Monday, November 9, 2015

Milan Kundera Remains a Pleasure to Read

Milan Kundera is a writer of moments, of fleeting experiences or even further sub division or an interpretation of that emotion. He likes to call his method or style as ‘meditative interrogation’ or ‘interrogative meditation’. However, those delightfully ponderous and long meditation are almost always about a moment as said above, a fleeting one. It can be about an old lady waving goodbye or a rather disgruntled look at the female midriff. Fleeting or momentary this might be but Kundera weaves lifetimes out of it.
Old masters, here I am talking in terms of age, tend to acquire a telegraphic leanness in their output. In case of writing, often, paragraphs start looking something like formulae- Condensed and distilled – expressing core truth with the benefit of commentary. This can go either way. It might strike as a whiplash of understanding or leave the trail of unsatisfied craving for understanding sometimes.
Autumnal output by master authors swings in one more direction. The author sleepwalks through the product. Due to innate greatness or ‘muscular memory’, broad parameters of the products are usually in place and it has some signature flashes of genius. But this work fades in comparison to earlier works which were less of products of practice but of genuine inspiration supported by indefatigable craftsmanship. Soul simply does not shine through. Admirers of the artist get into nostalgia mode and start celebrating diminished sparks that remind them of the original fire – their own and that of the artist. But, as I mentioned somewhere else, nostalgia has both its utility and futility. ‘Festival of insignificance’ Milan Kundera’s first novel in this millennium, a 115 page telegraph of a novel, exemplifies all the facets of aging maestros discussed above. But, a fan, like yours truly can’t but be thrilled by the offering.
‘Festival of Insignificance’ is a sparse stark reminder of Kundera’s core capability of analysing a moment/feeling/situation/concept and see how that can pervade the much larger canvas of life despite seemingly niche quality. Kundera has great powers of perception to grasp underlying ingredient of a situation and deploys his meditative interrogation with great success on that. Here, he dwells on insignificance as the leitmotif of human existence and has developed an enjoyable book. The novel, despite its sparse bulk, is able to cater to the ruminative cravings of the reader. However, one can’t shake the feeling that Kundera is playing like a retired or retiring player. He has retained his key capabilities but the novel needs more. However, the fact remains that the Master always delivers, at least to the basic minimum level, even when he is sleepwalking.
It has given rise to voices in many quarters doubting the continued significance of Milan Kundera. In a recent article titled ‘How important is Milan Kundera today? in the Guardian Jonathan Coe writes  “The Festival of Insignificance, then, is certainly typical Kundera, if not classic Kundera. It is an old man’s book and, while there are flickering signs of a mellow and playful wisdom, it would be surprising if there were not something autumnal about it. A glance at the back covers of Kundera’s novels in the Faber editions reveals a raft of quotes from the likes of Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Carlos Fuentes, most of them more than 30 years old, reminding us that his reputation was at its zenith in the 1980s, the decade when everybody was reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Another article in Atlantic Monthly ‘Does Milan Kundera Still Matter?’ says “Reading Kundera in the ’80s was like watching Mad Men with the conviction that smoking, drinking, and grabbing the secretary’s ass were bold assertions of individual autonomy in the face of a cruelly repressive state.
Czech Communism collapsed 25 years ago. Kundera, who is 86, has lived in France for 40 years and written in French for more than two decades. The Festival of Insignificance—his first novel in 13 years—is an excellent opportunity to ask what happens to his fiction once the backdrop of Soviet oppression no longer throws his dark jokes, nihilism, and naughty interludes into bright relief.’
Such observation may be valid and writing in Kundera style may no longer be having its novelty kick but that does not take away much from his importance. He is a great novelist and a pioneer for his style which he himself confesses is in the tradition of great European novelists. His key works stand the test of time and resonate with brilliance that appeals to human concerns beyond a certain epochs. His best works contain the intellectual and emotional pleasure of an examined life. His capabilities of “forging connections between the individual consciousness and the shifting currents of history and politics” has the thrum of operatic proportion and never fails to elate. This sophistication of feelings which hovers in the no man land of psycho-philosophical fiction.
He has mastered the art of deploying the tool of novelistic inquiry to issues of his choosing and that has often led to a hugely satisfactory literary pay off.  His key works of the so called middle period are the foundation of his reputation. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Immortality will find place in any pantheon of great novels for the intensity of their inquiry, their amusement at the complication that grim realities of life throw at us. Despite their playfulness, irony and ponderous meditation these novels were and remain urgent due to their evident connection with the zeitgeist.
One of the qualities of great literature is that its esoteric highbrow abstraction does not affect its accessibility. Kundera seemingly obtuse phenomenological (a term that he politely refuses) inquiries are illuminated with the easy recognition. Reader never feels distant from the text despite ‘interiority’ of the material.
Kundera has achieved a unique voice in his books. A playful wisdom that abhors seriousness. He may look formidable due to his erudition and European sensibilities but he is never serious. The twinkling naughtiness of his voice, that impish tone is sure shot antidote to dogma. This is also a protective armour that saves the scepticism from being fossilised into dogma of his own. With these voices he confidently ‘pursues the lost possibilities’.
This pursuit is essentially interrogative. Frequency of questions in his text is only overtaken by the open refusal to subscribe unambiguously to any point or belief. Even the most extensive enquiries yield answers that have an air of work-in-progress. This is not tentativeness on his part, simply an acknowledgement of the logic of evolution that human issues don’t lend themselves to final answers.
Much of requiem for Kundera’s relevance centres around the fact that his strengths like taste for irony, philosophical gravitas, essayistic style has been either equalled or overtaken by later writers like Julian Barnes and Alain de Botton to Slavoj Žižek. This should be seen as another instance of his greatness if he is able to inspire greatness. As an original he retains his primacy. If he discovered a genre or a style that is still relevant enough to attract great talent, credit is all his.

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.