Maria Schneider during the filming of a scene from The Last Tango in Paris where she co-starred with Marlon Brando, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Jayalalitha’s death ended a remarkable and unslottable life. Such had been the force of her presence, that many who might have been deeply critical of many aspects of her political methods and personality, nevertheless expressed a sadness at her passing. The sadness was not only for the passing of a woman of charisma and single mindedness who had fought against inordinate hostility. It was also for a now past era of politics which retains a sense of contradictions.
As some commentators have rightly pointed out, Jayalalitha’s legacy was indeed a mixed one — her corruption, her caste politics, her authoritarianism sat cheek by jowl with a recognition of the poor and of women’s needs and of actually carrying out work that benefited her state. Some primmer responses declared this mourning to be a kind of selective sentimentality, precisely because of her mixed legacy.
This critique itself is remarkably sentimental. The belief that any relationship with power — that which shapes and reshapes the forces and currents of society — can be pure, rather than adulterated can lead only to some kind of fascism. We only have to look at the schemes and declarations we live with in the current socio-political context and their accompanying notions of purity, whether of money or nationalism, to recognise what the practice of power, when unmixed with anything, resistant to other currents, looks like. It creates an almost synthetic culture of absolutes, a series of toy-rituals.
Although this way of thinking is becoming increasingly all pervasive, certain types of people also carry the onus of having to be more authentic in some sense. Women are among those kinds of people. One would be hard put to find someone who would discuss the mixed legacies of a male political figure citing his routine misogyny and sexism as can be found in fact in most favourite political movements termed revolutionary. Misogyny in a revolutionary male figure — left, right or centre — is never a deal breaker, rarely more than an aside. To bring it up is sometimes to risk being called casteist or classist, or nationalist, as might be the case.
This notion of authenticity displayed itself in a completely different context recently when discussion resurfaced around Marlon Brando and Bernardo Bertolucci planning to surprise the actress Maria Schneider during the filming of a rape scene by Brando using butter as a lubricant. The director felt this should be sprung on her because “I didn’t want Maria to act her humiliation, her rage. I wanted Maria to feel, not to act, the rage and humiliation…I wanted her to react as a girl, not an actress.”
This is mystifying because it seems that women must somehow bear this burden of being the pure authentic. There seems to be no discomfort with the idea of artifice, acting — or mixed reality so to speak — from Brando. It is as if here, the older, male, more powerful actor is accorded the right to sophistication whereas the younger woman must somehow be a naïve figure; her sophistication through performing a role, somehow not acceptable.
The play of power remains one of the most contradictory elements of human life. In contradiction lies dynamism as well as unpleasantness. If there is something like a functional equality perhaps it is only in each of being able to claim this complex contradictoriness.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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