Movie Reviews, Commentary & More

Babel - Movie Review

Spoiler Warning: The fourth paragraph sketchily discusses the storyline.

Expectations were high for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's '21 Grams' because of his breakthrough debut 'Amorres Perros'. '21 Grams' matched his first effort in a few aspects and exceeded in a few other aspects. Though I found the broken structure of '21 Grams' a little distracting than challenging, that's just a small quibble considering the immense experience it offered. With these two movies, Inarritu's third offering 'Babel' was received with a Himalayan hype.. and.. and... it's no hyperbole to say that 'Babel' truly lives up to it's expectations. If you like serious movies that looks at life unflinchingly without preaching or sermonizing, look no further than Inarritu. He completes his interconnectedness trilogy in great style and cements his position as one of the most reputed directors working today. If you want to read no further, consider the rest of the review as a wonderful advertisement and a strong recommendation for the best movie I've seen this year.

Chaos theory proposes something like the flap of a butterfly's wing in Madagascar can set off a chain of events that could result in a hurricane in Florida. 'Babel' magnificently captures the emotional/life equivalent of this theory with grace, grittiness, style and substance. As with Inarritu's previous efforts, he touches multiple themes, portrays how many personalities are confronted and sometimes rudely shaken by what a stranger did in a different part of the world. But he doesn't treat any of the motifs as peripheral issues in spite of the limited screen time. There is a scene at the beginning of the film where a girl begins to strip herself because she knows a boy is peeping through. There are no frank dialogues exchanged between them as they live in a society which follows rigid codes imposed on boy-girl interactions. And that scene makes a strong statement about the universal curiousness that prevails among cupid struck teenagers to stretch the limits of their culture to accommodate their infatuated entity. A lesser director would have capitalized on the nudity element, and a better director would have cut the scene for it doesn't aid the primary themes. But Inarritu wonderfully sets the tone of the boy's character and proceeds with his story through that scene.

This movie is global in the sense that it spans different continents, cultures, languages - but discusses unifying themes like love, desire, pain and guilt. There are four sub-plots 'Babel' deals with: [1] An American couple touring Morocco - emotionally distant, too tired to argue and egoistic to talk openly about matters ailing their relationship. [2] A good-natured, responsible and lovable Mexican illegal immigrant working in America as a housekeeper cum babysitter. [3] A peasant family in a village in Morocco - a strict father, his two shepherd sons and their mindless guts. [4] A deaf-mute Japanese girl who feels lonely and outcast because of her inability to lose her virginity. All the stories are interconnected and every story, (which seems complete even without the connections) is exploited by the screenplay by putting the characters into delicate positions, tight corners and agonizing moments to analyze universal themes in a mature manner. Guillermo Arriago, who has collaborated with the director in his previous efforts produces another gem of a tangled script which feeds the director's hunger for challenge.

Susan and Richard, affluent Americans, failing in their marriage, are touring a lesser known destination in the Moroccan deserts. Teenage shepherds in a village in Morocco get a rifle to guard their herd from the jackals. When they get curious to see if a cartridge can travel three kilometres as promised by the seller, one of the boys shoots at a tourist bus from a mountain top, which pierces Susan's neck. In the middle of nowhere, Richard tries like hell to get an ambulance to get Susan to the nearest hospital as soon as possible. Since this accident puts a hold on their return schedule, Richard asks his housekeeper Amelia in San Diego to hang on for a while, who has plans of attending her son's wedding on the other side of the border. Since Amelia can't find anyone to look after the children, she takes them with the help of her immature nephew Santiago to Mexico without proper papers. When they try to re-enter the States, a drunk Santiago pulls off a stunt that results in an accident, not physical, but tremendously mental which forms some of the best agonizing scenes in the movie. When all of this transpires, Chieko, a deaf-mute girl in Japan tries to cope with her loveless life - a recently dead mother, emotionally distant father, without any boyfriends, she tries to lure men into her life by revealing herself inappropriately.

The performances are uniformly superlative. It is extremely refreshing to see Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett shed their superstar images and play mid-age couple. In one of the scenes where Pitt and Blanchett travel in a bus, because of their physical proximity, she hovers her fingers over his hands, but he doesn't respond to her call for emotional support and remains cold. A few minutes later, she is shot and he carries her through the narrows passages and up the stairs of a remote town. When immobility renders her pants wet, he cleans her. In a heart rending move, he kisses her in an assuring way which implies that he'll be with her come what may. Now, how many A list Hollywood actors are ready to play this scene is a valid question. But, how many of them can act such intimate scenes with this level of naturalism is a big question. Rinko Kikuchi as Chieko plays a very daring and demanding role because her part requires complete nudity and at the same time portraying complex emotions pertaining to lovelessness. Adriana Barraza plays Amelia with great strength which seems further enhanced by the screenplay for her part which tests her ability to act both composed on the outside and helpless inside in front of the kids. The Moroccan crew comprises of new names, but there is not a false step in their scenes.

Not only are the main themes captivating, but the minor characters too make strong points. For example, an American co-passenger/tourist travelling in the bus feels threatened at the spate of villagers looking at him. When Richard (Brad Pitt) requests the bus stay until an ambulance arrives, first he hesitates and later he cajoles, coaxes and orders the remaining tourists to get the bus off the village. He doesn't have much screen time, but he symbolizes the typical first world fear that the third world citizens are going to eat him up if he's struck in their place. The American government soon adds terrorism overtones to this accidental shooting. But, a young Muslim guide stays with Richard all the while, helps with getting Susan airlifted to a speciality hospital in a city (which reaches the hospital around night time) and refuses to accept cash for his support. The turmoil Chieko feels is difficult to capture in words and I wonder what Arriago would have written if she hadn't been mute. The screenplay and her facial expressions capture her slow descent into a vortex of a hardened world.

Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto adds value to this movie. Some shots, without word, without anything animate are just simply brilliant in conveying what the writer or director couldn't say. A search scene in a Mexican desert leaves your mouth dry - great composition of shots that leave you baffled just as the searcher is baffled. Edited by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione, there is not an abrupt cut or closure or opening. It's difficult to put film rolls together, especially when it involves multiple stories. The narration is so seamless that these guys definitely make the producer less worrisome. Guillermo Arriago has written all the three of the movies directed by Inarritu. Almost all the scenes just blend homogeneously and it's quite difficult to distinguish how much of the success of that one scene or plot or even the movie as a whole was contributed by the writer and the director. Every scene is wonderfully written and breathtakingly composed. The series of scenes that make up a sub-plot represents forceful story-telling and magnificent character development. But the movie as a whole, is very much greater than the sum of it's parts.

Destiny, fate, free will, casual mistakes that result in tragic consequences, love and the pain of losing a secure life - these are some of the themes Inarritu has repeatedly revolved around in his first three movies. An act of good will in one corner of the world has the potential to leave two children orphaned in another corner of the world. Though there is a certain poetic justice in the way the movie ends, it's not all sweet. For example, Chieko gets her hug, but from someone who doesn't have any sexual interests in her. All the stories have a clear ending, but there is also a new beginning in the way they come to an end. 'Babel' provides food for thought and stays with you after the credits roll. This movie makes a clarion call for strong consideration for the upcoming Oscars in the top categories. We are used to seeing the members of the Academy bungle up with their votes. Irrespective of the awards it may garner or lose, this movie will be remembered for a long time, which is the hallmark of any great movie.

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On Slashing Cinema Tickets Prices

The TN government's decision to regulate cinema ticket prices across the state will degenerate the theatre conditions and demotivate good theatre managers. The press release said it was impossible to ignore the fact that people were being denied a chance to watch many movies because of the high entrance rates. So, what next, are they going to consider the political party workers who can't step into star hotels because of high costs? How about regulating coffee and tea prices which can go upto a maximum of Rs.7 at places like Java Green and Coffee Day? This is plain stupid, short-sighted move just like that meaningless tax-exemption rule (for movies named in Tamil).

No doubt the current rates are on roof-top even considering the amenities offered. But the market will strike a balance once more cineplexes crop up and share what is now a lion's share of just one or two complexes. The government's priorities have been skewed ever since they announced free stupid boxes in their campaign, and worse, the mass elected them for such unworthy gratuity. I'm reminded of Kamal's words towards the end of 'Devar Magan' : Pongada, poi pullaingala padikka vaingada.

Viewer's Block

I can't seem to get myself to watch a movie, in the past couple of weeks. I saw 'Cars' and 'Forrest Gump'. I wasn't terribly motivated by those two movies. I've always been excited at the thought of seeing a movie in the last six years, and this past week has been unusually low on energy. I've been dull - I have a copy of 'Children of Heaven' by Majidi and 'Color Trilogy' by Kiewslowski and there is no drive in me to view them.

I read this quote which went somthing like: you can think, talk and act yourself into dullness or excitement. Nothing new in that quote, but worth trying. Will try to post the review of that Iranian movie sometime this weekend and see how it all goes from there.

Catching the West

Indian movie industry has looked up to Hollywood for long. Though we have our own reasons for not probing deep and delivering original pictures, anybody who looks up to Hollywood for as long as we have will find it difficult to evolve. But I'm surprised that we haven't copied some of the successful western trends.

Sequels - I can't think of any sequel to a hit Tamil film. Though we have our sentiments in naming after blockbusters or adopting the same storyline, we don't have a proper sequel where we have a hero with the same name playing a similar character. 'Gilli' is just a perfect movie to continue - Vijay & Trisha were hot at that time and everyone was lauding the fast paced screenplay. I guess the producers would have gotten their input in the first week of the sequel's release because the characters were well established and the audience wanted something like that. When even Hollywood considers sequels as an easy route to commercial success, I don't know why we haven't adopted this idea in our filmdom. The Hindi guys have begun.

Remakes - I don't root for remakes, in the original sense of the word. What Hollywood considers as a remake is an old English film made again with current generation actors to entertain the current generation audience. In India, a remake almost always means a script from one language produced in a different language. We have movies being produced simultaneously in multiple languages and commercially successful movies remade into other languages. But the trend of a movie remade in the same language has begun in Tamil with Ajith and Vijay committing themselves to old Rajini hits. A talented writer/director can take a mediocre script released at least a decade ago, modify it, spice it up and present in the same language. I don't know what a remake can achieve when the original itself is a highly popular product still etched in the mind of the audience. In most cases, both the remakes will bomb at the box, because it is an unwanted trend and both actors are incapable of mimicking Rajini.

Adaptations - I can't actually blame the film personalities. I'm totally out of touch with what's going on in the Tamil literature world and even if something good is being written I can think of a couple of factors to consider if the book is to be adapted for screen - 1) Do we have writers good enough to do justice to the quality of the material 2) How strong is the legal framework for this transition? Will the producers buy the copyrights for works in regional language? because they don't bother to inform or pay anybody when they uglily copy a foreign movie.

Compering, Ebert, ScreenAct

I wrote this piece about the art of compering 21 months back. Excerpts:
Camera consciousness is a universal weakness. Even if I pretend to have a camera in my hands and say "say cheese", many in front of me will turn rosy. Because that specific moment is captured into a timeless(?) material, we try to present our best faces, there by losing our naturalness. The conscious appeal is all the more salient if it's a video camera. This being the case, one would expect their TV show hosts to have nailed this weakness in addition to having excellent communication skills before starting their career. And expectations have reduced my joy. That's no philosophy, but reality. I don't recall a single host doing a 'natural talk' while presenting a program when it comes to Tamil satellite channels.

We need entertainers who can listen and respond with their heart in an interactive conversation. We need hosts who can walk and act as if there's no camera in front of them. We need hosts who are not eager to cut a call, rather keep the audience lively. We need hosts who can transport us to a funny world for a funny scene and to pathos if it's a tragic scene. We need hosts who can look straight into the camera and not twist around their hips and plainly talk with all possible naturalism. We need hosts who make sense.
Nothing has changed in this time interval, except that Kalanidhi Maran announced 5% of Sun network and is now the 20th richest guy in India. I wonder if the mediocrity of these shows has got to do with the expectations of audience. I saw Sun Music and a Vijay Sarathy song show in Sun TV today morning and I felt like banging my head when I listened to some of the callers to these talk shows - they are all damn excited and giggle like teenage girls who just received a date offer from Brad Pitt, or Madhavan, or whoever. After all, they get what they deserve. SNAFU.
I'll be pulling off my link to Roger Ebert sometime soon. He recently got back from hospital and wrote a review of 'Queen'. But since then, he has gone back into hiding, the site doesn't have any status updates and his editor Jim has been keeping the site busy. Ebert is the first critic to receive the Pulitzer for film criticism
(the other being Washington Post's Stephen Hunter) and his reviews are wonderful resources to approach, understand, analyze and appreciate movies. I hope he lives his last days in peace with his family.
I'm planning to actively blog on non-movies stuff at ScreenAct. I have had two other blogs previously and I will occasionally post entries from there into ScreenAct and eventually I'll tear them down and have just this one place for all my jots from Iraq to Carnatic music. When you find time, drop by at sometime starting tomorrow. P.S: Varaha, sorry to keep you meandering,
this is the last change, I promise.

Katrinil Varum Geethame...

Ilayaraja is as close I've gotten to mental levitation.

Cars - One Minute Review

The creators at Pixar have tried hard in breathing life into Cars, which is set in a world of cars where they all can talk and sing and run and sleep, just like human beings.. and precisely this extra effort exerted by the creators to make these cars sound very human-like is part of the problem. Lightning McQueen is a rash rookie race car focused only on Piston cup, thereby leaving other important things in life like friends and society unattended. A series of twists results in Lightning forced into doing community service in a small town just a few days ahead of his big race. Though he starts reluctantly and just wants to finish the job and run the heck out of that hillbilly hell, he finds other cars infuse the value of friendship and love in him. When he's learned his lessons, he participates in the race as a mature man.. err... car which finishes in an unpredictable but sweet twist.

The middle segment slows down very well in order to establish and develop characters in Radiator Springs, the town where Lightning gets struck. The kids might find it a little stretched and the adults wouldn't find it captivating either. John Lasseter, the director has made sure that nobody in the audience mistake the cars as mere automobiles and has gone over the board in assigning human values to them. No complaints in the voice acting department, with Owen Wilson for Lightning McQueen and Paul Newman for Doc Hudson, the mature mentor who guides the restless young hotshot. Though it doesn't come close to the entertaining level set by the previous Pixar production 'Incredibles', the animation is as good as you might have seen. You run the player in slow motion or pause anywhere, the images are just flawless. 'Cars' is a decent entertainer that serves for all ages, but doesn't strike a strong chord for any particular age group.

Rajini Trivia Quiz*

Easy: If Rajini's character is called Raghupathy, how is V.K.Ramasamy's character called in the same movie?

Moderate: In a particular test, Rajini scores over 7000 marks out of 100. Name the movie.

Difficult: We know of item numbers, where popular heroines just appear for a song. Rajini had actually appeared in a movie, just for a song - well, not even for that full song, but only a part of it. Name the movie.

*Quiz with help from JP.


Nandhu observes that the frequent portrayal of female leads in the recent movies as brazen and daring in matters of sex to gratify the male audience is worrisome. The society is nowhere near running out of rogues who pass lewd comments on school/college girls and now this nasty trend in movies where girls actually take a liking for that rugged unshaven uneducated raw man just aggravates the cancer. Movies already are doing a disservice to the society by approving sexual harassment (hero and his friends make fun of girls) which gets treated lightly under the banner eve teasing. Now, as if this isn't enough, stories showcase girls as waiting for their man to show up, chase him if he doesn't look their way and sing ludicrous songs all night yearning for his presence by their bedside. Now, we've had our share of chauvinistic guys from S.Ve.Shekhar (he never proposes to a girl, it's always they who fall behind him) to Vijayakanth (women have been falling for his manliness, whatever that is!). In their cases, the screenplay is over-the-top and nobody takes it seriously. In case of something like '7G Rainbow Colony' where the youth identify themselves with the hero, the effects could be disastrous.

Many screenplays take the easy commercial way out - they just want to build platforms for the dreaming men who form the bulk of their revenue. Producers feed them the ugly thought that the girl in the next street actually likes you, not inspite of your black skin, but because of your black skin. And the director goes on to set-up scenes that emphasize that love is beyond status, caste, logic and intelligence. Actors who know that they have a mass following utter utterly stupid words that denigrates women, impose inane dress codes that would take our women back by a couple of generations and institute idiotic cultural values that belong to the 18th century. There is also the political appeasement factor in movies, which essentially tries to turn the clock backwards. The emotional impact movies leave on the young minds in our society is already on an all time high. If the trend continues, a considerable chunk of the next generation under-educated men will view young women as sex toys who need to abide by the rules enforced by men.

A brilliant line from Kurudihippunal: "Cinema pathu valandha koottam, government avangala velaikku vangidum".


Inspite of frequent misdirection, overaction, amateur photography and manipulative dialogues in 'Samsaram adhu Minsaram', Lakshmi leaves an impression.

Comedy in Tamil Movies - Future, Honorable Mentions

The. Future. Looks. Bleak... there is no other way to put it. A fair way of assessing the current cinema trend and also a pretty good indicator of where the movie industry is heading would be to analyze all movies released for a particular Deepavali or Pongal - between these two occasions, we must have movies that feature all the major stars and directors. The last two years have an abysmal record in delivering quality comedy. If you don't know me, I like slapstick humour, I like humour set in a village, I like vulgar humour and I'll laugh at the hint of a joke - but there's only slapstick and vulgarity and irritation and annoyance sans any humour. Of course there is always unintentional humour, like a Vijayakanth movie, but that's for a different topic. Unless sensible writers and talented actors (from film school / underpaid abused assistant writers-actors / from Mars) land in Kodambakkam and decide to clean up the studio corridors of the formula trash that we're used to, I'm afraid there will be a steep slippage into raw and obtuse comedy in future Tamil movies.

Let me record the humour levels of current/future heroes. A simple test would be listen to their interviews; if any one of them has a comedy nerve in their body, they'll make you laugh. My estimates of comedy quotients: Vijay, probably the most overrated and commercially successful actor after Mohan does his best bommalattam sketch when asked to perform comedy. His comedy sketches in Gilli are as painful as watching 'Schindler's List'. Ajith first needs to learn Tamil from Shalini and then someone else should teach him to enunciate. His auto comedy sketch (with Karunas) from 'Attagasam' is the comedy equivalent of diarrhoea - the cinema hall reeked of watery faeces. Vikram reserves himself for serious roles - it's good that he knows his limitations. Parthiban, I don't know if he's still considered a hero, can be boring sometimes, bearable in most cases and rarely funny. Simbu, with his I-know-it-all tone may become the sharpest blade of the Tamil cinema industry. Madhavan: incompetent. Surya: not funny. Dhanush: zilch. Jayam Ravi: nada. Ravikrishna: sub-zero.

Vivek's resurgence is a much needed tonic for metro-comedy. It doesn't fit to see Vadivelu as Vijay's friend, especially when Vijay plays a sophisticated character. I also have a feeling that Vadivelu is tightly embraced because there are no good alternatives. As mentioned in my earlier post, if Vadivelu tries to may money while his sun shines, he won't make history. Only a handful of his comedies may make it to the next decade. With age, Crazy Mohan's comedy creativity will begin to decline. Because of our rigid framework imposed on a hero's requirements, Kamal may have to quit the race in a few years. Sathyaraj, though blessed with a sense of timing and style, wouldn't play a lesser role and insists on appearing in lousy projects as a hero. As pointed out by Nilu, if actors who have a taste and talent for comedy prostitute their image as a hero for lame movies, they are doing a disservice to the audience. I hope Kamal takes a different view and dons small roles which have scope for comedy.

Writers resort to crudeness - kicks, foulmouths, bad manners, cleavages and all sorts of abuses find place in a comedy sketch. This is a very depressing trend. If you can't watch a funny scene with your mother and your son at the same time then it won't stand the test of time. The hallmark of a classic comedy is it's cleanliness. The Tom & Jerry series (Hanna/Barbara) is a showcase of purity. Parthiban's 'Ullae Veliyae' sure was funny (when I was a teenager) - but I'd watch 'Kadhilikka Neramillai' with my parents and down the line I'd recommend 'Michael Madana Kama Rajan' to my son. More over, crude humour is not funny on subsequent viewings. Established actors heavily rely on their mannerisms instead of the character they play for a comedy sketch to click. It's important they leave the character impregnated on the mind of the viewer than the personality itself. That's why it's easy to mimic a Vadivelu or a Vivek. Logically speaking, if writers and actors want to produce something that will stay with the audience, they should be avoiding all the masala ingredients. I know, I shouldn't have 'Tamil cinema' and 'logic' in the same sentence!!


# Though Crazy Mohan did a lot of cameos, he should be credited very strongly for being the backbone of some of the best comedies. Coming from TV sitcoms and stage plays, he knows to write [a] good humour for a family drama (Aaha) [b] very good humour for slim screenplays (Kadhanayagan) [c] great humour in combination with Kamal. Some of his jokes feel recycled and have a strong Brahmin scent, still they remain enjoyable.
# Thengai Srinivasan is a genuine miss and he rightly belongs in the list of popular comedians. His 'Kasedhan Kaduvalada' and 'Thillu Mullu' are jolly rides.
# Delhi Ganesh is an understated performer best utilized by Kamal Haasan.
# V.K.Ramasami, in his long career supported heroes ranging from Sivaji to Prabhu, funny at times.
# I like V.A.Moorthy and the thing he does with his mouth and eyebrows. Heard of 'Thedinen Vandhadhu'?
# Y.Gee.Mahendran, Suralirajan - rarely funny. Kathadi Ramamoorthy remained a stage artiste.
# Janakaraj has his pieces; Loose Mohan - nothing but Madras baashai and voice.
# Charlie is boring; Santhanam is quite good and brings a lot of 'Lollu Sabha' type with himself.

Links: Prelude, Part I, Part II

Comedy in Tamil Movies - Part II

Movies in colour feature comedy sketches that are far more evolved than the ones in black & white. Of course, with the passage of time, our writers, technicians and directors progressed in all aspects of movie-making, but the differences can be directly traced to American or European trends. Starting with camera movements, lighting arrangements, story narration, plot structures, stunts - our experiments here seemed to follow a success at Hollywood or else where. But you can't do that with comedy. What makes an American laugh cannot be applicable to a Tamilian. But we had our own style in making people laugh - and this time it was the artistes themselves who shouldered a big chunk of the responsibility of entertaining the audience and the smaller piece of pie lay with the comedy script writers.

My comedy star is Goundar Mani (or Gounda Mani). I didn't particularly like him until I was 15 or 16 when I thought of him as a sound actor - whatever it was, he just yelled using an inventive curse word like 'kadal panni' or 'nandu thalaiya' and people laughed for it. In a span of one or two years, I began enjoying him and turned from a despiser to an ardent fan. He is probably the only artiste who proudly exhibited his trademark irreverence - be it the villain or the hero or his mother or his neighbour or an old man, he treated them all equally - with a sharp disrespect. My favourite sketch of his is with Rajini in 'Mannan' and with Kamal in 'Indian'. In the past five or six years, his health has deteriorated and with that his voice and thespian skills and now he rarely appears on the screen. In his peak in the eighties and early nineties, he entertained everyone with his partner Senthil. Be it 'Vaidehi Kathirundhal' or 'Karagattakaran' they literally had the theatres in B and C centres rolling in laughter. Senthil added value when with Goundamani with his innocent looks and a decevingly 'enquiring mind' to which the latter would always fall. But Senthil didn't shine when he stood alone - he always added value as a parasite getting kicked in the ass by Goundamani.

Popular comedians of this generation are Vivek and Vadivelu - they both have a strong demarcation in their fans' tastes. While Vivek caters to the urban youth, mostly appearing as a friend of the city-bred hero, Vadivelu appeals to the semi-urban and rural areas donning various roles ranging from a teamaster to an autodriver. There was a short period of time when Vivek tried educating the masses in his brief screentime and was aptly called 'chinna kalaivanar'. But I don't think it went down well with the masses and he switched gears and jumped into pure fun. His sketches in 'Minnale', 'Run' and 'Dhool' are standout shows and I wouldn't be exaggerating I said that a sizeable part of the revenue for those movies was because of his sketches. He has a great sense of timing and can conceive witty situations which lead him into troubled waters. He recently tried to be a lead in a movie, which did poorly at the box office and since then he has had a slump. I hope 'Sivaji' will be a resurgence for him. And it's important that he bounces back because there's nobody else doing a job as good as he used to do.

Vadivelu is the reigning king of comedy. He demands sums that ageing heroes like Arjun or Prabhu can only dream of and movie schedules are rearranged as per his availability. He has cast his spell on the village population that they start laughing when he appears on the screen. I like Vadivelu, mostly because of his dialogue delivery and humility. It's been a fabulous journey for him since 'En Rasavin Manasule' where he appeared as a village commoner with nothing much to do through 'Devar Magan' where he actually played a good role to 'Winner' where he is almost the hero with Prashanth playing a subdued role. The cinema industry was badly in need of a comedian who would speak native accent with ease and the arrival of Vadivelu's 'Winner' established him firmly in the hearts of the rural population. But for every good sketch of his, there are probably five or six bad ones, where he just tries very hard to get the viewers to giggle. He should be more judicious in choosing the comedy script, or else it will be only a matter of time before he falls down.

There were a few heroes who were capable of tickling the funny bone. Even as a villain, Sathyaraj had a taste for 'naiyyandi' and his 'lollu' is matched by only a few. His 'Amaidhippadai' is a classic example of his ability to arrest the audience with his carefree speech delivered in an elegant manner. His combination with Gounda Mani in many movies is devastatingly funny. Rajini is funny too, but he needs a lot of push from the script. Bhagyaraj is the kind of guy who would tame a bull by bringing in a cow. He always approaches the comedy in a logical angle and infuses humour throughout the screenplay. Pandiarajan has an uneven comic scale: I like his 'Kadhanayagan' and 'Aanpavam', but there are many of his movies that are better left without a mention. S.Ve.Shekhar has played the lead role in a few movies, though he has been primarily a supporting actor and seemed to be content with stage plays. There is a recurring pattern in the way he makes us laugh, but I've never been bored by his comedy. Mostly, heroes of this generation had a better sense of humour than the previous generation heroes like Gemini, S.S.R, Sivaji, etc.

Manorama, who is still going strong had better roles with Kamal, Sathyaraj and other heroes. But I wouldn't give the entire credit to her. Mostly it was the screenplay, which made sure that the audience are ready to laugh. Take 'Nadigan' or 'Singaravelan' for example: though Manorama delivered funny lines, the audience were laughing throughout the running length and it would be justified to say that she did a good job out of the character. To acknowledge Manorama as a great comedienne, she should have turned an otherwise boring movie with her style and humour into a good one. I don't remember a single movie where this has happened. Kovai Sarala has successfully taken Manorama's place - neither of them are keen on entertaining the audience. She is just one boring lady, except when with Vadivelu or Vivek. But if there's somebody I like in the category, it is Urvasi. Though she mostly concentrated on serious roles, Urvasi did some commendable sketches in 'Vanaja Girija' and 'Maya Bajaar 95'. If only had she cut down her over-acting, she would have been one of the most versatile actresses in our field.

Kamal Haasan changed the face of humour in Tamil cinemas. He didn't give much thought about his jokes reaching every one in the theatre and instead opted to go for intelligent humour that would burst out in quick successions. You laugh quite hard and you'll miss the next joke that you'll be forced a second viewing. I can't think of any other actor who has successfully released so many full length comedy movies: 'Avvai Shanmugi', 'Kadhala Kadhala', 'Singaravelan', 'Panchathanthiram', 'Pammal K. Sambandham' - the list continues to grow. There are some lesser efforts from him, but even they stand on par with offerings from other actors/directors who successfully craft comedy pictures. His 'Michael Madana Kama Rajan' tops the list. The screenplay is so convoluted and at the same time very clear that you just can't be awed enough by this man's talent to write humour. You answer the door, you've missed a couple of gems - that's how tightly packed the jokes are in here. Of course, a big percentage of the credit should go to Crazy Mohan for his inventive dialogues, but that doesn't diminish Kamal's supreme talent. Crazy Mohan has great command in playing with the language and Kamal has the ability to respect that command by writing and acting in brilliant situations. His expressions and voice modulations also tell us how wonderful an actor he is and comedy is something that can't be acquired. 'Avvai Shanmugi', is not a mere change in the get-up, but a transformation of his entire body language. The fight with Kanal Kannan in the vegetable market is a great example of a maami taking on the goons - the womanliness is not compromised in one single move. I'll stop with this one paragraph about him and make a separate post about his contributions to Indian cinema. (More on Crazy Mohan in the next (final) part of this series).

Though we had a lot of comedy artistes and better comedy sketches in this period, the decline in the moral aspects of the humour content has to be acknowledged. Physically challenged people were made fun of; fat or lean people were made fun of; people belonging to a specific caste/religion/place/tradition were made fun of; women were made fun of - in fact some of the comedy scenes suggested or approved sexual harassment; and it's not getting any better. On the brighter side, there are also a lot of scripts that tried to educate the masses. Whatever it is, we are not mellowing down - we're only getting more louder and crasser and stronger and raw in getting across the message. We lack quality writers - much of the laughter relies on the mannerisms of the comedy artiste rather than the situation. We need writers who can think beyond our region and create a universal comedy pattern. Say, if someone in Iran decides to watch a Tamil comedy movie, they shouldn't he hampered down by too many cultural locks. They should be able to laugh by looking at the character's action and reading the subtitles. I'm not asking for a lot here.

Links: A prelude to comedy in Tamil movies and the first part.

Movies #13 - This, That & the Other

  1. I frequently contribute one of my posts to a cinema forum which collects some of the best/insightful posts on cinemas. Scott Nehring has been doing this good work for a while and the latest edition is available here. Go check it out.
  2. Compiling a list of comedy artistes who have contributed to Tamil cinema is the easy part. Trying to be a little objective and writing a few clear sentences is the hard part. When I write about Kamal, I need to control myself in using superlatives or else the post would seem heavily biased and saccharine.
  3. My guilty pleasure in the past couple of days has been to know something about who all have (RSS) subscribed to my posts. If you're comfortable, just drop in a line as a comment to this post with your name and what you'd like to see more from me. I'll be happy. Thanks.

Movies #12 - More on Masoom

A stranger to old Hindi movies, Masoom made me feel at home and encouraged to check out other titles that my north Indian friends have been recommending. The movie viewing experience was wholesome - the story is believable, actors creditable, music adorable and direction melliflous. For a family drama that deals with a cracking relationship, there is no high decibel noise to be heard here. My wife was unhappy with my brief review of the movie and hence this revisit.

I'll begin with an open letter of praise to R.D.Burman. As regular readers of this blog know, I've seen less than 20 Hindi movies and most of them are fairly recent. Songs from those movies are super duper hit but they didn't touch me on a deeper level - you know, the kind of songs that you hum when you're alone and think about something/someone personal. Masoom's songs make an exception - 'Tujhse naraz' and 'Huzur is kadar' top the list. Not only are the songs soothing and touching, but they are very well placed in the screenplay - they don't intrude into the narration, but just help the story flow smoothly. The background score is simple and touching and never announces itself.

This movie launched the cinematic careers of Jugal Hansraj and Urmila Matondkar. For a director of Shekar's stature, I thought he should have extracted better performances from these kids - but then, this is his debut feature and probably he was happy with what the kids delivered before the camera. I think they are one of the weak links in the cinema. In some of the scenes, they appeared to be performing for a school drama waiting for the teacher from the corner of the podium to give instructions. It's not all that bad, but when compared to what Shabana Azmi and Nasseeruddin Shah did, the kids looked sluggish.

For the most part, the story unfolds slowly, the way neighbourhood women would chat. Such screenplays are a rarity. Say family problem and writers think of a high pitch word war between couples. Gulzar captures the split in the relationship built over years through many scenes that make the bulk of the second half. This is where the English version of the movie fails - when Robert Beckwith breaks the news of an extramarital affair to his wife, there is an immediate rift between them. Though, I found the ending a little unrealistic and hurried. You can't cheat the audience - they always want a happy ending.

Comedy in Tamil Movies - Part I

Disclaimer: I'll begin with a cliche: comedy is subjective. What's funny to me may sound like death knell to somebody. Having said that, there are some comedy sketches that most of us laugh for and there are some sketches that we laugh at. Though I am fairly acquainted with Tamil cinemas and have a broad range of humour (sohpisticated to slapstick) some readers may find this post either unbalanced or unfair and question my sanity - that's inevitable.

The roots of the currently seen strong masala flavour in Tamil cinemas can be traced back to the fifties where the director and writer (in most cases it's the same person) tried to present a balance of songs, sentiments, comedy, tragedy, fights and drama in one single package. While there are movies that compromised on any one of the aspects, comedy tracks have been treated as an indispensable part of the Tamil cinema since it's inception. It was one of the reasons people came to the theatres - to laugh out loud at people making stupid things, passing silly remarks, falling off a ladder, etc. The nature and quality of the comedy has evolved since then, but there are patches too where we find the movies comedically creatively bankrupt.

For almost all masala movies, there are two classes of writers: the ones who write the screenplay and the ones who fill in the screenplay with comedy sketches. The so-called situational comedies mostly revolved around a few beaten paths. To point out a few: a) double-action: two heroes, most probably twin brothers separated at birth meet in their mid-twenties and cause confusion b) a woman disguises herself as a man in a shirt and a pant c) when the hero and heroine fall in love, parallelly the comedien friend of our hero and the comedienne friend of our heroine also fall in love. In spite of the predictability of most of these sketches, some of them are really good and enjoyable even today. In this part, I'll express my thoughts on the comedians who ruled the yesteryears.

N.S.Krishnan is still remembered and I can hear cinema people blurt his name every now and then. He appeared almost always with his wife T.A.Madhuram and they're one of the earliest pairs who enjoyed an on-screen chemistry even before M.G.R-Saroja Devi or Sivaji-Savithri. As with comedies of that era, it was never crude or degenerating and he tried to educate the masses through his sketches. Whether it was husband-wife relationship or money-management, N.S.K had something to say or sing. 'Vignanathai valarkka porendi' from 'Nalla Thambi' decries with superstition and the importance of embracing science. My favourite song is 'Kanne unnal' from 'Ambikapathi', where he vents out his feelings for T.A.Madhuram in similies.

T.R.Ramachandran has to be included for nostalgic reasons. There are funny movies featuring him, like 'Adutha Veettu Penn' and 'Sabapathy'. It's quite difficult to laugh at his comedy today, but considering the naivette and innocence of people at that time, it's amusing. In a scene from 'Sabapathy', he gives his servant two 1/4 annas and asks him to get two eatables, for which the servant asks "which quarter anna for which eatable?" Now, it's not funny and I might even say it could be painful if somebody asked that in a so-called funny movie today. But my grandfather laughs for this scene. He laughs repeatedly and even narrates this joke to us as if today's comedians have to learn from these gems. I just nod my head without uttering a word.

Baliah and Thangavelu are real gems. They both had a sense of timing and distinct dialogue delivery. In 'Kalyana Parisu', the sketch where jobless Thagavelu deceives his wife as writer Vairavan is unadulterated fun for all ages. He has been the saving grace of a lot of movies in his career when everybody else spoke flat lines. Baliah is unique too. His facial contortions alone makes me smile and his voice modulations add to the humour. 'Thillana Moganambal' is a classic Baliah movie where he can make the audience laugh whether the screenplay is with the main storyline or if it's a separate track. Both these actors also double up as genuine character artistes (though the best character artiste to grace Tamil movies is S.V.Ranga Rao - a topic for another post) and add strength to the story.

Nagesh is a jambavan and has inspired many who'd later become comedians. I've read that stars like M.G.R and Sivaji had to wait or reschedule their films because of Nagesh's call-sheets. He has a certain charm and can speak funny lines.. but I honestly think that he's overrated. And there are scores of scenes where he plainly went over the board leaving the audience frowning. But that shouldn't shadow some of his best works, which till date remain in the classic comedy scenes: 'Thiruvilayadal', 'Server Sundaram', 'Bama Vijayam'... to name a few. He clicked very well with Cho (and you thought Manorama!). Though Cho didn't have a prolific film career as he soon moved to stage and journalism, I think we are yet to see someone with such a sharp tongue. Chandrababu stole many hearts in his short-lived career. My father, an ardent fan of Chandrababu used to say that Nagesh copied his dance style. When every character spoke in a flat accent, he sparkled the screen with his unique tone set in Madras baashai.

The women's comedy roster isn't impressive. Manorama has been filling in the female shoes, but quite unsuccesfully. If the screenplay isn't funny she couldn't help the situation. Though she has donned hundreds of roles that belong to the comedy category, in the absence of Nagesh or Cho she just happens to be a solid character artiste. (She has been funny in Singaravelan, Nadigan, etc - which will be discussed in Part II). Sachu is another name that comes to my mind... again it's just another name and she hasn't impressed either me or the previous generation through her comic skills. On rare occasions I've felt that Sowkar Janaki and Lakshmi were better comediennes that Manorama, but they were too busy in playing serious roles.

Most of the heroes of the 60's and 70's didn't possess much sense of humour. To create a full-length comedy in that era, you either needed a funny screenplay or a comedian as a hero. Two movies come to my mind: 'Kadhalikka Neramillai' - One of the best movies in Tamil. Directed by veteran Sridhar, this is a comic masterpiece. If the infinitely boring Ravichandran (who made is debut) can make us laugh, it goes on to show how talented the director is. The story narration scene between Nagesh and Baliah ranks top among my favourite spots. 'Bama Vijayam' - The only Balachandar movie that I like. Such an wonderful interplay of family themes and funny dialogues you would almost not notice 150 minutes fly away. It is no coincidence that both movies feature Nagesh and Baliah - the best in the business.

The striking aspect of the humour by these artistes is that they never insulted any community, rarely played on the sensibilities of a custom/tradition and were usually clean that you could take your 10 year old daughter to the movie. This aspect changed drastically with the arrival of Goundar Mani whose arrogance and blasphemy took everyone by storm. In the next part of this essay, I'll express my opinions about the comediens who shone after 1970 - which includes the inimitable Goundar Mani, the parasitic Senthil, frequently funny Vivek, bankable Vadivelu and heroes with a good sense of humour like lollu Sathyaraj, logical Bhagyaraj and the master of them all - Kamal Haasan.

Links: A prelude to comedy in Tamil movies.
Update: Second part of this series.