How Films Influence Our Notions of Death and the After-world

I think it was in 1993 or 1994 that I had a birthday party screening the one and only 1988 cult classic “Beetlejuice.” (A 7 year old’s birthday party with Beetlejuice, and that too in Turkey, weird family I know…). As an adult, I still love this film, and not only because of its unique premise, but also how the usually ghastly topic of death is portrayed in such a humorous way. Until then in cinema, we had not considered that the dead could be a sweet couple from the suburbs, or that the after-world could be a waiting room not too different than a dentist’s. There are very few films that have actually tackled death in this satirical way, and maybe this is also why the film obtained such cult status over the years.

Bhoot World Mein Teen Cheezo ki Kami HaiThe 2008 Hindi film Boothnath starring Amitabh Bachchan followed a similar path, albeit with less humor. It was successful in normalizing death and the dead however, just as Beetlejuice had done. In Boothnaath, the dead was a grouchy but good-hearted old man (based on Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost in fact), and the after-world was basically an Indian government office.

There have been a few other Indian films that have helped disseminate some of the stigma attached to death, for example the 2013 Telugu horror comedy Prema Katha Chitram and the 2012 Bengali film Hemlock Society. Rather than using satire to display a fantasized and ironically ‘normal’ death, these films mocked suicide by suggesting suicide, thereby bringing attention to high suicide rates among youth in India.

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It’s rather sad that this humorous and satirical take on death and what await us afterward, cannot become more mainstream in cinema. There is a plethora of films and TV shows releasing daily that remind us of the horror that we normally associate with death– serial killers, revengeful murders, painful accidents, and after it’s over, zombies, vampires, ghosts and demons to haunt us and give us sleepless nights. If you notice, death is the main thread in all horror products. I don’t think we even realize the extent to which the big screen influences how we think of death. If only more cinema could take death as lightly as it often does life, and remove some of the stigmas and subconscious fears usually associated with it.

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The Sherlock Holmes Fix: A Glance At The Numerous Works On The Fictional Detective & Its Predecessor

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I realize I must bore you with my Sherlock Holmes posts. But what can I do? This is what I spend much of my free time with these days. And what occupies my mind naturally ends up here. There is more to expect on this topic in this blog as the Bollywood film Detective Byomkesh Bakshy still hasn’t released. However, there is no dearth of Sherlock Holmes works to keep myself busy meanwhile. Here is my attempt to explain my “Sherlock Holmes fix” and provide some more food for thought for the fans of the fictional detective here.

As a viewer with, what I think, a very specific taste in cinema, I tend to go through phases of intense like and then disinterest in films. I suppose the more films one experiences, the more difficult it becomes to be impressed by them. When I see an excellent film, I become obsessed with it for several days, rethinking the scenes, performances and dialogues. But I always get over it, moving on to the next great film to briefly occupy my mind. The kind of dedication that I seem to have developed for all Sherlock Holmes productions, however, is really unprecedented. I don’t know if it’s the many interesting works made on the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, or the depth of the characters and the uniqueness of their worldview that makes me keep going back to them. I actually fear seeing new films and series so as not to be disappointed by what I’m about to see. Sherlock Holmes is truly a difficult act to follow. The mentally stimulating wit provided by these works appear to be unmatched by anything else I’ve encountered.

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes

Productions on Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson are a sea of resources. There are so many, all waiting to be experienced, compared and contrasted with everything else we’ve seen or heard on the famous characters before. Those who have had the good luck to be acquainted with the stories, films and TV series from a young age are certainly several steps ahead. For me, it has been a journey traveling backwards starting with BBC’s Sherlock, the Hollywood films starring Robert Downey Jr., Granada Television’s series starring Jeremy Brett and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes directed by Billy Wilder. I also watch the American series Elementary although defining it as Sherlock Holmes is a bit of a stretch. I tried to watch the 1939 film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring Basil Rathbone, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. The characterization of Dr. Watson couldn’t be more off. I’ve recently watched the first episode of a new TV show called Arthur & George which is based on the real life of Arthur Conan Doyle. Apparently, the man himself was very similar to Sherlock Holmes! So I think this will be another addition to my regular Sherlock Holmes fix.

I have read some of the original stories. I admit that I’m not much of a reader. I find it easier to watch rather than read fiction. I do want to read the originals because every single production out there is based off of them. I even gave audio books a try, the entire collection is available, read by Sir Derek Jacobi. But unfortunately it puts me to sleep very effectively.

Something interesting I’ve discovered however, is the short stories about a fictional Detective named Dupin, by Edgar Allen Poe. I had read before that Doyle was inspired by Poe’s Dupin. After reading the first few Dupin stories, I’m convinced of it. The similarities between the two fictional detectives are unmistakable. Here are a few examples – listen to how the storyteller, Dupin’s friend and roommate, and one who accompanies him on his adventures, describes the character in The Murders in The Rue Morgue:

“I was deeply interested in the family history he told me. I was surprised, too, at how much and how widely he had read; more important, the force of his busy mind was like a bright light in my soul. I felt that the friendship of such a man would be for me riches without price. I therefore told him of my feelings toward him, and he agreed to come and live with me. He would have, I thought, the joy of using my many fine books. And I would have the pleasure of having someone with me, for I was not happy alone. We passed the days reading, writing and talking. But Dupin was a lover of the night, and at night, often with only the light of the stars to show us the way, we walked the streets of Paris, sometimes talking, sometimes quiet, always thinking. I soon noticed a special reasoning power he had, an unusual reasoning power. Using it gave him great pleasure. He told me once, with a soft and quiet laugh, that most men have windows over their hearts; through these he could see into their souls. Then, he surprised me by telling what he knew about my own soul; and I found that he knew things about me that I had thought only I could possibly know. His manner at these moments was cold and distant. His eyes looked empty and far away, and his voice became high and nervous. At such times it seemed to me that I saw not just Dupin, but two Dupins — one who coldly put things together, and another who just as coldly took them apart.” (The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Part One, pg 1-2)

And…

“Dupin had been talking not to me, it seemed, but to himself. His cold eyes seemed to see only what was in his own mind. Now he stopped and looked straight at me. His eyes were now hard and bright. And I understood that using his unusual reasoning power to find the answer to those bloody murders was giving Dupin great pleasure!” (The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Part Four, pg 17)

Sound familiar? Edgar Allen Poe is believed to be the inventor of detective stories, his Dupin character becoming the inspiration for Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and possibly also inspiration for Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. I’m sure Doyle would not disagree as he mentions Poe’s Dupin in his first ever story to feature Sherlock Holmes – A Study In Scarlet, where Dr. John Watson remarks:

 “It is simple enough as you explain it,” I said, smiling. “You remind me of Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories.”

Poe deserves much recognition for conceptualizing the characters and also for forming the basis of detective literature. There is also no doubt however that the type of reasoning that Dupin had described in his stories were elaborated and explained more thoroughly by Arthur Conan Doyle. For much of the world, the introduction to the concept of deductive reasoning occurred through Doyle’s stories. The way he imagined a detective with unique reasoning skills and his companion determined the image we all have come to accept.

After going through the various productions on Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, I have noticed that each work is an interpretation of what Doyle wrote and not quite as I had imagined. Granada Television’s series starring Jeremy Brett must be one of the closest to the original content. I do find the episodes a little too serious and sad at times however. I think most of us have envisioned the original stories with a little more humor and entertainment, not unlike BBC’s Sherlock. Even though this is a modernized version of the stories, I find it closer to expectation in terms of the emotions and moods presented. Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes seems to be a combination of Jeremy Brett’s portrayal and Robert Stephens’ portrayal from the Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. The creators of BBC’s Sherlock have mentioned several times that they were immensely influenced by this film. It does become evident when one sees the film, Benedict even resembles Robert Stephens in appearance. I think he also picked up some nuances from Brett’s performance.

Robert Stephens (right) as Sherlock Holmes

It’s actually nice that all of these works are slightly different and unique because it just makes everything far more interesting. Just as Doyle took Poe’s Dupin and worked on it, we see various filmmakers present their unique opinion and take on their favorite fictional detective. The productions I’ve mentioned here are merely the well known ones in the Western hemisphere. Sherlock Holmes isn’t only a Western cultural icon, absolutely not. There are works based on Doyle’s stories in many countries around the world. For example, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy (also called, the Indian Sherlock Holmes), is based on the stories by Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay, who was influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. There are bound to be many more because it’s unlikely that a world that hasn’t tired of Sherlock Holmes in 128 years, will be so any time soon.

I’ll leave you with my favorite Sherlock Holmes quotes. I will add to these as I discover more.

“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.”

— A Case of Identity, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

“Crime is common. Logic is rare.”

–The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

“I cannot agree with those who rank modesty among the virtues. To the logician all things should be seen exactly as they are, and to underestimate one’s self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own powers.”

— The Greek Interpreter, Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.”

-Valley of Fear

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes

They don’t exist in the original works but there are also excellent writing and quotes in BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’ Elementary. There are shortcoming to both of these shows but that’s a post for another day. They do deserve to be recognized for creative writing that’s not too far off from what Doyle might have imagined. Here are a few:

“Sentiment is a chemical defect found in the losing side…. I took your pulse. Elevated. Your pupils dilated. I imagine John Watson thinks love’s a mystery to me, but the chemistry is incredibly simple and very destructive. When we first met, you told me that a disguise is always a self-portrait, how true of you, the combination to your safe – your measurements. But this, this is far more intimate. This is your heart, and you should never let it rule your head. You could have chosen any random number and walked out of here today with everything you worked for. But you just couldn’t resist it, could you? I’ve always assumed that love is a dangerous disadvantage. Thank you for the final proof.”

— Sherlock, Season 2 Episode 1, A Scandal in Belgravia

“Intuitions are not to be ignored John. They represent data processed too fast for the conscious mind to comprehend.” 

–Sherlock, Season 4 Episode 1, The Six Thatchers

“An honest politician is rare, a marriage worth the bother is rare, THIS is the only orchid of its kind in existence.”

— Elementary, Season 3 Episode 10, Seed Money

Detective Byomkesh Bakshi: The Indian Sherlock Holmes

Sushant Singh Rajput and Dibakar Banerjee for Detective Byomkesh Bakshi (to be released 13 February, 2015)

Detective Byomkesh Bakshi, a Dibakar Banarjee film produced by Aditya Chopra and starring Sushant Singh Rajput, is set to release on February 13, 2015. The film is based on the works of  Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay who wrote 30 some stories featuring the fictional detective Byomkesh Bakhshi. Byomkesh Bakshi is sometimes called the Indian Sherlock Holmes and not surprisingly as Bandyopadhyay was greatly influenced by the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most popular fictional characters and it is fascinating because it has maintained its popularity for over 100 years. I am reading “the Canon,” the major works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring the famous detective, and they are wonderful.

Although the popularity of Sherlock Holmes never flattened at any point, there seems to be a re-emergence of its popularity. It has been remade countless of times in a variety of works in many countries. But I attribute this recent popularity to the Sherlock Holmes films and more specifically to BBC’s Sherlock, which I wrote about recently. The BBC series and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance has been one of the most fascinating and influential things I have come across lately. The last I found myself so excited about something was a few years back when I saw Manichitrathazhu. There is even an American version of the Sherlock series called Elementary.

Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes (2009)

BBC’s series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (2010-present)

CBS’ Elementary starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu (2012-present)

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Rajeev Khandelwal, dressed to look like BBC’s Sherlock, in Samrat & Co (2014).

This worldwide re-emergence of love for our favorite detective has also found enthusiasts in Indian cinema. This year we had the release of Vidya Balan’s Bobby Jasoos, which wasn’t actually a crime thriller at all and Samrat & Co starring Rajeev Khandelwal, a sad attempt to copy BBC’s Sherlock. There is another such film directed by Anurag Basu and expected to release in August 2015, Jagga Jasoos, starring Katrina Kaif and Ranbir Kapoor. I expect little from that film. But next up is perhaps the crime thriller with the most potential and also carrying the most risk, Dibakar Banarjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshi. The film will be a period film, taking place in the 1940s, similar to the films starring Robert Downey Jr. It is not a modern version like BBC’s Sherlock.

I have not read the original Byomkesh Bakshi stories. When I first heard of this film, my first response was “Oh no.” I felt it was a bad move. It’s such a risk to take on such a well known fictional character, especially when there are such amazing international productions out there on him already.

Rajit Kapoor in and as Byomkesh Bakshi, a TV series that ran in 1993 and 1997.

But this is not the first time that the Indian audience will see Byomkesh Bakshi on screen. There was a critically acclaimed television series called Byomkesh Bakshi that ran in 1993 and 1997 starring Rajit Kapur. Apparently, the series were quite good– intelligent, thrilling and humorous. There were also numerous films based on the character in the 60s and 70s. And more recently, an Anjan Dutt film in 2010. Surprisingly though, Bollywood has not produced much on the fictional detective. Most of the adaptations have come from Bengali regional cinema.

It would silly to think of this project as a copy of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. For Doyle himself was heavily influenced by Edgar Allen Poe’s fictional character, Detective Dupin. When it comes to literature, and films, almost everything has been done before, somewhere, somehow. We are never getting something completely original. And that’s fine as long as it is done intelligently, with class and value. My only concern is Sushant and whether he will be able to pull off this role. I believe he’s a good actor, perhaps a bit too young for this role, but then again, that’s what I thought about Benedict in Sherlock and I was completely wrong about that.

I think that Banarjee’s film might turn out very good if he follows the same path as the much successful TV series. I plan on watching Detective Byomkesh Bakshi with an open mind. I try to do that with every film regardless. I think you will too. Hopefully, it won’t disappoint.

Sherlock Holmes fans in Japan. Literature, music and films have no boundaries.

A Study in Scarlet and BBC’s Sherlock Holmes

A Study in Scarlet is the first story of Sir Conan Doyle featuring the character Sherlock Holmes, published in 1887. The character was inspired by a real person, physician Joseph Bell who could deduct large conclusions by observing small details (deductive reasoning). Joseph Bell and doctor and forensic expert Henry Littlejohn sometimes provided expert opinion to Scottish criminal investigations. Doyle was Bell’s clerk and developed his character based on Bell, Littlejohn and their experiences. The character of Dr. John Watson, Holmes’ friend, is believed to be based on Doyle himself, who was also a physician. He started writing while “waiting for patients” at his unsuccessful independent medical practice [summarized from Wikipedia, 2014.]

I’m just getting into the Sherlock Holmes series by BBC (a little late I know.) BBC makes good ones. Better than hyper-sexual, violent American shows. And Turkish TV series — few are entertaining but they’re mostly too emotional and dramatic, mirroring Turkish people I suppose. Ignorant of the Sherlock Holmes character beyond my knowledge of popular culture, the first thing I noticed was how young Sherlock is in this series.

As far as I know, the character was a man past his forties. And aside from the signature detective hat worn by Sherlock (not until several episodes in mind you), he rarely resembles the original character. Where is his pipe for goodness sake? This is a Sherlock Holmes that uses nicotine patches. And his facial expressions are distant, sometimes apathetic. The actor has an unusual facial structure. The scriptwriter hasn’t helped by complimenting his cheekbones on more than one occasion. Terribly pale skin with matching lips, it’s a little bordering on Dracula. This certainly wasn’t the Sherlock Holmes I had imagined. Although four episodes in, I’m starting to find Sherlock’s distant brilliance charming. Intelligent is the new sexy after all.

The best parts are certainly the script and dialogues. The former seems to be very close to the original, albeit a bit modern with the use of cell phones and nicotine patches. But many things remain, such as the magnifying glass frequently used by Sherlock, his disregard for food when he’s working, playing the violin to think (and don’t think I missed the “seven percent” reference to cocaine.) And of course, the most important, his supreme ability at deductive reasoning.

If only the episodes gave the audience (read: me) some hope of attaining even a portion of his skills to make general conclusions by observing small details. But his processing rate at a mere millisecond and how utterly easy it is for him, makes us all feel like fools. I had hoped that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss would give us hope of learning it. But it’s impossible because we are never given a chance with the evidence, not until after Sherlock fires off his always impressive train of reasoning. Yes, yes, we know. Sherlock has an intelligence level not common to most and his skills are unique. So all that’s left for us to do is watch and applaud him. But I suppose the Sherlock Holmes’ character has to be unreachable, in sentiment and intelligence. I think that’s the point and possibly the source of his charm.

And I must say, I love the background score. It lightens the mood for an otherwise dark cinematography. But the cinematography is always dark in London, isn’t it?

Edit: I have seen all three seasons now and my initial impression of the series and of Benedict Cumberbatch has changed. I think Benedict is fantastic as Sherlock Holmes. He is an amazing actor, with a fantastic voice and a wide range of facial expressions that he uses so perfectly. The dialogues are brilliant. The screenplay never drags. The music is apt. But Benedict is surely the star. My opinion of him in this role changed so drastically that I was confused. But I’ve found out that it has happened to most people who have seen the series. He grows on you (see Cumbergraph) and the series is addictive. I have a few issues with the subtext in screenplay but I will leave that for another post. The worst (or is it the best?) part about Sherlock is that it only comes around once every two years. I feel lucky that I have seen all three seasons at one go. But it seems the wait for season 4 will be a long and dreary one. If you have not seen this series, you are missing one of the best productions to come along, in possibly the last decade of film and television.