One last tango: Fading heroes and blossoming heroines

The recent series of popular films starring heroes who are more than fifty years old, desperately trying to appear half their age and paired with heroines old enough to be their granddaughters, has surprised discerning film buffs for its mass acceptance. Robot (Rajani), Manmadhan Ambu (Kamal), Shankar Dada Zindabad (Chiranjeevi), Aptharakshaka (Vishnuvardhan) are some examples.

If young Akshay Kumar’s antics in Raveena Tandon starring ‘Cheez badi hai’ song was bad enough, his 43-year old smitten self, prancing around a younger Katrina Kaif in Sheela ki jawani (made 16 years later) is even worse. Such films with old heroes have been hugely popular and commercially successful.

The audiences have accepted the evergreen status of the sixty-year-old heroes without criticism. What is even more confounding is the adulation of the youth for the stale stock. It shows that there is no counter culture in the households of middle class Indian homes and that popular culture has stagnated.

How do the filmmakers get away with this? How does the traditionally conservative society like ours accept this vulgarity? What sorcerer trick is played on the masses to delude them into accepting this romantic couple? Mass hysteria or mass hypnosis?

Special effects, make ups, grand sets, camera tricks, dance orchestrated with thousands of co-artists, catchy songs, editing techniques are some of the technical tools deployed by film makers to seduce the viewers into a state of trance. In this hypnotic state the audience become oblivious to the deceit that is dished out to them in the form of entertainment.

However these cinematic gimmicks alone are not sufficient for creating the fan following. The mass hysteria is a result of cultural forces shaped by the economic and cultural dominance in a family.

The yester-year heroes well beyond the shelf-life, continue to attract the fan following with the generation of audience that grew up watching them. This older generation of fathers, mothers, aunts and uncles has a suspicion of the new. Familiar faces give them comfort and solace. This generation is not only culturally influential, but also economically powerful. This sway held by the older generation inside the house influences the attitudes and aspirations of the young in choosing the fan following.

It is easier for the young to continue to carry the torch of the older generation than define their own cultural idols. This is the lack of counter culture in the middle class that was referred earlier in the essay. Old people do fall in love, but. The purpose of this article is not to lament about lovers across generations – but to demonstrate that a different, more honest depiction of this love affair in the screens is possible.

A case in point is Amitabh’s discomfort in Cheeni Kum (Hindi) where he has an affair with Tabu. The film was honest in dealing with two souls trying to grapple with the age gap. And similarly the deep sense of shame Amitabh faces in Nishabd (Hindi) when he allows himself to be seduced by his daughter’s friend (perhaps inspired by American Beauty by Sam Mendes where Kevin Spacey falling for his daughter’s friend).

Mudhal Mariyadhai (Tamil) is another film in this genre depicting the friendship between the thespian Sivaji Ganesan (portraying the role of a more than middle aged upper caste landlord) and Radha (a lower caste boat-woman). The film tried not only to break the caste barriers but also of age and was received extremely well for its realistic portrayal. Swathi Muthyam (Telugu), Apoorva Ragam (Tamil) and Wake up Sid (Hindi) attempt to portray the dilemmas of the elder woman falling in love with the younger men. However the treatment of the love affair between the generations is treated gingerly considering the cultural constraints and taboos associated with it in India.

One last tango

In international films, this topic, the theme is explored with much more openness, without the shackles of cultural priggishness. For example consider Last Tango in Paris. Made in 1972 when Marlon Brando was 48 years old, this film explores the love of a widowed man with a really young girl. The age difference was stark. Brando balding, grey, wrinkled, slight pot belly looked all his 50 years. And Maria Schneider (20 years old) – well, looked her age. This X rated (first commercial film to be rated thus), R rated film created controversy.

While the puritans were shocked, the film buffs will not remember the epic last scene of the film without choking. Marlon Brando hides nothing of his age. In fact he flaunts his greying body to the audience – flabby, sagging skin and receding hairline. The nakedness of Marlon and Maria is a constant reminder to the audience that an age gap exists. It is unsparing that the male ego is scythed to ground. There is humility and awareness. A sense of one’s own limitations and weaknesses. The man is not a super hero. And the woman is no decked up doll.

And then there is openness. Openness that comes from yearning for love. And the readiness to correct their mistakes committed before. There is sadness. Loss, regret for the loves in the past. The multi dimensionality of the relationship portrayed in the film is breath taking. It is so different from the "virtuous, virile and victorious" image shown by our actors. The intense intimacy – physical and emotional – is not lewd or vulgar. It is unconditional and lives for the moment. There is no euphoria of conquest. And there are doubts.

Ben Kinglsey – old wine in old bottle

Talking of doubts, Ben Kingsley acts as the lover who is plagued by the chasm of age in the film Elegy Made in 2008, this Ben Kingsley (b: 1943, age: 65) and Penelope Cruz (b: 1974, age: 34) starring film is even more intense in showing the frailty of the old man. The book by Philip Roth, Dying Animal, based on which this film is made, is even more unsparing in the treatment of the old man. Ben Kingsley even has a son who is as old as Penelope Cruz.

He has a broken marriage and a love affair with an older woman as well. These aspects of the film are not hidden. It is natural that a 65-year-old man had affairs before. And that Penelope Cruz’s character should be attracted to other people in her age group. But love happens. It is unconventional film no doubt. But honest. The struggle of the old man is real. As much as the sexual attraction. There are no special effects to make the grey hairs in Ben Kingsley’s legs to disappear. He appears as he is. The love scenes between these old men and the young women does not disgust (compared with the ones in portrayed by Rajini, Chiranjeevi et al).

The question of age looms big in the mind of Ben – not so much to Penelope. While she is keen on inviting Ben to meet her people, Ben develops cold feet. Ben’s lack of courage in the end causes the break down. The inner turmoil of Ben at what was possibly his last chance to find true love haunts him. Elegy was a beautiful, beautiful love story. And there are more.

Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, Dustin Hoffman in Last Chance Harvey and Jack Nicholson in As Good As it Gets play their part as old men falling in love. Jack Nicholson recently said "I’m too old to flirt with young chicks now – and I never thought I would ever say that ! " A candid admission from a self-introspective artist. His peer Dustin Hoffman even misses the date of his lifetime due to a heart condition!

These old men endear themselves to the audience by their honest portrayal of their weaknesses and vulnerabilities that comes with their age. And that is where the key difference lies between these actors and our aging woodmen. They act their age. Even more importantly, the actresses in these films are not projected as starry eyed, brain dead tinsel damsels. They are independent, intelligent and aware of the package they get involved. The women are kind and loving – but they are not interested in creating a myth.

The tango by Al Pacino, Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman (dancing with Emma Thomson in Last Chance Harvey) are just incredibly real. No special effects. No supporting cast of hundred dancers. No ugly gyrating of abdomen with hordes of side artistes.

In our films, the aging actors are at best hypocritical and self aggrandizing and at worst unethical and amoral. The artists have escaped the duty and responsibility to shape a different aesthetics. How wonderful it would be to see excellent actors like Kamal applying their roles to make sensible films on old men – their emotions and the struggles? The films of our heroes, like Sivaji the Boss, being extremely popular are symptoms of a deeper malaise and rot that is setting in our personal, social and cultural spheres.

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