14 November 2016

Found in Adaptation

My Mirror column: 

Sometimes what makes a narrative gripping is not what you don’t know, but what you do.

Basil Dearden's All Night Long (1962) is a finely calibrated adaptation of Othello 

A few weeks ago in these pages, I wrote about the Ramayana as ur-text, looking at how the filmmaker Altaf Majid combined documentation and enactment to explore the possibilities of the Karbi version of the epic. If the Karbi telling, Sabin Alun, meaning 'the song of Sabin' (Surpanakha), allowed new insight into the Ramayana, Majid's staging of parts of it — with modern-day actors playing a modern-day Karbi version of Ram, Lakshman, Sita and Ravan — was yet another glimpse into the inner life of the text.

Stories are strange things. The element of surprise we so value in the modern-day narrative is often the very thing that is missing from repeated renditions of any ur-text — and yet we are absolutely gripped by the story. Knowing what will happen liberates us from the tense prediction of plot. It means that we watch for the how, rather than for the what or when of it. Apart from all our traditional performances — Kathakali, Yakshagana, Ramleela, Alha-Udal — we, in India did this for years with mainstream Hindi cinema (even as smartalecky Anglophone folk felt superior by ‘predicting’ what would happen in films that were essentially variations on the same story, once you knew the genre).

Last month, at the India International Centre's annual cultural festival, cinematic variations on another sort of ur-text were screened: the plays of William Shakespeare. At one level, adapting King Lear or Macbeth could be perceived as being different from adapting the Ramayana or the Odyssey because the original text exists only in one accepted final form, and thus departures from it are more rigidly circumscribed – or at least must be more obviously authorly. Sometimes close adaptations, especially those that decide to use Shakespeare's own words, can seem to lack newness. Among the films I watched at the IIC was a Roman Polanski-directed 1971 Macbeth, which seemed to me to stick very close to the grain of Shakespeare's play in terms of the language, the approximation of milieu and the emotional register — the craven ambition and bloody intrigue and high dudgeon of it.

Reading about the film later, though, I discovered that Polanski had started work on the film soon after the Manson family's murder of his then wife Sharon Tate and several of their friends in Polanski's Beverley Hills home in August 1969, and that Pauline Kael, among other film critics, believed that the murder of Macduff's family in the film was a deliberately lurid take on that. The scenes with the witches, too, though they seemed to me exactly the sort of subversive outcasts that I imagined when I first read the Macbeth story in high school, might be seen as hallucinatory in a way that might easily be read as born of the psychedelic 1960s as likely lived by the filmmaker and his crew.

The IIC also screened Kurosawa's unfailingly chilling Throne of Blood version of Macbeth, and Grigory Kozintsev's 1964 Russian version of Hamlet, whose grand, craggy grey cliffs and general sense of desolation remain with me though I watched it nearly two decades ago. But the most unusual and interesting film of the lot was Basil Dearden's All Night Long (1962): Othello set in a 1960s London that is all rain-streaked streets and jazz, with Delia 'Desdemona' Lane being a white jazz singer who has abandoned the stage for a marriage to the loving but broodily possessive Aurelius Rex (the Moorish Othello here can actually be played by a Black actor, Paul Harris – rather than, say, 1951's Orson Welles in blackface).

Lest you imagine something smoky and seductive, let me say that this is a very British film in some ways – barring Johnny's (Iago) white-hot rage at the end, the characters project a strange wholesomeness even when they are devastated: something that can only be explained by the national stereotype of emotional reserve.

But Dearden has several other things going for him. Setting the film in that time and place allows him to delve into such twentieth-century inventions as psychoanalysis, or a very early instance of exploring recording technology as a falsifying mechanism that masquerades perfectly as truth. Dearden has the lazy English self-mockery of the moment down pat: a baffled young woman arrives at the cavernous Warehouse and asks why it's all the way out here. Comes the reply: “Haven't you heard, honey? Jazz is noisy. You can't have it in Mayfair.” There is also the beautifully lit double-level set of the jazz club, with its winding central staircase for melancholy romance, and closeted back terraces for secret intrigue and pot-smoking. Political correctness isn't a problem: “Jazz is appreciated by three groups: Negroes, adolescents and intellectuals,” runs one dialogue.

The film's biggest freebie is Dave Brubeck and Charlie Mingus appearing and playing themselves. With such atmosphere for the asking, it's amazing how tensely we still wait for the plot to unfold. It's definitely the how, not the what that matters.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 13 Nov 2016.

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