Friday, July 31, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

David Yates, I thought, did a fine job with the fifth film, The Order of the Phoenix, which is a difficult book to translate into film, being the largest and the most unwieldy of the lot - so it was with great expectations that I went to watch The Half-Blood Prince, which happens to be based on the book I love best in the series. Except - it turned out to be a big disappointment.

The first half wasn't too bad, really - the screenplay had been tweaked to open the film in a subway cafe, instead of Privet Drive - and I think a few, like me, might have been disappointed at the omission of Dumbledore's impromptu tea party with the Dursleys; but Jim Broadbent's Horace Slughorn more than made up for it in the very next sequence. The sixth story is really about the coming of age of three, not all that different in very many ways, teenagers - Harry himself; Tom Riddle (the future Lord Voldemort, whose story is told through Harry's forays into Dunbledore's memories through the Pensieve, lessons that Harry had to learn if he was to ever defeat him); and Draco Malfoy, who, while facing the task given him by Voldemort, discovers the great gulf that exists between aspiring to evil and the actual doing of it. It is also the last 'normal' year the Hogwarts students are to have, so the usual activities that make up a school - Quidditch, classes and, for the 16-year-old sixth-year students, teenage romances - abound.

And that last is where the problem lay. Because the - to use a rather reprehensible phrase - 'Hollywoodisation' of the Harry Potter series meant that a decision was taken to highlight the 'snogging', at the expense of more important matters. So half the film dealt with the Ron-Lavender, Ron-Hermione, Harry-Ginny sequences, some of them concocted for the audience's viewing pleasure, while grimmer, crucial details were unceremoniously cut.

The film had some great moments, though - as mentioned earlier, Jim Broadbent excelled as the bumbling, egoistic, well-meaning Slughorn; Alan Rickman's Snape was perhaps even more chilling; Helena Bonham Carter brought the evil, half-crazed Bellatrix Lestrange to life; and one could see very clearly just how comfortable Michael Gambon had grown in his role as Albus Dumbledore. The initial sequence with Narcissa Malfoy, Belltrix and Snape was beautifully done, with Helen McCrory managing to bring out a mother's desperation in the short time allotted to her. But outstanding were the two boys who played Tom Riddle at ages 11 and 16 - Hero Fiennes-Tiffin and Frank Dillane, respectively - as were those Pensieve sequences. The menace, evil, and quiet power that both boys brought to the screen were phenomenal - one only wished there could have been more of them, and less of, well, love potions!

But to my mind the actor who stood out was one who has, strangely enough, been written about the least, strange all the more when one thinks of the key role he plays - Tom Felton, as Draco Malfoy. Over the years, Tom Felton has grown into the role of Draco as surely as the three central characters have grown into theirs; and his portrayal as the increasingly unsure , vulnerable, and confused Draco was powerful, and entirely convincing. His racking sobs as he tried to come to terms with the depths to which he was being forced to sink; his contempt, that of one 'chosen', for his clueless classmates, a contempt laced with fear as he searches for the evil he hoped was within him, only to find it missing; his fury at Harry's discovering him at his most vulnerable - and, at the very end, the pleading in his voice and eyes as he tells Dumbledore, 'I have to do this. If I don't, he'll kill me' - all touch you in way that none of the other, more touted performances do. It's a shame that so fine an actor and so complicated a role has been allowed to get lost in the flurry of accolades heaped on less deserving ones.

While Yates captured the wild cliff face and the green cave where Harry and Dumbledore go to hunt for a Horcrux beautifully, complete with the terrifying Inferi, the climax, which never fails to move me to tears when I read the book, left me cold because of the ridiculous omissions - couldn't Yates have spent five minutes (cutting out the superfluous and entirely unnecessary scenes concerning the attack at the Burrow, for instance) showing how the students were taught to Apparate? How on earth is one to believe that Dumbledore, in his weakened state, could apparate Harry back to Hogwarts? And why, pray, did Dumbledore not stupefy Harry? Are we to believe that all Harry did through Dumbledore's final moments was gape open-mouthed at the proceedings, without even, at the very least, running for help? And speaking of help - where were the Aurors who were supposed to be patrolling the corridors and grounds, and who were shown at the beginning? Isn't it crazy that a group of Death Eaters could calmly kill Dumbledore, tear up the Great Hall, stride out of the front door, pursued by a lone Harry who had finally found his feet? David Yates' biggest mistake was doing away with the battle at the end, between Aurors and Death Eaters - the film leaves too many unanswered questions without it. And it's also sad that Dunbledore's death was not made more of - Hermione discussing Harry's snogging Ginny and whether Ron would approve bang in the middle of a talk about Horcruxes trivialised the gravity of the situation.

Given the hype that surrounds every major film release, it becomes very difficult to separate a film from its promotion, and to watch the characters on screen and not remember the actors. On reading the interviews, reviews, etc., one can forgiven for thinking that the films have just three actors - Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint (in that order of appearance). Too much rides on their shoulders, and here, at least, they fall woefully short - Daniel is, to quote the delightful Luna Lovegood (played to perfection by Evanna Lynch), 'exceptionally ordinary', Rupert clowns his way through, and Emma really hasn't much to do, except stare in a lovesick fashion at Ron and cry. Perhaps they have become a tad too confident of their ability to play these characters? Or perhaps the media conflation of these three with Harry, Ron and Hermione means they don't need to work too hard at their roles? Or perhaps they're plain bored. Any of these could explain the careless performances, made all the more apparent by the superb supporting cast, even those given very little screen time. Watch Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince only for these 'other' actors - both the established great actors and the younger, newer ones - and not for the three who usually hog the limelight.

The Harry Potter films are losing their charm. Or maybe it's my disillusionment with the whole series, brought on by the disastrous seventh book, speaking. Either way, give me Narnia or His Dark Materials any day.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Nostalgic for Rath

The Rath yatra festival came and went this year without most of us coming to know of it. My friends and I often talk of the happy childhoods we had, despite the absence - or perhaps because of it? - of cable TV, the Internet, reality shows and malls; and I realised sadly that the total disappearance of rath from the lives of people symbolises the passing of a way of life that was so much a part of our growing-up years.

As children, we didn't care much about the giant rath being pulled out of the Jagannath temple in Puri; what was important was us dragging our little rath models, with tiny idols of Jagannath, Balaram and Subhadra ensconced inside, down the rutted lanes of our neighbourhoods, a fun evening with friends and sweets and fried papad before us. The excitement began with the onset of the monsoons, and when the first delicate white flowers known as furush made their appearance in our garden, my happiness knew no bounds. And then the first rath models began to be seen in the market - they were rickety wooden affairs, hand-painted in bright colours, and in various sizes - little ones, almost as tall as I was when I got my first rath; others were taller, with two to four vertical compartments built into them. I still remember how proud I felt when I was considered old - and tall! - enough to be bought a 'three-storeyed' rath; and how carefully I placed my little idols, one in each compartment, with a tiny plate of sweets in the topmost 'storey'.

School gave over by 1 PM that day, after the morning classes; the pleasure of a half-day was heightened by the anticipation of decorating our raths at home, readying them to be taken out later, towards evening. I'd pester my mother and Didi to start helping me cover every inch of the rath, barring the front and the top, with strands of white furush and leafy stalks immediately after lunch; sweets would be bought from the closest shop and arranged on the tiny plates my mother had kept ready; and all the while I would be driving everyone crazy, blowing on the 'bhyapoo' - a long pipe-like object made of banana leaves with a plastic cone stuck at the top which, when blown into, made an infernal, ear-splitting noise, anathema to adult ears, but music to ours. By 4 PM my friends would be banging on our door, and out I'd scamper, the rope tied to the rath front clutched in my little hand, and off we'd go, importantly dragging our raths behind us, blowing on the bhyapoos and talking incessantly. Frequent stops had to be made to set our raths right - the ramshackle wooden structures and rutted roads meant that every five minutes, someone's rath would topple over. We'd meet other kids, look derisively at their raths and their decorations; neighbourhood adults would stop us to tell us how beautiful our structures looked; the older boys would find ways to distract us and steal the sweets so lovingly placed inside (running away before we could discover their perfidy, and before the consequent wails brought concerned, yet amused, parents out to refill those plates). By 5.30 it would start to get dark and we'd be called in - but then my father would carry my rath up to our large terrace, and I'd pull it around, with Sheru, our Alsatian, loping along, trying to get at the idols and sweets inside.

I always refused to take off the 'decorations' till the leaves and flowers had dried, clinging on to the festival for as long as I was able to; and then the rath and idols would be wrapped up carefully and stored in the loft, where it would remain for the next one year.

Children don't know what rath is any more - and I suspect that if they did, they'd find the idea of pulling a rickety wooden toy down the streets both embarrassing and ridiculous. Colourful raths are no longer to be seen in markets or on streets. The furush flowers sway gently in the breeze, but no one picks them any more to adorn little raths. The defeaning bhyapoos have fallen silent. And when they did, a part of childish innocence and fun was lost forever.