Even today, I suppose all India is bracing itself, preparing itself and half-hoping that it will not come that soon, not just yet: he might still live twenty more years, mightn’t he? Our king is such an indomitable man, why fear? But then we’re all, all of us mortals. It’s normal to think it will happen, one simple day. So if we think of it even now, it will less painful when it does happen, when he does go. One day, like the little caravan circus crossing the bridge in the sepia morning light, one day he will cross the border into the other world, leaving us huddled and tearful, at a loss, knowing it had to come. He will die like all of us, like Guru Dutt, like Raj Kapoor. And we will remember that movie of 2007, in which Rituparno Ghosh had so tenderly foretold us of our grief and his greatness.
The last Lear could be his anticipated mortuary tribute. Do you remember this poem by Emily Dickinson?
I died for Beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining room
He questioned softly "Why I failed"?
"For Beauty", I replied
"And I, for Truth. Themself are One
We Brethren, are", He said
And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night
We talked between the Rooms
Until the Moss had reached our lips
And covered up - our names
The suggestion of such closed-up rooms, a hint of Chekhovian atmosphere and some Raincoat-like distant chanting, the aching strumming of a cello: all these suggest a lyrical dirge which the more sprightly scenes do not quite evacuate. Some people have said that this was Amitabh Bachchan’s best role (he’s turning 70 on Oct 11 this year). I don’t know for sure (because he was already so great in Black) but we can start with him, as anyway the movie is tailor-made for him! He plays Haresh-ji (but call him Harry) who is almost a cliché: the cranky, intolerant and now retired Shakespearian actor who has spent his life-long career fighting for the essential challenge of keeping the bard’s words alive in the society of men. His personality looks so much like what we imagine such romantic actors might be, that it must have been hard for Ghosh to actually stage AB’s appearance: indeed, how make him appear and deflect the pressure of expectation? You’ll see for yourself when you watch the film (and those of you who have seen the film will remember), but it’s one of the best scenes, and all because of the “bell”! I can’t resist quoting Ariel’s melancholy rhyme from The Tempest here:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that does fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! Now I hear them – Ding-dong, bell.
Up in his room, where he resides with his daughter Vandana (Shefali Shetty), he receives his visitors and the unfortunate journalist who cannot make the difference between Oberon and Oberoi is mercilessly sacked by this new Prospero who sends him packing as commandingly as a Harry Potter wizard. What’s fun is that the guy responsible for the English subtitles didn’t realise he might deserve the same treatment:
So indeed if the film is in English, it’s because of the Bard: one couldn’t really have Shakespeare played in Hindi, could one? Anyway, the sort-of story starts when Siddharth, a young film director (Arjun Rampal) docks the stranded ship of a home (bell episode, ding-dong!) and actually manages to ingratiate the fiery captain. We first get to discover his quirkiness (viz the CCTV in his room which films people stopping to pee on his wall – there’s a succession of B&W shots reminiscent of Wayne Wang’s Smoke, in which Harvey Keitel plays the owner of a cigar-store in Brooklyn and photographs his street corner every day – the intellectualism comes from Paul Auster, who wrote the book), and then we see Siddharth trying an experiment on the old man, making him go down his stairs without his glasses, presumably to prepare him for the role in the film he’s going to ask Harry to play in: a little weird and disconnected passage if you ask me, but well shot and pathetic enough to keep your attention (I thought, “strange scene, but it probably will receive its meaning later”, but in fact it doesn’t).
Rituparno Ghosh uses that trick at another moment, BTW: it’s when the film team is out in the mountains and his co-star Helen (Preity Zinta), busy revising her lines, is joined by a genial but a little intrusive Harry bent on making her learn the right way. He’s probably right technically speaking, but she makes it clear he’s being a pain in the neck. But she’s a good sort, and after a while she relents. She accepts the little experiment, and this leads to a rather unusually beautiful moment when we see her facing the faraway hills with a long hair trickling down her back, torn by the emotion which the exercise has made her go through. The framing of the two trees on her left and right, the hand fumbling for a support that’s gone (Harry has moved back), the scene evokes a painting by Munch where a solitary woman (her back turned towards us) can be seen alone on the beach at dusk, and her suffering is reflected in the stillness of the empty nature surrounding her:
Ghosh has quite successfully worked on the King Lear symbolism. He hasn’t, for example, transposed the story too much, and the result is that we have only touches of Shakespeare’s play which appear. The three women, for example are subtly reminiscent of Cordelia and her two envious sisters, but there’s enough Chekov there to soften the resemblance. Lear’s figure itself doesn’t weigh down on the spectator, so that we are more alerted to make little connections here and there than plod under a weighty symbolism. Even the end, when Helen fancies she wakes him up from his coma to recite Act IV scene 7:
Where have I been? Where am I? Fair daylight?
I am mightily abused. I should even die with pity
To see another thus. I know not what to say;
I will not swear these are my hands. Let’s see,
I feel this pin-prick. Would I were assured
of my condition.
Oh look upon me sir,
And hold your hand in benediction over me...
Even then, we gracefully listen to the words in full recognition that this is beauty and pathos, because we do have a dear old man in mind, which reminds us perhaps of other old people whose hand we have held at death’s door. This Cordelia and this Lear belong to what we are entitled to dream about, to weep about. They re-enact the famous story, and if there isn’t any ridicule to do so. The catharsis of seeing Amitabh as perhaps he would like to be remembered is soothing and (who knows?) necessary. We know after this scene he will spring up and joke with the team, but, while we suspend our disbelief, we have felt we were doing the right thing.
Siddharth has entitled his movie “the mask” and Ghosh lets us read us the subtitle:
Even of I am not very particular about the 'film in the film' structure, I found it was also light enough to enable those who didn’t want to think too much about it to abstain. Anyhow, as soon as you introduce the theme of the ageing actor, and the passage from theatre to cinema, if you add the clown motif (does this ring a bell?) which is part of the circus-story told by Siddharth:
and of course, even if so very lightly, you let this tune resonate in the background, you are plunging the spectator in that conundrum. And it does fit with what the movie has set to do, of course! So it’s then very apt to give a great actor, towards the end of his career, the opportunity to wear once more his actor’s mask, because yes, our faces do often lie, and truth can sometimes be reached through other means than nature. So all in all, a pleasant film with a great Amitabh, a quietly feminine Preity Zinta and manly Arjun Rampal. Oh, I haven’t spoken about the accident at the end! Should I? No, I don’t think so (I'll tell you soon why).