Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Last Lear - There's Something About Harry

The key to establishing a connection with the retired Shakespearean theatre actor, Harry, in Rituparno Ghosh's The Last Lear is to know your Shakespeare well. A neophyte journalist in the film learns it the hard way when he is quite literally thrown out of Harry's house because he doesn't know his Oberon from Oberoi, and Robin, for him, is – so obviously – Robin Hood. On the other hand, his friend, Siddharth, a film director, is welcomed with open hands because he can precisely quote the play, act and scene from where Harry picks a few lines to recite.

It's not much different for the audience of the film as well. One doesn't necessarily need to be extremely well-versed in Shakespeare to appreciate the film. But one definitely needs to have the same quality of mind and sensibility that is required to understand and appreciate Shakespeare. Appreciating the art and technique of Shakespeare's work also requires a certain level of patience and an open mind to decipher a language that is possibly alien in today's times. The same holds true for The Last Lear. The vocabulary and grammar (and I don't mean it in only in reference to the spoken word) of this film is markedly different from most films we get to see these days.

Rituparno Ghosh's films are an acquired taste. Given his predilection for long conversations between characters, it is easy to dismiss most of his films as ponderous, boring or verbose. But that's his style – his vocabulary, his grammar. Once one gets used to it, just listening to two characters talk in his films can be delightful. The way he sets up the conversations, the way the dialogue slowly develops, the way a scene builds up – I have come to appreciate all this after having watched Rituparno's films like Unishe April, Utsab, Chokher Bali, Raincoat and Antar Mahal. Having said this, I realize that I am generalizing the characteristics of his films based on a very few examples, which probably do not represent his best work even But this helped me set my expectations when I went to watch The Last Lear, and I must say that I came out mostly satisfied.

The film uses a fragmented, non linear narrative where the protagonist, Harry (Amitabh Bachchan), is revealed to the audience through two parallel recollections by a journalist (Jishu) and the conversations between women (Priety Zinta and Shefali Shah) who have been associated with Harry. Harry, as it is revealed, was a Shakespearean theatre actor who in his heydays had played almost every major Shakespeare character on stage – from Prospero to Oberon – but due to a whimsical decision walked away from the world of theatre and an opportunity to play the role he always wanted – King Lear. He has become a recluse, confined to his house, with the only connection with the outside world being the window of his room that provides his distractions in the form of shouting at casual passers-by who urinate against the wall of his house.

Enter Siddharth (Arjun Rampal), a film director who is making a film about an ageing circus joker. He wants to bring Harry back from self-imposed retirement and act in his film. There is a hitch, though. Harry has a strong dislike for films, which he believes is not an actor's medium as the director and technical areas like camera and editing shape a performance. It is here that Rituparno Ghosh brings to fore the theme of difference of approach between films and theatre. As the celebrated Russian film director, Andrei Tarkovsky, had observed:

"To me, it is easier to work with film than with theater. In the case of film, the sole responsibility for everything rests on me. In theater, the responsibility of the actor increases tremendously.
(In films) When an actor arrives at the set, it is not at all necessary for him to be acquainted with the director's ideas and intentions in their completeness. It is even disadvantageous that he himself shapes his own role. The film actor should act in a spontaneous and intuitive manner under the various circumstances prescribed by the director."

How Siddharth convinces Harry to act in his film sets the stage for some of the best moments in the film. Like the one where Siddharth and Harry develop a bond by watching the goings-on of the street outside on a CCTV. Or, the one where Harry demonstrates his theatre acting prowess by reciting Prospero's soliloquy from The Tempest. This particular scene takes on a surrealistic hue as the room suddenly transforms itself as though he was performing on stage.

When Harry agrees to be a part of Siddharth's film, the director wonderfully sets up a contrast. A man who has led a claustrophobic existence for a very long time gets a release when he returns to his love of acting. The director underscores this point by taking Harry out from the confines of his house to an outdoor location in the hills.

What happens after this point is immaterial, for instead of being a plot driven film, The Last Lear is a character driven film. There is an entire sub-plot with feministic shades that takes a whole lot of screen time, doesn't add much to the story, but works brilliantly in adding depth to the three female characters of the film. Shabnam (Preity Zinta), Vandana (Shefali Shah) and Ivy, the nurse (Divya Dutta) are holed up together in Harry's house on Diwali night and through their interactions, we not only learn more about Harry, but also about them. Then we have the journalist, who, at the surface, might seem like just a character introduced to frame the narrative, but really represents Siddharth's conscience.

There were a few things that did not work well for me in the film. I would have liked it more, had the director explored a bit more about the differences between theatre and film acting and how Harry copes up with it. A further insight into how Harry adjusts himself to the piecemeal, director-driven acting of films, would have made this theme richer for me. Secondly, the ending was a bit too open-ended for my liking. But these were minor deterrents in a film that was on the whole quite satisfying.

The performances by all the supporting actors are good, but Shefali Shah and Arjun Rampal really shine through. Shefali's is a finely nuanced performance, one of the very best by any actress this year. She is usually good in any role she plays, but having watched her ham uncontrollably in Subhash Ghai's Black and White earlier this year, I am convinced that she needs a good director to bring the best out of her. Film is, after all, a director's medium!

That brings me to the performance of this film. Amitabh Bachchan as Harry is charismatic, very powerful, and entirely believable. If he appears a tad over-the-top it befits the character he plays. Theatre acting is all about loud expressions and gesticulation, after all, and a person who has worked on stage for "30 years and 9 months", Harry had to be a bit over-the-top. Whenever he switches to Shakespeare, it might not be the best rendition of Shakespeare one would have seen, but his charismatic screen presence and commanding voice is such that you cannot but stay glued to the screen. That, in my opinion, is the hallmark of masterful performance. As the movie ends, you realize that Amitabh Bachchan demands applause from you, much like Prospero's final speech in The Tempest where he asks the audience let their indulgence set him free.
Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.