Rajinikanth the icon.

Had fun writing this piece.  Going to watch Kabali today.

23 July 2016 | E-Paper

All is well in the Rajini world

You don’t go to a Rajinikanth movie for the plot. You go for the comfort it gives

The Rajinikanth-starrer Kabali released in theatres on Friday


To understand the hold that Rajinikanth has on his fans, you have to meet my ex-driver, Robert. An archetypal Rajini fan, Robert dresses, walks and talks like Rajini. Conversations with him are a triumphant reminder that while English is the language of logic and analysis for us Indians, our mother tongue is the language of the heart. It is Tamil that I turn to when I want to plead or persuade. And like many of our great vernacular tongues, Tamil lends itself to exquisite hyberbole. What passes of as conversation in Tamil would sound like a film dialogue when restated in English.

Robert quit working for us for two reasons: he wanted to open a restaurant and he was tired of my accusations that he was drinking away his salary every time he came to work with red eyes.

“Modom,” he told me. “I follow Rajini. Not just me. My whole family. Yes, I did drinks. My father got spot out in a lorry accident because of drinks. My mother asked me for a promise from her deathbed. ‘Dai, Robert,’ said she. ‘Give up drinks.’ But I couldn’t. Not then. But when Thailavar told that drinks is bad, I quit immediately. On the spot,” said Robert just before he quit.

It was Robert I turned to when I wanted first-day-first-show tickets for Kabali in my neighborhood Lavanya theatre. I was tired of all the trainers in my gym crowing about snagging tickets. I called every theatre in Bangalore, Chennai, and every town in a 400 kilometre radius, pleading for a ticket. They laughed—like Rajini, I might add. And like how, I, in unconscious imitation of Thalaiva, laugh.

“Even God cannot give you a ticket to Kabali,” said one particularly uppity lady from Abirami Theatre in Erode. “Why God? Even Thalaivar cannot get you a ticket. Ahh-hahahaha.”

I could imagine her rolling her eyes heavenward, like Rajini does when he laughs. I looked heavenward for guidance. God sent me an image of Robert.

Robert knew the moment he saw me waiting outside his children’s school at 8 a.m. He tried to escape by pretending he hadn’t seen me. I appeared like Rajini as he made the turn into Coles Road. I stood in the middle of the road, planted my feet apart, removed my sunglasses and twirled it around my finger. Unlike with Rajini, my sunglasses fell on the road and cracked. That is why Rajini is Rajini—he wears sunglasses to protect the sun from his rage. My sunglasses crack and cry with a mere twiddle of my thumb.

Robert, without his wife, Mona-darling (actually, that’s not her name), braked his moped in front of me and sweated.

“Robert, you have to make a sacrifice,” I said without preamble.

“Modom, ask me for my blood. Ask even for my children’s blood. But don’t ask for this. I fall at your feet.”

“Remember, Robert, you owe me Rs. 30,000. You said you wouldn’t forget. Well, this is your chance to remember. I want those tickets.”

“My wife will kill me,” said Robert sullenly. In that moment, I knew I had him.

“It isn’t the first show. I can only give you one ticket.”

Why do we love the things we do? Certainly it is not an objective exercise.  It is not even about taste.  Rajini movies for me, aren’t really about plot, character or cinematography. They are about ethos, dialogues, predictability and Rajini-style. They are about how Rajini says his character’s name, whether it is Padaiyappa or Arunachalam or Basha or Muthu. I love them all for complex contradictory reasons that have to do romance, nostalgia, and yes, loss of a stage of life. Rajini is a way of connecting with the patch of earth that I call home.

For a man with two daughters, the chauvinism inherent in Rajini films makes my blood boil. His heroines play to every traditional stereotype, beginning with their names. I mean, who names their daughters Kumudavalli (heroine in Kabali) or Tamilselvi (in Sivaji) or Ranganayaki (Muthu) these days? The names set the tone for the character. Rajini heroines speak softly, dress demurely, jump if a man appears near them, and don’t look a lover in the eye. Come on. Are you telling me that Rajini raised his daughters in this fashion? And how do his two girls put up with this? An assertive woman with spunk is cast as the villain in his films. Ramya Krishnan played this role unforgettably in Padayappa and almost stole the show from the superstar. But you don’t go to a Rajini movie for its stereotypical heroines or predictable plot: Rajini is a poor servant or don, with a heart of gold. He kills all the villains and snags the girl. That about covers the storyline of pretty much every Rajini movie. You go to a Rajini film for the comfort it gives. Europe may be going to hell in a handbasket. Christine Lagarde may liken Brexit to 1914 when World War I started. America may be caught in the throes of a fulminating childish narcissist who thinks the country is like a giant Legoland where fences can be erected. But all is well in Rajini land. The good are good, the bad are bad, and the women are sweet and don’t answer back.

Watching a Rajini movie in a multiplex is a total waste of time. Its pleasures come from the “tharai-ticket” or floor-seats, where you are caught in the warm embrace of other rabid fans who are whistling and screaming so loud that you can barely hear the dialogues that you know by heart anyway.

It will be the same at Lavanya theatre. I know the drill with every Rajini movie. There is a thumping irrational exuberance when the screen comes to life. The unabashed whistling and shouting. I take earplugs, and they aren’t much help. This continues throughout the movie. Every time Thalaivar appears, we jump up and pump our fists. When he announces his name with great style, whether it is “Badshah,” or “Kabali-daa,” we all shout along prayerfully. When his face morphs into a tiger, our eyes riveted on the screen. After a particularly good stunt, when Rajini swings a dozen villains 180 degrees and tosses them aside, I glance at the man next to me, unable to contain my excitement. It is one of my building’s security guys. In that moment, I forget that he is supposed to be at work manning the gate, and not playing hookey. He forgets that I am on the building’s Human Resources Development committee, meant to patrol his patrolling. We are simply two fans enjoying the moment when our beloved Thalaivar has left the abode of the mortals to mingle with the gods. I chew on my red-stained paan and grin at Gagan from Bihar companionably. It is beautiful.


Shoba Narayan plans to watch Kabali about ten times this week.


K. Balachander


The rebels of Tamil cinema

K. Balachander’s heroines, and others from films in the 1970s and 1980s, played complex roles and scandalized the Tamil society of that time

Shoba Narayan


As someone who has watched and tracked Tamil movies all her life, one of the things I notice is the fall of the heroine. There are exceptions, but by and large, Tamil films these days are hero oriented, action films with a thin storyline. Women play the love interest, or dance an item number, with Rajnikanth’s Linga being the latest example.

It didn’t used to be this way. Directors like Balu Mahendra, Bharatiraja, Bhagyaraj, and most particularly, the late great Balachander, who died this week, made films that were centered around women. Where are those types of directors today?

Chennai in the seventies was a mixture of conservatism and oddball eccentrics. Girls couldn’t walk down the street in jeans without getting disapproving stares. But it was perfectly okay for a man to be married to two sisters. This triumvirate lived down the street from my aunt’s home in T. Nagar. It gets weirder. They had sublet their downstairs apartment to the milkman, who chose to house his buffaloes in the flat and live in his ramshackle hut. Balachander’s genius was to choose themes that were considered revolutionary for Chennai, yet ones that they could relate to. His movies mirrored Chennai’s fervid lust and shrouded hypocrisies.

Balachandar’s films were all women-centric; but his heroines weren’t doormats who served their husbands rasam-rice, and shrunk into the background. These heroines took charge of their destinies. In Arangetram, released in 1974, the heroine came from a large, poor, and conservative Brahmin family. She turned to prostitution to support her large clan. Sensitively and sympathetically told, the film simultaneously caused an uproar and raised questions about family planning. To have a young Brahmin girl support her family was novel enough; but to have her look the audiences in the eye and justify her choice of career upended everyone’s expectations of how a Brahmin girl ought to behave. The fact that the plot was believable made it critically and commercially successful. Balachander didn’t do fantasy. His women took their reality by the balls and shook it to suit their circusmtances.

In a 1976 film, Moondru Mudichu (three knots, traditionally tied during a marriage on a turmeric yellow mangalsutra or thread) Balachander gave a 13-year-old voluptuous actress named Sreedevi her first adult film role. She was the woman caught between two men (Kamal Haasan and Rajnikanth). The man she loves, Kamal Haasan, dies in a boating accident, engineered by the other, Rajnikanth. Freed of her lover, Rajnikanth pursues her and corners her in the belief that his wealth and power will make her marry him. What does Sreedevi do? She turns the tables on the man who lusts after her by marrying his father? As a stepmother, she is owed respect and has the power over her scheming ‘son.’ It is this facile use of specific cultural touchstones that gave Balachander’s movies their potency. Chennai audiences could relate to arranged marriages, even ones arranged by the woman in question. They could imagine a poor girl like Sreedevi marrying an older man as a marriage of convenience. To watch her arrive as Rajnikanth’s stepmother was the ultimate “up-yours” from both a traditional and feminist point of view. Marrying these two effects was Balachander’s forte.

Bhagyaraj was similarly effective in combining tradition and novelty. In Andha 7 Naatkal (Those 7 Days, made into Woh Saat Din in Hindi), a woman tries to commit suicide on her wedding night. Her husband discovers that she is pining for her lover and decides to find this man. By that time, the heroine has formed relationships with her husband’s child (he is a widower) and his aging mother. The climax has her clutching to her mangal-sutra and refusing to return to her lover. “My lover can become your wife, but your wife can never become my lover,” says the hero in the end.

Balu Mahendra cast Sridevi and Kamal Haasan in Moondra Pirai (Sadma in Hindi) where a young man looks after a mentally retarded girl. Sridevi, quite simply, stole the show, a far cry from the ‘thunder thighs’ roles that she essayed for Hindi movies.

Sridevi proved to be quite a muse for many of that era’s directors. Bharatiraja made his cult classic 16 vayadhinile (Solwa Sawan in Hindi), with her in the lead. Rajnikanth and Kamal Haasan played opposite her. Films such as these began their long tenure as leading men of Tamil cinema. Sadly, neither of them used their clout to encourage their female co-stars. Not then; and not later. Then again, it is no use blaming the heroes. Both Kamal and Rajni have two daughters each; and are ostensibly surrounded by strong women. Yet, women are marginalized in their movies; forced to conform to traditional roles that are almost like caricatures in today’s world. Rajnikanth’s current movies have forgettable women who are cast simply for the glamour quotient.

What Tamil films need are strong directors who are fascinated with women like those directors in the 70s and 80s. Balachander died on December 23, 2014. He will be sorely missed.

Shoba Narayan’s favorite Balachander film is Apoorva Ragangal.

Oscars 2012

  •  Columns
  • Posted: Fri, Feb 24 2012. 9:19 PM IST
  • Meryl Streep is going to win, of course, for The Iron Lady. Then again, giving Streep an Oscar is like awarding Albert Einstein a Nobel; or calling Sachin Tendulkar the greatest Indian cricket player. It’s a safe choice; a win-win situation that makes both the recipient and the jury look good. I didn’t think much of her high-pitched voice by the way. It was too similar to her Julia Child portrayal in Julie & Julia. But the Academy loves English accents, witness last year’s Oscars for The King’s Speech. I think we all like English accents because it makes us feel cultured, somehow more civilized. Isn’t it funny that all the recent Hollywood movies about England have been about women? Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth, Princess Diana’s multiple biopics, and now Maggie Thatcher.

In the running: Streep has been nominated in the Best Actor (Female) category. Gero Breloer/AP

In the running: Streep has been nominated in the Best Actor (Female) category. Gero Breloer/AP

On Sunday night, the Hollywood elite will assemble once again for the Oscars. They will put aside petty rivalries and come together for the sake of history, pomp and Nielsen ratings. Trumpets will hit the high note as presenters walk in through the laser lights to deliver their scripted announcements and awards. Those in the audience will control the rise of bile when their names aren’t read out and smile prettily like the actors they are. “Please god, let it be me.” “Not me?” “Oh no, not him. Not HIM.”

Strapless gowns will glitter as pretty women sashay down the red carpet. We will all gawk at Angelina Jolie and Scarlett Johansson; George Clooney and Ryan Gosling. And this is the thing about the Oscars. You can call yourself literary and engage in high-octane debates about whether Indians are indeed among the happiest people on earth as poll results show; or about the meaning of long-term love as depicted in a recent essay (Discovering the Secrets of Long-Term Love) in the Scientific American magazine. But in the end, what draws viewers to the Oscars are the pretty people. Eye-candy with a fluff of buttery popcorn: That’s one recipe for time well spent.

At least, Billy Crystal is hosting the awards this year. Last year, James Franco tried to imitate Crystal’s dour persona and ended up looking stoned. I had high hopes from co-host Anne Hathaway, but she too sounded quite scripted and bubbly. Just goes to show that even if you memorize your lines, it is all in the delivery. It takes a Shah Rukh Khan to riff wittily and poke fun without being too insulting. Clooney used to do this when he accepted an award, but nowadays he runs the danger of commenting on a topic that is as appropriate to an Oscar ceremony as a stripper in our Parliament: Darfur.

Clooney is ageing these days. His grey-specked hair is beginning to look like Amitabh Bachchan’s toupee. My teenage friends tell me that Gosling is “where it’s at”, these days. He was great in Crazy Stupid Love, which I watched, not for Gosling’s chiselled chin and dreamy blue eyes—really—but for the historical allusions and its premise about the state of wedlock in the current world.

As Vanity Fair magazine’s recent Hollywood issue cover suggests, Hollywood is harking back to the 1920s and 1930s this year, what with two nominated films, Hugo, and The Artist, set in that period. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is not as brilliant as his early films but the Academy may continue its apology for not awarding Scorsese an Oscar for his early films—Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, for instance—by bending backwards and awarding him this year as well. The film that got Scorsese an Oscar, The Departed, was good but nowhere close toGoodfellas.

Nostalgia is taking over the world. Fashion designers and movie directors all over the world are harking back to a more classical definition of beauty and style. Photographer Mario Testino who shot the cover for Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue talks about his longing for a “1920s’ pure beauty”, which he attempted to capture with the young stars who grace the cover. At Chanel’s recent Paris-Bombay show, displaying Karl Lagerfeld’s pre-autumn/winter 2012-13 collection, models wore his exquisite take on Indian outfits and the classic tikkawhich Indian brides wear on their forehead. Japan is perhaps the one culture that has somehow managed to modernize its art, architecture, design and films without leaving its heritage behind. Not so in the US, where technology and animation have overtaken moviemaking, ergo the longing for the past. Kurt Andersen, in an essay for Vanity Fair, calls it “devolution” of popular culture. In it, he says that movies, books and music haven’t evolved in the last 20 years and are, therefore, caught in this nostalgic wheel as witnessed by a few of this year’s Oscar nominees: My Week With Marilyn (about Marilyn Monroe), Hugo (about 1930s’ Paris), The Artist (about silent movies),Midnight in Paris (set in the 1920s), and The Iron Lady (about Margaret Thatcher). See a pattern?

So go ahead and settle down with your bag of chips. Watch Crystal deliver his lines in that practised conversational tone of his. Bet on or against Streep, depending on how much of a risk-taker you are. Root for The Artist if you are a contrarian. Lose yourself in the irony of watching 1930s’ Paris with the latest 3D technology in Scorsese’sHugo. But for god’s sake, don’t go all nostalgic and maudlin on me. As Scarlett O’ Hara said, “Tomorrow is another day”, so let’s not get caught in “Groundhog Day”.

Shoba Narayan is happy that Bollywood is racing to the future instead of being stuck in the past.Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Also Read Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

War Horse

This one is for Dhruv & Noor for teaching me to love a horse; and for Idanth for providing me with the unforgettable image of a desert rider.

  • Posted: Thu, Jan 19 2012. 7:49 PM IST
The poetry of a horse on the move
Horses are capricious animals that don’t know their own strength

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

 Pappu is nuzzling my neck. He smells of hay and heaven. His hot breath fills my nape as he nudges my tussar silk dupatta aside. The material must tickle his nose because he does something I’ve rarely seen horses do: He grins.

“Hrrummph,” he neighs and takes a playful bite of my shoulder.

“Ouch,” I reply and step away. Pappu stomps his feet and bangs on the aluminium gate. He wants out of the paddock. He wants to run in the afternoon sun and feel his mane fly up joyously. Like in the movies.


In motion: Night, an installation from sculptor Sayaka Ganz’s Emergence series. Photo: courtesy Act4.co

In motion: Night, an installation from sculptor Sayaka Ganz’s Emergence series. Photo: courtesy Act4.co


Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster adaption of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book War Horseopened last month with great fanfare in the US (it releases in India on 11 February). Kate Middleton apparently wept while watching the premiere, as did Spielberg when he watched the stunning theatrical adaptation, still playing in London’s West End. If you happen to go to London, be sure to see the show which features magnificent life-size puppets that eerily resemble horses. Chronicling the love between boy and horse, War Horse is the latest in a long line of love stories between man and beast. 

Horses—Equus ferus caballus. Why do these animals command such devotion? Ever since they were first domesticated in Central Asia (Ukraine and Kazakhstan) around 4,000-3,500 BC, horses have inspired painters and sculptors, most recently Deborah Butterfield, Marcia Spivak and Andy Scott. A horse painting by George Stubbs fetched $35.9 million (around Rs186.6 crore) in July in a Christie’s auction. My favourites are Chinese watercolours, which capture the energy of horses. If you want to give a horse rider a fabulous gift and have a big budget, I recommend Sayaka Ganz’s stunning sculptures of horses, made of reclaimed materials, including spatulas and other kitchen utensils. Google “Sayaka Ganz Emergence” and you’ll see what I mean.

Why do humans feel affinity towards certain species and not towards others? Why do we view elephants with awe and hippos with dispassion, if not distaste? Does it have to do with how an animal looks; or its usefulness to us? What are the parameters that humans use to connect with another species?

Pappu lives at the Equestrian Centre for Excellence (ECE) in Bangalore. He has almond-shaped limpid brown eyes. Every now and then, he swats flies with his tail, munches grass and whinnies softly. They all have the same eyes, these animals: dogs, cows and horses. They vary in size but look dark, sombre, beguiling. You see your reflection in them. You could swim in them if you were a pixie. They offer you a glimpse of history—not the near-sighted mortal history as we know it; or even from the Indus Valley, or Egyptian civilizations. This history is from a long time ago, when humans were Neanderthals and wild beasts roamed the world.

Have you seen a wild horse run? Have you seen a black stallion shake its mane, buck, rear, canter and neigh? Have you had the privilege of watching a wild animal’s eyes whiten as it encounters human attempts to break it down? Have you watched a horse froth at the mouth as it tries to break free from the rope? Have you, I ask, had that privilege? I have. It was unforgettable.

ECE is managed by Nitin Gupta, 37, an award-winning rider and coach. A Delhi boy, Gupta now lives and works in Bangalore. He talks about the world of riding with both passion and despair. Riders may love their animals but they also have to answer uncomfortable questions: What do you do if your horse is sick the day before a big game? An easy option is to pump the animal with steroids or painkillers to get it through the event. Horses keep secrets—till they fall sick.

Gupta coaches young riders now, many of whom have gone on to win national and international awards—Fouad and Aliaskar Mirza; Maryk and Anantya Sahney; and Aliya Dasgupta. For the young children who come to ECE, riding offers a thrill that is hard for a non-rider to understand. It is like driving a Formula One car, except one with a mind of its own—like the movie Herbie Goes Bananas.

I used to ride horses at Agram, a military campus in Bangalore. Our coaches were Rajasthani men who, Gupta says, have a natural instinct for horses and riding. At Manvar Resort, Jaisalmer, a desert camp owned by a friend, I watched a turbaned Rajasthani rider literally tie a six-year-old boy to him and gallop through the sand dunes, inculcating, perhaps, a lifetime of love for these superb speedy beasts. Great riders find that balance between control and respect. They know when to rein in a flighty creature which, arguably, is a skill that can be used on high-strung lovers. Horses are capricious animals that don’t know their own strength. Again, the same can be applied to spouses. Put this way, riding a horse is great preparation for working on a relationship. But that’s not the reason most people ride.

You ride to gain a measure of peace; you ride to be at one with nature; you ride to feel the elements on your skin. Mostly, you ride because you are a privileged member at the top of the food chain and the animal that you sit on has been generous enough to carry you. With this right comes responsibility and that perhaps is what all horse centres ought to instil in their student riders.

Shoba Narayan gifted her dupatta to Pappu so that he could keep on grinningWrite to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Why I’m raging against Kolaveri

In the end, it is only a song, not world peace

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

 Why don’t I like the Kolaveri Di song? That’s the question that’s been bothering me all last week. Am I not Tamilian enough to like it? Am I too Tamilian? It has morphed into a full-blown identity crisis.

Everyone around me— family, friends—is raving about it. Interestingly, though, the other Tamilians who populate my life (milk lady, flower man, ironing man, vegetable vendor, help) don’t mention the song during our daily conversations about news and views.


Out of sync: The song isn’t really a Tamil song, it’s a watered-down version.

Out of sync: The song isn’t really a Tamil song, it’s a watered-down version.


Among the myriad communities which populate Tamil Nadu, I know three fairly intimately. There are the rich mill towns surrounding Coimbatore (where I was born). These are families belonging to the Gounder community, who make their money out of cotton and farming. They wear crisp whitedhotis, matching shirts and speak with the lilt of what I call Coimbatore Tamil. They have a sweetness of speech that comes from the Siruvani reservoir water they drink. They also have a small chip on their shoulder about the north Indianization of south India. They are proudly Tamilian; and were frequently portrayed in Tamil movies of an earlier era, made by director Bharathiraja. I doubt that these communities who farm Ethicus cotton in Pollachi or coconuts in Vettaikaranpudur are entranced by this song. Their instinct for hospitality will make them agree with you when you rave about what a sensation it is, but it remains largely irrelevant to their lives. 

The stylish urban youth of Chennai are the target audience for this song. They are comfortable calling you machi (akin to the Australian “mate”) and dancing the dappankuthu. They use matchless phrases likeSothappal, which are hard to translate. It means messed up, but when delivered well (“Ennada? Sothapittaya?”), it can mess you up for life. Young Chennai can talk about film directors like Kurosawa or Mizoguchi, but when it comes right down to it, they will watch an Ajith, Suriya or Dhanush film in droves. First day, first show. They will whistle when Vivek, Senthil or Goundamani comes on screen. I was one of them till I moved out of that city. I wanted to invite Senthil and Goundamani for my wedding and request them to come in the blue-striped knickers they usually sport in their movies. Most of my friends in Chennai love the song.

Kolaveri means murderous rage. Dhanush sings it to a nursery rhyme beat. I don’t like Dhanush because I don’t think he is a good enough son-in-law for my icon Rajinikanth—he who morphs into a tiger and then back. Dhanush is a middling actor. His anorexic frame doesn’t help. That said, he has acted well in this video, displaying an endearing quality that is sadly lacking in his films.

Domestic and international emigrants love this song. These are Tamilians who have migrated to Bhopal and Bhubaneswar; Boston and the Bay Area. Some have fond memories of their “native place”, as we call it in India. Most are mildly embarrassed by their Tamil-ness. You would be too if you grew up in south Bombay or south Delhi and were forced to streak sacred ash on your forehead and apply coconut oil in your hair. I subject my daughters to this whenever I can. Most of my emigrant Tamil friends and relatives have shortened their names. Suryanarayanan becomes Suri. Ananthasubramaniam becomes Soni. When a guy goes from being Ariyanayakipuram Hariharasubramaniamto Ari Harry, you know you’ve lost him. These same folks are suddenly posting this song on their Facebook status and talking about how “proud” they are to be Tamilian. Where were they all these years?

The song in question—Why this KolaveriDi?—isn’t really a Tamil song. It is a gratuitous, watered-down imitation of a Tamil song, somewhat likeShah Rukh Khan’s enema-inducing depiction of a south Indian inRa.One.Kolaveri is the lowest common denominator among Tamil songs which is, arguably, the reason for its popularity. The beat is moronic and the lyrics are mostly in English. It is apparently all the rage in the US and Dubai too. In the end, it is only a song, not world peace.

Yes, I’ve heard the Japanese, acapella and Arabic versions, thank you. I have watched in bemusement as Indian-Americans who cannot speak a word of Tamil post it as their Facebook status. I’ve had north Indians sing it to me. I’ve sung it to them in a clumsy attempt at bonding. Curd rice meets rajma chawal. That type of thing.

The best part of its popularity is that it has broken people in. You want to hear Tamil music? Let me give you a few recommendations—all current, all trendy. I am not going into classics like Ilaya nila orRathiriyilPoothirukkum, or any of those S.P. Balasubrahmanyam numbers. Listen to songs from these movies: Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya(Hosanna), Ayan (Vizhi Moodi), and Vaaranam Ayiram (Mundhinam Partheney) for starters. Shankar Mahadevan has sung some fabulous songs—Varaha Nadhikarai is one of my favourites. Listen to a song called Nee Korinaal, from 180 Rules Kidaiyathu; or the one calledThozhiya en kathaliya from Kadhalil Vizhunthen. It has a nice folksy beat with English lyrics and a rap beat blended in. Now that’s a song. Go to MusicIndiaOnline, one of my favourite sites, and play these songs on your computer.

As for Kolaveri, play that darn song if you must. Post it as your Facebook status. Just don’t call it a Tamil song.

Shoba Narayan jives (awkwardly—like Elaine in Seinfeld) to the beat ofAppadi Podu, while her WTK (Why this Kolaveri Di?) friends watch in amusement.

Bengali Films for Mint

Thank you MKR, for the below line about Mizoguchi, that I couldn’t fit in due to space constraints.  Here in Mint’s page and pasted below.  Thank you, Ghoshi, for the introductions.


I feel like I am in a Bengali movie.  Wait, that’s too easy.  I am in Kolkata, after all, at the top floor of Priya Cinema, which, according to some, is the hub of Bengali cinema.  I want a better simile.  I email Bangalore-based film expert M.K. Raghavendra, who can describe a film as a “French noir courtroom classic in the tradition of H.G. Clouzot” and actually know what it means, and ask if there are any cult movies or directors whose styling is reminiscent of old Bengali movies.

“Only Japanese films perhaps.  Maybe Mizoguchi,” he replies.  “There is a ceremonial sense in the indoor sequences of his period films like Ugestu Monogatari and Sansho the Bailiff as there is in Ray’s Jalsaghar.”

Okay.  Let me rephrase.  I feel like I am in a Mizoguchi film.  The scene is the dim-lit drawing room of producer and actor, Arijit Dutta, whose family owns Priya Entertainment.  Generations of Kolkatans grew up watching movies at his Priya Cinema.  Sitting at stage left is national-award winning director, Aniruddha Roy “Tony” Chowdhury, who is sipping a single malt and spreading bonhomie.  If he is stressed about next day’s shoot, he does not show it.  Across him is gifted actor, musician and director, Anjan Dutt, who, with his beard, spectacles and absent-but-possible cigarette, looks as a polymath should.  Near him is Srijit Mukherji, erstwhile economist, theater actor and director, who holds a stack of invitations for his “daughter’s wedding,” as he says—his film’s premiere, in other words.  Beside him is Birsa Dasgupta, whose parents and grandfather were in films.  He talks about Bollywood and Bengali films with the fluency of an insider, having worked with Anurag Kashyap and Imitiaz Ali.  Actor Parambrata Chatterjee is the object of much teasing, thanks to his Dutch girlfriend.  “How can a Bong patao a Dutch girl?” the others ask.  In the middle sits Raj Chakraborty who says little but grins a lot.  The others tell me that he is the most commercially successful director in the group.  The piece de resistance as far as I am concerned is a beautiful Bengali woman who comes in carrying plates filled with fried bekti and prawns; momos and dips.  She is clad in a simple yellow soft cotton sari that is pulled around her head.  She looks to be about 50, with a fair, round face and a bright red bindi.  She is Dutta’s housekeeper but the courtesy with which he treats her speaks of long association.  She opens the door and hands him the plate.  I hear whispers of hilsa and bekti.  She nods and shuts the door.  Dutta takes the plate around.  I am entranced by the lady with no name; the others don’t seem to register her presence.

When he learned of my interest in Bengali cinema, Dutta offered to put together an ‘adda’ for me.  The ease with which the group came together with a few days notice speaks of a camaraderie that is absent in other areas, let alone Bollywood.  A top Kolkata fashion designer tells me that the fashion frat in his city does not fraternize.   Certainly, I cannot imagine Tamil directors coming together and discussing their films with the self-effacing generosity that this crowd did.  None of the directors here talk about their movies.  Instead, they use each other’s films to illustrate a point.

“The entire scenario has been changed by Raj,” says one.  “He has shown that no matter what story you say, the production cannot be shoddy.”

As they refill glasses, they discuss union strikes, distribution and funding.  Perhaps this sense of community is what drew these Bengali directors back home.  Perhaps as a result, Bengali films have started picking up after year of decline.  In 2007, 56 Bengali films were made.  In 2011, that number climbed to 130.  What draws these directors is a sense of history and the ability to work outside the straitjacket that Bollywood imposes.  Mukherji talks about the thrill of working in the same studio where Ray worked; where Mrinal Sen walked by; where Uttam Kumar applied makeup.  “That gives me goosebumps,” he says.

“In Bombay, you get a lot of templates.  Here every filmmaker is a template onto himself,” says Chowdhury.

“The road was opened by Anjan-da and Tony-da,” credits Dasgupta.  “We have a huge legacy but the pace here is leisurely and vibrant.”

“Yes, but let’s not pander to the stereotype of Bengalis being a soft race,” someone says.  “We are very aggressive, very racist.”

“The stereotype of the intellectual Bengali was the class that Uttam Kumar represented,” Dutt says.

“But let’s not forget.  The first English film—36 Chowringhee Lane—was made in Bengal,” Dutta corrects.

“Even Ray was very global,” Mukherji adds.  “And Robi Thakur was very global.  He marketed himself very well.”

“And Vivekananda marketed himself very well,” adds Dasgupta.  Any moment now, I expect the Swami to open the door and walk in.

Soon, they are all correcting each other and adding to the argument and smoking and drinking.  The door opens and closes.  The lady with the red bindi makes her Shakespearean “exits and…entrances” and “all the world’s a stage.”  The scene fits every Bengali stereotype I have; every one that they insist is not true.

“My grandfather wore a dhoti but played Frank Sinatra at home,” says Dutt.  “So please, let us not say that Bengali-ness is about dhoti and rosogolla and bhadralok.  Let us not make them this monolithic paan-chewing group who wants to make movies instead of selling potatoes.”

Frankly, this group would be terrible at selling potatoes.  Look at them now, talking about Truffat and Kieślowski and Wong Kar-wai.  These aren’t brittle time-conscious Bollywood filmmakers who are engaged in the debilitating high-stakes game of commercial cinema.  These are “artistes” who have made their peace with commercial success.  They don’t disdain it anymore; they go after it.  “Look at us,” says Dutta.  “We are talking about distribution, posters, hoarding.  Two pegs down and we are all relaxed.”

“We also talk about art, but in a spirit of cooperation, not competition,” says Chowdhury, who has just made a few phone calls to fix a small glitch in another man’s production.  He invites me to watch his shoot the following day

All the directors goad Dutta to open more theaters in the districts.  “You guys need to change the mindset of the districts,” he counters.  “The days of self-indulgent cinema is over.”

I ask Chatterjee, the young actor, why he is in Kolkata instead of Mumbai.  “Kolkata is an international city but it hasn’t reached saturation point,” he replies.  “I want to be part of that ferment.”

Tamil film actor, Surya, much as I enjoy him, could not have delivered that line.  He might have attempted that sentence, but to use the word, “ferment?”  That word and that line can only be owned by a true-blue “intellectual Bengali,” the one that these guys insist doesn’t exist.

Shoba Narayan thanks Arijit Dutta for his adda.  She wishes she could return the favor, but sadly, the Kannada film industry comes together to support alleged wife-beaters, like the actor, Darshan.