I am not sure if I would have been able to cope with the Peter Brook stage version of the Mahabharata, which I believe ran to nine hours (across three plays) but the television version shown by Channel 4 in 1990 was an event in itself. As in the stage version, the television dramatisation of the Hindu holy work was split into three films. ‘The Game of Dice’ is the first, taking its title from the pivotal moment in the original texts.
The Mahabharata is fifteen times longer than the bible so obviously takes a visionary of the likes of Peter Brook to bring it to the stage and screen. Brook’s creativity is needed to provide a way for the viewer through the complexities of the story. The first episode opens with a boy and a poet. This device allows us a narrator, a poet, who tells the story to the boy with the help of Ganesh, the god with the head of an elephant.
We are introduced to the main characters and their mythic origins. Central to the on-going story is the animosity between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two branches of the same family. This leads to a game of dice; a challenge from a Kaurava brother to the leader of the Pandavas. The Pandava brothers know their leader is a gambler and will not know when to stop. The Kauravas know that they can send their best dice player to the game on their behalf. What follows is inevitable and we are left to wonder what will become of the Pandavas once they have lost their wealth, their prestige and their freedom. As part two has the title ‘Exile in the Forest’ it becomes clear!
Watching this dramatisation again after so many years, it struck me that it has not lost any of its power. ‘The Mahabharata: A Game of Dice’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The Mahabharata (1989) TV mini series Directed by Peter Brook
This film from director Peter Weir dates back to 1989 and remains in my hinterland as it was the perfect reflection of creativity as a means of forging an identity. In a superior and self- regarding school in Vermont, USA in the 50s, a new English teacher is appointed. He, too, is a former pupil of the school so knows the expectations and the code of such an institution. Yet, he sees English Literature as the perfect model for teenage boys to learn about life. His teaching methods are unusual but they inspire one group of boys in particular.
Enamoured of their teacher, the boys research his time at the school to discover that he was part of a club- the ‘Dead Poets Society’ of the title. Without telling him, they re-form the club and use it to celebrate poetry and the idea of living life to the full.
I saw this film on the day of its release in UK and loved it. Over the many years since then, I have seen it from time to time and. while understanding that the conventions (and clichés) of Hollywood can be clearly seen, it is still a heartwarming film.
The idea that teachers can change lives is a key theme and so is the idea that enthusiasts can ignite interest in people who thought they might not be interested. So, too, is the idea that breaking out from conformity brings risks to all involved. The film caught Robin Williams, so good as the inspirational teacher, at the cusp of his career from comedian to more sentimental roles. His performance here is more restrained than some of the later crowd pleasing turns. The performances of the younger actors, Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke in particular, were also strong.
‘Dead Poets Society’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I am a fan of Andrew Graham- Dixon’s television appearances so when the opportunity to hear him speak at a Literature event came up last year I went. His subject was Caravaggio and his paintings. He was fascinating so I was keen to read the book behind the talk.
‘Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane’ is a comprehensive biography, impressive because so many parts of the artist’s life are still a mystery and are likely to remain that way. What makes this book worth reading, though, are the descriptions of the paintings and the explanation of the context in which they were created.
I found myself at the end of a very large room when I heard the author speak. The slides of the paintings were too far away from me to appreciate and I found myself listening rather than looking. It worked for me. In the case of the book, there are photographs of the paintings but they are quite small. I found myself looking up the picture on-line and reading in front of the computer! Andrew Graham- Dixon is very good at drawing your attention to the detail or the item that would otherwise be missed.
The political and religious (pretty much the same thing in this place and time) are explained, especially when they show how creative Caravaggio in this period. Here was an artist who worked for the great and the good of the church and mixed with the poor and down trodden. He painted prostitutes and gay lovers into works of art that found their way to the houses of the rich or the chapels of the princes of the church and subsequently on to the great art collections of the world.
This is a book to take seriously and a book to take time over but it is worth is for the insights from an intellectual.
Novels by David Grossman build layer upon layer until all becomes clear. It takes time for the fog to clear and to see the essential point of one of his novels and this latest story is no exception. ‘Fog’ is not the right metaphor, though, because Grossman writes with great clarity. In this case, a comedian takes the stage to perform his act and a special guest in the audience watches and comments on what can be seen.
The comedian, Dovaleh Greenstein, is telling jokes and stringing the audience along with a story from his youth. The story is more tragic than funny and the audience has its patience stretched at times. This is where the insights of the invited guest come in. We see how other audience members react.
There are jokes here, some of them effective but the main point is to watch the stand-up comedian use the forum for a confessional about an event that proved pivotal in his life. The book must be read to gain the experience and it is for readers to assess how far this story is also the story of a nation.
David Grossman’s novels are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I have long been a fan of David Wynne’s work as a sculptor. There are so many London landmarks improved by the siting of one of his sculptures. Other places, too, have benefited from his talent, including Newcastle, but it is London I know best and it was here that I first put the name of the artist to the work I most admired: Boy with a Dolphin.
This book, which takes its title from his most famous work, is actually a review of his career. Published before his death in 2014, the book includes photographs of him working as well as of the final pieces in situ. There are still places I need to go to see his sculpture and some are in the hands of private collectors or private companies so will possibly be beyond sight unless there is a retrospective at a major gallery.
The best aspect of the book is the insight into the creative process. There are quotes from interviews with Wynne himself as well as excerpts from newspapers and magazines. David Wynne was friends with people in high places and many of his commissions came from someone who knew someone. As an essentially self- taught artist, though, the fact that so many pieces are on public display is the best outcome for me.
This book with its extensive illustrations is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This play by Rajiv Joseph was a thought- provoking exploration of the themes of beauty, power and class. Two guards take the dawn shift at the site where the Taj Mahal is being built. They cannot look at the building as it is not their place to do so and neither can they turn their backs to take a look. The building is beautiful, some say the most beautiful building in the world. It was built with the hands of 20,000 men. These hands become important as the play moves towards its end. We do not see these other men, or indeed any other characters other than Babur, played by Darren Kuppan , and Humayun, played by Danny Ashok. Babur is the curious one, ready to dream of a different life, while Hamayun is the guard who knows his place and who follows orders… any order that is given to him. This too becomes important as the play moves on.
The play uses a legend that the workers who built the Taj Mahal had their hands cut off so that they could not build anything as beautiful again. The two characters carry out this gruesome task but struggle with the idea that beauty can be protected in this way or that anyone could want the quest for beauty to end.
There is one flashback, included to throw the ending into sharper relief. Otherwise the play progresses from an ordinary dawn on one day to a tragic ending. Both actors were terrific with their own British accents used in part to remind us that the themes and circumstances are with us still. The poorest of the world are still used as labour in big building projects around the world and rulers still wield power in unexpected ways.
This 1998 Canadian film tells the lives of people in five countries over four centuries who come into contact with the red violin of the title. The instrument was made in Italy in the seventeenth century. In this segment, the story is told in Italian of the violin maker and his wife and child. We find out why the violin is red, a particularly sad part of the film, before moving on a century to Vienna where we meet a young boy who is a musical prodigy. He is given the violin by the monks of the orphanage where he lives. He has a bright future and his music master sees a great future for them both. Another tragedy strikes, though, and the violin moves on to Oxford in Britain.
From Oxford in the late nineteenth century to Shanghai, China in the grip of the cultural revolution and on to Montreal, Canada in the late 90s, or what would have been the present at the time of the film’s release, we follow the violin as it passes from one owner to another.
What the film does, rather cleverly, is to show the importance of music in the lives of all sorts of people. Over the centuries, the violin becomes more valuable, especially as stories about its provenance emerge. The owners throughout its history see the instrument not as a valuable item in itself but essential because of what they create on it. In the final scenes in the auction house it seems as if this important message has been lost.
Episodic films can be problematic; if one segment is much weaker than the rest, the whole film is affected. In ‘The Red Violin’, though, each part of the story serves the greater narrative. It was directed by Francois Girard with a screenplay by Don McKellar. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?