No Mise-en-Scene, No Cinema

“Wim Wenders places a camera anywhere and creates cinema!”, I exclaimed after a retrospective of his films at FTII in Pune. A disastrous attempt in one of my exercises to emulate the master made me realize how it takes meticulous planning and the fine understanding of the cinematic language for two hours to look so casual and natural. One cannot simply place the camera and shoot. And this, to my mind, is what ails most of our films today.

Mise-en-Scene is the protoplasm of cinema. Any film infused with cinema, classical or contemporary will have its auteur delineating its mise-en-ccene. An auteur declares his mise-en-scene. In its absence, a film more often than not is bereft of true cinema.

For the purpose of this article, mise-en-scene is the collaboration of various elements of film making, both aesthetic and technical. It is when these elements like art direction, costumes, locations, lighting, lensing, composition, shot-taking, editing, sound, music, actors and the script all synthesize to create an appropriate cinematic vehicle that best serves the narrative structure, the characters and the thematic concerns of the maker, that cinema is unspooled on celluloid.

The masters of cinema were labeled auteurs once they stamped their mise-en-scene onto their films. From Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Jean-Luc Goddard, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrei Tarkovsky, Luis Bunuel, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock to our very own Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, Vijay Anand, Adoor Gopalkrishnan, Mani Kaul, Kumar Sahani and even early Shyam Benegal, they were known for their masterly control because they were totally conscious of the language of cinema available to them and each one of them put it to extremely personal use. Even the contemporary masters like Wong Kar Wai, Fatin Akin, Lars Von Trier and Majid Majidi negotiate their cinema with astute control over their art. Their Mise-en-Scenes differentiate them from one another, setting them apart with unique identities.

However, most Indian films nowadays, including those of the neo-new wave filmmakers are found terribly wanting on this front. Hence most of them are devoid of cinematic merit that is imperative to make their presence felt in movie annals. To put it plainly, we simply fall short. The euphoria of mediocrity unintelligently paints these films with false greatness. But let the truth be told. They are far from it.

To illustrate this point one can take an example of two recent films, Masaan (2015) and Talvar (2015). Both are good films and well-intended. One cannot question the subject matter, the approach and the fact that both are a welcome relief from the crass we churn out in the name of popular cinema. In that sense, they are praiseworthy efforts.

But if one were to look closely, the ‘realistic’ approach of these films and realism are two different things. While realism as a cinematic tool has an inherent mise-en-scene, just taking a realistic approach doesn’t necessarily ensure the same. And therein lies the problem. Merely shooting on location, using everyday costumes, and adopting a naturalistic style in all departments are not enough. It is what a maker does with them to tell his story. In other words, mise-en-scene is the only medium through which a genuinely good filmmaker can make his or her presence felt in a film.

Masaan, while adopting a multi track narrative approach and filming on location in Varanasi, creates an atmosphere for sure but sadly, stops at that. While its cininematic components like lensing, compositions, use of light, sound design and an edit pattern are competently handled, they do not, however, synthesize as a coherent whole to create a distinct mise-en-scene for the film.

Talvar, a more popular effort than Masaan, has everything going for it. The film has some of the country’s finest actors, is shot on location, boasts of superb editing, has decent cinematography and even a good screenplay. Yet, the film falters. The film not only fails in providing the required empathy for its characters, certainly mandatory for any classical dramatic film, but Meghna Gulzar also fails to display any understanding of the concept of mise-en-scene, hence it is conspicuous by its absence.

Purely for the sake of discussion – not to suggest even one bit that any film director should be making a different film from what he or she intended to make – but what if  the Arushi murder case was only used as a tool to explore certain thematic possibilities? For example, crime and the bourgeoisie, or life in the soulless satellite suburbs of metros, perhaps even the cultural gap between our police and upwardly mobile middle class world. The same story had immense possibilities and layers to explore innumerable themes thereby changing the contours of Talvar, I believe for the richer. A good story is a great vehicle for a theme. On the other hand, a story devoid of thematic concerns may not be as exciting.

Therefore, one would like to believe mise-en-scene is best guided by the thematic concerns of the filmmaker. The Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, in all his films explores family dynamics in post war Japan and adopts the same cinematic style for all his films. The poetic compositions of Ozu, the rhythm, lighting, formal approach and even the lens of 50mm remains constant in his films. In other words, similar themes have a similar Mise-en-Scene.

Can we imagine Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) having the same impact without its mise-en-scene? Sharp cuts from extreme long shots to close ups, the awkward framing, a dynamic sound design in scenes like when the heroine sees her fiancé with her sister, evocative use of music, a preference for the wide angle lens – all these elements and the unique manner in which Ghatak uses them makes Meghe Dhaka Tara the great film it is and not a simply a ‘realistic’ representation of the story. Wong Kar Wai in his brilliant film In the Mood For Love (2000) explores the theme of loneliness and love in suburban Hong Kong and lends the film its distinct look and feel, employing tools like its use of cramped spaces, its light design, its pace and edit design, its shot taking and acting style amongst other to give the theme and its characters, its maker’s stamp.

Satyajit Ray in Charulata (1964) visually establishes the loneliness of Charu in his brilliant opening sequence – truly one of the greatest expositions in the world of cinema. The more recent Marathi film Court (2014) has received accolades not just because of its multi layered thematic concerns of caste, dissent, the state and it absurd tyranny but because it superbly dealt with these themes with its specific cinematic language.

Not just parallel cinema or art house films but good mainstream films as well need this cinematic language to buttress their story and themes. Ram Gopal Varrma’s Company (2002), Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan (1987), Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975), all create high quality mainstream cinema simply because all these makers (and a few more I must add) consciously created their individual cinematic style.

If the new Indian film maker wants to stand up and be counted and find a permanent place in esteemed cinematic pantheon, then he has to arrive at noteworthy style which digs deep into a symbiotic relationship of story-theme-cinema, which deals in terms of an evolved language of cinema. Till then we as the world’s biggest film industry will continue to have our films languishing after their 15 minutes of fame. It’s high time we stopped celebrating mediocrity and start brainstorming over the creation of a suitable mise-en-scene!

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  1. Brilliant take.

    I have always wanted to research about mis-en-scene but everywhere its elements on the internet it seem – subjective to the author. Could you be so kind to please advise me some literature that can help me strengthen my foundation on the concepts of mis-en-scene.

    Kind Regards

  2. What an article. Great analysis. It is a truly learning experience for me. It makes me read these films differently instead of taking a rather holistic perspective on films. I instantly recall Charu looking at her husband through the opera glasses in the same corridor to establish the ‘distance’ between them. The liminal space-time context is established at the same time as Bhuptati walks away reading from a book without noticing her. Have I understood a bit of what you have explained, Sharad Raj?

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