Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The attempt to judge an attempt”

Posted on September 7, 2012


How do we deal with films that promise much and deliver little? Well, it depends – doesn’t it?

A couple of Fridays ago, we saw the release of the kind of films (Mugamoodi in Tamil, Joker in Hindi) that usually bring out the debater in people who love the movies, those who look at cinema as something more than just an excuse for consuming popcorn. The debate, in my experience, runs along these lines: “If a film is atypically ambitious and if it doesn’t work, do you laud it for the attempt or do you treat it like any other film, to be judged with Solomonic solemnity?” Let me first reiterate (as I have brought up this point several times earlier) that the “if it doesn’t work” portion of the debate is purely subjective – one man’s mead is another man’s poison and so forth. But there is nothing subjective about the estimation of Mugamoodi and Joker as ambitious attempts: the former is a Chennai-based superhero story, while the latter deals with crop circles and aliens in a village that thinks WWII is still going on.

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Had these films worked (both at the box office and among audiences), their directors would have achieved the near-impossible – the telling of unique stories in a mainstream format, at least as far as Indian audiences are concerned. And these “Indian audiences” become an important factor in the discussions of those who think that concessions must be made for these films while evaluating them. The logic typically goes like this: “Indian audiences have been dining off platefuls of crap for decades. They’re used to seeing the same thing over and over. So any filmmaker with new ideas has to journey on a familiar path, even if he’s telling an unfamiliar story. So there will be item songs and comedy scenes and fights. You cannot change the taste of the audience overnight. The progress has to be incremental.” I don’t buy this argument – at least not entirely. The filmmaker, in my opinion, has to be true to his story, rather than to the audience – and if he cannot make this story the way it deserves to be made, then he shouldn’t make it at all.

Because if he makes these stories with all these compromises, the films will end up in a limbo, and we’ll constantly have to keep saying (while watching the film) “Oh that bit sucks, but yes, let’s not make too much of it because this has been made for an Indian audience.” Or the filmmaker should really work out the script in such a way that these commercial compromises are folded in organically, so that they become a part of the story – like what we saw in Eega/Naan Ee, which is this year’s textbook on how to make great masses of people flock to a movie with a unique idea at its core. It’s not impossible. It just takes work, and filmmakers who want to take on unusual themes should be willing to put in this work. If we went to a restaurant and the menu advertised a dish that’s difficult to pull off, and if the dish came to us undercooked, would we praise the attempt or walk away grumbling? The same principle is at work here.

There is the expectation, we carry into the theatre, of a certain degree of professionalism, and if that’s not there, we should not hesitate to say that something doesn’t work. Of course, if it’s a first-time filmmaker, we might make an exception – this is possibly the only case where we may praise an “attempt,” like a pat of encouragement. (Though even here, a reviewer will not be doing his job – and a film lover will not be doing justice to his passion – if he doesn’t point out the things that went wrong.) But otherwise, when these films arrive with multicrore production budgets and are sold to us with multicrore publicity budgets, it isn’t unreasonable to expect that at least a few lakhs had been directed towards an ironclad script. (Most of the time, we get an interesting idea, the germ for a script, but not an interesting script – and there’s only so far you can go on just the strength of an idea.)

What we could (and should) do – if there is some vision, some thought evident; if there is the sense that genuine effort went into the making; and if we walk away with the feeling that there are more things right than wrong – is treat these films with respect, and not dismiss them with the outright condescension we reserve for platefuls of crap like Jism 2. We could be more measured in tone, stating our reservations not with contempt but as fact. But is this always feasible in this era of social media, where brusqueness is a way of life? Yes, criticism is crushing for the director – but when people undertake a profession in the public eye, they have to equip themselves with mental armour. After all, no one forced them to do this job. They could always go and find something that requires them to sit all day in an anonymous cubicle, from where they can join the opposition, the chorus of opinion dispensers. As the refrain goes, no one was ever promised a rose garden.

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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