Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"Monologue of Truth"

AAG (1948)
Raj Kapoor plays Kewal, pampered scion of a Hindi legal family whose members have served the British since the first proconsul debarked. Determined to buck tradition and be an artist, Kewal flunks out of college, splits with his imperious father, and wanders the streets of Bombay without a rupee in his pocket, preferring to “create his own fate” rather than repeat history’s.

Taking shelter in an abandoned theater, Kewal finds himself alone on a stage cluttered with dusty props, disused stage lights, fallen arrases, and other paraphernalia of the actor’s craft. What follows is among the greatest six minutes Raj Kapoor ever committed to film. The DVD menu identifies the scene as “Monologue of Truth,” so you don’t have to take my word for it that it’s MUY IMPORTANTE.

Kewal picks up a flute from a tangle of dancer’s anklets—we hear a traditional skirl as he lifts it, a heavy shake of bells—and begins to replay in his head the argument with his parents on his last night at home. First the claims of the father (respectability, security, family honor), then the mother (love, devotion, incomprehension). The dialogue comes verbatim from an earlier scene, which creates a curious meta-moment where the re-presentation of a prior event, filmed this time on a theater stage, relies on purely ‘a-theatrical’ cinematic techniques like voiceovers and multiple cuts to depict Kewal’s interior thoughts and memories. The viewer is placed in the bizarre position of being inside and outside the scene at once. Having seen the earlier argument and being privy to the voiceover, you’re right there inside Kewal’s head, hearing what he hears; this being a monologue (a MONOLOGUE OF TRUTH, no less) on a theater stage, you’re also positioned visually as if you were in the audience, filling the empty seats which the camera creepily rakes at least three or four times during the speech.

Monologue is already one of the more bizarre theatrical conventions—a presumably authentic (because private) expression of subjectivity premised on the fiction that the audience for whom it exists ISN’T REALLY THERE. Kapoor amplifies the artifice by having Kewal answer the voices in his head out loud. So there are some parts of the monologue we catch only in our capacity as filmgoers, enjoying the intimacy of the voiceover, and others we’re hearing as invisible eavesdroppers in the theater audience. The line between the two starts to blur as Kapoor introduces the sound of applause while the camera pans the empty seats, and turns up the theater lights. Is this happening in Kewal’s head, in the theater itself, or is it for our benefit, a symbolic anticipation of his future success as a dramatist?

The substance of Kewal’s MONOLOGUE OF TRUTH is that despite the pain he’s causing his parents, he needs to follow his own vision of the future, which is also by implication a vision for cinema and its role in a post-imperial India. He insists this isn’t just his story, but that of “youth in every home.” “Why don’t we make a life for ourselves,” he asks, instead of being clay for our parents’ hands to mold? The flute and anklets at the beginning of the scene help to clue us in to the evolutionary cycle Kapoor wants to close: traditional dance to modern theater to film, offered here as the new popular art form for the new Indian nation.

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