Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Last Lear: a touch of Harry in the night

I liked Rituparno Ghosh's The Last Lear overall, though the ending was somewhat desultory and unsatisfying and I thought some characters should have been better fleshed out. The film establishes its downbeat mood straightaway – though it opens on a Diwali night, none of the protagonists are in festive spirits and the interiors, where most of the drama unfolds, are gloomy and claustrophobic: a darkened movie-hall inside which a director, Siddharth (Arjun Rampal), waits distractedly for his film to premiere; a poorly lit apartment where the film's lead actor Harish/Harry (Amitabh Bachchan) lies in a near-comatose state, looked after by his night nurse Ivy (Divya Dutta) and a lady named Vandana (Shefali Shah), whose relationship to him is not immediately clear. This dark tone will dominate the film, notwithstanding a few liberating scenes that depict an outdoor shoot in the hills.

Through the memories of Harry’s co-star Shabnam (Preity Zinta) and those of a young journalist who was partly responsible for the retired theatre actor making his film debut, we flashback to a few months earlier, when the crusty old Harry – fossilizing in his room like a modern-day Miss Havisham – is approached by Siddharth to act in his film. Initially the idea is beneath the old man’s contempt: on stage, an actor is in control of his performance; in a film, he is at the mercy of such arcane things as camerawork and editing; he is broken up into fragments, the camera alternating between close-ups and long-shots, or even cutting away whenever it chooses to. (“I’ve heard you were brilliant as Prospero,” says Siddharth. “Ah, but which Prospero? The one in Calcutta, Bombay or some other city? The one in Act II or Act IV?” cackles Harry, summing up the delicate, personal nature of theatre acting and the special appeal it held for him. It’s quite a thrill to hear Bachchan – whose peak years were spent playing essentially the same character again and again in a series of mainstream films – speak these lines.)

But slowly Harry comes around. Underneath his hard veneer is a little boy who can’t resist the attention, the chance to ply his trade once more on a different type of stage. Besides, the role Siddharth wants him to play – a clown whose art is dying along with the circus – is close to the bone for obvious reasons.

The Last Lear is full of charming moments, including a wonderfully performed scene between Bachchan and Zinta, where the old actor encourages the diffident model-turned-actress to "throw her voice" towards the mountains across the valley by imagining that the man she is angry at is standing on the other side; a sudden burst of Bengali (“Eta ki fair?!”) in an emotional situation by Harry, who has thus far appeared incapable of speaking or thinking in any language other than English; Harry and Siddharth making up stories for the people they see on the CCTV the old man has installed in his flat; and the sudden transformation of a quiet scene into grand theatre – complete with sound effects evoking a tempest - when Harry declaims Prospero’s lines. I also liked the framing device of the three women sharing their problems, slowly opening up to each other as the night wears on. (Shefali Shah and Preity Zinta are very good in these scenes, but Divya Dutta speaks with exaggerated, meaningful pauses; this is something that occasionally afflicts self-consciously arty cinema - it’s as if talking naturally would be a lowbrow thing to do.)

Pre-release hype told us that The Last Lear marks Bachchan’s career-best performance. Such hype is usually self-defeating, but this really is a role that AB impressively sinks his teeth into. He has a grand old time here, alternating between self-possession and vulnerability, disdain and childlike enthusiasm, snapping “You get samples in a fabric shop, not on the stage!” when asked for samples of his best work, performing the “Once more unto the breach” soliloquy from Henry V. All of it leads up to a key scene where Harry has to abase himself for the integrity of his art – in the end the theatre actor retains his dignity, but at heavy cost, and the movie director has the final say.

The Last Lear is a good enough film to make me wish it had gone further in its reflections on life and art, theatre and cinema, that a stronger connection had been made between Harry’s own life and the role he is playing, and that the characters of Shabnam and Vandana in particular had been more fully explored; what one is left with is snapshots of interesting people whom we would have liked to know better. But even with these limitations, this is an elegant, lovingly made work that deserves to be seen outside the festival circuit and that should be rewarding for an attentive viewer, even one who doesn’t know Oberon from Oberoi.


  1. You make it sound quite impressive and I am glad he is trying to do something more meaningful.

    I also liked your comments on stage acting vs screen acting. I used to be indifferent to actor-centric films before but I am rethinking about it these days, specially after watching films by Altman and Cassavetes which are not "theatrical" at all but rather they create this "ecosystem" of people and ask actors to contribute on their own (within the parameters of script and the characters of course). And the fact that they are not aware (at least in Altman) of camera placements, angles, movements or the final edit makes them open up and be naturalistic that is not very common on stage. It is probably a little confusing and it is a complicated topic so I will stop here.

    Also I am just curious what do you mean by Bachchan's "peak years"? The Manmohan Desai/Prakash Mehra one?

  2. I have vague memories of "The Last Lear" -- I watched it at the Goa film festival in 2007 and am wondering why it took a year for it to hit Indian cinemas -- but even I remember how the ending spoilt the movie for me.

  3. Alok: the superstardom years - generally speaking 1973-1988 but more specifically 1975-1982. And yes, good observation about Altman and Cassavetes being "actor's directors", though I'd also point out that it's possible to oversimplify the idea. George Cukor was known as one of the best actor's directors ever, but his films are very different in tone and structure from those of Altman or Cassavetes; his method for putting performers at ease/enabling them to give their best would have been different.

    Toe Knee: have seen lots of films at Cinefan over the years that were either never released commercially or released 2-3 years later. Except of course that this is a Bachchan film - but even then its very subject and tone, plus the fact that it's entirely in English, means that distribution would have to be limited.

  4. Didn't much care for the movie, but your gentle assessment provokes the question: Are you familiar with Rituparno's earlier works? Unishe April or Bariwali or even a comparatively recent Dosar? I wonder how you think this compares with those...

  5. Thanks for an informative review, Jai. I kind of made up my mind not to watch the movie due to the overdone publicity by Mr. Chaudhary. But, your review makes it look interesting.

    I agree with you that publicizing it as Bachchan's best performance is self-defeating. The campaign is a major put off.


  6. Really it's a worth watching movie.I can't find any appropriate word to describe Big B's performance.hats off to him.

  7. Anon: I liked Dosar a great deal (wrote about it here). Also Unishe April (seen a very long time ago though). Liked Titli and Shubho Mahurat moderately. Haven't seen any other Ghosh films.

    The campaign is a major put off

    Sangeetha: well, ya, but on the other hand they probably felt they had to go overboard seeing that this is a niche film that will have trouble finding the right audience.

  8. I liked your analysis of the film. Though I'm not a big fan of Rituparno, still I acknowledge that he is the one who forced Bengali cine-goers to take contemporary Bengali films seriously again. But I didn't like "Dosar". I found it dull, unimaginative and very very simplistic (tidbits in the imitation of Kieslowsky, or, may be, Bergman couldn't save the movie for me). But, on the other hand, I liked "Unishe April", "Bariwali" and "Utsav", where the portrayal of emotion and relationship was much subtle.

  9. I wasn't really sold on this movie, but your review has at least piqued my curiosity. Other than Bariwali and Shubho Mohurat, I have found most Ghosh to be ponderous.

    And the less said about B's string of "performances" the better. Was I the only one who thought his role in Black was one large side of ham that made Pacino in Heat look like - well - Pacino in Donnie Brasco?

  10. This reads quite. Not long ago,I saw Mohit Suri's Zeher for the first time here in Nigeria. I had read about the movie and bought a CD of the soundtracks in Pahar Ganj in 2006 and the songs made me fell in love with the movie itself. Now that I've seen the movie, I feel good.

    I definitely will look out for this particular movie. And you know, Swades is my hit.

    Do you think the characters must be in festive spirit when the movie opens because it's Diwali? If so, then, I've got something to show you.


  11. Onyeka,
    Zeher, diwali, swadesh? You are in the wrong nook of the cyberspace my friend... shoo! be gone!

  12. I am sure that the movie is a treat for theatre folks. I dont have any connection to theater, but found statements like "ActII or Act IV?" amusing. The best one was about the time of day mentioned in the script, for which Bachchan resonds to this effect: Give me poetry like that (Hamlet?) and I can perform it in broad daylight and make it feel like night. :)

  13. I think I will be in the minority here, but I did not enjoy Amitabh Buchann's acting in the movie - simply because I could not for a minute forget that he was Amitabh Bachchan - I have seen him so often as a 'rough edged man more sinned against than sinning'. (I did enjoy listening to Amitabh Bachchan speaking the Shakespeare lines - but that is not the same thing at all!)
    Similarly I found the Preity Zinta's acting in most of the movie quite ordinary too - she is always Preity Zinta. Somehow self righteous...

    Shefali Shah was a pleasure.

  14. tripe. last lear is total tripe. sophomorish pseud stuff

  15. tu paagal ho gaya hai! you liked last lear!!!! i can understand bachchan..but its like sachin's century when india manages 120!
    Such elemtary logical flundaries...the closeup taken from a distance had harry the clown in specs speaking in alanguage the clown wudnt have. and a non-synche sound film..but he doesnt survive till the dubbing of the film. so how is the shot edited? SHIT!
    The climactic jump is not even shown. Why? simply cos rtu doesnt knwo how to.
    Zinta is a murda and shefali stands out..but not enuf to figure that when you spend 250 bucks you realise at interval point - the film is now beginning! uff!!

  16. Soumik: dude, just for the record (and I think you know this) I would take a Sachin century in an Indian score of 120 anyday - I'm far more concerned with his performances than with India's. But that's beside the point here.

    ...when you spend 250 bucks you realise at interval point - the film is now beginning! uff!!

    Maybe it helped that I didn't have to spend my own money on this film? Such things do make a difference, which is why I always say people shouldn't make their viewing decisions based on reviews.

    And what's with this bizarre insistence on logic? Aren't you a part of Bollywood by now?