Monday, May 30, 2011

The Vicarious Lover

Michael Berg: I'm not frightened. I'm not frightened of anything. The more I suffer, the more I love. Danger will only increase my love. It will sharpen it, forgive its vice. I will be the only angel you need.
I usually don't fall for a movie just because of its star-cast. (Oh well, maybe Johnny Depp would be an exception to that rule.) That being said, one of the actors that I have found to be very watchable is Ralph Fiennes (pronounced as 'Fines'). There is something very sad about his face; as if it were the perfect portrait of a romance gone wrong. He seems to me the kind of person many of us were fascinated with at some unwise point in our lives (not that I know anything about him outside his movies). His roles as a jealous heartbroken lover in The English Patient or The End of the Affair and the stiff-lipped British diplomat-husband who literally travels to the end of the world in order to avenge the death of his wife in The Constant Gardener haven't exactly helped the stereotype. In fact, if truth be confessed, his portrayal of Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise, the psychopathic killer - Tooth Fairy - with a split personality in Red Dragon, and the unscrupulous war profiteering Nazi general, Amon Göth, in Schindler's List are the only roles that I know of that do not confirm to this typecast. (He had an instantly forgettable screen-time as Hades in last year's Clash of the Titans). Which makes me wonder. Do I happen to like the actor because of how intimately he understands his characters or because they just happen to be oh-so-perfect for this brooding, tormented lover who carries the weight of literature on his shoulders? Despite the apparent confusion, I can not, for the life of me, bring myself to think of a better person to play someone named Count László de Almássy. But then again, I have my own prejudices and preconditioning.

Sarah Miles (to herself): Sometimes I get tired of trying to convince him that I love him and shall love him forever. He pounces on my words like a barrister, and twists them.
Maurice Bendrix: So what will you do when it ends?
Sarah: You think love ends when you don't see me?
Maurice: To be is to be perceived.
Recently, though, I got the opportunity to listen to him without my eyes leading me astray. You will probably remember him as The Reader in Sydney Pollack's movie of the same name. His audio cassettes for Hanna had considerably piqued my curiosity. Therefore, when I came across BBC Radio's production of George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman that had Fiennes doing the voice-over for Jack Tanner, I was, quite literally, all ears. This was my first exposure to an audio play and Fiennes' voice bought Tanner (a radical member of the English upper class who is on the lookout for funds to circulate free copies of The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion) to life. I had always been very fond of his voice and the play made me fall in love with it all over again. Without the visual distractions to keep my faculties occupied, I could appreciate the various nuances in his speech - the way he often pauses for effect right in the middle of sentence; or the way he rolls his tongue over his words, tasting them and mulling them over before actually speaking. There is something very perceptibly heart breaking about it. Yet, it would never give itself away as the hopelessly tragic character that it breathes life into. In terms of an overused cliche, it is simultaneously stoic and a mirror to his soul. Right away, I knew I had my favourite English voice. (Note - Nobody can rival Bhupinder's vocal magic as far as Hindi is concerned.)

Almásy: Every night I cut out my heart. But in the morning it was full again.
Our good friend has also been involved in several notable theater productions, a majority of them being plays by William Shakespeare. I have a hunch that all the Shakespearean tragedies must have only honed his skills and/or whetted his appetite for playing the part of a doomed lover. Being an actor who is able to evoke feelings even before we can fathom what they mean, most of Fiennes' characters (or should it be the other way round?) allow you to embrace the tragedy in their lives without smothering you with the numerous undercurrents. Not surprisingly, he is most at home when involved in a delicate balancing act between various facets of his personality. Sure enough, we find that spark of eccentric genius in his eyes which bodes of disaster almost as often as it enchants and allures. And almost on an unconscious level, we can sense that the calm that pervades his life is the lull before the storm, when he will be throwing it all away for the sake of *cough* true love. It is quite possible that none of this makes sense to you. It is too darn difficult to translate feelings into words as it is. Here, we are trying to decipher cryptic messages conveyed by so many nameless expressions! Good luck with that. That fact accepted, I can almost picture Fiennes' playing the nameless narrator in a movie adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's White Nights and giving Joaquin Phoenix a run for his money (who, by the way, was not ordinary in Two Lovers by any stretch of imagination).

And was it his destined part
Only one moment in his life
To be close to your heart?
Or was he fated from the start
to live for just one fleeting instant,
within the purlieus of your heart.
— Ivan Tugenev
The wind and the darkness seemed to be engaged in a game of hide and seek last night. At times it was eerily silent and then suddenly you could hear it howling outside the windows, pushing and shoving itself against the trees, forcing them into mock submission. Such moments are almost always quite apt for a cautious dose of someone like Sam Mendes or Kieślowski. But you must tread carefully, mind you, for these are dangerous territories. As I was going over my favourite scenes from The English Patient, I came to a formal conclusion that of all the actors who were a staple diet of the 1990's Hollywood romantic comedies/dramas (Hugh Grant, Patrick Dempsey, Colin Firth, George Clooney, and Richard Gere to name a few), no one would have been able to carry off the role of Almásy with such finesse as Fiennes. The measured nonchalance with which he delivers those one liners is, for the lack of better words, too endearing. So although I still hold fast to my promise of never being consciously misled by the star-cast of a movie, I would be lying through my teeth if I told you that I would not be willing to make an exception for this vicarious lover.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Monster's Ball

In medieval England, prisoners awaiting their execution were known as 'monsters'. The night before their sentence was carried out, their jailers would hold a feast in their honour as their last farewell to the world - the Monster's Ball.
“He likes to sketch these days. It calms him down. But he won’t let you look for he is not too good. He hasn’t had the time to learn it properly. Well… here are the cigarettes. If you could stand back…”

She nodded. The gates opened as a switch was flicked, and she stepped inside the cell. It was small and warm, in such sharp conflict with the monolithic, imposing architecture of the rest of the compound. She blinked as her eyes adjusted to the dim yellow light and as her mind made a mental note of the fact that despite appearances, he had still managed to cling onto his whims. The walls – grey and bleak on their own – were plastered with colourful knick knacks – postcards, newspaper clippings, posters, and some photographs. He had even scribbled at a few places – quotes from books, lyrics to his favourite songs, and some tacky one liners. The bed was made, and neat. The flip flops in the corner were perfectly aligned with the margins of the tiles. A few books from the library were arranged meticulously on a small stool. The order missing in his life had found home within these four walls. And, she noticed, there were no mirrors.

He looked haggard for his 39 odd years. But a strange inexplicable wisdom shone in his eyes. Wisdom much beyond his years that he seemed to have paid for with the limp in his left leg, the crow’s feet around his eyes, and the disconcerting wheeze in his breathing. Other subtle, more dangerous signs of this deal were beyond the scope of a superficial inspection. His hair was short and the absence of any grey streaks seemed to be the only sign belying his real age. If he was surprised at having a visitor at such on odd hour, he did not let it show. Special occasions can call for some special allowances, after all. He put down the book and looked expectantly at her. He looked calm, as he had been sketching faces all night.

“Your cigarettes. I thought you might want to have some. These are the right kind, I suppose? The guard told me you haven’t smoked in quite a while. It’s good, you know. Better late than never.”

“They are perfect,” he said, lighting one up, very slowly and deliberately. He took a long drag and closed his eyes. “So, what brings you here tonight? I thought we were done for the day.”

“I thought as much and I had meant to sleep well tonight. But after seeing you in the morning, I had this nagging feeling that I needed some closure. And well, if it doesn’t happen now, then you know... ,” she was now speaking very hurriedly, almost skipping over her own words in order to get to the end of them. “You were always so foolish to fall for mysteries. Such a childlike enthusiasm for them. So much for all the talk about wisdom. A living oxymoron, if ever there was one. It went to your head. All of it. The talk about life, ideals, sacrifices… Oh dear, I am rambling.”

“Now, now… hold your horses, will you? A wise man must always be a child at heart. Don’t you agree? How would he ever know what he has given up? But I must confess I am surprised. You come tonight to talk to me about contradictions? That would be a first.”

She shifted uneasily in her corner of the bed. She had been pretending to straighten out a few imaginary creases in her skirt, trying to grant some semblance of order and dignity to this meeting and the fateful hour. They had seemed very disobedient and were causing her considerable distress. Her feminine grace still had its private moments though she tried to make it appear otherwise. The fidgeting had caught his attention and he had smirked, being reminded of how she had had the habit of twirling her hair in loops whenever she was agitated. “Still twirling,” he thought to himself. But the act had caught him off guard and his smirk looked sinister, almost diabolic, in the half light. She caught a glimpse of it and shuddered inside. A deep breath helped her regain her composure.

“No. I came tonight because I needed you to tell me something. You have become so habituated to weighing pros and cones, as if the urge to act on impulse is almost dead. But before I get carried away and learn your bag of tricks, I must succumb to my instincts. Why did you have to go away?”

“I did not just go away, it was for a reason. Not yours obviously, but mine.”

“No, no, no. That’s all behind us. An act of passion, a lapse of reason, or a willful act of weakness – I am not concerned with that. Why did you have to go away from me?”

Lines from a favourite book suddenly came to his mind. “The past is too much a part of the present to be analysed with any degree of accuracy. It does live on, in people and their cities. One only has to look over one’s shoulder in order to find how hard it is to let go of it”. He thought about digressing then laughed away his own stupid thoughts. More than anything, he did not have the strength to say anything that did not feel absolutely right. This was his ball and he laughed some more, almost choking on his own epiphany. She appeared nervous finding him hysterical but her manner was poised. Her eyes, though, gave her away. They seemed to be suspended in misery, ‘like unshed tears on a brimming eyeball’. Finding her thus, he felt a sudden surge of vicious, uncontrollable grief and felt like submerging himself in it. But years of patience had taught him how that never helped. He knew that now and so he decided to allay her fears and put her mind to rest.

“There, there. I don’t exactly know. But I am thinking… trying my best to come up with the right reason.”

“You can try to be evasive but you know very well that I was all but dead to you long ago.”

“You put it too harshly. That was never the case. To a certain extent, it is my mistake that I decided to keep you in the dark… I know, I know, that was something you did not want. But I couldn’t bring myself to do otherwise. After all this time, having expected you to pour over every possible option, I thought you would have worked it out. Well… uh… I felt intimidated by you.”


“You seriously expect me to believe that? How could I… you are dodging it again, aren’t you? What good is going to come of it now? You have this prison of your own making. You did this! You have been either forgotten or ignored. You will be dead tomorrow and no one will even know. And you still have the pluck to just leave me in the dark.”

“You can still sound cruel when you feel like it. Never mind. Hmm… I am not being evasive. I… You will have to take my word for it. You did scare me. There was always so much of life around you. In you. And there was so little of it to keep me company. I could have tried grabbing it with both hands but I had this weird feeling that most of it would still manage to get away. It was as if the best I could do was be a mute spectator. I felt incomplete… insecure maybe. How could I offer you any of that? I did not want to imprison you in the fortress of my insecurities. I was… it wasn’t a pretty place. I tried to reason with myself that I wanted the best for you. But, you already know… there is no point in lying now. That was just a means for keeping guilt at bay. Not that it worked for me. Not that it worked for you either.”

He was not used to providing explanations. Particularly ones like this. The ones that portrayed him in such light. It had taken a considerable amount of effort to so. Even tonight. He sighed, waiting for her to respond, but looked away. He felt strained of all will and he knew he wouldn’t be able to look her in the eye. A part of him wanted her to just accept his reasons and leave. But another wished she would unburden all her grief and get rid of its baggage.

“I could believe you. But that can only mean I will come to hate you. And I don’t want that weight on my conscience. You… your reasons… they sound very alien. They are not you. You could have tried.”

“Tried with you? Felt complete? Who is being poetic now?”

“Yes! Yes. I guess that would have been one way of going about it. But you were such a quitter. Whatever happened to ‘Oh, I am so strong, I can take anything’? You wanted to be wretched all the time and so you never tried otherwise. You stupid reason is just an excuse for not trying hard enough.”

She was livid. Her eyes had been a warm ocean of unhappiness just moments ago, willing to confine within their folds everything and anything. All transgressions and every mistake. But they were blazing balls of fury now, spewing betrayal, hate, and, of course, hurt. Her eyes – they had always been so vastly human, capable of reflecting the inner depths of her soul. He could see that now. And he missed that.

“I did not… I… I am sorry. That is all I have to offer you now. I would try harder if I could go back in time. If nothing else, I could be stronger and more humble about it. It’s a pity I never got around to inculcating the virtues I needed the most. But all this is wishful thinking. I might have learnt from my mistakes. But I do not have the luxury of reliving them. You do not. It’s history. You have your present now.”

All this was said with a lot of pauses and repentant sighs in between. But his words were genuine and determined. The effect of was not lost on her and she calmed down, her mind somewhat at ease.

“I can not forgive you. But you never needed my forgiveness. Even now, you don’t. But I am glad I know now. That is reason enough for this unpleasantness. And I hope you will take it that way. I don’t know what this’ll do to me… I won’t be left wondering. But I must leave now. He said we have just one hour.”

“Huh… oh, yes you need to go as well. Could you… better be on you way then.” He added as an afterthought, “I think we’re going to be all right”.

She smiles, but does not reply. A few minutes later, she got up and kissed him on the forehead. As she crossed the pale yellow line that marked the boundary of the cell, she said softly, “You mean to say you will be all right”.