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. 

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Haider - Some Chutzpah For The Wavering Prince

What is the ultimate tragedy in Shakespeare's Hamlet? Some say it's obviously the Prince's inability to take a decision. As we know, he is torn between two world views - the one his existence as the prince of Denmark demands, and the other the one he acquires from his education and exposure to the worlds beyond. He makes his entry not as a mere poetry-spitting dandy, but a deeply philosophical, self-reflective young man troubled by what has gone wrong with the world. But what is The Tragedy in the end? Is it just the fact that his procrastination and late realizations have led to an unavoidable scene in the final act - a stage scattered with dead bodies of friends and foes? And the fact that he has to be dead too - because, ahem, he's not fit for the role of a king anymore with a shattered mind? For me, it's better that he dies that way, as he won't be the Hamlet we relate to, if he overcame the trauma and became a Machiavellian Prince. I can't imagine him sitting there with an analytical mind, taking large chunks of personal and public morality in his hands and chopping them to neat dry cubes to be kept safe in their separately assigned boxes, as he 'rules' happily ever after.

But there is a greater tragedy there if we transfer the whole story to a later stage in history, a specific time and space. That is the predicament of Vishal Bhardwaj's movie Haider, a free adaptation of the play. A screenplay by the celebrated Kashmiri writer Basharat Peer and Bhardwaj himself has its setting as the Kashmir of the mid 1990s. Haider is a student returning home from Aligarh, after hearing about his father taken away by the paramilitary force for alleged links to militants. Like many such men, his father has 'disappeared'. Haider is just half-way through his research studies in the University and comes back to see his house in ruins and his mother looked after by his uncle. That sets the scene for the drama, for he clearly wants to find out the truth behind his father's disappearance, and he is ready for revenge. The tragedy here is that the two choices he has are not real choices - because, as his mother says, revenge breeds more revenge in his little piece of paradise, and there is no scope for a peaceful redemption of the land, in the near or distant future. Here, the ultimate tragedy would be Haider ending up as a deranged murderer hunted by all, as he is a prince only metaphorically and his land is already a lost battle, even before he was born. There are already foes pretending to be friends trying to rule the land and the minds, and their strong/strange/ghostly presence could not be wished away with random acts of so-called heroism. That calls for some chutzpah then, even if it's of a self-destructive nature. And it's Vishal Bhardwaj who rises up to take that challenge and make Haider the real hero of the times, at the cost of giving his audiences sleepless nights - if they care for the tears, and blood, and unfulfilled desires the snow-covered valley absorbs.

Apart from the character of Haider played out so well by Shahid Kapoor, there are a handful of actors here who could meet the usual challenges, and more, of a Shakespearean play.Tabu is the obvious choice for the role of Haider's mother, and if her performance doesn't surprise you, it is because she has already proven her talent in many other movies. She is the perfect fit for Ghazala, as she could portray her moments of misery, grief, love and lust so convincingly. Shraddha Kapoor portrays Arshia so well, and it is in fact a lengthier and more demanding role than the conventional ones of Ophelia prototypes. Kay Kay Menon as Haider's uncle Khurram, Irrfan Khan as the mysterious Roohdaar/Messenger/Ghost and Narendra Jha as Haider's father Dr. Hilal Meer do great justice to their roles. Another strongpoint worth mentioning is how the music director-turned-film-director Vishal Bhardwaj uses the remarkable songs of Haider to keep all its themes together so skilfully in an invisible string. There is even a theatrical-dance-puppet performance that serves the purpose of the mousetrap scene of Hamlet

Some may ask whether the movie would work for those who aren't familiar with the works of Shakespeare. I feel it would, though I can't say whether it would be on a higher or lower level than those who can't shake the Shakespeare out of their existence. I saw the movie in a small theatre hall in Trivandrum and the audience comprised mostly of a few young North Indian students/employees and a lot of migrant workers who were clearly rooting for Shahid Kapoor and the plot (abandoning the other big Hritik Roshan movie playing in the much bigger hall in the same theatre complex). I could sense how well the transformation of Haider was received, and how all the jokes and philosophical bits worked for all in the same manner, no matter whether they knew their Hamlet or not. I could even decipher a few well timed sighs and gasps.

Each film director would have a favourite spot in the 'original' work when they think of an adaptation. Here that spot turns out to be the complex relationship between Haider and his mother, with its added layers in the Indian context. The scenes in which both of them appear together are replete with a lot of tension, and then relief, and then tension again. They do exploit each other a lot emotionally, shamelessly, as mothers and sons do. Something quite similar in the movie is the way Arshia and her father are depicted. It's all a great risk, I agree, as the overall approach is not to be mistaken as melodramatic. The director manages, somehow, to plod his way back to the central themes even as he spends some extra seconds on the digressions he holds close to his heart. I couldn't observe any lapses in editing or signs of confusion in Bhardwaj's narration. He knows his Hamlet well enough, and knows exactly what he is trying to do with it in his movie - that's what I felt. 

There is a difficult part that has to be addressed as well. Haider is set in a time when forced identities existed as a fear in the minds of people. Now it is a reality. Things haven't improved, but deteriorated drastically. There are even disputes and violence over how the place names in Kashmir should or should not appear in the Indian map. People get thrashed, killed, or worse still, treated as traitors on a daily basis for just being themselves. The fact that there has to be one-liners and afterwords to the work of art in an attempt to appease the different 'parties' involved in the time-space aspects of the story should make one reflect on the challenges that existed, and haven't vanished yet, from the times of Shakespeare - regarding the freedom of expression. Much like the bard who played around with what he was supposed to say through some characters without compromising much on his central themes, Bhardwaj overcomes some of the political risks with a few compromises. Discerning audiences just have to rise up to the challenge of seeing what is really the part of the film's original vision, and what its unnecessary appendages are.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Njan - Self Portrait...An Attempt To Rise Above The Clich├ęs

'Njan' (Me) is a movie adaptation of the novel KTN Kottoor Ezhuthum Jeevithavum (KTN Kottoor: Writings And Life) by the brilliant poet/novelist T.P. Rajeevan. The fact that I haven't read the novel puts me in an advantageous position here - to view the movie as a work of art on its own. Even as someone who has come over the temptation to compare a literary work and its movie adaptation, I still struggle with coming to terms with the various possibilities of transferring the deep thought processes in the former to the visual language of the latter. No matter how hard one tries, the reader always ends up positioning her/himself as the ideal reader and questioning the choices taken by the film director to focus on those areas that s/he finds relevant. Here I'm glad that I don't fall prey to that inane exercise, and am in fact given an opportunity to delve deeper into the issues dealt with in the movie when I get a chance to read the book - which I must do, the same way I did with the movie 'Brokeback Mountain' when it led me to the story by Annie Proulx on which it is based. I was amazed by how much the story says in so few pages, and how well the movie managed to say it all so effectively with added layers of visually stunning narrative.  

Njan deals with the maverick writer and political visionary KTN Kottoor, who is shown as an enigmatic presence through the pre-independence Indian social changes brought about along with the freedom struggles. The story finds its own voice as a young man, Ravi Chandrasekharan (Dulqer Salman) is influenced by the life and works of Kottoor (known after the name of his village) and decides to script a play for the theater group he is associated with. In a brilliant narrative technique heretofore unused in Malayalam cinema, the biography of Kottoor unveils through the theatre-flimic depiction of his life as Ravi himself and the actors in the theater group are transformed to the real people from Kottoor's era. Ravi's transformation to Kottoor is the most convincing, as he is depicted in the beginning as a blogger who writes under the pseudonym Kottoor. His friends in the theater group think that he is 'possessed' by Kottoor, and they see him becoming the man on whom he does meticulous research in order to understand him inside out. 


The way the real, the theatrical and the filmic merge seamlessly could remind one of Synecdoche, New York, but Njan works on a much smaller canvas and is less ambitious in its narrative grandeur. Perhaps that is one reason why the inadequacy of the theatrical elements disturbed me at places. However, I loved the way the filmic part of narrative uses dramatization quite unapologetically, taking risks at many places but bringing out great results that are not attainable in conventional film narrative techniques. The surreal and magical levels of the life of the protagonist is thus well portrayed through the esoteric elements in the plot, the poems that emerge out of the blue non-diagetically, the mirrors in Kottoor's room that reflect the thought processes of people associated with him, the metaphors of vision and non-vision, and so on. Here I have to mention the thoughtful approach the director, Renjith, has taken to make this movie a memorable one. All the female characters in the movie, though some of their roles are quite short, are conceived so well and the actors who gave life to them have done their best to do justice to them.

What holds the movie together is the complex inner life of a man much misunderstood. Ravi tries to present Kottoor as someone who had to fade away without a trace, despite his lofty thoughts and crucial social interventions. Why did so much talent and intellect go wasted? Does it happen in today's world too? Are original thinkers to be constantly disempowered and left to wither in insignificance even when those who do that know it well enough that the only reason to do that is to make sure that they don't lose their undeserved spaces in their corrupt material world? Ravi gains confidence as a writer to dwell on Kottoor's life and present it as a parable to the world around him which treats his small outbursts in his blog as a crime against the nation. The reason why Ravi chooses 'Kottoor' as his pen-name is not coincidental, but his impetus to get under the skin of the real Kottoor starts the moment he experiences the stifling intervention of power centers on his creativity. Ravi is a suave young man who can deal with the physically non-violent police intervention to 'warn' him. The suggestion that he should tone down his views if he wants to survive in his day job and creative life is what spurs him. It is obviously a lot of psychological violence - something a creative writer would find very difficult to deal with. When he decides to write a play based on Kottoor's writings and life, it is his declaration of right as a writer to survive in the world of restrictions. Even as he empathizes with Kottoor and cares for his lost battle, Ravi emerges as a stronger writer at the end of his work, claiming his own name and succeeding in using the same tools history used against Kottoor to reclaim his significance. 

Kottoor's struggle, as Ravi sees it, was to deal with his creativity and to come to terms with the complex web of power that surrounded him and the other powerless people around him. His 'poetic vision' of freedom is mocked not only by the feudal lord/s but the freedom fighters as well. It is curious that the one who understands Kottoor's full potential is the feudal lord, who is seen hatching cunning plots against him. Kottoor himself fails to find a niche for himself in any of the two main political streams of thought or action available in his time - the Congress and the Communist. What do one's genuine visions attain when it is rejected by the masses because they couldn't accommodate his non-partisan views? Does his poetry survive? What are the choices he has when he is emotionally distanced from his family and any of the social structures around him? How can he connect to women any more, when he realizes that his sexual urge itself is something that he had inherited from the opportunistic forefathers - who have a long history of ill-treating women in general, and those of the lower social and economic class in particular? Kottoor vanishes from his village, seemingly burdened by a sense of the guilt of the privileged class, his own base instincts, creativity, visions, the disappointment at the meaninglessness of connecting with an insensitive world, and many other things that can't be explained.   The emotional journey Ravi takes through Kottoor's life is crucial to him as it is crucial to anyone who has experienced oppression of some form in her/his life. 

It may not be a good idea to define a visionary's life in simplistic terms. We see a lot of examples around us in which arguments are possible only if they are affiliated to a political party, an institution, a religious faith. The most dangerous threat original thoughts and creativity face is none other than this. Is it okay that no one has to care for an individual if caring as an act doesn't gain any significance among the masses? There is nothing great in caring for someone because s/he is 'one among us', because you will disown her/him the moment you realize that's not the case. You don't need theoretical terms to disown someone, though you use them many a time - like 'anarchist', 'antiestablishmentarian', 'hedonist' (though you don't often know what they really mean), or for a change use simple terms too - like 'poet', 'menace to the society', 'mad-creature whose screws got loose because s/he read too much'. Njan may offend you a lot if you belong to this name-calling mass - not only with its unconventional narrative structure, but also with what it says - on your face - about what you are. It shows you in the end, carrying the national flag and shouting nationalist slogans at the top of your voice, as the titles roll by. If you can't stand that irony, the best you can think of would be to hatch a plan to end somebody's existence in this world which, according to you, is owned by your creed. 

Monday, 18 August 2014

Njan Steve Lopez: Finally A Character I Care For

I grew up reading the novels of Anand, a Malyalam writer who is considered by many as someone who explored totally new sensibilites in regional Indian writing, especially with his debut novel Aalkkoottam (The Crowd) much before path-breaking novels in English like Midnight's Children have appeared. As a young man, a character I came to care about beyond my own comprehension was Kundan,  the protagonist of Anand's Sahitya Akademi award winning novel Marubhoomikal Undakunnathu, available in English translation as Desert Shadows. Though many considered the character to be an example of a failed human being, he was my hero, if a non - hero can be a hero for someone.

Mainstream Malayalam movie industry could not ever conceive a major character who doesn't have some qualities of a conventional filmy hero, though not always backed by a heavy dose of innate virtue or machismo. For the same reason, I would never have cared for most of those 'hero' characters beyond a point, despite the many surprising ways in which our movies have excelled at various times even when they had the disturbing presence of heroic characters. I could only see these heroes as incompletely developed studies of human nature in situations where one's actions are guided more by popular expectations and acceptance than deep convictions. That was what I felt, till I came across Njaan Steve Lopez (I Am Steve Lopez ).  Steve, the protagonist of this movie, is stripped of major chunks of heroic qualities that he resembles Kundan in some ways. However, he is not totally reduced to the subhuman levels the latter ends up with, at least while he is still alive. The struggles both of them go through are solitary in nature. While the relatively mature Kundan's acts are based on deep convictions, Steve is depicted as a middle class youth protected by a lot of people around him. He just ends up taking some decisions which he can't even explain to himself. Just like Kundan was considered a 'failed' individual, Steve can be seen a 'foolish' young man - if we see the world in filmy terms.

The whole crew deserve praises for the way they executed the vision, without posing unnecessary obstacles. I am not a film maker, but as every imaginative viewer would, I considered other different ways in which the movie could have been made. I didn't succeed much. Which means, I feel Rajeev Ravi, the director, has made it in the best way possible. If I were as creatively accomplished I would just have changed a bit of the emphasis on 'authentic' Trivandrum-Parassala ambience through the songs, and used that space to expose more of the inner conflicts of Steve, and the other major character, Hari. I always have this problem with authenticity, though I know a bit of that is not much of an obstacle in getting into the real issues that are presented in the movie. I thought the young actors who gave life to Steve, Hari and and Steve's girlfriend Anjali did a great job to stay close to, and at ease with, the characters. All the other supporting actors were also selected with care, it seemed. I believe the cinematography achieved most of the vision of the movie as well. However, the strength of the movie relies on its thematic vision.The fact that the whole movie can leave different impressions on different people can be considered one of its achievements. While I was trying to figure out how Steve's mind worked, my sister was more concerned about Hari - it so happens that her teaching career in places around Trivandrum gave her experiences to interact with similar people, and to see them in various life situations.

The question revolves around the value of a human being's life, reflected upon in different ways in literary works like Doesteovsky's Crime And Punishment much earlier and Ian McEwan's Saturday in the not too distant past. Steve's responses can be interpreted as part of a rebellion against the upper middle class notions of leading a 'peaceful' life. A life based on the living room comforts. If you open your eyes to details, you see that the cosy sofas there actually sit smugly on a lot of blood. But that can be wished away if you ignore certain ethical issues of human existence.

Steve has all the problems that regular teenagers in Kerala these days have. I have seen a lot of them, in the role of a teacher. But the director has succeeded in instilling a deeper concern in the drowsy eyes of the otherwise unremarkable person who plays the part - Farhaan Fazil. I have seen the same in real teenagers too - but only in less than 5%, roughly. He worries about the injustices in the world, in his own useless ways. We feel he is just another shallow creature who thinks out a bit too loud on chats and updates in social media. He drinks too much and too carelessly for his age. He just follows his friends when they run away foolishly from the police. He is a pampered cat at home, allowed to sleep as he likes and to wake up late in the morning and to go around dreamily for the rest of the day. He has a cold war with his grandpa over the toilet timings. His father scolds him often, but in an affectionate way. There is enough emotional padding from his mother and sister. He is not as much middle-class-indoctrinated as his girl friend - about being focused in life, of making some sense of his existence. I loved these small details that delineated his character in the first few minutes.

And then, the epiphany. He witnesses a brutal crime in the street, tries to intervene, gets a tight slap on the face and is shoved off roughly. Even as the pain on his cheek is still very alive, he tries to process in his mind the act of violence that takes place right in front of him. He sees blood gushing forth from the body of the victim, and the onlookers' eyes are filled with disgust - not compassion. They watch it just like it's happening on a movie screen, with their wretched pity and fear, and the relief that it's not them who are attacked. He is drawn into a maze of questions from that moment. Questions that he dares to ask, despite the warnings he receive from the sane people around him, who know that it is better not to ask those questions. This is where the movie differs from those regular movies that use violence as a mere spectacle, or teenagers as oversensitive creatures who find the greatest fulfillment in their life through love, or success at any cost.

Steve has to be seen, to be understood. But all seeing him may not lead to understanding him, especially if you are going to write off his acts as stupid. That is one reason why the ones who produced the movie knew that it was not going to be a box office hit. It's not meant to be a movie for the majority. If not just for those 5% I mentioned, it can at least extend to a bit more viewers, who are willing to take Steve's decisions in an open-minded way. It is also possible that the movie could be seen as a cautionary tale - on how to desensitize your children, from a very young age, from the life and sufferings of the subhuman creatures around you. They are, after all, just a 'menace to the society'. To borrow a phrase from Salman Rushdie, Steve has failed to develop his 'city eyes'. Viewers in this category would have an aversion to the 'ugly' scenes in which the hired thugs get attacked and killed, while they would leave out a deep sigh at the suggestion of Steve being attacked in the same way. Because, hey, he is one among us. The question that the movie raises is - then, what about the thugs? You mean those are not ones among us too? Would the wives and children of real thugs feel things in a similar way when they watch the movie? Would they shed their tears for the thugs and not for Steve? If yes, they are not any better, than you.

Steve's greatest realization is that the comforts that he enjoyed from a young age were built on top of a lot of corruption and inhumanity. If his father kept asking the questions that he gets attached to, there wouldn't be much to enjoy in life for all his family. While it is easy to draw that connection in the life of a police officer in Kerala who has to be a part of the crimes around him whenever he turns a blind eye to certain incidents, there are hints at the general ways in which all human beings who do the same at some point of their life, which are no different. There are examples in the movie itself - of doctors, journalists, students, tea shop owners...Steve's outrage against them is in fact greater than the one he has for the hired thugs who kill each other in a puppet dance, of which the invisible strings are pulled by many in the civil society, including his father.

But is it not 'foolish', you may ask again, to be your brother's keeper all through your life? You are right. Steve was foolish. But there is a lot of innocence and virtue in his foolishness. His innocence and rebellion are closely linked.  Steve's rebellion would not have been possible without his innocence. The movie starts with the Albert Camus quote which goes, “Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence.” The one good thing that his corrupt father had perhaps done was to leave Steve to his world, to not interfere with his views and to not expose him to the 'smart' ways in which one has to live in order to achieve success and peace in life. In other words, he never taught his son the tricks of his trade and Steve grew up with a certain amount of innocence that all his friends lacked. They all criticize him when he gets involved in the lives of criminals. His girlfriend chides him on this occasion the same way she does it about his lack of focus in life. Why does Steve differ from them? Perhaps it is not all in the bringing up. He is programmed that way too.

 Even as his unusual choices can be labelled unwise, Steve comes of age in many other ways. He learns about 'other' lives, so far hidden from him. He finds a lot of meaning in their little acts of affection and kindness. He could connect well with the tender feelings the leader of a set of hired thugs, Hari, has for his wife and kid. While many other directors would have gone overboard to humanize these 'others' in the movie, Rajeev focuses more on the effect their life has on Steve, fully realizing that some among the viewers would still consider him a fool, to allow himself to be transformed in such ways. Isn't he foolish to notice that Hari's wife and his girlfriend have the same name, that both of them have assigned ring tones in their phone that sing the name, Anjali, in two different ways? Isn't he foolish to notice that one among Hari's accomplices loves to play games on the mobile phone? Isn't he foolish to notice that no one in their right mind, and decent enough living circumstances, would dare to indulge in work that risks their life any moment? Isn't he foolish to care for the suffering of a seriously injured man and his life, even though he turns out to be a criminal? Isn't he foolish to think that a doctor and a police officer should be responsible for the lives of the people who are, in some circumstances, under their power? Isn't he foolish to see a bit of himself in Hari, when there is absolutely no need for that? (Perhaps Steve drew parallels between his epiphany, the decision to throw himself into an unaccustomed terrain in search of answers to difficult questions, and Hari's possible decision at a young age to consider having a dangerous profession as a means to support his family.)

You may say that we live in a world where we can't be drawn through Steve's dreamy thoughts to a dangerous maze that traps us at a dead end. That Life waits for us outside it. That Steve's coming of age leads not to the loss of innocence, but the loss of existence. That it's his nostalgia for innocence that leads him to trouble. That we can't revert the world back to its state of bliss, as we remember it, when we weren't bothered about justice, crime, punishment, value of life, or the lack of it. That it's better to realize that we can't be our brother's keepers. That every man has to care for himself, even if we don't make sure that there is a situation in which they can.

I don't agree with you. I know that big trouble awaits the 5% teenagers who are different. I care for them. That's why Njan Steve Lopez  is my movie.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Robin Williams. Are We Accidents Waiting To Happen Too?

I went to sleep a lot disturbed after watching a movie. That is not so unusual - if not a movie, it can be a book, a piece of telephone conversation that refuses to fade away from the mind, an unfinished work, or even the fact that there is nothing worth thinking about, working on, disturbed about.
I woke up to read about the death of Robin Williams. He was 63. I extended the disturbing thoughts to how much more quality work could have come out this talented actor. That is, if he could gather himself up despite his inner demons. And also, if people in his creative field of work could come up with the right kind of work for him. Perhaps he had left his best work behind him, much earlier in his career, and it is good that he fades away this way. Everyone has to fade away. It is good that he has left behind a lot of good work that would be remembered. 

But we wonder why he had to be a troubled man despite his 'success' in life. We are shocked to hear that he was so disturbed at times in his life that he preferred to talk about his failing health and alcoholism instead of the creative work that he was supposed to promote. He had played along for too long - kept up appearances, tried to be funny in public without fail, and even allowed himself to be featured in a tickle fight with a gorilla. We prefer to be content with it if they keep going on like that, and are shocked when we hear of Tony Scott jumping off the Vincent Thomas Bridge or of Philip Seymour Hoffman  losing his life in a struggle with drugs. There is even this idea going around that creative people are the ones who have to deal the most with their inner demons. But aren't we all creative in some way or the other?

Despite the range of characters Robin Williams had depicted, with the comical ones dominating his career, I believe the most memorable one played by him is that of John Keating, in Dead Poet's Society. I have made it a point to make a reference to the movie in 7 out of the 9 places where I worked as a teacher. It showed not only how a teacher can influence and inspire his students, but how disturbed a bunch of prep school students can be, and how difficult, and at times impossible, it is to save someone from a suicide. Every second counts in a distressed person's attempt to connect with the world, to find a straw to which s/he could fasten a grip, to cling to life. A release of creativity at a very young age may make someone immensely happy, but it may also make it impossible for her/him to go back to the banalities of ordinary life. Neil Perry, the character played by Robert Sean Leonard, has a great moment of glory, and satisfaction with himself, before his decision to end his life, much distressed by the way his life was to be controlled forcefully and veered to other directions. The images that stay in my mind are not the romantic ones in which John Keating could connect with his students or leave a deep impact in their character development through his creative thoughts, but his sheer helplessness regarding the loss of Neil. I believe that says a lot about our plight, as ordinary human beings who are at times in charge of other similar, creative, sensitive people in distress.

I just hope Robin Williams's life would be remembered mostly for the good work he has done. Sometimes, an artists' work merges seamlessly to the moments of his life and also death, much like what happens in Synechdoche, New York. The fight to remain alive is as important as the fight to stay in circuit, to matter something in the physical world. Success in life doesn't count in moments when one is tormented by extreme bad health or moments of depression. It is very difficult in other relatively trouble-less times, even for those who haven't tasted a wee bit of success in life, to consider their life totally worthless. If that were the case, those would be the ones who would be drawn to more ways of ending their life. 

There is much more to human life than what is projected to the onlookers. Let us respect that. And let us be alert to the signs when someone is losing her/his grip on life and let us try to be available, to be of some assistance in our own ways - though there is always the possibility that we are helpless in many cases, especially the ones in which old age, illnesses and depression break someone down. But the hugs we give others in their moments of distress are not totally lost. Those are stored in one's essence and are even carried to the grave while their cells are intact - they disintegrate for sure in the grave, but are apt to return in search of us when our time comes. I salute Robin, for the hugs you gave others, and I salute all those, including Koko the gorilla, who gave Robin a hug.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Should Poetry Exist After Gaza?

I am still doubtful whether thinking OUT LOUD helps at all in an issue that is already much discussed all over the news media. I sense a lot of distancing from the part of people who claim to be philosophers/thinkers/writers whenever the word Gaza is mentioned. I respect their personal decisions and would never point a finger at anyone who chooses to stay away from certain debates. In fact, I would respect people who speak only when they feel convinced that speaking is inevitable. Gaza brings forth some uncomfortable issues related to the extent to which it is talked about. When we see and hear too much, we tend to turn suspicious of the politics behind it. While journalistic debates revolve around the politics of it for obvious reasons, those who don't have many reasons to be involved in the political, regional and religious aspects of it are worried whether their statements would sound harsh or insensitive to some ears. Many assume that silence is the best solution here. Where do we place arts and literature in this context?

My previous posts dealt with the way the issue is represented in a novel and a few films, and one post made clear some of my own views regarding the whole affair. Here, my attempt is to draw your attention to the role poetry plays in the Gaza affair. Hamid Dabashi's well researched write up on the topic here, which came out yesterday in the Al Jazeera web page will be of interest to many of you who are willing to spend some quality time reading. His arguments derive from a well known view of the culture critic Theodor Adorno, better known for breaking quite a handful of sacred idols in commonly/superstitiously perceived notions of arts and literature in relation to culture. Dabashi opens his arguments by referring to the Adorno quote: "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today." The parallels and paradoxes that come out of this, when placed next to the Gaza situation, is explored in an erudite manner by Dabashi. He draws attention to the fact that the word 'Auschwitz' sounds and feels so much like 'Gaza' now.

Moving on to the real state of affairs, one could see that the exact opposite to what Adorno said and hoped for is the case now. You see a barrage of thoughts on the issue , wherever you turn to - TV, radio, social media, YouTube, blogs - and many of them are in 'poetic' forms. I agree that social media has liberated us from traditional views on poetry, though my reaction to it is mixed. While I wouldn't dictate terms to anyone who wants to be a poet in her/his own terms, I am a bit worried about the reluctance of many new writers to take time to read, and understand a bit, about the medium in which they aspire to express themselves. Many literary groups request their members to refrain from posting their doggerel five times a day on the pages' wall. I understand the temptation to share whatever you think and write with the world, now that the task is made too easy. It thrills every one of us when someone shows interest in what we think, what we express artistically. Gaza seems to have let out numerous rivulets of poetic thought. But if you work further on that cliched line of thought, would you see them enriching the rivers and oceans of poetry, or contaminating them? I'll just leave that an open question to you readers. 

Dabashi thinks out loud what the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish would have done in these times, if he were still alive: "He would have either committed suicide like the magnificent Lebanese poet Khalil Hawi who did so in protest against the brutish Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, or he would respond with his poetry" (Dabashi). The way the act of writing poetry is juxtaposed to an extreme act of sacrifice for a cause looked very interesting to me, just like the way the statements by Plato and W. H. Auden that are quite often mindlessly used by the detractors of poetry. The irony in Auden's misquoted line "poetry makes nothing happen" is lost on those who fail to place it in its context. And what poetry makes happen is the concern of those who follow Plato's advice and want it to be banned in modern democracies and other forms of governance. But Dabashi's worry focuses around the power of Gaza to contaminate our thoughts, quite similar to the fear I expressed in my post on Children Who Live, With No Choices. Are we ready to acknowledge the fact that by the simple act of living through a carnage helplessly, we also allow us to be transformed by it? Do we see the ways in which our thoughts are contaminated by our ability to look at a situation and dissect it mindlessly, in ways that are ultimately beneficial to us? It should be a case for serious introspection to all those who try to express their views through their chosen medium of (artistic) expression.

Darwish himself has tried earlier to contain some of his thoughts on the issue in poetry. In Silence For Gaza, which appears like a poem in prose in the translations I have seen, he raises these pertinent points: 

Gaza is far from its relatives and close to its enemies, because whenever Gaza explodes, it becomes an island and it never stops exploding. It scratched the enemy’s face, broke his dreams and stopped his satisfaction with time.

Because in Gaza time is something different.

Because in Gaza time is not a neutral element.

It does not compel people to cool contemplation, but rather to explosion and a collision with reality.

Time there does not take children from childhood to old age, but rather makes them men in their first confrontation with the enemy.

Time in Gaza is not relaxation, but storming the burning noon. Because in Gaza values are different, different, different.

The only value for the occupied is the extent of his resistance to occupation. That is the only competition there. Gaza has been addicted to knowing this cruel, noble value. It did not learn it from books, hasty school seminars, loud propaganda megaphones, or songs. It learned it through experience alone and through work that is not done for advertisement and image.


The 'full' version of this is available here, and as it turns out, an even fuller version is available here, though I thought some of the poetry is lost in translation.

I would like to share two other poems that appealed to me for their genuine concerns in the issue and the willingness to address the extent to which our existence is transformed in many ways including the contamination of thoughts/perspectives. 

Here is a poem titled 'Gaza' by the Indian poet Sudeep Sen, published here in The Hindu (August 3, 2014). Sen is a poet whom I admire for the extreme care he takes in the choice and juxtaposition of words and thought patterns. I have read many other poems by him that weave a complex web of thought, but this one in tercets is simpler and direct when compared to them,for obvious reasons. I felt that there was a pull in the subconscious level to make it accessible to readers around the world, regardless of their ability to appreciate the specific form in which it is written, or the poetic devices employed in it. I felt it could also work the way Darwish's 'Identity Card' works in many school/college/university classrooms. I will leave the poem here for your appreciation and responses:


~ By Sudeep Sen

Soaked in blood, children,
their heads blown out
even before they are formed.

Gauze, gauze, more gauze —
interminable lengths
not long enough to soak

 all the blood in Gaza.
A river of blood flowing,
flooding the desert sands

with incarnadine hate.
An endless lava stream,
a wellspring red river

on an otherwise
parched-orphaned land,
bombed every five minutes

to strip Gaza of whatever 
is left of the Gaza strip.
With sullied hands

of innocent children, 
we strip ourselves 
of all dignity and grace.

Look at the bodies 
of the little ones killed — 
their scarred faces smile,

their vacant eyes stare 
with no malice
at the futility of all

the blood that is spilt.
And even as we refuse
to learn from the wasted

deaths of these children, 
their parents, country,
world — weep blood. Stop

the blood-bath — heed, heal.

And here is another poem that drew me in with its chilling account of details -  'Running Orders' by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha. For a poem that has come out immediately after the carnage in July, this exposed me to a genuine insider's voice that I believe could make a difference in the coming years in the poetic world. It was published in Vox Populi here

Running Orders

~ by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

In July 2014, before the Israeli military would fire at a structure in Gaza, they would send a warning “bomb” to let the Palestinian residents know they had less than a moment before the next bigger bomb. They called this “roof knocking”.

They call us now.
before they drop the bombs.
The phone rings
and someone who knows my first name
calls and says in perfect Arabic
“This is David.”
And in my stupor of sonic booms and glass
shattering symphonies
still smashing around in my head
I think “Do I know any Davids in Gaza?”
They call us not to say
You have 58 seconds from the end of this
Your house is next.
They think of it as some kind of
war time courtesy.
It doesn’t matter that
There is nowhere to run to.
It means nothing that the borders are closed
and your papers are worthless
and mark you only for a life sentence
in this prison by the sea
and the alleyways are narrow
and there are more human lives
packed one against the other
more than any other place on earth.
Just run.
We aren’t trying to kill you.
It doesn’t matter that
you can’t call us back to tell us
the people we claim to want aren’t in your
that there’s no one here
except you and your children
who were cheering for Argentina
sharing the last loaf of bread for this week
counting candles left in case the power goes
It doesn’t matter that you have children.
You live in the wrong place.
and now is your chance to run
to nowhere.
It doesn’t matter
that 58 seconds isn’t long enough
to find your wedding album
or your son’s favorite blanket
or your daughter’s almost completed college application.
or your shoes
or to gather everyone in the house.
It doesn’t matter what you had planned.
It doesn’t matter who you are.
Prove you’re human.
Prove you stand on two legs.

I leave the question 'Should Poetry Exist After Gaza' for your instrospection. I hope the poems I shared here give you an idea of the kind of poetry I believe in, for my own reasons. I wouldn't claim that I represent a majority. I haven't been able to write a poem on the issue yet, and I wouldn't consider it a necessity until I feel up to it, until I feel it is necessary that I speak up in that form.  

It is up to you to speak up or not, and to be aware of the various forces around you that affect your ideas. Some worry whether anyone else can speak for the Palestinians, forcing one to take the big Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak question, 'Can The Subaltern Speak?' and place it in this context. One may need to get rid of foolish notions about the burden of speaking for others, when there is no 'we' and 'they' in the larger context. The whole idea of the difficult act of speaking may have to be reflected upon constantly. 

If anyone decides to speak up these days, it has to be done after a lot of thinking. And rethinking. That applies a lot in the case of poetry.

Note: Please do feel free to post your poems and responses to the issues mentioned here. I am so glad to receive a couple of remarkable poems as responses, by the well known writers from Ireland, William Wall, and from Pakistan, Naseer Ahmed Nasir. They were kind enough to make them available below in the comments section.