Films aren’t always what their creators claim they are. At least, that’s the philosophy some of us subscribe to.
News arrived, a few days ago, that Mani Ratnam’s Raavan(an) – that most vilified of recent films, sentenced to be drawn and quartered on enraged social-media platforms – had been included in the permanent collection at the Austrian Film Museum. Not that this means anything (other than the fact, of course, that the people at the Austrian Film Museum, for whatever subjective reasons, found Raavan(an) worthy enough to collect) – but I cannot help being reminded of the time the film came out and the number of instances, thereafter, I was asked to defend my review, whose thesis was simply “Raavan falls for Sita (and vice versa) in an intriguingly idiosyncratic take on the Ramayana – if you can get past the lead performances, that is.” Intriguing. The word conjures up a vision of someone scratching their Vandyke and murmuring, “Hmmm… Interesting.” That was my reaction to the film then. That’s my reaction to the film now.
But “intriguing” and “interesting” are useless grey currency in a cultural world whose transactions, increasingly, are in black-and-white denominations of “good” and “bad.” I didn’t loft the film to the skies, but I didn’t consign it to the fires of hell either (like most others). My taste, therefore, was suspect, and I needed to explain myself. Everywhere I’d go, I was asked some variation of this question: “How could you have liked Raavan?” And I – never the most eloquent of speakers when cornered by irate, self-appointed guardians of taste – would mumble something about the subversion of the epic being interesting, and pray fervently for the waiter with the crab cakes to arrive and give these mouths something else to chew on. The most surreal explain-yourself command was issued by someone who hated Raavan because she thought it was too wet, marking what is surely the only time in cinema history that a film was damned for its perspiration content.
I am occasionally interrogated about what the most vexing aspect of being a film critic is. The daunting number of films to be watched? The deadlines that drive you to calcify into cold words a nascent opinion-cloud still swirling in the mind? The bigger problem, in my experience, is being faced with readers who subscribe to what literary theory labels Authorial Intent. “Aren’t you reading too much into this film?” I’ll be asked. “How do you know that the director put it there?” And no amount of “I don’t know that the director put it there, but more crucially I don’t care whether he put it there or not” will stave off their scepticism. What’s frustrating is the fundamental nonresolvability of the situation. You belong to the Authorial Intent school, deeming that the author decides the meaning of art, whereas I am a card-carrying subscriber of the Reader Response club, which shifts the responsibility of gleaning meaning from the person who creates art to the one who experiences it.
Wouldn’t it be easier, instead of reading me and wringing your hands, to latch on to a critic more consonant with the way you view art, someone who pinkie-swears by Authorial Intent? Besides, how, short of buttonholing the director for explanations, do you determine Authorial Intent? And even then, how do we know he’s telling the truth? Films, so often, are amoebic entities, beginning life as one thing and ending up resembling something else altogether. Would Authorial Intent, then, manifest itself in the writing stage, which is the stage the author has fullest control over but which may bear little relation to the film that’s later shot and cut and plastered on our neighbourhood screens? In this context, I imagine myself viewing, say, Moondram Pirai (Sadma) alongside Balu Mahendra. And I ask him about the nari kadhai song sequence, whether he picked the fable of the fox – the one that jumped into a vat of blue dye and was subsequently anointed king of the jungle, until the dye dissolved in the rains and exposed the fox as a fraud – because the narrative arc of the fox is a distant echo of the arc negotiated by Kamal Haasan’s character.
He is, after all, a nobody (like the fox) who, through a salubrious twist of fate, becomes the ruler of a woman’s life, until he is restored, at the end, to the nobody he was, a fraudulent claimant to her emotions. Balu Mahendra might laugh and say no, that he chose the fable simply because it was familiar to everyone. But I would still have, in my Reader Response corner, evidence from the film that supports this possibility: Kamal, through his frequent aping of a trained monkey, has already aligned himself with the animal kingdom. Surely that’s no coincidence. Or is it? Maybe the director didn’t zoom in on this fable consciously – but couldn’t it be otherwise? A filmmaker I’ve been talking to a lot lately swears that everything in his films is there because he wants it that way. I respectfully disagree, and I think that the only person (thing?) capable of telling me the “truth” is Balu Mahendra’s unconscious. That’s why I like the term “film analysis,” which suggests the critic putting the filmmaker on the couch and analysing his work, the intents that produced which may have sprung from unconscious wells deep within. That process, to me, is both intriguing and interesting.
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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