14 May 2006

On melodrama

One afternoon in 1993 when we were waiting for the bus to take us to Gallipoli away from Troy, wooden horse and all, we stepped into a souvenir shop to get a bottle of water. The owner looked so familiar that we were rattled until we realized that he looked like that famous Indian actor of the 1960s, Raj Kapoor. “Ah,” he said, raising his eyebrow quizzically, “Awaara Hoon,” naming a song from one of said Kapoor’s blockbusters. It turns out that bollywood musicals played in different parts of Asia and Europe. "Awaara" was Raj Kapoor's biggest hit.

The narrator in Khalid Hosseini’s best-selling debut novel The Kite Runner, which has a certain lyrical elegance, enjoys watching the Iranian musicals (similar to bollywood extravangazas) that were popular in Kabul cinemas. The boy-narrator grows up in a middle-class household and is very close to a servant from the Hazara community with whom he goes kite flying and chasing. Out of pique one day, he plants evidence of a theft on the servant who then decides to leave the house.

Time passes. The narrator and his father flee the Taliban in Kabul for Pakistan and then the US. However, the memory of his betrayal haunts him and, after his marriage, a letter impels to return to Afghanistan, now in the hands of the Taliban. He learns from a family friend that his childhood companion was really his half-brother, that he had died leaving behind a son. The narrator makes it his mission to find the boy. He encounters a childhood tormentor who is now a Talib and a child rapist. His victim is, as you probably guessed, the boy. After the narrator fights the Talib and rescues the victim, the traumatized boy stays silent until they reach the US when he finally speaks in an equally guessable moment.

Melodrama has readymade furniture: nostalgia, children or cute animals, separation at birth or mistaken identity, coincidences, redemption after conflict usually between good and evil, at times at unhappy cost, and narrative symmetry in which an ending is all the more moving for being satisfyingly predictable and reassuring at the same time. Critics have suggested that recent Iranian films focus on children because of political constraints. However, even before the ayatollahs' reign, the kind of Iranian cinema that the narrator of The Kite Runner was familiar with was strongly sentimental about romance and children. Kids and their cuteness were always part of the stock of Iranian melodrama.

Melodrama doesn’t touch anything new or inconvenient; it manipulates the old. All this is in The Kite Runner just as it is in Jonathan Safran Zoer’s work about 9/11 which handles pathos cutely but without sinking into sentimentalism. We don’t mean to suggest that Hosseini’s book isn’t moving. It touches us because melodrama always acts upon the sentiments. Take your handkerchiefs when you go to a weepie.

Let’s return to the boy’s silence. Another grammatical rule of the melodramatic is that nothing is left unsaid or unresolved. Everything, every “instant” emotion, every gesture, is weighted, articulated, expressed, underscored, perhaps with music (the needle notes of a sarangi accompany death), or with symbols (a pair of cooing doves stood in for lovers when film censorship was at its height) and finally resolved. The boy’s silence, then, is a good crux for probing the book’s aesthetics.

In Satyajit Ray’s film Pather Panchali, the poor unwanted widow who is driven from house to house is also shown as greedy, grasping and manipulative. Her faults are not glossed over; her qualities are not enlarged or ornamented. Her death is shown simply without sentiment. Her grandchild calls to her and then touches her crouching frame. She falls over, dead, in the same stance and her head strikes the stone with a thud. That is it. There aren’t any overstatements. There was silence in the film because she was silenced in the story. That’s where the scene draws its power. In Hosseini’s book, on the other hand, the boy’s silence is a convenient way to develop some tension, to delay the rather predictable ending that is bound to come. The silence is embroidered, written about, discussed, analysed, probed, and generally used for effect. Everything is told; nothing is suggested. There is no doubt in our mind which of the two silences is more affecting.

We can extend this theme of silence beyond aesthetics to the carefully crafted politics of the book. We should remember that melodrama is a theatre of absolutes. In melodrama, there are always clear distinctions between good and evil and there’s always a chance at redemption by choosing good over evil whereas, according to Hegel, tragedy is the result of a protagonist being forced to choose between two forms of good. Tragedy results from, for instance, the tensions between public and private good. Melodrama needs a one-dimensional worldview without any shades, where evil and good are clearly distinguishable. It is free of unresolvable problematics (good vs good, evil vs evil). Readers of The Kite Runner will execrate, as they should, the Taliban as an abomination of politics and religion and for its mistreatment of dissenters, women, minorities, persons with other faiths and cultures. The narrator rightly criticizes Pakistani support for the fundamentalist movement. Some of us, though, would recognize in the Taliban’s trajectory to power the crucial role of the US which armed and trained the mujahideen and even printed their textbooks for use in classrooms. Nothing of this is mentioned in the book. It’s obviously inconvenient. In choosing to depict the Talib as a child molester, The Kite Runner moves further from realism into the familiar territory of demonizing melodramatic cant that we in this hemisphere know and unfortunately sometimes dismiss as propaganda.

Ultimately, The Kite Runner could have been more compelling, if not as satisfying, had it not been limited by its sentiments and by its aesthetics, by which silences it chooses to fill and what it, quite conveniently, leaves unsaid.

1 comment:

AcademyMember said...

KITE RUNNER with Thomas Umer Tevana and Marc Forster
(Anonymous) 2006-05-15 08:00 am UTC (link)

Hey Guys, The actor Thomas Tevana is now rumored and a sure shot at the role for AMIR in KITE RUNNER. I cannot wait for this movie...Jonathan Ahdout will play the younger version of Amir in the movie.