Random thoughts on lives, deaths, and tributes

This was not the post I had intended for this week. As a matter of fact, I had not given any thought to what I’d write about, but I had imagined it would be something light-hearted (perhaps a song list I’ve been working on for a while). Something, definitely, cheerful—to help me get over the sadness of one of my favourite actresses having passed away. Something too, to build up the spirit of good cheer for Christmas.

Instead, I began the week by learning that another favourite actress of mine, Joan Fontaine, award-winning lead of Hitchcock’s Suspicion (and the female star of his superb Rebecca), had passed away, at the age of 96, on the 15th of December. Just a day after the death of another legendary star, Peter O’Toole, the Lawrence of Arabia (which I heard about only on the 16th, as it happened).

Joan Fontaine in Rebecca
Peter O'Toole in The Night of the Generals

Should I have dedicated a post each to Joan Fontaine and Peter O’Toole? I suppose I should have, since I liked both of them a lot. Both, too, were very fine actors, among the A-listers of their time. In fact, I began today to watch O’Toole’s The Lion in Winter, and even dug out my copy of Suspicion, to see it all over again. I could not, though. I watched a bit of The Lion in Winter, and then gave up. Not because it was a bad film; far from it. But because my heart was just not in it.

Peter O'Toole in The Lion in Winter
I have lost count of the number of people I have posted tributes to on this blog over the course of this year. Or even over the past five years, ever since I set up Dusted Off. When I began, this was meant to be a blog featuring film reviews and lists. Since then, to those I’ve had to add tributes. To Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Shamshad Begum, Manna Dey, Nalini Jaywant, Kalpana, Jean Simmons, Eleanor Parker, Ravi, Achla Sachdev, Rajesh Khanna, Tony Curtis, Dara Singh, Elizabeth Taylor, Pran… and, oh, so many more.

As Shilpi Bose remarked on my Eleanor Parker tribute, we are sad, even though there seems to be little (or no) reason to be sad about the passing of all these people. True. It’s not as if I knew any of these people personally. And, since I’m never too interested in the personal lives of other people, I rarely read biographies or watch interviews—which means I rarely, if ever, hear the gossip, unsavoury or not, about them. Which all boils down to one fact: these are people I know only through their work. And I admire, like, even love them, for their work.

Joan Fontaine in This Above All
In most cases, these people hadn’t even worked in a while (people like Nalini Jaywant, Kalpana, or Eleanor Parker hadn’t appeared onscreen in decades). Actually, most of these people whose films I love so much had stopped working—or had moved away from centrestage—by the time I was born.

Why, then, did I have a lump in my throat when I heard Dev Anand had died, or why did I watch one Shammi Kapoor film after another in an attempt (unsuccessful) to get over my depression when Shammi Kapoor died? Why did Manna Dey’s death affect me so much? It’s not as if with the passing of these icons, their work has stopped. Far from it. Their best work lay well behind them. It’s digitised, available, even readily available. Those beautiful faces, those wonderful voices, those amazing talents—all live on, in their films, their music, their words.

Perhaps the reason is that these people were among the last living memories of an era that is fast slipping away. Even if those films are half-forgotten by much of the world (or, as in many cases, completely forgotten). Even if those films weren’t always as good as they seem now through my rose-tinted fan glasses. Even if I have seen some of those films only once and have decided that that once was enough for me.

The point is, the 40s and 50s and 60s were an era far removed from the films of today. In the way films were made (Shilpi’s many anecdotes regarding the making of her father’s films will possibly bear this out). In technology, of course, but probably also in other ways: in the issues and topics that cinema chose back then (reflective, of course, of society back then); in the cinematic styles that prevailed; in the depth to which cinema affected society or was affected by society.

I was told, the other day, about an interview—from some years back—in which Manna Dey reminisced about how Madan Mohan persuaded him to sing Kaun aaya mere mann ke dwaare: by bribing him with bhindi-meat curry. An amusing anecdote, but it made me think, sorrowfully, when Manna Dey passed away earlier this year: that’s it. No more anecdotes, no more recollections. What was documented remains. What was not, has gone, died with Manna Dey.

Manna Dey (1919-2013)
And that is what, even when I don’t particularly adore the icon who’s passed away, makes me feel sad. That someone who lived those films, who lived that period, is gone. Because with them, their memories are gone too. Not all, of course, because some will have been captured in interviews and articles, possibly also in the transferred memories of those they held dear, their families and friends. But many of those memories will be gone. And some of them utterly unique.

That is it. I miss the passing of these people whom I did not even know because their passing means also the passing of an age that I find fascinating. A fascination that is not very prevalent (a reader who’s recently started visiting Dusted Off mentioned that she’s glad to have finally found an online space where people don’t roll their eyes when one raves about old films).

So, goodbye, Joan Fontaine. Goodbye, Peter O’Toole and Eleanor Parker and Pran and Dara Singh and all those many others I have written tributes to. You never knew me or the millions of others who have loved your work. But you take my love with you. My admiration, my wish that I had lived in those times when I could have looked forward to the next film you’d be working in. And you leave behind all those films. The ones I’ve loved, the ones I didn’t care for, the ones I am yet to discover.

Goodbye. This is a sad way to bid the year farewell. And I hope this is the last tribute I need to write for a long while now.

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30 thoughts on “Random thoughts on lives, deaths, and tributes

  1. Very touching, Madhu. To echo Banno, you have voiced what I have often felt. It is sad.

    You know, ‘the passing of an era’, ‘the end of an age’, etc. sound very clichéd, but it is true. As each person associated with an age passes away, we are sounding the death knell to another chapter; slowly, one day, that book will be closed and remain so.

    Your post made me sad, but I have hope: it is said that people really die only when they also fade away from other’s memories. It is my belief that the people we have loved and lost will be kept alive by our love for them and their work, enshrined in our memories, and in that of those of who come after us, who will read of their work and their lives in blogs such as yours.

    Thank you for such a heartfelt post. It was lovely.

    • “it is said that people really die only when they also fade away from other’s memories.

      Just a couple of weeks back, a friend of mine told me about the African traditions of sasha and zamani. Here is part of what he quoted: “The recently departed whose time overlapped with people still here are the Sasha, the living dead. They are not wholly dead, for they live on in the memories of the living … when the last person knowing an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the Sasha for the Zamani, the dead…

      Hopefully, the films of these people – Joan Fontaine, O’Toole, and all the others – will live on for many, many years yet to come. Perhaps long after the last person whose time overlapped with theirs is gone. They will be sasha then, I guess – never completely dying, always there in some way.

      Something comforting about that? I think so.

  2. Ever since I heard of the deaths of these two stalwarts, I was looking forward to tribute posts on your blog – an enumeration of all the touching moments of celluloid that they contributed to. What I got was more touching and heartfelt! THANK YOU for putting into words how we all feel when people we admire and respect through their work pass away.

    I agree with you that we grieve for the passing of an era. We are saddened by the loss of the living connection to those times. Who can not be mesmerised and transfixed by the intensity in Peter O’Toole’s blue eyes in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’? Or forget Joan Fontaine in ‘Suspicion’ or ‘Rebecca’? While they were alive, they remained for us the physical embodiment of the experience that resulted in the creation of these cinematic masterpieces, especially when other artists associated with these works had already left us. With each passing, the relationship we have with the work that made us love them in the first place, becomes more distant as we associate these personalities more with the characters they play than the living, breathing human beings that we loved from afar.

    • “With each passing, the relationship we have with the work that made us love them in the first place, becomes more distant as we associate these personalities more with the characters they play than the living, breathing human beings that we loved from afar.

      That’s an interesting observation, Anoushka. I would say that that – the growing distance between the person and his/her work – is something that is rather subjective. For instance, I invariably know of actors (or other film personalities) only through their work, since I never watch interviews and almost never read biographies or gossip rags. For me, then, it’s probably a more static relationship – always a knowing of characters, rather than actors. In some cases (Shammi Kapoor?), where the actor’s roles are more predictable, I begin to associate the person with the character. In other cases, where there’s a wide range of roles (Robert Mitchum is an example), I find it intriguing: who is this person, really? Good, bad, ugly? Or a little bit of all?

  3. Beautifully said. This is the power of art, that it can touch us on such a personal level, and in such different and unique ways, forming an integral part of our individual life experiences.

    • Very true, DG. It’s sometimes scary, how art (even when it’s not terribly good) can form such an integral part of our lives that we can mourn – sincerely – the passing of someone who made that art. Or, conversely, fall in love with a Mr Darcy or a John Thornton just because they were so brilliantly written.

  4. Iam not expressive as you are Madhu. The tribute reflectis what I alway felt.
    Peter O’Tool I remember him in Lawerence of Arbia and The bible. I have grown seeing Dev anand and shammikapoor movies with little understanding of hindhi. There can never be another dev and shammi such is their charisma and appeal. Thanks for your touching and heart warming tribute

    • “There can never be another dev and shammi such is their charisma and appeal.

      I agree wholeheartedly, Epstein! There is something about those two that can’t be equalled.

  5. These stars who have passed were not just a link to their own work, and to a bygone age (that let’s face it, some of us want to keep alive via film and our own sensibilities), but also a link to our own, personal past. Our first experiences and our early relationships with the stars and their work shaped our own identities. I remember that dark midnight that preteen me first caught part of Rebecca on AMC, but was forced to go to bed when she realized her parents had pulled into the driveway. I only caught half of it–and the story haunted me till I could experience it all through to the end. Joan’s face haunted me. Later, when I had watched it in full, “That little lost look” that she shed in the course of the film haunted me.

    On the day she died, my brother came over and asked, “How are you doing?” and if I needed a hug. I looked at him puzzled, and asked, “For?”
    “Joan Fontaine,” he said, “I knew this one would be hard for you.” And that’s when the tears finally came. Somebody allowed me to feel sad about someone I have adored and connected with through film for so long. That’s what you have done here, as well, Dustedoff. Thank you for that.

    • Miranda, thank you for sharing that – it was such a poignant little example of how an actor can become so much a part of life that it doesn’t seem at all odd to weep over their dying.

  6. Wow! What a post! Let me put it this in Hindi, aapne toh meri muh ki baat cheen lee, aur woh bhi badi khubsoorti se. Frankly it is very beautifully worded post. In the past film personalities were forgotten for there was no television to keep their memories alive. Even those alive but out of the limelight were forgotten. To give you an example, once long, long ago my mum and I (my father was still with us then, it is that far back) were shopping at this store, when a gentleman came and stood beside me, he had also come to shop there. I blankly looked at him, I noticed that my mum recognized him, when we walked out of the store my mum told me he was Bharat Bhushan, I still drew a blank, I had no clue who Bharat Bhushan was. Then in 1972,Doordarshan came to Bombay and so did screening of old black and white films. Now did I learn who Bharat Bhushan was? Of course I did. Now thanks to the internet and blogs such as yours and the others, memories will definitely be kept alive. Yes and thanks for that link to my blog.

    • Shilpi, thank you – both for the appreciation, and for that anecdote you shared. Yes, I agree: TV and the net have made it so much easier to keep memories alive. These days, my father – who earlier had to rely on his memory (not always reliable!) to try and recall which songs were in which films, or what the lyrics of a particular song were – simply goes to Youtube and checks it out for himself!

      • Yes the internet is a blessing, otherwise I would not have been able to have this free platform that I now have, I just went ahead and started this blog about my father. This would not have otherwise been possible.

        • And I am so grateful you began your blog about your father. What I love is that you actually talk about the behind-the-scenes aspects, and things we’d never have known otherwise. That is what makes your blog so special for me. I always get very excited when I see you’ve put up a new post!

  7. I am much too scientific-analytical-mathematical-financial a person to be swayed by deaths of artists (or anyone else) who have ceased to create/contribute. However, I will agree that the list you presented is a great loss; and several of them were my favorites.
    Having said all of the above, I still felt a sense of closure/completion when I saw that Amitabh Bachchan waded through a large Bombay crowd to pay his respects to the just departed Rajesh Khanna. The one strong association I have is with 70’s Bollywood, mostly because I experienced it first-hand, and the Rajesh-Amitabh rivalry was one of the if not the most talked about and analyzed. I suppose death does elevate some basic fundamentals, and eliminates most of not all of the fluff.
    I am glad that Amitabh did this in a mature dignified manner.

    • Yes, that was very mature and dignified, not the tamasha that often surrounds the death and funeral of someone of the stature and popularity that Rajesh Khanna had commanded.

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