Ponmagal Vandhal

As The Swivel Chair Spins #9

It’s the sort of film that could prove to be a downer. It’s not something that is a pleasant Friday evening watch, heck it is not even a Tuesday afternoon watch.

Psst... more about Tuesday afternoon watch phenomenon later, maybe on brighter days. Days when I don’t have to think and write about films like Ponmagal Vandhal.

I know it’s me, not the film. I know the problem lies at my core and nothing with the film; I just switch off when I realize that item sold is empathy.

It’s a word thrown around so easily, this empathy that everyone speaks of, this act of truly being in the shoes of others to know what they ‘feel’. Smart people will realize that this empathy concept is only used in relation to pain and not happiness.

And so they say, I can only know someone’s pain if I empathize with them. But I do need to know myself first, to try and understand what the other person is feeling. If that is even remotely possible.

Empathy is media’s potent tool, but unlike using it like a Brahmastra, it is used like your regular everyday astra. Thousands of words are written about how the goal of everything that I did for fun, namely watch movies and read books, was to inculcate this latent empathy.

<Sighs>

I can identify with someone, I can aspire to be someone, I can be tolerant of some actions and I can even be considerate but is it even possible to grasp in its entirety at what goes on in another person’s mind?

There are levels of trying to understand other people, but all those gradations are lost when someone throws the empathy argument to counterbalance a logical point.

Often the case is such that empathy is the last resort of those without an argument. And the word “empathy” has been so fortified, that few raise voice against its easy use.

Ponmagal Vandhal doesn’t do much differently, it again places empathy as evidence in a court of law and it talks a lot about justice too. So that’s where I lost the film. It’s also a social message film and not very intelligent in conveying it.

Ooty lawyer Venba (Jyothika) has just reopened a 15 year old multiple homicide case, she raises doubt that there were things that were brushed under the carpet in the initial investigation.

Clues that were smudged by the act of power.

Power here is embodied by Varatharajan (Thyagarajan), naturally as this is a Tamil film, he is an industrialist and Venba plays the everywoman who still believes that real justice still exists in this world, the David to Varatharajan’s Goliath.

The problem here is that David seems to be unprepared for a case that she had been brought up literally her whole life to argue. Her questions are shot down and her witnesses vanish, while I sit and wait for a clever move from either side, all I am presented with is empathy.

Courtroom drama is an exciting genre, a battle of wits, half of which in this film is brought by Rajarathinam (R Parthiban) while the other half of wits goes missing even with a galaxy of supporting actors (Bhagyaraj, Pandiayarajan & Pratap Pothan) whose brief seemed to be “just show up in court”.

Maybe I should have waited and not jumped onto streaming it immediately but kudos to the producers for taking the over the top route to releasing a film. Bold move, really.

Like charity, empathy begins at home, ok that didn’t explain what I wanted to say.

I meant like the first step in to being considerate (empathy is still far away and comes with its own problems) to others is to know oneself better.

Clearly I didn’t know what I wanted on a tiring Friday evening. I should work on this more by watching Hellzapoppin’.

Hellzapoppin’ now that’s a Tuesday afternoon movie and a Friday evening movie.

Ponmagal Vandhal is now streaming on Amazon Prime

Gladiator : Are You Not Entertained?

As the swivel chair spins #8

A quote by Naval on May third began like this, “envy is an illusion”; the tweet immediately reminded me of Commodus.

In the year 2000, the talk about Gladiator was everywhere, it was the spectacle,it was when Hollywood showed that it’s recycling machine was well oiled to run for even another century, heck it even won the Best Picture Oscar, a badge for quality entertainment for someone looking for recommendations.

Whatever it was in 2000, 20 years later, to me it reads as a film that critiques entertainment. It dawns on me even more when I have every form of imaginable entertainment on my fingertips. It could be paid or otherwise. I am always watching something, I stop midway, get on twitter and tweet about it and see there are 4200 tweets already about it and by the time I come back to what I was watching, it has in some way impacted me. 

I have become part of the crowd, even while being alone. 

Are You Not Entertained?

It’s a line that Maximus asks the crowd. Any form of entertainment that appeals to a set of people at the same time creating the same response is in some way controlled. No matter how big the crowd is, for them to buy-in either the thinking faculties are reduced or the content itself is simplified to be so that it can be reduced to a tweet or even a hashtag. 

Yes, even the niche of twitter (since I brought it up as an example), maybe not Rome’s mob; but it does have its spheres of influence.It’s still a crowd.

In Gladiator, the emperor Commodus organises games in which people come to see slaves fight and die. Feed them with frenzy, keep them entertained and they will surely forget that they are poor. 

The movie literally is this, meta even when we go out in groups to consume “content” mostly sports and movies- both reduced to binaries like win/lose or hit/flop to forget ourselves for hours. 

The movie is more interesting because it uses the mass entertainment format to make a comment on it, yet there is a little rascal of a thought in it and that’s what made me sit up while watching it again, alone. 

I have become increasingly afraid of falling into the category of those who seek entertainment to fill time, no Maximus, I do not feel entertained, it was not why I got into the movie watching business. It was to develop a personal taste, taste that assimilates into character for life, not pass time. 

Wait, this is not a rant against popular entertainment, Gladiator is as mainstream as it gets. This is more of an appeal to take a step back and consider how the things that got popular, really got popular. 

I am also afraid of two other things, short memories and repeated conversations, but these only give birth after being wedded to the mob. If there is something definite that you could take away from here, it is this, mobs do not encourage multiple thoughts

Maximus is not happy as a clown, when he asks “are you not entertained?” He is frustrated, for Rome’s finest general, who just months ago drove away the barbarians at the gate now has to please these ‘barbarians’ in the stands. It is the ultimate dishonour.

If war was an art, then General Maximus was the artist. To confine him and make him recreate it is akin to giving Van Gogh a forty page notebook. If there is a second thing that you could take away from this blog, it is this, artists somewhere in their deepest thoughts feel that there is no bigger obstacle than their audience, in other words the mob. 

How To Get Away From The Mob

Tougher said than done, and well this is voluntary. There are some who relish in being part of the mob, they even write paens that communal watching of things is in fact the best way to watch. The experience. 

Emperor Commodus, the person who reminded me to write this, was a man of the masses, he detests the intellectualization of the senate, a philistine even. But to me, Commodus is envy personified, he believes he has been unfairly unloved and Maximus unfairly loved. In a sense he believes in the distinct dualities which drives the mob and hence the most dangerous person to wield it. 

I am not saying the Senate was any better, that’s what the movie is saying, all I am saying is that Commodus so fragile with emotions is not right for leadership and Maximus who disregards what others think and does what needs to be done is tailored for it. The tragedy of Gladiator is that both schools of thought do not survive. 

Rome is finally placed in the hands of the Senate, again a select few, some without a doubt with the capability of solving problems, but as with groups, it is the average good that comes out (thereby the average bad as well).

Ridley Scott and his team of writers do not go beyond what happens to Rome after it comes at the hands of the Senate, maybe they knew that the fall was imminent. The idea of Rome was long past. 

Think of the senate of any small group that influences another large group-the mob. This is the reality that surrounds us. The reality is that we (an individual) cannot escape the mob, even if you want to. 

The Artist Formerly Known As Proximo

Nope, the artist needs the mob too, without their attention they are just buried talent, but I think of them with more worry than myself, for they lose more of themselves in trying to please and retain the mob’s attention. than a single soul like me trying to fit into a group. 

Take Proximo in Gladiator, one of the two primary artists in the movie (the other as discussed in Maximus) who bathed in the glory of the mob and this popularity ultimately helped him win his freedom. 

“Win the crowd. Win your freedom.”

But surprisingly for an artist he is also grounded in reality, when Maximus displays ambitions of making the crowd go against the emperor he warns him by reminding him that they are just “shadows and dust”. 

They lose themselves almost completely. The only comforting part is that most artists enjoy the process. 

Proximo is killed when he tries for the first time in his life against the popular stance. 

Commodus is no artist because he has no talent, just expectation. 

The Sum Of All Envy

I keep coming back to Commodus, because every decision he makes in the movie is done in fear of losing favour of the mob, but he doesn’t really love the mob back, he doesn’t want to be one of them, he does not command respect without using his authority. 

All this springs from the envy he has for Maximus, mainly popularity, he never gets the time or the advisors like Naval, who would have said something like this. Short and sweet.

As we can see, whole empires could have been saved by a bit of right advice. 

Commodus’ father was Marcus Aurelius whose thoughts and words now power the most successful people in the world including Naval, but then which son has listened to his father?

Outside The Arena

Some of you might have guessed that this was not my initial reading of the film and I want to talk about that.

In the green of youth when I first encountered the film I was fascinated by the epic, the period and the character. On a slightly later viewing, I dealt with it as a revenge tale and a story about freedom; but this time I somehow felt that this entertainment movie was actually making snide remarks on those who seek entertainment. 

A popular entertainment which is against such popular entertainments. But it is important to know that me having to watch this movie alone had a lot to do with it.

I may not be able to completely run away from the crowd or mob; I use these words interchangeably and I know it will irritate the reader, but it is the simple truth. I may not be able to run away from the mob, but I can surely learn to develop an internal switch which I can use to switch ON and OFF when required. 

Most of the time we are part of a crowd with shared belief, an employee who adheres to a company’s vision, a family member who absorbs certain shared values? But do pause to think that why should the development of taste too be shared? It’s our one chance to seek something on our own and see if we like it or not, without having to join in on a conversation on it. 

Extraction

As The Swivel Chair Spins #7

Minutes after the is-it-all-really one take action sequence; Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) and Ovi Mahajan (Rudraksh Jaiswal) decide to take shelter in an office room of a warehouse, the grey walls are lit in the sodium vapour shades emanating from the factory- this could be any office from the developing part of the world, yet to differentiate it and place it well within the sub continent was a pink water dispenser. Someone on set did a good job to keep it in, knowing our preference for color in these mundane objects. 

It was these things I was looking for, not really following the story, because from the get go this is a mission film. Hero gets into a mission, has a target and obstacles pile, have seen many of those before. The only differentiator was that the movie was shot in India. I have always held that India could be one of the best locations for action movies. I was also among those who were disappointed when there was news going about that Skyfall would start in Mumbai with Bond running in line with the local trains and that didn’t happen. 

For some reason or the others, previous depictions of India like in Octopussy were of an imagined nature and less involvement of Indian technicians or it would be to the other end of the realistic scale. Slumdog to an extent was a departure, it was showing the India I was familiar with but its intentions were different from those of action films. Slumdog Millionaire was trying too hard to smudge its Hollywood roots. 

What I wanted was an action thriller in the Hollywood mould set in Indian cities, like how Paris is used in Ronin or how London was used in MI:Fallout, a destination! Even the middle east. Yes, there have been attempts, including Ghost Protocol which were set in India and not shot here (so yeah).  Maybe I was asking for too much. 

But then Extraction changed all that. Maybe it’s the lockdown, but no really it is my love for live locations. Ok coming back to the Indo-Hollywood look, here cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (among his credits include the recent Bohemian Rhapsody and cult favourite Drive) kicks up a dust storm, the dust and smoke that rises from the ground merges with the yellow-orange of the sun and this is just the opening drone shot. It’s the cinematography and the production that would leave many a lesson for our future filming crews. 

Yet,I wish there was more chaos, there is a through the curving lanes car chase but it is brief. Our daily street congestion & chaos adds to the effect of the action film itself, for example there is a tight hand to hand combat fight in a street between Chris Hemsworth and Randeep Hooda, only to be momentarily separated by a two wheeler. 

The one shot action sequence that proceeds from one apartment floor to the other and ultimately to the ground, reminded me of an enjoyable sequence in Saaho and the rooftop chase brought back Kamal doing parkour in Mylapore in Vikram (1986). 

So yeah I hope, you would have got what I meant by now, but this Extraction is not as fun as either of them.

This Netflix product is otherwise pretty basic and the only thing that could come as a shock is how Hemsworth rash driving is shocking even to the Indian kid. 

Extraction is now streaming on Netflix.  India and Thailand were used as the filming locations to portray Bangladesh in the film.