Friday, April 26, 2013

“The last Temptation” - by Nikos Kazantzakis (Review of a book)

“The last Temptation” - by Nikos Kazantzakis (Review of a book)

Men have always cherished their prophets and messiahs as divinely ordained, with a penumbra of blessings and grace surrounding their heads. We isolate them as freaks of nature, descended into the realm of human consciousness to fulfill a divine prophecy. The Christ’s, the Buddha’s, the Mohammad’s are always venerated as other worldly human beings, who task upon this earth is merely to luxuriate in their perfection. Every act, every incident in their lives has a moral to tell, a value to extoll and path for others to follow.  The very nature of these incarnations and the caricatures that we have made of them, can sometimes be a terrible burden on our lives. They are represented as ideal human beings who have cut through the bonds of existence and its eccentricities, and stand on a pedestal for whole of mankind to look up to.  Institutionalized religions need such props; otherwise their edifice would give away. Entire moral codes, ethics and behavior of societies are modeled on the conduct of a single individual.

Nikos Kazantzakis study of Jesus is one of the magnificent pieces of controversial writing in the history of Christian literature. The booked was banned by the Vatican, filmed passionately by Roman Polanski and read surreptiously by Millions across the world in nearly fifty six languages. It took a decade for Kazantzakis to breathe life into his vision of Jesus as an ordinary mortal caught in throes of passion, lust and physical yearning. In nearly six hundred pages of magical writing, he presents Jesus as a man who struggles with divinity; the son of a carpenter making crosses to crucify the messiahs, shunned and scorned by the multitude, lacerating within: desperately seeking to reconcile himself to a life of the Flesh, torn between the pull of the divine and the stranglehold of the body - Kazantzakis imbues the transformation of Jesus with a rare insight and conviction that makes the messiah more convincing and Human to behold.

This is not a book for faint hearted. It questions the very authenticity of our beliefs and convictions on religion. In many ways, the book is more of one’s inward journey represented as the life of Christ. The descent into divinity oftentimes brings out a lot of demons within oneself, and the travails of Jesus bearing the cross truly symbolizes the annihilation of the tortured self and its demons: not by transcendence, but by a total acceptance of destiny choicelessly. When Jesus reaches the monastery in blinding thunderstorm to redeem himself at the altar of celibacy, his eyes fall upon the spectacle of snakes mating in gay abandon :twisting and turning , stretching the limits of physical intimacy, oblivious to the surrounding, engrossed in the pure art of mating. It is then that he realizes the futility of running away from life. In one flashing moment of deep insight, the suffocation of his self is released and in its place, the divine genesis of Christ happens and merges with Jesus – a reconciliation of apparent opposites.

Kazantzakis wrote this book in Greek and P.A Bien’s English translation is marvelous. This a book that was destined for immortality, though the author did not live to see the recognition it got. Read this book with all the reverence that you would give to a scripture. There is a possibility for Transformation………….

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The beginnings of Learning - The aftermath of a rigorous formal education

The beginnings of Learning - The aftermath of a rigorous formal education
Many years ago, I had the opportunity to teach a bunch of fresh and young graduates from a very reputed college in India. These boys and girls were the crème-le –crème of the education system. Having worked and slogged their way for the last fifteen to eighteen years: beating competition at school, meeting parental expectations, becoming the envy and pride of their family – they had finally stepped out of their educational incubation with an fruity offer letter in their hands, and with the firm satisfaction tinged with a liberal dose of arrogance, that they finally made it to the “real” world.

The company that had hired these kids was in its own right a maverick organization, and they were very clear in their minds about the kind of talent they wished to recruit. I had meticulously prepared a fourteen day agenda based on the requirements and was scheduled to meet with the director to finalize the contents and fine tune it, if need be. The meeting turned out to be a very momentous one.

Anand (name changed)the director , a young man about thirty five years age , looking every bit a computer geek, greeted me cordially and ushered me into his spacious and elegantly decorated office. After the customary exchange of pleasantries, I got down to business and showed him the schedule I had in mind for these young recruits. He took the reams of paper from me and read the contents rather deeply for about five minutes and then dropped them on his table, rather disinterestedly. He looked at me and spoke for about fifteen minutes. What he told me then has since remained an integral part of my approach to teaching. At this distance, I don’t recollect the exact words, but the intent and meaning of what he said is paraphrased below:

“Bala, the course agenda looks good. You have made an effort to cover all aspects of technology that we currently need in this organization. I couldn’t’ have hoped for anything better. But let me tell you, you will fail in this endeavor. No, do not look at me like that; I didn’t mean to offend your capabilities. All that I am saying is that these fourteen days of training is not going to give me the kind of people I am looking for. You will feed them all these various tips and tricks of development, and I am sure that they will excel at it. These kids love these mental challenges and they pride themselves on their unique ability to solve these kinds of mental problems. They come from top notch colleges and they feel that they have achieved whatever they need to achieve, by way of education. They firmly believe that their period of study and learning is over, and now with a plum job in hand, it is time to reap the rewards of their years of hard earned labor, and get as far away as possible from the begrudging generosity of their parents and well-wishers. In others words, they have shut the doors of learning, as soon as they accepted this job offer. They believe that this job is the beginning of a never ending honeymoon for them.

So Bala, The entire purpose of this training program is to break this illusion. I really don’t care whether you teach them software or not; that is secondary to me. What is important is to drag them down from the intellectual pedestals that they have occupied and make them smell the earth. Get them to crawl on all their fours, all over again. They must understand that what they have done so far in their lives is just a preamble, a preface to a bulky book. They should be psychologically supple, pliable and malleable when they enter the portals of this organization, willing to learn afresh every hour, every day. They must realize that their entire education has been merely heating the intellectual metal and now it is ready to be molded in the maker’s hands. Believe me; you will face a lot of resistance in class. They would ask you about your background, education, college and other stuff, not because they are really interested in knowing you, but merely to make up their minds as to whether they should be listening to you or not. It is this attitude that I wish to eradicate. They should understand the value of listening without prejudices and opinions to everyone one around them.

Please understand that the entire exercise is not to discourage them or make them feel dirty – NO. The idea is to get their creative and intellectual juices flowing again. The formal rigorous education system has been a heavy burden on them and now they want to throw away the yoke. It is the job of this training to get them to learn again, in the pure sense of that word. You would find participants from all branches of knowledge: Chemical, computer science, mathematics and several others. All of them would share two common traits: Supremely intelligent and a bloated ego. I want them to retain the first and dissolve the second. Push them to their intellectual limits. Give them problems that are way beyond their scope and insinuate them by stating that these are rudimentary, beginner level questions that anyone can solve. That way, they will begin to see their sense of inadequacy for this industry and the type of work that we do, and start learning again with a new mind and a fresh attitude.

At the end of fourteen days I want see humility on their faces.

So Bala, do you think we can achieve this transformation?……..”

Well, the answer to the question that Anand asked me has been amply validated in my teaching career. Teaching is not about merely imparting knowledge. It has a more overarching goal - The unleashing of the true potential in an individual. Unless the teacher is passionate about such a change, the osmosis will not happen. This conversation with Anand has been the cornerstone of my work. Years later, many of the participants from the batch are still in touch with me and recount with great emotion how transformative those fourteen days have been in their lives. All of us share an association that go beyond the teacher-student relationship. Even though many of them occupy good positions in diverse fields of activity, they don’t rest on their laurels anymore. And this is true of most other classes that I have taught over the years.

The origin of this post can be traced to a mail I received from a participant in my class a couple of days ago. The mail read thus “This was a very informative course. Your instruction helped me metabolize the information more easily. You are a master teacher. Thank you!”. Yes, that is the objective and purpose of teaching – to help metabolize the input and energize the learning process………

Thanks Anand……………………….

Friday, April 12, 2013

“The Words” – the movie. (Review of a brilliant theme)

“The Words” – the movie.   (Review of a brilliant theme)

This is the third piece of review that I am penning over the last week. “The Words” is a film that talks about the state of a mind of an aspiring author, who struggles to find words that are original enough. He lacks that spark within that can give birth to a story that is worth telling. All that he writes smacks of artificiality and a lack of deep feeling. He words do not leap out of the pages with a passionate intensity and consequently his books do not ring true. He desperately seeks inspiration in Love, marriage, sex, had work -  but nothing motivates him to produce an original piece of work, until he stumbles upon a novel long abandoned in a decrepit leather bag;  and all of a sudden finds the novel reflecting the story that he always wanted to write, but couldn’t.  What follows then is the hero’s journey into a discovery of the true nature of storytelling, and his utter ineptitude for such an enormous task.   This movie raised a very interesting line of thought in me. I was reading Isabel Allende’s “The house of spirits”, when I decided to tune into this movie during flight to Bangalore. The Spanish writing was brilliantly translated by Magda Bogin, and the sheer depth of this magical story in torrential flow, forced me to ask myself as to what could be the true genesis of great fiction. The following paragraph summarizes my thoughts ….

Vladimir Nabokov, the celebrated author of “Lolita” - once said “The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible”.  Everyone has a story to recite, but a few manage to do so incredibly well and this has been one of the greatest mysteries of literature: the true motive and energy behind a particular work of creative fiction. Is it the dance of language; or the depth of the story, or the author’s outpouring of  one’s own struggle with life; or is it just  a simple emotion that overflows into words and sentences and reaches a natural consummation, that otherwise would have remained bottled up forever within the confines of one’s bosom. This is an enigma that is very difficult to fathom. There are books that touch our hearts so intensely that every fiber vibrates with an intense and elevated emotion, while there are others which though written well, leave us with a sordid taste of begrudged happiness. What then is the secret of story that is brilliantly told?

The art of writing is a complicated one and definitely cannot be learnt or acquired. It requires a depth of authenticity and feeling that mere jugglery of words cannot convey. The story itself needs to be curdled out of one’s own tryst with life and transformed into words, which then acquire a pristine intensity that shines through the glowing pages of frenzied writing.  Words then take a new meaning, and sentences transcend the linear world of space and time; to a dimension that weaves a magical web of trance in the enchanted reader; often propelling him into a world where individual walls dissolve into the mesmeric flow of the author’s narrative.  This is not an easy task. Writing is a final consummation of experiences that have already stretched the moral, ethical and intellectual limits of the author, and one cannot write a great story without having gone through the emotions of the drama internally, in the inner recesses of our heart and mind. Words can only final adornments to this internal visualization. They only help in forming the boundaries of the time and space and bring the story to level of sanity. Such heightened labor and works of literature often drains the author and leaves him distraught; as though the very breath of life that was sustaining him is taken away forever. He becomes an empty shell again to be filled with a new vision and untold emotions, and again, begins the onerous and circular task of committing to words, the purity of experience. Such is the agonizing journey of an artist , to whom writing is a not a work but a life mission, that pushes him continuously onward to pour his soul into the characters that he etches and  through them to live a fuller life, mouth saner words and consequently uplift the emotional consciousness of a generation. The most important fact is that a great piece of writing is often times more an act of emptying oneself, and never meant to be an exercise for glory or fame. That cleansing is, by itself, the true prize and destination of the endeavor.

“The words” reveals the agony and frustration of an aspiring author, who painfully learns that the fount of creativity lies deeper than the layer of words, intellect and appreciation, and not everyone will have the wonderful opportunity to dip into those clear waters of experience, and conjure up a piece of story that is worth telling, with no nobody in particular to listen.

 Watch the movie, if you love good stories…………….

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

“The Interpreter” - the last masterpiece by a gifted director (Sydney Pollack)

“The Interpreter” - the last masterpiece by a gifted director (Sydney Pollack)

 Many years ago, In one of the longer flights from Los Angeles to Sydney, I casually tuned into a movie named “The way we were”, starring the debonair Robert Redford along with Barbara Streisand. It was a romantic film set during the early thirties, and explored the intricate yet tender relationship between a social activist waving a flag for every possible cause, and a talented writer, who will not take his talent seriously enough. In the hands of any other director, the film and the narrative would have stooped to mundane levels, but not so, in the hands of Sydney Pollack - the maverick genius; in whose direction, a story assumes a dimension and an inner depth that lesser mortals can only aspire to achieve. The performances of Ms Streisand were molded to perfection, and her innocent guile and beseeching looks linger long after in our memories as a tribute to the spirit of freedom and just causes. It is no surprise that under the able direction of Polack, twelve different actors were nominated for Oscars. He had a way of evoking the best out of artists.

Since then, I have watched every single movie directed and produced by Polack. Each one of them is a gem in its own right. He explored themes that were contemporary, and his treatment of the subject is often multilayered, making it absolutely necessary for audiences to be completely involved in his screen play. “The interpreter” is the last such directorial venture of Pollack before his demise in 2008, and again brings together two very gifted actors in Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman to play out a complex political drama within the august walls of the United Nations. Kidman essays the role of an African interpreter, who accidentally overhears a proposed assassination attempt on an African president, who is about to be tried in an International court of Justice for alleged war crimes of Genocide in his country. This triggers a complex cat and mouse game that takes us through the labyrinths of political genuflections and the dogged pursuit of the CIA (Sean Penn in the role of CIA officer) to uncover the plot. It is a fast paced narrative and doesn’t give the director or the audience enough time to develop or sink into the theme organically. The entire film rested on the performances of Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. It is through their eyes that we become part of the story, and Pollack makes sure that every nuance and gesture from the two great actors rise to the occasion; and their portrayal reflects truthfully the moral conflict between their personal beliefs and nefarious political designs. All of us know the Sean Penn is a tremendous artist, but in the able hands of Pollack, Kidman evolves and matures into a passionate and intense actor. The movie marks the pinnacle of her acting career. Never after has she plumbed such depths of emotions, or, dug so deep into her inner emotional reservoirs, to pull out such a performance - as she did in this movie.

I have always believed that any story in the hands of a master craftsman can be transformed into something extraordinary. It is the vision of the director and his ability to live out the tale in his head that makes the difference. The Polacks, the Spielberg’s or the Kurosawa’s do not really need technical wizardry to prove a point, though such tools may help accentuate the power of the story telling. Their strength lies in the innate understanding of the medium and the ability to convey the passion to the actors and bring out, chisel their roles to a state of perfection.

Sydney Pollack will be remembered for such perfection, and we should be grateful that under his watchful eye so many young talented actors have realized their potential and gone on to enrich the screen with scintillating performances. The touch of the Master will always be felt……………………………..

Monday, April 8, 2013

“The Sessions” - The movie: a brilliant portrayal of surrogate Sex

“The Sessions” - The movie:  a brilliant portrayal of surrogate Sex

I have always admired Helen hunt for her mercurial brilliance on screen. She may not be the typically voluptuous American idol with a curvaceous body and sultry looks, but then she belongs to that rare breed of actors whose deep blue eyes can reflect a thousand unspoken words in a single gaze. Her role in “Cast away”, which quintessentially is a Tom Hanks movie, was pivotal to the story line, and in those final frames of the film when her pent up emotions erupt and she runs desperately to hug Tom, besieging to take her with him: is a study in histrionics.

“The sessions” then, is a movie about sexual emancipation of an invalid; bedridden, dying, and yet passionately seeking vent to his sexual stirrings. His need to feel the warmth of a female body and the experience the catharsis that sexual intercourse offers, leads him to take the help of a priest to justify his inner urge and achieve inner fulfillment.  In a rare act of understanding, the young priest empathizes with the primal human need of an incapacitated man, and morally justifies the sexual proclivities in his struggling human frame. But to find somebody, who could guide him through this delicate terrain of physical intercourse, without the emotional bondage; and also to be able to assist a bedridden man, who cannot move a limb, to peaks of sexual ecstasy: is a task that is at once difficult and unsettling.  Helen hunt comes in as the surrogate sex worker to facilitate this experience.

The movie is all the about the sessions that Helen hunt has with Mark ‘o Brien, our protagonist, slowly helping him to understand the language of his body and explore the tremors of his sexual impulse. The ease with which Helen strips and maintains her poise on screen is brilliant. Never once during the entire film, do we feel repulsed by her nudity and language used.  It is only possible for a great actor - who has completely immersed herself in the role, understanding the emotional nuances of the character, deeply comfortable with one’s own body - to even attempt essaying this role. In one defining moment in the film, when Helen hunt achieves an orgasm along with Mark, in response to his newly awakened sexuality - is a seminal piece of measured acting, that lifts us to those rarified heights of drama, where every tinge of vulgarity is dissolved and all that remains is the simple act of two bodies achieving a natural consummation, that is genetically wired in.

Helen Deserves the Oscar that she received for the best supporting actor. Watch this movie for a sensitive treatment of a theme that can be often be misrepresented and plagiarized……….

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Menacing “ME” – A short essay

The Menacing “ME” – A short essay

The need to constantly assert oneself in every situation is the heaviest burden that we carry around most of the time. It becomes almost unbearable. From the time we wake up, every act needs a persona to enact it - as a Son, A Father, A professional, a friend, a citizen; the list is endless. It is almost as if we are ashamed of ourselves being utterly naked, and the compulsive need to become socially acceptable has become almost a neurotic obsession.  No wonder, we keep often keep slipping into a somnambulistic state of depression and constantly attempting to pull ourselves up, by tugging at our shoes laces. It is a self-defeating act. No matter how hard we try and how competent we are in “acting up”, there are those deep evanescent moments in time, when the dress slips and we are forced to look at ourselves as we are.  To most of us, this can be an unnerving experience; because all that we have “stood” for, or tried so assiduously nurture and preserve, suddenly seems so transient and ridiculous. These can be true moments of liberation, but we miss it due to fear of being annihilated and ostracized from the make believe world that we  have surrounded ourselves with.

I was reading Joseph Campbell’s wonderful book named “ The Hero with a thousand faces”,  where he talks about the archetypal man receding  to a state of aloneness and wilderness in search of himself and then returning to the world firmly balanced and rooted to his self. The story of Buddha is illustrative of this condition. Having witnessed the misery of human life caught in the throes of psychological pain, destiny summoned Siddhartha and transferred his center of gravity from the pale zone of society to a terrain unknown – a place of strange fluidity and impossible delight. Men can go there of their own volition, as the Greek heroes Theseus or Odysseus did: as a casual adventure; when the passing phenomena of life lures them away from habituated paths of man and nudges them into a discovery of their own true selves, with nothing more than a passing hint or a subtle clue into the deepest paradoxes of life.
Obviously, We do not have to be heroes to undergo this transformation. Our everyday life affords us enough episodes of deep insight which can be opportunities to “lose” ourselves in contemplation of something seemingly mundane –the passing beauty of an ephemeral flower, the sudden whiff of a delicately intoxicating scent, the elegant poise of a lady walking with ineffable grace down the street, the innocent rollicking smile of a child playing in abject dirt, the feline grace of a cat cuddled up on the bed, A casual moment of peace in a busy day at work:  All these moments can be a trigger to descend into the abyss of our own selves.  Just being; without being something is the greatest blessing.

Having said this, the masks that we put on socially are important, but the point is that they have a place and a time. Education should ideally teach us the art of unmasking. Psychologists have also documented enough evidence about “near death experiences”, which bring about such a change in the inner fulcrum of one’s life.  It has also been the tasks of myths in every religion to supply the necessary symbols to make this transition. In fact, we may be bold enough to venture that, as adults, we have lost the mystery of live that so captivated us in our childhood. The stories of mythical heroism emphasize and value the need to descend into our subterranean depths before ascending to normal forms of living. Professor Arnold Toynbee in his epic six –volume study of the rise and fall of Human societies make reaches an important conclusion that there is a need for constant renewal ( paligenesia) within every social body; otherwise, nemesis is wrought. And this renewal and rejuvenation can only be bought about within individuals who are open to be psychologically dismembered, resurrected and reborn as an organic whole and in tune to dance with the cosmic symphony.

So long……….