Tuesday, January 25, 2011

REAL LIFE AND REEL LIFE

The recent viewing of the film NO ONE KILLED JESSICA reminded me of the challenges of translating an an acutual incident onto celluloud. The sensational night when model/bartender Jessica Lal was shot by a boorish politician’s ‘beta’ fired the imagination of India on and off for seven years. The portrayal of the actual night of the shooting with the owner of the resto-bar, socialite Bina Ramani and her daughter Malini Ramani , was quite different from the actual flow of events. The mother was portrayed like distracted floozy and the daughter, a self righteous bimbette. Was that accurate? Knowing the mother, I can say that it was not like feisty Bina Ramani I used to know in New York in the last century. But that was life and this, before me, was the film.
How many biopics or incidents actually capture the person or the event truthfully? The answer is a paltry few. RAY, on the musician Ray Charles, WALK THE LINE on American country music sensation Johnny Cash, ALI on boxer Muhammad Ali are some sterling examples. Closer to home, NAYAKAN on the Mumbai don Varadaraj Mudaliar, BANDIT QUEEN on the explosive Phoolan Devi, Sivaji Ganesan’s VEERAPANDI KATTABOMMAN and the multiple award winning GANDHI(although made by British director Richard Attenborough) are some of the excellent films inspired by real events and people. Several others plummet into the chasm due to a deadly cocktail of misplaced reverence and self indulgent ego.

In the case of GANDHI, Attenborough recounts the resistance in actually portaying the Mahatma as a flesh and blood person. The groupies wanted him portrayed as a FLAME ! “A bloody flame!” as Attenborough exclaimed in a TV interview. Imagine if the shrill screams of intolerance were able to silence the brilliance of Ben Kingsley and the now iconic film that continues to inspire a new generation of young Indians.
Generally, we Indians are weak at writing and filming biographies. How many truly honest self reflexive books have we read authored by icons of our times? In the world of performing arts, I can honestly say that most autobiographies are merely hagiographies. The unnecessary attitude of hallowed worship misses the human side of the artiste. Rare examples are RUKMINI DEVI by Leela Samson, CHANDRALEKHA by Rustom Barucha and AE MOHABBATEIN by Rita Ganguly on singer BEGUM AKHTAR are three exceptions where the human side of this renaissance triad was shared, warts and all.
We are also brittle when an outsider attempts to capture the essence of any of our great epic traditions. Many of you may not recall the superb 9 hour stage adaptation of the Mahabharata by British director Peter Brook which launched dancer Mallika Sarabhai’s international career. In 1986 I watched the production in New York city at the transformed Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was, in one word – breathtaking- in imagination, scale and performance. When the production attempted to tour India, a maelstrom of protest began. How could Bhishma Pitamaha be a dark African actor? How dare Sri Krishna speak with a French accent? Bhima from Burkina Faso? Impossible! Never! Nobody should be addressed by their names – Only Arya Putra or Aryaa Putri ! And the outrage continued until the entire tour was called off to our disappointment and dusgust.
So, while watching the glossed over incident on the night of Jessica Lal’s fatal shooting in what was otherwise a fairly good film, I walked out the movie theatre wondering why the bungled cover up by Bina and Malini Ramani after the killing and so many other actual TEHELKA- revealed facts were never mentioned. But that may not have made for a sensational sex hungry, headlines grabbing TV journo Rani Mukherjee character.
And so it goes.. from Real life to Reel life..

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