Friday, August 1, 2014

Dilip Kumar: An Act of Grace

For Dilip Kumar acting is, well, an act of grace, a dignified investigation of an emotion or a character study. He is refined; he is stylish even while negotiating the coarsest of reality. All that meditative poise and calculated mannerism never took anything away from the inherent realism of the situation. Managing the paradox of portraying reality with intensely personal style has been his most astounding achievement. Realism for him is not reaffirming a stereotype in its most documentary details. For him realism is exploring the core of reality with essentials of one’s being and infusing it with an interpretation that is honest to the feelings of the actor. It is this honesty of feelings that pulls off the delicate dance of stylized reality – the ‘art of sweet excesses’

Dilip Kumar can be easily credited with laying down the grammar of Hindi film acting. He rescued Hindi film acting from the hyperbolic style of earlier time. The high theatricality of Parsee theater was the order of the day. Along with Ashok Kumar, Motilal, Balraj Sahni he brought dramatic changes in expected parameters of the art of screen acting. The thrust was on bringing the theatricality of the screen acting down as the medium of cinema was demanding change of the rules. Camera had different rules than stage and screen acting was still coming to grips with that. Keen student, that Dilip Kumar was, learnt the potential of the still new medium and synched his strengths with the demands of the celluloid storytelling. Consequently, Dilip Kumar stands as a marker from where modern screen acting begins. What makes his perceptive embrace of the technical details remarkable was his success in getting the stardom mix right. He was, arguably, the first actor to establish a star persona based on nuanced acting and mannerism. This was different from Master Vitthal or Nadia who were creation of a genre and were replaceable by anyone given that the technicians remained the same.  Dilip Kumar on the other hand was bringing inherent star elements to the table. Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand were also doing the same. His sometime mentor Ashok Kumar also stands in the same league. However, Dilip Kumar’s contribution was more far reaching then the others.

Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar were the stars who really shaped stardom in Hindi Films, later to be redefined by Rajesh Khanna who brought rock star hysteria to the mix. While the pioneering influence of each and every member of the troika is beyond question, Dilip Kumar stands apart. Dev Anand left the drama and power of the earlier roles for a caricature of himself and his increasing descent was kept tolerable by his joy for life, music and engaging themes. Raj Kapoor contributed more as a director- producer or creator of great teams then as an actor. His uni-dimensional Raju is an enduring icon of its time. This Chaplinsque tramp with heart of gold carried many a complex social issues of his times on his shoulders. While its services are acknowledged we can’t overlook its limits in histrionics department. It was left to Dilip to create, then open, doors in various aspects of acting. He redefined tragic hero by owning it. His 1940s to 1960s period had many performances where he poured agony on screen and made being a loser cool. Devdas may have become prototype of a certain genre but his torment found forceful expression in many other outings such as Dilip in Andaz, Ashok in Babul, Vijay in Jogan, Shamu in Deedar, Devendra and Anand in Madhumati, Ganga in Gunga Jumna
His mild depression and consultation with the psychiatrist of British Monarch in London have moved into folklore. That apart,  we need to see his success in tragic roles from the point of view of new language that he was laying down. Silences, slow moistening of eye, tonalities of dialogue delivery and expressions were all coming to Indian screen for the first time. It’s a measure of his craft that original ingredients of sorrow on screen hold valid even today. He needed new tropes to blend the inherent rebelliousness of his characters that went side by side with their tragedy and pathos. He was not only agonising but was also refusing to accept the easy solutions or existing traditions. Devdas may be a loser but he took his defeat and refused to compromise with his new reality. Similarly other tragic character showed a principled core which rebelled against bending to social mores. This conflict needed new grammar of acting to convey. Along with the grammar, dramatic capabilities were needed to establish that on celluloid. Dilip Kumar had the intelligence, stamina and talent to be up to the task. His presence at that critical juncture of the evolution of cinema in India cannot be overstated. Lord Meghnath Desai called him Nehru’s Hero as he was representing the conflicts that the new nation was facing. 

If Dilip kumar had stopped there, he would have still had stupendous repertoire. But, then, Dilip Kumar is not an ordinary talent. He went on to become complete actor by adding comedy, action, romance and even dance to his performances. Some of the most hilarious moments of Indian screen are created by this ‘tragedy king’ and if you hold a poll on most romantic moment in Hindi film so called 'feather scene' from Mughal-e-Azam will figure very high. Like tragedy, Dilip Kumar brought his unique refinement to all these new areas also. He could pull off buffoonery in Ram aur Shyam, Ganga Jamuna and Bairaag with all his refined mannerism intact. His debt is acknowledged by almost all who came after him.  His second innings was not very successful though he had memorable roles in Karma, Shakti, Kranti, Mashaal etc. However, thing to be noted here is that he was the first to blaze the trail of second innings. Before him no one created a niche for senior actors to play leading role. While he does not have a Chini Kum or Black to his credit, he created a space which was ably exploited by Amitabh Bachchan, perhaps the only complete actor that can be compared to the senior thespian.
Born almost 92 years ago in Peshawar to Hindko-speaking Pathan parents, Yusuf Khan was Fourth among 12 children. Sometime in the late twenties, the family moved to Bombay, where his father Ghulam Sarwar Khan set up a fruit business. Devika Rani who was looking after the affairs of Bombay Talkies after death of her husband Himanshu Rai noticed young Yusuf and offered him job with high salary of Rs 500. “Yusuf Khan, she felt, was not a name to go well with a romantic hero. Of the three names suggested to him – Jehangir, Vasudev and Dilip Kumar – he chose the last. This, he thought, was also appropriate for it would hide his new occupation from his conservative father, who loathed all ‘nautankwalas’, as he used to call those associated with the cinema.” However, he was found out by the father who came to accept his new profession only after seeing him in Shaheed. Dilip Kumar went on doing 63 films in more than six decade long career. Numerable awards including Dadasaheb Phalke and Nishan-e-Pak came his way. The number of films is very less but Dilip Kumar preferred to immerse himself in the roles that he did. Unlike Amitabh Bachchan, there are lesser sorry film choices by Dilip Kumar. It is an oeuvre that is truly critical to the history of cinema in the subcontinent.  

Dilip Kumar along with Amitabh Bachchan forms the twin peaks of Hindi Cinema. His contribution is immense and pleasure of watching him is unsurpassed. He is a sublime presence that attracts with its refinement and sophistication. In him we find a really successful marriage of classicism and mass appeal. Long live the Emperor. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Review of True Detective: Engaging Dark Core of an Intelligent Show

‘True Detective’ tells a complicated grisly crime story with details, very good acting and atmospherics. It seems that this- straight forward story telling of a spectacular crime, is reason enough to catapult the star-studded HBO show  to stratospheric heights of popularity.  But that is not the only reason for this to be an outstanding show. It has a strong subject matter depicted with gritty control over the narrative. Presence of the ‘two masters of laconic’ Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey has knitted the story in the overall aura of excellence.
Top notch performances by McConaughey and Harrelson are the key pleasure of this very enjoyable show. McConaughey, who is in the sweet spot of creative and professional resurgence has hogged the limelight. In fact, singular in the title is for him. He has given a great performance- taught and good to watch. He remained clued into the ruined grandeur of his character. In both young and later part he managed to convey the anguish of a damaged soul which is aware enough of grasp the horror of its own decay. This doomed intelligence and doggedness that was sure if righteousness got beautifully showcased in the star persona of a great actor. But my vote goes to that magnificent creep, Woody Harrelson. He was not transferring a one-dimensional trauma but a whole array of sensibilities. He was flawed in a much more nuanced way. His Marty is far more layered in conveying the real fault lines of an inherently decent man prone to envy and adultery. He had to convey decency while playing second fiddle, not a particularly difficult task. Dr Watson in his many avatars has done it manfully over the years. But here Marty has to create story by being a force rather than a prop. The bromance or buddy angle apart he is not in awe of McConaughey’s Cohle. He does not have the ultimate clutch of loyalty card. He is there as player not as a sidekick. He, unlike Cohle, is not functioning with a given tune of tormented philosopher. He is being equally impactful in more mundane mantle. In the absence of showy props (tragic back story, ruined look, past as soul-shattering undercover agent) his spectacular performance gets more weight. 
Despite dealing with universal themes, ‘True Detective’ has a provincial core. It is not easily accessible to a non-American. Louisiana landscape and accented monologue will need a second viewing for a person like me to get the full flavor. However genius of the show is clear. This is a highly moody and individualistic take on a conventional hunt of a murderer by two detectives who, despite their damaged selves, retain a true passion to fight the darkness of crime. The plot is simple. ‘True Detective’ follows the Louisiana State Police detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) as they investigate a series of occult-based sex murders in the course of seventeen years. Smattering of occult references and nuanced deflecting of suspicion have kept the cyberspace abuzz with the discussion about the series.   A good cultural product is supposed to create discussion and disagreement. Here we have plenty.
There are sequences which stand out. Six minute long take in action sequence at the end of episode four has been rated  ‘worthy of Scorsese.’  Final episode had the climax that was very creepy and gave a fitting finale to the sickness that pervaded throughout the series. Family scenes, interrogations, bonding sequences, chases etc fitted in the whole that the creator planned for them. 
However, I liked many other shows better, particularly from UK and Scandinavia.  May be ‘True Detective’  is  getting more attention due to the pop philosophical air that it managed to gather, big banner and heavyweight starcast. The show is smart enough to avoid spoofs that such ultra serious pieces evoke so easily. May be not smart enough, as The New Yorker has taken upon itself to find what is funny and ‘hot air’ in the show. Truth be told, I am slightly wary of the critics who start with a gender angle, which might be very important in itself but of a limited value as a device for an objective review. On a different level, deep understanding may often deprive you of simple pleasures. It may lead to compulsive spoofing without appreciation of the good elements. That said, ‘True Detective’ is superlative TV and pushes the envelope in many departments of the genre. Clichés will be there, that is why we go back to a genre. ‘True Detective’ does a splendid job of presenting those clichés in an entertainingly intelligent way.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Standing in front of Cezanne canvas is confronting reality in the most clear-cut way. A Cezanne is stark, solid and well defined to the maximum extent possible. In a world where communicating the artistic  intent in a roundabout way is treated as clever and sublime, Cezanne chose to dig art by conveying presence through solidity. He agonizes ‘to realize his sensations’. His sensation is not a fleeting stimulus but a weighted optical whole that has a concrete richness with tangible attributes that challenge the artist to realize them on canvas. Cezanne feels almost a moral imperative to scrupulously realize that presence. 
 Like his art, Cezanne is a solid presence. There is very little in modern art after him that has not reckoned with him. Cubism may be most open about its debt to Cezanne but Cezanne was ‘father of it all’ as famously stated by Matisse. When Lucien Freud struggled to bring lardy nakedness out of his portraits, he was facing the same moral imperative of solidity as Cezanne. Even Andy Warhol, in his choice of presentation over representation was echoing Cezanne.  It is common knowledge that his so-called ‘geometric works’ fed into Cubism. However, it was his meditation on presence that attracted Cubists who, in turn, were also obsessed with bringing out all facets of reality.  It is documented that Picasso bought a lithograph of ‘Large Bather’ when he was working on ‘Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon.’ He was not referring to the ‘geometrical works’ when he said “it is Cezanne’s anxiety that is most interesting.” More on this later. Braque was more detailed in his assessment of Cezanne’s influence on the movement that he co-founded. Braque said “The discovery of his work overturned everything….I had to rethink everything. There was a battle to be fought against much of what we knew, what we had tended to respect, admire, or love. In Cézanne’s works we should see not only a new pictorial construction but also – too often forgotten – a new moral suggestion of space.”  Pithiness of this observation lies in capturing the moral dimension of Cezanne’s obsession.


Coming back to Cezanne’s anxiety, this anxiety is a critical part of the moral dimension. In an oft-quoted remark to his son six weeks before his death, Cezanne said “I must tell you that I am becoming, as a painter, more lucid in the presence of nature, but with me, to realize my sensations is always painful. I cannot achieve the intensity that manifests itself to my senses; I do not have the magnificent richness of coloration that animates nature.” Cezanne’s anxiety- his desperation for expression or a yawning gap between feeling and realization was defined by critic Robert Hughes as ‘ the scrupulousness of a genius without facility’ and was elevated to the level of ‘the touchstone of the modern consciousness.’  Hughes too detects the moral dimension in Cezanne’s struggle. He writes “his painting was a moral struggle in which the search for identity fused with desire to make the strongest possible images of the other – nature- under the continuous inspiration and abomination of an art tradition that he revered.”

Development of Cezanne’s art makes for a fascinating reading. His origins had very little art. In Aix-en-Provence, where he was born in 1839 it was as non artistic as was possible in the France of the day. His father was a laborer turned  hatter and, eventually, a banker. He (the father) was convinced that his son was not a fool and was surprisingly supportive of his son’s artistic plans.  From 1852 to 1858 young Cezanne studied humanities at the College Bourbon in Aix, where he met his lifetime friend, Zola the writer. Ironically in college, Cezanne used to win all literary awards and Zola was winner in the arts competitions. After that he studied law for a while, but under Zola's constant encouragement he turned to painting. By 1861 both young men were in Paris.

His fascination   with ‘presence’ found its natural expression in his genius as portraitist. Starting with 1869-70 portrait of his painter friend Achille Emperaire he went on to become one of the best portrait artists of all time. His self portraits ‘invite comparison with those of Rembrandt, and the best of them justify it’. Like everything Cezanne, his portraits assert their pictorial distinctiveness with every fiber of their being. Subjects of the portrait emerge as ‘fully formed’ to take their space and cut out any confusion that can lead to dilution of clarity of structures. ‘Realization of sensation’ is foregrounding of the syntax of presence. Hughes nails Cezanne’s  pursuit of chiseling out the reality of his local mountain- Mont Ste- Victoire. I will reproduce this biggish paragraph so as not to dilute the astute observations of the critic.  “Each painting attacks the mountain and its distance as a fresh problem. The bulk runs from a mere vibration of watercolor on the horizon, its translucent, wriggling profile echoing the pale green and lavender gestures of the foreground trees, to the vast solidarity of the Philadelphia version of Mont Ste.-Victoire, 1902-06. There, all is displacement. Instead of an object in an imaginary box, surrounded by transparency, every part of the surface is a continuum, a field of resistant form. Patches of gray, blue and lavender that jostle in the sky are as thoroughly articulated as those that constitute the flank of the mountain. Nothing is empty in late Cézanne — not even the bits of untouched canvas. …. His goal was presence, not illusion, and he pursued it with an unremitting gravity. The fruit in the great still lifes of the period, like Apples and Oranges, 1895-1900, are so weighted with pictorial decision — their rosy surfaces filled, as it were, with thought — that they seem about twice as solid as real fruit could be. … The light in his watercolors (perhaps the most radiant exercises in that medium since Turner) is not just the transcendent energy, the "supernatural beauty" of abstraction; it is also the harsh, verifiable flicker of sun on Provençal hillsides. To his anguish and fulfillment, Cézanne was embedded in the real world, and he returns us to it, whenever his pictures are seen.”  It is this struggle of realizing those sensations on canvas that makes Cezanne so enduring.

Durability of Cezanne’s appeal is also due to comprehensive nature of success. He is relatively rare in achieving maturity of multiple aspects of his artistic genius. When his influence on later artists is talked about, mostly the reference is to some particular aspect which was picked by the artists and taken to new heights. In Cezanne we find realization of many aspects- coloration, form, drawing, texture, modeling and expression. His monkish dedication to his art and ability to avoid self-destructive impulses, so common to his era, led to a certain ripeness and heft to his output. This ripeness lent sufficient complexity to his work that enabled later artist to pick and choose from a masterly weave of fully realized fields. Softly dazzling aura of his watercolors, stoic weightiness of his still life or unmistakable ‘presence’ of his portraits is grand enough to be a foundation of separate schools. Here too, his achievement was embedded in a moral dimension as noted by Meyer Schapiro “he was capable of an astonishing variety. This variety rests on the openness of his sensitive spirit. He admitted to the canvas a great span of perception and mood, greater than that of his Impressionist friends. This is evident from the range of themes alone; but it is clear in the painterly qualities as well. He draws or colors; he composes or follows his immediate sensation of nature; he paints with a virile brush solidly, or in the most delicate sparse watercolor, and is equally sure in both. He possessed a firm faith in spontaneous sensibility, in the resources of the sincere self. He can be passionate and cool, grave and light; he is always honest.” Cezanne was always direct and agonizingly moral. ‘Frankness of his means’ coupled with his dedicated search of the pure form took him to a pedestal which is reserved for the epoch-makers. 
Robert Hughes has written “it may be that Cezanne was reaching for a kind of expression in painting that did not exist in his time and still does not in ours.” His desperation for expression and ‘sensitive spirit’ was looking for a new sensibility. Despite ripeness of his output that search remained unfulfilled. This unfulfilled search for a new sensibility is what that makes him ‘Patriarch of Modernism’. His sensibility was beyond his facility as bemoaned in his last letter to his son while describing the pain of realizing the sensations. He kept his agony from turning self destructive and that allowed him to practice his craft at a level which was heroic enough to open the floodgates of modern art.  True modernism is a search, not a point, in art history.   The fact that Cezanne remained unfulfilled is a testimony of his humanity and his greatness.


Friday, May 24, 2013

Normal Pathology of The Fall

The fall (BBC 2 starring Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornon) is now two episodes old and has making of a great complex psychological drama.  The Allan Cubitt’s new drama is a serious affair with brilliant performances and uncompromising portrayal of evil.  It is a difficult viewing which is scary rather than repelling.  An overhang of violence or implicit threat has not been achieved by gore and blood but situating evil in boring sedate reality.  This ordinariness of the evil is compounded as camera refuses to turn away from ‘really’ uncomfortable issues. 
“The basic story of the series is that of two hunters: a serial killer on the loose in Belfast and the police officer who is tasked with stopping him. The first hunter is a man by the name of Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan); a serial killer who happens to be a grief counsellor by day. The second hunter is Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson- she of X Files). Gibson, an officer from London’s Metropolitan Police Service, is an old acquaintance of PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Jim Burns (John Lynch), who calls her in to do a 28 day review of a murder case which has stalled. While reviewing the case she comes across two cases which she believes are linked and were committed by the same individual and, after convincing Burns of that fact, abandons her review to head the inquiry into the serial killer on the loose in Belfast.” (from TVwise review of the The Fall)
            Serial killing is by definition sadistic i.e. killing for pleasure and, moreover, the victim has done nothing to earn her (mostly it is a she) fate except to conforming to some characteristic that triggers the evil in the psychopath.  In popular culture it has been used extensively however, almost always, a distance has been created by situating the evil in something exotic.  Audience differentiate themselves from serial killers in more fundamental ways then just degrees.  They normally don’t see themselves on the same continuum and serial killers are given enough ‘quirks’ to make them a different species altogether.  But not here.  Proximity with the evil has been achieved not only with camera dwelling lovingly on the brutality but also the calm way in which the killer goes about his business at the crime scene. 
            More than this longish stay with the brutality, it is the context in which the killer has been put.  Jamie Dornan’s Paul Spector gets his menace quotient from the scenes in which he is placed in normal family life and a routine day job.  Busy thrum and stress of the domesticity only adds to the normalcy of the circumstances.  There is nothing extraordinary about the stress that he faces in his everyday life.  He may not be cheerful but how many of normal people are?  Still, there is no doubt that he is evil.  Domesticity is a backdrop that props up his darker side.    Use of deviant situations in routine everyday life creates an unease which does more to establish the dark canvas then the conventional mores  of suspense genre.  
            In one scene we meet Paul in his role as a grief counselor and find him asking probing questions to his clients. Occasional diversion   in the sexual territory will not be noted, but from him it raises some antennas. Later we catch him making inappropriate drawings while the mother talks of death of her child.  Other uneasy situations involve children near perilous situations.  He hides his gear in the false roof right above his son’s bed, adorned with whatever children’s rooms are adorned. His daughter gives a jaunty family performance while he gets distracted by the news item about his previous kill. Inappropriate behavior of the teenage babysitter and her vulnerability in the presence of cold blooded psychopath keeps us on edge. In a later scene, camera follows the young daughter moving towards the room where Paul is wrestling with the babysitter.
            These situations firmly established the perverse nature of the landscape.  However, the perversity never crosses the line to become otherworldly.  It always remains within the overall parameter of normalcy: just a point on the continuum where we all can see ourselves.  Somehow, it always appears that this evil is possible for any one.  Even the audience cannot rule itself out. 
Another effective trick was a juxtaposition sequence in the beginning of the second episode.  In the sequence camera alternately shifted between domineering lovemaking between DSI Stella and one of her subordinates and the languid perversion of the killer in which he ‘poses’ his victim with elaborate tenderness. The sequence serves to blur the boundaries of perverse behavior of a serial killer and seemingly normal behavior of DSI Stella.  In short, intense atmospheric shots are used to stunning impact to give the series its calm eerie texture.  
Performances are top notch. Gillian Anderson is effortless in conveying her haughtiness, maverick tendencies and a very strong personality. She uses the full weight of her personality to get what she wants – whether it is the attention of a good looking cop or to be lead investigator in a case. Above all she conveys her capabilities and vulnerability with great facility without making too much song and dance about them. The Fall achieves its status of being “perfect means of exploring the banality of evil, the nature of obsession, and the niggly-squirmy minutiae of everyday”  by devoting equal time to the hunter and hunted. Jamie Dornon is playing the creepy with a surefootedness of a  pro. He is able survive long sequences without belaboring the point of his evil still conveying the full horror of his ‘normal’ pathology.