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Book Launch – ‘R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music’

The smiles came instantly, the feet started tapping of their own accord, and heads swayed to the lively tunes. The enduring magic of Pancham da’s music was on ample display as a medley of some of his best-loved hits played before the launch of the book,R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music at Crossword recently.

Clips of songs such as ‘Aaja Aaja’, ‘Kaanta Laga’, ‘Chura liya’, ‘Chingari koi bhadke’, ‘Aaja piya tohe pyar du’ and ‘Oh majhi re’ played for mere seconds, but it was enough to set the mood for an event that was all about remembering R.D. Burman’s remarkable contribution to Hindi film music.

The walk down memory lane was lead by none other than the evergreen singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, who talked about his decade-long acquaintance with the music director.

“We first met in the mid-1970s, when he’d come to perform in Chennai, along with Asha Bhonsle and Bhupinder, at the University auditorium,” recalled SPB. “Unfortunately, the sound system there was miserable on the first day, so I gave him my own sound system for the second show, and met him afterwards. I was literally just a ‘chhota-mota’ singer back then!”

The first song they did together was ‘Baaghon mein khile hain’ for “Shubhkamna” (1983), and their musical association lasted until SPB recorded ‘Aaja Meri Jaan’ in 1993. “It was the last song I did for him, and it’s a number that is still talked about in musical circles,” said the singer. “I get very sentimental when I sing it; I always keep it for the end of any stage performance.”

The packed audience was treated to a mini-musical biography of the great composer, as SPB talked about Pancham da’s struggles to emerge from his father’s shadow, his genius with syncopation (“he was the human embodiment of rhythm”), his punctuality during recordings (“I once came 15 minutes late and really got it from him!”), and later, Pancham’s regrets over the way he was treated by some filmmakers during the low phase of his career.

The evening ended as it began — with music — as SPB fans in the audience requested him to sing for them. He obliged with ‘Khoya khoya chand’ and ‘Sach mere yaar hai’ (his duet with Kishore Kumar for R.D. Burman in “Saagar”), his voice soaring effortlessly over the hubbub at the bookstore (he drew the line at a request for his ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’ songs, though, saying in his gentle way, “that’s not relevant”).

“My acquaintance with Pancham was not, perhaps, as much as that of some senior singers,” he said later, “but I grabbed this opportunity to speak about him because I still live with his music every day.”



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Interview with… Ashok Amritraj

Photo: R. Ragu

Ashok Amritraj has had a rather good year. His productions in 2010 have met with critical and commercial success. He’s all set for his first 3D movie. And Variety hosted a swanky do at the Cannes Film Festival this year to celebrate his achievement of 100 films completed in Hollywood.

“They did a huge star-studded party for me on the beach at Cannes, and everybody from Jean Claude Van Damme, who did my first big film, to Eva Longoria and Bruce Willis was there,” he said, looking relaxed and, as always, debonair, as he lounged in his Chennai home. “It was very special.”

He was in the city for his customary year-end trip, before heading to Romania and Turkey to the sets of Ghost Rider 2, the sequel to the 2007 superhero flick starring Nicolas Cage as the motorcycle-riding, skull-flaming titular character.

“It’s very much the same Marvel Comics character, with the bike on fire, the skull on fire and so on, but in 3D,” said Amritraj with a laugh. “So the fire’s really going to come at you. It’s very fun.”

It will also be Hyde Park Entertainment’s (Amritraj’s company) first foray into 3D films, which he believes are here to stay. “The technology has given our industry quite a boost because of the ticket prices, to be honest,” he said candidly. “The price of tickets for 3D movies is 40 per cent higher in the U.S. and the U.K.”

The big tipping point, he said, is when the technology makes it into the average family’s home. “My kids already have 3D glasses to watch movies at home. I think there will soon come a time when we won’t need glasses at all, and then the technology will really take off.”

In the meantime, though, Hyde Park Entertainment is doing pretty well. Its September 2010 release, the hyper-violent, tongue-in-cheek, exploitation-style flick Machete by Robert Rodriguez (starring Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba and “Steven Segal resurrected from the dead”), received largely positive reviews and was a surprise summer hit. And the upcoming December release Blue Valentine (Amritraj has partnered with Harvey Weinstein for its distribution) is already receiving Oscar buzz for performances by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.

Which brings us to that inevitable question — any plans of an Indian production next? “I’ve had meetings with a couple of writers and directors to see if there’s any potential — it’s something I’d like to do since I haven’t done one since Jeans,” he said. “Whether it’ll be a fully Indian production or Indo-U.S. or Indo-Chinese, I don’t know.”

What he’d also like to see, though, is more Indians coming to Hollywood. “The second generation Indian-American kids are doing quite well, but I’m surprised that more people from India haven’t given it a shot,” he said. “I suppose if you have success here, you don’t want to go knocking on doors in Hollywood. But I hope to see a few new players soon; it just takes commitment, because finally, the colour of our skin doesn’t stand in the way of being a Hollywood movie star.”

He remembers when his friend Sidney Poitier led the African-American revolution in Hollywood, and again when another good friend, Antonio Banderas did the same for Latinos. “The Chinese have done a decent job as well, with people such as Jet Li, Jackie Chan and John Woo making a mark,” he said. “I think it’s India’s turn; we certainly have enough talent!”

If anyone knows about making it in Hollywood, of course, it’s this Amritraj brother, who is surprised at his own longevity in the industry. “There are maybe just four others in all of Hollywood history who’ve done 100 films. And my movies have altogether grossed $1.5 billion,” he said with a smile. “So I really am quite proud.”

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Movie Review: Legend of the Guardians – The Owls of Ga’Hoole

‘Legend of the Guardians’ is animated by the same studio that did the delightful ‘Happy Feet’, and boy, have they done it again.

Visually, this film is just a wonderful treat. Owls are naturally appealing creatures, what with those big ol’ wise eyes and the soft feathers (think Hedwig in Harry Potter), and this movie capitalises on that charm. ‘Legend…’ is filled with lovely close-ups of the huge, golden eyes of the owlets (the little babies are especially adorable) and of softly rustling white and gold or rust-coloured feathers. This movie also makes optimal use of 3D technology, beautifully capturing the smooth, swooping flight of the birds, and literally taking us along for the ride as they fly through deep canyons and blinding storms.

Now for the bad news – the storyline. Well, it’s not bad, exactly; it’s just that we’ve seen this one so many times, and done far better as well (think Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Narnia, etc.). There’s the evil army, lead by the scarred villain (the Pure Ones and Metalbeak respectively), and its rather convoluted plan to rule owl-kind that never quite makes sense (it involves regurgitated owl pellets. Honest). There’s the avenging Guardians of Ga’Hoole, lead by the white-as-snow good guys (quite literally – the leaders are snowy owls). There’s the pure-hearted young ‘un (Soren the barn owl) who leads the way to victory along with his motley crew of friends. And of course, there’s the final battle of good vs. evil (no prizes for guessing who wins).

At one point, you feel like rolling your eyes at the inevitably of it all. But then the movie, based on the ‘Guardian of Ga’Hoole’ books by Kathryn Lasky, manages to suck you in anyway. The credit goes in large part to its darkly brooding atmosphere, especially in the first half, and its gorgeous sceneries, whether it’s the menacing, fog-ridden forest Soren and his brother are kidnapped in by the Pure Ones, or the magical, lantern-lit Great Tree of the Island of Ga’Hoole.

The colourful side characters do their bit in providing comic relief, such as Digger, the goofy burrowing owl (who supplies the requisite ‘hoo’ jokes), Twilight, the lute-playing, poetry-spouting great grey owl, and Ezylryb, the wise but eccentric fighter screech owl.
This may not be particularly original or ground-breaking storytelling, but it’s certainly an appealing bit of entertainment. Go see it for the owlets.

Genre: Fantasy / Adventure
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Hugo Weaving, Helen Mirren, Sam Neill, Jim Sturgess.
Storyline: Soren, a young Barn owl is kidnapped by an evil owl army and escapes to try and find the legendary Guardians of Ga’Hoole to save owl-kind.
Bottomline: So visually delightful that the been-there seen-that storyline doesn’t matter.

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Article: His Master’s Voice

The Hindu

The relationship between K. Balachander and Kamal Haasan defies categorisation. Director –actor, mentor – protégé, father – son… all those lines have been blurred in the 40 years that they’ve known each other, creating a bond that’s unique and unconditional.

So when the veteran filmmaker couldn’t make it to Trivandrum to speak at the felicitation function of his protégé due to ill health recently, he grew upset. But his lovingly crafted speech reached Kamal Haasan nonetheless, one more in the series of touchingly genuine letters Balachander has sent to the actor over the years.

“Here are his earlier letters to me, that I’ve framed,” says Kamal when we meet in his office, displaying the neatly preserved pieces of paper. “I call them ‘my degrees’.”

They span the four decades that the two have known each other, beginning with the first one sent in 1977 after Balachander saw 16 Vayathinile. “I receive them only when he thinks I deserve it – I have to work for them!” says Kamal with a smile.

This particular occasion was Kerala state government’s felicitation of Kamal Haasan for 50 remarkable years in cinema. In the letter, Balachander says, “From babyhood to childhood, from adolescence to youth, from manhood to middle age, I have been part of this magician’s life… Kamal has evolved into everything that I have dreamt he would be. Indeed, I should never be surprised by anything he achieves, yet I am constantly amazed.”

It is high praise, so much so that Kamal himself was quite overwhelmed. “I had to read it out to my sister, who was witness to my early dark days, when my mother was afraid would happen to me,” he says. “But I knew I couldn’t without choking up, so I asked Gautami to read it out for me.”

It is, he says, everything he always wanted to hear from Balachander, his guru, the man he thinks of as a father figure. “I use the word ‘guru’ for him in the mythological sense – all other educationists ask for payment for knowledge imparted; this gentleman paid me and taught me. What a journey it was for me, after I met him at the age of 17 and a half.”

In the letter, Balachander describes this journey as one of mutual learning. “I did not teach him everything he knows. He just absorbed everything I knew. The rest he discovered himself by asking, probing, begging, watching, observing, reading, demanding, investigating, improvising, experimenting, experiencing, learning and not being afraid of stretching himself beyond his own limits,” he writes. “I only gave him the platform and the opportunity to discover himself. In the process, I was blessed enough to discover myself.”

For all their mutual regard, however, Kamal describes their relationship as having remained respectfully formal. “I prepare even for a conversation with him – I never want to say too little or too much. And I never disturb him except when I feel I’ve done something worthwhile,” he says. “It’s a rare relationship – unconditional and professional.”

The depth of the relationship is evident in Balachander’s letter. “I have long since lost the taste, appetite and hunger for personal applause. All I wish for now is to hear the applause, the cheers, the trumpets and the music singing [praises of] Kamal Haasan’s genius,” he writes. “No one has staked his reputation, repertoire and resources for the cause of cinema as much as he has. It is not mere pursuit of fame and fortune. In fact, he has lost more than he has gained. It goes beyond that.”

As this special relationship turns 40 next year, it seems certain to continue to mature like fine wine. “To have won a place in his heart among all those he has mentored and created itself is a distinction,” says Kamal.

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Movie Review: Grown Ups

Here’s the thing about ‘Grown Ups.’ Yes, it’s poorly crafted — hardly any plot to speak of — and is quite silly and gross in parts (as expected, several done-to-death gags on various bodily functions, plus a running joke on breast-feeding). But it’s just so good-natured and its leads are just having so much fun together that it’s impossible to actively dislike it.

It’s really not worth going into the story (such as it is). Suffice to say that five friends reunite after 30 years at their high school basketball coach’s funeral and spend the weekend of July 4 at a lake house with their families. None of the rest matters. Because this flick is just about putting together the ex-Saturday Night Live gang of Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider and David Spade — with the addition of the loveably goofy Kevin James — and letting them have a ball.

The camaraderie between the guys is obvious. From the moment the five meet up on screen, they basically pick on each other mercilessly. The jokes are sometimes mean, sometimes lame, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and most often seem like they were ad-libbed on the spot or are in-jokes among the guys. You can just see they’re enjoying themselves, and that’s infectious.

It also has some genuinely hilarious bits — Rock as a tantrum-throwing house husband, and Schneider as a super-sensitive new age sop with a flapping toupee are just inspired choices. And like most Sandler comedies, the movie has at its core a sweet message. This time it’s about those good old-fashioned childhood pastimes — playing out there in the sun and splashing about in a lake — that are being forgotten in our world of video games and designer clothes for 12 year olds.

Amazingly, the ladies aren’t completely forgotten in this boys’ reunion — they do tend to take second place and disappear off screen for long bits, but we actually get to see them having fun together. Sandler’s super-successful fashion designer wife, played by Salma Hayek, is possibly the most real character in the movie. Hayek brings depth to her role (not to mention oomph); she almost seems too good to be part of this crew.

Of course, all the ‘issues’ in each family (never particularly well-explored except in Hayek and Sandler’s case) are simplistically resolved in a single scene. And then the movie limps to its good-natured end. But with its beautiful backdrop of Maine and its essential harmlessness, it’s hard to be mad at this breezy summer flick.

Genre: Comedy
Director: Dennis Dugan
Cast: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, David Spade and Salma Hayek.
Storyline: Five friends reunite for the 4th of July weekend after their high school coach passes away.
Bottomline: A feel-good flick that’s good for a few laughs.

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Enthiran music review

It’s finally here — the music of the much-awaited Rajinikanth-Aishwarya Rai starrer “Enthiran — The Robot”. Chennai may have lost out on hosting the formal music launch event (it was held in Malaysia), but the album has hit the stands in stores across the city, and it’s time to check out what the maestro A.R. Rahman has to offer the Superstar this time, after their super-successful last outing in “Sivaji — The Boss”.

The first track of the album, Pudhiya Manidha, truly sets the mood. A futuristic trance number, the song is all robotic voices and hypnotic rhythms, and captures your imagination right away. In typical Rahman style, it’s more than just another trance track — it also has a haunting, invocatory tone, both in the lyrics by Vairamuthu (the recurring refrain is “Pudhiya manidha boomiku vaa”) and in the music itself, which can be goose-bump inducing. A terrific opening for an otherworldly sci-fic epic’s soundtrack, for sure.

Kadhal Anukkal, the second number, is the perfect contrast to the first, and opens with a gorgeous guitar intro. A lilting romantic duet, sung with style by Vijay Prakash (and ably supported by the sweet-voiced Shreya Ghosal), this song comes as a breath of fresh air, infused as it is with pretty harmonies and dreamy musical interludes. In an album filled with thumping beats and futuristic robotic voices, it provides welcome respite (even if its lyrics are liberally sprinkled with words such as ‘neutron’ and ‘electron’ and ‘Newton’). An instantly appealing number, with Rahman at his melodic best.

And then, it’s back to future with Irumbile Oru Irudhaiyam (featuring Rahman and Kash n’ Krissy), a purely techno track with pounding breakbeats, a mix of English and Tamil lyrics, and more of the computerised voices and sound effects and such. It’s almost certain to become all the rage at clubs around the city, along with the next track, Chitti Dance Showcase, which, as the name suggests, is a hardcore dance number, with virtually no lyrics. Chitti…has such an eclectic mix of rhythms and styles that only Rahman could have carried it off — some hip-hop, some heavy metal guitar riffs, and even some symphony orchestra and konnakol mixed in for good measure, all set to frenetic beats. It’s a short piece, but boy, does it pack a punch.

There are some things you expect from every album of a Superstar movie, and one of them is His Song. You know, that wonderfully celebratory number to which Rajini will fill the screen in his inimitable style. For “Enthiran” , Arima Arima is that song. It has the triumphant trumpet calls and the majestic drums, the chorus singing praises; just a dramatic piece overall to which you can picture Rajini striding forward, jacket flying regally behind him.

Kilimanjaro, the penultimate number in the album, is quintessentially Rahman. A playful and quirky song with an infectious refrain and a thumping beat, it features some lively vocals by Javed Ali and Chinmayi. It has tribal-sounding interludes, but manages to be super-modern at the same time, and grows on you with every listen. Quite likely to become one of the immediately popular numbers from the album. The final number, Boom Boom Robo Da with a rap track by Yogi B, is one of the slightly more forgettable songs in the album, though has its moments too, with its multiple elements, including a softly Latin interlude, and a title refrain that’s likely to keep looping your head.

The album is classic Rajnikanth in parts, classic Rahman in others, with a heavy-duty dash of the futuristic thrown in.The emphasis on techno and dance might mean it isn’t to everyone‘s tastes, but overall, it’s unlikely to disappoint fans of either the Superstar or the Mozart of Madras.

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Article: Personal yet universal (screening of Kimberly Reed’s ‘Prodigal Sons’)

Carol McKerrow, Marc McKerrow and Kimberly Reed

It was an evening of sharing and cross-cultural exchange, an evening that showed just how universal the search for identity and acceptance is, whether it’s under the wide Montana sky or in the sultry streets of Chennai.

The event was the screening of ‘Prodigal Sons’, an acclaimed documentary by transgender filmmaker Kimberly Reed, at the U.S. Consulate auditorium as part of the city’s ongoing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride (LGBT) Pride Month celebrations.

Entirely autobiographical, the documentary is a startlingly honest telling of Reed’s own transition and the struggles of her adopted brother Marc, who suffered brain-damage in a severe automobile accident in his 20s. With gorgeous shots of ‘big sky country’ Montana as the backdrop, the story of their sibling rivalry, Marc’s search for his birth parents and the family’s difficulties in dealing with his degenerating mental state unfolds in a powerful, and at times disturbing, tableau.

What begins as a tale of Reed’s return to her hometown (where she was last known as Paul McKerrow, star quarterback of the high school football team) turns into something far more universal – a story of making peace with one’s past, and coming to terms with difficult family relationships.

“This is such a personal story, and it’s wonderfully rewarding to see it connect with people across the world,” said Reed during the video conference interaction with the audience that followed. “There are a lot of unusual things going on, but this is basically a film about love and family, and I hope that message made it across to India!”

Judging by the reception the filmmaker received – a big round of applause, cheers and waves from the packed audience comprised of members of Chennai’s own transgender community, social activists, etc. – it would appear that it did. Warm and immensely likeable, Reed spent the next half an hour answering questions from audience, helped along by coordinators Kalki, transgender activist, and Amy Hirsch of the U.S. Consulate.

The result was a discussion on everything from mental illness (“Sometimes I feel that is the real taboo subject in our society”) to Reed’s own transition (“One of the best things I did was not be afraid to take it slow… it’s more important to get your head right about it rather than get your body right”). In between, Kalki spoke of some of her experiences and those of the transgender community in Tamil Nadu, leading to sharing on the similar difficulties the communities in the U.S. and India face.

“The fight is still going on in the U.S. – poverty is a problem here as well,” Reed said. “About 50 per cent of transgender youth take their own life – it’s absolutely tragic and something needs to be done about that.”

If some of the questions veered more towards rambling commentary, that was a minor issue during an otherwise rewarding evening. It was apparent that ‘Prodigal Sons’ made a deep impression on much of the audience, and what made this event truly meaningful is that they were able to share that with its director –and its subject— living halfway across the world.


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Movie Recs: Angadi Theru

This is not a movie for the fainthearted. Angadi Theru is disturbing in parts, heartbreaking in others and  often deeply depressing. But it’s also genuinely funny, unexpectedly touching, and in the end, an ode to the resilience of human beings. That makes this more than just another despondent tough-luck movie, or another preachy testament to how crappy the world can be to the impoverished. That makes this an incredibly realistic, hard-hitting and ultimately, very powerful movie. As someone who has frequently thrown up her hands in despair over the current state of Tamil cinema, I have to applaud director Vasantha Balan for this effort.

Angadi Theru essentially tells the story of Jothilingam (new comer Mahesh… not bad, but not spectacular either), a young man who comes from a village in the Thirunelveli District. He’s come first in his school in 12th standard — he’s a bright boy and his father has big dreams of his son going to college and escaping the sort of life of drudgery he’s lead himself. But when the father dies in an awful road accident (one of the many times this movie will make the more sensitive in the audience flinch and want to cover their eyes), the young man has to give up plans of college and provide for his two young sisters and his mother instead. Enter the guys from Senthil Murugan Stores, who’re hiring young men and women to work for them in Chennai, and our hero and his tubby, goofy friend (who serves to provide wonderful — and much needed — comic relief) find themselves transported from their idyllic village to the chaotic mass of humanity that is Ranganathan Street, T.Nagar.

Now Senthil Murugan stores is quite obviously a thinly-veiled reference to Saravana Stores (right down to its ads featuring actress Sneha and its owner being mired in court cases and such). And what makes the following chunk of the film fascinating is that it gives you a behind-the-scenes look at the way such stores treat their employees. In a chilling scene, we’re shown how these men and women are chosen carefully based on how hard up they are for cash and how dependent their family is on them for income, and then we see through Jothilingam’s eyes the almost dehumanising conditions in which they have to live and eat in, and the sort of taskmasters they have to deal with on the shop floor.

At this stage, you’re totally prepared for the movie to become a horrific tale of cruelty and suffering, with some preaching thrown in about big, bad, mean businessmen and all of that. But Angadi… surprises you by introducing relationships and friendships and laughter instead, showing indirectly how Jothilingam and his friend learn to adjust, to settle into even so oppressive a life in the way only, perhaps, the young  can. Yes, there is the love angle (yeah, I rolled my eyes too) as our hero falls in love in Kani (played with pleasing simplicity by Anjali), a spirited young sales girl on the third floor (the much-coveted a/c floor). There’s the usual hate-at-first-sight turning to love theme, but the movie does a good job of crafting a convincing relationship thereafter. It begins as plain infatuation, but becomes something much deeper; there are no empty declarations or artificially constructed misunderstandings, just a genuine growth in regard and dependence on one another in a difficult and uncertain world.

The other thing this movie gets wonderfully right is capturing both the atmosphere and the spirit of Ranganathan Street, from its mega stores down to the guy who sells underwear on the sidewalk, and everything in between. This is done using sweeping shots of the sort of suffocating, wall-to-wall crowds one sees there and more importantly, through funny or touching little vignettes of the people eking out a living on the street day-in and day-out (like the guy who becomes downright wealthy by keeping a roadside toilet there clean!). We get to know the hawkers and beggars and streetwalkers who are an often invisible part of Ranganathan street’s bustling ecosystem, their everyday triumphs and tribulations, and glimpses of their back stories. And more than anything, is shows how their lives are often just a hairsbreadth away from tragedy, how when you live on the streets, you have virtually no buffer against disaster. No insurance, no safety nets.

What the movie gets wrong, perhaps, is its length — it tends to sag a bit towards the middle, and could have been tightened by reducing some of the time spent on side romances of Jothilingam and Kani’s coworkers and such. And there are times when it all gets almost too depressing. But just when you think the movie is going to crash land into a morass of melancholy and melodrama, it surprises you yet again by being amazingly real and showing remarkable spirit. That in the end, makes the ride down Angadi Theru seem worth every minute.


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