Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Of indomitable will

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.


Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
Great reviews of two great movies. I remember both very well.

The classic scene from Papillon: Steve McQueen looses a tooth in his tiny cell. He realizes that he is getting scurvy and will probably die. I bangs on the door and tells the guard he is willing to talk. The guards open up a little window in the door and he sticks his face out and the guard (as is always the practice) chokes him with is nightstick.

The superintendent asks Papillon who his assistant was. Papillon says" I.....forget" The superintendent say, "Then you will die."

The classic scene from Cool Hand Luke: Captain (the superintendent played by Strother Martin) says after beating up Luke "What we have hear is a failure to communicate."

Maybe you and Arnab should team up to review movies. You both have a talent.

pippala leaf said...

I differ in my opinion regarding the movie Papillon. I read the book a few years back and happened to see the movie last year. I was having great expectations on the movie after the thrilling experience of reading the book. But I was disappointed. Somehow, the movie failed to move me as much as the book. It did not make the kind of impact the book did. When they 'filimized' the book it had lost it's charm. It's probably because of the fact each reader has his/her own imagination and seldom movie makers manage to meet that imagination of almost every reader at once. Rarely I have seen both book and film makes the similar kind of impact. One example is "The Godfather". I believe here the film excelled the book. Another one , in my opinion, is "The day of the Jackal". IMHO only very few screenplay writers/Directors had mastered the art of 'filimizing' a book and Francis Ford Coppola
is in the top of that list.

Michael Higgins said...

There were two goats who were eating upon a trash heap. One goat found an old movie reel and began eating it. His friend starting eating it as well. The first goat said, "This is pretty good." The second goat said, "bah - not a good as the book."

Sunil said...


Madhu.....that's the beauty of a good movie, or a good book, or a good movie from a book. People have different expectations, and they are met differently! Interestingly, i thought the book itself dragged a little bit, but the movie didn't sag one bit. Comparisons can be endless......but i just like to enjoy the book or the movie (somehow, i can shut out one from the other). When the lord of the rings came, people were apprehensive. Now, i've read the book dozens of times, but was willing to give Jackson the benefit of the doubt. I just looked at the movie as a stand alone piece. And i thought it was great entertainment. Didn't bother with comparisons with the book. As a movie, by itself, it's excellent! Same (or even more so) with Papillon. To me, Papillon is the perfect story for a doesn't have any distractions from his desire to escape. No subplots of consequence. So, to me it was a great movie. Pity though that you were disappointed......but i'm sure there're plenty of movies/books that worked the opposite way with you :-)

Michael.....that was a great joke. I should remember that one...

Arnab is a superbly talented blogger......nice idea though. I'll boost my modest popularity (towards superstardom) if we do that :-)

Sujatha Bagal said...

Sunil, that's exactly the way I feel about books and movies made of books as well. I just shot one out when I'm engrossed in the other, although I could never get past a few pages of Papillon. May be I should try again.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Sheesh! The second sentence should read, "I just SHUT one out..."

Anonymous said...

I didn't know about the movie, but read the book very early in life so I grew up with images of Papillon whenever I think Prison life... I guess I will have to watch the movie soon..
I will go with the majority here lol.
BTW I just bought the walking drum.

Sunil said...

shut, shot....same difference :-)

Anthony.....i think you'll enjoy this movie. But i'm almost certain you'll enjoy the walking drum. It's a book i classify as "unputdownable".

EggHe/\D said...

Definitely the book is in terms of an american review "un-put-down-able"
However this also reminds me, er of Shawshank Redemption, Tim Robbins chipping in a great job.

Wonderful, are you a movie buff!!!

And well old boy is a zillion times better of than the pathological rip offer sanjay gupta's Zinda. Perhaps the movie tested if the audience could remain zinda after the movie.

Great one !!!

Sunil said...

Shriram....i certainly am a movie buff, and do write about them occationally. You might enjoy reading some older posts, listed in the movie and lit review archive section here.

Sunil said...

Yes.....DVS's site is a personal favorite of mine. His story (and the fact that it could happen to some one like him is tragic. But he hasn't given up, and there are too many stories like that!!'ll enjoy Pappilon. It's a happy movie......Luke though is a sad one. Pappilon is pure cinematic masaala, though it's a true story!

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