Friday, December 23, 2022

The Sense of an Ending: Our Forgotten History

 “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

If we read the statement closely, we can observe an anomaly in it. It says history is a certainty that is produced from  uncertain memories and uncertain documented knowledge. How can two uncertainties produce a certainty? It probably indicates the subjective nature of history. 

 This definition of history is made by Adrian, a character in Julian Barnes Booker Prize winning novel, The Sense of an Ending. What I read in the novel was an elaboration of this statement. One is certain of what happened in past because he remember certain things he saw and also because there are certain documents that he gets to know, through written or oral accounts. But how much absolutely true is this certainty, that he feels? How reliable are our memory and how correctly we have documented events? 

One day Tony, an old retired, divorced guy knows that he is named in the will of Sarah, his ex-girlfriend Veronica's mother. According to the will he is entitled for some money and two documents. He couldn't possess one of it, the personal diary of Adrian, once his close friend, who went on to date Veronica after Tony broke up with her when he was young. Adrian took his life months after their relationship started. 

The will makes Tony know certain things associated with his past, which he has totally forgotten and to complete the jigsaw puzzle, he contacts Veronica for the first time after decades. Why is Veronica so angry with him? What else has he forgotten? Why is he named in the will of a lady whom he met just once decades before? Why did Adrian kill himself? 

The Sense of An Ending is a rumination on old age and memory. It deals with how our psyche makes us forget uncomfortable events. It tries to remind us that we are always on a process to interpret events in our lives according to our convenience and also use the help of incomplete data available to us for this purpose. It makes us aware of the uneasy reality that we never tries to reach out for truth that us painful and would rather bury it in the past to go on with our lives. 

The Sense of an Ending, the Booker Prize winner of 2011, is a very short novel, but one which is crafted beautifully. With precise words and situations and with delicate characters, Julian Barnes creates an amazing tale, after reading which we ourselves will be forced to examine our own past and wonder what all lies buried in there, forgotten conveniently... 

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Three Assassins: Prequel To Bullet Train

 Suzuki's wife has died in an accident caused deliberately by a gangster's son. Suzuki wants revenge and has infiltrated their illegal firm. His cover is about to be blown and his only chance is to uncover the identity of an assassin who is known in the industry as the Pusher, a phantom killer who silently pushes his victim to death on a busy road or a railway track. Intercepting his mission are two other equally ruthless assassins- the Whale, who makes his victims commit suicide and Cicada, who is an expert in terminating entire families, kids and all. 

Three Assassins is a black comedy written by Kotaro Isaka and is a prequel to Bullet Train, of which we talked about before. Basic premise and themes of both novels are similar. But main differences that I could identify lies in the tone and pace of the books. Three Assassins is a bit slow paced than Bullet Train and focuses more on character development. This book is shorter than the latter and is a very easy read. 

Structure of the book is similar to Bullet Train. The story is told in the point of views of Suzuki, the Whale and Cicada. Each chapter follows one character and is named accordingly. Focusing only on three characters makes the novel more easy to follow when compared with Bullet Train, which has more main characters. Some of the characters of this novel makes an appearance in Bullet Train, in person or in mention. 

I was a bit apprehensive at first because the identity of the Pusher which supposedly was the main focus of the story, is evident to the reader from the beginning, though Suzuki is doubtful of it. But the author uses some pretty great twists later and makes up for it. The payoffs are much stronger in Three Assassins. You will find many Chekhov's guns in the plot that comes into play later. (Chekhov's gun is a literary device that insists that if a gun is shown initially in the story, it has to be fired before climax.) 

I loved the characters of all three assassins. The Pusher is a very calm and collected person who carries a saintly, philosophical air. The Whale is the most well portrayed one of the lot. A look into his eyes makes people to take their own lives. He always sees his victims around him as ghosts who converses with him and many times these conversations helps him. He is the most complex and most interesting character due to his great story arc. Cicada is a one note character who is interesting only due to his ruthless nature, unemotional thinking and the overall craziness that he brings with him. 

Suzuki is the main character who ties up the plot together. He is a down to earth person and easy to root for, even though in the quest for revenge he has done some mean deeds and never feels sorry. But compared to the general craziness around him, the chapters of Suzuki pulls down the energy level of the plot a bit down. On the other hand Nanao, the lead of Bullet Train is more electric and keeps the madness intact in his story. 

Three Assassins is an interesting and easily read page turner. If you love black comedies, thrillers and books featuring assassins, you are in for a treat due to the crackling plot. It is a great accompaniment to Bullet Train which is a better and more complex sequel. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Bullet Train: Quick and The Dead


Instructions given to Nanao was simple. Get on the train, take a suitcase from the luggage rack and get off at the next station. But as always, his luck was way off. Complications arise as he has to fight many assassins, a man avenging his kid, a gangster boss, a teenager hell bent on manipulating the world and his bad luck. 

As name indicates, Bullet train, the black comedy by Japanese novelist Kotaro Isaka, which was recently made into a blockbuster movie starring Brad Pitt, is a thriller ride. Once it commences, it relentlessly chugs along to a satisfying climax. An eventful journey on Shinkansen, as the Japanese call bullet trains, it features colorful characters, over the top situations, nail biting suspence and a really vile teenager. 

But the plot is not linear like the train ride. Each chapter of the novel happens in the POV of one of the major character(s) with the character name as it's title. So we have multiple chapters titled Prince, Kimura, Nanao, Fruit and Morning Glory. Once the action is described on the POV of one character, the next chapter may go back to another's perspective and describe what he was doing at that time and how he was affected. This exercise helps the reader to comprehend the plot but never slacken the pace. 

There are many characters in the novel and many more are mentioned who makes minor appearances. Most of the characters possess some extreme trait that makes them standout. Back story of the main characters are given in very minute strokes. More emphasis is given on actions and words of the characters to display their traits. This, I feel was effective in the quick flowing plot. 

This is a novel comprising of grey characters, with questionable morality. All of them are criminals operating in varying levels of hierarchy. No effort is made to justify the actions of any character. Inspite of that, the narration makes us feel an empathy with them. Its as if our own pent up desire for violence and anarchy finds an outlet through them and we feel grateful to these imaginary people for doing so. 

Among the lot, the Prince is the most vivid character. He is a teenager who has this urge to control others, an unemotional problem child who goes to any extreme and exploit the weakness of those around him manipulating them to do whatever he needs. Another great character is Lemon, a hitman who is obsessed with the kid's show Thomas & Friends. Many other assassins with unique skill sets and modus operandi appears or are mentioned in the story. The world building in Bullet Train is awesome. 

If you like reading thrillers with high octane action

and are suffering from craving for adrenaline rush, Bullet Train provides the best antidote. 

Monday, December 19, 2022

The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is renowned as the writer of Sherlock Holmes. But if we examine his literary achievements, it doesn't start or end in Sherlock. He has written countless short stories and novels on a variety of themes and genre. I remember his novel featuring Professor Challenger, titled The Lost World, translated into Malayalam and serialised in a children's weekly when I was 4-5 years old. Later I happened to read his collection of short stories titled Conan Doyle stories and novel Maracot Deep featuring Prof Maracot. 

Recently I chanced on a collection of stories featuring a vain French military hero titled The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard. When I checked the history of this collection, I happened to know that it was written after Doyle got tired of writing Holmes storiesstories and killed him off in an adventure. While Holmes is about suspense and thrill, Gerard is more satiric and adventurous. 

Brigadier Gerard contrasts Holmes greatly. Holmes is an introvert and deeply profound character, but Gerard is an outgoing and boisterous man, who likes fame and adoration. If we read Sherlock Holmes carefully, we can identify that Doyle ridicules certain traits of his very subtly. In Gerard he amplifies the ridiculing to a substantially higher level. 

Whereas Dr Watson recounts most of the Sherlock Holmes tales, Doyle chose Gerard to narrate the stories himself. This helps the satirical tone by using the 'unreliable narrator' trope heavily in these stories. All the stories that I read has Gerard recounting his experience after his retirement to probably a village audience. We don't know the reaction of the audience, but it is visible that Gerard regales in his narration, congratulating himself in every opportunity. 

Brigadier Gerard fought in Europe along with Napolean Bonaparte and as per his own account, was a great horse rider, valient soldier and a huge hit with women folk wherever he served. He had participated in several major adventures, involving many prominent persons though none of these find a place in annals of history. By reading between lines, it is evident that he was always behind his peers in promotions and his superiors always viewed him as an expendable. He is of a trusting nature and gets into many compromising positions due to this character. But inspite of all these, the stories are colorful, soulful and elicite hearty laughter from the reader. 

The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard features some immensely hilarious military stories from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Stories are entertaining and light satire which proves that he is well versed in humor also. 

Sunday, December 18, 2022

The Satanic Verses: On Migration And The Duality Of Existence As A Migrant

“These days,” she insisted, “our positions must be stated with crystal clarity. All metaphors are capable of misinterpretation.”
From The Satanic Verses

Rushdie knew it. He knew his metaphor about immigration and living in perpetual duality will be misinterpreted. Metaphors can be made to represent religious faith, but making a metaphor on religion for some other idea, is what I believe, costed Rushdie dearly.

I started reading The Satanic Verses when the news of him being attacked reached me. Having read a couple of his books previously and having read a great endorsement of The Satanic verses by Milan Kundera in his collection of essays Testament Betrayed, I was prepared for the roller coaster ride that was ahead...

And it proved to be just that. I had to re-read many chapters to comprehend what I was reading and after reading around 100 pages, I was forced to start again. The narrative parallels between eons and continents, with several characters sharing names, several themes repeating in parallel narratives and most of the happenings in the plot nowhere close to the reality experienced in our normal life. In short, it was an epic read. (Spoilers ahead.)

When a plane crashes above English Channel, two men fall from it and miraculously escapes. Gabriel Farishta is a famous Hindi movie star who is revered for his roles in mythologocal dramas. Saladin Chamcha who had escaped Bombay and his father's clutches, is determined to become a proper Englishman, doing voiceover works in London. The fall ties their fates together and from now onwards they have to enact two opposing characters of the eternal moraIistic drama- that of an angel and the demon.

I believe the novel is a parable about alienation caused after migrating to a strange land. I would like to think both Gabriel and Saladin as two faces of the same coin. They aren't separate persons and their struggle is not at all about good or evil. Gabriel is the part of us who are attached to our homeland and Saladin is the one that want to break the ties with it.

The decision to run away and start anew causes the immigrant to live a dual life in which he is perpetually confused of his roots, his place in the larger history and his allegiance. His eventual destiny is to fight this duality and establish himself. This causes tensions within oneself, within family, within community and every social structure he is a part of. It doesn't help that the natives of the land is totally unsympathetic to his struggle and refuses to acknowledge him. This in turn accelerate his alienation process and eventual rebellion.

The struggle between Gabriel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, which essentially is the experience of the duality of oneself due to migration, is tied to the eternal struggle between the duality of good and evil, of light and darkness, of oneself and others. This is done through the many dreams that Gabriel Farishta experience when he dons the angelous mantle and unsuccessfully struggle to save the others.

Mahound, Hind, Ayesha, Baal and all others are part of his self discovery, where his primal instinct connects to the primal history and tries to identify and tie up his struggles with those of distant past. But none of the old struggles reaches a conclusion and finally devolves into utter confusion and chaos. Singular truth is challenged and historic ambiguity prevails in everyone of them when scribes alters texts and witnesses gives false testimony.

Saladin exacts his revenge on Farishta by a bunch of wrong testaments that causes Farishta to doubt his lover, leading to his eventual tragedy. But decision of Saladin to make peace with his past and forgo his desire to be the other (Englishman), puts and end to the struggle.

A complex behemoth of a novel, The Satanic Verses is richly rewarding to a reader who is ready to indulge in some subtextual reading and who is ready to appreciate the subtle humor of the whole enterprise.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami

Heaven is a short novel by Mieko Kawakami, which was published originally in Japanese in 2009. But it was teanslated to English only in 2021. Heaven is the story of a teenager who has a severe case of squinted eye (whose name is never revealed), being bullied by his classmates. He is befriended by Kojima, the girl in the class who is also bullied due to untidy appearance. Heaven explore their mutual friendship amidst a peer group that refuses to acknowledge their individuality. 

What made Heaven special for me is the refusal of the novelist to romanticise their relationship or the suffering they endure. Bullying parts are portrayed brutally and paints a vivid picture of the psychology of acceptance by the bullied person of their situation. They are ready to face this cruelty daily, sometimes even looking forward to it and identifying their weakness as a kind of strength. More than their tormentors, they are anxiuos not to reveal their wounds and scars to their parents or teachers, which makes their plight all the more deplorable. 

But Heaven makes an attempt to unveil the thought process of the bully also, which is a rather unconventional step in a novel like this. Through the voice of a passive bully, we find out how bullying is a very normal practice in the adult world too and how we call it with other names and refuses to acknowledge what actually it is. Even the ending refuses to oblige to the conventional narratives of teenage novels. 

It's available in Audible for free for subscribers. 

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Sinbad: A Mirror on Us

Kurt Vonnegut's Sinbad is a young man who gets ship-wrecked and lands in an island inhabited by just 6 people, who are leading a primitive social life. They consider him insane because the rum they drink feels like water to him..! Sinbad tries hard to find out who they are and how they ended up there. 

Sinbad is a long story or a short novelette. It's available in Audible. It's a deceptively simple story with a cliched plot. But the brilliance of Vonnegut lies in the crisp writing, slow built up of suspense and unpretentious story telling. 'It's written and you can take what you want from it' seems to be his motive behind writing it. 

I felt that Vonnegut tries to draw a parallel of the life of these inhabitants with human social structure. We consider those who question our established norms as insane, just like how Sinbad is considered a nut-loose case by them. It's as if Vonnegut holds a mirror on to us

Monday, December 5, 2022

Zen Confidential: In And Out of A Monastery

 Spirituality and religion always brings with it an aura of righteousness. Being spiritual is popularly accepted as being viceless and knowledgeable. I believe the best achievement (and the only) of Zen Confidential, a spiritual memoir by "wayward" Zen monk Shozan Jack Haubner, is the total demolition of this concept. 

Jack Haubner who used to be a liberal screenwriter and comedian, son of an arms manufacturer and hailing from a Catholic right-wing family, decides to embrace Zen Buddhism due to the influence of his mentor, a gay janitor, who indulged in pleasures of the world as hard as he meditated. After a decade in monastry, being promoted to an osho eventually, he decided to return back to the world and write about being a monk. 

The book is advertised as comedy. Though humorous in parts, it is not out and out funny. Even the humor is pretty uneven. The first few chapters contains most of the potty jokes in the book. Once you survive them, there are a few chapters that are really good and poignant. The final chapters doesn't offer much value, as they are mostly nostalgic trips of the author. These may be deeply personal and important for the author, but of much less value to a casual reader. 

As mentioned initially, the book portray Zen philosophy different from the usual serene, peaceful, picture-perfect images one associate with it. The author emphasizes that Zen is not a solution to all problems. According to him it is more of an unlearning process. It enables the practitioners, not to fly above the problems, but to go through it much more patiently. It is a way to see oneself above oneself and transcend ego, the root of all problems according to Buddhist philosophy.

Most of the better chapters of this memoir, like the one where he happens to see his doppelganger in a homoerotic porn movie, or the one where he returns to his parents for one week and confronts his (and their) past, finally to make amendments, deals with the tussle between ego and Zen practice. He interestingly asserts that it is not the withdrawal from vices that Zen preaches, but being aware of oneself even while indulging in them. I am not sure how many other Zen practitioners will agree to this view. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Dorian Gray- The Dracula Connection and Relevance

A Wish and Aftermath

When Dorian Gray realise that even when his youthful charm and handsome looks fade one day, his life-like portrait will retain all his beauty for eternity, he makes a pact with evil. He wishes for his body to remain young and his portrait suffer all the hits that the passing time lands on him, which is granted. Dorian Gray plunges headlong into material pleasures and milk the beauty all around him, while his picture absorbs all the resultant decay- physical and psychological. But he finds only heartbreak and tragedy on this path. 
Cover of The Picture of Dorian Gray

Social Impact

The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only novel written by Oscar Wilde, the renowned poet. The novel strikes you hard and makes you introspect on all your life and all the choices you made living it. No wonder it was controversial when it was published a century back..! Strict Victorian morality codes were ruthless to the overall lack of a moral axis and homo erotic undertones of the story. The novel was deemed unfit for the consumption of public by several critics. 

The stigma attached with the novel may have become more rooted after the arrest of Wilde on charges of homosexuality after some years of it's publication. Passages from the novel was read in the trials and no reputed publisher wanted to attach themselves with the novel. For some time it was even sold with the label of literary erotica. 

But with the end of the Victorian era, novel became more widely read and appreciated. Many were surprised to find out that, despite of the portrayal of offensive crimes and immoral lifestyle (according to the times), the novel can be easily read as a moral parable. It actually proclaim that excessive dependence on material pleasure decays one's own existence. 
Victorian Morality- A Painting

Parallels With Dracula

I found The Portrait of Dorian Gray, very similar to Dracula in some aspects. Both were written at a time when decades of strict Victorian morality was stifling the British society. The inner wounds were feverishly trying to find a way out. Dorian Gray and Dracula, probably were the results of this severe suppression of a society's baser needs. There are several common themes found in the two novels, like homoeroticism and a deep craving for the retention of youth. 

The title characters mock the prevalent societal norms and it's moral codes. They don't consider morality as an aspect of life. Never ending thirst is the basic need of both of them. For Gray, it is the need to get hold of everything that is beautiful. For Dracula, in the guise of blood, it is actually the thirst to satisfy carnal needs and attain everlasting life. Permanent youth is supposed to be a gift, but it turns out to be a curse for both. In pursuing physical pleasures both of them falls headlong into a deep pit of decay and into the resultant tragic end. 

I was very surprised to know the connections between the two novels. Bram Stocker was a friend of Wilde, though later he never wanted to associate with him in any way. Bram Stocker's wife, before getting married to him had an affair with Wilde and most probably, maintained the relationship. Dracula was written immediately after the scandalous trials of Wilde on charges of being homosexual. 
Oscar Wilde

Wilde had proclaimed that he wanted to be Gray and several actual characteristics of Wilde is probably superimposed on Gray. His physical looks were strikingly great and in his trials it was established that he had associations with several brothels, male prostitutes and blackmailers, just like Dorian Gray in the novel. It seemed Wide was enacting a Dorian in his life. 

Bram Stoker's portrayal of Dracula, probably is a veiled impression of Wilde. Moral debauchery displayed by Dracula may be Bram Stoker's shocked reaction to a former friend's seeming fall into a life of decay. So in a way Dracula may be an unsympathetic version of Dorian Gray himself. 
Bram Stoker

My Views on Dorian Gray

The Portrait of Dorian Gray can be read in different ways. As a horror story, as a moral story, as social criticism or as a psychological thriller, it stands tall in every reading. I would like to analyse it metaphorically. For me being Dorian Gray is to be enamored with external looks and trying to preserve them by any means. 

Initially Gray is an innocent kid who everyone adore for his boyish charm. The artist Basil, who makes his portrait, is his self esteem, which has portrayed an image of Gray with much adoration. Lord Henry, who corrupts Gray, is his inner demon which worries that the features of Gray that makes him valued in society will be lost with time and Gray will lose relevance. Gray become ready to preserve his exterior beauty on the expense of his self esteem. 
Sacrifice of self esteem & embrace of pleasures... 

In this process the first victim is his love Sybil, his kindness and compassion. The loss of his humane values shocks Gray initially but encouraged by his inner demon Lord Henry, he forgets his self esteem and plunges into material pleasures. In novel, we see that when Basil tries to reclaim the portrait it is already too late. The portrait is now a horrible picture of an ugly and bitter person. Gray murders Basil, his self esteem and gets more dangerously involved in his nefarious activities and culminates in his irredeemable and inevitable doom. 

I believe this novel is a perfect critic of modern way of living where ends justify the means and preservation of outward appearances deeply flaws our inner portrait irretrievably. Classics are artworks that stays relevant to the times it is read and The Picture of Dorian Gray can be called undoubtedly a classic. 

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Monday, November 14, 2022

Kooman- Escaping Controversy, Jeethu Joseph Way...

Kooman is a good thriller from Drishyam director Jeethu Joseph about a case of serial killing. In Malayalam movies presently serial killing is in vogue. Many recent movies like Paappan, Salute, Anjam Pathira, Antakshari and John Luther deals with serial killing and the effort of Police to nab the culprit. Historically we had Mukham and Ee Thanutha Veluppan Kalathu in nineties. But these didn't perform well. The present trend has its origin in movies like Grand Master and Jeethu Joseph's own Memories. 

Serial killers make compelling cinema. Their intentions to kill, makes for some interesting psychological histrionics on screen. Some gore and a heavy dose of suspense can make even a below average plot and narration more interesting. (Spoilers ahead.) But Kooman makes an interesting case, because in it, the serial killing angle is introduced only after halfway of the movie, though many hints are provided in first half. First half is totally invested to clearly portray the protagonist-  his unique character and his flaws. 

A flawed protagonist is a very overused trope in investigation movies. Jeethu Joseph's Memories also has such a protagonist. But Kooman uses this trope largely to its advantage. It's protagonist heavily flawed and to such an extent that, he is evidently a second villain, only to a much more ruthless, vile and mentally deformed antagonist. This leads to a very interesting chemistry between it's protagonist and antagonist, and this parallel makes Kooman miles apart from other movies of it's kind. 

I can think of the Korean movie I Saw The Devil as a similar one, but even that one had a justification for its protagonist. Kooman doesn't give such a relief to the viewers and goes on to make Giri, it's hero, very vile and totally unlikable. I felt it as a welcome and interesting take. 

Jeethu Joseph is very fortunate that at the time of the release of the movie, a similar incident was making sensational news in Kerala. The movie deals with human sacrifice, which is a hot topic in Kerala now due to a case of some people actually indulging in it. This made Kooman more relatable and convincing to the audience. 

The topic of human sacrifice made me study the way it is presented in the movie. Obviously ritual human sacrifice is a religious thing. With the politically charged and divisive situation of today, what stand was made about the religious and cultist aspects of it in the movie... I think it is an interesting topic to analyse. 

When I watched the movie, what interested me was the way in which the religious aspects were dealt without resorting to any propaganda, which is a rarity when today's Malayalam movies are concerned. I am not against propaganda. Any movie maker knowingly or unknowingly allows to permeate their views and biases into their products. A knowing permeation of an idea into a movie or any art for that matter is for me, a propaganda. 

We can take the example of The Great Indian Kitchen, where a movie about women empowerment ended up referring Sabarimala conflict, indicating that pilgrimage to Sabarimala is of part of patriarchy. Or that of Meppadiyan where ambulances of Seva Bharati were prominently shown to indicate that the elements of Hindutva is normalised in our society. I am not judging these movies. I am just pointing out the presence of propaganda in Malayalam cinema.

Human sacrifice was a practice prevalent all over the world in many aboriginal cultures, in different methods. In India, some sub-sects of Hinduism used to practice it. So when shown in an Indian religious context, there is obviously going to be a Hindu element to it. Now, it's interesting to see how Jeethu Joseph expertly balances and makes something which doesn't offend anybody, avoid anyone accusing him of mixing propaganda to his subject and taking a stand of not taking a stand. 

He includes a long monologue by a main priest who insist human sacrifice is not taught in any Tantric tradition and it is a foreign concept which crept into India from Tibet. (Gave me some Yoddha vibes.) He indicates it is practiced by tribals deep inside a jungle in Kerala- Tamil Nadu border and this village is no more as it is destroyed decades ago in an avalanche. He asserts that the current person who is practicing it is a deranged, mentally disturbed and antisocial psychopath. By just this one scene Jeethu establishes that human sacrifice is not Tantric, it is foreign, it's practitioners are no more alive and it is presently done by a psychopath. 

It is also interesting to see how the matter of caste is alluded throughout in the movie. Of course, it will be controversial to point out one particular caste in the movie, which Jeethu doesn't need. If we see other 'propagandist' movies of Malayalam, caste of a good or bad character is worn prominently on the sleeves so as not to have any confusion to the audience. It is needed for these movies, to make their point clear to us. But Jeethu needs to just entertain us. 

So he makes it clear when it is mentioned in the movie that the people who are dead are all upper caste and a particular community. This is a smart move. If this was substituted by the mention of a lower caste, definitely Jeethu would be accused of bigotry. He would be accused of making a casteist movie and demonising lower caste members. Upper caste is sufficiently demonised already, that it is even okay to mention them in connection to human sacrifice. 

But here also the director uses enough intelligence to avoid controversy. It is never mentioned exactly which upper caste these people belong to. It is evident from the visuals of their houses, dressing or even rituals that they does not belong to any upper caste that inhabit Kerala. So no one will be able to relate to these and get offended at the director. 

To the credit of Jeethu, none of this prevents to entertain the casual movie goer. They get a treat with some great story telling, some thrilling and suspenseful moments, great acting (Jaffer Idukey was just great) and a pretty convincing closure. Jeethu knows that when a propaganda movie gets controversial, it get support from some parties, but when a non-propaganda movie stirs any controversy, it is made to fight by itself. 

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Sunday, November 13, 2022

The Lessons from Kantara

I watched Kantara in the original Kannada version because I realised very early that watching a dubbed version will dilute the effect. It helped that I can understand Kannada and don't have to rely on subtitles. The Mangaluru-Kundapura dialect used in the movie gives it a unique personality and it is sure to have lost to non Kannada viewers, even to those who relied on subtitles. 

It's almost 3 weeks since I watched Kantara and the movie is still fresh in my minds. I think it is the perfect time to write about the movie as I am just out of the euphoric period of its effect. I don't want to go again to the story or the brilliance of it's maker, but I think there are two specific topics to be discussed, which is very relevant. First is the reason it became a phenomenon all over India and the lessons movie makers can learn from it's success. The second is the thematic interpretation of the movie itself. There may be spoilers going forward. 

At a time when our movie watching has undergone a tremendous change, thanks to the availability of high quality content, as movies and series from all over the world, our movie makers are in a fix. The usual formulaic movie making is obviously not working. We all say content is the king, but it has become more difficult to identify the kind of content that actually works. 

One obvious way is to make huge movies with enormous budget, heavily laden with star power and VFX, creating huge hype so that public is forced to watch the movie. S S Rajamauli has already paved the way with Bahubali. But the issue is that only Rajamauli seems to benefit consistently with this formula, due to his vision. You need to just look at the filmography of Prabhas, post Bahubali, to realise this. KGF 2 also did great by adopting this approach. Haphazard try of the same strategy can be seen in Brahmastra. 

Another way is to make quality movies with minimal budget with second or third level stars and release in OTT platforms. This has also backfired as too many OTT platforms reduced visibility of such projects and onslaught of sub quality movies, made to cash in on this wave dipped the interest of platforms for such attempts. 

Enter Kantara with its deep rooted ethnic narrative. Even the makers initially failed to realise it's potential to appeal Indians all over. Kantara told a story that is very universal. There is nothing new about a wealthy man trying to trick simpletons out of their wealth and the resultant revolt. Along with this subject, Kantara also used an oft-repeated narrative involving a mass hero, who along with with a bunch of no-gooders like him and a devil-may-care attitude, saving everyone around him. There are double meaning dialogues, some stalking, some tomfoolery and lot of illegal activities masked as heroism. 

The audience all over India are well-acquainted with these tropes. But makers of Kantara added an additional layer of divinity to it and made sure the local culture is embedded and they made no compromise on it. They made sure that movie is made like a fairy take where the line between myth and reality is made hair line thin. 

The rituals and myths similar to Bhoota Kola exists in different forms all over India and majority of the viewers have roots in such customs. A strong flavor of regional rituals and culture made many persons remember their roots and culture. It resulted in favorite reciprocation. This happened also because Rishabh Shetty has a deep knowledge about the culture of Bhoota Kola and he was able to make everything about the movie, centring it. As the experience was authentic, it tapped into the hidden psyche of Indian audience, who identified with it and lapped it up. 

So what are the lessons to movie makers.. The content of your work should be genuine. It should come from your inner sense about your culture. And most importantly it should resonate with your audience. Audience base of Indian movies predominantly include people in lower and lower-middle class. If they have to like a movie, they should be able to identify with it. The way people behave in your movie should be relevant to them. When you make a movie with value systems and living styles that appeal to only the elite class, it is quite natural that your audience group get shrunk. 

So be relevant to the movie going public, give them entertainment, don't press them with your agenda, don't be afraid to go local, and most importantly, be smart to include the message you intent to convey very subtly. 

The last point has to be elaborated in the context of Kantara. What Kantara tried to convey..? Let's examine. Light spoilers ahead... 

Kantara can be approached in different ways. It can be just a mass movie about a hero, who rises to save his fellow villagers. It can be interpreted as how divine intervention helped to subvert a danger to villagers. Or it can be interpreted as a class struggle, where villagers fights against the upper class and their nefarious attempts to occupy land. 

I believe that even though these interpretations are all valid, the best way to describe Kantara is in conjunction with its ecological statements. Kantara is a metaphor. In this story, there is a balance established centuries before between the forest, forest-dwellers and outsiders. Daiva is the bridge that binds all these elements. 

When the balance is lost due to the claim on forest by outsiders, Daiva is no more. The bridge is broken. Now forest dwellers, represented by Shiva, feels orphaned and they are not ready to follow their ancestral ways, which was beneficial to forest. They become friends with outsiders and loot resources. This makes the government, represented by forest officer to act upon them. This conflict makes both of them hate each other more intensely. Both parties are affected by their actions. 

But in the movie, when disaster strikes, Daiva reappear and reestablish the balance. You can see in the last Kola performance, how Daiva holds the hands of all parties and resolves the conflict. Basically, the movie want to stress that, for the conservation of nature, all parties involved- tribes, government or the business and landowners, should join hands and work collaboratively. 

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Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Ponniyin Selvan: The Novel

Astrologers predict that the appearance of a comet indicates death of a royal member. Sundara Chozhan, the Chozha emperor is in his death bed. His first son Aditha Karikalan, a fierce warrior and next in line of succession is fighting in Kanchi and is mysteriously reluctant to return to Thanjavur. He sends his friend Vanthiyathevan, an independent, daring, young adventurer with a message to Emperor.

Vanthiyathevan on his way, gets embroiled in a conspiracy led by Periya Pazhuvettarayar, war hero and trusted treasurer of the Emperor. Will Vanthiyathevan survive layers on layers of conspirators, spies, wild animals, magicians and most importantly the vile beauty of mysterious Nandini, Pazhuvettarayar's young scheming wife, who has plans of her own? Who will be the successor of the mighty Chozha empire, impulsive and ruthless warrior Aditha Karikalan, greedy and ambitious but cowrdly cousin Mathuranthakan or the just and principled Arulmozhi Varman also known widely as Ponniyin Selvan? 

I watched PS1 a few weeks back and was quite impressed by it. I have seen many adaptations of such novels and I am aware by now about the normal pitfalls that occurs in adaptations. The movie versions always seem hurried and at some places, the logic suffers. If you've read the novel The Godfather or LOTR and then watched the movie, you can clearly identify it. 

So, I went with much less expectations and was rewarded richly. The making, casting, acting and  background score was just great. As expected, the plot seemed a bit rushed and many characters underdeveloped. I knew there is more to the story and decided to read the entire novel. 

Ponniyin Selvan, the epic Tamil novel written by Kalki, spans totally five volumes. It was serialised for years in a magazine and was very popular then. The structure of the entire novel makes it obvious. There are many small chapters and most of them ends in cliffhangers, so that readers of the magazine wait eagerly for the next episode. This has made it more easy to read and entertaining. 

Ponniyin Selvan is a historical fiction, and the plot happens around a thousand years back, during the time of Chozha empire. Thanjavur, the capital city of Chozha kingdom is where most of the action occurs, but the entire plot is spread out from Kanchi to Eezham (present Srilanka). The title character Ponniyin Selvan is the historical emperor Raja Raja Chozha Or Arulmozhi Varman. 

 The novel doesn't just tells a story. Along with the narration of the plot, it describes the culture, the social structure, beliefs, economic state, geography and politics of the period of Chozha Kingdom. Even when it does all these, the narrative doesn't sacrifice the intensity of the plot. It even makes you interested to know about such historical elements. The novel also   touches on several other kingdoms like Vana, Pallava, Mamalla and Pandya along the way. Though some of them were enemies of Chozha, novel never demonizes them and appreciate the part they played in history. 

Another appealing factor is the characterisation. Ponniyin Selvan is inhabited by several colorful characters. All of them are portrayed with lot of affection and sympathy. There are no black and white portrayals. Every major character is doing the right thing according to their own viewpoint. Even the antagonists get lot of respect and they are lauded by the writer and other characters of the novel for all their good qualities. And all characters have great character arcs. The adventures each of them endures in the course of the narrative, changes their core beliefs and strengths. We personally makes a connect with them due to the layered writing. 

I also loved the complexity of the plot. In this story, everyone stands for themself. Each person has an agenda and conspires to get what they wish. Even persons who seemingly stand on same same side fails to understand the ulterior motives of the other. The movie sadly fails to recreate this on screen due to the lack of time to develop this.

So Ponniyin Selvan turned out to be a very engaging and entertaining read. I really hope Mani Rathnam makes the second part of the movie as good as the book. 

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Saturday, April 30, 2022

മകൾക്കെന്തു പറ്റി..?

കീഴാ൪നെല്ലിയു൦ തഴുതാമയു൦ അന്യ൦ നിന്ന നാട്ടിലെ വൈദ്യന്റെ അവസ്ഥയാണ്  സത്യൻ അന്തിക്കാടിന്റേത്. പഴയ ടീമിലെ പലരു൦ ഇന്നില്ല. നാട്ടുകാർക്കാണേൽ വൈദ്യവും വേണ്ട. എല്ലാർക്കു൦ ന്യൂ ജെൻ അലോപ്പതി മതി. എന്നാലും ഇടക്കൊക്കെ കൈയിൽ കിട്ടിയ പച്ചില വാടിയതാണെങ്കിലു൦ കുറച്ച് അലോപ്പതി ഗുളികയും സമ൦ അരച്ച് ഒരു കഷായം ഇറക്കി നോക്കു൦. പണിയറിയുന്ന, കൈപ്പുണ്യമുള്ള വൈദ്യനായ കൊണ്ട് മറ്റു ചിലരേപ്പോലെ തീരേ ചീത്തപ്പേര് കേൾപ്പിക്കാറില്ല. 
ഒരേ പാറ്റേണിലാണ് എല്ലാ പടങ്ങളും എന്നാണ് പൊതുവേ അദ്ദേഹത്തേക്കുറിച്ചുള്ള പരാതി. എന്നാലും തന്റെ പ്രമേയം സാമൂഹിക പ്രസക്തി ഉള്ളതാക്കാനുള്ള ശ്രമം അദ്ദേഹ൦ നിലനിർത്തുന്നുണ്ട്. വർഷങ്ങളുടെ വിദേശവാസ൦ കഴിഞ്ഞിട്ടു വരുന്ന അച്ഛനോട് മകൾക്ക് തോന്നുന്ന അപരിചിതത്വ൦, ഒരു കൂട്ടുകാരി കൂടെയായ അമ്മയുടെയു൦ തന്റേയു൦ ഇടയിലേ കട്ടുറുമ്പാകുമോ എന്ന ആശങ്ക, ഇതൊക്കെ ആണ് മകൾ എന്ന പുതിയ ചിത്രം പറയാൻ ശ്രമിക്കുന്നത്. 

ജനസംഖ്യയുടെ ഭൂരിഭാഗവും പ്രവാസികളായ കേരളത്തിൽ വളരേ പ്രസക്തമായ ഒരു വിഷയമാണ്, സംവിധായകൻ ഇത്തര൦ ഇതിവൃത്തങ്ങൾ ചെയ്തു തഴക്ക൦ വന്നയാളുമാണ്. എങ്കിലും കഥയുടെ ദൌർബല്യ൦ വല്ലാതെ മുഴച്ചു നിൽക്കുന്നു. ഈയൊരു പ്രമേയം അർഹിക്കുന്ന ഗൌരവ൦ കാണികളിലേക്കെത്തിക്കാൻ കഥാകാരനു൦ ചിത്രകാരനു൦ കഴിയുന്നില്ല. 

ഗൌരവമില്ലായ്മയുടെ ഉദാഹരണമാണ് ചിത്രത്തിലെ മുഴച്ചു നിൽക്കുന്ന ഹാസ്യര൦ഗങ്ങൾ. കഥയോട് ചേർന്നു നിൽക്കുന്ന സ്വാഭാവിക നർമ്മമാണ് സത്യൻ അന്തിക്കാടിന്റെ ചിത്രങ്ങളുടെ സ്വഭാവം. അതിന് പകരം മാനസിക രോഗിയേയു൦ നമ്പൂരച്ചനേയു൦ കോമാളി ആക്കിയാൽ കാണികൾ ഈ കാലഘട്ടത്തിൽ ആർത്തു ചിരിക്കുമെന്നതു ആരുടെ ബുദ്ധിയാണോ ആവോ. അഭിനേതാക്കളുടെ പ്രകടനം മാത്രം ആണ് പലപ്പോഴും തനിമയില്ലാത്ത, കഥാപരമായി ഗുണമില്ലാത്ത ഹാസ്യര൦ഗങ്ങളെ രക്ഷപ്പെടുത്തുന്നത്. 

(സ്പോയ്ലർ അലേർട്ട്) 

സന്ദേശം, വീണ്ടും ചില വീട്ടുകാര്യങ്ങൾ എന്നീ ചിത്രങ്ങളിൽ സത്യൻ അന്തിക്കാട് വിദഗ്ധമായി അച്ഛനും മക്കളും തമ്മിലുള്ള ഭിന്നത അവതരിപ്പിച്ചിട്ടുണ്ട്. വളരെ സ്വാഭാവികമായാണ് ഈ പ്രശ്നങ്ങൾ പരിഹരിക്കപ്പെടുന്നത്. കഥയുടെ തുടക്കം മുതൽ നമ്മുടെ കൂട്ടുകാരായി മാറുന്ന കഥാപാത്രങ്ങൾ തമ്മിൽ ഉരസുമ്പോൾ നമുക്കു ഉണ്ടായ വിഷമം, അവരുടെ പിഴവുകൾ മനസ്സിലാക്കി പക്വമായ തീരുമാനങ്ങളോടെ വീണ്ടും ചേരുമ്പോൾ സന്തോഷം ആയി മാറുന്നു. എന്നാൽ ഈ ചിത്രത്തിൽ അതിനൊരു അവസരം തരുന്നില്ല. 

ഒരു കഥ പറഞ്ഞു വരുമ്പോൾ അതിനെ എളുപ്പത്തിൽ അവസാനിപ്പിക്കാൻ കഴിയുന്നില്ലെങ്കിൽ കഥാകാരൻ ചില എളുപ്പ വഴികൾ പ്രയോഗിക്കുന്നു- പ്ലോട്ട് ഡിവൈസ്. മകളിൽ നമുക്കു കാണാൻ സാധിക്കുന്നത് ഡ്യൂസ് എക്സ് മാക്കിനാ എന്ന സങ്കേതമാണ്. അതു വരേ കാണാത്ത ഒരു രക്ഷകൻ വന്ന് എല്ലാ തടസ്സങ്ങളും തട്ടിത്തെറിപ്പിച്ച് കഥാപാത്രങ്ങളെ തങ്ങളുടെ വിഷമസന്ധിയിൽ നിന്നു പുറത്തു കടത്തുന്നു. കൂട്ടത്തിൽ കഥാകാരനേയു൦. 

ഒരു സത്യൻ അന്തിക്കാട് ചിത്രത്തിൽ ഇങ്ങനെ ഒരു ഷോർട്ട് കട്ട് നിരാശ ഉണ്ടാക്കി. എന്നാലും കന്നഡ നടൻ ബാലാജി മനോഹറിന്റെ അപാര സ്ക്രീൻപ്രസൻസ് പട൦ കഴിഞ്ഞിട്ടു ഇറങ്ങുമ്പോൾ ഒരു ഉണർവ് തന്നു എന്നതാണ് സത്യ൦. ചുരുക്കത്തിൽ അഭിനേതാക്കളുടെ മികവും സത്യൻ അന്തിക്കാട് എന്ന സംവിധായകന്റെ വളരെ നേർത്ത കൈയൊപ്പു൦ മകൾ ഒരു വട്ടം കാണാനുള്ള വക തരുന്നു.