Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Reading and Imaginative Writhing”

Posted on October 28, 2011


If you’re the kind who’s intrigued by cinematic subtext, how much delving into it is too much?

I was part of an online discussion, recently, about the predisposition to read too much into a movie. The verb, at first, appears a little misplaced, considering that you see a film and to read something, you’re better off nestled at the local library, amid dank shelves feathered with crumbling paper. But cinema is a new art that borrowed its critical argot from the older arts, and literature and painting lent the concept of text and subtext, which, of course, can be read. We see a painting and we say that the lambent flush on the maiden’s face, which could be the unremarkable consequence of an overhead sun, is the glow of happiness. A physical accident is imbued with psychological resonance – we become poets of pathetic fallacy. And so in the movies, in Casablanca, when Humphrey Bogart receives Ingrid Bergman’s note at the train station, telling him that she cannot be with him, the skies open up, the ink on the paper begins to run, and we say that the letter is weeping. Again, frames of film are read like pages from a book, and a mundane physical phenomenon is made magical through psychological insinuation.

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So when does one end up reading too much into a film? In my opinion, never. The very act of marking a spot of text – or a frame of film – with an X and burrowing beneath with the pickaxe of an empathetic imagination is a peculiar and private occupation. Where do you stop? Fifty feet? A hundred? In all probability, you are going to keep at it till a wellspring of meaning gushes out and quenches your investigative thirst. Since this is an answer to a question that you had, and perhaps only you had, who is to say how much reading is too much reading? You read as much into a film as is needed to resolve the inconsistencies it presented to you and, if you fall in love with it, to burnish its beauty. Overestimation is the currency of the enraptured lover, who does not care that others aren’t buying his delirium. And does reading into a film have to with the filmmaker’s intents or reputation? Again, no. Because you don’t choose the scene to read; the scene chooses you. And the scene can belong to any kind of movie, even one that’s seldom regarded with critical respect – say, the great Indian melodrama.

Aalayamani (remade in Hindi as the Dilip Kumar-starring Aadmi) is one of those films whose preoccupations you can guess simply by glancing at the cast list, which is a roundup of the usual suspects who infiltrated the genre. The presence of Vijayakumari guarantees tears. An impoverished elder sister, played by Pushpalatha, turns out secretly married to a rich man’s son. The sickeningly sunny friendship, established early, between Sivaji Ganesan and SS Rajendran forecasts apocalyptic thunderclouds in the post-intermission horizon – sure enough, Saroja Devi descends into the picture like a bolt of lightning. And MR Radha, as always perched at the midpoint between comedy and villainy, labours mightily to rend these relationships, pouring malevolent mischief into the cracks in their foundations. On the surface, or at the level of text, there is little to distinguish Aalayamani from another melodramas of the era, just like the masala movies of the nineteen-eighties are often interchangeable. The sole saving grace, it would seem, is the soundtrack, highlighted by Ponnai virumbum boomiyile, where a quavering harmonica puts icy quotation marks around the protagonist’s anguish.

But let’s talk subtext now, for there’s more to old-time craftsmanship than meets the eye – even in a film whose director, K Shankar, lies largely forgotten today. Sivaji Ganesan’s mansion is the spot where my mind marked an X. Why, I wondered, was it such a menagerie? The cavernous living room is distinguished by life-sized stuffed animals, a tiger and a cheetah, around whose menace scenes are carefully composed. Sivaji Ganesan and SS Rajendran discuss the woman in their lives in front of a painting where a doe is stalked by two tigers. The heads of antlered stags are mounted on walls, and a heated conversation between SS Rajendran and Vijayakumari unfolds in front of a shelf filled with animal figurines, which cast sinister shadows on the walls. It’s too much. You want to laugh – until the revelatory scene, much later, where Sivaji Ganesan is confronted by his miruga uruvam, his inner animal. Suddenly it all makes sense. The bestial paraphernalia around him is but an external manifestation of the beast inside him. Carefully scripted foreshadowing? Or mere happenstance? The reading depends on you, dear reader.

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.

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