Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Age of Innocence- My Week with Marilyn, Barfi and The Saint Zeta Society

When it comes to Marilyn Monroe, all of us, especially the men, will always be twenty three year olds. We long to breathe the same air as she did. And know instinctively if that had happened, we would have led a different life, deeper, more charmed, more significant somehow. That’s why our empathy is with the wide eyed young man, Colin Clark, played brilliantly by Eddie Redmayne in ‘My Week with Marilyn.’

Clark was the third assistant director for ‘The Prince and the Showgirl,’ the British film that united the acting legend Sir Lawrence Olivier with the world’s ultimate sex symbol. The book is based on his memoir. There is something about Redmayne’s performance that prevents us from mocking him for his helpless devotion to Marilyn. Instead we gawk at her with his eyes. And when she decides to make him her chosen one on the sets of the film, we don’t envy him. We only know he is not at fault for breaking young Lucy’s heart.

Lucy is portrayed by the luminously beautiful Emma Thomson. But we know her beauty, her charm, her youth and innocence is going to be no match to the Monroe magic. She is not the hero of this fairy tale. Strangely enough, for a film based on two cinema legends, the scenes that stay with you afterwards are those that have Redmayne and Watson in them. Both Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh use their craft and inherent brilliance to their interpretation of the two legends. But it’s evident they have worked hard at becoming the characters. They are not good enough to conceal the labour that has gone into their performances. Redmayne and Watson, on the other hand, just are.

‘Barfi’ is also about innocence, albeit of the special kind. There are films that let down their actors just as there are actors who fail the film. Anurag Basu’s films always fall in the former category. However the acting is always brilliant, almost undeservingly so, in Basu’s films. Right from his first film ‘Murder’ that turned Mallika Sherawat into a star for all the wrong reasons. In a sex starved country like ours, all the attention went to Sherawat’s bedroom sequences with Emran Hashmi. What got overlooked was that she had turned in a very convincing performance in that one. Afterwards, it has been all downhill for her. The same can be said about Shiny Ahuja and Kangna Ranaut in ‘Gangster.’

Barfi has three actors who compete and collaborate with each other to rescue a screenplay that is always in the danger of sinking. The car that is pushed in a lake in the film may very well be a metaphor for the writing. But the talented trio of Ranbir Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra and Illeana D’Cruz manage to salvage the film.

I didn’t think this is Kapoor’s best performance. He is very good but not as good as he was in ‘Rockstar.’ He has worked very hard on this role and his performance is well crafted rather than heartfelt. Some of the chaplinesque physicality he brings to his role has already been displayed in ‘Ajab Prem ki Ghazab Kahani.’ We love him as long as we are watching the film. But it is not a character that stayed with me after the credits had rolled.

The female actors in the film however are top class, each notching brownie points for the consummate ease with which they play the two women in love with Barfi. Illeana D’Cruz is no newcomer. She has been around in the South Indian film scene for a while now just like Asin before she made her Hindi film debut in 'Gajini.' Ironically enough, she is likely to bag all the promising newcomer awards unless Karan Johar manages to get it for the three new actors featuring in his ‘Student of the Year.’ That one is going to be as corny as hell. As bad if not worse than ‘My Name is Khan.’ Mark my words.

Barfi ultimately belongs to Priyanka Chopra. It is not easy for the female lead of a commercial cinema to turn unattractive for a scene, let alone for the length of an entire film. Chopra is not a trained actor like Kapoor but she uses her gut and instinct to touch the inner core of Jhilmil, her character. For me, the most powerful scene in the film is when Chopra steps out to tell D’Cruz, Kapoor belongs to her in the climax of the film. Both of them manage to triumph over the lacklustre script in that moment, making it one of the most poignant moments ever in a Hindi film.

Thanks to Flipkart, I manage to procure Ruth Rendell’s latest ‘The Saint Zita Society.’ The book reminded me of the time when I was on my first writer’s residency in the University of Canterbury, Kent. In a dinner party hosted by one of the professors in the university, I made the mistake of talking about domestic helps we employ in India only to face disdainful looks by everyone present. ‘We have done away with that sort of thing many years ago,’ commented a scornful British writer, another guest.

Not if one goes by Rendell’s latest. The book is about a society formed by the drivers, gardeners and domestic helps of an affluent neighbourhood in London. Rendell is in top form here, treating her character with a healthy dose of compassion and humour. There are some innocents in the book including the victim. The man who is behind the murders is delightfully wily though. Just as the MP’s wife and daughter who take turns to bonk the good looking driver. All very vintage Rendell.

I got my American visa a couple of days before all the trouble erupted for the film that has angered a part of the Islamic world. Now that I have less than three weeks to leave, I can spend time reading books and watching plays and films with family. Also going for a short holiday this weekend. So maybe I will write about that in my next post.

Happy Ganesh Chaturti to all of you.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Mind the Gap

I was in Class VI when I chanced upon ‘Room on the Roof’ by Ruskin Bond. The book belonged to an older cousin who had it as her school text in Class X. I read it in one ecstatic gulp that lasted a little over an hour. For days afterwards, I fantasized about growing up to be this writer who lived in the hills of Dehradun, met fascinating characters and wrote about them.

A good thirty years later, my son’s English teacher was delighted to hear we had been to Bond’s home town to meet him and he was asked to work on a collage with the author and his stories as the theme. Coincidentally, my son also happened to be in Class VI at that time. I hope I am not in a minority when I say Bond is the most influential Indian writer of our times for all those who have had the privilege of being educated in English in post independent India although I have never come across any power list that features him. Margaret Thatcher once famously remarked 'Power is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.'

Power lists and the legitimacy of those who feature in it are not the only disagreement I have with Shashi’s Deshpande’s recent piece in The Hindu on the waning influence of artists and writers titled ‘The Case of the Missing Artists.’ Deshpande raises many pertinent issues. When she says ‘There are no debates about ideas, only controversies, often created by the media itself,’ we can instantly relate it to how the Jaipur Literary Festival was hijacked by the absence of Salman Rushdie this year.

However I don’t agree with Deshpande when she laments the dumbing down of language and literature in India and the gap widening between serious and popular works and their creators. This division has always existed world over. The gap is very much present between Ian Mcewan and Jeffery Archer in UK. In India, regional literature has always had this gap. I grew up in Bihar and read as many books in Hindi as in English and knew even in those early years that there was a difference between the works of a Gulshan Nanda and a Manu Bhandari. It didn’t stop me from reading both the authors just as I dug into a James Hadley Chase thriller and Gone with the Wind with equal relish.

The real issue as I see it is that for a long time Indian Writing in English was perceived to be an elitist preoccupation and protected by snobbery. The authors and the publishers colluded in this process and the works of writers like Ashok Banker who tried to negotiate the space of popular/ pulp fiction in the 80s and the 90s did not receive the attention they deserved. The emergence of a new breed of writers in the last one decade who are unapologetic about wanting to entertain the reader changed the rules of the game. Thanks to a Chetan Bhagat, an Amish Tripathi or an Advaita Kala, publishers are ready to give popular fiction its due. And if there has been a dumbing down by these writers of more serious fiction, I am afraid the first stone is inevitably cast by the writer of more serious works who is finding it difficult to share the identity with writers wanting to tell stories to entertain without bothering too much about the intricacies of the language. If by ‘badly written’ the allusion is to the language and grammar of these books, aren’t editors and the publishers as much to blame? Hemmingway may not have won the Nobel Prize in Literature if someone hadn’t fixed his spellings for him.

One should also add here that writers of popular fiction in India come from the same class as authors of literary works. Many of them are from premier management and technical institutes and gave up lucrative professions to write. If they write a particular kind of book, we have to assume they do it as much out of choice as writers of literary fiction. Yes, there has been a refreshing democracy in the Indian Writing in English space of late. But that has more to do with the fading away of feudal processes.

We don’t have palace writers and artists anymore and that may not be such a bad thing after all.