& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Omerta - in the skin of a terrorist

Rajkummar Rao is Omar Saeed Sheikh
To journalists familiar with South Asia, Omar Saeed Sheikh is a known name. The British terrorist who killed Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal journalist in 2002, has been extensively covered in the media. 

He also nearly caused a war between India and Pakistan by making a hoax call pretending to be India’s then Foreign Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee to the then Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari threatening stern action in response to Pakistani-inspired terrorist attack on Bombay in November 2008, when terrorists held India's commercial capital to ransom and killed hundreds of people.

Omar’s career in terrorism began in the early 1990s when he abandoned his privileged upbringing in Britain and quit his studies at the London School of Economics (LSE). He volunteered to seek justice for the Bosnian Muslims being massacred in the rapidly disintegrating former Yugoslavia.   

A local Muslim priest in England assisted Omar in convincing his father that Omar’s quest is genuine, and then helped him reach Pakistan where he joined a training camp and met  young men from different parts of the Muslim world who had all gathered together to be trained to wage a war against perceived and real injustices being perpetrated against Muslims.

In Hansal Mehta’s Omerta (which means the Mafia’s code of silence and non-cooperation with authorities) Rajkummar Rao portrays Omar with ice in his veins, and with a chilling realism that is unnerving, and at times even difficult to watch without feeling queasy. 

Rao, indisputably one of the finest actors to emerge from India in recent years, lives the role of the British terrorist and immerses himself in the character. He follows the minutest nuance and smallest quirk of the character with complete involvement and utter conviction. 

During his training in the AfPak border, Omar is made to realise that Kashmir needs as much attention as any other region where Muslims are being persecuted. He decides to focus on Kashmir's liberation by fighting the Indian state. He is arrested in the kidnapping of foreign tourists and spends five years in an Indian prison. He is released in exchange for Indian Airlines passengers who were hijacked by Taliban-backed terrorists in 1999.

Back in Afghanistan, Omar begins work with the Pakistani intelligence the ISI, and kidnaps Daniel Pearl, eventually butchering him. His subsequent arrest is seemingly orchestrated by the Pakistani establishment and his death sentence is never carried out and remains under suspension until his appeal is heard. According to some authoritative sources, the British intelligence is also interested in protecting Omar.

There is a passionate commitment in Rao's eyes and his voice especially in scenes which depict the courage of his conviction as when he harangues a cellmate for not observing the ritual fast during Ramzan or arguing with his father on the logic of being a Muslim necessarily implies fighting injustice against Muslims. The scene where Omar is having sex in a hotel room with a Caucasian hooker is one of raw passion mixed with red hatred.

Mehta deftly conveys the transformation of a young Muslim man in Britain into a committed militant in a few scenes that show the horrendous mayhem in the former Yugoslavia, where the Serbs massacred the Muslims, as nearly all Europe passively watched, preferring silence to action until it was too late.

In another scene that stays long after the movie ends, Mehta brings alive the human rights violations in conflict zones such as Kashmir where the state’s power is misused to subdue people’s aspiration. 

In a poignant moment, a young Kashmiri jihadi is resting with Omar in the terrorist training camp. He shows Omar a photograph of himself as a child with his parents. When Omar asks him whether he misses his parents, the young jihadi pulls out another photograph, showing blood-soaked corpses of his parents killed by the Indian armed forces. What the media reports turn into faceless and abstract tragedy, suddenly becomes all too human and real.

It is rare for a film to be made entirely from the perspective of the terrorists, without being morally judgemental. Mehta is tremendously successful in bringing to screen the smouldering subterranean anger in Omar which motivates him to dedicate his life to the cause. And Rao brings to life a terrorist’s menacing efficiency with which he puts everything at stake in an all-out attempt to win at all costs. For Omar and his ilk, no sacrifice is small and none is too big in their pursuit of their cause.

The deep-seated and ingrained anti-India anger that Omar harbours is on evidence repeatedly throughout the film and bubbles over periodically such as when he sees the Indian currency and angrily mutters, “Bloody Gandhi”, or when he urinates leisurely inside his cell, exposing his buttocks, while the Indian national anthem is playing in the Ghaziabad prison. 

Omerta is convincing because it depicts the most horrendous acts of violence with coldblooded equanimity and without fuss, creating an overall effect that is at once riveting and repulsive.  

At present, Omar apparently languishes in a Pakistani prison, and in recent days, news reports have also been published indicating that he attempted to commit suicide (in 2017) because of a fragile mental health condition.

Omerta’s world premiere was at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, 2017. I saw the film on September 16, 2017.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Shakespeare in the Park

Cordelia & Lear in prison, painting by William Blake (1779)
Shakespeare in the Park has been on my bucket list of things to do in Toronto since I first heard about it. Finally, earlier this month, we went to see King Lear (actually Queen Lear) at High Park.

King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s more violent tragedies. Tolstoy hated it, Shaw loved it. Those who have read the original will agree it is one of the most engaging of Bard’s plays.  

Lear is driven to insanity by what would these days be described as elder abuse by his two older daughters Goneril and Regan to whom he bequeathed his entire kingdom based on their false flattery of his virtues. His younger, honest daughter Cordelia gets nothing because she chooses not to lie about Lear’s qualities.  

The older daughters quickly banish the doddering old Lear into the wilderness, where he is accompanied by the Fool and Earl of Gloucester, who has similarly been betrayed by his illegitimate son Edmund. The tragic death of Cordelia even after her victory both moral and in the battlefield, and of Lear at the climax of the play, makes King Lear one of the most devastating of Shakespearean tragedies.

The subplot of revolves around the Earl of Gloucester and his sons – the bastard Edmund and the legitimate Edgar. The Shakespearean establishment (in classrooms, not stage) consider the Earl’s blinding (3.7) as the most pivotal moment of the play.
Screen grab of actor Hannah Wayne-Philips during
the play's rehearsal 

Lest it see more, prevent it. Out, vile jelly!
Where is thy lustre now?

All dark and comfortless. Where's my son Edmund?
Edmund, enkindle all the sparks of nature,
To quit this horrid act.

Out, treacherous villain!
Thou call'st on him that hates thee: it was he
That made the overture of thy treasons to us;
Who is too good to pity thee.

O my follies! then Edgar was abused.
Kind gods, forgive me that, and prosper him!

Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell
His way to Dover.

Lear at High Park was rejigged and King became Queen. Diane D'Aquila, who I learn from the internet, is a veteran, much-acclaimed actor, performed the role of Queen Lear without affectation and with the right degree of lunacy.

Any actor performing Lear needs to know that he is a totally self-absorbed royalty who doesn’t see anyone but himself, even when (actually especially when) his condition is rapidly deteriorating. And he is a crazy monarch long before he is actually driven over the edge by the cruelties of his daughters.  D'Aquila instinctively conveyed this self-absorbed lunacy in her performance.

Jason Cadieux’s performance as the Earl of Gloucester’s role is compelling, too, especially while delivering his blind soliloquy.  

 Jason Cadieux and Diane D'Aquila

The reinterpretation of the play with a woman protagonist was planned to coincide with the imminent rise of Hillary Clinton to the US Presidency, which, of course, did not materialise. However, Lear retains its essential anguish and regret even with a woman protagonist. In fact, it acquires an intimate, profound pathos.

Shakespeare in the Park is a great way to enjoy Shakespeare. It's obviously quite popular, considering it is celebrating its 35th year. It’s Canada’s largest and longest-running professional outdoor theatre experience, attracting over 30,000 people each year. 

Creative Team
Director: Alistair Newton
Assistant Director: Sadie Epstein-Fine
Set designer: Claire Hill
Costume designer: Carolyn Smith
Lighting designer: Rebecca Picherack
Sound designer: Lyon Smith
Fight director: Simon Fon
Production stage manager: Elizabeth McDermott
Stage manager: Krista MacIsaac Barclay
Assistant stage manager: Sandi Becker
Apprentice stage manager: Cole Vincent

Countess of Kent: Jenni Burke
Earl of Gloucester: Jason Cadieux
Edmund: Brett Dahl
Queen Lear: Diane D'Aquila
Oswald, Duke of Burgundy: Peter Fernandes
Duke of Cornwall: Kristiaan Hansen
Duke of Albany: Richard Lee
Edgar: Michael Man
The Fool: Robert Clarke
Cordelia: Amelia Sargisson
Goneril: Naomi Wright
Regan: Hannah Wayne-Phillips

Meena Chopra's Eyes of Time

Meena Chopra’s bold figurative work has self-assured certitude. But her abstract work is perhaps more interesting because it has a liminal quality. It’s a reflection of her tenuous, hesitant, self-conscious process of freeing herself of creative excrescences and finding her core as an artist.

In her latest series of paintings ‘Eyes of Time’ on display at Heritage Mississauga, Meena has attempted innovation and has experimented with digitalization, and in doing so she has abandoned the ponderous ruminations that have marked her earlier abstract work. This freedom has transformed her work and given it a numinous, mythical quality.  In this series, Meena takes an untrodden artistic path by infusing her paintings with a touch of the mystique.

‘Eyes of Time’ is Meena’s boldest work technically. In its technique, it’s breathtakingly original. In her words, the paintings in the ‘Eye…’ series are “digitally manipulated…in some paintings I have used scanned images of my own artworks and then digitally combined them with some other images to make the final artwork. I have used different filters to get the right effects. These are then digitally printed on the canvas. To achieve a certain level of artistic satisfaction and to get the desired effects and results I used acrylic paint for the enhancement of the artwork.”

Meena has been experimenting with digitalisation since 2000, but this is her first exhibition of digital paintings. The layers and the hues that she has been able to achieve with her experimentation give the paintings a haunting quality. While the tangible manifestation is figurative – it’s the eye – all the paintings have innumerable layers of the intangible, often just interplay of light and shades. The different filters that Meena has used give each of the painting a distinct texture.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Diana Tso at Stratford

A scene from Diana Tso

Diana Tso is a performer, playwright, poet, storyteller and an artist in education. As the artistic director of the Red Snow Collective (www.redsnowcollective.ca) Diana’s vision of theatre merges the east and the west storytelling art forms through music, movement, and text.

I spoke to her in June to find out about her work at the Stratford Festival, where she has roles in two important plays – the Euripides tragedy The Bacchae, reinterpreted as Bakkhai, by director Jillian Keiley and based on poet Anne Carson’s 2015 version of the Greek classic, and The Komagata Maru Incident based on Sharon Pollock’s play and directed by Keira Loughran, which re-examines the historical event that defined racial relations and tensions in Canada in the early 20th century.  

In Bakkhai, Diana is enacting the role of one of the seven women in the chorus, and in The Komagata Maru Incident, she is Evy, a sex worker, and lover of William Hopkinson, the immigration officer.

Excerpts from the interview:

What is it to be performing at Stratford?

A scene from Bakkhai
I'm living the dream. I've met so many artists and actors. The unique part of performing at Stratford is to have coaches that enrich one’s journey and build stamina to work as an actor. There were coaches to help us vocally, with our text, with our movement. The sessions help actors perform in two or three plays in one season.

How did Stratford happen?

I auditioned for the character of Evy in Komagata Maru, and simultaneously I was also offered the role of one of the seven women in the chorus in Bakkhai. Rehearsals began for Bakkhai in March and the final preview was in June. For Komagata Maru, the rehearsals began in June and the play opened in August and will run through until September.

What is Komagata Maru all about?

This is Canadian history. It’s an exciting role because it explores the situation of a person of colour in the Canadian society in the early 20th century and how she is able to stand up for herself against the stereotypical characterization of both a sex worker and a person of colour.

The character is able to seize her independence and be brave enough to make a positive change in her life; to do something better for herself and for others. Evy’s character has to be seen from the perspective of the early 20th century when women were scarce in Vancouver and almost seen as prized possessions.

The original play was written in the 1970s but this version has been re-contextualised to reflect the South Asian element which the director felt was missing from the original version.

It is particularly poignant at this juncture in Canadian history when we are rediscovering our native heritage and putting it back up on a pedestal where it belongs; when we are acknowledging the native roots of our nation and recognizing its value both in terms of what was snatched from them as well as what we need to do to give it adequate representation in our cultural mainstream. 

It is this process that also finds a reflection in Komagata Maru.

The play is especially relevant in the present context when we are seeing a rise in white supremacist ideology in the United States and also in Canada.

To buy tickets to The Komagata Maru incident, click here: Komagata Maru at Stratford

To buy tickets to Bakkhai, click here: Bakkhai at Stratford
Images take from Stratford Festival website