Wednesday Tamil: Sarvam Thaala Mayam, a Movie About Music

I am so excited that this movie is on Netflix! I was all set for it to be streaming on some obscure platform and I’d have to encourage you all to try to track it down. And instead, it’s right there! On Netflix!

This whole movie is about passion for art, pure art, not watered down and popular, but difficult and obscure. And that is how I feel about the filmmaker too. He took 18 years to make this movie, he wasn’t in a rush. And he didn’t make a simple easy popular film, he made the film he wanted to make, as complicated and layered and challenging as it could be. But still so beautiful that it pulls you in, against your will.
Image result for sarvam thaala mayam poster

It’s not a perfect film. He wrote himself into a bit of a wall towards the end. there is a natural point at which our main character’s story ends, a moment when he transcends all worldly concerns and finds ecstasy. I would have been happy with the film ending there. But Rajiv decided to keep going a bit, try to end it with all the narrative lines neatly tied together and wrapped up in a big bow. It’s weaker that way, I felt less resolved after the final quarter of the film than I did at that moment of perfect beauty when it could have ended.

And there is also a massive social issue that he, basically, writes around. He presents it to us, in detail, in the first half. And then in the second half, it ceases to matter. But I am not sure if that is a mistake? Because sometimes those things do cease to matter, if you give yourself over to art, to passion, to the things that are real in life and the world, you can transcend these petty problems without “solving” them.

Mostly thought it is about the music. Rahman did it, of course, and the story is about music, music everywhere. The star is a composer as well, Rahman’s nephew, son of his sister who is a singer. I thought it was nepotism of some strange kind when this casting was first announced, but it really isn’t. This is a role that demands a musician play the part, someone who can make you believe what he is feeling because he is really feeling it. Yes, I know, that is supposed to be an actor’s job, to make us believe anything. But this film goes so deep, and Rahman’s music is so raw, I truly don’t think an actor could access what a musician can in this role. It’s the same reason I am nervous about Ranveer playing the lead in Gully Boy instead of using one of the real rappers. GV Prakash Kumar in this, you can feel the music in his veins while he is just watching someone else perform. And it’s not his first movie, he’s acted before, he knows how to deliver lines as well as any random actor. Maybe someone else could have delivered his lines better, but who cares about line delivery? It’s all in the music in this film.

Nedumudi and Aparna Balamurali provide the acting. Nedumudi brings with him the gravitas of all his years of acting, without the star feeling you might have found from someone from a different industry, or from someone who played “hero” parts instead of character roles. Aparna still has her freshness, she isn’t “pretty” in this film, she is strong and interesting and different, just like our hero. Elango Kumaravel, playing the hero’s father, is the one who impressed me the most. Looks like he is mostly a stage guy (co-founded a theater group) but also an occasional Tamil film actor, and a writer. And in has helped put on musical programs in the past, so maybe another person with music in his blood.

This is one of those movies that isn’t about the story, or the acting, or any of those usual things I might review. It is bigger than that. It is about art and artists and beauty and fairness in the world and true greatness. That’s the story Rahman is telling in his music and Menon in his images, and it is lovely.

And very non-commercial. I expect this film to make very little money. It only has one show a day at my local theater, and only for this week, so they don’t have much faith in it either. Maybe it will build word of mouth, maybe I will be proven wrong, but it feels more like something that will speak deeply to a few people, and be ignored by most. And, based on the message of this movie, that will be enough for Rajiv Menon, and AR Rahman, and GV Prakash, that they got to do what they loved in the way they loved and touched a few hearts.

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Whole plot in two paragraphs:

GV Prakash is a lower cast Christian, from a traditional drum making family. He is a dedicated Vijay fan, failing college, kind of at a loss in life. And he falls in love with Aparna Balamurali, a nursing student who lives in the neighborhood. Then one day his father sends him to deliver a drum to Nedumudi, the greatest Carnatic drummer in India. GV falls in love with drumming and practices and practices and waits outside Nedumudi’s house and begs to be taught by him. The problem is, Carnatic drumming is a religious practice, and GV Prakash is a Christian and lower caste, Nedumudi is reluctant to allow him in and Vineeth (Nedumudi’s assistant teacher) is even more dismissive. But finally GV wears them down and is taken on as a student. He befriends another new student, a wealthy NRI. Vineeth gets into another fight with Nedumudi over GV and Nedumudi sends him away and starts teaching GV personally. But Vineeth conspires with his sister, Dhivyadharshini, a TV talent contest host, to humiliate Nedumudi. They convince the NRI to compete in the show and when he figures out what is happening and runs away, GV is left behind, thinking he is doing a soundcheck but actually being recorded. He is furious when he realizes he was tricked to be on the show against Nedumudi’s orders, and gets into a fight with Vineeth and has his hand crushed. INTERVAL

In the second half, GV is released from jail after his Vijay fan club president threatens protests by the lower caste community about his arrest. GV is told to leave town for a bit. He goes to talk to Nedumudi and is thrown out, Vineeth lied that it was GV’s idea to be on TV and Nedumudi is angry with him for it. GV and his father go back to their village and GV sees the way the community lives in the country, in far worse condition than they do in the city, and starts to understand more of the pain of the lower castes. He returns home and tries to rejoin his father making drums, but feels empty inside. He ends up wandering the city, drunk and miserable. Aparna tracks him down and takes him back to her apartment and cleans him up and comforts him and they have sex. But he admits the next morning, he still isn’t fully “with” her, because he still hears the drumming in his head. Aparna suggests he stop thinking of Nedumudi as his teacher, and think of the whole world as his teacher. GV goes on a trip through all of India, learning different styles of drumming. And meanwhile back home, Nedumudi loses all his students, the NRI is the last one, he leaves saying that he is going to be a contestant on the TV show. Nedumudi is no longer invited to perform at the Carnatic Society concert (the highest musical honor), but the winners of the TV show contest are, and the president of the society is one of the judges. Nedumudi is finally convinced to look for GV, his greatest student. He goes to GV’s parents, and has them call GV. GV comes back and trains again, this time for the TV contest which Nedumudi is sure will give him the prestige he wants. GV appears and at first he and the NRI are tied. And then in the final round, they are challenged to play something original, and GV is inspired to play a rhythm that brings together everything he learned in his whole life, the audience claps along, cheers, he wins. Nedumudi walks out, GV rushes after him to apologize for not playing a rhythm Nedumudi taught him, but Nedumudi says it is all right, he played something even greater. Epilogue, we see GV playing at the Carnatic association, with Nedumudi in the audience holding a baby (perhaps GV and Aparna’s child).

Image result for sarvam thaala mayam

The plot written out like that can’t fully express how beautiful this movie is. It’s in all the little things. Like, the moment Aparna admits she loves GV too. She sewed him up when he got into a fight late at night, and he started following her around, joined the German language classes she was taking, leaving her little gifts. She gently turned him away because he wasn’t like her, they had nothing in common (meaning, he is from a low caste working family and she is a nursing student with a bright future working overseas). But now she runs into him late at night at a tea stall with Nedumudi and makes fun of him and threatens to tell Nedumudi how he used to chase her. He begs her not to do it, and she is angry, says “all of that, and don’t you even think about me any more?” He says yes, he thinks about her. And she says “I think about you too. All the time” and turns and walks away. But, what makes it beautiful, is the moment she stops talking, the movie cuts to the song “Maya Maya” and we see her missing him and thinking of him over and over as she goes about life, and then it cuts back to the same second as she finishes turning and walks away. Any movie would have the reveal that the girl he likes has liked him all along. But to do it this way, with that split second cut, the way their whole emotions change in just a moment, that’s something special.

Really, the plot is the weakest part. The first half is perfection, seeing over and over again GV’s pain in trying to learn something and being cut off from it because he is the wrong caste. And then his joy and dedication once he is allowed in, and his humility, taking the insults and revering and obeying Nedumudi. All the way to the NRI, his seeming friend, betraying him. Revealing the down deep belief that he matters less, because he is poor and low caste and the NRI is rich and high caste. GV goes to his village and sees what his father escaped from by moving to the city. He comes back, fully awake to the pain he carries and unable to move with it. Aparna saves him, and he travels through the country, learning that music is everywhere, it cannot be restricted by the powerful Brahmins, the world belongs to everyone.

And then it all goes strange. The solution to all of this is for GV to win the TV talent competition. With training from Nedumudi. After the TV talent competition was established as being a shallow idea created partly just to give a space to talentless Vineeth after Nedumudi refused to work with him any more, now suddenly it is being redeemed as a true place where talent can be appreciated outside of its origins. And after that moment of understanding that GV doesn’t need a teacher, the World is his teacher, Nedumudi takes him back and GV goes right back to the Guru-student relationship.

The movie was heading towards one message, one that is organic from what we saw, GV might not have been the first person from his community with the talent to learn drumming, but none of them were ever allowed, only his spectacular talent got him a chance. Nedumudi is “kind”, but still reluctant to listen to or help GV. GV shouldn’t have to struggle this hard, the world should be free and open to anyone who has the talent. It shouldn’t be this one in a million chance, will GV winning the TV talent show help the villagers? Will Nedumudi visiting his father’s workshop one time make up for Nedumudi keeping his father outside the walls of his house for years so he did not “dirty” his home? The message the film is moving towards is something larger than just a TV talent competition.

But then that message goes away. It’s about GV’s personal artistic journey, and Nedumudi’s quest for his one true disciple. And it kind of works, there were seeds for this story planted at the beginning. One thing that the film does well is show the passage of time as GV keeps learning. At the beginning Nedumudi promises him it will be 3 years of dedication before he is a master. We see GV start in a class with 5 other students. Then it goes down to 4 others. And then 3. And then just GV and the NRI. GV studies the basics, the NRI lends him recordings of master drummers from all over the world and he listens obsessively. He plays music everywhere, at Aparna’s hospital, at home, everywhere. He is thrown out, and keeps studying on his own, traveling India and drumming everywhere. He comes back and it is finally 3 years later. Nedumudi has lost all his students and come to appreciate GV as his one most faithful disciple. GV has traveled and learned and it has served to bring him to a greater appreciation of Nedumudi. He joins the competition to bring honor to Nedumudi, but then goes above and beyond, loses himself in his own music, and proves he has moved beyond his Guru. Fine, that’s an okay story. But if that is the story they wanted to tell, they should not have focused so much on the caste issues in the first half.

In my cut of this movie, GV goes on his journey and returns to the city to play for the younger man who is head of the Carnatic Society (who already challenged Nedumudi for not being willing to change with the times). He gets a chance to play on stage, a chance Nedumudi lost, and Nedumudi watches him and finally comes to understand how he judged him unfairly, how he did not believe in him because he still saw the low caste Christian boy, not the amazing musical talent he had. The greater message that cast distinctions don’t just harm the lower caste community, they harm everyone, the world loses out on all this beauty because it doesn’t have a chance to flower.

But, the current cut is fine. And they can’t really end with leaving it at “TV talent shows are just about ratings and are shallow contrived things”, because AR Rahman not only judges TV shows, he has found a lot of his collaborators on them. Heck, even Arijit Singh had that kind of career, after a lifetime spent learning classical music, his Guru recommended he go on a TV show as it would be his best chance to get noticed and find a career. It’s a little shallow and simple to just have him win a TV talent contest, but it’s better than the ending I feared, the Drona ending.

Early in the film, when Nedumudi is refusing to teach GV, GV cuts his photo out and puts it on his wall, practicing in front of it. Like Eklavya, watching from a distance and using a statue of Drona to teach himself archery. Nedumudi mentions frequently his fear of shaking hands, that he might suffer a broken finger and lose his rhythm. There is foreshadowing that GV is going to somehow break his hand just like Eklavya having his thumb cut off as the price for learning archery as a lower caste. Thank goodness, the film doesn’t go that way, doesn’t go with the impossibility of change, with inevitable tragedy to the lower castes. GV gets his hand broken, but keeps going, finds a new way to drum and move past the pain.

Even without the Drona-Eklavya plot, or the “GV triumphs outside of the established system” ending, there is still a subtle lesson about the importance of all parts of society. The Vijay fan society that he was a part of at the start stays with him through out. It is the president of the society who helps him get out of jail, and later the society raises the money for him to go on his cross-country journey. And they show up for his TV show, cheering him on. It is his father’s lessons about what makes a drum, and about the suffering of their community, that helps him connect more deeply with his craft. Even Aparna, it is his love for her and their night of sex that snaps him out of his artistic depression. And the wealthy NRI with the Harvard degree, who can’t connect the way GV can, his life is empty. Music isn’t about Nedumudi reaching GV and giving up the rest of his life, it is about GV learning to bring that whole life into his lessons with Nedumudi.

There are all the ways the plot could have gone, but really all of them would have been fine. And the film we got is fine. Because it’s not about the plot, it’s about the feeling, it’s about the drumming like a heartbeat in the background of every scene, it’s about understanding a passion that is so overpowering it is greater than family, than love, than friendship, than anything else in life.

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4 thoughts on “Wednesday Tamil: Sarvam Thaala Mayam, a Movie About Music

  1. Thank you for putting this movie on the list, I really enjoyed it, just totally hit the spot. You cleared up the main question I had, which was who is that actor and how can he play so convincingly? There were definitely moments that felt like a stretch for his acting, but every time he smiled that beautiful smile I forgave him. The joy you see when he plays feels genuine, it lights him up. I loved how they kept surrounding him with children in those moments.

    I see your point about the resolution of the caste story. The only part of it that struck me in the moment as off was that last shot of him at the Carnatic association, because it felt like he ended up right back in a tidy box with nothing changed at all except that it was him on stage instead of someone more appropriate. Maybe that counts as progress, but it’s not exactly revolution. I did love the exploring sequence and I loved how he brought all the different beats into that finale performance. I didn’t feel like returning home was abandoning the freedom he discovered because somehow that also looked like exile. He’d sought out a new guru, but he was disconnected from his community and he was not able to master the kind of drum his father spent his whole life making.

    The TV contest was a bit silly but good spectacle, very relatable for the audience, plus the brother/sister villains were kind of delicious. It’s also base popular entertainment, the opposite of art as holy, self-sacrificing pursuit. Nedumudi gives in to the sin of pride when he sends Peter as his avatar to play the ossified rhythms he’s been playing for decades as a demonstration of purity and superiority. But robot NRI, with the help of the unoriginal former disciple, has programmed himself to play all known rhythms to perfection, Peter can’t compete with him in mimicry. What Peter has is the skill of his master combined with his passion, the breadth of learning he sought all over India from anyone who would teach him, and the fire of suppressed dreams from his community. Peter surpasses his master with his art and he wins over everyone in the audience, not by making them bow to his perfect technique but by connecting to their hearts. Then, when he wins, he doesn’t stay to bask in their acclaim – again, the sin of pride is not his, he is the true artist – he pursues Nedumudi to ask forgiveness, and Nedumudi himself admits that Peter has channeled the river of musical heritage in a way he could have never taught him to do.

    One other touch about Aparna’s character that I didn’t understand until you described the Drona plot you were afraid was taking over: she is the one who restores his ability to play after his hand is broken, by getting him his cortisone shot. There must be something there, about modern science and a strong, independent woman giving Peter the power to overcome the obstacles old ways of thinking have built around him…

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    • This is such a great comment! I love your point about the true art versus pride, and also the connection with people. We always see his performances shine when he connects with the people, when he is traveling, when he is performing in the mall, when he is playing for his friends way back in the beginning. Nedumudi is about restricting access to those who are “worthy” of his art. He isn’t a firm casteist, but he does think that art should only go to the people who can fully appreciate it. But our hero is inspired by the people around him, he wants to bring the music to them. And I guess that makes me okay with the tv show ending, he doesn’t win because of the fake judges or chintsy TV studio or any of that, he wins because he connects to the audience in the studio.

      And your point about the cortison is also brilliant. Again, he is saved not because of Nedumudi and the traditional training and so on, it is because of the woman he fell in love with and chased after in a foolish youthful burst long ago. He is stronger for her, not weaker.

      On Wed, Mar 13, 2019 at 10:47 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I didn’t quite understand the romance until your context, but now it makes sense. When I saw the injection scene in the movie, my reaction was uh oh, if they’re showing this it’s going to wear off right at a key moment. But no! She fixed him up enough to prove his brilliance before the world. Much nicer that the script didn’t live down to either of our expectations.

        I showed my 5-year-old – who I suspect is a drummer in the rough – the drumming through India song and the village drum song and he liked those OK. But then both kids watched the TV show finale and they were way more involved because they understood the stakes immediately. We’re all trained by reality TV now.

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