Clown Prince

The world is a cruel place. It’s each man for himself and the cops against all. But Charlie Chaplin’s films tell you to laugh. Life is reason enough

New Delhi | Published: September 29, 2013 11:33:03 pm

The world is a cruel place. It’s each man for himself and the cops against all. But Charlie Chaplin’s films tell you to laugh. Life is reason enough

We all know this guy. This little fellow who cannot do anything right. Wherever he goes,he creates trouble. He can’t keep a job because he never reaches on time. Of course,he gets delayed because he has to be with a poor blind girl,looking after her needs — but that does not count. He gets fired.

If it is a mechanical job in a factory,rest assured,he will be the one to have a nervous breakdown. If he were to get a job waiting at the tables,he will walk through the wrong door every time. As a singing waiter,he cannot remember his lines.

He is just a good-for-nothing tramp who can’t do a thing right. But he has a special gift. He survives.

We all know that. The tramp that Charlie Chaplin created is a survivor. He never gives up. No matter how bad things get,he manages. And boy,do things get bad for him.

He is perpetually looking for a job —or money. Very often,he is looking for food (he doesn’t think twice before stealing a hot dog from a baby),or he is looking for a dry place to sleep in. A roof over his head would be just great. If perchance he is well-fed (like when he is in prison),he is out to bum a smoke.

And then,he is forever hopeful of falling in love. Mostly,the girl he is in love with likes somebody else. But does that matter? Would that stop him from falling helplessly in love again? And,above all,he is looking for “a little dignity”.

Too much has been said about Chaplin,the humanitarian. Too many words have been written about his speech at the end of The Great Dictator. They are wonderful words,necessary even at the time when the film was made. (Every time I hear “..look up,Hannah. The clouds are lifting. The sun is breaking through”,I get goosebumps).

But that is not where the essential magic of Chaplin lay.

The magic,for me at least,is in his relentless optimism. He always carries a hope in his heart that a better world is round the corner; that the night is ending. And it is not just a notion — all of the tramp’s actions are guided by this belief.

Does he have a reason to hope? The evidence says,no.

The world is a cruel place,where people kill each other for greed,where machines have taken away the last shred of dignity from the working man; where fascist dictators dance devilish steps with the balloon-like world.

And it is not just the world at large— even human beings are mean and self-centred. The rich only care about themselves (unless alcoholic stupor forces them to forget themselves) and the poor must fight each other for the little resources that remain. The horse-riding girl in the circus is terrified of her father who is mean and a bully. The society women in The Kid seem heartless even as they fight for what they think is correct. People do not talk to each other. There is no sense of community. Every human being is an isolated cell that must fend for itself. It is each man for himself and the cops against all.

The funny thing is that even the tramp doesn’t care. In a continuous struggle for survival,where is the time to look out for others? That is what makes him so identifiable,so real,so relatable. The fact that he is selfish —like the rest of us.

And yet,when a blind girl kisses his hand in gratitude,he gives her the last dollar he had kept for himself. When an unknown neighbour is kicked out of her home,he gives her shelter. At that moment,he is not thinking of the consequences. When a newborn baby is abandoned,he eventually learns to nurture and care. He does all this in spite of himself. As if,he is telling us that this is our innate nature. That,actually we are all good.

That he does this without a trace of sentimentality is what makes it really moving. That he does it with humour is what makes it heartbreaking.

He is the funniest man ever. I have never laughed louder or longer in any other film. His scripts are tight,the gags are superb,the execution is perfect,his body is an incredible instrument of perfection. He dances better than anyone else,he plays the violin,he skates,he skips rope,he boxes.

He does all of that and life pushes him down again and again. Every time,he jumps right back up,ready to punch away the adversities in store for him. He never complains —in fact,he never lets anyone complain.

Because he has an immense faith in life. “Look at the tree that becomes a tree,a rock that becomes a rock,the same energy flows in you. Life is reason enough..”

It’s not that life is beautiful. No,that would be sentimental. Life is “by no means beautiful. It is vile,wicked,awful… But it is wonderful” (Limelight).

That is the key then to the joy that Chaplin’s movies give you. It is beyond the laughter,it is beyond the (often failed) love stories; beyond the social commentary that his films made. It is his faith in life which is uplifting. The dance will go on,spring will be back,dawn is breaking.

Life does not care for anybody,it is neither good nor bad. It is beyond that — in itself it is wonderful. And we would be foolish not to see that. We would be foolish not to realise that even suffering and pain are as much gifts as joy — because it means that we are alive.

Just as death is inevitable,so is life. And we must celebrate that. That is happiness.

The message is clear. “Sing! Never mind the words…”

*Rajat Kapoor is a filmmaker,theatre director and actor

by Rajat Kapoor

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