Quite often, the most interesting perspective about art comes from the gallery. From the audience, the critics, and also, to a large extent, from exponents of other forms of art. Every month, Point of View discusses what cinema means to a celebrity who doesn’t make a living out of it.
Author Usha Narayanan begins our conversation with a disclaimer. “I’m not an expert on movies,” she says. “I am just another viewer from the peanut gallery.” She watches movies only for entertainment, so she hopes to see “good acting, a great script and some rocking songs, especially if it happens to be an Indian movie.”
The musical fantasy, Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is a well-loved early memory. “Chocolate rivers and cataracts, giant lollipops, edible mushrooms and trees… such fantastical stuff. And I still remember the charming Oompa Loompa song,” she recounts. The writer opines that old movies were always larger than life, brimming with passion and drama and betrayal. “MN Nambiar and Raghuvaran, with their over-the-top villainy were perfect in these. There were no grey characters those days, and no scope for scenes like the one in Nayagan, where a child asks Kamal Haasan ‘neenga nallavara kettavara?'”
Usha also gets a little poetic while talking about “those days”. “Movies represented a blissful world, a blue sky without a single cloud, where everyone found love and lived happily ever after.” The memories of Rajesh Khanna singing Gun Guna Rahe Hai Bawre, Sridevi dancing in Switzerland in a chiffon sari with two handsome men vying for her, and Kamal Haasan’s heartbreak in Moonram Pirai are still fresh, she says. “Now of course, as a writer, that innocence is lost.
Crazy Mohan’s movies are ‘immensely enjoyable’. “I loved the ones where he paints a Wodehousian universe operating under its own rules, creating complex plots, goofy characters and motivations… then brings them all together for a magical ending.” She also relishes the works of Mani Ratnam, PC Sreeram, Rajiv Menon, and Santosh Sivan.
As for actors, Usha says she can’t forget Karthik in Agni Natchathiram or Mouna Ragam. “Or Amala trying to hide a cigarette behind her back. Or Girija saying ‘odi polaama?’ to Nagarjuna in Idayathai Thirudadhe.” And, speaking of Nagarjuna, “isn’t it rather inexplicable and sad for the rest of us that he still looks the same after so many years?” laughs Usha. The flamboyance of these old actors still makes her smile, she says.
Usha doesn’t really like dark movies. Or horror. “Of course, some great performers like Smita Patil in Arth and Bhumika, or directors like Aparna Sen in 15 Park Avenue and Mr and Mrs Iyer make reality unforgettable.” But mostly, she prefers watching movies that exhibit a fresh idea or approach — “whether it is Birdman, Inception or The Social Network.” In Tamil, the new crop of movies – Jigarthanda, Mundasupatti and Rajathanthiram – work for her. “You really don’t know what’s around the corner in those films. And it’s exciting to watch powerhouse performers in action, instead of tired stars in predictable roles, endlessly repeating themselves.”
Usha’s favourites are from different genres. Gone with the Wind is a classic, she says, “Kaaka Kaaka was slick, the script was excellent and the real-life love between the stars made the movie sizzle; Moonram Pirai and Mullum Malarum were heartwarming and pure, Michael Madana Kama Rajan was ultimate in comedy, and Queen embodied a refreshing new attitude towards women. Dil Chahta Hai remains one of my favourites… But the unexpected is what is expected these days. So I hope new directors will continue to bring us more of their original ideas.”
“Thalapathi would not have been such a big hit without Raakamma Kaiya Thattu or Yamunai Aatrile,” Usha observes, when we talk about music in movies. “Kamal Haasan would not be regarded as the ultimate romantic hero without Ilaiyaraaja’s Sundari Neeyum or Kanne Kalaimaane.” In Hindi, music directors come and go, she says. “But RD Burman’s magic remains, spanning the full range from the melodious Kuch Na Kaho to the rollicking Mehbooba Mehbooba.” In Hollywood, the theme music of Forrest Gump and Indiana Jones remain evergreen to her.
If given a chance, Usha says she would love to meet Kangana Ranaut. “A small-town girl who was an outsider in the movie world, a teenager adrift in Mumbai without family support… she was criticized for her looks, her clothes, her hair, her accent. And then, she silenced her critics with her blockbuster performances and extraordinary talent, going on to win the Best Actress Award for Queen.” Usha adds that Kangana is spunky, original, outspoken, and that she would love to find out the secret of her magnificent spirit.
Usha Narayanan, the author of The Madras Mangler, and the upcoming Love, Lies & Layoffs, can be contacted at www.ushanarayanan.com