Sunday, December 12, 2021

Existential Hacks from a Confirmed Cynic

We are all told not to be so hard on ourselves or on each other. Naturally, that applies only as long as we are living our best lives which means being productive all the time; eating right and eliminating sugar, red meat, dairy, maida, coffee, tea, alcohol or anything at all that might be a reason to live; working out at least 6 hours a day to flaunt an envy – inducing physique because everybody knows that all talk of body positivity is only for fatties with low self – esteem; married, preferably to a member of the opposite gender and same caste; raising the perfect family that includes son/sons with daughters being optional; making enough and more money that gives you the license to be licentious and get away with all manner of excess; having over a million followers across social media and winning national and international awards for excellence every year to validate an entirely pointless existence. We are told to slow down and take the time to smell the roses. Of course, anybody with a brain knows better than to slacken the pace because that would mean allowing one’s competitors, rivals and random fellow racers to get ahead in the game of life, leaving the slowpokes choking on their dust and the acrid taste of failure. As for smelling the roses, unless there is a reel with the potential to go viral, to be made in the interest of keeping it real which is the credo the new breed of humanbots aka Instagram influencers live by, it is an overrated pastime, that is unlikely to change your life in a significant way. We are told that we ought to be happy and content with what we have without constantly striving for more of everything. Now, it goes without saying that such a laidback, zen approach is the enemy of ambition and getting ahead in the rat race, unless you are a Godman who has successfully found a way to monetise the spouting of ideological, pseudo religious claptrap. And it is possible to be happy and content with what you have without forever hankering for more, just as long as you already have amassed everything worth having using fair means or foul. We are told that there is no need to be perfect all the time. Or even the best. That it is okay to age gracefully or not have a plan. To trust, surrender and let it all go, allowing life to flow and unfold in a manner that might ensure that we receive all the things we ever wanted and more. Unfortunately, that is a fool’s move which may just see you lose everything and get hit by a truck because you chose not to see it coming. This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express:

Somnambulism to the Rescue!

Everybody wants to be a part of the solution to life’s many problems. Nowadays, that usually means calling out someone or something on social media adding to the cacophony surrounding celeb/celeb children’s misbehaviour or the trending cause célèbre. It is the simplest way which requires next to no effort to feel like something meaningful has been done even if it hasn’t. And of course, every activist out there feels they have not earned their stripes if a vigorous attempt has not been made to ‘disinfect’ popular art by calling for the ban or boycott of films, music or books that are deemed offensive for whatever reason. The tone has to be strident, passionate, outraged, excessively intolerant and reeking of righteous fury to be considered acceptable. Naturally, none of these things are ever likely to be effective in fixing whatever it is that needs to be fixed but never is. The reason is simple enough. We have all allowed ourselves to become increasingly divorced from a reality which was never less than dull, dreary and depressing on the best of days. Being an adult mostly means looking for increasingly creative means to escape the humdrum of monotony that is part and parcel of life to cope with the demands of personal as well as professional problems and pressures that pile up in a never – ending conveyor belt of unceasing awfulness. So we disappear into make – believe worlds which have become easy enough to access through the internet, smartphones, gaming devices and tech toys that offer so much by way of entertainment that is such a relief after the drudgery and dismal sameness of the real world. Virtual reality is so much more fun and it is easy enough to immerse ourselves in films, binge – worthy television shows and world – building games that are a wonderful way to kill time which otherwise seems to stretch on forever in tepid tedium. Which is why we are so much more comfortable raising our voices when something is deemed offensive or unacceptable in the arts or celluloid. We cry ourselves hoarse when crimes against women are treated flippantly in a film or women are inappropriately portrayed. Whereas in real life when we witness injustices perpetrated against women, it is easier to pretend that it is her fault and therefore not our problem. We viciously attack a celeb kid who has been arrested for possession of drugs but we couldn’t give less of a crap about the dangerous drug dealer types destroying the neighbourhood because everybody knows that if you do interfere, chances are you will wind up in a body bag minus your limbs or worse. Hence it is hardly surprising we are all tigers in La La land while being pussy cats everywhere else. This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express:

Benefits of being Besotted with IPL

The second leg of the three – ring circus aka the Indian Premier League (IPL) is currently happening in the UAE. Naturally, this will be the only thing, folks in these parts will be talking about till the big final scheduled to be played on October 15th, although endless discussions about King Kohli’s bombshell of a decision to step down as T20I and Royal Challengers Bangalore captain (what’s up with him?) will also be entertained. I think this is a good thing and the reasons are manifold. At this point, we all need a little something to get fired up about and take our minds off Covid which continues to tax us sorely, global warming, the situation in Afghanistan, an ailing economy, the definite possibility that we are entrapped in the Matrix since we have been reduced to living our lives solely in the virtual medium and other horrors of insomnia inducing magnitude. Let’s face it, it is fun to get caught up in the frenzy of sport even when engaged in a heated argument online with haters who foolishly assert that Chennai Super Kings fans jumped onto the CSK bandwagon only because they are hung up on Dhoni when every individual who bleeds yellow knows that the reverse is true. And there is nothing like out – trolling the trolls for burning through vast stores of endless frustration and pent up rage which might otherwise manifest in harmful ways. When your team wins or your favourite players rock your world with other – worldly prowess you tend to bask in the lingering afterglow of their success which enables you to feel much better about the fact that you spent the day curled up in bed with a box of doughnuts because you simply could not summon the energy to do anything at all that might be construed as constructive. A thumping victory in addition to making you forget the sheer awfulness of existence also puts you in a more forgiving frame of mind whether it comes to yourself or the construction workers who insist on dumping their trash outside your house despite your repeated admonishments not to do so. You resist the urge to hire hooligans you can’t actually afford to knock some sense into their heads and take the Gandhian path by snitching to their supervisor and casually mentioning that you are a distant relative of the local MLA, wagging your finger in a friendly manner. Of course, when things don’t go well for your team, you deal with elevated blood pressure, added stress, and an exacerbation of existing problems. But you risk it anyway, because sport teaches you that in life, you have to take the bitter with the better. This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express:

When Wokesters attack Jokesters

Gene Weingarten, Washington Post humorist, wrote a column where he lists his intense dislike for certain cuisines and food products like Balsamic Vinegar, Hazelnut, Anchovies, Indian food, Old Bay seasoning which he compares to “dandruff from corpses mixed with rust from around the toilet fixtures at a New Jersey rest stop” among other stuff. Now, this reminded me of my childhood at a boarding school in Yercaud, where it was fashionable to diss whatever was served to us, even if it was actually decent. For instance, a wit once remarked that the Sabudana kheer/ Javvarisi payasam tasted like Frog’s eyes. Naturally, an even more caustic wit responded with “Does that mean you have tasted Frog’s eyes?” We all doubled over with a hysterical case of the giggles! Now that I am all grown up and sophisticated, obviously I had to wonder if Weingarten had been rooting about in graves and loos, sampling the grossness on offer and I collapsed in gales of laughter, impressed as always with my own sense of humor. Not many found Weingarten’s piece funny though. In fact, most insisted that it was not only offensive to Indians but downright racist because Weingarten had written that Indian food was “the only ethnic cuisine in the world insanely based entirely on one spice” and then compounded his error by adding: “if you think Indian curries taste like something that could knock a vulture off a meat wagon, you do not like Indian food.” The great Indian diaspora was up in arms and the charge was led by a fire – breathing Padma Lakshmi, who wrote that the column “is unintentional anti – humor, regurgitating an unimaginative, racist joke with no punchline.” Ironically, Padma Lakshmi’s memoir- Love, Loss and What We Ate was accused of bias by Sharanya Manivannan who wrote “The casteism, classism and colorism on display are guilelessly entitled, with neither self – reflectivity nor shame”. The outrage built to such an extent that the Post felt compelled to issue a correction over a silly joke and Weingarten apologized. He had written disparagingly about a cuisine which he knew little about. But honestly, not all Indians like or even have sufficient knowledge about all kinds of Indian food. I am no fan of whatever it is they serve in Bangalore in the name of sambhar and know next to nothing about North – Eastern cuisine. That says a lot about my preferences and ignorance but I don’t think I deserve to be raked over the coals for it. Neither does Weingarten. Of course, it is not nice to hurt people for a few laughs but it is equally awful when those committed to making us chortle in these dark times are accused of racism and forced to apologize by humorless posturers. This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express:

The Stirring Stories of the Stupendous Six

Kavitha Rao’s Lady Doctors does an excellent job of unearthing the stories of the forgotten pioneers, who paved the way for women in the highly sought after medical profession, braving unbelievable odds to not only achieve their ambition of becoming doctors but raising their voices against a host of societal evils to bring about much needed change. These ladies came from widely differing backgrounds but they were all rebels who dared to embark on a highly unconventional course that met with resistance every step of the way. All were scorned on the basis of their gender, some were forced into child marriage, dealt with abusive husbands, fought the restraints imposed on them by caste and custom, but all soared to hitherto unattained heights and threw open the gates of knowledge and empowerment for women everywhere. Anandibai Joshi was India’s first woman doctor. With the support of her husband, who tended to beat her into realizing his vision for her, she flouted caste rules and went across the ocean to study. A conservative at heart, she adhered to ancient traditions and her religious beliefs indicating a fierceness of spirit that makes it clear that her achievements were her own. And in her gentle way, she spoke out against the tyranny women were subjected too in the domestic sphere and with heartfelt passion insisted that society would benefit from the contribution of its daughters. Kadambini Ganguly was a working mother, who was the poster girl of the progressive Brahmo Samaj and enjoyed the support of an understanding spouse. Yet, this mother of eight who was the first to practice as a doctor was branded a whore by a conservative paper. The fiery Rukhmabai Raut dared to walk away from a child marriage, refusing to live with her husband, braving the courts and societal censure levied by the likes of Bal Gangadhar Tilak to pursue her love of learning. Haimabati Sen, widowed at a tender age and cast aside by all, endured poverty and every manner of hardship to make something of herself. Muthulakshmi Reddy, a legend in the South left behind an incredible legacy. She fought a valiant battle to win women the right to vote, abolish child marriage and the Devadasi system and embarked on a number of social welfare schemes that led to the establishment of the monumental Adyar Cancer Institute and Avvai Home for forsaken and destitute girls which continues her excellent work to this day. Mary Poonen Lukose, the first Surgeon General and trailblazer’s exemplary work saw the foundation of the health care system and high literacy percentage Kerala can rightly take pride in. While India has no dearth of heroes whose praises are sung on a daily basis with umpteen statues and monuments raised to commemorate their deeds, it is shocking that this legion of extraordinary gentlewomen has been relegated to the forgotten nooks and crannies of history. Rao deserves a medal for her painstaking efforts to scour through the scanty material available on their lives and deeds to reconstruct their magnificent deeds and phenomenal achievements. Thanks to her efforts, memorable portraits of the lady doctors emerge and with a deft touch, Rao also highlights many of the problems pertaining to caste, domestic abuse, and gendered discrimination women face to this day. Modern women will definitely empathize with the struggles endured by the founding mothers of medicine in India, particularly with regard to the harassment they faced, lack of faith in their abilities, being forced to give up hard won honors to soothe ruffled male egos, and walking that tight rope balancing their duties on the personal and professional front which usually called for Herculean effort on their part. It is sad that the more things change the more they remain the same, but thanks to the stupendous six, women will never lack for inspiration to spread their wings, head to the stratosphere and whatever lies beyond. This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express:

Why do Women Put up with It?

Even as the global pandemic continues to leave a trail of destruction, reports reveal an increase in cases of domestic violence across the world, most likely brought on by the emotional toll and isolation of successive lockdowns. Every time, we hear about someone who is in a poisonous relationship, the most frequently asked question is, ‘Why didn’t she leave especially since she risks getting killed if she stays?’ It all seems so simple to those who don’t have to deal with violence. But then again, if a woman were to walk out of her marriage or a messed up relationship, she is damned for being inconstant and incapable of sticking it out for the long haul when it comes to matters of the heart. There is always someone who will then launch into a diatribe on ‘modern’ women who have nothing on the model wives of yore who drank nothing but water sanctified by their husband’s feet, dirt – encrusted and desperately in need of a pedicure though it may be. Then they will compose lengthy Whatsapp forwards to be widely disseminated about how the ravages of Covid may be traced directly to feminists synonymous with wanton women who are responsible for the deterioration of our revered customs which had shielded us thus far from mutating viruses, demons armed with nuclear weapons and assorted apocalyptic scenarios. And all because ‘feminazi’ types refuse to accept that it is a husband’s prerogative to slap his wife around. After all, it is well known that to spare the rod is to spoil the wife. While this kind of reasoning prevails, is it reasonable to expect a woman to save herself and ignore age old precepts binding her to the ironclad dictates of tradition? Experts agree, that it is surprisingly difficult to bail out of an abusive relationship. The reasons are manifold. Often, it is the mere suggestion of leaving that causes the violence to escalate making it a dangerous choice. Victims who have taken a battering emotionally or physically are left feeling that they have no control over their lives. It is common for those who have been brutalized to feel as though they have been reduced to something less than human and suffer from a diminished sense of self-worth. We underestimate the capacity of emotional abuse such as gas lighting to undermine an individual, leaving victims convinced that they are somehow to blame for what happened to them. That it was some error on their part that resulted in a beating or a barrage of verbal abuse. Money is always a factor. Many victims are financially dependent on abusers and are reluctant to break free with no resources to fall back on. Most are simply afraid, cowed by sustained physical assault. Others seem to believe that selfless love is enough to counteract toxic masculinity. Some feel compelled to defend their aggressors because they can be charming and sweet when not inclined to put their woman’s head through a wall. It may even be construed as an act of kindness, if an ice pack is tossed over to ease the throbbing of a wicked bruise. These don’t begin to cover what all the victims are undergoing or the myriad reasons they opt to stay. Only one thing is certain. It will take compassion, concern and all the support in the world to help victims of abuse make it to safety. Not criticism or censure in the name of culture. This column originally appeared in

Friday, August 06, 2021

NAVARASA: Bolstered by some Brilliant Performances and Little Else

 

Navarasa now streaming on Netflix

Edhiri: Karuna

I like what the Bard wrote about mercy in The Merchant of Venice– “It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” One of the nicest things about being human is the capacity for forgiveness, especially when it is extended to those who are deemed undeserving of it by a spiteful society. Bejoy Nambiar’s Edhiri tells the tale of Dheena, played by a superb Vijay Sethupathi who finds a vent for years of suppressed emotions in an unplanned act of violence and he is left broken to pieces by the crushing burden of remorse. Interestingly enough, the short focuses on Revathi’s character as well, who is directly affected by his actions and the climactic portion reveals that she too is traumatized by the albatross she bears around her neck.

The storyline is engaging and boasts some excellent performances from Sethupathi, Revathi and Prakash Raj and yet, it doesn’t add up to an entirely satisfying whole. The gradual unraveling of multiple layers of angst and agony feels a tad rushed, like the characters would have liked a little more room to breathe…

Summer of 92: Haasya

Priyadharshan’s Summer of 92 has the dubious distinction of being the worst of the lot. Based on an incident from Malayalam actor, Innocent Vareed Thekkethala’s life, it is supposed to be hilarious but it is anything but. Velusamy (Yogi Babu), a successful comedian returns to his native village, is feted in his school and delivers a speech that is supposed to inspire and tickle the funny bone. There are stinky poopy jokes, lame attempts to pass off cruelty to animals as humor, scribbling scandalous gossip on loo walls, and increasingly desperate attempts to make the viewer laugh. Needless to say, none of it works and you venture a tentative smile in relief only when the credits roll.

Project Agni: Adbhuta

Project Agni reveals that director Karthick Naren is a huge fan of Christopher Nolan and his film is what you get, when you get your geek on and spend way too much time poring over the auteur’s work and fan fiction churned out in his honor. The result is a poor man’s Nolan film which is much ado about nothing in particular. Aravind Swamy is a genius type named Vishnu who calls his pal, Krishna (Prasanna) who is with ISRO to tell him about a major scientific breakthrough. Incidentally his assistant is named Kalki. Clearly no grey cells were severely taxed when these names were thought up and the same can be said about the script though there is a lot of talk about the ancient Sumerian civilization, aliens, the laws of time, conscious, subconscious, dream states, etc. It is supposed to come together with an explosive twist but it all fizzles out with a weak pop.

It is too bad because Arvind Swami and Prasanna are remarkable actors who elevate this material to a level of respectability it does not earn.

Payasam: Bhibatsa

Vasanth’s entry is Payasam which is an interesting title since the sweet treat does not normally incite disgust or revulsion. So every time the camera zoomed in on the delicacy bubbling away even as guests who have arrived at a wedding are already drooling in anticipation as they wait for the festivities to be concluded so they can savor it, I expected someone to throw up into it…

It couldn’t have been the easiest rasa to work with but given that one of the characters portrayed by Aditi Balan is a widow who is looked at askance by some of the guests for her “inauspicious” presence at an auspicious event, one can be forgiven for thinking the film might zero in on the disgraceful treatment meted out to widows. However, the story places the spotlight on one man’s (Delhi Ganesh) jealousy over the good fortune of his nephew and his subsequent actions. It is a weird interpretation that never quite sits right.

Peace: Shanthi

Karthik Subburaj takes another stab at making a film about the Eezham conflict after the unmitigated disaster that was Jagame Thanthiram. This time around the results are much better though it is doubtful that a rebel would spend so much time waxing eloquent about the “mannu” they are fighting for. A small rebel faction with Master (Gautham Menon), Nilavan (Simha) and a couple of others are in the hot zone when a little boy crosses their path. He is determined to head into no man’s land in his quest to find his little brother Velaiyan.

It is a dangerous mission but Nilavan risks his life to help him. The twist here is touching and Subburaj should have left well enough alone. Instead he tacks on a climax that is supposed to tug your heartstrings but merely has you rolling your eyes.

Rowthiram: Raudra

Arvind Swami makes an impressive debut as a director with Rowthiram, which is the pick of the lot. Arul (Sreeraam) is an aspiring football player who lives with his down on her luck mum, Chitrama and sister, Anbu. In the opening stretch a bullying boor is attacked with vicious intent by Arul and the film tries to understand the boiling rage that drives this young man. Of all the films, in the anthology this is the one with the most emotional resonance. These are likeable characters who are doing all they possibly can with the wretchedness of their situation. I only wish that the actions of a desperate woman who is willing to do anything for her offspring had not been so harshly judged by the film or said offspring.

Young Sree Raam (you might remember him from Pasanga) does exceptional work here and deserves special mention for more than holding his own against a roster of towering talent.

Inmai: Bhaya

Rathindran Prasad deserves credit for not taking the easy route to conventional horror in depicting Bhaya. Inmai is more ambitious in scope and gently explores the terrifying tendrils of fear that takes shape from guilt, trauma and monsters that lurk in the deepest caverns of memory. A moody, slow – burn of a short that has some truly rousing and effective moments.

Siddharth sinks his teeth into a meaty character and is in fine fettle. Parvathy is not bad but it is Ammu Abhirami (formerly seen in Asuran) who nearly steals the thunder with her electrifying performance and those evocative eyes.

Thunindha Pin: Veera

After all the emotional wattage which prompts you to take a breather between the shorts, Thunindha Pin directed by Sarjun has some high voltage action against the backdrop of a magnificent forest. Vetri (the intense and immensely talented Atharva) is an idealistic rookie who is gung ho about finding himself in the middle of the fighting against the Naxalites. Needless to say he is in for a rude awakening. The conversation between the beleaguered soldier and his captive who refers to himself only as Comrade (Kishore) who is a kingpin among the Naxalites is interesting and Kishore is brilliant. But in terms of portraying conflicting ideologies and the men who are driven by their passionate beliefs the film falls hopelessly short of anything close to satisfying.

Guitar Kambi Mela Nindru: Shringara

Contrary to what a lot of men seem to think, few women would take it as a compliment when an aspiring suitor constantly likens them to their mommas. I wish somebody would tell that to Gautam Vasudev Menon. And I would suggest he read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or Freud’s fascinating insights on boys who are fixated on their mothers. Romance is supposed to be his strength and there are a few surprisingly sweet moments here which harken back to his best work but overall this film is a misfire.

Suriya is miscast as a gifted musician who is all set to explode on the international stage. So is Prayaga Martin who plays his love interest, Nethra and simply cannot manage the reaction shots required to sustain a close – up. Karthik’s music with its riffs on Beethoven and Ilaiyaraja is charming but it does not quite manage the feat of conjuring the magic Harris Jayaraj’s did for GVM’s earlier work.

All in all, Mani Ratnam and Jayendra Panchapakesan’s Navarasa is not quite a delicious, nine – course repast but it does deserve props for effort directed towards a worthy cause and some memorable performances.

Abolish the Curse that is Caste

 


Not a day goes by when the news headlines fail to report something about the troubles associated with caste – based discrimination which has forced members of the lower castes to live in poverty, restricted to low – paying menial jobs that are considered undignified and unclean. In 1947, having won freedom from the white sahibs who incidentally considered all the brown chaps to be inferior without exception, India framed a brand new constitution which formally banned the practice of untouchability and other caste – related evils. It was a noble sentiment, even if it did next to no good.

Over seven decades later, not much has changed. The caste system compounded by the class divide remains a pernicious, malignant presence, tainting every single aspect of society. We read about atrocities committed against Dalits, shake our heads dispiritedly over something that happens with unfailing regularity, condemn such diabolical deeds on twitter every time the topic is trending while remarking in private that nothing is ever going to change because caste is too deeply entrenched in our country. Everybody knows a couple or two who married out of their own caste and talk about how their folks were cool about it, which points to a brighter future but even in the Puranic age, these things happened - the exceptions which never changed the status quo.

We must abolish the caste system if there is to be the faintest chance of our great - grandchildren not having to listen to holograms informing them that a Dalit woman was raped and murdered, while her protesting relatives were burnt alive to silence their screams. Again. To rip out such an ancient evil by the roots, we can start by doing away with the community certificate entirely, even if it is there for the ostensible purpose of doing the right thing by the downtrodden via affirmative action programs in educational institutions and the employment sector. The quota system doesn’t really seem to have helped the people it was supposed to. Rather, it has perpetuated the very evil it was designed to prevent.

By ensuring that the caste identity we cling to is eliminated, we may just manage to secure equal rights for all. Future generations will grow up not knowing or caring which caste their ancestors belonged to. And if we can provide quality education for all our youngsters especially the ones who can’t afford it, perhaps in the future, everyone will be guaranteed a fair share of the pie. Or payasam. An added bonus is that the politicians will no longer be able to manipulate the vote banks on the basis of caste. Isn’t that reason enough to burn up those community certificates immediately if not sooner?

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Sarpatta Parambarai A Helluva Fight

 


I like sports flicks even if they are not game – changers in that rousing genre. The Longest Yard, Remember the Titans, Rush, Dodgeball, the entire Rocky franchise and Creed are films I have watched more times than I care to remember. Million – Dollar Baby is one of my all-time fave films and it never fails to reduce me to a miserable puddle of tears. In short, I love sports films, unless they are made in India. Here people do weird things like cast Priyanka Chopra as Mary Kom, give Farhan Akhtar a chance to log in a whole lot of gym time to play Milkha Singh unconvincingly or whoever it was he played in Toofan, etc. Even the critically acclaimed Irudhi Suttru was a disappointment because I felt it was about a lot of things but the boxing itself which it was purportedly all about wound up somewhere at the bottom. Which is why Pa. Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai was a refreshing change.

After the promise Ranjith showed with the excellent Madras, he went on to make the awful Kabali and Kaala which prompted me to set the bar really low for Sarpatta Parambarai but the film, while not lacking in the ideology he cares so much about and which yields mixed results cinematically speaking, treats the material with a certain dignity and has such innate respect for the sport of boxing, you can’t help but be charmed.

Set in the 1970s, against the backdrop of the emergency, Sarpatta Parambarai tells an oft told tale of an underdog, Kabilan (Arya), who rises from the dumps only to fall so that he can rise again. None of this is groundbreaking, but Ranjith can be counted upon to freshen this stuff up. It helps that Ranjith always opts to work with a powerhouse cast. Pasupathy, who plays coach Rangan is just pure dynamite! He conveys so much with his eyes and subtle use of body language, that it is impossible to take your eyes off him. The man is a study in understatement! John Vijay who is an Anglo – Indian father figure to Kabilan is excellent. The supporting cast of boxers - Santhosh Prathap as Raman, John Kokken as Vembuli and Shabeer Kallarakkal as Dancing Rose are so good, they easily eclipse Arya who is in his element in the training montages and inside the ring where he does a decent job of conveying intensity and aggression but in all the other scenes it is obvious that he is the lightweight among an impressive array of heavyweights. He is particularly horrendous in a scene where he has an emotional meltdown and wallows in self-pity. But the good thing about his character is that he is no saint, and despite his sins, you do root for him.

Kabilan’s journey is an impressive one although I found it hard to swallow that a rookie could take out pros in successive rounds with next to no training. Why do we keep showing this in our films? It doesn’t happen that way folks. Excellence in sports takes so much more than talent, aggression or inspiration. Boring things like endless training, hard work and dedication are called for. A couple of training montages before a big match is just not going to cut it. Just once, I would like to see a protagonist who lives, eats, sleeps, breathe his chosen sport allowing for no distractions. I doubt a project like that would be green – lit but I daresay it takes just that kind of maniacal commitment to achieve sporting glory!

Be that as it may, of course we have to talk about the caste as well as class divide that is always present felt in Ranjith’s films. There are characters like Thanigan (Vettai Muthukumar) who would prefer the likes of Kabilan to beg for alms in front of their homes, shovel up cow dung or slave for them but draw the line at him going on to represent and win for their Sarpattai clan. His devilry to stop the progress of Kabilan is reprehensible, unpalatable and in the climatic stretch, somewhat unconvincing. One wishes Ranjith would temper his passionate beliefs with just a touch of balanced perspective because ironically, while he has raised his voice against those who would trod upon the rights of lower caste members and blue – collar workers, he seems to endorse those boxing clans like ‘Sarpatta parambarai’, ‘Idiyappa parambarai’ etc. though it is almost a given that it must be a struggle for aspiring boxers to gain acceptance to these clans with the inordinate pride some of them take in their identity and their reluctance to let outsiders in. Sounds familiar? I have always wondered at the bias displayed by people who raise their voice against bias.

That aside, critics always rave about the ‘powerful’ women characters in Ranjith’s films but I beg to differ. Bakkiyam (Anupama Kumar) as Kabilan’s mum, Mariamma (Dushara Vijayan) his wife and even, Sanchana Natrajan who plays another character’s wife while solid performers are given nothing to do but scream and berate the men in their lives in an endless litany. The interminable shrieking is at the shrillest pitch possible and really grates on the nerves. It is commendable that these women make the men earn their respect, but I would have appreciated them more had they gone about it in a less hysterical manner. And I really wish, that a woman who repeatedly whacks her son with a broomstick isn’t applauded as ‘feisty’. Abuse is abuse whether it is a man or woman meting it out and I wish folks would stop treating it like a perfectly acceptable thing.

However, grouses notwithstanding, Sarpatta Parambarai has some beautiful moments. I loved that Dancing Rose berates his buddy’s less than honourable conduct while later bolstering the same fallen comrade by telling him that there is no shame in a loss if you have fought with honor and given the best you have got. I misted up at that. Incidentally, he is the only character who is a decent sport. Everyone else with their mulish clannishness including the hero would have done better to exalt the sport of boxing more than their petty rivalries.

Another aside worthy of a mention is when coach Rangan returns from jail and has a private moment with his wife, where they exchange a look of heart melting fondness though they are in the middle of a crowd… Ranjith does his best work when he brings out these small, intimate moments that establish the bonds shared by his characters and these triumph over the more epic stretches he stages though they are effective too. Ultimately, Sarpatta Parambarai may not quite deliver a knockout punch but it is definitely a helluva fight!

 

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Equal Parts Brilliant and Problematic

 


I’ll start by admitting to being a huge Quentin Tarantino fan. I have watched and rewatched his films so often, I can probably write a thesis on his work in my sleep. I’ll also confess that with The Hateful Eight and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it seemed to me like the auteur was losing his touch. Especially since his work was never characterized by emotional range or soul – stirring substance and with these two duds, no amount of his quirkiness and trademark flamboyance seemed adequate for the task of making amends for the overriding superficiality smothered in swagger and style.

Even so, when Tarantino announced that he was making the transition from auteur to author, I was intrigued, for obvious reasons. And the man, didn’t disappoint. The book is impossible to put down and the novel format is perfectly suited to Tarantino’s love for lavish detail, verbose asides to meditate on the minutiae and making of films, tendency to digress from the main narrative for long detours into Hollywood by lanes for some shop talk and celeb worship. Unlike the movie, with its leisurely to the point of lethargic pace, he cranks it up a notch while drawing his readers by hand into the inner lives of his characters. There is Rick Dalton, the actor whose career is headed towards the rocks, Cliff Booth, the stuntman and Dalton’s sympathetic sidekick who may be a little too good at killing and Trudi Fraser, the memorable child actor who schools Dalton on method acting and expresses her aversion to being referred to as ‘Pumpkin Puss’. All of them make for intriguing companions.

Tarantino’s pen lingers on the real life figures as well – Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski, Charles Manson and his ‘lost girls’, although the attempt is less heartening. Manson, for instance he dismisses as a hack who would have sold his immortal soul, existential philosophy which was supposed to herald a new order and his adoring followers for a record deal he does not have the talent to secure. All this makes for riveting reading and turns out to be an incredibly visual experience comparable to watching and having your mind blown by the best of his films.

Tarantino has long reveled in being a provocateur, and his unapologetic audacity is his biggest strength, giving his work a raw honesty that is shorn of anything remotely resembling wokeness or political correctness. After all, he is the guy who saw fit to rewrite the history of World War II as an outrageous revenge fantasy but every once in a while, his penchant for lowbrow cinephilia and consequent creative decisions can be in surpassingly poor taste. Never has it been more apparent than in his portrayal of Bruce Lee in the film version of OUATIH which had the departed superstar’s daughter, Shannon Lee up in arms against Tarantino for the disrespect and blatant mockery of a bona fide legend who battled impossible odds to achieve his cult status but unfortunately, did not live long enough to see his efforts pay off. As always, Tarantino stuck to his guns, and has doubled down in his book to make a case for Bruce Lee suffering from an inflated ego and insisting he was disrespectful to American stuntmen, who he claims refused to work with Lee because he would purposely tag them in fight scenes (landing real blows with his fist and feet).

Tarantino claims he has plenty of evidence to support his claims regarding Lee but be that as it may, one can’t help but think this is unfair to Bruce Lee. The glam factory, like the rest of society has always been hard on those belonging to minority groups, failing to recognize their talent or giving them opportunities to shine and holding them to ridiculous standards while conversely, their white counterparts are literally allowed to get away with murder. This is exactly the sort of systemic racism, actors with the ‘wrong’ skin color have battled for eons now. And the decision to have Mike Moh portray Lee and his trademark mannerisms with exaggerated excess to achieve a certain caricaturist effect sticks in the craw especially if you are a rabid fan of the great martial artist (like me) even if it is to establish that Cliff Booth as a war veteran with medals of valor to prove his prowess as a killer can easily take the Dragon out. In light of the tragic fate that overcame Bruce Lee and later, his son, Brandon Lee, this whole arc is insensitive, to say the least.

It is particularly galling given how unabashedly sympathetic Tarantino is to Cliff Booth himself, who definitely murdered his wife (this scene is mined for romance and it is an outrageous flourish that is wildly entertaining and surprisingly sweet) and has killed three civilians and managed to escape the law every single time. Worse, is Tarantino’s near slavish devotion to Hollywood’s golden couple of the 60s – Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. He clearly has nothing but respect for the former and love for the latter (who is never less than a beautiful, blonde angel), evident in his treatment of both which is disconcerting with regard to Polanski. Tarantino takes great pains to pay suitable tribute to a fellow auteur (I confess to being an admirer of Polanski’s brilliant body of work myself) and establish his undeniable genius but in a departure from his garrulous style keeps mum about the Polish director’s conviction for the rape of a minor which resulted in him absconding from the USA.

Naturally, this makes one wonder why Polanski merits such adoration while Lee was hauled over the coals for allegedly being disrespectful to American stuntmen who in all fairness are more than likely to have treated him with less than the respect that was his due, since at the time Lee was a ‘Chinaman’ working as the Green Hornet’s sidekick. It just smacks of racist and exploitative overtones, given that Tarantino famously trotted out Uma Thurman clad in the iconic yellow jumpsuit Lee wore in The Game of Death, for his smash hit, Kill Bill, which was marketed as a homage to the martial arts legend.

Even more disturbing is Tarantino’s cavalier treatment of the pedophilia rampant in Hollywood. He asserts that Charles Manson used his underage girls as ‘catnip’, pimping them out to those who may serve his ends. Naturally, since he is the villain of the piece, none of this is glorified but the entire thing becomes a shade off - putting when an underage character insists on being called ‘Pussycat’. She offers sexual favors to Booth, who in an uncharacteristic move demands that she show him proof of her age before turning her down. This character then goes on to reveal that she had a sexual relationship with Charles Manson at the age of 14 and proceeded to marry someone (at the cult leader’s suggestion) and dump him shortly after, because the move would ‘free’ her to escape her parents and join him and his hippie followers. At no point, is it suggested that she is a victim on account of her age, susceptible to the machinations of smarmy cult leaders. Instead she is portrayed as a poster girl of the degenerate hippie culture Tarantino clearly despises.

This attitude of the auteur turned author becomes even more troubling when Mirabella Lancer aka Trudi Fraser, an eight-year-old actor gets her flirt on (in the book) with the much older Dalton, her co - star. She talks to him of love and marriage while going off script in an exercise to understand their characters better and later, calls him at an unearthly hour for the ostensible purpose of reading their lines together so they can kill it on the next day’s shoot. Dalton protests very weakly about the inappropriateness of it all before indulging her request. While it is apropos that the inappropriateness of it all has been stressed, it also makes the reader wonder if Booth was not speaking for Tarantino himself when he admits to liking a fictional character, who is “unconsciously racist, consciously misogynist”. After all, at the end of the day, Tarantino can really be an INGLOURIOUS BASTERD of the highest order, even when he is at his dazzling best.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Fear Street Part Two: 1978

 


Was there ever a horror movie prequel/sequel that was ever worth a damn? Fear Street Part Two tries hard, it really does, but nothing really sticks. The axe-swinging murderous puppet type controlled by the witch, Sarah Fier whose curse has haunted Shadyside for centuries supplies the gruesome thrills and chills in Camp Nightwing which was alluded to in Part One. Ruby Lane (who sings a sweet little song while wielding her knife) and Billy Barker (A little boy who bashes heads in with a baseball bat) make an appearance too. This set – up harkens back to Camp Crystal Lake and the terrifying Jason of Friday the 13th fame so one mentally prepares oneself for happy little campers getting slaughtered and also wonders how parents still send their kids to these places were the counselors are either high or preoccupied with getting laid with their young charges being the last things on their minds!

There is a little more backstory about the witch and the emotional beats are supposed to be supplied via a soured relationship between two sisters who have diametrically opposing views about how best to handle being stuck in an accursed place and yet another messed up relationship between former friends. They resolve their differences while being hunted by one of the witch’s minions, watching their friends and charges hastened to horrendous ends and screaming fit to bust their lungs. None of it works though. This time around, the director Leigh Janiak, ramps up the bleakness and darkness which seeks to drive the horror quotient through the roof but since the film is nothing but a set up for a major reveal in part three, most of it is repetitive and the schtick gets old.

And a pet peeve is the continued tendency to portray witches in the worst possible light never mind that the infamous witch hunts which spanned centuries and claimed the lives of thousands of innocent women whose only crime was that they didn’t stand and pee was one of the darkest chapters in history. It is so tiresome that this tired old trope of the wicked witch is still being mined to create loathsome women characters. But hopefully, in the spirit of wokeness which seems to be the driving force behind art these days, part three will turn things on its head and reveal that the witch is not the real villain of the piece but a victim who has slaved across the centuries to save Shadysiders from the same malevolent creature that claimed her life and unleashed a brood of mass murderers. Now wouldn’t that be something?

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Fear Street Part One: 1994

 


It was only a matter of time before the back storied world – building and myth - making that powered one too many money – minting superhero franchise seeped into the horror genre. We saw glimpses of it in the Conjuring and Insidious universe which has been yielding increasingly diminished returns to begin with and now, Leigh Janiak has upped the ante with her offering of three movies based on R.L Stine’s series, “Fear Street”, spanning centuries, to be dropped in installments over the course of a month on Netflix. The film is not a faithful adaptation and is a much darker take on R.L. Stine’s work which was written for children and therefore does not feature the body count, blood and gore that are prerequisites for a slasher flick. In fact, his books were once famously described as a ‘literary training bra’ for Stephen King.

“Fear Street Part One: 1994” is set in Shadyside aka Shittyside. The town has an unfortunate history of ordinary people suddenly losing all their marbles and going on killing sprees. This is exactly the sort of thing that can give a place a bad rap and lead to plummeting property value, plunging the citizenry into poverty.  Their problems are compounded when the film opens with yet another Shittyside massacre in a mall and the people have to cope with the scale of the tragedy even as the media highlights similar gruesome incidents from the past contrasting the town with the neighboring Sunnyvale, which is picture perfect and prosperous to boot. Naturally, they tend to look down on Shadysiders, going so far as to blame them for their perpetual wretchedness.

Deena (Kiana Madeira) has just put together a bitter mixed tape for her ex, Sam (Olivia Welch) who has moved to Sunnyvale and is not inclined to buy into theories that a witch named Sarah Fier has placed a curse on the town making it a breeding ground for serial killers who go about the business of slaughter in wildly creative and surpassingly gruesome ways. Deena’s brother (Benjamin Flores Jr.) is a bit of a nerd who has made it his business to study the legend of the witch. Her friends Kate (Julia Rehwald) and Simon (Fred Hechinger) are selling pills to their school mates in a determined effort to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and better their lives. On an eventful night, Sam accidentally disturbs the grave of the witch and paints a bullseye on her back, dragging this oddball group of friends into a night of mayhem and murder.

Janiak treats these characters with respect and it is why we come to care for them though they can be abrasive and unlikeable on occasion. They make a lot of bad decisions but they are not blamed or shamed for it, because the film understands the brashness and desperation of youngsters who are heartily sick of adults, unwilling to take the time to listen to their fantastical claims, wrapped up as they are in their own worlds. Fittingly enough, the adults barring a few exceptions are mostly absent. Even the burgeoning sexuality of these characters is not treated as something to be used for purposes of titillation or as a cautionary tale. This sensitivity is not common in this particular genre and makes for a refreshing change of pace.

“Fear Street Part One: 1994” is high on nostalgia, the occasional jump scare and boasts of a rousing score but it is hardly the most frightening film out there even though parts of it are truly disturbing and make you feel a little queasy. Even so, it is interesting enough to make you want to come back for the second installment.

 

Authenticity Versus Perceived Authenticity

 


The events of the past year and a half have encouraged us to reprioritize because there is a limit to how many times one can bake, cat – cow on the yoga mat or yearn for the days when we took travelling and eating out for granted. We pay slightly more attention to societal issues and are shaken out of our customary complacence when there are back to back dowry – related deaths in Kerala which has long been considered relatively more progressive than the rest of India. We are less inclined to swallow crap about how the Covid crisis in India is nothing more than a conspiracy peddled by Western propagandists and fake news disseminated by anti – nationals than before. Some of us even take the time to figure out the difference between Rafael Nadal and the Rafale deal that the PM is going on about. Nobody really has the patience to handle celebrity shenanigans whether it is Kangana’s shrill spouting of perpetual nonsense or getting worked up because Aamir Khan divorced his wife.

Having ingested all the content, we possibly can on OTT platforms to the point of indigestion, we want to do better with our lives and care more about others because everybody seems dangerously close to hitting rock bottom and plummeting to further depths of despondence. But despite our best intentions we gravitate to social media because time won’t kill itself.  We tell ourselves that our attitudes have changed though – from following influencers we love we now follow those we love to hate.

Of course, the greatest success stories on Instagram or YouTube are those who insist that it is all about keeping it real. They force their brand of quasi – optimism upon us by allowing their followers to eye - ball their carefully curated lives artfully shot by professional photographers. We are told that it is perfectly okay to be imperfect even as they flaunt tousled bedheads carefully arranged by a hairstylist and au natural make – up applied by a beautician while reclining on a tasteful couch and showing off the latest goodies they have received from some high – end brand. They assure us that it is fine to be messy while looking anything but and reveal close – ups of acne scars before urging us to buy a concealer. Mumfluencers post adorable pics with their infant revealing that they stay up nights crying before recommending a breast pump.

We know that perceived ‘authenticity’ is being highly compensated and used to make us buy stuff we don’t need. And all the performative pyrotechnics has made us heartily sick of artifice, even at its most aesthetical. But the question is whether we can ever accept authenticity again without filters.

This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Time Slows to a Crawl in Chris Pratt’s Tedious Time Travel Trudge



The Tomorrow War  (Amazon Prime) is a wearisome trudge across some seriously unappealing sludge, that makes you want to examine your own lack of judgement when it comes to making decent viewing choices. Director Chris McKay has laboriously put together a film about time travel, vicious, ungainly looking killer aliens who aspire towards nothing more elevating than devouring humans for food and breeding which thoughtless approach on their part puts the future of the human race in jeopardy. This sort of thing has the potential to be entertaining but McKay does not bring anything that is remotely original, fun, or quirky to the table. The film gives the impression of material that has been regurgitated after multiple trips up and down Hollywood’s alimentary canal.

Chris Pratt’s Dan Forester is ex – military, who is presently working as a high school teacher and like every character in every movie or show nowadays, he is extremely angst – ridden with his lot in life and all set to endanger his happy family life comprising a sweet wife and adorable daughter by hurtling down a dark path he has always sought to avoid thanks to a father (JK Simmons) who left him with abandonment issues, when troops show up from the future with dire tidings. They are fighting an unequal war with the aliens and their ranks are so depleted that they have no choice but to enlist troops from the past.

Forester is drafted and finds himself plunged into violent conflict 30 years in the future with a motley crew of fellow soldiers, none of whom are remotely memorable. But the most arresting of the lot is the commanding female officer played by Yvonne Strahovski (Of Chuck and The Handmaid’s Tale fame) and thanks to the nature of the relationship they share, there is a lot of maudlin emotional fare to wade through. Strahovski acquits herself decently but Pratt is ill – suited for this kind of thing which does not allow him room for his customary swagger and roguish charm that was more gainfully employed in The Guardians of the Galaxy and The Jurassic World franchises. Here his lugubrious expressions are meme – worthy but little else. As for the brilliant JK Simmons he is given precious little to do, though he excels in every frame he is in and of all this movie’s many offenses, this lapse has to be the worst.

The Tomorrow War trundles along to a ho – hum climax and there is lot of gruesome, alien gore for those who enjoyed films like the Alien with squishy stuff, gross bodily fluids, and lots of ear – drum shattering shrieking but for the rest of us all that is left, is regret over wasted time, that could have been better spent scrolling for something better to watch.