SALT OF THE EARTH

This is a poem that adorns my poetry collection SALT OF THE EARTH based on the heartwarming and socially conscious cinematic masterpiece MUDBOUND(2017) . It impacted me so much I decided to design a poetry collection around it on Wattpad, the worldwide community that I have been publishing my works on since 2015. This is the title poem that encapsulates MUDBOUND for me and I thought it was crucial I share this poem with you all on my blog that has now become my other sanctuary for creative expression.

…………………

They saved prejudices in harvests of suffering here,
Till a flash brought all homeless
home.
Salt of the earth,
sour, dour, palmed by brown hands,
and sickels and grass carried in pickup trucks.

At the end of his patience,
that beautiful face cracked some more,
into chapped fragments of the South.
Boot ends stuck in patches of Mississippi codes and gnarled words.

The bluejay was hunted then
and southern winds, forceful, made her shed her covering.
For blue was the norm here.

The Post War Poem lifeless and written on rotting spines of field hands.

Blind were gazes counting a hundred year’s wages
and Mary cried,
for she was outstripped of her halo.

Friends, see them hammered by chisels of segregated homes
Faces, places become a collage of deeds undone and histories warped.
Till coloured pages are ridden of prejudice for two days at a time,
and rimmed glasses watch history cut in unfavorable shares,
in one fell swoop.

Go preach the gospel of mud
for in the element,
a storied life said hello
as Southern skies remained stoic grey
and grey persisted.

…………………………………………………………

As I went through a gallery of images from the movie, I designed each line of this poem around them. Hence, this is the final work.

**https://my.w.tt/gBQQUYHwjS – the following is the link to the whole poetry collection SALT OF THE EARTH. Do read it and share your thoughts. I have tried to funnel the same soulful rhythm of MUDBOUND through my artistic lens.

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THE ROMANOFFS: A TUSSLE OF COMPLEXITIES.

EPISODE 7 – END OF THE LINE.

*****

I had given you a little insight into the penultimate episode of the Amazon miniseries THE ROMANOFFS and suffice to say that this one, in particular, opens windows to social networks of human complexity like no other. The story centring around a middle aged couple which has left its hearth in Los Angeles to arrive in the antithetical ( in terms of the physical, behavioural, mental and emotional) environs of Russia to further a promise of the future and ensure their parental desires are fulfilled is one directed with great restraint and is like a secret whispered around the two leads who constitute the couple and their local agent Elena (Annet Mahendru) , their host and personal gateway to ways of the world on the other side of home. Every society has its secrets and so do we and we are sucked into the layer by layer vortex of the core issue here: adoption. It’s not made clear in the beginning and the time it takes to reveal the purpose of this significant overseas trip for Anka and Joe is temporally logical. The languid pace is right on cue.

The real time unraveling is poised for effectiveness here in terms of realism and storytelling as the two, man and wife, looking for greener pastures to take an orphaned infant home, land in Vladivostok, clear formalities, weather the icy personalities of residents and find one spark in Elena’s foster care representative who embodies the place and its customs with diligence in more ways than one as we discover. We can call her a mouthpiece as she is directly reflective of her surroundings all too well yet looks out for them both. She is friendly yet distant, street smart and key to their redemption. An admixture of warmth and steely resolve that she and her compatriots are accustomed to, as in any other small town or backwater globally. The weather only compounds that, it seems. Mahendru is a welcome presence who has her base in the pragmatic professionalism of Elena and yet suggests other layers with her support for the American couple. It’s kind of an interesting, intersecting dynamic given the social ties between both nations since years.

END OF THE LINE hence, as a title, designs a beat on the end of a familial legacy as regards a childless couple’s woes and the apprehensions attached to it and the end of patience that this journey extracts from them, taking a toll on this committed, decent couple’s present and future experiences. A TUSSLE OF COMPLEXITIES is the apt title then for this post. The emotional rigmarole is more pronounced here than the one dictated by internal wheeling dealing within contentious annals of childcare – both ‘child’ and ‘care’ separated by several apathetic degrees.

In a more extended way, END OF THE LINE relays the struggles of protocol and interpersonal heartburn that lay hidden behind the triumph of adoption for well off individuals. It’s a bumpy road and is made clear especially by how they gift some perfectly commonplace items as chocolates and other knick knacks to the orphanage and have been made to follow this custom of the land by Elena, both as a courtesy and a prerequisite. Looking closer, the exchange of money beyond these items informs us of the presence of bribery / money minting and is directed with the same satiric awkwardness befitting the experience for someone viewing it and on top of it, desperate for parenthood. Anka and Joe are privy to it and we, as viewers, are as well. We know through this beat that it’s easy to waylay ‘others’ by such methods in other or should I say ‘our’ territories because the same people who know of its internalizations back home are vulnerable and in a different location. The apprehension of being away from home is a very urgent reality and this unexpressed xenophobia stays with us through multiple passages and travels. The outsider status, that of strangers in a new place is complex, multidimensional and manifested in unexpected ways. This episode achieves that. The naturalistic performances enhance its indoor spaces and claustrophobic embers that are released to fan the flames of a striking confrontation between man and wife.

*****

Joe and Anka are exposed to the poverty and lack of opportunities besides teenage pregnancies in the region that has made hordes of babies orphans in their own land and a belief in reinstating the baby, chosen by them through long distance and thorough internet communication, to normalcy leads them to a passage of hope. Kathryn Hahn’s smile, a distinctive feature of her performative repertoire, is here and the moment she spends time with the baby she is bound to take home as her own, is etched in my head as joy makes way for something unimaginable. This epiphany is brought with expertise of writing and direction and Jay and Kathryn, in an extended tight close up, maintain the balance of initial hurrah and the eventuality of unfolding horror. The passive baby is an omnipresent figure and we silently internalize her doomed fate. The tales of neglect and abuse on the little ones who are now part of the orphanage hit home and dreams turn to bitter reality for closure. So institutionalised corruption melds with biting truths of a personal nature for the couple and they unravel with unblinkered honesty. Hence the focus on social realities of an universal nature never leaves the room.

There’s space for the Romanoff bit too as Anka ( the name says it all) comes to Russia so that she can preserve a bit of her ancestors’ original land and legacy by adopting a baby here and in a later part her connection to Victoria ( the part played by Radha Mitchell from the previous episode PANORAMA) as a cousin is revealed just like there have been subtle, unobtrusive clues of interconnectedness regarding few individuals in the weekly tales( you’ll have to figure them out by watching the series)

The intertwining of their relation is important since it informs the central conflict when in the face of systemic deception by Elena and the authorities, they discover they have been made to adopt a baby who suffers from a particular physical condition. Anka makes it clear she is not going to make any more sacrifices since the physical challenges /side effects of years of trying to conceive and IVF have maybe already exposed her to early menopause and cancerous risks. She has had enough to grapple with and will not accept a baby with slim chances of survival in infancy itself and whose special needs in the future ( if she makes it) will only add to the burden of a heavy parenthood. Joe, on the other hand, expresses fidelity to caring for the baby unconditionally. I know we may be shocked at Anka’s confession but come to think of it, her blunt admission reflects our deepest fears, limitations and uninhibited honesty, especially after the heartbreak attached with fifteen years of infertility has consumed one.

The scene is wonderfully articulated by writers MARIA and ANDRE JACQUEMETTON – regular contributors to Mad Men as well – and the direction lets us grasp the marital stakes and unsaid backlog of tragic internalizations for Anka and Joe . Viewpoints clash here among spouses but they matter to each even if they are not on an equal footing. The pain and bleak realism is accentuated by the silent background, keeping the naturalistic tone of direction intact for such a monumental volte face in scripting. A lesser script would have served platitudes and a conventional happy ending . This one settles for more than an iota of honesty. The conversation is the heart and soul of END OF THE LINE and will remind everyone of thorny issues that were brokered through uneasy communication. The act of betrayal by dint of nature ( in terms of her infertility and that Joe’s cousin can have six children is inserted into the conversation naturally) and by the foster care system back in Vladivostok stokes her inner fire to not mince words this time around at a crucial crossroads of life.

Additionally, the accursed Romanoff bloodline presents itself as she relates that given the circumstances of her situation, Victoria, her cousin, too wishes to have a different life( her son was shown to suffer from hemophilia in the previous episode PANORAMA) ; the financial difference between them and her is strikingly put out too (‘and they’re rich’, Anka says)

she’s not being cruel, just stating the cold fact. The idea of raising special children and the mental toll it takes on parents, women and their inherent reproductive challenges get subsumed here. Watch this episode to know contours of how human life is often dispensable in terms of the baby who has been abandoned and suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome . The final resolution where they go home with another, perfectly ‘normal’ and healthy baby is a profound moral triangulation with the final triumph of parenthood offset by Anka’s beaming smile and the dejected, faraway look of Joe. The decisive embers of the final minutes is grippingly told. It’s courageous, heartbreakingly complex and greatly divisive. We’re only human at the end of the day and END OF THE LINE realises that with contemporary urgency.

*****

Some other pivotal thoughts :

a) Clea Duvall has a welcome cameo too as Patricia, another American mother blessed with a baby boy in Vladivostok. Her moments of conversation with Anka are au natural. That moment where Anka makes a statement about her supposed sexuality and Elena tells her that Patricia is just a single mother who she helped is another measure of how judgement rests in all of us and how Elena may have a broader view of granting parenthood to ostracized and distressed individuals, nationality no bar. Or maybe it’s just clockwork precision of duty. You figure out by watching this episode. Clea Duvall has been a part of films like GIRL INTERRUPTED and was seen in THE HANDMAID’S TALE too as Alexis Bledel’s partner who she is tragically separated from owing to the Gilead siege.

b) Anka’s conversation with the beautiful young girl in the hotel lobby who commits to world’s oldest profession to make ends meet is an enlightening heart to heart about the stereotypes and actualities of this and other backwaters that offer nothing to women. The lighting and casual charm invested in it is like a throwback to classic Mad Men. In an earlier moment, Elena too comments on how you can be a social worker here or…….. she cuts the conversation midway. That blank is filled by our own assumptions or the reality we instinctively know.

c) Elena relaying points of common stereotypes like not to smile too much or people will think one is a mental patient, this reminded me of how Russian public and authorities were trained in the art of smiling during a recent sports event, a fact that’s funny, absurd and realistic ; when she talks about being sad in the midst of such happiness, ‘you really are a Russian’ as Anka is taken aback by the visit with the baby and then the awkward laugh she releases like it was an act of formality to leaven the situation. Or how they can go visit the home of Yul Brynner. Annet Mahendru’s performance is a highlight of this episode.

d) The moment where Joe tells Anka the Romanoffs were originally German. Questions of identity rest here.

e) the idea of empathy /apathy ingrained in cultures and individuals find the strongest representation here in END OF THE LINE. It displays the other side of compassion where reality is stark and unsparing but doesn’t make us inhuman in the acknowledgement of it.

f) ‘I am not a saint’ – the line by Anka haunts us.

*****

THE ROMANOFFS: EVERYBODY PUTS BABY IN A CORNER

THE ROMANOFFS EPISODE 7 – END OF THE LINE.

This latest and penultimate installment of THE ROMANOFFS finally finds itself in the location from where the original dynasts were from. Set in Vladivostok, Russia, END OF THE LINE is a complex, layered, indirectly frightening and crucially realistic approximation of life, akin to the masterful tone of short stories the nation is quintessentially regarded for. Trust me, it’s shot in such an evocative way that the claustrophobia and chill of this dimly lit provenance captures us. The central conflict that emerges in this tale further creates a simmering tension amidst that cold, cold world the protagonists find themselves in.

*****

It takes a while for us to figure out the reason behind this L. A based couple’s passage to this other place where they know nobody. Is it to investigate the lady ANKA’S ( Kathryn Hahn) original Russian / ROMANOFF ancestry, as we suppose? But Matthew Weiner’s direction spins a web of cultural isolation, bemusement and mystery till the point we realize that her ancestry is an afterthought and the parental figures that the couple is revealed to be have to contend with truths as stark as this snow capped small town. The heft of the issue takes off to an engrossing tangent from there and the very idea of child rearing melds with deep undercurrents for them ( and us) .

It’s a ringside view of belonging, identity and personal stakes as adoption comes with the paraphernalia of uncertain means and a society willing to abandon infants ; it illustrates the kind of selective criteria of giving a baby a new life in the first world / in a stable environment we will usually prefer to dust under the carpet, stringing it with individual ideologies of man and wife. END OF THE LINE hypnotises us and the resolution is as heartbreaking as the journey to the heart of the tale is unpredictable. We feel the twinge of this childless couple and the million other impulses and essential truths it has to wrestle with to find a child to call its own. Only writing of such immersive quality can achieve the inherent gloom it does, optimistic yet harboring guilts. It proves that the politicization of even the foster care system is deep rooted.

Ultimately, concerns tantamount to special needs in children and the subtle pride in one’s ancestry occupy the picture. Scratch the surface and there are subtexts that will be unearthed. HENCE, END OF THE LINE is gripping and the title is inverted by the value of the climactic resolution in which the newly minted parents are inexorably divided by their thoughts. So this new beginning ultimately creates a gulf perhaps or maybe a marital compromise of silences is broached. It’s performed brilliantly by KATHRYN HAHN and JAY R. FERGUSON on all fronts.

** in the next post, I will write about other salient points regarding this episode.

Corruption, apathy and the universality of human dilemmas all hit us in the gut courtesy the multiple themes seamlessly handled here.

*****

PANORAMA : how the sixth episode of the miniseries THE ROMANOFFS mattered to me

I have already written about every thought under the sun , on the exquisitely crafted sixth episode of one of my current favorite series / works of art THE ROMANOFFS, an Amazon Prime original. Set in Mexico city and centered on the protagonist Abel( JUAN PABLO CASTANEDA), it was a winning amalgamation of his humble personality, social issues and his own personal experience coinciding with his position as a resident of the city he lives in and loves deeply.

It clicked with me because I primarily identify as a resident of my hometown Lucknow and my affinities run deep. I can perhaps never fully explain this sense of belonging to the provenance I was born and grew up in, continuing to stay here. I write this brief post to let you know that this episode triggered the same joy that I have had in making others explore my culturally resonant city, one of the greatest apostles of art, mannerisms, imagery and syncretism, an architectural pioneer that is one of the very epitomes of the Indian mosaic of diversity. Known for its food, embroidery and intellectual dynamism since centuries, it launched an anti colonial revolt when other tony big cities were lapping up dual identities and till today continues to celebrate its unique innocence without losing its charm to plain naivete. Today, the city of Lucknow offsets its status as a cultural beacon with flashes of impressive modernity that any major center cannot ward off. But then it always set the stage for urbanity and sophistication. So modern furnishings add another jewel to its dazzling crown as it grows in stature.

I have had the privilege of taking my relatives, foreign returned and otherwise, to its scenic spots and allowing them to inhale a little bit of Lakhnawi aura ;they have all hailed or should I humbly say appreciated my knowledge of its history, social lifestyle and for me taking out the time to let them savour the experience. I should add that there’s so much still left for me to explore here itself and my sense of belonging will only add heft to how the city opens up to me with each passing year, as maturity reaches a high tide.

That said, like every city and that of the Eastern world especially, there are signs of civic neglect, urban congestion, social quagmires and hazy development that doesn’t escape my eyes. It enervates me because citizens need to take stock of the privilege of living in this blessed city, with such a rich and extant culture forming a contemporary continuum. I guess as a responsible citizen, I do my bit to stake my claim on my love for the place that has raised me.

A major tourist hotspot and internationally recognized, Lucknow needs to be felt with the diligence of an explorer and the clean slate of a stranger alive to new sensations. History is a living entity while change a part and parcel of its evolving tale. Once you live in Lucknow, it will be impossible to not profess love for it in individual ways of one’s own.

PANORAMA made me feel pride and a sense of ownership towards the treasures of a place that continues to redefine itself. Like Abel, I, too, believe I am the solitary voyager who looks up to the city and it always rewards me with renewed inspiration and a definitive legacy to create. Trust me, once you stay here, inspiration will be an overflowing fountain. So thank you to the makers of THE ROMANOFFS for doing that.

THE ROMANOFFS: I LOST MY HEART IN MEXICO

THE ROMANOFFS EPISODE 6- PANORAMA.

This is a particularly intimate reckoning of the relationship one has with the place he has lived in and come to love, the many encounters studded with fleeting moments and how strangers are enveloped in the fabric of our beings when we make them a part of our culture. It’s writing of such depth that we need to follow every intricate detail and think beyond the obvious because our real lives are as layered, without us realizing it sometimes as this episode of the miniseries THE ROMANOFFS beautifully portrays. It’s called PANORAMA and is set in the wondrous landscape of Mexico city where JUAN PABLO CASTANEDA and RADHA MITCHELL evoke the spirit of a brief meeting punctuated by an unique sense of camaraderie, silent acknowledgement and observations . Besides that, a significant idea of haves and have nots is addressed with a satirical tone and an eye for the narrative of the people as seen by one individual, here a journalist / poet at heart Abel (JUAN) who keeps a tab on everything he comes across is uncovered . It’s sensitive and lingers with the idea of belonging emotionally to a provenance.

*****

This episode is about Abel, a journalist by profession but who’s truly a poet finding nuances of life, love and the overarching destiny of his pursuits against the background of his beloved Mexico city. This point is never spelt out for audience direction and yet the city, with its diversity, holds the key to his awakening. In fact, he is the most assured and well defined ‘individual’ THE ROMANOFFS has provided us with, considering he has nothing to do with the royal title and knows his strengths and limitations as also the pulse of the society he lives in. He has clearly marked his place within the larger omnibus of Mexico and its heritage and stays committed to them. Again I will reiterate that nothing is spoon-fed to us yet the intricacy of the writing takes us to the internalized core of each one of us who lives and breathes in a major city – the landscape that consumes us and where random happenings come to crucially mark our turning points. These turning points may or may not have larger consequences. They occur to us in the course of few days, as it happens here. At the end of it all, we stay the same individuals, changed by the new experience, and still latching on to the character of our present existence, defined truly by where we find footholds for our passions and diurnal cycles. Abel finds that in Mexico city and the episode justifies that, photographing it with a natural flair and its importance to him and the narrative.

That Abel is a poet at heart is evident in how even scrolling through photographs of women on dating application Tinder is accompanied by his idea of the inner beauty of these ladies and it begins the episode on an intriguing note. Then the other facet of his journalistic duties emerges as he visits an upscale clinic to investigate as an undercover patient.

This is in sharp contrast to a nondescript clinic for the indigenous people where he visits too. So the earnest side of his daily life occupies the other half. All these aspects seamlessly blend with each other as it does in real life where we juggle the romantic and the gritty simultaneously and the transitions are handled well. The dubious wheeling dealings of the clinic catering to the affluent, on the other hand, fuses the satiric with an observational awkwardness as the interaction with the doctor( Roberto Medina) and presence of a stringent receptionist /manager shows. The most telling part is that few of the terminally ill here are men of shady antecedents who amassed wealth by hook or crook. This detail is particularly effective in delineating the amorality of the establishment altogether. I liked the scene with the doctor in how he goes from speaking in Spanish to English in the end, maintaining the icy exterior of someone who has put ethics aside and is competent in the art of imposture. The real deal here is that the clinic thrives on acquiring stem cells from financially strapped indigenous people with impunity in exchange for monetary compensation for them. This inter generational cum social structure of almost passive exploitation is revealed and in a later part of the story is framed in stirring prose by Abel as part of his print to be submitted for publication.

Then another transition appears as Abel meets Victoria ( Radha Mitchell) who’s here for her son’s treatment(he suffers from hemophilia, a condition requiring constant blood transfusions ) and the sincere lilt of human endeavour comes to the picture. The real charm of the script is in how natural the progression of this central arc is. It warms our hearts and the spirits of Abel and Victoria become one with Nick( Paul Luke Bonenfant) , the precocious and well informed 12 year old boy who has not given up on life. The act of kindness in helping Victoria and the universality of the English language as an unifier were other salient points of their initial correspondence. All throughout, the interior monologues voiced by Castaneda work well to convey his emotional journey.

The relationship that is established among them then allows the narrative to let Abel express pride in his city and heritage as he takes Victoria and Nicholas on a brief sight seeing tour of famous locations and comments on the rich and often volatile history behind the country. Whether it is the sombre visit to the Cathedral or the National Museum where the iconic mural THE HISTORY OF MEXICO by Diego Rivera unspools a mosaic of Mexico and the diversity it encompasses for the locals, these portions are beautifully integrated to inform and enlighten us about the duality of destruction and creation that lies at the heart of every civilization. Abel as a local transfers his knowledge to Nicholas and Victoria who graduate from becoming strangers in a foreign land ( as we can’t call them tourists, considering they are here primarily for Nick’s treatment) to becoming integral to the aura of discovery so crucial to the series and to humanity. The connection between individuals is most often forged by discovering places and communities and it is realized wonderfully here.

As for the Romanoff ancestry, Victoria is a descendant but the strain of her legacy is portrayed by the genetic presence of hemophilia in the bloodline and which has consumed her son. A stirring conversation is built around this as she shares her lack of interest in her background which once overwhelmed her estranged husband Philip ( David Sutcliffe) and now has become a bone of contention for the future of their son in an unhappy marriage. Abel uses the important term ‘history’ here to refer to the Romanovs and in a heartwarming way gives her a valuable, selfless piece of advice that can help husband and wife iron the creases for their shared love for Nick.

Victoria is a concerned mother who has to put up a brave front and her loneliness is offset by the welcome presence of Abel, who becomes a source of support for her in his own unobtrusive way. Their trip to the ancient city of the Mexicos is shot with a breathtaking sweep and again the perspectives of Abel and Victoria are conveyed naturally.

As Abel is shown to investigate goings on at the clinic where he eventually meets Victoria, one may wonder if their moments together are a ruse but it is not so. In the process of knowing her and Nick, Abel finds a profound awakening of his own and his personality is one of fidelity and we never doubt him. His professional duties find an unexpected detour when he personally opens up his heart to them. So when he confesses he isn’t sick, Victoria reacts wordlessly, taking a moment to process her thoughts and then is happy he is fine. Radha performs wonderfully in this instance. She knows as do we that Abel is a facilitator of little changes from the cycle of the everyday for her and her son, who so far was kept insulated from the outside world owing to his sensitive condition. It’s shown authentically, with no grand statement or emphasis on the idea of one individual going out of his way to give others comfort. This matter of fact rhythm is winsome. It’s a repository of the different experiences that make Abel the person he is and his bond with Victoria is a platonic one that clearly defines him. So even though his investigation and eventual publication is nixed by his editor ( Griffin Dunne), the latter lets him quit as he understands instinctively that the dry well of journalism isn’t for Abel.

Victoria too leaves and Abel is the solitary voyager aiming for new avenues yet is ensconced in the panorama of the experiences, funneled through his love for the city that figuratively raised him.

The closing moments that see him merge with a tableau of central cultural figures like Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Karl Marx and the various populace of the city ( and by extension country) in the city center concludes it on a sweet note. The cityscape is ready to replenish him and he’s the better for it, reveling in the promise of the future and its ambiguities, just like there is no one moral/ cultural lens to look at a place or its residents.

PANORAMA is a welcome counter narrative, in my opinion, to the anti Mexican polemic that has become mainstream. Here the universality of the global world is celebrated with nuance, sensitivity and love for the everyday. Ably performed, it’s about how we extend our humanity to others and in turn receive chances to explore our inner selves. In the end, all I can say is that thank God for the novelty of THE ROMANOFFS, a point that gets proven with each new weekly episode.

THE ROMANOFFS (2018) : APPREHENSION IS IN THE AIR.

Episode 5 – BRIGHT AND HIGH CIRCLE.

This was the latest weekly episode aired of the miniseries on Friday, 2nd November, 2018. The next will air this Friday.

*****

This is a sombre, topical addition to the anthology as a woman who is shown to be a Romanov descendant unravels in the upwardly mobile mindscape of Los Angeles. Again her affluence and position as a college professor of Russian studies hardly prepares her for the moral knots she is caught in.

The woman in question ( a supremely natural Diane Lane) is put in the fix when her decade old friend and her children’s beloved piano teacher (Andrew Rannells) is entangled in a misconduct case. The script informs us about it through the intervention of a police officer and the veracity of this claim hangs in the middle as there is no certainty about it. It comes as a casual disruption to her and soon her extended network of friends and of course family, including the two sons who are trained by him, invite different contours to the grave matter.

The children are sure of his innocence while her friend Cheryl ( Nicole Ari Parker) too vouches for him. Another known person ( Cara Buono, of MAD MEN and STRANGER THINGS fame ) is confused about the whole situation and a past taunt by the teacher, who’s part of the elite inner circle of these women, throws a curveball that maybe a past slight has festered for too long. The husband ( Ron Livingston) has always been wary of him and hence reacts in the same fashion, with his personal dislike clear in his overall sense of things. So it’s up to the woman at the center to investigate on her own, looking at all angles and making sense of everything. Diane Lane does that with great subtlety. The writing is stationed on this plane of ambiguity and realistically so. It shows how trust can be a fragile concept and the power of suggestion of the negative , even if we have evidences to the contrary, can render us infirm.

The most important point we take away is that the man who is being suspected doesn’t confirm to heteronormative standards of this seemingly liberal society owing to obviously his sexuality and so the sense of apprehension hangs in the air as he is shown in flashbacks, suggesting his talent in music, his wit and support for the lead female protagonist and the way he opens his heart up to her. Everybody has an opinion and when someone ticks off the wrong bracket that is not in the majority, our fickle, contrarian sides emerge. Diane Lane here tips the scales towards a neutral position, uncovering her own fears and doubts. Andrew Rannells too paints a portrait of obvious pain and persecution coupled with his exaggerations and lies that sustain him in the eyes of an order where he is an outsider ; there are hints as to how he is nothing more than an employee and an acquaintance, who serves the needs of these people to gossip and indulge in luxuries that their status affords them.

It’s an effective hour and ten minutes, touching upon the complexity of people like us when a single incident feels life altering whereas concern takes the shape of moral lapses. Watch it to know how incisively it confronts our inherent prejudices, stakes of truth and what is merely conjecture. Lane is a working woman and mother caught in the cross hairs while Andrew is the enigma who is given a chance even as the claimant of the complaint and an eventual resolution is made absent, making it more effective in the vein of mystery. Identity is the main issue here. It’s a powerful installment.

Some other thoughts :

** the opening scene with the piano recital and interpersonal rapport is directed well.

** a throwback moment where Ron’s father rebukes him for unintentionally judging his friend who is teased about his appearance by other kids is quite effective and it has an awkward counterpart in the present day when Ron does the same for his sons, with a number of common platitudes on essentially the principle of seeking truth and not clouding judgements based on mob culture. He shows signs of prejudice, distance and paranoia regarding Andrew earlier, exactly for which his father remonstrated him in his younger days and this speech is an uneasy transition but it’s real in the sense that internalized change is hard to come by for mature adults.

** the above point is particularly important : parents usually disseminate the best parts of their personalities and conversations to their wards even though personally they may be rigid / sketchy about certain aspects. After all, they are complex human beings, flesh and blood individuals at the end of the day.

** the tense conversation between mother and middle son, especially when he mentions her people, those belonging to the Romanov dynasty, as a couple of “rich a**holes” ; it’s realistically centered on the viewpoints of the young boy and the experienced woman.

** The lackadaisical attitude of the police force too comes up, as when a visibly concerned Diane is more active than the officer who keeps postponing the appointment due to her partner not being available.

** Diane plays a professor of Russian literature and her interactions with her students – especially the reading of the poem by Pushkin on which the episodic title is based on – are well portrayed. In the other interaction with a grade A student who doesn’t agree with getting a C grade on her assignment for the first time, she shows her genuine nature and conciliation when accepting she made a snobbish remark and apologises to the student.

** the level of artifice which becomes a mainstay of the upper middle class, as evidenced in many of the conversations.

** the closing of the door of the room by Diane in the end, as a mark of her faith in Andrew when he and her son Benji practice.

** Ron Livingston himself played a teacher wrongly accused of misconduct in the satirical and effective PRETTY PERSUASION (2005)so it’s a volte face here in the sense he plays a father who deals with the fallout of an accusation on the piano teacher who trains his sons. He is effective here on all counts, emphasising the contradictions and complexes.

** finally, it informs us that our polish exteriors cannot mask the fact we may be grossly ill equipped to handle earnest matters as we weigh them on a richter scale of morality first, even though we have spent eons with the person who is doubted .

*****

*****

THE ROMANOFFS(2018) : OF DISTINCT LIFE SCRIPTS AND TALES OF THWARTED INDIVIDUALITY

Thwarted individuality – that’s the term that best describes people who are at the center of THE ROMANOFFS. They are privileged, good looking, economically and educationally gifted specimens of humanity and the team behind the show does a great job at dissecting the minutiae that gnaws at them. Some get a hold of their real selves while others come out questioning their place within their own culture. With that, I briefly take a look at the other three episodes aired in its weekly run apart from the first two that I published today. As viewers, we need to savour each moment, every pause, nudge and look at the internalizations that each of these three tales have to provide us. Again, our looks in the mirror and silent introspections give us the space to reflect and arrive at the best resolutions and the performers here brilliantly convey a lot without the baggage of wordplay. That’s the prowess of the writing and direction, approximating real life with an attention to every single detail that counts and completes these individual tales.

*****

Episode 3- HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE

This is by far one of the best interpretations of a short fiction tale I have witnessed in recent times as it leaps across genres and yet despite the absurd humour and flashes of the supernatural, reality is kept intact, with a flourish unique to its storytelling.

As a numero uno actor Olivia ( Christina Hendricks, the eternal Joan from Mad Men ) arrives in the nocturnal depths of interior Austria to can a miniseries on the Romanovs, particularly the juiciest bits leading to their assassination by the Bolsheviks, the film within a film scenario works wonders from the get go. She is being directed by an iconic actress turned director Jacqueline ( the great Isabelle Huppert who I had seen in Elle on the same streaming service that now hosts this show) and pretty soon real and reel merge in what is a study of psychologies, artistic temperaments and the pains, idiosyncrasies and quirks that go into sculpting great works of art that you and I savour without perhaps knowing the behind the scenes flipside where status matters little. Fragile egos and Machiavellian grip on production run helter skelter then and watching this episode, I am reminded of every figure of authority who displayed eccentric tinges sharpened by their brilliance, a mixture of this and that, making it impossible for me to guess just where to put my fingers at even though judgement is not part of the ensemble of moods and experiences. Jacqueline exemplifies that as the director running the show, turning Olivia, an accomplished and loved performer, to less than an ingenue owing to her auteur tricks and notorious methods to achieve unblinkered realism.

It’s interesting to note how this inward look by those who made this episode disseminates personal stakes for everyone involved. How the other reality occasioned by filmmaking seeps seamlessly into our own. How the real and the created reality or one of imagination fuse and how the separation between both becomes erratic and difficult for everyone, especially the actor interpreting another flesh and blood human being, particularly one who is not a mere figment of imagination but a historical figure. The complex layers all go into making HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE haunting, meditative and nightmarish.

The method behind the madness idea is taken to extremes by the director here and the lead actor Samuel (Jack Huston). Again, the contrarian viewpoints about method acting reaches a fever pitch. It’s to Matthew Weiner’s credit as writer and director that his restraint and that of his team balances the multiplicity of images portrayed and in turn interpreted by us. For pure viewing pleasure too this installment takes the cake for its originality.

A sense of the alienation of working in an offbeat, foreign environment too pervades Olivia’s turn here as do little touches of female bonding, the idea of a great actor perhaps being a terrible director, limits of creative expression, casual hints of male ego and its resultant autonomy, power invested in financiers behind a project, consensus as a binding concept even for a mega star and the way the imposture of artistic delivery is closely aligned with the heights of performative finesse. The sense of darkness, light and shadow, distance and close ups recreate the techniques of the film within a film structure. Then there is the touch of the ghostly and shadow of the Romanov history, brutal and unsparing, that arrests the team. You have to watch it to know what I mean. Right through the unexpected ending, it tantalises us and leaves us with questions about the very nature of creation. Besides that, Hendricks, Huppert, Huston, Mike Doyle, Paul Reiser all are perfectly suited here. Nothing is what it seems and trust me, life is like that even at the top echelon.

Some other thoughts :

** SWEET DREAMS, the iconic number by EURYTHMICS, opens the episode and the refrain is used with the goodnight greeting here quite a few times, making way for possibilities of what and what isn’t plausible and belies Olivia’s lucidity.

** The hotel, with its prominent red interiors and dim yellow lighting, makes it open to be set in any period now or twenty to thirty years back and gave me the creepy SHINING hangover. Also when the girl enters Olivia’s room at night; maybe it was a hallucination, part of a dream and informed by the sense of dread from internalizing the Romanov bloodbath. The scene where Jacqueline is almost ‘possessed’ inverts dynamics of our beliefs further. Writer Henry James came to mind.

So when Olivia wanders around the woods and looks at men dressed as Bolsheviks, the reality of the situation is too much for her and we keep asking ourselves, “are they real skinheads out to jeopardize this production, owing to an allegiance to the Bolshevik ideal?” The weight of history sneakily makes an appearance, tying in with the horrifying climax where limits of real and reel blur.

** An instance of Samuel recreating a sequence of assault on Olivia from the script, that is a trespass of the work ethic on set, made me hark back to the toxic levels of method that scarred the lead actress of Bernando Bertalucci’s LAST TANGO IN PARIS, as that scene was one centring around a disturbingly sexual situation. Ethics of improvisation and of the workplace make ample sense in the Me Too era.

** plus when the director is exceptionally hard on Brian to make him sink into his role and the humorous situation that arises when he ends the earnest scene with a song.

In short, HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE is unpredictable, a melange of moods and is very effective, satirising the act and passage of creation by hitting a creative bull’s eye in the realization here. It’s an all rounder for me but nothing beats the raw impact of the climax.

*****

Episode 4- EXPECTATION.

This episode is so rich in its internalized gravitas of narration that I feel I should talk about only the salient features of it. It’s a personal favorite of mine too, picking one individual and her distinct life script and bringing a straightforward juxtaposition of different conversations and interior shots to the mix.

Amanda Peet is Julia, a soon to be grandmother who contemplates upon the one grave issue of her daughter’s true parentage and her bond of permanence with Daniel ( John Slattery, the inimitable Roger Sterling of Mad Men) that has kept her up over a single day and in the loop for twenty years and more. The restraint is indicative of the way life moves on and functions in all its diurnal rhythms and the past becomes an ember in the larger cauldron of the present. But ever so subtly, that ember gives us a little burning sensation. This is the truth that nags at Julia.

Also I loved how it employed the stream of consciousness technique where events transpire over a single day; the fact its exploration is rooted in the concerns of a middle aged woman who comes from a tony background and has her soulmate not in her husband but another male kindred is reminiscent of Mrs. Dalloway, the book by Virginia Woolf that epitomized stream of consciousness and smooth transitions the visual medium harnesses so well.

The performances are spot on, New York is captured beautifully and the idea of the past enroaching upon the present is an intimate part of just Julia who smiles, has breakfast with her daughter, spends some moments of bliss and tension with Daniel, goes to work, takes the subway and discovers a physical scare by the end of the day. The normal coming and going pattern is ably captured.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE EPISODE :

** her opening scene with her pregnant daughter Ella( Emily Rudd) is priceless, her emphasis on work going against her millennial kid’s old fashioned views on easy privilege which the latter doesn’t mince words about. Class, responsibility, privilege enter the fray and this generational mirroring of two women is exactly how some tensed conversations proceed with parents and children.

** the part in the open restaurant where Julia mouths the winning lines, ‘fu…. g millennials’ demonstrates the arc of her personality on a given day. It’s effortlessly humorous.

** the term ‘Grandma’ is tossed around by those who meet her – a term of endearment for her incoming role, illustrating her concern for her daughter who can deliver anytime, the reality of age catching up with her ( I know Amanda Peet, who is actually 48 looks so much younger to look 50 plus) as also the secret she has kept neatly hidden. This milestone works as a gentle trigger in her, not from some point of vanity but more of a realisation.

** Mary Kay Place and Michael O’ Neill who play her in laws give her a good piece of their mind about the joys of nurturing grandchildren which is divested from pressures from back in the day when they were first time parents. It’s a practical, enlightened heart to heart about turning on a new leaf.

** her interaction with Gary Beethoven( an excellent David Ferry) – her subject at the institute for the homeless where she works – is wonderfully shot and written, with the close door signifying her need to confess and doing so in the presence of a stranger who may not even grasp her earnestness is a welcome touch.

** the inversion of the confessional scene with her husband Peter ( Jon Tenney) is sensible since otherwise it would have betrayed the fabric of realism so firmly put in place here. The heartbreaking and liberating idea of staying close to our loved ones is brought to the fore.

** finally, the beauty of the tender epiphany that binds mother and daughter in the end. Ambiguity is a blessing here as also a tint of clarity.

Last but not least, Amanda Peet’s eyes speak volumes and clearly enhances the inherent charm of EXPECTATION.

*****

I will write about the recent fifth episode later as I feel the above written words should be enough to read and understand the quintessence of the series.

*****