Will this “Kamal” bloom in TN?

In his films, Kamal Haasan is not usually satisfied with wearing one hat or donning just one role. While his peers in the Industry were happy with double roles or at best triple roles, Kamal, in one of his own production – Dasavathaaram as the title suggests, took up 10 roles. And roles as varied from an elderly widow to a Sardar to a CIA Agent to a Japanese Ninja and even George Bush! So donning many roles comes to him easily. In the big screen, that is. However, I don’t recall Kamal playing the role of a full-fledged politician in any of the films but for that short gimmicky role as George Bush and I may be wrong here!!! So, it came as a surprise when all of a sudden from the year 2017, Kamal started making political noises initially as feeble as tweets! Gradually the tweets got louder culminating with the announcement of the formation of his own party this week in Madurai.

Surprise stems from not just this. Kamal has had a long and worthy career in films not just as a fantastic actor but also as an accomplished film-maker in Tamil Nadu. Unlike many other stars and also rans in TN who invariably ended up in politics, Kamal stayed far away from it. He has been repeatedly saying that the only thing he knows in life is films and nothing else but films. He is quoted to have said often that he has been extremely fortunate in life for getting “Karumbu thinna kooli”, a euphemism for having been possible to pursue his passion as a paid profession! And he is also quoted as being unfit for life in politics full of machinations and hypocrisies. While he claimed to be socially aware, he was happy to serve people in his own way rather than wearing the garb of a Neta.

Actors who take up politics seriously, do it in their twilight of their career when the lights around them start fading away. Though Kamal’s last few films failed miserably at the box office, as an actor or a film-maker few would dare to write his obituary yet. He still displays the passion for making meaningful cinema and as we speak, has 2 if not 3 films on the floor vying for his attention.

The sudden turn in Kamal’s life led to the forming of Makkal Neethi Maiam (Centre for Justice for people) early this week. In the last few months of twists and turns in the politics of “Turmoil Nadu”, this is the latest. As a film-maker he is known to be indulgent. He has also been an avid risk taker in the choice of some of his scripts. At many points he has risked his wealth and probably his career by throwing his weight behind risky subjects – his Vishwaroopam project being a prime example. So, the question is – “Is Kamal once again indulging himself and taking his biggest risk yet by jumping into the murky world of politics?”

It would appear to seem so, if one looks at the odds ahead of Kamal. I believe that for Kamal, there are battles to be fought within, before looking at the battles outside. Kamal has had an Ultra clean image thus far in terms of probity in public life. He is not known for entering into shady deals for the purpose of commerce and has been an honest tax payer. But being honest is only a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition to succeed in politics.  Secondly, as a film star and a film maker he has not displayed enough permanence of purpose. In the sense, he is known to announce grand projects and junk them mid-way and move on.  Cutting losses as a strategy may work in films or business but certainly not in politics where one expects a deeper commitment to a cause. Whether Kamal will show enough resilience to stay put and continue to fight the political battle even if there are initial setbacks is a big question.

As a film-maker he has never hidden his left leanings and public posturing towards atheism. Left as a philosophy is in the ICU worldwide and India is not an exception. Unless his left leanings are more reformed and tuned to the times we are in today, he will find it difficult to move beyond surging crowds in his rallies. Similarly in TN, atheism has of late become a matter of daily WhatsApp humour, thanks to the famed Dravida parties and their leaders reaching out to Gods in private! So, for Kamal to make these personal beliefs cornerstone of ideology of his new party is fraught with imminent risk.

Coming to external battles, there are many and are similar to any new comer trying to make a mark in politics. it is clear that Kamal is trying to fill a gap which presented itself after the death of Jayalalitha and her legacy. If one looks at history, MGR was successful as he could seamlessly morph his fan base into his loyal political base. No other actor in TN so far could manage that feat. Whether even our Superstar Rajini will be able pull that off remains to be seen. In the case of Kamal, in his prime days as an actor he was not a fan of Fan Clubs himself. So, how he will organize and use his Fan Clubs to be part of his political story will determine if the climax will have a happy ending or not!

Kamal has a good marketing bent. That comes across very well the way he has been able to create big hype over some of his films which turned out to be lemons. Hyped up films ending up as duds is not limited to Kamal only.  Just that in the case of Kamal, all the marketing ideas are his and only his. His marketing acumen could be seen through in his party launch event as well. The crowds were impressive. The media attention he could garner was even more impressive. However, I am extremely skeptical if these will lead to more fingers at the EVMs in the next election.

In the event, Kamal was idealism personified. He had Arvind Kejriwal by his side. And Pinnarayi Vijayan by the video link. The irony of the old and new symbols of Communism in his new avatar couldn’t be missed. His party’s flag displayed six hands which apparently were referring to the six southern states including Pondicherry. That showed that Kamal’s political ambitions are not limited to just TN. However what intrigued me was if that is the case, will a Tamil name for the party make sense in Telangana or Karnataka?  He should very well remember that even his Tamil film Indiran Chandran became Indrudu Chandrudu in Telugu!

While it is no denying that Kamal is a well-read man and an idealist with good intentions, his sudden decision to jump into politics raises many questions. As I had mentioned in one of my earlier posts, is Kamal on the path towards achieving Self Actualisation as per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?  It seems Kamal said “Except for the two films which are coming out, there will be no more films for me,” in a recent interview. Well if that’s the case, it will be filmdom’s loss!  And nobody’s gain!

The original “Kamal” in politics of India namely the BJP though successful in other parts of the country is yet to bloom in TN.  Will this new Kamal bloom in Tamil Nadu? I have my own doubts. I have no doubts of Kamal stealing the show in Michael Madana Kama Rajan – II though!

Postscript:  Kamal got his 1st National award for Moondram Pirai, a film in which his co-star Sridevi was expected to walk away with the honours. However she didn’t, much to the disappointment, agony and sorrow of cinema followers in TN. Today, that sorrow pales in comparison to the news of Sridevi’s untimely, sudden and shocking death, 54 vayathinile!  Padma Sri Sridevi – RIP.

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Rajinikanth and creating his own playbook!

“Normal people go to a party on 31st Dec., but Rajinikanth forms his own party on 31st Dec.”! This joke got added to the myriad “legend of Rajinikanth” jokes that storm the internet in regular frequency usually before his film releases. His next film 2.0 is still few months away. But his career 2.0 finally got released.

What were hitherto just signals and hesitant testing of waters turned into a clearly stated commitment on the last day of 2017, when Rajinikanth announced his intent to enter electoral politics in Tamil Nadu. The journey from being a matinee idol, Superstar Rajinikanth to the Thalaivar Rajinikanth has begun in right earnest. It’s clear that Rajini now sees an opening in TN to make an impact amidst the current political vacuüm that has engulfed TN since the demise of Jayalalitha and the virtual retirement of Karunanidhi. And for common people, of what has now become a rudderless Turmoil Nadu, Rajinikanth is their beacon of hope.

Why did Rajini decide to take the plunge now?  If you map Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into Rajini’s life, he is probably past the first 4 needs (Physiological, Safety, Love & Belonging and Esteem) and now he is seeking “Self Actualisation”. Nothing else explains his craving today to jump into politics having been so successful in his film career. The point to note is, if he lived in a state like Maharashtra, probably he would have just walked into the sunset like a Dilip Kumar. But TN has a strong precedent of popular actors trying their luck with politics (with mixed success though) and hence has shown politics to be the path to Self Actualisation for any mega successful actor.  Explains Kamal’s recent fishing in political waters as well.

If you just go by history just in TN, you have examples of stars who succeeded big time in politics and who failed miserably. MGR, Jayalalitha count in the 1st category while Shivaji Ganesan, Vijayakanth and a host of others fall in the 2nd. These tried to emulate the MGR playbook which didn’t work. In another era and environment, to succeed, Rajini needs to create his own playbook today. For which, he needs to know not just his strengths and weaknesses but also limitations of his strengths. Just like how he knew these and managed well in his film career all these years.

Having been an extremely successful actor and elevated to being a legend in the last 20 years, his popularity, charisma and top of the mind recall among the masses in TN are unparalleled. So he starts with this huge advantage of connecting with the youth, women and the underprivileged instantly.

Rajini has thus far a super clean image. He is not known to have cheated people or swindled others’ money. Stories of him returning money to distributors when his films like Baba and Lingaa flopped have only helped cultivate the image of him as a person with high moral values.

Rajini’s other important and I would say deliberate approach has been to stay away from controversies. Being just an actor so far he has not felt the need to give his opinion about all matters under the sun. Also he never threw his weight around in matters which are unconnected with films and thereby managed to remain unattached. This has earned him more sympathisers than adversaries!

But succeeding in politics and becoming a ruler of a state needs more than just a charismatic leader. You need a grass root organization with credible leaders who will be connecting and engaging with people on a day-to-day basis. Here’s where I would like to bring in Rajini and a seemingly far fetched BSNL analogy.

In India, when BSNL got the license in the 2nd round for offering mobile phone services, it started off with a distinct disadvantage. That of, competing with established private players who had a head start in the market. However compared to the other private players like Airtel, Tatas who also got into the market late, BSNL had one great advantage.  The private players had to put up a cellular tower network in their respective regions from scratch, right from identifying location, incurring high capex in real estate, setting up towers,…  BSNL however, already had their established base of offices for landline phones in the nook and corner of the country. So BSNL had to just put up cell phone towers in their own office buildings and do the roll out. This explains the fact that even today when you travel to remote rural areas, Airtel/Vodafone,.. fail miserably while BSNL provides great connectivity. I notice this every time I travel to my native place in Kerala!

Akin to BSNL’s offices in the nook and corner of the country, Rajini, though new to politics, has his established organizational network of Fan clubs in the entire TN. This network needs to be activated to become what we call in Marketing as “Touch points” for people. And from the announcement speech, it appears that this is what is Rajini’s first task going to be! I.e. of organizing the fan clubs into political shaakas!

Tapping into the BSNL analogy again, in spite of having such an advantage in terms of an established infrastructure, BSNL did not manage to set the cellular phone market on fire. While in rural areas, BSNL could hold fort thanks to the superior coverage, in urban India it couldn’t match the nimble footedness of private players. The “sarkari” image and the sloth experience customers got to experience in BSNL’s touch points in urban centres didn’t at all help in getting users to try BSNL. As Rajini tries to activate the fan clubs across TN, it is important for him to give a different flavor for these fan clubs in rural and Urban TN to appeal to the different sensibilities.

This is where it is important for Rajini to have the right set of advisors around him. Those who will be able to translate his intent into set of initiatives that will impact the people. Here, he can go back to his model what he has been adopting in his film career. As far as his films go, Rajini had a very clear but simple approach. That is of selecting the right script and choosing his directors very carefully. Apart from bringing his personal heft behind the project and picking the director, he didn’t do much in terms of influencing the script or choosing his technicians and the cast,…,… beyond a point. Here he is very different from Kamal Haasan or even other top Tamil stars like Vijay. Surya, Ajit,… who I understand involve themselves in the film beyond just being the hero. Similarly, with a right team in place and a winning script in the form of a vision for the state of TN, Rajini should let the team carefully craft the roll out of the policy, programs and promises.  Having a right team is also critical as, in the world of competitive politics, Rajini, (an ageing star turned politician at 68 with health concerns) has to be “seen” on top of issues 24*7. This can only happen if he has a good team to lean on. The current set of ‘Fan club” leaders may not fit the bill entirely.

In marketing, Brand positioning is considered to be the most crucial element in the whole mix. How one positions the brand in the minds of the consumer differently with respect to competition defines the way the brand is remembered and adopted. And here I feel, Rajini has thoughtfully come up with a unique positioning i.e of “Aanmeega Arasiyal” (Spiritual politics). While we have heard of Secular politics and Developmental politics and politics of all hue, this is unique. In TN, Dravida parties and their variants for decades have professed Atheism, Care for the oppressed and all such lofty ideals but have practiced exactly the opposite. I feel that this positioning will resonate well with the urban middle class segment which has been enduring the hypocrisy of the Dravida parties for quite some time.  Having cracked the positioning bit, it’s important to live it up and be consistent around this positioning as time goes by.

If one would have noticed, since the 31st Dec, when he made the announcement to join electoral politics, Rajini has managed to remain in the news. Instead of doing everything on one particular day and keeping quiet subsequently (a la Kamal), Rajini has been carrying out his activities in tranches. Thereby remaining on top of the news clutter. A smart approach so far.

Rajini has thus far created his own playbook and has played his cards well. But politics is a long game. It will be interesting to watch his next moves and the outcomes. Whether this playbook helps him to succeed, only time will tell.

Usually when so called “Good people” join politics with a promise to bring a change, they end up changing themselves. But here, “Politics has joined Rajinikanth”. Hopefully politics gets a makeover. Or so many pray!

Pic courtesy: AFP

Mersal, Mitron and the New India paradox!

For those outside of South India, a week ago, the word Mersal would have called for a detailed introduction. Today it doesn’t. The leaders of BJP in Tamil Nadu with their outbursts against Mersal, have ensured that the film became a National hashtag! I watched Mersal and frankly my take was that it was a regular masala pot boiler meant strictly for the actor Vijay’s fans.  Towards the end, Vijay gets into a monologue against the corrupt medical system in the country looking into the camera lens.  In between, he also trashes the recently introduced GST with what are clearly illogical and false arguments. Somewhere in the beginning of the film there is an innocuous line taking a dig at Demonetisation as well!

In Mumbai where I watched the film, there was no applause or whistle for the GST lines. Probably there were, in other parts of the country particularly Tamil Nadu. Enough for the TN wing of BJP to take offence and call for muting of these lines in the film. Some other leaders of BJP went further.  They dragged the religion to which the actor Vijay belonged – apparently Christianity and pointed out that, it was the reason there was another line in the film where his character says it is better to build a hospital than a temple in the village!

Inane arguments and counter arguments occupied national prime time in the week following Diwali and at the end Mersal, which would have been anyway a super hit became a super-duper hit. I’m certain that remaking rights in other languages will go at a fancy premium now. One can only get Mersalled (meaning “Amazed” in colloquial Tamil) looking at these developments!  The particular clip with the GST lines went viral that too with English Subtitles and what was just meant for Tamil Nadu is now being consumed by people all over!

The same last week we saw another “Mersalling” development. A short clip of a mimicry artiste by name Shyam Rangeela went viral on WhatsApp. In that clip, you can see Shyam doing an immaculately close mimic of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This act was originally part of a Star TV show – The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. But after the clip attained gigantic viral velocity, the producers decided to edit off this portion. I watched the clip and was “Mersalled” by the talent of this guy. His act of Modi was spot on, with liberal throw ins of Mitron and Bhaiyon Aur Behenon,..  just like how Modi does in his speeches.  After this development, I am sure his phone must be ringing endlessly and he has already become a mini celebrity in the highly competitive 24*7 sound bite seeking world!

Those who are tuned to the FM Station Radio Mirchi would be familiar with their very popular satire show “Mirchi Mitron”. In this satirical program again, there was a voice which could be identified with Modi having conversations on current topics with different people. Though this was popular, in a surprising move, this section went off air since early this year.

In all this, there is a clear pattern. Political satire in India is on a ventilator where pulling the plug comes easily. It looks like it’s no longer cool to take pot shots at the ruling party or its leaders. Either the party will take strong exception and flex its majoritarian muscle to come down heavily on the perpetrators of these satire (the Telugu version of the film Mersal is still languishing at the censor table) or eerily the creators develop a sense of self-censorship and exercise restraint (Like in the case of Star TV and Radio Mirchi). In any case, these don’t augur well for a New India!  Has New India’s leadership lost its sense of humour? Is political satire so damaging??

In the “Old India”, political satire was thriving and flourished peacefully. In Tamil Nadu, where BJP made a ruckus about few lines against the Government, one gentle man by the name of Cho Ramaswamy used to shred parties and their leaders with his sharp wit, that too for 60 years till his last breath last year. Being a man of multiple talents, he used multiple platforms – from Theatre to films to Magazines to TV to take his political satire to people. In his heyday, he didn’t spare any of the ruling party or its leaders. And naturally Indira Gandhi and her Congress party for most of his life were at the receiving end of his relentless jibes. Never to make a personal attack on his adversaries, Cho used wit, sarcasm and comedy to drive home the point. Later on, he trained his guns on the Dravida parties. The magazine Tughlaq was popular when he edited the same. His TV shows gained high TRPs among middle class Tamils. His plays were usually sold out. And the irony starts here. In spite of Cho’s continuous attack, Tamil Nadu was among the handful states in the country that withstood the Anti-Indira wave in the aftermath of the Emergency in the 1977 Loksabha elections. So, the people of Tamil Nadu enjoyed Cho’s satire but made smart, practical choices while voting in the elections! They used to vote for Congress at the centre and one of the Dravida parties at the state!  My point is that people by and large don’t take these political satire seriously. They do enjoy the same but make their own smart choices.

We keep hearing that the New India is about being confident, looking ahead and keeping insecurities aside.  But, it looks like the leaders in BJP do not think so. While I am not sure if the Prime Minister is himself against satire trained against him or his party, it is clear that in his party there are those who send clear signals to that effect. And that doesn’t augur well for the New India which the PM is persistently pitching for! So why not he openly invite Shyam Rangeela to perform the Mitron,… act in front of him in a public meeting in his next Man Ki Baat address???  That could be his best tribute to Cho, undisputedly one of India’s best political satirists whom Modi himself considered as one of his mentors and well-wishers!

Postscript: This is now part of folk lore. R.K Laxman had just caricatured Jawaharlal Nehru after the 1962 war against China in his own inimitable style. Did the TOI editor get a call from the PMO to demand an apology the next day? Well, Laxman got a call from Nehru himself the next day where he told him, “Mr. Laxman, I so enjoyed your cartoon this morning. Can I have a signed enlarged copy to frame?”

The Making of Superstar’s 2.0!

Superstar Rajinikanth’s next film 2.0 is in the making. In fact it’s been in the works for a while. I heard that the shooting is over and post production is going on now. For a perfectionist filmmaker like Shankar, the bench mark is no more his own films like Enthiran/Robot but the recent magnum opus –Rajamouli’s Bahubali franchise.  Not just for its box office earnings but also for its making. Hence, not surprising that 2.0’s release got pushed to 2018. However what’s been making the news of late is not the film 2.0 but the “making” of Superstar’s career 2.0. That of his entry into the political theatre. While it is easy to speculate about his film 2.0’s success (considering the pedigree of the team and its prequel), predicting the success of Rajini’s career 2.0 is quite complex.

Before making an attempt to do that let’s step back and look at Rajini’s film career. As an actor he has been destiny’s own child. There is no doubt that he is one of the most successful actors ever to appear on Indian cinema screens. Rajini today has transcended the boundaries of Tamil cinema and is now an acclaimed National star. However, in his own admission he doesn’t check most of the boxes for an actor. He is not among the good-looking actors India has produced.  He never boasted of a sculpted body or “packs”! Rajini is not an accomplished dancer either. He makes some body movements which become dance steps. He doesn’t transform himself for a role à la Kamal Haasan or Aamir Khan. His make-up artists, costume designers and SFX team do that for Rajini. He is not a method actor like a Shivaji Ganesan too.

He does check a few other boxes, though. He has a screen presence which very few other actors can match. He shows tremendous energy on-screen. This over a period of time became part of his trade mark “Rajini Style”. He has a powerful screen voice and a way of dialogue delivery. Above all the one thing which stands apart is that he knows what he is good at.  He has constantly tried to play to his strengths and thereby gallery. He is extremely smart and I must say shrewd in picking up his scripts.  Particularly since the 90’s when he became the Superstar Rajinikanth we know of and big bucks started riding on him. He works hard the most on choosing the script, the director and his movie title in that order. If this meant shunning risks which came in the form of unconventional story lines or off beat roles, so be it.  If this meant rehashing the same template of “Riches to Rags to Riches” (R2R2R) so be it too.

Why am I laboring so much about Rajinikanth’s 1.0 (films) when actually this post is supposed to be on Rajinikanth’s 2.0 (politics)? In the past his entry into politics was more like ‘puli varuthu, puli varuthu’ story and was of 2 types. One, where he took a firm stand against a party during elections but soon withdrew into a shell. Second where he sent cryptic messages of his political leanings and his imminent entry through punch dialogues and song lyrics in his films. But these were more like gimmicks smeared in his movies by the dialogue writers. Lyricists and directors and seldom were his own design.  But this time around, there seems to be some firmness in purpose. So why exactly is he wanting to enter politics now???

From Rajinikanth’s point of view, may be now ‘Aandavan Sonnan’ (God commanded). Or he feels purely from an opportunity angle this is the perfect time for entry into politics. If there is a time where people can be provoked to try someone new it is this.  So probably his loyalists are pushing him to take the plunge now.

On the flip side, it is no longer a cakewalk for film stars in politics. Even in TN, from Vijayakanth to Sharat Kumar to Vadivelu it has been a rough ride. In the neighbouring states of Andhra and Kerala the likes of Chiranjeevi and Suresh Gopi – stars in their own right, have had mixed success. The youth of today are not so enamoured by a film star and don’t believe that a film star can change their lives. And certainly entering into politics and succeeding is not as easy as what Rajini’s character accomplished in the film Arunachalam!

In politics Rajini has only more to lose than gain. That’s why it will be good for him to take lessons from his filmi career and stay away from politics. Lessons like playing only to his strengths, not getting into experimentation and shunning risks of any kind.  And play again and again his own punch dialogues which will give him all the wisdom required. The likes of:

En vazhi, thani vazhi (My way is my own)

Kashtapadaama edhuvum kidaikaadhu. Kashtapadaama kedachathu ennikum nilaikaadhu. (You’ll gain nothing without hard work. And if you do, it won’t last for long)

For Rajini, there are always so many other ways of giving it back to the society if he wishes so. He can dip into his own movies if he needs ideas on that.  In his films he has often defied gravity. In his career 2.0 it will be difficult to do that.  Ask Amitabh Bachchan.  Amitabh 3.0 has been a revelation.

Postscript: While on Rajini, the other pillar of Tamil Cinema Kamal Haasan has also been in the news of late fueling speculation of his entry into politics. To me Kamal is a consummate marketer as much as an actor. He is doing his best to drive TRPs for his TV Show, guys. Period.

25 years since the “Roja” blossomed!!!

It was in the year 1992, exactly 25 years ago. I was in Cochin learning the ropes in my 1st job. Weekends were usually time for catching up on films of all hue. And that particular weekend was reserved for what eventually turned out to be a landmark film in Indian cinema in many ways than one. The film Roja was helmed by Maniratnam who had by then become a sort of a cult in Tamil cinema with back to back hits. The film had many firsts to its credit. For the 1st time, a Mani’s film was not about a Robin hoodish character (like in Pagal Nilavu, Nayagan, and Thalapathi) or not of relationships in uber cool urban setting (like in Mouna Ragam, Agni Natchatiram, Idayathai Thirudathey, and Anjali).  In this he explored a new template that of setting up a relationship story with a conflict as backdrop and one that he would often deploy in his career later with mixed success (Bombay, Iruvar, Dil Se, Kannathil Muthamittal,…).  And more importantly for the 1st time a Maniratnam film did not have Ilayaraja as the music director. One with whom he had partnered since his 1st film and delivered some eternal music. Instead he introduced a rookie, young talent to the world called A.R. Rahman who was till then doing jingles for ads. Leo coffee apart from providing the caffeine quotient to South Indians also has the distinction of providing 2 heartthrobs to Indian Cinema – Rahman and Arvind Swamy!!!

Leaving the theatre after the film Roja, I was disappointed with the film. I thought that the film was good but not great. And Mani whose films are deeply rooted in realism, in this had an overdose of melodrama particularly in the end. But then in the theatre at the climax when Arvind Swamy is let off by his captors and gets to unite with his wife, there was a standing ovation. So I guess it all worked for Mani and the film.

So is this post a review of the film Roja 25 years late as the title may suggest? I guess not. But of the genius called Rahman which the film bequeathed to us. Being an ardent and unapologetic fan of Ilayaraja, I guess the first reason for not liking the film Roja was probably that Raja was not doing the music. But in the film as the 1st song – Chinna China Aasai, played out, the music and the visuals were just breathtaking. It was clear that we were entering into a new era of sounds in Tamil music.  SPB, Chithra and other many new comers who were singing in the film were all sounding differently. The songs started growing on you and so did the film. By the time, the Hindi version of Roja got released and became a “super-dubber” hit, Mani was excused and I came out of denial to accept that he has indeed made another great film!

Post Roja, Rahman continued to belt hit songs one after another and he was soon becoming a rage. Whether it was feet tapping numbers like Chikku bukku rayile, Petta Rap,.. or melodies like Narumugaiye, Ennavale,.. or folk numbers like Poraale Ponnu thayee soon Rahman’s music was all over the place.  And in South India where the benchmark for a musician is always how “sound” his/her basics are in classical music (read as Carnatic), Rahman’s deployment of Carnatic ragas in some of his compositions was deft and subtle.  In the song Kanna Moochi yenada for the film Kandukonden, Kandukonden, Rahman’s blending of ragas Natta Kurinji and Sahana is exceptional. Also in the song Narumugaiye in Iruvar the classical Nattai raga gets a Rahman touch. And in the song – Vidukathaiyaa intha Vaazhkai from the film Muthu, a situation (watch here) which is melancholic Rahman aptly uses Ahir Bhairavi – a raga suited to convey such emotions (Remember Viswanathan-Ramamurthy’s Ullathil Nalla Ullam,… in Karnan??). Enough to get into the good books of even the purists of Mylapore, I say!!  While doing all this, he was also in the forefront of turning “Super-Singers” to Stars and breaking the hegemony of established stalwarts. Soon capping new comers would become a mandatory trait for all music composers!

But still for the ears – which were so used to the melody and rhythm of Ilayaraja for probably 20 years since childhood, the new sounds of Rahman were still offbeat.  It was only much later that we came to know that in the film Punnagai Mannan which was touted to be the 1st to use computerized music, while Ilayaraja wrote the score, it was a young kid in his late teens named A. R. Rahman who actually handled the music sequencer for the theme music (listen here).

The fact was, in the initial period Rahman’s songs were sounding similar to his own earlier compositions and ended up being predictable. So, for many of us Raja fans, it was either Raja or Rahman and cannot be both.

By 2000 I had moved back to Mumbai and with that got to follow more Hindi music. Soon after, in 2001, the epic Hindi film – Lagaan had released. And Lagaan had Rahman as the music composer.  Apart from the various facets of the film which makes Lagaan a milestone film – the music score of Rahman was out of the world. Just in the first few minutes into the film as the song Ghanan Ghanan Ghanan starts playing out, one could make out that this was a hitherto not seen/heard Rahman. From then on, I became an unapologetic fan of Rahman. It was no longer Raja or Rahman but Raja and Rahman.

With his success in films like Roja, Dil Se, Lagaan Rahman became the 1st music composer from the South to leave an imprint in Bollywood. Directors from Bollywood didn’t mind making the trips to Chennai and burn the midnight oil (almost all his recording happens in the night – we are told) to get their music score done by Rahman.  And Rahman who keeps saying that he wants to continuously keep stretching his own limits –often walked this talk. His later movies particularly in Hindi like Jodha Akbar, Dilli 16, Rockstar,… explored new aspects of Sufi music till then not touched by earlier composers and brought Sufi music to the centre stage of Bollywood. And again for a person from the South of the Vindhyas to compose some wonderful Punjabi folk numbers in films like Rang De Basanti, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Rockstar,,.. is something extraordinary.  Just as we keep thinking that Rahman is past his prime he surprises us with some outstanding music. In the film Tamashaa for example. Or even in the otherwise forgettable film Kochadaiyaan (the shifting of Octave as the song progresses in Meduvaagathaan,… – is nuanced music at its best)

Talking of Rahman and not mentioning of his Oscar would seem to be unjust. But then personally for me, The Slumdog Millionaire (TSM) was not Rahman’s best effort. Yes, it got him the Oscar and we should be proud of that. But beyond that, I think his own work in some of the Indian films far outweigh TSM or his other Hollywood efforts.

Comparisons of the music of Raja and Rahman are odious and unfair but unavoidable. To me Raja is an outstanding music composer. And Rahman an outstanding music Engineer. A true Engineer lives and dies by “Efficiency” as defined as “Output/Input” in his/her work.  So Rahman uses voices, scores, instruments, sounds and technology (Inputs) to optimize the eventual music output. Ilayaraja is a composer first who depends on the tune/score largely and then the right arrangement and less of technology. His music horse sense is what he brings to the table than the machines. Hence he is unparalleled in terms of understanding the musical needs of a situation. That’s why Raja’s songs always lift the situations in the films and he is way ahead of the rest as for as background score is concerned.  This debate can go on and on.

For a Raja-Rahman fan like me, what about a film that too by Maniratnam with music by Ilayaraja and Rahman – where Raja composes the tunes for the songs, writes the background score while Rahman does the arrangement, records the music, mixes it and we get to hear the magic!!! Well wouldn’t that be a great way to celebrate 40 years of (Anna) Kili’s chirping and 25 years of the Roja blossoming???

Intha Raja Kaiya Vecha,…,…!

Today was just another Sunday morning. As I turned on the ignition of my car for a Sunday morning drive, Ilayaraja’s (Raja) hits started playing. On top of the playlist was Raja Kaiya Vecha,…,… from the hit film Apoorva Sagotharargal.  There are 2 versions of this song – one sung by Kamal Haasan himself which eventually featured in the film and the other sung by S.P. Balasubramanyam (SPB) which just got retained in the music album. Its’ very rare that a song sung by SPB and composed by Raja gets consigned to just the album. As I was enjoying the interlude in that song which has some awesome feet tapping music, the CD started playing truant and was jumping few tracks and eventually it stopped. My Sunday morning tryst with Raja-SPB duo got aborted midway. At that point in time, I had no premonition of what was to follow later.

Reaching home, soon I could see SPB’s Facebook post going viral where he claimed that he has been served legal notice by Raja’s attorney for singing Raja’s compositions without prior permission in his recent World tour stage shows. And that in the rest of the shows, he may not be singing Raja’s songs. Difficult to believe, the first reaction was of course “Why would Raja take such an extreme step against SPB who was a close friend, associate and a fellow traveller in his music journey?” In a spat involving these 2 namely Raja and SPB for people like me who have grown up with the music of the 70’s and 80’s it is difficult to take a stand. On the one hand you have Raja, a genius and whose music transcends all superlatives. And on the other hand you have a singer who even today can give an Arijit Singh a run for his money with his mellifluous voice and versatile singing. While a lean and fit Raja is known to have a bloated ego, the physically fuller SPB comes across as a man of humility and feather lite ego. Even in this FB post he didn’t have one word of disrespect for Raja and admitted his own ignorance of legalities. He won the hearts and the sympathies of the fandom.

To be fair, it was important to hear out Raja’s side before getting judgemental on his action. And soon in the course of the day we did get to see the same through Raja’s legal consultant who was probably behind shooting this legal notice. As expected he talked of violation of IP rights, royalty payments,…,… The issue of copyrights and Intellectual property rights (IP) on music compositions have of late become a bone of contention between music composers, Lyricists and film producers. The fact of the matter is till about the first decade of this millennium, lyricist and music composers were blissfully unaware of their Intellectual copy rights with a result they were never paid royalty by producers for their creations. Only recently, with the exposure to Hollywood,.. the composers and lyricists became aware of their IP rights. A.R. Rahman now owns the IP for all the music he creates.

Looking up on the issue of Indian Copyright Act, I understood that in 2012 the amendments made to the act set right the historical anomaly of being not beneficial to the creators. Famed Hindi lyricist Javed Akhtar was instrumental in getting the amendments passed. Historically, Indian film producers just paid a one-time fee to song writers, composers and singers. And denied them revenues from other sources like cover versions, ringtones, digital downloads,.. which have become increasingly lucrative.

The amended bill now makes song writers and composers as owners of the copyright which cannot be assigned to the producers as per earlier version. More importantly, as a recurring source of revenue, it is now mandatory for broadcasters – Radio, TV and Digital to pay a royalty to the copyright owners each time the song is played.

It seems that it is now part of the standard operating procedure for singers to take formal permission from the music composers before performing their songs on stage. And as part of this process, the acceptance to pay the applicable royalty. So it comes as a surprise that event producers of SPB’s recent concerts missed this point of not informing or taking Raja’s permission for singing his songs. So from a purely legal standpoint, it is clear that Raja has not hit a wrong note on this matter. But then SPB is not just another singer. He has been a constant companion to Raja all through, with the duo churning out some thousands of hits. It is today hypothetical to argue if the duo’s songs were hits because of Raja’s music or SPB’s singing.  For a fan the Raja-SPB combination was magical and together they have given some evergreen, everlasting music which will continue to live forever in his/her heart.

From Raja’s side could it have been handled differently? Certainly one would feel so. Instead of a legal notice, a friendly call to remind the SPB camp of the IP issue would probably have settled the issue under wraps. Unless otherwise we are not privy to some larger conflict of interests between the two themselves or their minders. In which case after Vairamuthu and Bharathiraja SPB could be the latest to land on the other side of Raja’s symphony.

‘Intha Raja Kaiya Vecha,…. Wronga ponathilla,.. ‘goes the song.  The genius lyricist Vaali wrote this line probably keeping Ilayaraja in mind on his music. But on this issue, it appears Raja has hit a wrong note! He probably should lay his hand on the phone to call SPB and undo this wrong bit, unless Raja chose to use syncopation!!!

Being an ardent of fan of both Raja and SPB, to me what has happened is sad and disappointing. In terms of taking sides on this spat, the head wants to go with Raja and the heart with SPB. But then the ears are always with the duo!!!  Let the Andhi Mazhai continue to pour!!!

Untying the Jallikattu Ban!

First things first. I have not seen Jallikattu live in my life. My 1st exposure to this was in a Tamil film – Veerapandiya Kattabomman, a period film set in the British era. Known more for the histrionics of the Tamil Actor Shivaji Ganesan, the film has a memorable Jallikattu sequence. Gemini Ganesan, another popular actor of that time, who plays the part of Vellaya Thevan tames a supposedly very arrogant bull owned by a girl (part played by Padmini) after many others fail that too for many years. Going by that Jallikattu scene where it’s all fun and gaiety one would wonder what the fuss is all about! Gemini in fact gets to marry Padmini as a reward for the taming her bull.  These days though, there has not been a continuation of this aspect of culture and the rewards stop at cash offerings. Though there are other films with Jallikattu scenes, I would say that a very authentic portrayal of Jallikattu (watch here) was in Kamal Haasan’s film Virumaandi. Kamal who also scripted and directed the film used the setting in general and Jallikattu in particular as a metaphor to show the conflict ridden fault lines in that part of Tamil Nadu. Hence I was a bit surprised when he made a very flippant comment on the ongoing Jallikattu controversy last week. “Ban Biriyani if you want to ban Jallikattu”, he said. We are more used to hearing politicians make such frivolous statements but this coming from a man of intellect like Kamal was disappointing. I expected a more robust argument in favour of Jallikattu from him.

jallikattu_afp

The Supreme Court in its wisdom has banned Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu as it felt that the bulls are subjected to unnecessary pain and torture and hence against the law. So in the past 3 years, during this Pongal time when usually Jallikattu events used to take place, there is furore over the ban. Just for few days. This year has been no exception. Probably the noise has been louder. The ban on Jallikattu has created many more divides in our already diverse country. Tamil Vs Non Tamils, South Vs North, Animal Lovers vs Others, Human Rights activists Vs others and so on.

It has now boiled down to a “Culture Vs Torture” debate.  It is clearly documented that the bulls (may not be in all Jallikattu centres but predominantly) are subjected to all kinds of preparation (peppering the bull’s nostrils with chilly powder, squeezing lemon on their eyes, feeding them with alcohol,…) to get them lose their orientation before they are let out into the ring. From some of the visuals it is clear that it is an unfair “One bull Vs Many men” equation where the bull is subjected to all kinds of torture in the name of sport. I am not talking about the deaths/permanent injuries that happen to men who take part here as they participate fully aware of the dangers for their few minutes of fame and rewards. The moot question is why on earth would in a 21st century civilised society would we like to enjoy and have sadistic fun at the expense of a hapless animal?

The first answer from the “for Jallikattu” brigade is – “Jallikattu is part of our culture and tradition. It is ingrained in the psyche of Tamils for so many years. Animal rights or law cannot come in the midst of culture”. There cannot be another argument which is more specious than this.  First, in our own country we ourselves have disowned some aspects of culture and tradition which we felt are not correct and rightfully so. Second, our fall back on culture and tradition is more often than not “convenience” based and not stuck in a dogma. If tomorrow an educational institution bans “Jeans” for men – saying it’s against our Indian ethos, we will be the first to voice our opinion against such frivolous obsession with culture.  I am not for a moment saying that there is no place for culture and tradition in our lives. In dipping into culture we have to make our choices based on what is good and relevant in today’s times. Which also makes it necessary to make this cultural orientation a bit more dynamic and not written on stone.

The second argument is that “Jallikattu is also called ‘Eru Thazhuvuthal’ (Embracing the bull). Hence in a Jalli Kattu event there is no torture,.. but only an attempt to embrace the bull”. Well, if what happens to a bull in a real Jallikattu is actually called “Embracing”, then I can also say that Idli is a Gujju snack!!! In reality, it is more of “Manju Virattal” (Bull chasing) a name by which Jallikattu is also known where many men chase a rampaging bull to tame it.

The third aspect which is put forward when we talk of the ban on Jallikattu is “What about the other cruelty which happens to animals say during animal sacrifice,…??? What about Spain? What about that?” In India we now suffer severely from what I call as “Whatabouttery”! An incorrect practice being followed elsewhere or in another situation is no justification to continue with one incorrect practice. We have to wriggle out of this “Whatabouttery” and look at issues in isolation, the merits and demerits of the specific case to come to a conclusion rather than referring to other dubious practices. While on this, I must add that if there are other customs/practices which indeed are cruel to human beings and or animals I detest them as well.

The next point being made by the “For Jallikattu” group is that the Supreme Court with judges sitting in Delhi are in no position to judge on  Jallikattu – a sport which has been played during Pongal for eons in Tamil Nadu. In another words who are these high and mighty blokes sitting in Delhi and deciding on what I should do or not do in Tamil Nadu? Well, if we stretch this argument further we will come to a situation where for example to deliver a judgement on Cauvery water dispute, the judges should be from the Cauvery Delta region so that they have a “feeling” of the issue. This doesn’t fly. And I don’t think we can have one Supreme Court per every state!

It is not surprising that all the avatars of the Dravida Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu have ganged up against the Supreme Court verdict. As we speak, the state of Tamil Nadu is facing a severe drought like situation.  How would it be if all these parties come together to appeal in one voice to the Centre for assistance to get over this drought situation.  Will it not display more empathy to the farmers whose cause they claim to espouse by fighting for Jalli Kattu? Priorities anyone?

In Tamil Nadu where Politics and Films are Siamese twins, it didn’t take long for the film fraternity to throw their might behind this cause. I am not sure how many of the stars would send their sons into a Jallikattu ring every year so that their cultural connect is intact.

In general, I am not for banning this and banning that. If Jallikattu is indeed a sport which doesn’t entail cruelty or torture to the bull then we should very well continue the tradition. But that is a big IF.  The best option could be for the torch bearers of Jallikattu to come up with a set of Do’s and Don’ts which they will follow in the real spirit of the sport. That which will not cause any harm to the animal or the humans involved. The Govt. could then amend the law where necessary to allow the sport under such acceptable guidelines.  Jallikattu in its present form needs a reform.

Till then, there are other bulls to worry about. Let us (we men) tame the bull within us. It’s been having a free run of late. And let the “Bull Run” at the Stock Markets return!