If you’ve grown up on an overdose of Hindi or Tamil or Malayalam or Kannada (*insert Indian language of choice*) cinema, you’re usually rarely impressed by unbending or indomitable characters. There’s invariably a hero, who stands up to fight all of society’s evils, or who will never bow to any form of injustice. You’re hardly moved by their ability to resist being “broken”, no matter the price. But as I re-watched an old Hollywood classic, I remembered why that movie moved me in the first place, and also was reminded of another different (and yet strangely similar) movie.
Papillon was perhaps the finest moment in Steve Mcqueen’s more than modest career. The story based on the life of Henrie Charriere, called “papillon”, the butterfly. Charriere was a small time criminal, who was falsely accused of murder, and thrown in to prison in French Guyana. For about a century, from the time of Napoleon’s exile to the middle of the 20th century, French Guyana served as a penal colony with one of the harshest prison systems the modern world has known. Prisoners were often sent there after flawed trials, and once there they could never escape (British India had it’s own replica of the French Guyana system, in Kala paani). There, they had to undergo hard labor, in hot, malaria infected swamps, with little food and water, and the barest minimum for survival. The first attempt at escaping would result in 2 years of solitary confinement, where absolute silence was enforced, in a closed (no barred doors) 6 foot by 4 room, with one meal a day. Prisoners could be tortured here, and even be thrown in to complete darkness for months. A second attempt would result in five years in solitary. A third (if obviously unsuccessful) would lead to the guillotine. And there were a few places to escape to. Surrounded by swamps, with few habitations around, and armed guards (manhunters), with orders to remain ruthless. Yet, Papillon enters prison with one idea in mind, freedom. There he meets and befriends Louis Dega (the inimitable Dustin Hoffman), a myopic, fragile master-forger, sentenced to exile and imprisonment. Dega represents more common aspirations. Willingness to compromise. To try to bribe one’s way to lesser hardships. To use all legal means possible to secure release. And an innate decency towards all other men. But with Papillon, without freedom there is no life. So, he escapes, is caught, and is thrown in to solitary. When Dega helps him (by bribing a warden to bring him food), and Papillon is caught, he refuses to reveal his benefactor’s name. More punishment, and brutal torture. He barely survives, only to escape again. To be caught again, and subjected to more breaking. And then escape again, to almost make it to freedom. Finally, an old man, he’s sent to Devil’s island, a rocky, isolated island where convicts eke out a subsistence survival. Here he meets his old friend Dega again, and as they hobble across the island, arthritic, with rotten teeth and weak limbs, he plots his final escape from the island. Defiant, unbroken, and believing in freedom to the last
And as I watched the dvd for the umpteenth time, my mind kept drifting back to a classic starring one of Hollywood’s finest. Cool hand Luke stands out even in Paul Newman’s covetable resume. This is a “masaala” movie, but a movie so rich, and so deep, that it’s hard not to admire the craft or the depth of performances. A loner arrested in the south for a relatively trivial reason (being drunk on the street), Luke goes to prison, and does hard labor as part of a chain gang. And there he’s put under the meanest prison warden fiction could conjure up.
“You gonna fit here real good. I can be a good guy or a real mean son-of-a-bitch. It’s up to you”.
Set in the conservative and religious south, this movie is full of religious imagery. But above it all are Luke’s uncompromising principles, and independence. The movie moves along expected lines, as Luke forges friendships, and unites prisoners. The captain and the guards strive constantly to break his spirit, and Luke silently resists. Newman’s smile haunts you throughout and after the film. The parallels to Christ (dying for the sins of the world) are more than obvious. The movie questions the reform system, and the power of authority and the establishment. But none of that stayed in my mind. What lasted was Luke, the man who believed in independence, of free thought and a belief in freedom.
Yet, between these two movies, there remained one big difference (of course, Papillon was based on fact, Luke was all fiction). Both strived for freedom, of will as well as freedom in flesh. But Papillon’s optimism contrasted starkly with Luke’s negativism. Papillon’s glass always remained half full.
And for a lover of Indian cinema, what’s any movie without undying optimism?
Postscript: Sanjay Gupta, these little aspects are what make these movies classics, and Zinda a dud.