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From reality to dream and back, with Jean-Claude Carrière

Collaborator of cinematic geniuses like Luis Bunuel, Jacques Tati, Peter Brook and Abbas Kiarostami, the late screenwriter was a remarkable storyteller.

Written by Vijay Singh |
Updated: March 5, 2021 8:57:43 am
Jean-Claude Carriere

In early 1985, the renowned Festival d’Avignon made an announcement that their next edition would feature a full-length theatrical adaptation of the Mahabharata. For anyone familiar with this work, this looked like an impossible task: The epic contains 1,44,000 couplets and is regarded as the longest poem in the world. Anyway, leaving sceptics to their own doubts, Jean-Claude Carrière, the great playwright and screenwriter, was ready with his mammoth play, which had been in gestation for no less than 14 years. Peter Brook, the legendary stage director, was at the helm, giving finishing touches to his production. The press and word of mouth had whipped up such frenzy in France that even gods would have queued up to catch a glimpse of the upcoming event.

It was in this context that, as a young journalist with Libération, I was sent to interview Jean-Claude Carrière. Looking at his two-storied house, I exclaimed spontaneously: “This is like a majestic Lutyen’s bungalow in Delhi!” Jean-Claude answered with a wicked smile: “Well, to be honest, this was a majestic brothel! The prostitutes used to work here on the ground floor and the Madam kept an eye on them from the top room…” The discussion on the brothel led us into the more serious territory of theatre. Jean-Claude spoke lavishly about the Mahabharata — about his fascination for the story, about his extensive travels with Peter Brook to obscure parts of India to watch performances of stories from the great epic, about the scores of sketch-diaries he filled up with drawings of whatever he saw in India. And then he made a final remark that has remained printed in my memory. Like a man under hypnosis, his large eyes wide open, he said: “When I first read the Mahabharata, I had the impression of being in an immense castle, where one room would lead to another, then to another, then to another and so on, and each room had a stairwell of surprises. It was a journey of endless and brutal surprises…”

Staged in the breathtaking setting of a desolate stone quarry near Avignon, the Brook-Carrière Mahabharata was perhaps the closest a theatrical performance could come to magic — it was a true midsummer night’s dream. Performed over 12 hours between sunset and sunrise, with actors drawn from 16 nationalities and music scored by a Japanese composer, it was a rare performance where everything came together to strike a perfect balance — performances, setting, music, actor’s physiognomies and, above all, the text which showed that the epic might have had its origins in India, but its message was universal. Three decades after the play, a scene from it still haunts my mind. Arjuna, tangled in doubt, kneels before Krishna and asks: “What is the greatest victory on this earth?” Krishna says: “Defeat.” Arjuna asks again: “What is the greatest defeat on this earth?” Krishna answers: “Victory”.

Jean-Claude Carrière was a remarkable storyteller. The beauty of his storytelling lay in the effortless back and forth movement between the worlds of dream and reality. More remarkably, 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. Without any fuss or swagger, he made you drink a wine of words until you reached the kingdom of the unknown and discovered a poet or a cineaste in yourself.

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It was this craft of storytelling and the fact of being a man without a religion, a dogma or a colour, that made the Oscar-winning Jean-Claude Carrière a privileged actor of French and world cinema for over 70 years. It was this art that made him a lifetime screenwriter for a cinematic genius like Luis Bunuel and a scenarist of some of the finest minds of world cinema — Jacques Tati, Pierre Etaix, Milos Forman, Volker Schlondorff, Louis Malle, Carlos Saura, Andrzej Wajda, Peter Brook, Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Abbas Kiarostami.

When the Mahabharata-fever in Paris had subsided, Jean-Claude once asked me why I had chosen to come to France. “My love of surrealism,” I answered, “André Breton’s Nadja, Luis Bunuel…” When he heard the name Bunuel, he quietly got up, dug out a copy of My Last Sigh, the master filmmaker’s sublime autobiography, from his bookshelf and gifted it to me. He told me an anecdote about the book.

One day, Jean-Claude suggested to Bunuel that he should consider writing his autobiography. The Spanish filmmaker dismissed the suggestion instantly, as he had always loathed writers and filmmakers who had attempted to leave behind what they considered was a rich legacy. But Carrière persisted with his suggestion, for Bunuel’s subversive and path-breaking journey through the world of cinema deserved to leave a trace on the pages of history. Bunuel’s answer was no.

Jean-Claude wrote up a few pages one day and gave them to Bunuel to read. The latter found them fascinating. “What is this you’re writing now?” he asked. Jean-Claude said: “This is the first chapter of your autobiography!” Bunuel was won over to the idea of writing a book on his life, and they started a short collaboration in which Luis would recount his life in the forenoon and Jean-Claude would write in the afternoon. This exercise went on for six weeks and the result was My Last Sigh.

Son of a small farmer from the south of France and deeply attached to his village, Jean-Claude Carrière came to Paris at the age of 12. Although he had always said “If you want fame, don’t become a screenwriter”, his Paris years proved him wrong. He came, he saw, he conquered, and went back at the age of 89 to his village Colombière-sur-Orb, where he sleeps today as a surreal star of French cinema. Saddened by his death (February 8), I messaged a line to his wife, Nahal Tajadod, an Iranian writer: “I came to Paris 40 years ago with one single address on my lips – that of André and Elisa Breton. I shall return home with two — theirs and yours.”

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 5, 2021 under the title ‘Surreal star of French cinema’. Singh is a writer and filmmaker living in Paris.

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