Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The rules of performance appraisal”

There’s a reason there’s been so much talk about Dhanush recently, and it’s not just that he’s had back-to-back releases.

I know, I know, not another piece on Dhanush and Raanjhanaa and Maryan. But I feel compelled to put down some thoughts after a longtime reader, on my blog, wondered why I have discussed Dhanush’s performance in these films in such detail. He added, “Also it’s rare to see you praise a mainstream actor’s performance like that in back-to-back reviews. Maybe for Irrfan or Naseeruddin or somebody like that but not for somebody like Dhanush, that’s a rarity. That got me curious.”I suppose the question comes about because I rarely talk about acting aspects in a review, and there are two reasons for this: (1) I believe that the purpose of a review isn’t to make a laundry list of cast and crew and then talk about their individual contributions, but to discuss only those aspects that this cast/crew did well (Rishi Kapoor in Aurangzeb) or did badly (Rishi Kapoor in D-Day) or did puzzlingly (Abhishek Bachchan in Raavan). In all these cases, something stands out – and you need something to stand out if you’re to offer an opinion on it.

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Or else, in the absence of specifics, you’re left searching for generalities, and I have no interest in offering an opinion on something that’s just competently done, neither elevating the film nor eroding it – unless it’s something like Farhan Akhtar’s performance in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. It is a competent performance, but it fills the film, and so I felt I had to acknowledge his effort – I used the qualifier “hardworking.” And reason (2): it is a fact that the performances usually worth talking about are usually found in the slightly offbeat films, the ones that feature, as the reader says, Irrfan or Naseeruddin. These films are more dependent on character than plot (no judgment this, just fact), and the actors who embody these characters have more to chew on, more to work with. Also, the directors of these films are usually more attuned to performance details. That’s why I found Farhan’s Akhtar’s performance in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara – with standout moments like his confrontation with Naseeruddin Shah, or his apology to Hrithik Roshan – far more interesting and worth discussing that the rather generic one in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.

So why the recent reams about Dhanush? (1) The most obvious reason is that we don’t typically get two films with two strong central characters, played by the same actor, in such quick succession. Had Raanjhanaa been released in May and Maryan in December, I would have still talked about Dhanush’s performances in them – just that it wouldn’t have come across as some sort of borderline obsession. (2) In both films, fairly commonplace moments are treated differently by the directors, and so the performance automatically turns interesting. A declaration of love is a declaration of love, and we’ve seen this a thousand times – but when the director (Bharatbala, of Maryan) chooses to film this in close-ups, the dynamic of the actor’s performance changes. Each millimeter of the actor’s face presents itself for scrutiny, and what wouldn’t have registered in a medium shot or a wide shot suddenly reveals itself in microscopic detail.

(3) Few actors can hold these close-ups, especially the moments without dialogue. It’s fairly easy to make an impression when you have dialogue or when you’re hurling something at someone – when there’s something to speak or do – and the real test of an actor comes when there’s nothing to do. How does an actor conduct himself – how does he stand? How does he use his hands, his face? – when the other person is speaking and doing things? In other words, it’s not just about the acting but also the reacting, and Dhanush does this very well. This came as a bit of a surprise because not many of his earlier films allowed him the space to react. The typical tendency of a director is to fix the camera on the person doing the acting, and the person doing the reacting is rarely allowed to be seen. I suppose the issue is compounded when it’s a big star, whose fans may not take kindly to close-ups of him doing (what in their eyes may be) nothing. And these are valid considerations in commercial cinema.

(4) In many of his earlier films, Dhanush used to be a capital-A actor, in the look-ma-I’m-acting sense. This type of attention-grabbing acting is a function of the performer, the part, the director and the kind of audience the film is courting, and I doubt that his psycho in Kadhal Kondain would have been such hit if he’d underplayed the role. (He has one of those “acting” moments in Maryan too, when he’s imprisoned and mimes out a dream of being at home and having a hearty meal.) But he’s broken out of that mould now, and, at least on the evidence of Raanjhanaa and Maryan, his acting has become mellower, more confident. It’s as if we’re seeing a Phase Two of his career – and this is especially significant when you consider how risky these acting choices are in a cinema culture where less isn’t always seen as more. (Compare Kamal Haasan in Guna, for instance, with Kamal Haasan in Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, and the general consensus will be that the acting was better in the earlier film – because it’s an obvious kind of acting, there’s no doubt that acting is taking place, the kind that wins awards.)

And (5): It’s such a happy surprise to see an established mainstream hero take part in such chancy films. In the early stages of a career, we may see an actor try various kinds of roles, but once they taste success, once they figure out what it is about them that people like, they stick to a formula, with excuses like “the market has grown and we need to recoup the budget” or “I have to satisfy the expectations of my fans.” And they do the same thing every time, with minor variations. But in Raanjhanaa, Dhanush gets slapped, spit on, spurned. And in Maryan, we see the somewhat arty treatment of a mainstream subject. An actor cannot act in a vacuum. The film he’s in plays a huge part in what he does, and Dhanush’s recent films have been exciting amalgamations of the arty and the commercial. As a result, his acting too has begun to cover the gamut. He roars. He whispers. He keeps you watching.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2013 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

26 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The rules of performance appraisal”

  1. Dhanush seems to be really coming into his own as an actor. Initially I used to think that his performances stood out simply because he chose to work with seriously talented directors like his bro Selva and Vetrimaaran in whose films, he gave career best performances and was far more erratic in his other projects with hardly any standout moments. Guess I am yet to change my mind… Bet he is going to be awesome in Naiyaandi as well, because it has Sarkunam at the helm. But kudos to him for picking such exciting scripts and for opting to work with the truly talented folks! After all Vetrimaaran was given a break by Dhanush as was Sivakarthikeyan and Anirudh.

    Even so, I think STR is the more talented actor of the two (sue me!). If only he would let Dhanush choose scripts for him as well…


  2. I’ve been raving about the huge growth in Dhanush’s acting curve in the last two years. It is great to see such a wonderfully written piece for the raving :)

    I do think Vettaiyadu Vilayadu had some of Kamal’s finest acting in recent times but I wish he was the actor he’d been during 70s to the late 90s. I wish the subtlety of Aval Appadithan was still there and we didn’t have to deal with some “Hey guys look, I am an actor. I am a great actor” kind of treatment.


  3. Anuja : For once i actually agree with someone on this blog – STR is seriously more naturally talented if only he would believe that himself.

    Having said that , it is quite interesting how Dhanush is evolving but lets see him in a GVM movie and then we have something.

    Sidebar : Re Vettaiyadu Velayaidu Kamal – thats actually not acting or reacting – thats just lazy. That’s Kamal cashing a pay-cheque – not that there is anything wrong with it.


  4. STR better than Dhanush?? In which universe?.. STR can act. Thats’s it. He is definitely not a natural performer. Please lets not open that can of worms. He either overacts to the point that makes one cringe or plays it plain dumb. I have never seen STR find that balance which Dhanush has undoubtedly struck. They are not even in the same league. The beauty about Dhanush is how exponentially he’s growing, as a performer with every one of his films. And like Mr. Rangan has pointed out, its not just about the acting, its about reacting and thats where Dhanush flourishes. He emotes brilliantly and in moments where he has to underplay, he does that too with panache. Its about finding the ‘balance’ and Dhanush has done that. He just has to make sure that he keeps testing his limits and tries to be as versatile as possible. Something that Ranbir Kapoor has been doing in Bollywood..


  5. Venkatesh: Thanks, I did not expect anyone to agree with me!

    Krishna: I did not say STR is better than Dhanush per se… but he is more talented. Dhanush has a far more enviable career graph whereas STR has mostly done films that range from watchably bad to unwatchably bad. Agreed! But my point is Dhanush has made the smarter choices by 1: being Selva’s younger bro and 2: allowing himself to be molded by some of the best in the business and 3. working really hard on himself. Its all very commendable to be sure but there is no denying that STR has raw talent and a lot of stuff which D has clearly worked on comes naturally to him. Besides if Dhanush has one serious drawback as an actor its his voice modulation whereas STR was nailing it when he was barely out of his diapers and facing the camera for the very first time.


  6. Anuja: I don’t think I agree when compared to Dhanush, especially of late, but yes, I do feel STR is underrated. I say this as a big fan of “Silambattam” :-)

    Hithesh: Oh I love Kamal in VV, thought Gautham Menon told me in this interview that it was mostly because Kamal wasn’t into the film.

    “Some people said Kamal Hassan didn’€™t look very interested in the project, €œbut it worked for me, because I wanted the character to be like that.”

    venkatesh: What the… So the first time you agree with someone here, it’s to do with STR? :-) This is almost as WTF-y as the call I got from a PR person this morning asking me if I could cover Hansika Motwani’s birthday party. (Apparently “madam” had asked.) “Ship of Theseus” has nothing on the existential angst I experienced for a few seconds :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Covering Hansika Motwani’s birthday party. I don’t envy you anymore. :P

    It is the disenchantment that people felt that Kamal had shown to the project which actually worked for me. If he had been any different or more of the actor of the late noughties, it wouldn’t have been something I’d loved.


  8. hmm im not sure if understood where u are going with the haasan comparison, i feel haasan has given silent, underplayed nuanced performances early in his career including aval appadithan, moondram pirai etc and Guna was your A type acting because of the character, i dont see a shift or mellowing down in his acting and as you pointed out in VV he was disinterested which kindoff went with the character, whereas in the case of Dhanush sorry to say that his ‘moments’ of great acting are when he makes owls eyes and im saying this without seeing mariyan. Kamal never looked like a first timer or newcomer even in the 70s and many of Dhanush not art backed performances are quite plain. Not getting the comparison or am i harping some other thing?


  9. Interesting post. I enjoyed Dhanush’s performance in Ranjhana except in the last few scenes especially when he’s talking to Sonam one last time before she sends him off to the rally. That bit of dialogue delivery seemed a bit awkward in an otherwise skilled performance. The topic raised here reminds me of something I was thinking of the other day-about Ranbir Kapoor’s choices which seem more challenging than those of his other contemporaries even though I don’t think he pulls off some of the roles he chooses (regardless of what the popular press thinks). For instance, in Sawariya or Barfi, I thought he was too conscious of himself and hammy. He seemed to be told to do the Raj Kapoor hammy act in many of the scenes in both movies (though I’ve only seen some on Barfi). In Rocket Singh, on the other hand, he blended in so well with all the other people around him and became the character. His new movie, Besharam, suggests that he’s in hammy mode again (admittedly, it’s too early to say since I’ve only seen the trailer) I hope he continues to experiment even though these experiments are a double-edged sword in that they reveal his shortcomings (albeit to the section of the audience that is not blinded by their love for him and his obvious charm and physical grace). I feel the same way about Aamir too-though he makes exciting choices as an actor, I find him to be limited in his ability to act in certain roles. For example, in Dhobi Ghaat, he was so meticulous and involved as an actor and yet, his performance seemed contrived (this may have to do with the writing as well). And all this makes me wonder if some amount of innate ability is vital to make you the sort of performer who seems effortless in any part. But then again, is there such a performer anywhere on the planet? Even the great Olivier could be famously hammy in quite a few of his parts. Marlon Brando is said to have been abysmal in quite a few of his roles, and the great Jack Nicholson can bungle up occasionally as can our very own Naseer or Om. So maybe I’m being unrealistic when I judge Amir or Ranbir.


  10. BR : After more than 5 years being a regular reader of the blog , times have come to this. I find my first kindred spirit in Anuja and agree on STR .

    enna panradhu

    Sidebar: Whats wrong with covering Hansika Madams Birthday , idhe ellam oru kelvi aa ? udane pant shirt mattindu poga venamo ?


  11. Nice piece. Even when Dhanush was just another actor making silly movie after silly movie, something stood out compared to the others.

    Btw, can someone explain the birthday party angle a little bit more?


  12. venkatesh: LOL. You’re not alone in your advice. Here’s a request I got through email from another reader :-)

    “Sir. While you are at it, if you need someone to carry Madam’s hot Coffee Flask or Water bottle, sign me up! :)

    Anuja: ROFL. I can’t believe people still remember that column.

    lowlylaureate: not sure if understood where u are going with the haasan comparison…

    There are no comparisons in this article. Only examples. Examples are not comparisons.

    Sev: Excellent comment, thanks. I guess the only part where I have a different take is your take on “hammy” performances. I get the feeling that “hammy” is a pejorative in your eyes, whereas I think it depends on the kind of film, the tone/colour/pitch of the film. Some hammy performances work beautifully. Some are just bad. There are all kinds.


  13. I loved Kamal in VV. But every Kamal fan I have met hated him in the movie and have also blamed gautham for it.

    STR can be a very good actor if he makes good script choices. But didnt feel good abt the comparison with Dhanush. In some scenes of maryan his expression are so distinct from what we have seen of him, that it feels almost a different dhanush.

    I am surprised a day would come when I say I am a dhanush fan but it is already getting there.


  14. @Sev: Two actors that instantly come to mind when searching for consistently non-“hammy” are Mohanlal (although, admittedly, I haven’t watched many of his recent films) and Meryl Streep (assuming this discussion isn’t restricted to male performers). While watching both these actors, I’ve felt exactly what you articulated: “some amount of innate ability is vital to make you the sort of performer who seems effortless in any part.”

    In malayalam cinema, one actor has gained quite a reputation of late for selecting interesting roles — Fahadh Faasil. One of his characters went so grey that he ended up being penectomized by the female protagonist; you don’t see that level of self-assuredness in many actors these days.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Dhanush is the perfect balance between Method and Natural acting. I was a huge fan of his ‘Aaatha’ moment when he finds the ocean at the fag end of Mariyan.

    STR is a good actor too. As KB puts it, Vinnaithandi Varuvaaya is a modern classic because he was forced to play within the specific of boundaries set by Gautham Menon, devoid of the other histrionics he is known to indulge in. Barring a strong director at the helm, what we are damned to are basically variations of the ‘Mutti Dance’ – the one where the song is long over, the extras are gone, but STR spends another five minutes dancing alone, balanced precariously on his knees, elbows and knuckles.


  16. Brangan: In case people didn’t remember the Glitter Pen article, you helpfully gave a link? You certainly are on a high after the Motwani Request, aren’t you? ;)


  17. Though I get the sense that even broaching a comparison of Dhanush with THE Kamal is considered blasphemous (in this forum and a lot of other places), I, personally, don’t think it’s too much of a leap. :)

    Dhanush seems to have a face made of a material akin to paper (wrinkles in every which way depending on the emotion), but springs to a plastic state quite easily. I guess that’s a very crude analogy – but couldn’t find any other words. I’ve loved his performances right from Kaadhal Kondaen, borne the nonsense with Hari (Vengai) and other blatant masala efforts, but have now come to expect a very high level of acting performance as well as choice of movies from him. Hoping he doesn’t let me down.

    And as far as comparisons go, if anything, the comparison (of Dhanush) to STR would be more sacrilegious! :P I like Simbu in certain roles. I actually think his behind-the-scenes performances (direction or singing) are much better than the ones in front. His biting-the-teeth dialogue delivery is a constant source of irritation in most movies. Maybe that’ll change (I mean, if Vijay can get some grasp of dialogue rendering after the mumbling years, maybe Simbu also has some hope).

    Otherwise, Dhanush is far ahead of the current pack. Karthi looked a promising challenger … but his choice of movies are as horrendous as his brother’s!


  18. “Competent” and “generic” to describe Farhan Akhtar’s performance in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag? Well, at least I have to give you credit for being steadfast in your desire to be contrarian.


  19. I don’t think one vinnaithaandi varuvaaya(a competent performance, nothing more) is going to redeem STR in my eyes. Need much more than that.Somebody here said that he is better behind the scenes. Do you really want to see him direct more films like Vallavan?Sadomacho whoever you are.

    “Having said that , it is quite interesting how Dhanush is evolving but lets see him in a GVM movie and then we have something.”

    Dhanush doesn’t need a GVM movie to validate his acting chops.

    BR, yen Dhanusha paththi ivlo ezhuthareengannu kettadhukku badhil…marubadiyum Dhanusha pathi oru periya columnaa..? :-) I’ll have to catch both these films one of these days to see what’s the deal is all about


  20. BR, one doubt. You’re here saying , “But he’s broken out of that mould now, and, at least on the evidence of Raanjhanaa and Maryan, his acting has become mellower, more confident.”

    But I think, while Ranjhana and Maryan might have helped to cement Dhanush’s status as an exciting young actor (potentially great actor) , I don’t think he achieved this just through these 2 films. I haven’t seen Maryan yet, but role in Raanjhana wasn’t a big challenge for Dhanush(as for someone who had been to steeper terrains through Pudhuppettai, etc), except ofcourse the language (not saying the role was a cakewalk ofcourse) .

    What i’m trying to say is, hasn’t Dhanush already given some sparkling perfos in Pudhuppetai, Polladhavan or Aadukalam(his best yet). So would like to know, why does it sounds here like you were a bit surprised with these 2 new films that Dhanush has given excellent yet mellow perfomances ?


  21. Rishi J: I don’t know why people think that a different opinion is necessarily a “contrarian” one. Here’s my review of “Chak De India” where I seem to have liked Shah Rukh’s performance as much as anyone else (even if I had a few issues with the film).

    Sangit: Oh, I meant with the release of his last few films, not just these two films. I did mention in the “Raanjhanaa” review that this wasn’t something new of extraordinary for those who’ve seen his work in Tamil films.


  22. Guess we need to replace the word acting with being, when referenced to cinematic acting.

    It is nice to remind ourselves that in a stage play, the actor needs to show the audience, in the movies, the audience (and the camera) finds him. With the result that all the koothu pattarai stuff actually comes off as vapid when translated to cinema. Think Vemal…

    The cinematic medium actually calls for a different kind of intelligence, one that “at its limits” does approximate to dramatic acting, but is not truly so in the gaps.

    In truly great cinematic acting, the actor understands the medium as much as the medium understands him, and like with a good chef, a good dish rarely calls but for a minimum of ingredients, well chosen, and well handled.

    Given these basics, there is still good cinema, and bad cinema, good directors and technicians, and those mediocre. To find the golden mean across the spectrum is therefore a difficult proposition.

    To say that Kamal is a great actor may contribute to our collective good karma, but the result is the same as was when Sivaji was called a great actor, more hamming than is necessary, or called for. The state of being is “it” and hamming is not “it”

    When Kamal, really acts it up, like in Guna, or in that climatic crying scene in Thevar Magan, you really want to storm up to him and say, having come so good and so far, don’t continue and spoil the show*.

    This is not to downgrade Kamal, he is easily the best of us, he can be good, and can be too good at times. Contrast the Guna “ham”ming and the song in Sathya, where Kamal romances Amala, and you can see that he is “being” the lover.

    You don’t need the background score to tell you anything, the very scenes and their expressions tell you what state the actors are in. Merely watching it gives you a high. It is the golden mean, and seems easier to achieve than to hold.

    Unfortunately for us, over time and repeated analysis we have begun to equate high quality hamming with good acting. And thenceforth arrive the Raghuvarans, and the PrakashRaj’s. Dhanush has one foot in, but thankfully we have the other foot.

    In retrospect, it is the heroines who have fared better, witness Urvasi enter that “state of being” in Magalir Mattum as she runs circles around Rohini and Revathi, her national award winning counterparts. Good acting is “sollamal thottu sellum thenral”

    Coming back to Dhanush’s case, he was particularly lucky because his STR like earlier efforts (Sullan) were vehemently criticized right at the beginning itself. That strong rejection, while it pained him did also lead to a voyage of discovery, for him, and his audience.

    Though more??? talented STR wasn’t so lucky, and is therefore out, and still on a limb.

    Even as Dhanush tends to repeat himself, those morose, me so paavam looks are beginning to be boring, his luck “fails” to run out. Though his boy next door slot is burgeoning with competition, Jai being a crowd and director favorite, a fascination for Dhanush continues, and particularly among directors.

    I guess that the real reason has less to do with acting than the demographic profile that successful directors since BharathiRaja have hailed from. Dhanush’s non starry looks and behavior approximate to the plainness of their origins, and the stories that they tend “to” and “can” imagine. Thankfully for these directors, their target audience is in the same state of plainness.

    For want of a better word let us call it yuck, a state which one can identify with, and find comfort with. Old Shirts, Dirty pants, smelly socks, and no one to harangue can equate to a kind of self indulgent and corpulent bliss.

    Rajni was the first who exploited this peculiar self love for yuck, his son-in-law remains the best practitioner of his generation. Think Velai Illa Pattadhari and VelRaj…yuck married to yuck…whatever ARM’s faults, he at least aspires to a higher plain..

    Contrast this with the upwardly mobile yearning that distinguished the Shivaji and MGR eras and those earlier*.

    MGR was desirable, romantically, and otherwise, to a broad spectrum of upward mobility seeking audience, but by the time time Rajni made his mark, the demographics were changing already. There was more wealth in the villages, and one could be comfortable there, and be resistant to change**.

    Like a hippo happy to wallow in mud!

    For that generation (of villagers?) Rajni was them, he not only wallowed in the same mud as them, but seemed happy and “in place” while doing so. That cinema was their cinema, a cinema in which, Kamal, for all his talent, appeared to be from a different species.

    Notice than when ever Kamal took to his Sappani, Virumaandi, Thevar Magan experiments he was more warmly received. Translate that understanding to the current generation, and its own configuration of yuck mania, Dhanush is them, STR has failed to be.

    IMHO, the real debate on Dhanush and STR or Kamal and Rajni or any of the others is less about the acting chops and more about the demographics.

    From a view point of pure acting, only a “sollamal thottu sellum” performance can stay fresh, and fragrant, and from that viewpoint what one sees in Tamil Cinema are only flashes, not steady light. Amen.

    *Dhanush, to his credit under a better director, his brother, did it far better in his first outing, and the audience agreed. Kamal did in fact quote that his idea of a maniacal lover was first his, but as one sees that being there first does not necessarily make it better. Guna was a major screw up, right from the initial frames, and did not sit with the audience.

    **At a certain point and even before Balachander, Tamil cinema was a fount and chronicler of modern ideas, of new tastes, sometimes imported. No cows were holy. It is to these ideas that Sivaji and his ilk strove to provide space to, but all of that was gone and deleted over time.

    To make that kind of cinema today is a sure ticket to being lynched. Having let go of the daring, Tamil cinema at last came to rest on that fail safe barrier, romance/underdog makes good genre. It is only now that a new world of directors exposed to other cinemas, if not other modern ideas, is attempting a new direction. Good luck to them


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