In fond memory of Kapadia Senior – an erudite gentleman of the old school with an exquisite sense of refinement – who was gracious enough to walk me through his unique little library and share his mine of information on the Golden Age of Hollywood . You’ll always be in my memories sir.
(Contd. From Episode I – An account of what it felt like to see the Star Wars Trilogy the very FIRST time it was let loose in India on an unsuspecting public )
The Story of Ralph McQuarrie
In 1974, George Lucas was in trouble. Universal Studios , which had made a small fortune from his film, American Graffiti, had turned down his next proposal, Star Wars. United Artists, too, had said No. There were few flickers of interest at 20th Century Fox , but George Lucas couldn’t seem to build that flicker into a flame of enthusiasm.
Nobody at the studio could quite understand his vision for the film. He needed to show them in concrete terms what he had in mind. George’s friends introduced him to Ralph McQuarrie, a commercial illustrator, who had earlier done work for NASA.
George and his producer Gary Kurtz gave Ralph a script and arranged for four to five paintings.
When George next saw Ralph, the artist had prepared sketches for the characters R2D2 and Darth Vader.
Ralph had perched R2D2 on a large ball-bearing but George decided to give the now famous droid three sturdy legs. However, he decided to keep the mask Ralph had given the evil villain, Darth Vader. Ralph created the mask because he felt Vader would need something with which to breathe when moving between spaceships. But George didn’t care for this so much (after all – this was fantasy not fact).
He just liked the mask’s sinister appearance.
Design for R2D2
Ralph’s Designs for DarthVader
It was clear that Ralph saw the potential of George’s script better than anyone else had to date.
With five of Ralph’s paintings, George returned to 20th Century Fox.
This time Fox gave George the seed money to get the project started and a month later after seeing more of Ralph’s designs, the studio gave full approval and Star Wars went into production.
Though Ralph loved the concept of Star Wars, he did not expect it to be more than an average hit – Science fiction films after all didn’t have a history of breaking box office records. So after completing his work on Star Wars he moved to England to work on another assignment.
He was out of the country when the movie released (this was ages before the internet ! ) and therefore missed the sensational excitement generated when the movie released in the theatres.
Shortly after returning to the country, he checked out a theatre in New York City while exiting a subway station. There was a long line outside though it was the middle of a week day. People were lining up to get in. He quietly got in line himself.
The picture didn’t surprise him but the audience’s reaction was exhilarating. It was an incredible experience to see his designs and paintings hit such a responsive chord in the young audience.
George Lucas was a member of the pack of actors and directors known as the “flower children” of American cinema. Like ‘Godfather’ Francis Ford Coppola, he was a protégé of the new wave director, Roger Corman, who mentored many of the subsequently famous actors and directors of the period.
A frail, sickly and introverted youth, he found solace in the TV episodes of the Flash Gordon shows on TV in the sixties. He would watch them for hours with his pet cat perched on his shoulder and the vision for Star Wars took seed.
He was a confidant of Francis Ford Coppola who directed The Godfather and like our own Bharathiraja closer to home, he even shot a movie about Coppola while Coppola was shooting a movie (Rain People), which was a film about a film maker making a film ( Whew ! )
While at university in Hofstra his graduation film THX1138 was later made by Fox into a full blown movie about people surviving in the tunnels of a city. This was during the recession of the sixties and seventies mind you.
For Indians, paradise existed on earth and it existed in the U.S of A – the Land of Milk and Honey.
Photos of our NRI relatives would invariably show case the big gas guzzling cars with V8 engines in the super large garages of their suburban homes and everything was so CLEEEAAAAAN !!
And what about the U.S ?
Paradise existed – but not in the U.S of the recessionary sixties and seventies – it existed on the planet of Alderaan, the home of Princess Leia.
While the first Star Wars was an introduction to a new world in a galaxy far, far, away, the second edition, The Empire Strikes Back was more assured, more verbose, more emotional and had more conflict –great story telling but still a story without an end – that would come later.
It was left to my uncle again to take me to see it when it finally released in Madras in 1982, close to 3 years after the first inter-galactic voyage at Safire.
This one was a very different experience.
The pace was brisk, the story moved assuredly, the opening battle on the ice land of Hoth took your breath away.
There was something else.
The sound track seemed to have been subjected to a major operation by the light sabres the movie displays.
It took me quite a bit of time to get used to it and the speed of the conversation happening on the screen.
Only L.K.Advani comes closest with his laser sharp diction (You know what I mean “Rraaajdeeep !!! Thuh BeeeeeJaaayyPeee !! is NOT a Commyooonulll PAAAAAZHTEEEE !!! The BeeeeeJaaayyPeee is not an OppORchooonissssticcc PAAAAAZHTEEEE !!!).
Our own James Earl Jones…….
The Empire Strikes Back’s greatest contribution to popular culture was the 1000 year old Master Jedi knight Yoda. His mentoring of Luke is the key chapter to this odyssey. When asked to levitate a space ship and bring it out from under water, Luke fails. Yoda steps in finally and does the needful .
“‘I Don’t Believe it !!” exclaims Luke.
Yoda’s cryptic response “THAT ……is why you Fail”.
“Yodaspeak” as a form of communication is still going strong thirty years later – a form of speech where the subject is positioned at the beginning of the sentence and the conjugated verb at the end of the sentence
When my friend, a social media averse oncologist, was browbeaten into joining an online community, his reaction of resignation “Log on to the dark Planet of Facebook, I must.”
“Increase my number of likes, it will”
In a lecture by a top flight athletic coach to his wards on how to run the 400 metre race.
“When you get to the crucial 250 metre mark and you are running out of gas, start doing your Jedi mind tricks – imagine you’re running uphill – drive hard with your arms and bring your knee as high as you can before the home stretch”
This was easily the best crafted, best plotted (sic), stand out episode of the trilogy.
But back then it didn’t seems so
When the show started, my 8th grade eagerness turned into edge of the seat despair since the plot was less fairy tale and more Hamlet type conflict and Sicilian type treachery -iInterspersed with wonderfully choreographed asteroid space chase sequences on the Millennium Falcon and a memorable light sabre duel between Luke and Darth Vader ending with Luke losing his hand and hurtling into the vast bottomless tunnel into space but rescued in time by Princess Leia.
Contrary to a New Hope, the movie ends with Leia and Luke looking out of their craft into the galaxy hoping that their would be Hope.
Total despair at the end – Han Solo consigned to carbon freeze, Luke loses his physical hand and the Dark Side gains the upper hand….the craving for a sequel and a resolution had already been planted.
I was dazzled but also somewhat crestfallen. Also for some strange reason, there was No airconditioning during that period in any of the theatres in Madras. I still don’t know what the reason was. That made the experience more depressing. We seemed to take the whole experience priced at Rs.2.90 for the galleries and Rs.4.50 for the balcony for granted. Barring Bombay, no other city could boast of an equivalent experience.
At the end of the show my uncle looked in my direction and could sense something amiss.
He seemed to sense my thoughts as well as console me at the same time.
“Superman I is better than Superman II, Godfather I is better than Godfather II, Enter the Dragon is better than Return of The Dragon……Conclusion : Star Wars I is better than Star Wars II…..” he offered.
The next 2 editions after the first Star Wars were released at Pilot, a theatre known for its kick ass sound system and hit our shores within a year of its worldwide release (vow ! our government was getting less bureaucratic and more efficient ! ). Years later, the old Safire theatre had become defunct and I could see the grass growing on the tract of land out of sheer neglect.
Its said that in the 19th century it would take Americans a week atleast to know whom they had elected President.
The Indian government’s restrictive regime compares very well.
It took Star Wars a whole 3 years to reach our shores and by then the next edition had already been released in the U.S.
The Grand Finale
A few months after watching The Empire Strikes Back, the pre-release excitement for the final act in the trilogy ‘Return of The Jedi” had already started.
Fortunately, our school subscribed to Time magazine and since George Lucas was featured on the cover we didnt miss any of the pre-release excitement. I even knew what a cinema ticket cost in 1984. It cost 5 dollars because THATs what Lucas said viewers wanted to be blown away for…….. their FIVE dollars.
I got to watch Return of the Jedi only after I switched schools after the 10th grade. Pilot was walking distance from my new place in Mylapore and I watched it with a classmate in high school – not with my uncle this time.
In this grand finale of the trilogy, everything headed relentlessly towards the final resolution – Han Solo came out of carbon freeze, Leia it turns out is Luke’ sssiiissssstteeeer (as Darth Vader pronounces it) ,it also turns out Darth Vader is their father who returns to the good side from the Dark side, the holographic images and galactic battles including one super long, super fast, continuous shot moving miles and miles in REVERSE.
This sequence was also shown at the Oscars ceremony.
For our Rs.4 and 50 paise, ( and airconditioning !!! YIPPEEE !!) we decided to make every bit count. After the final party on screen a la Asterix with all the winners celebrating around a bonfire including the spirits of Darth Vader and Obiwan Kenobi, we stayed put in our seats and let the rest of the audience amble out of the theatre.
At the end there was that deliciously chilly feeling that only Hollywood can manufacture with John Williams title track, the medley of the entire background score being played and watching the visuals dissolve into black nothingness, while the ending title credits for 3rd Assistant Cameraman and Stunt Director were still rolling and then slowly strolling back home at 1 am yet again on a cloud, still replaying the lovely spectacle in our minds, past Ayyappa’s bakery, past YMIA, past Sanskrit College and then my classmate cycled back to St.Mary’s Road …………….AND the tea stalls were still OPEN !!.
(Sigh) They make them only in Madras.
George Lucas termed the experience of producing the sequels akin to running downhill in front of a fast locomotive. “After 3 years of back breaking 18 hour days I want to walk away. I don’t want my daughter to turn around and say “Hey Dad. Where have you been all my life ?”.
The trilogy made the lead players rich beyond their dreams ……….and impatient to do other things.
Mark Hammil (Luke Skywalker) who earlier played a fanatic cyclist in ‘Breaking Away’ described it as a nice experience but “more often I find myself talking to a lobster in a flight suit and wondered what I am doing with my life”
Ironically, Harrison Ford (Han Solo) who was put in carbon freeze was the first to break out of the mold and play other significant starring roles which would send his career into orbit.
Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) used to crib about the bulky flight suit she was having to wear and asked for something more comfortable. She was taken at her word. Immediately her wardrobe was transformed from the flight suit to the itsy bitsy slave costume thereby reinventing the princess into a 4L – Lissome Leggy Lass Leia. “Would you look at what they are making me wear now” she asked ruefully. The Slave Leia line of clothing inspired a whole new legion of artists and still does.
ILM – Industrial Light and Magic
A couple of years later I learnt from a fellow cinephile and college mate that George Lucas had formed a company solely for the purpose of providing special effects to inhouse as well as other movie productions. The company was called ILM – Industrial Light and Magic.
I chanced upon a lovely illustrated book on ILM while browsing around in the newly opened Landmark bookstall and leafing through its contents was pure magic. I wanted to chuck everything and do this for a living. But reality bites – I may as well have booked a trip to Alderaan.
Few months later, I landed my first job light years away from Madras – in Baroda to be precise.
When my first salary of 4000 Golden ducats was credited to my account (30% lower than what Chemplast was paying a freshly minted Chartered Accountant at that time) I wanted to get my hands on it. But how do I do it 2000 miles away from Landmark bookstall ?
A classmate who was always quick on the draw with everything new whether it was discovering that there was a new concept floating around called the Internet or buying a PC on loan, suggested a simple solution. He’d swipe his card and buy the book (Rs.2500/- or two-thirds of my salary at that time) and send it by parcel to Baroda and I could pay him later. A parcel was a big deal…even in the year 1993.
I’ll always love him for it.
Stop Press – Surprises never Cease – Just learnt that my high school classmate’s uncle was honoured with a Technical Oscar award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for developing a laser film reader system which was used by Lucas’ company in special effects for Return of The Jedi and the Indian Jones series.
Star Wars – Epilogue
The summer vacation of the middle years are always a peacefully enjoyable era.
The time when children are in primary school – each new word uttered a discovery and source of never ending merriment. There’s ofcourse the struggle to get them to school on time in the morning and the odd homework assignment where parents struggle desperately to meet school homework deadlines (which have been communicated only the night before by our offspring ! ).
But exams are yet to make their appearance so its still peaceful.
The family used to pack off during the summer and December vacation to peaceful Trichy.
And I took a few days off to spend the December “cold” Christmas vacation to enjoy the pollution free air and escape the increasingly shark like existence of namma Chennai.
I used to take the overnight bus and at day break, the crossing over the bridge, over the river Cauvery, hailing the conductor to stop at Thillainagar, hop on to an auto and to reach my in-laws place at Woraiyur. Next, the ritual would be playing with my son while he was still asleep till he woke up in delighted surprise.
(Sigh) That was the lovely routine for a few years.
But on this occasion it was different. Few months back, my classmate of many years had just mailed me the entire boxed set of the Star Wars trilogy via Amazon and my son, Adithya, got to watch it for the first time. He didnt seem to react – Harry Potter was more attractive – or so it appeared.
The coming December vacation I again boarded the overnight bus to rest a few days and bring back my family.
Only this time – when I reached my in-laws’ and sat my travel bags on the floor, a scrawny little figure tiptoed out of the bedroom.
My mother-in-law was mildly surprised.
“Yayndaa yezhundhunday ? Innum konja nayram thoonga vayndiyitththaanay ?” she asked my son (“Why did you wake up ? You could have slept a bit more ?”).
His face lit up with an impish grin as if he had just recalled something.
“I felt a disturbance in the Force….”, he said, the sly grin firmly in place.
I chuckled at his precociousness and that innocently mischievous look. It was then that I rejoiced…………..
The light sabre had truly been handed on to the next generation.