Monday, September 12, 2011

neither night nor day, the bald soprano and that girl in yellow boots

I was delighted to come across the book in a school library. I didn’t know such a collection of stories written by women writers from Pakistan existed. The anthology has been edited by Rakhshanda Jalil and published by Harper Collins India. It features 13 stories from across the border, all of them reemphasizing, at least for me, how futile and unnecessary partition was. The concerns of the people living on both sides remain the same. Whether it is the harried single mother who wants the middle aged Anglo Indian matriarch to stay with her family to babysit the children during school vacations and is ready to go to any length to prevent her from migrating to Australia in ‘Plans in Pink’ or the new immigrant to London of ‘Neither Night Nor Day’ who has married an Englishman but finds it difficult to let go of her taste for Biryani and Bollywood blockbusters. She concludes a trifle sadly at the end of the story ‘I am part of a nameless mongrel humanity with nothing to claim as my own, not even the land I stand on or the roads I left behind.’ The stories are both powerful and evocative and I am exercising tremendous discipline not to devour them all at once. I want to be with these stories for a long long time.

On Saturday I went to watch a play at Rangashankara with participants from the current batch of the Creative Writing workshop. ‘The Bald Soprano’ is the creation of the genius playwright Eugene Ionesco. Critics and theatre lovers alike have been attempting to deconstruct his works for decades but they always evade cubby holing. This one is about the meaningless existence of the English Bourgeoisie and their petty concerns. Ionesco was apparently trying to learn English during the time he wrote this play. There are a number of academic interpretations of the play but I suspect the playwright was completely frustrated with his English tutor and decided to hurl insults at anything British by writing this play. Good theatre and great plays are always about protest and this one is no exception.

Kirtana Kumar’s production fell woefully short of expectations. It is always difficult to direct and act in the same play and the challenge becomes all the more daunting when you have taken up a masterpiece. I am not sure whether it was just a bad day on stage for the cast or something more permanent but the performances started to fall apart especially during the latter part. Kirtana, always a brilliant actor decided to go in for a British accent that jarred. The rest of the cast mercifully didn’t fall into the trap but that’s not saying much. The actor playing the maid was a disaster, screeching her lines and being completely indecipherable. Fizz as the Fireman was audible but as the catalyst that changes the context by making the characters in the play confront what they had tried to drown in meaningless affected conversations, his performance lacked depth. He seemed content to remember his lines and deliver them on stage. Prerna Kaul was the only saving grace among the actors, giving her role an infectious energy but she too found it tough to maintain the tempo by the end of it.

I am not sure whether Konarak Reddy’s guitar playing did not match the performance or the performance did not deserve the music, but it became too overbearing and not in a way that enhanced the production. Obviously something had happened backstage to distract Kirtana the director between scenes and she brought it to stage with her when she came back as Mrs. Smith. There were two more performances to follow on Sunday and I hope the team managed to get over the blues they suffered on Saturday. Kirtana has given Bangalore some seminal works like ‘Shakuntala’ and the expectations from whatever she takes up are always huge. It is a measure of the city audience’s generosity that three individuals in the audience stood up to give the performers a standing ovation while they were taking the curtain call. But the rest were left unimpressed including half a dozen of us who had trooped in with great enthusiasm.

Satyajit Ray had an affair with Madhabi Mukherjee while he was directing ‘Charulatha,’ a film he considered to be his best work. Both Mukherjee and Ray’s spouse have at different times admitted to the relationship after the auteur director's death. I don’t think any true lover of cinema cares too hoots about this piece of trivia even though there is a recent Bengali film on this particular episode from Ray's life. We are just happy that a film like ‘Charulatha’ got made.

Anurag Kashyap and Kalki Koechlin didn’t have to get into any clandestine tangle. They were committed to each other while ‘That Girl in Yellow Boots’ was being conceptualized and got married before the film released. But it is sad that Kashyap has announced he will not make any more films with Kalki. After the Ray- Mukherjee association, the Kashyap- Koechlin pair has done the most rewarding work for Indian cinema. The director and his muse not only gave us the best contemporary adaptation of 'Devdas,' they have come up with truly cutting edge cinema at par with best in the world in ‘That Girl in Yellow Boots.’

Kashyap’s film is as much about Bombay as Kiran Rao’s ‘Dhobhi Ghat’ was. But there is no romance in his version of the city. This is the Bombay where pre-pubescent girls are confined to cages to pursue sexual slavery. There is nothing remotely beautiful about the dingy alleys, seedy massage parlours and the hell holes as homes it offers to the less fortunate migrants. Kalki plays a British girl who is lost in in the squalid metropolis in more ways than one. She does get what she is looking for but there is no redemption in store for her. You can’t imagine this film without Kalki Koechlin just as you can’t visualise Charulatha without Madhabi Mukherjee, although the two films are as different as they could be.

It is obvious that Kashyap is a director who respects his actors. He manages to extract brilliant performances from even those playing minor characters. They are all outstanding in the film. My only quibble with the director is about the way he short changes the Bangalore theatre actor Gulshan Devaiah by giving him a role that plays to the gallery. Devaiah shows what he is capable of in one scene where he searches for the right switch to turn off an unfamiliar television set. But his character soon descends into a caricature, the only one in the film to meet such a fate.

And that’s the most unfair thing you can do to an actor who has the potential to grow into one of the greats of Indian cinema.

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