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A Special Tribute

Jean Claude Carriere: A writer for all directors

Ratnottama Sengupta pays a homage during the 27th Kolkata Film Festival to Jean Claude Carriere, the legendary screenwriter of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, first performed on stage in 1985 and then released as a film

Jean Claude Carriere (1931-2021). Courtesy: Creative Commons

A Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for someone decorated with a Padmashri? One easily understands the Oscar when you spell out that the awardee had written the screenplay of a hundred and more films for the Who’s Who of World Cinema – starting with Luis Bunuel, and going on to Volker Schloendorff, Milos Forman, Pierre Etaix, Jacques Tati, Andrzej Wajda, Nagisa Oshima, Louis Malle, Abbas Kiarostami, Philip Kaufman, Jean Paul Rappaneu, Jacques Deray… not necessarily in that order. The Padmashri also falls in place the minute you hear it was for the writer of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. Indeed, how many names have bridged the inner core of two extreme cultures of the East and the West, so smoothly as Jean Claude Carriere?

This French writer-actor’s equation with the land of Kauravas and Pandavas was way beyond that of any tourist who may’ve visited India twenty-five times.  For, this was the man theatre legend Peter Brook had zeroed in on to play his Ganesha. Meaning, act in the play? No, he was to write the nine-hour magnum opus that would ensue after sunset and end at sunrise at the theatre annual that identifies Avignon in France. Who could’ve imagined his interpretation that the five sons sired by different deities — Yama, Vayu, Indra, the Ashvins — could be cast as men from different races, leading to Yudhistira being blonde and Bhima an African? This, remember, was three years before Doordarshan started airing the B R Chopra epic that continues to enthral.

A scene from Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. Courtesy: Creative Commons

But why am I comparing Carriere – whom I had the good fortune to meet on one of his visits to Delhi – to Ganesha? Simple: Siddhi Vinayak, the God of Fulfilment, was the ‘scribe’ Vyasa approached to pen down his magnum opus – and he laid the condition that Vyasa should not pause in his narration of the events even once. Vyasa agreed on the condition that Ganesha would not pen down the words without comprehending their depth, their emotion, their implication… Carriere had done just that for Peter Brook.  And the mythology had stayed within the writer. Hence, three decades later, he wrote a lyrical text for Sujata Bajaj when the Paris-based Indian artist from Kolkata exhibited her iridescent body of work titled Ganapati.

At least eight years of reading and researching had gone into Mahabharata, 1974 onwards, before Carriere’s forays to India started in 1982. And four years later, it mesmerised viewers in the desolate quarry outside Avignon. For the two following years, the play was performed in French and English, it toured the world for four years, it was adapted for television as a six-hour series, it was shortened to a three-half hour film screened in India, Carriere wrote Battlefield based on it, and published a book sketching his India tours… The 25 actors seen in Avignon 1987 came from 16 countries – and the only Indian was Mallika Sarabhai who played Draupadi!

“I compare India to Draupadi in the dice game – she keeps unfolding,” Carriere famously said later. Elsewhere he said he felt that India was a mansion where one room leads to another, that to yet another, and that to some more rooms… In India, Carriere observed a unique continuity since the antiquity now lost in time — one he did not find in either Greece or Egypt. That is distilled in the book, In Search of the Mahabharata that chronicles the three initial years of his journeys in diary-like jottings and numerous sketches. “They have more immediacy, more intimacy, greater feeling than camera,” he told the book’s Delhi-based translator, Aruna Vasudev.

Carriere of course was a seasoned hand at adaptation. Long before the curtain fell on his 91 years, he had adapted the German novelist Gunter Grass (The Tin Drum, 1979) and French Marcel Proust (Swann in Love, 1984) for Volker Shloendorf; the Russian Dostoevsky for the Polish Andrzej Wajda (The Possessed, 1988), the French journalist Joseph Kessel (Belle de Jour, 1967) and French poet Pierre Louys (That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977) for the Spanish Bunuel, French dramatist Edmond Rostand (Cyrano de Bergerac, 1990) for Jean-Paul Rappaneu, Czech Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1988) for the American Philip Kaufman… And what was the key to this success? It lay in Carriere’s belief that “a scenario is created when you and the director establish a near telepathic communication. This requires on both sides a receptiveness and a trust which can never be taken for granted. The writer must submerge his ego since, ultimately, it is the director’s film and you are there only to facilitate him.”

My first experience of this ‘facilitating’ was Happy Anniversary (1962) that won director Pierre Etaix – who co-produced it with writer Carriere – the Oscar for Best Short. Half-a-century after its viewing the 15-minute short remains vividly etched in memory. A woman is preparing a romantic dinner to celebrate their wedding anniversary while the husband is running around and making stops to pick up gifts for his wife. But the Paris traffic is against him, and by the time he reaches home the flowers for his wife have wilted, and his drunken wife has finished dinner and fallen asleep. What a captivating comment on urban realities!

Carriere’s most abiding partnership — his 20-year-tie with Buñuel – had started in 1963 when the Spanish director was looking for a French co-writer to adapt The Diary of a Chambermaid by Octave Mirbeau. The maid who exposes the sexual, religious and social repressions of the middle class provincial French families set the keynote – social satire – that Buñuel would repeat in Belle de Jour. Its erotic narrative with subversive wit exposed bourgeoise hypocrisy through a respectable doctor’s wife who enjoys her afternoons as an inmate of a high-class brothel. Buñuel’s absurdist humour not only alerts viewers to the failings of the French bourgeoisie, but it also sets the tone for his constant anti-establishment ire. In The Milky Way (1968), two tramps set off from Paris to make a pilgrimage to a Spanish shrine and on the way meet characters who expound on the six central ‘mysteries’ of Catholic dogma. Another amusing anti-clergy film, it reveals Buñuel’s target shifts from the church to the military, to the state — that is, only within the different faces of establishment. This influenced Carriere to later state, “In art a certain anti-conformism is necessary.”

Jean Claude Carriere was a remarkable storyteller, it is clear, just as it is that he had no dogma. Effortlessly he could move from one world to another. One of ideals and spirituality, to that of warfare and political spoils. As one reviewer noted, “he had the knack of entering the dream world not on the wings of some abstract imagination but on the legs of reality – with absolute groundedness.”

Carrier knew what he wrote was not for publishing, it was written not to be read but to be transformed into a film. He is known to have said: “If you want fame, and a beautiful statue made of yourself, don’t be a screenwriter. The writer disappears. He works in the shade.” It was absolutely essential to be forgotten. His art exemplified this, though not the writer who also acted in some films. He knew, if not forgotten, very often screenwriters are ignored. That is why, in his Honorary Oscar acceptance speech in 2014, he expressed his happiness that such an award was given to a screenwriter. For, “they are like shadows passing through the history of cinema. Their names do not appear in reviews, but still they are filmmakers,” he asserted sharing his Oscar with screen writers around the world.

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.

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