Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Sensuous Craft of Bharathan

Sometime last week, Qalandar posted one of my old articles in Naachgaana, a site that I check very often (even though it is sometimes a bit too pro-Bachchan for my liking). Needless to add, I loved it! Moreover, I was gratified to know that my post might even have helped someone discover some great Malayalam movies. Very clearly, this is the inspiration for this post - Thx Qalandar, and Naachgaana.

Like Padmarajan, Bharathan was one of the most talented directors Malayalam cinema has ever had. The 1980s, what is considered the golden age of Malayalam cinema, saw both these stalwarts at their prolific, brilliant best. However, while Padmarajan wrote his own screenplays, and is widely considered to be a better screenplay writer than a director, Bharathan depended on several eminent screenplay writers like Padmarajan himself, MT, Lohitadas etc for his best works - mostly set in a relatively minor or unknown community. Here I present a top 10 from Bharathan's oeuvre, in no particular order.

Thazhvaram (The Valley), starring Mohanlal and Salim Ghouse, is best described as a curry-western set in rural Kerala. Mohanlal plays a hardened veteran relentlessly in track of the murderer of his wife, and Ghouse, who more than holds his own against the brilliant Mohanlal, is the hunted. This cat 'n' mouse game is fascinatingly directed, and is surprisingly enough an underrated movie. Its almost like a Clint Eastwood movie, really, except that the ethos is so different (and there's not much herogiri in this movie, of course). Not surprisingly, the screenplay was by the veteran novelist and screenplay writer M.T.Vasudevan Nair. This is one of the few Indian films I have seen that treats the landscape almost like a separate character.

Oru Minnaminunginde Nurunguvettam (Speck of light from a glowworm) is the movie that almost snatched away the best actor trophy from Kamal Hassan, for no less a movie than Nayakan. Nedumudi Venu delivered the performance of a lifetime here, as the retired schoolteacher into whose complacent life a young girl drops in. He and his wife come to love her like a daughter, but, as they say, fate is sometimes cruel. Veteran actress Sharada too delivers a fine performance (though I felt that she overacted in quite a few scenes), but Venu was quite impeccable here. Unfortunately, after this movie the actor got typecast into playing the same character over and over again. It is to the actors' and director's credit that a movie like this, which could have been so easily become irritating and annoying, is natural and down-to-earth from start to end. Truly, a magnificent movie that has aged really well too.

Other than the celebrated Chemmeen, the only other movie that depicts the unique relationship between the sea and her fishermen is Bharathan's Amaram (Rudder). In a tale that reads almost like a fable, and is definitely semi-inspired by The Old Man and The Sea, this movie has all the makings of a modern classic. Mammootty stars here, as a rustic fisherman who speaks the uncouth slang of the fishermen, as if he were born to it. Rumor has it that Priyadarsan had plans to do this in Bollywood, with AB - thankfully, they never got around to it (Nana would be a good choice though!!). The scenes picturized inside the sea, where Mammootty lampoons a shark, gets sucked in by a whirlpool etc deserves special mention.

For the splendid Vaishali, Bharathan teamed up with M.T.Vasudevan Nair yet again. Always known for the delicacy with which he would approach sexuality, Bharathan boldly made the erotic Vaishali, and made it work too. This time the renowned writer opts for a slice of the epic Mahabharatha, but twists it around, giving an insignificant character the central protagonist of the movie. The artwork here is magnificent, both in depicting the the starkness of the drought, and the furiousness of the thunderstorm. The acting of the lead pair is definitely the weakest link here, but the climax more than makes up for it.

Kathodu Kathoram (Ear to Ear) is one of those movies that has the distinctive 'Bharathan touch' written all over it. Mammootty stars here, as an semi-autistic young man, who is taken in by the central woman protagonist, Saritha, who herself is a victim of a bad marriage. Set in Northern Kerala's distinctive Christian milieu, the film boasted of some great music, excellent camerawork, and some great acting by the whole cast. Such movies just don't get made anymore, sadly.

Paalangal (Rails) is in this list because of one performance - Gopi, popularly known as Bharath Gopi, delivers an outstanding account of himself as the intimidating railway employee who lusts after his bereaved sister-in-law. Nedumudi Venu plays the weakling who falls in love with the heroine rather well, but its Gopi's smouldering performance here that really raises the tempo here. Sadly, he did not do many more roles after this, after being struck down by a paralytic attack.

Kaattathe Kilikkoodu (Nest in the Breeze) has Gopi in yet another demanding role - here he plays the eccentric Prof. 'Shakespeare' Krishnapilla, who is tempted by a young Revathi to stray. Of course, his family isn't very happy, and the fact that Revathi does this just to spite her boyfriend escapes the professor. This is another movie that is elevated by Gopi's magnificent performance. Bharathan is successful in depicting how quickly a so-called happy marriage can unravel.

Ormakkayi (In Memory Of) features the underrated Madhavi, who despite several noteworthy performances to her credit, never finds herself amongst the best actresses of her generation. In Ormakkayi, she delivers a humdinger of a performance as the hapless girl married to a deaf 'n' dumb sculptor (Gopi yet again). This is another move which clearly has the 'Bharathan touch', whether it be in the beautiful creations of the sculptor, or in the way the whole flashback unravels.

Both Venkalam (Bronze) and Chamayam (Greasepaint) feature two of the best character actors in Malayalm cinema today - Murali and Manoj.K.Jayan. Sadly, today the former is resigned to doing only arthouse movies, while the latter rarely gets a chance to exercise his creative muscles. These actors have amazing chemistry, especially in Chamayam, which Bharathan manages to capture perfectly onto celluloid. Both these movies are strictly ensemble pieces; yet they show the ace-director at the peak of his craft.

Last, but definitely not the least, we have Kamal Hassan's modern classic Thevar Magan (Son of the Chieftain), inspired by the relationship between Vito and Michael Corleone from Mario Puzo's evergreen Godfather. The screenplay is by Kamal himself, but the deft touches here and there (especially in the pre-interval portion) show off the flair of the director. Just compare Viraasat to this, and you can actually feel the difference- the magic is clearly missing in the remake.

Monday, June 18, 2007

A Phenomenon Called Sivaji

First things first: I am not a Rajni fan; in fact I am a self-confessed admirer of Kamal. However, that is not to say that I don't enjoy Rajni movies - I think Padaiyappa, Annamalai, and to a lesser extent, Baasha, were some of the finest examples as to how a masala movie should be made. However, that does not mean that the superstar is not beyond criticism; I hated what they made of that Mohanlal classic Manichitrathazhu, which was very clearly a case of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. There are some fanatics out there who praise every Rajni movie out there, even if its of the same standard as any other Suryah or TR movie - I don't conform to that POV. Rajni is the biggest star there is, and a superstar movie should look and feel like one.

The story? Seriously? You shouldn't be reading this then, mate!

My trip to the NJ theatre was laborious, to say the least. Bogged down by traffic, we reached the theatre exactly when the interval started. Although most of the reviews seemed to suggest that I hadn't missed much, it was still a terrible waste of money. However, I certainly wasn't going to come all the way again just to catch the first half, so I settled down in the front row, alongside my wife who was giving me the kind of looks that suggested that I was grounded for approx 2 weeks!

The first thing that struck me was the atmosphere - there was none. Which was very strange for a Rajni movie on the third day - even in the US (I mean, this was NJ for chrissakes!). Earlier I'd promised Smitha that watching a Rajni movie in a theatre was a great experience; her countenance somehow didn't make me believe that I'd be watching any more movies in a theatre in the near future!

The positives first: Rajni is a little less nimble on his feet, but his charisma clearly hasn't waned. This is quite easily the best he has been presented, and its fun to have him wear some good clothes for a change. And there are not many stupid scenes here (like the bull scenes from Padaiyappa, for instance), which I, for one, was thankful for. The Athiradikalam picturization, the whole tonsured look (and I really did dig the whole Morpheus-like outfit in the finale), and the reference to MGR really worked for me. And for the record: Shreya/Shriya is the hottest thing to have hit TN after the agninathathram, she was absolutely curvealicious! The action scenes were awesome, the most stylish I have seen in a Rajni movie for sure. And the whole mimicry - voice recognition track really cracked me up.

Ok, now the brickbats: Shankar once again resorts to the corruption angle. Yeah, this time its money laundering - big difference! Doesn't this guy have any other tales to tell? Same old dosai, different batter is all. After Jeans, Boys and Anniyan, Sivaji is certainly another directorial letdown from Shankar. And Suman has got the be the wimpiest villain ever. At the jail scene, where he pleads saying he is so sensitive and all that crap, I was in hysterics. And to think they approached AB, Mohanlal etc for this role - no wonder they turned it down. I also did not like the picturization of the Sahara song, esp those extras dressed like fairies flapping away to glory! Sivaji, without Rajni, is a huge, huge letdown from Shankar. Heck, even Anniyan, corny though it was, had a more cohesive screenplay. Rajni salvages the movie to a great extent, but not completely (at least not for a non-fan like me). Shankar needs to select his scripts with a lot more care, and avoid vigilantism like the plague.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

God's Own Quandary

I was born and brought up in Thrissur, barely 20km away from the famous Guruvayur temple. I have been visiting the temple from my childhood - I even got married there 10 months ago. Which is why the latest controversy about the temple piqued my interest. As always, Prem Panicker does a neat job of covering all the angles, and as usual I agree with most of the conclusions he has reached here.

The thanthri acted kinda like Darrell Hair - strictly within the letter of the law, but perhaps not quite upholding the spirit - and ended up with a result that he might not have expected, nor desired. Anyway, the temple committee has decided to take another look at its customs, and hopefully, unlike the BCCI they will reach a set of norms that make some sense. I guess it would be too much to expect them to open the temple for all and sundry!