Saturday, February 28, 2015

“Leaving Las Vegas” - a study in nihilism

“Leaving Las Vegas” - a study in nihilism
I have often wondered why art forms, and to a large extent, society in general, treats an alcoholic with an melancholic sympathy; looks upon him with a kind of motherly vulnerability, when we never think of according such curtsies to a smoker, or any other drug abuser. Have you ever heard of any jinxed, unrequited lover, smoking or drugging themselves to a sublimely artistic suicide? I haven’t, or it is extremely rare? I guess, there is nothing "romantic" about such acts. Unlike an alcoholic, who has found reams of poems and rich prose devoted to his escapades and sorrowful destiny, No bard, novelist, dramatist or film maker has ever elevated any other form of addiction (with a few exceptions, of course) to a pedestal where they can be viewed sympathetically or with an artistic eye. The archetypal alcoholic male with his stubby beard, shabby clothes, droopy eyes, slurring voice, unsteady steps; holding a glass or bottle reflecting fine points of golden light emanating from the sparkling, effervescent liquid; speaking platitudes filled with intoxicated wisdom that is at once philosophical and despondent at the same time, burying his teary eyed face on his beloved's shoulders with a nihilistic smile on his face – these are motifs that have never failed to evoke deep resonance of empathy in an audience. And if one happens to be a man fallen from grace and taken this path to self-destruction - then waves of empathy become even more intense, bordering almost to a point of veneration or adulation. It is almost as if we excuse them for their conscious annihilation of themselves. Hunter Thompson, renowned author and Journalist summarized this condition beautifully “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for people..." Yes, who can argue with that!! It works.
I finished watching the 1995 classic "leaving Las Vegas". The movie is an unadulterated chronicle of alcoholism and its inevitable conclusion - to the extent that Nicholas cage (who plays "Ben") on his death bed - has a swig of Vodka, with his sympathetic friend, lover, or companion (call her whatever you may, played brilliantly by Elisabeth shue as “Sera”) sitting on top on him, impaling herself on his manhood, watching his life ebb away with a whisper of "wow...” on his lips. These are the last incoherent ecstatic mumblings of a man who runs away from his job, wife, and kids to Las Vegas hoping to drink himself slowly to death. Now why he chooses to kill himself is not clear, but it seems he cannot control himself from hitting the bottle; hence, loses his job, respectability and a sense of purpose in life. In Vegas, he bumps into a young beautiful prostitute who befriends him. Her sense of aloneness is akin to his, but of a different kind. The daily act of desecrating her body for strangers repels her, but she does not wish to move away from it - just as an alcoholic would not stay away from his drink even for a moment. Both of them are addicted to the pleasurable pain their addictions bring. Sera is portrayed as an intelligent lady (her apartment is lined with books), and she finds in Ben a soul mate - non-interfering, detached, with no strings to their relationship (not even sex, until the last scene); scorned, yet tolerated by society - they drift along trying to make sense of their relationship and life shying away from committing to each other. The entire movie is nothing but a reflection of psychological ruination to a point that, as a viewer, one gets nauseous of Sera’s sexual innuendoes and Ben’s interminable drinking. Both of them revel in the intense suffering that the act begets. With nothing else to hold onto, their abusive way of living seems a recompense – or may I say, a painful surrender to their intense loneliness. But, strangely as I said in the beginning of this essay - there is this thread of empathy that flows from us towards these characters. Deep down, we feel that life has given them a raw deal, and their sordid life and painful death each moment seems to justify the insecure and perilous lives they lead.
Well about the film itself - it is of the highest caliber. Director Mike figgis, better known for his documentaries had done a wonderful job capturing the story in its brutal elegance. Figgis filmed the movie on a shoe string budget of 3 Million; a screen play based on a book whose author committed suicide on knowing that his book was being filmed; composed his own musical score; shot most of it with 16mm hidden camera in real time at one shot to stay within budget and avoid legal permits to shoot; encouraging Cage and Shue to delve deep into their respective characters, leading one to go on an alcoholic binge and the other to spend some quality time with hookers in Vegas downtown. It all paid off. The authenticity of the movie justified all the risks and madness involved. It won its way into four Academy award nominations and grossed 20 times more than the investment in it. What can I write about the performance of Elisabeth shue save the fact that she was an odd choice for a character that she ended playing so wonderfully well? Born into almost aristocratic family, cuddled in wealth, educated in Wellesley and later transferred to Harvard where he completed her degree in Political science - acting was merely a passion with her, and if there is anyone who could be considered unprepared for this role as an actor – it had to be Shue. Her characterization of a street prostitute is perhaps one of the most realistic performances I have seen in films. She spent weeks living in dingy hotels and mingling with pimps, learning how different the world is from her own cloistered upbringing. All that learning paid off - I don’t think she will ever get a role that can surpass the intensity of this one. I would also hasten to add that she peaked too early in her career. The Academy awards (once again) ignored her performance and gave the Oscar to Susan Sarandon for a more “womanly” role in “Dead man walking”. But Nicolas cage won his award. He suited the role well and essayed what is perhaps the most poignant portrayal of an alcoholic on screen.
In many ways this is a many layered film; and audiences get to appreciate or criticize it different ways. To me, the movie draws out the fact that Man can essentially be a very lonely animal in this world. And this existential crisis can never be solved by smothering one’s consciousness. “Leaving Las Vegas “is a very powerful work of art, told with frightening clarity. Watch it, if you can face some unsettling questions that may rise in you…
God bless…..



Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The inner drive..

Temperature in Atlanta, for most part this week has been below zero. I guess this is first time this season that the presence of winter is making itself felt. In the mornings when I go out for a Swim, there is hardly anybody walking on the streets. Even those in cars seems to be covering their head with Hoodies (God knows why??). The chatter in the Health club is all about negotiating this "extreme" climate. Funny, though!!. This is hardly a ferocious winter when one compares it to other parts of US. Yet, I guess, people get acclimatized to local conditions, and tend to exaggerate them beyond proportion.
Normally, I walk through my office buildings to get to other side where the Health club is located; and it is my practice (or more of a fond ritual..) that I stop at the further end of the building to talk for a few minutes with a very pleasant lady who works as security in-charge at that gate. She has good passion for her job, and she smiles and greets almost everyone who walks through that door. I know her for nearly a year now, and she constantly keeps complimenting me on my discipline of going to the Gym, no matter what. It could be raining cats and dogs; scorchingly hot; or as in the present case , almost icing - I never miss my swim and workout, if I am in Atlanta. And I always take a few minutes to talk to her - enquire about her heath, family , make casual talk before I move on.
Today, she was visibly shocked that I had ventured out in this really biting weather. She Said " Mr Bala, could you not have skipped this routine today? The wind outside is killing!. I am sure you did not see anyone else on the road.." and she laughed..
" Amy(name changed). I am adequately covered, and this walk generates good heat to counter the cold. And moreover, it is an inner discipline that pushes me. It is something that I have come to enjoy so much, that it is really not a big deal. any more. Amy, A few years ago, I would found myself every excuse not to do something, but now I have realized that If one passionately believes in an activity or an idea, then discipline comes in automatically. There is no need for anyone to push.. Let me give a visible illustration, Walk down with me to the other door..
She was puzzled but came along. Between two buildings, there is a small enclosure for smokers, and from our door, I pointed Amy to the number of people who were up there smoking. I said " Look at them Amy, It is biting cold outside, and windy too; yet there are eight to ten of them all covered from head to toe, shivering, struggling to hold the cigarette between fingers, but till managing to pull a few puffs to satiate a passion, a desire. Nothing (save a catastrophe) can deter them from not coming down for a smoke. They will always find means to make sure that they get an opportunity to do what like to do. So it is with everything else in life... This may be a crude illustration, but everything boils down to a deep conviction and drive within oneself to do something"
Amy looked at me and nodded contemplatively.. and said" Hmm. make sense Mr Bala, But take care though".
"I will Amy, Thanks.."
As I walking back from my swim, I thought about what I said to Amy.. How true, Isn't it? Addiction, Ambition, Drive are variations on a same theme - the deep down desire to do something that we feel is good for us. In such cases, there is no need to impose discipline, it flowers of its own accord.. And the art is to channelize that energy, force into meaningful living - one that cherishes life and our place in it. I was reminded once again, of a lovely piece of advice in the Bhagavad gita. In chapter six, Krishna says:
uddhared ātmanātmānaḿ
nātmānam avasādayet
ātmaiva hy ātmano bandhur
ātmaiva ripur ātmanaḥ
Freely Translated:
"One can discipline oneself only through oneself, nobody else can make it happen for you. such flowering of inner focus will bring an unity of purpose and inner peace; in its absence, life gets fragmented and drains away ones energy to live fully"
However,The choice of focus is entirely ours. Sometimes reaching that point of focus may be arduous and full of hurdles, but it definitely is there for us to touch, but one needs to be deeply committed and passionate to find that source..
God bless....

The regrettable face of ignorance.

Ignorance is excusable, but arrogance that stems from ignorance is definitely not. At least - not in my books.. I was sitting in a coffee shop working on my book, when I couldn't help eavesdropping on an animated conversation happening on the adjacent table among a group of Indians - who , I presume have recently watched "Shamitabh" - the Dhanush-Amitabh starrer. It was clear from the language and tone that all of them hailed from Northern India, and they were vociferously discussing the magnificence of Amitabh and his unswerving consistency over the last fifteen years in delivering immaculate performances , no matter what the role is. For those of us who have seen the movie, it is true that Amitabh once again does a marvelous job. But that is not the point of my righteous indignation or this piece. After having discussed the story line, the cast and theme for about fifteen minutes, one of them in the group casually bought up the topic of Music and background score in the movie. This was the general consensus of the group:
"The music was average; but I would have hoped that they had given the task to someone else( they took some names, but I refrain from quoting them here).. Some composer from South India has orchestrated it . I cant even pronounce his name with accuracy. Ilayaraaja or something to that effect. I have heard his name before, but I am sure they could have given the job to somebody more competent "
This in effect was the gist of the group's judgment on arguably the finest, most talented and prolific composer of over last four decades in Indian cinema and world music. The name Ilayaraaja echoes with the greatest of respect in the most famed corridors of musicology, and yet, here I was, listening to a group of young educated Indians who weren't even cursorily familiar with his work, and yet had the audacity to comment. I have no problems with that. It is not necessary that one should know every artist, or their work, or that one cannot not have an opinion of an artist - but what definitely bothered me was the nonchalant judgment that was passed based on ignorance and lack of musical legacy. it was obvious and clear that none in the group knew anything thing about Ilayaraaja, or the quality of work he has produced with unfailing regularity in Indian cinema and otherwise as well. My point is : One doesn't judge out of ignorance, that is so unbecoming of an educated Human being..
Here is a short condensed bio of the Man: Born in 1943 in a remote village in south India with no musical background at all; learnt the rudiments of music from rural folk songs with a little assistance from a Music teacher who taught him the structure of Western classical music, especially "Counterpoint", which was Bach's contribution to western Classical repertoire; worked as an assistant for several renowned music directors as accompanying artist and assisting them in background orchestration, Formally studied Guitar under the auspices of Trinity college of London and passed out with distinction; composed his first individual musical score for a movie in 1976 which opened a a new vision of Musical arrangement for Indian cinema to follow, continued composing in different genres, languages and styles fusing Western compositions with Folk and Indian Classical tradition; one of the few Indian composers to be honored with a Full symphonic score by prestigious Budapest and Royal Symphony orchestra; composed masterpieces outside the world of cinema, which includes "How to name it", "Nothing but wind" ; Scored impeccable back ground scores for 1000 films (Shamitabh marks his 1000th); probably the only music composer who would write entire musical piece on paper with notes for all parts of a composition within a matter of time and without battling an eyelid ; regarded within the Indian Film music fraternity as a blessed Musician and a beacon light for many aspiring composers - These are some of the salient accomplishments of Ilayaraaja; and it was this Man, who was being belittled in this inane conversation that I happened to overhear.
I am sure some of my readers may be apologetic or sympathize over these comments and say in their defense that they weren't exposed to Music directors from the South. But I would find that route untenable. Frankly, to brush this ignorance as simply a product of North/south Indian divide is not right. I was born and bought in South India, but my love for Film music has spurred me to dip deep into all forms of Music. Starting from Jaidev to Roshan to Shankar Jaikishen to Salil da to SD and Rd Burman to Anu mullick and all the rest of them - I have listened with great joy and interest to their impeccable compositions. Even today, if I don't recognize a composer, I perform a Google search to learn and listen more, before I can talk or form an opinion of their work. This is basic etiquette of a knowledge based society.
To even casually comment that Ilayaraaja is "not" competent enough to score for a movie is nothing short of a blasphemy. I do agree that "Shamitabh" may not be the best work that Ilayaraaja has done in his career, but that is fine when you consider the prodigious output of his genius. I am willing to hear a balanced conversation based on educated understanding and common sense, but to pass a comment without an iota of knowledge and appreciation is not something one should undertake to do. In a recently organized event in Mumbai honoring Ilayaraaja' s achievement of 1000 movies, Here is what Amitabh had to say :
.".We’ve always been great admirers of his work the world over. I cannot express in words what he means to the music industry and his contribution to our cinema. I consider him a genius....I consider myself fortunate have worked in movies that had his music..."
And this not merely Amitabh's perception, but Is acknowledged across the world as one of the greatest composers of syncretic music the art has ever known.
I would like to tag along my close friend Bhanu with whom I have spent many a beautiful day during college listening to music of all genres and composers. He has in many ways shaped and chiseled my deep and abiding interest in Ilayaraaja' s work and his therapeutic musical arrangements - which has been my solace in all periods of life..
God bless...

87th Academy Awards - a musing..

The 87th Academy awards wasn't a great surprise. Probably , that is why it had the lowest viewership in a decade. Each year, the movies are becoming very predictable, and many movie makers have gotten into the obnoxious habit of making films that would wind its way to Academy nomination files. This year I happened to see five major nominations - "the Grand Budapest Hotel", "American Sniper" "Birdman" and "The theory of everything" and "Still Alice" . While each of them had their moments of beauty and class, the fact that "American sniper" was virtually pushed under the carpet for reasons that are not purely artistic is something that make me question the authenticity and audacious claims of the Academy as an arbiter of Movies as an art form. Americans have a nasty habit of fighting a war and then feeling terribly guilty about it; and when a film maker wishes to project a slice of what it is to participate in such a bloody war, and the moral, emotional consequences of it - the puritanical spirit of well Meaning members of the jury rises in indignation. This is not the first time this has happened. Francis ford copolla's "Apocalypse now " - a brilliant movie on Vietnam war with its vivid depiction of sordid inhumanity and waste of human life lost out to "Kramer vs. Kramer", and the Academy pacified puzzled audiences by handing over an award for best cinematography to it. I was personally disappointed that American sniper was not given the due credit it deserved as a movie - forget the political and ethical ramifications of it.. That they decided to honor it with an Oscar for "Best sound" is a travesty that will linger for a a long time in the annals of Academy's history.
But on a positive note, I am very happy for the two ladies who held aloft the golden boy. I have always considered Julianna Moore as an accomplished, and more importantly a very hard working actor. She may not have the flamboyance of a Julia Roberts or the sultry ferocity of Angelina Jolie or the chiseled ,effortless perfection of a Meryl Streep - but , Ms. Moore more than makes up for all that with her dedication to the role. Her finest performance was in the movie adaption of " The hours" and now in " still Alice" ( I shall review this movie separately). And of course Patricia Ariquette - I saw her for the first time on screen in the 1993 adaption of Edith Wharton's beautiful novel "Ethan frome", where she plays the tragic cousin in a tale set in Wintery south. Short, slightly plump with a enticing smile and a easy gait, she displayed a rare understanding of Wharton's multilayered novel. And then, last year, I watched considerable number of episodes of "Medium", where she plays the role of a housewife who is gifted with a supernatural ability to predict crimes. She bought an authenticity to that role, which in lesser hands would have turned out to be frivolous. And "Boyhood" itself was filmed over 14 years, and that is a long period for an actor to sustain the intensity required of a role. I am glad that the Academy chose to honor her with an Award.( As a side note, It is my personal opinion that Nicholas cage became a better actor after he lived with Patricia for many years).
Otherwise, I think it was a routine fare yesterday night; with the usual speeches, moments of emotions and contrived glamor. yet, it is "the" night for the world of movies, and anyone who has been on that stage at least once will cherish the immortality it bestows. What more can an artist aspire for..
God bless....

Schrodinger's cat.... A quantum puzzle.

“Consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown; that there is only one thing and that what seems to be a plurality is merely a series of different aspects of this one thing, produced by a deception...”
No, these are not words of a mystic or a religious evangelist, but voiced and penned by one of the finest scientific brains, humanitarian, scrupulously honest and unbiased thinker; and in many ways, the father of Quantum physics - Erwin Schrodinger. Pure objective science is a curious Human endeavor. One starts out as an outright materialist, with all the doubts and suspicions of a scatological atheist; and after a while, if the scientist is sincere and interprets the results of his pursuit without a priori conclusions or assumptions – then it seems to inevitably lead the investigator towards an “inner self”, which gains more importance and validity in his pursuit that the initial quest or drive of discovering something fundamental and immutable in the world outside.. Einstein, Goddard, Eddington, Pauli, Oppenheimer, Planck- the list is endless; all of them after years of meticulous study of “objective” substratum of the world have come face to face with a void, a kind of wall of inner subjectivity that somehow escapes the net of experimentation and discovery, leaving them in a curious state of indecision. They knew deep down that they have hit upon something deeply profound and significant, and in acknowledging its presence, may have let go years and centuries of presumptions and hypotheses that have been the mainstay of physical sciences.. The inner world was revealing a completely new dimension of reality inseparable from consciousness that comprehends it; of which mystics have been silently whispering throughout the ages.
Schrödinger then, was a Quantum physicist, who lived in most exciting times of science in the last century, and one of the key scientists who participated in this tremendous adventure of understanding the atom. Like many of his peers, he too encountered the fundamental difficulty of placing the sub-atomic world within the boundaries of classical science. He realized that the basic premise of Newtonian universe was found foundering in the deep presence of atomic world. Its steadfast laws were no more applicable to the minute particles of energy that made up “solid” world that we know and perceive. For a honest scientist, this was a great moment of truth, an enigma – and to understand this microscopic universe a new vision was required; cleansed of all acquired prejudices - and that vision must necessarily include the “Observer”, which for so long was deliberately kept off scientific explanations, or taken for granted as something standing outside the sphere of scientific experiments.
The startling fact was that the only certainty exposed by the quantum world was its absolute uncertainty. As one looked deeper, the less probable was it becoming to posit anything there with precision. All that was happening inside were based on probabilities, or coincidences. Also the other paradoxical question that confronted scientists was: Whether the microscopic world were constituted of particles that could be located in space and time, or was it just a wave that propagated itself through undifferentiated space transforming itself on conditions instigating state changes. These were becoming the central enigmas to be resolved. And eminent scientists like Bohr and Einstein (particularly Einstein), were clearly uncomfortable and deeply bothered by the consequences of this impasse. Not only was the substratum of material world breaking down into states of probabilities, but it was becoming increasingly clear to them, that behavior at the sub atomic level was greatly influenced by the “subject” observing it. The solid “out there” world of physical science was began to melt into something “in here”. It was an itchy moment. After three hundred of classical physics and western insistence on Man against nature, here was a seminal point, which if, accepted or proved, would be a paradigm shift and revision in our understanding of reality, and a complete break from the past in so far as Newtonian physics was concerned. It needed a completely honest, intellectually towering scientist to make that leap and proclaim his allegiance to a new order of understanding - And Schrodinger was the Man who had the gumption to do it, and demonstrated the nature of ambiguity with an ingenious “thought experiment”..
Schrodinger hit upon a novel way of exhibiting this paradox to the scientific community. He developed a Zen like puzzle (popularly known as Schrodinger’s cat) that would make clear the ambiguity presented in sub-atomic universe. Here is how it goes: Imagine a cat in a sealed container with a radioactive substance and vial of lethal poison inside. The state of the cat - whether it is alive or dead in unknown to an observer. The experiment is set is such a way that if the radioactive substance disintegrates, then the vial of poison would break instantly killing the cat. But it is not possible to predict with any certainty whether such radioactive process will take place or not. We leave the sealed container in this state of limbo for one hour. During this time the cat is an alive/dead state - we don’t know its “real” state. After the expiry of an hour we open the lid and then witness the state of the cat. In other words, only when we observe the cat, does the state of it collapse into either living or dead; until then it inherently possessed the possibility of both the states. The very act of observation collapsed probabilities into a single outcome. Similarly, in the subatomic world, the state of its particles begin to realize themselves only when it is observed under conditions of experimentation, and does not have any independent existence of its own.
You have to mull over this to realize and understand the analogy that Schrodinger wished to bring out. In the world of Descartes and Newton, it would have been possible to state with certainty whether the cat is alive or dead, because there no probabilities to contend with and the word “solid” meant something immutable and out there waiting for us to be perceived. However, this this entire premise completely collapses within the atom.
Schrodinger was deeply convinced that quantum physics could only be understood in the light of Human consciousness and by cutting across blurry lines between subject and the object – which has been the language of Mystics across ages and religions. In 1944, he gave a series of lectures in Trinity college, Dublin, which was later published a “what is life”. It is perhaps the first attempt by a scientist to explain the fundamentals revelation of the quantum world to a layman. It is a beautiful book and is a must read for all. The quote I reproduced in the beginning of this essay was from this book, and in my opinion demonstrates a paradigm shift in scientific thinking; and in many ways, a deep reconciliation between science and religion as well…
God bless….

Monday, February 16, 2015

Valentine’s Day - A ritual, twisted with the passage of time.

Valentine’s Day - A ritual, twisted with the passage of time.
I wanted to post this article a couple of days ago, but if I had, I may have come under heavy flak from my young and (old!!) friends, who would be quick to judge me as unromantic, judgmental and probably brand me as someone lacking in enthusiasm for cupid’s playfulness – or still worse – a spoiler of good fun, at the very least. But I have to set right a basic premise here, If only to lend credibility, or an authentic meaning to a day which all of us have come to celebrate as Valentine’s Day.
In all the holidays that crowd a western year, most of them find their relevance in Christian theology; and the few others like “Mother’s day” or “Father’s day” are merely matters of social convenience and nothing more; and the remaining are political in nature. What stands as an odd ball out in this series of premeditated holidays is the curious veneration of Romanticism and “love” on the fourteenth of February each year? Now, common sense dictates that commemorating a day for a specific kind of celebration in society must have a historical, cultural, social, religious or political justification, otherwise it becomes a meaningless symbol that one might as well do without. I have been student of comparative religions and theology for some time now; and when I seek to trace the cause for Valentine’s Day, I seem to be quickly reaching a cul-de-sac. Historically, there seems to be absolutely no creditable reason for declaring this day in honor of any saint. And moreover, it seems to have its origin in a rather grotesque, or If may say, bizarre sequence of events that happened at the dawn of Christianity, which in the passage of time have come to assume a completely different complexion. I have to explain myself here:
Firstly, Catholic history has on record at least three different verifiable Valentine’s (if not more, if one could consider the variations in the name of Valentine..) in its books, all of whom died for the cause of Christ, and hence were martyred and canonized as Saints. One of them defied the Roman king Claudius’s capricious imperative (again hearsay, no factual evidence) that young men were better off single than be married; and this fictitious Valentine surreptitiously helped young couples to be united in vows of marriage. He was supposedly put to death by Claudius. The second version merits another Valentine with performing a Schindler’s act, by aiding prisoners of war to escape the tyranny of imperial Rome. Himself imprisoned, he fell in love with the harsh jailor’s daughter, and sent her, what was probably first Valentine card in recorded history signed as “from your Valentine…”. The third account, which in my opinion (seems the most reasonable of the lot) has more to do with the takeover of Roman pagan rituals by Christian mythology. The month of February is the traditional celebration of “Lupercalia” – a Roman event that honored the birth of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. Legend has it that both of them were fed and bought up by wolves; and in honor of their mysterious parenthood, every year in the month of February, Roman priests would sacrifice a goat, or a dog or any other domesticated animal at an altar, strip their skin, dip them in blood; then parade the dripping animal’s hide round the city slapping Women and crops who happen to be on their way. Whosoever came in contact with this cleansed blood was assured fertility. Therefore, young women, who had reached puberty, stood waiting outside their doors with bated anticipation for this proverbial touch of ritualistic blood to give vent to newly aroused desires; and boys loved this yearly feast of virgins. If the ladies were touched, it was considered a God ordained license giving them uninhibited authority to copulate and procreate. At the end of this bacchanal paraphernalia, the names of girls (after having been deflowered) eligible for martial vows would be collected in an urn, for marriageable boys to pick, and make their own. Ritual of this kind were not uncommon in the pre-Christian era, and Romans were highly skilled in transformation sex into stylized motifs; and this festival is one of the prime examples of such an act. So it is not surprising that after Christianity became the official religion of Rome, since Emperor Constantine’s famous conversion; they sought to sanctify these debaucheries by declaring the 14th of February as Saint Valentine day (it is unclear which Valentine got this accolade conferred on him) with the intention of stopping the “depraved” licentiousness of the older Pagan ritual. It is not clear whether Pope Gelasius, by such a promulgation, wished to sanctify Saint valentine for his ‘divine” love of God and thereby transform carnal love into spiritual upliftment, or was it just a moral arrangement to put an end to this parade of copulation that happened in February. There is no evidence to point either way. I am sure that Pope also had in mind the fact the February is normally the mating season of birds, and sweet noises emanating from their innocent act were perceived by orthodoxy as temptations of the devil himself; and hence needed to be silenced by an act of Papal decree. Whatever may be the case, the proclamation of St Valentine’s Day served dual purposes at one stroke. It restricted the spread of Paganism and instilled guilt within a religious framework. In my study of catholic history, Papal bulls, injunctions and canonizations have always been issued to stop something from taking root, never to start anything new; hence I am thoroughly convinced that the Church did not have any intention of “celebrating” human love or romanticism in mind when St Valentine’s Day was declared. It was more of a subtle denunciation of what they considered was utter moral depravity.
However, it is only in the fourteenth and fifteenth A.D, after a gap of ten centuries that St Valentine’s Day sought its revival in the legend of crusading Knights. The troubadour movement, the manly missions of Knights, the innate sense of destiny that epitomized these warriors, their sense of honor and masculinity; their undaunted courage to rescue damsels in distress - all of them gave this legend an unique twist of sophisticated romance and unrequited love. What was originally an invitation to sex all of a sudden metamorphosized into a moral obligation and heartbreaking romance - and thus began the adoption of modern interpretation of Valentine’s Day, as we know it - A day to keep our vows to the opposite sex.
So ladies and gentleman, when your boy or girl goes out on a Valentines date, or you happen to exchange flowers or cards with your beloved; Pls understand it to be a symbolic reenactment of a pagan ritual that meant one’s readiness or invitation for physical union. It is only in the last four hundred years, that we have pushed the symbolism under covers and diluted the raw physicality of this event, and clothed it in idealistic romantic images. Sigmund Freud would not have been very happy with such an interpretation. He would have scorned at such a dilution of meaning in Valentine’s Day symbolism. It was designed to be an open invitation to physical consummation; instead we have reduced it to “Eros” - which is selective and cerebral love.
For whatever it is worth, February 14th is now a worldwide event. Even countries that cannot afford to provide two square meals a day to its citizens, snares its credulous public to spend money on gifts and Dates. And USA have transformed this myth is into massive money spinning opportunity. Read this for a taste of how much was spent in the last week alone on this notion of Valentines day: A whopping $19 billion was spent between Feb 9 to 14th, with an average American spending $150 on gifts (not surprisingly, Men spend twice as much as Women). $3.9 Billion was spent on Date nights with restaurants and theme clubs ruling the roost. A bizarre fact came to my notice as well: $702 million was spent on buying Valentine gifts for “pets” (Now, that is a nice twist to the old Roman ritual).
Well, the intent of this essay is not to disparage a socially accepted celebration, but only to humbly point out that, in our age where we so easily discredit most kinds of religious event or symbol as meaningless and irrelevant; laugh, scorn and in many cases ridicule them, without understanding its relevance or meaning – we tend to be more forgiving when it comes to things that we sympathize with or even like to do. If the 14th of February is indeed the commemoration of a St. Valentine, then what you have read in paragraphs above is the rationale behind this symbolism. It is all about venerating Sex and procreation and not the puritan love that we bandy about. Now there is absolutely, nothing wrong with the way we celebrate it, as long we accept and understand the symbology of its origins, and try not to camflouage in it sugary words and interpretations.
On a lighter vein, I heard from a friend yesterday, who hails from one of the more affluent African countries, that the only thing which gets out of stock on Valentine’s Day are condoms. I completely understand why? And perhaps, in my opinion, they have a truer appreciation of what Valentine’s Day truly means than many of us who would rather shop for a card that tries to project our carnal love in words that does not mean what we actually want or wish…
God bless…

Bradley cooper - A stint at Broadway

Every actor dreams of a golden run like what Bradley cooper has been having since 2011. Three successive academy award nominations for three brilliant movies - American Hustle, Silver linings Playbook and now American sniper. From a small guest role in a poplar television soap "Sex and the city" in 1999 to the Hangover trilogy in mid 2000's and now this incredibly mature and confident actor that Cooper epitomizes -his journey to this pinnacle has been one of rigorous commitment, extraordinary passion and hard work. It has always been my firm belief ( which I am sure many of my readers will readily agree to) that great actors always have a firm grounding in Drama, especially the classical ones. And Cooper is no exception to that.
I was In New York city this week and Booth's theatre at Broadway was playing "The Elephant man" , a deeply moving drama by the renowned playwright Bernard Pomerance. It is based upon the tragic life of Joseph Merrick, who lived in 19th century. Merrick was considered a Human curiosity, and often displayed in public as a specimen of utmost deformity. His disproportionate head size, shriveled skin , grotesque physical shape was an anathema to public. Rejected by his parents, shunned by every one around him, gifted with a good intellect - Merrick wandered from city to city as a caged animal, drawing crowds who paid to see a horrific form in human disguise. After being robbed, battered, and humiliated for many years, he found himself miraculously in the arms of wonderful Doctor Treves, who gave him life long asylum in his Hospital, instilled dignity and in many ways became a very close confidante of Merrick. For a life that has seen so much pain, embarrassment, affliction and grief ; his end was peaceful and he died in the very same Hospital that had provided him sanctuary for so long. Bernard's play penned in 1977 was a tribute to the life of joseph Merrick and has been continuously performed across Europe for the last thirty years.
In 2014, the play was revived with Bradley cooper playing the role of Joseph merrick (Can you believe this?). For a man who was voted to be "Sexiest Man alive" in 2010 to slip into a role that would be the very antitheses of what he is - truly a mark of a mature actor at the height of his prowess. Yesterday evening, after my class, I went over and watched the play in Broadway. What an experience ? Two hours of mesmerizing acting. One would hardly believe that this is the same blue eyed cooper whose charming smile, charismatic swagger could help skip a heart beat in many a young girl's heart; and yet here he was - on stage, becoming the deformed Joseph Merrick. His immaculate English diction, the raised pitch of his voice, the resonance at Booth's, the enthralled audience, the simplicity of its setting - all of it raised my artistic involvement to a pitch that I have not known in a long time.
It was an extremely satisfying experience. As I walked back to the train station in the chilly sub zero temperature of Manhattan, I had this tremendous feeling of having participated in pure, unadulterated artistic production. It left me refreshed and alive, which I think, is what every art form must aim to achieve.
Wonderful Bradley Cooper..
God bless..

A moment of nostalgia..

This essay, in many ways is a confession. Perhaps Nostalgia is a better word. And it came upon me last Sunday, as I tuned into Netflix to watch an old Sophia Loren and Cary Grant movie “Houseboat”. It is a film that touches a very deep, sensitive chord within me for a reason very different from what I am used too. It evokes memories of my first, and probably the only episode of puerile infatuation with a girl in my life. It’s a strange feeling; and it has lingered on like a shadow after nearly twenty five years now. A thousand more beautiful, captivating and interesting faces and minds have passed before my eyes, but her’s still remains resplendent in my mind. When I close my eyes, I vividly see her fair skin, dove like eyes, clad in a spotless cream Salwar, walking, smiling, and talking with lissome feminine grace that marks the fresh touch of maturity. It all happened at an age when distinct stirrings of one’s manhood uncoils itself, and the body is infused with an uncomfortable yearning that slowly fragments the mind as well; with its confused craving, battling its own moral and ethical dilemmas . It is a period of adolescence, when the relationship between a boy and a girl takes on a whole different meaning and dimension - a flirting restlessness in the eyes, a casual contact, and word or gesture blossoms into something deeper, richer and overwhelming than what it seems on the surface. The world remains centered on her physical presence, and life seems worth living only to get a glimpse of her each day.
I was a student at NIIT, and she was (not surprisingly!!) my fellow classmate. And from the first day of class, till the end of second semester, we were more or less together for every activity there. Until then, my exposure to feminine company was limited, and the little that was there in my life did not really mean much. Being a cerebral person, girls held a mysterious place in my head; born out of fairy tales, myths and stories that I had imbibed as a child. She then, at the age of eighteen, was my first redemptive touch of reality; helping me break out of my chrysalis to look at the opposite sex in a new light. She was a good looking girl - a smart mind, very outspoken, who had this ability to give someone her undivided attention, if she needed to (which obviously one mistakes as something else!!), and I happened to be a beneficiary of that grace. I had a Kinetic Honda those days; and I regularly picked her from her home - which was quite out of the way from me – dropped her back; no matter what happened. It could be thundering, lashing torrential rains, or peak of summer - I would be there at her doorstep precisely at the same time; and she would gently slip behind on my bike latching on to my shoulders, for what seemed then as a joyous ride to eternity. I am not too sure what I felt at that time. All that I am remember at this distance is that I was strongly attracted to her in strange ways that cannot be pinned down to anything specific. It was a mix of emotions.
And then catastrophe stuck!! One fine morning, on one of our rides to NIIT, she gently announced to me that her family was moving out to a different city. Her father was a medical representative, and he had been promoted as a Manager to take up station in Northern India. They were to travel the very next month. She said all of this with a smile and rising excitement in her voice; little realizing that something fundamental came crashing down within me. I will never forget that twenty minute scooter drive. It was perhaps the most excruciating, painful and confused emotional state that I have ever been in. Having built an edifice of imaginary relationships, her words ripped apart the glass house that I had been inhabiting. I still recollect the utter numbed silence that penetrated me; and her sultry voice knocking at its periphery as jarring tones of intrusion, cracking a closely guarded inner space. The next few weeks were spent in a daze, as I came to grips with this aborted experience. I never allowed my agony to reflect in my behavior with her or others, but I am absolutely certain that she had not realized what her association meant to me, or what was left irredeemably changed within me, as she moved away from my life.
Now, what has all this got to do with the movie “Houseboat”? The answer is that both of us saw the movie together at her place. It was the only movie that we watched together, though I am sure we had made such plans many times in the past as well. Her father had bought a brand new Video cassette player, and I had volunteered to borrow Houseboat from a local Video library my father frequented very often. She loved Sophia Loren. Who would not? And I remember her face as she sat awestruck at the miraculous beauty, grace and finesse of this great Italian actor. She was watching the movie, and I her… Somehow those two hours remain etched in my memory as a special slice of life.
Well, the above paragraphs may give the one impression that I am still head over heels over this girl, as I was then. But that would be a wrong conclusion to draw. Life moves on, and in the deluge of experiences that confronts us, sensations tend to dim and possibly vanish. However, there is no doubting that the first taste of attraction between sexes will linger forever. I would not wish to rationalize it as love or respect or empathy - it was possibly raw biological attraction that draws one initially; and all the rest follows later. Tradition and culture may want to turn that experience into something socially acceptable, but each one knows, deep in one’s heart, that it is not what we have named it to be. It is something pristine and unadulterated until it lasts.
God bless…

Friday, February 6, 2015

Anthony De Mello SJ and the order of St Ignatius - a personal gratitude and remembrance

Anthony De Mello SJ and the order of St Ignatius - a personal gratitude and remembrance.
A casual look at the 16th century portrait of Saint Ignatius of Loyola by the great sensualist, Flemish painter, master of color and depth - Peter Paul Ruben - will reveal a Man with regal bearing, an aristocratic face, steady gaze, slightly tilted upward in a divine trance, draped in crimson tunic, one hand holding a prayer book (possibly) and the other turned outward in benediction and renounced abandon; gently leaning against a table with effortless ease. One would scarcely believe that this is a picture of a man who founded one of the most influential, prolific, authentic and mystical Christian societies in the history of organized Christian church. “The society of Jesus” or the Jesuits, as it is known throughout the globe was established by Ignatius, the chivalrous soldier, in 1521, after his forced convalescence due to injuries sustained in a war against the French. The hot spirited warrior found his balm in the life of Jesus, and in the intense solitude of his recuperative confinement underwent a profound spiritual conversion that altered the way he perceived his life’s mission on earth. It was an odd age in western history - The 14th and 15th centuries; it was an age of pervasive superstition in the west and Catholic Church held sway over the minds and hearts of millions; ravaged by fratricidal wars, primitive belief’s and more importantly, rent apart by the virulent pestilence of Plague (Black death) that swept through most of Europe wiping away nearly half or more of its population- leaving in its wake a benumbed, morally, intellectually and physically weak generation of Men and Women - to whom Papacy and his priests were offering heavenly recompense at a price, to fill up its empty coffers , which would in turn help the Church to continue their persecution of infidels, non-believers and Jews. It was indeed “the darkest age of Christianity, and more so of Western civilization, before the knock of reformation stirred life back into its sinews.
It was in this dark milieu that Ignatius established the order of Jesuits. Though he realized that Christianity as preached and practiced by the church was blasphemous, and against the very grain of Christ’s teachings, he was practical enough to understand that to set up an order in defiance of their authority would prove not only disastrous, but detrimental to what he had in mind. He carefully chartered the principles of his association, restraining its outward manifestations to within the boundaries of official Christian theology, but internally encouraging a broader, deeper enquiry into the mystery of the Trinity and its true mystical experience. He strongly believed that his friars must be in tune with his world outside, absorb all rays of knowledge that radiate toward them, seek a comprehensive unity of the material and spiritual world – all of this - without forsaking one's inner anchor in the sublime divinity of Christ. Ignatius wrote a series of exercises (Called “Spiritual exercises”) that a novitiate should undertake for a period of 28-30 days, focusing not on the historical episodes of Christ, his death and resurrection; but to turn the thinking mind inward to contemplate the symbolic references these events indicated. From 1524 onwards, this 200 page booklet of spiritual and mental practices have been the backbone of Jesuits all over the globe. Young aspirants, awakened by the call of divinity, joined this congregation to experiment with inward life. Though, in principle, they were expected to profess steadfast, rigorous obedience to the Pope as their final ecclesiastical authority, the surreptiously blooming freedom that was offered within Jesuit communities liberated their minds to seek meaning to deeper issues in a spirit of impartial study. Ignatius, being a man of the world, made sure that his book, his society and its adherents got the blessings of Pope Paul III in 1540, which meant that its members could now move around without fear of persecution or condemnation.
Over the last four hundred years, young Jesuit priests have used this freedom to perform invaluable service in remote parts of the globe, establishing communities, spreading the word of peace and providing moral, religious instructions to those whom mainstream religions have neglected. Also, they have produced a multitude of scientists, doctors, sociologist, authors – who, trained in Jesuit missions have found their vocations in different walk of life, always carrying the fire of inner zeal and commitment to reconcile an intensely religious life with secular world.
The reason for me to set this context of Jesuit’s in perspective was to talk about a Jesuit Priest whose works have had a profound influence on me early in my life. Nearly two decades ago, in one of the newly formed libraries in Chennai, I chanced upon a short book titled “The song of the bird”. It contained a series of short anecdotes, stories with succinct commentary by a priest named Anthony de Mello. It was a fascinating book. There was nothing religious about it and I remember being surprised that it was written by a Christian. Many years later, when my life had gone through it roller coaster rides, I again happened to read many of his other books including: “Sadhana: a way to God” and “Awareness”. The fact that de Mello could think and write so eloquently about life without the underpinnings of dogmatic opinions, and also the fact that he was trained to be a Jesuit priest in the same tradition as thousands of others before him; only strengthened my faith in religion as an individual’s deep dive into oneself, and not as mechanical card bearing members of an organized religious sect. in 1972 De Mello founded a pastoral retreat In Poona, where members of different congregations assemble even today for month long stay of Introspection and study. A wonderful orator, passionate preacher, he was invited to various forums across the world, speaking to understanding audiences, who could easily relate to the kind of religion he was talking about. De mello constantly emphasized that peace and happiness were always available at hand; but one is reluctant to embrace it. He used to say “Majority of Mankind only want psychological relief, never a permanent cure...” De Mello was well prepared for death when it happened all of sudden in 1987 on his maiden trip to New York. He was fifty five years of age.
In many way, de Mello’s thoughts and writings have influenced me in subtle ways. Though his words have remained with me for a very long time, its essence and import have only now begin to dawn on me. A few months ago, I suddenly had this tremendous urge to buy the book “Song of the bird”. And ordered it from Amazon. When it arrived, I hastily opened the book; and the opening sentence which had touched a chord within me 20 years ago arrested me again:
‘A bird does not sing because he has a statement. He sings because he has a song.’
But this time, I had tears in my eyes. It had taken me so long, after so much of battering and bruises to experience the deep meaning of De mello’ s innocuous sounding words, but it’s been worth the wait….
God bless.



Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The story of English Dictionary

The story of English Dictionary.
On my flight back last Saturday, after a cozy lunch served in the first class cabin, I settled down to read for God-knows how many’eth time the wonderful play of Shakespeare - “the Twelfth night”. I have a quite a strange affinity for Shakespearean drama. From my school days - when the very name of Shakespeare evoked immense disgust (because of its convoluted language, obscured imagery and bygone contexts) and the need to memorize huge tracts of painful orations - to the present time, when I almost love every written word ever penned by this great bard - the journey had been enriching and fruitful (to say the least), and like vatted wines, his dramas and sonnets have aged imperceptibly within me invoking a delectable taste in my literary buds, improving its sublimity and taste with each fresh reading and contemplation.
Shakespeare wrote most of his plays and sonnets between the years 1590 and 1613 - the most prolific, productive and to a large extent a defining period of English literature. And the curious thing about writing in English, when Shakespeare did, was the fact that there was no definitive lexicon of the language available. What this meant is that he had no way of checking the “meaning” of a word or its grammatical usage. For example, In the Twelfth night, Orsino sends a man in disguise as a woman to woo his lady love, and the reason Orsino gives his emissary for sending him on this adventure is this:
“(In you) all is semblative a woman's part….”
What he means here is that his messenger resembles a woman in more ways than one, hence his lady love is more likely to believe his words. There is no way in the world Shakespeare could have verified whether his usage of “semblative” was right semantically or even acceptable in written speech. All that he would have known is that it sounded phonetically right to a listener’s ears, therefore must be right; or, he would have consulted other books to validate his usage.
Believe it or not, English tongue did not have a formal dictionary of usage till 1755, when Samuel Johnson attempted for the first time to formally define the lexicon of the language. There were minor efforts that preceded him, but none encompassed all the ramifications and nuances that centuries of lingual fertilization had given birth to. The French have had their formal dictionary since 1600, the Italians prior to that, and so did the Germans; but English sadly lacked a formal body of organized words, till the gigantic mind of Dr Johnson put his life’s energy into compiling one. An ambitious man - Dr Johnson was - His goal was to “fix” English language for posterity, but six years into his enterprise, he realized the futility of his ambition and decided to narrow his vision to a manageable scale of last 150 years. Also, Johnson was more a classical writer in temperament than an assembler of words; hence, his dictionary made great reading on a sunny Sunday afternoon than as a reference to the language itself; His definitions were artistic expressions of a mind that thinks clearly and with beauty - but, to call his work acomplete lexicon of English would be far from the truth. And one cannot blame him for that: To compile nearly ten centuries of usage is simply not within the ken of a single individual’s possibility. The various pedigrees of the language, subtle variations of a word, onslaught of colloquial influences, liberal infusions from French, German, Italian and Latin - had swelled the quantum of words in use to a little more than unmanageable. Dr Johnson had only considered 150 years of Literature when he published his two volume “Dictionary of English language” – and it alone contained about 50,000 words with appropriate definitions and illustrations. It took him, a decade of solitary labor to scratch the surface of this rich and complex language. In terms of sheer scholarship, incisiveness, coverage and aesthetic beauty of his approach, there has been nothing that has surpassed the quality of Samuel Johnson’s work. It is a testimony of a single man’s love affair with a language that he adored, worshipped and disseminated so wisely.
Now I come to the meat of this essay. In 1857, On Guy Fawkes Day (for Indians, the year of Civil disobedience), an event was inaugurated in a secluded corner of the now famous London library, which was to have far reaching repercussions for the language. Richard Trench, a cleric by profession and a philologist by taste, spoke to an assemblage of like-minded people on a cold, blistery evening on the imperative need to have definitive dictionary of English. With English being adopted across the globe as a uniting lexicon, Trench was driven by this idea of giving that impetus a formal structure by laying down the lingua-franca of its speech and usage. In that brief one hour speech, Trench also unwittingly laid down some of the seminal principles of creating a corpus of the language, and emphasized to his spell bound audience that such an endeavor cannot be the undertaking of any single individual, but can only be made possible with the cooperation of hundreds, nay – thousands of educated volunteers, who will be encouraged to read certain periods of English literary history and contribute words and their respective definitions. Thus began the saga of OED (Oxford English dictionary) – a project that took nearly seventy years for its completion and publication; guided ably by editorial genius of Trench and Coleridge; followed by the mercurial Furnivall who gave it a definitive thrust; and then for forty odd years the able and methodical work of Sir James Murray to take the work to printer’s table. Literally thousands of Pamphlets were distributed soliciting volunteers, hundreds of house calls and seminars; friends spreading the world through social interactions - all of them found a resounding resonance in the English continent. Slips of paper with all kinds of words poured into the rickety shed that Murray had built to stack, study and typeset them into a standard format. The Postal service was inundated by responses for anonymous individuals whose only motive was to help build a dictionary for the language they loved and used. Such altruism though miraculous, was also possible in an age that was essentially preparing for war. It vindicates our faith in the Goodness of Humanity.
An important contributor to this great endeavor was an American Military doctor W C Minor, who was forcefully retired from the Army because of unstable mental condition. By a strange twist of destiny, he landed in mental asylum near London after having mercilessly shot an Irishman in broad daylight, assuming him to be his tormentor and persecutor. Dr Minor, though intellectually sound was ridden with bouts of depression and paranoia. Mid Eighteenth Century Science had not yet gotten their Freud, and all that doctors could do was to confine him to a fairly spacious set of rooms in Broadmoor, provide him with his painting brushes and paper, and more importantly – the love of his life - Books and more Books. History has not recorded how and when Minor got to know of Sir Murrays appeal to general public for their generous contribution of their time and words, but it is clear that he had made up his mind to make a significant contribution towards defining words for the Dictionary. Within the boundaries of his cell, he evolved his own way of reading and cataloguing words from his collection of books; and very soon, the office of Murray took cognizance of the fact that Dr Minor’s contribution was proving to be invaluable. Day after Day, Month and Month, his posts kept piling in and Murray’s men assiduously used his research to embellish their work.
The odd thing though was that no one knew Who Dr Minor was, or what he did for a living. All of them assumed that he was a man of wealth and leisure able to spend his time in furthering knowledge. It was only after twenty years of correspondence between Murray and Minor that they formally got introduced to each other; and the world came to know the mysterious mad man whose daily contributions meant so much to the making of dictionary. Finally, on January, the 29th 1884, nearly twenty seven years after the idea was first announced by Trench, the first volume of this massive work was published. It covered Words from “A” to “Ant”. It took another 30 years to announce to the world in 1927, the complete set of 12 volumes with over half a million words, hand bound and typeset on paper ( which would run into 178 miles in length). At an interval of every three years, on an average after that, a supplement was bought out incorporating new found words, and corrections and reinterpretation of existing definitions. In 1989, a fresh set of 20 volumes were published. It was the last time the Oxford would ever physically publish a dictionary; very soon they turned to digital media, which was definitely less expensive, easier to maintain and enhance.
As I was reading on the flight, all of sudden, I paused and felt so extremely grateful for the thousands of volunteers, editors, well-wishers ; without whose passion and commitment, the language of English may not have had a formal reference to it. After the OED, there have many other dictionaries that claim that title, but in my mind, there can be only one definitive guide, and that is the twenty volumes of OED. I would love to possess a complete set, but unfortunately they are not on sale any more. A couple of weeks ago, at the DeKalb library, I was leafing through a few volumes of their reference collection of the OED, and I chanced to look at the word “run”. There are six pages of listings for this simple word, and the number of meanings and definitions add up to 368. Each interpretation diligently catalogued and verbally illustrated. Strangely my eyes welled up with tears witnessing such human sagacity and commitment. I was proud of the Human race.
God bless…

Rajni - a Janus-faced life

Rajni - a Janus-faced life
It is not surprising to find a Hollywood actor professing or proselytizing a religious faith or spiritual practice. Tom cruise is known for his commitment to Scientology; Richard Gere, a catholic by birth, a Buddhist by choice has been active in the Tibetan freedom movement for a long time; Madonna, the pin-up girl of the eighties and nineties has switched allegiances multiple times from being a Jew, to a practicing Cabbalist, and then to Islam; Rain Wilson, a rising comedian indulges in Bahai - a Persian faith; Steven Seagal , the uncrowned king of martial art movies believes himself to be a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama; Robert Downey Jr, interestingly confesses that he is a “JeBu” – a Jewish Buddhist; or Russell Brand, the British actor, who chose to marry his girlfriend Indian style, is a committed practitioner of Kundalini Yoga( Incidentally, his Indian guru is now a very rich man!!) - The list seems to be endless, and this fashion statement to be “spiritual” with an assumed halo behind them, seem to render an authenticity to their ever increasing wealth and profligacy, that would be difficult to justify otherwise.
In Indian Cinema, none has used this card better than our own 'Superstar" Rajni. In a country with a surplus of Gods, Gurus and religious sects, and the easiest way to fame and glory is to assume a mantle of spiritual preeminence; Rajani’s rise to fame and his positioning himself as a messiah who can also “Act”; reluctantly wearing the riches around his shoulders; speaking soulful platitudes on very podium; sprinkling his dialogues and manipulating his story lines to weave an aura of mystery and enigma surrounding his destiny; occasionally dabbling in politics with a detachment that would be worthy of a Jesus Christ; struggling to keep his health and image intact; indulging in histrionics that is way past his age or competence - the legend of Rajani is still alive and kicking, as it has been for the last 25 years, at least. From an angry young, lecherous villain to this “superman” is a journey that possibly cannot be replicated in any other soil other than India. I am not for a minute being condescending here. I have, like million others who happen to be born in South India have grown up watching his stardom unfold on screen. We would eagerly look forward every year for his latest movie release, struggle our way to the ticket counters to get ourselves a gate pass to watch the “God” himself, as he performs his unbelievable stunts in screen. His half broken, incoherent diction of Tamil, his puny stature that can hardly be called muscular, his limited predictable range of histrionics were no impediment at all to us. We would simply watch him wide-eyed, bathing and basking in his immortality for three hours.
Well, it’s been quite a while since I have seen one of his movies on screen. And, I guess with age comes perspective, and now when I look back and reminisce, It is becoming blatantly clear to me that here is a man who simple cannot overcome his deep-down sense of insecurity on all fronts - as an actor who knows his stark limitations, or as a person who grew from Rags to riches, or as Man who was unwittingly crowned by a Stroke of destiny, and does not know what to do with it.
Yesterday night, after dinner, I chanced to tune into “Lingaa” – his latest movie release from 2014. To say, I was dumb-stuck at the sheer inanity of what was happening on screen would be an understatement of gigantic proportions. I decided to stay through the movie only to test the limits of my artistic patience, and frankly, I could not. Half way, I threw in the towel and could not allow my sensibilities, in the name of a feature film, to be dragged to such depths of buffoonery. In perhaps, what is supposed to be the opening scene set in 1939, our hero is seated in fast moving train, which is about to vandalized by a group of masked robbers; the camera lingers on the book that is being read, and I almost fainted from laughter when I saw its title. It is Joseph Campbell’s “The hero with a thousand faces”. A book that is profoundly mystical, and a book that I cherish as one of the most seminal works on comparative mythology in the last two centuries. Written by Campbell when he was young, it bursts with insights on interpretation of world myths in terms of inner development and maturity. And more importantly, it was first published in 1949. And our Hero was reading it in 1939. I would excuse this to be one of those cinematic bloopers that happen all the time; but I am not sure if that was really the case here. The reason this book was chosen is simple - to emphasize the majesty of the Man Rajani reading it. He is the Hero, and his dimensions are multifarious. Campbell would have squirmed in his grave if he were to be told of the use that his book was being put into. And so the movie lumbers along, on predictable lines iterating over and over again the personality that Rajani wishes to imprint on his gullible public; and absolutely no regard for the movie as an art or a meaningful expression of human condition.
Frankly, I don’t think we should blame Rajni for what he has continued to do. Art is defined and nurtured by the beholder. And as long as Cinema or any other form of art is taken as a mere vent to ones’ frustrations, or compulsive escapism from reality; then we will have to deal with such below-average fare doled out year upon year. An ailing patient, against the advice of his doctor, sneaked out of his hospital bed to watch Lingaa, and died in the theatre. His family rationalizes his death by consoling themselves that he died in God’s arms. What more can I say…
God bless…