Wednesday, July 30, 2008

When an Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object...Whom is the Joke On?

"Ha ha ha ahoo ahoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo"

Something is very wrong when a joker laughs. Jokers were not meant to laugh. They were meant to stand there, stone-faced or bewildered, and make you laugh. When the joker laughs, it's never good. Because that means the joke is on you. So what happens if one joker wants to be taken seriously…very seriously? When it was decided Heath Ledger would play the Joker in The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan is said to have given him a copy of The Killing Joke and told him that was the Joker he wanted. The film, too, draws heavily from that particular comic…the comic which Batman fans describe as the one which defines Joker's character. And all of a sudden, the Joker seems more interesting, more intriguing, than Batman himself. In April this year, DC Comics brought out Lovers and Madmen, which said it would trace the Joker's origins. The Killing Joke itself hints at his origins, but is the story real or was it a version the Joker had created?

When the confrontation between him and Batman takes place, he says "You had a bad day…and it drove you as crazy as everybody else! Something like that…something like that happened to me, you know. I…I'm not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another…If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it multiple choice! Ha ha ha!" So did the Joker have a pregnant wife who died the day he was playing the Red Hood and committing a crime so he would have enough money to support her and his child? Did Batman chase him into a chemical tank which left him with ruby lips, a white face and green hair? Or was he making up versions of the bad day that drove him crazy? A version that would justify hating Batman? Does the Joker have a sense of justice and a compulsion to reason things out logically after all? But how amusing!

In The Dark Knight, the Joker has two versions of his past too. Both of them involve women leaving their men. In one, his mother wants to leave his father, but his father, his father didn't like that sort of thing, y'see, so he turned the knife on his mother. Then his father saw him, and he came up to his son and shoved the knife into his mouth, like this, and asked, "why so serious? Let's put a smile on that face!" and then the Joker, all grown up, tells the shivering man in his grip, "now, I ask you…why so serious? Let's put a smile on that face!" In another version, the Joker's wife, whom he says was a pretty girl, just like Rachel Dawes, would not smile after she had her cheeks cut, so he decided to make her laugh by cutting his own cheeks with a razor blade, and would you believe it, she left him?

Both The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight see a death from Smilex towards the beginning. The central theme is the same – "all it takes is one bad day to drive the sanest man alive to lunacy. That is how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day." And the procedure to prove the hypothesis is: pluck out the best, most law-abiding citizen of all, and drive him crazy by striking where it hurts. What does it do to you when you lose the person you love most, and know whom to blame for it? His experiment is successful in one case, where District Attorney Harvey Dent becomes Harvey Two-Face, and fails in the other, where Commissioner Gordon insists the Joker be brought in "by the book" despite the cruel mind game the Joker puts him through, laying him bare physically and emotionally.

But the key question both stories throw up is this – will Batman and the Joker kill each other, as Batman predicts, or do they need each other, like the Joker suggests? The end of the comic is ambiguous – it isn't clear whether the Batman is about to push the Joker off the roof or is laying a hand on his shoulder in the camaraderie of a shared joke. But the grin on Batman's face hints it is the latter. In the movie, the Joker challenges Batman to kill him by running him over…but Batman would rather skirt him and take a fall than run him over and do away with him. Does Batman desist because of his respect for the law? Or does he hold back because he knows he and the Joker are two sides of a coin? Not black and white, but with ambiguous shades complementing each other perfectly? Each gives, in fact is, the other's purpose in the world…his reason to live.

The film has two scenes which are very similar to the comic – one, where the Joker and Batman have a one-way conversation in jail, and the other, where the Joker reaches out to Batman. In the comic, Batman does the talking in the Joker's cell, trying to convince him they should negotiate a truce before they end up killing each other (a proposition he repeats towards the end) and in the movie, the Joker does the talking, while Batman watches, silent. The comic has the Joker trying to convince Batman that they both have a lot more in common…that they are not that different after all, because both of them turned crazy because of one bad day. "Why else would you dress up like a flying rat?" he asks. In the movie, Joker tells Batman in his cell that they are both outcasts, and the police force knows Batman is a freak, just like the Joker, that they will only keep him as long as they need him.

And the inevitable question is asked: "What happens when an unstoppable force hits an immovable object?" There are several theories where the physics of this possibility are concerned – one is that it could never happen, because the victor would negate the foundation of the other. If a force is stopped by an object, it was not unstoppable to begin with, and an object moved by a force would not be immovable after all. Another is that the force could pass right through the object, because who said it was in solid state? Another is that while the object itself might not move relative to its surroundings, the entity, meaning the force, the object and the system the object is in, could move as a whole. But the real answer might be what Superman says when the question is posed to him in the parallel comic series. "They surrender," is his quiet answer. So far, neither the Joker nor the Batman has killed the other. The Joker's gun shoots out flowers or notes instead of bullets when he has the chance, and Batman simply doesn't take his chances. Is that surrender, then? Will they always surrender? Will it end when the Joker finds out Batman's true identity, and has no reason to keep him alive? Will it end when Batman decides Gotham City can do without him, if he can do without the Joker… if Bruce Wayne can do without Batman?

The answer, perhaps, lies in the Joker's metaphor: "See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum. And one night, they decide they don't like living in an asylum anymore. They decide they're going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof, and there they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moonlight. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across without any problem. But his friend, his friend daren't make the leap. Y'see…y'see, he's afraid of falling. So, then, the first guy has an idea…he says 'Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I'll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk across the beam and join me!' B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says…he says 'what do you think I am? Crazy? You'd turn it off when I was half way across!' Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha haaa…"

Maybe the reason the Batman series is so popular is that it gives us so many options. We could be either of these two guys, living in our own lunatic asylums. We could make the leap or we could stay behind. We could trust the flashlight or we could stay off the beam. We could be Commissioner Jim Gordon or we could be Harvey Two Face. One bad day could make atheists out of believers or believers out of atheists; it could make vigilantes out of business tycoons, or Jokers out of failed stand-up comedians; it could make madmen out of lovers or analysts out of madmen. Maybe that is why the Joker has made us more curious than Batman has made him. Because, when the cards are laid on the table, one can argue forever about whether the Ace is lower than Two or higher than King, but everyone knows the Joker could be anything – the Joker is unpredictable.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

South of the Vindhyas, East of the Ganga

We don't exist.

Sometimes it hits you when people in a newsroom ask you whether you can understand "Kannadiga" - and shrug when you tell them (a) it is not a language (b) you are not from Karnataka. And that, leaving aside all the times your blood boils when people say "Kannad" and "Karnatak". At other times, it hits you when people ask you "what's the capital of Tripura?" At first, I looked incredulously at the person who asked me that question and went "are you playing Paanchvi Pass??" to which he replied, "no, yaar, I really don't know..." And this happened to be someone who was promoted recently.

I realised just how abysmal people's knowledge of these two regions of the country were, when a news anchor I know told me how a Punjabi she knew, living in Bangalore, could speak perfect Tamil. I asked her how he knew perfect Tamil, and she said, "oh, he's been in Bangalore..."

"Do you mean, Kannada?" I asked.

"Yeah, yeah, Kannadiga, whatever the language is," she replied.

Another colleague once said something was in a "Sauth Indian language", and could I please interpret it? Incidentally, it turned out to be Oriya. Yet another instance when my expertise in a "Sauth Indian language" was invoked got me fuming because it was Telugu and the colleague who had requested the translation looked at me, puzzled and said, "same thing, no? Tamil, Telugu..." There was this other time when someone told me a story could not be done because the bite was in Tamil. Since the bite was from Chandrababu Naidu, I asked whether it was Telugu. "Oh, one of those," he replied, brusquely.

The bond that we "Sauth Indians" have with the North Easterners is that we are not really considered part of our country, and the rest of the country has, on top of it all, made up its mind that we're "different" and don't want to be part of it after all. A Malayali, of all people, once explained to another colleague that Tamil Nadu would soon ask for its independence from India. He had grown up in Delhi, but even so...! Another colleague, whose byline yet another colleague ingeniously suggested would be "where crisis meets chaos", once asked me whether we Tamilians wanted Sri Lanka to be part of Tamil Nadu.

I grew up in a spirit of patriotic fervour handed down from the stories my grandmother told me of her father and his friend, the poet Subramaniya Bharathiyar and all the progressive ideas they tried to instil into society, the sacrifices they made in their struggle for freedom and the country they strove to build. And yet, completely ignoring the fact that C Rajagopalachari (whom he quite likely did not know was none other than "Rajaji") was Tamilian, an admittedly rather scatter-brained colleague remarked that South Indians had not fought for the freedom of the country. The fact that the first Indian who defied British law to sail a ship was Tamilian, is, of course, quite unknown outside Tamil Nadu.

It seems quite easy for the rest of the country to forget that the Gorkhas, celebrated as one of the bravest regiments of the army and known throughout India for their valour, are from the North East. They're "more a part of China than a part of India", someone I know once explained, referring to people from the North East.

We teach our children that India is an example of "Unity in Diversity". But when two huge sections of the country, each with their distinct and rich cultures, and their own contribution to the country, are largely ignored, almost abandoned as the dark reaches of a country that is much too large to begin with, where is the celebration of unity in diversity? When four different cultures, each of which views the other askance (not a lot of love lost over the Kaveri waterfight between Kannadigas and Tamilians, is there? And ask a Tamilian mother what she would think of her daughter marrying a Malayali and listen to the scream of horror), are bracketed together in one bolus, and a group of states with their own unique cultures and distinct languages are donated to China, when the city that has rather facetiously termed itself the commercial capital of the country is kicking out South Indians in one decade, and North Indians four decades later, isn't it about time we reexamined the borders in our heads?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

My Blueberry Nightmare

It all began innocently enough. Having an off-day after a while, the morning of which I rather pathetically spent in office, I forced myself to venture into the city and Siri fort. It was quite a brave decision, given the combination of the three men on my bed at the moment - Rushdie, Wodehouse and Ray - and the thirty percent discount at Papa John's I've taken full advantage of, all thrown in together with rather handicapped communication skills in Hindi. The motivating factor was the screening of Wong Kar Wai's film My Blueberry Nights. The single largest influence on me and justification for all my amorous adventures had been a line from 2046:

"It's no good meeting the right person

...too soon or too late."

So quite naturally, I was keen to find out what he had in store. Yes, Norah Jones' presence in the movie was a detracting factor, given that my musical sensibilities will not allow me to dethrone her from her unparallelled distinction of being an example of the worst use of genes ever. But Wong Kar Wai and blueberry as a concept overruled that detracting factor. However, making my mind up was only the beginning of my adventure.

It can only happen in Delhi that three successive autorickshaws have no idea where or what Siri Fort is. It can also only happen in Delhi that three people you call up for directions will tell you "everyone knows where it is". So, I found myself about an hour later at a place that looked neither like a fort nor an auditorium. The signboards saying "Operations" and "Emergency" did rouse certain misgivings, but I soldiered on bravely, lured by a sign that said "book cafe". I also managed to convince myself (I'm rather good at that) that the emergency entrance might be for film fanatics trying to escape a stampede, or celebrated directors trying to escape the film fanatics. But even I could not convince myself that paediatric and maternity wards would find place at a film festival. I mean, ten days does not warrant procreation, however hardcore an aficionado one might be. So I went rather sheepishly to the reception desk, smiled the way I usually do when I need to ask an awkward question and asked the most friendly (and gullible) looking man at the counter how I should go to Siri Fort.

"Ma'am?" he looked at me, wondering if he had heard wrong, I'm sure.

"Si-ri Fort..." I trailed off.

Even a face that gullible and friendly could look decidedly hostile when it thought you were abandoning a dying relative for a film festival. But rather than disclose I had entered a hospital to ask for directions, I let the fiction prevail. I think most people would rather be thought of as callous than blonde. At least, I would.

"Ma'am, you can exit through the emergency gate, there you will find auto stand, it'll be costing you seventy to eighty rupees, and half an hour journey."

The security guard, whom I asked for directions to the emergency gate, almost panicked and indicated in the fastest Hindi I've managed to follow, where it was. Then, it probably struck him that a woman running about on heels was unlikely to be in need of emergency care, and he began to look contemplative. That was the mood I left him in as I hailed yet another auto, the driver of which did not know where Siri Fort was. I called up someone else for directions, and managed to guide him there.

It was all going well, and I had bought my tickets, eaten, fought my way through a lot of artistic smoke and ended up red-eyed and spluttering inside the auditorium. Three Palestinian films later, I was in line for My Blueberry Nights. And keeping in mind the most sensible lines I've ever heard on screen - this one is courtesy Bernardo Bertolucci - that the best way to watch films is up close, I wisely seated myself in the second row. I knew the enthusiastic first-benchers would be unseated to make way for the distinguished guests. So I found myself sitting right behind Rajit Kapoor and a few other Mumbai theatre glitterati.

And then...this woman comes up to give us an introduction to Wong Kar Wai. The fact that she said "Waang Kar Voy" for most of it was putting off enough. But then, she went on to give a synopsis of the film, which any true film freak would know is genocide when delivered to an audience of film freaks. Some people muttered and panicked. Others, like me, pretended there was water in their ears and began shaking their heads and poking around furiously, hoping not to hear anything more than a pleasant buzz.

When the old lady left, the projector room decided to take it from exactly where she'd left off. And so it happened that as soon as the first reel was through, the fourth came on. In a moment of panic, they moved on to the third, and then the fifth...and then, somewhere close to the end, which was predictable enough, to begin with. The highlight of the evening was a timid-looking woman of substantial proportions, who took up the mic. and said, "I apologise on behalf of the festival", at which the mastermind behind the festival, Neville Tuli, looked up with something like surprise. Then she said, "I'm sorry for the inconvenience...screening will begin shortly". The poor thing didn't even have the malicious note of the woman who says "The person you're trying to busy" or the bored note of the woman who says "Your call is important to us...please stay on the line".

A few more screwups later, the lady made another appearance and looked ready to cry, and then went off, half-relieved, half-petrified after the Mumbai theatre glitterati in the first row warned, "don't say anything".

Finally, the movie done with, and the unintended trailer sequences having been viewed in context, it was time to go home. I crossed over and managed to park myself at the one place all autos seemed keen to avoid. I saw at least five people who had left the auditorium with me pack themselves into autos. Then, a moment came when an auto finally slowed down for me, and then I looked on, as, in slow motion, a remarkably chivalrous indivual intercepted it before I could get in.

So, an hour and a half later, drenched in the rain, I got out at my place, to find the landlords had given up on all prospects of my return and locked the gate. At that moment, I knew I could never think of anythig containing blueberry as comfort food ever again.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Superstar of Many Faces

(Published in Matinee, The New Indian Express, dated 13th July, 2008)

"Ammaavum neeye, Appaavum neeye…"

The deep-set, sad eyes, the innocent upturned face and the resigned mouth of the little boy who sang the song in Kalaththoor Kannamma would have aroused the maternal instincts of the most masculine-minded women. Forty-eight years later, the same deep-set eyes have portrayed every emotion in the book, the tiny little body has gone through a series of transformations, the tuft of hair has seen every style from a tonsure to a waist-length Rasta, and the boy who warmed the hearts of mothers had grown into the man who stirs audiences across the globe. Seven of his films have been in the running for Oscar nomination, he has received civilian honours and doctorates, he is a singer, dancer, actor, director, writer…one would think he had done everything there was to do in film. And then he comes up with something new – a film that could have been a swansong if one were not so sure Kamal Haasan will not – because he cannot – leave cinema till his last breath. Kamal Haasan appeared in ten avathaarams in what could be described as Navaraathiri-meets-Sivaji. But his career has spanned much more than ten avathaarams – complete with a different consort for each one.

Some of Kamal's performances have stood out even amongst each other, and each one of those seems to have been the flagship of a phase in his career. The brooding intensity and inherent defiance in movies like Apoorva Raagangal and Unnaal Mudiyum Thambi went on to ripen to maturity in Naayagan. But these three performances were separated by close to a decade each. The Prasanna of Apoorva Raagangal gave way to the trusting, helpless characters he played in movies like Moondru Mudichu and Padhinaaru Vayadhiniley. He then moved on to comedy, as Mani in Meendum Kokila. Decades later, Kamal would revisit these two genres and bring them together beautifully, intertwining pathos and hilarity as the title character of Tenali and Pammal K Sambandam, as Avinashi in Mumbai Express and even in and as Vasool Raja, MBBS.

Then, Kamal went on to play the psychologically disturbed lead character of Sigappu Rojaakkal, where you couldn't decide whether you loved him, feared him or despised him. As he grew as an actor, he would weave together the dangerously disturbed and the endearingly innocent in Guna, and later, in Aalavandhaan – daring roles that most actors would have hesitated to take on in the hero-driven Indian film industries, for fear of what they might do to their "image". But be it the idealistic lone intellectual fighting society (to eventually lose) that he experimented with in Varumayin Niram Sigappu, Punnagai Mannan and Salangai Oli, the swashbuckling daredevil in Guru and Vikram, the steadfast, upright fiery know-it-all of Sattam, the sensitive, troubled character who swings between avuncular and amorous leanings in Moondram Pirai or the heartrendingly delicate visually impaired character of Raja Paarvai, Kamal Haasan barely ever allowed the wax to settle around his image before breaking out of it. He even temporarily turned into the Mithun Chakraborty of Tamil cinema, with a trail of movies like Simla Special and Sakalakalaa Vallaban ­– a phase he jokingly thanked Mohan of "Ilaya Nila…" fame for helping him out of. In a television interview, Kamal Haasan once said, "if Mohan had not gabbed the mic. I was holding in my hand, you probably would never have seen a Velunayakan or Nallasivam."

Nayagan was followed soon enough by a series of transformation stories like Devar Magan and Mahanadhi, which would be capped years later by what is arguably Kamal Haasan's best performance of all – Anbe Sivam. But even as the heaviness of these roles was beginning to weigh down his fans, he churned out the laugh-a-minute Sathileelaavathi, where the bumbling Dr. Sakthivel and his hysteria-prone wife Palani played the perfect foil to the three protagonists of a marriage on the verge of breakdown. And then, out of the blue, came Indian –a movie that made you laugh, cry and sit up straight.

What did Kamal Haasan have left to do? Why, the thing the man he describes as the person he relates most to – Dustin Hoffman – had done a while earlier…play a woman! And very few women could have brought the proverbial 'Mylapore Mami' to life the way Kamal in and as Avvai Shanmugi did…to the extent one felt rather embarrassed when he stripped off his saree. Then, as if to reassert his masculinity, came Hey Ram – the role of an individual at war with an institution – which he would reprise in and as Virumandi, as Rangaraja Nambi in Dasavatharam, and (hopefully) in and as Marudhanayagam.

The dexterity with which Kamal switches between the chaste Brahmin Tamil and the crude Madras Tamil, even while exploring the dialects of distinct corners of the state, are only matched by the variety of roles he can handle simultaneously. We've had glimpses of his penchant for playing multiple characters before. Movies like Yenakkul Oruvan, Kalyanaraman, Punnagai Mannan, Indrudu Chandrudu, Apoorva Sagodhirargal and – possibly the most successful of them all as far as individual character definition goes – Michael Madhana Kamarajan have left us in no doubt of this little indulgence. So when his latest offering was first announced, the hype began to build up. For years, fans, critics and sceptics wondered what they would see…and when they finally did see it, many were left disappointed. Some have shaken their heads at the makeup for certain roles, while others have found holes in the plot.

But Dasavatharam is not the typical Kamal Haasan movie – it is not meant to probe your mind and alter the way you think; it is not meant to carry a subversive atheistic argument; it is not meant to make you marvel at the subtle nuances of performance. It is a stage set for a theatrical act, stretched to gigantic scale. It is a display of what a man whose larger-than-life image has never superseded the characters he plays, can do when given the reins; it is an exhibition of talent without restraint; it is a first in Kamal Haasan's acting career in that he is openly bigger than the film. Dasavatharam is a hero's treat for his fans – for the ones who have secretly longed to see their man pulling off impossible stunts and claiming his share of the screen by scorching it with his presence; for the ones who have wondered what Brand Kamal Haasan will be. 

And Dasavatharam is perhaps the most definitive definition of Brand Kamal Haasan – a study in metamorphosis…a journey which began with the sturdy little steps of Kannamma's son, turning into the jaunty saunter of Prasanna, into the crippling limp of Chappaani, into the hesitant curiosity of Mani, into the bell-bottomed foot tapping of Sakalakalaa Vallaban, into the kurta-clad purist dancing fervour of Balakrishna, into the languid swagger of Vikram, into the splayed-footed walk of Chaplin Chellappa, into the determined march of Velunayagan, into the surefooted gambolling of Guna, into the demure grace of Avvai Shanmugi, into the stride of Saket Ram, into the dragging limp of Nallasivam, into the charge (one would hope) of Marudhanayagam.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

It's Payback Time, and I'm Here to Collect

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, on 12th July, 2008)

Instinct tells me the man who came up with the adage "Neither a lender nor a borrower be" was either my soul mate or the real Nostradamus. I was once shocked to hear an acquaintance, who had fallen out with a friend because his friend expected him to return money, say, "dude, friends are not supposed to return money! It doesn't work that way! If he comes to Madras and is completely broke, I'll sponsor him and not expect him to pay back. That's how I work. I'm not going to return his money because friends don't return money. I get offended when friends offer to pay me back!"

I'm not too sure how many fans this particular Theory of Friendship has. But what I do know is that there are few things that can match the panic or embarrassment of asking for money back. And we always make excuses while asking if someone can return our money. Things like:

"Hey, I'm broke and I'm feeling too lazy to go to the ATM. Can you return my money today?"

"My ATM card got swallowed by the machine, and I really need to buy a microwave today because my cylinder is empty, so I can't heat things on the stove…"

"My salary's been held up, so I need money. Can you repay me now?"

"Hey, my wallet got flicked by some pickpocket… think you can pay me back that six grand you borrowed?"

"Uhh…hi…I need to go to the dentist and he doesn't accept cheques or cards."

"I'm planning to transfer my funds into an FD, so I really need some loose cash…"

"I got stopped by the police and I had to pay five grand, man! Now I'm totally broke…think you could repay me now? I'd really appreciate it coz…you know…I had to pay the police five grand…and uhh…now I'm broke…"

And the borrower always sounds a wee bit offended, or maintains a stoic silence that makes you repeat your see-through attempt at extortion. I've known this person who replied to one of my excuses from the above list, saying something like, "ey, today's my off, ya! I don't want to go to the ATM either!" This other guy, who was running an amateur theatre company with mainly volunteers, shrugged when I asked about being reimbursed for hiring costumes for a play, saying, "hey, the financial year is over…so I can't make reimbursements."

So sometimes, you resort to this habit of being "broke" whenever you hang out with that person, so you get your money back by cancelling off your debt to him or her against his or her debt to you. And you always end up feeling guilty, almost like you feel compelled to apologise when someone who owes you an apology doesn't, just so someone would have said the word "sorry".

My most memorable experience with trying to claim back money, though, was with an ex-boyfriend who arrived in Delhi completely broke. Not only did I have to pay for everything we ate or watched, but had to lend him enough to make it back home. And after not being repaid for three months or so, I had this brainwave. Every conversation for the next couple of weeks revolved around friends of mine who owed me money, and how I hated people who completely forgot they owed money…but this was no mean opponent. Up to the task, he chatted gloomily about how he went through exactly the same thing, and echoed my emotions and then swung the subject within the admittedly broad arena of friends.

So Plan B came in. Operation Reclaim was going rather well, as I staunchly refrained from offering to dutch for the next few weeks. I was close to cancelling out the money he owed me when, finally, at a restaurant, he pushed the bill towards me.

I looked at him enquiringly.

"For a woman who claims to be independent," he reasoned, with a smile, "don't you think it's about time you started repaying me?"

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