Dilip Paanwala used to run a small cigarette shop next to the canteen at the Film and TV Institute of India (FTII), Pune, when I was a student there between 1987 and 1990. I was once surprised to see him inside the Main Theater opposite his shop, trying to watch a classic Indian film along with the students. The next day, while buying a Charminar cigarette, I casually asked him about the film. “Oh, it’s very verbose”, he had then said condescendingly and without batting an eyelid.
As I recall this incident now, it made me realize how certain aspects of Film Appreciation (FA) and Film Criticism studies have been disseminated down the line since the inception of the Film Appreciation (FA) department at FTII. These features of FA now reach a cross section of people across India via FTII students and the various FA courses that are conducted regularly by the FTII. Today, if one is quite accustomed to hear people object to the verbosity of the film, its melodramatic aspects, its lack of subtle nuances, sticking to its song and dance routine or emphasizing of its emotions through continuous hammering of its background score, it is perhaps due to the legacy legitimized by the so called ‘Indian New Wave’ films that shunned all these elements and the now defunct but once vibrant Film Society movement across the country. Today, it is common to hear people vehemently criticize a particular film for not being cinematic enough because it does not speak ‘visually’.
Whether the FA Department of the FTII, the harbingers of the Indian New Wave Cinema or the Film Society movement itself intended it (or not), a particular set of aesthetics used in our cinematic language have become untouchable over the years almost in the casteist sense. This is, perhaps, without due consideration given to the paramount relationship that cinematic language has to do with the context of the movie. So, the esoteric, surreal, ethnic images and the forced references to mythology in a movie like Karnan (2021) – made in Tamil language – is celebrated as a true representation of Dalit expression without any kind of acknowledgement that it is also a perfect example of the escapist mainstream Indian cinema of wish-fulfillment.
Karnan‘s aim is to further the interests of those privileged few who have either produced the movie or distributed and exhibited it – the ones who seek to create wealth for themselves by manipulating the audience with glitz, glory and directors who oblige them readily. Keeping this in mind, what would then be the value of those surreal associations painstakingly worked out in the movie and for which we sing paeans while celebrating it as ‘cinematic’ treatment? Wouldn’t the film then be a Dalit expression that has been manipulated to suit the purposes of a few privileged persons? Isn’t it then a status quo, continued over centuries? Am I present to this reality only when I scrutinize the language used in the in a film as a standalone trope? Or is it that the aesthetic used in Karnan needs to be seen in tandem with what is actually being said through that language? This naturally begs for a third significant question. Can the signified and the signifier be separated at all? Or in mortal terms, can form ever be separate from its content?
Consider Nedumi (2021), another Tamil movie that deals with the caste issue plaguing a stratified community living in the Dravidian land. The movie looks at the brutal discrimination inflicted against a family of the toddy-tapping community before and after the then government bans the traditional tapping of toddy from palm trees. The family wants to live a self-sufficient and dignified life as the protagonist bids for a toddy-tapping tender and what’s more, gets it, braving much caste enmity in his village. However, following the government ban, the family is criminalized. It is made to degenerate financially, physically and even morally – all plotted by the privileged class, which itself easily morphs for survival purposes. They set up bottled liquor shops after the toddy ban while the traditional toddy tappers cling on to their old profession as they worship the palm tree. By the end of the film, the battered family is forced to leave the village, unsure if the elusive dignified life they seek would ever be possible. In short, this movie is a fair representation of the community and the caste discrimination that it constantly faces.
Now consider the cinematic language the movie uses. Nedumi is highly melodramatic, its emotions and sentiments underlined all though with a continuous supplementing background score. Everything in the movie is overtly communicated, most characters border towards being either black or white and as per the general nature of Tamil cinema, it is extremely verbose. In other words, the movie’s treatment is everything that the FTII FA department or the Indian New Wave, heavily inspired by European cinema of the time, would despise.
If I too am dissing the cinematic idiom of the movie, is it so because such a tradition has been adhered to over the years which, by sheer habit, does not take into consideration the context of the movie? The context of Nedumi is overtly clear. It depicts the degrading impact of social stratification in rural India. It is not only the powerful classes/castes that are responsible for the protagonist’s condition but also the governance machinery itself, which his tormentors use for their favor. The movie takes the point of view of the protagonist and looks at events unfolding through his and his family’s eyes. It is thus a distinctly Dalit gaze and the cinematic language that is used does not seem to violate this voice. Why then should I have issues with such a language that is so obviously explicit in its intent, simply because I don’t have a personal preference for it? And even if I do have any bias, why am I not willing to let go of it when I consider the context of the movie’s language? Or most importantly, am I really engaging with the said context at all and on its own terms?
One of the features of mainstream cinema is that it sucks its audience into a state of suspension of disbelief, thereby making the viewer fully submissive to its content. There is indeed a compelling dramatic narrative form used in Nedumi that has the capacity to do just that. But there are also some discerning and alienating elements deliberately incorporated into the mise-en-scène which, at regular intervals, reminds us that it is a cinematic construction we are watching. I mention here a shot that represents exactly such intent. When the son of the family is seriously sick, we see the worried parents come out of their hut, holding the child in a long shot. They sit on a bicycle and pedal away. The camera pans and leaves them to show us the surroundings instead. On the sound track, we hear the conversation that takes place at the hospital between the doctor and the parents on the nature of the boy’s illness. The camera then rotates 360 degrees and comes back to the hut and its door. The couple and the child enter the hut; it is their return from the hospital. Within the short span of the camera pan, a large chunk of time elapses, wherein it is narrated that the family has gone to the hospital to meet a doctor and come back. Such treatment literally shouts out to us that what we are looking at is not real but something extremely deliberately constructed. The film has many such ingeniously designed shots that have the capacity break the audience away from the excessive emotions embedded in the narrative. By simply moaning that the language is mainstream without considering some of these factors would do us no good.
No doubt, we are greatly indebted to our FA professors, the Indian New Wave film directors and Film Society activists for their pioneering efforts in making us aware of and dissecting the cinematic language to the extent that it has been done in our country. But once this is duly acknowledged, it is now time to move on. Can we now make inquiries into movie’s intent though its own text instead of superficially dissing the language itself per say and therefore the movie itself? By doing so, we would then not only be paying a true tribute to the erstwhile idiom disseminators of cinema but also saving ourselves from some natural embarrassment in our attempts to bestow universal greatness to certain cinematic offerings and not for others. And if just nuances were the basis for cinematic greatness, then given the quality of directness that they had, masterpieces like Battleship Potemkin (1925) or Metropolis (1927) would have been considered as mediocre fare in the world of cinema!
Header still from Nedumi (Tamil, 2021)