Here I am, sharing my thoughts on some diverse works of artistic representation in the order I watched them.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE SEASON 4 (2021)
Thanks to Amazon Prime Video India, I was able to watch each weekly instalment of the acclaimed Hulu series with dense anticipation. This year, June’s courage to change her trajectory collided with the heavy burden of freedom after years of enslavement under a totalitarian regime.
With her escape and eventual resettlement in Canada becoming a reality this season, it truly felt like she had entered the modern era after the medieval indignities of Gilead. But Elisabeth Moss, who also took over as an able director on few episodes, carried the weight of her world with her usual expressive bounty. As a discerning viewer, one can clearly be made more than privy, on a subconscious level almost, to how it’s not just her body that bears imprints of being a handmaid but the disorientation afflicts her mind and soul . The silent tempers and dense atmospherics of this season made that very palpable.
That said, there were predictable beats when the cyclical pattern of escape, discovery, punishment and mental torture inevitably followed set precedents. It’s unfortunately also how a dictatorship works and maybe that’s why the first three episodes were able to ratchet up such tension even as the pace became more in tune with the interior churning of those seeking a way out.
What I took away from the fourth season is that the screenplay, in presenting an epic story of survival and guilt along with the arc of redemption and a hankering for justice, is rich with the granular details of reintegration for those who have experienced abuse at the hands of the state. Freedom for them isn’t just an idyll because the ghosts of a predatory past will haunt them to their grave.
Along with Moss, the performers rose to the occassion even as their characterisations need to be explored anew to pull them out of the established formula.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE SEASON 4 was intriguing and achieved a rare psychological unraveling in its later episodes. The finale too unspooled a retributive act involving the eternally dastardly Fred Waterford ( it’s striking how Joseph Fiennes playing him has now rivaled his brother Ralph’s iconic portrayal of Voldemort, to enter the hall of fame of on-screen villainy)
The underscoring theme this year was how one can never be the same after undergoing life-changing trauma. It’s a slow and brutal realization, mirroring ruthlessness and poignancy for survivors in their quest for justice. The price of freedom is that they wrestle with the new world in front of them. Future isn’t the term for it. It’s a reckoning for what lies in the very present. Cue the explosions of anger and assertiveness by June as the free land, too, shows its colours to her when negotiating with her tormentors in diplomatic whispers and a reunion with her beloved husband Luke arrests a real flowering of intimacy. The sheer reality of the execution on those fronts is outstanding.
Also, I would like to end this by praising McKenna Grace for her resilient and simultaneously vulnerable portrayal of a teenage Commander wife whose own scars tantamount to a history of sexual abuse made the initial episodes powerful.
A MEDLEY OF SUREKHA SIKRI’S OUTSTANDING CONTRIBUTION TO SHORT FORM TELEVISION SERIES.
Words alone cannot express my admiration for the legendary Surekha Sikri Ma’am. In addition to my eulogy directed towards her lifetime of excellence published few weeks ago, I also added three important short films from the late ’90s and early 2000s to my playlist. They hence become a part of this essay.
In all of them, she essayed the part of a grandmother/mother but with varying degrees, generating vital truths about how we cherish and simultaneously neglect our senior prefects a little too willingly.
The first is the legendary short story EIDGAAH by Munshi Premchand where her inestimable love for her parentless grandson is offset by her limited financial resources. However, that doesn’t stop her from getting a fine suit tailored for the young boy as he goes to the fair along with his friends who all come from better-off backgrounds in comparison. Little joys of life like offering prayers along with multitudes of all generations and being with friends is everything for him. So instead of spending his money on toys and food items, he gets his grandmother a much needed gift: an ordinary tong with which to hold the chapattis/rotis that she is used to preparing with bare hands, often causing her to have blisters. But she never complains. That sense of selfless love and sacrifice for her own new set of clothes for the auspicious occasion of Eid reflects in the boy. He learns from the example set by her.
This is such a beautiful story and told with such innocence and simplicity by Gulzar Saab. The playful banter between grandmother and grandson, her dignity and his own bottomless love for her singular presence in his life makes this such a rare gift for this otherwise consumerist generation.
The second entry on this list is KABAAD, an episode of the popular 1990s anthology series STAR BESTSELLERS. Here too, Surekha ji is distinctive with her earthy humility as an elderly woman who strikes up a wonderful rapport with a poor young man. He picks up scraps from her home, the otherwise socially neglected ‘Kabaadiwala’ as we call him in India. Watch her and the equally legendary Raghubir Yadav deliver a masterclass in human interaction, reminiscent of their origins in the naturalism of theatre. Here, Surekha ji is a neglected mother living among her always occupied son and daughter in law in Bombay, yearning to go back to her own home in another town and showering her love on her grandson, who’s away in boarding school, through regular phone calls.
So it’s natural that she finds a surrogate son in the Kabaadiwala and cares for his well-being, even gathering utensils for his household use. The reality of both their stations are equally poignant and the ending attests to that when hope makes way for startling revelations. Human connections are indeed forged from the heart. Watch this to learn a lesson in empathy and compassion.
The last short on this list was not sought by me but fell on my radar naturally, out of the blue. I’m grateful for that.
It’s titled DOORI( Distance) and is about an elderly lady from a Rajasthan village who has never set foot outside her provenance. Her ailing son’s admission in the nearby town’s hospital takes her along on an eye-opening journey of discovery about the larger world outside. A world that hardly needs her to exist or has patience for her enquiries or concern for a son she cannot locate on her own. Her stooping shoulders, hobbling walk and walking stick are stereotypes for folks who treat her shabbily.
In a nutshell, her age and poverty are her Achilles heel in this cruelly lop-sided scenario where all she seeks is to be by her son’s side at the hospital. That wish eludes her. ‘Running from pillar to post’ indeed becomes a living reality for her. I’ve seen it happen to so many over the years.
The last scene where she is mercilessly thrown out of the bus and stares at the ground in haplessness is a measure of the way Surekha Ma’am always manages to embody such timeless concerns. This one is a must watch and thanks to its director Uday Prakash uploading it on his own YouTube channel, it’s accessible to us. We have come a long way but our looming distance from a sense of humanity is striking in the modern age. This short amply demonstrates that bitter truth.
After experiencing the transcendence of Mani Kaul’s ultimate tribute to classical arts through the legendary documentary SIDDHESHWARI, DHRUPAD was the obvious choice for this cinephile to delve into another storied form of music.
Here, Mr. Kaul relays a quintessential Indian aesthetic true to the subject matter by bringing his devotional and yet original observational eye to the legendary Dagar family members, practitioners of the Dhrupad form since the last several centuries. This pathbreaking director was himself a student of music so he knows how to let the musical ambience be punctuated by the rudraveena, its haunting instrumental notes coalesced with the vocals. It reaches a level of mortal transcendence that should be unearthed anew by a current generation. It’s truly music of the Gods guided by human hands.
The further integration with architectural marvels, sculptures and open air performances along with narration of the Dhrupad’s patronage will remind one of both Kaul and Kumar Shahani’s oeuvre dedicated to this classical bounty. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful intertextual aesthetic, simple and effective in its presentation.
I was mesmerized by its singular focus on the Dagars regarding their practice of the form and the way they painstakingly exercise their gifts, lasting several minutes. This helps us to be completely immersed in the real-time performative power.
Watch DHRUPAD to know why such non-linear documentaries are essential for our viewing experience.
Gulzar Sahab appears for the second time on this very particular list. The prolific lyricist-screenwriter- director brings his usual dignity of perception and aesthetics of Rajasthani mystique to his often underrated classic LEKIN( BUT…., 1990)
One has to watch it to find Vinod Khanna at his restrained best as an inherently decent man, a man of intelligence and sensitivity who comes to a bygone princely estate in the desert to research and then submit abandoned items to the state/ national museum for preservation. What he eventually recovers is buried history through the eyes of Reva. Dimple Kapadia is her usual competent self as a ghost figure caught in a melancholic limbo between life and death.
The psychological probing and the emotional backlog of Reva and her antecedents, all imprisoned by the local ruler’s whims, paint a portrait of inheriting the past through present consciousness. I was moved by the male protagonist’s absence of ego and attachment to an absolute stranger’s plight.
The story is rooted in myth, unanswered precedents of mortality but showcases a fitting scenario centered around pure emotions and camaraderie among people.
To conclude, it comprises of a legendary musical score that beautifully illustrates its heart and soul. Numbers like YAARA SEELI SEELI( I have endured enough), SURMAI SHAAM(the melodious evening comes), SUNIYO JI ARAJ( hear my pleas), MAIN EK SADI SE BAITHI HU(I’ve been wandering for a century), JHOOTE NAINA BOLE(lying eyes always tell the truth), JA JA RE( go, go away) are all-time powerhouses. I feel that these classics cannot be touched when it comes to the creativity on display. LEKIN, on the whole, is just like that.