TO HAVE AND TO HOLD

These are stories that were steadfast in their depictions of individual lives and came to hold a deep place in my heart because the often suppressed voices of enterprising females ran roughshod over gender and racial constructs, to the point of enduring even in the face of alienation.

So here I share my thoughts on them, with special mentions handed out to two distinctive works.

***

ALEX HALEY’S QUEEN, EPISODES 2ND AND 3RD(1993)

I had written about this underrated, three part miniseries earlier, my essay vignette restricted to its first episode only.

The second and third episodes very organically built on the indomitable spirit of the titular protagonist, a historical figure in a mass of unrecognized personages who had the black marks of race imprinted on her very soul. She also happened to be iconic writer Alex Haley’s grandmother. Her divided loyalties in a society built on not just class but racial considerations meant her interracial identity always haunted her while her light skin wedged her on opposing sides of the spectrum. She was neither one of them, instead she was a full-bodied individual and in the post Civil War reckoning, she easily could have accepted her marginalized status. Fitting in and finding a ‘home’ befalls those who are orphaned by fate and QUEEN’S ironic destiny was such.

Halle Berry brings such poignancy, strength of character to even her gloomiest personal moments precisely because her embodiment is equal to the non-exploitative nature of storytelling. There are multiple scenes within this body of work where compassion stretches its limits, breaks cruelty’s tentative spell and people who share all shades of skin colour traverse a whole plethora of human emotions.

***

LORRAINE TOUSSAINT, DANNY GLOVER as shining beacons of selfless support, the two ladies who played missionaries attesting to the same complexity of ideas and deeds were particularly memorable and so was a young JUSSIE SMOLLETT as Queen’s youngest son who understood her lifetime of experiences better than any kindred adult. Halle was devastatingly real with her share of mental toll signifying the generational thump of racism and was triumphant by advocating for her son’s destiny as something far greater than her community’s statistic of sixth grade dropouts becoming premature sharecroppers. In one of her earliest performances, she truly traced the breadth of her dramatic talents and commitment to spotlighting authentic, transcendental African-American narratives. History will look at Alex Haley’s corpus as a watershed and QUEEN beautifully distills years and centuries of the African American community’s journey, making it worthwhile during the BLACK HISTORY MONTH. Every participant in this miniseries is a beneficiary since they honour their own ancestral arcs and humbly stand testament to a nation’s past, present and future as reflected in this three episode capsule.

For me, the theme music by Christopher Dedrick and photography by Tony Imi go hand in hand with its biographical truth. Its depiction of race relations and the precedents shaping societies hold water to this date.

**

THE OTHERS(2001)

Alejandro Amenabar’s English language hit feature THE OTHERS was always on my radar. All points considered, its gothic entanglements of atmospherics and the mental alienation wrought by Nicole Kidman’s lead performance make for an engaging tale, set at the end of the Second World War.

The conventions are fairly in place, including a matriarch occupying a huge mansion set in an estate that really falls nowhere close to human civilization, a perpetually foggy aura, two curious pre-teen children, one of whom is relentlessly high-spirited and unbending in the face of strictures, a newly arrived nanny who brings with her a storehouse of the usual mystery central to horror tropes and of course the characteristic of things going bump in the night. But is it all a work of supernatural forces or just the aftermath of psychological unraveling?

Also as the children are photosensitive to light, the darkness within the home is literal. It’s Ms. Kidman, her face a canvas of emotional malleability, who demonstrates an all-too recognizable strain of mothers everywhere, balancing her maternal core with an iron-clad resolve, all the while waiting for her husband(Christopher Eccleston) to return from the war. When he does, a quiet melancholy and tenderness seeps in a household longing for a reunion but it’s hauntingly short-lived.

At the end of it all, THE OTHERS, packing its surprises and true emotional value in the last half an hour, unfolds and genuinely moves us. As a home is a repository of familial relationships, we wonder how much do we truly belong under the roof we share, as flesh and blood individuals bound by a sacred bond. How much of our lives are really ours since external forces, social and otherwise ( in this case, the War and the threat of intruders, given its backlog of Nazi invasion on a desolate British isle) threaten to overwhelm us?

It also attempts then to rationally look at the nebulous idea of the afterlife, death and how in a moment, life can offer us an emotional wallop beyond our control.

Fionnula Flanagan is excellent here as the nanny who is similarly in throes of her own past while Alakina Mann and James Bentley as the two kids give it its innocence and petulance. Yes, I was reminded of THE TURN OF THE SCREW, that classic gothic novella by Henry James. But above all, THE OTHERS focuses very less on the horror paradigms and more on the vulnerabilities of a mother overlooking her own dark world, in which love for her children is the only source of light.

**

NORTH COUNTRY (2005)

Indian lawmakers have recently released a highly objectionable, almost perverse law that treats the act of groping without overt physical touch or extending to touch without contact under the clothing as not amounting to an instance of assault or sexual harassment, giving leeway to all the cat-callers and hooligans to indulge in those acts shamelessly. That it came in the light of a man’s acquittal in a case involving a minor age victim only makes it derogatory to the very core of human decency.

Trust me when I say that laws passed by a consortium of archaic minded males who refuse to look at the slightest possiblity of gender equality in a skewed consciousness extends itself to four corners of the world. NORTH COUNTRY (2005) is one such example as it collates a collective of female voices buckling under the pressure of institutionalized sexual advances and threat of physical harm, in a community of miners in Minnesota. The males attack them verbally and emotionally for daring to step into what they believe to be a male-centric domain. Shaming them into submission is their only ploy to uphold this twisted status quo. In the fight for employment, pay and food on the table, the female folk endure indignities, even when this internal rage at the system makes them ironically stand in opposition to an unified voice of reason. That’s how the patriarchy operates, to break down systems and turn friends against friends.

For Josie Aimes( Academy Award winner Charlize Theron, also nominated for the same accolade for this landmark role), it’s an uphill battle on multiple fronts since she is separated from her abusive husband, has two young children to look after and battles society’s judgements on top of her awakening for reform. This extends beyond sexual harrassment to equal pay and representation in the miners’ union. Her emotionally stirring backlog, courtesy Amber Heard’s investment in the role as a younger Josie, and warmth for her son, a child born out of wedlock in her teenage, add layers to her journey.

NORTH COUNTRY is devastating as we watch this cycle of harassment turn again and again, with the men stooping down to employing more repulsive verbal tactics and actions to discredit the women. Law too doesn’t side with them. It can be passed on as another show of ‘female suffering’ from those who want to turn away from harsh reality. But since we know about this cycle of abuse dominating our immediate present, the clarion call for change presented here, inspired by a historic lawsuit striking down sexual harrassment in the workplace, is revolutionary in its own way.

Jillian Armenante, Rusty Schwimmer, Michelle Monaghan, Sissy Spacek and the always reliable Frances McDormand(another Oscar winner who was nominated for her supporting arc in this instance) rally their support and men like the ones played by Sean Bean, Woody Harrelson, Corey Stoll too lend their weight. On the other end of the spectrum, Jeremy Renner exposes the torrent of male hegemony while Richard Jenkins expertly estimates his exhaustion, disappointment, resignation to gender strictures and a late awakening to his daughter’s fight within. His speech to a gallery of male egotists somehow reminds us how a man’s words mean more than a woman’s own when it comes to her rights. He has to stand up for his daughter even as her own honesty is stifled by boos and derision.

Ultimately, it’s a profound fight to achieving clarity and Charlize stands up to her own beliefs, knowing society can hardly change but a precedent can be set. Niki Caro directs it with the same burning agency for change.

****

SPECIAL MENTION

DIANA(2013)

I owe this one a special shout out, owing to the exquisite nature of Naomi Watts’ dedicated portrayal of the ever-stricken, ever-beloved Lady Diana. This biographical portrait of her last years bears a quietly simmering sense of tragedy by way of her romance and seemingly stable relationship with a benevolent doctor of Pakistani origin(the iconic Indian actor Naveen Andrews) until the media glare gets too much and her status as ‘the world’s most famous woman’ breaks the promise of joy.

Be it her meeting with her beloved’s family back in Lahore where his mother traces her own generational angst of a post Partition subcontinent contingent with the Crown’s own complicity in the social mapping of a land to her moments of desperation in which her loneliness completely shatters the picture-perfect ideal of her life after exiting confines of royal protocol; or her love for her sons, she conveys all with her eyes and body language. Ditto her sincere philanthropic efforts or anti-mining stance.

As most of it is based on actual accounts in the public domain, I could feel deeply about its authentic, factual core complemented by Watts’ sincere charm and innate melancholy. Emma Corrin has vowed us with her quintessential embodiment of Diana in THE CROWN. But before that came this wonderful and unjustly overlooked embodiment by Ms. Watts.

Put together, they make the iconic figure not just another historical reference alone and it’s time we gave them their due for it. I mean personally, it would have been remiss on my part to not appreciate DIANA for its non-sensational approach.

**

TRIBHANGA(2021)

Last but not the least comes the recently released Netflix original drama TRIBHANGA, a tale rooted in the lives of three generations of women in post-modern India, each with her own share of social burdens and the autonomy to challenge them.

With a mix of social commentary, issue based threads and above all humour, it strings together their journeys with a healthy intertwining of the past and present. Estranged bonds reveal their depths and everybody is given the space to breathe. Renuka Shahane, an esteemed actress and host of the pan-Indian pantheon show SURABHI, turns writer and director for the second time here after helming RITA. She achieves her trinity of balance and emotional flair with performers as consummate as TANVI AZMI, KAJOL and MITHILA PALKAR. However, the guilelessness and innocence of this complex tale lies with KUNAL ROY KAPOOR as Milan, a writer who speaks with chaste Hindi and is penning an autobiography of the matriarch at its center. He is au natural.

Realistically fleshed out and directed with sensitivity in a pithy screenplay, TRIBHANGA is a heartwarming addition to the growing canon of meaningful stories finding traction on streaming services. Here is art imitating life and vice versa in a compact whole.

****

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