Thursday, September 30, 2010

What Sivaji Ganesan can teach the current generation of actors.

(L to R) Standing:Jim Garner,Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston. Sitting:George Chandler, Sivaji Ganesan, Walter Pidgeon.

Though not a fault of his, the late Tamizh film actor Sivaji Ganesan was born in India. Fate can play a cruel hand and in this instance, Sivaji, who has the distinction of being the greatest actor ever produced from that sub continent, fell into a fate that denied him the recognition as the greatest on screen actor in the world amongst the world population.

Half of us would agree with that recognition though, while the other half is too busy watching Miley Cyrus grow.

Forget about the world, even India never recognised his contribution whereby the National Award, often looked upon as the Oscar of India without the glamour and cleavages, did not honour him, giving him a best supporting actor award for walk in the park role he did with Kamal Haasan in Devar Magan during his twilight years.

There used to be saying among the Tamizh film fans, there is no role Sivaji has not done. Wrong. Sivaji himself has been on the record saying that he wished he had played rationalist Periyar in a biopic. The man was humble and realistic. To see that the role was taken by a hack recently shows the state the Tamizh film industry is in without the great Sivaji.

The thing is there is no way anyone can act as everyone. Even the great Sivaji knows his limitation. When asked about his talent, he just brushes it off, “I know a little bit of acting, that’s all”. Try listening to that when the younger generation of actors get overblown credit for merely shaving off his moustache in the next venture or gone completely more wooden than usual because it was ‘artistic’.

What made Sivaji a great actor was that he knows he has to do a role without the smugness that he was the best. He gave his best, he brought extra to the table and he pounded those wonderful array of roles into our cranium that those were the images that comes out of your mind when, say, someone mentions Veerapandiya Kattabomman, Karnan, Ranggan, Barrister Rajinikanth or Inspector Choudary.

That he had pushed himself needed no public relations. That he had strained to stretch himself needed no advertisements. Making difference to routinely written roles and gaining credit for it needed no propaganda machineries. Sivaji’s roles spoke louder than the modest actor who himself knows his own limitation and kept it out of the public’s eyes.

It is the humility, willingness to stretch without making loud announcement and moving along taking on challenging roles and at the same time challenging and inspiring his fellow actors and technicians (though this may not apply in the 80s) to bring forth a quality production in terms of great movies that makes him tower all the actors from that region. To borrow words from leadership guru, Stephen Covey, Sivaji, “found his voice and inspired others to find theirs”. Such was his unique power.

That, alas, is lacking in the current age with obsession for opening collection, with actors mistaking getup change for good acting, and heroines mistaking excessive makeup, less cloth and borrowed voice for great contribution. Humility, to have the power to overcome limitations and to inspire others is something that the current crop of actors can aspire for and need another lifetime of the same career to achieve. This is merely a single chapter from the humongous actors’ guide book called Sivaji Ganesan. No, make that a single page.

Written to celebrate Nadigar Thilagam Sivaji Ganesan’s 83rd Birthday.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Timothy Dalton: He started it first….

In the era when gritty reboot was the order of the day for action/fantasy films, one actor took the most famous franchise in the world back to the pages of the author Ian Fleming…and was never appreciated for that.

If history has been unkind to any actor - well there are thousands but it will not sit well with the content that I am about to type – it will be Timothy Dalton and his performance as Ian Fleming’s secret agent, Agent OO7 James Bond.

A great hero to the fans of the brilliant, exciting, thrillers written by Fleming in the 50s and 60s, Dalton single handedly took the franchise to a new direction in 1987, taking over from geriatric (but affable) Roger Moore* whose Bond films were nothing more than self-parodied excuse for display of outrageous gadgets, stunts and cleavages. Not that we are complaining about the latter, the films descended into the pit of impossibilities ignoring the mood established by Fleming in his wonderful books.

Dalton was dealt with the shit end of the stick due to bad timing. The public was not ready for a gritty Bond reboot. They are ready now, so much so that your friendly neighbourhood pal, Spider-Man is not getting ready for a gritty reboot. Gritty reboot is the order of the day since Batman Begins brought back some respect to the franchise. Sure, Bruce Wayne looked like he had a pair of batwing stuck up his ass all the time, but being mistaken for elements of “grittiness” the performance was accepted.

Then, the Bond franchise did the same and this time, mistaking Fleming’s Bond for Terminator, they got a superb actor in form of Daniel Craig to play cyborg-ish Bond…it was only during the quieter moments when we actually saw Craig channelling Ian Fleming’s creation, as a wonderful actor of his calibre should. Unfortunately, the rest of the time the script treated the character the same way it would treat light sabre in the Star Wars films. Film fans worldwide lapped it up wholesale.

The audience of the 80s, unfortunately, was not really sure what it wants as far as action genre is concerned. It embraced Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, but turned its nose up to Dalton’s second outing, Licence to Kill which had equally, if not more, amount of gratuitous violence, and action sequences. Sure, Dalton took his characters more seriously than the goofy Mel Gibson and monologuous Bruce Willis, but alienated a massive potion of the audience who had been comfortable Roger Moore who played James Bond as if James Bond was playing Roger Moore. They couldn’t recognise what was essentially the man directly from the pages of Ian Fleming’s fantastic thrillers.

Trouble is, the entire world was never ready for a Flemingesque James Bond from day one when the spearheading Dr. No appeared on screen. Despite what most fans would think, agent OO7 as played by the magnificent Sean Connery was only mildly related to the James Bond of the book. Sure, Connery was good looking and a “tough customer” as per the superspy of the book, but Fleming’s creation was dark, never sure of his moral stand as far as his role as assassin is concerned. His womanising tendencies does not involve woman swooning after him after couple of groan inducing puns. He worked his way to know his lady friends, and actually have loved most of them passionately.

The James Bond of the books was a lonely man who appreciated friendships that he can’t have on the account of his job. He takes time to have lunch with his chief-of-staff when he’s around in the office and have good working and personal relationship with the American ally, Felix Leiter.

If you feel these qualities does not represent James Bond at all, then you have not read Fleming. Dalton did. That is why you see these elements in the two films he made. Beginning with The Living Daylights, which had the opening sequence taken directly from the short story of the same written by Fleming, Dalton showed the darker side of the assassin Bond, totally in control of the situation, and adhering to his own moral code of not killing a non-assasin (turned out to be a girl who “can’t tell one end of the rifle from another”). He then meets the bad guys girlfriend, and actually falls in love with her.

Yes, he actually does. His love affair with Kara offers perhaps the most tender and heart warming moments ever in the film franchise’s history (George Lazenby/Bond fans will disagree I am sure). Not only have that, in this and the next film, Bond also displayed a warm friendship with Q, the gadget-master, not dissimilar to the book character who’s close with this chief of staff.

But let me get back to the gritty reboot thing. Am I giving too much credit to the actor for the reboot, considering the producers were pretty powerful and has all the say? No. The actor who was suppose to take over in 1986 was Pierce Brosnan and he was doing a romantic comedy TV series remember? He would have kept the comedic angle on with his boyish good look and sense of humour. Luckily he was unavailable, and Dalton, trained by Royal Shakespearian Company, was anal about sticking to the original literature.

It was a desparate time for the producers and they bowed to demand and the scriptwriters had to tweak the script to his strength (dramatic portrayal, no-nonsense approach) and later, for the second film, the entire script was written with Dalton in mind. Licence To Kill was an opportunity for us to see the actual Fleming Bond in a Flemingesque story telling, where the bad guys are really evil and people bleed, and die horrible death. It was probably the first time we are seeing Bond looking tired, bruised, his shirt and suit torn and dusty at the end of an impressive bloody, fiery action sequence. And most of the audience stayed away, Dalton’s contract expired and he went on doing other interesting material. And in replacement we got an pretty man with lots of hair, stupid one-liners, and shit-loads of bullets in disposal.

For that, I say thank god for Daniel Craig. But let us thank Timothy Dalton first. Sean Connery may be the best Bond, but Dalton is the best Fleming Bond.

*whatever my complaints are about Moore films, I revisit them for one reason alone, Moore.