Characters, where's the depth?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

When upcoming actor Narain came to Screenwriters Studio (photo) for the convocation and parting ceremony of the first batch at ScreenWrite.In a couple of months back, we had a little chat on characters. Narain firmly believed present-day movies lacked the character's touch and depth when compared to those in the eighties to mid nineties. Characters lack depth and tangibility, and seem derived, caricatured for fabricated dramatic plots. That was Narain's lament.

Is it really true? If it is, then is it because writers and directors don't care to go find their characters, delve deep into them and bring out the best of them? Is it because the writers think the present-day audience doesn't want to see the depth in characters, as modern living has become more periferal and shallow; with lesser values and more of consumerist, egotist, haute bourgeoisies euphoria?

I don't want to talk about the theories of character building here, which I think is all over the books of screenwriting and film-making. I'm trying to find a cause for the depletion in character dimesions, as Narain has pointed out.

I remember one of the great screenwriters, and novelist and creative writer of my times, M T VASUDEVAN NAIR Sir, winner of the Jnanapeeth Award, talked about how great stories and great characters emerge - from agony and pain; both from the inner self of the writer, and the outer manifestations of the characters the writer finds around his/her world. So the pain in the writer, and of the character contribute to the many dimensions in the character.

Yesterday I happened to hear an Educationalist talk of 'human values' at the school day celebrations where my son studies.The guest speaker was asking a pertinent question: how many among us nowadays eat alongwith our entire family, at least once a day, where the mother serves everyone not just the food, but the warmth of love - 'paasam'.

How many of us as writers and, also as living characters go through any rituals of love these days? How many children of our times enjoy the solace of breast milk and moonlight (oh, it is the famous lines in Kamla Das's story, which I wrote as screenplay for a television short script for National DD long back)? How many show the compassion ( or may be audacity) amid our busy day/night schedules to stop by the mad old woman on the payment and try communicate with her to find her state of schizophrenic psyche? How many of us can care to experience a sleepless night, in a filthy shack in a mosquito-swarmed, rain soaked slum? How many of us can identlfy the pain of seperation, the agony of poverty, the anguish of uncertainty, the misery of tarnishing, the despair of ostrasization, the fear of debt, the guilt of helplessness, the defeat in deceit? No, most of the times we don't. We're in a rat race to accomplish the laxuries of life.

And that's the death of character.

A character is never a whole person, but just those parts of him or her that fit the story or the piece of writing. So the act of selection is the writer’s first step in delineating character. From what does he select? (William Sloane) From his misery and agony first, and then filter it from an array of character elements the writer has seen in his life-time, through the countelss interactions, perceptions and experience, not to mention the influence of other characters in other stories. The character has more character in poverty and pain than compfort and contentment; like honor comes from giving and not receiving.

I'll share my own experience in 'Guna' (Tamil). The spark of character came from a person called 'Joosey' (who I knew from my paternal household), a born retarded flirt, who stuck by the kitchen in every homestead and flirted with every housemaid or lass around the corner, and relished their slaps day after day; still everyone accomodated him because of his innocent, 'two-cans-short-of-a-six- pack' demeanor. The character was Joosey, of course; and that didn't take any further shape from him for a long time. Kamal was asking me for a pitch, I rather evaded many a time. And then a Monday was fixed for the pitch; I still was not ready with the character and the story.

The Monday morning pitch seemed almost impossible as I had to go through one of the most gruelling times of my personal life, through the Saturday and Sunday; tumultous, angry and without sleep, as I came to Cochin airport to catch the flight to Chennai for the Monday pitch. The flight was delayed by two hours that Monday morn, I slowly staggered to the corner table at the cafeteria and ordered a strong black coffee. Not that I was sleepy or emotionally engaged for almost forty eight hours hence, the most draining reason was that I was taken over by grief and guilt at what I was going through, a desperate quest to identify what's gone wrong with me; why's all this happening to me?

I started to write about Gunasekharan (Guna) at the Cafe, and slowly I realized I was mixing my own grief, my own agony and desparation with Joosey, and the many other others I have seen and heard about, read about, and interacted with before; and the best of what Guna turned to be later, emerged from those two hours. I pitched the story to Kamal straight from the airport, and after I finished Kaml asked me: Why didn't you tell me about this 'character' much before, and I said: I don't know. He laughed and commeneted: That's pretty much a 'Guna-like' answer.

The excellent, mutli-dimentional characters that Ray, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, M T Vasudevan Nair, Lohithadas, Abrar Alvi ( who knows Abrar Alvi as writer for almost all Guru Dutt films?) Raj Kapoor, (to name a few from the Indian selection), as I reckon would definitely have come from their assessment of human values, through their own 'painful experience', leave alone writers like Woody Allen and William Goldman from the western world.

I'll end today, with a quote from a favourite satirical/Sci-Fi-writer: " . . .When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away – even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. . . "

- Kurt Vonnegut (Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse-five)


Anonymous said...

u have experienced a lot of STAKES sir!!
more 2 learn 4m u guruji!

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