Archive for January, 2010

When Show Biz was Show Liz

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

Jan 30, 2010

Elizabeth Taylor represented woman power—at complete ease with her sexuality.

She understood stardom and lived life to the lees in full public view (which, of course, made her an even bigger star)

When I was very young, about one and a half feet tall, one evening, my father went off with a friend to watch the film Cleopatra. When he returned, I asked him what the movie’s story was about. He thought a bit, and said: “Elizabeth Taylor.”

By the time I was more sentient, Taylor’s heydays as a film star were behind her. But hardly a week passed without some newspaper or magazine carrying a photograph of her dressed in some outlandishly expensive dress, and diamonds the size of eggs, shopping in Paris or Milan like there was no tomorrow. I came to know about her affair and marriage to Richard Burton, which had the world agog for years (some American newspapers gave ‘Liz and Dick’ stories more prominence than the Cuban missile crisis). It was only much later that I realised that in today’s fragmented media and entertainment scenario, it is nearly impossible to gauge the sort of stardom that Taylor had enjoyed, what it was like to be the world’s biggest film star.

Yes, that’s what she was, the world’s biggest film star, perhaps the biggest ever in the history of cinema. And, as detailed in William J Mann’s recent book, How To Be A Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood, it was not only about beauty and oomph and acting talent. Taylor instinctively understood stardom, and lived life to the lees in full public view (which, of course, made her an even bigger star). She became the first actress to command a million dollars as fee for a film, the first actress to break free of the studio system and, of course, the first to openly flaunt her love for a married man (Burton), while she herself was married (to singer Eddie Fisher). She cocked a snook at the world and got away with whatever she had set her heart on.

Brought to Hollywood at the age of nine by an ambitious mother, Taylor’s childhood was far from normal. She never went to a normal school, never met any boys, never went on a date. At the age of 18, her studio, MGM, decided to carry out the biggest publicity stunt in history: marry Taylor off, to coincide with her first adult starring role, in the film The Father of the Bride. So she married Conrad Hilton, scion of the hotel family, in a grand ceremony. The marriage lasted six months; Mr Hilton turned out to be a wife-beater.

Her next marriage, too, according to Mann, was most probably studio-sponsored. MGM felt that a nice married life with a couple of kids would be just the right image makeover for her. So Michael Wilding, a minor British actor 20 years Taylor’s senior, was chosen, despite insistent rumours that he was more gay than hetero. Taylor married Wilding and dutifully produced two children. But that was the last time she ever listened to MGM.

She was now a star, and ready to write her own rules. She had always loved to live it up, and she started doing so, often outrageously. She was also moulding a new morality in a society recovering from the dreary 1950s. InButterfield 8, she played a compulsively sexually promiscuous woman, something no star had dared before, and won an Oscar. While shootingCleopatra in Rome, she walked out on her husband and moved in with Burton. Her lifestyle kept her in the news constantly, which drove audiences into the theatres, and her star status kept growing, regardless of the quality of films she was making. At its height, her popularity would have been something an Angelina Jolie or a Cameron Diaz can merely dream of.

In fact, the way she lived her life would have impacted the lives of women around the planet. “I don’t pretend to be an ordinary housewife,” Taylor once said. But for millions of ordinary housewives, she represented woman power, complete comfort with her carnality and sexuality, a woman who could have her cake and eat it every time she so desired. She was an icon, a dream, and a star in every sense of the word. Adjusted for inflation,Cleopatra is the most expensive film ever made. So what was the story about? Elizabeth Taylor.

The Art of Dying

Friday, January 29th, 2010

Jan 23, 2010

As in life, Jyotibabu was astoundingly lucky in death.

No other CM has ever ruled with such an undisguised iron fist.

So Jyotibabu is gone. He will one day be judged by history (indeed, the process has already vigorously started), and one suspects that it will not be too kind a judgement. He served longer as the chief minister of a state than any other Indian, and no other CM has ever ruled with such an undisguised iron fist. More civilians have possibly died in officially-ordered police firing during his rule than anywhere else in India. His policies made sure that industrial capital fled, as did the cream of young educated Bengalis, in search of job and career. He replaced them with several generations of unemployable people, because he had banned English in all government-aided schools till Class VI. Yet, he never lost an election, a remote and inscrutable figure, who hardly ever interacted with common people, took luxurious summer holidays in England, but remained a “people’s leader” till the very end.

In 1995, a Kolkata cab driver told me: “This man is the luckiest person on earth. If he just starts digging the earth anywhere, he will 100 per cent strike gold.”

As in life, so in death. The timing of his death is Jyoti Basu’s parting shot to all his critics, the final proof that, communist or not, he was born under some very powerful stars. In the nine years since he stepped down as CM, the Left Front in West Bengal has steadily crumbled under the weight of his political, economic and social legacy. Buddhadeb’s downfall has been the direct result of his trying to loosen the state from the Gordian knots Basu had tied it up in, so that the people of West Bengal could have a better quality of life. But the knots had been secured over 23 years, and won’t come off that fast, for Jyotibabu had changed the very mentality of a race, turning a progressive people into frogs in the well. Yet, no criticism was ever directed at him as he rested at home. And he chose to die before the Assembly polls, when the Left Front may well lose its majority. The man responsible for running a prosperous state into the ground, departs untouched, and before he could be exposed to the collapse of his life’s work. He goes, revered and lionised, leaving millions of devoted disciples in the lurch, and without a paddle.

A successful life deserves an appropriate death. But few are as lucky as Jyotibabu.

Jayaprakash Narayan led a political revolution that fired up the nation and saw the first non-Congress government at the Centre. Yet, already very ill, he lived on to see his dreams shatter, his movement implode, and helplessly watched Mrs Gandhi come back to power in 1980. The same happened to former PM VP Singh, who not only saw his dreams fail, but also passed away during the 26/11 attack, so the news of the loss was relegated to the inside pages of newspapers.

Mrs Gandhi’s death by assassination, however, was more in Jyotibabu’s line. Few remember today that at the time of her death, her popularity had reached a nadir after her failed attempt to topple the NT Rama Rao government in Andhra. Elections were coming, and there was a possibility the Congress might lose. But her death wiped all that out, and we remember her as the dragon lady of India, a martyr to the nation’s cause.

This week’s papers are full of news about George Fernandes’ long-estranged wife and son coming back to take charge of his life. Fernandes, in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, is in no state to figure out what is happening. He has apparently been made to give his thumbprint to various legal documents, and in a terrible ignominy for a lifelong socialist and atheist, has been taken to Baba Ramdev’s ashram in Hardwar for treatment. What a fate for one of the most colourful and courageous politicians of independent India.

How many of us can ever hope to get just the right death, like Jyotibabu?