Sunday, June 10, 2012

Why Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby Should Have Been Set In India

This appeared in today's The Sunday Guardian

Given Baz Luhrmann’s love of the flamboyant, it’s entirely possible that he’s going to miss the trees for the wood with his forthcoming remake of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The recent trailer does nothing to assuage this concern. As Ta-Nehesi Coates, senior editor at The Atlantic, tweeted: “The problem is The Great Gatsby probably should be an indie flick. The beauty of the book is its small quiet take on a big loud time.” That big, loud time was, of course, America’s so-called roaring Twenties, a riotous age of Art Deco, flappers, jazz and Prohibition.

(For those interested in Meyer Wolfsheim, the character played by Amitabh Bachchan in the movie, he’s described by Fitzgerald as “a small, flat-nosed Jew” with “two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril”. Some casting.)

Many have commented on how Fitzgerald’s best-known work is still relevant to today’s America, but what’s interesting is that there’s much about it that’s relevant to urban India, too. Consider what Fitzgerald casts his eye on: a worship of money, amorality, social climbing, an aggrandizement of surfaces -- and car accidents. In short, “the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men”.

Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, comes to New York to learn the “bond business” and profit from the financial boom. Books on finance stand on his shelf “in red and gold like new money from the mint, promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew”. Such shining secrets are what newly-minted Indian MBAs in finance as well as feverish Dalal Street speculators hunger after, downturn or no downturn. How riches affect the way one sees the world is beautifully caught in Gatsby’s remark about Daisy, his long-lost love: “Her voice is full of money”.

Gatsby himself is a model of reinvention, rising from a penurious but confident James Gatz of North Dakota to the suave, affected Jay Gatsby of East Egg, a person who hosts resplendent parties where “men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars”. Gatsby’s shady past – from bootlegging to possible financial malfeasance – doesn’t bother his guests too much: they are “agonizingly aware of the easy money in the vicinity and convinced that it was theirs for a few words in the right key”. Businessmen with dubious antecedents being feted by those around them, social climbers with connections: these are what one sees in the pages of the Indian papers every day. As for the media itself, newspaper reports are described in the novel as “grotesque, circumstantial, eager and untrue”.

Such social climbing applies in the novel to geography, too. Gatsby’s mansion is in West Egg, a former fishing village, while the old-rich section of Long Island lives in East Egg, looking at the arrivistes across the bay with a mixture of dismay and fascination. One can’t help but be reminded of the plush gated communities and business zones emerging on the outskirts of our cities, to rival and sometimes destabilise traditional city centres. (“Welcome to New Cuffe Parade”, say the advertisements, referring to a development off Mumbai’s Eastern Express Highway.)

Another theme that reverberates throughout the novel is that of heedlessness -- specifically, how the negligence of the privileged can be ruinous for the rest. As Fitzgerald writes of Daisy and her husband, the brutish Tom: “They were careless people…they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made”. The vast carelessness of the rich and of the elected and the mess they make: surely, one doesn’t need to elaborate on how this applies to the subcontinent.

Baz Luhrmann’s hyperkinetic Romeo + Juliet transplanted Shakespeare’s play onto modern-day Florida. He should have transplanted Gatsby onto modern-day India: now that would have been worth waiting for.

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