Saturday, August 01, 2015

Age cannot wither them (or can it?) - thoughts on actors "playing" old

[Did a version of this piece for The Hindu]

I was at a literature festival in December 2011 when the news came in about Dev Anand’s passing. It felt especially poignant and immediate because I was speaking about the film adaptation of Guide at a session that evening. But I was also struck by how shocked (as opposed to just sad) some of the people around me were – by the many exclamations of “What! But he was so fit” – qualified only in one or two cases by “…for his age”.

Still, it’s all in those three words, right? I don’t see why anyone should be astonished to hear about the winding up – without adequate prior notice – of an 87-year-old body, no matter how sturdy it may have seemed to the outside eye. It’s like that scene in Shoojit Sircar’s lovely film Piku where the septuagenarian Bhaskor (Amitabh Bachchan) reads a newspaper item about a 99-year-old Japanese man who was riding a bicycle daily right until the end. “But HOW did he die?” the illness-obsessed Bhaskor mumbles, scanning the paper for details of cancer or cardiac arrest. The question remains unanswered, because, well, the answer could be as simple as: “Ninety-nine”. It’s always inspiring to see an old person who is healthy, curious about the world, wanting to learn new things – but one can admire those qualities without forgetting that the clock is ticking fast.

Delightful as Piku was, it was also an affecting experience for a boy who had grown up with the giant shadow of Amitabh Bachchan and once fantasized about being the leather-jacketed stud on the motorbike singing the title song of Muqaddar ka Sikandar (or the soulful romantic singing the beautiful “O Saathi Re” in the same film). Now here I was 30 years later, more aware of both mortality and the pitfalls of hero-worship, watching Bachchan as an old man complaining about his constipation problems; a vulnerable old man whose expression as his eyes dart reflexively towards his daughter during moments of (real or imagined) crisis reminded me of how the faces of my grandparents – my nani, who died in 2009 and my dadaji, who had gone the year before – had been rendered similarly childlike when they struggled with illness.

Some of us undervalue the role that our familiarity with actors plays in our movie-watching. This goes with the conservative notion that an actor who can “submerge” himself into any sort of part – disappearing until you forget about the real-life person – is inherently more valuable than a star who builds a career on a personality connect with a mass audience. I find that idea very problematic, not least because I am the sort of viewer who is always on some level aware of and thinking about an actor’s history (even with “chameleon-like” performers like Nawazuddin Siddiqui); and because the distinction is unfair to the many great star-actors that cinema has given us from Chaplin downwards, people who achieved immense things as performers even while largely working within the confines of a specific image.

With Piku, and with other films I have recently watched, the actor-character line went in and out of focus in odd ways. Of course, Bachchan here is playing a character, written by someone else. When we see Bhaskor in his final sleep near the film’s end, on one level it is no more “real” than watching Vijay dying in the temple in Deewaar, or Jai dying in Sholay. And yet, at another level, it hit closer home. It felt realer, more uncomfortable – and not only because of the lack of drama (there is no “death scene”) or because Piku is a lower-key film than Deewaar or Sholay, but also because… Mr Bachchan himself is now seventy-three. Watching him play Piku’s dad is a very different matter from watching him pretend to be old in 1980s films like Mahaan or Aakhree Raasta.

Around the same time that I saw Piku, I watched another great actor of Bachchan’s vintage in the Hollywood film Danny Collins. But my attention soon shifted from Al Pacino in the title role – as an aging rock star – to another actor in the film, someone who is a decade older than even Pacino.

Christopher Plummer! I was scared of Plummer as a child, when I saw him as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. You would be if you’re eight years old and watching the tight-lipped disciplinarian in his stiff suit, the killjoy in Maria’s efforts to bring music and whimsy into the children’s lives. Now, watching him in a supporting part in Danny Collins, even though he looked spry and
energetic for his age, I felt protective; during a wonderfully performed scene where Plummer's character Frank relates an anecdote about his friendship with Danny, I wondered if it was a strain for him to learn all those lines and say them in a long monologue. Take it easy, old guy. Pause for breath. It was a long way from watching Captain Von Trapp and wishing he would keep quiet for other reasons.

In this context I also think about Michael Haneke’s Amour, in which the legendary French actors Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant play an old couple whose lives are altered when Anne (Riva) suffers a paralyzing stroke. Whether Amour is a tender, empathetic portrayal of old age or a cold, almost nihilistic film made by a director famous for his unblinking use of the camera is up for debate (personally I lean towards the latter view) – but either way a big factor in the viewing experience is watching two screen icons together in their eighties, nearly as vulnerable as their characters. Their remarkable performances as well as their presence (and our knowledge of their history) provide so much to relate to or sympathise with, and arguably transcend the film itself.

I know people who were so disturbed by Amour that they called it “old-age porn”. The term is revealing. When a “respectable” mainstream performer does a hard-core sex scene, the line between performance and reality seems to almost completely break down; they are really doing it. Of course, the lines were never that simple anyway: when Method actors draw on their own memories during dramatic scenes and really break down in front of the camera, they are doing “it” too. But it feels more visceral and direct –more beyond an actor’s conscious control – in a sexual context. And perhaps the same is true of old age, when your body is in the process of letting you down. Looking at the wrinkled faces of Riva or Plummer in these films, we are no longer in that safe zone where we can be sure the performer is always in control. Beyond a point, there is no faking. Even if it happens only at the level of a little moment where the person on the screen rises from a chair and pauses to shift the weight off a delicate ankle, and you catch yourself wondering “Was that Bhaskor, or was that Amitabh?"

[It was only after I had finished writing this that I remembered this piece I did a few years ago. It had completely slipped out of my mind. Maybe I'm getting old too.]


  1. Nice, there are so many others which come to mind.
    One of my personal favourite old man performance is Robert Donat in Goodbye Mr Chips (1939). And he was only thirty when he played it!

    1. yes, of course - I liked him very much as Mr Chips too. But this piece is specifically about watching a genuinely old actor play his age and wondering how much in control he can be. (And Donat never got very old, if I recall right - he died in his 50s.)

    2. May be you should revisit :) The movie takes it through his 80s. I can never forget the scene in the end when he is on his deathbed and he says that it is wrong to say he never had children, he had thousands of them...

    3. I don't think you understood my comment - I was talking about Donat in real life not making it past his 50s.

    4. Sorry for being thick headed! I didn't know about this.I am sure it will now make me even sadder next time I watch it.

  2. Bruce dern in Alexander Payne's beautiful Nebraska was the first thing that came to my mind... And Payne said about his casting ' He's at an age where he can be ingenuous and ornery'... That's why we cast him.

  3. Thought provoking post, as always. I can relate to this - especially the part about a veteran actor playing a role. When I see Al Pacino or Naseeruddin Shah giving a splendid performance, I am always aware of the fact that here is a great actor playing a great role. And this leads me to a number of complicated questions. Does the fact that actor is well known (and hence has different expectations from viewers) alter the quality of the performance? How does one define a great performance? Can it be done without the hurdles of viewer's expectations? And so on..