Category: Essay

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. 

Thiruvilayadal: Games That Siva Plays

On this past Tamil New Year’s Day, Vasanth TV had the good sense to play the greatest Tamil movie ever made, naturally I sat down to watch it. 

Telling Thiruvilayadal is the greatest tamil movie EVER made to people who worship realistic social films and the like has been my go to entertainment option for some time now. Apart from being a very entertaining game that you can play with people who revel themselves in boring classical tastes, Thiruvilayadal is really the greatest Tamil movie ever made. 

Normally I would add the words “I feel” to the previous sentence, but then this is after all my blog and what I write here is the truth, I feel. 

Okay okay, let me stand on a soap box and throw (soap?) stones at boring movie fans later, but now I am here just talking about the last fourth of Thiruvilayadal. Yes, just the fourth from the quartet. So clutch your armchairs tightly as we dive deep into the AP Nagarajan Experience. 

The AP Nagarajan Experience

Thiruvilayadal was the magnum of magnums, an instant greatest hits of Lord Siva based on a 16th century work captured in Eastmancolor by perhaps Tamil cinema’s greatest director AP Nagarajan. The movie features Sivaji Ganesan and Savithri as Lord Shiva and Parvathi. In short it is the cinematic equivalent of having participated in any of the Maha Kumbhs. 

For once I would go as to use the word “experience” along with cinema, if ever there was one it was in the mythological power of Thiruvilayadal and some of the movies that APN made after that. 

Hype enough? 

But I am not going to play the greatest hits- I am not going to talk about the first ten minutes that drum beat laden aural invocation of not just Lord Shiva but a recreation of Mount Kailash. APN goes against the grain and does not leave the best for the last, a true believer, he knows nothing is going to top the world waiting for the clouds clearing-cymbals banging reveal of Sivaji Ganesan fully in costume and meditation as Lord Shiva. 

The first ten minutes also encapsulates what is going to happen through the course of film- multiple levels of buildup followed by a reveal. 

Angry Kids Are Difficult To Deal With

If you divide the movie by running time, Thiruvilayadal is a stringing together two mini plays sandwiched between two almost one hour episodes.

 The longer and the important ones (emphasis mine) are the stories concerning humans and how obstacles are hurled at them by the lord to test them and how he reveals himself to them(always at the end) much like the build up and reveal of the lord himself in the first few minutes. 

The shorter ones are the stories of the Gods themselves. Don’t forget that there is the connecting tissue of the telling of the tale (the meta story) itself which begins with Parvati telling her husband’s tales to her indignant son, Kumara- who did not get the fruits of his labour. 

Indian epics are literally stories within stories, a device that would pull the listener to the central point further and further into the story to illustrate the base point, in Thiruvilayadal the stories told to Muruga (same son, different name) reinstate that playing games is what Shiva does and tell Muruga that being angry at this is a waste of time. 

But then angry kids are difficult to deal with and need more convincing. Here four episodes. 

Parvati even at times shows some playful disdain at her husband’s activities, but these are not futile plays as we shall see. 

Interestingly before Shiva and Parvathi could convince their son, there is the poet mystic Avvaiyar, as a personification of the language tamil itself trying to cool him down. Tamil as a personification is a recurring theme too. 

Episode 1: Nakkeerar, Court Poet and Designated Grammar Nazi (genre: comedy drama)

God tests your resolve and commitment to your passion, even if it means to question God himself. Nakkeerar actually spoke truth to (fire) power.

The first of the quartet is more popular as the Dharumi episode, because Nagesh steals it from everyone’s feet , but is really about the skills (and passion) of Nakkeerar. Nagesh’s performance has contributed to the endurance of the film.

But I am not here to talk about Nakkeerar here, nor am I here to write about Sivaji, who played both the poet and the lord in an earlier film also written by APN called Naan Petra Selvam

How APN has updated the scene is for everyone to see. 

Episode 2: Even The Gods Quarrel At Home (Genre: Family Drama) 

The second and the third quartet can be seen as one unit, both as reasoned above deal with the stories of the Gods and there is no “devotional” element in it, but both differ in terms of the story they want to tell. 

Parvathy wants to visit her father’s yagna, but Daksha is not just her father but also Sivan’s sworn enemy, so naturally he won’t allow it. What follows is the divine domestic battle which ends with the Rudra Thandavam, basically Shiva going berserk and giving his half to his better half. 

It’s about ten minutes of Shivaji doing an earth shattering dance and I’m not even going to go in detail about how much of a visual treat it is. 

Nor I am a going to talk about —-

Episode 3: When APN made Jaws before Spielberg (Genre: Romance, Horror) 

So let’s just skip to episode 4 because otherwise we are going to need a bigger blog post.

Episode 4: The Ballad Of Banabathirar (Genre: Musical)

Now of course, this is what I really wanted to talk about, you might have guessed it too because there is no other episode after this. 

Paraphrasing what philosopher-gangster Maanik Baasha said, “the lord gives everything to the bad except himself. Aana, the lord gives many troubles to his devotees, but never forsakes them” 

Yes, the troubles that Shiva gives to those who follow him IS the movie (all episodes) and NO this is not about curbing the arrogance of Hemanatha Bhagavatar. 

<Enter Hemanatha Bhagavathar in all pomp and splendour> 

Hemanatha Bhagavathar: Hello people of Madurai, I am the greatest singer in the world, even God pays attention when I sing, from now on I own you!

<Close> 

You Don’t Mess With Madurai 

Yes I can see the arrogance, but it is mentioned that this has been the practice of Hemanatha Bhagavathar, he goes to kingdom after kingdom with his troupe and talent and then wins them over. Shiva did not mind then. He was probably happy listening to the honey like voice of the Bhagavathar too (Dr. M Balamuralikrishna) and didn’t mind it at all. 

Maybe he shouldn’t have challenged Madurai. Maybe he shouldn’t have so lowly judged his competition: Banabathirar. 

The hero of this episode Banabathirar is introduced with one shot to establish his unshakeable faith- the bronze of Uma Maheswarar, he at the moment believes that from the grass to the skies, everything rests within Shiva. 

“For those who praise you” he sings “you give nothing but ascent” 

Hmm but Banabathirar doesn’t seem to be on the ascent in any material sense, he doesn’t have a long line of disciples and even the king doesn’t have him in his consideration set for possible competitors to Hemanathan. 

What ascent is the content Bhanabathirar talking about? It’s definitely not riches. It’s probably the ascent to Mount Kailash where all wait to catch his glimpse. 

Yes, it reminds me of the first sequence. Great work APN!

But as we all know, Shiva is going to test Bhanbathirar but never going to forsake him (but our poor singer doesn’t know that yet) with this competition, which he will never win. Everyone knows the talent of Bhagavathar. 

Can He? He Cannot

The poor temple singer asks his wife, how can he? There is no way.

Add an extra layer of difficulty, the whole of Madurai will be shamed if he loses.

How can he?

Surely you cannot, says his wife. 

Shocking right? This is usually the point where we expect the motivating female lead to motivate the male lead and how with self belief and confidence anything can be overcome. 

APN calls bull (not to be confused with the Nandi) on all these usuals. 

“Go at once to Sokka’s shrine and give yourself to him and don’t even think about running away.”

That’s what she says. 

APN simply makes a classic by not following any of the conventions of screenplay, our Bhanabattar never really learns anything (just got reminded by his wife), he doesn’t overcome any obstacle  ( heck he never even meets Hemanathan) and is not even a changed man by the end of the film. 

Bye bye Joseph Campbell.

Also I forgot to mention that this episode alone consists of five songs and APN shoots mostly stationary men with simple pans, nothing very extraordinarily, but still makes it arresting. 

APN still shoots Bhanabhatirar at a low angle when he is down and slowly trolleys up when he offers himself completely to Shiva to the god angle, all this before even decoding cinema was thought about in Kodambakkam youtube channels. 

Techniques anyone can do, but conveying Hindu philosophy is difficult. 

Each song in the movie is a gem, but Isai Tamil is my favourite. But why?

Some readers might be aware that there exists certain hacks to passing engineering exams, these come in the form of badly printed guide books which are just answer compilations of questions past. 

If I didn’t know anything, I would go to the guide and just see instances from previous years and walk into the exam hall. If I had at least read the guide, I had a chance. 

Isai Tamil is that. If at all there is something of a takeaway (there are many) that you quickly want to take away from Thiruvilayaadal, it would be this- just surrender to God. 

That simply told, in so few minutes.

Sokkan himself comes posing as a wood cutter to remind Hemanatha Bhagavatar that great talents can be found in the most unlikely places. Thereby humbling him, but mainly protecting Bhanabhatirar, Madurai and Mother Tamil herself. 

I promised earlier, that I would come back to how Tamil is personified in Thiruvilayadal and here I am now, first of course it is in the form of Avvaiyar who says that she (as tamil) has the right to correct a wrongdoing Murugan. 

In the Ballad of Bhanabatirar, it stands for the state of Madurai itself and the failure of the Tamil poet represents the fall of the state itself. 

Shiva is her son who must protect her. 

Maybe we can look at the devotee Thiruvilayadal episodes itself as Shiva coming to save Mother Tamil in testing times. 

Why is it great?

That’s a sign of greatness, to look at a movie at different points from different times and arrive at another strand of truth. Not general truths but great movies are personal lessons with personal truths. 

The very mention of great movies would immediately take me back to Chinatown whose unfading truth that gleamed to me “do as little as possible” because all else done by humanity is in vain and would only cause more worry. 

A personal truth, albeit one does that does offer nothing more than the bleak fall of western civilization. But by combining the nihilism of Chinatown with the eastman color of Thiruvilayadal I get: do as little as possible and leave everything to God. 

Or any higher power. 

What’s an indicator of a great film? Like a great quote, a great movie, comes to my rescue when I need it the most. It is a prism, but I am the seer. Good movies show me the colour, great ones show me the light. 

Thiruvilayadal will live long even if people stop looking for philosophical undertones and bury themselves in secular interpretations, because with acting and music this good and stories this engaging, I could switch on to any episode of my choice- eternally rewatchable. I hope it was the same for those who caught the telecast on TV. The innate Tamilness and the unflinching rootedness to mythology plays no less a part in this movie’s endurance. 

Thiruvilayadal-It does not offer me mindless entertainment, but it is entertaining. It makes me forget any of the problems, yet also awakes me with a solution. The light. 

There are several movies that came after Thiruvilayadal that can claim technical mastery, ambitious scale, audience enjoyment and even to an extent wide acclaim, they are all great but how I differentiate between the great and the greatest is when I am able to catch on to one of these personal truths. 

Hopefully I have been able to pass them on to you, if not I would try next time, in a different game. 


Subam.

Calling The Cops

Or what I found when I kept Vettaiyaadu Vilayaadu and Thanga Pathakam side-by-side

Even the meanest of Gautam Menon critics (some of whom, write for this website-gulps) will agree that the “kanna nondi eduthaanga da” opening sequence is among his best. 

It also presents a good template for us to study hero introductions.

Hmm, then I found something, from a 1974 film. 

The Open Challenge

“Bring me the eye of DCP Raghavan!” 

Vettaiyaadu Vilayaadu (VV) begins with Royapuram Mani, who would never appear again in the course of the movie – putting out an open challenge after being pushed to a corner by the police specifically Raghavan. 

He wants to run his ‘business’, but of course he cannot do it with Raghavan giving him the heat around the corner. Mani needs Raghavan dead- no, he wants more, he wants his eyes. 

Good setup, so now we know who our hero is and what his goals are without even showing him- and close. 

“Bring me the head of SP Chowdary!”

25 minutes into 1974’s Thanga Pathakkam (TP- to pronounce it properly go here); director P Madhavan is faced with a challenge- how do I reintroduce the hero? 

As I said 25 mins of the film has already run its course, the usual familial introductions have been made- including the wayward son, the doting wife and the family friend around whom the movie would revolve. 

Probably P Madhavan feels the present state does not give enough ‘weight’ to Sivaji’s character- so I hope he would have asked the writer Mahendran ( who would later make Mullum Malarum, yes that Mahendran) to come up with another introduction. 

Here too there is a character who never appears again in the form of legendary villain actor RS Manohar-but the difference is he wants SP Chowdary’s head. 

The Point Of Entry

Both Madhavan and Menon keep it simple here, just them heroes occupying the frame shot from below- memorable in each case. A point of detail is that Kamal kicks the gate open (which would again allow a nice cycle back to ‘gate a moodra’ later)

Let Them Talk  

The impact is in the action, but the build-up is always in the words. Both our heroes are unarmed when introduced, while Chowdary mentions it, Raghavan hands over the only knife he brought to Royapuram Mani. 

Normally one would expect Sivaji to win this hands down, he is after all the most gifted when it comes to dialogues, but sadly I believe as this could be a hastily written scene- it is more “Aeis and Deis”, which belong more in the cinema of today. But maybe SP Chowdary is more brute force than brain force. 

There is a half hearted attempt at humor and then Manohar gives in immediately but the good thing is, Sivaji gets to slip in a “tholachuruven badava” before the final fight.  

Raghavan on the other hand is shooting bullets like line starting from the just-like-that “en kannu venumnu kettiyam?” then easily evoking one accent from his many to give us “ romba thondru panraan” and pausing to make a lol worthy comment on Royapuram Mani’s arithmetic skills. 

My personal favorite is of course to the other assembled goons, “neengellam vera vela paathukonga pa”

Kamal is in quipping best, the dialogues and the camera always on him, half the screen is Raghavan’s face only- really makes the movie worth watching, although his quipping reduces considerably. 

And Action!

The stuff we have been waiting for, one man against an entire set- in Thanga Pathakkam it becomes a silambam fight while Vetaiyaadu keeps it hand to hand in a contained location before going for an opening song and sets the ball rolling.

Same introduction template. But two completely different movies.

Side by Side

Often we see how new filmmakers take time and pay homage to an earlier film or filmmaker, entire podcast episodes are dedicated to this, but I wouldn’t know if Menon is paying homage to Madhavan. A director cannot cross a tamil cinema police movie list without Thanga Pathakkam- it may have come to his notice or suggested by an assistant with an encyclopedic mind- and there is the question of Kamal being in the movie itself. 

But it is practically the same narrative structure for introducing a cop hero-maybe both Mahendran and Menon borrowed from a common source.

It doesn’t really matter, what matters is that these things strike out or should I say leap out from the screen and what I have left is this confidence of a slight bond. It is a difficult feeling to describe, something like discovering an entire new branch in a family tree. 

Watching movies and seeing other movies in them is by itself a rewarding feeling-makes me feel like a small shareholder in the big scheme of things.