Friday, February 27, 2009

The Hollywoodification of Bertolt Brecht

A few days ago I saw Fritz Lang's 1943 film "Hangmen also die". Bertolt Brecht is credited with scripting it. He is called 'Bert' Brecht in the titles. The great American gobbling trick. Gobble up identities. Gobble up cultures. Turn names from trousers into briefs.
The film keeps you riveted to your seat. The script is wound up tight. You don't notice the holes because you're catapulted over them. You are kept in suspense because you want to be in suspense--the delicious pleasure of not knowing when you are certain you'll soon know.
The acting is abominable. Brian Donlevy, as the assassin of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Reich protector of German-occupied Prague is a non-starter. Heydrich was assassinated by Czech resistance fighters who parachuted down from a British plane. Keeping to its formula, Hollywood has replaced those proud and passionate fighters with a single hero. Fair enough. But why cast someone who walks and talks like a sleepwalker and is about as expressive as a smooth slate on which no word was every written? Aiding and abetting him is another blank slate, Anna Lee, who plays the daughter of a hostage. Her single expression for all emotions from fear to love is an open mouth and popping eyes.
But let's return to the script. Mr Brecht, was that really your doing? How could you have turned a people's fight into the heroics of a single individual? How could you have allowed his worth to outweigh the lives of the 400 hostages, all members of the resistance, who went to their deaths to keep him alive?
I turned to Brecht himself for an answer and found it on page 259 of his "Journals 1934-1955". Below is one of his many entries on writing for the film.
16 OCT 42
Not a bad week, that: Stalingrad held out, Wilkie in Chunking demanded a second front. US planes joined the attack on Germany--and Wexley and I are working 'to the best of our talents and ability' on the script of TRUST THE PEOPLE (our title). Just now, right before the shooting, Lang hauled poor Wexley into his office and screamed at him behind closed doors that he wants to make a 'Hollywood picture' and shits on scenes that show the people etc. The change in the man, once $700,000 is in the offing, is remarkable. He sits with all the airs of a dictator and old movie hand behind his boss-desk, collecting 'surprises', little bits of suspense, tawdry sentimental touches and falsehoods and takes 'licenses' for the box-office. For an hour or two--I am naturally condensing this--as I sit in my treacherously pretty garden and force myself to read a detective story, I feel the disappointment and terror of the intellectual worker who sees the product of his labours snatched away and mutilated."
Poor Mr Brecht. You should have known this would happen when they called you Bert. Anyway, the good news was that the money you earned from "Hangmen also die", enabled you to write "The Visions of Simone Machard", "Schweik in the Second World War" and your adaptation of John Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi". Not your best plays perhaps, but all yours, nevertheless.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Swimming pool tales

Shivaji Park was being swept inside out today by a posse of some dozen fluorescent orange jacketed sweepers. The dust flew from the south end of the Park to settle in the west and from the west to settle in the north. Once the sweepers had got the dust to migrate and settle, Shivaji Park was able to breathe without a kerchief to its nose.

The occasion for such meticulous cleanliness was major. Mananiya Uddhavsahebji Balasahebji Thackerayji is scheduled to open the renovated Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Olympic Swimming Pool today. The pool has been closed for at least four years. Just as everybody thought BMC, which runs the pool, was making secret plans to sell off the land to yet another mall-maker, here was a hoarding with father Thackeray and son Thackeray, announcing its re-opening.

The MGMO was said to be the first olympic size swimming pool in Asia or something equally impressive. At least four generations of Shivaji Parkites and their neighbours have swum in its chlorine-scented blue-tiled depths. Being eminently affordable, its surface was always a knobbly carpet of bobbing heads.

My own relationship with water has never been cosy. Father once took us on a month-long learn-to-swim holiday in Pune. I saw intrepid Pune matrons leap into the Tilak talav clad in nine-yard saris. I saw toddlers splash around happily in the Law College swimming pool where Father took us for morning lessons. But nothing convinced me that water didn't pull you down and keep you under till there was no reason to come up. So while my athletic younger sister took to the water like a fish, I stood on the edge every day, muttering one-two-three and doing nothing about it.

One day two hefty arms picked me up from behind and threw me in. I came up gasping and stared incredulously at grandfather Mandke, a neighbour, who'd done the deed. He laughed and told my father that's the way to do it. I never spoke to him again but I was in the water. Too late. By the time I had dared to lift my feet off the swimming pool floor while holding on to the bar for dear life, the holiday was over.

Back home, I was enrolled in the evening ladies' batch at Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Olympic Swimming Pool. We were taught to the accompaniment of hit songs. "Yeh raat yeh chaandni phir kahan" etc. Talat Mehmood sounding like the ripples on the water.

My coach was a gentleman (?) called Mr Bathena. He put me through a rudimentary breast stroke and then decided to teach me the butterfly stroke. He told my parents that I was made for this complex stroke. I realised soon enough what I was made for. I was made for touching in three different places. The breast stroke and freestyle offered touch opportunities in only one place-- the stomach.

Fear of water had disappeared. Fear of man took over. I don't remember what excuse I gave my parents for wanting to quit. Whatever it was, it was not the truth.

If I'm pushed into water now (only pools; seas pull you down and keep you under etc) I'm sure I'll get by with the crude breast stroke Mr Bathena was kind enough to teach me before progressing to more ambitious plans. But I don't think I want to be tested.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Adiga's tiger: more brown than white

I finished reading "The White Tiger" yesterday. It took me a long time to get through. I should thank Adiga for that. His book didn't keep me away from my responsibilities. I dread books that take me into such deep waters that I don't want to surface unless forced out--The Sea of Poppies. I also dread books that are written in such compelling prose, with such blinding wit and blazing anger that you are ignited--The Case of Exploding Mangoes. In both cases I lose all sense of time, commitments, assignments, eating, drinking. I spend every minute I can spare and cannot spare, reading, and that's not good for me.

"The White Tiger"? It was like dipping your toes at the edge of a brown pond, looking at a flat surface with no streaks of darting life within. I would read a few pages during breaks in the 9 o'clock news and that seemed enough for any given day. There were days when I didn't even do that, upset by some infelicity in the writing, lack of rhythm in a line, absence of feeling for people, places, words.

I don't care a rotten fig about the subject of the novel. People are frothing at the mouth about showing India "in a bad light". They didn't want "Pather Panchali" to go to Cannes for the same treacherous crime. That was, what--50 years ago. And the "bad light" of reality still hasn't turned brighter. Whose fault is that? Anyway, every culture has a dark underside. Ours just happens to be of such impressive proportions that it comes up over the sides to look in over the topside. What I do care about is my time. Why did I feel obliged to spend so much of it with a man called Balram Halwai who puts himself in such an unconvincing nutshell right at the start that it should have acted as a warning? "In terms of formal education, I maybe somewhere lacking. I never finished school, to put it bluntly. Who cares! I haven't read many books, but I've read all the ones that count. I know by heart the works of the four greatest poets of all time--Rumi, Iqbal, Mirza Ghalib and a fourth fellow whose name I forget. I am a self-taught entrepreneur."

I have heard cabbies from the Darkness. They speak at great length as they drive, and they all have sweet, poetic tongues. Every fourth sentence they speak is a muhawara that brings wafting into the musty insides of their cabs a direct whiff of their soil. And look at Balram Halwai's self-introduction--clunky and graceless. Not a sign of that grand manner prompted by a self-image that rises high above cabbying.

I felt obliged to read about this man because his creator was awarded the GREAT BOOKER PRIZE. AWE!!!!

Anyway I'm done with him now. I doubt if a single word, line, scene or character of this badly constructed, superficially observed novel is going to stay with me. Aravind Adiga, you need to pull up your socks for the next one, mate. Underside or Overside, try to look beneath surfaces. That's where you'll find life.

PS: It's such a relief to be writing a blog. If I were reviewing "The White Tiger", I would have gone looking with a magnifying glass for "good things to say" about it. I am obsessed with being balanced, with the need to be kind. I am pathologically incapable of stripping writers, playwrights, directors, actors down to their chaddis for the grave sins they commit against their art. We are all of us fallible aren't we?

Dirty old man

A prestigious school in our vicinity is headed by a principal who touches girls. I'd heard about this a couple of years ago from one of the teachers. I had asked her then, is this a known thing? Do other teachers know about it? She'd said yes, they all knew. I'd said, and he is still the principal of the school? She said yes he is. I said how? Why? She said you know how it is. Some teachers are his bootlickers. Those who aren't, still don't want to rock the boat. And finally these things happen behind closed doors. It'll be his word against ours. His word against the word of girls who've been touched, I asked. She widened her eyes and said oh the girls won't speak. They'd be too scared. He's the principal after all and their future is in his hands.

It was a conversation that had lodged in my mind like a little worm. Last week the mother of a girl who goes to the school was having lunch with me. I asked her, is it true that the school principal touches girls? She said yes he does. I said you know about this. Yes, she said. So what have you done to protect your daughter, I asked. Have you complained? She said a mother of a girl who had been touched had called her and a dozen other mothers about the problem. They had decided to get together and decide on a plan. On the day of the meeting only my lunch guest was present. What could just the two of us do, she asked. What indeed!

This morning I was talking to the grandmother of a girl who attends the school. I asked her if she knew about the principal. She said of course I've known about it for years. I said so what have you done? She said I mentioned it to my son. He told her if she's every called to the principal's room to take a friend along. Oh, I said. And suppose he puts his hands on both girls? She shuddered at the idea and said that's why I'm so worried. Someone should send an anonymous letter to the Trustees. Or someone should tell this man's wife. But why can parents not get together and complain, I said. I don't think it's always a good idea to be confrontationist, she said. A roundabout way is often more effective. So has "someone" taken a roundabout route, I asked. I should talk to my son again, she said.

I am appalled. The principal of this elite school has got away for years with his illicit pleasures and those who should care most for their children's welfare, the parents, sit like scared mice in their dark little holes. The shocking thing is that these parents are some of the most influential people in our society--CEOs and suchlikes. If they chose to speak out, the media and all its uncles would be on the principal's tail. So what kind of fear is it that clams them up?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Muthalik's mother

I don't think the Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Renuka Chowdhury, understands the majority of women in our country. This is obvious from her latest utterance on the matter of Pramod Muthalik and his values. "I wonder how his mother raised him," Ms Chowdhury sniffed the other day. "We'll have to ask her where he gets this attitude."

We can imagine what Muthalik's mother will say to Ms Chowdhury in answer to that one. It could be any of the following: "Raised him? He raised himself. You think I had the time for it?" Or "He takes after his father. His father used to beat me even if I peeped out of the back door". Or "Women should be women. They shouldn't behave like men." Or, "My mother always said, teach a girl books and one day she'll cut your nose." Or "Such girls can do what they like in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Dilli. Not in Mangalore. We are good, clean, decent people here. We respect our elders. Pramod would have beaten up his younger sisters if they had stepped inside a pub, wouldn't he? These girls were like his sisters. He taught them a lesson for their own good and I'm very proud of him."

Where would that leave Ms Chowdhury?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The March of the Backwards

For all those who want to know in what proportion of religion, caste and community we the people of Maharashtra are divided, here are the numbers from the mouth of the horse-- Mr Chhagan Bhujbal, our back again deputy chief minister. The figures appeared on the front page of "Loksatta", in a report about a non-Maratha delegation's visit to Bhujbal to protest against the Maratha demand for reservation. (Yes, the Marathas are demanding reservations in education, jobs and politics, based on the claim that they are as Backward as your oil-presser, your weaver and your gardener. The trouble of course is that in India you have to be born Backward, the way you have to be born brahmin, adivasi or dalit. You can't claim Backwardness just by being backward.)

So here are the figures that came as a non-sequitur to a delegation member's whimper, "If some other people (read Marathas) are asking for 25 per cent of the 27 per cent OBC quota, are the OBCs, who count for 54 per cent of the population, to remain satisfied with only 2 per cent of the reservations?" Bhujbal's reply, "Basically it is wrong to suppose that OBCs form only 54 per cent of the population. OBCs form 54 per cent (sic), scheduled castes and tribes 20 per cent, Muslims 14 per cent. That makes 85 per cent (sic). The remaining 15 per cent are poor brahmins, Christians and others."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but those numbers add up to 103. So either Maharashtra has an XL pie or somebody's going to be diddled out of 3 per cent reservations. Anyway, this is how the demand progressed.

As a start, Vinayak Mete set his boys on Kumar Ketkar, the editor of Loksatta, because he'd had had the temerity to suggest in a front page article, that a statue of Shivaji in the middle of the Arabian Sea, should not be of prime concern to a State that was full of suicidal farmers and malnourished children. To Ketkar, the fact that this statue was going to be taller even than the Statue of Liberty, appeared to have counted for nothing.

Vinayak Mete got his pictures in the papers all right. This gave him the confidence to ride out into the countryside astride Shivaji's horse, awakening a sense of grievance amongst the Marathas. At the end of the road show, he appeared on huge arches spanning three entrances to Shivaji Park. He stood tall, in immaculate white, on the left hand panel of every arch, nicely balancing Shivaji Maharaj on the other side. His call to fellow Marathas was straight from the heart: "If you are indeed Shivaji's heirs, then this is the time to forget all differences, political, social and economic. Give up one day, just this one day for the future, welfare and asmita of the Marathas, by coming to Shivaji Park in your lakhs." Mercifully for the much abused Shivaji Park, they only came in their thousands.Unfazed, Mete delivered his ultimatum to the government. Concede that we are Backward, give us the reservations we demand, or be damned.

Today was the deadline Mete gave the government. I have scanned all the papers. Do we see pictures of the gathering of stones, the unsheathing of swords? Not a sign. All the newsprint has been swallowed up by that rank outsider Pramod Muthalik of Mangalore. But we must beware. A voice once raised is not so easily silenced. Vinayak Mete's sword now joins other swords that already hang over our heads--the MNS's newly sharpened one and the Shiv Sena's antique Bhavani being the most active. You never know when any one of these will fall and behead the peace we are struggling so constantly to maintain.