Month: July 2017

Three Days in North Korea

Three Days in North Korea

India and the former Soviet Union have had a very unique relationship in the last century. After India’s independence, USSR was perhaps the biggest ally that India had. Russians helped India set up the first steel plants. Indian movies were hugely popular in USSR despite their song and dance routines. When I was growing up, translated books from USSR, especially Mir Publishers, were quite popular due to their superior quality and affordable prices. I still remember my first encounter with Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity through a beautifully illustrated Russian book. We rarely came across harsh criticism of USSR – neither from the government nor from the Indian journalists. As a result, I realised it quite late that Russia was fundamentally quite different from India and other democracies.

Communism took a major hit when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Russia disintegrated. This does not mean that China or Russia have become more democratic. Censorship is as strict as it has always been. All references to Tianamen Square protests of 1989 are still systematically removed from the Chinese culture. And any opposition to Putin results in exile, imprisonment or death. At the same time, these countries are much more accessible now. People can visit these countries relatively easily, though they will be under surveillance all the time. Moreover, the economic aspect has been dominant in the international relations, especially when dealing with China.

Out of all the communist countries, North Korea remains as impenetrable as ever. You cannot visit North Korea – at least not easily. The North Korean airways – Air Koryo – is not allowed to fly over the airspace of most countries. There are very few smuggled videos coming out. For everyone outside, North Korea remains a big mystery. And that is exactly why a book written by an American while spending three days in North Korea is so interesting.

Eddie Burdick is a Texan and also a die hard Koreaphile. A Koreaphile is interested in both South Korea and North Korea. If you want information about South Korea, all you have to do is look it up on the internet or if you are so inclined, visit. It’s the North Korea that is the Holy Grail for Koreaphiles. Eddie had been trying for about 20 years to arrange a visit and at last he succeeded. He was accompanied by three Americans, Wally – another die-hard Koreaphile – Charles and Alice. The group was put together by an American-based tour operator. Eddie wrote a detailed account of his visit, along with photographs. Surprisingly, there was no objection to taking photographs. To say that it’s a fascinating book would be an understatement. Part bizarre, part mysterious, the journey described in Three Days in the Hermit Kingdom feels like what Alice must have felt while visiting the Wonderland.

The tourists were received by two North Korean guides, both named Kim. Eddie refers to them as Kim the elder and Kim the younger. Their itinerary was fixed and they were not allowed to go anywhere on their own. Even when they went down for breakfast, they were not allowed to sit anywhere. A maître d’ would direct them to their allotted places and sometimes they could not even sit together. There was no charge for the hotel or for the meals. The only place where they spent money was buying books or souvenirs. The tour was for three days only, no extensions. They were not allowed to use mobile phones throughout their visit.

As they were driving through Pyongyang – they were provided with a minivan and a driver – Eddie noticed that there were no primary colours to be seen except red. The landscape was earth tones and greens and cement-gray. Everyone wore dark and somber coloured clothes. The second shock was no banners or advertisements except those that showed party slogans or heaped praises either on Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-un, preferably both. Kim Il-Sung is the great grandfather of Kim Jong-un and ruled North Korea from it’s birth in 1948 to 1994 when he died.

A third shock – almost no private vehicles on the street. Everyone was travelling by bus, metro, tram or bicycles. Reason? An average North Korean can never acquire enough money to buy a car during all of his lifetime. As a result, most of the time the roads were empty with very little traffic. From the photographs, it looks like a dystopian post-apocalypse world. The next day was Sunday. When Eddie woke up and looked down from the hotel balcony at quarter to six in the morning, not a single vehicle was seen on the street. No morning deliveries of any kind, no city sounds at all. Eddie says,

A lasting memory from Pyongyang is of the swift, effortless passage through broad, empty boulevards and the eerie empty stillness that hung over the city as if in the grip of some silent epidemic.

North Koreans have been divided in two types. Those who the regime can trust and everyone else. The standard of living of the first group is considerably higher than the average North Korean. They are given comfortable accommodation in Pyongyang, even their children are considerably bigger than those who live in the countryside because of the difference in their diets. It is this first group that is presented to anyone visiting North Korea to show how things are going great in the Worker’s Paradise. The tourists never get to see the real North Korea that lives in villages.

One of the major initiatives of the regime is to indoctrinate its citizens with propaganda. All of Pyongyang is filled with statues, images and slogans of the two Kims. The North Koreans are told that South Korea is very poor because they have not followed the socialist philosophy. All material from South Korea that will easily disprove this claim – movies, newspapers, magazines – are banned. Needless to say, North Koreans are not allowed to travel outside the country so there is no way for them to know what’s happening in the outside world.

This aspect of putting up a smoke screen everywhere has given rise to a number of conspiracy theories amongst the Koreaphiles. For instance, the underground Pyongyang Metro System is considered one of the engineering marvels of North Korea but the conspiracy theorists doubt the authenticity of the Metro and claim that the passengers are dutiful party members doing their bit to maintain the image. For one thing, every tourist is taken to one station and gets off at another station and these endpoints never change. Does the Metro go beyond this station? Who knows? Eddie could not make up his mind one way or the other. Another favourite theory of Koreaphiles is that the staff at the hotel where Eddie was staying are Chinese actors and actresses. Lo and behold, when he got the wake up call in the morning, it was not in Korean but in Chinese!

It is difficult to imagine what an average North Korean’s life must look like. It’s almost as if they are behind the rest of the world by a few decades or even a century. The things that we do not even think about are not allowed. Food is rationed and provided by the government. Exchange of money is a concept that is alien to most of them. While making purchases at souvenir shops, the prices were in Euros but the shopkeepers accepted same amount in US Dollars, completely oblivious to the concept of currency exchange rate. The only music the North Koreans are allowed to listen to – and is available – is the patriotic songs praising the Kims. Same goes for the movies. People line up for public baths because there is no hot water even in well furnished homes.

Edde’s description of life of a North Korean is chilling to say the least.

When North Koreans are allowed to sit down in front of a computer, they can enter the regime-monitored intranet to look at the works of Kim Jong Il, or review the news as per the state mouthpiece, or check crop rotation statistics from the ’70s, but they can’t chat with a friend, they can’t peruse a web page from the opposition party, they can’t get scores from English Premier League games and they certainly can’t follow a game live; they can’t receive a photo of their cousin in Pusan, and they definitely can’t tap in to e-commerce, and e-mail is out of the question.

For all it’s faults, I love democracy.

The Thespian Retires : A Tribute to Daniel Day-Lewis

The Thespian Retires : A Tribute to Daniel Day-Lewis

There are two types of movies : movies that you watch only once and movies that you watch again and again. What’s amazing is that even when you have watched your favourite movie a zillion times, there are still new facts, new perspectives waiting to be discovered. Take the movie Gandhi for instance, which I must have watched more than 50 times. (Not a believer in non-violence philosophy, by the way). There is a scene in this movie where the young Gandhi is met by a British clergy in South Africa. This particular scene is very close to my heart because I grew up and spent my childhood roaming around the location in Pune where it was shot. And yet, there was a fact about this scene that I did not know till last week. The South African hoodlum in the scene was played by none other than Daniel Day-Lewis. Imagine that : Ben Kingsley and Daniel Day-Lewis in the same frame with Richard Attenborough behind the camera!

The reason for this article is the announcement of retirement by perhaps the greatest method actor of our times, Daniel Day-Lewis. As expected, this news has been met by a range of reactions, from ridicule to sadness. Some say it’s a publicity stunt for his upcoming movie with Paul Thomas Anderson. I find this hard to believe. The man has won three Oscars in the leading role category, more than any living being on the east side of the galaxy. I don’t think he can be any more famous even if he tried to.

There are many anecdotes about how Daniel takes method acting to extremes. First there is the research. In In The Name of My Father he plays an innocent man who is falsely accused of a crime. Daniel spent three nights in jail without sleep which was followed by interrogation by three teams of special branch police officers for nine hours. He did this to understand how an innocent man could sign a confession under duress for something which he did not do.

For his role of Abraham Lincoln, Daniel read over 100 books. Perhaps strangest thing about Daniel’s method is that he stays in character in between shots and for most of the duration of the movie. It’s difficult for him to come out of the character after every shot which makes sense. So he used to send texts as Abraham Lincoln to Sally Fields who was playing Mary Todd Lincoln. For many of his characters, as he is doing his research, Daniel begins to hear a voice in his head which he then tries to reproduce. For Lincoln, he made a tape of this voice and sent it to Spielberg who then okayed it.

There is a story that is often told as a sort of counter point to method acting. It involves Lawrence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman who worked together in the movie Marathon Man. One day Dustin looked awful and Olivier asked him if he was okay. Dustin said that he had not slept for a while because he wanted to get into the character. And Olivier said, “My dear boy, have you tried acting?”

I have lost count of the number of times I have read this story being given as a proof to criticise method acting. I am glad someone told this story to Daniel Day-Lewis and Daniel’s comment is priceless.

“It says more about Olivier than it says about Hoffman’s process..He is just missing the point,” Daniel says about Olivier.

Steven Spielberg once said, “It’s not science, what we do here.” Precisely. If acting were a science, then all you had to do was to follow Olivier’s recipe – whatever that may be – and you get an Oscar for every performance. That’s not what happens. No one knows what will work and what won’t.

Daniel likes to stay in character most of the time, Anthony Hopkins does not find it necessary. Hopkins learned a poem every week when he was preparing for the character of Hannibal Lecter. For L.A. Confidential, Russell Crowe lived in a very small house because he wanted to feel big and authoritative. For All The Presidents Men, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman memorized not only their lines but each others lines as well so that they could interrupt unannounced. Each actor has his own way of getting there and no one, including the actor himself knows if it will work or not.

It’s not difficult to see where Olivier is coming from. He is one of the most famous products of the Shakespearean tradition of actors from the British stage and one of the main principles of this style of acting is to avoid physical expressions. The theory is that Shakespeare’s words themselves are so powerful that if you just recite them as they are meant to be recited, you don’t need to do anything else. This is completely opposite of method acting where you try to experience the character as deeply as you can.

So what happens when a method actor tries a Shakespeare play? As it happens, Daniel Day-Lewis worked in the Royal Shakespeare Company at the beginning of his career. That did not go too well and he left it. Later on he did Hamlet for the National Theatre. During the performance where Hamlet sees the ghost of his dead father, Daniel had a breakdown on the stage. He left the production half-way and never returned to stage. He said that he saw his dead father on the screen, though much later he clarified that there was nothing paranormal about it. It was part of experiencing the character.

It is this capacity to go so deep into the character that makes Daniel the genius actor that he is. For instance, here’s one of the many remarkable things about his acting. Almost every actor has a bit of his own self in every role that he plays. That is why it is possible to do impersonations of almost every great actor. You recognize him by his accent, his diction, his voice. Till date, I have never seen anyone do an impersonation of Daniel Day-Lewis, with the exception of this Saturday Night Live skit. But even here the impersonation is of the character Daniel played in There Will Be Blood, it has nothing to do with the actor himself. In fact, when I saw his interview for the first time, it was a revelation as to how different he sounded. He has a British accent, he speaks in a rather nondescript way, often pausing to think before speaking. It would be impossible to identify him if anyone were to imitate that voice. He never speaks in the high pitch that some of his characters use regularly. Ditto with the eyes or facial expressions. Some of it is of course make-up, but it’s also the personality behind that character.

Daniel Day-Lewis is an eccentric genius. He rarely does any interviews. This is not his first retirement. In 1998, he took a leave of absence and moved to Florence where he reportedly worked as a carpenter and learned shoemaking, working as an apprentice with the famous shoemaker Stefano Bemer. He never talks about this period in his life. “My lips are sealed” is his usual reply. Daniel returned to acting in 2002 with Martin Scorsese in Gangs of New York which earned him his second Oscar.

Daniel is more known for rejecting roles than accepting them. Till date, he has worked in only 20 movies. He reminds me of the famous chemist Frederick Sanger. In a career of over 40 years, Sanger published about 70 papers. In today’s publish or perish world, that’s nothing. But he won the Nobel prize in Chemistry twice, once for his work on structure of proteins and other for his work on DNA sequencing. Less is more has never been more true than in such exceptional cases.

I am not a film critic. I mostly write about movies that I like and even when I find something lacking, I am more prone to be on the actors side. And in cases such as this one, I find it very difficult to describe the quality of Daniel’s acting performances because I fear it would just be a string of superlatives and adjectives. Suffice it to say that whenever I read the name Abraham Lincoln, the image, the voice, the walk that comes to mind is that character in the movie Lincoln. Same with Gandhi, even though in this case, some old footage of Gandhi actually exists.

For Daniel, getting into the skin of another person is the most interesting thing. Movies or stage are just means of getting there. So who knows, maybe he will continue his passion hidden from public viewing. I want to say that I hope Daniel comes back from his retirement and keeps on working. At the same time, I realize that it is too much to ask of an actor who immerses his mind, body and soul in every character that he plays. Maybe he has reached his capacity.

Marlon Brando once asked Johnny Depp how many films he does in a year. Three, said Depp.

“Too much,” said Brando. “We only have so many faces in our pockets.”