Freeze Frame #165: Anjali

Now, it’s no secret that this is one of my least favourite Mani Ratnam films. He got some things gloriously right, but I found it a touch too melodramatic, the kids a touch too annoying (and I wasn’t much older when it came out), the Revathy character a touch too whiny… I didn’t walk away from the film with the warm and fuzzies, and that has nothing to do with the fact that the eponymous character dies at the end.

Okay, it does a little bit. Here’s what I wrote some years ago:

And to top it all off, the most annoying death scene in the history of cinema. If that little girl had screamed “Ezhundiru Anjali, ezhundiru” one more time, Mani Ratnam could’ve made Anjali 2: Night of the Living Dead as his follow-up feature.

But it did have a few knock-out moments, my favourite being the scene where Arjun, the elder child, bonds with Anjali. This occurs in the aftermath of a fight where Arjun gets into a scrap with some kids in the neighbourhood who have been harassing Anjali. It would be easy to interpret his actions as “Ah, so he does love his newfound little sister”, but I think it’s probably a bit more and less than that. There’s a bit of an impulse to do the right thing, a bit of whatever-my-issues-she’s-still-my-sister… However he feels about her, he hasn’t yet consciously acknowledged it.

That comes when he sees how Anjali reacts to his injuries. The way I state it, it doesn’t seem like much, but it’s amazing how perfectly that little scene works.

Watch how he sees her as though for the first time, beyond whatever preconceived notions he had up until then about this “different” little kid who seems to have turned his life upside down. (It’s not as dramatic as that in reality, but wouldn’t it have seemed like that to him?) His reaction is the first time a character in the film deals with his or her prejudice and defeats it. The rest of the film is mostly just about the others following suit. It is, in my opinion, the scene most emblematic of the film’s central theme.

However, the reason why this scene has been on my mind recently has nothing to do with pride or prejudice. You see, my daughter recently bit my leg hard while throwing a tantrum. And even now, several days later, she keeps pointing to the place where the remainder of a scab is still barely visible, looks a bit remorseful and gives it a quick kiss.

What’s that line by Dr. Seuss about the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes at Christmas?

Freeze Frame #164: Kalakalappu

Writing a good screwball comedy sequence is like solving an n-body problem in Newtonian mechanics. But tougher — physics doesn’t have to worry about making you laugh.

My favourite by far is the one towards the end in Michael Madana Kama Rajan where pretty much every other Kamal Hassan character is pretending to be Madan. But a more recent sketch that has been climbing the charts is the car chase in Kalakalappu.

Here’s the setup: Vettipuli (Santhanam) wishes to marry Madhavi (Anjali). Madhavi wishes to marry Seenu (Vimal), and the two decide to elope — it all goes south, and he ends up having to take Madhavi’s grandfather hostage in order to escape Vettipuli and his goons. Marudamuthu (Manobala) wishes to get his daughter to marry Vettipuli, and decides that kidnapping Madhavi would solve the problem. He thinks, however, that Seenu is Vettipuli’s friend.

All of these bodies carom around for around 10 minutes of inspired hilarity, in three cars that keep going around a few village streets. It plays out so smoothly that it takes a while to realize the skill that must’ve gone into the writing.

Freeze Frame #163: The Newsroom

The trouble with being an insufferable churl about word choices is that the universe, yourself included, pisses you off on an almost hourly basis. (It’d be a helluva lot more frequent if I actually paid attention to what went on around me.)

But then, this scene comes along, like some kind of cosmic gesture of solidarity. That it comes in the middle of an immensely problematic third and final season suggests that the Department of Cosmic Gestures is staffed with beings possessing an overdeveloped sense of irony.

One wishes they’d greenlight a spin off about the early days of Atlantis Cable News. I for one would happily look forward to watching it if Aaron Sorkin solemnly promised, in the name of Archimedes, to insert enough volume of Jane Fonda and Sam Waterston to displace the batshit.

Freeze Frame #162: Ardh Satya

The scene begins with a date at a restaurant, and Anant Velankar (Om Puri) reading out poetry to Jyotsna (Smita Patil). They get to one of her favourite poems: Ardh Satya, by Dilip Chitre.

When he finishes the first stanza, he looks up at her and smiles briefly. He’s still on a date, and this is still an enjoyable pastime. But watch how the context changes for him internally as he proceeds: by the third or fourth stanza, he is no longer on a date. The words are beginning to strike home.

Shifting gears emotionally in the middle of reading something out is not an entirely unheard-of phenomenon in the movies. But for me, this ranks among the best.

Is it the brilliance of those lines? Or the mesmeric nature of Om Puri’s voice as he transforms Velankar’s reading of someone else’s words into something deeply autobiographical? Or Smita Patil’s stillness as Jyotsna realizes that, at this moment, all she can do is watch this man try to come to terms with his own demons?

The poem is recited again right at the end, in a voiceover. Just to remind you that what you have witnessed is an ending, not a resolution.

Roger Ebert often used to say that the quality of a film is determined not so much by what it is about, but by how it is about it. Here is a gritty drama about an angry, honest cop dealing with a corrupt system. And even if you watch it today, over three decades and many such films later, it feels like a punch to the gut. To me, this poem is why it does.

Freeze Frame #161: Kai Po Che

I have to confess that I only watched the last 15 minutes of Kai Po Che. My wife was watching it, and she gave me a 3 minute synopsis so that I could understand what was going on. And yet, I found myself moved by the closing shot of Ishaan’s face, just before the end credits started rolling.

I couldn’t figure it out — why would something like that work for me, when I had watched so little of the film? What follows is an attempt to explain it to myself.

The circumstances of Ishaan’s death are still fresh in the memory,  but what really stands out during the rioting sequence is how Omi’s stony passivity forms a counterpoint to the frenzied emotions of everyone else around him. When he picks up a gun and starts looking around for a target, what makes it fearsome is that he is utterly expressionless while doing it. You can counteract emotion with emotion, but what to do about this?

The moment of Ishaan’s death itself is not dwelt upon — we very briefly see the shock and the reaction of everyone around, and Omi’s slow, stunned realization of what his actions have wrought, before the film cuts to the present.

The scene is a cricket stadium where Ali, Ishaan’s prodigy whom he died saving during the riots, is about to play his debut ODI. And it is in the stands, in the arms of Ishaan’s sister, that we finally see Omi breaking down. When the dam breaks within him, that is when the enormity of what happened begins to register emotionally.

Abhishek Kapoor adds to that by cutting to the first delivery of the innings, which Ali dispatches to the boundary. And the reaction shot you see is not that of the bowler, but of Ishaan.

Well played, Mr. Kapoor.

ps: That closing shot is also reminiscent of the one in Iqbal that I wrote about, except that the happenings off the cricket field (concerning the other religion, as Baradwaj Rangan would say) impart an additional emotional charge here.


Freeze Frame #160: Bandslam

Regular readers of this blog, such as there are, know that one of the genres I have a soft corner for is the one where a bunch of unlikely musicians get together to form a band. Bandslam approaches this from the point of view of a boy who wants to manage a band, not play in one — not a commonly taken PoV. Now, when I watched this movie a long time ago, I wasn’t all that taken by it. But somehow, one of its scenes kept popping up in memory often, and I have no idea why. So I went to Youtube and looked it up, and here it is.

The song being performed is by Steve Wynn, and is called Amphetamine. The original, frankly, is nothing to write home about. This one, on the other hand… the term pattaiya kalapparadhu (loosely translated to “bringing down the house”) barely does it justice.

The real pleasure for me, though, comes from watching Galean Connell (the one who seems to be coordinating the whole thing) — how often do you see someone enjoy his music like that?

Freeze Frame #159: Some Like It Hot

I watched the film on a plane ride back from the US, and had to spend a considerable amount of time trying not to shake too much with laughter and wake up the passenger sitting next to me. Most of all, I was amazed by Marilyn Monroe’s sheer presence. Watch this scene — it takes a certain ability to do what she does here, right down to that tone of voice.

A couple of weeks later, I watched Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — let’s just say that my reaction was somewhere between active distaste and near-indifference. I remember discussing with a friend once, that there was as much guano to be found in the old movies as in the new ones — we just manage to pick the good ones in hindsight. Except in case of GPB, our hindsight was a little impaired.

While Monroe played versions of roughly the same character in both films (ditzy blond on the lookout for a rich guy), in SLIH, she seemed to project a certain innocence that was incredibly appealing, whereas in GPB, the cynicism and self-awareness was a lot more apparent. She has her moments in the latter, but is never spectacular. And I remember thinking, she was a lot more fun to watch when she didn’t know how good she really was.

And then of course I found out that Some Like It Hot came out in 1959, a full six years after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She had been through twenty-five films, thirty-three years and three marriages by then; three years and three films later, she’d be dead of a barbiturate overdose. How on earth did she manage to deliver a performance of such freshness?