Accept the mystery

Sandwiched between the events in Bangalore that were brought into motion by the Karnataka lokayukta and that other ball set rolling in Delhi by the Comptroller and Auditor General, one brief scene from the film, A Serious Man, stood out in my head. Indrajit Hazra writes.

india Updated: Aug 07, 2011 08:32 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times

A few days after one chief minister kicked, screamed and stepped down only to smile again, and a few days before another chief minister went into a sulk, smiling wearily at TV cameras, I watched the 2010 Coen Brothers film, A Serious Man. It had been recommended to me by Glad Eye, the pernicious fellow who reviews new DVDs for this paper every Saturday, with the advice: “It’s hilarious, but it will depress the hell out of you.” Having got into college — and then into newspapers — through the ‘manic depression’ quota, I took the DVD with the enthusiasm of an anopheles mosquito settling down on a plump arm.

A Serious Man is the story of a physics professor in 1960s suburban America, on whom a multitude of miseries fall in quick succession. The behaviour of fellow humans leading to a massive attack on one individual as if hit by forces of nature is a recurring theme in Coen Brothers movies.

But sandwiched between the events in Bangalore that were brought into motion by the Karnataka lokayukta and that other ball set rolling in Delhi by the Comptroller and Auditor General, one brief scene from the film stood out in my head.

Here’s the background that leads up to that scene: Larry Gopnik, the physics professor whose wife has asked for a divorce because she wants to marry Larry’s friend, finds himself in a precarious position when a Korean student whom he has failed asks him to reconsider. After he has refused and the distraught student has left his office, Larry finds an envelope on his desk full of bank notes. Clearly, it is a bribe.

But he can’t be sure and Larry accuses the student of attempting to buy his way to passing the test. The student denies and Larry is left in an ethical mudwrestling pit. But because his tenure as a prof is suddenly under review, he holds back from complaining against the Korean student to officials and lets the matter simmer. Which is when we come to the epiphanic scene.

While Larry is packing boxes with his belongings into his car — his wife and her lover have convinced him that it’s best if he moves out of his own house and lives in a nearby motel — the father of the Korean student appears. In an immaculate suit and tie, looking like a precursor to the Japanese businessman of the 80s, the man confronts the bush-shirted, dishevelled Larry. He firmly explains apropos of nothing, “Culture clash.”

Larry understands what the man’s trying to say, “With all respect, Mr Park, I don’t think it’s that.”

“Yes,” comes the monosyllabic reply.
“No. It would be a culture clash if it were the custom in your land to bribe people for grades,” Larry explains.
“Yes,” comes the monosyllabic reply.
Larry is now thoroughly puzzled. “So you’re saying it is the custom?”
“No,” says the dapper Korean. “This is a defamation. Ground for lawsuit.”
“Let me get this straight. You’re threatening to sue me for defaming your son?”
“But it would.... See if it were defamation, there would have to be someone I was defaming him to, or I... Let’s keep it simple. I could pretend the money never appeared. That’s not defaming anyone.”
A pause later, the Korean man says, “Yes. And passing grade.”
“Passing grade?”
“Or you’ll sue me?”
“For taking money.”
“So he did leave the money?” Larry exclaims.
“This is defamation,” the father says with a poker face.
“It doesn’t make sense. Either he left the money or he didn’t,” says Larry exasperated.
Which is when the Korean ends the scene with a line that blows the bulbs out: “Please. Accept the mystery.”
As should we with regard to the mysterious indictments, denials and claims of innocence and counter-claims of guilt swirling all around us. Dementia, as with Larry Gopnik, would be such an escape. n

First Published: Aug 06, 2011 22:35 IST