A titan dies. An everyman follows suit. And a director in his seventh decade displays the energy of a twenty-year-old. Notes from a holiday.
Can a writer ever take a break? So here I was, all ready for three weeks of not working, telling myself things like “this is as good a time as any, because you’re never going to find the right moment for a vacation because something is always going to be happening, and you need to realize that the world isn’t going to go up in a conflagration just because you didn’t pitch in your two cents.” And then Peter O’Toole passed away, and the hand began to itch to dole out those two cents.
The mind began to compose opening sentences. If I had not been on vacation, how would I have written an obit or a column? Maybe begin by noting the thrilling theatricality the actor displayed in his most famous roles – bellowing, mewling, sighing, masticating each line or dialogue, each word, as if it were the last morsel on earth? And along the way, acknowledge his beauty with that Noël Coward quote that if the actor been any prettier, David Lean’s sand-soaked epic would have had to be called Florence of Arabia?
Perhaps the worst part about being a writer is that it isn’t a job that allows you to switch off. It’s not something about which you can say you’re waiting for your teammates to finish their parts of the project. It’s just you. And there’s always a computer nearby.
You board a flight and switch on the small TV set in front of you and a dozen thoughts pop up, of which at least three might make for good columns. (About watching movies without the pressure of reviewing them, maybe. Or about watching a movie on a little box of a screen and how it changes your experience of the movie from the time you saw it in the theatre. Or about reading, in the London papers, obits for Peter O’Toole, and how different they are from the obits we find in our papers.) What is it with this annoying little woodpecker inside your head, knocking incessantly against the walls of your skull, saying write-write-write-write-write?
So I get over the need – and it’s really that; a sort of craving, the addict’s need for a fix – to write about Peter O’Toole, and a couple of weeks later Farooq Sheikh shuffles off his mortal coil. Again, the mind is besieged by writing possibilities. First, how to make sense of this profound sadness on the passing of someone you didn’t know, you just saw on screen and on TV, a sadness that’s in some ways deeper than what we might experience upon the death of a neighbour or a colleague?
This is perhaps a good way to remember the actor, by coming to grips with the emotion one feels. Another way, of course, is to remember the films, the important films (first, last, star-making, award-winning) as well as the favourites, the ones that may not have made an impression on anyone but you – and it’s through these very personal connections that an actor remains with us forever.
Had I written a memory piece about Farooq Sheikh, I would have remembered Bazaar, which is my favourite film of his. I’d probably have recalled the songs first, which people of my generation heard over and over through a cassette whose other side contained songs from Umrao Jaan, and the Bazaar songs were preceded by little bits of dialogue, banter about green bangles among other things, and listening to Farooq Sheikh and Supriya Pathak being in love was just heartbreaking, given your knowledge of what fate has in store for them.
If Ek Duuje Ke Liye, released a year earlier, in 1981, showcased lovers who lashed out against the establishment, Bazaar affirmed, sadly, that the voices of everymen and everywomen often went unheard in a world where money and status and power and privilege mattered most. Farooq Sheikh was devastating as this everyman, smiling sweetly at Supriya Pathak as she sang Dihkayi diye yoon and, later, letting go of her hands as she walks away tearfully into the shadows by the end of Dekh lo aaj humko jee bhar ke.
But, again, I told myself I was on a break, and a fuller piece never got written. The idea for one remained wedged in the mind along with the idea for a piece on the comedy I watched sometime in the middle of these two tragedies: Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. At least, I think it is a comedy. It’s too long and too shallow, the character graphs too attenuated, and there’s too much repetition to classify the film as good drama, and besides, there’s not much here that we haven’t already seen in Goodfellas or Casino, those other stories of men behaving badly.
But there are superb comic set pieces – a dry face-off on a yacht that hinges on who will blink first, a drugged-out drive back to the home – and the film overflows with such manic energy that it’s hard to believe that it was made by a director over seventy. The protagonist may be the one taking the drugs, but we feel the rush, the high, thanks to filmmaking that all but invades our nervous system. The scene-for-scene inventiveness is breathtaking, even if the film, as a whole, never quite adds up – and that is probably what I would have written about. Maybe I still will, now that the vacation is over and I don’t have to keep denying that woodpecker anymore. Happy 2014.