Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Speaking volumes through silent cinema”

Sridevi’s performance in ‘English Vinglish’ isn’t just about an actor’s skill, but about a style of acting that we rarely see on screen anymore.

The unanimous praise Sridevi has received for her performance in English Vinglish – even those who’ve had issues with this charming film (and I raise my hand sheepishly, like someone from the back rows of an “I hate puppies” convention) have had no issues about how the actress embodies a middle-class, middle-aged housewife – makes me happy for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s fantastic to be reminded of a style of performing that very few actors are capable of anymore, a style that harks back to mime and our classical dance, a style that’s a heightened form of silent-film acting. When I mentioned this earlier, some people (fans of Sridevi, I presume) took offense about the “silent-film acting” part, and I think I know why. That style of exaggerated performance is seen as overdone and undesirable today, where acting has come to be considered good only if it is “subtle” and “nuanced.” (Actually, we may have gotten to a point where anything in a film is considered good only if it’s “subtle” and “nuanced.”)

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But there are all kinds of silent-film acting, with different levels of exaggeration, and what Sridevi does is just enough to render dialogue or explanation unnecessary. This is not the silent-film acting of far-flung arms and clasped bosoms, but the kind where a normal expression (one that would have been expressed without emphasis by, say, Shabana Azmi) is imbued with just the right amount of highlighting so that we register this emotion without being slapped on the face with it. It’s marvellously direct – and it’s there in the scene where her insensitive husband declares in front of family that his wife was born to cook. Her reaction – which seems to say “Is there no end to the extent you will go to humiliate me? I mean, I’m standing right here, right in front of you!” – is enclosed in the gentlest of quotation marks. Every single person in the audience knows what that face is thinking, what it’s saying without saying. This is a beautiful instance of silent-film acting, and it doesn’t need an intertitle.

Sridevi, in the days she was the No. 1 heroine, was rarely called to exhibit this dimension of her talent. She was asked, primarily, to do the other kind of silent-film acting, the wildly exaggerated kind. Of course, she was very good at that too – it’s not difficult to see why Kamal Haasan, once, called her an excellent bag of tricks – and she gives us just a glimpse of that self when her young son asks her to imitate Michael Jackson’s dance moves. This performance is so pleasurable because it reminds you of  livewire actors like Farida Jalal and Juhi Chawla, who are often dismissed as “spontaneous,” without the acknowledgement that this spontaneity is its own kind of talent (if not technique). Certainly none of today’s Western-looking, long-legged models, who double as heroines, can carry this off. (They aren’t much good in the ‘subtle” and “nuanced” department either.) Of the current crop of actresses, only Parineeti Chopra, Sonakshi Sinha and Anushka Sharma show promise of carefully shaded silent-film acting (and let’s hope they’re not going to be slapped with the label “spontaneous”).

The other reason I’m pleased about this performance being so widely noticed is that it stems from a solidly written part. The character exists three-dimensionally on paper, and the actor then endows it with flesh and blood. That’s the only way good performances – namely, performances that leave you with the feeling that you’re seeing a fully-formed person on screen – can happen. If the role is badly written, the actor can do nothing. We saw this recently with Kareena Kapoor in Heroine. All we can do is note how well she laughs or how convincingly she cries – we note the bits and pieces, but these don’t accrue into a convincing character. The most you’re left with in such a case is an actor’s showreel, where, in our desperation to acknowledge the performance, we say meaningless things like “how brave of her to take up this part,” or “she has deglamourised herself completely.” All of this is just surface, an exhibition of tics.

I guess what I’m saying is that as good as Sridevi is, Gauri Shinde, the director of English Vinglish, is equally responsible for the success of the character. A third reason I feel really happy about the notices Sridevi is getting is that it’s a very Indian performance. Very often, we take Western standards of movie evaluation as our own. We denounce melodrama. We laugh at songs and dances. We sneer at loud background scores. And when it comes to acting, we praise the subtle and nuanced interpreters of emotion. This is not wrong, but in exclusively doing so, we are turning our backs on a cinematic tradition that goes back to – yes – silent cinema. I don’t place much faith in the numerous awards handed out by various publications every year, but I hope Sridevi wins each and every one of them, for reminding us not just about one actor’s skill but also a style of performance that rose from the face and the body and spoke to the farthest reaches of the audience.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

13 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Speaking volumes through silent cinema”

  1. “. . . it’s fantastic to be reminded of a style of performing that very few actors are capable of anymore, a style that harks back to mime and our classical dance.”

    Sridevi is one of very few actors who can bring that kind of studied attention and intelligence to their performances. Even in a comic role, you get the sense of an astute sensibility at work. It’s somewhat of a travesty that she had to spend so much of her career shimmying through all those ridiculous movies with peacock costumes and geriatric heroes (I’m looking at you, Himmatwala!) I am so glad she found English Vinglish and a director like Gauri Shinde who brought out the best in her.

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  2. “we take Western standards of movie evaluation as our own. We denounce melodrama. We laugh at songs and dances. We sneer at loud background scores. And when it comes to acting, we praise the subtle and nuanced interpreters of emotion. ”

    It not as much “we” its YOU, the critics(especially those who have been exposed to world cinema, the new age critics so to speak) who do that most of the time :-) Raja Sen, is a shining example.

    Thats one reason I guess why some ppl keep coming to this blog. Because with your sensibilities, you have still accommodated the Indian way of making flicks and are not averse to it. Iam not sure if it just a nostalgic affliction or you still warm to to these instantly, but either way its refreshing to see something like that. Most of the others seem to belong to both extremes, either completely embracing only our kind of films/acting and oblivious to whats happening elsewhere(like some of your esteemed elder colleagues), or latching onto World stuff and sneering at anything local.

    Of course, our directors have a part in making this kind of sneering inevitable at times by generously flicking from their films, forcing ppl to make those comparisons in the first place. Like Saritha vs Kathy Bates in that scene-by-scene flick of Misery to Julie Ganapthy. And the culprit was Balu Mahendra no less.

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  3. As much as I understand what you’re saying here, didn’t her eyes have a large part to play here? Those puppy huge eyes…you could see she was hurt when you looked into them…and I know it is a silly question but could someone with smaller eyes have done the same? Doesn’t every actor channel their strengths into one main channel? Eyes, voice, stature etc.? And also I think you credited this kind of acting not only with silent cinema but also classical dance and I think it also has a equally large role to play. You’re bang on about the Indianness of it. Being a non Indian but Asian,even I can understand the Indianness there but I liked the film so much because I could see so many people I know in Shashi. Every emotion she felt there was like a collection of montages from people I knew but the strange thing is I wasn’t bored with it. Maybe it’s because it was so refreshing to see something so common as opposed to the pseudo emotions we are asked to engage with in other even good cinema.

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  4. BR, your insights about how we are biased towards western cinema to judge our own films makes me introspect the way i look at our films.. you nailed it there..!!

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  5. Nice article, though I must admit I differ with your categorising nuance and subtlety as “western”, and justifying the penchant for song and dance and loud background score as being “Indian”. It has often become common these days for several writers and critics to pick everything banal about our popular culture these days and hail them as being unique to our culture. If subtlety and nuance were not part of our aesthetics, we would never have had art forms like the Kathakali or the Bharatanatyam, which makes use of mudras to suggest various bhavas. While they do make use of some broad gestures, they call for some involvement from the audience. Unfortunately, our popular cinema uses broad acting styles and loud background scores as easy ways to reach out to an audience, and the result is often banal. Song and dance can be used sensibly in a film, but such instances are rare.

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  6. Nikhil: Actually, I was pointing to the “perception” that subtle and nuanced is just one sort of thing, and that most of those things aren’t “Indian.”

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  7. Well, in our cinema, it is the exception rather than the norm, that our movies are overtly melodramatic and over the top. One can argue with individual movies, or from movies from 2-3 decades ago, that such wasn’t the case, but if you look at the range of movies today, I don’t think Brangan’s characterizing is that much off.

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  8. Really liked the mention of Juhi Chawla. An actress who didn’t really get her due from critics for the reasons you mentioned. I partly agree with Vijay….typical masala cinema still very much rules the roost, be it Salman in Bolly or Rajini in Tamil and it is critics who don’t acknowledge it. Now I wouldn’t suffer a Bodyguard or Dabbang gladly either but a lot of critics, whether in cinema or any other art-entertainment medium, routinely disdain the more mainstream side of the arts and the artists associated with it. What I like to call “Pink Floyd is awesome because they don’t write love songs” syndrome. Speaking of which, Michael Jackson was an insanely talented artist, probably more so than Johnny Rotten (but that’s not for me to say!) but we know whither the critics gravitate.

    I also agree that this role allowed Sridevi to bring forth dimensions of her acting skills that she didn’t really tap in her 70s and 80s heyday.

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