Independent movie directors frequently churn out interesting movies. And by that most people mean different (or did I just mess that up?). But if someone were to ask me what I thought of certain movies by certain independent directors, I would think intimate. Often, the movies reveal too much about the directors themselves (well hello Wes Anderson, we know you love the kinks). And then there are other times, when the movies reveal too much about you. This facet especially, can seldom be captured by the expensive, glittering, larger-than-life, populist films. How can such movies afford to show you glimpses from your own life, when you pay good money to forget exactly that for a while?
This feeling of intimacy was reinforced when I plowed through Jim Jarmusch’s impressive repertoire. Indeed, he is the man who is sometimes, somewhere credited as the father of the American Independent Film Movement (so really, who better than the man himself for a commentary on indie films). As I watched Stranger than
Broken Flowers, in contrast, actually had a linear narrative that was headed towards the finish line, or so it tricked me into believing again. The ingredients were ready and waiting. There was a plot, a protagonist, a receding character with a receding hairline who injected ironic humour in short bursts at irregular intervals, fast cars (ok, not really) and hot women (will you look at Tilda Swinton?), and oh yes, a mystery waiting to be solved. There had to be a conclusive ending, I calmed my fluttering heart. There just had to be. This time round, there were multiple, discrete stories within a story, and multiple, coupled scenes within those stories. But the whodunit question was never answered. Indeed, the movie even recognized my growing trepidation, and threw random faces at me. Maybe him? It seemed to taunt me. I sighed and settled back. There was a vague thread of reconciliation reaching out to me. The movie was trying to tell me something, something else altogether. But I think I had stopped paying heed to the signs, a long, long time ago. You hear what you want to hear, you see what you want to see, and when you realize that it has all been one horrible mistake, you stop for a second, take stock, reorganize, and continue trying to fit the mismatched jigsaw pieces.
And then there are, of course, just stories. Simple, solitary, specific stories. Characters weaving in and out of the larger narrative, often never even bumping into each other, when they really, truly should. A Night on Earth is probably my favourite Jarmusch movie. Filled with stories of such significance that they can become your life’s marginalia or paraphernalia, depending on who is watching. It satisfied that gnawing urge to see something through to its logical conclusion, at least once every thirty minutes. Equating a provisional finale with meaning, magnitude or fulfillment helps me get by, I realized with a start. But how did Jim know that?
In reading about V.S. Naipaul’s lifelong whims and fancies last night, I continued to be surprised by how pedestrian yet theatrical the lives of revered (well, maybe Sir Vidia cannot be considered revered completely) celebrities can be. In effacing the shadowy yet strident barrier that separates who we do not know from the what we do know, in trying to wrap our minds around the affected distance and the delicious access to the rich and famous, we are at once craning our necks to catch a glimpse of them from behind reinforced brick and stone, and absorbing gory details of their lives as if over sweet tea and buttered toast in their living rooms. What is it about celebrity-hood that suddenly makes them less human? That the banal reoccurrences of love, sex, and rock-n-roll is suddenly propelled into a glaring light that may be all too unbecoming.
More often than not, the stories deserve the attention they get. In the intoxicating trappings that accompany the lurid lives of the rich and famous, we find escape from our routine and conventional stories. Often, such intimate details may reveal a side of the celebrity that we had been kept in the dark about. If unruffled, collected, stoic Jinnah could only betray any emotion at Ruttie’s funeral, his broken, ailing, dead wife (I have suffered much sweetheart because I have loved much. The measure of my agony has been in accord to the measure of my love.), then we are suddenly privy to real and raw emotion. Real only because it bared itself only in trying circumstances, and raw because the world was waiting to pounce with bated breath. Sometimes though, we are surprised to find a natural thought process in the events of a celebrity’s life journey. Sir Vidia loved Margaret because she satisfied him sexually in a way that Pat could not, and he loved Pat because he could never churn out what he did without her unfaltering and forbearing support. He could love either, and leave neither. It made him a crummy human being, sure (I was liberated. She was destroyed. It was inevitable.), but there was awareness here, a sense of what was going on that was far removed from the haze of drugs, alcohol and hysteria. It suddenly reduced Naipaul to a fragile, imperfect human being. And really, is there any other kind? Celebrity or not?
I think what continues to surprise me is that tomorrow, suddenly you and I could become rich and famous. Because the urges are the same, the will (or lack of it) to fight our demons eternal. Really, we are just as normal as them celebrities. Somewhere, sometime some real talent, fine work, and good luck needs to surface to make our personas well-known, our memoirs interesting, but I could just as easily shed a tear for you, my darling, and continue to love you imperfectly as is my curse to do.
And then I thought back on certain nights, where alcohol and laughter overflowed, or certain days when some good-natured ribbing broke ice and raised eyebrows. There was a time, I realized where I was the person who held a special affinity for boys with fully-functioning four-wheel vehicles, and declared pink as my favourite colour. It was interesting because these judgments were pronounced based on my actions, rather than intent, which can be as inconsequential (or otherwise) as you want it to be. It is that fine line between manslaughter and murder, between running over that guy dressed in black from head to toe on a cold, impenetrable night, and slaying your husband’s alleged paramour because she does kiss so much better than you, darling. Or maybe I am getting too serious.
In any case, when I was positioned as the car-boys and pink loving girl, my intent had been pre-determined on populist (but there exists a “fine line” between that and popular as well, but we will leave that for another day) demand. And while I protested feebly, at some point, I could no longer remember (or care) if I just happened to have guy friends who had a car lurking in the back somewhere (because I had met them while requiring assistance in finding my way back through the warrens of our precious little hamlet) and if I just happened to possess many pink items (because on my limited budget, the pink items always seemed to be the most reasonably priced), or if maybe I did actively seek out these traits in my men and my merchandise (but would you believe that?). It turns out, that sometimes, action and intent can get so entangled that they begin to resemble an isolated, solipsistic state of being. Indeed, I am what my intentions are, and what my actions will dictate. But most of the time, I am just what my actions-intent (or intent-actions) are conveying to the world outside.
And while quite often, and surprisingly, I find that my intent is indeed being (rather inadvertently) shaped by my actions, I want to take a step back and distance myself from the more invidious of conclusions, because it really, really isn’t true (this isn’t a trick) and because for all practical purposes intent should dictate my actions (this isn’t the court of law). And yes, quite often, my actions will make me deliberate on my intentions in the first place, and possibly even jump forward to make rightful space for my intent to wedge itself in before my action (oh alright future-husband, what does your daddy make?). But frequently, this can be rather bewildering, because really, I quite hate pink.
* and of course, to emulate the tactics of a liar because that’s what they would do to throw you off, but are we clear that I wasn’t trying to be dishonest myself?
Later that night as the guest sat by the sparkling pool in the teasing winds of Jinja, I relaxed with a glass of pinot-noir in my hand. Olga, Jill, Emily and I were staying in a nearby resort and had just missed the first ever organized polo match in the history of Uganda. As the sky above sparkled and the wine flowed, our excuses for missing the match became more animated. Emily arrived late from Entebbe. No, Jill was getting us fresh bagels. Actually, Ishita took forever with her hair dryer. You know what, Olga drove Jill’s car like a maniac and that’s why it smoked and smoked and we screamed and screamed. Amidst the lazy banter and the cheerful company, I etched in my memory my first brush with the rich and almost famous of Uganda.
After dinner, as we were driving towards the local lounge Jill’s car smoked and smoked and spluttered something indecipherable and finally died. Luckily I managed to pull over to the side of the road, Jill congratulated herself. The cars whizzed by, vaguely conscious of our bright parking lights and Olga made a quick call to Maanan. Damsels in distress, she SOSed. Minutes later, he was by our side taking complete control of the situation. He knew some people, he said. He left Jill’s car at the closest petrol station (it miraculously made the 50 meter journey) and shook hands with the owner in a significant way. Yes, Maanan knew some petrol station owners and car mechanics too. The distressed damsels piled into his SUV and made it to the local lounge.
The night ended uneventfully after a round of drinks and a repaired car. Jill drove it back to our resort with steely determination. We had breakfast the next day and sunbathed for a while and I didn’t think this particular weekend needed a special post. Because, it still hadn’t sunk in that the rich family in Uganda was really the richest family in Uganda. Or that the polo match was the first ever in Ugandan history. Or that it would make Tuesday’s national daily. All I understood at that point was that I had vacationed at a rather lovely resort and dined with some affluent people. Nothing significant.
But things changed that weekend when the half English-half Japanese beautiful man fell in love with me at the sunglass party. You know, he whispered over the din, and this may sound very cheesy but you have the most genuine smile I have ever seen. I widened my smile at him and nodded vigorously. Yes, you are right, that was cheesy. My lower teeth appeared and joined in the gambit to flash a full blast of sparkling pearlies. The beautiful man staggered a little and leaned over to plant a kiss on my cheek. My jaw began to ache.
As the night wore on, we kept exchanging small talk. We also exchanged our sunglasses. The beautiful man told me that he had found his red pair in Tanzania. When a boda driver appeared out of nowhere and almost killed him, the beautiful man had asked for his fanciful shades. It is the least he owed me, he explained. I kept smiling my genuine smile.
But he didn’t forget his glasses. When it was finally time to leave at the magic hour, Olga and I said our goodbyes and started walking away. The beautiful man came running after me. My glasses! He shrieked. You know how precious they are. I nodded solemnly, remembering the barter of life and death. We exchanged sunglasses. And that was that.
But I never would have been invited to the private dinner party at Maanan’s house again had it not been for the beautiful man. And I never would have realized that Maanan was related to the who’s who of Bollywood. You mean, you are Mumtaz’s nephew, I asked. He laughed and whipped out his fancy cellphone with photographic evidence (not of Mumtaz, but Zayed Khan and Fardeen Khan). My red sunglasses and the boda driver, the beautiful man sniveled in the background. But I paid no attention. After all, are the stories of the lives equivalent to fake plastic glasses really significant?
And as I lay in my own bedroom in Maanan’s mansion that night, far away from the cheery conversations in the pool bar, I realized I was out of my element. Only minutes ago, Maanan had offered us a ride back to Kampala on his private plane. I pinched myself hard and realized that there was no way back. I now hobnobbed with jet owners and mansion masters. I now woke up to dancing peacocks outside my window. I now was on first-name terms with handsome horses. I now understood the rich and almost famous.
And I now effectively greeted and bid adieu to my fellow inmates with sprightly kisses on both cheeks.
But you just kissed me on one cheek, I had said to the beautiful man when we were saying our goodbyes.
Because I want to remain significant, he had replied. Two cheeks mean nothing special.
I gave him a sidelong look and continued to kiss the rest goodbye.
Yes, he murmured softly. Two cheeks is just one too many.
Suddenly Rashid springs to life. "There!" he raves, "There goes the president!"
Olga and I turn instinctively. A president sighting? I crane my neck some more to snatch a glimpse of majesty, magnificence or money. Or even a retinue of screeching sirens. But all I see is a newspaper seller staring back at me. Rashid's animated gesticulations stir something viral in him. He begins to move faster.
"That?" wonders Olga aloud, "That is your president?"
"Yes. He was president for a year." Gesticulate. Animate.
"Did people love him? Was he a good president?"
Olga and I look at each other. The newspaper seller/erstwhile adored president was now standing right next to our car now. We look at him and wonder.
"Well, at least he is flexible with his jobs?" Olga ventures.
I mumble. The heat seems unbearable now. The country feels hotter somehow. No, dear.
Rashid points at the newspaperman/ex-president who is no more adored, "He is dead. May his soul rest in peace."
Olga and I turn slowly, scared and stare at Binaisa's face on the newspaper. The air clears up and the airconditioning is working now.