Between Reviews: The Ideal… and the Real

Posted on August 1, 2009


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Should we hold a film up to what it should ideally have been? Or should we simply consider, given the realities, what it actually is?

AUG 2, 2009 – IS A MOVIE EVER JUST A MOVIE? Is it possible to contain its effects within the confines of the screen, viewing the proceedings as just artful fiction, instead of attributing to them real-life, real-world resonances? Usually, I am on the side that nods “yes.” When moralists grumbled that the adulterous trysts in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna would prove deleterious to the institution of marriage, or when activists worried that the portrayal of homosexuals as vicious killers in Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu would affect the social perception of gays, my internal response was simply along the lines of, “Relax, it’s just a movie.” It’s just the one story of the one set of couples whose marriage comes undone, or it’s just the one duo of homosexuals that’s depicted as bloodthirsty psychos – so it’s silly to extrapolate these occurrences to an entire subset of society. It is, in short, just a movie.

But after watching Arun Vaidyanathan’s Achchamundu Achchamundu, I’m not so sure. First, though, a few words about the film itself, which is a thriller that revolves around an Indian couple (played by Prasanna and Sneha) in New Jersey. The director shows a talent for capturing the low-key nuances of life – whether personal or professional. Before I saw the film, I’d heard from a few people that “nothing happened,” or that “it was very slow” – but that’s just our conditioning speaking. Most of us have been so primed to expect bursts of activity on screen every few minutes (whether in the form of “clever dialogue,” or a laugh track, or a “cute romance,” or a song situation) that when a film resolutely refuses to be “cinematic” and tones itself down to the neighbourhood of real life, we begin to shift in our seats.

This lack of overt pandering, I felt, was the film’s strength. Whether it’s the routine shadings of a marriage that’s outlived its honeymoon years, or the dull monotony of work life (in an office that appears alarmingly underpopulated), it’s a recognisable world that Vaidyanathan sets out to detail. If Sneha whines about how lonely she is, we want to shout out that it’s because she refuses to move beyond the cloister of the desi community – and how many Indians do we know who live life exactly like this? (And speaking of Sneha, here’s another film, after Pirivom Sandhippom, where she’s a housewife struggling to adapt to the rhythms of a strange life in a strange land. Talk about typecasting! Here’s an actress who looks nice, acts relatively nice – is her only fault the fatal flaw that she is actually conversant with the language these films are made in?)

But things get very odd once an American painter (John Shea) moves in to work on the couple’s basement. This is where the “thriller” elements begin to kick in, and not only does the film quickly turn dramatically undernourished but also ideologically problematic. For one, the divisive lines are drawn in embarrassingly black-and-white (or should we say brown-and-white?) terms. The niceness of the Indians is shown in terms of the wife being suitably religious, and opposed to “American” customs like letting their young daughter sleep in a room of her own. (The husband at least tries to be a Roman in Rome, but subsequent events soon put him in his rightful place.) And the nastiness of the white man is shown by his creepy encounters with children, whom he abducts and violates (though most of this occurs off-screen).

Typically, I wouldn’t be going on like this. I’d have just shrugged, “It’s just a movie,” just one thriller about one man who saves his family from the clutches of one villain – and I’d have made an evaluation based very simply on whether or not it worked for one person, namely me. But at the end of the film, we are shown a map of the world, with the camera zooming in on different countries as the respective statistics for child sexual abuse pop up in tidy educational boxes, and worse, the director dedicates his film to the innocent victims of abuse. And all the while I kept thinking, “This film is just a thriller about a psycho-predator. It’s hardly about the deeply disturbing mechanics of child sexual abuse, for if the director had wanted to focus on that, he’d have shown how a relative or a neighbour had been the perpetrator.”

And they could have been Indian – for one of the irrefutable realities about child sexual abuse (and if you’re looking to educate a movie-going public about the subject to the extent that you’re pulling up statistics, you need to be sensitive to these truths) is that the perpetrator is almost always someone close to the child. Had it been an Indian colleague or friend or relation that had attempted to abuse the child, an appropriate message, so to speak, would have been hammered home – but now, the audience is going to be comforted by the fact that the bad guy is white, so as long as we keep to our own kind, all will be well. This may be fine as fiction, but why bring up facts and figures and try to convert a simple thriller into something with awful real-life, real-world resonances?

I directed my contentions to Vidya Reddy, Tulir Centre for the Prevention and Healing of Child Sexual Abuse, and she emphasised that the events I’d outlined weren’t likely to be termed as “abuse, which is always in the context of a relationship – either one that already exists (and involves the child in a sexual manner), or one that is specifically established with the intention of involving the child in a sexual manner. Abuse is always premeditated and repetitive, and it is marked by secrecy and silence.” Even the scene where the American begins to fantasise with the child’s bath towel is more likely to indicate someone with a sexual interest in children, but not an abuser. “This looks like the case of an assaulter, who kidnaps, rapes and kills children on a one-off basis. And now, people are going to mix up the two and buy into the much -hyped myth of ‘stranger-danger’ rather than realising that the abuser could be far from a stranger.”

Subsequently, I offered Arun Vaidyanathan the opportunity for a rebuttal. He said he wanted to make a “psychological thriller” that revolved around child sexual abuse because “we are like ostriches when it comes to these issues. I wanted our audience to realise that this happens even in India.” But why, then, set the film in faraway America, and why feature a white-American villain? Vaidyanathan confesses, frankly, “Because, I wanted to avoid controversies. Taking an alien nationality, I was able to portray him (to a Tamil audience) the way I wanted, without any compromise. Honestly, the film would not have seen the light of day in India had I portrayed an Indian as a pedophile.” (He doesn’t make the distinction between pedophilia and child sexual abuse, though the two are different.) “Right from the characterisation to the presentation, I would not have this much freedom. That’s the reality!”

That is, indeed, a reality of filmmaking – a frequently frustrating art form where soaring artistic ambition is often crippled by the practical compulsions of not just making the movie but also making sure it reaches the public. Vaidyanathan says he included the statistics at the end because he feared “our Censor Board officials might wonder why they needed to allow this film for our audience. I was especially concerned about the scene of the pedophile in the child’s bedroom. And I wanted to make a case with those statistics. Fortunately, they were very kind and did not impose a single cut. I saw the film in Mayajaal theatres, Chennai, and I didn’t see a single person walking out. As a creator, I was happy that the audience was interested in reading those statistics. I think the facts and figures shook the people, and I’m glad my instincts worked.”

So, finally, how do we judge Achchamundu Achchamundu? Do we express concern that, in the interest of making the material palatable to the public, a lot of liberty was taken with facts – or do we applaud the artist that the material was attempted in the first place? As a critic, I feel the only way to judge a film is by what it tries to do and whether it does it well. (Of course, there’s a lot of subjectivity on what is “well,” but that’s a different topic for a different day.) Filmmakers will point out a number of reasons that stood in the way of realising what they set out to do – no finances, censorship struggles, producer interference – and while these considerations are certainly deserving of sympathy, should they override the irreducible finality of what’s on screen? Should we, in short, separate the labour pains from the deliverable, and treat the movie as just a movie?

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