Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Realism with a pinch of salt

I haven't seen Gangs of Wasseypur as of 10th July 2012 and, so this is by no measure a review of the film. I'm totally prepared to be thrilled or disappointed by the actual film when I eventually do watch it. What prompted this post rather, was this admittedly well-written, but slightly off-the-mark post that mostly revolves around Anurag Kashyap's latest. I have nothing for or against the writer or the many Hindi journalists he has quoted, but their strongest contention against GoW brings me to one of my pet peeves - the gist of the article seems to be that, contrary to what most positive reviews of the film in English language papers tell you, GoW is... wait for it... not the most authentic portrayal of a small town called Wasseypur in Dhanbad! The treachery! The next thing you'll tell me is that Sholay is not a realistic depiction of dacoits around the village of Ramgarh in Jharkhand... or Lagaan is an inaccurate description of Indian history! Perhaps there's an Italian mafia family somewhere fuming over the stereotyping of their clan in the Godfather movies. Did historians question the accuracy of Mughl-e-Azam? One of the journos quoted in the said article has helpfully pointed out that the film isn't even shot in Dhanbad - bad, bad Anurag Kashyap! Now that must be a real deal-breaker, because aren't Hindi films all about authentic locations?

Why is it that the most sincere cinematic endeavors have to bear the burden of authenticity when the Rohit Shettys and Sajid Khans run amok with their chosen brand of entertainment? Now I haven't been meticulously following every press release about GoW, but I don't think Anurag Kashyap ever claimed that he was making a documentary on the coal mafia. Let's try and use the good old "it's just entertainment" refrain here and look at the film in its own context, shall we? Or does one filmmaker's propensity for gritty dramas forbid him from doling out some old-fashioned entertainment?

Many good and bad films fall victim to this kind of half-baked criticism, based on a skewed idea of what realistic cinema means. One of my favorite examples is how this friend of mine, when I told him I'd enjoyed Honeymoon Travels, launched into a Perry Mason-like cross examination (bear in mind that this friend hadn't seen the film yet, but decided it was bad based on some friends' reviews).

Perry Mason: Okay tell me - in this lovely film that you so enjoyed, is there a sub-plot involving superheroes?
Eyewitness: Yes, there is. But...
Perry Mason: Is it true, that in this story about 8 couples on their honeymoon, one of the couples comprises a male and a female superhero?
Eyewitness: Yes, and that's the funny part. You see...
Perry Mason: Yes, I'll see but first tell me - in your opinion, is this realistic or logical?
Eyewitness: Of course it's not logical. That's what...
Perry Mason: Thank you. So you see your honor, witness admits that this film is unrealistic, illogical, and hence, garbage. Prosecution rests.

Okay, that's not how it really went but such was the drift of the conversation. Now  I was trying to come up with a semi-serious analysis of how much part realism should really play in our evaluation of cinema here, but I'll leave that to better critics than myself. For now, my point is just this: entertainment comes in all hues and colors. Just because some films don't come dressed in the traditional garbs of masala filmdom, they need not be held to entirely different criteria.

Two recent examples: Kahaani and Shanghai may claim to have a more authentic 'flavor' to them, but at the end of the day, they are both thrillers. In fact, the quasi-realistic backdrop in both cases works in that it makes the twists and turns of the story that much more relatable - one of the key revelations in Shanghai, for example, comes from a small-time photographer whose meticulous habit of backing up all his work on hard disk leads to the most important clue in the murder mystery. Shanghai touches upon a lot of subjects relevant in contemporary India, but if I start viewing it as a social film, it will fall apart for me because I might not be ideologically in agreement with it. Kahaani, thankfully steers clear of making any statement on terrorism and confines itself to a simple revenge drama draped in brilliant conceit. Call these films whatever you want, but at no point during Kahaani or Shanghai did I feel bored. If that's not entertainment, what is?

Fact: films by certain directors do receive a different kind of criticism because at times, those directors themselves try so hard to be 'different'. As a result, some potentially good films end up being so self-consciously devoid of anything remotely enjoyable, they are like the emperor parading down the street in all his naked glory. The humble viewers are left waiting for a child to hoot first, so we may politely join in. A good idea would be for some of our better filmmakers to stop sulking every time a pet project does not live up to its potential. Maybe the next time a little kid laughs at you, just smile, say oops, and pull a towel around... gosh, I could go on and on with this Emperor's New Clothes analogy :) 

Back to the point if I had one...

So real shmeal, what we need to ask ourselves about most films - nay, any film - is, does it hold together? Sholay holds together; DDLJ for all the things it has been accused of over the last two decades, holds together as a dreamy romance. As long as GoW holds its story together, has me riveted to the screen for the 2+ hours I spend in that auditorium, I don't care if girls of Wasseypur actually walk and talk like Reema Sen. If we can handle Basanti, we can handle this. The very fact that this film has managed to confuse a segment of the media, however small, about its intent and purpose, means it has probably stuck a cord somewhere.

Meanwhile, you die-hard fans of realistic stuff, do please check out Supermen of Malegaon.


  1. Excellent point...
    The contrasting responses from English and Hindi media unfortunately also showcase the socio-economic and cultural divide of the country...

    Upmarket English media is desperate to find a face saving posterboy to show that there is more to Indian cinema than those embarrassing marriage videos... Kashyap is the foremost contender for this slot (although he has suffered enough to reach this point)...

    On the other hand native language media is mostly insecure and skeptical... and are very sensitive about how they are portrayed in the media and are unlikely to consider any work of art as just that...

  2. Well socio-economic and cultural stuff is beyond my little brain, though I've never understood why we need to be embarrassed about our cinema. I appreciate Kashyap's movies for their internal coherence, but I don't see why I need to hate a certain kind of cinema as some sort of admission fee to his fan club.
    As for vernacular media, I'm not qualified to comment on their competence, but in the instances quoted above, it did come across like those particular journos were analyzing the film like a documentary rather than a feature film. Reminds me of the time when Amitabh Bacchan, while promoting his Rann, visited a news channel's office. The excited staff kept asking him if the film's depiction of a news channel was anywhere close to their real office. AB patiently explained that the film's purpose was to tell a story about certain issues, and not to educate the audience about how news channels work.