Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Mark of Cain

"No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us." - John Steinbeck - East of Eden (Chapter 22)

What can I say, when I get obsessed with something, I get really obsessed. And one of my oldest obsessions has been the story of Cain and Abel. I followed it through various forms of art (painting, sculpture, novels, poems, plays, films), and in university my friends used to even make fun of my ability to sneak in a reference to it even in the most unrelated essays.

I had been thinking for a while that I will never find this theme in an Indian movie because the Indian culture is so attached to its family values that they would simply not build an unapologetic plot on the topic of brotherly jealousy or hate. Some films touch upon it, but most of the time it's only a tangent, and when it's not, a happy reunion at the end will make sure the family values remain intact.

And then I saw Prasthanam (hey, I already admitted my obsessive tendencies, I know I just blogged about the film, but this seemed to deserve its own post). Finally a film bold enough to deal with this theme maturely, without making any excuses, even if this is not the only focus of the story. I've been sort of obsessing over this for the past couple of days, and in this context, I went back to my favourite book, John Steinbeck's East of Eden. I must have read this book a good 20 times and it never fails to teach me something new. But before I start reading it again, I want to talk about something old that it taught me and that is connected to Prasthanam.

Brotherly love is as strong and present an emotion as brotherly jealousy, Steinbeck tells us, and it has been so since the beginning of time. And just like in the Bible this jealousy is caused by God preferring one offering over the other, so in East of Eden it is caused by Adam loving one son more than the other, and in Prasthanam by the parents transferring their own guilt onto the children (Mitra, the adopted one, and Chinna, the youngest one). Chinna is conditioned to hate Mitra not because he's the better brother, but because he appears to be the better loved one. Any child that grows up with the burden of not being wanted, of being a product of his mother's sense of duty and guilt, is likely to flirt with self-destruction. At the same time, Chinna's resentment of his half brother is not only rooted in a false sense of injustice over Mitra being adopted into the family despite not being Loki's son, it is also rooted in Chinna's own sense of not belonging. Chinna's hatred is as much about his father as it is about his brother, and that's what makes his character so interesting.

Similarly in East of Eden, it is Adam's behaviour towards both his sons that motivates Cal's actions. Cal is not a bad person at the core, it is his father's reactions that turn him. Just like according to Steinbeck's interpretation, God's rejection is really what drives Cain to murder. I appreciate both "East of Eden" and "Prasthanam" for making this distinction in the father's character, for not trying to take the easy way out in analysing a situation as complex as this one. And all the more interesting to find these nuances in an Indian film where there is a certain amount of sanctity attached to the fatherly figure, coupled with a tendency to brush off rash behaviour on the part of the young ones, blaming it on drugs and alcohol, or at best on their young rebelious age, assuming that the audiences will relate to that.

Which brings me to my second point.

"You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself" (East of Eden - Chapter 38).

I am particularly interested in how this theme has reached us, the audiences, across the generations. In the second half of the book, Cal and Aron are the Cain and Abel of the story, with Aron appearing to be the good son, and Cal the bad one. But as the story goes on, I always find myself investing all my emotions in Cal, and being a little resentful of Aron's perfection. In fact, Steinbeck has built these characters so skilfully, that under the pretext of praising the righteousness of the "good" brother, we are given the very reasons for loving the "bad" one.

What is fascinating to note when looking at the film and the book is the shift in the way black and white are mixed in the brothers. In East of Eden, Aron (Abel) is an almost immaculate white, while Cal (Cain) is made up of various combinations of greys.

The film however, does the exact opposite: Chinna (Cain) is painted all black, while Mitra (Abel), far from being flawless, is the one depicted in shades of grey.

Mitra - A chain smoker and a cold blooded killer, this Abel sure has grown up...
When Steinbeck created the character of Cathy (Cal and Aron's mother) he was afraid that people would not get her, because she is a demon, so foreign in her wickedness that the reader may not be able to understand her existence at all. The reader of the 50's that is.
With that in mind, isn't it interesting that Chinna can be a demon in a movie for the audiences of the 21st century without anyone worrying about his credibility as a character? Meanwhile, an Abel-like figure can't possibly be flawless anymore in order to appear real. Moreover, in the 21st century, any Abel must fight back because could we even conceive an Abel that doesn't?... I for one, couldn't.

Tangentially two other questions come to mind: have we, humanity and audiences, accumulated so much darkness in us that monsters do not seem foreign to us anymore? And in 60 years, how has the balance shifted so completely that if a character is flawless, we may reject it, but we have no problems believing one that is defined by hate and jealousy?

Surely that would make for another interesting discussion... For now I am more than happy with my discovery of the first film that does one of my favourite topics justice, so I end with a big thank you to Deva Katta.

No comments:

Post a Comment