Lights, Camera, Conversation… What’s Swedish for Popcorn?

Posted on March 5, 2011


What a relief to learn that the rest of the world is just like us, just as fond of mindless movies.

If I recommended a triptych of Swedish films, bearing the names Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, Flickan Som Lekte Med Elden and Luftslottet Som Sprängdes, your response would play out along the lines of a polite “No, thank you,” with a muttered swearword as soon as I exited from earshot. But if I referred to these films by their tantalisingly lurid English names – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest – your interest is piqued. It’s the same set of films. It’s just that the names, earlier, were foreign, and later, in the language this newspaper is printed in. But the only thing that’s changed is the way we address these films. The films themselves remain foreign, inscrutable without subtitles – though, of course, an argument could be made that the action-spiked transpirations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series are hardly dependent on the audience’s comprehension of the spoken word.

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The worldwide success of these Swedish films is certainly a fitting answer to the question: Are audiences open to watching films in languages they don’t necessarily understand? But a more important question has been answered: What kind of movies do normal Swedish people see, the kind of people who aren’t likely to be found within a mile’s radius of a theatre screening a sombre meditation on Spiders and Death and God’s Absence, with stern actors captured in unforgiving close-ups, the kind where, if so inclined (and you may well be, given the pace of the story’s progress), you could count the pores from cheek to pallid cheek? Now we know that the Swedes like shootouts too. They like laughably improbable coincidences too. They like the urgent manipulations of Hollywood-style thriller music too, that insistent thrum of dread we feel in the pit of the stomach. Simply put, they like popcorn too.

For the longest time, I was intimidated by Swedes. What kind of people were these that their cinema yielded only the Bergman oeuvre? Even we had art filmmakers, forbiddingly grim craftsmen like Ritwik Ghatak and Mani Kaul, but we had, at the same time, channels of escape in the works of Manmohan Desai and SP Muthuraman. But these Swedes – didn’t they crave mindless escape? Just how formidably intelligent were they? Did they tuck in their children with bedtime readings of Kierkegaard? (Yes, he was Danish, but this entire essay could be reconfigured to accommodate the Danes as well, those glacial cousins of the Swedes, given that the moviegoers of Denmark, to our eyes, appeared to be weaned singularly on Carl Dreyer’s masterworks.) And just how depressed were they? When the phrase “dinner date” translates to meatballs followed by a screening of Persona, did the couple stand a chance for happily-ever-after?

But now the truth is out, and only one question remains: Is this a new development in Swedish cinema, this out-of-nowhere acknowledgement of the national audience’s pleasure centres? I would think not. It’s just that we are more aware, thanks to our intensely networked world, about what else lies out there. In earlier times, only the festival films were talked about, and as these festivals were dominated by “serious” filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, whose films won all the acclaim, all the awards, theirs were the only films the critics wrote about, and consequently, those were the only films we read about. Dig into the cinema of Japan, and I’m sure that for every Kurosawa and Ozu, there exists a mindless entertainer where hero and heroine fall in love and execute slapstick-comedy routines and erupt into fights with the villains and, finally, walk away, hand in hand, into a black-and-white sunset. The Japanese, I bet, loved popcorn too.

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 ©2011 Baradwaj Rangan, The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.