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Doing it justice

Friday, December 20th, 2013

bg-luluI was submitting to the drone of Lou Reed against Metallica’s guitars when a friend called, wondering if I wanted to see Rajesh Hamal, onstage, presiding over a court of young actors including Karma, Diya Maskey and Dayahang Rai. The old and the not-so-new – how would these mash-ups match up?

It takes a brave man to step outside one’s zone. But after a certain point, it may be that even the most predictable among us feels compelled to try something different. Lou Reed was, probably, always different. But his swansong, 2011’s Lulu, surprised everyone. What did he hope to achieve in collaborating with Metallica? How did the art-rock legend and the thrash-lords of the ‘80s end up in the same room for long enough to even discuss the idea? You could say the same about Rajesh Hamal. What motivated the übermensch of commercial Kollywood to mingle with the thesp-inflected new wave of Nepali cinema?

Reed originally conceived of adapting Franz Wedekind’s notorious ‘Lulu’ plays, which tell of a young German woman who arrives in Berlin as a ‘small-town girl who’s gonna give life a whirl’, with avant-garde playwright Robert Wilson. But the truth is Metallica’s trajectory has not been as straightforward as its beer-soaked fan base may have imagined their own lives would be. The band’s artistic and commercial zenith, 1991’s Black Album, and their shift away from thrash metal thereafter, was considered a betrayal by many. No fan man himself, Reed may have heard in Metallica the kind of weary, teutonic soundtrack he imagined for Lulu’s downward spiral. And who could refuse Lou Reed?

In the case of Hamal, it is easy enough to imagine such a room, with such a proposition. The director of ‘Court Martial’, Anup Baral, as well as many of his actors, navigate both theatre and film with consummate ease. ‘Rajesh Dai,’ one such thesp may have laughed, ‘Aren’t you tired of the song-and-dance routine?’ And the man may well have answered ‘Yes…Yes, I am thoroughly sick of it.’

We have to thank Baral for belatedly bringing Hamal to the stage, and for disguising his bulging muscles in army olive throughout this adaptation of Swadesh Deepak’s Hindi original. As Colonel Rupak Singh, however, he has occasion enough to exercise his vocal cords. He is conducting the court martial of Private Ram Bahadur (Sudam Bk) for the premeditated shooting of two superior officers, and though the accused has confessed his crime there is much more here than meets the eye. It is the job of Captain Bikas Pokharel (Subash Thapa) to unearth the motives, and this he does through the careful interrogation of witnesses who provide comic relief perfectly at odds with the dramatic, wrenching denouement that delivers unto Ram Bahadur a form of poetic justice.

To witness stage and screen performers trade mediums can be a wonderful experience, full of discovery for both spectator and actor. When, as in ‘Court Martial’, it is done with such meticulousness and emotive charge, you have to wonder why theatre actors risk compromising their artistic visions by succumbing to the allure of the silver screen. But there are many answers to such a question.

A different sort of trial awaits those who dare venture into the world of Lulu. Here there be dragons: massive walls of guitar noise for Metallica fans, and disembodied, ragged chanting for Lou Reed’s. But one suspects neither’s hardcore base would appreciate the fusion of the two. There are no shredding solos, crunching riffs or Jamesian grunts for the former (try this for a sample), nor the unexpected melodies and gritty urban poetry the latter might hope for. Reed’s lyrics – delivered in monotonous chants that sometimes seem to be in a separate mix from the thunderous guitars that accompany them – are suited to Metallica’s dark, dystopian visions, though they are far more personal, ambiguous and androgynous. ‘I am your little girl/please spit into my mouth/I’m forever in your swirl’, Reed intones in ‘Mistress Dread’, early on in a double album’s worth of self-flagellation. But the revelation is more Metallica than Reed, despite being characterized as his ‘musical bitch’ on Lulu. Their grim accompaniment is contained yet loose, faithful to Wedekind’s singular vision, and never overbearing. And more conventionally melodic songs like ‘Ice Honey’ and ‘Dragon’ (I warned you) gel perfectly, providing the sort of nod-along payback no one might have anticipated in the wake of the derisive reviews that followed the album’s release. But that’s fusion for you. It doesn’t always work, no. But sometimes it does. Sometimes it does.

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