This post stems from stray arguments with friends and colleagues over the past few weeks and I’ve been meaning to put it all down for a while now.
In fact, after a point it is futile to argue about movies you liked and you didn’t like and why and why not because everybody, even that mangy dog on the street, has a every right to form his/her own opinion on what to like/consume.
But what annoys me most is the argument that the mass is stupid when it comes to understanding cinema and the classes are intelligent because they can appreciate art-house fare.
Talk about intellectual snobbery.
Sensibility has nothing whatsoever to do with intelligence. Intellectual, maybe. Intelligence, up yours.
Of course, there are examples of a mass lapping up implausible no-brainers just like there could be an equal number of examples of films where the self-proclaimed intellectual class has found meaning in the Emperor’s New Clothes. Let’s play word association. Think intellectual, what’s the word that comes to your mind? Never mind actually.
Consuming mind-less fare or sheer buffoonery for entertainment does not make the audience stupid just like appreciating finer nuances of a complex layered plot that they cannot fully understand does not make the intellectual intelligent. It all boils down to the functionality of cinema… the gratification offered and the need of the audience.
What if the masses want escape because they are sick and tired of the realism in their lives that they no longer give a rat’s ass about the dark side of life only because they have enough of it in their lives already…
It’s Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at play at some weird level here. Roughly, the people at the bottom of the pyramid want their basic needs addressed out of cinema: to escape from the brutal reality of life. They want to fight, they want to beat the crap out of all the powerful bully-motherfuckers on the street, the corrupt politicians who don’t give a shit and wish they had the balls of steel to stand up for the oppressed. Those who have managed to escape the brutal reality of life and have had their share of rebellion, want the innocence of romance in their life. Those who have had enough romance in their life probably just want to discuss sex and adultery and the complexity of urban life, morality and political correctness. Those who don’t have any of these bothering them because they have no interest in romance or sex (or maybe they have made their peace with the lack of both in their lives) find other things to appreciate – the finer things: wine, books, literature, art and look for what they believe are the finer aspects of life to satisfy them in what they consider entertainment.
What I don’t get is this: How can you be intelligent if you are looking for “refinement in sensibility” in a product that is essentially made for a diverse mass of people, and more so in a country like India where the profile of people living in Anna Nagar and Aminjikarai, separated by an archway, isn’t the same. So who is the dumb-fuck now? You or the guy who made the movie for a diverse mass?
Your argument always is that the guy who made the movie is an idiot because he assumes the mass is not intelligent. Again, is he stupid in assuming the mass is not intelligent or are you pea-brained to assume that every filmmaker gets great pleasure in telling his story to an exclusive small club of wine-tasters?
It always boils down to intention. a. What is the filmmaker trying to say. b. Who is he talking to.
If you don’t understand this quintessential principle of communication or any expression, maybe you need to start understanding art from the basics. Or try public speaking and manage to hold the attention of your workplace or college (Don’t try this at some fat-ass self-help group and say how easy it is)
Which is why I find it surprising that many critics, including one I worship and admire, do not think it is necessary to understand intent of filmmaker, the context in which has made the film or the audience it is targeted at.
Storytelling always depends on who are you telling the story to. You could tell the same story to different sets of people depending on who they are, what language they speak and where they hail from. The bigger the audience, the less homogenous it becomes. Dealing with diversity requires intelligence, not necessarily intellect.
Intellect maybe employed too but the most poignant artistic statements made in history have smacked of simplicity in idea. Deployment of intellect does not necessitate construction of a complexity – be it the character, the plot or the storytelling itself.
Which brings me to my next thought: Characterisation.
Why is it essential for all movies to have complex characters? Complex characters make for great stories, no doubt. But not all stories are about complex people.
Sometimes, they are about events where people have a limited role to play and the scope of their involvement is dictated by the relevance they have to the events. And sometimes, films are not about people or events. They are about ideas. And how do you tell stories about ideologies or social issues?
This is where the role of the “type” comes in to play.
Ever thought of the possibility that filmmakers use “types” (often confused with stereotypes of people in situational comedy or other forms of pop-entertainment) as a device to make a complex subject more comprehensible?
Films are not always about depth of character, they are larger than that.
Even the best of filmmakers have used “types”. Sometimes as a filmmaker, you put a “handle” on characters, so that it becomes easy for the audience to grasp it instantly and focus on the larger picture. The filmmaker always has a choice of how to deliver a character to you.
Hollywood and European films define a character and even turn it on the head over the course of the film but Indian films have their own syntax of storytelling… They tell you right in the beginning who’s playing what because sometimes, that’s not what the story is about.
A story about an issue when broken down takes human shape and the two sides of an argument (since films are about conflict) are personfied by actors representing ideologies… Each characters stand for something and it is through the face-off of these characters that ideologies or schools of thoughts clash.
Mani Ratnam does in every single film he has. Bombay was about the romance between a Hindu and a Muslim and the possibility of them creating beautiful adorable kids who are secular in the true sense of the term with various ideologies being represented by different characters.
Yuva was about three different kinds of youth – the indifferent (Siddharth), the proactive fighting-for-good (Surya) and the ambitious selfish I, Me, Myselfs (Madhavan). Three different “types” (stereotypes) brought together because the idea wasn’t to tell you about specifics of a character, the idea was to talk about larger issues, greater issues… Yuva tried to talk about the role of youth in transforming a society.
Ditto for Rang De Basanti: The cynical middle-class opinion leader of the gang (DJ, Aamir who makes the rest dance to his tunes), the emotional clown of the gang (Sukhi, Sharmaan), the angry, young frustrated rich rebel kid, the genial poet (Aslam, Kunal Kapoor), the Hindu fundamentalist (Atul Kulkarni), the conscience of the gang (Maddy plays the righteous good son, perfect lover, patriot)… Rang De Basanti tried to classify Indian youth across diverse backgrounds and made them wake up to the common enemy after their conscience is killed.
Similarly, Taare Zameen Par, makes the kid so real (making him do many things that have been part of your childhood) that you relate to him instantly and actually start relating to the problem he has and then, lets a person of authority (a singing dancing superstar) start a conversation with his parents. Parents need to be talked to. Because we are a society that puts so much pressure on our kids.
I talk about Taare specifically because there has been a lot of discussion, even among critics, on why Aamir had play it like Aamir Khan and not even bother to try and be the art teacher Ram Shankar Nikumbh. Because, it would’ve been a waste of stardom had he chose to play the character instead of the star people see Aamir Khan as.
In the Indian context, films are where reality meets fantasy halfway. You have characters you identify with or aspire to be in a situation you have been or have wanted to be in and then a film gives you the hypothetical outcome… the fantasy on the accomplishment of the character’s dreams. Sometimes, it’s about getting the girl of your dreams (Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge). Sometimes, it is about doing something about the system (Rang De Basanti). Sometimes, it’s about chilling out with friends and celebrating life and friendship the way you’ve always wanted to (Dil Chahta Hai).
In Taare, a boy with a common problem in a developing country like India (the problem being parental pressure to perform, not necessarily dyslexia) meets his guardian angel who gives him wings.
The guardian angel had to be larger than life and not Mohan Bhargav of Swades which worked in that film because there SRK was not playing the angel or demi-god, he was playing the guy they wanted you to relate to.
The reality about Indian Cinema is that, unlike European cinema which is made for connoisseurs as an artistic expression, or assembly-line American cinema that is largely spectacle-based and made for a diverse global English-speaking, Hollywood-worshipping audience, our storytelling culture is rooted in mythology of Gods and heroes… this is deeply embedded in the Indian psyche at a subconscious level and hence, the need for a star, a demi-god, an angel who will show you the way in mass-based cinema.
Not all films where a star plays his larger-than-life persona are stupid. In fact, cinema as social commentary demands the star to pay his due to the society by facilitating a dialogue, especially when he’s in a position to deliver a message effectively as a person of authority commanding persuasive power. Remember Superstar talking about Polio in an ad? Exactly what Aamir has done for dyslexia.
Doing that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Understanding the historical context of cinema, the background of the people it is intended for, the intention of the filmmaker, the methods and techniques in giving shape (form) to a story (content) and the knowledge of devices employed to reach out to a mass, including understanding of the role of iconography makes film criticism in India an extremely complex task.
And hence, the need for critics to get formal training because film criticism is as specialised a discipline like nuclear physics or dermatology only that only that the products of this discipline are readily available for everybody’s expert comments for the price of a movie ticket. Again, I use the term “film criticism”… not opinion.
I have nothing against opinions. Opinions are a natural reaction of consuming a story. And they are most important valuable to filmmakers in understanding their audience. The role played by an opinion from the common man is very different from the role played by a critic’s analysis for a filmmaker.
A friend asked me if I had any answer for the sad story of Van Gogh, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara or Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the game? It was totally because of the failure of critics and lack of sensibility of the bourgeois, she said.
Well, the answer is that there were no critics trained in the specialisation of film criticism then. We are still at a phase where journalists pass off opinions as criticism. The culture of passing off story-retelling as reviews continues till date. What’s more dangerous than a journalist passing off his opinion as analysis? A highly opinionated arrogant critic with half-baked knowledge of cinematic, suffering from a disconnect in sensibility with the people that the cinema is intended for… and well, Hubris.
Film criticism as a discipline in India has emerged only over the last decade or so. Even today, most critics doing their job are doing it out of their love for the medium and not because they have been trained. To their credit, some of them have been doing a fabulous job too.
But this just brings me to a question Kamal Hassan recently asked: “For every other profession, you need some sort of qualification before you are allowed to do your job. Why is it then that not many people in film business see the need to train and educate themselves about the art before they do their jobs? All those who packed their bags from the village do not end up being Bharathirajaa or Ilaiyaraja, all those who have done engineering don’t end up being Mani Ratnam…” We could surely add: Nor do all school dropouts become a Kamal Hassan. But the point is he waited 25 years before he could direct his own film.
I know I’ve made this post at the risk of sounding like I’m qualified for the job. Not true at all. But yes, I know that I’m at least in the right direction of understanding filmmakers (by being one myself, by supporting indie filmmaking and exploring different options of telling a story), learning more about the people of this country (by trying to watch all kinds of successful and popular cinema), trying to employ all my academic training to understand different kinds of cinema from around the world while trying to approach criticism from a holistic Indian perspective and treat it not just as art but as applied art, an expression, another form of communication that, no matter how simple or complex, must ultimately tell us a story we haven’t heard or at least tell it to us in a way we haven’t heard it.
To finish off this long-winded post on sensibility and storytelling, I have a question to every person who has a story to tell. Would you like to share it with just like-minded people or do you want to share it with a larger, diverse, mass audience?
At the end of the day, this depends on what is the story you want to tell and who do you want to tell the story to.
Which is exactly why any responsible film critic needs to consider the intention of a filmmaker. It is a filmmaker’s right to choose who he wants to talk to. It is also his right to tell the story the way he wants to because any story can be told in a million different ways but it is the job of a director to interpret pages of text and suck his intended audience inside the story. Don’t ever judge him for how you would’ve told the story. Everybody tells a story differently. Ever heard of two people telling the story exactly the same way?
Criticising a filmmaker for not thinking the way you do or for choosing an audience that does not include you, makes you that thing that barks up the wrong tree.