Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Siddhartha: Hesse’s vs. Rooks’s


Honestly speaking, it’s only unfair to compare the two because Rooks’s version wouldn’t have been possible without Hesse’s legendary piece in literature. Being entirely based on Hesse’s Siddhartha, Rooks’s appears like a terrible mistake. And ‘why,’ you ask ‘why would someone want to flounder with an idea as great as that?’ Well, Rooks cannot be blamed, after all, a film is only a medium of expression, what all it can evolve into, is a different story. Rooks’s film is almost like an act of asking people to go read the book. I would have done the same had I been a film maker; I am doing the same, being a blogger.
Guys, go read the book.

The book:
Someone, who himself leads a life of a modern age shramana, a wandering ascetic (at least fits the “I can think, I can wait, I can fast” bill), once explained the concept of grace to me.
“Grace, started as a Christian word/concept, ceased to be used solely for young women with time, went on to bag a new meaning”. I interrupted “Yeah, Words can acquire a life of their own.” He continued “True. Grace, you see, has nothing to do with intelligence, patience or kindness. It’s almost like your soul glows and it becomes visible to others” on this I questioned, “Is it like, you have it because you were born with it?” And he said” No, not necessarily, there can be a case where a young reckless lad in his 20’s is not even remotely graceful but when he reaches 50, he has grace, as something that suddenly came about, almost like an accident or something that seeped inside him over the years. Though it cannot be acquired, achieved or attained, but it certainly can be found. Like a rare rose in the tropical summer. The whole concept of salvation, is nothing but this, stop searching or you will miss the obvious.”

Grace is what it is, immanent in the book and absent in the film, and the reason for the film’s driftage from the notion of Siddhartha, the book has voiced out rather beautifully. Hesse's novella Siddhartha: Eine indische Dichtung (Siddhartha: An Indian Poetic Work) is not just a book, it’s a journey, it becomes a part of you, grows inside you, questions you, absorbs you, leaves you, kills you and eventually gives you a rebirth. Well, almost.

Narcissus and the Goldmund got Hesse his Noble. But Siddhartha is something else; beyond all comparisons, no doubt statistics crown Siddhartha as ‘his most popular work’. The book, originally written in German, first published in 1922, is considered by some, as the pinnacle of his fascination with orientalism. There is a Siddhartha in every one of us, the restless young mind that is more than eager to find THE path, to decode the meaning of religions, search for self knowledge and divine within, of what Hesse termed the Weg nach Innen; the inward journey. He’s somebody who gets sick and tired of this “well upholstered hell” every once in a while. Know him?
Because religion is not about holy books, idol worship, sacred chants it’s not even about meditation and spiritual debates. Religion is a man’s own journey, and only he will tread it. It’s not necessary to worship god, he only has to be acknowledged to be able to look beyond the comedy and tragedy of the events, because the comedy of all things is that they are serious.

An excerpt:
Siddhartha bent down and lifted a stone from the ground and held it in his hand. “This” he said, handling it, “is a stone, and within a certain length of time it will perhaps be soil and from the soil it will become plant, animal or man. Previously I should have said: this stone is just a stone; it has no value it belongs to the world of maya, but perhaps within the cycle of change it can also become man and spirit, it is also of importance. This is what I should have thought. But, now I think: this stone is stone; it is also animal, god and Buddha. I do not respect and love it because it is one thing and will become something else, but because it has already long been everything and always is everything.”

The film:
In a bookstore close to my house hangs a board which reads “Read it before Hollywood kills it”. I needn’t say more. Although, this one’s not as big a disappointment as others have proved to be. In fact Rooks’s is a visual delight, almost like a poetry and all credit goes to the cinematographer, Sven Nykvist.

Sven Nykvist's cinematography is the THING.
It’s amazing to see how someone from faraway Sweden is able to capture the Indian riparian forests, river banks and the streams on the camera so exquisitely well. The river, "on screen" gave a whole new meaning to the film, a tableau of Siddhartha’s life, at times sounding more pleasant than his saintly verses, can be perceived to be the narrator of the story. These cleverly edited scenes that made the river look so prepossessing have done complete justice to the description of river in the book. The rivers are all about life and this is what makes the books about rivers so attractive, because the good one’s cannot be just about the river, which is the ostensible subject, they have to deal with the life in the settlements around it and the stories they spin.

Shashi Kapoor as Siddhartha outdid himself. Class act!
The heart renting scene where his son abandons him is worth more than a zillion bollywood films of his. It was a refreshing surprise to see him act so well, but then again , Hesse’s Siddhartha had set such high standards that neither Shashi nor Rooks could reach. Also, he (and in fact all the actors in the film) could’ve done Conrad a big favor by letting go of his accent. Similarly, he could’ve shed those extra pounds before jumping into the film; it feels a little crappy to see Siddhartha, who boasts of being able to fast, with that proud belly of his showing from the folds of the robe that was donned in the efforts of covering it up.

Likewise the actor posing as govinda, a saintly Brahmin boy, didn’t bother to shave off his extra long sideburns (pretty good ones, gotta say, his girl and Elvis Presley would’ve been so proud of them). Period films are about detailing, these trifle bloopers can be easily given a pass, all right. But, they can make a film loose its essence. Now, that’s no trifle at all.

Otherwise, the casting is near perfect, Garewal as kamala, epitomizes beauty, that it can be something to be worshipped, momentarily though. The lady knows some acting as well, icing on the cake! The role of the ferryman, played by Zul vellani is a wonderful one, not only because the screenplay accommodates it respectfully but because of the indelible discernment he brings to the characterization, one so well-realized, that of an old wise man. Some times it felt that he was a bit overdressed for a poor ferryman, but considering the film was shot in Rishikesh that became necessary or the actors could have frozen their asses in those Himalayan mornings.

As for Mr. Rooks, he could do better. We loved his chappaqua (and loved him in chappaqua). Siddharta too, is a respectable endeavor; the only time it fails is when it gets compared to the book. The characters become very verbose at times. The dialogue between siddharta and kamalaswami has been turned into a rant rather than a simple conversation on the dinner table. Capturing the shramanas on camera was a task very well undertaken. Pictured deeply intoxicated (amidst clouds of marijuana and bhakti ) whiling their time away in this sansara by singing the bhajans, clamorously, in an attempt to attain nirvana . What is Bhakti to them is dismissed as an act of fooling oneself by Siddhartha, who refers to them as nothing but escapists.

The music could be slightly better too, “nodire” is a decent song, but there really wasn't a need to fit-in a Bengali song in a film that has nothing to do with Bengal. I wish there was some tribal kumauon piece or some Rajasthani folk music (the film’s actually shot in the princely state of Bharatpur). Also, the humming, that the film opens with, sounds like an adaptation of a cheesy mujra song and prolly it is! Who knows! Conrad Rooks could have never figured it.

Should my combined disappointment and dispassionate admiration be considered a complex thumbs-up? Well, maybe. Okay, enough said and I should seriously stop picking at Rooks’s efforts, it isn’t a bad film at all, in fact the book and the movie both are worth giving time and thought to. I suggest read the book first, grab the DVD months later, or else you’ll get busy comparing them and miss the entire point, the idea of Siddharta. That’s the last thing we’d want to happen because it has already suffered more than its due share in our busy yet prisoned lives. Because honestly, the film is a disaster when it comes to story telling, it only makes you curious about the book and makes you reread it but still, needs to be viewed for its leisurely pace and its stunning photography.

Read it, to experience it because Siddhartha is beyond a book, beyond a film “it’s a sanctuary to which one can retreat to anytime, a sanctuary within.”