The opening line of the Preamble of the United States Declaration of Independence emphatically reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Yes, it is one of the most important documents in human history, but unfortunately when it says that “all men are equal” it merely implies the White people. While referring to the contradiction between the aforementioned claim that “all men are created equal” and the existence of slavery in the United States, English abolitionist Thomas Day famously wrote, “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.” In the 19th century, the Declaration took on a special significance for the abolitionist movement.
The Academy Award-winning director Barry Jenkins unequivocally addresses the above contradiction in the opening episode of his 10-part Amazon Prime Video series The Underground Railroad in a chilling sequence wherein a Black slave is being mercilessly punished for trying to run away from a cotton plantation by his White master in the antebellum American South. “You’ve hardly touched your food, Mr. Churchill,” the slaver inquires his guest. “Oh, pardon me, but I don’t understand how one can eat… while a man’s flesh is being ripped from his body,” the guest hesitantly replies. “Well, Mr. Churchill, your first mistake… uh, a nigger and a man are two entirely different things. A man can think, reason and love. Niggers simply do not have the capacity for such things. As such, it is important to provide them with restrictions and directions on how to comport themselves. And when these restrictions and directions are not abided by, it is just as important to make an example of them,” the slaver avers.
As disturbing as these words may sound today, they correctly sum up the bigotry, prejudice, and sadistic cruelty with which the White Supremacists treated their Black slaves back in the day. Kudos to Barry Jenkins and his team of writers for not trying to use euphemisms as it is a piece of oft-forgotten history that needs to be told, especially today when movements like Black Lives Matter are paving the way for new conversations about racism and equality. The Underground Railroad, based on a 2016 Pulitzer winning alternative history novel of the same name by Colson Whitehead, follows two slaves, Cora and Caesar, who try and escape from a cotton plantation in the deep southern state of Georgia. They are chased by a ruthless slave catcher named Arnold Ridgeway who will stop at nothing in order to complete his task. Cora and Caesar’s only hope is the Underground Railroad—a rail transport system with safe houses and secret routes operated by a network of abolitionists to help the enslaved African-Americans escape to freedom.
The Underground Railroad is nothing like anything that you would have ever seen before. There is such blood curdling brutality on display that you would wish that you could somehow personally help these poor men and women suffering because of being caught in the throes of slavery. If you think that you have already seen the worst side of slavery in films such as 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained, just wait till you see a horrifying execution of a Black slave at the hands of his White master in first episode of the series. The episode (as well as the series on a whole) depicts some deeply disturbing scenes that are not meant for the faint-hearted.
But, thankfully, the USP of the series is not the sadistic cruelty that’s on display. Yes, the source material is brilliant but more than anything it is Barry Jenkins who makes the series absolutely breathtaking to watch despite all the gore and brutality. He makes every frame look like a painting (credit must also go to cinematographer James Laxton, his frequent collaborator). Jenkins and Laxton employ a technique wherein they frequently show characters standing still before the camera while looking at us. Not to mention the immersive sound design by his regular composer Nicholas Britell who ingeniously blends his beautiful score with the real sounds of footsteps, cracking of the whip, rustling of the wind, crackling of the fire, churn of the steam engine, ticking of the clocks, neighing of the horses, trilling of the crickets, chirping of the birds, and buzzing of the flies to create a poignant symphony of emotions that help create a sense of heightened realism brilliantly contrasting with sparsely used moments of magic realism.
Jenkins yet again succeeds in eliciting wonderful performances from his actors. Remember, he gave us a film like Moonlight only 5 years ago. And now he brings to us a sprawling series (it’s been four years in the making) which brings us face to face with a mostly unseen side of the antebellum American South, oozing with nostalgia, revulsion, fear, and hope that’s beautifully laced with magic realism. Here is a work of immense beauty and pain that cannot just be watched, for it needs to be felt first and experienced.
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‘THE GUILTY’ REMINDS US OF COPS ABUSING POWER ON THE STREETS
There is something about close-ups that make them more powerful than any other shot in cinema. Yes, we all love those scenic long shots but when the legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman said that the “correctly illuminated, directed and acted close-up of an actor is and remains the height of cinematography,” he was absolutely spot on. In all his films, Bergman emphatically examined the human face as an instrument to reach out to our innermost thoughts and feelings. Perhaps, there is no better example of the power of close-ups than his 1966 masterpiece Persona wherein the master Swedish filmmaker uses the intense close-ups of the faces of Liv Ulmann and Bibi Anderson to dazzling effect. One really needs to watch the film to understand why he has described the human face to be the “most important subject of the cinema.” A more recent film, Shirin (2008), directed by the Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, unfolds through the close-ups of the faces of the women watching a theatrical representation of a Persian poem from the twelfth century Khosrow and Shirin. A hundred and fourteen famous Iranian theater and cinema actresses and a French star are mute spectators and all we see are the changing emotions on their faces as they watch the show. Another great example of the power of close-ups is American filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich’s 1985 film Mask, which won its lead Cher the Best Actress award at Cannes, with Bogdanovich mostly relying on close-ups.
Antoine Fuqua’s latest film The Guilty which recently had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival also mostly relies on the close-ups of its lead actor’s face to tell its story. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a demoted police officer, Joe Baylor, assigned to a call dispatch desk overwhelmed with calls in connection to a large wildfire in the Hollywood Hills. When Joe, who is awaiting trial for an unspecified incident that occurred on shift eight months ago, receives an emergency phone call from a kidnapped woman he gets a little too involved for the liking of his colleagues who feel that it’s just a job and getting involved personally may result in serious repercussions. To make the matter worse, Joe is also being hounded by an LA Times reporter asking for a statement about his impending trial. Now, except for brief moments during the beginning and climax, The Guilty stays with Joe. Except for a couple of his colleagues at the call center, we don’t get to see anyone. But, we do get to hear the calls that Joe takes and makes.
In a deeply nuanced performance that does have its share of moments when Joe occasionally snaps, Jake Gyllenhaal succeeds in making us feel what Joe is feeling at any given moment. Now, it’s not that Gyllenhaal hasn’t acted better in his career but what’s work to his great advantage here is the film’s setting as well the writing on offer. And Fuqua makes most of the opportunity presented to him by choosing to direct the film with a certain panache and flair. In comparison, the original Danish film The Guilty (2018) on which it is based looks far less grand. But then the Danish film has some merits of its own; it certainly feels grittier and more visceral in comparison. But the remake’s great advantage is that it has a wonderful actor like Gyllenhaal as its lead (with all due respect to Jakob Cedergren who essays the part in the original).
Time and again, Gyllenhaal has demonstrated what he is capable of achieving in front of a motion picture camera. And The Guilty is no exception. In a way, he is like the great Paul Newman who brought with him a very unique combination as a star actor. The late American critic Roger Ebert perhaps summed it up best in his 2008 review of Cool Hand Luke (1967): “Could another actor than Paul Newman have played the role and gotten away with it? Of the stars at the time, I would not be able to supply one. Warren Beatty? Steve McQueen? Lee Marvin? They would have the presence and stamina, but would have lacked the smile… The smile, the innocent blue eyes, the lack of strutting… Newman as a star had a powerful unforced charisma: We liked him.”
In many ways, Gyllenhaal has the same effect on viewers. The radiant smile on his face makes him perfectly suited to the boy next door characters but the inner darkness that he is able to channelize is his big surprise element. Just think of the two characters (Edward the writer and Tony the revenge seeker) that he plays in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (2017) and you will notice how deceptively Gyllenhaal can transform himself as a performer. Gyllenhaal is again at the top of his game in The Guilty and all those close-ups work to his great advantage. I won’t be surprised if he gets nominated for his second Academy Award for The Guilty.
The Guilty is an edge-of-the-seat thriller that also served as an effective police procedural. But, above all, it reminds us how easy it is for the cops on the streets to abuse power. It is a very important film, especially with the ongoing global debate about policing in the light of the George Floyd incident. The film is set to release on Netflix on 1 October.
KRISTEN STEWART REFLECTS ON PLAYING PRINCESS DIANA
WASHINGTON: Hollywood actress Kristen Stewart, who plays the late Princess Diana in Pablo Larrain’s ‘Spencer’, recently said that there’s a big difference between her as an actor going to the depths of despair on-screen over her character’s marriage to Prince Charles and the late Royal herself.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, while speaking at the Toronto Film Festival on Wednesday, Stewart reflected on her time portraying Princess Diana and explained how she felt support on-set of the biopic that comes to Toronto by way of a world premiere in Venice and a North American premiere at Telluride. “The one difference between Diana and myself, especially, is that she was alone and I was not. I had people holding me… I had a sort of safety net,” Stewart said.
“There was no way to play this part perfectly, and therefore it was actually easier, or at least easier to not be so intimidated or daunted. Because the only way to catch something wild is to be that, and I could only be my version of that and hope that I learned everything I could learn from her and then kind of meld and kind of be both me and her in what was going to be the best version,” she said.
WEB SERIES ON NIRAV MODI IN DEVELOPMENT
MUMBAI: A web series about the fugitive diamond dealer Nirav Modi is in the works. Nirav is wanted in India for allegedly defrauding Punjab National Bank (PNB) out of an estimated USD 2 billion. He was arrested in March 2019 and has been held in the Wandsworth prison in South London. Now Abundantia Entertainment has acquired the rights of a journalist, Pavan C. Lall’s book ‘Flawed: The Rise and Fall of India’s Diamond Mogul Nirav Modi’ that will be adapted into a dramatised, multi-season series. As per a statement, scripting is underway and a set of exciting creative talent is being attached to the project. Excited about lending rights of his book for the digital series, Pavan C. Lall said, “It is an extremely exciting opportunity, and I am thrilled to be a part of this book-to-screen adaptation journey.”
RAKUL PREET TO ESSAY DOCTOR’S ROLE IN ‘DOCTOR G’
MUMBAI: Rakul Preet Singh will be seen sharing screen space alongside Ayushmann Khurrana for the first time in Junglee Pictures’ campus comedy-drama ‘Doctor G’. The film also features Shefali Shah and the makers have recently unveiled Rakul’s much-awaited first look from the movie.
To essay an author-backed role and play the rooted character of Doctor Fatima, Rakul had to learn medical terminology and also the nuances of some important surgical procedures. In order to make everything related to the medical world appear authentic on-screen, the makers had arranged for experts to conduct special sessions with the cast–Rakul, Ayushmann and Shefali, and train them as part of their characters’ prep.
Directed by Anubhuti Kashyap, ‘Doctor G’ is a campus comedy-drama, co-written by her, Sumit Saxena, Vishal Wagh and Saurabh Bharat. The makers have wrapped up an extensive shoot schedule in Prayagraj recently and the film will be completed by the end of this month.
PRIYANKA REACTS TO ‘THE ACTIVIST’ CONTROVERSY
MUMBAI: Priyanka Chopra Jonas is feeling sorry for unintentionally hurting the sentiments of a section of people with her upcoming show ‘The Activist’.
For the unversed, ‘The Activist’ is a competitive series, which aims to pit several activists and public figures against each other in order to promote their causes on social media with the goal of securing the highest amount of funding to win the game. However, the format of the show did not go down well with many and it faced a huge backlash.
As a reaction, the makers changed the format of ‘The Activist’. They shifted its five-episode format to a one-time documentary special. Addressing the ongoing controversy, Priyanka, who is one of the hosts of the show, took to her Instagram on Friday to apologised to people for disappointing them. “I have been moved by the power of your voices over the past week. At its core, Activism is fuelled by cause and effect, and when people come together to raise their voice about something, there is always an effect. You were heard. The show got it wrong, and I’m sorry that my participation in it disappointed many of you,” she wrote. “The intention was to bring attention to the people behind the ideas and highlight the actions and impact of the causes they support tirelessly. I’m happy to know that in this new format, their stories will be the highlight, and I’m proud to collaborate with partners who have their ear to the ground and know when it’s time to hit pause and re-evaluate,” Priyanka added.
She said, “There is a global community of activists who fight the fight every single day and put their blood, sweat and tears into creating change, but more often than not, they are rarely heard or acknowledged.”
MUSIC, MATHEMATICS AND ART: DIFFERENT FACES OF THE SAME TRUTH
A ‘Kalpana swara’ (creative compilation of notes done impromptu on stage by the artist) in Carnatic music often involves what is known as a ‘Korvai’. A Korvai is a set of swaras or notes that are arranged in a creative yet mathematically precise format that brings the long Kalpana swara notes to a beautiful closure.
I use Korvais in my Kalpana swara presentations very often. And somehow in a Carnatic concert, it is almost always the climax point for the artist, the accompanying instrumentalists and of course the audiences. I have often wondered about the reason behind this. Is it the synergy between the artists that somehow comes to a satisfying coordinated close? Is it just melody or rhythm, or is there something more to it?
I found my answer one day when I was imparting music to a student of mine. She was struggling to understand note patterns, and I tried two methods to explain this to her. Firstly, I explained the mathematical pattern behind it. This means that if I was attempting to teach a pattern say Sa Re Ga, Re Ga Ma, Ga Ma Pa and so on, she could understand it mathematically, using the order in which notes appear. So, for example, if Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni corresponds to the numbers 1 2 3 4 5 6 7, the pattern would become 123, 234, 345 and so on. Secondly, I asked her to visualise the pattern as if it were a sketch painting itself to the notes. A higher note would mean there would be ebb and the lower note would be a trough. The extent of the ebb and trough of course would be decided by the extent of ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ in the music itself. So the aforesaid pattern would probably become a sketch that may look like forward-moving waves. This attempt led her to understand the note pattern much better. And moreover, it added immensely to her pleasure when she sang it.
That is when my answer came to me. We usually see music as a separate entity, devoid of logic and reason, devoid of anything visual. We see painting, music, mathematics and science as disparate fields of study. The magic lies in the fact that they are all integrated at an innate level. As they say in physics, energy and matter are just two manifestations of the same thing. Which is why when I sang a Kalpana swara in, say, what would make a pyramid pattern or maybe something that would be a geometric progression of notes, it subliminally excites the audiences without their own conscious knowledge. Because our deep inner beings know that in a fundamentally spiritual sense, we and the world and everything it consists of coming from one source – God or the source of creation.
Polymaths like Leonardo Da Vinci, Jagdish Chandra Bose, Aristotle and Helen Keller shared an amazing ability to view the same thing from different lenses and make equal sense of it. No wonder they were gifted geniuses who had the privilege to see that the path of spirituality and the path of science can both lead towards the truth. Understanding that duality is a mirage and that we are bound as one is also a similar depiction of the truth. Recognising that the world, with its apparent duality and division, has an underlying harmony, is one of the deepest realisations that human beings gifted with consciousness and intelligence can aspire to.
When we engage in aspects of music that allow us to see synergies like this, we are, in fact, stepping into a zone where we begin to understand this larger truth about God and creation. I believe that, over time, I have become a lot more spiritual, tolerant and accepting of the vagaries of life and the many colours that it manifests itself in. Music had a crucial role to play in this, and for that I am thankful.
The writer is a vocalist of both Hindustani and Carnatic Classical music, with over three decades’ experience. She is also the founder of Music Vruksh, a venture to make classical accessible for its aesthetic and wellness benefits.
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