Madras Talkies

This blog is about my favorite Tamil director- Mani Ratnam. I was visibly impressed with his latest product, Ok Kanmani. But instead of reviewing his movie, I wanted to write something that would allow me to share his view of Cinema. For those who aren’t familiar with his style of movie making I would highly recommend in no following order
Before I delve further into his movies, I wanted to talk a few minutes about Cinema in India. India is rife with stories, as a young democracy cinema was fairly new but we have centuries of folklore to get inspired by, I don’t want to get pedantic about it but we have been inexorably smitten with story tellers to the point of worship. A 3 hour movie allows you to escape the daily life and something to talk about. As an industry, movies led the way to fashion, music and often reflected what the current society looks like.
There was a phase between the 60’s and 80’s where most notable movies were about critiquing the society. Many revolved around “Questioning the Man”, the man here in the picture changed from the imperialist British, the Raj and then the government which was in the clutches of the powerful. Many leading heroes went on to become politicians, a move which i felt was divorced from common sense and made me question democracy in general. The cine culture in India is vivid and reached a fever pitch when many felt the only way to ascend the ladder of government would be through cinemas. This era promulgated many ideologies ranging from movie themes which championed vigilantism (Sholay, Mother India) and Individualism (Billa, Nayagan, Varumayin Niram Sigappu). Many of the lead actors from those times ruled the movie charts for years to follow such as Amitabh Bachhan and Rajnikanth.
Then there was another market for human value stories, a far cry from the movies which made you seethe with anger, came a generation of movies which were closer to heart, witty and personable. And this gave birth to an auteur – Mani Ratnam.
His movies spoke relatable stories about the emerging middle class, for example tribulations of a matured couple torn in communal violence (Bombay)  which spoke to us in a way which was never spoken before. One of the strongest facets of his movie making was the fact that it always had at least one strong female protagonist. While all the other movies portrayed women as debutante’s waiting to be swooned by an alpha male, he portrayed them as a sensible independent adults. His choice of actresses Revathy, Madhubala, Simran and Shalini had a distinctive charm about them. They weren’t exceptionally pretty or hot, they had an aura about them which was charming.
I believe it gave many women courage and the acknowledgment which was denied to them. They had strong personalities about them. Mani ratnam created a vision of women who carried themselves graciously in a crisp saree without resorting to being lascivious, speak their mind without sounding arrogant and most importantly appeal to all ages, younger men wanted to marry them, teenage girls wanted to emulate them and grandmothers wanted to do what they do best, feed them.
Cinematography: The families in the movies weren’t extravagantly rich and neither was any caricaturization of poor. His characters simply were what he chose to be. His movies didn’t make us feel insecure, while most movies were shot at pristine locations such as Europe, Australia or US; he always maintained that there is enough beauty within India. Except for a few shots in Sri lanka, I believe he has never shot a movie outside of India. And it didn’t hurt him that he had one of the finest cinematographers of our time PC Sriram by his side. Mundane streets seemed lively with activity, chaotic bazaars became the center points of solitude where the lovers reunite. His movies comfort you with the fact that you too can have an eventful middle class life, without serenading your loved ones in the streets of monte carlo.
Cast: His movies usually do not have a villain. In most Indian movies, life is shown in black and white which I detest. Every good samaritan has a dark side and it is usually their ego, pride or inability to empathise. Almost all the characters in his movies etch a mark when you walk out of the theater. There are no vile vixens who harass the daughter in law, no evil husbands who indulges in alcoholism and abuse. It is about people like you and I who face ordinary tribulations in our ordinary lives.
Music: One really doesn’t need introduction to AR Rahman. He might have been composing average music for a few years now but that was bound to happen, at least the law of averages dictates so. Ar Rahman’s vision has a new purpose when combines with Mani Ratnam, even the minute things like the background music (BGM) portrays more than an actor can emote. Even the staunchest skeptic like me cannot deny that Rahman creates magic when he is in his elements. His albums have given company to countless people who slide their head against the windows of buses and trains en-route to another soul crushing day at work.
I feel that Mani ratnam is a testament to the spirit of Madras which is now lost in Chennai.

A trip down the memory lane, India.

This is a note about my recent visit to India. I have been away from home for about 6 years now. I have visited India 5 times in a span of 4 years and yet every time I visit, I see the country in a completely different way.  I truly believe that traveling frees your mind from perceptions and stereotypes. This blog will attempt to be a different experiment in what passes off as creative writing.

Home: I visited the colony where I used to live. Those charcoal stained balconies are now home to half a dozen nylon strings. They are pregnant with wet clothes. Heaps of disheveled footwear are neatly stacked in the balcony and most of them exhibit various stages of mutilation. My mom stores my Adidas sneakers safely tugged under the bed to protect it from moisture.But her sandals lie on top of the shoe stand in the balcony. It demands a cosmetic surgery every monsoon. They may have enough funds to send you to US for your masters, but they are still humble in the way their feet addresses the earth.
I walk up to the terrace, the view isn’t that impressive. It isn’t a sky scraper. Beneath you could see the general musings of everyday life, the occasional vegetable vendor, the stray cows mulching about and kids running around. The terraces where I played cricket were once battered and sharp ends of the red clay tiles have slashed knees and feet, more times than I would like to remember. Those tiles are now hastily creamed with cement. They now fill the space with aroma of drying pickles, rice vathhals and garments of couples whose balconies were too small to accommodate the newest member of the family.
I feel luxurious when I am at home, the furniture’s haven’t changed much. And I am excited to be home. For example, being reunited with the pillow which was once mine gave me so much joy. I have fond memories with a pillow which must weigh like thor’s hammer. But I have always slept on it without a wink. Maybe it is the feeling of being in your own home.
The local grocery shop: I struck up a conversation with the owner of the local grocery shop. The same shop where my friends and I hurried to purchase cricket balls, pencils which later graduated to fountain pens, notebook covers among other things.
300 ml of pepsi cost 9 rupees . We used to split it. The guy who contributed Rs. 5 always gets the biggest gulp.Now I disclose this as we weren’t affluent growing up. And I am not uncomfortable acknowledging it. You know what i hate? That people only acknowledge their humble beginnings when they make it big. Read any business weekly magazine and the CEO in vogue would indulge in a spiel about how his hard days in youth made him into a man he is now.
Back to the topic of the grocery shop;  The owner has gotten old, his once wide forehead which used to be a landing strip for white ash (vibudhi), now  bears many wrinkles. The people around him have changed, the chotu who worked with him as an apprentice has now opened up his own shop down the street. I walked by his shop, he doesn’t recognize me of course. He owns a Samsung note plus now, stuffed in his pocket. Leaving behind the older grocery store to wilt. He now owns an outlet which sells phones and pre-paid cards. It is a little overwhelming to see one shop die down and another one crop up. It’s funny when I realize that this was the landmark shop where my friends indulged in their earliest vices. The first English magazine featuring a center spread, the cigarette, the first condom etc… I mustered up a smile as I walked along the street, the kids surely looked confused. But I do remember being in their place a while ago.
Chai-walah’s: I feel chai wallah’s are the book keepers of local street history. We don’t have a lot of landmark streets like MLK drive or Peachtree road. When it comes to naming roads, it is basically a pissing contest between the political parties, the one in power chooses the name. Chaiwallah’s are also our answer to google maps. You can basically stop by at any shop and ask them for directions, they have the shortest path algorithm in their head.
 The steel  benches outside the tea stall bears dimpled craters on them, withering from the weight of heavy arses of men who descend upon it. Men, who assemble outside the shop at 7 am like clockwork. If you overhear them, it would seem that they have solution to everything, from fixing Indian democracy to the current status of Indian cricket team. I feel they really do know everything, and maybe that’s why their wives are more than happy to allow their husbands engage in this morning ritual.
 The chai wallah masterfully juggles tea with precision abandon. Milk, coffee and tea are strewn around the table. Which are later cleaned by a towel which looks like it was used to clean the ear wax of an elephant. I don’t know if there is an inverse relationship between hygiene and quality of the food. In India, there are many street vendors whose food are tastier than the ones you can find at restaurants.
Local trains: Traveling on a local train from CST to Thane in Mumbai, or from Beach to Tambaram in Chennai will teach you everything you ever need to know about urban life in India. The rush is truly maddening and everyone’s stride is so purposeful and committed.   We board the trains as if we are going home for the first time. Everyone just scrambles into the coach as soon as the train arrives. Sometimes we even run along , and jump into the coach before it halts. And here we have seat belts in buses. Pussies.
Each handrail supports the fate of countless strangers who are tugged into tight spaces. You almost never get to sit on the seats inside the coaches as it is always occupied. For a long time my urban dream was to sit beside the windows as the train weaves through the heart of the city. The windows have that impact about them. As soon as you lean your head over them, you are pensive, happy, sad all at the same time. Inside the coach,  couples are furtive in their embrace. Far from the wanton eyes of neighbors, parents or friends. They stand close but not close enough to earn the wrath of adult men and women in their fifties. They are aware that these adults scoff at their embrace. I always wondered what scorns these adults when they see lovers, maybe it opposes their religious belief or reflects poorly on their dead bedrooms, I can never seem to tell the difference.
The people: You’d get to meet the most animated people in the world. On this trip down the memory lane, I made sure I visit my teachers from school. You know as a software professional, I’d often fall into the trap of existential crisis when I have to do the same job for over a week. And these people have been teaching the same subject, with almost the same syllabus year after year to students. They are fully aware that their students will achieve far more than they ever will, but they are never shy of sharing the knowledge they possess. Truly, gods among the temples of thought.
My parents still ask me in front of our relative, as what I do for a living. And when i try to answer them about cyber threat management and information security processes, they all smile with intelligent incomprehension. I think, that was pretty much the validation I sought throughout my career. No amount of congratulatory emails or bonuses could trump my feeling when my parents feel proud to learn what I do for a living.
In India everyone will give you an opinion but no one will fight to prove that they alone carry the burden of truth. We are quite non confrontational by nature, which is often misunderstood for meekness.
My parents have aged, we speak to each other once a week but I couldn’t believe how a few years affects the people who you love the dearest. They take multiple medicines throughout the course of the day. I remember I couldn’t stand the idea of my mom getting an headache. When i would ride to the bicycle well into the night to go to that pharmacy and get medications to make sure that she gets a good night sleep. It makes me terribly sad that I can’t be beside them when they need me the most.
Overall yes, I am skeptical about my country. I choose the right to ridicule it and I don’t need to prove my love by aligning myself with a political party. The American apartments and buildings are surely formidable, more comfortable and secure but our humble colony was built on memories than marble. India is a place where I lived, USA is a place where I choose to exist.
This was a difficult blog for me to write as I always had an irrational fear with nostalgia. And I think, I now know why. We are afraid that we will never live those moments of unadulterated joy when we were younger. We recount our nostalgic moments only with our closest friends because we are afraid, that we’d be judged. But in my limited experience let me tell you. Nothing could be farther from truth. I made my best friend when I was 6 because he carried the same water bottle. And we have been best of friends, since. His daughter is 1 year old and I couldn’t shake of that avuncular feeling when I held her. That’s nostalgia, a voice that ushers the question “How far have we traveled” and then chuckles.
Go out, travel, be uninhibited, make mistakes and make memories. Hindsight will tell you that it was a journey worth traveling.

Twenty Five

If you have grown up on Indian movies as I have you would realize that there are two numbers which are very important: 18 and 25. You see the underlying theme of any  Indian Super hero movie is almost the same. Note that I said Super heroes and not superheroes. Super heroes are mega stars like Rajnikanth, Amitabh Bachhan, Mammooty, Mithun Chakrobarty ,Venkatesh scattered across the movie industry in India. They are super heroes who make directors like James Cameroon, Wachowsky Brothers and Ridley Scott simultaneously shit in their pants with their outrageous stunts and closer to god like Fandom.

The plot would be something like when the actors (Who are close to their expiry age) come of age, learn that they or their loved ones were wronged in the past(either 18 or 25 years ago).They seek revenge or redemption thereby changing the society for good. It is never 17 or 26, it always shuffles between 18 or 25.

So I turned 25 last week and I thought of writing something about that. Before I began writing I was amused how almost every blogger wrote about themselves, their trials and tribulations with the banality of their daily life. But I have strictly staved off that path which I think makes my blog an aberration if not an exception. Thank you to everyone out there for reading!

I am at an age which often marks the onset of a quarter life crisis, some kind of identity mismanagement and a marked sense of paranoia for the future. Thankfully by Rajnikanth’s grace I haven’t faced any of them yet. But I do want to share of what I thought I would be, where I am and how I would want to be.

Basically this is just an exaggerated account of “About Me” that you would find on most social networks only with better grammar. There are a lot of differences between how I was at 18 and now at 25, physically I haven’t seemed to change much. I think I would have given Justin Beiber a good run on who hits puberty later. Without further ado following are a few of the repercussions I have felt being in the middle of my twenties

  1. I secretly worshiped Pamela Anderson for her massive, erm you know view on Macro Economics in the developing world. During an insightful interview she said all a guy needs to impress her is to have a decent sense of humor and a fit body. I have since sharpened my wit and physique and I have to tell you it got me from being single to BEING SINGLE. You lied Pamela, You lied to fans like me. How could you?
  2. I am gathering more acquaintances and in due process I am losing touch with friends who matter more.
  3. It is only after I came to USA that I realized that “How are you doing?” is a rhetorical question.
  4. I am barely able to sustain chats beyond, “Hey, how have you been? I have been good. What are you upto”. It almost immediately results in the much dreaded “Then, what else…” Those three dots after else signifies a sense of vapidity that I have succeeded to avoid for so long.
  5. I have learned to be quieter and realized that not every question merits an answer.
  6. I now know that my body rejects Mexican food as much as it rejects cheese and consumption of either of them would make me fart in a sur that even Anu Malik wouldn’t disagree.
  7. I have an uncanny ability to piss people off majorly even without uttering a single word. I assure you it is not an unhealthy narcissism but unempathetic indifference I have towards life itself.
  8. I am absolutely clueless of what I am supposed to achieve. I definitely know for a fact that there is more to life than just work-home-play. Though I don’t know what it is, I can’t give up on it. And the fact that most people who are beyond this crossroad have given up on the “search” aspect scares me. How can you be so sure of something which you put no effort to pursue in the first place?
  9. I can no longer respect people just because they are older than me and the corollary is also true, I cannot demand respect from anyone without earning it. I weigh respect more than love, you can fall in love at first sight. But can you respect them almost immediately? I feel we confuse between subservience and respect, I think I have figured out the difference.
  10. Lastly take on relationships have drastically changed. Expectations have become multidimensional and the reluctance to compromise has only gotten stronger. I recollect a hauntingly true line from one of my favorite movie of all time “Before Sunrise”-

 “Isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?”- Julie Delpy.