The common themes in both of these very well made Alexander Payne films are old age, the superficiality of human (read familial) relations and the ugliness that we have, bereft of options, increasingly come to celebrate as the ordinariness of everyday life. Payne brilliantly succeeds in unraveling the layers that comprise this ordinariness. Having watched these films, I found myself reflecting over the cinematic consequences of such an attempt. I am not sure if Payne intended to turn it sad and sour in the end. Despite being ‘light’ films, they end up leaving a very unpleasant taste. The images that persist are of sagging chins and balding heads, of jammed knees and of smelly underarms and of poor dinner tables and bland soup. The protagonists in both the films- Jack Nicholson as Schmidt and Bruce Dern as Woody deliver excellent performances and in doing so make us look inward into the crevices of our familial and professional lives. No prizes for guessing that we see only make do arrangements all over. What disturbs the most is the dumbness and the stupidity with which one goes about rejecting one permutation of sociality over other equally painful combinations. Be it divorce, moving away from parents or choosing a new lover, one is always face to face with hope and despair in equal measures. Roaming about the city and the urban neighborhoods in Omaha and Nebraska with these old men- sick of their wives and dim wit children and with a loathing of the treatment the world has meted out to them post retirement, we get to see the meaninglessness of self-imposed obligations that shape the entirety of our lives. Both the films have a number of characters that do little to repose our faith in the ideals of personal and social responsibility and in virtuous conduct. What guides their behavior is instead selfishness and a go with the flow attitude that is hilarious and yet extremely irritating. Mulroney’s act as the mediocre sales rep specially left me wondering about the trajectories that lives of people like him follow. Not that those of people like me would be any better. Overall, these powerful films leave their mark. They mirror very truthfully what and who we are today and force us to suspend judgment and go back to celebrating once again how ordinary have we all become. Watch them in a series if you haven’t already. They are very ordinarily impressive. Congratulations to Mr. Alexander Payne!
For Delhi, it was a pleasant and a very pleasant relief from the baking heat that the city had been subjected to by the weather gods for the last one week or so. The drizzly storm that brew up at around noon grew into a cool,rainy and a windy evening. Alone at home, I was in no mood to read or write, cook or eat. After the evening news debates that I am these days quite addicted to, I had some light dinner and sat down to watch the Dallas Buyer’s Club. Had read and heard about the film and owing to its HIV and medicine related focus, I was not very keen on watching it. Just that science and medicine do not really interest me as much. I however, did play the film and was soon engrossed into the plot. Matthew McConaughey’s magnificent performance impressed me no end and frankly speaking, was taken aback by the sheer brilliance of the dialogues, characters, the landscape and the overall imagination of the director. What makes the film special is the uninhibited force with which it exposes the insecurities and looming anxieties of AIDS patients. I appreciated the film more for its political incorrectness and its poignant appraisal of a development in the field of medicine and science as it would have unfolded decades ago. If you haven’t seen this film, rest assured, you have missed out on one of the best ever performances in Hollywood cinema.
Done with the film, I dozed off for a while to dream of my address to a group of three very good looking Muslim men seated on a charpoy. Dressed impeccably in well fitting black suits and with trimmed beards, they listened attentively to my lecture on the beauty of spaces and places. I remember telling them “It’s hard for me to believe that people do not like certain places. How can they not? Aren’t all places beautiful? Pakistan for instance- although I have never been there- surely must be as beautiful a place as any other in the world- with its markets and its people.” I remember mentioning Mecca as well and the listeners nodding their head in strong approval. I recall telling them about Genet and about how spaces as undesired as prisons have been spots where the best of autobiographies, political literature and the fondest of letters have been written. In the dream, I realised that the listeners did not tire of my unending trite talk and a confusion about the reason behind their continued interest woke me up.
Checked my clock to see that it was 1:25 a.m. and there was no power. That meant I had missed the FIFA World Cup opening ceremony. It was not long that I waited for it, and the power was restored by 1:50 and I quickly switched on the TV and saw that Brazil had scored a self goal, Neymar had already been shown a yellow card and Croatia was not as weak in front of the great team as I had taken them to be. Watched the rest of the match sipping coffee and occasionally falling back on the possible meaning that the dream could have. The last twenty minutes of the match were captivating and the goal by Oscar in the extra time was delightful. After the match got over, I went off to sleep again and had another vivid dream about which I shall talk about sometime later. Do share what you think the dream might mean. I would be interested in hearing from you. The morning right now is cool, windy, drizzly and pleasant to say the least. What was last night for you like?
(Watched A Dangerous Method in the evening and was once again tempted to believe in the power of the methods of Psychoanalysis. The film in a way inspired this post.)
How I despise the pace at which this moment keeps passing by. It was rich with possibilities and forever in my memory will it remain. From the hinterlands of memory another that comes to mind at once is here in words.
It is an ultra sunny day in July or August in early 80s. The class at the primary school in the village is on. Seated on a mat in line with some five to six other girls and boys I shout with them “Six twos are twelve, six threes are eighteen…” and keep pinging my head up and down in sync with the rest. Ameen is on my right. The color cubes and the paint brush he has in his bag vie for my attention. Ameen draws and sketches very well. The cut quarter of a lemon or that of an apple made to lie neatly beside the whole fruit. Or even a bunch of grapes. The lovely curly motions of his pencil that would bring those berries to life on paper. In the wavelets of the pond overflowing nearby, rays of the sun twinkle like candles. Four naughty ones are swimming across the pond and calling each other names. They did not come to school today. The head boy pronouncing of those judgments on the relations between digits is asked to stop and go to his seat. The bell rings and all of us shout “Chhuttiiiii”. We collect our things, pick up our bags and run out of the verandah of the school. My eyes search for Ameen. Will he get his color box tomorrow? Don’t walk with him beyond a point. He takes a separate route back home. Mine passes through the field where peas are grown every winter. White clouds run amok on the canvas of the blue sky. Panting, running and panting again, I reach home. My elder brother has come home for a few days. It’s his break time at the engineering college. He gives me his glasses, and I try them out. The world around me goes as dark as a night. I remove the glasses and look around. Get disappointed to see that nothing actually had changed. Put the glasses on and it gets dark once more. Believe me, I have searched for those glasses at so many opticians till date and yet none of them have ever shown me one that makes it appear so cloudy and rainy as those first glasses of my life did. My brother is tall, has so many friends. Everyone seems to love him. To talk to the men who till those pea fields, he sits on the cot with one of his legs spread out and the other hinged around the knee forming a triangle of a bridge. A pillow in his lap may be. He laughs, pats me somewhere on the cheek and asks everyone if I was doing well. He has these lovely shirts. Stripes of blue and red and white- I have never seen any of those in any of the shops I have gone to myself. It is raining today and he throws away his plate in anger. Steel bowls make noise and Pooris dance. His motorcycle bathes unabated in the rain. I am busy with a Hindi children’s magazine. Engrossed in finding out the missing resemblances in a set of two photographs in the puzzle section of the same. I have to find out fifteen differences in all and so far have only marked out three. A game of Ludo is about to begin. The four colored houses in the game are receiving their occupants. Four heads will soon lean over them and the ‘tik tik’ of the dice in the small box will decide futures.
These songs and the burnt, blackened forests that they stream from. Born in the pile of ashes that those twigs and leaves turned into once the raging fire engulfed the greenery where the deer and the hare galloped, the elephant bathed and the snakes swirled, danced and stung the bores. The leaves with the flames lost all that was damp and polite about them. They hardened, the chlorophyll evaporated and their skeletal remains chipped, cracked and fell to the ground. Those frames rested on the ground and poked the musician of nature to take pity and sing sing and sing.
The clocks kept ticking. Life needed an age to come back to work in the woods. The musician was all the time at work. No leave for him. When prosperous, songs of dance and tunes of romance got flourishing down to my soul and the time soon came when the deserted vacuüm sent across melodies of pain, destitution and recluse.
Heart felt miseries of love and loss and of heat and rain come in one place and make the mind swoon. The elixir of being a have not balances all the loss and it feels extraordinary to know or even think of how the orchestra must have went on when something was collected from the vicinity of the woods and then re recorded in the studios- places where most of the destinies of our eardrums are written every moment.
Times change, places change and so do melodies. What separates the fate of melodies from that of the woods and the elephants is that sound has wings. It can flutter and fly across borders of taste and hatred. Mellifluous was the word invented not for the gallops but for the sounds those hoofs make. Sights disappear, sounds do not. Ever wondered why it is far more difficult shutting one’s ears than closing one’s eyes? A cousin of mine used to talk to me about a machine that would soon be able to recollect all the sounds that people in the world ever made. Amen!
The world of languages fascinates me. Given a chance to fulfil a wish, I would jump at mastering as many languages as possible. It is one of my earnest desires. Thankfully my career as a student of Sociology and Social Anthropology does not come in the way. For having a way with languages is considered to be an added qualification in this branch of social science. The level of fascination is so high that on meeting new people, I make all direct and indirect attempts to find out the number of languages they know. People with multilingual abilities impress me so much. I must confess of a sense of envy that crops up in the subconscious.
So far I have been a slightly decent sample of the ‘rolling stone’ variety with a little moss gathered here and there in my brain. My efforts directed towards learning languages have met a mixed fate. Some were disasters, some weren’t as disappointing.
While in college, I enrolled for a year-long part-time certificate programme in French. I passed easily. Basking in the little glories of ‘bonjour’, ‘comment ca va?’, ‘je suis desolee’ and several verb-forms, I enrolled for a diploma in the following year. Things had changed by that time. My attendance at the lectures declined because of my participation in everything else that college and hostel life had to offer.The French syllabus suddenly appeared monstrous to me as the number of lessons had shot up. I remember that my examiner at the viva voce examination asked me to describe to her ‘an imaginary stay at a hotel in France’. I would definitely not like to talk about the look that dawned on her face as soon as I shook my lips. It was clear that she tried her best to find some meaning in the nonsense that I had tried faffing up. Thanks to her strict marking that the French train I rode for those two years came to a screeching hault. It still stands at the same station and waits for a green signal from my side. It has been over ten years now and I have no idea of when and how will my ‘rendezvous’ avec ‘le langue Francais’ resume?
Urdu and Arabic
The experiences of learning French kept me mum for another few years till I finished my masters. The fieldwork for my Ph.D. research
began in 2006 where it was essential for me to learn the language that my respondents used. During the course of my interactions with the members of the Jamaat in Delhi and in Uttar Pradesh, I had to take up learning Urdu with a fresh zeal. This time I was sincere with the classes and made the best out of my year-long association with the masters. Thanks to this attentive phase as it enabled me to comfortably read, write and speak Urdu. I did a large part of my year long fieldwork at a madrasa in Azamgarh where I made many friends. One of the senior Maulanas here was extremely kind and generously helped me polish my Urdu. Satisfied with the progress I made, he gave me around a dozen intensive classes in preliminary Arabic. I could finish a primer with him in those classes. Sincere gratitude to his support and guidance. He made the subject so engaging and I was the most influenced by the method of his teaching. He continuously worked with me to dispel the notion that the language of the holy Quran is tough to understand and learn. He did make it clear by the end of my fieldwork that Arabic could be learnt as easily as any other foreign language.
Having finished fieldwork, I came back to the university. I could now fluently read Urdu newspapers and could use the literature that I had collected for my thesis. I got enrolled for a course in Arabic which was hugely helpful in advancing the basic knowledge I had received from the Maulana. I found Arabic to be quite like Sanskrit in its structure and syntax. The rules of person, tense and number are very similar in both the languages . There are similar verb forms and combinations to be memorised. Arabic surely isn’t that difficult a language to learn as it might initially sound.
One of the most fascinating aspects of university life is that it is a platform where people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds get a chance to intermingle. Numerous ideas, varieties of knowledge systems interact and are discussed and shared. Each time that I listen to my friends using their own language, the linguistic lust gets ignited in me. I quickly add to my kitty some of the interesting sounds from their conversation with a hope that there would be a day when this kitty shall be useful. 😛
Another occasion that triggers the madness is when I watch a film in any of these languages. The wish to learn Bangla was at its peak when a friend gave me a DVD of Ritwik Ghatak’s classic films. While admiring his genius in films like Meghe Dhaake Taara, Naagrik, Baari Theke Paaliye and Jukti Gappo Tarko, I noticed that I was for a brief while intent on learning the Bengali language. Thankfully I did not enrol anywhere and continued paying attention to the work I was supposed to be doing. A similar week-long Marathi phase passed not so long ago. That week was all about the Lavani and Nautanki videos on Youtube.
The latest one to have smitten me is Tamil. The craving began a couple of days back when I watched Mani Ratnam‘s Iruvar once again. Iruvar is a brilliant film that presents a fictionalised account of the friendship and the political rivalry between the cine-political personalities from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu- MG Ramachandran and KM Karunanidhi. Snippets from the Dravidian movement find interesting space in the film. It bespeaks of the power that cinema and poetry can play in electoral politics. The characters of the playwright politician (played by Prakash Raj) and that of the Tamil cine star (played by Mohanlal) are amazingly portrayed. Powerful poetry rules the film from its’ beginning till the end. This unending appreciation for Iruvar is only to slyly mention to the reader that Tamil has made it to my list too!
For this mega project of mine (clearly I haven’t done enough for it) inspiration isn’t lacking. The Indian Prime Minister Mr P V Narasimharao’s mother tongue was Telugu and he had an excellent grasp on Marathi. In addition to eight other Indian languages, he spoke English, German, Persian, Arabic, French, Spanish, Greek and Latin. Thinking of him and the others of his stature thrills me no end!
This is to end by saying that dreams and aspirations are integral life processes. They lead mostly into the domain of the impossible. They at times stand for the best and the worst in us. It can be fruitful to ponder over the dreams that recur. And yes! dreams alone do not and cannot mean much until and unless intelligently pursued!