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1900

It is a rare film that can capture my attention from the first shot, and hold on to it with such unflagging determination, till the very last. The Legend of 1900 is one such film. It just takes me in, lures me into its whimsical world… with some help from Ennio Morricone’s beautiful music, Lajos Koltai’s breathtaking cinematography, solid performances, and of course, the protagonist’s deep, soulful eyes.

I would not generally call Tim Roth beautiful but he is so beautiful in this film. He plays Danny Goodman T.D. Lemon 1900… the young handsome pianist… who was born and brought up on a ship and never sets foot on land. 1900 spends his days gazing at the changing colours of the ocean, observing the countless passengers who travel across the Atlantic, and playing his piano. He discovers his love for music very early in life and his gift is such that he can make the instrument come alive under his lightest touch and respond to him, like a lover in the throes of passion.

The scene, where Max, the narrator of the story, first meets 1900, is something straight out of a dream. It is a stormy night and the ship is being cast topsy turvy in the ocean. Max struggles desperately to not be sick and keep himself from yet another fall when he is accosted by a young man, who looks serene and absolutely untouched by the chaos around. Max staggers after this courtly, graceful apparition into the majestic dance hall, where he is invited to ‘forget his misery’ and share a ride, atop the grand piano. 1900 starts playing as the piano moves and slides like a dancer across the floor and soon Max is laughing with sheer joy. Everything in the ship is in turmoil but 1900 does not have a hair out of place. He is at home. No oceanic storm can dispel the calm from his face or the quiet laughter from his eyes.

Roth does have the finest pair of eyes, doesn’t he? How eloquent! How deep! One look into those enigmatic depths and we know that 1900 is not quite of this world. He is dreamy, and guileless, brooding and firm, generous and impish, kind, self-absorbed, and above all mysterious… just like the sea.

At one point in the film, 1900 expresses surprise when he is told that the ocean is the most beautiful thing in the world, and that the sea has a voice. He tells Max that perhaps he needs to get ashore to understand this subtle beauty. That perhaps he needs to stay on land for sometime in order to be able to hear the call of the sea. But, even though he tries, he fails to leave the ship. Because, he is the sea, isn’t he? Or, at least, an extension of it. How can he survive going away? How can he be objective about the sea? How can he hear its voice when it is so deeply anchored within him? The music that he creates is music born of the sea.

There is a touch of guilelessness about 1900, on account of the unique circumstances surrounding his birth and upbringing. But, he is also uncannily perceptive. His mind takes him to places he has never actually seen, to understand those whom he has never actually met. The part, where he speaks of New Orleans during spring… when he describes the descending fog as a sharp white blade that decapitates everything from neck upwards and makes headless passersby bump into each other, is surreal. Max wonders how a man who has only a limited existence can know of such things, such rich details.

Likewise, 1900 has the ability to compose tunes that seem to spring from a magical well. Music that reaches out to all, be he rich or poor, plain or sophisticated, self-contained or worldly. He observes and understands the people on board the Virginia. He can plumb their secret deeps and look into their core, unbiased and all-seeing. 1900 plays the music that those people inspire. And then curiously, the music becomes those people. Not a crowd of faceless strangers but individuals with their own special brand of humanity. A man who bears the burden of memories he cannot forget. A prostitute who dances and sways but who would be a nun. A murderess with her silent lover. A young man who is eager to pursue fortune and fame and the promise of America.

Pruitt Taylor Vance plays Max Tooney, the trumpeter, with such honesty and emotion that we experience his devotion to 1900, we feel his pride and wonder and sadness. He is the common man who gets a glimpse of greatness and wishes that his gifted friend would receive all the fame and accolades that he so richly deserves. Time and again, he encourages 1900 to cross the gangplank and step into the real world and embrace success, fortune, and also, the happiness of a normal life, a life that is perhaps less than immense. He draws a pretty picture of 1900 in a domestic setting. Enjoying the banalities of an ordinary life,  in the comfort of a fine house, and in the company of his wife and friends.

It is obvious that Max has good intentions for his friend but we cannot ignore the hint of sadness or wistfulness in his voice when he speaks of 1900 engaging in the averageness of everyday life. Perhaps, Max cannot bear the thought of his friend being anything but extraordinary. Or more probably, he knows in his heart that 1900 will never be normal, even if it signifies only obscurity and loneliness. At the end, Max is forced to accept this fact in the most heartbreaking way. The Virginia is decommissioned and set to be demolished with dynamite. And yet, 1900 chooses to remain on the ship, thereby signing his own death warrant.

1900 does give an explanation of sorts to Max, if only to help him reconcile to the inevitability of his grim decision. He tells Max why he cannot choose the city. Because, the immenseness of the city frightens him. The city that never ends. Too many roads, too many choices. He tells Max that he cannot make music on a piano that has countless keys. He needs his piano with the eighty eight keys, no more no less, to create infinite music.

Is 1900 truly afraid to embark on a trail that is too wayward, too full of uncertainties? Is he a coward? Is that his tragic flaw? He could have embraced the possibilities; could have attained much. For he is a pianist without compare. A musical genius. Who can forget that sizzling duel between 1900 and the swaggering Jelly Roll Martin, the man who created jazz? 1900 is, at first, mesmerised by Martin. He allows himself to take a backseat and just enjoy the music that the jazz-king conjures up. But eventually, 1900 realises that divine music is not enough for Martin, who needs to publicly humiliate and annihilate his rival. And, that is the moment when everything just turns on its head. 1900  drops his easy slouch, bends over the piano with a powerful certitude and plays up a storm… his fingers moving with the speed of a tornado. The keys crackle with the energy and mad intensity of the performance. And lo! The cigarette sizzles and lights up! The audience is left astounded, bereft of speech. As if struck by lightning. What an absolutely spectacular scene!

When the utterly defeated Jelly Roll Martin gets off the ship, 1900 remarks, in his usual offhand manner, “Fuck jazz too.” That moment actually sums up the whole idea of 1900 for me. I do not think that it is cowardice that leads our solitary hero to turn his back to the world. Land comes to represent not only beauty or promise for him, but also pure avarice. The greed of man that keeps asking for more and more till all beauty is stripped and only ugliness is laid bare. It is this greed that 1900 rejects, with such finality. This refusal to be content. Not love. Not normality.

Love is the only thing that actually tempts 1900 to abandon his ship. For a little while, at least. Melanie Thierry plays the girl, whose angel face captivates 1900 and he ends up composing the most perfect music, while looking at her. There is such wonder and longing and innocence in his gaze. The scene where they stand apart in the pouring rain, she staring at the grey foggy sea and he just looking searchingly at her with the record clutched in his fingers, is beyond lovely. And the other scene, where he walks through the women’s dormitory at night just to get a glimpse of her and steal a soft, sweet kiss, is so bewitchingly beautiful. Lovely and sad. Because, even though there is love in his eyes, there is resignation too.

It is not arrogance or selfishness that leads 1900 to break his deal with the music producers. It is not the reason why he breaks the only record of his exquisite composition, to pieces. No. It must be remembered that he created that particular piece of music for the girl and he wants to gift it to her as a token of his regard. It is his to give and hers to keep. Only hers. He prefers destroying the music than letting strangers possess what is so precious to him. The young lover is unable to give the record to his beloved, unable to confess his feelings or claim her. She belongs to the world and he is not able follow her there.

The Legend of 1900 is filled with much beauty and poignancy. Many moments that make us think and muse. That defy strict interpretations and inspire deep sentiments. We keep looking back, mulling a word or a scene, over and over again, just to grasp its elusive significance. 1900 declares that he always goes back and his story is compelling enough to keep taking us back in. A magical experience indeed. Thanks to Giuseppe Tornatore, that masterful filmmaker. And, Alessandro Baricco for the beautiful Novecento monologue, on which the film is based.

Before I end this meditative piece, I must mention Tim Roth again. His performance is undoubtedly excellent. Roth makes us believe in the genius of 1900… in the fire and innocence and purity of his soul. In the way the pianist loves and celebrates music, even when he has no piano to play. Roth lights up the screen with his charisma. And, did I mention that Roth has the most beautiful eyes? Well, he does.

Copyright © 2015 [Violet Dolui]. All Rights Reserved.

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To visit Moulin Rouge or the ‘Red Windmill’ is to remember things past. The very name of this restaurant, in the heart of Park Street, evokes a Parisian world of lights and music, glamour and glitz. It brings to mind not just the romance of fin de siecle Europe but also the savoir faire of Calcutta, during the 1970’s and 80’s. After all, Moulin Rouge is one of the very few nightclubs in our country that, during its heydays, flaunted cabaret artists and jazz musicians and, attracted an exceedingly sophisticated clientele. This is where the legendary Carlton Kitto jammed with jazz virtuosi, in front of an audience that could appreciate good times and feel at home with pure pleasure.

To visit Moulin Rouge is to also experience a sense of decline, an unappeased yearning to recreate a fabled, rose-coloured era. Every aspect of the place, from the lacquered walls and scarlet tables to the ornate ceiling and yellow chandelier, calls up memories of a past that was famously opulent, sensual, and celebratory. And, memories can make us conscious of passing time and diminishing charm.

Hidden away behind the darkened glass doors of Moulin Rouge are the remnants of a more glorious world. One that is a trifle worn around the edges. The tall chairs are vintage but the plush seat covers are somewhat faded. There are giant paintings of can-can dancers but live performances do not take place any more. Well-to-do customers come and go but the fine patrons, who were known for their impeccable social grace and their discerning ear for music, are rarely seen. Even the stewards are hoary-faced and burdened with the weight of years. The piano stands but gone are the people who once created magic with music. Only the genial-looking saxophonist, Paul Mullick, accompanied by keyboardist, Cyril Manual, arrive during the weekends to give a tantalising taste of the days of yore.

Carlton Kitto, who played at Moulin Rouge during the early 1970’s, reminisces fondly of the past. With a hint of nostalgia in his voice, Carlton remembers the French jazz singer, Delilah, and fellow artists like, Julian Saldanah, saxophonist, George Chater, double bass player, Rudy Rodericks, pianist, and, Johnny Edmonds, drummer. “Regulars and jazz-lovers would queue up for hours because there were so many things to look forward to- the cabaret, the can-can dancers, the music, even the food. The Chinese kitchen was extraordinary. I really enjoyed playing at Moulin Rouge,” says Carlton.

At nights, when the red lights are glowing , it is impossible to miss the quaint windmill sign of Moulin Rouge. The menu is an interesting combination of Continental, Chinese, and Mughlai cuisines. Nondon Bagchi, drummer and food enthusiast, remarks, “Moulin Rouge serves good quality, old style Park Street cuisine. Standard Continental favourites like Chicken a la Kiev or Fish Finger with tartar sauce, are prepared well. Overall, the food is decent.” Nondon also recollects that the present Starlit Bar, adjoining the restaurant, was once known as The Bar Barrel. It shared a one-way glass wall with Moulin Rouge, through which the customers at the bar could enjoy old western melodies, playing in the restaurant.

Considering the many dining options at Park Street, a surprisingly large number of customers still frequent this old haunt. Rich, young couples looking for a cosy corner, aged men and women reliving their bygone days, people wishing to partake of the colourful history of Kolkata, all wander in. The soft, sad strains of the piano and saxophone combine, waft out into the street, and cast an enchanting spell perhaps. Sabita Adhikary, a regular customer, states, “I come to Moulin Rouge because of its old world ambience. It also helps to remember that this is where Uttam Kumar and other glitterati once gathered to relax and enjoy the art of entertainment.”

In a changing world, where progress is, at times, synonymous with trivialness and banality, Moulin Rouge has become a symbol of permanence. There is an illusion of everlastingness about a place that refuses to alter with time. However, as one leaves, one wishes that Moulin Rouge would polish up the interiors and restore the paintings to their original brilliance. Most importantly, one wishes for the music, fun and gaiety, that hangs about like a half-forgotten melody. The strength of Moulin Rouge lies in the glory of its past and the road ahead is to embrace this very past, with passion and imagination.

[I wrote this article for the Good News Tab.]

Copyright © 2012 [Good News Tab]. All Rights Reserved.

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