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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