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I knew I had to watch Avan Ivan. Despite the reviews. Despite reluctant companions who cribbed any film that was not booked out on a weekend was bound to be a disaster. I knew a Bala film could not be bad, however violent or foul-mouthed it might turn out to be.

And yet, I was still unprepared for the feast when the opening scenes began to roll.

Avan Ivan is a bold attempt at creating characters and setting a milieu even as Bala forsakes the plot. But it is that rivetting kind of film-making that just about dispenses with the plot with little deletrious effects.

I’d tweeted about the opening sequences – where an entire village gets ready to fete their ‘ighness’ a former local prince in a sad state of decline. It sets the tone, then, for the film and I remember remarking to myself that if the rest of the film was half as interesting as its intro, it would suffice. Bala begins, not only to add colour by introducing local culture, but also etches deeply two characters who would go on to dominate the film -‘ighness’ played to a T by Director Kumar, and Walter Vanagamudi essayed brilliantly by Vishal (how does he manage that squint unerringly even if underwater?)

So much so that I think ‘ighness’ is one of the finest portrayals in Indian cinema I have watched in recent years. He is the central character of the film, nevermind the title, it is about Avan or Ivan only marginally. ‘aInessu’ as the locals call him is an original. A character so well etched, from his braggadacio, to his childlike laughter, his stuck-on moustache, his dips in the pond for being insulted in front of foreigners, legal battles that threaten to impoverish him further, his pride, and then, in the end his absolute lack of it.

Apart from ‘ighness’, the only two other characters that are fleshed out are those of Walter and his half brother Kumbidaren Samy (Arya). The conflict rests between them, just as peace and a sense of brotherhood does. Apparently, Arya is the masculine element, the yang to his half-brother’s more effeminate yin. Even his mother (good comeback role chides him constantly for being effemintedAnd yet, it is Vishal, the cross dressing thief, with a heart that melts, who is the aggressor in the fights. It is Walter who is the man of action in the climax, while Kumbidaren Samy simply collapses, distraught with grief; it is the same Walter that wreaks a violent revenge typical of a Bala film.

Even when he portrays subsidiary characters – the heroines, the inspector (classic scene when he faints at the barrage of abuse from the boys’ mothers), the mothers, the marginal henpecked father – there are an essential part of the mileu, bolstering the natural situational comedy.

And that is where this Bala film distinguishes itself by being light, and unpretentious. Of course, with the Suriya – Laila segment in in Pithamagan, Bala had already exhibited his potential for hilarity. I can’t help feeling pleased that he has decided to rely on this instinct for a surprisingly substantial part of the film.

So, what grates? That cheesy dance scene with Suriya wowing Vishal’s overacting; I would have appreciated a story, instead of a belated introduction of vengeance with the cattle smuggler; songs are not completely memorable; the debate about giving an A certificate given the intense and bloody violence; and well, not much else. What is that in a count of all the stuff that is wrong with Tamil movies.

Bala – Avan kalakittaanya!


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Google Plus-sed!

And thus, with Plus, Google owns us whole.

That is, of course, only one way at looking at Google’s labour of over one year. So for the one year the Google guys sat writing codes, eager to make as big an impact in the social media sector as it has in the mail, search, photo and document storage domains. This time, they were also hoping they would do one better than Orkut, which was literally steam-rollered by Facebook in terms of popularity and functionality, and certainly better than its disastrous Wave. The idea, one supposes, was to create a product that would be a mash of its prime competitors Facebook and Twitter, and slowly edge them out. Will Google + do that?

Google + is still in its snooty, exclusive, I-will-call-you-don’t-call-me phase, but let us remember that was Mark Zuckerberg’s strategy initially as well. Facebook was the privy of exclusive Ivy league schools in the US and UK until the blitz happened. So, invitations are still scarce to come by, not all those in the Plus can extend invitations to friends who are still non-Plused. However, for sure, there are many more being added to my circles every night, nearly thrice the number than I started off with.

But when you are in, you may not notice this, it automatically signs you in on a secure (https) server, significant if you consider the recent controversies over Facebook taking liberties with users’ privacy. So far, so good.

Even if you missed that, there is no way you cannot pause at the nearly spartan, neat, user interface. As yet uncluttered in comparison to FB, and only four silos (Home, Photos, Profile, Circles) to click on. Yeah, no games, and thankfully, no Farmville! On the face of it, it is simple, and yet, it takes some initially to figure out the Google +. The ‘Stream’ is the equivalent of FB’s scroll newsfeed, and there are similar options – to share, edit, host photos and videos, and delete them.You can also ‘mute’ those annoying conversations on your Stream. Phew! There is also the ‘Sparks’ component, which according to Plus, “..looks for videos and articles that it thinks you’ll like, so that when you’re free there’s always something to watch, read and share.” Your grandpa will approve, it adds, but who is looking for Grandpa’s approval rating on social media?
What is utterly out of the box for social media is the ‘Circle’ concept. Literally, you can create ur own social spheres, including friends, accquaintances, colleagues and contacts in different circles that are more than faintly reminiscent of school level Set Theory. You can chose who you want to share specific information with, hiving off various groups that may be in conflict with each other: A boss versus someone to whom you are bitching about him.

A thumb tack aid you to transfer multiple persons on to the circles; and every circle you delete merrily jigs away out of the screen. Will subsets of intersecting Venn diagrams soon come to play, where diagramatic impressions mapping friends who belong to more than one circle? It certainly will jazz plus up. ‘Hangout’ is Google’s version of ‘teleportation’, a.k.a. ‘video chat’ and is certainly cool thus far.

Mobile Google Plus is adapted finely for Apple’s iOS, and is functional on the Android platform (tried on HTC phones) but does not deign to work on the Symbian platform (Tried on two of Nokia’s E-series). Snooty again? Because even as the migration to Android or iOS gathers steam, there are still millions of users on Symbian and everyone knows the link between Twitter’s phenomenal growth and the facility of mobile phones.

Even if you are in, there is the fact that Plus is about a week old. Though social media is turning out to be the natural hyperbole of human communication, it is frustrating that updates will have to be done separately, since Google currently offers no integration with FB and Twitter (though a patch is available only on Chrome). Google’s domination of your life is also upsetting if you think of it. Ergo, for now, Google Plus remains, at best, a tantalising and yet, brief dalliance outside of marriage.

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Raavan is a good movie. Not great. But good, with reservations.

Maniratnam is a good filmmaker. Very good, in fact. He has potential to make that perfect movie, but it certainly is not Raavan.

Ideally, I’d like to watch Raavanan (Tamil) too before I write a review, but I’m going to give it some time before I take Vikram on. Going to
soak in the Hindi monster with the ten heads first. Because it is going to be a milestone in a retrospective of Maniratnam movies.

Mythical and modern
Building a modern story around a myth seems simplistic, but need not necessarily be so. It necessiates the building of layers, and going by
the general pool of talent we have this side of the Vindhyas (or that), very few directors seem to be able to do it.

In Raavan, the Robinhood-like non-conformist do gooder, Beera (Abhiskhek) kidnaps his arch enemy SP Dev’s (Vikram) wife Ragini (Aishwarya Rai) secreting her in his version of the Ashokavan. Sanjeevani, the forest guard, expressing a simian agility unbelievable from someone of Govinda’s girth, is the messenger, Hanumaan. All this is woven in with the contemporary story of a forest brigand, a jungle cat duping the armed forces with agility, in a not-at-all-veiled reference to Sandalwood smuggler Veerappan.

What follows is psychomachia, where good battles with evil and virtue defeats vice. And some love.

But then, Dev is not really the tatpurush that the epic Ram was meant to be. Nor is Beera merely a sinner. Dev straddles the grey zone
between good and evil and so does Beera. Evil and good, in Raavan are not the certainities we are used to on celluloid. On the contrary, as in real life, they are not absolutes – they spill over into each other believably. The crafty and wily here will destroy the fool in love.

No longer urbane
Also, for the first time Maniratnam has lost the urbaneness that characterises all his work, hitherto. No, not his aestheticism, just his
penchant for all things bright, beautiful and urban. There is sophistication here too, make no mistake, the kind though that comes through the lens of ace cinematographer Santosh Sivan.

But the aesthetics derives from the locale itself; not so much from the characters. The characters themselves are grossly made up (often smeared with mud, filthy, unshaven, wet, and dressed in rags) – there is generally a deliberate attempt to get as earthy and real as possible; riding surprisingly well with the breathlessly beautiful imagery.
This is a significant departure from Maniratnam as we know him – glimpses of that man we see in the ethreal dancing scene with Aishwarya.

In the scenes of violence, quite casual in this film, I struck me that I was seeing flashes of Quentin Tarantino. A tribute, perhaps? Or it could be just me – I’m ODing on Tarantino just now.

Sivan and Rahman save
Even the naysayers of this movie agree on two things: One, we’ve already mentioned – the genius of Santosh Sivan, Two – on the way the director has worked the actors. Though Maniratnam has a reputation to be exacting on his actors, I think Raavan will be the movie he’s pushed them off the cliff. Literally. For someone with vertigo, I have great appreciation for people who can hang by a hand from a makeshift bridge over a deep gorge. No, make that anyone who can walk over that rope-and-board bridge. Aishwarya Rai must have had it tough physically, and she had to do it all over again with Vikram!

BUT, then…
It shows though when she shrieks. You feel like telling her,”Let up lady, it’s just a film!” That is a definite put off. And in combination with Abhishek Bachchan’s ghastly exaggerated expressions and slow retarded gestures, the repugnance is total, especially durign the climax and the denouement. The film could do with editing, being baggy in parts, it loses you in bits.

Pic Courtesy: Sulekha

But when it does, A.R.Rahman drags you right back into it. I’ve already made known my preference for Raavan over Raavanan when it comes to the soundtrack and I’m not about to revise that opinion. Behne de which has Aishwarya mostly under water is my favourite, while the haunting Beera comes a close second. With Sivan’s camera, Rahman’s synth picks up the film everytime it sags, distracts and roams all over the place.

But when is Indian cinema (popular) going to realise the value of background scores? Must all songs be danced to? That, by itself, would lend to tighter editing and a not-so-baggy-monster of a film.

Just like its theme then, Raavan avoids the absolutes and falls mostly in the grey area – between good and bad; entertainment and boredom; hit and flop. But because, of all the above, and not in the least because of the context in which films are being made in our country and ‘Southside’, I’d say Raavan is good, but with flaws.

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Essaying a career

I owe my career to a school essay.

When I was in the sixth standard, I’d have been about 12 years then, I made a decision that was to have a far-reaching impact on my life.

I mean, no one takes a 12-year-old that seriously, and even less, take a school essay. However, as these things were then, I wasn’t old enough to know that. I took myself seriously. I was going to be a journalist.

In class we had to write an essay on what we would all like to be. I paid all writing assignments great attention; and this one, for some reason, got me. After mildly toying with the idea of becoming a scientist that would make phenomenal Nobel-winning discoveries, I rejected it with the cynicism that is unusual in a 12-year old. Though the rewards of that were tantalising, the process of getting there seemed long and arduous, if I even managed to get there, you know.

I don’t think I hesitated much after that stray thought. Journalism came into my head, pretending it had been there all the while. So, I wrote the essay and went on to live it. It is easy if you have a life goal – you just have to work your way towards it. Which I did, except for a brief dalliance with Mathematics when I could have done Advanced English in Higher Secondary. Rather pointlessly, I was in love with Mathematics then. Good teachers and my maths-whiz family are to blame I suppose.

But because of that dalliance, the fight got tougher. I discovered that at Stella Maris College, the literature department took people with Advanced English ONLY. Here I was, with 198 in Mathematics, and logically being shooed to the Commerce and Economics sections. Don’t blame them, because they din’t really know me, or my premature career graph.

Anyway, I took the test and after some serious exhibition of passion (for the language, and the department, I suppose) I got it, edgeways. I mean, everyone and their cats are part of the college mag in Stella Maris, and so was I. And the literary journal. Good times those.

Cut and clip to the next frame – Asian College of Journalism, Bangalore. I nearly din’t go, though it was the next right step. But I did. And unlearnt everything I had learnt thus far. Journalism is a different kettle of fish, I figured – there was word count and deadline, primarily. We learnt though, all over again, 20 of us, living it up simultaneously in a city that we all finally grew up in.

And then there was The Hindu. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, as it were. The ride was good, rocky at times, but that is part of the fun, isn’t it? If you only have this ambition and you reach it in as many years, what do you do? You decide to move out in three years. Or thereabout.

But that’s when you realise you don’t quite get to plan everything. You realise 13 years have passed you by as you sit sipping a cup of coffee at the canteen. Some things are indeed beyond or beneath your control. The maximum you get to do, is go with the flow.

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The notion of peace

´╗┐word climbs on word,
in a spiral,
chasing up:
fighting to be the
first to be fired

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Two movies: One take

This year’s Oscars were about slumdogs too, just like the last year. Though I suppose they can’t really keep naming films “slumdog” year after year, can they?

Watched Precious and The Blind Side nearly running on these past weeks, and you must be blind not to see where the two converge, and of course, diverge. Though the two films belong to completely different genres – while Precious would, even if a little uncomfortably, fit into the Film noir mode, The Blind Side is definitely a more cheerful fulfillment of the grand American Dream.

At the centre of both the films is a stereotype – overweight Afro-American kids from the ghetto, in abusive circumstances with a literally non-existent childhood. Both films pick up the narrative from a crucial point in the lives of both children – Precious (lovely essay by Gabourey Sidibe); and Big Mike Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) – at a likely turning point in their abject lives.

Precious is an overweight teenager, whose cup of woes keeps brimming over. She is an abused teen, impregnated for the second time by her father, beated and verbally abused by her mother who also gets Precious to give her sexual satisfaction. She does not smile, is friendless, speaks little, but when she does, is verbally violent, and obviously has had too little attention at school to have learnt anything; anything except math which she is good at. Here’s her chance, though. A chance at an alternative school, friends, and the love of her new baby.

At some point in the narrative, Precious’ teacher Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) says to her class of ‘underachievers’ “what do I mean when I say the author describes her protagonists’ struggles as ‘unrelenting’.” (not the exact quote) That, I suppose defines the film and its protagonist, Precious. Unrelenting, the troubles pile on Precious; even when it seems she has finally found love and friendship, she discovers she is HIV positive.

Big Mike too comes from the same circumstances. But he enters the great American dream that is fulfilled. He gets accepted into the Tuohy household, as Republican Christian as can get. Quinton does a good ‘un as the big guy that is so good with a ball that it merits his entry into a decent school, but is cold, hungry, and has only one pair of tee and shorts.

In this version of the dream, everyone in the family almost instantly accepts him and he slowly gravitates from chronic underachiever to this well-loved All American football hero who plays the blind side ( I don’t know enough football to figure out more than this guy rams into people and immobilises them on the field. duh.)

I’ve liked Sandra Bullock since her Ms. Congeniality Days, but as loaded as that is, I must admit that an Oscar (for best actress in a leading role) for Leigh Anne Tuohy is stretching it a bit. Against Sidibe, what is it?

Then, The Blind Side is the American Dream. It is a story that tells you the slumdog indeed can become a millionaire, in the fanciest, easiest of ways. I suppose that is easier to handle than something like “Precious” dark at its best moments. Precious is a slum dog allright. There is just no easy way out for her; her mongloid child and newborn.

But for me, the image of Precious as she walks into the sunset with her two children and the credits roll over, is one of hope. Of courage in the midst of adversity; and therefore, more powerful than the fairytale ending of The Blind Side.

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OMG! Change can be disastrous. Calamitous, even.

I mean what about the monotonous routine we all set our lives into? The patterns we respond like the Pavlovian dog to? The unerring bell that seems to add much morassic meaning to life? There is a point to the purposefull purposelessness of the assembly line after all.

They’ve gone and changed the menu slightly at the canteen. Today is Tuesday and we are meant to have mostly unedible idlies. But we have soggy pulav. I cannot even say, like I’ve done before that “If its pulav, it must be Thursday.” And it shatters my soul completely.

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