THE ROMANOFFS (2018) : INTIMATE SNAPSHOTS OF LIVES LEFT LONELY AT THE TOP.

The following are my views on the five episodes aired so far of the weekly Amazon miniseries The Romanoffs. Each captured my collective attention.

*****

Episode 1 – THE VIOLET HOUR

The title refers to the colour of the sky at an inopportune moment in time when the lead protagonist Anushka ( Marthe Keller) experienced loss of a loved one, as she relates in the opening episode of the miniseries. This is the episode that tips its hat to one person’s pride in her ancestry and the riches that it has afforded her for most of her living days. In that sense, the shadow of the Romanovs is inescapable and direct for her.

However, as much as she harps on the idea of the line continuing with her caring nephew Greg ( Aaron Eckhart, who this generation most famously knows as the scarred Gotham D. A Harvey Dent from The Dark Knight), she is no saint wallowing in the ennui of old age and unpredictability of mortality. She is a sworn racist who bats not a single eyelid while launching her invectives at anyone not suitable to her high standards, least of all those who serve her, be it the Indian doctor at the hospital or her litany of rotating caretakers tending to this surly single woman living in her moth balled apartment in tony Paris.

In comes the kindly Hajar ( a triumphant Ines Melab) and of course all hell breaks loose. She is a Muslim in a hijab, so obviously Anushka finds in her a formidable target and in times where the minority community of France is definitely reeling in xenophobic environs owing to several closely orchestrated terrorist attacks such as in Nice a year ago and at the stadium hosting an American rock band, it hits home to anyone or any provenance impacted by such tempers. In her employer’s barbs, Hajar puts up a calm front as part of her training as a nurse so the forbearance is a professional prerequisite, a personal trait and to me a timely and perhaps timeless illustration of how the white WASPish sentiment has to be endured by the the ‘others’ in a society which gives them a roof and livelihood but neither the dignity nor status as equals. It’s what I call the servile ‘othering’ of those deemed to be on the lower scales owing to their region, social standing and current status. The immigrants’ voice and that of the female in the workplace all coalesce here seamlessly and Ines is a wonderfully understated inhabitor of Hajar’s soul. But slowly and steadily her dignity pays off and left with nobody to pay heed to her and defeated somehow by the steely resolve of her caretaker, Anushka initiates a thaw of her own accord , mixing her dormant maternal instincts with the hauteur of an aristocrat who will condescend and yet somehow find her way as a decent human being. You have to watch this quietly effective transformation that benefits the blossoming of a strong female bonding; it underlines the humanity at the center of human interaction. I also feel the thrust on human interaction is supreme in general , capable of breaking through thickets of unwanted prejudice and this comes out strongly here.

The other parallel here is that of the American bred Greg and his partner Sophia (Louise Bourgoin) who run a nondescript hotel which had once seen glories of hospitality in the city of love and both are intent on inheriting Anushka’s legacy by dint of money and property. You see, everybody is reminiscent/ reflective of the way things were and in coming out of a strictly bourgeois background, want to have a shot at the affluence of a kindred. The writing team presents them as people who do not pretend to hide their flaws but the goodness in them gets a shot as they are upfront as in the case of Anushka and we never suspect her to be violently racist just like Greg is naturally charming and caring and only in his desires to settle down with Sophie and be financially stable does he agree to wait for his aunt to bestow her inheritance to her favourite. The layered writing attests to that. There is an instance of a Cinderella like trapping here in the case of Hajar being dressed up in royal refinery by Anushka as their relationship blooms with mutual understanding but the natural rhythm of the tale never misses a beat. I knew in my heart there will be a silent moment like when the elderly Anushka takes Hajar’s hands before going to sleep, Hajar’s beauty will be acknowledged by the former and Greg and Hajar will get to develop a rapport, her simplicity melding with his amity. This predictability is not a weakness here.

Of course, the ending may be too much of an idyllic way to conclude but the realism, poignancy of it all is convincingly portrayed till then. The Violet Hour then amasses sombre hope as the idea of the Romanov line prevailing beyond Anushka comes to fruition as she, Hajar and Greg come into the center of a well rounded trinity, in the silhouetted final shot. There may be no ready solution to the class consciousness and racial superiority in us but stretching our limits can help by way of compassion.

The conversational quality of the script is astute, au natural and points out the lengths at which our innate goodwill overpowers our flaws; only if we are willing to let the former eclipse the latter. I took away all these facts from the unraveling of the script on screen. It also has the beautiful feel, look and unobtrusive cadences of European/ French arthouse cinema since it is set in Paris.

In all, THE VIOLET HOUR is an engrossing hour and a half, full of heartfelt moments and biting commentary on the way race and class are internalized in us.

Some other thoughts :

** Anushka saying, ” it’s like Calcutta in here” while in the crowded hospital room.

** Hajar telling Greg she was born and brought up in Paris and hence legitimately French and contrasting his idea of France as a paradise with a more practically pronounced,

“do you know what America means to the rest of the world?” even as she leaves her conservative cocoon to fall in love. Their moments of conversational bonhomie around cafes and the Seine are priceless.

** the fact that Anushka is equally vicious on her white employees too such as the Polish one she eventually fires. Also when she goes on a racist tirade about the supposed historical facts of Russian troops defeating Islamic forces in battles of yore. It goes on to show her deep seated idea of racial superiority. Hajar rebukes her with a line about her knowing her history well to which Anushka replies that she had the best tutors. So Hajar doesn’t take it lying down either.

** when Hajar looks at her brother outside the shop he is employed in courting a girl, reflecting silently on her own empty love life perhaps and the bus/ subway ride home. Glimpses of her working class family and comfortable but modest flat.

**Anushka is a common name in India too, quite like Natasha. This reminds me of the cordial ties India and Russia have maintained over years on end, starting with their love for our cinema.

*****

Episode 2 – THE ROYAL WE

This episode is all about questions of existence and lust overwhelming a young generation and how despite having the best of everything in our lives, a lack of control and impulsive decisions wreak havoc on an established order of normalcy. In the bargain, we end up adding insult to our own self inflicted injuries. The gender dynamics of male ego and the tender fealty to a marital relationship by the female – an established social reality – finds representation here and we read in between the lines to find the complexity at the center of this sombre telling. The material comforts are there and still we grope at the unattainable to stroke some irrational idea of joy flirting with danger.

Also here Michael Romanoff ( Corey Stoll) is clearly oblivious of his ancestry as he is of his relationship with wife Shelly ( Kerry Bishe). He has a deep seated void resting in him. He chooses to overlook the good things for an inexplicable idea of toying with the other side and the writing achieves a level of melancholy and clarity that is well established. So while the wife explores herself on a cruise trip dedicated to Romanov descendants exclusively all alone and experiences joy and simplicity of that feeling, the man, while committing to jury duty, courts another married woman Michelle ( Janet Montgomery) and engages in an affair with her, choosing to not go on the trip and then extending the verdict of the case to reach one final destination- lust. The wife will never be enough for the typical males of our world.

Contrast this with the sweet bond Shelly strikes with Ivan (Noah Wyle) and chooses to not let this friendship trespass its limits, although there’s a clear attraction, offsetting her initial confusion and loneliness about being on a couples trip alone with the radiance of rejuvenation, ably reflected in Kerry’s smile and overall persona. Both are oblivious of the other’s experience and this distance central to so many marriages is realized with tact and care for details and atmosphere. Her flush of joy as she shares photographs from the trip is in sharp opposition to his weary smiles and disinterest. There are perhaps no equals in this partnership of two. His guilt is on the other side of her pure heart. I found this exploration admirable.

The script maintains a level of simplicity in evincing Michael’s mental conundrums which he himself paves way for, chasing something for the thrill of it which threatens the sanctity of a marriage ; a marriage that suffers due to his own non communication. The ending moments trace the way couples grow increasingly vindictive when the mind is set on other transgressive gears and this sense of danger makes Michael and Shelly stand at a precipice, quite literally in this case. He cannot leave his obsession for another woman while she discovers that hope comes with a high risk factor. This tilt towards forging an illicit relationship is very much evocative of the Pete / Beth coupling in season 5 of Mad Men since here too it ends in discomfiture and a broken end for the man. Engrossing and complex, with no pat resolutions and great performances. The end comes abruptly but is an instance of closure for Shelly, in the offbeat style of the best short fiction.

Some other thoughts :

** watching the couple’s therapy sessions, I caught a Don and Betty hangover for millennial times as Betty undertook individual sessions in Mad Men. The difference being that at least this couple communicates and has learnt to loosen up and smile. Only if the Drapers had tried to make amends similarly. So this is kind of a generational progression.

** During a later therapy session, Shelly tells him that she understands his inhibited nature after having witnessed the proud but internally damaged Romanoffs on the cruise so it’s an extension of his roots. It’s a simplistic reading, you may think but is sincerely conveyed by her out of concern and a hope for mending a marriage on the rocks; a bond rocked not by any infighting but deathly silence on the part of Michael.

**John Slattery’s cameo as he narrates the Romanoffs’ violent highpoints on the cruise befuddles Shelly even as it is lionized by the others – mostly elderly patrons. Bishe as Shelly is the picture of humility.

** the older couples are standoffish, judging and distancing Shelly who clearly is not part of an elite background. The Romanoff surname-her marital one – bears a shadow over her like Draper’s did on Betty in Mad Men.

** when Shelly is coming down the staircase on the cruise, a similarly shot image of Betty from the season third series premiere of Mad Men comes to mind. Also if you close your eyes and especially listen to Corey, you will feel they are like modern day incarnates of the Drapers. These parallels are good for evoking a sense of Mathew Weiner and his team’s approach to sophisticated storytelling.

** Michael runs an establishment that helps kids gain admission to colleges, especially Ivy League ones, as a memorable scene with a Harvard bound guy shows. The idea of thwarted promise is complete when Michael tells him he can’t help the boy owing to his low scores.

** finally, the Blondie song THE TIDE IS HIGH, one of the most popular tunes ever, playing in the background as Shelly meets Ivan on the cruise. Her moments spent on the cruise exemplify sheer joy.

The episode title is ironic to me as the ‘we’ never materializes for the couple ; the two have separate, disparate trajectories. The ‘royal’ part is ambiguous as well. At the end of the episode, Michael’s self destruction made me ask myself, “is there ever going to be a cure for toxic male ego?”

I knew I was shouting at /into a void at best then.

*****

I will write about the remaining three episodes aired tomorrow as I feel this covers solid ground and since the first two episodes released together, it’s a good joint declaration of my own thoughts here.

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THE ROMANOFFS (2018) : A MASTERFUL INTERPRETATION OF PRIVILEGED LIVES BURSTING AT THE SEAMS.

I had given you a fair idea about how THE ROMANOFFS steered clear of a historical recreation of the erstwhile Russian dynasty and instead has its sights on individuals who occupy privileged lives bursting at the seams. That’s exactly what it is: an examination of people who didn’t have to descend from royalty really to warrant material comforts as they do here as part of the majority ilk ( in terms of the colour of their skin) even though they are a tiny minority amongst the population as we know ( owing to their wealth of one percenters). Just a name or lineage hence is not enough to sustain this upper class bubble. The episodes interpret ideas about class consciousness and intertwine them with other branches of life. After all, privileged lives too have to finally crystallize themselves to form a common bedrock of existence with all its pratfalls, highs and lows and petty matters.

A commonality is that somehow or the other they all belong to this royal lineage( or atleast claim to be; in episode third one influential being claims to have fibbed about it while in episode 5th, another substitutes his own modest life with that of a Romanov for mere big talk) . But the clever idea to make their ancestry a default trait is because the creative fuel to this series is more interested in minute, nifty touches of the everyday, amounting to cultural, social and personal representations. In its five out of total eight episode run so far, I thought everybody involved was able to create individual pieces of this anthology with an eye and ear for silent internalization of these lives. It’s complex, leisurely and layered in its approach to the idea of first world privilege and the personal shenanigans of various proportions, handled with due diligence and realism. So in talking about the series further, I will go very briefly about the episodes and what stood out for me. I believe as viewers you need to partake the experience yourself first and foremost . Ultimately, this miniseries that has close to 60- 90 minute episodes deals with the efforts of essentially decent individuals trying to make sense of the issues that grip them and attempting to not falter in the process. Never for a second do we doubt that the humanity of these flesh and blood people is compromised.

*****

THE ROMANOFFS( it’s spelled like that in America for reasons I don’t know, maybe it’s about pronunciation) was immensely interesting to me as its central conceit made me think of my own royal history. I come from the erstwhile Rajput warrior class of Rajasthan, a martial race and upper class that has in its ranks fabled kings and queens that India is famous for owing to their bravery, wit and extraordinary hold over generational popular culture. Existing links to other royal families within India and abroad has kept the history alive but it is largely segregated among various units, mostly in a comfortable middle and upper middle class cocoon. The glory is far behind , not that I personally would want to live like a king but preservation of a lineage is quite a quintessence, right? I wonder sometimes how certain branches of a glorious kingdom veered off into middle class obscurity, only to raise it as an inconsequential, extant background detail. Not that it is the last and first particular to boast about in an age of individuality.

*****

A short story collection when translated to the visual medium of television is called an anthology and this fits in perfectly with the idea behind THE ROMANOFFS. Each tale is an individual piece guided omnipresently by the line of royalty it mentions but with no intrusion on the people and their tales.

** I believe its Russian legacy ties in beautifully with the country’s reputation for short story writing as all these tales are evocative of the same kind of mastery. They all come with a welcome, unobtrusive twist at the end.

**It also reminded me of KEN COSGROVE, the talented advertisement executive from MAD MEN who was essayed impeccably by AARON STATON. He was shown to dabble in his passion for writing short stories and gaining success in terms of publication.

** socially, the issue of carrying forward a quasi or nominal identity, something belonging to the distant past brews strong and is touched upon subtly and effectively in all episodes aired so far. Finally while Mad Men dealt with the aftermath of growing up in the Depression era for Don Draper, the antecedents of having a slain family’s history on your back is prominent here, especially in the second episode. So the morose parallels are established. I mention these as I felt they were important observations to be committed to the written word regarding this series.

In the next post, I will discuss about the episodes briefly, pointing out their salient features. All in all, THE ROMANOFFS is quietly effective.

*****

DAVID FEAR OF ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE WRITES ABOUT THE ENDURING POWER OF A STAR IS BORN.

https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-features/a-star-is-born-gaynor-to-gaga-732535/

This article by Rolling Stone writer David Fear, who shares his thoughts on new releases every Friday in the magazine and the website, is quite special to me. It’s titled ‘why is A Star is Born so indestructible?’ and adds to the canon of film writing about the latest celebrated iteration of this tale which actually goes back to 1937. Read to know more.

*****

( the following are few of my own thoughts about the latest A STAR IS BORN)

2018 has left most of the film world raving about the Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper feature A STAR IS BORN that dives headlong into ideas of chance, fate, success, love and most ingeniously deals with music as the driving force of a seemingly battered inner world. Music as a soul stirring gift that keeps on giving even when our realities are at odds with the songcraft we share with masses. Thank God, I had read quite a lot few years back about how every twenty or thirty years, the pulse of the era and popular culture celebrated the validity of this script with the first A STAR IS BORN appearing in 1937, the second in 1954 and the one that I latched onto most prominently was the 1976 version, due in large part to two songs by nightingale Barbra Streisand: WOMAN IN LOVE and EVERGREEN that I revere for their sensual charms and swoop of the vocals that could take flights in any direction. So reading the above article by Mr. Fear was a heads up.

I’ll be honest here, knowing the background to this franchise that has been around for multiple generations was a good starting point till the 2018 version came to my immediate notice ( think about how joyful it will be if differently aged members of a family talk about how each one of them had seen one version in their youth within the period in which the respective films released ) ; it’s like a binding thread.

So the first time I saw the soulful trailer, I was hooked and returned to its simplicity and cadences thrice. Of course the raison d’etre was the high notes by Gaga from the now classic staple SHALLOW that is easily one of the favourites world over now . To me, the opening song MAYBE IT’S TIME sung by the film’s director and actor, the ever dependable Bradley Cooper, set things in perfect perspective about how like the best kind of films I adhere to, realism had been kept as a premium and in this two minute snapshot, Gaga’s thoughts on the idea of appearances, Cooper’s ‘trust me’ refrain, Dave Chappelle’s single line conveying multitudes to Sam Eliot and Anthony Ramos making their presence felt mattered to me . Then there is the idea of Stefani Germanotta – Lady Gaga, yes- arresting us with her big screen debut.

I am sad to say I could not watch it in its limited release in my metropolitan city due to the frustration of it not seeing wide release and I being under the weather. But I will relish the experience of this film pretty soon, that I am sure of. I have heard the songs, seen the mini clips and reveled in the unanimous praise heaped upon everybody associated with this passion project and labour of love. As a cinephile, it warms my heart that true and pure efforts have borne fruits for them, in an era where negativities of the mainstream have dented progress elsewhere .

Do let me know as readers and cinephiles if you have seen it and of your general views as well. I conclude with sterling lyrics from SHALLOW from the film,

“I’m off the deep end,

Watch as I dive in

I’ll never meet the ground.

WE’RE FAR FROM THE SHALLOW NOW”

*****

HEAVY RESTS THE HEAD WITH NO CROWN : on the Amazon series THE ROMANOFFS (2018)

Matthew Weiner’s post Mad Men enterprise is buoyed by his cross continental, classical style and exquisitely typical millennial fixation on identity – especially the one affixed with roots in royalty. Now that’s an interesting premise in a culture that continues to dig deep into the fossilized world of erstwhile queens and kings , a legacy which is now historically tenuous . I am excited talking about it in the first place and by the fact that it’s miles apart from the competitive embers of television’s binge watching parameters. First things first : it’s not a period retread of the mighty empire that ruled for three centuries and had all the intrigue that dynasties of any kind do. So this show presents the flipside, an antithesis to the glories and riches of times gone by.

Creatively, this central conceit makes sense since it’s about a group of people who claim to have antecedents of the Romanov dynasty from Russia. The authenticity or lack of it regarding this tall claim proves beneficial here as the same Don Draperesque mood central to Mad Men presents itself handsomely, where nobody is exactly who they claim to be. The mundane devolution of these personages in THE ROMANOFFS is, in turn, ripe for these individual vignettes to tackle race, personality clashes, matrimonial alliances and entertainment world’s tightrope walks around the real and the recreated timelines. It’s the other side of THE CROWN- the anonymity and comfort of home and associates matter most, down to the most common motifs of our diurnal lives and THE ROMANOFF halo is almost like an afterthought. So subtle and effective is Weiner’s deft touch, it brings a refreshing sensibility to the very expanding nucleus of prestige television / artistic medium that he helped redefine with my favourite work MAD MEN.

It’s a gift that he compromises with no single aspect and, in a neat eight episode miniseries format, is able to devote close to 90 minutes to the resolution within a single tale. So far THE ROMANOFFS has aired three episodes in its weekly run on Fridays starting from 12th October and each has stood out for me, beginning with the opening credits that recreate the most pivotal aspect of the Romanov name- the deadly assassination at the hands of the Bolsheviks of the whole family around 1918, quite like what transpired for the Nepalese monarchy as recently as the early 2000s – followed by a trail of blood going around photographs of the family and concluding with the city crowd that could be anywhere, with a Tom Petty song harping on the term refugee in all its implications of distance from a once hallowed history; of what could have been for the commoners who allegedly descend from blue bloods and continue to live with the trappings of everyday , no matter how hard they try to blend their roots with the mainstream that does not care much for the monarchy other than as an archaic, non democratic construct. In fact, that distance is present in the people who claim to be direct descendants here. There’s a world out there that is more affecting, wide and complex for them.

*****

In the next post, I will write about the quality of the three episodes and what they convey. All I can say is, don’t compare it with the precedent set by Mad Men – a surefire classic- because it didn’t matter to me. What it offers is novelty and the eye for detail, with Matthew taking on triple duties as writer, director and creator. The realism accentuated by the performers is another salient feature.

FOR IN THE TRUTH WE BELIEVE : on THE POST (2017)

It’s not for nothing that Steven Spielberg has been recognized as an all time paragon of the cinematic medium. I personally reckon him to be a truly universal filmmaker, capable of going from the fantastical to the comic, from depths of dramatic representation to a fact based beat with equal alacrity and a signature hold over every member of his audience. Now, I do not claim to have seen all of his gems from a diverse array of blockbusters but with THE POST forming a modern exemplar of his eye for seeking the truth by recreating stirring images of wit and agency, I hark back to the ones I have watched . From the lifescripts of African American women in his adaptation of THE COLOUR PURPLE, one of my favourite books of all time, the scientific/moral sprawl and popular culture phenomenon that was JURASSIC PARK, the heartwarming tale at the center of E. T, to the horror and silently roiling iconography of SCHINDLER’S LIST along with the emotional void highlighted amid an other worldly invasion in WAR OF THE WORLDS and larger conundrums pitted against the acme of human integrity in LINCOLN.

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL too joins this pantheon. You see, there is a zest for safeguarding the child in all of us, a generation bursting at its seams irrespective of the era or setting and an unraveling of fear for our kindred and the society at large. Courting innocence and purity of thought is the corollary to that universal worldview hence .

THE POST seems to subsume all of those validations of his craft and styles to focus on our current crises at home (and abroad) and seek a shared global plane of universality on all that is threatened. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION being the first casualty in the larger scheme of things, it finds echoes of courage by bringing The Washington Post’s exemplary success story from the 1970s to reflect on all that we need to preserve as individuals, as institutions, as nations and as the sum of our collective consciousness. Since I have given a fair background of the story based on real facts in the previous post, I write this ‘post’ to briefly shed light on some other salient aspects about the film.

*****

**the real life Katharine Graham and Benjamin Bradlee.

THE POST seeks the same degree of truth and concerted efforts to quell irrational fear within an unpredictable ecosystem that stifles individuality at every second juncture,an all too potent reality given the spate of cartoonish governments everywhere. More so in the USA.

Spielberg unspools the mystery of exposing state secrets and setting a publishing benchmark with a slow boil approach perfectly suited to the scripting as it was for agents at the thick of it in real life. The ensemble of enterprise that constituted the staff of the daily possessed no dearth of journalistic integrity as they put facts and figures together over days on end and sleepless nights, collating data from reliable, sometimes furtive sources and setting the bulk of unarranged records in place for the final exposes, compiled over various daily installments of the newspaper. It was a great publishing feat and more than that a triumph of the human spirit, as these journalists did not chase a one- sided ambitious silver lining to further their respective careers but the fundamental truth invested in the papers that could bring about closure long overdue to hundreds of citizens wronged by a hush hush administrative apparatus. Spielberg is able to convey that adrenaline rush side by side with the reckoning of this timely breakthrough. It wasn’t an ultimate or logical conclusion for them as responsible citizens, as demonstrated by the legal wrangles they were faced with; this is where Jesse Plemons steps in as a legal representative advising them on the pros and cons of the larger ideological battle ahead as they wrestle with the wrath of a disputed polity that jabs the press.

The fear of the unknown has stakes for everyone, be it the fearless editor Benjamin Bradlee ( Tom Hanks) or the two reporters who have ambiguities thrust upon them ( played by Matthew Rhys and Bob Odenkirk), on screen iterations of the real life veterans Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who oversaw many factual transitions to print in their heydays. The threat of being shamed, losing credibility and employment and imprisoned for going against a secretive government are all there . So there is a looming tower that has tilted over them and that is the government headed by Nixon, who, by the way, is shown in a back profile within the White House in one shot.

Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bradley Whitford all come into the picture as individuals affected one way or the other; so while Coon is part of the journalistic A team, Paulson is Mrs. Bradlee who has to manage the homefront and marvel at the courage of another woman at the head of The Post. Bradley, Tracy and Michael play power brokers trying to evaluate their roles and put together disjointed pieces of the puzzle, as businessmen and figures who have a say within the newspaper’s machinery.

For the newspaper was, in essence, a business and here comes the central power of Meryl Streep’s performance as Katharine Graham. She is the one Mrs. Bradlee appreciates when she decides to publish the papers as The Post’s long standing owner and publishing voice, no immune to sexism and doubts as the widow of the man who had been running his marital family’s business. As seen in the scenes with her daughter ( a winsome Alison Brie who has luminous eyes), she wants to take a stand for herself and for those who dare to tread on the path not taken. Streep lends a welcome glint of bravery coinciding with looks of vulnerability. She is a social presence of merit within Washington and knows every powerful member of her sphere yet the truth is dear to her and must be never compromised, even if it means distancing from a long time friend in Bob McNamara , a powerful U. S Secretary of Defense who oversaw many administrative highpoints and was now opposed to the way the US had made a monumental mess regarding Vietnam and so naturally was in the eye of the storm. The real ‘ to be or not to be’ dilemma is hers.

There is really a three way structure to THE POST: first aligned with Bob McNamara, then with the Washington Post’s status as a family owned company and then after the New York Times’ expose of the secret files and subsequent indictment, the sudden shift in the Post team’s moral weightlifting. Graham and Bradlee make a formidable duo, friends and collaborators who put the truth first. The grace and level headedness of Mrs. Graham was ultimately what made everyone translate their uncertainties to triumph. The idea was to keep heads over water as controversies come and go but the weight of one’s decisions lingers.

******

Spielberg makes this one about what it means to be in the public eye. So when responsibility of such a magnitude is thrust upon us and we have willingly undertaken choices then reality is much more pronounced by way of our collective actions. He captures popular pulse of the audience too, like in the scene with the assistant of a solicitor general and Katharine and another heart to heart between Katharine and her daughter. The Vietnam War affected millions and integrity was the only cardinal rule that the team had to follow to answer buried questions. The screenplay here maintains a pragmatic view of people in throes of life altering revelations, concluding at the precipice of the Watergate phenomenon.

THE POST comes at a time when the publication of a book HICKY’S BENGAL GAZETTE : THE UNTOLD STORY OF INDIA’S FIRST NEWSPAPER by Andrew Otis has made huge impact. It reminds me of the abiding principle of the Indian way : SATYAMEVE JAYETE. HAIL THE TRUTH. A concept more in word than in actual deeds. This film salutes every one who is in favour of constructive actions over words.

******

FOR THE POWER OF TRUTH IS IN THE TELLING: on THE POST (2017)

CAST: MERYL STREEP, TOM HANKS, SARAH PAULSON, MATTHEW RHYS, BRADLEY WHITFORD, ALISON BRIE, BOB ODENKIRK, JESSE PLEMONS, CARRIE COON, TRACY LETTS, BRUCE GREENWOOD, MICHAEL STUHLBARG .

DIRECTION : STEVEN SPIELBERG.

*****

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION. How important and all encompassing is this term that society is always hell bent on taking for granted. We quote our constitution, our charter of rights, our fundamental freedoms and seek every single fabric of truth through the fourth pillar which today has branched out to so many forms. THE MEDIA is that overarching fourth pillar ensuring its unlimited power to inform, educate and even entertain by dint of telling the truth. I know what you are thinking : in today’s partisan environment, this statement sounds way off the mark as news media has become privy to a whole other level of pandemonium and established governments conveniently go hand in glove with it to generate fodder for the mandatory 24/7 cycle. But we all know truth is in the telling and when hard facts are scrabbled together by enterprising individuals to shed light on the realities of our immediate social order, conviction is established. Those who manage to pursue that fundamental truth with conviction, without fear of authority make a headway and democratize the very idea of journalism. By extension, this journalistic integrity then becomes a weapon to tell the world the truth. The truth that matters. The truth that is quintessential to you and me. The truth prevails. I am a believer and as long as conviction drives the seekers to share tales from around the world and elevate and enlighten our conscience, the term ‘media’ will retain its power.

So more power to THE POST which I will write briefly about here, trace as it does the vigilant tempers and iconoclasm of THE WASHINGTON POST team that in the 1970s brought a corrupt government to its knees and paved the way for the spirit of enquiry to come of age, for generations thereafter. We all know details of the Nixon era intrigue and history is choc a bloc with points about the Pentagon Papers – truly a Pandora’s box – that held classified details about the USA administration’s many moral missteps in policy making especially to the tune of entering the Vietnam War. The Post was instrumental in exposing key aspects of how like any government running countries to this day, the administration literally sent thousands to the Asian slaughterhouse with a false sense of nationalism, with no real agenda. The lives of common citizens which should be prioritized is ultimately left in a lurch anywhere and the publication of the papers back in the day was a triumph for the freedom of press and more importantly the citizens’ right to information. In one of the most controversial upending of top to down bureaucratic structures , President Nixon was impeached and a faint but epoch making sense of justice for families of those who perished or returned home reeling with PTSD was reinstated. This was the single swoop for the anti war stance that had been brewing at home and abroad and now found validation. The milestone hence continues to dominate popular culture, down to the recent multi arc National Geographic documentary titled ‘Watergate’.

Watching THE POST, I was reminded of the factual cum emotional trajectory of another superlative effort courtesy SPOTLIGHT which dealt with the staff of BOSTON GLOBE uncovering decades of systemic abuse within annals of the Church in the early 2000s. Culled from real life, with the performers stepping right in the shoes of the journalists who gave truth a chance, both films should make for compelling companion pieces. Finally, the human spirit, in all hues of indomitability, is traced subtly in both instances.

So here I give you my views on what THE POST is all about and the sociological background. In the next post, I will write about its structure, performances and impact.

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HOW MUCH DO YOU REALLY CARE? ON THE MODERN HUMANIST CLASSIC OCTOBER (2018)

OCTOBER (2018)

CAST: VARUN DHAWAN, BANITA SANDHU, GEETANJALI RAO etc .

DIRECTION : SHOOJIT SIRCAR.

This one is a particularly heartwarming offering to a mass audience that should learn to trust its instincts for sharing compassion with everyone near and far, no matter how dire the consequences. OCTOBER (2018) is way afar from trite formulas of filmmaking as has been the case with celebrated director Shoojit Sircar’s oeuvre consisting of realistic, profoundly thoughtful, genre defying yet extremely entertaining ones like VICKY DONOR (2012) and PIKU (2015).Whatever humour, pathos, sense of understanding there is to our diurnal rhythms that a lesser filmmaker would sidestep for filmic modulations, he retains with such flair that it achieves a refreshing sensibility. In fact, I have lost count of the times I have watched Piku and reveled in its father-daughter bond and the road trip scenario that was unlike any other simply for the fact that every line, conversation and situation was straight out of the everyday. Quirks and fits of human behavior always find a sublime representation in his worldviews and projection. It goes without saying, however, that in the writing capabilities of his regular collaborator JUHI CHATURVEDI, he finds a beacon of imaginative rejuvenation who has emerged as one of the most original voices of cinema in modern times. OCTOBER is no different though it’s thoroughly sombre. Where it’s different is in the projection of protagonist Dan (a winsome Varun Dhawan) as a young man with a mind of his own.

He’s not a rebel without a cause as we discover in the course of the film and in a culture of toxic masculinity especially rampant in the capital city of Delhi and its sorrounding National Capital Region (NCR) where it is set, he’s an exemplar. But again this has none of the heroics of formula. All of 21 or 22 as portrayed here, he is training in the hospitality industry which entails a rigorous exercise as one has to dabble in multiple jobs from attending guests at the reception, tending to laundry, whipping up exclusive culinary delights to even cleaning washrooms and waitressing. Really in a country where many of these jobs have strict class based divisions, the hotel business comes as a great leveler, breaking away with any overarching ego or smug self confidence for the individual. Dan has got accustomed to its rhythms yet his short temper costs him many opportunities as he is able to see through many of the inherent hypocrisies of his workplace, especially regarding some of the monied, errant guests who frequent the five star hotel. He’s also miffed at his boss for relegating him to cleaning toilets. As I said, this is a class based issue which is prevalent everywhere and especially here. So the writing maintains that subtle vein of social consciousness without explicitly spelling it out. I am reminded of two scenes from Piku where Rana ( the great Irfan Khan), the owner of the cab company that Piku orders her rides from, arrives to take her and her father on their trip to Kolkata from Delhi in the absence of a driver coming to fetch them in the early morning hours of winter. He is quick to respond when he is mistaken for the driver by Bhaskor ( legendary Amitabh Bachchan). At another, he refuses to start driving as the house servant who’s accompanying them is seated next to him in the front seat and quickly Piku takes over. Now these are just subtle hints and I’m sure they are pretty universal actions. Dan is restless, has a keen sense of right and wrong and is quite attuned to ironies of the hospitality business. It’s not another 9 to 5 job for him but his short fuse hinders his talent. He is young and so has all the impulses that come with his age. Sircar and his cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay capture the goings on inside the premises of the hotel ( the plush Radisson Blu, Dwarka here) with precision and his focus on little moments outside where Dan and his colleagues share tea and snacks at a roadside stall or order pizza and make do with Maggie for dinner at their flat are au natural, ensuring to uphold the modest but sufficient means with which they have to manage to make ends meet.

They are at an important point of their challenging career prospects and these touches of representation give us a peek into the way the industry functions and how integral it is for the employees to maintain decorum to survive. It’s not the shine and sparkle of the five star life but the toil and extra hours and efforts that make it an uphill task. The presentation here is as matter of fact as it is for insiders of the hospitality boom. As I write this, I am watching a young employee get the breakfast table ready at the hotel situated next to my apartment. It’s clockwork precision as I see it.

*****

The profoundly humanist core of Dan and this film then unravels as one of the brightest trainees Shiuli (debutante BANITA SANDHU), who is never shown directly conversing with Dan except for the instance of a polite ‘thank you’ to him when he repairs her car, meets with sudden tragedy. Her life hangs in the balance owing to the severity of the situation and her last words before falling from the balcony of the hotel’s third floor while ringing in an occasion are, “where’s Dan?”

This leads the young man on a journey of self evaluation from where he had never really veered in the initial minutes. We knew his heart was always in the right place but the sacrifices he makes further to abide by his intrinsic nature and conscience is stellar as he feels he holds a responsibility to look after Shiuli in the hospital. His anger and a lack of concrete direction owing to it is gradually sublimated by patience and forbearance. ‘Where’s Dan?’ becomes a point of profundity for him as this anonymous colleague remembered him for the last time before she met with almost death. Surely her life meant something more than the designation of a fellow trainee and the suddenness of it all is also to be taken into consideration. Sircar and Chaturvedi so beautifully direct this moral idea of disseminating compassion to others that we follow Dan’s trajectory with an inward look at our own standards of going the extra mile, even for our kindred. As my experience informs me, Dan may sound like one among millions and he may be but this world is full of such selfless individuals, age and gender no bar, both of which he imputes as per the usual, supposed expectations. It’s not his responsibility per se as his colleagues have to settle to usher in a new day at the job but he breaks away from the clutter. Chances are he would have done the same even if Shiuli hadn’t asked for him.

Geetanjali Rao, a theatre veteran and ace animator who has been feted at Cannes and other national and international platforms, internalizes her part as the stoic, mild mannered, grieving mother who finds her unusual support system in the boy who is decades younger than her but is undeterred in his principled dedication. Her male relative, on the other hand, would prefer to let Shiuli be off life support and has the insensitivity of a typical member outside the immediate family fold . This is no one- off cause for him or some mild awakening for the present moment ; he has always been like this and he naturally gets intertwined in the private world of Shiuli’s family without being intrusive. We get to see how the already widowed Vidya Iyer has to juggle her job as a professor at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, look after her two teenage children and bear the expenses and mental toll that come with Shiuli’s deteoriating condition six months after the accident as she is in a comatose state. In such a situation, it helps that Dan visits every evening after his hotel shift and looks after many minute details, sometimes checking every little look by a staff member down to the amount of urine passed by Shiuli, implying that she is conscious and enquiring about the same to the nurse in charge. These are dabbed in humour as when the nurse asks him if he has a job and when his colleague and roommate tells him that he has been to the ICU twice in his life: today and yesterday. But these are matter of fact and the counterpoint to them is when the nurse opens up to him about the fact that she has not got married as nobody trusts nurses owing to their line of work. I can say with some experience of my own that without their tireless efforts and lack of ego, a hospital wouldn’t practically function. They are indispensable to the healthcare ecosystem. Another beautiful moment is when Dan helps a concerned and financially strapped visitor to procure a corollary of a medicine that the hospital chemist refuses to give him. He has gained hands-on knowledge by observing proceedings within the hospital and hence comes to his aid. This intrinsic core of hospitality beyond mere lip service is what he believes in. You may wonder if he is beginning to sound like a helicopter guardian but the script is miles apart from any of those trappings. You have to watch it to know what I mean.

*****

This mix of people who are easily weary and sometimes frustrated in their respective workplaces is a sensible parallel to the void that Dan himself feels as a trainee. The work – life balance and conflicts inherent in this dynamic is brought to the fore. A crucial and direct point is addressed in the scene where Dan finally asks his colleagues as to how they can be so unaffected to which one of them replies that they can’t relinquish work. As I told you, the views are realistic, practical and there’s acknowledgement on both sides. So even as Dan – the essential lone ranger who makes us anticipate a lonely family backstory especially evident in the one scene centring on him and his mother who is not really appreciative of his decisions – gets erratic and is fired from his job, he feels a sense of liberation that he can now commit his time to wishing for a miracle for Shiuli by dint of hope and care. Everybody around him realizes the strength of this young person and the thing is he, himself, doesn’t make a hue and cry out of it. To some and most of the populace, he will come across as irrational, attempting to prove a point. To them, his understanding of the delicate threads that bind us in life and in difficult situations is not that different from their own. It’s only that they cannot afford to make the compromise. After all, one person alone can bring in a change.

ISHA CHATURVEDI as Ishani, SAHIL VEDOLIYAA as Manjeet, both portraying Dan’s friends and hotel management colleagues, are absolutely natural as is PRATEEK KAPOOR as Mr. Asthana, the manager who is vexed and captivated by his unconventional approach to life when everybody else would be content being left to their own devices. Their important presence adds perspectives of the everyday to this script.

That said, the raw and affable nature of VARUN ‘s performance is a highlight. His innocence and earnestness make us believe in the very idea of basic humanity while BANITA SANDHU, with no dialogues and not much physical mobility, conveys the pain of her state astutely. She internalizes her part as a young girl clearly in throes of death with tact. It’s a tricky choice for a debut role but she is utterly realistic. In fact her omnipresence and her antecedents as regards her unusual name and the month from which the film derives its title from guides it.

There is a silence to OCTOBER that befits its tale of personal unravelings and Avik, the cinematographer and editor CHANDRASHEKHAR PRAJAPATI find passages of solitude in the parts in Himachal where Dan finds employment as a resort manager and in the muffled, resonant tragedy of the inevitable climax.

Shantanu Moitra’s musical score warms our hearts. It’s beautiful, deeply contemplative and a learning lesson for the younger demographic that puts itself first. Humanity has hardly appeared on our screens with such attention to detail in a long time. It’s not merely a cinematic experience then but an approximation of our lives measured in endeavors. Sometimes the kindness of strangers goes a long way in reinstating our lust for life. That is how OCTOBER impacted me.

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