Saturday, January 28, 2012

To have loved, and lost

Kristin Scott Thomas and Ralph Fiennes in the poster of The English Patient

I’ve always heard people talk about how it’s the journey that’s important, and not the destination. Having watched The English Patient for the very first time a few weeks ago, I was left with a certain sense of sadness, and maybe an ounce of regret. Sadness, because I found it hard to comprehend that when the time came, even my journey had to come to an end. Sadness, because I was unwilling to let go of this world – this world that I had so thoroughly invested myself in, so willingly allowed myself to be led into, so voluntarily and vulnerably permitted myself to be a part of – at times as a voyeur, at times as an admirer, and above all, as a lover.

I had taken it upon myself as a personal challenge to finish reading the Booker Prize winning novel by Michael Ondaatje, upon which the film was based. And I wanted to do soak myself in my own re-imagination of this tale of doomed romance, set in the backdrop of the Second World War, before I watched the late Anthony Minghella’s cinematic adaptation for the big screen. What I realized was that how the experts had once prophesized that the novel was unfilmable, even I came to a premature conclusion that reviewing the film was an impossibility.  And I’ll tell you exactly why I came upon that realization.

A still from The English Patient

To start off with, I wasn’t an uninformed filmgoer – at least with respect to The English Patient. I had completed the book in a record time of a week – which I think is a personal best. And I remember how I had struggled with certain passages in the novel, which were too lyrical for my untrained mind. The works referenced in the novel consisted of everything from verses from Paradise Lost, to seminal accounts of desert exploration written by travelers who had long since succumbed to the ravages of time. I figured that in some ways, the entire book was an exercise in placing time on a see saw as the past and the present tipped back and forth in unspoken harmony.

I had ordered the book with the hope of getting it autographed by Michael Ondaatje, when I ran into him at the Jaipur Literary Fest this year. Alas, that dream was to be shattered by my indecisiveness, and to some extent, my sense of righteousness. I shall delve on that disappointment someday later when I look back at the year 2012 and remember it as the year when Michael Ondaatje came to India and I missed out on running into him and getting my copy of The English Patient signed by him. But, now, in the larger scheme of things, my loss could barely be equated to the heartache endured by the chief protagonist of the film, whose tale of love is unlike any you’ve read or seen before.

Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient

I shall certainly blog about the book someday in the future, after many more re-reading episodes. But for now, I shall focus on this film, which I discovered for the very first time this year. I don’t have to reiterate, but it has been one of my most longing-ridden, romantic and dreamy-eyed movie-watching experiences in a long, long time. It has arguably, the most enchanting opening credits sequence ever, if you consider love stories set in a specific period. It has gorgeous cinematography that bathes its wonderful and beautiful actors in some very moody set pieces.

Set in the backdrop of a foreboding landscape at a time when love might have been afforded the least priority, The English Patient is a languorous, unhurried journey in search of one man’s identity. I wouldn’t like to corrupt my readers with preemptive data on what the movie entails. But I’d surely tell them about a scene that makes this movie a must watch. Fear not, for it's not a spoiler and your experience of watching the film wouldn’t be diminished in the slightest manner by my revelations.

So let’s start off – right at the beginning. Early on in the film, we are introduced to Juliet Binoche, the magically talented French actress, who plays the unforgettable role of Hana, a war time nurse with a heart of gold. I must explain my bias towards the powerhouse of acting that is Binoche. I am completely in love with her to this day. She first broke my heart with her wrenching performance as a young woman forced to come to terms with the loss of her husband and daughter to a road accident in Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue, the very first of the Three Colors trilogy.

Juliet Binoche in The English Patient

I had admired Juliet in Blue, being privy to the fact that she had won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for The English Patient. And I had vowed to myself that I’d watch her Oscar-winning movie someday. Thankfully the day came, almost after a decade. Now, the scene that I am referring to involves Juliet Binoche’s Hana kissing an injured English soldier as he lies on his berth. They’re both passengers in a train doubling up as a makeshift hospital that transports several hundred wounded infantrymen, just like him, to safety.

And it is during this journey that a young English soldier, barely in his 20s, but bedridden, requests Hana to give him a kiss. Although she has her doubts at first, her angelic heart melts when the boy tells her that it would mean so much to him if she kissed him. So she plants an almost maternal peck on the boy’s lips which he acknowledges with gratitude. Sure enough, Hana says he’s welcome and proceeds to walk towards the door at the end of the aisle. But that’s when the rest of the soldiers lying in the adjacent bunks begin to jovially chide her into giving them a kiss as well and tuck them in.  Hana, being the darling that she is, laughs off the requests saying, “Go back to sleep, all of ya.”

I think this one scene at the start of the film was worth the price of admission. It established Hana’s character and gave audiences someone they’d care about. Actually, if you’d consider the performances of Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, you’d realize that there isn’t a single actor who hasn’t gone beyond the call of duty to bring this motion picture to life. My heart bled for the duo and their star-crossed romance. I felt genuine pain at certain junctures in the film and I knew it was the work of a master filmmaker and his crew that had brought tears to my eyes as if on cue.

Kristin Scott Thomas in the poster of The English Patient

I’d also like to tip my hat to the legendary editor of this film – Walter Murch, who has in the past, been credited with such phenomenal films like the two Godfather sequels and Apocalypse Now. As a reader of the book The English Patient, I knew how challenging it was to keep pace with Michael Ondaatje’s ‘time and space’ warping literary style. And I couldn’t even imagine how hard it might have been for Walter to have edited this film, staying true to the vision of the author, the director and his own personal beliefs. I also am a big fan of Walter for his utter contempt for anything to do with 3D. Yeah, even he thinks it sucks.

Lastly, but in no way the least, I’d like to dedicate this blog to the memory of Anthony Minghella. I hadn’t been able to fully comprehend the power of his images until some weeks back when I got to see The English Patient for the very first time. In retrospect, I realize how painfully formal and unobtrusive his technique was, in service of his story. Only after seeing his film did I realize, how inconspicuous his absence of directorial flourishes was. And I began to understand how daunting it might have been for him – to direct this movie and to steer clear of the temptation of showing off in the presence of such powerful material.

Anthony Minghella - 6 January 1954 – 18 March 2008

The classical filmmaking legacy of not calling attention to oneself or one’s work, as set in place by the true masters – directors, cinematographers, editors and technicians alike, was broken by the likes of new age auteurs like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky and more. The latter spared no opportunity in exhibiting their so-called visionary chops as viewers lapped up every overblown frame rife with signature shots, impossible camera movements, obsessive dolly and tracking scenes and mind-bending editing setups.

But that’s where the repertoire of someone like Anthony Minghella comes in. He belonged to that elite task force of directors, who had dedicated their lives to upholding the values, ideals and vision of the true auteur of the work. He needs to be revered for sticking to his guns and his old-school armory, for not bending over backwards in search of directorial praise. He needs to be remembered for attempting to reinforce the fact that the director’s responsibility is to tell the story through the medium of film – nothing more, nothing less.

Anthony Minghella stayed true to Michael Ondaatje’s vision of The English Patient as I sat in wonderment of the journey that I’d just been on. And I thought to myself about that invisible force that held my hand and guided me through this dusty, lovelorn universe and even brought me to my destination before gently bidding goodbye in the most unassuming way. Having come so far, it’s the journey that I still yearn for and the opportunity to make that trip all over again - with Minghella hand-holding me through the dunes of his desert, amidst the disappearing sands of time that cradles the lovers into eternity and beyond.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Happily N(ever) After

John Corbett and Nia Vardalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding

It’s a New Year and I might be expected to write something new. But I won’t do that considering the fact that nothing really changes in the New Year, unless of course, you make a conscious decision to bring about some alterations in the way your life pans out in the days, weeks, months and year(s) to come. During breakfast hour today morning, I was seated opposite my mom and I found myself digging into a hot plate of puttu, which she had lovingly prepared for me, in spite of not being in the pink of her health.

The contents of my breakfast menu demanded to be softened by the application of pummeled banana pulp to the mixture of steamed rice powder and grated coconut. I had only lately begun to enjoy this combination of puttu and pazham, something that my brethren had been relishing with gay abandon from time immemorial. As the semi-solid mixture found its way into the corridor of my mouth, finding bylanes and shortcuts through the megalopolis of my gapped teeth, I found myself arguing with my dad over some inane topic.

As the two of us made our cases concerning the exact age at which a child starts becoming selfish, my mom supplemented us with data that said babies/infants were exempt from any such self-serving classifications. This prompted me to dissect the etymology of the word ‘selfish’ – much like the family patriarch from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who swears by his belief that every word known to mankind has its origin in the Greek language. Fair enough, for as soon as I put on the best Greek accent that I could muster, my mom set off on a most welcome tirade expounding the cool factor of that film.

As we began reminiscing on some fond memories pertaining to the film, my mom regaled me with her pick of the most loved scenes from this gem of a romantic comedy. One of our common favorites is the scene “What do you mean he don’t eat no meat?” The dialogue takes place when the heroine of our film, Toula, played by the lovely Nia Vardalos brings home her lover-cum-fiance Ian and he refuses to eat a certain meat-based dish offered to him. His attempts to convince Toula’s headstrong aunt that he’s a vegetarian elicits a nonchalant consolation from her as she tells him, “Don’t worry. I make you lamb.”

And that was it. I told my mom then and there that the new blog post, the very first of this New Year is going to be based on films where weddings assume the central theme. I have picked my movies from a diverse lot – steering clear of predictable Hollywood fare and sticking to the larger canvas of world cinema with wedding-centric films. Needless to say, since the germ of the idea was unleashed by my mom, this blog post is also dedicated to her.  I Love You Mommy – this one’s just for you.

A still from My Big Fat Greek Wedding

My Big Fat Greek Wedding: This is my quintessential guilty pleasure chick flick and I have absolutely no qualms in endorsing the feel-good factor of this film. Everything about this film is cute. From the gingerly fashion in which Toula steps out into the real world to her blossoming into a woman of her own, finding her true love Ian and sticking to her decision of marrying the foreigner, or as her father refers to Ian, a Xeno, the film is a layered and heart warming look at the things that makes us unique and the forces that bring us and keep us together.

The aforementioned ‘eat no meat’ scene is accompanied by several guffaw-inducing moments that showcase the strength of the family and the bond shared between these flawed but lovable Greeks. There are plenty of verbal gags and a few masterpieces of slapstick as well. The aunt that I had mentioned before is one of my most beloved characters from the film.
Pay special attention to the scene where she, aided by Toula’s mom, tries convincing Toula’s father as to why his daughter should be working in the aunt’s travel agency. While providing insights into the blueprint of the male ego, the scene amply demonstrates how women get things done their way with a bit of tact. Gather the whole family for this invigorating and romantic romp of a film – there’s no other way of watching it.

Naseeruddin Shah leads an ensemble cast in Monsoon Wedding

Monsoon Wedding: How do I even begin telling you about Mira Nair’s delightfully quirky family drama? I remember watching the film for the very first time at a really small theater in Kochi called Little Shenoy’s. I had no idea what I was in for, just a premonition that it would be something fun and memorable, because the director of Salaam Bombay was at the helm of it. But, boy – was I charmed beyond words or what? From the hypnotic background score by Michael Danna to the exhilarating soundtrack and the honest-to-goodness performances from Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Tillotama Shome and above all, a revelation in the form of Vijay Raaz – the marigold-chewing, potty mouthed wedding planner, the movie was a heady trip in every sense of the word.

In fact, I remember rushing into Music World immediately after the movie got over, to get myself an audio tape of the film (yeah, those were the days – we used to buy our music, not torrent it). And I also remember calling up my cousins and telling them how they just had to watch this new film. Heck, I almost felt like getting married after the movie, or at least being invited to a North Indian /Punjabi wedding. The film takes a realistic look at  what really goes on during the preps for a marriage – the politics and dynamics that surface upon the arrival of certain members of the tribe and the jubilation of marital union.

It’s a feel-good flick, it has its heart in the right place and it’s got some of our country’s most brilliant actors giving us what seems like the most effortless performances of their careers. Oh, and it’s got Vijay Raaz voicing the choicest expletives way ahead of his ‘Aye Loondry’ turn in Delhi Belly. Do you need any more reasons to soak yourself wet in this brave new gust of indie spirit?

The awesome foursome in Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married: For the longest time, the DVD of this Anne Hathaway starrer lay neglected on my shelf, gathering dust and begging to be sampled. Having read rave reviews of the film, I had decided to watch the movie on a day when I could give it my undivided attention. Five minutes into the film was all it took me to realize what a fool I had been to not have seen Jonathan Demme’s handheld docu-styled, warm concoction of a days-before-the-wedding drama. To put it lightly, I was moved, having gone through the experience of this film.

I felt emotionally alive on so many different levels and in such brilliant ways. It’s hard to isolate a single scene that had not been responsible for bringing a lump in my throat or a tear to my eyes. It might be an ensemble piece, but it’s Anne Hathaway’s uninhibited performance as a recovering alcoholic that is at the core of this masterpiece. Anne’s turn as Kym, the non-proverbial black sheep of the family, headed back to normalcy, while the rest of the family is caught up in the throes of the wedding preparations of her sister Rachel, is a bravura bit of inspired filmmaking. Jonathan Demme, the man behind Philadelphia and The Silence of the Lambs – two films that couldn’t have been more dissimilar, once again proves his mastery of the medium and the human condition as he pulls off all stops and careens headfirst into the lives of his only-too-humane characters.

The piece-de-resistance of the film, in my humble opinion, is the scene where the father of the bride is pitted against the groom-to-be in a dish washing challenge set in the arena of the household kitchen. Rest assured, you’ll be going back to this scene over and over again, just to immerse yourself in the spirit of the moment.

Sibel Kekilli and Birol Unel in Head-On

Head-On (Gegen die Wand): This brash, unapologetic German-language offering might not be a purely wedding-centric film. But, the institution of marriage does play an important role in Fatih Akin’s biting take on freedom, individuality and the pointlessness of love set against the backdrop of the river Bosporus. Fatih chronicles his saga of love through the lives of the star-crossed lead pair – essayed with poignant grace and painful honesty by Birol Unel and Sibel Kekilli. The suicidal lovers settle for each other in a marriage of convenience – the former, owing to his need for someone to pay the rent and cook for him, while the latter, owing to her need to get away from her protective Turkish family, who just wants her married to a respectable Turk.

I won’t be delving on what happens next. But you can take my word for it – you won’t know what hit you. Powered by a killer, punk-laced soundtrack, featuring artists as varied as Depeche Mode, Agir Roman and more, the film packs an emotional wallop, the likes of which you might not have experienced in a long, long time. Certain scenes are predestined to form an impenetrable layer on your subconscious. A case in point is the heroine’s first night out after getting her belly pierced. As the opening chords to The Temple of Love, by Sisters of Mercy sets the mood for the night that will play out to the audiences, we know for a fact that it’s going to be one cathartic sojourn. 

The acting is in a class of its own with the protagonists aiming for the jugular in their go-for-broke approach to their parts. Love, loss, longing, anger, jealousy, pride, indifference and an almost masochistic disdain for self preservation – our lovebirds experience and endure it all. And the audiences are left with memories of one of the most affecting love stories ever committed to film.