Book store wins Tony award

 Book store wins Tony award

One of the bookshops I covered in a story for JetWings International magazine this past April has won a Tony award.  (You can read the whole story about independent book stores in NYC here.  Just type in ” 29 ” in the white Page box at the top of the screen, hit Enter and it will take you directly to the article.)

 Book store wins Tony award

The Drama Book Shop, located at 250 West 40th Street, was honored in the 65th annual Tony awards for Excellence in the Theater. 

Congrats to them and wishing them many more years of success as a vital resources for actors and other performing arts people.

 Book store wins Tony award

Jig & the Global Appeal of Irish Dancing

jig movie poster%202 Jig & the Global Appeal of Irish Dancing

To make this documentary, Jig, Scottish director Sue Bourne was able to do what no one else had done before.

She approached An Commissiun – the governing body of the annual World Irish Dancing Championships – to request, and ultimately be granted, access to the 2010 “Worlds” (as the competitors and their retinues of parents and dance instructors refer to them).  Her intent was to tell the story of the contagious, competitive and athletic art form that is Irish dancing (yes, that same which you saw Jean Butler and Michael Flatley shoot to stardom doing).

In fact, many of the kids and teens you see profiled in Jig owe their initiation into this world to Riverdance (the dance show that had its birth as an interval feature lasting a little over five minutes at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin) and was then expanded to full show and toured the world .  As you hear several parents tell it, the kids saw the video, they became entranced and started mimicking the steps, then taking classes, and so on.

Bourne has selected an interesting assortment of dancers to illustrate just how global an obsession Irish dancing has become.  There’s a group of young women in Moscow who are coached by Shane, who flies over from his base in Munich every couple of weeks to train them, then there’s Sandun, a tall Sri Lankan teen who was adopted as a little boy by a Dutch couple and who has grown up in Holland, and there’s Joe Bitter, the Silicon Valley boy who bears some resemblance to a young Jonathan Rhys Meyers and shows such promise that his parents leave California to settle in Birmingham, England to be close to John Carey, a legendary former dancer and now much sought-after instructor. Carey also teaches John Whitehurst, an adorable ten-year-old who also shows talent and promise regardless of the jeers he’s had to endure from his classmates at school.

Two of the most interesting dancers profiled are ten-year-old competitors Brogan McCay, a blonde, chatty dynamo from Derry, Northern Ireland, and Julia O’Rourke, a more solemn Long Island girl, with a Philippine mother and Irish-American father, neither who had ever any interest in Irish dancing until their daughter picked it up.

To round out the group, there is a trio of older teen girl competitors from Ireland, England and Scotland who have been opponents on the stage for years and all are nearing the end of the age where they can still compete at the Worlds.

I have to confess, as someone who was mesmerized by Riverdance when it first blazed upon the scene, I was delighted back then to see the comparatively cooler attire of the dancers (black tights & shoes under velvet minidresses for the girls, dark trousers and shirts for the boys) and I just cannot for the life of me understand the enduring appeal of these curly, curly ringlet wigs that all competing girls will put on (even the older ones), and the garish Celtic-motif dresses (which cost thousands of dollars) that often come in DayGlo shades that would make you queasy if you stared at them too long.  And that’s not to mention the fake tan, orange foundation of the kind that was popular with Aer Lingus stews back in the Seventies, and heavy make-up (even on the 10-year-olds).  The male dancers fare significantly better, though their waistcoat and ties can, at times, succumb to the same oversize, glow-in-the-dark designs that afflict their female peers.

After an intro of each of the subjects, with some beautifully composed shots of the kids practicing and talking about what dancing means to them and cuts to the parents, most whom seem genuinely bewildered that their offspring have picked up this costly obsession that pays nothing (there are no money prizes at the competitions, just the trophies and the glory of being chosen the best) and yet demands expensive costumes, shoes, wigs (for the girls), lessons, travel, and occasionally physiotherapy.  There are no obnoxious stage Moms or pageant Dads in this film, but you can’t miss the intensity of the parents (and the teachers) as they watch their young charges compete.  At one point, while Julia O’Rourke dances on stage, her mother and two dance instructors from New York are in the audience, silently bobbing up and down in their seats as they mimic Julia’s routine.

The final 20 minutes or so of the film – shot at the championship competition in Glasgow last year – is when the drama, as one would expect, builds.  There are various rounds that each must perform, and during the softer, almost balletic moves, Bourne has chosen to use a lovely piece of music by renowned composer Patrick Doyle to accompany the footwork.  The percussive stamp and pound of the hard shoe dancing is thoroughly infectious.  You may not feel confident enough to stand up and mimic the dancers’ moves, but you’ll have a hard time not tapping a foot along with the beats.

My only small complaint is about what comes at the end, as the tension is at its peak, when the kids are watching their scores and those of their competitors appear on a huge electronic board (while we hear the figures being announced): unless you’re following the profiled dancers’ numbers pinned to their costumes, and if you don’t know about the scoring process, you may, like I did, experience a momentary confusion and not know what was happening or who was winning, with your only cue the tears of sadness or joy of the competitors we’ve been following.

At the very end, when we learn if Brogan or Julia has won, there’s a seemingly genuine moment of grace and good sportsmanship on screen that is at once surprising and touching, given how young the girls are.

See it or skip it

Oooh, see it!  The footwork and talent and rhythm are all so compelling, as are the different dancers’ stories and the sense that Irish dance is saving at least some of them from a darker future (for the Russian girls, it gives them joy and the gift of flight, albeit fleeting, and for Sandun in Holland, it’s been a life preserver of sorts, that has helped him avoid darker paths with which he seems to have struggled).  And the scenes of the dancing, be it during rehearsals or the competition, are exhilarating.

The film opens today in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Toronto.  For tonight only (Friday, June 17th), if you’re in NY and go to see the film at the Quad cinemas, director Sue Bourne will be in attendance for a Q&A after each screening, as well as young Julia O’Rourke and Joe Bitter (who are featured in the film) and Jean Butler, the red-haired Long Island dancer who was the female face of Riverdance and Michael Flatley’s dance partner.

Aaranya Kaandam


aaranya%20poster%202 Aaranya Kaandam

Just some quick thoughts based on seeing the film Aaranya Kaandam at last year’s SAIFF.  Am going back tonight for a second viewing now that the film is out today.

What has stuck with me since that night seven months ago is this: I recall a gritty, stylish, violent and often funny story of one day in the lives of several people that intersect at one point or another, all connected in some way to the Chennai crime world.

Jackie Shroff has put any vanity aside and let it all hang out as Singaperumal, a mean, angry, aging don who slaps his girlfriend Subbu (Yasmin Ponnappa) around when he can’t perform in bed.  And wait til you the shagadelic wallpaper in their bedroom.

jackie%20sampath%202 Aaranya Kaandam

Jackie Shroff and Sampath Raj

Then there’s his young gofer (played by Ravi Krishna) who’s got a crush on Subbu.  And the wonderful Sampath Raj as Pasupathy, a man in Singaperumal’s gang with some problems of his own.  Add to this Somasundaram as Kaalayan, a drunk, pea-brained father who is bossed around by his whip-smart and foul-mouthed little son (Master Vasanth).

Sadly, my Tamil is not extensive enough to appreciate it, but I do recall some folks last year relishing the colorful usage of curse words in the film’s dialogues, which ended up delaying the release until the producer could make his case before the censor in Chennai and then in Delhi and convince them that 50+ cuts were not the way to go.

But I did enjoy the discussion among Singaperumal’s guys about women and how you could tell – based on whether a girl liked Rajnikant or Kamalhaasan – how likely you’d be to bed her.  Priceless!

See it or skip it

See it!  I’ve been waiting months for a chance to watch it again, that must tell you something.  Amazing debut from director Thiagarajan Kumararajan.

Bitten by the Tamil movie bug

This originally ran in Firstpost on June 1.

I’ve been obsessed with Indian film for some 14 years now and since I’ve started writing about those movies and the people who make them, I try to get to Mumbai and Chennai every year, to stay in touch.

Yes, Chennai too, because only a few years after the Hindi movie bug bit me, my local Indian cinema in New York (since closed) had one special weekend screening of the first Tamil movie I’d ever seen, and it was another lightning bolt moment for me, the start of another branch in this obsession.

At that time, around 2000, Tamil films were harder to come by at the desi video stores in New York. So in spite of my newfound craving, Hindi movies remained the dal chawal for me, and Tamil movies only an occasional payasam.

But from my first trip to Mumbai, meeting up with a bunch of fellow bloggers and writers, any mention of Tamil movies, or Chennai even, would elicit either puzzled smiles or that kind of ‘Ok, I hope you know what you’re doing’ shrug you give people who you think have embarked on some questionable venture, but whom you’re powerless to stop.

I remembered many years before in Manhattan, an Indian taxi driver generalising and telling me about the attitudes Indians from north and south can have toward each other, and how there was sometimes distrust or disdain, but it surprised me to actually see it in the sophisticated, worldly Mumbai. That said, we’re all subject to our own parochial chauvinism (just ask a New Yorker if they’d ever consider living in New Jersey…) But if you’re reading this as you sit in Delhi or Mumbai, and you’re rolling your eyes too, please stay for a bit and hear me out.

Sense and Sensibility

That movie I saw back in 2000 was Rajiv Menon’s Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Found It), a wonderful Tamil adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (with, I would venture, some influence from the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson film as well). Though I knew few of the big names of Tamil cinema, I immediately recognised the two women in the lead roles — Tabu and Aishwarya Rai — and I figured if they were on the bill, how bad could it be?

To say I was enthralled is an understatement. Tabu plays the older, more serious, practical sister Sowmya and Aishwarya is the younger, romantic, impulsive sister Meenakshi. Add to that Ajith, and Mammootty as a vet from the war in Sri Lanka and you’d be smitten as well. I was hooked from the inventive touches in the first song picturisation- Konjum Mainakkale – with the beautiful, fearless, sari-clad Meenakshi capering through fields and dancing, at times tomboyishly, while surrounded by male dancers wearing a series of masks of faces as diverse as tigers, Ganesha and the Tamil poet Bharathiyar. The stories, the melodies, the rich visuals and cinematography by Ravi K. Chandran, all flowed together so flawlessly, that I practically floated out of the cinema.

For me, part of the charm also was hearing the sounds and intonations of the Tamil language and its very unique stop-and-start rhythms for the first time. A decade later, after fitful attempts to learn the language, I’m still mesmerised by it enough to listen to audiobooks in Tamil, as I try to identify snippets that I understand, or, more often, just to listen to language and let it roll over me.

Mani Ratnam and the Sri Lankan Civil War

If Kandukondain was the initial first crush, the movie that cemented my love of Tamil film forever was one that I saw in 2002 on a long Sri Lankan Airways flight from Zurich to Colombo, and had as its backdrop – much to my surprise, given the carrier – the Sri Lankan civil war. It was Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal (For a Peck on the Cheek).

The movie begins in a Tamil area in the north, with Shyama (Nandita Das) getting married. Shortly after, her husband goes off to fight with the Tigers. Shyama learns that she is pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl in a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu and then returns to Sri Lanka while the little girl, Amudha, grows up in Chennai. On her ninth birthday, her new parents (played by R. Madhavan and Simran Bagga) reveal to Amudha she is adopted. Devastated, Amudha wants to meet her birth mother, which then puts a whole series of events into motion.

Aside from the moving story, it is the way that Mani Ratnam has told it that still thrills and awes me, almost 10 years later and probably about as many viewings. For example, Madhavan’s character, Thiruchelvan, is a writer, and when a flashback explains how he came to know of the infant Amudha and realise he wants to adopt her, the story begins as Tamil script, handwritten, moving across the screen, superimposed over his image, with a voice narrating the words. Seamlessly, without our realising it, that artifice slowly disappears as we are deposited fully into those scenes.

Unlike so many Tamil films that have a boy-meets-girl romance at their core, here it is actually the story of Thiruchelvan and Indira (Simran) falling in love with the orphan baby that is so beautifully told, without an image or a word wasted. To see what I mean, just look on YouTube for the two versions of the film’s title song, in one case picturised with mother and daughter, the other with father and daughter, the music by A.R. Rahman and lyrics by Vairamuthu. For a real treat, Google the lyrics in English; even in translation, they are exquisite.

Madras Masala

Before you conclude that I only go for films that have done well on the worldwide festival circuit and easily defy a facile either/or classification as “art house” or “mainstream”, I happily admit to also enjoying the “entertainer”, masala type movies that still contain action, drama, a love story and family values. Take, for example, Vel (2007) and Singam (2010), two hits starring the Tamil heart throb Surya. Both have about 50% of their stories taking place in rural Tamil Nadu, before the action flips to Chennai; both have Surya in a role as a hero, a man who is physically strong and who can be counted on to do the right thing, and both have catchy soundtracks. And wait till you see what a phenomenal art the men make of furling and unfurling their veshtis at key moments as a means of self-expression.

In spite of not having much patience for the obligatory slapstick comedy that is usually performed by a family servant or villager and usually played by Vadivelu (think Shakti Kapoor, but with a big moustache and wearing a veshti) and the long, superhuman fight scenes during which I start to get fidgety, overall there’s enough to keep me there for the three hours.

Plus, the song picturisations are great entertainment. With the romantic numbers, a large part of the choreography involves the boy and girl actually walking together a lot (watch Otraikkanle from Vel), with frequent, closely color-coordinated, matching costume changes for both hero and heroine (En Idhayam from Singam or Nenje Nenje from Ayan) and trippy special effects that make the image on screen ripple or bend.

Aside from the romantic numbers, a big draw for me are the songs and picturisations that retain elements of a folk style, fast and heavy on the drums, that I believe is known as dappan koothu (see Ava Enna from Vaaranam Aaiyram, with a distraught and intoxicated Surya expressing the grief of losing the love of his life). Those songs always end up in heavy rotation on my iPod.

Southward Bound

There must be at least some folks in the Hindi movie industry watching the goings on down South and taking note, as there have been more and more influences trickling upwards toward Mumbai. Think of Salman Khan’s 2009 hit Wanted, directed by Southern dancer and choreographer Prabhu Deva. The action sequences in it and Khan’s other blockbuster Dabangg both had signature touches that you’ll often see in Tamil films (e.g. the “wave” of objects or bad guys exploding outward in slow motion from the hero’s fists, the long stream of white SUVs speeding toward a location then stopping and arraying themselves in a row).

Aamir Khan had a super successful re-make of Tamil Ghajini in 2008, and Singam did so well last year that it’s now being re-made in Hindi with Ajay Devgan. Then that song you probably can’t get out of your head right now (I know I can’t) – “Dhinka Chika” from this week’s upcoming release Ready- is a re-do of Devi Sri Prasad’s “Ringa Ringa” from the 2009 Telugu Arya 2. Salman Khan heard it when holidaying in the Maldives and knew he wanted to use it.

In watching Tamil films over the past dozen years, alongside Hindi movies, I can’t help but notice that as life in India changes, and so rapidly, so too do the ways filmmakers are telling their stories. One-size-fits-all, everything-AND-the-kitchen-sink masala films are no longer the only way to get people into cinemas, and we moviegoers are so fortunate to be living during this time as directors in both Mumbai and Chennai take chances and try new things.

Before I close, yes, I know, I’ve barely scratched the surface, and not even touched on the huge body of work of the much beloved Thalaivar, Rajnikant, or the other living God of Tamil filmdom, Kamal Haasan, but so much has been written about them already and here, I wanted to chronicle my own particular path to learning about these films.

To wrap up, let me just urge you to also consider a couple of other Tamil movies, namely Bala’s dark and disturbing 2009 tale of one aghori man, Naan Kadavul (I Am God) which was like nothing I’d seen before or since, and in a much different vein, Vennila Kabbadi Kuzhu (The Full Moon Kabbadi Crew), and no, if you’d have ever told me that I was going to sit througha movie that has a rural team of kabbadi players at the centre of its story, and that I’d enjoy it, I would have laughed, but it does and I did.

And finally, one very soon-to-release film from new director Thiagarajan Kumararajan that endured a lot of tussles with the censors in Chennai and Delhi, Aaranya Kandam (Anima and Persona), a smart and cheeky crime story wherein you will see an edgy Jackie Shroff letting it all hang out as a Mafia boss.