Monday, June 26, 2017

Jottings - Slice of Life - 132 ( Dangal - exquisite craftsmanship and brilliant performances)

Jottings - Slice of Life - 132 ( Dangal - exquisite craftsmanship and brilliant performances)
My favorite critic and Journalist of Newyorker Magazine , Anthony lane, had a simple rule to write about films. In his own inimitable style, he writes “ ..Whenever possible , pass sentence on a movie the day after it comes out. Otherwise , wait fifty years. Films are most plausibly assessed in the heat of the moment or with the icy advantage of the long gaze; anything in between is hedging ones bets..” I cannot agree more. But unlike Lane’s recommendation I cannot wait for fifty more years to write about one of the finest films, and extraordinary performance of Aamir khan in Dangal. It is true, I consciously deferred watching this movie when it came out last year. My friends, coworkers and every casual acquaintance I had a chance to bump into raved about the story, its intense portal of feminine power and the aura of patriotism which suffused it. But as Indians in a foreign country, sometimes we overdo this patriotism gig, and I politely ignored all earnest pleas to watch Dangal for that reason. One fact I was certain of though, and that is, an Aamir khan movie cannot get just be run of the mill stuff. It was certain to contain committed art in it, and Aamir himself would have given nothing less than hundred percent of himself and his talent to the movie.
The heroic story of a aging Wrestler fulfilling his dream of winning a gold medal through his daughters, is no doubt a fantasy come true. We really did have Babita and Geeta perform that extraordinary act in 2012; but what is even more amazing is how such an incredible and intense tale of success and determination in wrestling - a sport that does not often get as much attention as it deserves in the media, caught the perceptive eye of Creative director Divya rao of Walt Disney productions. Like talented and knowledgable publishers who know where success in authorship lies when they read a written page, people who head movie production houses must have a subliminal instinct on which stories can be told on screen, and how and who can tell them effectively and with conviction. When Divya read this small piece about Mahaveer Singh Phogat and his dream in the paper, she knew she had a great story and screenplay in hand, and she set the gears of production machinery rolling. The result is Dangal. The name Divya rao may not resound in public domain when the success of Dangal is recounted , but without her spot-on instinct and ability to convince a host of creative people that this idea is worth capturing on screen, Dangal may have never been made - at least not in the way it finally shaped up. To that extent, she and Walt Disney deserves credit for doing their job doing well.
My first impression after I finished watching Dangal is one of immense aesthetic satisfaction. A satisfaction that comes from seeing a flawless execution of a predictable theme. Every frame spoke of careful lighting, thoughtful arrangement of sets, great supporting cast, and a screenplay which peeled the story layer by layer without losing grip till the very end, when it floundered a little to accommodate a traditional cinematic climax. That is excusable. After Clint Eastwood’s “million dollar baby”, I havent seen a movie where a fighting sport (especially featuring Women) was so realistically captured on screen. Never for a moment did I get the impression that people were aimlessly fighting or going through half hearted motions of cinematic stunt; every action sequence gave us a ring side view of “wrestling”, its artistry and subtle nuances. The central theme of the film, for me at least, was not patriotism or gender struggle. While those are definitely individual tiles on the broader mosaic of the tale, the main theme of Dangal is Wrestling as a sport, and the discipline it takes to becomes a great wrestler. Gender doesn't matter. Like martial arts, Wrestling is a psychological exercise and anyone with right frame of mind and good technique, and educated instincts can rise above the ordinary. However, within the context of India or China ( where the film did unbelievably well at box office), Dangal may still appeal as a voice of female emancipation, patriotism and love for motherland in a predominantly patriarchal society - a theme Indians are very passionate about and which I thought was exhausted in “Chak de” and couldn't be bettered; but from the larger perspective of Movies as an art form, where Dangal succeeds, is in its picture perfect rendition of the ancient sport of Wrestling, a sport which looks clumsy at first to an untrained eye, but has enough grace, finesse, strength, strategy and spontaneity to rank among the most difficult and entertaining of sporting duels. In Dangal, Director Nitesh Tiwari captures its beauty through the eyes of two smart girls, who train and discipline themselves under a strict and admirable father.
There are very few actors of who I am in awe. Aamir is certainly one of them. From his early days of wavy haired, guitar wielding, innocent looking college boy who lip synced to the lilting tune of “Papa kahte hai bada naam karega..” to the intensity, manliness ,maturity and complete immersiveness in the role of the Patriarch Mahaveer Singh Phogat - is a study in artistic progression, commitment to art and stern determination to keep reaching higher and higher and not fall prey to the disease of complacency. A great performance is one where audience lose track of the person playing the role, and start seeing the character portrayed as a real person. Not many actors can achieve it. Some do in certain movies, but nobody in recent times has done it as consistently as Aamir. In Dangal, Aamir Khan, the man, the hero rarely surfaces. It is Mahaveer, the determined father, who dances in front of our eyes. What is commendable is not merely Aamir’s physical rigor and discipline in conditioning himself, but the sheer imaginative scope of the character he brings on his face. His intense stare can literally bore a hole through the wall. Performances like these should make textbook study for young actors in Film institutes across the world. Its worth studying. As his Wrestling daughters, the young and talented girls (Fatima and Sana) shine and sizzle, and never once does Aamir steal the thunder from them. Like a wall he supports their incredible performance, and lends the story its true heroines, as he quietly basks in their glory.
There is common criticism of Aamir, that he disregards the movie industry, he is arrogant, does not attend award ceremonies( though they are compelled to give him all the awards he deserves) and so on. I am not surprised. If Aamir needs to continue acting, producing and making movies that redefine Cinematic excellence in India, he cannot afford to mix with the mundane. True artists are essentially lonely people. The Gurudutts, the Meena Kumari’s, the Sanjeev Kumar’s could not survive in a celluloid world inundated with superficiality, and we know what they did to themselves. Aamir keeps a benign, spiritual detachment from mainstream, which allows him the artistic liberty and resources needed to realize his artistic vision. After kamal Hassan, he is the only actor who can dare to make a movie and force his audience to watch, appreciate and learn. There may be failures along his way. It is inevitable. When one walks the razors edge, as Aamir often does, one is bound to slip and slide; but the joy lies in keeping at it and experience the creative adrenaline rush through the veins.
In an introduction to his collection of essays that came out in 2000, Anthony Lane makes a poignant observation on movie making. He writes ( I paraphrase) “ ..Movie makers are never tired of keeping their fingers out of Cinema’s deepest and most promising pockets, the wallet and the heart. Whatever humans do on film, they do it for love or money…” To extend Lane’s acute observation a little, few film makers and actors are fortunate to make movies on both accounts - love and money; Love first, money later. The phenomenal commercial success of Dangal only shows that good movies do not need six years in the making, 100’s of millions in special effects, or international promos . All it needs is great performance, a simple tale told with conviction, commitment and honesty.
In conclusion, one more effulgent feather in Aamir’s cap, and a standing applause to the hearts, brains and resources behind Dangal..
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Jottings - Slice of life - 129 ( Rafa’s immortality, and the poignant absence of a great Journalist to celebrate the ecstatic moment)

Jottings - Slice of life - 129 ( Rafa’s immortality, and the poignant absence of a great Journalist to celebrate the ecstatic moment)
Some sporting events and statistics are ethereal. As the word suggests - it is not of this world, but belongs to a sphere far away from the range, aptitude and grasp of ordinary mortals.How else would we assess Aussie cricketeer Don Bradman’s almost unbelievable batting average of 99.94, or mercurial Squash player Jahangir khan’s incredible winning streak of 555 tournaments between 1981-86 without missing a single game for any reason whatsoever, or Edwin Moses deer like agility, grace and speed that led him to win 122 straight races without ever touching a hurdle enroute, before his 123rd race - when in the last 50 meters, his left toe gently scraped against the top bar of the last hurdle ever so lightly causing it to sway a little by its impact only to regain balance - as a breathless audience watched Moses complete one more historic sprint, or Baby Ruth’s unbelievable 40 Home runs in 11 consecutive seasons of Baseball, a feat that baffles baseball pundits even today; and now Rafael Nadal’s ten French open Men singles titles - an achievement unlikely to be surpassed for generations to come, unless the nature of tennis changes, or it somehow becomes easier to play this beautiful game on hard clay courts - a surface on which an athlete needs the highest levels of talent, physical strength, stamina, precision and endurance to battle consistently over long periods of time.
We are blessed as a generation to have grown up watching two of the greatest tennis players - Roger and Rafa - to have graced the tennis court, after Borg and McEnroe enthralled us with their magic in the 1980’s. While Roger epitomizes the skill, grace and poise tennis can ever reach, Rafa personifies grit, determination and indomitable spirit the game has ever seen. Between them, there is nothing much to choose. As a puritan, when both play against each other, my heart would often go out to Roger, secretly urging, praying he could make that delectable pass , classic crosscourt or impeccable down the line shot to break the iron wall of Rafa; but my intellect would scoff and smile at such a suggestion. How could Rafa not reach the ball? How could Rafa not turn a seemingly lost point into a winner from nowhere? It was always a battle between the heart and the mind; and more often than not mind would threaten to win, unless Roger played near perfect tennis, or could come up with something magical.
On clay courts, Rafa’s skill is unmatched. Only in those tournaments, where he chose to abdicate his throne for reasons of health or otherwise, others have won. So it has been for nearly two decades . Even yesterday, at the old age of thirty two (can you believe it, Rafa is only 32), battling injuries and not half as good as we known him to be be, his young opponent full of energy and talent in a French open finals was absolutely no match. It was one sided game, almost a surprisingly pleasant cruise for Nadal into history books and unto posterity.
I wish my favorite Sportswriter Nirmal Shekar was alive to write about Nadal’s achievement. In the last thirty years, Shekar’s peerless prose, incisive understanding of sportsmen and what drives them to greatness and daring, his ability to place sport and its heroes and heroines in the larger context of human life and culture, has in a way been my own inspiration to write as I do. He died peacefully at the age of 60 in February this year. There was not a sport that Nirmal shekar could not touch and write about with authority and grace. His deep knowledge of literature and Western Philosophy allowed his essays to sparkle and go beyond the ordinary to lift achievements in sport into rarified spheres of adulation and honor - granting them immortality in words in their respective arenas. Writing an essay on the racing genius Ayrton senna after his tragic death on the track in 2004. Nirmal shekar wrote, as only he could write:
“..It is almost a sacrilege to speak of records and statistics in a tribute to the Brazilian genius. For records were as irrelevant and insignificant to Senna as mystical powers are to a saint. His motivation was more spiritual than sporting…”
or when he wrote of Mohammad Ali,
“..At his peak, and for much longer, death was the last thing you thought of while talking about Ali. But this much is sure. Whatever course sport takes in the future, the legend of Ali will live on as long as civilization, as we know it, does.”
I will miss his writing , and so will readers all over the world who value prose in whatever style it appears. During his lifetime, Nirmal shekar found time to write only one complete book. That was about the famous tennis family from South india - Ramanathan and Ramesh Krishnan. A sumptuous book written with clarity, style and wit in his lucid prose. He didn't have to write many more books. After all, each essay he crafted week after week for newspapers and magazines he worked for, is in itself a study in how sports journalism should strive to be, and how good prose should be written. If one were to compile all his essays written over four decades and issue it in book form, it should be more than sufficient to grant him a permanent place among the greatest columnists, writers and commentators of his generation anywhere in the world.
On January 28th, in his last piece for his favorite paper, he concluded his essay, for the last time, with the following words
“…. the truth is, nothing may be forever – except perhaps Bradman’s Test batting average of 99.94 – immune to evolution. And, sport is no exception..”
Yes Nirmal Shekar, I agree.. Nothing may be forever, but your passionate prose sure will.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala

Monday, June 5, 2017

Jottings - Slice of life - 125 ( Rites of Initiation - few thoughts on Upanayanam, the sacred thread ceremony )

Jottings - Slice of life - 125 ( Rites of Initiation - few thoughts on Upanayanam, the sacred thread ceremony )
The biggest loss of Modern generation is their complete severance from the experience of catharsis and growth - by way of actualizing timeless myths in the form of rituals and initiatory rites in our daily lives. Traditional rites of initiation, which played a huge role in shaping individuals to fit into society, have become more of a formality completed without any understanding of what they mean, why they are enacted, and what are they supposed to achieve. After all, the age of modernity for all its talk of progress is one riddled with fear. We enact inherited rituals, visit temples, try to follow social traditions - not because we know why; but because we are afraid what would happen if we dont do so. We may argue and talk intellectually about the non-existence of God or an afterlife or argue about traditions, but deep down we are unsure, and would like to keep our personal gods appeased, in case there is need for hypothetical intervention later on. Our attitude towards myths and rituals are mechanical; more out of sense of professional and social duty than a meaningful exposition and enactment of it. Neither the performer, sponsors of the performance, or the beneficiaries of the performance know the reasons and meaning behind the social act and mythological rituals. This attitude is not specific to one society or religious sect in particular. It is a fact of every society . From Christian catechisms, to Muslim namaz, to Hindu rites of passage, to Jewish mitzvah - there is a strange confusion and a mechanized approach to traditions stripped of all its meaning and relevance. What we observe is the shell, the kernel is missing ,lost, or in my opinion - ignored.
The Human child is not equipped naturally to grow up psychologically into an adult. Physically, body grows, but unless society intervenes to educate and channelize his energies, he will forever remain a muted child in the garb of an adult, or worse ambiguous about his own self.. He therefore has to be taught, transformed, made to find his own bearings, and then let loose in the world. It is for the community in which he is born and bought up to prepare and pave the way for that kind of transformation. From the dawn of Human civilization, we find records of innumerable traditions and rituals from such transformatory rites. Scholars who spend a life time studying mythology are astounded to find the same underlying stories, similar rituals and drama, exact representations of Local Gods and Goddesses in different ages and cultures permeating through specific initiatory rites, even though it is geographically impossible for them to have cross fertilized each other. Elaborate rituals from birth to death were found necessary to gracefully, or sometimes forcefully, change the human child from one stage of existence to another. After suckling at his mothers breast for years, and living in her embrace and love , not knowing the travails and complexities that await him; the young boy or girl needs to be ceremonially pulled away from maternal and paternal care, transformed into an adult to fulfill the social need and position. It cannot be done overnight or by mere dialogue. It has to be community event with elaborate rituals and incantations to invoke an breathless atmosphere of change. Fires are started, blood flows sometimes, totems are raised, ablutions are poured, costumes and masks are changed, rechristening of names happen- and many more such props and acts are required to make that transition. Some initiation go on for months, some for few days to hours.The length of time doesn't matter; but the intent, purpose and atmosphere does.
In the Hindu Brahmanic tradition, young boys at the age of seven or eight are initiated into a period of deep introspective study. Brahmins are indicative of those individuals in society whose social duty it was to keep rest of community anchored to the truth about oneself without getting lost in the roles they play. In order to do that, they must know, understand and experience the truth for themselves firsthand. The rite of passage for this inward journey is called “Upanayanam”. A beautiful Sanskrit term , which means “ Seeing something very near” . In Hindu mystical tradition, the closest to you is your own sense of being, or atman or God. Hence Upanayanam is turning the young boy, who has just learned how to read and write, to turn his gaze inward. It is extraordinary why boys have to go through this process so very young. If you think of it, the greatest impediment to knowing oneself is our own fragmented ideas about who we are, which we gather over years through books, dialogues, family, social positions and hearsay. However, at the age of seven, the boy’s brain is virgin territory, and with his new found skill of reading and writing, he can use words are quick symbols to reality and not get lost in words about words. The more one knows, the more unlearning is required. Also, at seven the intimations of sexuality is very minimum which makes it easy to focus energy without any real context for dissipation. That is why the tradition catches them young. Its a three day rite filled with meaning and purpose. The boy is gently taken away away from his parents and turned into a mendicant devoted to learning for twelve years. He is given a sacred thread worn from left to right with three cotton threads, indicative of three states of consciousness - waking, dream and sleep, and later on when he goes back to society, gets married, the symbol is changed to six threads - adding three more to inform the world he has a lawful wife now, and she shares in his passion and commitment to serve as torchbearers of inner life and living. During “Upanayanam” numerous esoteric phrases are fed in secrecy into the young boys ears, both from the parents and the Guru, the teacher. It is unlikely the boy will understand anything at all. But it doesn't matter, like a piece of chemical which can act as a catalyst when the environment is right, these words will help coagulate the chattering brain into singular quietude when the moment is ripe. It is not a guarantee, but an invitation. A communal hall is chosen for this rite of initiation. Almost everyone in the community is invited to witness the transformation of the young child into a student. His status changes dramatically. When the ceremony begins, he is welcomed into the hall as a child, but when he goes out of it , he is a seeker in search of truth along with his guru. A beautiful moment - tearful parents bid farewell to the kid they so dearly loved and cuddled, and at the same time they are proud he is embarking on a journey so profound and deep. When he comes back after his tutelage, he will ready to serve his role in society.
I have condensed a scientific and meaningful ritual into a single paragraph. But in its actual execution , there are many nuances to it which create an aura of sacredness indispensable for such an undertaking. Even today, in brahmin communities Upanayanam is a mandatory ritual. But like everything else, it is just a formality and nothing more. Its become more of an an occasion for a family get together, or a tradition that is grudgingly fulfilled. Nothing wrong, but to call it “Upanayanam” in sense it was intended to mean is to dilute thousands of years of refinement and thought. But, as some would say, something is better than nothing. When roots are cut, whatever remains will continue to sprout in its own little way.
In many forums over the years, I have heard Rituals being laughed at, or spoken of as formality to be completed, or worse still derided. Personally, I don't participate in rituals anymore, because I dont see the sanctity and intent in the performance of it. But I am deeply convinced that each ritual is well thought out, orchestrated, controlled expression of a cosmic necessity couched as myth; and in their enactment the human psyche, if one has the capacity to sufficiently, truthfully and meaningfully immerse in it, can take an individual from one level of understanding to another.
God bless..
Yours in mortality,
Bala