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cinema Essay

The Ummanamoonji Acting School

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. 

Nandri. 

Categories
cinema cinema:tamil Music

What’s Music Doc? Mazhai Vara Pogudhe

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No one really shoots songs like Gautham Menon, even folks who don’t like his films will like to sit through the songs, which is the opposite of what they would do for other directors.

In 2015’s Yennai Arindhaal (If you know me), Ajith Kumar plays Satyadev, an honest cop, honest to a fault in fact; explaining this song would need a little bit of context setting because the song itself is placed somewhere midway.

So yes, Satya had just driven out a gangster ‘Golden’ Raj from his house after literally stripping him, yes the price that one has to pay for offering bribes to DCP Satya, this honesty is also emphasized by means of harsh dialogue. Also worth mentioning is that Satya lives alone, naturally a dry life.

Happy and honest but dry.

The song is not a meet-her-the-first-time kindoff song, in fact Hemanika (Trisha) and Satya have met before in not so normal circumstances and a magistrate court is not even a romantic place, but this is where Satya realizes that he actually likes her. So stiff DCP goes and watches mock dance drama and all.

Even if you are Thala, you will find difficulty in getting a girl’ s number and even the usually honest DCP has to resort to other ‘tactics’ to proceed in this matter.

This is where the song starts.

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I really liked it when text in the form of SMS was used to move the narrative in Sherlock, here GVM employs the same technique, it might not add to the character as it does in Sherlock, but surely expresses the uneasy waiting moments that the hero goes through, in fact with every successive text message our hero softens.

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And then it rains.

Dry life and all that washed away. Hence Mazhai Vara Pogudhey.

GVM cuts back and forth between Satya punching goons and Hemanika correcting ‘mudras’ of her disciples, this is not just some love song in Swiss magic backgrounds, this a love song of two professionals going on about their work.

Both hand-to-hand combats, but of a different kind.

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Also notice that the song is used as a catalyst to push time, so it does not seem severely out of place when Satya proposes to her, this is a recurrent GVM theme; single mother who speaks in monosyllable, confident hero who plans far ahead; but look at at the way how it all comes together at the end of the song. Conveys so much five minutes of a song that even after an hour of talkies some directors fail to get.

Satya reaches Hemanika’s house, gives her flowers and there is a hand holding, he is firm/confident but she is unsure, concerned for her daughter perhaps or too shy admit, I dunno it could be anything.

However moments later in the song (almost an evening has passed in their life), there is another hand holding, but this time Hemanika is relaxed, they are alone.

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This tricky relationship is so well carved out in the song, in fact superior to the scene when they actually discuss it out in the open.

This song is story telling.

 

I am not saying this is a perfect song, in fact the Satya and Hemanika walking through malls and Satyam cinemas montage does become repetitive(wink and you will miss a VV reference), but GVM understands songs and where they are placed and their outcome, this one in particular I feel. How much of Hemanika we connect to (which is important for the rest of the film) solely lies in the success of Mazhai vara Pogudhey.

Through her, we see him (yes that is a GVM-ish line, but i’ll risk it) . Superb design.

Songs(in films) are not for relief as some directors would like to say, songs are not even embellishments or travel opportunities to far flung nations, they are very much part of the narrative, when used wisely they could become the director’s greatest ally.

Yes it is a great song to hear, one of my favorite Karthik solos, Harris as usual delivers and one can listen to this number day and night, but taking it with the context of two people coming together within the movie and how it denotes things to come, it is bloody brilliant!

And they say there is no use for song in films.

 

<What’s music doc? is an occasional short column to be put together on the influence of film music or the inability to explain the influence of film music or some such thing>

 

Categories
cinema cinema:tamil FRS

FRS: Kodi

So by now you know what this FRS right? Right?

kodi1

-34: Narration,

ok wait first We were fooled into thinking that there was no narration in this film, and before our collective sighs of relief could trouble the person sitting before us; there was narration.

+12: Moments

like that of a deaf and dumb father aspiring son to be the star attraction speaker of a political party, thought it started off really well there. Just when we come to the portion of human sacrifice by fire, how the mother and son view this incident establishes their further course of action. Films begins with a flag fluttering, post interval also, these are some nice thematic moments.

+3.5: Dhanush’s beard, I mean why will we not give points for this.

-51.35: Hero Introductions

No matter how different how your thinking is, or how different the setting of the film is, hero introductions never change. Slow cam, let something flutter, show the vehicle first, then legs, then face (yaay fan moment), also bring in some out of form goons so that hero can show heroism before children etc. Yea yeah, no police will be lodged.

-23.1: Celebrations

No matter what Cadbury’s tell you, you actually do need proper reasons to celebrate, I know we need a intro song here, but politician becoming regional youth wing secretary is reason for district wide celebration a? But further in the movie, moments are not so well celebrated why?

-41: For a film whose primary characters are supposed to be fiery speakers, the speeches dont count, no really

-19: Dhanush and Trisha never seem to run out of secret places to meet as lovers, i mean even if they have been lovers for say a decade or more, do they allocate one day of the week on google calendar for “let’s find one more secret place to meet” #OOooOOO

-4: One secret meeting place involves a cheetah passing by simply, cheetahs are extinct in india. yeah so. Later half cheetah changed to leopard.

+7: Ei Suzhali (song) 

-71.7777: Politics

Yeah so, what is politics really? Is about people and issues no? But mostly in this movie is about how one gets promoted from one post to another, how one double crosses another or even triple crossing. Yes these are the outcomes of what happens in politics, but really there is no issue, the entire film deals with a mercury dump for so long to make us believe that the entire politix of the region depends on it. Surely there must be farmers, traders, transport, infra, forests, but these aspects do not come within the scope of film which wants to be a political drama.

Guess we are being a little harsh here, Kodi is not an issues film, it is more about the politician than the politics, which is fair enough and Dhanush carries the born politician role like someone who has stood in atleast three local elections, but without the politics the politician stands alone.

Hi to all House of Cards fans

Even the issue that he tackles as Kodi are driven by personal hangover emotions. Watering down.

-23: Double cross, triple cross, road cross in the end since none of the characters could be related to, it didnt matter. Seems just to show that politicians are capable of doing ANYTHING for a rajya sabha seat., But isn’t this common knowledge?

-9: Rajya Sabha

-18.94: Trisha apart from being completely miscast, she even has the worst named character, ‘theepori’ rudra, and no sparks only.

+13: For Vijay Kumar for playing CM in this movie, in Singam series he plays home minister as well. I’m sure Vijay kumar would have played other cabinet ministers as well. First time in history of cinema one actor has played entire cabinet kind of statement.

-23: Twins, not spoiling, but there is actually a mention of a buzzfeed type post about “10 things you dont know about twins”, the content in this type article drives the story further

-5: Theory of inefficient goons: villians will keep sending inefficient goons to hero even when they know that he is going to hit them all and send them back, still they keep sending. Dei.

+8: Kaala Chashma,

Anyways, Happy Diwali

#Notdeepavali

Subam

FRS Team, The Lowly Laureate

 

 

 

 

Categories
cinema cinema:tamil Essential viewing remake

A STRANGENESS MORE THAN NIGHT

A CK and MM Review Mystery

Thoongavanam-Movie-Poster

Caustic Kumar  looking for a face he could recognize through the controlled darkness of the pub, mouthing something he had been thinking over and over again, “who keeps a meeting in such a place?”

“We do”

It was the chief, his thin frame had been accentuated by the darkness, pencil in the night. His white David Lynchian hair bent forwards when he spoke.

“Important night CK, someone just told me that the Laureate must be prepared for a hostile takeover”

“What! I can’t see any one reason anyone would want to buy The Laureate!”

“So did I”, said calmly the chief “But it is in this pub that I am to meet the informer, I had called you to tell that if things go the wrong way, let the piece on Thoongavanam be the last one you write for us”

CK did not understand, this could have been conveyed by a simple text message, an even easier free Whatsapp message, more importantly he could not come to terms with the fact that that the only establishment that thought him fit to be employed is actually being taken over, could this be the end?

He turned to convey the same to chief, but the chief had silently slipped away, a near distant light showed the location of the bar, legs moved involuntarily.

“Thoongavanam” CK repeated

MM appeared out of nowhere, like a genie waiting for a keyword, he shouldn’t be here, but CK was willing to put down everything in the disbelief component of his brain.

CK: “I’m sure you’ve seen it too Mod” (looking visibly disturbed)

MM: not once, but twice, and I absolutely loved it.

CK: this is even after seeing Nuit Blanche (the movie on which the latest Kamal movie is based)

MM: Look here, CK; we are the only ones who have seen the French film and we wouldn’t have seen it if not for the fact that Thoongavanam was in the works, but I guess I like Thoonga more.

CK: Nuit Blanche was a straight-jacketed action thriller, engrossing and feverishly cinematographed and leaving no room for extensions

MM: unless of course if Kamal Haasan takes up scripting duties…

CK: when I saw Thoonga for the first time, I was only doing mental comparisons scene by scene, how Thoonga is different but at the same time retains much of the core of Nuit Blanche.

MM: the detailing, the back stories, in NB the hero is a regular detail-less action hero, but here CK Diwakar is played by Kamal and that means that he will have issues, women, children and morals

CK: Kamal has rarely written and played any character without any noticeable motivations, remember that line from Vishwaroopam ?

(“I have a lot of emotional baggage”)

MM: Yes digging a little deeper, here in the improved screenplay there is a bit of detailing for everyone who partake in the back story of Diwakar and in that we are able to connect with the problem of the hero, like his wife, his colleagues and even his adversaries; but then again the characters Kamal play are increasingly becoming like ‘him’

CK: that is only scratching the surface type reading of a film, let us look at it this way, how much of value has been added when Kamal has taken up scripting duties, obviously you are not going to touch the action sequences

MM: which were done exceedingly well, I might add, finally had moments on screen when I was bothered who was getting hit and by whom

CK: and why is that? Because we know the characters, at least to the extent of what Kamal is willing to tell us, like say the importance of soya milk or how cell phones have replaced watches, when all this happens, when you put in characters of flesh blood in a setting much like this pub, you actually feel for their lives, dismissing them as extrusions is quite troubling for me, Kamal just uses his ‘Kamal-ness’ to get the feeling about

MM: I wouldn’t still agree to the whole self-referential for a reason argument, but there is still something that is there in Thoonga that is very much absent in Nuit Blanche, the humour.

CK: Absolutely!

MM: But then at points I thought that this was in a way dampening the overall tension, this mixing of the genres, this trying to appease different sections of the theatre

CK: Mod, my only response to you for that will be that you are forgetting that you are watching a Tamil remake of a French film. Yes maybe strictly speaking in this type of a film there must not be any place for humour, but there has been films like Die-Hard…

MM: Oh no, wait! You are bringing up Die-Hard….

CK: I thought I would bring up the Shining as well, it is not that Thoongavanam flanks these movies, but strangely yes occupies the same mind space as these two, even more so in the case of the Shining, the hallways with doors that lead to unimaginable places, the restriction of the setting itself, here a pub named Insomnia and there The Overlook; the setting does things to the main characters. Movies should remind you of other movies, if the remembrances are good, there you go, if they were bad then I really don’t know what to say…

MM: And Die-hard because of the one man in the building against the villain type, yes I do think there is quite a bit of humour in most block buster material, still strange this mixing of genres and thoonga is hardly blockbuster material

CK: yes it is quite a strange film, which kinda gets more enjoyable when you know what is going to happen, because you sit there and see the other things like how a change in radio channel is used to denote time of day, the dripping ceiling denoting time past, plush interiors that somehow feel dreamlike and characters who walk in and out, just like that?

CK: Mod? Mod?

He calls out again to see no one respond, only again it is the barman who motioned for another drink.

CK: have I been talking alone all the while?

CK’s phone lightened up the dark place, obviously it was a Whatsapp message which read as thus

“No one is buying the Lowly Laureate, that’s the bad news; but I’ll kill you if you don’t send the Thoongavanam review, as it is you have declined doing a Vedalam review, because of your principles our readership is threatened . Add few nice words on the cinematography, engrossing music by Ghibran, Hollywood style making etc etc, send them soon, I mean by tonight, SOOON- Chief”

The chief didn’t realise that he didn’t need to sign himself in a whatsapp message, this old fashioned-ness made CK smile and he went to work, and it would be a sleepless night.