Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Totting up twelve months”

Posted on January 4, 2013


Putting together year-end best-of movie lists is mostly pointless. Moments from the movie year, on the other hand, can be quite useful, for no two people see the same film.

For the first column of this year, allow me to elaborate on my feelings about what should have been the contents of my last column last year. The general wisdom – or at least, accepted tradition – is that the various critics from the various departments of a publication, at the end of a calendar year, offer lists of what they considered the best of the past twelve months. In other words, I am expected to draw up a top-ten list of films from 2012. This is something I’ve always had a problem with, for a number of reasons. I suppose, by now, we all know and agree that these lists are subjective, and about as valuable as my telling you that blue is better than yellow. Any best-of list is coloured with the implicit caveat: “in my opinion.” And offering my personal and inevitably subjective opinion has always seemed to me a waste of time.

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For one, I have spent the entire year giving you, dear readers, my detailed opinions on various films released. Plus, there are these columns. You already know what I thought about this film and that one. So why bother? But wait, you say. What if you’re not a regular reader? Wouldn’t a list serve as a summation, a recommendation on what to catch up on among the movies you missed? Besides, who remembers in December what I wrote about a film in January? But this problem exists on the critic’s side too. The fact that I saw a film in January and liked it a great deal on the first viewing doesn’t mean I will like it again in December. What I wrote about at that time was based on the gut feeling I walked out of the theatre with, and my review was my way of explaining to you the possible reasons that gave rise to this gut feeling – and when I see the same film in December, on television or on my laptop, long after the hype has died down, long after my initial expectations have been tempered with the knowledge of what the film really is, I will necessarily see a somewhat different movie. Surely I can’t be expected to sit through all these movies all over again.

When my previous employers insisted that I come up with these lists, I settled on a kind of compromise where I talked about moments from various films that affected me. Even a not-so-good film can have a couple of very good moments, and this approach helped me sidestep the clangour of gavel-banging, that sense of arriving at a verdict after much grave pondering over pieces of evidence, pretending that art could be evaluated so coldly, so dispassionately. This way, the treats could be distributed more equitably – and, quite frankly, more interestingly. Even if two critics agreed on the top ten films, it’s very unlikely that they agree on the top ten moments from these films, which work differently on different people. This approach avoids the fatigue we experience from, say, the best-of lists in the American newspapers, where every list consists of Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty and Moonrise Kingdom and The Master.

In 2008, for instance, one of my entries went like this: “AKBAR WIGGLES OUT OF AN EMBARRASSING SITUATION: One of the great comic moments in Jodhaa-Akbar is when Jodhaa fences her husband into a corner, during a swordfight, after which the nascent emperor – the blades mere inches from his exposed neck – proves why he’d go on to be such a renowned diplomat. He could simply command her to back away, but that would only rouse her Rajput contempt. So he manipulates her sentiments instead, gruffly intoning, “Malika-e-Hindustan, yeh mat bhooliye ke hum aapke suhaag hain.” In a trice, a hero is reduced to a mere husband.” In the New Yorker’s culture blog, the critic Anthony Lane summed up this approach beautifully. Writing about snatching moments from movies, he said, “What happens, when illusions fracture, is that we console ourselves, rather too easily, with bits and pieces—the cinematic answer to people who stagger out of a failed relationship and mutter, ‘Well, there was that time in Mexico. Remember that Sunday? At least we were happy then.’ “

But this approach works only in print, or when someone gives you a truckload of time to describe what you want to say. (Moments cannot be listed; they need to be described.) And so, when a popular FM station called me to appear on their programme and talk about the year’s best films, I was forced to come up with a top-ten list. But I refused to call these films the year’s best. I said, instead, that these were some films that I found interesting in the past year, and I insisted on democratising things by talking about these films in alphabetical order, so that there was no “best.” (I know what you’re thinking. “What a bloody diva. These are just films. Just go ahead and make a list already.” I guess it helps that the people around me indulge my eccentricities.) In case you’re interested, this was my list: Amour, Argo, Barfi!, Gangs of Wasseypur 1 & 2, Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Eppadi, Looper, Naan Ee, Neerparavai, Neethane En Ponvasantham, Vicky Donor. Make of it what you will.

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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