Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Magic of the mind”

Posted on August 24, 2012


Scenes that have nothing to do with the plot are sometimes there for a reason. Differently put, the best way to get from A to B isn’t necessarily a straight line.

The Tamil filmmaker Mahendran’s Pootadha Pootukkal is the story of a young, childless couple, and the wife, once convinced that her husband cannot give her a child, embarks on some sort of affair with a newcomer to their village. After some developments, she runs away, and the husband’s friends hand him a sum of money to search for her. While on a boat, the husband falls into a fight, and the money, bundled up in cloth, falls into the water. Given his impoverishment, along with the source of this money (the sum was painstakingly saved for an operation that would restore sight to the vision-impaired friend), we are shocked. The next scene, we assume, is going to revolve around this lost money. Maybe the friend will burst out in anger about the sacrifice that has turned out to be in vain. Maybe the husband will resolve to stop looking for his wife and reorient his life towards repaying the money.

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But nothing happens. The fight ends. The plot resumes its focus on the missing wife. The money – whose disappearance could have resulted in guilt or anger or any number of opportunities for histrionic high marks – is never referred to again. A startling plot point is seeded, but we don’t watch it sprout. A mistake? I don’t think so. Not everything in a story needs to be spelt out – and the dramatic tension, in this instance, comes not from the events on screen (which we are denied) but from our off-screen reaction, our puzzlement, our frustration, our reluctant acceptance of the situation, our eventual moving on. This may not be the commercial (or mainstream) way to go about telling a story – and the film was a notorious bomb when it was released, for Mahendran was coming off a couple of highly praised and commercially successful films, Mullum Malarum and Udhiri Pookkal – but it’s certainly a valid creative choice.

I was reminded of this creative choice when I watched Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. I am a big fan of his first film, You Can Count on Me, which is one of few dramas about a misfit (Mark Ruffalo) that doesn’t feel compelled to elevate him to some kind of dreamy-eyed rebel poster-boy (in other words, he just is what he is) – and I kept hearing so much about the studio-related troubles Lonergan had with his second film that it became a must-watch as much for seeing a long-awaited sophomore effort (it was released more than a decade after the first film, which came out in 2000) as for finding out just what could have made it such a source of discord. I loved Margaret, whose plot kicks into motion when a teenager, Lisa (Anna Paquin), distracts a bus driver (Ruffalo again) and inadvertently causes a tragedy. The rest of the film is about Lisa’s attempt to do the right thing, while also nurturing her inner diva, who presides over her need for adolescent drama.

The film is remarkable because its centre is a frankly unlikeable character, and what made me recall the Mahendran film is the stretch that follows the accident. After being questioned by the police, after coming home and crying and washing blood off her body, after barking at her younger brother, Lisa (along with the film) slips back into the routine. Lisa goes to the movies. Her mother, an actress, performs in a play and fends off an admirer who wants to buy her a drink. Lisa joins her mother and the rest of the cast for dinner, where her mother regales the others with Shirley Temple imitations. At school, her class reads out parts from King Lear. Her mother goes to dinner with the admirer, then comes home and begins to masturbate. Lisa barges into the bedroom and says she wants to talk. Nearly eight minutes have elapsed since the accident, and we finally return to it – although only fleetingly. The next scene has Lisa debating with others in class.

There are probably many films that do something similar, but it’s hard to immediately remember their names. (At least, I found it hard.) And I bring this up because of the recent discussions around Anurag Kashyap’s two-part Gangs of Wasseypur, where some people thought that a straight narrative line was not being hewn to. But digressions have a function, which is to offer relief from the tedium of a single-minded plot. In Pootadha Pootukkal, the plot has to return, at some point, to the runaway wife, and in Margaret, the plot has to return, at some point, to the accident. And these digressions are a loose equivalent (or perhaps an intelligent director’s equivalent) of a comedy scene or an item number, something that’s related to the characters in the story and yet not overwhelmingly so. I also bring this up to marvel at how one scene in one movie can reach into the memory vault and pull out another scene from a completely unrelated movie. It’s like magic. And it’s all in the mind.

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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