't it have been more appealing if the movie had referred to maybe a forgotten dish from rural Kerala?).

What works for the movie is the wonderful humour that has gone into the writing of the movie. It is crisp, flows freely and crackles effortlessly without requiring the actors to perform any antics of their own. The film has an unabashedly urban youth feel (though the protagonists are middle aged) and scores handsomely over a plethora of movies masquerading as hep, youth movies nowadays. The script distinctly tries to distance itself from old world Malayalam cinema (Nammal enthada engane was so aptly used ironically by Shwetha Menon and dubbed by Bhagyalakshmi) but creates a language of its own without ignoring its roots.

Food morsels are sprinkled regularly in the dialogues and its aroma wafts across for a greater part of the movie.Every sad or happy occasion has a layer of food around it; almost as if the writer wrote the script the first time and then in repeated iterations brought in the element of food into all the dialogues. The movie starts with the food chain and finds its presence everywhere – pazham pori in the beauty parlour, the impact of a steaming hot tea after a drunken night, the kitchen secrets of Babu and the Moopan (even when Maya pours water over the director’s food, he tries to laugh it away saying kanji nallatha!!!).

The first half works itself beautifully as it smartly intersperses food and the romance in the narrative. Kalidasan’s pennu kannal chadangu is a stand out act; an example of a scene which may not sound great when you read it but is simply brilliant when it undergoes a visual translation. There are attempted gay overtones in the Master and Chef relationship but the movie gladly shies away from any form of unwarranted or cheap humour and makes their bonding one of the highlights of the movie.

Vijayraghavan plays an interesting cameo as a fellow colleague of Kalidasan who tries to reclaim his old lost love. Reminded me of an O Henry story where the protagonist causes a massive traffic jam just so that his daughter is able to express her love. His story brings about the turning point and makes Kalidasan realize how simple the problem is and how complex people perceive it to be but I wished that the director had given more screen space for the lead pair to communicate and not abruptly disconnected their interaction. Though they have very few scenes together, their chemistry glows and the moments that they share are funny and even awkward at times, making it so much more believable; recollect the scene where Kalidasan is unsure of how to react and puts down the mobile when she starts crying or when his idea of small talk involves listening to old audio tapes of leaders. Now if only Shweta and Lal had more such delightful moments together, wouldn't the serving have tasted that much more savory?

Honestly, it had all the makings of a mini-classic (an almost Dil Chahta Hai moment) but Aashiq Abu eventually decides to play safe and not skip the opportunity to go the whole hog. The second half mysteriously bids adieu to our taste buds and shifts the narrative totally to the budding romance between the youngsters (Rather than a Dosa undakiya katha, it becomes a Dosa thodangivecha katha). A random song in between sticks out as an odd element added in the proceedings and a forced attempt to bring relief when the script does not demand it. It hurries towards a climax which is kind of funny but looks planned and does not flow as smoothly the rest of the plot.

The supporting cast plays commendably in a movie whose strength lies primarily in the script and less in its characters. Baburaj is definitely the surprise package of the movie, even though the director had cast him in a funny role even in Daddy Cool; just goes to show how under-utilized many of our character artists are. Ahmed Siddique as K T Mirash (was the name modeled on mirage?) is delightful with his dead pan expressions and his natural ability to irritate by doling out free advice. The tribal Kelu Moopan and the human right activists do not really contribute to the plot and I think they could have been left out of the script.

When you watch a particular type of film that you haven’t seen for a long time, you probably overlook everything else in the movie and focus all your energies on the exciting material that is brought to the table by the director. Salt N' Pepper is essentially an urban romantic comedy that has its heart as well as stomach in the right place; it serves a cuisine which is slightly uneven but you still want to fall in love with it because it presents a modern writing that has not been seen much in Malayalam. Something’s definitely cooking!!!!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Sacred Treasure Hunt

The treasure is still being counted and the last estimates of the treasure trove obtained from the vaults of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple are being pegged at around 100,000 crores – almost like a scene from Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark. There is one more unopened vault which the Supreme Court has yet not permitted to open and so the final figure is anyone’s imagination but the amount is a mind boggling figure by any stretch of imagination. Mind you, the figure is not an official estimate but is hearsay but then who cares, the media has already proclaimed the temple as the richest religious institution in the country.

The priceless items in the vaults include solid gold idols, a 10-foot long gold chain, gold pots, bags of diamonds, hundreds of kilograms of gold trinkets, Belgium diamonds and emeralds, hundreds of French, Dutch East India Company and Roman gold coins(called Aureus), Roman silver coins, Venetian ducats, drachmas, Vijayanagar period coins and so on. Other riches include, necklaces made of gold coins, gold waist bands, anklets, three crowns studded with diamonds, pearls and rubies, gold staff and plates.

The valuation is now being carried out basis a Supreme Court judgment which stayed a ruling by the high court in Kerala ordering the state government to take over the temple and its assets from the royal trust. The initial court petition was brought by a local lawyer, who filed a case in the Kerala High Court demanding the takeover of the temple, saying that the current controllers were incapable of protecting the wealth of the temple because it did not have its own security force.

According to the temple staff, the 18th century ruler of Travancore, Marthanda Varma, gifted his kingdom to the deity, Sree Padmanabhan, after which the royal family has been ruling their subjects as “a servant of Sree Padmanabhan,” or Padmanabhadasan. There is no clear historical agreement on the source of the treasure but it is largely thought to have been in the temple for hundreds of years, having been put there by traders, pilgrims and royals such as the maharajahs of Travancore, and by offerings of Travancore kings, other royals and ordinary devotees to the deity.

The impoverished state of Kerala’s governmental coffers contrasts with the massive treasures unearthed from the temple and so there is a sneaking (wishful) temptation to demand that the temple wealth be given to the Government so that the money is used for public welfare (so the pitch about the size of the funds being equivalent to x% of the GDP or equal to the NREGS or PDS funding required).

With all the various scams corroding the exchequer regularly, there is a clear deficit of faith in the Government’s ability to act as the fund manager. It’s kind of difficult to imagine the Govt as Robin hood by taking this money from the temple and putting it to public use. When the reputation of the politician is in shreds and the Government is seen as an entity that helps in hoarding black money and does nothing about corruption, can you trust this wealth in the hands of the wealth? The Govt needs to be perceived to be at least remotely honest before people can repose their faith in it to do this. Would the same devotees be comfortable in contributing to a temple if teh money were to fill in government coffers?

But then isn’t there is something like an ownership right that exists in this country? If the media discovers that someone is mega rich, there are clamours all around for the money to be used for the discerning public – always easy to be generous when the cash flows from someone else’s pocket, I presume. Some historians have suggested that a major chunk of the stored riches reached the kings in the form of tax, gifts, as well as conquered wealth of conquered states and temples stocked in the temple for safekeeping and so the money is not necessarily a legitimate source of income. By that standard, you’d to have to admit that practically every ancient monument would have to be razed – imagine confiscating the Taj Mahal because Shah Jahan taxed the people heavily to flaunt his love for his wife.   

The valuation exercise being carried out in the temple vaults has thrown up gold assets and artifacts and not hard cash. So, the actual funding can only happen if the Government auctions all the treasure trove and mops up the money. I am no fan of ancient relics but then there are enough museums in the country which can merit this kind of approach and you cannot isolate Padmanabhaswamy temple on this. Public deficit financing through the auction of ancient treasures has never been a public policy and will never be one.

The best way to treat this largess would have to hive it off into a museum on the lines of a Louvre or the British Museum. The museum can be setup under the aegis of a trust comprising the royal family and a couple of government nominees where the role of the Govt will largely be in providing security and building the infrastructure to make it a renowned tourist and cultural location.   

The Kerala government is fearful of being drawn into an issue that has the potential to be religiously divisive. The UDF which has a narrow majority of two seats in an assembly of 140 seats is seen as a minority-friendly government. Analysts believe that the Hindus largely voted for the LDF in the last state elections and so CM Oommen Chandy is wary of upsetting the religious balance especially with a large section vocal section favouring the continuance of the former royal family at the helm of affairs at the temple.

What could eventually happen is what normally happens as an everyday political strategy in India – a committee will be formed to suggest what should be done with the temple’s treasure trove. The news hype will die down and the committee will amble along and finally present a report which probably some sort of status quo (a bit like the anti-climax of the Telangana report). The treasure will be sealed and thrown back into the vaults lock, stock and barrel and the issue will come up once a while as and when the media rises out of its slumber. And the poor Trivandrum citizen will find that living next to a wealthy lord translates into being surrounded by armed security.

Far from insisting on status quo, the issue is an opportunity to revisit a debate on the role of Government in the administration of religious institutions, especially Hindu temples. Nehru’s vision of a secular India meant that in 1949, the Hindu endowments and charitable trusts act was passed which gave control of Hindu religious institutions to the government. So, you have Governments heading trusts like the TTD and the Devaswom Board even though there is no business for the state to get involved in religion and matters of faith. Even here the intervention is selective - there are scores of temples that are lying in a state of neglect but the Government is indifferent but the moment money starts pouring in, there is direct and indirect intervention in its affairs.

It does not help that while Governments think twice before applying similar solutions to Madrassas and Christian Missionaries, there is an urge to clamp down on the religious institutions of the majority community. It is also true that Hindu trusts have themselves not covered themselves in glory by their unwillingness to be transparent and accountable to millions of stakeholders. Religious institutions have to necessarily be more approachable than government offices and ensure that regular audits are carried out and the financial statements are open to scrutiny by anyone. It does not augur well for a temple to be treated as a haven for stacking black money and being opaque in its financial dealings, especially when millions look to it for guidance.

With the Courts deciding in favour of God as a legal entity in the Babri Masjid case, is there any reason why Gods and their offices need to be kept out of the purview of RTI?

P.S. I am no temple goer or worshipper in any true sense. I am a Hindu by birth and by birth only and my relationship to temple is purely cultural and not religious. While I have visited the temple twice, personally, I believe that it is ridiculous that it does not allow non-Hindus inside; an idea that I had railed against earlier.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Revisiting a Classic - Thazhvaram

For all the acclaim that Malayalam cinema has earned, the thriller or action genre has been largely unexplored. In this wilderness, however, there exists a cult movie like Thazhvaram (The Valley - 1990), where two stalwarts – MT and Bharathan – come together to cleave a fascinating revenge saga. People have largely compared this movie to the world of Spaghetti western classics immortalized by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood and this remains the only such venture by mainstream Malayalam cinema.

The plot is fairly straight forward – it is a story of a man seeking to avenge his wife’s murder. Balan (Mohanlal) arrives in a remote hilly tribal area in Agali (in Palakkad) in search of Raghavan (Salim Ghouse), who is now a close associate of Nanuettan (Shankaradi) with possibly plans of settling down there after marrying Nanuettan’s daughter Kochutti (Sumalatha). The movie moves back and forth in time oscillating between the present and Raghavan’s past till the very end when we get a clear picture of his treachery. The cat and mouse game thrills till it finishes in a brilliantly orchestrated climax.

Right from the first scene when Balan carves out his bĂȘte noire Raghavan’s photo from a photo frame of the two together, you know what to expect. There are no surprises and you know the story has a clear revenge plot where Balan will eventually succeed (of course, knowing the penchant of Malayalam directors to force tragedy endings till the 90s, this could still have been a surprise then). But the taut script holds your attention till the very end and there is never a dull predictable moment despite the inevitability of the end.

Death and revenge looms large over the movie and the valley forms an important element in the movie. Time is a meaningless concept here and it is only the songs on the radio which act as any sort of reference to its passage. The camera keeps staring down at the valley and there is an edginess to the surroundings; the cold and dry hills and the remoteness of the place, dry landscape, vultures lurking constantly for their prey – all these create the image of the Jungle where only the fittest can survive.

The only place of habitation is downhill where the presence of a film poster (Ramarajan in Anbu Kattalai) shows the fleeting sense of entertainment in these parts. There is no attempt to romanticize life in this remote place – there are no neighbours, no transport or communication facilities and while Nanuettan and Kochutti wish to live here, there is an uneasy truce between modern facilities and sedentary life here which they have to make to enjoy the place. They co-habit the place along with the danger of wild animals but then you'd have to admit that no wild animal possesses the same danger as a human being.

The landscape of the movie is dotted with very few characters but each has a role to perform in building the momentum in the plot. Balan has forgiven Raghavan many a times and he has had to pay heavily for it. He has nothing more to lose and arrives in Agali in search of Raghavan (the makeup of the two is the only hint that we have of a possible time lapse between his loss and arrival here). What are his feelings towards Kochutti – love, gratitude or maybe even sympathy; we do not know and Bharathan wisely does not attempt to explain this any further.

Raghavan (dubbed by Shammi Thilakan) is a totally dark and menacing character with a monstrous aura and no redeeming features at all. He is party to all vices and lives in fear of retribution (he is wary when he sees fire, hears the sound of the buffaloes and everything else). He is neither interested in land nor marriage but agrees to go along with Nanuettan till he can find a better plan. Even when is in trouble, he tries to negotiate a deal with Balan and escape but by the end Balan knows well enough that there is no alternative (echoed by Nanuettan when he says Kollenadathanu kollanam. Daya vicharichu vitta athu pinne athilum anartham undaakum. Droham undakkana size aanennuvannal tharam undavumbol kollanam. Athane malela niyamamwhile referring to the attack by animals in the wild). 

Nanuettan is essentially a lower caste worker who runs away with an upper caste woman and settles down in the remote hills. He soon lords over the tribals of the place and owns large tracts of land in the place himself but he knows that he needs to get his daughter married quickly enough, knowing that the remote hills are no place for a woman to live alone in the long run. He keeps attempting to get Raghavan to buy land there and settle down and get him married to Kochutti as a pragmatic endeavour to take care of his daughter, though you suspect he realizes that Kochutti does not approve the match and Raghavan is directionless and indecisive about his future.

The relationship between Kochutti and Balan is ambiguous; there is a background sexual tension but this is largely kept at bay because of her suspicion. She is a beautiful and outspoken woman who realizes that she may have to settle down with Raghavan but is not convinced about the relationship. There are suggestions that she is lonely and wishes to move to a more inhabited place or even meet her relatives. There is a hinted rivalry between the two protagonists for her but she is unable to decide who is honest; t
hese two men are the only men she’s spent time with, other than her father.

Thazhvaram boasts of the most spectacular background music that I have heard in Malayalam. Johnson's scintillating music and Venu's haunting cinematography create a palpable tension which reaches its crescendo in a brilliant climax where the two men fight each other in a mad sense of desperation. As they lunge at each other wildly, vultures make their way to the place awaiting their dinner; easily one of the most fascinatingly etched out scenes in the movie.

With only four characters as the locus and no great dramatic developments, it would have been difficult to keep the plot engaging but therein lies the craft of the director. It is tough to tell if the script would have been so captivating on paper without this backdrop and the technical finesse brought in by the crew. Bharathan paints his frames in brown and green hues and creates the deathly mood; the dialogues are calm and sparse, there are extended close-ups of the protagonist, the background music builds the momentum till it all culminates in a duel that settles matters finally.

Thazhvaram remains a one of its kind movie in an untapped genre with exceptions like Season; can't recollect more of this kind..