Friday, August 22, 2014

The wonder that was

Let us start by watching pAttum naanE.
Why would I tell you why yet, this is enjoyable enough for me to not have to bother telling you why.

Video Link:
If you didn’t like that, you probably shouldn’t read further.

It is a memorable performance from all participants, not in the least, from Sivaji.
Now let us look at a precedent, that I stumbled upon yesterday

Here is P.U. Chinnappa from Jagathalaprathapan 1944


He does everything Sivaji does in that performance, way better!
-looking on at his split-screen fellow performer at near perfect eye-level
- playing the instruments with virtuoso elan.

Do watch the video fully before reading the following, which will urge interruptions.

It seems likely he played the mridangam himself!
The ganjira player’s preparation, rasanai of the singer, the mridangist and konnakkOl player keeping thALam and many more are outstanding.


However, what is phenomenal is the way it has been pieced together. Just think about how this would have been created. And that distinguishes acting for film as opposed to stage - from where all our acting talent then was sourced (and is oft derided for perceived inadequacies).

The instruments were presumably played by others for the audio  track and then ‘matched’ by Chinnappa’s acting. He sang – no dubbing there. But how about the konnakkOl? Looks like it was dubbed in – as there some lipsynch lapses later in the song.

And each frame was shot as many of number of times as the number of Chinnappas in it – bear that in mind as you read on.

2:22 to 2:32 : the singer and the konnakkOl are performing simultaneously – a challenge seemingly consciously avoided by APN 21 years later. 

You can see this again from 4:55 onwards at a closer frame when you assess the lip-sycnh match.

At 2:38-2:40 – look at how the mridangam, konnakOl and to a lesser extent the ganjira player ‘nod’ at a particular high the singer is hitting

At 2:52, when the konnakkOl takes over from singing mid-phrase, the singer’s pause and hand-over is perfect! He, and the mridangist, turn their attention at the exact same point.

Now, all this may merely(!) point to an actor-par-excellence displaying a good sense of timing.
What is more impressive is how the film-experience was created.

 Look at the way it has been cut:

At 3:15 ganjira starts (off-frame) and the singer acknowledges him and it cuts to him. 
The cut is while he is playing – and he is perfectly playing.
Now - to make the bar higher - we can assume that there could have been imperfection in the ‘seemingly authentic playing’ which we don’t notice. Look at the next cut:

The jaw-dropping cut is at 3:29.
Before that you have the singer on the right and the ganjira on the left
The frame after that has the singer on the left and mridangam on the right
And it is cut in the middle of the swarams being sung. 

Mind you, each frame was shot multiple times. It wasn’t like there were multiple cameras shooting the singer performing once.So the precision with which this was edited was razor sharp – not missing even a fraction of a beat! And this happens many times after that.

And all this while the acting itself remains excellent- at 4:48, he will have you believe that the ganjira player is smiling one of those artistic camaraderie ones at someone there.

The constant communication and presumed eye-contact is incredible.
See how the konnakkOl player ends at 10:03 and then, in a wider frame the singer, receives it at 10:04!

Film aesthetic trajectory: 1944 to 1965!

To be clear,  I feel APN-Sivaji were going for a different kind of aesthetic and theirs is an achievement in their own right. I don’t mean to put them down at all. But for an update of something from a 21 years before their time – doesn’t it seem artistically so unambitious?

Watch pAttum naanE now. All of two minutes of split screen against ten minutes here. So many static frames with not a single cut-induced movement. It is dominated by single performer frames and two performer frames where only one is performing. It now feels like they didn’t challenge themselves much at all. One wonders why? 

That question may not be entirely their to answer. They were the best expressions of an era with its own aesthetic. But the trajectory that got them here from what was passing muster in 1944 is certainly curious.

It seems lazy to dismiss the early days of Tamil cinema as ‘mere’ translations of the stage, insinuating that there was naïve understanding of film grammar earlier, which ‘evolved’ later. Evolved to what we see in 1965?

On the contrary, to me, it seems the opposite is the case. Of course, this impression is not based on any comprehensive analysis but just anecdotal evidence (it’s not for nothing that my blog is named so!). Which of the two clips displayed a greater understanding of film medium, is beyond argument.

The more I watch earlier films, the more I feel there was a finer understanding of techniques, that was later abandoned in favour of a different kind of popular aesthetic. Perhaps someone more systematic and scholarly can pursue this more seriously and see if that indeed bears out.

Will leave you with an example of what I am talking about:


Here is a clip from Ellis R Dungan’s Ponmudi. Here is RandorGuy’s write-up about the movie 

The clip covers a clichéd climax scene of an elder blessing the union of the hero and heroine in the very spot where the climax fight has happened.

It is a fairly regular sequence which surely has precedents and has been repeated several times later.
Now, what is particularly special about the film medium – say, as opposed to the written word. It is the simultaneity of action.

There are several things going on in the visual frame and soundscape – even when the emphasis is ‘directed’ to a particular part of the action.

Dungan enlives the scene by letting the groans of the defeated villains persist in the sound of that scene.
That is, while the film is proceeding towards a subham ending, the place in which the film is taking place retains its ‘reality’.

Watch this: 

Have we seen anything like this since? Such nuance in sound-design and editing. 
Did we see cinematography like Maruthi Rao’s work - which deserves its own post - in Andha NaaL?

Well we did. I am being polemical. But did we see it soon enough and widely enough, is the question.


  1. The link [] doesn't seem to work.

    - Ananth

  2. Superb post. A few things, carrying on from yesterday's convo from twitter. Agree with everything you have to say on the film aesthetics from 1944-1965. PU Chinnappa and co. have knocked it out of the park. We look at Thiruvilayadal today and wonder at what they did in Paatum Naane and feel not many (if any at all) can pull it off today. But in 1944, boy this is awesome and Thiruvilayadal pales in shadow!

    A few pointers of my own. Going on a little tangent here. So bear with me. Thiruvilayadal first. Sivaji with the Mridangam here is bearable as compared to Mridanga Chakravarthy where he was all over the place and quite obviously getting the basics of Mridangam playing wrong. But hey, people paid to watch him (over)act at that stage of his career and not laud his method acting in getting Mridangam right. Fair enough. Sivaji was merely giving what was then demanded of him. But Thiruvilayadal is so much better (though not a 100%). He is timing it just right. And his left hand is not playing with the fingers and his right hand takes all the viral jaalam. He is getting the basics right here. I wonder if there was someone to check him in Thiruvilayadal for every instrument or if he did the homework (which is possible). I have a very close friend who plays the veena and I've tried it twice and it is easy to see for a trained eye that he is not getting the notes right. But his timing is perfect. Same with Mridangam.

    Again with PU Chinnappa, the kanjira looks the weakest link to me. He looks to be getting it wrong but the timing is ok with the actual kanjira beat. So it's passable. Mridangam he has admirably underplayed. It's not a 100%. There are errors a trained eye can spot. But he's aced the timing and he's got the basics right. So I wouldn't be confident if he played it. But that is besides the point. Impressive show nonetheless. In fact, at around 9:45, the left hand cusps while playing. Those are actual nuances. Impressive homework. And if you look from 5-6 minutes, his left hand dips into a tumbler-like container. I have no idea what he is doing but can hazard a guess. Often, mridangam players' palms and fingers sweat and it slips while playing and does not help in giving an impactful performance. So it is possible he might be rubbing into some kind of powder to prevent sweat from impacting performance. This is my guess. I could be wrong. But another incredible piece of nuance (why else would he be dipping his hands when the audience won't even care?).

    The violinist cleaning the bow towards the end again. My point is though he not likely playing every (any) instrument, he is using his hands incredibly well when not play-acting that instrument. Goes a long way in adding authenticity. KonakkOl smash out of the park. Same with singing. He's doing that of course.

    And to carry this over 11 minutes with multiple shots and maintain sync and the editing being razor sharp on top of all of this?! Those guys deserve an award for what they pulled off 70 years back. Incredible.

    I was awed by what Sivaji pulled off in Pudhiya Paravai at 2:16 in matching up to Sowcar's movement in his his take which would have obviously been shot at a different time point in Paartha Nyaabagam Illayo ( But you see how trifling it is, compared to what PUC pulled off here.

    PS: Do write about Andha Naal. There's a whole treasure of subtlety to muse on that :)

  3. To add on, 2 more things. Sivaji in Thiruvilayadal gets the konnakkOl 100%. Now that I see the konnakkOl again, minor lapses are there in lipsynch at around 10 mins and 10:30. Otherwise very impressive. So I think we can cut them some slack and still it was a smash out of the park. Mridangam I am now convinced is not PU Chinnappa. At around 4:19, he starts playing it but the sound arrives a second or 2 later. What the heck, this was 70 yrs back, so it's fine. But it is clear it's not him. All the more impressive, considering he is play acting but getting those minor subtleties in. If you note with kanjira, he is clearly cajoling it softly at times when the sound is prominent so he is definitely not playing it (but there are times when he impressively emphasizes where he has to and the inconsistency shows). But he dips his hands in and carries out a kind of sprinkling action (noting that only now). It is called wetting the skin (kanjira uses monitor lizard skin). A description is here: Whereas with the Mridangam, he dips his hands and rubs it in the mridangam (we do use rice flour for mridangam to tune the apertures so it may not necessarily be due to sweat though that might be a good guess). So incredible subtleties noted. However, Sivaji in Thiruvilayadal shows his right hand with finger play on the Mridangam to the audience almost the entire duration he is on the Mirdangam (the instances we see him straight, his left hand gets the basics right) to actually see the moles and warts in the execution. Here, we get only the straight view and we rarely see his actual finger play. Brownie points to Sivaji there (ya, fanboy desperately clinging on to something here :P).

    But overall, Thiruvilayadal in terms of aesthetics cannot hold a candle to JagathalaprathApan. Sivaji is obviously the better "actor" and performs the instrument playing sections creditably with some daring hyperdramatization but PUC wins it here because he is the singer too and shows some amazing nuances along the way with instruments (with the same warts and moles) AND this was 21 yrs back.

  4. P_R,
    Wow! Wow! _/\_ Amazing write-up with razor sharp observations and analysis. My jaw is dropping now. Truly mind blown on how they acheived this enormous feat in 1944 itself. Thanks a lot for this enlightening post.

    -Vijay (V_S)

  5. Everything is fine with the blog. Even your vocabulary. But, please check out the grammar. It is horrible, at times.


    1. Agree about grammar. Will strive. Thank You.