Friday, August 19, 2011

Malayalam Cinema


Someone just told me that Johnson died yesterday.

On a different day, I would've probably spent a few minutes mourning for his loss, called an old friend and reminisced about watching movies like Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal and Njan Gandharvan on the VCR on rainy or just plain lazy Sunday afternoons, and left it at that. I would've probably looked up some of my all-time favorite songs on YouTube and listened to it on 'Repeat' mode. But unfortunately, I'm in a time zone where it's morning when most of my friends are either sleeping, or caught in rush hour. I'm also in a country that blocks every single website that plays a big role in my daily existence. So I've decided to write.

Those of you who are familiar with Malayalam cinema, will know that the best movies in it's history were made in the late 80's or early 90's. Almost all the movies in that period belonged to it's own cult and transformed the life of the average Malayalee. Padmarajan, the genius that he was, and Mohanlal, easily the best actor that has ever existed, together made the greatest movies with simple, straightforward story lines that the common man could relate to. The gems that were made by Srinivasan are definitely worthy of equal mention. We also had a whole community of brilliant actors who brought these stories to life. Nedumudi Venu and Oduvil Unnikrishnan. Shobhana, Parvathy, K.P.A.C Lalitha and Sukumari. The forever-maternal Kaviyoor Ponnamma. The best thing is that some of these actors played supporting roles for decades, but there was no such thing as a small role. It was always about the kind of character you play. Depending on how well you play it, it's etched in the minds of millions of people across the world. Almost every Malayalee remembers Kuthiravattom Pappu's character in Manichitrathazhu, where he had about 10 minutes on screen, but the way he played the seemingly regular character of a man who lost his sanity, was so different and hilarious, that people still remember the character and crack up to the dialogues.

Aaram Thamburan, Sarvakalashala, Vietnam Colony, Kalapani, His Highness Abdullah, No. 20 Madras Mail, Thalayana Manthram, Odaruthammava Aalariyum, Kakkothikavile Appuppanthadikal, Thingalazhcha Nalla Divasam. Sigh. There are way too many movies, each distinctly different from the other, and ones that you can never get tired of watching over and over again. Movies way ahead of their time, movies that would make you think, ones that would surprise you or even make you uncomfortable, movies that would make you laugh uncontrollably and ones that get you emotional. When Akashadooth was released, it was rumored that theater corridors were packed with handkerchief vendors! Some of the lines from Ramjirao Speaking are so funny, that just talking about the scene would have you laughing hard until your sides ached. Moonam Pakkam was a late discovery for me. So was Sandesham. I watched it only a few years back, and they are both easily two of my all time favorites. Talking about all the great movies and the moviemakers of this period would require a different post. Maybe a series of posts. But that's for later.

Watching movies at home was always a grand event. The weekend guarantees that most people are at home, and if you lived in a joint family like mine, it's a lot of people! It's a widely known and accepted fact that if you don't watch the movie when everyone else in the house is watching it, thinking that it's on VCD and you can always watch it later, it's never going to happen. There will always be something or the other to do, and what with daily rent on VCDs being 7 rupees and a late fee of 2 rupees a day being charged, you'll never get a chance to keep it for a while longer. Besides, the majority always decided these things. Renting the same movie again is almost impossible, unless of course it's a popular favorite, because these decisions are often made by whoever has enough money to pay the rental fee. Anyway, in those days, movies weren't mass-produced and bad ones were hard to come by. So, it was just a matter of time until the group/family agreed on what you wanted to watch.

Once the VCD is rented on Saturday evening, it's announced that everyone will watch the movie in the night. But then, there will be 7 O' clock news and other chores, and inevitably we'll end up watching it on Sunday afternoon, when most of the housework is done, and the few elders who are not interested in movies, are indulging in their precious afternoon slumber. One of the kids would insert the cassette into the player, fast forward through the Vanamala detergent or the more popular Vicco Vajrathanthi ad, sometimes even the title song (depending on how relevant or irrelevant it is) and would wait for everyone to come and take their places on the sofa/floor/windowsill/someone’s lap so we could start watching the movie. The person in charge of the remote, a relatively new device in the household, would hold it high (it may not work if not directly pointed at the sensor on the VCP/VCR) and threaten of hitting the 'Play' button if everyone didn't show up soon. A good 30 minutes later, we settle down to watch the movie.

Very similar to the lives of people on screen, our perfect evening too, would be interrupted by random things like a neighbor’s visit or crying infant or frequent nature calls. Then there would be a couple of irritating 16 year olds, who’d insist on watching the romantic number again. Gosh. But we always enjoyed watching movies in this fashion. There may have been an occasional fight that got serious, but mostly we would adjust to the dynamics of the group and watch the movie.

Soon after the movie was over, everyone in the house would linger around the kitchen, sipping tea or coffee and talking about the movie at length. People of different ages and genders would talk about their perspective and sometimes we'd all just sit together in silence, baffled by how profound the characters were, and yet how simple the story was. Slowly, the weight of Monday would settle in and the group would disperse, and the youngsters would just gather around in the hall or verandah to talk about the romantic/horror/violent scenes – the three things that were of utmost interest to most of us those days. The teenagers in the group who had the money to buy or record English audiocassettes would point out the clever undertones and references that Padmarajan's movies had to 70’s pop music. Those were the days when having a Pink Floyd album’s recording would give you the status of an Emperor. I didn't really start listening to English music (apart from Backstreet Boys and Michael Jackson, that was difficult to ignore) until a few years later, and didn't really understand why they were so excited about a 30 second background tune. Years later, I saw those movies again and celebrated many a Eureka moment of discovery.

There were outright funny movies too. It wasn't always about depth and meaning. But I don't think I've ever seen and related to movies that have such a fine blend of humor, story, good acting, well etched out characters, with the perfect accompaniment of lyrics and music. Music. My God, it was something else. You should really listen to tracks like Devadoothar paadi, Vaishakha Sandhye, Swargatilo Nammal Swapnathilo, and the likes to experience how brilliant these are; lyrics and composition feeding off each other, and fitting seamlessly into the mood and feel of the movie its part of. One of my favorite songs composed by Johnson is the less popular Ethojanmakalpanayil from Palangal. It always gives me this feeling of things being calm and under control from the outside, but a total wreck in reality -- pretty much in line with the movie's storyline.

I remember how we once talked into the wee hours of the morning after watching Thoovanathumbikal. It was during summer holidays and I was probably 11-12 years old. We had watched Season, another epic movie just a week back, and the kind of ideas that it had sparked in our young minds were astounding. I probably didn't realize it back then, but I owe a lot to the forces that made me watch these movies and talk about the ideas that it brought out -- to so many different kinds of people -- for making me the kind of person I am today. It also helped forge many friendships that are still very strong, even though we now probably meet once a year or less, for just a few hours.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it totally sucks to be here in China right now, without anyone to talk to about this. People are dying and times are constantly changing. It's not like I didn't know about it; it's just that in times likes these, the truth just becomes more obvious and I feel the need to talk/vent out. The only thing I've been able to easily communicate to anyone in the past 3 weeks is 'Coca-cola' and my staple diet has been steamed Chinese cabbage with chilly sauce. I haven't found an Indian on the streets, and it's probably the first time during my travels that I haven't met a Malayalee in three weeks. Seriously, is there no Nair Sahodara Samajam in Beijing?

Anyway, it's not like I'm not enjoying my trip. On the contrary, it's been quite exciting and eventful. More on that later. For now, I'm going to listen to some old songs I do have on iTunes, drink Ginseng tea, raise a toast to great cinema, and get through the rest of the day.


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