Sunday, March 17, 2013

Filmi Girl and the Mystery of the Vanishing Interval

(Just an FYI, I'm feeling a bit ranty after the brilliance of Bala's Paradesi. A "serious" film in which the audience - at least the audience in my suburban theater in Washington, DC - took great pleasure in cheering and talking back to the screen in excitement. You know, that delightful thing called WATCHING A MOVIE WITH AN ENGAGED AUDIENCE!)

...But this rough magic

I here abjure, and, when I have required

Some heavenly music, which even now I do,

To work mine end upon their senses that

This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,

Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,

And deeper than did ever plummet sound

I'll drown my book.

- Prospero, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I (or just watch Amitabh Bachchan recite it.)

Something kept returning to me while I was trying to do some reading for another puzzle I was trying to solve, so I thought I may as well write it down here and get it out of my head - the lack of an interval break in Kai Po Che. More specifically, a story Danny told me about being at the press screening and how he and a few others stood up at about the time it felt that there should be an interval break but the film kept going and they had to sit back down again. This tracks closely with my own experience of watching Kai Po Che and spending about half an hour in the middle of the film waiting for a break that never came.

“But this rough magic I here abjure...”

Is it me or is there something missing from recent Bollywood films? Some magic that certain filmmakers have either forgotten how to wield or deliberately put aside.

The secret lies in the interval.

The audience expected one; it was withheld. Why? I suspect it was because either the director or UTV felt that it would be too filmi and artificial. No longer does it matter that audiences need an interval because in today’s hip circles, there is nothing worse than giving the audience what they want. Another casualty of the slow creep of the Western ideal of Art as Meaningful Self Expression Rooted In Personal Experience at the expense of everything else, like enjoyment, like entertainment, like engaging with cinema goers.

And if the people sitting in the cinema aren’t the audience that a filmmaker (Hollywood or Bollywood) is trying to please, who is? The corporate shareholders who demand ever expanding profits? The global soft drink brands and car companies who need stars to help hawk products? The endlessly chattering denizens of the Media Industrial Complex? The Cable TV companies who need product, any product, to fill airtime? His or her old classmates back at whatever college in Los Angeles or New York he or she went to? Daddy?

Or maybe it’s the medium. Films are no longer made to be seen in the theater, on a large screen, but on television or the computer. Watch a “serious” film, in perfect silence, sitting underneath a poster of The Godfather, ready to have every preconceived notion of comfortable middleclass life confirmed, whether it’s relatable relationship drama or the gritty, destitute lives of the poor. “Ah, now that’s real life,” says the serious film viewer, shoving chips into his mouth while watching a prostitute get beaten on screen.

Popular films are also for sitting alone in your room. As background noise. Television on low, computer game going, iPhone next to the keyboard for livetweeting. A hero strutting towards the screen with entrance music playing and an appropriate pause for applause is no longer needed, a comedy track too distracting. “Dude, Katrina Kaif is totally banging Shah Rukh Khan right now. I gotta pause for a second,” says the popular film viewer into his headset. “Her legs aren’t as good as Blake Lively’s.” Popular films should blend in with everything else on television - Gossip Girl, episodes of MTV’s Roadies, Family Guy - and there is no point in putting anything meaningful in because who’s paying attention?

Well, I am.

I’m paying attention to the growing Hollywoodization of Bollywood’s film culture. I don’t mean just the lack of intervals or applause breaks that assume a live audience is watching the film together in an actual theater and not on a mobile but this growing divide and separation between mass and class films; single screen and multiplex. “Oh, the 100 crore club is stupid,” say people like Irrfan Khan, Hollywood Actor, but really, what is so stupid about making a film that connects with people?

It’s all in our heads that anything popular needs to be dumb, or, worse yet, that popular audiences only understand anything dumb. Do we really think people weren’t devouring the complex moral dilemmas in the original Don, alongside the wide lapels? Pondering the cruel fate it is to be born a woman in Karz, as well as cheering for Rishi Kapoor’s dance moves?

“It’s a one time watch,” all the reviews say and they have a point. Are any of these films built to stand up to repeated viewings any more, serious or popular? Are there layers to uncover? A bit of comedy you missed the first time? Different shadings to important dialogue now that you know the ending? Or does a strong breeze blow the film right out of your head as you walk out of the theater and into a shopping center.

Maybe we’re the dumb ones, who assume that movies are to be watched once and tossed away, with the a dancefloor remix of the item song the only thing that lingers in cultural memory. “My Name is Sheila...”

Maybe we’re the dumb ones for letting popular culture become dominated by all this pointless crap, for allowing corporate shareholders to drain away meaning and put consumer products in its place. To turn heroines into Bikini Bodies waiting to be judged on their outfit choices on one of a zillion fashion blogs. To turn movie magic into fakery and navel gazing into honesty. (Everybody knows REAL LIFE comes in three acts with a tight narrative and sweeping orchestral score by John Williams. Also, REAL LIFE is always about guys. Who are writers.)

It’s far too late for Hollywood but Bollywood hasn’t fully embraced the lowbrow/highbrow divide just yet. As long as Aamir Khan is around making films like 3 Idiots and Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai forcibly adding Movie Magic into Dhoom 2, there’s still hope.

And if it all turns into theaters full of nothing but Race 5: Coke Vs Pepsi Vs Thums Up and Anurag Kashyap Presents A Boring Film About A Guy Who Doesn’t Know What Love Is Also He’s Poor and Just Wants To Write, Man then I’ll just have to learn Tamil.


Maya said...

I... Wow. That was some rant. And I have to say I agree completely. Its always puzzled me how people like KJo bristle with indignation when asked about the 100 crore club ("I aim to entertain the audience, not just make money") but then spout off to the tabloids the next day about how a "1000 crore movie is well in reach". I mean, seriously? Why is there the assumption that a successfull movie has to be mind blowingly inane also? And I am so with you on the Hollywood thing. I have never cringed as much as I have this past week on the Spielberg visit. Yes, he is a huge director but the way the whole industry fell at his feet, effectively saying, "We suck, consider our cinema NOTHING compared to Hollywood and just want to be like you" made me feel like hitting someone.

Filmi Girl said...

@Maya :) Thanks! It's something that has been bothering me recently and I finally figured out how to put it into words. It was more clear after watching a film like Paradesi that had jokes and serious themes; songs and tragedy; and watching it with an audience who was fully engaged in the story. I've missed that with Hindi film recently.

Stuart Martin said...

" “Oh, the 100 crore club is stupid,” say people like Irrfan Khan, Hollywood Actor, but really, what is so stupid about making a film that connects with people?

He didn't say that making a film that grossed 100-crore was stupid, he said the 100-crore club was stupid, there's an important difference. For my money, in a healthy cinema, there should room for all 3 brows, including the two you never miss an opportunity to contemn, but the fixation with "the 100-crore club" is inimical to that sort of variety. When that figure is the only mark of a film's success, as is rapidly becoming the case, those who actually like middle and highbrow films will find themselves sod out of luck.

Divya said...

Even though I enjoy middlebrow movies the most (the type FG seems to loathe :)), whats wrong with trying to entertain the audience in addition to trying to make them think. One of the hallmarks of Indian movies for as long as I remember was that any decent Indian movie, especially a masala film would offer a wide spectrum of emotion in the same movie, comedy and tragedy co-existed since .. well life was like that. However now a serious movie NEEDS to be characterized by a dull monotone. If the director introduces a little bit of light hardheartedness he is accused of mood whiplash. The only yardstick of good film making is now Hollywood.
Though I can barely sit through most Tamil movies today due to the blatant misogyny, I still agree with FG's general sentiment. Bollywood needs to get off its high horse and rediscover itself.Its currently losing its audience to South India(SI remakes). It has no business turning its nose up at them.

Kavs said...

@Maya! Agree! When it comes to Hindi filmmakers it saddens me how they maintain absolutely zero self respect in front of Hollywood. Act like total imbeciles. But Loved this post, Filmi Girl. Could relate on a lot of points and the underlying message of Indian cinema trying to be more western, not only in terms of intervals. Secondly, <3 for the "Irfan Khan, Hollywood Actor" line!!! I'm sure he would collapse in uncontainable joy if he ever read that line ;)

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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