MK Raina looking into the distance with his hand beneath his chin

All the World’s His Stage

The multi-talented, multi-faceted MK Raina is impressive on every platform he graces and expressive over every cause he embraces, discovers Irfan Syed

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With his twinkling eyes, salt-and-no-visible-pepper beard and easy demeanour, MK Raina comes across as the soft-spoken sort. But have a deeper dialogue with him or talk about causes close to his heart (there are many), and Maharaj Krishna Raina proves to be very outspoken. He doesn’t lose his cool – he seems too dignified for that – but he makes sure his viewpoint comes across resoundingly, using his theatre-cultivated voice modulation to precise effect. He is also quite individualistic and a bit of a non-conformist. After passing out of National School of Drama (NSD) in the early 70s, with an award for acting no less, he was clear about being only a freelancer – and has remained so ever since. Where does this rebellious streak come from? “My Kashmiri arrogance,” he replies, with a mix of jest and candour.

From his family, MK – as friends and acquaintances call him – also seems to get his activist genes. His father, Janki Nath Raina, was a renowned political activist of his times. MK’s thespian and creative talents though seem to be all his own. Born in a large brood of doctors and engineers, the stage called him early in life. He acted in a play in the fifth standard, and was immediately given in to the proscenium. It also helped that he had an encouraging principal, the illustrious poet Dinanath Nadim, or Nadim Sahib, as he was popularly known.

Raina joined NSD after college, clear on pursuing direction. The school and its then director, theatre doyen Ebrahim Alkazi, though had other plans for the young man. He was urged to sign up for acting instead, as the direction classes had too many takers and the acting ones too few. He agreed, but resolved that he “would join direction classes when available.” At the hallowed school, Raina handled every aspect of the stage, from lighting to set design. He eventually graduated with a best actor award, but not without a head-versus-heart tussle during his final viva. He had an opportunity to go to Paris on a scholarship, but his heart was more keen on discovering India. “I hadn’t even seen the Konark temple,” he recalls his frame of mind then. In the end, even after an intervention by Alkazi, he did neither – life again seemed to have other plans. He started his career, work and life as an independent artist.

MK Raina in a scene from 27 DownThat footstep soon brought him to then Bombay, because “Delhi will not give you all the work.” In the city of dreams, he met theatre pole-stars PL Deshpande and Vijaya Mehta and luminaries of Hindi art cinema like Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul. The latter affiliation paved the way for acting in his first film, 27 Down, in 1974. Shot in B&W, the film is about a young man caught between following the path his father foists on him and forging his own. Raina plays the protagonist and looks a bit unrecognizable with an all-black beard and a head full of hair. Starring Rakhee as his love interest, the film enjoys cult status even now among aficionados of 70s and 80s Hindi parallel cinema. Raina soon found himself being cast in other art films, including Satah Se Uthata Aadmi (1980), Aghaat (1985) and Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986), based on Sidney Lumet’s classic courtroom drama 12 Angry Men. The latter two also star KK Raina, and here, this Raina answers an oft-wondered question: no, they are not brothers or even related, just contemporaries, although amicable ones; MKR older to KKR by a few years.

His parallel cinema journey, however, hit a road-block soon after, during the filming of Panchvati (1986), where this theatre maven from Delhi was “made to feel like an outsider” in the Hindi film industry. He tried switching gears to commercial cinema, with a role in Amitabh Bachchan’s Main Azaad Hoon (1989), but was next seen in Bollywood only over a decade later, in Lakhsya (2004) and later as the school principal in Taare Zameen Par (2007). After that, as he says, smiling, he appears in a film whenever “they want a daddy”.

Poster of the Hindi play directed by MK Raina, Hatya Ek Aakar KiIn theatre, the recently-turned septuagenarian is more of a grand-daddy – and this is neither in reference or deference to his age. He has been the architect of over 200 plays, grand and small, mainstream and experimental, in various languages and locations, including one 12,000 feet above sea-level. His plays have drawn on works of legendary playwrights and writers, such as Brecht, Gorky and Manto. Coming up, as a part of Gandhi’s sesquicentennial celebrations that commenced this October, are four plays on the Mahatma. The first, Stay Yet a While, based on communications between Gandhi and Tagore, was staged on Gandhi Jayanti. The second, Hatya Ek Aakar Ki, debuted a few days later to appreciative reviews. Yes, he is a Gandhian, Raina declares, as also “the best child of India’s socialism”. He has studied on scholarships, gone to places on fellowships and “has a home in every state.” When travelling for work or workshops, he puts up with friends, family and fraternity, you decode.

Gandhian values and principles will no doubt be invoked in a big way over the coming year. But it’s also compelling to ask Raina about Mantoiyat. Both because the writer is being celebrated presently, with the release of his biopic, and due to the attacks that artists have come under in the past few years, like Manto in his time. Raina is immensely familiar with the beleaguered writer’s work, having staged a play drawing on several of Manto’s stories, and has been his vocal self during the siege on artists. So, (how) is Manto relevant in today’s times? Raina responds with Manto’s famed aphorism: ‘Why do I write? I write on society’s blackboard with a white chalk so that the blackness of the board becomes even more evident.’

Another question about the artistic ethos, this time about Raina himself. If he loves theatre so much, having spent more than half his life here, why didn’t he set up his own theatre company – like so many theatre artists – especially as he was clear about being on his own? His response is characteristically candid, “I didn’t have any back-up.” He adds, though, that he is regularly approached especially by corporates to help set up theatre companies. He turns down these offers because he knows they are looking for “a shop or an institution”, which will need to begin showing profits soon; an actual theatre company would “only give dividends in its seventh year.”

This forthrightness and desire to do the right thing, does he get that from his father too? Or was there some other influence? There were two distinct triggers, Raina recalls, coming one on the back of the other around the early 90s.

In 1989, close friend and theatre activist, Safdar Hashmi, was attacked by political goons during the performance of a street play, succumbing to his injuries the very next day. Hashmi’s death left Raina deeply shaken. Putting his anguish aside, he decided to respond affirmatively. He spearheaded several communal harmony campaigns and marches and also became a founding member of the Safdar Hashmi Trust (SAHMAT), which works to engender creative and cultural expression.

In 1991, insurgency hit his home state Kashmir, forcing him to leave with parents and family and move to Delhi, where he has been ever since. The artist may have left his home, but home didn’t seem to leave the artist. Raina was restless. He longed to go back to Kashmir and help in some way. But how?

MK Raina during a rehearsal with Kashmiri folk artistsOne day, “without thinking”, he left for the valley state. On getting there, he was witness to heartbreaking sights, among people in general but especially among the rural artists. The militants hadn’t spared even art. Folk theatre venues had been attacked and their instruments all broken. The artists were in deep mourning. But seeing Raina, a familiar face and fellow artist, they felt they had something to hold on to. Raina too saw how he could help, through the only way he knew: theatre. Returning to the city (Srinagar), he first started theatre workshops and then initiated collaborations between city actors and their rural counterparts. Eventually, he moved the theatre scene from the city back to the villages. He remembers, when he started the collaborations, a couple of actors from the villages let out painful howls. They had found their release.

Raina, in addition to other Kashmiri artists, has also helped sustain bandh pather, the local folk theatre where men enact storylines often satirical or farcical in nature, offering a comment on some aspect of social or cultural life.

But Raina is also drawn to causes beyond theatre. Better still, and perhaps due to his standing and outspokenness in the artistic sphere, the torch-bearers of various causes are drawn to him. He is often called upon to speak on issues such as the attacks on writers and other creative folk that have been a constant the past few years and the need to protect the vernacular languages.

MK Raina speaking on the sidelines of Jashn-e-Rekhta 2018The artist-activist is especially given in to the latter cause. He is a multi-linguist, knowing tongues as diverse as Bengali, Rajasthani, Dogri, Punjabi, Sanskrit and Urdu, apart from of course Hindi, English and Kashmiri. This aptitude also comes from the fact that he’s directed so many plays in so many different languages over the years. His love for Urdu is evinced – apart from his knowledge of Manto’s works – from his WhatsApp profile pic, which is his speaker profile for Jashn-e-Rekhta, the annual festival held in Delhi to celebrate the language. His familiarity with Bengali is evident in his voice, which bears a hint of that rosogolla-laced tongue. That, he says is because, yes, he’s done some plays in Bengali, but also because his better half is half-Bengali.

There seems to be little in the public domain about his own family – or he hasn’t been as vocal about this aspect of his life – but now that it comes up, Raina is obliging. His wife is a doctor, and they have been married for 40 years, bringing up another personal milestone this year apart from turning 70. His son has followed somewhat in his footsteps. A freelance photographer and filmmaker, he has made documentaries, among other subjects, on Sufi music and more notably Zohra Sehgal. Raina himself was acquainted with the feisty and zestful dancer, choreographer and actor, having directed her in a play and film. Raina also has a daughter, who is into public policy.

The personal milestones do not seem to mean much to him. His 70th birthday earlier in the year, he says “was like any other day”. But on the work front, he seems to have moved toward new ones.

MK Raina in a scene from Three and a Half / Teen aur AadhaThree and a Half / Teen aur Aadha is a bilingual (English / Hindi) film about love, longing and loss, told as an anthology of three stories across three time periods, each story filmed in one continuous shot. Due for theatrical release early next year, the story featuring Raina is perhaps the most intriguing. It’s about the relationship and reflections, not all happy, of an older couple, and includes a love-making scene or two, going by the trailer. Was filming it uncomfortable, given that we live in a country and time where dada-dadi and nana-nani are meant to be seen more in a park than in a bedroom? Raina goes behind the scenes. On coming to know the hues of his story, he had put forth the name of his co-star (Suhasini Mulay, a shining silver and artist in her own right), as he shared a very good rapport with her, having known her for the longest time. It would be easier navigating those scenes with her, you decipher. It seems to have worked. From the trailer, all you see is: Love is love. Even when it is shaded silver.

Raina will also be taking a step into the mainly millennial playground of web series, with Kabir Khan’s upcoming The Forgotten Army, based on Subash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army.

In between, he regularly features in ads, as the affable senior. Most memorable is the Visa card ad from early last year, which depicts him as a literature professor haplessly seeking change in a post-demonetization world. He is eventually helped out by a student he took to be a drifter, but not before the actor has delivered a few dozen brilliant micro-expressions aptly conveying the plight of the suddenly cashless citizen – those expressions the result no doubt of over four decades of delivering and dealing with the best in theatre. Similar themed, but more cheery, are the Amazon Fire TV Stick spots, which present him first as a quizzical grand-dad learning the use of the device from his grand-daughter and then as a savvy senior showing off the powers of the gadget to his grand-kids.

How tech-savvy then is he in real life? Well, he is on Facebook and uses an iPad to check and respond to mails. He has been learning technology and its benefits slowly but surely. “How else would we be able to have this interview with you there and me here sitting on the footsteps of this room in Bhilai?” he exults.

Plays, films, ads, web series, workshops, tours, talks, causes… How does he manage to stay fit and healthy for all this? “I lead a straight life. No late nights… Helps me have a clear day.” To add, he doesn’t smoke, but does enjoy a drink from time to time. And like the elixir of many a silver, practises yoga. Thanks to which, he was able to jump into a moving train with alacrity in a scene for Forgotten Army, he recounts.

While on matters physical, a trivial question pops up. What explains the bearded look, which he’s sported for over 40 years now and seen gradually go from pepper to salt? “Oh, that is just being too lazy to shave!” There are chuckles both sides of the line, but they don’t seem to be done. He continues, “The few times I shaved, I noticed I have dimples… so I stopped!” At the end, this silver with twinkling eyes and an easy demeanour leaves you feeling the same.

I wrote this piece for Harmony: Celebrate Age. Here’s the edited version on their site: This piece on Harmony

A man cycling on a path through fields with transmission towers in the background against a reddish-orange sky

Sing Me a Sunset

Sleeper, non-AC. Window seat, in the direction the train is going. About 5.30 in the evening.

The sun is slowly moving behind the trees and the hills, washing the sky pink and orange as it retreats. Cowherds are making their way back with their cattle. Birds are doing the same, just with a bit more intensity. Intermittent vehicles slowly put on their lights. Other vehicles honk sporadically in the distance. The mild breeze is welcome. You run your hand through your hair and find yourself sighing softly. You are closer to your destination, and yet some distance to go. The birds, cows, cowherds, vehicles, drivers know this day over, but the next is not too far away. There is a sense of satisfaction in the air, as well as a mild disquiet.

A B&W photo of Hemant Kumar with his chin resting on his palmHemant Kumar’s voice is something like this – a bit of sweet sorrow. It’s like he had swallowed a sunset, or better still, all the sights, sounds and scenes of sunset. And just like at sunset, you feel immensely fulfilled on hearing him, and yet yearning for more.

A composite image created from a still from Chaudhvin ka Chand, with the the second image having a grainy effect

Loving and Loathing Guru Dutt

People think I am crazy about Guru Dutt. (Well, I do call myself Guru Nutt – you know, a Guru Dutt nut.) They think I like (“love”) GD – his films and the man himself – to infinity and beyond. I do, on both counts. And also to irfinity; check out how much I have blogged about him ever since becoming a nutt.

But what people don’t know is that I also hate the guy. Lots. Here’s why, how and how much.

I hate GD for having raised my cinematic bar so high that I’m now not able to watch or like too many other films or filmmakers.

 I hate that he was involved with so few films, because he needed to direct, produce, act in and song-picturize those films.

 I hate that he was so brilliant at directing that few saw how brilliant he also was at acting.

 I hate that he won no awards for his direction, despite being known so much for it.

I hate that he was recognized first by the Western world, then in India. Like is always the case.

 I hate that he was recognized more after he passed away.

I hate that he passed away before time.

 I hate that he passed away before my time.

 I hate that he passed away. Period. He should have been around, setting benchmarks for the way films should be made and the way idealistic creative souls should thrive, or at least, survive.

 Really, I hate GD so much that when I get to heaven (if there is such a place, if I land up there and if he is there too; only the last I am sure of), I plan to deliver one tight one across his face. A peck.

Written on the occasion of Guru Dutt’s death anniversary, a date I hate. The man and his films, obviously, I heart.

Guru Dutt in a scene from Mr and Mrs '55

The Artist, the Humanist

‘What can I say about this great city that hasn’t been said before?’

In Wake up Sid, Konkana Sen Sharma’s character, Aisha Banerjee, is caught up with this deliberation, while planning her debut piece for the magazine where she’s been working a couple months. The monthly, Mumbai Beats, is about the eponymous city in question, and Aisha decides to name her column New Girl in the City, having arrived in Bombay / Mumbai (the city’s referred to by both names in the film) those few months ago. In the end, after several crumpled sheets of paper and some inputs from Sid, she decides to write from a personal place. Her love for the city, she realises, comes from the love she’s found with the guy (Sid) she met on her first night in Bombay.

When planning this tribute piece, I had a similar rumination. ‘What can I say about this genius artist that hasn’t been said before?’ There are over 10 books on him, one feature-length documentary, regular mentions in biographies of his contemporaries, and countless articles and videos on the net. In the end, like Aisha, I decided to pen from my personal perspective.

Cover of Nasreen Munni Kabir's documentary, In Search of Guru DuttLike Aisha to Bombay, I’ve come to Guru Dutt recently, but what I’ve lacked in time, I’ve made up with loads of intensity. I’ve watched all his films (directed, produced and acted, both under his banner and outside) and the documentary at least twice over; read all those books (and also the one on his wife, Geeta); consumed copious content about him on the net. And got consumed in the process.

While I’ve of course come to heart him as an artist (and here, I include all his talents of direction, acting, song picturization, choreography and cinematography), I realised, perhaps just like Aisha to Sid, what drew me to him was something personal: humanism. His own, as well as that of his characters. And in the case of GD (as he is fondly referred to by many), those two universes are pretty much the same.

It’s there right in the opening scene of his most loved and worshipped film, Pyaasa. The poet Vijay is being perfectly poet-like: lying in a field, casting casual glances at the gentle ways and sways of nature. Fittingly inspired, soft couplets emerge from his soul and being, nature acting as the muse and the idol. The poet’s blissful eye then moves to a bumblebee come to grace, or rob, a flower. Soon, heavy and intoxicated with fresh, sweet nectar, the bee decides to lull on the ground… only to be crushed the next instant by an onrushing foot. The poet is devastated by this turn of nature, and decides to hasten back to the real world.

 

Then, the names of his characters themselves. Hardly ever with a surname (be it Vijay of Pyaasa or Preetam of Mr & Mrs ’55), or if so, then of indeterminate community or region (Kalu Birju of Aar-Paar, Suresh Sinha of Kaagaz ke Phool and Ajoy Kumar of 12 O’Clock). Although his parents and he were Karnataka-born, GD was often taken to be Bengali. He had spent his formative years in then Calcutta, could speak the language fluently, had shortened and split his name (from Gurudutt Shivashankar Padukone, which itself was changed from Vasanthkumar Shivashankar Padukone after an astrologer’s advice) to the Bengaliesque Guru Dutt, and of course, got married to Geeta Roy. Notwithstanding his great love for all things Cal and Bengal (evidenced in many of his movies), GD himself is known to have said, “I am part Hindu, part Muslim, part Christian…”

And then, the characters themselves. People either living on the streets or cast onto them through choice or circumstance (the four successive movies from Aar-Paar to Kaagaz ke Phool); working hard and honest to manage a living (from the sweaty fisherman’s cameo in the self-directed Jaal to the simpleton farmer in Bharosa to the earnest professor in his last film, Suhagan); or even if they are presently well-off, have emerged from bare beginnings (from Aslam who comes to eventually reside in a mansion in Chaudhvin ka Chand to the doctor who has toiled to own a house and car in Sanjh aur Savera). And of course, GD’s most celebrated and touching character – the creative soul seeking the artist’s recognition but not through the soul’s capitulation (Pyaasa and Kaagaz).

Screen grab of Waheeda Rehman's name appearing before Guru Dutt's in the credits of Chaudhvin ka ChandAs my discovery of GD deepened, I uncovered further examples of (t)his humanism. Some were right there at the start – in the opening credits of his movies. For all the films he both produced and acted in (through his film company), the name of his leading lady always appeared before his. Be it the lesser-established Shyama in Aar-Paar, the striving Mala Sinha during Pyaasa, the luminous and firmly-established Meena Kumari of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, or his frequent co-star Waheeda Rehman. This was 60 years before SRK pledged the same in 2013 (to mark 100 years of Indian cinema), starting with Chennai Express.

Screen grab of the supporting cast credits in Chaudhvin ka Chand, with Uma Devi's name as the second in the fourth lineStill on opening titles, this next had me signed and sealed on GD’s side. In most of his movies (again, the ones made by his company), the comedienne Tun Tun, who acted in several of them, was credited under her real name, Uma Devi. In other words, in GD’s films, she was referred to as a lady, rather than a sound.

In an especially lit scene of Mr & Mrs ’55, the high-society women’s activist, Seeta Devi (Madhubala’s character, Anita’s aunt played by Lalita Pawar), both sizes up and sympathizes with the meagre room where Preetam (GD’s character) puts up, and can’t help asking how he manages to live so. Preetam promptly replies that she’s possibly not aware that a good part of India lives this way; his condition, at least, is better than many of them. Piqued by his strident response, she parleys, “Kya tum communist ho?” (“Are you a communist?”). He volleys right back, “Jee nahi, cartoonist hoon.” (“No, just a cartoonist.”) Aunt, and accompanying assistant, then swivel their necks to notice the artworks of numerous cartoons filling up the hovel’s interiors.

To that, this fan / admirer would simply like to add, “And a humanist too.”

I wrote this piece for The Hindu’s thREAD. Here’s the edited version on their site: This piece on thREAD

A collage of scenes from the song Heer toh badi sad hai from Tamasha

Songs for Your Eyes

Tamasha was my favourite film of 2015, and among other things about the movie, I love the two songs, Heer toh badi sad hai and Agar tum saath ho. I watched the movie again recently, and have been watching the two songs quite often on YouTube since then. Actually, I’ve been watching one (Heer) and listening to the other (Agar). I tried only listening to Heer, but somehow, found something missing. I tried watching Agar, and that I liked as much as the song. I wasn’t able to figure out why this was so, but I wasn’t really giving deep thought to it. Eventually though, it struck me.

Heer (a brooding, pining song, in lyrics; the vocals are actually quite exuberant) takes the story forward. If you take out the song from the film (so many Hindi film / Bollywood songs are considered dispensable), there’s a jump in the story / screenplay, and you’ll be wondering what happened in the interim.

 

Take away Agar (a sorrowful, pained-in-love-and-heartbreak song), and the story / screenplay still works: you won’t feel something was amiss. It’s just there to demonstrate the anguish on both sides.

 

A Heer kind of a song seems a rarity in Hindi films these days, especially now that many songs nowadays are in the background, just an intro tune, an item song, or even just a promo song. Songs overall seem to be fewer these days, due to a shortening of the overall film length itself.

And this gave an answer to why, as much as I love Guru Dutt’s films, songs and song treatments (he was considered, well, the guru of song picturizations), I am never able to just listen to them, but need to watch them to drink in all the joy.

Jaane woh kaise log the is my favourite song of all time (not just of a GD film), and is sung by my favourite Hindi film singer of all time (Hemant Kumar). And my heart aches and breaks and anguishes whenever I watch it – over the lyrics, over their meaning, over GD’s expressions, over HK’s emotions… (My heart also aches and breaks and anguishes whenever I watch Pyaasa, but’s an entire book.) But, when I tried just listening to it… Nothing much. It even felt a little flat.

 

But now, take away Jaane from the movie (unthinkable), and you’ll miss the comments and takes on love, break-up, heartbreak; the situation in life the two main actors find themselves in; the reactions from the spouse of one of them; the social commentary about the lives of creative people… In fact, I dare say this is the movie in one song.

In contrast, you listen to another HK beauty, the absolutely melodious Yaad kiya dil ne kahan ho tum. A simple, middle-class, married couple crooning a simple, pleasant song about their immense love for each other. However, take away the song, and from the scenes that come before and after, you’ll still be informed of the love they have for one another.

 

That seems to be case with almost all of GD’s songs, from the movies he produced / directed / acted in. Which is why, after downloading all those songs to listen to, I find myself not doing so.

Here, for instance, is my numero uno GD song when it comes to picturization. If inclined, first, just listen to the song, and then watch it. You’ll know all the joys you miss with just the audio version.

 

That the songs in GD’s films were tightly meshed with the rest of the film is a well-known thing. He also wanted the song to begin without any preamble tune – else people would know a song was coming up and would exit for a cigarette break. Also, it had to be an extension of the dialogue. (From the same movie, think Jaane kya tune kahi.) Clearly, GD was one clever filmmaker.

Really, if you simply sun sun sun (listen, listen, listen) to any of GD’s songs, that will be a rather zalim(a) (cruel) thing to do. And also, a bada sad thing. And clearly, I am one clever writer.

Guru Dutt as Vijay toward the end of Pyaasa

Fellowship of the Soul

Love for all things Cal and Bengal.

Love for animals.

Rooted in the middle class.

Deep-rooted.

Introverted.

Complex.

Artistic.

Humanistic.

Holding honesty in great regard.

Not holding money in much.

Creative soul.

Creative soul with an unending thirst for perfection.

And because of all the above, an anguished creative soul.

A feeling of being ahead of one’s time.

Experiences of constantly being misunderstood.

Impassioned personal life.

Imperfect love life.

A yearning to get away from it all.

A wish to give it up all.

Is it any wonder that I feel a fellowship of the soul with… Guru Dutt?

Guru Dutt with a monkey atop his shoulderI have been on a deep discovery of Guru Dutt, both his movies and himself, for some months now. (That’s how I’ve picked up many of the above details.) And find somewhere that we are / were similar souls. From more visible aspects (like our great fondness for Calcutta and Bengal because we spent our early years there) to less tangible ones like humanism. This is the best explanation I have been able to offer to what has drawn me to GD (apart from his movies, of course). And no, this is obviously not meant to put me on the same creative plane as GD. I don’t think I could achieve in several lifetimes what GD achieved in one, that too, a relatively short one. With that feeling of fellowship though, I would have loved to see / meet GD just once in my lifetime. But that, alas, won’t happen in this lifetime either. Until then, there are his movies – filled with his beliefs, ideals, values… and soul.

 

A composite image of the poster images from Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool

Seeking and Finding

In a movie that is about thirsting and seeking (Pyaasa), he looks for shanti (peace) and finally finds it in the company of a woman named after a flower, Gulaab (rose).

In a movie named after flowers (Kaagaz ke Phool), he finds a woman named Shanti but doesn’t eventually find peace with her as the world won’t let them be in peaceful company.

Such is Guru Dutt’s on-screen life and fate in his two best movies. The viewer though finds lots of peace, and soul, in both.