Ponniyin Selvan: I – picturesque succour for a disgruntled cinephile

September 30, 2022

This is going to be long. So the TL DR version is that PS-I is a wonderful and satisfying watch if you are prepared to invest in storytelling and characterization rather than expecting the screen to be set ablaze in ten minute intervals and to feel roided up with sky high energy levels. With the caveat that this review is written by someone who hasn’t read the novel, so I cannot evaluate how well it has been adapted.

Yours truly has always been perfectly at ease with not being in the flow of trends and fads when it comes to music. Which is not to say you won’t find a single brand new musical thing in my collection – it just may not be something that tops the charts unless you’re talking film music and it’s a Rahman/Ilayaraja album.

This hasn’t quite been the case for me with cinema. No, I never watched Transformers/Fast and Furious/Heropanti/Tiger etc. And yet, I have never been completely out of the mainstream flow. I have yet to watch any of the European auteurs from back in the day – Bergman/Truffaut/Melville/Polanski. I recently watched Kaagaz Ke Phool and Pyaasa at last and while I did appreciate some of the trenchant commentary in the latter and the portrayal of the ephemeral ways of the industry in the former, both were hard slogs for me. I am still a middle budget to big budget Holly/Bolly/Kolly guy very open to films from any language just as long as they are reasonably well paced.

In this scenario, then, 2022 was a surprise…mostly in a bad way. It didn’t look that way when RRR came along. Yes, there was an overload of action but it was beautifully executed with many of the stunts being very imaginatively conceived. And there was overriding purpose along with a moral dilemma to be resolved. In many ways, it was an old fashioned masala film of the sort Bollywood used to make in the best sense of the word with hitherto unparalleled visuals. Not a masterpiece by a long shot, but I most certainly did enjoy it on the big screen.

Things changed with Vikram which to my mind aped the growing trend of creating dark moods by simply using dark visual palates. Please, can these filmmakers watch LA Confidential again (a movie that made $125+mn in ’97 US dollars, so don’t tell me that’s too ‘elitist’) – shot with a super bright palate that brings LA to life, the darkness in that film emanates from the characters. Dark palates cannot be a shortcut to evoke dark characters and noise and excessively compressed background score cannot be a proxy for high octane action, especially if all but one scene (the last one with 1980s artillery) is hand combat.

And then, I saw KGF-2, this time on OTT, and I felt like taking back my criticism of Vikram when I realized that the biggest blockbuster of 2022 was in essence a long highlight reel of stunts, with the Rocky character brazenly exuding WWE vibes. So much then for the populist, working class underdog – oh, an underdog who wants to own all the gold in the world because mama told him to.

The fact that Charlie 777 and Sita Ramam succeeded at the box office warmed my heart (and I loved both, Charlie much more than Sita Ramam) but these were also much smaller films than the three biggest blockbusters of the year. It appeared as if, suddenly, everyone had forgotten that one of the biggest grossers of 2018 was, in fact, Andhadhun. It shouldn’t have surprised me that ‘theme park’ (see: Scorsese) would become the winning formula in Indian cinema given that it already had in Hollywood but it did. Well, thanks to OTT, I could watch Zodiac a couple of times as well as Gone Girl or anything else Fincher…

I nevertheless held out hope for Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus Ponniyin Selvan:I. I hadn’t read the original novel but I had heard about it over the years and had absorbed a rough outline of the story. I reasoned that, surely, surely, Mani wouldn’t make a highlight reel-theme park film. Rahman’s album for the film received a mixed response and truth be told, I didn’t warm up to Ponni Nadhi or Chola either but the presence of a mystical beauty like Alaikkadal gave me hope that this film would have layers and shades and wouldn’t just be a visual rollercoaster ride.

And finally, the day arrived. I didn’t know I would be watching this on day 1 but here I am. Logistically, for a variety of reasons, Friday worked out better than the weekend. And…I feel more than satisfied!

I will define what PS:I is by articulating what it is NOT. It’s definitely not Baahubali. The plotline itself is far more dense and complicated so that so much screentime cannot be devoted to jaw-dropping and physics-defying stunts. Mani also eschews any possibility of comparisons with that Rajamouli opus by relying less on kinetic VFX-fuelled action and a more sort of natural and grounded style even when it comes to shooting battles and fights. What it’s also not is an intense romance against the backdrop of war and palace intrigue a la Bajirao Mastani. There are romantic sub plots in PS:I but they are almost incidental to the story. There is a mission to be performed which grows progressively more challenging as enemies of Sundara Chola and, by implication, Aditha Karikalan and Arulmozhi Varman, plot their downfall. In Bajirao Mastani, the backstory of the feud between Karikalan and Nandini would have got a lot more screentime. Here, it is depicted for a bit before it’s time to move on. That is the general tempo of the film – it’s moving onwards all the time but not at a frenetic pace. You get to know the characters but you get to know them the way you would on a super-slow Harbour Line commute from CST to Panvel , not the way you would if they spent a day with you.

This brings me to the one note of criticism that I do have about the film and also what it’s not. What it also isn’t is Elizabeth, Shekar Kapur’s 1998 film. That film had everything. It had a strong romantic track that ends in betrayal but, unlike Bajirao, that track did not overshadow the rest of the film. The primary focus was on the way the young queen, thrust into leadership, landed on her feet, gradually identified and weeded out traitors and enemies with the assistance of allies and eventually transcended the need for male companionship altogether as she married herself off to England. And one of the things I still remember from the film is a lovely woodwind leitmotif in the score; I remember it vividly enough that it’s ringing in my ears as I type. I could not find one in PS:I. Of course, Elizabeth was before composers got Hans Zimmer-ed.

But the lack of a leitmotif also highlights the one slight weakness of PS:I. A leitmotif isn’t (usually) force-fitted by a composer into the movie but is instead a guide to the overarching theme of the movie. It tells us what the director wants to say about the subject they are filming. And this is where I refer again to the forward momentum of PS:I. That momentum does get oppressive to an extent, so that it feels more like Mani faithfully adapting a book and not Mani interpreting a book.

But these are minor nitpicks. I cannot complain too much when the first half of this year has made me painfully aware of what kind of cinematic climate prevails today. With low attention spans and extremely judgmental social media, there are certain risks that filmmakers are not going to take that they may have in years past. Mani cannot take the risk of telling us what he thinks about PS:I or what his takeaway from it is because we won’t let him, and that’s the bitter reality of today’s toxic discourse.

Having therefore chosen the path of least resistance – by making a film that at least most critics and viewers who have read the book seem to regard as faithful or at least in keeping with the essence of the book – Mani throws more than a bone to the disgruntled cinephile in me by not making the film breathless. PS:I has ample room to breathe and it uses this to stay with characters at times and let the moment linger. The staring match between Nandhini and Kundavai is one. Or the way Karikalan starts off justifying his appetite for conquest and heads into a flashback about Nandhini, revealing his intense hatred of her. By doing this, Mani lets me in on what drives Karikalan. On similar lines, an argument between Madurantaka and his mother reveals that ambition may have propelled him to covet a position that he may not quite be up to holding onto. Or is he? We’ll find out, perhaps, in pt-2.

Of course, to execute all this, Mani needs dialogue. And fresh off my watch of Chup, the difference between a filmmaker who lets dialogue suffocate his film and one who uses it to enliven it was very much evident. Mani also reminds us that just because cinema is a visual medium doesn’t mean it has to be entirely driven by visuals. Ten years ago, Mysskin made a speech to the press where he said Tamil cinema is too much like nadagam (plays) on the big screen. Cut to 2022 and the pendulum appears to have swung too far to the other extreme – where in the name of avoiding exposition, even fleshing out characters and letting the scene breathe seems to be verboten. There is a great danger in the current moment of filmmakers and the audience collectively forgetting that a film, as visual as it is, still needs to be enacted and still has a story to be told. There certainly are arty films where this may not entirely apply but a mainstream, big budget vehicle aspiring to be visual is not likely to challenge you with unsettling, avant garde techniques and may instead reduce cinema to a two hour or so montage that’s intermittently sprinkled with dialogue.

PS:I cost a lot to make and needs to run bigly to get back its cost. In the event, Mani gambled bigly in turn by making a film the Mani way, the way films were being made (and still are being made once you move to the small-to-mid budget range). Mani reminds us that films cannot effectively reflect a part of ourselves if the characters on screen appear to be completely exempt from normal human constraints and if time appears to move at the speed of light. Things need not take an eternity to unfold but they may, if apt, take a bit of time to happen. In a good film, there is great pay off on the other side of your patience and persistence. Stay with a film as it chugs away from standstill and it will reward you with an enthralling ride.

PS:I has had a terrific opening, largely propelled by the Tamil audience but, astonishingly, it even somewhat outperformed Vikram Vedha in Hindi. How much longer this momentum sustains is important to decide its box office fate. But, as an expression of gratitude for providing stylish succour to this hitherto grumpy cinephile, I wish it all the best in sustaining the momentum through to the end just as its eponymous character who went on to become the greatest of Cholans. Raja Raja Cholan vaazhga!

Chup – a film that needed more of its eponymous silence

September 27, 2022

I tried to make a video essay of my thoughts on R Balki’s Chup: Revenge of the Artist but it was too rambling and didn’t cover everything I wanted to say. While I practice my video making game some more, I thought, paraphrasing Mark Twain, that it would be faster to just write it than say it. Weird, I know.

The reason I am writing this review now is the film is currently still in theaters. And it’s not exactly running to packed shows. It did Rs 80 lakhs each, according to reports, on Monday and Tuesday. With Ponniyin Selvan-1 and Vikram Vedha hitting theaters this Friday, Chup will either be gone from theaters for good or at least run much fewer shows from hereon. So…if you want to decide whether to see it in theater or wait for OTT, this is decision time.

I cannot and would not presume to make that decision for you but I can tell you what worked and what didn’t for me in the film. If that helps in any way in your decision, that’s great. If not, I hope reading this will be enjoyable for you. Oh, and no spoilers!

So let’s get to what Chup is about. Chup is about a serial killer’s killing spree and the police’s efforts to bring him to book. So far, so straightforward. But, the twist in the tale here is that the serial killer targets film critics because the killer believes that bad critics are dangerous for cinema and that a bad review destroys the soul of the filmmaker. To be clear, our killer has ‘noble’ intentions. They have no issue with ‘negative’ reviews. What they dislike is dishonest reviews or reviews written out of sheer ignorance (like not knowing that the film a critic is praising is actually a copy of a foreign film).

Without getting into deeper details, let me introduce the central characters of the film (except, of course, the killer!). Arvind Mathur (Sunny Deol) is the inspector charged with the investigation and who must nab the killer before this high profile case is transferred to CBI. Nila (Shreya Dhanvantari) is an entertainment reporter moved newly to Mumbai from Bangalore (a nod to Page 3?) and lives in Bandra with her mother (Saranya Ponvannan). In Bandra, she meets a florist (Dulquer Salman) who becomes her love interest. Zenobia Shroff (Pooja Bhatt) is a psychologist roped in to, erm, understand the psychology of this most unusual of killers.

When the killings hit the news, Nila’s colleague remarks that critics don’t have any impact on the commercial fate of films. This is an important point that addresses how the film is made and which in turn informs its limitations.

You see, a serial killer does not think logically and objectively. Ergo, it does not matter that critics aren’t responsible for films flopping as long as the killer is wounded enough to believe that. And, the best person to tell us why they hate critics so much is…voila, the serial killer!

And if I told you now that the film opens with the wife of the first victim letting herself into the flat and discovering her husband’s badly brutalized body in the toilet? That is, the film starts out as a whodunnit. We do not know who the killer is, nor does the police and we are both searching for the killer’s identity. Until…after two more such killings where we don’t see the killer in the act, sometime before interval, Balki decides to let us in on who the killer is. And this pre-interval reveal already limits the film and what it can achieve in the second half.

See, whodunnits and serial killer stories are already contradictory in how these genres work. A whodunnit must hide the identity of the killer right until the end. Revealing it too soon kills the suspense. A serial killer story, meanwhile, works by showing us just how monstrous the killer is, similar to watching T Rex at work in Jurassic Park. When you start out as a whodunnit, you keep the audience away from the horror, the gore and the sheer terror of a serial killer at work. You cannot fear someone you cannot see. And when the whodunnit is solved too soon, you rob the audience of the suspense. You are now left with a second half that must be watched only to see a film hurtle to its inevitable end.

This also means that the continuing police investigations as well as the introduction of the psychologist in the second half feel a bit boring to watch now that you already know who the killer is. The bigger problem is the eventual exposition of why the killer did what they did is squeezed into the last few minutes of the film. I am not talking about needing more information here. The problem is more that I haven’t been included in this story from the beginning and so, am not able to connect much to it when it is finally revealed. I was shown the perspective of the investigators and, to a lesser extent, the film fraternity and media. But not that of the killer who was then in the shadows. And even after the killer comes out of the shadows, the details about their inner life are not sketched out in much depth.

IMHO, in a film, you need to pick one, maximum two, perspectives and have a through line so the audience knows where we are headed and what’s the payoff. Balki wants to cover the investigator’s perspective, the role of critics, their relationship with the film industry and the killer’s perspective and raison d’etre. The result is, we seem to get fragments of the film in Balki’s head, those fragments that could be squeezed into 2 hours. He clearly has a lot to say (gauging by the interviews) on this subject and seems to not have enough time to say it (perhaps a web series spread over 8-10 episodes would have better helped him to elaborate everything he wanted to cover).

And speaking of saying, I come to a tonal flaw in the film. Imagine, for a minute, a scene in an Indian forest, say in Kanha/Bandhavgarh. A tiger silently stalks a herd of deer through the grass. It approaches and then crouches, ready to charge. At the very last minute, one of the deer catches sight of the danger and issues a warning before making a run for its dear life. But the warning is too late to save all; the tiger charges, gets hold of one laggard from the herd and brings it down with one fell swoop.

You can watch this scene with the above narration if you like:

My point being: the silent and eerie foreshadowing of the stalk is what sets up the brutality of the kill proper. Videos of wild dog packs hunting down prey are less sought after because there is no such element of surprise involved in them.

And this is how psychopaths have been captured on celluloid over the years. Hitchcock showed the way with Psycho. Its unofficial remake Moodupani happily obeyed; so did Sigappu Rojakkal which was based also on a real-life serial killer in 1960s Mumbai. Likewise Silence of the Lambs or even the latest series that’s setting Netflix on fire – Dahmer. The generous use of silence in the set up, to make us dread the moment that we know is coming, and striking, strident scores punctuating the murder. Even the latter is not completely necessary but silence and evocative use of the score is pivotal in the former.

Unfortunately, Chup is loaded with SO much dialogue there’s barely space left to insert music!

There is a lot, seriously a lot of talking. And amidst the talking are clever quips which get cleverer as the characters attempt to outdo each other in Balki’s Best Copywriter Contest. The ensuing noise suffocated me way too much to feel the tension or terror I was supposed to feel. It became more like, at last we are into the home stretch.

I said I would tell you what worked and didn’t work and have thus far only focused on the latter.

What did work were the strong performances. Dulquer, the son of the legendary Mammooty, is proving to be a legend in his own right. Sunny Deol gives a controlled and smooth performance with only one Paaji moment where he emits an angry scream and jumps out of a window to follow the killer’s getaway route. Yeah, that’s the scene, exactly as I described. Shreya Dhanvantari rises well above an underwritten role with an arresting performance. For Saranya, this role is just easy pickings. Even the somewhat overwrought Pooja Bhatt works.

What also worked was the way several scenes, standalone, were staged and shot. If I took them out of the overall context, they were well shot and engaging. And there were many such engaging moments across the film.

But it’s what they come together to, or don’t. Chup is a very interesting film with many engaging moments on offer. The problem is it is, if I may, so over-directed and over-written that the whole of it is less than the sum of the parts. It is a film worth a watch but also not a terribly compelling one for that reason. It is a film that is moderately enjoyable but one that falls short of its potential and promise.

Tere Hawale (cover)

September 18, 2022

Another song from Laal Singh Chaddha that I loved. It’s a duet but I have sung both male and female portions, hence taken the antara in a lower octave to manage it (as it is written for a female voice).

Sky’s the limit but if you’ve already touched the sky? Post-USO Raducanu

September 17, 2022

This is an expansion of a comment I wrote here on tennisforum.com.

When Raducanu won the US Open in 2021, her win sent shockwaves through tennis world. How on earth could a qualifier yet to play one full season at the WTA and in just her second slam draw WIN? And win each of ten matches from Q1 to the final in straight sets? Opinions were split into two camps – surely the sky was the limit for someone who had ALREADY achieved so much. OR, this was a complete anomaly, a fluke and Raducanu would soon be brought crashing down to earth.

Unfortunately, one year after USO, the latter camp is winning, sort of. If you’ve been keeping track, at the Portoroz 250, Raducanu conspired to lose to Anna-Lena Friedsam after squandering a chance to serve out the first set AND bagelling her opponent in the second. Yeah. Talk about grabbing the opportunity to choke with both hands.

I wouldn’t call Raducanu’s USO win a fluke and it has nothing to do with whether I like her (I like her to an extent but not as much as Swiatek or Jabeur or even some of the ‘also rans’ like Muchova). It’s simply the fact that she won every match in straight sets. You cannot fluke that.

But what you can do is produce a level of tennis that is simply very difficult to replicate. In other words, if you have already touched the sky, there’s nowhere higher to go.

After all, it’s not like Federer or Graf won slams without dropping a set dozens of times. So how did Raducanu, again, produce a God-like level of tennis in just her second slam? And, why has she since fallen so far behind, expected to drop now to rank 76 (a minor gain, actually, after her post-USO plunge to #83)?

The answer is fascinating and perhaps a great case study that demonstrates just how much tennis at the highest level is about mental strength and intelligence.

I mentioned Graf. Her counterpart on the men’s side Sampras too could scorch through opponents on his day. At the Wimbledon 1999 final, Sampras swept aside Agassi in straight sets, crushing not just the hopes of Agassi and his fans but of neutrals who had simply hoped for a decent contest. After the match, when asked how he felt, he said he felt numb. That is, he was so much in the zone that he couldn’t feel anything.

BUT Sampras didn’t zone out against Philippoussis in the quarter final or Henman in the semi. He faced difficulties and worked through them, especially against Henman (Philippousis retired injured after winning the first set). That is, even Sampras didn’t blitz out every opponent at a Wimbledon where he displayed imperious form in the final.

Now, Sampras had one of the biggest serves of his time and certainly the most consistently effective one and also one of the biggest forehands. He also had brilliant volleys and overheads, a very good slice and a decent topspin backhand. That is, he had a range of weapons which just made it not so mentally taxing for him to go into the zone. Graf was likewise though with her, you did get glimpses of the strain she imposed on herself once in a while.

Raducanu doesn’t have such massive weapons. She has a good serve and can, on a good day, be clever with her placements of it. She has a good backhand too, can be intermittently handy at the net and is a good mover. But she is not best or even top 10 at anything.

So what was her secret sauce to win the US Open? First and foremost, intelligent use of her serve. As said earlier, she placed it well so that on a fast court, even 100-110 mph serves weren’t so easy to dislodge. For comparison, Osaka and Sabalenka regularly serve 120 mph.

This she combined with faster than usual second serves, often serving 90 mph. A 90 mph second serve wouldn’t be bad on the ATP. With such a narrow gap between first and second serve, opponents were forced to take big cuts at her first serve. This naturally begot errors and let Raducanu cruise through service games unchallenged, freeing her in turn to attack her opponents’ serve hard with returns that made tennis world drool.

But that’s not EVERYTHING she did and here’s where the mental part of it comes in. Raducanu managed to both be very aware and thoughtful of her decision making AND stay in the zone at one and the same time. That’s just supremely difficult and, for one so inexperienced, almost unattainable. I only add the almost because Raducanu did it! If you think about your choices, you may start to second guess your shots and it may hinder your ability to play freely. If you are in the zone, it is hard to think. Playing in the zone is precisely about playing by instinct and muscle memory, without thinking.

Raducanu managed an impossible balancing act of zoning out and playing her best in every point AND being very tactically smart to concede very little to opponents. She barely had any walkabouts or let ups in level at all. I remember that she started a bit slow against Bencic and Sakkari but once she settled down, she was like a freight train. By not giving an inch, she forced opponents to make the play. And by doing so, they played into her hands given that she was serving lights out. It was masterful…and unsustainable.

There is lately an argument being made that Raducanu just got lucky because the entire tour somehow fell into a funk right on that USO and let her win (but that her tennis was just the same then as it is now). This is not true and I have no doubt that even today, were Raducanu to produce her USO level, she would at least get to a R4 or a QF even up against a tougher draw.

The question is what it takes her for to play like that. It’s NOT her day in day out level; that has become painfully evident. Raducanu at her base level does in fact make the kind of mistakes you’d expect one so inexperienced to make. She does gift away hard earned leads and let opponents right back into the match. Also, more disconcertingly, she lacks the power to overwhelm even opponents ranked well below #100. It would appear that her forehand has reverted back to her pre-US Open form during her long break post winning the USO. But even so, I have never seen a slam winning player who’s so dependent on a good first delivery to set up a forehand winner. She pretty much cannot smack a winner from the middle of the court. She needs a loopy, weak return to line up an inside out/inside in winner or she needs to work her opponent out of court to hit a winner into the open court or behind the opponent.

Needless to say, that is a very difficult way to win and the results post USO reflect that. Raducanu in cruise mode would lose to almost anyone ranked inside the top 300. She has to grind out every win and even when trying to do so, may not always have enough to get over the finish line.

How has Raducanu responded? There are two possibilities. One, that she does know deep down that she just caught lightning in a bottle and she may never be able to do this again. Two, that she in fact believes this is her day in day out level and treats these losses as a temporary phase and not as reflective of deeper problems.

People are complicated and it’s entirely possible that it’s a bit of both in Raducanu’s case. The perfectionist daddy’s girl anxious to please everyone perhaps finds these losses increasingly hard to stomach and is struggling to manage sky-high expectations. The adolescent, immature brat part of her, on the other hand, may be questioning what can Tursunov who ‘never won anything’ teach HER, a slam winner, that she doesn’t already know.

We have had an exhibit of this phenomenon already on the WTA. Osaka. The shy and introverted Osaka has increasingly been vocal about the difficulties of managing expectations and about prioritizing her mental well being. At the same time, the same shy Osaka also publicly mocked her coach Sascha Bajin, more or less calling his advice useless ‘captain obvious’ pronouncements. She went on to part ways with him. But she has not won the last 7 slams in a row and in fact, hasn’t even made the last 16 post Australian Open 2021 (the last slam she won). She’s currently ranked #48, not where you’d expect a 4 time slam winner to be languishing. But it may be that Osaka simply maximised what she could achieve with her weapons, namely her serve and her forehand, and this is about as good as it gets for her.

Likewise, maybe Raducanu has already touched the proverbial sky in terms of her tennis achievements. Maybe winning a slam ONCE already required her to play at the absolute limits of her abilities, physical and mental, and she can’t do it all over again. Heck, it’s hard enough for her to play two matches in a row at that level.

It’s not easy. It’s hard to have to battle for every point because you know the opponent can match your power level without great difficulty and is not overwhelmed by your athleticism either (unlike, say, Wozniacki) nor your touch (unlike Radwanska).

In essence, Raducanu is a bang average player who won a slam by managing the mental side at a level that would be phenomenal even for a seasoned pro and continues to beggar belief when you consider that SHE did it. Yes, tennis truly is all about the mental side of things at the highest level and Raducanu is proof. Both of what’s possible when you absolutely get the mental side together and how massive the gap can be when you’re no longer able to capture that state of supreme motivation or Nirvana or Zen, however called.

Koi Sagar Dil Ko Bahlata Nahi – cover

September 16, 2022

In this Naushad composed classic, Rafi captured the outpouring of grief by an intoxicated man even though he didn’t drink. Here is my attempt at it:

Phir Na Aisi Raat (cover)

September 16, 2022

Laal Singh Chaddha was a flop at the box office but the film did yield an amazing album. Phir Na Aisi Raat is my favourite of the songs and here’s my attempt at it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQlH3hZ3GQ0

Cover of Tere Mere Sapne

July 23, 2022

Guide is an album that needs no introduction to any lover of Hindi film music and Tere Mere Sapne and Din Dhal Jaye are arguably its crown jewels. I obviously did cover them in my book but here is an ‘audio’ tribute to Tere Mere Sapne. One of the few songs across genres and languages I have heard, where each and every moment can hold you in rapt attention and transport you somewhere else even though, on the surface, it’s just a slow melodic number with a restrained arrangement.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UV97IBIYZs

Lydian Nadhaswaram – Chromatic Grammatic – Review

July 17, 2022

Will be posting a more detailed ‘text’ review soon. But here is my first video review about an album I really enjoyed and an artist I am super excited about.

Chromatic Grammatic is available on Youtube Music, Spotify and ITunes:

Elena Rybakina – navigating Wimbledon in wartimes

July 12, 2022

Last year, a player with the initials E.R won the US Open, creating history of all sorts.

This year, a player sharing those initials won the Wimbledon. She did so as history of the wrong sort was and is being created.

If the post-USO performance of Emma Raducanu along with the attention her burgeoning endorsement earnings and the non stop coverage from the media (particularly British media) has divided opinions, at least her victory brought largely positive reactions from one and all, a rarity in times in which even sport appears to be losing its ability to unite.

But things couldn’t have been more different as Elena Rybakina served her way to a Wimbledon title, her first grand slam title (just as the USO was Raducanu’s first…and only to date).

In the intervening months, there was the small event of Russia launching an invasion of Ukraine as February drew to a close. The invasion has ignited an intense debate between pro-Russian and pacifist voices on the one side and anti-Russian/pro-NATO and pro-intervention voices on the other. It is not a debate I will wade into here. Suffice it to say, though, that it has, amidst some carping from countries like Hungary, given Europe one common enemy to unite against after a long time. But an enemy neither they nor the US appear quite certain how to deal with. You can’t bomb the heck out of a nuclear power, especially not Russia. Ukraine is not a NATO member so NATO cannot lift the veil of neutrality too much though they continue to provide assistance to Ukraine. And so…sanctions, partly to inflict pain on Russia and partly to appease Ukraine and its supporters.

But sanctions can potentially put an individual sport like tennis in a spot. Especially tennis which counts Russian and Belarussian players in its top ranks. Tennis has largely dodged the bullet thus far with both French Open and US Open choosing to not enforce sanctions against the participation of Russian and Belarussian players.

Wimbledon was another matter. If Boris Johnson himself was among one of the louder anti-Russian voices among world leaders, Wimbledon also took the toughest stand, banning Russian and Belarussian players from participating. This meant Daniil Medvedev and Aryna Sabalenka among others couldn’t play at this year’s Wimbledon. This ban attracted just as much polarized debate as the war itself – one side saying the ban discriminated against individuals who had no role in a war launched by an autocratic leader and further would have no tangible effect on the war and the other saying such measures were necessary to build support to end the war and further, that the Queen or the Duchess of Cambridge couldn’t very well be giving a trophy to a Russian or Belarussian player in this moment.

The catch: Wimbledon ‘only’ thwarted players representing either of those two countries from participating.

So if, like Victoria Azarenka, you live in the USA but represent Belarus, you couldn’t play. If on the other hand, you live or lived in Russia but represent another country, say Kazakhstan…

And that’s the story of how Rybakina, who some would reckon is more Russian/Belarussian than Azarenka, got to play at Wimbledon. She was born in Russia and lived (by some accounts, still lives) in Moscow. At the age of eighteen, the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation agreed to fund her tennis development…IF she agreed to represent them. She signed on and thus became, last Saturday, the first Kazakh player ever to win a grand slam title. Except…

As strenuously as the pro-ban side argued that Rybakina represented Kazakh and her victory was A.O.K, the palpable unease and silence at Wimbledon spoke loudly otherwise. The crowd was all too aware of Rybakina’s antecedents and watched anxiously (offering the most perfunctory, the most feeble applause I have ever heard at the end of a singles final in Wimbledon) as Rybakina sealed her victory. Gawd, would she give a speech in Russian? Would she thank Putin? Such were probably the questions on their mind.

They were in luck. The extremely shy and introverted Rybakina is known for her celebrations, or lack thereof. Combine that with the sheer overwhelm she processed as she won a slam title (the stuff every tennis player who has never won one dreams of) as well as the unease of the situation and she chose…extreme restraint.

She barely made any gestures in celebration of her victory and simply walked up to her box and hugged her team. She accepted the trophy with warmth and dignity from the Duchess of Cambridge, the player for once having to put royalty at ease rather than the other way round. Thereafter, she kept her answers brief at the ceremony, injecting a touch of humour as she referred to how much Jabeur had made her run. There were no references to the war. But she had yet to pass all the tests.

The press conference would test her more as now the media had her all to themselves. And sure enough, one reporter asked her if she condemned Putin’s war. Fortunately for her, he asked that as the second part of a two part question.

So…how did Rybakina play this trick ball? She just hit right through. She said because her English was not good, she didn’t understand the second part of the question and answered the first part instead! Uh…in tennis press conferences, follow up questions are rare and there was none. Catastrophe averted.

And without saying a word, she addressed the complaints about her being robotically unemotional and unexpressive…by tearing up at a question about her parents. She asked, “You wanted to see emotion?”

As you may have gauged from some of my previous writing on the blog, I cherish nuance and dislike people who perpetually want to know what ‘side’ I am on. But in war, not picking a side can become a luxury and lead you to being misunderstood.

On the other hand (and not something that reporter or other ‘peace loving’ virtue signalling liberals apparently cared about), not picking a side can be pivotal to preserving life, of self and family in uh, non democratic environments. Had Rybakina appeased the frankly pathetic virtue signalling efforts and issued a full throated condemnation of the war, she may have potentially endangered family in Russia. Had she revealed herself to be a Putin supporter, her own safe or at least smooth passage out of UK could not have been guaranteed.

But, in the most intensely political of times, she carved out an apolitical path. And by doing so, she not only secured herself and family but also united tennis fans across the world and gave everyone, including the pro-ban group, permission to support and applaud her.

How many would still be able to look past her origins and simply respect and applaud a sporting achievement remains to be seen. But it certainly wouldn’t be for want of her efforts to navigate sport in times of war.

Story: Note To Self

June 30, 2022

My third story for the contest is about a man who in his youth was a pioneer in his organization and now in his fifties finds himself compelled to accept a VRS package. He sits down to reflect on how this came to be and that is his ‘note to self’:

If you enjoyed reading the story, pl leave a rating (at the bottom of the page):

https://notionpress.com/en/story/ssc/20622/note-to-self


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