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‘The Irishman’ Is A Haunting Account of Loyalty, Remorse And Self-Preservation

Martin Scorsese’s chef-d’œuvre is a quasi-philosophical take on the hubris of power and the wisdom of hindsight.

If you are a die-hard fan of The Marvel Cinematic Universe, you may be engaging with Martin Scorsese right now for different reasons. His repeated emphasis on the fact that Marvel movies are ‘theme park’ films may not have gone down well with a generation that is increasingly fascinated with the genre of the superhero.

And yet, for people watching ‘The Irishman on Netflix in India, one cannot but agree with Scorsese’s reasonable claim that narrative films are being encroached upon, as it were, by a repetitive and familiar template of film-making where psychological nuances and subtleties somewhat take a back-seat. The timelessly relatable components of human relationships are apparently sacrificed on the altar of a ‘make-believe’ world that promises enough entertainment but is still far removed from authenticity and verisimilitude. 

With a production budget of $160 million (about ₹ 1,150 crores), a gripping story, and a phenomenal cast, the 26-day theatrical window that Netflix agreed to simply deprived Indian audiences of the unforgettable theatrical experience that this gangster film could have provided.

A mainstream production house is what Scorsese would have ideally preferred. Once that option was foreclosed, a 209-minute epic of riveting mob drama was his way of setting the equation straight. Based on Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses (2004), the film delineates the story of Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro) and how his upward social mobility from a truck-driver to a reliable bodyguard was closely connected with the fate of Jimmy Hoffa (played by Al Pacino), the notorious leader of the Teamsters who mysteriously disappeared in 1975.

The other important character Russell Bufalino, who is ably portrayed by Joe Pesci, introduces Sheeran to the world of organised crime and the two instantly hit it off. When Jimmy starts posing problems for the Mob, Sheeran is forced to kill him; something which also irreversibly alienates him from his own daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin).

On the surface of it, ‘The Irishman’ does give the viewers a ‘been there, done that’ feeling since Scorsese, De Niro, and Pesci have had a similar outing with the gangster classic Goodfellas (1990), while the energy and the rant that Pacino brings to the screen after a very long time, is unmistakably reminiscent of his role in Scent of a Woman (1992). But it is the retrospective registers of the film and the age at which these four legends have collaborated that the movie acquires a more tempered and contemplative hue.

Scorsese’s chef-d’œuvre is a quasi-philosophical take on the hubris of power and the wisdom of hindsight. When Bufalino tells Hoffa that some people think that he might be ‘demonstrating a failure to show appreciation’, the latter replies, ‘Nobody threatens Hoffa’. It is this blinding pride that allows him to treat Tony Pro (played by Stephen Graham) with disdainful contempt even as he turns a deaf ear to Sheeran’s repeated and earnest attempts to broker peace between the two. In addition, Peggy’s increasing estrangement with her father is in a way an ethical index that measures the immorality of his actions, thereby lending him a larger perspective on life itself.

De Niro’s performance as Frank Sheeran is restrained and impeccable while the de-ageing technology that shaves 40 years from the three major characters redefines the idea of make-up in a world of computer graphics and booming technology. The scene in which Joe Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco) is killed by Sheeran appears as convincing and lifelike as any other murder sequence in De Niro’s earlier films.

Pacino plays Hoffa with elegance, subtlety, and sophistication. His vibrant speeches recreate the enduring appeal and popularity that Hoffa enjoyed at the height of his career. As someone who is usually accustomed to playing the quintessential hothead, Pesci, too, delivers a compelling portrait of a tactful and poised mob boss.

Scorsese’s film is a haunting account of loyalty, remorse, and self-preservation. Despite being close friends with Hoffa, Sheeran has to make an impossibly difficult choice of killing him. His unwavering allegiance to Russell is in that sense also about picking a side to safeguard his own interests and priorities. But the levelling principles of time and old age do not spare him either as his frequent meetings with the priest amply demonstrate.

‘The Irishman’ is a poignant rumination on the futility of violence in the larger scheme of things and how criminals obsessed with power can only make a mark through brute force.

At a meta-textual register, ‘The Irishman’ is Scorsese’s own attempt to create a vivid and arresting conclusion to his long-standing association with the gangster film. At 77, he has witnessed the changing dynamics of the film industry that has resulted in a kind of marginalisation of non-superhero cinema. His own discomfort with this marginalisation is both a matter of personal choice as well as a larger concern about the homogenisation of theatrical experience. As such, ‘The Irishman’ is a welcome relief from the overabundance of ‘theme park’ films.

Still, Scorsese, along with De Niro, Pesci and Pacino, is doing this at a point in his life where he realises that it is a rare cinematic exhibition of compulsive content, hypnotic direction and breathtaking performances. The gangster film as a popular choice of contemporary cinema may not be an ideal yardstick with which one can compare the staggering box office success of Marvel movies since they are completely designed for different viewers. But one immediately distinguishes the latter from the kind of movies that Christopher Nolan made while dealing with Batman or the one that Todd Phillips directed with Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker.

In both these cases, personal conflict and psychological depth are never considered pointless or incidental with respect to the main plot. In other words, a cognitive rendition of human existence becomes an indispensable part of the cinematic vocabulary. Viewed in this context, ‘The Irishman’ is a poignant rumination on the futility of violence in the larger scheme of things and how criminals obsessed with power can only make a mark through brute force. It is definitely one of the finest works to have emerged in an era of formulaic content, limited attention span, and ‘theme park’ rides.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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