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The most powerful melody comes from soul; it’s the unsung one

Nithya Rajendran

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When I was a senior in college, I was entrusted with the task of auditioning and choosing singers for an upcoming group music competition. It was going to be an inter collegiate contest and I had to pick and train the best singers from among the first-year students. I was fortunate to listen to a wide gamut of talented singers and it was a pleasure to hear them. But, today, many years later, among all those candidates, I still remember only one.

She wasn’t the best trained, she wasn’t the one with the best vocal range or with the best repertoire of songs. She was a simple girl with a simple voice. Completely uninitiated into formal musical training, she had come into the audition with nothing else but just a desire to sing and to be heard. As she opened her mouth to sing, I got lost in the earnestness and simplicity of her singing. It was pure joy, and I saw my intellect switch off and my heart just tune in to her voice and her presence. Aruna left a lasting impact in my mind. Her earnestness, her desire to just melt into her own singing, and her pure and simple notes, told me who she was and what her soul was trying to communicate through her music.

As humans, we are innately intuitive and we pick up signals very well. Which is why we did not really need formal language to communicate when we started off as apes. Love, affection, rebellion and anger were all easily communicated through body language and facial expression. Babies, for example, can sense who they can trust and who they can’t, without even being able to think. It’s an instinct they are gifted with for survival.

Even as adults, when we communicate, what we pick up usually is not what the other person is saying, but what he or she means. We can sense disapproval, acceptance, warmth, dislike, trepidation and even suspicion from the undertones of a conversation, irrespective of what words the person uses.

Music is no different. We can see this countless times in music performances. The same Raag (melodic scale in classical music) can be sung in so many different ways depending on who is performing and what the artist communicates through the rendition. One can sense a wide range of undertones in a performance, ranging from arrogance and vanity to humility and submission. From anger and aggression to warmth and compassion. From greed and self-centeredness to selflessness and divinity.

I am reminded of a performance I once heard, by an extremely talented musician. His performance was an unimaginable display of musical prowess, a vocal range one can only aspire for after decades of relentless training and a flexibility of voice that was unparalleled. It was a perfect performance and was flawless. But what was communicated through the music was only a desire to showcase his vocal skills. It happens surprisingly often that we come across extremely well-trained artists who are still to learn humility, compassion and love. This reflects strongly in their music. On the contrary I have also come across singers from all walks of life, including those who sing in trains and on the roads for a few pennies, who have brought me to tears with the earnestness, humility and pain they communicate through their music.

This is not to say that training and the rigour of practice and Riyaaz holds no water. Certainly, innate prowess, persistent practice and development of technique are extremely important. But that alone cannot suffice. Those are tools to allow the person in the music to come forth and connect with others, the person who can, through music, bare his or her heart and share his or her soul to the audience.

The most powerful melody is not one that is flawless. The most powerful melody comes from the soul that powers the music. It is one that is unsung.

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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‘THE GUILTY’ REMINDS US OF COPS ABUSING POWER ON THE STREETS

Murtaza Ali Khan

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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.

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KRISTEN STEWART REFLECTS ON PLAYING PRINCESS DIANA

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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.

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WEB SERIES ON NIRAV MODI IN DEVELOPMENT

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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.” 

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RAKUL PREET TO ESSAY DOCTOR’S ROLE IN ‘DOCTOR G’

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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.

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PRIYANKA REACTS TO ‘THE ACTIVIST’ CONTROVERSY

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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.”

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MUSIC, MATHEMATICS AND ART: DIFFERENT FACES OF THE SAME TRUTH

Nithya Rajendran

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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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