The Advisory Boar

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <>

Enthiran: my second Rajnikant film

Another year, another screening of National Awards winning films at Siri Fort auditorium in Delhi, and another special-effects award going to a big-budget Rajnikant film directed by S. Shankar: Enthiran.

Hassath and I weren't able to watch it when it was released last year, and welcomed this opportunity to continue my stunted education in Tamil cinema. Despite having more than twice the budget of Sivaji, however, Enthiran does not live up to that standard. Sivaji was set in an instantly recognisable place and time, with real social concerns underlying the action. Enthiran is set in an ambiguous future, and takes a humanoid robot "with feelings" through the same tired cycle of creation, awareness, competition, corruption, and redemption that any sci-fi fan could predict in their teens.

As the good Dr. Vaseegaran, Rajnikant doesn't have much to do—his most adventurous acts are to program a "worm" to demagnetise the robots and later to extract a "red chip" (which looks like a Doom 2 keycard) from the robot to render it harmless. As the robot, he tackles some "I will only do exactly as you say" situations, and goes on a special-effects rampage through Chennai. Thin fare indeed for a larger-than-life hero like Rajnikant, but he handles it with his usual aplomb. He is at home as a force for either good or evil; as a triumphant scientist or a resentful robot thwarted in love.

The film is not without its thoroughly enjoyable moments of absurdity, including a memorable scene in which the robot has a conversation with the mosquitoes of Chennai. Where Sivaji was full of Rajnikant in-jokes, Enthiran has little tips of the hat to other films, from the borg cube in the opening titles transforming into a Matrix-like green screen, to the Mask-inspired scenes later in the film.

But no amount of humour, not even the lightsaber scene, can rescue the film from its heroine, Aishwarya Rai. One has to watch the other actors carefully to figure out what she's feeling, because she sports the same expression of wide-eyed consternation throughout the film. Seeing her as a fembot "rapper girl" in one of the songs (also quite disappointing, unlike the catchy songs in Sivaji) was so disturbing that one couldn't help but applaud the Chennai cops when they raked the robot's getaway Mercedes with submachine-gun fire, unmindful of the heroine's presence beside him (well, it's true she wasn't wearing a seatbelt).

The one bright spark in the film is Danny Denzongpa as the evil Dr. Bohra. Even as an urbane academic, he radiates menace and intelligence, and brings alive a relatively minor supporting role equipped with only the weak dialogues the script allows him. Another performance that deserves mention is the cameo by Kalabhavan Mani as Pachaimuthu, a vettukathi-wielding yokel who is easily adopted as a boyfriend "for the day" by the ditzy Aishwarya, but not so easily gotten rid of.

Did I enjoy watching Enthiran? Yes. Do I want to commit suicide and donate my kidney to Rajnikant? No thanks.


Hassath sat through the whole day's screenings at Siri Fort, but Ammu and I joined her at 1600. We sneaked into the auditorium early, to get seats for the Enthiran screening at 1700, and caught the tail end of Aadukalam, which looked like an outstanding film (and won six awards, including best director, best actor, best screenplay, and best editing).

I think I'll try to find a copy and watch all of it.

Kurosawa's Bush Warbler

One of my most enduring memories of Kurosawa's Sanjuro (a sequel of sorts to Yojimbo) is of Mifune's sardonic smile as he explains to a group of well-meaning but clueless young men that they're looking for corruption in all the wrong places. The other is of a cheerful bit of bird song, repeated throughout the film; and, indeed, in many other Japanese films by Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, and others. I'd always wondered which bird was singing.

I posted to the naturerecordists list a couple of years ago, describing the call: a loud, fluty (fwEEEE) whitch-chit-chew. It was quickly identified as the Japanese Bush Warbler Cettia diphone by someone in Hawai'i (where it is apparently a very successful invasive species). I learned later that the long, subdued whistle followed by an explosive jumble of notes is typical of a Cettia warbler's song; but I had never seen or heard one when I first watched Sanjuro.

I assumed the species was common in Japan (given how often its song featured in films), but once it was identified, I stopped thinking about it. There seemed little chance that I would ever hear it live (although C. d. cantuarians may occur as a vagrant to North-East India), and little else about the song to hold my attention… until now.

I had the opportunity to spend two days birding around Delhi with Mark Brazil (author of Birds of East Asia) this week, and one of the many subjects we discussed was Cettia diphone. To my delight, Mark told me that there was much more to the song of the Uguisu than I had imagined.

In Japan, the Uguisu's song is very well-known, and it pervades poetry and literature as a symbol of the spring revival; signifying rebirth, hope, and an end to the hard (winter) times. It is also called the "spring bird" and "poem reading bird", and its call is traditionally transcribed as "Hō ho-ke-kyo". In poetry, the bird is associated with the ume (sour plum) blossom, and is as evocative of spring as the cherry blossom. (Aside: the Uguisu's droppings are even powdered and used to lighten the skin, since they contain guanine.)

Its position in Japanese culture is comparable to that of the Nightingale in western Europe; and the bird's name used to be translated into English as "Japanese Nightingale", though it does not sing at night. (The only bird I can think of whose call is similarly well-known in Indian poetry is the Koel, whose incessant, plaintive song in early summer has also led to comparisons with the Nightingale.)

There are many other Cettia warblers in India. I've seen the Grey-sided Bush Warbler C. brunnifrons both in its wintering grounds and nesting near the tree line in Kumaon, but not heard its song (yet). Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler C. fortipes is also relatively common in the mountains, and other species may also occur. Now that I know something of what I have to look forward to, I always keep an ear out for them.

I may never hear Cettia diphone singing, but its song has brought me much joy.

My first Rajnikant film

Last week, Hassath took me to the Siri Fort auditorium to watch my first Rajnikant film, Sivaji, The Boss.

I didn't know what to expect—this was my first Tamil film. I knew what an iconic figure Rajnikant is in Tamil cinema, and Hassath had told me that the best way to watch his films is in an inexpensive local theatre in Tamil Nadu, so that the enthusiastic and vocal participation of the audience adds to the experience.

To my surprise (because I have never heard much Tamil), I was able to understand quite a lot of the dialogue and even some of the songs. The grammar and many words were recognisably similar to Malayalam, which I do speak. A happy coincidence, because the subtitles were awful. Bajji (an Indian dish) was rendered everywhere in the dialogue as Bajji (an Indian dish).

Sivaji is a rich software engineer who has returned to Chennai from the USA with the dream of providing free education and medical care to all. He is stymied at every turn by a corrupt system intent on extracting its pound of flesh, let down by the law, and driven to bankruptcy by his powerful and well-connected opponents. He retaliates the “Lion's way”—by blackmailing the same people into giving him half of their black money (i.e. undeclared income), then turning them in to the income tax officials anyway. He then launders the money and uses it to fund the universities and hospitals he wanted to open.

Read more…

Chess Fever

I've been reading about early Soviet cinema, and I stumbled across this video of Vsevolod Pudovkin and Nikolai Shpikovsky's 1925 short film Chess Fever (ШАКМАТНАЯ ГОРЯЧКА).

The twenty-minute comedy tells of the estrangement of a couple over the man's obsession with chess during the 1925 tournament held in Moscow. So engrossed is he in playing both positions on his chessboard that he is hours late to a meeting with his beloved, who sends him packing; but no matter where she seeks solace, she cannot escape chess in the time of "chess fever". (I had no difficulty understanding the film without the Russian intertitles, but I found these translations later.)

The film is notable for an appearance by the great Cuban chess player José Raúl Capablanca (who was then the reigning world champion, though he placed only third in Moscow), and it also features footage of actual game play from the tournament.

There are even some cute kittens tossed in.

The Hour of the Furnaces

What does this mean?, asked Hassath, pointing to «La Hora de los Hornos» in an article about documentary films.

The hour of the… something.


And just like that, a flood of memories swept me twenty years back in time to the Argentinian pampas, which I had experienced time and again through Gerald Durrell's marvellous writings. I remembered the story of a tough gaucho moved to tears as he recounted how he—in a moment of uncharacteristic sentimentality—rescued a small bird whose leg was stuck in the wet clay with which it was building its nest. The bird, once freed, perched a few feet away and poured its heart out in song, as if to thank the enraptured cowboy.

The bird's name, Hornero, was what triggered a memory so vivid that, just for an instant, I could almost smell the clay and feel a dry, dusty wind stinging my cheek. Horneros, named for the resemblance of their round clay nest to a horno, an old wood-fired oven. Ovenbirds.

Furnaces. That's it. The Hour of the Furnaces.

The Hour of the Furnaces is a 1968 documentary by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino about the struggle against neo-colonialism in Argentina. The title quotes Che Guevara who, in turn, was quoting the nineteenth-century Cuban revolutionary leader and poet José Marti: "Now is the time of the furnaces, and only light should be seen." The film is in three parts, and is 260 minutes long. Hassath, who has seen it, recommends it highly.

My treasured collection of Gerald Durrell's books is long gone, given away over the years; and now, I have a film to watch that will teach me very different things about Argentina. But it will also always remind me of a small brown bird celebrating its freedom with a song.

Film and the Historical Imagination

The James Beveridge Media Research Centre at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi offered a summer course on "Film and the Historical Imagination", conducted by Ranjani Mazumdar (an Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at JNU). The course ran on alternate working days for the two weeks between July 27–August 7, and comprised five illustrated lectures followed by film screenings, with the sixth morning reserved for a round-table discussion. Participants were charged INR650 for admission.

Quoting from the invitation for applications:

Film is an archive of sensations, of emotions, of images and of sounds. As a powerful recorder of life and its events, Film lends itself to organizing not just historical knowledge but also commenting on the nature of historical narration. This two week introductory course on Film and the Historical Imagination will map the specific ways in which history and ideas about the past get constructed through the medium of cinema. Issues related to questions of evidence, memory, historical catastrophe, nostalgia, myth and heritage will be discussed and analyzed in relation to world cinema.

Hassath remembered attending and liking Ms. Mazumdar's lectures during a film appreciation course at FTII some years ago; this course sounded interesting too, and the schedule and charges suited us perfectly (we would not have been able to attend if either had been notably different). We applied for admission, and were both accepted (to my considerable surprise, since the course was advertised as being for "graduate students and media researchers").

Read more…