Saturday, November 24, 2018

Honey, I shrunk the hero

[Happened to be reading Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man around the same time the trailer for the upcoming Shah Rukh Khan film Zero came out. That led to this Mint Lounge piece]

He became fully conscious of the steps that led up to the windowed door of the trailer, and convulsively he jumped on the first one.
It was just the right height.
On the face of it, Richard Matheson’s 1956 fantasy novel The Shrinking Man – about a man named Scott Carey who begins shrinking at the rate of an inch per week, after an accident with radioactivity – is not much like a sweepingly romantic Indian film. But there is one magical, affecting passage late in the book that I can see fitting into our movies about vertically challenged heroes, such as the upcoming Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Zero, or the Kamal Haasan cult classic Apoorva Sagodharargal (Appu Raja in Hindi).

It occurs when the miserable Scott, now down to barely two feet, dwarfed by both his wife and his little daughter, wanders about a carnival ground and comes across a trailer housing a woman named Clarice – one of the circus’s many performing “freaks”, the same size as himself.

They meet. He explores her custom-made room, sits on the couch, finds his feet touching the floor for the first time in weeks. (It was his world, his very own world – tables he could stand beside and reach across instead of walk under; lamps he could switch on and off, not stand futilely beneath as if they were trees.) They look into each other’s eyes, speak of pity, isolation and fear. And later, during an uncomfortable conversation with his giant of a wife, Scott says he must go back to Clarice for a while. “Even this woman will one day be… beyond me. But now – for now – she’s companionship and affection and love.”

In his influential career as a horror and sci-fi writer, Matheson provided the source material for many heart-pounding film sequences, from a malevolent truck stalking a highway driver in Steven Spielberg’s debut feature Duel to a paranoid man believing he sees a gremlin on his airplane wing in the Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet". There are comparable moments in The Shrinking Man, such as the ones where the inch-high Scott battles and outwits a spider in the dusty wasteland that he once knew as his house’s cellar. But the carnival scene has its own special tone, from a tradition of great melodrama: it’s up there with the moment in Appu Raja, for instance, where the diminutive hero bears witness to the wedding of the girl he loves, only a few minutes after he thought she wanted to marry him.

It’s uncertain what the dominant tone of Zero will be – indications from the trailer are that the film will determinedly avoid some of the sentimental clichés surrounding the short-statured hero, and go for irreverent humour instead. But some of those clichés are inevitable in a superstar-driven Hindi film that builds towards an emotional crescendo, as you can tell from lines like “Ek wohi toh thhi jisske aankhon mein aankhein daal kar main baat bol sakta thha” (“She was the only one whose eyes I could look into”), accompanied by the image of the three-foot-tall hero standing next to a woman in a wheelchair, so that they are both perforce the same height.

Which is all very romantic, but one can also read into it a mild subtext: about a man needing to cut the woman down to (his) size. This is a common theme in many works about small-sized men. Just beneath the surface of The Shrinking Man is social commentary about male insecurities, about feeling diminished in a world where women are gradually becoming more independent. Carey’s physical decline is linked to emasculation: he becomes smaller and smaller; he can no longer do the work he always did, running the house, bringing home the bacon; eventually he is tiny to the point of being irrelevant to his family.

Within the horror genre, this theme was taken to its logical conclusion in Tod Robbins’s exhilaratingly nasty "Spurs". This 1923 short story begins on a note of pathos, with a midget smitten by a beautiful bareback rider (“Jacques Courbé was a romanticist… he felt himself a doughty knight of old about to do battle for his lady”), but ultimately leaves us with no one to root for; the main
characters take turns being savage to each other, playing antagonist and victim. No wonder that when it was adapted into a film, the masterful Freaks, even with major plot changes the tone remained nihilistic, leading up to a scene where physically deformed sideshow performers assault and disfigure those who had mocked them.

All this is very far from the tone of a Zero or an Appu Raja, but it offers another, less placid and dewy-eyed way of looking at those who must walk under tables – and at the capacity of the disadvantaged to be not just recipients of sympathy or scorn but to be just as malicious as “normal” people.

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