Friday, September 28, 2012

Realism as conceit, exhibit A

Long, indulgent post this, but it is one of those subjects I could go on and on about... which is basically what I've done here.

The subject of what comprises 'realism' in cinema has long intrigued me. No 'intelligent' conversation around films is complete without the obligatory running down of some popular entertainers from some overrated filmmakers against the under-appreciated, realistic, gritty fares from some under-appreciated filmmakers. I almost threw up in my mouth once when the day's realistic, under-appreciated film in focus was announced.

Raj Kapoor for some people falls into the aforementioned over-rated category, both as an actor and director. I tuned into Zee Classic today just in time to catch the song Pyaar Hua, Ikraar Hua... from Shree 420 and the question of how much of the classic scenes unfolding on screen would be counted as real and what made them so effective, so endearing and immortal popped in my head. Sure, you were no more likely to run into someone dressed like Charlie Chaplin's iconic tramp on the streets of Mumbai in 1955, any more than you are now. I've often heard Raj Kapoor, and this film dismissed with a simplistic, "Oh, Raj Kapoor? He just copied Charlie Chaplin."

That song may not be the beacon of realism in cinema. It looks like it is mostly shot in a studio, and the rain probably came from a hose or whatever they use to simulate rain in movies. But the look on Nargis's face as she reluctantly agrees to share an umbrella with the lovable tramp is one of the most real expressions of barely acknowledged love I've seen. Later, as the lovers walk away singing in the rain under their shared umbrella, the camera pans to a roadside chaiwaala (or was it a beggar?), and for a few seconds focuses on his wizened face as it lights up at the sight of young romance.

Soon enough, the reverie is broken as Raju gets his own dose of reality - he's forgotten the heated iron in the laundry where he works, and sure enough, there has been a minor fire incident back at the workplace. A couple minutes of Chaplinisque slapstick with a fire extinguisher later, he is slapped with a whopping Rs 10 fine AND asked to work on the coming Sunday. Thus we are dragged out of the dreamy romance and into the plot of the story, where it is clear that Raju isn't a good laundry worker - he was after all meant for bigger things. The Sunday penalty also innocently steers us towards the next big event in Raju's life: his meeting with the sensuous Nadira, which will turn out to be just the lucky break he needed to make it in the big bad city.

This entire sequence - and the following sequence involving a game of poker - might be a textbook study on how to weave in romance, drama and comedy to make the narrative interesting. Things don't move along at nearly the same pace in real life, but as storytelling goes, it is a very satisfying experience.

I have said before on this blog that realistic portrayal of any and everything isn't an end in itself. I didn't enjoy the art films as a kid and I thought I'd learn to appreciate them as I grew up. Now while I 'get' some of those films better, I'm still not a fan of anything that got dished out as parallel cinema. A lot of people are now agreeing that while there are some shining examples of the minimal style of movie making that evolved in the 80s, there were many forgettable films which tried passing off boring as artistic. I'm certainly not paying to watch a director's indulgence in what he considers good cinema at the cost of two hours of my life. I need my cinema to entertain me.

'Entertainment' may seem a shallow word here. The greatest cinematic moments that stay with us long after we first encountered them may not all come under the generic umbrella of entertainment. We all have our favorite bitter, sweet, sad, funny, sentimental moments from our most beloved films. More often than not, our memory these cinematic moments is about the emotions they evoke. Whether it is just a hint of terror you first felt as Gabbar's shadow falls on Thakur's hapless grandson, or the genuine laughter Rohit Shetty was able to elicit, or for that matter the sadness at watching Kamal Hassan limping after Sridevi's coach in Sadma.

If you're honest to yourself, any kind of cinema ultimately works on an emotional level, even the so-called intellectual cinema - if that is even a thing. The intellectual bit of it is just to cut through the viewer's sense of what is real or fake, smart or silly and reach the emotional core. Hence Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro nods to your cynicism and goes ahead and makes you laugh at the outrageous Mahabharat scene. Sholay pays some lip service to the question of whether countering violence with violence is the solution - the word Ahimsa is thrown into the conversation - before taking you to the satisfactory blood drenched climax (or at least as blood drenched as the censors allowed it to be).

The truth is, the success of any film lies on its ability to manipulate you, the viewer into feeling some or the other form of emotion. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai wouldn't work if by the time of the climactic wedding, audience isn't rooting for Kajol to chose the moron over the good guy. How often have we immersed ourselves into the story of the moron and eventually heaved a sigh of relief as he gets away with everything he doesn't deserve, be it money, fame, success, redemption, or the trophy girl? 'Emotionally manipulative' is a term I often see in a lot of film blogs these days, as if it is a bad thing. Manipulation is really the name of the game here.

So how does realism figure in this business of manipulation? Obviously, as a manipulative device. You aren't going to buy into any of that drama if none of it felt real, are you?

The premise of Sridevi's temporary amnesia in Sadma may be illogical and absurd in itself, but it forms the backdrop for a very unusual emotional experiment - what if you fell for someone who'd eventually forget you? What makes the film haunting is how convincingly it builds upon this premise. Convincing is the key word here, which makes the difference between intensely sad and outrageously farcical. And without Kamal Hassan's wonderful performance, nobody would buy into the sadness of the absurd, unreal premise.

No matter what the genre, a bit of realism is what helps the proceedings on screen cut through the layers of thought to tap into your emotions. This is true even of those genres you wouldn't think of associating with realism - horror, fantasy, science fiction, for example. One of the rare effective horror films in India, Bhoot managed to scare me (yes, I was scared watching Bhoot, go laugh) by suggesting how those terrifying supernatural things could be lurking right there in your plush little South Bombay apartment, and you could run into one without the trouble of travelling out of town to some spooky Haveli. Why, they could be watching over your shoulder even as you snooze off in front of the TV - something I do a lot. Some of the spookiest moments from the Grudge films happen in a hotel room, a school principal's office and a public bus - places any of us could be in any given day. 

That to me, is how reality is best used for cinematic purposes: to lure you into a believable world just enough to pull the carpet from right under your feet in a way only cinema can.

I just edited out a few lines about the original Star Trek here, to which my brother-in-law recently introduced me. I was clearly out of my league there. I also edited out Harry Potter for the sake of brevity and Madhur Bhandarkar for the sake of sanity.