The problem with films has nothing to do with realism

The annual Indian screenwriters’ conference was held last week in Mumbai. The fourth such gathering organised by the Film Writers’ Association based in the same city had, what I believe, was a flawed theme: do our stories reflect India’s reality? The keynote speaker was the journalist, Palagummi Sainath, whom Amartya Sen once called one of the “great experts on famine and hunger”, and who is somewhat conveniently placed to argue that Bollywood does not represent the real India.

My disagreement with this statement is twofold. Firstly, screenwriting is an art, and, like all art, its essence is openness in interpretation and it does not owe it to society to act as a mirror. Secondly, the crux of the conference, to be meaningful at all, should not have focused on whether stories in Bollywood reflect India’s reality, but rather whether they should reflect India’s reality at all.

The argument is somewhat like mirrors and windows: if people want a mirror, they should stop complaining about what they see when they look at a window. There are census bureaus, polling organisations, data collection and research centres, and, of course, National Geographic, to represent countries for what they are, to show people a non-fictional account of what India is and so on. Films, like stories of yore, have always been windows to let imagination escape, to heighten our senses, to present a larger-than-life portrayal that may or may not be grounded in reality. Ashok Vajpeyi spoke of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, both stories rich in culture and moral but in all likelihood skewed when it comes to portraying reality — but then again, whose call is it to make? My point simply is that it is unfair to demand that film scripts be, above all else, subservient to reality.

I am not a fan of Bollywood. I cannot deny that, occasionally, a remarkable film is made whose worth nobody can deny. And more often (unfortunately) films get made whose worthlessness dumbfounds everyone. But to say that India is where story telling began and then expect that to last forever would be resting on our laurels. The first step is to recognise that several other countries make more meaningful films than India during any given year — and Hollywood is likely not at the top of this list either as far as my opinion goes. The next step is to realise that our stories not portraying “Indian reality” is the least of our troubles and is certainly not why we lag behind today.

The problem, with my limited understanding of the nuances of how a film “industry” works, lies in three directions: one, everyone wants to make a quick buck and the priority is often to make a film and release it rather than sit back and take time to think about making it better; two, far too many filmmakers underestimate the acumen of the Indian audience, thereby filling their work with a nauseating level of exposition and spoon-feeding, ensuring that nothing, especially not the film, comes in the way of our enjoying a tub of popcorn; three, we need actors, not film stars.

I do not think we have a shortage of good actors, we do, however, give immense attention to film stars. Entire productions sometimes run on the presence of film stars and end up ringing hollow when it comes to the story. Conversely, the handful of films that are made with interesting stories, carrying good explorations of emotion, go unnoticed and fuel the fire claiming that the presence of a film star is central to a film’s success. Measuring films by their commercial success rather than their critical weight (not unlike measuring the worth of scientists based on their number of publications) dismantles the meaning of a good film altogether. And then, of course, is the new question that seemingly came out of nowhere: do our stories represent India’s reality?

Should they, really? On the one hand are flat arguments like “Bollywood does not make documentaries on a commercial basis”. But I get that that is not what the Conference was about. It was not about pushing for documentary-style films but rather to write fictional stories that are more representative of reality in this country. I will be the first to admit that fiction mixed with facts is the most exciting type of fiction, but as far as screenwriting goes, our imaginations are the limits (or the budgets are, more often than not, but I digress). This harkens back to criticisms of white men playing black characters in films, which I frankly have no problems with. They are actors, and if a white actor cannot convince me that he is a black rugby quarterback, then he is a bad actor. Likewise, black people should, with some make-up, be allowed to play white people, Chinese people, Indians and penguins if they can pull it off. Why not?

On similar lines, the fallacy lies in assuming that Indians alone should make films about India, or that Indians should not make films about America or Sweden or Japan. And vice versa: if the Japanese made a film about India, I would enjoy watching it (or I would detest it) but — and this is the important bit — my like or dislike of the film will have nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that people of some culture or country made a film about another culture or country; instead it would be based solely on the merits of the film as an art.

When was the last time any member of the audience went home crying about a lack of realism? Criticisms would have most likely centred around bad acting, aimless directing, inappropriate dances, and fight scenes that choose to ignore physics altogether. Because when someone goes to watch a film, they want to escape reality, to be able to lose themselves in a world the director creates for them, real or unreal, positive or negative, it must be believable to someone who is sufficiently open-minded. The problem with films is neither that there are no good stories nor that there are no good artists, but rather that people are settling for whatever drives sales, and that nobody is trying hard enough while those who do usually remain pitifully unrecognised.

Review: Batman v Superman

There is no doubt that DC’s superheroes are some of the most popular in the world. Whereas most had never heard of Black Panther, Deadpool or even Thor and Iron Man till the films made them famous, almost everyone knew or had heard of Batman and Superman and considered themselves fans. With this footing, it would seem perfectly sensible to assume DC has a headstart on Marvel that they would make full use of. Alas, their newest film, the rather lazily titled, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” does little to push DC ahead. This writer, although a longtime fan of DC comics, believes that at this moment, Marvel is clearly crafting the better superhero film universe.

Director Zack Snyder’s “Batman v Superman” begins with an operatic retelling of the Wayne murders: young Bruce witnesses his parents’ death, falls into a cave, sees a swarm bats etc. the whole rigmarole. It is probably a fifteen–minute section of the film solely targeted to help the audience make a particular scene later in the film — specifically tailored for those unaware that Bruce’s mother’s name is Martha.

The films feels, for lack of a better word, unwholesome. There are somethings it gets right: a bunch of well–choreographed fight sequences involving Batman1, Snyder’s signature zooming in on Superman in mid–air, and good use of scale — when a tiny Superman cracks wide a skyscraper thousands of times his size, you really feel the impact. If only the story carried the same weight.

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Thoughts on Spectre — this should open a new world for the Bond franchise

Perhaps I am late to the party, but Spectre only released this week where I live and, naturally, I watched it on the first day. It is James Bond after all. In short, I loved the film, but I decided it was worth taking a moment to pen some extended thoughts here.

Spectre is the twenty–fourth film in the Bond franchise, this time not based on Ian Fleming’s book but stemming from a screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan and Jez Butterworth — Pruvis and Wade are regular Bond writers who returned to edit Logan’s original script. Before we go ahead, first of all, this is not strictly a review. And there are spoilers.

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“Civilisation” — Nature diaries, part 4

Nature diaries is an ongoing collection of five short films, often not spanning more than three minutes in length, which explore select ideas in a raw and organic, yet subtle, manner. These are shot entirely handheld and in natural light, with no setup whatsoever.

This means I need to be prepared when something is happening, not after the fact; and this often leads to some funny situations: since I enjoy photographing everything, people start to think I do this because I am excited by it, and they are right. But they fail to realise why I am excited by it: it is not that I have never seen that thing before (I probably have) but because every time I look at it, I see it as a new work of art.

I photograph roads. Sometimes I spend several minutes rooted to one spot trying to capture the graininess of a road or the wave white lines running along it in an artistic manner. This is construed as my awe with roads because I have not seen such roads before.

On the one hand this is outrageous and, if anything, shows the other person’s complete lack of knowledge of globalisation; but, to me, this proves to be very entertaining. This was what I experienced when I set out to film for the fourth part of the Nature diaries collection, titled “Civilisation”.

And that was understandable. Why would anybody pick up their camera and film a random street? The obvious conclusion drawn was something like, “he hasn’t seen such streets where he comes from”. (Guess what, even if I come from Tristan de Cunha, I still have internet access these days.) But what most failed to see was the composition(ally?), photographically, geometrically rich few seconds or simply a fascinating synchronisation in things.

But that is not all I hoped to capture here. Smaller things come into the picture: juxtaposing cycles with motor vehicles, chronicling the darker, graffiti-ridden side of an otherwise beautiful city, organisation, people in the very middle of their everyday lives, always looking for something interesting to do or say, the hustle, the calm, the shady, the sunny, the dreamy, the extraordinary and the same old white picket fences everybody still craves.

Here is the final result:

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(P.S. When I started off with the nature diaries, I only had ideas for four parts which means I am open to any topic you can pick for the fifth and final installment. Do take a look at the entire collection as of now to get a better idea as to the kind of topics we explore through Nature diaries.)

Film review: “Lake Tahoe”

One of Fernando Eimbcke’s earlier feature films, Lake Tahoe, almost disappeared from mainstream cinema alongside some better known films that came out that same year on the international stage (The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Quantum of Solace, Indiana Jones: the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).

That is something very unfortunate, because Lake Tahoe, at the very least, is a stark contrast to all these big budget commercial works in that it is truly a work of art.

Despite what many might argue is an excruciatingly slow, somewhat motionless film, I believe that that is exactly where Lake Tahoe’s strength lies. Right from the very first, lengthy, action-free still that opens the film, Mr Eimbcke’s intention is pretty loud and clear.

Screenshot courtesy of Slant magazine

As I can recall off-hand while I pen this review, the entire film is shot more like a series of carefully thought, beautifully composed photographs with a single moving subject right up to the point where the camera starts rolling in a dolly alongside Diego Cataño’s disturbed teen on his way to a mechanic’s.

The film literally begins with a bang. Juan has hit his car onto a light pole. And for every passing moment then on, we give ourselves to Mr Eimbcke’s patient story-telling. One mechanic shop to another; one person to another.

EVERY FRAME ACTS LIKE A PLAYGROUND LETTING [EIMBCKE’S] ACTORS BECOME PAWNS IN THE DIRECTOR’S INVESTIGATION OF LIFE.

Back home, our protagonist, Juan’s, mother is depressed, having locked herself in the bathroom. Joaquin, Juan’s younger brother, in his tent, is perhaps most oblivious to their father’s passing if his scrapbook right at the end is no indication.

Every incident in this story of life itself is designed to teach Juan something about his on-going attempt to face his father’s death. At first he refuses, tries to get away, but that is not an option, and he learns that very gently, almost as if only Mr Eimbcke’s wide shots could.

The film starts by feeling more like a series of photographs interspersed with long black screens during which the viewer is left to visualise the film the way they want to, supported only by a continuing audio. Every frame acts like a playground letting his actors become pawns in the director’s investigation of life. This is truly something that has to be seen.

But the film, just like life, is also made up of small things: Hector Herrera’s talented portrayal of Don Heber letting go of his dog, Sica; or, in better times, Heber and Sica sharing a bowl of cereal in synchronisation; Lucia’s missing the concert; David’s Bruce Lee obsession; and the fridge, which, seemingly like everything else in Juan’s life, is broken.

Screenshot courtesy of Bryan Schutmaat

Lake Tahoe is not a film to be missed. Between Baz Luhrman’s heavily CGI-dependent The Great Gatsby which decided to take its own path away from the book, and Martin Scorsese’s brilliant The Wolf of Wallstreet, Lake Tahoe definitely leans towards Wolf…’s organic tone making it a match to these much newer films for any connoisseur. As for Gatsby itself, now that we mention it, nobody who has actually read the book can be satisfied with the film that looked like Mr Luhrman’s own creation.

The only thing nagging me was the film’s title. Lake Tahoe — or water itself, for that matter — has little to do with this film, so where does the title fit in except for that obscure reference to a Lake Tahoe bumper sticker Juan’s aunt had sent them and that his father hated. I suppose some things are truly rhetoric devices even in films.

To formally sum it all up: Tahoe is a moving, captivating film that only demands you give a lot more of your time to it than you would expect. It deserves a good 4/5 because, at times, it left me wanting an ever so slightly inconspicuous camera presence in the hall.

Sometimes, you realise a camera is there, other times, you are pulled into a vortex of uncanny, yet appealing, film making, like when Mr Eimbcke makes you watch Juan sitting still in a car and turns off his camera when the traffic lights turn green, or when he does that again every time somebody closes the car door.

This is one of those films you end up loving or hating with a passion. I, for one, loved it.

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