Miron Penson (USA). Charming Shukur Burkhanov

Issue #4 • 1173

Scene from the  “Storm over Asia”. with Sh. Burkhanov as Yalantush. 1965 One evening I was channel-hopping and my attention was caught by one of the Russian programs broadcasting an interview with Bogdan Stupka, a wonderful actor and the People’s Artist of Russia and Ukraine. He reminded me strongly of Shukur Burkhanov, the People’s Artist of Russia too, and an actor just as talented and famous not only in Uzbekistan where he lived and worked, but also in many other countries.

Bogdan Stupka was telling a curious story of the time when he served as Minister of Culture of Ukraine without abandoning his actor’s career. The Ivan Franko Theatre was showing a play in which Stupka featured as a poor peasant. Wearing a make-up, he was sitting near an old house wrapped in his sad thoughts. Men of wealth, generals, high-ranking officers and noble ladies were passing him by. According to the play, they were supposed to give the poor peasant scornful looks… However, actors playing the rich men took off their hats and obsequiously bowed to Bogdan Stupka. “Are you out of your mind, fellows? I’m a poor farmer”, Bogdan said to them. “This one we know. Yet you are a minister!”, replied his fellow actors.

Scene from the  “Star of Ulugbek”. with Sh. Burkhanov as Ulugbek. 1965 A renowned Moscow director Alexander Ginsburg who had been leading the Khamza Theatre in Uzbekistan for some time, told a story of a “Master and Farm-hand” rehearsal, where the Master was played by Alim Khojaev. Shukur Burkhanov, the “farm-hand”, kicked the door open, entered the Master’s chambers treading heavily on the floor, and demanded with dignity: “Did you summon me?” Ginsburg intervened: ‘Shukur-aka, my dear friend, you are playing the farm-hand. You are supposed to enter the master’s quarters tiptoeing and stumbling’. Burkhanov paused as if considering the director’s suggestion, and then said with a mischievous grin: ‘But I’m the People’s, while the “Master” is Merited’. Burkhanov was referring to the recent order conferring the title of the People’s Artist of Uzbekistan on him and the “Merited Artist” title on Khojaev.

Shukur Burkhanov represents an entire era in the history of Uzbek theatre and cinema. I was fortunate to work on films in which the actor participated. These were the films by Kamil Yarmatov, one of the talented Uzbek cinematographers. Burkhanov worked with many film directors, yet his lead and the most remarkable characters appeared in the films by Yarmatov.

When Yarmatov commissioned to the Soviet GosKino his film “The Son of the Earth” where Burkhanov played Aznavur-Palvan, the Moscow cinematographic authorities suggested changing the title. ‘This is not “The Son of the Earth”, this is “Storm over Asia”‘, said the boss. So the Uzbek version was issued as “The Son of the Earth”, whereas the Russian version was titled “Storm over Asia”.

“Storm over Asia” was dubbed in Russian at the LenFilm studio. The LenFilm director invited Yarmatov to Leningrad to commission the Russian version. After the preview, the LenFilm director asked Gai, the People’s Artist of the USSR, who was dubbing Burkhanov, to redo some lines, which, in the director’s opinion, sounded more convincing in the Uzbek version. Gai agreed yet mentioned that he was unlikely to be as successful as the original: ‘Shukur Burkhanov is a Free Size talent, and it is hard to reach his level’. Yarmatov told the story to Burkhanov who got very upset with Gai: ‘Am I a pair of socks, kind of?’ For Burkhanov only socks could be ‘free size’.

Scene from the  “Star of Ulugbek”. with Sh. Burkhanov as Ulugbek. 1965 Filming “Riders of the Revolution” was nearing its end. We were shooting the final episodes in Samarqand. Shukur Burkhanov was playing the lead character. It was a hard day, and we returned to the hotel tired and covered in dirt. Assistant director burst into my room: ‘Miron-aka! Burkhanov wants to see you urgently’. Food was served in Burkhanov’s suite. The Samarqand “patrons of art” were great fans of Shukur-Aznavur. Burkhanov commanded me to sit down and gave me a glass full of cognac. Meekly I asked if could go and make myself presentable first, but he insisted that I drank. I did and made a move to leave, but he wouldn’t let me and poured for me another glass.

My ability to resist was heavily compromised by the first shot, so the second one followed. “The ceiling-crow started hovering down on us…” – this verse by Mayakovskiy crossed my mind, while Burkhanov positioned himself in front of me and asked: ‘Now tell me, am I playing a good guy or a bad guy?’ And this at the end of the film!

Burkhanov never read scripts. Film directors told him about the characters he was to play. He never watched the films in which he appeared, and he didn’t like seeing himself on the screen. He always thought he could have played better. He never studied to be an actor, and his talent was the gift of God. As a yielding wax in sculptor’s hands, he could create the character of the Rider of the Revolution, or King Lear, or a historian, or a retired general, or even an Uzbek immigrant. Burkhanov played his most memorable roles in films by Kamil Yarmatov. The families of Yarmatov and Burkhanov were friends, but this did not prevent the director from being strict and demanding on the film set.

Burkhanov had an amazing sense of light. He felt the heat of the soffits on his skin and sometimes jokingly gave commands to the lighters: ‘Utkut! The beam! Sabir! Put on the mesh. Alisher! Put off your device.’ Interestingly, Burkhanov’s jokes tuned out to be right to the point. Perhaps, this is why he never liked when a camera-man indicated the spot where he had to be. Having realized that, I set the lights in a way to enable Burkhanov to move freely. ‘Shukur-aka, walk as you please, halt as you please, I will have you in focus.’ …The benefit of my experience with documentaries. However, on one occasion this liberty nearly resulted in a defective product.

Again, it was the “Riders of the Revolution”. A different set – the residence of the White Guard officer – richly furnished with soft couches. Aznavur-Palvan and Head of the Revolutionary Committee are discussing things. The Head is leading the talk while Aznavur-Palvan accommodates himself in a soft armchair next to a table with assorted alcohol. He samples one variety, then another, and another still, gets tipsy and starts telling about his family history, remembering his grandfather who served as a guard of the Emir of Bukhara. We rehearsed the scene but the “Action!” didn’t follow. Yarmatov asks for a bottle of vodka, pours a full glass and gives it to Burkhanov to drink. Then he gives him the second one, and only after that says “Action!” I focus on Shukur Burkhanov. He pours strong tea from one bottle, then from another and begins his monologue. Through my viewfinder I can see that he is really getting drunk.

Burkhanov rises from his chair, draws out his cavalry sword and, knocking the bottles off the table, climbs onto the chair. Following him standing on it, I move my camera to get the upper panorama and realize, to my horror, that his face is now projected beyond the set. There was no ceiling in the corner with the table. Fortunately, that corner had no soffit farm. Burkhanov’s head was projected against the dark space of the pavilion. I was tempted to cry “Stop!” but was afraid to ruin this wonderful take! I made a smooth close-up for the face and at this moment Burkhanov, already finishing his monologue, started to get down, sat at the table, put his head on it and began falling asleep. I expected a command to stop, but Yarmatov was in no hurry. Only when we actually heard a snore, he stopped the camera. Naturally, another take was out of the question.

‘How is it?’ asks Yarmatov. I tell him about the edge of the set. ‘Let’s view it on the screen. You did well by not stopping’. Yarmatov was absolutely calm: ‘He can never do this again’.

Yarmatov’s experience was amazing. He could see an episode mounted before it was even shot. Besides, Yarmatov had a good sense of actors’ ability. He could tell a talent from a mediocrity. Yarmatov’s last film, “Years Far and Near”, was the last for Burkhanov too. We shot it in Khorezm, the province of Uzbekistan that is a real Klondike for cinematographers. It has it all – antiquity and desert, a river and riparian saxaul forests, the remnants of ancient fortresses and entire cities covered with sand dunes… Karen Shakhnazarov came to Khorezm to film the final episodes of MosFilm’s new production “The Lost Empire”. He showed a city buried in sand, vanished, just as did a great nation – disappeared from the maps of the world…

In “Years Far and Near” Burkhanov played the father of a young Revolutionary Committee officer. Everything was new – nature, clothes and even language. Khorezmians speak vernacular Uzbek. I can hardly recall happier days than those we spent shooting in Khorezm: wild Amu-Darya River, boundless Kyzyl-Kum desert, ancient Khiva… But as it often happens, joy gives way to sorrow. Tragic news came from Tashkent. Burkhanov’s youngest daughter Shakhnoza drowned in Chirchik River. She played a lead character in T. Kamalova’s film for children. The crew had a day off and the children went to the beach with their mentors. Shakhnoza was caught in a current that usually occurs in mountain streams. We were all shaken by the tragedy. Only recently the girl visited her father in Khorezm and won the hearts of the entire crew. Burkhanov and Yarmatov flew to Tashkent. Time was dragging on so slowly. In a few days they returned to complete the film. One could hardly recognize Burkhanov now as he sat alone, away from the others, looking at the world with unseeing eyes… But life went on and work had to be done.

Yarmatov and Burkhanov stayed in a suburban residence while the rest of the crew was accommodated in a hotel in Urgench. Film producer approached me and asked if I could temporarily move to stay with Shukur Burkhanov in the dacha. It was autumn, the most beautiful and “delicious” season in Uzbekistan. The orchard in the Party Regional Committee’s dacha once belonged to the Khan of Khiva, and the fruit tree branches bent under the extraordinary yield that year. Shukur-aka and I strolled along the alleys and remembered my father, Max Penson, who had been Burkhanov’s friend of long standing, and Alexander Ginsburg, but we never talked about Shakhnoza. When we returned to our room, we did not go to sleep for quite a while, and Burkhanov asked: ‘Miron-aka, may we keep the lights on, please? You see, when I go to bed and the lights are off, I have a vision of Shakhnoza, she stretches her arms towards me and begs, Daddy, don’t abandon me…’ The filming was coming to an end. We were shooting the final episodes in the open, at night time.

According to the story, bandits come to the RC officer’s house. They take his father out into the yard. He walks towards the camera and falls down after the second gunshot. We installed the rails and the dolly, set up the lights, and rehearsed with a double. For a long time the lead character did not appear. Yarmatov told us that Burkhanov was not feeling well and asked us to wait. By about five in the morning Burkhanov appeared and asked to film without rehearsing. The most experienced mechanic was put in charge of operating the dolly. Burkhanov took his position, the lights went on and one could see the effort he was making to fight his pain. ‘Action!’ – Yarmatov said in near whisper. Burkhanov started moving and so did the camera. Burkhanov’s progress was very slow, he halted… With his fourth or fifth step the first gunshot sounded. Burkhanov started, wavered, then stopped and cast a look at the yard and the house. Then he suddenly walked forward. The mechanic was doing a great job with the dolly, pulling it in sync with Burkhanov’s steps. The actor was moving faster. Another gunshot. Burkhanov stopped and wiped his sweating face with his forearm. His eyes went dull and he “fell out” of the frame. He was lying on the ground, unconscious. Doctors on duty bent over him. Yarmatov, on his knees, was shaking Burkhanov’s hand, begging his friend to wake up. Burkhanov regained consciousness: ‘Well, how did I do? It’s good we had enough rails’. Indeed so, because if Burkhanov had taken another step, the camera and I would have ended in a ditch. This one and only take featured in the film.

…My camera-man’s notes do not claim to present an analysis of Shukur Burkhanov’s talent. His work in theatre and cinema can offer enough material for several doctoral theses. I just recall things I saw myself and participated in. Kamil Yarmatov and Shukur Burkhanov both passed away, but the cinefilm remained to preserve the characters and people who excited the minds of their contemporaries just half a century ago…

Miron Penson (USA)

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