Monday, 13 July 2015

Kanyaka Talkies: The Politics of Sin

What makes an open ended narrative significant is that it could gain layers of meaning with the passage of time. The creators of such works would definitely have their own ideological explanations and visions regarding the way it has to be received. But since they refuse/forget to 'close' the narration tightly into neat compartments where nothing from outside could interfere with its interpretation, the work would begin to have its own existence beyond what it was originally meant to be. I could sense such a dimension in the award-winning-but-ridiculously-late-to-release-in-theratres-movie Kanyaka Talkies (2013). Perhaps the saving grace is that the movie has a certain timelessness and universality even as it is rooted in a specific time and space. The callous attitude by certain sects of the industry to such a work which had to be talked about as soon as it was ready for viewing could have affected, in various ways, the career of all those who invested their creative capital in it. But what remains unbeaten is the result of a sincere effort by them - the movie.

If you pitch Kanyaka Talkies as a work that deals with the age-old concepts of  lust and sin propagated by colonialism/religion/ideologies, the loss of glorious Indian family system, the demonic interventions of porn industry and so on, it would sound very simplistic, if not too much of a cliché. Though it is possible to point accusing fingers at all the external influences that contribute to the identity of a community reduced more or less to an insular environment, the best way to analyze them objectively would be how they have emerged out of all these, in their true selves. Have they ever succeeded in using their free will in accepting what they are and what they really need, instead of judging the world around them? In the business of being socially accepted creatures, they seem to have failed themselves and evolved into revoltingly frustrated beings. Thus, Kanyaka Talkies moves a bit on Dystopian lines as well. All the melancholy that pervades the movie in the beginning shots moves way to a bunch of hypocritical attitudes to life - the senseless projection of a non-existent morality related to families, double standards regarding sexual needs/longing, exploitation of the vulnerable, an obscene interest in the private lives of others and so on. 

Set in an idyllic village on a mountain top, the movie talks about the closure of a small theatre which entertained the people there in its own special ways. Its survival tactics depended on the changing times and needs. When once-popular movies that had aged and lost their lustre and punch with time couldn't attract viewers, the theatre was filled with the insane heavings of soft-porn movies interspersed with 'bits' of real porn, in which the women who play their part in most cases are exploited in the act as much as they're exploited before and after it. The people who frequent such screenings turn out to be exclusively male, mostly middle-aged, and all of them are apparently married. The same community passes judgements about the lack of morality in the life of the theatre owner Yakoob, played by Alencier Ley. They make sarcastic comments when his older daughter elopes with a man below her class but of her choice, and his deeply religious wife commits suicide in shame when the remaining daughter disappears as well. It's this sarcasm of the society more than his personal grief which makes him escape from the place, after giving the theatre to the christian community so that it could be turned into the first church in the area. 

Fr. Michael, played out brilliantly by Murali Gopi, comes to the village as the church vicar. The small community of ostensibly simple-minded and straight-forward people turns out to be an enigma for him. He is full of 'hope', which his senior priest who sends him there considers to be the bane of the young. In his attempts to remain honest to his calling, he is tortured by the 'sinful past' of the place that culminates in the church which was once the theatre. He begins to hear voices that he struggles to explain to a therapist as the 'obscene' sounds made by women during sex. The noises play a significant role in the movie, thanks to the craftfully done sound effects by a team that includes Rajivan Ayyappan and Harikumar Madhavan Nair. The unresolved mystery surrounding the noises makes it possible to interpret it in various ways - reminding one of the way candid video tapes play a significant role in the Michael Haneke movie Cache. It leads to speculations on Fr.Michael's past, or the conflict between his faith and physical needs, or his incredibly naive mind tortured by the lives he sees around him, complete with their failures, lust, hypocrisy, and suffering. Though not explored as much as it could have been, the noises give a bit of a magic realist touch to the narrative. For some reason the gradual journey of discovering the village reminded me a bit of the approach David Lynch has in the Twin Peaks series and movie as well, sans the overt physical violence aspect.


The one character in the movie that leaves a deep gash in the heart/conscience on any thinking viewer is Ancy, done effortlessly well by Lena. Working as a home nurse in the nearby city, she is tempted to make sense of her identity and aspirations in life by taking the wrong turn - ending up as an 'extra' actor in movies and then getting constantly exploited in the process of being trapped in the underbelly of film industry. When her double life is exposed in the small village, she too has to escape the place, like Yakoob. While Yakoob had to stop the bus he was travelling in and hop out hurriedly to escape from the sarcasm of the people around him, Ancy manages to say goodbye to the God in the church and ask a piercing question to Fr.Michael, which might sound like a cliche, but true to the core: "Are lives like mine entirely worthless, Father?"

The families of the village that find some space in the narration are not entirely devoid of the false faces. It is hinted that adultery, skewed man-woman/sexual relationships and lack of respect towards individuals are all as rampant here as one could expect in any place - not only villages, but small towns and cities as well. But what could be the reason/s for all these? There are only some pointers for the discerning viewers here, since a moral investigation doesn't seem to be the priority of the creators, at the cost of aesthetic concerns. 

To me, the porn industry is not the sole villain here. It's the the 'fake noises' women are made to make in the process of 'creating scenes' that titillate, which has turned it into an industry of physical/psychological violation.These violations happen not only in the soft-porn movies and the bits shown in the theatres or the later-age video clips that circulate on mobile phones, but have seeped into the daily lives of seemingly simple and innocent people who are obscenely voyeuristic - taking more interest in other people's lives than their own, and passing unwanted judgements. Sexual frustration could be at the heart of it, as hinted at in many places in the movie. There are quite a few instances in which such weird moral policing shows its ugly face in daily life. 

1. A single man is asked to shut up when he tries to defend Yakoob as the latter is accused by the family-men of corrupting their society by the kind of movies he plays in the theatre.

2. An elderly lady who travels in the bus with Ancy asks her intrusive questions as to where she is going alone in the late hour, whether she is married, what her husband's occupation is, and what his name is.

3. Villagers who are concerned about the peculiar behaviour of Fr. Michael come to the conclusion that his problem could be his young age, hinting at the challenges of a young priest to lead a celibate life.

The best moment in the movie is when Ancy dares to answer the intrusive questions in her own way of defiance, as their bus passes by a DYFI Che Guevara poster and some loud announcements. She says she is going to Bolivia, her husband's occupation is guerilla warfare, and his name is Che Guevara. And, the elderly woman is fully convinced and satisfied with these answers, though she couldn't obviously understand a wee bit what they mean!


The excitement and pleasure that the people derive from such crossing of personal limits in order to judge others are not different from what they get from watching sleazy films and bits in the theatre or video clips on mobile phones. And worse still, it's mostly women who end up being the victims in most cases - be it the girls who disappear from the village, or the mother who commits suicide, or the young woman whose video clips are circulated.

There could be other ways of seeing the porn industry, as a letting lose of imagination or as unbridled avenues to pleasure or even jouisaance - which, as one understands with age, has its own limits, though not necessarily of the moral kind. The film doesn't explore that aspect much, but the reason could be obvious - it is conceived more as a revelation to the sexual/moral hypocrisies, and in the process it happens to reveal a few significant layers of socio-cultural hypocrisies as well. 

Kanyaka Talkies is based on a story titled '18+' by the young writer PV Shajikumar and it is directed by KR Manoj. The lead actors Murali Gopi and Lena have given their heart and soul to their roles, contributing in major ways to making the movie a work of art worth exploring. There are quite a few memorable and controlled performances by Indrans, Parvathy and Alencier as well. 

It works as a movie that disturbs you. If you care enough, you may even carry the disturbing voices in your mind as you move out of the theatre. The aesthetics that work here are perhaps based on that ability to disturb creatively, and the politics of sin here could be the politics of physical/psychological violations around you. If you are sure you are not directly a part of it, you would have to agree that you end up being a silent spectator in many such cases.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Children Sorting It Out : A.J. Ashworth’s ‘Sometimes Gulls Kill Other Gulls’

     Some short story collections open with a very strong story that takes you by surprise, to the point of making you wonder whether the writer would live up to the expectations thus raised, as you read the stories that follow. ‘Sometimes Gulls Kill Other Gulls’ in A.J. Ashworth’s collection of stories Somewhere Else, Or Even Here was one that had such an effect on me. It made me doubt whether it was humanly possible to be so consistently brilliant in all the fourteen stories in the collection. My doubts were proven wrong. It was not just that the other stories were as good, but there were some that even surpassed the structural and thematic originality of the first, like ‘The Future Husband’, ‘Paper Lanterns’, ‘Bone Fire’, ‘Tattoo’, ‘Offerings’ and ‘Overnight Miracles’, to mention just the ones that bowled me over.
      'Sometimes Gulls Kill Other Gulls’ remains my favorite though. I would remember the author and the book for this opening story, in the years to come. The title drew me in instantly, and the casual, understated observations that later progressed to a chilling narration of a totally unexpected turn of events on a beach in a rainy evening kept me on tenterhooks. 
     In an interview with the writer/academic Adnan Mahmutovic, Ashworth reflects on her approach to short fiction:          

I start small and stay small. I don’t really think about the larger life and take a chunk of that; I just automatically see the fragment and explore that. For me, it’s like the idea of the microcosm and the macrocosm. The microcosm or little world will always contain enough detail to hint at that bigger world. A grain of sand contains aspects of the shell or rock from which it came, as well as the beach and ocean (to paraphrase Steven Millhauser).
This explains how the story works. Though it is narrated in third person, it explores the point of view of the young girl Lainey for most part. She is shown self-indulgently drawing her name on the beach sand with a stick, being aware of her dad “asleep on a towel the colour of dull grass” and her mother reading “the magazine that’s collapsed in her lap like a huge, tired butterfly”. As an intrusion to this state of bliss comes a local boy a couple of years older than her. Just like any other girl would, Lainey resists this intrusion of her space by the boy, who introduces himself as Jeremy. But she also experiences a pull towards the strange, unknown world Jermey represents and tries to describe.
     When Jeremy mentions that gulls kill each other at times, she tries to counter that. When he describes such an incident in which a gull dies with its eye hanging out, she thinks it’s disgusting. When he reveals that it was he who put it out of its misery by stamping on its head, she observes that he was wrong then about gulls killing other gulls.  

     Jeremy entices her with the description of rock pools and a cave away from the visibility of her parents. In an adventurous spirit, she follows him, without taking permission from her parents who are asleep now. Once in the cave, she feels at ease for a while, as long as they enjoy the innocent exploration of the hidden world. Then they come across an old Labrador trapped in the pool. It is unable to come out of the cold water, and is about to die. Lainey’s earnest efforts to save it are mocked by Jeremy, though he seems to know how to deal with the dog better than her. She takes charge, asks him to hold the dog’s head up as she goes in search of her stick which she left near the rocks. Once she is out of the cave, she realizes the passing of time, and there are dark clouds. When she comes back with the stick, the dog is dead, and she suspects that Jeremy killed it.
     Lainey argues with Jeremy and threatens to go out and tell what he did, to the man she thinks is the owner of the dog. It is then that Jeremy shows a different face:
‘I’m going to tell that man,’ she says, her voice strong again. ‘And I’m going to tell him what you’ve done.’ She marches towards the opening.
He sticks his leg out so she can’t get past. ‘You’re not.’
She pushes at his leg, but he steps in front of her, still looking at the ground.
‘I’m,’ she says.
He speaks again, so low this time that at first she doesn’t understand what he’s said. Then her brain makes sense of it. ‘What if I push you in the water with that dog?’
Lainey sees the shadows on the rocky walls of the cave and how they lurch and stagger from side to side. Her heart taps inside her like fingers on a window. ‘What?’ she says, noticing how Jeremy seems bigger now, so that she can hardly see the way out at all.
‘I could,’ he says, ‘push you in.’
Just as Lainey considers using her stick in self defense, she is relieved to hear noises outside and her dad comes in to save her from the situation. Something changes among the kids that moment at which both were up to harm the other, and it seemed danger, or even death, was just a second away.
…Jeremy’s shoulders drop and he stands aside to let her pass, presses his back into the cave wall.
‘I wasn’t going to do anything,’ he says, in the same quiet way. ‘I wouldn’t have touched you.’
Once she escapes from the situation, Lainey is eager to go home, leaving behind her stick, her name written on the beach, the dead dog, the man calling out for it, and Jeremy.
     The title of the story has a menacing effect during the climax. The mystery about Jeremy, as seen through the eyes of Lainey, contributes a lot to the tension. It is not clear whether Jeremy is really harmful or just a small kid trying desperately to impress a younger girl in his own ways. His big talk has an effect too, though Lainey is always on the defensive. There is a moment when a reader might wonder Lainey would overreact and put Jeremy’s life in danger. That is a moment when the story escapes a bit from Lainey’s view of the situation. 

     Despite the notion of danger that lurks in the background, Ashworth narrates the charming ways in which children connect, though fleetingly, beyond their disparate life circumstances. It can be considered a coming of age story as well, despite its length of just above twelve pages. Just as Ashworth reflects, a small fragment of life is her concern here, but there is a lot about the larger aspects of life in that fragment. However, there is no attempt to present it as a cautionary tale, or to limit it wholly to the perspective of the privileged class. She keeps the story open-ended. Jeremy is an intriguing character, and though his motives remain vague, he is capable of taking charge and keeping at least a few situations under control. His acts can have multilayered interpretations, just as the acts of Lainey. While it is not an easy task to tell an entire story from the perspective of a child and to hint at social and class differences, Ashworth succeeds wholly in the task by juxtaposing conflicting dialogues, images and ways of thinking entirely from the world of children.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

How To Play (With) The Famous Hamlet Scenes

The recent release of Haider, a Vishal Bharadwaj movie which happens to be a loose adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, seems to generate a lot of debates these days. This tempted me to revisit two earlier Hamlet adaptations - one by Franco Zeffirelli in 1990 starring Mel Gibson in the lead role and the other by Michael Almereyda in 2000 starring Ethan Hawke. They had taken some liberties with the plot, action, characters and dialogues of the original play. However, the Zeffirelli version remains closer to the original in comparison both in its treatment and setting, while Almereyda has entirely modernized the play, experimenting with plot reconstruction and fully altered setting. Zeffirelli sticks to the claustrophobic stone castles, ship and meadows that are demanded in the play and sets the film in the time-space limits of the original, while Almereyda’s Hamlet is set in the 2000 New York, with the characters transformed to CEOs in the corporate world and students in the film school. Thus, the depiction and interpretation of the famous scenes of the play take entirely different dimensions in both the versions.

The ‘nunnery scene’ in Zeffirelli’s Hamlet varies slightly from the original. The lines “get thee to a nunnery” are deleted from the scene in which Hamlet meets Ophelia in the basement, pried on by the King and Queen at the behest and company of Polonius. The fact that the entire passage that starts with “get thee to a nunnery” is skipped may shock the audience as they find out that the rest of the dialogue, including the curses on Polonius that follows, are kept intact.

However, the fact that Hamlet utters it wholly in the ‘mousetrap’ scene comes as another surprise. The director might have deliberately displaced the passage to make it more dramatic, as Hamlet is shown fighting with his feelings towards Ophelia while watching the play within the play, even placing his head on her lap. In the Almereyda version, Ophelia is suspected by Hamlet as he comes across the wires that are attached to her by her father, presumably to make use of the surveillance camera that are ubiquitous in the entire movie. Hamlet has reason to suspect her, and his words “are you honest?” suffice for the long sentences that are sheared from the original and creates a very modernistic “get thee to a nunnery” gesture as he abandons her, taking her for a spy working against him with others. 

The ‘mouse-trap scene’ involves the staging of a play within a play, and Zeffirelli promptly makes a play within the movie to create the original effect. However, the aforementioned displaced dialogue by Hamlet makes it a convoluted scene, with an expressively high-decibel spectacle, made complex deliberately. The dumb show that portrays the killing of King Hamlet is watched by all, and the reaction of the king and the queen and the revelation regarding the crime are all spiced with the nunnery dialogue rendered in its passionate heights. In the Almereyda version, the mousetrap happens to be a movie that Hamlet makes in the film school comportment. The entire movie creates the mousetrap effect as the director creates many movies within the movie, including the blockbuster action scenes and the surveillance cameras that pervade the scenes. However, the staging of the mousetrap is fragmentary in this version and the film survives Hamlet’s death. The reaction of Gertrude, exhibiting guilt, overshadows Claudius’s shock and discomfort in this version.

The ‘closet scene’ in Zeffirelli’s adaptation remains truthful to the original as much as possible. However, some Freudian implications are achieved through the close-up shots where Hamlet confronts Gertrude with regard to the comparisons of King Hamlet and Claudius. Even as Gertrude shows her grief and shock with Hamlet’s revelation about the King’s murder, she takes it “the very coinage” of his brain, as she is blinded by her sins that she fails to see the ghost of her husband. In the passionate exchange of words, the film depicts Hamlet pushing Gertrude to the bed and their expressions of distress and pain are shot in such a way that it reminds the audience of a sexual union, though fragmentarily. In the Almereyda version, Gertrude is not someone who goes through the games of fate unwittingly. She is depicted as a woman suffering from alcoholism, and after the scene in which she has to confront Hamlet’s accusations, she drops him at the airport, kisses him goodbye and resorts to drinking. She is depicted as a woman who falls for her passion and the element of guilt and deliberate denial are poignantly depicted in this version than the hapless nature of a woman’s frailty, though led by animalistic passion, in the original.

The ‘mad scene’ in the Zeffirelli version is replete with the cinematic implications that add much more to the Freudian intent. Ophelia is seen as sitting on top of the queen’s throne with her feet up. In her demented state of mind, she hands over flowers to all present, including the King, Queen and Laertes. She maintains most of the singing in the original, though the director shuffles the use of song for his purposes of special effects. The scene where she leaves the castle with her “good night sweet ladies” is cut to her sitting over a bridge on the lake and Gertrude’s narration of her death is used as a voice-over, which creates an illusion of time-space, to good effect. 

However, Almereyda’s Ophelia does not sing, and she contemplates suicide on the lake in her dejected state of mind, but is found dead, mysteriously, in the Guggenheim fountain, in shallow waters. The mad scene also opens simultaneous with an art exhibition at the Guggenheim. And Gertrude’s reaction is rather of embarrassment than pain and shock in this version. 

The ‘grave-digger scene’ though edited considerably, leaving out all the dialogues between the diggers, maintains the scene where Hamlet talks to Yorick’s skull in Zeffirelli’s version. Laertes does not jump into the grave, though the confrontation between him and Hamlet is done on the graveyard itself. Mel Gibson’s passionate delivery of the dialogue, “Forty thousand brothers/ Could not with all their quantity of love/Make up my sum” revives the emotions and rage from the original. In Almereyda’s version, the grave-digger scene is conspicuously absent, and there had been a considerable amount of criticism against this and the hurried and unnatural sword-fight in the end and the sudden use of guns, all deviating from the modernistic depiction which was maintained all through the movie. 

Which among the two versions is to be preferred is not really a good question, as both have their reasons to be what they are. I appreciate the way Almereyda cleverly juxtaposes the different modern gadgets and electronic possibilities to tell the story of Hamlet to the present generation. And he has also succeeded in that to a great extent, with the help of an excellent cast with Ethan Hawke as Prince Hamlet, Kyle Mac Lachlan as Claudius, Diane Venora as Gertrude, Bill Murray as Polonius and Julia Stiles as Ophelia. However, those who have read the original Hamlet of Shakespeare and seen a few adaptations that stick to the time-space elements as much as possible and expect a similar experience may not be much impressed by the Almereyda version's too many subversions. Most of the emotional and psychological conflicts and the cathartic effect they might expect from a Hamlet adaptation might be missing there, perhaps due to the casual way in which the dialogues are delivered, and the presence of a lot of clever attempts of adaptation to the modern time that the director tries hard to bring in. The strong-point of the movie is perhaps its daring attempt to spot a Hamlet story in fully modern setting and to tell it using modern narrative methods.

Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, though it was cut down to just two and a half hours, and did manage with just the punch lines, might be the one much closer to the original, if you are looking for that. The soulful performances by Mel Gibson as Hamlet, Alan Bates as Claudius, Glenn Close as Gertrude, Helena Bonham-Carter as Ophelia and Ian Holm as Polonius and their impeccable dialogue delivery and costumes can be sufficient enough to lift the audience to lofty levels of introspection the way Shakespeare plays do. The subversions are mostly limited to some scene and dialogue reversions, and it does not affect the general tone and tempo of the movie, and rather makes it accessible to the present-generation with its balanced treatment of the plot, scene-setting, dialogue and action.