Archive for April, 2006|Monthly archive page

Breaking the curse of the cross-post

At one point in South of the Border, West of the Sun, the hero’s father-in-law tells him that the hero’s wife happens to be his (the father’s) favorite child. The older man admits that no parent is supposed to play favorites, but that one cannot help it. I’ve always wondered about that[1]. Now I know. Sitemeter reports confirm the sad truth – this has officially become the less favorite child.

Cross-posting at two blogs is pointless. At some point, readers smarten up and go to just one. In my case the chosen one appears to be the other one. How do I give each of these identical twins his / her own personality? And at the same time ensure that we remain a family? If I followed the example of countless Indian, indeed Asian movies[3], the differentiation strategy would be simple. Starting from the simplest to the more sophisticated , I could:

1. Make an X mark against all posts in one blog but not the other. Well, the blogs already look different. Don’t see what another X is going to add or take away.
2. Out myself on one, but not the other. And compete with myself? Besides which, I suspect that Earl Stanley Garnder sold more books as Earl Stanley Gardner than he did as AA Fair.
3. Tamizh-ize my posts at Stochastica. Become some sort of a web-enabled Junoon? Hmm… Not a bad idea.
4. Decide on an arbitrary boundary, and stick to it. Countries do it, why shouldn’t I? Let’s pick something random – I know – the names! Posts on books, movies and life go here. Assorted random stuff to Stochastica. Hmm…Also interesting – but pretty much all the random stuff I care enough to write about is to do with books, movies or life. There isn’t going to be much differentiation this way.

So, turning into Junoon looks like the best option. Yikes! I think I’ll think some more. I just heard the Pidivaadam tune in my head, and want to fight it out some more before admitting defeat. Meanwhile, I’ll randomly post different things at both blogs.

[1] Thanks to my being an only child [2], the question used to be one of idle curiosity and nothing more.
[2] If you’re thinking, “Oh, this explains so much”, come off it, will you?
[3] I’ve watched Seeta aur Geeta starring everyone from Sridevi to Jackie Chan and yes, Jean-Claude Van Damme.

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Homegrown talent

Growing up in Tamil Nadu in the 1980s (we turn of the century souls are doomed to sound so old so soon, aren’t we?), one of the most important questions that you were judged on was, “unakku yaar pudikkum? Rijini-ya, Kamal-a?”[1] This question was an important divider, a quick and dirty way of determining if you wanted to continue your acquaintance with the new kid in class, or confer upon him / her the label of “weirdo” (or “loosu”, to use the vernacular) and take comfort in the knowledge that your life would not in the least bit suffer from not having this person in it.

I suspect this is a cultural phenomenon unique to the 80s. I don’t know if my parents were divvied up based on their preference for Sivaji or MGR or who ever was big in their days. And I doubt that this question matters today. Can you imagine letting say, Bharath or the Chimp (aka Simbu) define your identity in any shape or form? (*shudder*)

But as always, I digress. Us 80s kids had one more question that was an almost equally important divider – the Crazy Vs. S.Ve.Sekar question[2] [3]. Like the first question, this one too appears to be a purely 80s hang-up[4].

Personally, I have always firmly been in the Crazy camp. I was introduced to Sekar first. My cousin (who being older pretty much dictated most things taste-wise for me in those days) was a big fan, and used to watch his plays. Since I didn’t live in Madras, I used to borrow my cousin’s recordings (I remember the audio tapes of Kaatla Mazhai and Mahabharathathil Mangaatha). I loved them, and tried to hold on to them for as long as I possibly could.

I might have continued life as a Sekar fan ( I remember that that old line “ullae veliyae ullae veliyae ullae veliyae” used to make me laugh uncontrollably), but something happened that changed my loyalties forever. 4 words: Michael Madana Kama Raj.

MMKR is, bar none, my all time favorite Tamil movie ever. And am pretty sure it will retain its position for the rest of my life. There may well be funnier movies, but none will have the “I grew up with this movie” cachet that this one has. I still watch this movie once in a while. I don’t laugh at every joke any more – but just for my favorites (the incident of the poor mama’s false teeth, most scenes involving the dad in the last third of the movie (his wanting to make tea at the tea estate, his wanting to relocate discussions to inside the refrigerator), and others that I love because I remember these are my parents’ favorites (for some reason the line “kizhinjithu, ithula Telungu vera” used to make my Dad laugh the hardest I remember him laughing, the “thiruppu thiruppu” joke that always set my mother off, the “Beem boy Beem boy” thing that one of my cousins used to recite till we were convinced that the gift of speech, especially in boys under the age of 10, was something that the family should be able to turn off at will).

MMKR’s cult status apart, Crazy has done some awesome writing for a number of other movies and of course, there are the plays. I’ll move on after a brief mention of my favorites – A-Ha (my kingdom for the deaf thaatha, and the classic one-liners like “Sweet name. Jangiri”), Aboorva Sagodharargal (Manorama at the police station and Mouli get funnier with reruns and Janakaraj & Shivaji remain as fresh as ever), Thenaali (Dr. Panchabootham & his assistant Ramesh Khanna who always gets Thenaali’s name wrong), and Kaathala Kaathala (I don’t like this movie (too many kadi jokes), and mention it out of fear of legions of Crazy fans issuing a fatwa in my name).

I thought about why I came to prefer Crazy over Sekar. The answer lies in the fact that Crazy is closer to PGW than Sekar is. The intricate plots, characters that spill over from one play to the next, his masterly use of props (in one play, Crazy plays a character who’s supposed to kidnap someone, and goes around begging all the characters in that scene to take the chloroform drenched handkerchief from him, there’s another that involves a sack of coconuts), his use of Madras-English (he gets it bang on – his English dialogues remind me of grandfathers-who-write-to-the-Hindu-editor, convent-taught-kids (think Church Park, DB – the “old” schools), The Hindu, and well just Madras), and his ability to bend language to his purposes (“I mean what I mean, but they can’t be so mean” is a priceless thing to say when your main characters are losing their minds about fish in the Sambar).

S. Ve’s plays are funny too. In her post, Tilo calls him the Seinfeld of Madras. I agree. Seinfeld and Larry David are very funny, but do make their characters likable. The reason you laugh at Kramer or George or Elaine is because they are so uniformly obnoxious that it gives us immense pleasure to watch them falling flat on their faces. All of Crazy’s characters by contrast are immensely likable (at least I find them adorable). They have a Wodehousian detachment from reality. No one is remotely evil, political or social issues of the times are almost never dealt with, characters are mostly bumbling and adorable idiots. If you like your comedy to be of the escapist variety, Crazy’s a fairly dependable sort to turn to.

But of late, it’s a pity to see both Sekar & Crazy stuck in a rut. It’s as if comedians are like Russian dolls and have only so many jokes inside them. Once you’ve gotten to the last tiny doll, you can only reassemble them and start over. But I suppose it doesn’t matter too much, really. All you need is MMKR and your family around to escape from

[1] The truly hair-raising part is that this question continues to be asked. Only this time as an outdated, but nevertheless important conversation starter in arranged-marriage-first-phone-call conversations. Even the possibility that judgements about one’s character or personality are being made on the basis of one’s response to this question is at least one important reason why the process sucks.
[2] Important disclaimer: I haven’t watched any of the plays of either playwright, and my exposure is restricted to the movies they were involved with, the odd audio recording and any crumbs thrown to the masses via television.
[3] Somehow YG Mahendran never figured in this question. At least that was the case in my family. Perhaps there vast numbers of YGM fans out there put me in the, er, “loosu” category on the basis of my answer some secret question that didn’t actually mention his name. To these YGM fans, I’d like to say, “You were right”. I’ve never liked him, and we wouldn’t have had much in common.
[4] Then again, what choice do kids these days have? To actually harbour a preference for Karunas or the hundreds of Karunas wannabes means that you have not only seen their work, but know enough to distinguish between them… When you have been reduced to such lows, it seems too cruel to ask you questions about wit and timing and plot and all the other qualities that mark the good comedian.

Update: For non-Southerners, the closest Hindi example to MMKR is Jaane bhi do yaaron. MMKR is no where as cynical, though. Similarities are limited to the way the plot is set up (layers and layers of carefully planned and executed scenes that all add up to a wonderfully hilarious finale)

A humorist after my own heart

Some humorists make you laugh till your stomach hurts. Others can make you chuckle ruefully. Woody Allen makes me glad I’m me. [1]

I first fell for Allen’s words, not his movies. I read White Feathers first (or it may have been Side Effects) and moved on to the scripts of Annie Hall, Manhattan and a couple of others I don’t recall now. I must have been in my under-grad then. I’m not sure what directed me to his books at the USIS library, but I suspect I’d have found his works sooner or later. It’s difficult to imagine who would have replaced Allen had I not discovered Allen.

Over the years, I’ve watched many of his movies (although I’m glad that I still have quite a few saved for rainy days ahead) – from the truly sublime ( Crimes and Misdemeanors , Zelig , Annie Hall, Manhattan), the utterly delightful ( Deconstructing Harry, Manhattan Murder Mystery) to strictly-for-fans only ( Sleeper, Don’t drink the water, The Front, The Purple Rose of Cairo). It’s good to be the fan of a man who is not only a genius, but also prolific. Just compare the experience of being a Woody Allen fan to being a fan of, oh, David Mamet or David Lynch – with Allen you simply get more.

I suspect age may have had something to do with how thoroughly I fell in love with Woody Allen. For a 17 year old, to live in a big city, have sparkling conversations with friends, listen to jazz, visit museums, and yes, deal with existential problems (Allen’s characters almost exclusively have existential problems – infidelity, temptation, boredom… You don’t often come across characters who have bad jobs, or no-job, no-money, and most certainly never no-apartment) all represented the very best of “adulthood”. Allen’s world was the stuff my dreams were made of.

I’m older now, and I still want to turn into an Allen character when I grow up. Technically, I’m supposed to be living that life I dreamt about at 17 (and in a way, I suppose I am, although I don’t live in the Upper East Side or hang around Swedish film festivals). Now, I simply appreciate their fine escapist quality. I don’t resent the 20-something artists their real estate. They seem to be so sweetly unhappy with their lot that I don’t grudge them the odd 2-bedroom-apartment-with-terrace-and-view-to-die-for, in Midtown or Belgravia.

Also, Allen is an optimist. I can’t think of a single movie of his at the end of which I felt cynical. Things that are liable to make one want to kill oneself in real life – losing the love of your life, getting caught committing murder, or having your spouse of several years cheat on you – only seem to leave Allen’s characters perplexed and mildly annoyed. And in almost all of these cases, you just might manage to live happily ever after (or as happy as one’s neuroses will allow) after all. No, you don’t want Woody Allen for lessons in morality. You watch them to amuse yourself.

A good number of my friends are NOT Allen fans. Their complaints range from
“he looks like he does, and yet ends up with very pretty ladies”, “he married his own daughter, for crying out loud!”, “they talk too much in his movies”, to “he’s a twisted guy who makes twisted movies”… As for the first complaint, I admit it was a bit awkward to see him pair up with Julia Roberts, but in his old movies, honestly, it didn’t feel at all weird to see him with Diane Keaton or any of his other leading ladies. He’s never vain about his looks – whether he’s playing a cheesy, unsuccessful talent manager, an oily Latin lover, or a husband dumped by Meryl Streep for a woman, his looks are an essential part of the charm. As for his personal life, well, he’s no more or no less koo-koo than tens of other Hollywood stars (including the erstwhile matinee idol – Tom Cruise). Who cares what he does with his life as long as he makes such wonderful cinema?

This week-end, I watched Match Point. I found it a bit boring at first (the first two-thirds are pretty slow going), but the last third convinced me that the master hasn’t quite lost his touch yet. It is such a thoroughly delightful movie. But I fear that Allen may have become dated. The average age of the audience was 55. This figure was skewed by 7 or 8 odd people below 35, all of whom, I was glad to note were desis. I can see how selling Allen may be a difficult proposition when the mainstream audience needs Kiera Knightly to draw them into watching Austen, and Ashton Kutcher to make sequels to Sidney Poitier flicks (*shudder*).

I turn to the other humorists I’ve been writing about when I need to be cheered up, or need to get away from my life’s madness. I turn to Allen when I need to be reminded about myself. [1]

[1] Reading back, I realize some of this stuff sounds very vain – after all who am I to say that Woody Allen reminds me of me? I can only protest that when I say some of these things, I do so with the greatest degree of awe. A lot more of “Allen reminds me of the best I want to be”, with just the odd dash of “he reminds me of who I am.” [2]
[2] While I don’t want to sound very vain, I don’t mind sounding somewhat vain.