Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The amour for art cinema”

Why define “great movies” based on a cold and clinical foreign ideal of greatness, especially when so many foreign filmmakers are already making those kinds of great movies?

One question I’m routinely asked when interviewed or at a casual dinner discussion is when our cinema will grow up, become more like “foreign cinema.” And by “foreign cinema,” the person asking this question usually means a “meaningful” film he or she has seen recently, been affected by, Hollywood or European or Asian, while being assaulted by a barrage of ads for – let’s say – Dabangg 2. The discrepancy hits them hard – songless cinema versus one with booty-rattling item numbers, actors submerging themselves in character versus stars playing to the gallery, near-invisible craft versus blingy production values, and most of all the sound, the cathedral-like soundlessless of exalted art versus the loudness that’s sometimes inevitable while pandering to the lowest common denominator. Why, they want to know, are we incapable of making great movies? Where is the new Satyajit Ray, the new Adoor Gopalakrishnan, the new Mani Kaul?

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And I’ll usually end up telling them that making these films is as much a function of the system as the audience. Take Michael Haneke, the Austrian auteur whose chilling Amour – one of the greatest love stories of the cinema; also one of the ghastliest, an unflinching portrait of the last days of a couple played by Jean-Louis Trintingant and Emmanuelle Riva – has won acclaim the world over and has now entered the Oscar race as a hot favourite for Best Foreign Film. In a recent interview to The New York Times, Haneke said that he has ended up making a lot of films in French, rather than in his native German, because “It’s easier to find money there. In comparison, Austria makes about 15 films a year. And France what, about 200? So there’s much more money — and in this case the reason was Jean-Louis Trintingant, because he is just available in France.”

India may make more films than Austria, but if we take the kind of films that can be singled out as heralding the next Ray or the next Kaul or Gopalakrishnan, the numbers even out. It’s a question of finding the money, and even if that issue resolved itself magically, there’s still the question of finding an audience that will help recover that money. In Haneke’s case, or in the case of auteurs of international renown, their audiences exist all over the world, thanks to studios or studio equivalents that acquire these films for their respective territories and promote them expertly to the target demographics, using as a selling point awards won at film festivals and reviews in major publications. Even a Ray became a Ray mainly through international recognition. The question, therefore, becomes how the next Ray is going to attract those eyeballs – and if the answer is by making, first, those kinds of movies here, then how is he going to go about it? Where’s the audience, apart from a handful of people who attend film festivals and those who corner critics with these questions?

Let’s, for an instant, forget the narrow definition of a “great film” as only one that resembles an international art-house film, songless, danceless, joyless. Let us assume that that is how you define a great film. How many viewers here want to actually watch these films? The opening-night film of the recently concluded 10th Chennai International Film Festival was Amour, and there was palpable excitement as it began. There’s some tension early on. An apartment is broken into. At least one dead body is discovered. (There may be another, but we aren’t presented with concrete evidence.) So far, so good. But after this intrigue is established, after the hook is sunk into us, Haneke casts us adrift in the minutiae of the couple’s life. This is, of course, what makes the film, but once the audience became aware of the glacial pace, there were murmurs. People began shifting in their seats. Phones were whipped out. And one exasperated (and brave) woman had to yell out what some of us were only thinking: “If you don’t want to watch the film, then get out and let the others watch it.”

It’s funny how different the notion of a foreign film is, when idealised in the head, when compared to the reality of sitting through one. Had such a film been made in India – by, say, the next Ray – it’s hard to see how much recognition it would have received. How many people, even in multiplexes, would have paid up for a film that lavishes much symbolism on a pigeon, leaches its most shocking scene of all sentiment, and which features a trademark Haneke scene like the one that closed his much-earlier Caché, a static wide composition where we’re not sure which corner of the screen to focus on? Those of us who like this kind of cinema already get this kind of cinema from these filmmakers outside, and it’s a different kind of greatness – very different in tone and texture – that we look for in our films. To work within the Indian format of song- and sentiment-driven narration and yet make something affecting like Udaan – that’s also a kind of greatness.

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 ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

81 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The amour for art cinema”

  1. Haha! Exactly what I was thinking when I finished reading this piece. Plus, how many Udaans (or Dhobi Ghats) are out there? Personally, I think there’s a lot of great you can do with musical montages. Song-dance sequences I can’t really stand but musical montages I think can add real weight and emotion to a film. 180, Subramaniapuram and Angadi Theru are prime examples of the same from Tamil Cinema.


  2. A thought along similar vein:
    Django unchained has been released in US and Europe(to much critical n box office success BTW) yet sony pictures is releasing the movie in India(all of asia actually) only by march 29. Baffling how only hollywood star vehicles, action flicks(really helps if it’s a superhero movie) and 3D magnum opus’ get released in india in sync with the worldwide release. TDKR even found a local distributor in red giant movies.
    But then, how Argo landed in our theatres on time is beyond me.


  3. I haven’t seen Amour (yet) so can’t comment on that specifically.

    I have no quarrel with hard-songless cinema, characters rather than actors, long silences, naturalistic art direction. Those are fine and good things.

    I am specifically referring to a sub-genre of the art-house film(Cache’ does not belong in this group) consisting of long, languid shots, the near catatonic pace, the “natural” sound-effects, the happening of nothing, the zero budget but because it has been made by some “worthy” director and you are watching it in a Film Festival, we are supposed to consider it art. I bet if the same film had been made in Bhojpuri , it would be called more honestly as a boring-ass film.

    I suspect the few who do watch these do not “enjoy” it but instead bear it as a cross as some sort of a macho initialisation ceremony , i sat through a worthy film hence i am worthy. A case in point – the much praised “once upon a time in anatolia” , nothing happens and whatever happens , happens very slowly and its supposed to be some sort of an allegorical reference . Its just BS. The fact that a lot of dreg gets lumped in as arty,worthy cinema irritates me. And yes i will say it – Pather Panchali is overrated.

    As a contrast , good “arty” cinema from India , Garam Hawa, Shatranj ke Khiladi. (2 among many).


  4. You never said a truer word — songless, danceless, joyless…
    Those dull worthies may be good for a pretentious teen or college-goer – but now I will give them a miss any day…
    Life’s too short.


  5. Nidhi: Well, the idea was to point out that songs can be used within a “meaningful” (quotes intentional) narrative, and the presence of songs isn’t automatically a problem.

    omfgitsrohit: “Song-dance sequences I can’t really stand…” Really? Doesn’t that become a problem if you want to become a critic? Or are you only looking at English/foreign films?

    Arjun: What? March 29? Oh man, that’s a long wait. I guess we can forget about “Lincoln” then.

    venkatesh: Are you sure you’re not falling prey to the “this film didn’t work for me; hence it is overrated” syndrome? It’s all a question of how something is used, no? Tarkovsky’s cinema works because of the the “long, languid shots, the near catatonic pace” — there’s a point to this usage. And some of it is allegorical, and to some viewers, it isn’t BS. As with all kinds of cinema, a lot of personal taste/exposure figures into one’s reaction to this sort of thing.

    Yes, I do get your point about how some people diss Indian attempts at art cinema and will praise the same thing if it came in Russian or French — but I think you’re generalising a tad. Oh, and “Pather Panchali” is beautiful, IMO. Seeing the trilogy together, leading up to the last shot of :Apur Sansar”, is an exquisite experience. But what do I know? :-)


  6. We’re talking about ‘meaningful’ films here and I don’t see how a film-maker could intersperse song-dance sequences in a meaningful film tactfully, without jarring you out of the film’s events. Doing the same with musical montages, now THAT I’ve seen happen. But with mainstream Kollywood masala, it’s a different thing. I don’t expect to be rewarded, I merely expect to be engaged. But what I do have a real bias towards are animated films. I can’t ever see the quality of being ‘childish’ as a plus.


  7. It’s very violent apparently and it’s got a scene like the rape coma scene in the beginning of Kill Bill. The Censor Board is going to cut the hell out of Django Unchained. Torrent it.


  8. Django Unchained is also releasing in Malaysia and Singapore only on March, which to a dyed-in-the-wool Tarantino fan like me is the equivalent of having a full bladder and no where to pee. The wait is freaking excruciating! And I don’t even see the logic behind that. It’s not like it’s some slow, languid Wong Kar Wai-type mood piece that’s going to find a limited audience. It’s a wild, bold, bloody Western that like a lot of QT flicks, is bound to be another love letter to genre cinema, and a certified masterpiece no doubt (yeah, that’s how “objective” I get with Tarantino. Deal with it).


  9. Watching a censored version would definitely suck…any idea if it’s out on torrent?? surely there must must be a jury review copy out there somewhere….


  10. Oh yaaa…..couldn’t find ‘Lincoln’ release date anywhere….one would expect the spielberg tag to propel it around..


  11. BR: I re-read my comment – a tad over generalization is correct – in my defence i had just seen ” Once upon a time in Anatolia” and was crashingly disappointed.

    The key point is “How is it used ?” – Solaris (the original) for e.g. does it really well, The White Ribbon (Haneke, 2009) does not.

    Another pet peeve , just cause its a worthy film does not give you a pass, i am willing to engage , i am open to different experiences, i am exposed to a fairly wide variety of cinema but i will still judge the art film by the cardinal rule “Thou shal not bore me”. A big assumption that is made around these films is “you have to bear them” . No i will not bear them. Its not a Concrete Mathematics course.

    Having got that out of the system – I haven’t seen the Apu Trilogy , just the first one. I am going to try and get the Criterion Discs and watch the 3 and see if that changes the way i view Pather Panchali.


  12. BR: American indies do use songs (not just instrumental, but with vocals) extensively. I’m not debating that it can’t be done in the Indian context. But, for me, films with songs work only if they aren’t intrusive. People breaking into song-and-dance routines take my attention away from the screen. Udaan uses songs in montages, which is standard practice worldwide no? [I just remembered that Almodovar does that too..sometimes with lip-sync.]
    I can’t think of a recent film that uses songs in the Indian way and still retains its greatness.


  13. I’d rather sit through a mindless entertainer than ask for art in Tamil cinema only to be presented with shot after pretentious shot of a pseudo cinephile like mysskin. And but for a handful of people who take excursions into foriegn movies made by directors extolled by the critics for whatever reason, the general audience seem quite convinced that cringeworthy attempts like say, myna or mozhi is the high form of art in cinema, so where’s the problem ;)


  14. It’s actually worse the other way. These blockbusters you talk about get released a week, sometimes more, earlier in Asia than in the US…which is terrible for the US viewers, given that these movies originate from the US. Imagine Mani making a movie, releasing it in Europe for 2 weeks before India gets a chance to see it!!


  15. I read this article about TIFF Kerala in The Caravan which discusses the bright scene today as opposed to the ‘artificial bureaucratic scarcity” of the 90’s, which is exactly the term one can use to describe CIFF this time.

    There was a lot of “Not today” ” Come tomorrow at 6″ stuff thrown around nonchalantly by the clueless office staff, with rows of passes behind them, who seemed only too thrilled to be given some semblance of authority at last. After being turned away before the showing of Beasts of the Southern Wild, I threw a fit, took my money and left. Not before sneaking into the half-empty theater and catching the film I was most looking forward to. It was totally worth it!

    As far as Amour goes, I totally get the ‘holding a mirror to the society’ spirit that embodies the art films. I don’t mind the slow pace that comes with the territory. But, as a viewing experience, I thought Amour was strictly okay.

    Beasts of the Southern Wild, though was fantastic.


  16. “The discrepancy hits them hard – songless cinema versus one with booty-rattling item numbers, actors submerging themselves in character versus stars playing to the gallery, near-invisible craft versus blingy production values, and most of all the sound, the cathedral-like soundlessless of exalted art versus the loudness that’s sometimes inevitable while pandering to the lowest common denominator. Why, they want to know, are we incapable of making great movies? Where is the new Satyajit Ray, the new Adoor Gopalakrishnan, the new Mani Kaul?”

    The discrepancy hits them hard because they are making the wrong comparison.Mainstream Desi films vs arty European films. I would have been happier if they took a well-made Hollywood mainstream entertainer for comparison.Like say “The American President” which I re-watched recently and could sit through most of it because its well enacted.why cant our mainstream fiolms be better is the more relevant question rather than why cant we make abstract art stuff like them?

    And these guys who you meet at the dinner table, you should ask them back this : “If there is really a Ray out there are you willing to watch his films in the multiplex “?Unless these are really serious film buffs or film students or filmi geeks these complaints sound hollow to me.

    You couldn’t even make a Kannathil muththamittaal or an Aaranya Kaandam or even an Anbe Sivam a hit, you don’t deserve to complain about missing arty stuff


  17. “Are you sure you’re not falling prey to the “this film didn’t work for me; hence it is overrated” syndrome?”

    whats wrong with that? That’s how even you feel about the films which you think are overrated, right? Because it didn’t work for you as much as it did for the rest of the world. Like say Shawshank redemption. If not, then what are the objective parameters, if any?


  18. I don’t think there’s a more auteuristic director in Kollywood than Mysskin but you’re a hundred percent right with your ‘pretentious’ accusation. And I think Mynaa had a wonderful first half.


  19. A film doesn’t have to be a lugubrious, joyless affair to be good, and such films aren’t necessarily good. Maybe it is because I’m in the US I only get access to the biggest, most mindless Indian films (Indian equivalents of Battleship), and there really are some great films out there. I watched Gandu the other day, and while I didn’t absolutely LOVE the film, it had an energy and vibrancy and and artistic point-of-view that made it memorable and enjoyable. It couldn’t be released in India, due to the graphic sexuality, but it was released on DVD by American and German distributors.

    I think music montages are overused, though at least in Indian films the songs were written for the film, and not previously-written songs, which is often the case for American films. They often seem just as perfunctory in Indian films, though, which lean so heavily on soundtrack albums and music to promote films. Whether or not it is the best way to convey emotion, they have to use the songs somehow.

    I’m hard-pressed to think of modern filmsin which the songs are not music video speedbreakers, but rather extensions of the dialogue. Lagaan did that, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na had Imran Khan break out into “Kabhi Kabhi Aditi.” Usually the films either cut to a song unrelated to what’s going on, or there’s a flimsy pretense for a song, like a nightclub/party scene or a musical show or something. As much as Indian films use songs, I think its kind of a cop out to couch them in the realm of fantasy, rather than, say, having characters burst into songs in their living rooms. There aren’t any lip-sync songs in Aadukalam, but Dhanush is dancing in the street in the Yathe Yathe song is the kind of energy I’m talking about.


  20. When Adoor, Aravaindan, Jhon Abrham etc. made great films in Malayalam there was an atmosphere for meaningful cinema in Kerala. The FILM SOCIETY movement was in its peak, through film socity people got to see great international films and exposed to cinema of other kinds than what was available to them. Also there was great film CRITICS who wrote extensively about international cinema and introduced new ways of appreciating cinema. So when Adoor and Aravindan made their films there was an audience ready for it. In fact Adoor’s first film Swayamvaram was a big commercial success, and all his films to date have made profit.

    Another important aspect was that because of the high quality ‘art films’ made by Adoor and Aravindan, it had an effect on the mainstream films as well, filmmakers of much more mass appeal started to experiment, Padmarajan and Bharathan took the lead in that front and made some of the greatest films ever made in malayalam. those where huge commercial success as well.

    So if meaningful films are not made in India, you can’t blame the audience for it, you can blame the FILMMAKERS for not taking risks and pushing their art. And equally you can blame the CRITICS for not creating the right atmosphere by introducing, sharing, writing passionately to the audience about great meaningful international cinema.

    Yesterday morning I was thrilled when i saw your this article on Hindu with a picture of Amour and the headline which said Amour in it. I was so happy that someone has written about this great film in Indian media. But when i started reading the article it was such a disappointment. You lost an opportunity to introduce Amour- a great work of cinema to your readers. Instead you choose to use the space to write this cliche argument about our cinema vs their cinema.

    Sorry Rangan, you can blame yourself for moving around in familiar world of Bollywood and Hollywood, and not writing about meaningful cinema made in rest of the world to inspire our audience and young filmmakers.



  21. And B, you do know how cinematheques in the western world inspired people to go all auteuristic right? Given that there are quite a number of people interested in artsy stuff here, maybe its time someone like you start one in india? Or is there already some such thing here, apart from film fests and dead film societies?


  22. Oh mysskin has shitloads of fetishes and all his films are full of those used in a not-so-subliminal way. If you ask me, I wouldn’t go so far as calling him an auteur


  23. Rohit Ramachandran: Reg “I don’t see how a film-maker could intersperse song-dance sequences in a meaningful film tactfully…” see this one. The lyrics and the choreography — right from the desultory way he holds the newspaper and pretends not to care about moony romantic declarations; the way she dusts off his T-shirt when she says “zara aur saja ke” — are a beautiful encapsulation of what the couple has just spoken earlier.

    The “Aadukalam” number that Ravi speaks of is another great example of how choreography can take the story/emotions forward.

    venkatesh: “Thou shal not bore me” is a slightly problematic way to define what’s good or bad (even if only in your opinion). Sometimes a film can be so different in its grammar that the first time you won’t get it at all, but repeated viewings will make you see what it’s all about. Say you know nothing about Carnatic music and you’ve only heard five-minute pop songs. The first time you listen to a half-hour alapana, with no “beats,” you will most likely be bored. But if you know the raga, if you know the phrases — in short, if you familiarise yourself with the “grammar” — the same alapana can be profoundly moving.

    Of course, I’m not saying everyone should watch films many times, etc. To each his own. Just pointing out why the “boring” criterion for evaluating art cinema is not always valid.

    Adarsh Radhakrishnan: I really like Mysskin’s shot-taking. “Yuddham Sei” had many fantastic compositions.

    vijay: Oh, I love “The American President” — one of the great grown-up rom-coms :-)


  24. BR: ” Just pointing out why the “boring” criterion for evaluating art cinema is not always valid.”

    As is ‘pretentious’. Mostly used in the sense, ‘I didn’t get it or like it so if anybody gets or likes it they’re being pretentious douchebags’.


  25. “Thou shal not bore me”
    Just to follow up on BR…, what you experience as boredom could really be an “intellectual” and/or “emotional” fatigue. Cinema is a hypnotic medium and under the right circumstances you voluntarily surrender your physical and mental self to the medium. Some even compare it to their first sexual experience – awkward, painful, embarrassing and/or emotionally draining. But if you keep at it you will start to understand and appreciate the beauty behind the medium.

    “Pather Panchali” is an exquisite film…, of course there are some rough edges to it (its his first film) but there is no way to deny its beauty. This was probably and arguably the first film from India where “filmic metaphors” took an intellectual rigidity like never before. Consider the first shot of Apu…, his eyes opened by his sister signifying how instrumental she will be to help him grow out and almost painfully loose his innocence. This (using the eye) is a recurring motif (looking) in film akin to how the camera (“eye”) is capturing reality. The movie is littered with shots of contrast; the famous train shot is one (black smoke vs white field, black and white film et. al.). The “Power to reveal” is highlighted in such mundane shots of the old wrinkled lady walking across the screen in comparison to the smooth skin of durga and apu running along the curved path – “The things to come” vs “The things we are leaving behind”.

    Pauline Kael aptly summed it up for both “us and “them” (I Lost It At The Movies)
    “Like Renoir and DeSica, Ray sees that life itself is good no matter how bad it is. It is difficult to discuss art which is an affirmation of life, without fear of becoming maudlin. But is there any other kind of art, on screen or elsewhere? ‘In cinema,’ Ray says, ‘we must select everything for the camera according to the richness of its power to reveal.’ Ray is sometimes (for us Westerners, and perhaps for Easterners also?) a little boring, but what major artist outside film and drama isn’t? What he has to give us is so rich, so contemplative in approach (and this we are completely unused to in the film medium — except perhaps in documentary), that we begin to accept out lapses of attention during the tedious moments with the same kind of relaxation and confidence and affection that we feel for the boring sketches in the great novels, the epic poems.”

    Its very difficult to qualify what worked and did not work in a film …, take for example porn (or any of its variant). How many of “us men” were/are glued to it ? does it make it make the genre a cinematic masterpiece ? esp. if you got your 10/20 min fix ?
    (or) consider the question “Is the matrix effect more visceral than the train sequence from pather panchali” ?

    If your idea of watching movies is utilitarian then “what worked and did not” might really be dependent on what you were looking for at a given point in time. And since movie watching is both a personal and collaborative experience (via a movie theater)…, the sum could be greater or lesser than the parts and there is no way to pin point it. This led some to even claim the movie watching experience is more interesting than the movie itself (e.g Rajinikanth movies).

    Assuming my comments are not taken as a personal attack…, I would like to reiterate than “thou shall not be bored” is a little silly to be taken seriously. Movies and more importantly movie watching is a complex psychological exercise that cannot be reduced to such claims IMO. Like they say don’t judge a book by its cover…, spend some time and mull over a movie – for any movie buff the reward is pure movie bliss.

    Oh and just to nitpick “venkatesh” – Criterion never released the Apu Trilogy on home video format (its rumored though) :).

    BTW – Personally I am disappointed that people don’t like the song/dance format of Indian movies. To me when done intuitively there is nothing wrong in them. “Mother India” with all its songs and dance is as great as “Pather Panchalli”. “Nayagan” with all is songs is still a great film…


  26. If there was no critics, there was no French New Wave. That was the kind of role critics played in history cinema. In india serious film criticism has died long back, there are only film reviewers….unfortunately they call themselves ‘critics’


  27. NO! This is not happening! The crowd seems to have robbed me of your prose I was so eagerly waiting for the past 2-3 weeks after I’d seen Amour. A shame, really. Terrible shame! I wanted to revisit the movie with you as I’ve always done. The subtlety, the performance, the ghastly turn of events, the time with the pigeon and the eventual departure. I was waiting to read about them all! Oh man!


  28. Oops, I meant Otha Sollala, rather than Yathe Yathe. The emotion of the songs is similar, though Otha Sollala is the more exuberant song.


  29. Nidhi: Another diss I love is when someone thinks a film is very esoteric and writes that it’s meant for “pseudo-intellectuals.” I always burst out laughing when I read this. It’s almost as if people find all kinds of creative ways (insulting others, etc.) to cover up the fact that they didn’t care for the film or didn’t get it. Why not just say “the film did not work for me”? :-)


  30. BR: “Just pointing out why the “boring” criterion for evaluating art cinema is not always valid.”

    No it is always valid , the assumption you (and possibly the others) are making here is i am not schooled in the grammar of the film. That all i need to do is watch it 10 times, read more books on it and i will somehow come to like it. This is incorrect.

    Is it not possible that i look at this type of movie (Pather Panchali as an example) and just go – yes i understand that allegory, this motif, yes i know what the director is trying to say and yes i understand the significance of the black smoke streaking across the white field, yes the juxtaposition of the young and old is exquisite. But , i have seen it done better and i still find it boring. This doesn’t mean i didn’t “get it” , it means i get it and i didn’t like it. It doesn’t make me any less schooled in the grammar of this type of film or intellectually unable to fathom it, it also doesn’t mean i am dissing it .It just means i was not impressed and i found it boring.

    Like any work of art the film has to grab me, i will do my prep and go half-way to meet it but it still has to grab me. The implied assertion that somehow not understanding a “worthy” film is a viewer’s fault and he/she must be schooled is just bull pucky.


  31. venkatesh: Reg. “the assumption you are making here is i am not schooled in the grammar of the film” – Not at all. I was talking from my own experience. There have been a lot of times I have been “bored” by a first-time viewing and subsequently sucked in. And there have been a lot of times I have been bored the first time and bored the third time too.


  32. PK: I appreciate you took the time to explain your reasoning but i do not agree with it . Read the reply to BR above for some of the reasons.

    You are making the same mistake that BR did that i am looking for a quick-fix and am not willing to take the time to follow the rhythms of a different “type” of movie. I prefaced my first comment right at the top explicitly stating that is not the case. And comparing this to porn , please, thats just lazy and the metaphor doesn’t work. I don’t watch porn for 10/20 minutes i have porn + booze marathon sessions.

    Now your question : “Is the matrix effect more visceral than the train sequence from pather panchali” ?” Yes it was for me. When i first saw the matrix effect i had not seen anything like it before . I had seen shots similar to the train sequence and the feel of the film to me was familiar. ( i saw De Sica before i saw any of Ray’s films ). Does this make my viewing experience any less valid ? No , it doesn’t.

    Every viewer comes to a film or any art with his baggage , his context. Its an entirely subjective exercise , thats the whole point of it . How did your piece of art effect me ? If it did not have any effect or the desired effect , you cannot dismiss my judgement of it as long as i am willing to give you a reason. Don’t attempt to “school” me in it .Shakespeare didn’t write his plays and then ask his audience to be schooled in it.

    P.S : Re Criterion , i automatically reach for Criterion for any old B/W classics that i want to see, so its my first port of call by default. Thanks for letting me know its not there , i will try and see if i can get it somewhere else.


  33. BR : What happens when you are bored multiple times ? Do you then go – this is it, it doesn’t work for me.

    As a rule i simply do not watch films multiple times if i do not like it the first time but if it comes highly recommended then i give it another few go’s , mainly to remove my personal “state of mind effects”. There are have been very few cases where i have liked the film on subsequent viewing , one that i remember is Rope by Hitchcock but usually i do not have the patience to watch it the second time.


  34. Venkatesh, I think BR has answered your question – sometimes repeat viewing works, sometimes it doesn’t. The point is that, boredom is not the only criteria , some tastes you acquire, some you don’t.

    Vijay – “That’s how even you feel about the films which you think are overrated, right?”
    Sometimes films don’t work for me, and I do not understand the grammar, or what the director is aiming for. I cant call 2001 A space odyssey overrated, because I have not even been able to finish watching it. I like Tarkovsky – I enjoy most of his movies , but Stalker didn’t work for me. However, I cant call it overrated because,I know that the revelation, or dénouement , if it happens, will only be in my mind. But I do call Argo overrated , because not only did it not work for me, I know with a certain degree of assurance what the director was aiming for.


  35. I guess anyone would give a movie a subsequent watch only if they found something exquisite or “worthy” enough for all the hyperbole surrounding it, in the first viewing itself. I found space odyssey extremely boring when I watched it first, and yet I felt there were some moments that were truly cinematic (which i felt i did not “get”)and hence the subsequent viewings. But if a film absolutely bores the crap out of me during the first watch, there is no way i can watch it again. Case in point being Juliette of the spirits and la terra trema off the top of my head


  36. I was hooked to ‘Once upon..’ from the start. Hadn’t even heard of it before I got to watch it, and if there’s some allegory, I missed it completely. But it was fairly engrossing account of police work.
    then again I’ll probably find something of interest in anything which has murder in it.


  37. Rahul,

    “The point is that, boredom is not the only criteria , some tastes you acquire, some you don’t.” – No it is the only criteria for me. Its what matters to me , and its not about this amorphous concept called taste , it could simply be that film did not work for me.

    Why the weasel sentence , “some tastes you acquire” ?

    Lets do a thought experiment , read the following sentence, I saw Rowdy Rathore , it was boring. See that was easy ,there doesn’t seem to be any mental disconnect any reason to justify anything. No one is going, to understand this movie “you must acquire the taste”. No, everyone just takes it at face value and goes – ah yea, thats understandable.

    So when i say i think Pather Panchali is boring why the admonishment to “acquire the taste” ? How is it suddenly the viewers fault that they don’t like the movie ? Admittedly its a different grammar and new and not often made in India at that time etc. etc. but that shouldn’t confer it a special status , it still has to work equally hard to get my vote. Why is the responsibility shifted onto the viewer to “get” the movie ? This is exactly why a large number of these so-called art films (i don;t like the term) all make the same moves , follow the same template, in some cases i can even predict shot lengths and camera movements, background score and if someone goes – its boring – you go “Oh you are not schooled in the exalted art of watching this movie, you have to say the following magic incantations 5 times and stand in the rain with your arm out”. I say will all due respect – bullpucky.

    And with regards to the reply to Vijay : “but Stalker didn’t work for me. However, I cant call it overrated because,I know that the revelation, or dénouement , if it happens, will only be in my mind. But I do call Argo overrated , because not only did it not work for me, I know with a certain degree of assurance what the director was aiming for.” – That is a very strange way of looking at films, any revelation or denouement is supposed to happen in your mind, The entire notion of art is – How does it relate to you , sometimes irrespective of the maker’s intention. What other measure is there ?


  38. Venkatesh, Don’t worry about what other people say, if you find Pather Panchali boring please say so loudly. And don’t watch it again as some guys have suggested. Your experience is what matters, if a film doesn’t work for you it has to be a bad film for you. All of us has to respect that view of yours. It is you life.

    At the same time you should also respect someone else who didn’t find Pather Panchali boring, and even think it is great. It is their life.


  39. Why the weasel sentence , “some tastes you acquire” ?”
    Well I guess without acquiring tastes it is impossible to appreciate(not “understand”) any art form. But IMO, tastes are acquired without volition as you watch more and more movies, it has to organically grow on you without having to deliberately make your mind to sit through a movie and also like it. And we don’t even have to look at ultra arthouse movies, I am sure no one was born with a “taste” for appreciating ilayaraja or KB, it simply grew on us without volition. But with artsy ones, we tend to fall prey to the hyperbole and vitriolic chastisement of critics and cinephilia alike, not letting our tastes grow on their own without exterior disturbances feeding on our vanity, and that I think is bad


  40. “I am sure no one was born with a “taste” for appreciating ilayaraja or KB, it simply grew on us without volition”

    well the difference is that you were exposed to their works at a young age when you didnt even knew who they probably were, you were only familiar with their films and music and not who the artists behind them were(atleast in my case, it was). And their works reflected the life around you. Whereas you probably found out or read about who Tarkovsky or Kubrick was and then hunted down and tried to familiarize yourself with the grammar of their films because they are considered great. The latter is a case of intentionally acquired taste whereas the former was more spontaneous or unplanned or just happened.
    I argue with BR(who is understandably defensive, as this is his profession :-) ) that roots are maybe more significant when it comes to getting movies/music. And merely understanding a movie is not the same as getting the full cinematic experience (intended or otherwise). It has to emotionally resonate with you and Iam skeptical that a critic/film buff/viewer has the same gut instinct or innate feel for what is great/what is not, when it comes to movies foreign to his culture/language as he has with films from his own land, no matter how much he tries to familiarize.
    Roger Ebert might understand with the help of captions what goes on in say, Mudhal mariyaadhai or Kaadhal(and might have even seen hundreds of foreign films) but will the movie still impact/hit him the same way it hits the rest of us?
    No matter how well I understand Taxi Driver(and I do, to a large extent) the movie never hit me really hard. I have read comments about lot of people in NY/US beeing able to identify with the loneliness and rejection and all that. Maybe its an American thing with their pet themes of post-war depression, big city ugliness and lack of social abilities/rejection and all that. Of course not all films fall under this category, but familiarization with the culture or an understanding of it is needed a lot of times to experience the same kind of exuberance that an American viewer( who is really the target audience) might experience while watching the movie. Otherwise what you have is just limited admiration from a distance.
    In music, I can cite the example of blues/ Jazz and how for someone from Indian roots it can be really difficult to “get” that kind of music even if you try hard to familiarize yourself with its grammar. One part of it is getting it musically, the other part of it is about how you respond emotionally to it. And it is somehow intended to convey mostly a sense of struggle(at least the early era music), because it originated as slave music, from them singing about their daily travails.Do you really feel all that when you listen to that? I have a limited connect with blues/soul/R&B and can appreciate them. But a piece of say, Charlie Parker’s bebop leaves me all cold.You can appreciate the technical wizardry maybe, but thats about it.


  41. Kiruba: If you like murder movies , i would suggest checking out Korean films. Lots of really good ones , check out “Mother” its exquisite.

    Jo: Agreed. I have no problems with people liking Pather Panchali or for that matter any other art film. My problem is – nobody objects when you say “Rowdy Rathore is boring” – but say the same thing about an art-house film and it suddenly is the viewers fault , its the viewer’s responsibility to “get” the movie.
    This implication that the movie is great but the viewer is not schooled in the ability to view the film is just wrong. As a result of this duality you have a lot of completely generic art films equivalent to your generic Salman Khan film that get made and gain praise and then no-one watches them ever after 2 years.

    Adarsh Radhakrishnan: A large part of my subsequent movie viewings are dependent on how my favorite critics respond to the movie. Case in point : I didn’t like Hey Ram , i saw it in Tamil and just could not get over the fact that no-one in Chandni Chowk/Red Fort area (where the final portions of the film are shot) speaks in Tamil. It was just too jarring. BR likes the film and suggested watching it in Hindi. I have watched it twice in Hindi now , i still don’t think its great but it “feels” better.


  42. Venketash – You don’t like it …, then you don’t like it – its a personal stance and very difficult arguing against it. I just wished you had given little more meat to your argument instead of just saying “its over rated”. Even Truffaut who famously walked out of Pather Panchali screening said

    “I don’t want to see a movie of peasants eating with their hands.

    In terms of the Matrix sequence – even our own vijaykanth films have it now. So how many people do you think will be “blow away” in the year 2056 — 55 years after its release ? I bet there would be more people “moved” by the train sequence after 101 years of Pather Panchali release or “calmed” when viewing the inconsequential Tea Pot(s) in Ozu films or “belittled” with John Fords landscapes or feel a sense of “despair” at the emptiness of Antonioni films? IMO these will linger on and on till there is light in this world.

    In terms of Rowdy Rathore – the assumption that cinema is a standalone unidirectional entity is misplaced. Just like the cliché “you complete me” good cinema almost always beckons its viewers to complete it. So in this sense cinema is really made up of both the movie and the movie watching experience which could last well beyond the movies running time. For films like “Rowdy Rathore” there is probably not much scope of the audience to mull over it. Also its designed to touch only the most basic of the conscious gateways (sight and sound) something similar to porn. Its almost spoon feeding/stuffing you with non-stop visuals making it almost impossible to “create” any sense out of it. Speaking strictly in a reductionistic sense, your liking/disliking of that movie probably stems from this nonstop barrage of this audio/visual medium. However some of the films in discussion here delve into the conscious and unconscious self…, like the famous opening shots of Tarkovsky’s Mirror. The viewer is hypnotized into someone else’s emotional space where you could discover your own emotional state and quite possibly make you “experience” things you never knew existed within you. Like Bresson the belief is we might discover our bodies sharing “one common essential soul”.

    IMO the idea of “Love at first sight” while watching films is really an adolescent perspective…, hopefully you/we/us/I can grow out of it. I strongly feel there is a certain sense of opening up that’s required by the viewer to really soak in good films. This could take time and patience both of which are in short supply…, so there is really no one to blame.

    BTW – In terms of Shakespeare…, I was clearly “schooled” first before I actually attended a “real” Shakespeare play. I can see no other way this can be experienced. If anything its clearly a product of its times (middle ages) and for a person born in 21st century its tough to take it in its “raw” form. None of the popular pop-culture adaptations of his plays in films including the great Orson Welles ones can be compared to a really well done Shakespeare theater ( yes theater is not dead !) .

    Macbeth (SCENE III. A heath near Forres.)

    Cannot be ill, cannot be good: if ill,
    Why hath it given me earnest of success,
    Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor:
    If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
    Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
    And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
    Against the use of nature? Present fears
    Are less than horrible imaginings:
    My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
    Shakes so my single state of man that function
    Is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is
    But what is not.

    P.S: For the Apu trilogy…, if you want the criterion there is a good chance you will get them in 2013. Else get hold of the UK (Artificial Eye ) release – its a pretty clean albeit a dvd presentation only.


  43. PK : “I bet there would be more people “moved” by the train sequence” .
    Might be true but it means diddly squat to me. Its my experience that counts.

    “I strongly feel there is a certain sense of opening up that’s required by the viewer to really soak in good films. This could take time and patience both of which are in short supply…, so there is really no one to blame.” no, no and no.

    This is precisely my point , you are eager to trash Rowdy Rathore, you accept that its acceptable to trash that film but for Pather Panchali a higher standard from the viewer is expected. This is exactly what i don’t like. Its not that the film can be bad or not to the viewer;s taste, its that the viewer has to rise to the film, inspite of the viewer taking the films rhythm and “differentness” into account. No film, no play and no music has the right to expect that and the cinephiles who apologize for that are just that – apologists. I have little patience for the argument “you don;t get it”.

    We have both exhausted our points and before BR bans me from here, i am going to be schtum on this issue.

    P.S : Thanks for the Artificial Eye recommendation. I am currently in UK and can possibly pick it up somewhere locally.


  44. Ok my absolute last post on this :

    PK : Re Shakespeare , you misunderstood me – I am now you/me/we do not have to be schooled now on him – i meant when he made the plays he did not go around saying people do not understand the subtext of the play and therefore have to be schooled. Historical records show that the plays were written for his audience and by all accounts were huge successes.

    I also mentioned that i did not like Pather Panchali cause i had seen de Sica’s films before seeing PP and therefore found it to be of the same “feel” and de Sica had done it better.

    In general,

    My original argument was a lot less blunt – I have no issues with people liking, not liking an art-house film. I have an issue with apologists who insist there is something wrong with a viewer who does not like an exalted art-house film, the “viewer must be schooled” goes the cry. This argument is never extended when one dismisses a genre potboiler (Rowdy Rathore is not the best example of this), i find this double standard and shifting of responsibility onto the viewer inconsistent and dishonest. Not to mention art-films from India are more easily dismissed for the same reason. Simply accepting that may be an art-film is in reality boring and not to the viewer’s taste would be enough.

    Thats all.


  45. Vijay: of course the contextual disconnect would be there when I watch a citizen Kane or a taxi driver today. Whether or not I dismiss them depends entirely on the kind of viewer I am. If I am a serious cinephile, I would try braving the web as to why welles did what he did and why bestow so much adulations and praise when most of his ways are very much outdated today. I am quite sure welles being American does nothing of help for an American viewer of this generation in understanding the significance of his work unless he delves into a little bit of research and gets the context. So I don’t think the culture one is born into matters much. It is true for all art I guess. I am not familiar with blues music of the 50’s but I can take beethovens eroica for an example. We hear, the first time it was performed the audience and critics alike were terribly confounded because it was supposedly too rough and insanely dissonant for them. But you listen to it today and it is hardly rough. To understand what the fuss was all about, you need to know how music of the classical era sounded and how Beethoven was a monster of a subversive artist as respect to the then famous Haydn or the deified Mozart. I guess cinema or music is like anything else- the more you know, the more you understand. But then you can always not do all that research and comfort over the fact that a movie is too culturally disconnected to be blown away by it. And that’s why there are scholars in art who’ve done their research which most of us have trouble doing mostly because of time or dispassion.
    All that apart it is indeed true that most, if not all, of the well acclaimed movies, arthouse or not, appeal even to unsuspecting viewers like me who are a little open to new ideas


  46. “….i meant when he made the plays he did not go around saying people do not understand the subtext of the play and therefore have to be schooled. Historical records show that the plays were written for his audience and by all accounts were huge successes.”

    I would like to see the “historical records” of how the subtext were written about and explored in the 15th/16th century by Shakespeare, his critics and his fans.

    Also “Huge Successes” does not really mean an everlasting ‘product’. Shakespeare though popular in his time was really rediscovered in the 19th/20th Victorian/Romantic era. Without this reevaluation and pretty rigorous scholastic studies following that, he would have just remained an “entertainer”. In a way his fans over time have made him immortal.

    This is also common in history of films

    – Melodramas of Douglas Sirk were money spinner for Universal Studios in the 1950s but the analysis of his subversive use of the film medium came years later when film scholars, critics and movie buffs revisited and celebrated the “cinema underneath’ .

    – Same thing with Hitchcock, he was famous throughout his career but without spending time and going deeper into his films (like how the French did) we will not see Vertigo/Psycho the same way it was seen when released in the 50s .

    – Citizen Kane is another example – forgotten for about 20 years after its release, it was almost single handedly rediscovered by French counterparts.

    – Our own (and my favorite) Ritwik Ghatak films is yet another example. His final film is bound to be a “bore” without knowing his other films, his own political and humanistic beliefs. Mani Kaul rightly observed in Ghatak’s films the “director is the subject”.

    I simply don’t know how these films could have been rediscovered and seen with new light without revisiting them ? Films don’t change…, people do. So what does not “blow you” away now immediately could very well be just a time bomb ticking away to explode later.

    In fact very few films fall under the category of “masterpiece at first glance” and if anything its the other way around. Films that’s hailed as masterpiece upon release soon fade away from memory – Black (Hindi), Schindlers list, and just to burst the bubble for Rangan- NEP.

    In short if an honest film maker is prematurely blamed for making a boring film then perhaps its acceptable to blame the impatient viewer also ?

    I apologize if my arguments have started to bore you now :)


  47. “I am quite sure welles being American does nothing of help for an American viewer of this generation in understanding the significance of his work unless he delves into a little bit of research and gets the context.”

    To a certain extent yes. And that makes it even less helpful for a foreign viewer.For that matter even older indian arthouse films requires some “prep” on the part of the local viewer.
    But what about contemporary films, like say American Beauty, which specifically deals with societal decay in American suburbia? No amount of research you do can make you react/respond the same way as it does for the audience there. You may understand the meaning, the intent, context, but you would never “feel” the same way about it,especially with the black humor-like approach used.. It can get to distant admiration at best. Like I said about Charlie Parker’s bebop. And with Euro films it gets even worse with the language not being English and you having to solely rely on captions. Lot can be lost in translation.Often it is the dialogue and the rhythms of it that can enrich the experience. For instance these Madurai based films in recent years like say a Paruthiveeran or Aadukalam, the way the dialect is spoken and all that adds a lot of color and personality. If a foreign viewer gets to follow the film with transliteration, he already has lost quite a bit of the viewing experience. No research is going to help him there. Ditto with the music and such in our films.
    Processing films is a multisensory experience and cannot be reduced to a research student-like read-and-try-to-understand approach, even if it might help a bit.


  48. vijay: There is no one way to look at this, and I guess it boils down to the way we approach art. As you say, no amount of “prepping” will help me truly get “Taxi Driver” the way Ebert gets it, but then, by the same token, no amount of “prepping” will help Ebert get the film the way a real Vietnam War vet and ex-Marine gets it either.

    Taking this argument to its illogical limit — just to make a point — that one should have some experience of what’s in a film to truly get it, then unless one has adopted a kid, one cannot truly “get” what the couple in “Kannathil Muthamittal” are going through.

    But where you say “experience” is necessary to get art, I say “empathy” is what’s important. It’s not what you’ve been through or seen around you but whether you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes to an extent. You seem to place great emphasis on whether I will get the film the same way an Ebert does, which — given how much I harp on the subjectivity of experience, and how often you’ve heard me belabour this point — seems a little strange. For me this is not important at all. The only thing that matters is what *I* take away from the film.

    And I disagree with you about the “Taxi Driver” point that it’s uniquely American. Alienation and loneliness are not American. Yes, the specific reason for De Niro’s alienation is American, but the condition of alienation itself isn’t — and that’s what a non-American will buy into (assuming the film grabs him; no harm if it doesn’t).

    Actually, I may find more in common with De Niro in “Taxi Driver” than with Bala’s outcasts — and that doesn’t prevent me from “getting” those films. Am I getting Bala’s films the way Bala intended? Probably not. But who cares what the director intends, as long as the FILM speaks to you?

    On a slightly tangential note, I read Ayn Rand at a time my only worry in life was passing grades. I had yet to go out and get a job and earn money and learn about compromising and standing for what you believe in — I don’t even know if I really believed in anything then — but I found the books gripping and stayed up hours pondering over the fates of these people. What grabbed me? Probably the plot, the narration, the characters — and maybe as a teenager I fell for all that rock-like idealism.

    Educating yourself can help only to the extent that you can see what OTHERS think and feel about something, but you cannot — for the most part — change YOUR way of thinking/feeling about something just because you read a long and passionate essay about it. It’s like “I see where you’re coming from…” more than “I now have a completely different view of the film/book/music.” The latter can happen too, but it’s less common.

    Of course, if your belief is that the director’s way is the only true way of seeing a film, then you have a point.

    venkatesh: From your posts, I seem to get the idea that you think you’re being hauled up for not getting these films. Actually the only thing I was talking about is how “boredom” is hardly a criterion for evaluating the worth of a film. In my own case, there are films I’ve found “boring” the first time and not so during subsequent viewings, and there are films that I’ve given up on after repeated attempts because I couldn’t get into them at all.


  49. Damn.

    PK : But again i don’t care how the film is evaluated 50 years from now , i am very impatient, i am all for now. Its immaterial to me how an artiste is re-evaluated , i just am interested in my view of it when i watch it. BTW, here is an interesting anecdote for you – The French have a very high view of Manmohan Desai’s lost and found films , they call it Post-Modern Cinema. Doesn’t mean i am going to sit and watch all MD;s films again with that view in mind.

    BR: “you think you’re being hauled up for not getting these films” – No, no not at all.
    “Actually the only thing I was talking about is how “boredom” is hardly a criterion for evaluating the worth of a film” , but that is my subjective criteria and all i am saying is it as valid as any other.

    Here is my film watching process (roughly):

    watch film , bored, read reviews, watch film again, repeat n times, decide that critic was wrong, declare war on critic.

    watch film, intrigued, read reviews, watch film again, repeat n times, decide that critic was right, declare love for critic

    (tongue firmly in cheek)

    And BTW, Ayn Rand – seriously.


  50. It’s like “I see where you’re coming from…” more than “I now have a completely different view of the film/book/music.”

    Br, you have pretty much put everything into the right perspective but I politely differ with this statement of yours. IMO any kind of research is going to change your views in a long run. And by research i don’t just mean reading essays after essays about a movie or the person who made it. This empathizing you are talking about depends majorly on the kinds of movies you’ve seen thus far. I am not going to enjoy a taxi driver if that is among the first few films when I start out exploring Hollywood. But after watching a substantial number of films, which I think is education, the chances that I may like it are better. Even with literature its true right? You are not going to enjoy Scot Fitzgerald when you haven’t read a fair amount of books before. So there seems to be this kind of stringent precondition of having to pass through an exhausting amount of books/movies before you can actually arrive at having a fairly coherent watch/read of a book/movie right? This is one of the reasons I sometimes feel I do not have the right to comment on certain arthouse movies that bored me.


  51. “On a slightly tangential note, I read Ayn Rand at a time my only worry in life was passing grades.”

    I guess every bookish 17 year old is bound to fall in love with ayn rand, not long before coming to talk nasty things about her


  52. Venkatesh, ” No it is the only criteria for me.”
    What I spoke was about how I and some others have experienced films – also, this is more of an a posteriori description rather than a priori prescription. There is no right way. The reasons may be manifold – as Adarsh has said, maybe you find something cinematic, or read a review that makes you look in a new light, or it is so highly regarded that you want to get it, etc. Again, If your experience has been different , so be it. Acquiring a taste is not something to be proud of per se. One can acquire the taste of crap if one keeps at it. Its entirely value neutral, as I used and meant it.

    “any revelation or denouement is supposed to happen in your mind, The entire notion of art is – How does it relate to you , sometimes irrespective of the maker’s intention. What other measure is there ?”
    Although there cannot be any discrete categories, I feel there are two types of movies .- Ill borrow an analogy from food. If a director presents me with a serving of hakka noodles, then, although how I relate to it is subjective, and two persons may react and relate to the same plate differently – but still, it is what it is, a plate of hakka noodles. I will call it overrated if I so desire. The other director gives me ingredients to cook the noodles . I cook them according to my taste \ skill , I may like or not like it, but I wont call the ingredients overrated because I dont know how Vijay will cook the same noodles.

    This ties up in a way, with repeat viewing as well. I may try to make the noodles again with the ingredients,even if it didnt come good the first time, maybe because Vijay said he really liked his. but if I didnt like the precooked noodles, I dont see much reason for trying it again.


  53. Adarsh Radhakrishnan: “This empathizing you are talking about depends majorly on the kinds of movies you’ve seen thus far.” Not at all. You get understanding from movies and by educating yourself. Empathy for someone’s situation, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, is either something you have or don’t have. It’s an internal antenna kind of thing, and it varies from movie to movie, character to character. For instance, I wasn’t able to get much into Sridevi’s character in “English Vinglish” or Ranbir Kapoor’s in “wake Up Sid” because I wasn’t able to — beyond a point — lock into their wavelengths, and these films, though well-made in many aspects, kept me at an arm’s length.

    But with Haneke’s “Amour,” I empathised completely with the male lead’s situation, because I have been in a caregiver situation and even though it isn’t the exact same situation as the one shown in the film, there’s are enough overlapping points to make me think, “OMG, that is what I did (or would do).”

    Similarly, the alienation in “Taxi Driver” can feel similar to any chubby school kid who wants to be a writer and who likes poetry and who’s stranded amidst dozens of classmates studying furiously for IIT. It’s not the exact alienation that De Niro experiences, but, again, there are enough reference points to enable empathy.

    “Being a caregiver” and “alienation” are universal-enough situations, and that’s easy to lock into. You don’t have to look for “being a caregiver to an 80-year-old wife” or “alienation resulting from the Vietnam” war,” though that experience will surely add a different dimension to your viewing.

    And because this ability to empathise varies so much — you may be able to empathise with X character in a film; I may not, and hence find myself viewing him/her from an arm’s length — is why film viewing is so subjective and cannot be generalised by saying “Indians cannot get this and foreigners cannot get Carnatic music and so on.” We may not get the exact same things as someone from that culture, but as long as there is some overlap, there is empathy, and as long as there is empathy, there is identification and understanding.

    Finally, thanks all, for all this back-and-forth about a fairly serious topic. It heartens me that there has been more engagement here than on the “Dabangg 2” review :-)


  54. I promise this is going to be my last post, because I already have a feeling my arguments are getting very cyclic here.

    But maybe I did not make myself clear. Consider this, when I was in the last year of school I caught seventh seal in the world movies channel on tv. That was when I was totally uninitiated to such kinds of films and no among of repeated viewings would have made me empathize with the characters in the movie(and am sure even a taxi driver would have left me cold then), not because I did not have it in me to do so but my movie watching experience then was fairly very low. But now having watched a substantial number of films i can say with certainty if i like the movie or not. What i am saying is, before you are able to empathize, first you need to be able to apprehend the movie and get into its mould and for that, the kinds of movies and the number of movies youve watched is important.
    I still have a feeling I’ve not made myself clear. Oh well…


  55. Adarsh Radhakrishnan: I thought we’d taken for granted that we’d “educated” ourselves (i.e. seen enough) about the style and pace of films and were looking at the “getting it” part. Okay, assuming we haven’t then, yes, familiarity with the style of moviemaking is important. But I’m talking about a more basic thing — that even if you’re familiar with the style, if you don’t have an empathetic connection, you’re going to be left cold or “bored” or whatever.

    Maybe this will make my points easier:

    1. You can read all you want about “Taxi Driver” but still find it leaving you cold.
    2. You can read all you want about “Taxi Driver” and now you begin to warm up to it.
    3. You may not know anything about “Taxi Driver” and find it cold.
    4. You may not know anything about “Taxi Driver” and warm up to it.

    In each of these cases, there’s a personal component to “getting” or “liking” the film that’s individual-based and not nation- or culture-based, and a lot of it comes from how much you empathise with Travis Bickle. An American may not be able to get him. A Japanese viewer may be able to (although not necessarily in the way the director/writer intended).

    PS: “Seventh Seal” is admittedly not the greatest of examples here, for it is already a cold film. We’re not meant to warm up to these characters the way we do in, say, “Fanny and Alexander.” And it’s an allegorical film, whose characters are somewhat symbolic, unlike “Taxi Driver,” which invites us into the heads of its characters.


  56. BR (and others) – How about films that might lack any empathy ? are they simply “un connectable” ? The one that pops into my head now are the films of Stan Brakhage or any of the true Avant-garde films – how do you empathize to such films ?

    How about any of the absurdist films where empathy is in short supply or even completely lacking ?

    Now let me turn the table around and ask how do people with Autism watch movies ? (assuming for the sake of argument their ability to perceive and react to emotions is limited). What if they feel total disconnect with the characters in “Barfi” or “Rain Man” (just to push the argument further and give examples of badly made yet celebrated movies about autism). Does this make them an unsuitable viewer of such (or any) films or do these films distort reality?

    How about Cartoons that’s often used to entertain/treat kids with Autism – don’t we also enjoy the same cartoons ? Then where lies the difference?

    How about the Gore Fest or Exploitation films ? Do we watch so we can get a feel for torturing the victim(s) or do we watch so we can empathize with the victim(s) ?

    Simply put I think empathy is just one aspect of film watching and should not be used as a yardstick to measure “movie quality” or the ability to relate to “movie characters”. In fact I have started to think too much emphasis is being given to the “ability to relate” to characters in movie thereby resulting in good but not radically different cinema from India (or elsewhere).

    I just wish movies can be enjoyed simply for what they are and seen quite literary form a distance with a perspective.

    Venkatesh – I love Monmohan desai films and is almost the only reason I sit through films of Farah khan (Om Shanti Om, Tees Maar Khan et. al.). The lack or need for a “real” plot or even “real” characters was so much fun !


  57. PK: “Simply put I think empathy is just one aspect of film watching” — of course. But it’s an important one, and I was arguing against the contention that people from Culture X cannot get a film made in Culture Y — and I was saying that empathy with Culture X is not impossible, whether in books or movies or whatever.


  58. pk: The debate over the function of cinema- should it observe, empathize or challenge or all at once- has no end to it and its something that’s already been beaten to death by the proponents of authorship of the cinema. And speaking of avant garde, I personally love movies of Chantal akerman and I think they are about ideas in the most delicate sense cinema can be “about” ideas. But then again these experimental movies are heavily subjective because they are about ideas and sometimes rather textual. This is why I I find gauging these kinds of movies rather difficult when I am not grabbed by. Also, by and far (at least as regards to mainstream or pop filmmaking) the main function of the film has been to empathize. And I have no problems dealing with it so long as empathy doesnt take the meaning of “overt romanticizing”.


  59. I agree with many of Vijay’s observations here. Yes, firstly, do not compare Rowdy Rathore to a Clockwork Orange. What exactly, other than greater technical finesse and detail, makes your typical Arny/Stallone macho action flick so much superior to Rajnikanth…is a question I have often asked and have never got a satisfactory answer. At the most, the former is more urbane and appeals to multiplex sensibilities but in all cases, they are equally disposable “entertainment”. And at least Rajni can act when he wants to – please don’t laugh blindly at this, first watch Arulinthu Aruvathu Varai and then get back to me.

    The other observation, comparing childhood/formative experiences of art to acquired tastes is very astute too. Yes, it is true that our experiences in totality determine how we react to art. And that is why overrated/underrated is a very tiresome debate. Some people lap up Rowdy Rathore because they find it acceptable as per their experiences and expectations, for others it necessarily has to be a deathly serious film devoid of emotional peaks and troughs. Both are equally valid choices for the individual. A discussion on whether a work of art is overrated or underrated can only be meaningfully had with regard to its technical excellence (or lack of) and its influence, impact and innovation. It cannot be derived with respect to personal tastes, that doesn’t make much sense to me. If you don’t like it, so it’s overrated and by implication people who like it are stupid….doesn’t that sound a bit rude?

    “But a piece of say, Charlie Parker’s bebop leaves me all cold” – I am not very sure how much bebop is intended to be emotionally resonant in any case. It was born in the phase where jazz became more academic and studied and less accessible….as in, a sort of musicians’ music. It is like our classical music, most of which does not affect me emotionally but is very interesting conceptually. And therein lies the real problem for most Indians who find Western music hard to relate to – Western music is not about melody but harmony. This is not to say melody is irrelevant but melody and harmony are closely interrelated in Western music and songs often originate from a chord progression, not a melody – or raga formation, as we call it in India.


  60. Was re-reading the comments and there are some really nice points from all sides, though broken up like this — as opposed to a conversation where we could argue back and forth more freely — an inevitable amount of circling-the-same-points has happened.

    Will see if I can club everything together and make a cleaner post, from just these comments.


  61. Gents, happy to report the Django Unchained Screener copy is available for download via torrents. Saw it and what can I say…..I loved it!


  62. Is it really needed that you would need to empathize esp. in an existential films or characters? Taxi Driver is a good example…., I don’t think you need to empathize but instead just observe and be interested in the idea of observing an existential character. The movie makes sense when we don’t become Travis but instead track, pan and hover in bewilderment around him and his actions. Our failure to get into his head or under his skin is as severe as his failure to reconcile with “all this stuff”. There is fantastic scene in the movie when the camera drifts away from Travis (on payphone taking with Betsy) and points its view at an empty corridor. This cements his loneliness even from the viewer.

    For the informed viewer (and critics), its important not to get too carried away with the idea of empathy. I will even go far to say we should exhibit more of an “objective empathy” instead of a “subjective empathy”.


  63. Since you bring up culture, BR, I had the same realization while reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Lots of people cannot bring themselves to tolerate the book because they can’t empathize with the lead character due to vast difference in cultures (and yes, moral relativism is brought up). I think it’s important to judge a character within the context he/she is in and understand his/her actions, whether you empathize with him/her or not. Empathy also somehow implies that you endorse their actions which may not be the case. Sometimes the film just gets you to observe instead of judge, in which case empathy doesn’t matter at all!

    Everybody has their own checklist of annoyances and when a film ticks off one of the things on my list, it loses me. For example, I find it very tough to tolerate male characters who beat up their wives/gfs no matter whatever inner struggle they might be going through. For this reason, while I appreciate the film-making, the choreography and acting that went into it, Raging Bull didn’t affect me at all. When I discuss this with my male friends, they bring up the rather annoying excuse that I didn’t ‘get’ it because I’m female. I then point out that I love Taxi Driver, which is also a “boys’ film”. The point being this – when a film loses you, it simply loses you.

    On the other hand, when a film gets you it just gets you. Someone brought up Once Upon A Time In Anatolia in the comments above. I LOVED that film. But I can’t even articulate why I loved it. It is many things -mood, scenery, night time, the conversations, the girl with the lamp, the leisurely pace, death which is one of my favourite themes, morbid as it may sound – none of them make for a convincing argument but I found it to be a hypnotic experience. I can’t recommend this to friends because I can’t be sure the film will affect them the way it affected me. I completely understand why someone would dislike it though.

    This brings me to my final point. The ‘boring’ art cinema tag. BR, have you seen Holy Motors by Leos Carax? The film begins with a scene that, I think, is a metaphor for the death of film culture because too many audiences find (art) films boring. Carax then goes on to make a film that is wildly entertaining, as if just to stick it to these ‘serious’ filmmakers, while making it as obscure as possible, just to say STFU to these audiences. What a delight it was!


  64. Nidhi and PK: That whole “empathy” remark began as a response to the contention that only Americans can truly get “Taxi Driver,” and then it ballooned into a bit of a generalisation. I was trying to say that you don’t have to be from the Depression era to “get” “Grapes of Wrath” or an American teenager to “get” “Catcher in the Rye” or a Russian to “get” “Anna Karenina.” In other words, more than the experience, in these cases, if you could empathise with the works, then that’s good enough.

    I was talking about “Taxi Driver” because I empathised with the characters there. But yes, there are lots of movies that do not invite empathising, and work very well from a distance. And needless to say, there are movies that you neither empathise with nor are able to appreciate from a distance, and with those you just say “okay, this doesn’t work for me.”


  65. Nidhi : You bring up a good point , i have heard the “boys” vs “girls” tastes in movies debate. Thats just an economic construct, As KB said in an interview, “i moved to TV because thats where my audience is – women”. To me its completely arbitrary – i love well-done rom-coms even weepy Korean melodramas (that have a very set template) but i love Raging Bull and for that matter Holy Motors (phenomenal).

    BR : “But yes, there are lots of movies that do not invite empathising, and work very well from a distance” – almost all of Stanley Kubrick’s movies and i think in his case its a conscious stylistic decision.


  66. Saw Amour yesterday. what did you make of the “screaming to be metaphorized” pigeon scene?I took it thus- First, the pigeon is a hindrance to the privacy and exclusivity of the cocoon like existence they have pigeon-holed themselves into , but when he is alone, the pigeon is not only a reprieve to take his mind off but also , it is something breathing, alive, and thereby a means to hook into his earlier memories.So he caresses it lovingly.Of course it could be dozen other things.


  67. Well said Hari! When I saw the beginning of this article (where someone questions Rangan at a dinner table), I expected him to touch upon not just Malayalam cinema of decades past but more imminently the current wave of filmmakers in Bombay (Dibakar Banerjee, Anurag Kashyap) who are making films that are the blowing the socks of BOTH mainstream and art-film types (and many in between). Instead he went to the other extreme (catatonically paced cinema from Austria). Flummoxed!


  68. Hi BR, great piece (getting around to reading it just now, a couple of years after it was written)

    I’m curious to know, which are some of your favorite Bollywood films in the last few years, those which you’d dub “great”?

    I don’t mean films like Udaan or Queen, but wholesome, characteristically “Indian” films like, say, Amar Akbar Anthony or the original Don? I know you’re a fan of Dabangg, Bhansali’s Devdas, Neeraj Pandey’s Baby (just a couple of examples off the top of my head)

    What else?


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