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cinema:english Essay

Moneyball: Saving Stories From Storytellers

More Words, More Lies

As a writer, lately, I have been having a crisis of faith. A falling out with words, adjectives mostly, a bunch of liars, these adjectives, hate them. They mean nothing and the world is a better place without them. 

That’s the thing with words, I just abused a whole class of them and no one is going to defend them. My crisis of faith stems from a professional point of view, the truth I believe is at the opposite of what I write and I keep blocking them with words, words that don’t mean what I want to say, but words that will somehow convey what the other person wants to hear. Basically, lies. It’s the same in conversation too. 

Analytics tell the truth and self analytics tell you the truth, and when people tell you the opposite, you know they are just saying it to make you feel better. There is concern, of course, but little truth. 

So you can imagine my crisis of looking at words on a page day after day and thinking, is this the truth?

I’ll make that generalization now.

Humanity stepped away from the truth when it started to use words to make itself feel better and ever since has made the lives of professional bullshitters (often called those who call themselves as storytellers) a very lucrative one. 

Seeking Truth in Movies & Life

Humor me one more time, I would like you “feel” the crisis of faith,if you are in a career that demands working with words 80% of the time (written and spoken-speaking on phones too count) and the rest 20% of the time “socializing”, then I’m sorry it is within the profession of bullshit, maybe we can collectively calm ourselves by calling ourselves storytellers. 

Oh no, I don’t hate stories, in fact I love them, stories come with seeds of truth in them. It’s the story tellers that come with their extra words and obfuscate the truth.For the storytellers the only tools are words and not analysis. As mentioned before, analysis leads to truth. 

Adding two and two, a well analyzed story and by keeping storytellers away, will lead to a personal truth, that the story is willing to offer me, the beauty of story is that it can deliver multiple truths.  I see Moneyball as a metaphor for this higher generalization.

But there is no denying the fact that words are entertaining, they take us away from the dullness that is associated with analysis, they can make us laugh or cry, feel emotion or even make us buy a product. But it’s not the truth, nor is it a path to it. 

Which is why it surprises me, when I see Aaron Sorkin’s name on the writing credits of MoneyBall.

Aaron Sorkin deals with a lot of words, more words than what you thought about when you just read “a lot of words”, not the Tharoor unreproducible types, but reproducible by people with decent degrees and some degree of smugness types. 

Affectionately paraded as ‘Sorkinisms’ by those trying to up their intellectual image (and smugness), his fast paced dialogues in a professional set up has ever since given men (mostly men) wet dreams of becoming a TV news host, Navy lawyer, Facebook founder, political speech writers and heck even the President of The United States. 

Sorkin’s characters radiate with the message often found on t-shirts, “Smart is the new sexy” , except Sorkin kids believe that here smart means using a lot of words within a short period of time. And too many words, often amount to nothing. 

Humor me again, four of the five professions mentioned are professional bullshitters, I mean storytellers,no wonder these give rise to wet dreams. 

So yeah, Aaron Sorkin could be one the patron saints of those who want to be storytellers. Which surprises me even more when I find his name on the screenplay of Moneyball. 

Because Moneyball is a film about how a American baseball team cut the bullshit and decided to win games. Based on the non fiction book by Michael Lewis, it traces the 2002 season of Oakland Athletics under the stewardship of GM Billy Beane. 

Now,Billy Beane got exposed to professional bullshit early in his life, he made a bad decision, falling prey to a talent scout who convinced Billy and his family that he has all the talent that is made to become a sports superstar. 

Except he didn’t. Not even close. 

The danger with these word driven professions and relationships, is that after a point people start believing in their own bullshit, it’s easier at stage when the storyteller is able to discern which part of what he/she says is the truth and which part is the shit. But when they keep doing that for years, it becomes difficult, as in the case of talent scouts looking for future recruits in the film. 

There’s a scene where Brad Pitt (who plays Billy Beane) is sitting at the end of a table with half a dozen talent scouts, the Oakland A’s have just lost their marquee players and are looking for replacements. 

X,Y & Z players are chosen not for their ability but for reasons such as how pretty the player’s girlfriend is. He’s been fed all these narratives and no real solution to build a team that will win. 

That’s the thing with professional bullshitters, they often forget the problem they have been employed to solve, but circle around intangibles not willing to face or seek the truth. 

Billy Beane could have been a top executive somewhere far away from professional bullshitters had he taken up the offer from a top school and not followed someone else’s gut instinct, but you cannot really blame these tale spinners entirely, they have been doing it for long convincingly, drowning in their own stories and overestimating their ability in every step, even when the data points the opposite way. 

They are the ones who need help, too. 

The Difficulty of Being Honest

One of the best things that the movie Moneyball does is that it addresses how difficult it is to be honest in the real world and how civility and pleasantries weigh in on every conversation, but thankfully it also shows how an honest conversation can bring about real change. 

Every conversation that Billy has with those who are up the power chain (his boss, his ex-wife with whom he shares a kid, the team manager played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman)is laced with needless affirmations of positivity, half-truths to somehow sneak in what he really wants to say. 

But when he is the one holding the power chord in conversations (to her peers, the talent scouts, the players ) it’s always business, always to the point and always with a result. Never an indecisive moment. Never an extra word wasted on a pleasantry.

The more honest he gets, the more his team wins.

With data powering him, Billy Beane is able to make the most dramatic decisions in the mid-season of play, but hardly seems dramatic while doing it. The lack of drama is due to the absence of charged up confrontational scenes, and what do confrontational scenes bring? Yes a lot of words in full volume. 

The Oakland A’s go onto create a record number of wins, a team that could hardly hope to retain its key players at the start of the season managed to go high places because its GM chose to cut out the bullshit and focus on what is to be done by careful analysis. 

That’s the story. 

It doesn’t need embellishment, it doesn’t need narrative constructs, it doesn’t need the ‘instinct and gut’, it doesn’t at all need words, it doesn’t definitely need storytellers.

Which is why it surprises me to see Aaron Sorkin’s name on the credits of Moneyball, it surprises me even more to know that he was nominated for a writing Oscar for this film. It doesn’t surprise me, however, to find that he shared a screenplay credit with Steve Zaillian.

Moneyball is the most non-Sorkinesque of the Sorkin films, there is hardly any walk and talk, there is no high pitched emotional venting, there is not much smart quipping at each other moments. Very less confrontation, very less words. 

It’s all very quiet, the dialogue is on point, nothing more than the scene demands. Although I could see the ‘screenplaying’ in the form of the relationship between Billy Beane and his daughter, it doesn’t divert the attention away from the story. Though I acknowledge that there is a lot of Sorkin in one major three way phone call scene. 

Which makes me wonder, was Sorkin compelled by the inherent forces of the story to tone himself down or was he having a crisis of faith? Was he losing his words for the search for the truth? Moneyball, after all is mostly the truth, these things happened. 

(I don’t have to make everything about myself, but hey this is my blog)

By asking that question I know I am playing down a lot of things, like say the involvement of director Bennet Miller,the contribution of Steve Zaillian and Stan Chervin who wrote the script and story respectively.

But to answer that here’s what Zaillian told Sorkin during the time when Sony Pictures asked for a rewrite “Listen, do me a favor, don’t change the movie. Just write more of it.”

Sorkin could have and certainly had the power to make the movie another Sorkinesque film, after all he had just written The Social Network! 

But he didn’t. He stuck to the story.

Following Moneyball, Sorkin wrote an adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s monumental Steve Jobs biography and this video hints that Sorkin is back to his ‘language’ days. And Moneyball seems to be just a one-off for him, the one time the story was saved from the storyteller.  

Moneyball can be seen from the outside world of sports and analytics too, like this piece called Who’s On First by Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler. 

While here I am typing away and trying to connect seeking truth in life and seeking truth in movies, with Moneyball playing example, but the events did happen right? Oakland A’s did win all those matches and other teams did start to adopt Billy Beane’s method of team building, it did force the talent scouts to reduce their guessing games and kitchen counter speeches and go behind numbers, it changed something and so there must be some truth in it. 

All great movies (despite the words), reveal a personal truth to the watcher and for me Moneyball did during this rewatch. 

So all is not in vain, if you have read this far, hope you did get something out of it and not empty words.

There’s a lot of challenges for many of us right now and we don’t know what the world is turning out to be, but Moneyball offers a warm blanket of a solution too and when followed moderately can lead to happiness. 

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cinema Essay

Kalaai as a Service (KaaS): Siva Manasula Sakthi (SMS)

It’s time the world took note of the work of director M. Rajesh.

The other SA Chandrasekhar assistant. Especially of interest is his pentalogy of movies with comedy star Santhanam, which began with 2009s Siva Manasula Sakthi or SMS. 

A decade just went past and no one only seemed to notice. Of course SMS is a certain kind of film that would not attract revivals, it also has the misfortune (from a critical pov) of being a non-classy romantic film, a genre which seems to somehow require a film to be ‘classy’ to be revived. 

Anyway, Rajesh wouldn’t care. I don’t mean that in a wrong way.

It shows in every scene right from the start, the mock freeze frame narration and pausing to question the audience whether Jiiva would be an Olympic athlete but then insisting that he is just a normal guy running to catch a train. It’s not that he is not sincere, it’s just that he is probably bored with what is quite commonly known here as “build-up”. No pretensions. 

Cut to next scene

Siva meets Sakthi on the train. 

Seconds later he is asking her to talk to him to pass the time. 

That’s it. 

No glowing close-up to the heroine’s eyes, no hero touching his chest and kneeling to the ground, no guitar solo,no “avlo oru azhagu” types, no Harris Jayraj duolingo humming (although Rajesh would use the composer in a later film), no general wishy washy circling around for 40 mins before saying something poetic etc. 

No romance in a romance film. Boom. 

Full disclosure, we generally love all types of films, but we also tend to hate the most romantic of the romantic ones. The ones where romance is the sole soul, we mean…never mind. 

Siva can never be a movie romantic lead, his pick up line is about Anantha Vikatan (also the producers and the magazine is ‘well placed’ in the movie), it’s not much of a pick up line too, he is raw male instincts personified  he is also real. 

Our usual romantic leads are often those who just jump out of a strawberry dream in little heart situations. Unrealistic even by middle class expectations. 

Siva is just another guy, Sakthi too, just another girl. 

They remain so till the very end.

No no, this is definitely not the glib “mature understanding love story” , no no, this is even not the “poratti podra” transformational love story where one lead influences the other to change their entire life. This movie does not even fall into the taming of the shrew subgenre. 

Siva Manasula Sakthi is the most realistic love story ever made in Tamil cinema, the fact that it is told as a humorous interplay between two characters with brittle ego who cannot get enough of themselves is its differentiating point. That it also avoids unnecessary social commentary is where its brilliance lies. 

Right so, when they do first meet, both are instinctively attracted to each other and present complete fake versions of themselves, but those thin characteristics break away and the rest of the movie is just Siva and Sakthi irritating themselves to the world’s end. 

Yours Irritatingly

Love stories tend to focus on the great moments that a couple have (imagined, with the passage of time) but SMS stays on the not so great moments and more on how much can one tolerate the other, which seems to be a more practical approach to deciding on long term romance, rather than say learning guitar or that sort of thing. 

Hence, the term real.

In life or say real life, relationships are truncated or prolonged based on the mutual tolerance level and relationships include love, we think no other movie touched on this aspect and it’s a very practical way to decide. Great work Rajesh, we know you don’t care, but still. 

Again, a romance film that does not romanticise. 

But it is true that they do have their sweet moments, but it is reserved for a montage during the time Siva and Shakti are away,not as elaborate as the “Kalaai” portions. 

Making irritation scenes the mainstay is also clever while looking at it from the impact POV, when Sakthi realizes that Siva really does love him underneath all the put on contempt, sitting in a restaurant with Arya (another Rajesh trademark cameo feature) her “could have been would-be”. It’s incidents from these irritations and scheming that Siva really understands her. It hits her (and us) hard.

Not so punny, kid

‘Kalaai’ is a difficult word to translate, so is ‘Nakkal’ and ‘Kindal’, make-fun-of does not really meet the meaning, it’s a very Tamil thing and although it is not unique to Rajesh’s films, but he was the one who codified it and it becomes emblematic to the point of difficulty in his later films (maybe wait for our essay on Vasuvum Saravananum Onna Padichavanga). 

Comedy films have been gauged on the amount of laughter that they provide, how many lines have been remembered, how many lines that could be repurposed for daily life. Maybe that’s a cerebral way to approach humor, but it is not the natural way. Structured dialogue comedy does not happen in real life, people rarely speak in rat-a-tat-a-tat. These are constructed screenplays based on intellect, not for normals.  

Like his practical approach to love, Rajesh also has a practical approach to comedy, he doesn’t want to pack 200 jokes in 100 minutes, he doesn’t even care if some jokes do not land (which is very true of the film) and that’s okay, because in the life of Siva or a person like Sakthi would not be able to make up smart turns of phrase. They would probably make fun of a fat person, which is what they do. But they have a good laugh.

Kalaai hence becomes both the medium for love and comedy, it was refreshing to watch this two pronged approach the first time and it is still refreshing because very few have attempted such a radically different way to tell a love story. Rajesh would, but then this is his mould from which other movies do come out. Do note that the Kalaai is not one way, the hero too gets it back (and nicely so) from the heroine (Anuya Bhagwat is a treat to watch in her debut, despite the dubbing). 

Rajesh’s films are also dubbed (not in another language) as TASMAC films (why not wait for our essay on All in All Azhagu Raja), owing to how the hero and Santhanam spend most of the time at wine shops and yes TASMAC is an important setting in SMS, it’s where Sakthi finally admits to being in love (he still thinks it’s another elaborate Kalaai), but what other outlet does Siva have in matters of the heart. Where else will he go to nurse his broken ego and who else would support him like his friend Santhanam (named Vivek [LOL] in the film). 

Santhanam’s role in Rajesh films would continue to grow even to the extent of the whole film revolving around him, but surely you can witness traces of the flow in the ever popular ‘Harry Potter Vaaya’ and the broken mobile phone gag in SMS, but it is definitely not peak Santhanam. We were surprised about how little he appears in the film.

Rajesh also believes that Kalaai is not restricted to what only the comedian says, he finds it in the RJ voice obsessed Siva’s sister, he finds it in the kindness personified Urvashi, Siva’s mother. It is here that Rajesh forged his strong family setup which would be repeated time and again. 

But it is Jiiva who takes the money to the bank, the testimony to his acting prowess is that after SMS, he is able to fit right into Neethane En Pon Vasantham too. Absolute talent, perhaps the most versatile after Kamal. 

Rajesh perfected his model in his first film while many accumulate signatures slowly over time.

Why yes how many first film directors set out to make their best film as their first?

Working under limitations of a production house (Vikatan) which was till then producing tele serials and no star magnet to put people in their seats. His advertising background probably came to help in including items that interest his core audience (the youth of 2008-9) and he went about it making it as honestly as possible and proving that excessive displays of conviction alone cannot make a good film, just being self will do. 

Do give it a watch, if you haven’t lately and we hope you would think well to include it in future anniversary revivals.  

After a top debut, where will Rajesh go from here? 

Tune into the next edition of Kalaai as a Service, where we (hopefully can) dive deep into the cinema of M Rajesh. 

Thank you for reading.

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cinema 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. 

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cinema Essay

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.

Categories
cinema cinema:tamil Essay rewatch

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.