So, it’s December now and I thought that this would be a year (like most) which would pass on without me having to cry about watching a movie and lie about not crying about it later.
Like how most grown men do.
But I was proven wrong, like how most grown men are (often).
So, I had read Slaughterhouse-5, sometime just after I could squeeze in a membership in a decent library to which I could cycle to.
Usually, people who do read books, talk about reading slaughterhouse-five in college. Others would have had a passing glimpse of the Cat’s Cradle cover, those folks ended up with an MBA.
Nowadays, people look at you as a genius if you remember that if you merely remember the author and the book title. They might even give you a prize for it.
So it goes.
Nevertheless, nothing ever prepared me (even reading Slaughterhouse-five) for Bob Weide’s documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. Otherwise, I would have carried a box of tissues with me.
The tears came not only because of the realization of the fact this was a thoughtful, cheerful and wonderful documentary on arguably America’s greatest man of letters of the 20th century.
Ok side note:
how to determine if you are really reading the greatest author of your generation?
Answer: If your parents have heard of him/her; then better throw the book away, far away.
Side note ends.
The tears came because, it is possible to lead a fruitful life by a man of letters (as this documentary shows).
Vonnegut Jr, died in 2007, he was eighty-four and he had retired ten years earlier. He regarded life very seriously and hence wrote funny novels about it.
The tears came because, any career length feature about Vonnegut would have simply been awe-inspiring.
But this doc which was forty years in the making where the writer-director is himself a character (a trait Bob inherits from Vonnegut) and makes it another great film about family, friendship, loneliness and the struggle of the creative process.
Just like Simla Special.
Ok, that was supposed to have been my punchline.
So, do yourself a favor and use the weekend to watch Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time.
Like most of the movies that matter, this is not on any OTT that you maybe paying precious money on.
That’s life, spending on all the wrong things, when all the right things are for free.
Simla Special can be watched for free on YouTube.
If you don’t know how to get hold of a copy of Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, you are using the internet wrong.
In Aranmanai 3, Yogi Babu plays a thief called Abhishek (lel), who thinks he has stolen 10 kg of gold and safeguards it in the titular Aranmanai.
But the audience knows that it is not 10 kg of gold but 10 kg of dosa batter.
How far can this joke be extended successfully?
Sundar C does it for almost 3 hours.
Actually, this is nothing for Sundar C, compared to how he has managed to extend the same-premise franchise for three whole movies and maybe into the future as well.
“Cash grab!” someone shouts.
Yes, but only in ways like how the MCU is a source of recurring revenue. It is a cash grab but certainly better in many ways than the immediately comparable Kanchana franchise.
“Okay, they are really serious about discussing the Aranmanai franchise” someone shouts.
Yes, as is the case, we are ahead of the curve in assessing pop-culture phenomenons, when all other review bodies can only see this as a cash grab. They will continue to see it as a cash grab till maybe the fifth or sixth installment (or till the point of ego-breakdown) and write think pieces about how “Aranmanai” is actually good.
This cycle happened for many franchises, including The Fast and the Furious, whenever review bodies see franchises, they see it is as a devious corporate attempt to extract more money from the same.
But Aranmanai 3 is actually good. Very good.
And I am not saying this because of my inherent bias towards Raashi Khanna films. #FullDisclosure
A good way to gauge interest while watching a movie is to pause it at any moment (thanks to OTT) and see if we are able to guess the rest of the way. Most of the movies would fail in this test, but the investment that I have in the characters alone would see me through.
For Aranmanai 3, I tried to do this multiple times and always Sundar C and team always won.
If Aranmanai can be seen as an extension of Chandramukhi and Aranmanai 2 an entry which was just finding it’s footing in mythological horror; Aranmanai 3 can be seen as Sundar C completely embracing the madness.
Always crazy in thought and totally shocking in execution, you will see stone lions come to life, undying love and half dead bodies, scheming paintings, competing saamiyars, poison spewing paatis, piano playing ghosts, tik tok obsessed aunts, matted lock sadhu brigade and lots and lots more that you will forget to be shocked when singers Shankar Mahadevan and Hariharan appear as themselves leading a lord Murgan themed rock concert somewhere in the unreachable hills in this undefined film.
If the writing team had suggested 100 ideas during the discussion, all of them, repeat, all of them, made it into the film.
It’s great! It’s baroque! It’s nothing like anything!
It’s a movie where two ghosts come together to form a combined fighting unit!
What’s not to like?
Then there is director Sundar C himself recurs as Ravi, the great controller of all the strands of the plot. Each of these strands as dangerous as the snakes on Medusa’s head and only he can make sense of it all, and even that pressure is lifted off from our shoulders.
Also, this is the last appearance of Vivek sir, extending his sadboi comedian persona well into the beyond, he will be missed.
Aranmanai 4, yes over here, I’m interested; but can Sundar C ever top this?
So, everyone here knows what an FRS is right? Right?
At the outset, Team FRS would like to wish everyone a Happy Deepavali.
May this festival of lights…
Editor: Enough, I’m done with festival greetings
Writer group: we haven’t even started and also can we add the now popular phrase “from us to you or from ours to yours, chief?
Editor: No! (shouts)
Let’s just stick with the FRS, okay? Already our brand is too weak, we haven’t done an FRS in months.
-101: Annaatthe begins with a voice over. Always beware of narration boys! Funnily enough this narration is never followed through again the movie. It is only used as a lead in to take us six months back.
-45: People of Kolkata are eager to know who is Annaatthe, they are also using the hashtag #whoisannaatthe, but we know that Annaatthe beats up gangs who hold black money of the rich and famous, so pretty much an underground operation, why would the media be covering this and why would people on the street want to know who Annaatthe is?
Cut to Soorakottai.
+52: Obviously hero is village president, but he is also arbiter of local fights, deliverer of pearls of wisdom and doer of kurumbu, singer of songs and dancers of the (omkaara) koothu
No need to mention that everyone from 6 to 60 love him, because he is hero.
Do villagers really love this kurumbu doing hero or is this a Kollywood based reality?
Also also innocent and cheerful villagers are innocent and cheerful.
How about a story where the villagers are actually irritated by the doings of the kurumbukaara hero types because their innocence and mischievousness always come in the way of you know, farming and they send him to Kolkata which is actually a place where the kurumbukara hero learns reality of life, work etc.
</Idea Moment >
+31: Rajni’s hair for being the representation of bounce, at times it seems like it is a separate organism with its own thoughts, wants, needs and ideas.
Did someone say idea?
Rajni’s hair develops its own consciousness and starts to pick up radio signals whenever there are wrong doers around him, it’s mostly like a on the body travelling sidekick cum guide which helps him clean up crime.
+155: Rajni himself for being the embodiment of enthusiasm, he does so much in this movie, more than all the rest of the cast, more than all the list of writers credited, more than what he is supposed to be doing.
It’s a pain to watch, but also at the same time painfully admirable that someone has so much spirit in trying to retain an audience.
But can he do it alone?
–400: Paasakara Psychos
If you popped in (your mouth) popcorn every time someone says Paasam (affection?) in this movie, then you will run out of popcorn within the first few minutes, if you want to continue with eating popcorn and counting the word paasam be ready to break your FDs, because Popcorn is costly bhais.
Also, this family is full of Paasakara psychos that it is literally their affection which brings out the main conflict between Kaalaiyan (Rajni) and his sister Thanga Meenatchi (Keerthi Suresh).
Paasam is above everything and controls everything, it’s almost like Kaalaiyan and Thangam are possessed like in a horror film, also people around them are enablers, except the comedian who as usual sees the inanity of this situation?
Would you shower affection so much that they break themselves?
Disturbing to say the least.
Editor: please order more coffee, our writers need it.
Owner: no money, just publish and get done with it.
+19: But the ensuing drama for about five minutes is one of the best, Rajni also has a brilliant Siva conflict moment earlier in the movie where he needs to get his sister married but does not really want to.
As the saying goes, obstacles are good but conflict is always better.
Obstacle is when the hero needs to overcome something to accomplish something, conflict is when hero has to overcome something but doesn’t really feel like doing this.
Siva really does conflicts really well and Viswasam is one of the best mainstream movies which did this well in the last decade and we can keep typing away on the conflicts in Viswasam, but this is not that blogpost, that is a different one.
Here the conflict is small and it hardly registers. Siva has shown he could do it, but not always past experience leads to similar performance in the future.
<Cut back to Kolkata>
Editor: Wait a minute! Did you mention about how Meena ma’am and Khushboo ma’am brought in the nostalgia element and how people were transported to the 90s etc.
Writer group: were we?
Editor: get on with it.
<Cut again to Kolkata>
Kolkata the city where it is always Durga Puja.
-103: To reinstate that we are indeed in Kolata, Keerthy Suresh is asked to run on Howrah bridge and Victoria Memorial.
-67: Something something happens and we find ourselves with our first major villain.
-50: something something happens and we find ourselves with the second major villain.
The something something here refers to the designed action sequences which technically should be fun to watch, but since we don’t have any real stakes here and since both the villains are no match for Rajni, there is no swarasyam left with us the audience.
Swarasyam, there’s a good title for the next Siva and Team movie.
Editor: Do put in a word about the villainous roles of Jagapathy Babu, the audience will like it.
Writer group (in unison): we write for ourselves, who cares what the audience like.
Editor: Waiddaminit! Something struck me, you guys were telling about the paasakara psychos right? Where affection itself becomes deadly to those involved?
Writer group (in unison): Yes!
Editor: So it could be like Siva’s reading of the Rajni phenomenon itself, so many people love him and the pressure just gets to him every time he makes the movie, the love they have for him could be a deterrent to what he could do on screen, it almost becomes a controlling force.
Maybe Siva and Team did experience this deadly affection pressure when they were writing the film and thus he put all that into the movie?
How is this interpretation?
What do you all think?
Writer group (in unison): We are not film companion, sir.
He is playing a goth vampire in a B-Horror movie called ‘Vampire’s Kiss’, only to realize that he has claustrophobia.
Paralyzed in a coffin. Think about a frozen vampire who cannot come out to terrorize at night, a frightening thought. As if on cue, the set of Vampire’s Kiss catches fire.
But Jake’s been here before.
Here meaning under the ever growing shadow of disappointment, after all he’s a struggling actor in LA; rejection and failure are any actor’s constant buddies. With his chin back up and small smile on his pale face, Jake drives home, only to find his partner in bed with someone else.
She also seemed to enjoy it. The face.
Poor Jake Scully.
When someone is down, one kind word, even a smile might make the person feel that this is godsend. But cynical De Palma knows that in the real world unlike the ideal, there is no kind word without malevolence, no smile without a secret and no help without expectation.
Those who fall for these ‘godsend’ acts, risk lowering themselves into the bottomless pit of irredeemable failures.
Jake Scully’s face is that of pure failure, the one that you want to slap and bring back to life and shout “don’t trust these guys!” when he accepts a caretaker job in the hills of LA.
It was Hitchcock, who said something about putting the bomb under the bus and making the audience go mad knowing that it is going to blow-out (pun intended) ,Jake’s serial failure to the path to foolishness is DePalma’s answer to Hitchcock’s bomb under the bus.
We can see what’s going to happen to Jake, but he cannot.
A lot’s been said about De Palma’s Hitchcock obsession (yes he’s also made film with the same name- double title pun here, well done me), yet he goes all the way in this neatly laid down trifecta of a plot which includes the best of Vertigo, Rear Window and Dial M for Murder.
It almost feels like De Palma having his vengeance on the critics who had dubbed him Hitch minor. Ok here you go, maybe thought De Palma, here’s three suspense classics- watch me put them in a blender.
Hitch would have probably recognized the cruel intentions (no pun intended here, no reference too) behind the plot, but would have never muddied his hands and knees in the sewer that De Palma bravely (and gleefully) goes into. Slumming it proudly by making a movie about moviemaking which begins at the fringes of Hollywood and descends into pornography. It’s really too much, but never not enjoyable.
Never not enjoyable- that’s De Palma as a tagline there for you. That could literally be the title of a career retrospective of De Palma, but they made one such and simply called it De Palma, the fools I tell ya.
Coming back to failures.
Failures make the best reflective protagonists and you can never get a better one than a failure in love; here’s Jake Scully in this fancy house in the hills with the rotating bed and when the lights go down his ‘nearest’ shapely neighbour starts to put on a show.
Stop looking Jake! Stop looking for God’s sake.
Easier said than done, but look he does.
Maybe it’s love, maybe it’s a fascination, maybe it’s just that he feels he is owed some relaxation after all the effects of failure kick in. When the relaxation kicks in, also does Pino Donaggio’s astral music plays over her routine, Body Double pushes its weight and reputation from being just another erotic thriller to the realms of art.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, one who would have thought that De Palma just is the swoop of the camera, he is just the crazy angles and he is just the slow motion- this would have just been that, an erotic thriller from the 80s which probably was given as an alternative when Basic Instinct was under circulation at your local video store.
But this is De Palma.
Nothing is generic, nothing is expected and nothing is out of bounds- you would think an attractive neighbour doing a self pleasure routine is going overboard but then comes the shock of the power drill (did he really do that in the 80s?- first time Tarantino-heads ask lol) and then he surprises you with a musical number shot on an X-Rated film set which weirdly asks us to “Relax, don’t do it, when you wanna go do it.”
While the voyeuristic elements are drawn out of Rear Window, the movie smoothly blends into long stretches of Jake Scully jointly (?) pursuing his neighbour ala Vertigo which rightly feels like a silent film, here too it’s just on camera and with music that De Palma builds the tension. I cannot stress this enough because Jake Scully is a nobody or say the person could be anybody like you (the reader) or me and not the stars like Grace Kelly, Kim Novak or James Stewart about whose life and death we care about.
It’s a different way to look at filmmaking to reduce the stress of the characters themselves and put more pressure into the visuals (and in effect on the director himself).
Roger Ebert opens his review of Body Double, calling it an exhilarating exercise in pure filmmaking and all through praises the direction but notices that there is very little point to the film.
Sorry Roger, bless your soul, the point is that De Palma wished to hoist this story of an everyday failure and construct around it one of the most visually stunning thrillers.
Psst: Ebert also uses the word construct twice, just saying. Would like to state that when the movie came out, critics were not as charitable as Ebert was and promptly dismissed it. Body Double’s reputation has only grown from then on.
Maybe I’m reading too much or maybe i’m trying to drill (no pun intended here too) home the point of “filmmaker of failure” too much, but to me this clearly is a “it could happen to you” type film and Hollywood does a lot of “this could happen to you” films, ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances; the you in “it could happen to you” is probably played by Cary Grant whose is heroism personified.
In contrast, Craig Wasson’s Jake Scully (poor Jake) is emasculated in full technicolor, his helplessness is at the core of his failure and when a person is at their depths and when there is no internal motivation to proceed, nature comes to his aid.
Nature in the form of women, of course.
First in the form of Deborah Shelton and then in Melanie Griffith.
There’s a phrase that people going through shit are familiar with- the dark night of the soul. The seemingly unending period of trials and tribulations that a soul has to go through before it’s communion with the ultimate.
Body Double can be seen as Jake Scully living through his long dark night of the soul (it is not necessarily one night) getting one bad hand dealt to him after another, just when you thought he hit rock bottom, there’s another blow waiting for him in the corner.
The biggest of them all is when his helplessness couldn’t prevent the death of the woman he thinks he is fascinated with, it’s a double blow at the end when he comes to know that he is in some way responsible for it.
And this is where it turns.
Body Double is one of the rare happy ending films from De Palma, maybe because it was too much even for him.
Jake Scully does find himself in the end and illustrates that one can simply stop being a failure by just taking control of their life in order to not only to better oneself but to help others.
But since there is a deadly director like De Palma calling the shots, the difference between success and failure could be as serious as life and death.
As news trickled in that Samantha had won the award for best performance in an OTT show for Family Man 2 at the Indian Film Festival in Melbourne (yes such things exist and they make their way onto my timeline), I realized the creeping and undying growth of the Ummanamoonji Acting School in recent Indian cinema. This seems to be a problem.
You might have heard about the Stanislavski school of acting, you might have even heard of Lee Starsberg or Stella Adler- who further developed method acting. Sadly Indian cinema does not have a proper noun led category definition for professional acting. The truth is professional acting itself is not studied or exposed to the audience, except of course the odd toss around of abbreviations like NSD and FTII.
While we might not have our own ‘method’, the films that we have made have given rise to different schools of acting – there may not be a name to these schools but you will recognize it when you see it, especially in mainstream films.
The Ummanamoonji School is one such, exclusively for Indian heroines. The perfect playground for the Ummanamoonji school is when heroines, at different points in their career – “go serious” hence the name ‘Ummanamoonji’.
A heroine’s life in mainstream Indian cinema is considerably shorter. From being introduced in their teens as college (or high school) sensations, very few graduate to become blockbuster heroines and even few make it to the level of influencing projects and having their own markets. The life of the Indian mainstream heroine is much like any start-up scene, 90% of them fail.
Within the short available time, they would need to progress from being launched aside some producer’s son (or some director who insists on ‘fresh talent’) to being paired opposite ‘up and coming heroes’ for a few years before ultimately making that one film with a superstar hero or superstar director.
If the heroine is lucky, she gets to repeat the same cycle in a neighbouring wood (Kollywood/Tollywood/Sandalwood) but highly unlikely due to many unforeseen factors- a flop affects a heroine more than the hero, while a hit benefits the hero more than the heroine.
Yes all this is known, but we would like to give a perspective about how less the chance for growth is for heroines and place all this in context before we expand on the Ummanamoonji Acting School.
As stated before there are unnamed acting schools within the existing mainstream, these acting schools advocate heroine types- kind, cheerful, pet loving yet glamorous type broadly grouped under “bubbly” roles which slowly evolves into the dutiful-kind-supportive yet glamorous type for the senior heroes.
Generations of writer- directors have used these ‘types’, most of the time not even providing specifics for the heroines to explore-these are not written in character or within the story, as you may have guessed with the survival rate, these roles are replaceable. Highly replaceable.
Heroines for at least 20 years have adapted themselves to this ‘type’ so much so we don’t look at it as acting, our collective consciousness driven primarily by bad writing tell us,that this is how heroines on screens should be in a big film. Do a little bit of dance, some comedy and act cute when they are not in those four songs.
Such limited scope. Much improvement needed.
It’s tough to survive and when you do survive, you go to the Ummanamoonji School.
Having danced around flowers, pots and background dancers for close to a decade, the survivor heroine naturally gravitates to the ‘serious part’ or as often reported in chennai times as ‘heroine driven roles’.
The sad fact is that, no one really knows (ok barring few) how to write serious female roles in mainstream films, as usual they do the easier thing of having to substitute a male led film with a heroine- a powerful role.
And with no frame of reference of their own kind, them heroines have to put up ‘serious’ faces to umm look the part in a serious film. Tada- the Ummanamoonji Acting school.
They put on a frown for the entire length of the film, they love with a frown, they kick ass with a frown and they mouth punch dialogues with a frown. The writer- directors think of a frown whenever they think of a strong female lead and our actresses follow through. The parts are woefully underwritten that no other emotion can be expressed and they go into a robotic serious face which is often praised as good acting (ahem). Emotion can only expressed on screen if it has its roots on a page.
Look around it you, the fingerprints of the Ummanamoonji school are everywhere, it’s there in Nayanthara’s Aramm (and many other Nayan films), it’s there in Jyothika’s Pon Magal Vandhal (yikes and others), it’s there in Family Man 2 Samantha (more about this in another post), it’s there in November Story Tamanna and such. You get the story.
Sometimes it’s not even a heroine led film, but a serious role in a generic hero driven film, the mind thinks up the likes of Sri Divya from Marudhu etc. Other times, these movies are lost in time like Sneha’s Bhavani IPS or Trisha in Paramapadam Vilayattu.
Before we comment on the quality of the acting school, we wanted to recognize there is one such and the context as to how it evolved, this is in necessarily not a new phenomenon, a sort of Ummanamoonji acting can be seen in P Bharathi Raja’s Pudhumai Penn, which incidentally also has the girl getting brushed on a bus by lecherous man like in Family Man 2.
The first signifier is the ‘seriousness’ of the role and the second signifier is that the actresses’ seem out of their depth, which is a combination of sketchy writing (root cause) and poor understanding on part of the actor. All this affects the movie, big time and it hurts us that people don’t talk about it enough.
But you may wonder, that most of these roles that have been mentioned have been embraced by the audience and we even began with the fact that Samantha was feted for Family Man 2, why is this even a problematic acting school then?
The fetes, the praise and the awards for these ‘attempts’ are in reality for the attempt itself- glamorous heroines going against the grain.
You can notice this even in the reviews, there would be talk about how deglamorized they look and how the insistence of ‘no makeup’ is helping the movie, these thoughts find their way to public discourse as well (which is again a call for better reviewing) .
To summarize, this praise does not reflect the quality of the performance and is automatically lapped up by the audience because of the lack of discussions on acting quality in the larger society.
Yes, maybe we are complaining, maybe we should be happy that there are more heroine-led movies than ever in the larger scheme of things.
But also look at our angle, when things are nascent it is always best to advocate for quality and higher standards- this arai kooval comes from a group which enjoys Alien/ Aliens Kill Bill and Sarah Connor which are standing examples of doing serious female led action the best possible way.
Maybe we should be looking at writing more in depth parts for women and not just replace genders in mainstream films and maybe only then our heroines can put their hair down, erase the frown and move towards an Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor school of acting- an admirable gurukulam with inspiring female characters that has resulted in 100% non boring films.
No no, this is not the look how-Hollywood-is-doing-it type post. We recognize that there is a need for indigenous mainstream Indian heroine films, we are just pointing to successful templates which can be tinkered around with, till our own emerges.
Templates, adhu dane yellam.
Yes to female led ‘serious’ and exciting films but less Ummanamoonji in them please.