Sunday, September 18, 2005

Padmarajan: A Loss in January

[Malayalam Movie director and writer 1945 - 1991]

Padmarajan died in a cold January, untimely. He was in a hotel at calicut, in the middle of a celebration of his latest film Njaan Gandharvan (I, the celestial enchanter), in 1991. It was as if audience of the show was subjected to a dismayed silence, and the show was stalled. I for one who had just begun waking upto adolescence and the charm of his creative genius, felt the void, instantly.

Padmarajan started his career as a writer. Unfortunately I have not read any of his books. I know him from his films. If the literary quality of his films is anything to go by, they must be a world to discover. In fact like most of the films, his first film was based on his own novel Peruvazhiyambalam (The grand roadway Inn, 1979). The movie tore down the mythical fence between popular and art house movies. He pioneered the middle of the road solution for commercially succesfull good films and began a short lived golden period of malayalam films alongside Bharathan, Aravindan and M.T. Vasudevan Nair.

The plot of Peruvazhiyambalam was set in a non-descript village somewhere in kerala. It revolved around Raman, an adolescent who inadvertantly killed Prabhakaran Pillai in a scuffle. Pillai, a local bully persecuted him and coveted his sister. After the incident Raman lived in hiding with the help of a truck driver and a prostitute. The movie ended with Raman's realization of his persona as a ravager of Pillai's hapless family. We find the extra-ordinary circumstances in the lives of ordinary people and the choices they made to deal with them.

However the movie was a riot in a deeper sense when Padmarajan ever so subtly slipped in the psychoanalytical threads to metatag the life of Raman in lieu of his insecurities as a teenager, his perceptions of sexuality and growth in a seemingly hostile world. Another aspect of the movie was the use of violence as a leitmotif, which later became an identity of his oeu·vre. He was perhaps the only indian director to deal with psychosis and clinical psychology with some competence. Its interesting to watch him map the animalistic psychological behaviour of his characters to the spatial fields of social consciousness, with an amazing flair for story telling.

Padmarajan is known for his native and localized plots and characters. It is a little unfair on the non-native viewer to pick up on the nuances, but then so was Faulkner's art and so was Ozu's art. I have marvelled at this comparison for sometime. Faulkner's southerner retard Benjy imparted a shock to the readers and similarly viewers were shaken by Padmarajan's blend of anarchist and sexually challenged protagonists.

He made Oridathu Oru Phayalvaan (There lived a wrestler, 1982), a folk parable about the success and failure in the life of a wrestler whose successes in the wrestling arena were starkly contrasted with his sexual impotency. This film portrayed the marginal characters (like the frog catchers) with such brilliance that the movie had an organic existence delineated in a multi dimensional narrative. It provoked an urgent and instant response from the audience. Kallan Pavithran (Pavithran, the thief, 1981) and Arappatta kettiya gramathil (The village with a waist band, 1986) - the story of a bunch of prostitutes and pimps in a village) had the stamp of his magic with precision, warmth and an empathy devoid of prejudice. It was life unclassified.

Like Ozu, Padmarajan was a story teller and relied on the total impact rather than partial brilliance. Philosophically he seemed to share Ozu's social conservatism and perennially interested in the concepts of epic and lyrical times. He even made a movie similar to Ozu's Tokyo Story, Thinkalazcha, Nalla Divasam (Monday, the Good Day).

He went on to make major movies such as Namukku Parkan Munthiri Thoppukal (1986) (Vineyards for us to live), Thoovanathumpikal (1987), Moonnaam Pakkam (The third day) (1988), Aparan (1988), Innale (1989) and finally Njan Gandharvan - 1991 (The Celestial Lover). Each movie followed a different genre in themes, techniques and plots. If the movie, Vineyards to live was an inspired take off on Solomon's song and a beautifull thought on the biblical promise of vineyard for each other by lovers, The Celestial lover was about the phantasmagoric life of a nubile where she found her heavenly lover out of the blue sky, only to be punished by higher powers.

Ironically Padmarajan vanished abruptly, amid life's celebration and at the peak of his almost ethereal creative powers. His films spanned a little over a decade. In the first half he displayed an exceptional ability to bring raw power and subliminal nature of human relationships and the next half lingered more on his liking for variety and experimentation. He endeared most of the viewers like myself with his earlier movies. I was hoping to watch him cover unchartered waters, with the unprecedented support from almost all sections of movie goers. Everything looked perfectly set. But then there was this intervention of death.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Life: A User's manual

I read Georges Perec's book Life: A User's manual when I was a master's student of physics. I toiled and floundered about the books and lectures on classical and quantum mechanics, basically for a degree. The LaGrangian and Hamiltonian equations, the particle theories, its graduation to quantum physics and further, Schrödinger and Heisenberg's equations went past me in a haze.

I was grappling with the concept of constraints in LaGrangian Mechanics when I read the preface of Perec's book which forewarned the reader of the games and artifacts he employed in his novel. Perec although wrote the book to be eminently readable, made no bones about the underlying vehemence of his forays into constraints and order in its construction - the sequence of chapters to follow the algorithm of a chess game, jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, complex mathematical probabilistic algorithms to organize the literary elements (objects, characters, situations, literary allusions and quotations, etc) in a certain order and even the indexing of the ninety nine chapters modeled after Dewey: all would give you a glimpse of an architect's mind focused at work. He was non-committal on its grandeur and stoic about its futility, acutely aware of the opus of life and immeasurably dispassionate observant of its goings on, so that he had another way of explaining the inexplicable.

La Grange essentially said, imposing constraints on a system is simply another way of stating that there are forces present in the (physical) problem that cannot be specified directly, but are known in terms of their effect on the motion of the system - Perec adopted this application of constraints as an empirical approach to the process of writing and its eventual reading.

Perec was part of the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Oulipo) group, devoted to the study of literary form. Under the benevolent leadership of Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, the Oulipo worked--and works still, today--to identify and re-invigorate forms that literary history had cast aside. With equal fervor, they postulated new ones, based on systems of rigorous formal constraint, leading one member of the group to propose a definition, tongue firmly in cheek: "Oulipians: Rats who must build the labyrinth from which they propose to escape." Georges Perec found a home in the Oulipo, in the company of other writers such as Jacques Roubaud, Harry Mathews, Italo Calvino, and Marcel Bénabou.

Life A User's Manual tells the story of a ten storied building, in the fictional 11, rue Simon-Crubellier, in Paris, minutely describing its interior and how it relates to the lives of those who lived there, but most of all it tells the stories, 179 in total, of its inhabitants. The order, in which the different stories are told, is determined by a famous chess problem: how to visit every spot on the board using only the knight’s move. Once the constraints are set, you would find Perec as anybody but a formalist. His deep affection and feel for the characters and their lives, with all its idiosyncrasies and synchronicities. Each of the stories would make you react in different ways and in many ways brings forth one's own personal history of reading and literary forms ever known. You wonder, laugh, ponder, worry and mystify over those stories just like any other book. However they are all told in reinvented genres: romance, drama, detective, adventure and murder mystery about what is experienced, read about or dreamed up by an array of restaurateurs, mediums, cyclists, antique dealers and pious widows. Here is the summary of some of the stories:

  • A trapeze artist's swansong at the circus to execute the perfect and impossible feat that led to his death.
  • An Archeologist at the Nile tries to rescue a beautiful German girl from a harem.
    A judge's wife, whose sexually thrilling thefts result in a sentence of hard labor, ends as a bag lady on a park bench.
  • A murder mystery where the protagonist seeks to avenge the unknown and obscure person for the murder of his wife and daughter. Having lost all hopes to solve the mystery, he adopts the Monte Carlo theory of probability to find the perpetrator at an arbitrary location, i.e. the opera house. Finally you get a suggested account of the perpetrator's efforts to dodge him and the eventual acknowledgement after he realized that they barely missed each other.
  • Story of a tragedy stricken family for generations and a prophecy on the fate of the present inheritor in near future. All you find is a slice of time when she visits the empty apartment, in the book.

The stories hardly leave a doubt in one's mind on the amazing story telling ability of Perec while he negotiates the premises with the reader, thereby keeping the big picture firmly in the backdrop and establishes multiple channels of communication with the reader. That is where Perec brings in his central character Bartlebooth, the millionaire maverick painter, Gaspard Winckler, his cohort and Valene, the concierge of the apartment complex and narrator of the crosswords of stories.

Bartlebooth sets out on a journey around the world to paint watercolors of 500 different harbors and seaports, a journey which would take him another 20 years. Every other week he visits another town and every other week he sends a watercolor to his assistant Gaspard Winckler, who glues the paintings on a wooden board and makes them into a jigsaw puzzle of 750 pieces each. In 1955, having finished all 500 watercolors, Bartlebooth returns home and begins to solve the puzzles. Once put together the puzzles are to be resolved from their backing and taken to where they were painted, where they are to be erased with some detergent. Bartlebooth will thus be left with what he started with, an empty sheet of paper. Beginning and end would coincide. But things don’t go as planned.

To revenge himself for 20 years of pointless work, Gaspard Winckler has made the jigsaw puzzles ever more difficult. Almost blind Bartlebooth dies as he haphazardly attempts to finish the 439th puzzle. As Perec writes in the last paragraph of the 99th chapter:

"It is the twenty-third of June nineteen seventy-five, and it is eight o'clock in the evening. Seated at his jigsaw puzzle, Bartlebooth has just died. On the tablecloth, somewhere in the crepuscular sky of the four hundred and thirty-ninth puzzle, the black hole of the sole piece not yet filled in has the almost perfect shape of an X. But the ironical thing, which could have been foreseen long ago, is that the piece the dead man holds between his fingers is shaped like a W."

Gaspard Winckler who died two years earlier has triumphed, but it has been a meaningless triumph.

In a paragraph, Perec described the grand project of life, the inherent meaninglessness and latency of human efforts to circumvent the inevitable realization and finally the intervention of chances to thwart every scheme ever to be conceived. Our lives are built around innumerable social, ethical, moral, physical, biological and other constraints. Some we accept and some we don’t, hardly ever noticing the perceived chaos and order influenced by how those constraints are applied. For someone who wrote a novel devoid of the letter "e" and the frontrunner of literature forms and OULIPO movement, this is the summit, where you ride past the literary subcultures of such writers as Joyce, Borges, Calvino, Flaubert and Kafka.

For now I am speechless to say anything more. Go read it, because the book belongs to you, my dear reader.

Saving the World!

It came about in this way. During the children's revolt of the sixties and the seventies, I was just old enough to understand what t...