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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Bohemian Anthem

(While I generally take a more calculating, measured approach while writing prose, poetry is an excuse to let my hair down, so to speak. Whether it's my fondness for the great comedic poets like Ogden Nash, or Franklin Pierce Adams, or my general laziness, I'm not sure, but I'm generally more freewheeling when I'm writing poems. This one, for example was scribbled down when I was watching a yawn-inducing football match between Portugal and Brazil)

None can resist the call of the wild,
Good sense, logic and forethought, begone!
In each of us resides the Devil's child
Who bays and snarls till the crack of dawn.

You may walk the straight and narrow path,
("God bless" you say when you see me sneeze)
Fearful of incurring the Lord's wrath
Afraid of doing as you please.

Be warned though, it'll catch up with you
That imp of the perverse
Bearer of mischief, anarchy or just the truth
For better or for worse.

Best be rid then, of doubt and guilt,
That vicious pair, cursing, spitting bile
Give in to yourself, (just hear me out)
Because you know resistance is futile.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Karna's metamorphosis

Yesterday, I read a whole bunch of poems by Indian authors via links on The Middle Stage, author Chandrahas Choudhury's excellent blog. One of them, "Moult" by Gieve Patel, really captured my imagination. Before you continue to read this article, here's the poem itself:


The sodden dripping weight which he moulted

and offered to the god who received it

in cupped hands—was it skin

really, or rather something amphibious,

half metallic scales, half mutely screaming

integument smelling of fish, while

flayed Karna shivered from a cold

he had never thought to endure, shivered

animal-like, a mere beast

prepared for the cooking pot;

and walked to the battlefield certain

to be pierced by the first lance

aimed at him. But the burden!

Amazingly it had lifted,

and might it not be one’s heart’s desire fulfilled

to die unrehearsed of lightness.

For the uninitiated, the incident from the Mahabharata being described here goes something like this: Before the battle of Kurukshetra started, Lord Indra, the king of the gods, and father of Arjuna, the mightiest of the Pandavas, started getting worried about the possible threat to his son's life, if he faced Karna. Now Karna, the son of the Sun-god, had been born with an armour (kavacha) and earrings (kundala) which were blessed by his father. These made him practically invincible. Indra, therefore planned to cash in on Karna's famed philanthropy (he had earned the epithet of daanveer, or the one who gave generously) by simply disguising himself as an old Brahmin and asking Karna for his armour. The Sun-god knew of Indra's intentions and was quick to warn Karna, but Karna, being the man that he was, obliged Indra, anyway, when the moment came. (Although not described in this particular poem, Indra was so impressed by Karna's gesture that he granted him a boon, upon which Karna asked for an amogh shakti, an unbeatable weapon.)

Now, the very first reason that this poem is fascinating is its basic premise: that what Karna gave away that day was quite literally, a part of his body. Note the use of words like "sodden" and "dripping" from the outset, to lend it an almost organic air. Every single edition of the Mahabharata I've ever read has coyly suggested this, cloaking it under various metaphorical blankets. The most common of these versions insists that the reason why Karna was so weakened and vulnerable after this act was that "the armour, on account of having been worn for so many years (Karna would never take it off) had stuck to his body, like a second skin."

What if it was literally a second skin?

Consider this: Karna and the five Pandavas were all born in the same way: Kunti would use a special mantra to summon any god she wanted to, and said God would then yield Kunti a son. The twins Nakula and Sahadeva were born when Kunti passed on the mantra to Madri. Why then, was Karna the only one abandoned? According to the Mahabharata, Kunti was terrified when the mantra worked for the first time, and plus, she was a maiden and not married. But the Karna-as-mutant theory would definitely explain this irregularity better: because Karna was the only one externally marked by the god's divinity, because he was the only one who you could look at and tell that this child was not a mere human; Kunti, afraid of social ostracism, and perhaps more than a little personal disgust, abandoned him. Was this another of the infamous "revisions" done to the Mahabharata done to make certain situations and characters look more "decent" or "human"? (The late Irawati Karve's magisterial book of essays on the Mahabharata, "Yuganta" abounds with examples of such possible "revisions")

The poem then continues to describe Karna as "flayed" while he "shivered with a cold/ he had never thought to endure" which clearly suggests that this is as unexpected and as brutal to Karna, as losing a limb would be to any of us. Patel, however, is not done yet, and he says that after this selfless act, Karna "shivered animal-like, a mere beast prepared for the cooking pot." The straightforward iterpretation of these lines is that the now-vulnerable Karna would be easily defeated and killed on the battefield. However, I think Patel has used both "animal" and "beast" to suggest that Karna, after shedding the elements which made him a mutant or a semi-divine entity, is now finally human, a "mere beast", so to speak. Referencing "Yuganta" once again, the author Irawati Karve argues that the central tragedy in Karna's life was his inner dilemma "Who am I?". According to the Mahabharata, Karna, a Kshatriya (the warrior-caste) by birth, was raised by a Suta (charioteer) family, and his foster parents had told him that they were not his biological parents, and that he had been found with a Kshatriya-like armour strapped on to his body.

It was because of this dilemma of Karna's that he found his judgement impaired, all-too often in crunch situations. Like Drauapdi's swayamvara, where he was berated for being lowborn, and he was not allowed to take part in the challenge. (This, by the way, is another one of the "revisions" I was talking about. This has been omitted in later versions of the Mahabharata.) "Yuganta" also says that this dilemma culminated in the final momets of Karna's life, when he was busy getting his chariot wheel out of the mud, and urged Arjuna to stop fighting until he had done so, calling upon the Kshatriya's code, a set of ethical war practices. But the omniscient Krishna, pointed out that Karna had not followed the same when he dishonoured Draupadi or when he took part in the unfair slaughter of Abhimanyu; and instigated Arjuna to kill the temporarily defenseless Karna. Karna died wondering "Who Am I?"

The caste-identity crisis which the Mahabharata wants us to believe, is an old one, and seems rather too simplistic for the otherwise complex and fascinating character of Karna. But if Karna was really confused about the infinitely more frightening and perplexing question of his humanity, I think it would make a lot more sense.

Patel acknowledges explicitly, towards the end of the poem that Karna is now destined to be killed swiftly in the battle. But then, he suggests something truly marvellous: consider the parting shot with which Patel leaves us

"But the burden!

Amazingly it had lifted,

and might it not be one’s heart’s desire fulfilled

to die unrehearsed of lightness."

Is he hinting that Karna deliberately cut off his "second skin" in order to settle, once and for all, the question of his humanity, or lack thereof? It would certainly seem so, as the last two lines suggest. I would definitely want Karna to finally take control of his identity and his destiny, even if his actions led to speedy and inevitable destruction. I think, if this were indeed the case, then Karna, after his metamorphosis, died what Albert Camus called "a happy death" .

Monday, July 5, 2010

Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho"

(originally published here at

Gus Van Sant has been, in my humble view, one of the most important filmmakers in the world, over the last twenty years or so. Although his career really took off after Good Will Hunting(1997), which garnered over 200 million at the box office, (as well as Oscar nods for the then-unknown Ben Affleck and Matt Damon for the screenplay, and a long-overdue one for Robin Williams as Best Supporting Actor) Van Sant’s first truly great film was “My Own Private Idaho” , which was released in 1991.

“My Own Private Idaho” is difficult to sum up in a few words. Indeed, to abbreviate it thus would be an exercise in futility. For it combines elements of the classic road film, high Shakespearean drama, the bildungsroman, and some which defy description, in a heady cocktail which stays with you long after the end credits start rolling. Starring River Phoenixand Keanu Reeves as a pair of young hustlers, it remains one of Van Sant’s finest films, and mind you, he has made some very fine ones indeed. Mike (River Phoenix) is a young gay hustler, who suffers from narcolepsy, a condition which causes him to fall asleep during stressful situations. He also has a troubled past, leading to his having frequent visions of his absentee mother. His best friend, Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves) is the son of a mayor, but chooses to live the life of a street hustler, hobnobbing with low-life urchins and petty thieves, one of which, Bob Pigeon (William Richert) becomes a mentor to him. Scott confides to Mike that he will inherit his father’s fortune when he turns 21. The crux of the film lies in the trip the two take, in order to find Mike’s mother, who he hasn’t seen in years. The trip makes the pair confront some uncomfortable truths about their lives and their relationship.

Due to his frequent narcoleptic episodes, Mike often wakes up to find himself in places he doesn’t remember going. Early on in the film Mike comments, “I can always know where I am by the road.. this here road.. there isn’t a road anywhere which is like this, I mean exactly like this. It’s one kind of place… one of a kind. Like a face… like a fucked-up face.” During the last part of the dialogue, we are seeing the road through Mike’s point of view, where he watches it in between his first and second fingers, and the shot zooms out to make it seem like we are watching it through a lens, or an ocular device, with the road converging to a point in the distance, the sky with clouds which are too picturesque, a clear reference to the standard ophthalmologist’s test which we take to check our eyesight. From the outset, the often conflicting and overlapping nature of narratives, depending upon the “impediment” which we place on them, (i.e. the different points of view) has been hinted at. That Mike is a classic drifter, is emphasized by the frequent shots of clouds speeding by overhead, a mechanism familiar to movie buffs, and one which would have been banal and superfluous in a lesser film.

But what really makes all this come together, and also plays a large part in making this the film that it is, has to be River Phoenix’s jaw-droppingly good performance as Mike. The gossamer vulnerability of Mike…. the way he aches for his long-lost mother, Phoenix makes it apparent, during the first fifteen or so minutes of the film, that he had gone under the skin of his character (a term used and abused by every Tom, Dick and Harry nowadays, on both sides of the ocean). When he begs an old client, a middle-aged man, for a few dollars more, we feel Mike’s quiet desperation. When he’s with the oddball street thieves, dancing away the blues, we see Mike and his presence for what it is, an elaborate self-parody. So involved was Phoenix during the production of the film, that he re-wrote a critical scene of the film( Van Sant did not have storyboarded scene sequences in any case, choosing to improvize, as he would a decade later, in the bleak desert drama, Gerry) where his character Mike professes his love for his best friend, Scott. Looking at this scene today, as well as the film in general, one cannot help but draw parallels with Heath Ledger. Two truly awesome talents, both making waves with their superlative, unusually sensitive portrayals of homosexual characters, both dying tragically early, from drug-related episodes. (Phoenix died, all of 23, in 1993, a couple of years after the release of “My Own Private Idaho” )

That doesn’t mean we take anything away from the brilliant Keanu Reeves. Yes, that’s right. I said “brilliant”. Over the years, Keanu Reeves has been one of the most criticized mainstream actors in Hollywood. Described variously as “plastic” , “stone-faced” and “cold” Reeves has faced a lot of flak, both for his style of acting, and for his choice of roles. The fact that he isn’t your typical Hollywood star didn’t help. (He’s fiercely private, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and doesn’t take pains to go on well-televised PR trips) His story arc in this film placed him in the shoes of Henry V, upon whom his character is loosely based(the Shakespeare play Henry IV, both parts, is the basis, hence the rich father and the son who’d rather be a vagabond, a wastrel than to follow his father). Bob, his mentor, then is Falstaff, one of the unforgettable Shakespearean characters, a fat, flamboyant, cowardly fool, who leads the future king astray. In the superb sequences between Scott Favor(Reeves) and Bob(William Richert in a delightful cameo), most of which are taken directly, or in a slightly modified manner, from Shakespeare’s original text, Reeves turns in a razor-sharp performance, swaggering his way through the Bard’s inimitable puns, and the wordplays, barely breaking a sweat. Far from being plastic, this is Reeves finding his calling in Shakespeare.( He went on to play Hamlet, in a prominent theatrical production, to rave reviews, a few years later in 1995)

It is instructive to note that Gus Van Sant initially had separate scripts for each of the two main story arcs, i.e. Mike’s story and Scott’s(which was basically a modern-day retelling of the Henry IV plays). He then utilized the “cut-up” technique made famous by William S. Burroughs and his seminal 1959 novel “Naked Lunch” which is cited by many critics as one of the starting points of post-modernism in literature.(Yes, “cut-up” means exactly that: to cut up and rearrange an already existing text; Burroughs had previously co-written and appeared in Van Sant’s previous film“Drugstore Cowboy”) Overall, the film also has formal similarities with Burroughs’ work, the meandering storylines, the lack of a “resolution” or a denouement, and the fact that one could go through the individual segments in a different order, without affecting the efficacy of the narrative.

But obviously, as with Burroughs’ work, this did not go down well with a section of the critics, particularly those from the old school, so to speak. Richard Schickel, reviewing the film for TIME magazine, said “What plot it has is borrowed, improbably from Henry IV” (if borrowing from classical sources is such a heinous crime, then “Throne Of Blood” ,“Maqbool” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, should all stand in the dock), adding for good measure, that “even this is a desperate imposition on an essentially inert film” . Remember, it was the sagely TIME magazine which went on to include Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Devdas” in its Top Ten list for the year 2002, citing “the pretty frocks worn by Aishwarya Rai” as one of the stellar reasons behind its choice. Another critic said that “My Own Private Idaho” was (and I quote) “nothing but set-pieces, tossed into a mix whose meaning is almost certainly private”.

These are, almost certainly, the same critics who famously articulated the “Good Gus/Bad Gus conundrum” , attributing to Van Sant a schizophrenic output, which according to them, veered between the very, very good, and the absolutely horrid. Predictably, the films which they hold up as being examples of the Bad Gus persona of Van Sant turn out to be the ones which do not follow the Great Hollywood Plot (Elephant and Gerry are two such notable examples), the ones which are truly exuberant artistic expressions of a master, but are trashed because they defy genres and do not conform to stereotypes, thus making them tougher to “pin” down. Perhaps these critics do not understand that art is innately easier to understand then to describe.

“My Own Private Idaho” exhibits the assured yet playful brushstrokes of a master artist, who would go on to make the superb “Good Will Hunting” , the minimalist masterpiece “Elephant” (which was inspired by the Columbia high school massacre) and most recently “Milk” which has to be one of the films of the decade. He has continued to tinker with the medium, experimenting boldly, his cinematic instincts sharp as ever, and his buccaneering spirit intact.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Harvey Pekar's "The Quitter"

Harvey Pekar has been the definitive working-class hero of the comics world over the last thirty years. His autobiographical series "American Splendor" , which started in 1976, ignited the underground comics movement which brought to prominence a whole generation of talented writers and artists and inspired many, many others like modern-day superstars like Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware. "American Splendor" was noted because of its focus on Pekar's everyday life, often featuring the ordinary, even mundane concerns of Pekar, who worked as a file clerk all his life (even after he became famous), his family and his neighbourhood. Followers of the series lapped it up, fascinated as Pekar's no-holds-barred, bare-all approach gave the comics a hitherto unseen gritty edge, and a realistic feel which was conspicuously absent in the superhero-dominated mainstream comics world inhabited by giants like Marvel Comics. His divorce, his struggles with cancer, his exasperation with brain-dead Hollywood producers..... all these and more were incorporated into the books, delivered with Pekar's trademark bitter, satirical voice, and his fierce appreciation of the trials of the underdog.

"The Quitter" was released in 2005, under the Vertigo imprint of DC comics, a label which had been producing a judicious mix of conventional comics like Hellblazer and Swamp Thing, along with some seminal works like Neil Gaiman's acclaimed Sandman series, and Alan Moore's V For Vendetta. It focusses chiefly on the pre- American Splendor Pekar, (although towards the end, we are given a glimpse into the making of the iconic series) specifically on his own impetuous nature, and his tendency to take failure hard.

From the first panel itself, it's clear that this is Pekar in a different, more playful avatar. To this end, the decision to rope in young upstart Dean Haspiel (who has worked with Pekar in the past on recent "American Splendor" books) was a masterstroke. In the very first page, Haspiel shows a bitter, wary Pekar, seemingly making a hurried exit, but then stops on an afterthought and says, nonchalantly, "I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, five weeks after the start of World War II... for what it's worth to anyone.." and then disappears to let the story unfold.

Pekar's childhood is portrayed in a very evocative manner, as Haspiel's crisp, sharp caricatures while drawing Pekar's Polish Jew immigrant family, segue smoothly into free-flowing curves, and cinematic, wide-angle action portraits of the frquent scraps that young Harvey gets into. In fact, the latter reminded me a lot of Eduardo Risso's superb, hard-as-nails depiction of ghetto neighbourhood fistfights in the Vertigo series "100 Bullets" , with which he made his name. Pekar himself delivers a few resounding punches, like the scene where he admits to feeling a dark, vindictive pleasure at thrashing a kid, with little provocation; a sort of karmic payback for all the times he'd been beaten up by groups of black kids in his old neighbourhood.

Pekar has always been a huge supporter of comic books as an art medium, exemplified by his now-famous assertion (which makes an entry here as well), "Comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures." He also has noted, on occasion, the many similarities between comic books and movies, asserting that comics could achieve everything that movies have, till date. This "cinematic approach" is prominently on display, both in the frequent appearances of the adult Pekar, offering bitter homilies about the many mistakes he committed in his youth. He serves as a narrator, a peddler of after-the-event wisdom as well as a kind of deliberate de-lineating device, pointing out among other things, that "things do not always change all that much" which has been a recurring theme of the American Splendor series as well.

In a particularly striking sequence, the young Harvey is advised by his mothers to apologize to the kids who'd been bugging him, and were subsequently beaten up by Harvey. She advises him to compromise because "sometimes it doesn't matter if you are right or wrong, as long as you get along with your friends". The young Harvey notes the irony of the situation, because his mother was supporting Henry Wallace, the under-fire Communist-backed presidential candidate at the time, and zealously at that. His internal monologue in this regard (see picture) has been shown depicted brilliantly by Haspiel, who deserves full points here.

The pace of the book mirrors Harvey's growth as a person. At first the frequent rants against errant coaches, unhelpful parents or snooty kids get a bit repetitive, but the story gets a shot in the arm as Harvey starts his final year in high school, and the burden of the approaching future starts getting too much for him to handle. In one of his appearances as the present-day Pekar, he confesses that all these years later, he is still every bit as insecure as ever, worrying about bad reviews, the dipping sales of his comics... you name it. In a very interesting move, Haspiel draws a starkly different, wraith-like Pekar, eyeballs popping out, wrinkles grossly overdone, perhaps to show the effect negativity and worry has upon a man. This is just one of the many artistic flourishes which can be seen every now and then in "The Quitter", both in the writing and in the artwork.

This is classic Pekar fare, enhanced both by his own increased maturity and his famed proclivity for taking artistic risks. In Dean Haspiel, he has a worthy partner-in-crime, and one can only hope that we see more of him in the days to come. It is important to mention here that "American Splendor" boasts of a tremendous ensemble of artists who made it big as comic book creators in their own right. Apart from Robert Crumb, who went on to become the patron saint of the underground comics movement, as well as a prominent counterculture figure, the series boasted of names like Alison Bechdel (whose 2006 graphic memoir "Fun Home" made it to the NYTimes Best Books Of The Year List), Gilbert Hernandez( co-creator with his brothers Jaime and Mario of the amazing and iconic "Love and Rockets" series, one of my all-time favourite comic books), Chester Brown ("Ed The Happy Clown"), Jim Woodring, Gary Dumm and Eddie Campbell (artist of "From Hell" , writer Alan Moore's magnum opus and one of the most important graphic novels of all time.)

Harvey Pekar remains one of the most important comic-book creators around, and in his own words, he hopes to "bring out "American Splendor" for as long as I can".