Month: July 2016

The Great Derangement

The Great Derangement

This whole year, the phrase ‘climate change’ has been much in news. We have broken all records of highest temperatures. There have been many floods and droughts. The alarming rate at which our climate is changing has been increasingly visible for the last decade. Climate scientists like Michael Mann have been shouting themselves hoarse fighting the climate change deniers.

In his book The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh examines ‘climate change’ in the context of literary novel. Why is it, Ghosh asks, that such a serious topic has been completely banished from literary fiction? Why does a novel that deals with gigantic catastrophes, immediately gets labelled ‘science fiction’ or ‘fantasy’? And why it is that these genres are not considered elite enough to be included under the sacred umbrella of literary fiction?

These are not easy questions and Ghosh delves into the history of modern novel, starting from Gustave Flobert and nineteenth century Bengali novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee who sought to bring the European-style realist fiction to India. In the novels that followed this realist tradition, depicting extreme conditions occurring in Nature was frowned upon. Instead, Nature was this mild and moderate entity that was so harmless that it receded into the background. ‘Improbable’ was something that the modern novel never dealt with because it clashed with the realist sensibilities. Descriptions of terrifying seas or howling winds that eventually cause a cyclone were not serious literature. Such outbursts were banished from the elite kingdom with labels such as ‘the melodrama’, ‘science fiction’ or ‘fantasy’. What caused the separation of science fiction from literary fiction? In his brilliant analysis, Ghosh shows how the change came about gradually, how Nature was consigned to sciences, remaining off-limits from Culture. With western artists propagating this literary tradition, those in Asia and Africa were always trying hard to catch up with every new iteration of modernity, the new ‘isms’ that kept on appearing with increasing regularity. We have devastating effects of climate change occurring at a frightening pace and yet, serious literature seems to be blissfully ignorant of it. “In this regard”, says Ghosh, “the avant-garde, far from being ‘ahead’, was clearly a laggard”.

There are many aspects to the complex issue of climate change. It is no coincidence that the carbon economy in developing nations started with end of the British Empire. This is closely related to the much debated issue of sharing of responsibility to cut emissions between the developed and developing nations. For all the jubilation made over the Paris Agreement on climate change, it offers very little in terms of immediate effective action. It takes no cognizance of our behaviour that has put the planet in grave danger.

What is remarkable about The Great Derangement is the forthrightness in its analysis. Many climate change essays assume an ideal world and propose solutions. The Great Derangement goes beyond the feel-good press statements and climate agreements. It deals with the effects of the tainted era of imperialism and the dirty politics played behind doors when such agreements are signed. “The might of carbon-intensive economy cannot be fought with a politics of sincerity” – is one of the book’s blunt conclusions.

What do we see if we step back for a moment and try to look at the big picture? That is what the title of the book is all about. Greenland has lost a trillion tons of ice in four years. CO2 levels at present are the highest ever. We have droughts in places that never had shortage of water. Floods continue to threaten the low lying areas. Natural ecosystems like rain-forests and coral reefs are disappearing at an alarming rate. Meanwhile, literary fiction writers living in their ivory towers are blissfully ignorant of the crisis. Politicians who have the power to make decisive policies can see no further than the next election. And the general public, caught in a never ending cycle of carbon-intensive economy, has neither the power nor the will to do anything about the crisis.

This, then, is an era of The Great Derangement.

Kabali

Kabali

It’s very well to dissect cinema, bring out the finer points, try to fit it in one of the myriad categories, grade it using different criteria and so on. Finally, though, it has to satisfy one important condition – people must watch it. When it comes down to it, cinema is a business. Art needs patronage. In the old days, it was the kings and emperors who supported art. Why else would Bach dedicate his concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg? The kings have long gone and today it’s the people who are in charge. How do you get people to leave the comfort of their homes and come to theaters? This, literally, is a million dollar question.

Hollywood is spending millions to achieve this. Just Brad Pitt or George Clooney are no longer enough. You need to get them together along with Matt Damon and Julia Roberts. Nor just one superhero suffices. Dinosaurs have become so passé. CGI has lost its shine. An alien ship destroys the Burj Khalifa with devastating audio-visual effects but is it enough to lure the viewer away from his smartphone? Best brains in Hollywood are trying to come up with new locations, new ideas – from Mars and black holes to slavery and espionage. Everything is being tested to find out what sticks.

Meanwhile, in India, a 65 year old actor stars in a fairly routine gangster movie. Script is by no means original. Music is fine, nothing to write home about. And the fans are going absolutely crazy over this. The film is booked solid well before release, not just in India but in US, Japan, everywhere. Fans have made posters; arranged special flights, buses to watch the movie in Chennai; performed religious ceremonies.

This is not a movie release. It’s a phenomenon called Superstar Rajini.

If you try to find a rational reason behind this, you will be disappointed. How can you, when people start whistling as soon as they catch the first glimpse of great Thalaivar on the screen?

While watching Kabali,¹ I felt as if the movie has broken the fourth wall. There are many scenes in it where Kabali meets ordinary people and these non-actors have to act as if they are greatly honoured by the presence of Kabali. Except that they don’t have to act! They are meeting the great Thalaivar!! I was watching these non-actors more closely than the Superstar himself and they looked as if they have just fulfilled a dream of a lifetime. And I am sure they did.

Stardom is hardly a new phenomenon, be it Elvis Presley in the US or Amitabh Bachchan in India. It also has a strong sociological aspect to it in that one has to consider the zeitgeist in which the star becomes popular. It is not possible to understand why Bachchan’s angry young man became so popular without taking into account developments in India during the seventies : the emergency, unemployment, disillusionment with the post-independence promises and so on. I do not have enough background on how Rajini became a Superstar but I am enthralled to watch the effects unfold before me.

Strength of Asia lies in numbers. When half a billion people like something, you cannot ignore it.

—-

1. One thing I liked about Kabali was : this was the first time I watched a Tamil movie in original with English subtitles in Maharashtra. (I understood only two words – sappadu (eat) and po (go)). I hope this trend continues and we get to watch movies from all over India in their original languages. I hate dubbed movies. You lose the voices, tones, inflections of the actors : something which they have spent years perfecting. It’s like losing half of the screen. The dubbed voices can never convey the right emotion even half as well as the actor. Give me subtitled movies any day. I want to hear the original Manipuri, Japanese or Swahili.

Who Is Keyser Söze?

Who Is Keyser Söze?

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. — Verbal Kint

I have this habit – not sure if it’s a bug or a feature – of getting easily distracted during movies. And I don’t mean the-neighbour-is-talking-on-the-phone kind of distraction. I get side tracked by seemingly inconsequential things in the movie itself. So right in the beginning, if I see the Paramount or Universal logo, I may start thinking about the studio culture. Then I see Reliance Entertainment as one of the producers and I am thinking about the Ambanis. So many connections everywhere. I am one of the few people who judiciously read all the titles before and after the movie. While watching Party, I learnt that Rajkumar Santoshi was an assistant director for Govind Nihlani. No wonder I like his movies.

Then the titles stop and we are watching the first few frames. I am drawn to how the movie feels. It is difficult to put in words what this exactly means. I think it has to do with colours, lights and camera movements. Sometimes just by looking at few frames, you can tell when the movie was made. That’s why I always marvel at how fresh All The Preseident’s Men looks even after 40 years. The animation in early Star Wars movies does not have the pre-CGI feel, which makes it remarkable. I was hypnotized by the colour combinations in Kurosawa’s Ran. The dark frames of Jason Bourne series with greenish/bluish tinge are my favorites. I love the way Gordon Willis playes with light and shadows. Francis Ford Copolla’s The Rainmaker looks so ordinary minus Willis. How would Willis have shot it?

When the movie ends, I wait to see the details of the soundtracks. Sometimes, I have heard the track before and hearing it again with the compelling visuals establishes it firmly in my mind. For instance, in The King’s Speech, near the end when King George VI makes the wartime speech, the background score is Beethoven’s Symphony No 7 in A Major, Op 92 : Allegretto. The combination of the climactic scene combined with Beethoven’s score was a moving experience for me. At other times, I don’t know the music. I discovered many great gangster rap tracks while watching Straight Outta Compton.

This does not mean that I don’t pay much attention to the script. As it happens, all my favorite movies have excellent scripts. If a movie has only good visuals but weak script, it is difficult for me to watch it again. Case in point – Mad Max : Fury Road.

What about a movie which has excellent script but average visuals?

Ergo, The Usual Suspects. Actually, I am being hard on the movie when I say it has average visuals. They are better than average. It would be hard to guess the year of the movie from the visuals. What I mean by average is no frame or shot strikes you as something special. Ditto with acting. With the exception of Kevin Spacey, all other actors are relatively unknown. They are good at their craft. What’s most appealing about this movie is the plot itself.

A truck loaded with guns goes missing in New York. Cops roundup five suspects who are known criminals. When they are released, they get together to plan another robbery. One of these five men is Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), a cripple. He is nicknamed Verbal because he talks too much. Few twists and turns later, Verbal is in custody narrating what happened after they were released. Interrogating him is spacial agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri).

Kujan has been working in customs and is intrigued by one name that keeps popping up in different situations – Keyser Söze. No one has seen Keyser Söze, there are no available pictures of him. People have worked for someone who worked for someone who worked for Söze. Is he real or is he an urban legend? No one knows but everyone in the underworld is terrified of him. Even before Verbal is charged, pressure from above ensures that he will get complete immunity. Word is that Keyser Söze is behind this. Kujan thinks that Söze is out to get Verbal. He implores Verbal to turn state’s witness. Verbal declines.

A movie is a narrative. The Usual Suspects has a narrative inside this narrative and this is where some people get confused. What if the second narrative is unsatisfactory or the loose ends don’t add up? Does that mean that the main narrative is faulty as well?

I almost forgot to praise Kevin Spacey. Kevin is a very dangerous actor in that he makes acting look so effortless that –

1. One starts thinking that acting is a piece of cake
2. You forget that he is there in the film. Kevin does not change his gate-up for the movie, except for the body language of a cripple. What’s remarkable is he makes you forget about Kevin Spacey, the Oscar winning actor. Something which I find very difficult to do in case of say, Robert De Niro.

Even though The Usual Suspects won an Oscar for best screenplay (Christopher McQuarrie) and another one for best supporting actor (Kevin Spacey), the great Roger Ebert gave it a measly 1.5/4 stars and included the movie in his “most hated films” list.

It was a movie well ahead of its times.

 

Even Dogs In The Wild

Even Dogs In The Wild

“The unexamined life is not worth living”.

Socrates is reported to have said this while choosing death over exile. These days, my approach to philosophy has become very practical. Give me something I can use. I am not sure if this quote is applicable in any sense in today’s world. For one thing, who decides the “worth” and how? And to pronounce a death sentence for not finding out the reason for liking Chess but not Justin Bieber sounds a tad bit Talebanish.  I have had it with philosophers spending hundred pages squabbling over ontological definitions of truth and self. (Seriously, dude?!). Give me a stoic philosopher any day.

Still, there is some relevance in this quote of dear ol’ Socrates. I find myself examining my reading habits from time to time. It happens unintentionally. Few years back, I was heavily into nihilist, morose authors who would not smile or crack a joke even if their life depended on it. (What’s the point, right?) I also used to flit from author to author. I have many favorite authors in various genres – John le Carré for spy novels, J R R Tolkien for fantasy, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams for humour – so it was easy to do. What I have never done is to read an author from start to finish. (With the honorable exception of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. When I was in school, we had to study The Blue Carbuncle for our English class. One of the few occasions when I actually enjoyed being educated. To be honest, though, I am not sure if I have read all of Sherlock Holmes. I know all the stories but with many repetitious viewings of Jeremy Brett’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I sometimes wonder – have I read The Red Headed League or have I only seen it?) And this is exactly what I did for Ian Rankin and his Inspector Rebus novels. I have read every one of them, except for the short story collections.

I stumbled upon Ian Rankin quite by accident. I picked up Tooth And Nail in between two novels. Before I knew it, I was hooked. So I read Mortal Causes. I then realized that the stories have a definite chronological order so I went to the first Rebus novel – Knots And Crosses and worked my way through all of them. The last Rebus novel to come out was Even Dogs In The Wild and I have just finished it. Rebus novels had added one more genre to my favourite ones – crime fiction.

There are many reasons why I like Rebus novels. When I started reading, they reminded me of my other favorite author – John le Carré and his protagonist, George Smiley. Much later, I was delighted to read in an Ian Rankin interview that his favourite author is, in fact, le Carré.

John Rebus is a noir protagonist. He does not have lofty ideals. He knows exactly how the system works. He is more worried about the overworld than the underworld. In Fleshmarket Close, Rebus says to his colleague, “We spend most of our time chasing something called ‘the underworld’, but it’s ‘the overworld’ we should really be keeping an eye on.” In Even Dogs In The Wild, the narrator says about Rebus, “He had watched..as the rich and the powerful played the system. He had come to appreciate that those with influence could be more cunning and ruthless than those with none.”

I like the tenacity with which Rebus attacks a case, like a dog that would not let go once it has sunk its teeth into something. And he has a very strong intuition. Sometimes, even when all the evidence points the other way, something nags at him that makes him go back to the case. This does not mean that he does not make mistakes. There are many instances when things have not worked out, cases have remained unsolved, justice has been abandoned succumbing to the will of the powerful. These are the ghosts that haunt Rebus, as he drinks and listens to Rolling Stones at his flat in Arden Street. Rebus has one burning passion. Music from the seventies and eighties, in particular Rolling Stones. Many of the titles of Rebus novels are lines from songs – Black And Blue, Exit Music, Saints of The Shadow Bible and so on.

The Rebus novels follow the passage of time. Old colleagues depart or die, young ones take their place. Rebus’ daughter Samantha grows up as the novels go by and in the last one, Rebus is a granddad. Rebus gets promoted and demoted. I realised what this meant. Rebus was getting older and he will have to retire soon. I read Exit Music with dread. All of the novel was overshadowed by the fact that Rebus had just one week to retire. What next? I opened Saints of The Shadow Bible to learn that Rebus has been reassigned to cold cases – cases that were unsolved. In Even Dogs In The Wild, Rebus comes in as a civilian consultant to the Scotland Police.

Is this the end of Rebus? I hope not.