Appan Menon

Years ago there used to be a pleasant face on Doordarshan by the name of Appan Menon. He very ably and effectively anchored a popular programme called The World This Week. It was a visual diary that kept track of events and individuals at home and abroad. Menon did not have the flamboyance of his colleague, Pranoy Roy, but his presence was no less engaging. Appan Menon has been dead for more than twenty years now, but I am sure that he is not quite gone from the memory of many of his viewers.

I write these words by way of remembering someone the like of whom one does not come across easily these days on television, dominated as it is by loud, verbose, and aggressive types. But these words are meant also to recall a clip that was included in one edition of the Menon-Roy programme in late 1991 or early 1992. The clip showed the reduced but still considerable figure of the distinguished British playwright Robert Bolt slowly ascending the steps of St. Paul’s in London to attend a memorial service in honour of the filmmaker David Lean. Peter O’Toole, Victor Banerjee and others who had acted under Lean’s direction were also to be seen but, for reasons personal, no one quite quickened my pulse the way Bolt did.

Robert Bolt is best remembered as the author of the celebrated play, A Man For All Seasons. Perhaps he is more appreciated in some circles as a screenwriter (The Mission, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago), a role in which he won many international honours. But to me and, I think, to some of my classmates as well at Loyola School in Jamshedpur, Bolt will always be, first and foremost, the person who memorably dramatized the last days of Sir Thomas More, the Tudor monarch Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor who went to the block because he cherished his moral principles more than his head.

The years ’64 and ’65 saw us feverishly following classroom lectures by, among others, two Maryland Jesuits who had divided among themselves four prescribed texts for the school-leaving examination in English Literature. The ‘Bibles’ of the moment were Macbeth, George Eliot’s A Mill on the Floss, My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, and A Man for All Seasons. Shakespeare was dark and foreboding, full of exciting moments and meanings, indebted in no unmistakeable terms to Greek tragedy; George Eliot, who was actually a woman and wrote under an assumed name because readers of her Victorian days thought a woman had no business to be writing, could get to be tedious in many extended passages; Durrell, born in Jamshedpur and younger brother to Lawrence or Larry who attended North Point in Darjeeling and went on to write the Alexandria Quartet and other masterpieces, was uproariously funny as he narrated the innocent misadventures of the Durrell family as it spent a summer on the Greek resort-island of Corfu – but it was Bolt who stole our attention from day one.

One reason for this was that the play is a gem of reconstruction of a particularly critical phase in medieval English history, combined with an insightful revelation of human follies and wisdoms. Another reason was that the martyred figure of Sir Thomas seemed to repeatedly emerge from and merge into the general atmosphere of fervent Catholicism that pervaded the school. But, finally, why I still remember Macbeth and his fair lady who drove that noble soul to all those ignoble deeds; or Sir Thomas, his family and his foes; or the uncommon character of the Common Man, is because rarely have I experienced the kind of commitment that went into the teaching of the two plays.

Father Eugene Power, who taught us Shakespeare with clarity and conviction, and Father Anthony Roberts, whose strange sense of fun effectively resurrected the slain Chancellor who wouldn’t consent to Henry setting aside his plain, legally-wedded wife (Catherine of Aragon) in preference to a bewitching lady-in-waiting at the royal court (Anne Boleyn), were as dissimilar to view as they were in their methods and styles of teaching. Power was tall, athletic, full-haired, serious-looking, and spoke little outside what was given him to teach. Roberts, too, was tall but was enormous round the girth (‘the equator’ or ‘excess baggage’, as it used to be called in those days), cracking a joke a minute, a mischievous smile playing on his thin lips and corpulent face all the while, and – before I forget – his head as smooth as an egg.

At times, Power could be meticulous to the point of being maddening; and he expected his addiction to detail, for one thing, to be shared by us. His seriousness about letting us into the essence or, better still, the quintessence of Macbeth could take extreme expressions, one being playing gramophone records of the play again and again in class and stopping once in a while to explain something or the other. Again, he was given to saying it was essential to be able to pronounce the names of people or places correctly in order to arrive at the intended destination of a work of art. I still remember him teaching us to pronounce ‘Glamis’ (from the Thane of Glamis, one of the titles promised to Macbeth by the witches on the heath) without the ‘i’, so that Macbeth would get into our heads – not just for our exams but for life. Such a pronouncement perplexed us at the time, but decades later it doesn’t seem such a bad idea after all. “Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis; hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor; hail to thee, King of Scotland!” – the three witches kept dropping slimy, smelly things into the bubbling cauldron and stirring it. We listened to the record playing on the gramophone and our youthful imagination could see the brew of prophecies being fatally prepared; not false, but not true either.

Roberts, too, went about his job in an original fashion – only it could get to be a bit too original at times. The fulsome Yankee spirit in which he baptized Subrata (Banerjee), converting him to Suzie for the duration of two full years, was freely applied to Sir Thomas’ good wife as well, who promptly became “Honey Bunch’. To this day I can recall how he summed up Henry’s reaction to the papal refusal to grant him a dispensation in the matter of divorcing his wife. In his inimitable style, the Irish-American padre quipped : “And so, Harry said, Hey, Pop, if you ain’t gonna give me the ticket, I’m gonna go ahead and do just as I’ve decided; and you can go and fly a kite!” Or words almost similar to these; and his young audience would break into peals of delight.

So, that evening some thirty years ago after seeing Robert Bolt being helped up the cathedral steps by his actress-wife Sarah Miles, I found my suddenly stimulated mind taking a stroll down memory lane. A series of scenes and sensations from the past began moving in slow motion through the mind’s eye; and I renewed my acquaintance with not just Bolt and his hero and Paul Scofield, who played the great man on celluloid, and the Eng. Lit. Fathers, but Loyola of the ’50s and the ’60s which gave us so much and withheld as much, and filled our tender heads with a fair amount of nonsense as well. Yes, it took me a little while to shed some of the unfounded biases that some of the priests ingrained in us, but, mercifully, it never occurred to me to throw the baby away with the bathwater!

I remember the TV clip bringing home once again the element of unpredictability in our lives. Just when you have begun feeling that it is possible to conquer the world, you discover your life or the world around you shattered at a moment’s notice – sometimes without even that. One moment Robert Bolt was a big man, both literally and metaphorically, with an enormous zest for life and a protean flair for creativity; and, in the next, reduced by a severe heart attack to a cripple unable to handle even a typewriter and, so, forced to depend on a word-processor. Who would believe seeing him in his state of disablement and dependence, that the man’s appetite for women, for one thing (he married four women five times), had once been as insatiable as that of the sovereign with ‘a dancer’s leg’ he had brought to life in his reputed play? Perhaps, only Sarah Miles, who he married and divorced and married again, thereby enacting a conjugal play of twists and turns reminiscent of the Liz Taylor-Richard Burton affair.

I had the pleasure of talking briefly to Sarah Miles in Trivandrum during the Filmotsav there in 1988. It was simply wonderful to watch those beautiful eyes lighting up as I mentioned that we had ‘studied’ her husband’s play for our school-leaving exams. It was equally wonderful to be told that after the initial havoc wrought by the heart attack, she and Bolt were gradually settling down and even looking forward to a life of renewed if somewhat diminished creativity. She said that life would not be the same as before for either of them, but it had to be lived, come what may, and things could be coaxed out of what was still left.

Memories as distant as Loyola and as close as Trivandrum, came back to me as I saw the two graciously fading artists, one leaning on the other, slowly mounting the steps of St. Paul’s to pay their respects to the memory of a third. But for Appan Menon, thousands of Indian viewers would have been denied those solemn shots of Bolt, Miles, O’Toole, Banerjee and other friends of Lean ascending the steps of the age-old cathedral to keep their date with the dear departed. Lean’s universe was the big screen which he nursed in his own way for several decades; Menon’s was a short but distinguished innings on television.

There must be a few more people besides this writer whose minds occasionally travel back to grieve and celebrate the intelligent young man whose strength was in his gently underplayed ‘presence’. Human memory is short, public memory even shorter – but neither can be so short as to completely forget so soon such a one as Appan Menon.

Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on cinema,society, and politics.



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