Watching Mira Nair directed film 'Namesake' eventually brought me to this Russian movie. One of the iconic lines mentioned in 'Namesake' is 'we are all from Gogol's Overcoat'. The quote is attributed to Dostoevsky, who meant the whole Russian literary world owe their ideas and styles to Gogol, the pre-eminent satirist and literary realism.
Gogol's Overcoat had made it to the silver screen many times over. From the silent film production in 1916 to the 2018 animated version, some of it carries different storylines.
This 1959 Soviet production stays true to the original short story. I also managed to catch up with a made-for-TV adaptation for 'Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Presents' starring Buster Keaton named 'Awakening'. Both of these movies are available on YouTube.
Akaki Akakievich, the protagonist in Gogol's story, is a sad character who leads a boring life. He works in a governmental agency doing seemingly mundane job of keeping records, writing and copying documents. In his mind, he is doing something quite profound. He knows all the figures and numbers like the back of his hand. His eccentricity is actually the butt of joke among his co-worker. Akaki earns pittance, and it shows. He lives in a rented room in the poor side of town. His overcoat is so worn out and cannot be patched anymore, according to his tailor.
He stinges through to be able to sew a new coat and receives attention from his co-workers when he shows up with his new overcoat. The usual socially awkward Akiki is feted with an office party in his honour. Akiki is extremely happy with his decision, but still, his new purchase cannot change his awkwardness. He personifies his coat and cares for it dearly, sometimes over the top. He even removes the coat when it snows, not wanting to get it wet.
Going home, his flashy coat draws unwanted attention. He is mugged. Muggers scoot off with his pricey possession. Next comes the lengthy bureaucracy of reporting his theft. He is given the runaround. His loss and exposure of cold proved too much for Akiki. Akiki succumbs to pneumonia and haunts the neighbourhood. A meaningless death to a person leading a meaningless life.
The Buster Keaton version (The Awakening) has a slightly different ending. Akiki does not die, but instead, is determined to relive his dream where he raises up to assassinate the chief of the tyrannic system.
The story is a symbolism of a broken system. Even though people's patience has been stretched thin with ridiculous policies and unwise decisions, the people go on thinking that they are doing alright. Not realising that the joke is on them, they blindly give themselves a pat on their back for a job well done. Unbeknownst to everyone changes can be detrimental, but then, the Truth or generation after them will rise to the occasion. This is shown as Akiki coming back as a ghost to haunt the living daylight of the people of St Petersburg.
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