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Monday, 10 May 2010

His Majesty, Yul Brynner (The King and I)

The King and I is what it is, for Yul Brynner. I feel. For, I don't think there possibly could have been anyone as neat a fit for the shoes of King Mongkut Of Siam. Yul Brynner fits the role to the T. He is handsome. He is funny. He exudes a royal aura. And his intense eyes... Sigh!!! Not to mention his perfect Siamese accent, his adorable English language faux pas, his cutely reprimanding behaviour and his entertaining obstinacy!!!
He is a study in contrasts, this king, in the 1956 hugely popular Rodgers and Hammerstein production. Here's how. The king's repartee is full of malapropism. But, our king is supremely confident of what he says. So, when he sings, What a puzzlement, he is but projecting his ignorance in a lovingly humourous way. Really, how on earth is one expected to learn if every English book says different things on one topic??? Really...

His thrill at the knowledge of etcetra etcetra etcetra is extreme. He now uses the words at the end of every sentence, every dictation and every discourse. Whenever he does not know how to word things he goes etcetra etcetra etcetra!!! In his prayers to Boodhaaa he uses etcetra etcetra etcetra with rib-tickling results. in his letter to Abraham Lincoln (where is proposes to send elephants to the President so that he wins the Civil War!!) he starts off with a flourish with lofty promises and soon loses interest...resulting in more etcetra etcetra etcetra!!!
His relation with Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr) is bitter-sweet. He thinks she is a 'very difficult woman' and is exasperated by her confidence. He is not ready to brook her insolence!! In the first scene he is thrilled to catch her offguard with his questions and quickly says, "Tell, tell, tell. Haa...the schoolteacher's answers are not as good ay the king's questions!!!" He is too proud to take her suggestions on how to handle the tag of a barbarian, and keeps saying straightfacedly, "And guess what I'll do?" To which the sensible Anna says, "His majesty must be thinking of..." What a tactful way to balm a king's pride and vanity!!! Here there's a swift dig at the British! It's utterly hilarious when the king says, "Oh! The British are not sophisticated enough to use the chopsticks..." Ha ha...
It's not that the film is a total Yul Brynner romantic comedy. But true, he is a big part of the enjoyment. Especially when he is acting opposite Deborah Kerr. There is a strong bond between the actors. There is teething tension, subtle comedy and crackling chemistry. In fact, when Anna is talking to Edward Ramsey, an old friend, you can sense the stab of jealousy in the King's heart. And, when he acknowledges her contribution with the gift of his ring, it's love, true love...
Shall we Dance is a sublime spectacle. Brynner's energy, Kerr's languid grace...both have immortalised the sequence in celluloid history. Who would imagine that Brynner was actually suffering from a heart ailment while filming this song???
The king of Siam is like a coconut...hard and coarse on the outside, soft and mush inside...But, no matter what he is, Yul Brynner renders him classically permanent!!!
The film, replete with opulent sets, rich costumes and a majestic orchestra score, is an absolute cinematic extravaganza (the Siamese adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin included). I simply love the fan-dance sequence in the song, Getting to know you. Deborah Kerr is a tad old in this film, but her vivacity and beauty hasn't mitigated from her Quo Vadis days. Watch out how she immaculately matches steps with the Siamese fan dancer. Even in the song, I whistle a happy tune, her expressions breathe life into a otherwise plain song!!!
Kerr plays the brave, talented, confident and adamant school teacher, who is a widow from Wales. She is idealistic and clever. She doesn't buckle under the pressures of her demanding job. She fights for the right and minces no words before the difficult monarch. She is a refreshing change in the royal palace, full of outdated and superstitious norms, a harem full of dumb wives and lo! 106 adorable children!! She is not afraid to refute on any point before the king because she knows that he (with a penchant to turn Siam into a scientific country!) will listen to her. Such is her connect with the king. When the king recites, "From bee to bee to bee"'s noteworthy how she is ready to argue against his claims on love...
Anna is a dutiful teacher with a heart full of love and care...a character that Julie Andrews goes on to better in yet another Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece nine years later...The title, anyone???


  1. What a lovely film this was (though I hate the end!). And I think that Thai rendition of Uncle Tom's cabin is one of the most beautiful 'dance dramas' I've ever seen on screen. Stunning!

  2. Thanks for this funny and nostalgic reminder of the great Yul Brynner, which we used to revere in my family because my dad was his doctor during his French retirement in Normandy. Watching his movies, we used to feel that we communed even more with "our" great man!!

  3. @Dusted Off: You know, even I feel a little sad with the ending...may be because, how can a king meet with death on trifle humiliation??? But then, it's the regal aura of the entire experience that haunts me even after a long time the film is over!!! I just cannot get over Yul Brynner and his charisma!!! And, yes the dance drama is astoundingly beautiful!! Thank you for the comment!

  4. @ your father actually knew this great actor??? Man, I'm really impressed...Btw thanks for the comment!!

  5. Sharmi: Thank you for arranging a trip to nostalgia! And I didn't know he was suffering from a heart ailment while making the movie, his energetic performance didn't betray a thing. BTW the answer to you question in the guess is sound of music?:)

  6. are spot on!!! Exactly, who would even know that Brynner was suffering. He is so powerful in his portrayal here...
    Jesus, it's so difficult to stop loving films of yore right!!! Why don't they make films like these anymore?? Sad, huh...