Acting the age

Published : May 27, 2015 12:30 IST

Rajinikanth at the audio launch of "Lingaa" in Chennai on November 16, 2014.

Rajinikanth at the audio launch of "Lingaa" in Chennai on November 16, 2014.

The Indian film star, more than most, and the south Indian star now more than his Bollywood counterpart, has not been able to take ageing gracefully and turn it into an advantage. It is pathetic, for them, and embarrassing, for us, when stars well past their prime romp around with pretty young things one third their age in exotic locations that become, more than backdrop, distraction from their failing flabby physiques. In the inescapable, elaborate song-and-dance routine, strategic lensing and camerawork come to their rescue. Close-ups of limb or head movement spliced, in post-production, synchronously into the choreographed detail provide the illusion of their swaying in easy time to, nay leading and driving, the entire musical drill. This celluloid celebration of cradle-snatching, no doubt, drives their fans to the cinema in droves. Even those less star-crazed often accept this with more admiration than distaste. It is remarkable how well-preserved he is, how he holds his own with that nineteen-year-old, is the refrain. The celebrity senior citizen’s male machismo mettle is re-endorsed and rejuvenated in the budding gushing youthfulness of his pairing number. Naseeruddin Shah does a delightful caricature of the type in The Dirty Picture although Vidya Balan was no kid material, nor kidding matter, there.

All this is, of course, about the veteran stars—the old wine in new bottles—who have remained stars for a long time and, their evergreen myth notwithstanding, find themselves hard put to summon on screen the youthfulness their image demands, not about the actually young stars of which there is now a fair number in the industry. Not that these aged or ageing stars themselves —at least not all of them—carry illusions about this anachronism into their lived, as against acted, lives. Rajinikanth does not seem any the worse off, in his box office demand and following, for his wigless and dyeless public appearances, with balding and greying hair and an unshaven grey stubble to boot, for all to see. Like Kannada cinema’s Rajkumar or Telugu’s N.T. Rama Rao earlier, who were not squeamish about the actual age showing. There are of course other stars who are wig-and-dye cast as much off as on screen. But the rule of Indian stardom seems to be that even if you are in the vanaprastham phase of life, you cannot act your age on the screen even if you are candid enough to do so in real life. The fans, the producers, the distributors, the box office, the commercial logic of the industry, will not allow it.

Amitabh Bachchan is the exception, even if we might quibble about how much of that hairdo is organic growth. Sivaji Ganesan was, for his time, a great exception, essaying middle-age-plus roles with glamour and panache and, of course, out-of-this-world melodrama, in numerous films. So much so that he made old age look sexier and more desirable than anything or anyone much younger, literally standing the chrono-biological rule of the industry on its head. And yet, in a memorable final act, as if cocking a snook at his own hyperbolism, he gave us the Malaichami of Muthal Mariyaathai , a pared down performance that held us transfixed with its ordinariness, its understated-ness. It was a tribute as much to the thespian as to the director, Bharathiraja, who, like a demanding ringmaster, tamed and channelled the creative energy of the volcano. MGR was, his fans and perhaps he himself believed (and that is all that matters really), an ageless constant throughout, his doddering old man disguise and act being an occasional take-off for comic effect without quite achieving the effect.

Kamal Haasan has gone to elaborate extents of make-up and mannered performance to depict the lines, creases and cares of ageing until, to quote the Bard, “ ...old age, that ill layer-up of beauty, can do no more spoil upon my face”. But one does not get to see the man be and behave his real age on the screen although perhaps Gautam Menon’s Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu almost got there. Amitabh Bachchan alone, among contemporary Indian stars, does that without mincing his act or wincing under the weight of years. The natural decay and frailties of facial skin and muscle become strengths rather than weaknesses in his resourceful repertoire, as film after film where he makes his age speak volumes demonstrates. Rajinikanth is as if caught in a bind. With the reality of age catching up with the nurtured on-screen image of youth, he has taken the next step of a combination of a prosthetic makeover and special effects in which his age is a computer algorithm. It worked in Enthiran , but has not since, in Kochadaiiyaan or Lingaa . It will be interesting to see how he will reinvent himself next.

In sharp contrast, we have seen how Dustin Hoffman, Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, Sean Connery or Robert De Niro, just to name a few of those living, have given free rein to, and not held back on, their age and created a vintage class and aesthetics of acting that hardly fails to awe us. Of course, Hollywood and indie films (American or European films not dependent on the entrenched studio system) also have their fair share of women stars who continue to shine resplendently on the screen in the evening of their lives, unlike in India where the screen longevity of heroines, even as props to buttress the male star’s charisma, is as fleeting as their youthful beauteous years. There are hardly parallels in India of the age-defying currency of a Meryl Streep, Sharon Stone, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, Goldie Hawn, Jane Fonda or even Raquel Welch (again, just a random sampling).

There may well be cultural and demographic differences in the two contexts. A nation with a greying population, like much of Europe and the U.S., is more likely not to see ageing as an aberration and include it importantly in its scheme of artistic and popular cultural expression. There is natural scope there for, if you like, a star gerontocracy. Where explosion rather than deceleration of birth is the problem, the greyer the scale, the more marginal it becomes. There must be statistics on this somewhere, and certainly with the manufacturers themselves, but empirical evidence would suggest that Indian adult and middle-aged males must be among the world’s highest consumers of hair dyes—to keep their moustaches, beards and hair jet black well after the facial lineaments, the hollowing out of the throat and other tell-tale signs suggest a colouration scale of grey to white as more appropriate. The movies and their stars must naturally hold a mirror up to this anti-ageing aspiration.

This perhaps also explains some of the infantile behavioural traits and mannerisms of our stars as their trademark stylistics on the screen. And why the conventional stars rarely reflect thoughts or concerns that are complex or mature or subtle in their wisdom. The cardboard cut-out, brawn and not brain-driven, the idee fixe of stardom so perpetuated may be changing slowly with the younger crop of stars taking on more challenging, more offbeat and more thinking roles. But the iconic star is still the one with the lesser, and less human, attributes. That directors are not excited by the evolved complexity of character and attributes and the emotional mellowness that come with age may be part of the problem. After all Bergman was in his late thirties when he made Wild Strawberries (1957), that definitive film set in old age. Age gave his films gravitas and power and higher consciousness. We find the maestro returning to—or should we say staying with—old age when he is himself in his eighties, with his last film, Saraband (2003).

A recent film which pits two ages against one another in the show world and draws on the European Bergmanesque approach is Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). Juliette Binoche plays, with compelling assurance and abandon, a stage and screen star whose claim to fame rests on a role she played of a young woman with a tension-ridden relationship with another woman many years her senior at work. That was many years back and now she, a middle-aged woman herself, is in a situation where she has to play the older woman opposite a rising and popular starlet in the younger part in a version of the same script newly adapted for the stage. Made unduly self-conscious and unsure of her age, she finds her dilemma compounded by her off-camera relationship with her young assistant who becomes a kind of alter ego of her new stage bete noire. Assayas allows the characters to develop to their logical limits, keeping the interrelationships among them as complex and intractable as they imaginably can become so that there are no easy answers, no resolution where the many loose ends are tied up, no denouement of the gentle or the meltdown kind. In the arid zone of Juliette Binoche’s lonely and self-centred struggle with her age, green shoots of a new cinematic mirage sprout when she is approached by a filmmaker to play an age-neutral science fictional character—perhaps in a plot, milieu and rendition where age ceases to matter. That, if one can take a sudden fall from the sublime to the ridiculous, almost seems like Rajinikanth’s recourse to robotics, CGI (computer-generated imagery) and digital animation to transcend a body slowing down with age.

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