Sunday, June 26, 2011

Rehab for Lovers

You taste his movies through your eyes. It does not matter if it is a tale of urban alienation, forlorn love, or modern living – to mete out any other treatment to Wong’s brand of luxuriant cinema is undoubtedly an insult. As the luscious shades of red, green, and blue commence their bizarre tribal dance, you lick the cream off the top and dig into this sumptuous feast. Be it the fluorescent string of clover green windows in an elevated train sliding through the midnight darkness of a lonely city or the stunning lady in black wearing oversized sunglasses and leaning against her convertible – every bite is a guilty pleasure. There is no looking back now. Soon, you’re overwhelmed by the opulence of this singular cinematic experience and the visual stimuli merely become a portal to other promised pleasures. You sit back and relent. You stop questioning and let the waves wash over you.

Wong Kar-wai offers you “luscious, colourful treats that are gorgeous to behold and easy to swallow,” says Ebert. To me, he seems like a “filmmaking poet” who paints his words on the canvas of a 70mm film with such dexterity that a little play of light brings to life sensual textures, flawless exteriors, and moments frozen in time.

Often described as an auteur because of his highly stylized and visually distinctive films, Wong Kar-wai belongs to the Second New Wave of Hong Kong filmmakers who sought to provide an artistic impetus to the social, political, and cultural issues facing Hong Kong during the mid 1980s. With the signing of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration outlining the handover of Hong Kong to China, citizens and filmmakers alike were forced to confront and scrutinize the dual nature of their cultural identity – caught in the proverbial conflict between western and eastern sensibilities. Consequently, the cinema of Hong Kong from this period dwells on themes that explore its “cultural, spiritual, and geographical dislocation”. Specifically, Wong’s movies are marked by their obsession with disaffection and isolation, often focussing on characters that are strikingly poetic in their solitude even when swimming in a sea of faces. They are “idiosyncratic and romantic tales of the young and disenfranchised uniquely representative of the cultural influences which distinguish his native land”.

John Donne said, “No man is an island”. But in the world created by Wong, everyone is a self-contained universe. Not surprisingly, Wong’s protagonists often happen to be the lost souls of our generation – random, unremarkable individuals embedded in the chaotic fabric of modern cities. Their paths might intersect briefly but as soon as they have shared their private moment, they are on their way again. Battling their insecurities, their passions and at the same time conscious of the larger world in which they find themselves entrenched, these characters imbibe the themes Wong is best known for – loneliness, unrequited love, and a subtle cultural clash. In short, they are manifestations of the city itself. In a concrete jungle where space is scarce, the light is artificial, and everybody else seems to be little more than a shadow on the curtain of your eyes, existence is sometimes captured not by faces or names but by means of subtle hints – a telephonic conversation or a searching gaze at the window across the street – in order to create the illusion of distance, alienation, and – in my opinion – insignificance; like the adulterous spouses of In the Mood for Love (2000) and the phantom lovers in Chungking Express (1994), we never get to meet these other people. They have played their small part in this universe and spun into a different orbit.

In no other of Wong’s movies do these various elements come together as effortlessly as In the Mood for Love. Set in the Hong Kong of 1962 during a period of unrest when the threat of Communism had seemed genuine, the film is the perfect portrait of Wong’s visual aesthetics. Dazzling dresses, sleazy motel rooms with red lighting, and the lethargic curls rising from a filter-less cigarette – they have never looked more appealing on screen. “He remembers those vanished years”. The Hong Kong recreated here is both nostalgic and contemporary, in perfect synchrony with its dual identity, exhibiting essential ingredients of a western upbringing and an ancient Chinese heritage. The title card at the beginning of the movie – “It is a restless moment” – prepares us for this mood of uncertainty that is mirrored by the lead characters who, while aware of the infidelity of their spouses, find themselves unable to confess their feelings for each other. “She has kept her head lowered, to give him a chance to come closer”. In the cramped confines of single room houses and congested offices, love “grows not in leaps and bounds but tiny increments, through the smallest of gestures, and the pauses between gestures”. In the words of a Chinese proverb – it begins with emotion and ends with restraint.

Restraint – it seems to be the essential component of so many of Wong’s movies. Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express, and My Blueberry Nights (2007), are essentially visual commentaries on the random nature of relationships in a thriving cosmopolitan. “The city is an engine of possibility” and there are chance encounters hiding at every corner. But so are ‘missed moments’, when you draw in tantalizingly close to someone, only to be thrown apart in the chaos. In a physical geography that is defined by extremes and where frenzied street markets share space with urban high rise apartments and all-night neon signs, restraint and scepticism come naturally. After all, nobody wants to get hurt. But that does not stop a “vibrant and brash” version of love from flourishing in this harsh environment. A secret love. Unrequited love. The kind that prompts you to send postcards to every diner in town so that at least one of them reaches her. The kind that can border on being labelled crazy, but never lunatic. “That era has passed. Nothing that belonged to it exists any more.” When these woebegone lovers finally wake up from their dreams, they will do anything to manage without – from whispering their secrets into a hole carved out in an ancient tree to making that long journey back home. I guess they realise that what they found was not love but “the lover or the kind of love they seek”. The city just opened up their eyes to the immense possibilities. Last time I checked, those eyes were still dazzled.

Music is a strategic – and frequently essential – component of Wong’s films, its cosmopolitan nature reaffirming the cultural dichotomy of Hong Kong. He utilises its effectiveness in saying and repeating that which can not be articulated through dialogue or conversation. For instance, the score is used to create a particular ambiance (a passionate and destructive love affair gyrates in rhythm to the notes of a tango) in Happy Together, a specific mood (time slows down to a crawl as Nat King Cole croons in the background) in In the Mood for Love, and extrapolate a character (a 1960s track – California Dreamin’ – plays incessantly during the second half of the movie and conveys not only Faye’s state of mind but also her aspirations) in Chungking Express.

Wong’s movies have often been criticised for lacking a well defined plot. Of course they don’t! His are movies about people who are in a limbo, waiting for the real story of their lives to begin. Devoid of the traditional narrative construct, the presence of these characters in the film can be justified only if form gains precedence over content. If the surface aspects of a movie – such as the plot and the star cast – are all you want, you are most likely to end up frustrated. That is a given!

Wong, for me, personifies what I call “slice of life” movies. These are films about people whose lives do not have a pretty plot that can be divided into three acts. Films about people recuperating from the hidden dangers of love. Like Cop #233 in Chungking Express, who fixatedly eats canned pineapple with an expiry date of May 1 because he feels that everything comes with an expiry date, including love. Or Su, who sneaks into Chow’s hotel room and fetishes over his belongings, managing to steal a solitary drag from one of his cigarettes. These characters may be improbable or even impossible and their metaphorical musings may seem hopelessly romantic. But they exist in our imagination and as someone said, “the most potent way to exist is to occupy someone else’s imagination”. That is how we converse with these people. That is how we relate to them. And that is how they help us rehabilitate from our addiction to love. So, how about we just start over?
Suggestions: If you are new to Wong Kar-wai, begin with In the Mood for Love. Follow it up with Happy Together and Chungking Express. If you are not a fan by the end of these three movies, you will probably never be.

Note: A significant portion of the critical component of this post has been culled from this excellent thesis on Wong Kar-wai’s work:

Friday, June 10, 2011

Gosford Park

On the surface, Gosford Park (2001) appears to belong to the genre of the classic British whodunit — a selected assortment of guests gathered together for a hunting party at an English country house; the pompous Lord (Michael Gambon) who gets grumpier as time passes by, shoots his mouth off more often than is good for him, and is therefore conveniently murdered; and a desperate air lingering over the guests which is sometimes as palpable as in an Agatha Chrsitie thriller. But this is where the similarities end, so to speak. For there are no Belgian detectives with cute moustaches exercising their little grey cells, a Watson or a Hastings in tow. Also conspicuous by its absence is the lengthy exposition of deductive skills at the end by an old biddy fashioned after Miss Marple. What you find in their stead is a healthy commentary on the stratification of the English society during the years between the great wars. That, and a lot of style. But do not take my word for it; my bias taints my opinion admirably.

Directed by Robert Altman, one of the few American directors that I intend on exploring after I am done getting stumped by the Coen Brothers, Gosford Park happens to be one of those well-made movies (well-made, mind you, not exceptional — there is a review on Cold Bacon that shreds it to pieces) which often starve and die in the shadow of their more illustrious counterparts (namely M*A*S*H, Short Cuts, Nashville and the like). That is reason enough for them to deserve a portion of my time and a fraction of your attention. The film tells the story of a shooting party hosted by Sir William McCordle at his country residence - Gosford Park - sometime in 1932. The invitees consist of a wide range of characters — from Lady William McCordle’s two sisters and their husbands to the Hollywood star Ivor Novello and a gay Hollywood film producer who is accompanied by his ‘valet’. But that is not all. Downstairs, we find an entire army of servants at their beck and call where we meet the mechanical housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (on one particular occasion she remarks, “I am the perfect servant. I have no life.”) and the quintessential English butler Mr. Jeeves Jennings, amongst a host of other valets, maids, cooks, servers, and grooms.

Between all the pretentious hunting, the elaborate breakfasts, the even more lavish dinners, and the vicious gossip mongering (why do servants obsesses about their employers' personal lives?), Sir William gets stabbed through the heart as he sits sulking in his study after his affair with the head housemaid, Elsie, is rather indelicately revealed over dinner one night. Although everyone is amply surprised, hardly anyone seems upset by this unpleasant incident. Indeed, all of them are just eager to get back their lives as soon as ‘this horrible business’ is resolved. (In hindsight, I have come to gather that sexual mores look good on the coffee table but rather out of place and prudish when all you want to do is have sex make love.) A comic inspector, played by Stephen Fry and not surprisingly named Thompson, elicits some laughs as he blunders and goofs all around the crime scene. But he is no Sherlock Holmes and we begin to get that uneasy feeling that accompanies the realization that there is more to things than meets the eye – the investigation isn’t the point.

Intended for most parts to be a study of the British class system during the 1930s, Gosford Park highlights the dependency of the upper class on an efficient servant class. Not surprisingly, Lady Lavinia shares the opinion that women who travel without a maid have lost their sense of self respect. Indeed, maids are required even for the purpose of getting dressed for dinner. Talk about sophistication! In the servants’ area, people are addressed by the names of their masters — “We stick to the old customs here, it saves confusion”, explains Mrs. Wilson. An observation that particularly came to my attention was the contempt that most guests bear for Mabel Nesbitt, Hon. Freddie Nesbitt’s wife, just because she comes from a working class family and has climbed her way up the social ladder. Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Lady Trentham (Maggie Smith) - who finds nothing more exhausting than training a new maid - are especially vicious and leave no stone unturned in reminding her of her true standing in the gathering. As anywhere else in the world, the elite always seem to have a weakness for the existing order.

The movie conducts quite a remarkable study of contradictions. Although Lady Trentham is threatened with financial ruin as her brother, Sir William, plans to withdraw her allowance, she is interested in what the maids have to say about her state of affairs. The Hollywood actor, Novello, is past his prime and has to sing at supper in order to ‘entertain’ the unappreciative guests. On the other hand, in the servants’ quarters, Mr. Jennings is amply proud to be the head of the staff at Gosford Park and conducts dinner proceedings in a fashion similar to his master – for instance, people are seated around the dinner table according to the ranks of their employers. This hierarchy extends to other sections of the society as well. So while the inspector struts around puffing his pipe and making a big show of his foolhardiness, his constable diligently searches for clues and points them out to him, only to be ignored. There is a particularly endearing scene in the movie where Novello croons while playing the piano and the servants, all apparently great fans of his, steal a dance or two, behind closed doors, when they are not being ordered about by their bored patrons.

The weather, always grey, damp, and dark, seems to provide the perfect atmosphere for the feeling of general unrest that underlies the perfunctory smiles and the superficial discussions of the guests. Which is all very good since a film critic described surface appearances, rather than complex interpersonal relationships, as the theme of the movie. The film looks good and, I am told, very genuine. Even though Gosford Park is not Barry Lyndon (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1975), the sets and the cinematography convey the mood of the plot quite handsomely. When the murder disrupts the natural order of things, exposing the connections, some of them dark and ugly, between the classes, I realized (and so will you, perhaps) how a good score can help one in appreciating the finer points of a movie. Altman also seems to have a keen eye for snobbery and no one conveys it more flawlessly than Lady Trentham. Her sharp, caustic remarks sting where it hurts the most — when she is introduced to Novello, she mentions his latest movie and observes sarcastically, “It must be rather disappointing when something just, you know, flops like that”.

An ensemble cast with big names often bears an inverse ratio to the collective thrill they actually deliver. Each person just ends up distracting us from the other one. However, as Roger Ebert writes, by suitably choosing his actors, Altman gives us “a party with no boring guests”. That being said, more than once it would seem that the remarkable star cast has been spread out too thin – the downside of having so many threads is that there is no definite closure to most of them. The drama itself is not as intense as a Hitchcockian thriller for it does not seek to build up to an exposé. It proceeds with a relaxed rhythm and seeks to engage you rather than jolting you out of your seats. Having led your expectations astray, the climax leaves you feeling a little perplexed, maybe dissatisfied as well, if not cheated. Quite understandably, once the expected destination has been transformed by the experience of the journey itself, you might be even tempted to watch the movie again. Or not. Who am I to decide?
This post has been respectfully plagiarized from:

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Father of Son

Mile after mile I followed, with skimming feet,
After the secret master of my blood,
Him, steeped in the odor of ponds, whose indomitable love
Kept me in chains.
— Father and Son, Stanley Kunitz
When Samar and his family first moved to Lucknow in the summer of 1995, they stayed in the almost decrepit ancestral home in Ismailganj, much to the consternation of all the family members. All, except Sharmaji. He probably thought it would help build their character. And if walking in the suffocating heat of the Indian summers through makeshift brick lined roads that perennially smelt of filth and sewage were any judge on the subject, everyone certainly built a lot of it. Enough to last a lifetime, it would seem.

Ismailganj was, in most places, hardly more than a collection of hurriedly put together shacks. At night, if there were no blackouts, the light from the bulbs would be so dim that even the shadows started playing around on the walls. (Samar believed that the sugar mills in the vicinity were thieving defaulters who were responsible for this unfortunate condition.) There was no running water and hence the needs for the daily ablutions were met by the in house hand pump. It was assumed that the weekly bazaar at Chinhat would cater to all other essential and not so essential requirements. If the lack of amenities that had been previously taken for granted suddenly became a little too conspicuous in a life that had not yet grown accustomed to it, nobody said a word. Out of fear of undermining one’s character.

In the beginning, it was all quite romantic. At least for Samar. He enjoyed bathing under the village hand pump whenever the prudish neighbours wouldn’t shoo him off. The idea of teaching English to the villagers every weekend at the sarkari school also seemed quite poetic. However, when the reality of the situation slowly but steadily started sinking in and it no longer remained possible to ignore its unpleasantness, everyone pleaded with Sharmaji until their eyes turned red. He did relent eventually. But some part of his will died with that consent on that fateful day. He never bothered to lecture them again on the art of simple living. Ignorant of all such undercurrents, the kunba gathered its belongings in a truck and moved to a more ‘civilised’ part of the city.

It is not the kind of place you can easily find anymore. The ambitious network of flyovers that is a part of the Lucknow Bypass has all but swallowed the small villages that lay on the outskirts of the city. What was left of it was poached by real estate hawks who suddenly woke up to the fact that land value would soon skyrocket. Farms that hadn’t been tilled in years were sold off at throwaway prices. Those who refused to relent were conveniently silenced and have now become part of the local folklore. Everyone knows how easy it is to twist the arm of the law in this part of the country. But alas, some just don’t see it coming. Sharmaji got a stay order from the court to ward off the authorities and clung to his dear life. Samar still believes he found God at the same time.

Posh colonies for high ranking government servants, huge malls with multi-level parking, cineplexes screening the latest Hollywood blockbusters, and fashionable coffee joints with posters of American rock stars on their walls now pockmark the Trans-Gomti area. The new middle class prosperity has at last come home to Lucknow. This is probably as it should be. The world seems to be engaged in a constant struggle to renew itself and hold onto the past. When one cares to look at it that way, regret and nostalgia seem equally futile. The past does live on, though, in people and their cities. One only has to look over one’s shoulder in order to realise how hard it is to deny or let go of it.

Having held his fort when the landowners in and around Chinhat were being hounded by the property dealers, Sharmaji had finally been convinced by Samar’s mother to sell the house in Ismailganj. For some reason, Samar’s presence was necessary for the deal to take place and that is why he had been asked to find some time to visit Lucknow. Memories known to have been ignored and forgotten suddenly came flooding back. He remembered how Sharmaji used to make his weekly pilgrimage to Ismailganj to ask after the tenants there. How he insisted on cycling to the place because it reminded him of his school days. How Samar felt like a stranger in his own home whenever he was required to be present there for the Diwali puja. And even though such thoughts made some part of him feel uneasy, he looked forward to the trip.


Samar knew he had touched base with familiarity when he found a school named “X. C. Lent Academy” sharing the same geographical space as “The Piccadilly” – one of the two five star hotels the city boasted of. When he overheard a co-passenger using the term dabang in order to describe the local petrol station mafia. When he could safely tell one road from another. The city had changed definitely. From the last time he had visited it. And though it tried hard to project an image of normalcy – through flies swarming over sweets being vended on the occasion of Janmashtami, through garage mechanics haggling over five rupees with Honda Splendour owners, and through unending lanes of CNG auto rickshaws queuing up for fuel – the discrepancies became evident soon enough.

A new government some months ago had brought about a revolution of sorts. Monuments and statues proclaiming the greatness of the party leaders had sprung up all over the town. Money that could have been used for flood relief was being used to erect monstrosities like Parivartan Sthal Dwar and Samta Mulak Chowk. The Chief Minister’s birthday was an event that most people (common junta and bureaucrats alike) dreaded. Not without reason. Every government institution was supposed to offer a peshgi on the occasion. Cases had been reported of sacks full of cash being delivered to the CM’s doorstep. Samar ruminated over the thought for a while. But his mind wandered off towards less pertinent subjects. At least ones which wouldn’t make a difference to the bigger scheme of things. That seemed a comforting occupation for the meanwhile.

He had always found resonance within this city. It seemed to reflect all the changes he had undergone. It did not mirror them. But the symphony was a secret that was known to both of them. The fact was evident in his love hate relationship with its lethargic and lonely afternoons that brought his life to a grinding halt, almost without fail. In the unending source of inspiration that it had seemed to become. In more poetic moods, he had made himself believe that the city had become a cornerstone in his life – a steady anchor in the ever meandering scheme of things. And now, when his home had finally assumed a new image, he wondered how long he could refuse to don his own mantle. One such empty afternoon had caught him unaware and silently posed a question which he had been avoiding answering.

Sharmaji was a man who preferred to keep to himself. So much so, that even his own son could not claim to know him better than any of the umpteen relatives who never got tired of commenting on his aloofness. He had grown up knowing both a shameful struggle for existence and the reassuring stability of the Indian middle class. Often lost in contemplation, he appeared to be the kind of person who saw the world in black and white instead of varying shades of grey. Having responsibly spent his life in the well worn Hindu grooves of studentship, marriage, and late-life detachment, he eagerly awaited the final renunciation of all his duties. It was a well known rumour in the family that his yearly donations to Ramakrishna Mission, under the pretext of helping build a library, were merely a preparation for the final phase of his life.

For as long as Samar could remember, his father had preached, and stood by, his unrelenting ideals. “Your desires can be endless, but your needs are so often limited,” he used to keep on telling his unmindful children. One of the few men who followed more than they preached, he was the father figure you needed but did not want. The one who taught you the importance of character when all you wanted to do was soak in the pleasures of life. The one who dwelled upon the goodness of an undemanding life while you prayed to God for a car, a telephone, a house, and more. The one who would ask a seventeen year old to read passages by thinkers like Dayananda and Ramakrishna. And the one who lent his character to yours without even making it apparent.

When young, Samar had sometimes vowed that he would never grow up to be like his father. Each time he was denied a special birthday dinner, he would curl up in his mother’s lap and make imaginary promises to himself, repeatedly reaffirming his conviction in them. Perhaps he was naïve enough to ignore the changes that his heredity had made certain. But his denial – a defence mechanism in response to his lack of will to fight the obvious – had protected him from realising the implications. Now that he could no longer retreat back into his shell, he tried to trace the roots of the personality that was gradually becoming his own. He wanted to gather up the pieces before it was too late to even question them.

Samar could not decide what was more surprising – the realisation that he had become so much like his father or the fact that he had been trying to fight and deny it for the better part of his conscious years. The answer, he felt, would go a long in way in helping him come to terms with his own identity for he had often felt that he was living someone else’s life. One he wouldn’t want to be in but was required to by some unknown force of nature. Caught between these two worlds, the consequences had sometimes proved to be quite disastrous. He realised that putting an end to this internal conflict would not only help him in charting the course of his future, but also in accepting the consequences of his indecisive past.

One evening, as the family sat around the dinner table, the subject of the property deal came up. Between mouthfuls of boiled torai and rice, his staple diet during the Monsoons, Sharmaji explained why Samar’s presence had been necessary. “Tumhare naam ki registry hai,” he said matter of factly. “I was hoping that someday you would perhaps come to live there. Humne khud ke liye bhi yahi socha tha. But it seems out of the question now. So keeping the house doesn’t seem like the advisable thing to do. Such is life. There is no use in struggling against it all the time.” He did not speak again until dinner was over. As he prepared to retire for the night, he came to Samar’s room and sought to assuage his sense of righteousness, “Chinta karne ki zaroorat nahin hai. You should not feel bad about this. It is all going to be for the best. Kal court chalna hai yaad rakhna. Jaldi pahuch gaye toh jaldi sab kuch nipat jayega.

That night, as he lay tossing and turning in his bed, Samar pondered over what his father had said. He tried to gain some insight into his words, as if expecting them to shed their cloak of ordinariness and somehow enlighten him. If only words could come alive to tell their story! Finally, giving up any pretence to sleep, he went outside for a smoke. A thunderstorm in the evening had bathed all the leaves in fresh colours. Glowing silently in the diffused light of the street lamp, they seemed happy on getting their dignity back. A gentle breeze had picked up its pace and was trying to alarm them into doing something irrational. Lightning in the distance was followed by the ceremonial crack of thunder. Then without any further warning, it started to drizzle. His cigarette was put out by the first few drops and then slowly he watched the rain pick up momentum, lurching and splashing over his naked feet. As nature played out its games for its own amusement, Samar knew what he had to do. Outside, all was chaos; but inside, he was feeling quite calm.

Inspired, yet again, by The Romantics. Damn, I feel like a broken record.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Prison of Mind

His gaze, from staring through the bars,
Has grown so weary that it can take in
Nothing more. For him it is as though there were
A thousand bars, and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
The movement of his powerful strides is
Like a ritual dance around a center,
Where a great will stands paralysed.

Only at times, the curtains of the eye
Lift, without a sound. A shape enters,
Slips through the tightened silence of the shoulders,
Plunges into the heart, and dies.

- The Panther, Rainer Maria Rilke