Friday, June 29, 2007

No "Life in Pink" for Indian Divas

Many countries have a pre-eminent diva whose music powerfully resonates with most of the citizens and becomes sort of emblematic of that nation's cultural zeitgeist. Lebanon has Fairouz, Iran has Googoosh, Pakistan has Madame Noorjehan, India's Hindi speaking parts have Lata Mangeshkar and Germany has Herbert Gronemeyer (just kidding Alex, Gronemeyer's just one of the few German singers I know of). And then, France has Edith Piaf.

I had been vaguely familiar with Piaf's name growing up, but given that my French vocabulary is limited to "allez, allez!" and "excusez-moi", I hadn't had much access to her music. Actually my limited linguistic abilities have never stopped me from enjoying a stellar voice and music, so this was more about the relative non-availability of Piaf's recordings in India.

Last year, knowing the reverence and adoration of the French for Piaf, I decided to look up some of her songs on Youtube. I found a few of her later recordings with her last husband Theo Sarapo, and apart from marvelling at this apparently very happy marriage of the chronologically and vertically mismatched (Piaf was reportedly 4'8", a little bird next to the strapping Theo), the songs themselves didn't seem very extraordinary. Eh, perhaps the French get something that I do not.

Then, two days ago I went with a bunch of girls to see what I was told would be "a French movie". I was dying to get out of the house, so any movie would do (and I trusted 5 girls to pick something other than the latest action blockbluster). When the opening credits started rolling and when I heard that unmistakablely robust, powerful voice, I instantly recalled that this might be the Edith Piaf biopic that I had read about somewhere.

Two hours and twenty minutes later, when I staggered out of the dark theatre, I was emotionally overwhelmed. I would have bawled my eyes out were it not for the fact that I was with a few girls I had barely met. It was an extraordinary feeling, extraordinary because I rarely get so churned in watching a movie. Even with books - at age 11 I would sob through a Tolstoy novel - but I can't remember a book I've read lately that's been compelling enough to elicit an emotional rather than an intellectual response.

Part of it of course was the director's relentless focus on melodrama, on the tragedy of it all, of drawing the more vulnerable among us into deep empathy with a character who wasn't always so sympathetic, in fact quite detestable at times. But the greater part of it was simply the facts of Piaf's tortured, painful, episodes of joy nestled in expanse of sadness, larger than life, life. It was incredible to think that this elfin, almost fragile looking woman had experienced all of that, and somehow managed to distill all of the agony into the purest musical expression.

It was the closing song that really did it though. When Piaf stood ravaged by illness, the misery of losing people she loved, and yet defiant, strong, and singing "No, je ne regrette rien" (No, I regret nothing), nothing short of a standing ovation would do. Both for the spirit of Piaf, and for the great talent of Marion Cotillard, the actress who played her with such eerie, uncanny perfection. I had to come back and look up the original recording of Piaf singing "Non, je ne regrette rien" and it is just as I thought - very, very powerful (A translation of the lyrics here).

Can a similar film be made in India with one of our own icons? La Vie en Rose (or La Mome) is brutally honest - about the sordid circumstances of Edith's early life, her affairs, her addiction to morphine - everything is held up, warts and all. Of course the director also softens the edges considerably, and is clearly fond of Piaf and her legacy. However, this is as far from a hagiography as you can get - Edith is remarkable, but she is also obnoxious, a royal pain, a diva.

To someone who grew up in India, there is much novelty in this. Apparently, the French seem very un-distraught by such a public airing of an icon's troubled life. I cannot imagine the reaction to a similar no-holds barred biopic on the life of someone like Lata Mangeshkar. Or Nargis (I once saw a fawning documentary on her which very gently sidestepped the fact that her mother was a tawaif in Lucknow, aka "woman of ill repute"). Given the fact that taking offence to everything and anything and ranting about the disruption of our moral fabric has become something of a national pasttime in India. Aided and abetted by 24-hour news television.

You know what? I seriously believe that we have very deep-set issues in confronting truth. We'd rather work our way around truth, or pretend that the fantasies that we are fed in our public life are a simulcra of truth and not an elaborate charade. So our politicians are "humble farmers",
our filmstars are "humble sons of the soil" (who none the less attended expensive private schools and were childhood buddies with the son of the then prime minister), our singers are "pure and innocent souls who've devoted their lives to God and music" (and apparently large swigs of alcohol before every concert), and our female celebrities are all "pure, virginal women" who led crashingly boring lives, never swaying from the straight and the narrow.

In short, we are not the French. In the sense that we are not allowed to play out the most interesting, edgy, marginal aspects of our lives in the public eye for fear of giving offence. Especially the stories that our celebrated women tell must necessarily be stripped of all complexity, a morality play of pious living, overcoming hardship, and humble devotion to the arts. No insolent, proud assertions of being an "artiste" and hence excused from the constraints of a "normal" existence. No tempestuous affairs, no diva behaviour, no not giving a fuck for what the establishment expects. It is like post-Revolutionary Iran, where we symbolically paint our windows black to keep the prying public censure away from our much more interesting daring private selves. Do not expect a Hindi version of "Non, je ne regrette rien" anytime soon.


Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

point well taken. but hey, george bush is a farmer too, and texan at that.

6:34 PM  
Blogger Rahul Ghosh said...


A really truthful movie about Lata Mangeshkar? In a country that had problems accepting the fact that Netaji fell in love with German woman and married her, while preparing for his war of independence...unlikely.

2:01 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

TR: Let's not even begin to talk about American issues with honesty and obsession with an overt display of morality. Let's just say the Clinton witchhunt would have never happened in France, where Mitterand very publicly had a mistress for several years.

Rahul: It's quite amazing really. I mean why can't you be patriotic and lovestruck and/or horny at the same time?

12:07 PM  
Blogger Rahul Ghosh said...


Haha. "Patriotic and horny at the sametime." That line has such rich possibilities.

Anyway, I suppose, it is a function of how we have been taught to consume history. You know, the historical accounts of great men are always about their great deeds. Seldom do they touch upon their humane sides. So we don't get to know whether they suffered from things like chronic indigestion or perhaps a rabid libido. Did they like to sleep on the right side of the bed or the left? Did they have poshto after dal or before? I suppose they don't make for interesting history!

9:20 AM  
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5:53 AM  

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