Between Reviews: The Departed

Posted on September 18, 2010



Writing an obituary is not the easiest of things, even if the people who left us left behind a large body of work.

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SEP 19, 2010THE PASSING OF A PERSONALITY with a body of work in his wake would appear to automatically merit an obituary – but it isn’t always that simple. On the one hand, yes, you can begin at the beginning, with the date and place of birth, proceed to a few lines about growing-up influences, zero in on the first big break, analyse the consequent career trajectory from limelight to twilight, include a few facts about family, and close with the circumstances of death, perhaps with a coda about the personality’s standing in the cinematic community. But these are mere bullet points on a bio-data, a tombstone epitaph on the printed page (or in the electronic ether). Such an obituary would take no more than five minutes on Google – but it doesn’t help mourn the person. It doesn’t give a sense of what the person meant to the writer, cannot account for the ineffable sadness of the passing, and it certainly cannot locate the origins of an emotion that takes you by surprise.

I was saddened, momentarily, by the news of Murali’s death, and I was surprised by the fervour of my sadness. After all, I was neither ardent follower nor adoring fan of the actor, though I’ve watched a number of his films in Tamil. (He was a competent performer, no more, no less.) Was it because he was just 46 years when he died, which is not all that far away from where I stand today? Was it because he was a minor star in the eighties, and watching his films, his songs, transport me to the decade that shaped me the most, the decade I have the most nostalgia for? Or was it because he seemed to be such a nice chap, someone you warmed up to immediately whenever he appeared on screen and, by sympathetic extrapolation, someone who should have been nice in real life and deserved to see a great many more years? Whatever it was, it wasn’t clear enough to distill into an obituary.

It’s a little easier to talk about Swarnalatha, the songstress who, sadly, was younger than Murali when she died, a mere 37. To know why she’s an important – although all-too-brief – chapter in the history of playback singing, we have to consider Lata Mangeshkar in the north and P Sushila down south, the two singers who, through their staggering skills and their astounding success from the fifties onwards, decreed that the heroine’s voice would be that of a coloratura soprano, sweet and silvery as a sylvan stream. Swarnalatha was one of the rare singers – and offhand, the only other I can think of is Asha Bhonsle – whose timbre in the lower registers carried the warmth of whiskey. To listen to her pickup of udhattukkum udhattukkum dhooram in AR Rahman’s Lucky lucky, from Ratchagan, is to revel in a sensuality that was often denied the heroine because of the serene purity of the voices that usually playbacked for her. Here is a voice that will be sorely missed.

Amongst death’s harvest from show business this month, it’s easiest to discuss the passing of Claude Chabrol, who went at a reasonably ripe 80. Not only has he left behind a ridiculously prolific body of work, he was also one of the founding fathers of the New Wave. It could be argued that amongst his contemporaries and co-founders of the Nouvelle Vague – filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and François Truffaut – Chabrol’s films were the most easy to experience because they were the most linear, the most story-driven, and, to a large extent, the most suspenseful. (The breathless “what next” isn’t exactly the overriding emotion in the cinema of his compatriots.) This is not to say that Chabrol wasn’t experimental, but he wasn’t willfully so, and if this stripped his work of the livewire excitement that characterised Godard’s cinema, this is also the reason his most well-known films are more accessible to the average eye more attuned to Hollywood cinema, especially that of Alfred Hitchcock.

Like Hitchcock, Chabrol’s chief currency was the clammy hand of suspense tightening around ordinary folk, and his Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman were Stéphane Audran and Isabelle Huppert – the former his one-time wife, the latter his latter-day muse. With Huppert, he created Story of Women (Une Affaire de Femmes, 1988), the ambitious Madame Bovary (1991), the extremely well-received thriller La Cérémonie (1995), adapted from Ruth Rendell, and Comedy of Power (L’ivresse du Pouvoir , 2006). But it’s with Audran that Chabrol had his greatest hours – La Femme Infidèle (The Unfaithful Wife, 1969), Les Biches (Bad Girls, 1968), Le Boucher (The Butcher, 1970) and Violette Nozière (1978), which featured both Audran and Huppert and signalled the transition of allegiance. The best of these, and my recommendation to those looking for an entry point to explore Chabrol, is Le Boucher, at once an opposite-side-of-the-tracks love story and a thriller about a butcher’s penchant to ply his trade on unsuspecting young women. Its grave elegance is chilling.

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