Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Monologue of Truth (2)

Just as Kewal finishes his MONOLOGUE OF TRUTH, a handsome figure steps out from the shadows. Like us, he’s been eavesdropping on Kewal’s intimate ‘inner script’. Suddenly the moment of TRUTH, of authentic subjectivity, stands revealed as a performance: an audience has been there all along, listening in that no-place from which every movie audience surveils a film. Paradoxically, the stranger praises Kewal for his acting rather than his honesty; it’s not the “truth” of the monologue but the art he displays in delivering it that impresses Kewal’s fateful benefactor.

The stranger turns out to be a painter, which stretches the tension already implicit in the scene—theater vs. film—into a triangular struggle between three different visual media. (Later on in the movie, this gets mapped onto a psychosexual ménage). Impressed with the performance (the scene is one of Raj Kapoor’s stagiest), he declares his intention to help Kewal’s theatrical ambitions. Turns out he’s not only rich, he owns the abandoned theater and was waiting for a good reason to reopen it. Eventually it will be renamed the Kewal Theater for Kewal’s directorial debut, staffed by a ragtag group of down-on-their-luck college grads, unemployed theater folk, and refugees from the recent violence of The Partition: a miniature version of the nation Kapoor hopes the new India will become.

The real-life circumstances around the film add to the depth of the scene. A scion of sorts himself—the Kapoors are one of the most distinguished acting families in India, his father Prithviraj being the founder of the famed Prithvi Theater—the 24-year-old Raj casts the passing of the baton from theater to film as a father-son struggle that moves in a number of metaphoric directions. Aag is Raj Kapoor’s debut as a director, in a film about a wayward son struggling to ... make his debut as a director. The story also borrows heavily from Prithviraj’s bio. The son of a Punjabi police inspector who struck out for Bombay to make movies in his early ‘20s, Prithviraj would seem to be the prototype for his son’s portrait of Kewal. The parallel deepens when we see that the play Kewal has written to stage in his eponymous theater is a conventional village drama of the sort his father’s traveling Prithvi Theater performed around India from its inception in 1944. This apparently exemplary act of filial piety—Raj Kapoor assuming the role of his father in the character of Kewal—takes a darker turn though when, by the end of the film, as the result of a poisonous love triangle, the painter destroys all of his canvases and the thespian burns down his theater in the process of scorching his own face.

The last man standing turns out to be the one behind the camera; celluloid is the only medium in Aag that doesn’t burn.

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