Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Goliaths and Davids – 2”

Posted on August 15, 2014

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On “Jigarthanda.” On the current state of Tamil cinema. On criticism, and why it’s important to not just praise a film because it’s… “different.”

Last week, I wrote about how the very existence of a film like Jigarthanda in the current Tamil-cinema climate is a miracle – but while we should celebrate films like Jigarthanda, we should also remember to evaluate them based on the bar they set for themselves. This is not “criticism.” Well, yes, it is criticism, seen one way – but not in the sense of… well, criticising. “Critic” is a horrible, horrible word because it is the root of negative-sounding constructions like “criticise” and “being critical” – and that’s really not what being critical about a film is about. When we speak of films like Jigarthanda from the vantage point of a critic, what we are really doing, as a reader wrote on my blog, is “conscious and meticulous noticing and cataloguing.” Also analysing. How much happier I’d be if I were known as a film “analyser.”

Anyway, coming back to Jigarthanda and films like it – Soodhu Kavvum, Pizza, Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom, and so on – these are the works of filmmakers who aren’t just toying with the content (i.e. the “story,” the WHAT) but also the form (the “style,” the HOW). Earlier filmmakers, when they wanted to be different, contended themselves with telling a new story, but now, the style has become important too. From having everything explained to us through dialogue, for instance, we’ve come to a point – at least in this handful of films – where things are so subtly welded to the narrative that these films reward multiple viewings. So if you like cinema – not just as a popcorn-munching pastime, but as art – you could label any criticism against these films as the equivalent of a thirsty traveller lost in a desert who finds a puddle of water and, instead of just being grateful, begins to “criticise” the quality of the water.

But that is what criticism is really about – and it isn’t the act of criticising so much as that of appraising, evaluating. There are many things we could say about a film like Jigarthanda that exempts it from any kind of criticism. We could say: “This is just the director’s second film. Many filmmakers go through their whole careers without coming anywhere close to such an ambitious, technically proficient work…” We could say: “When the rest of Tamil cinema is so star-dominated and bent on mere spectacle, this film actually moves closer to the ‘world cinema’ ethos everyone likes to talk about but few have the guts to emulate…” We could say: “Look at the writing, Look at how the love triangle is resolved in the film’s second half, not through the actions of the people actually constituting this triangle, but by an unexpected appearance by a random character who is also some kind of homage to an earlier film…” We could say: “Look at the symmetry in the don character – he begins his career as a don when an audience laughs at him, and he ends his career as a don when an audience laughs at him…” And we could say: “Look at how much there is to laugh at – even for us, the audience outside the film – say, in the scene where the acting coach massacres the ‘Behold, I have a weapon’ passage from Othello…”

But we must also say (if we end up feeling this way): “The film’s first half was excellent, but the second half is less than the sum of its parts…” We must say: “The film’s problems aren’t in the WHAT but, especially in the second half, the HOW, the way too much happens too quickly, without quite convincing us about things like character transformations…” We must say: “Despite a lot of entertainment value, the ‘big picture’ doesn’t quite cohere on screen the way it probably did in the filmmaker’s mind…” We must say: “Let’s laugh, but once we’re done laughing, let’s see if these jokes are an organic part of the film, and let’s examine if the film would lose anything (other than the jokes) if the acting coach scenes weren’t there at all…” We must say: “Some scenes were tonally off…”

None of this means that Karthik Subbaraj is a bad filmmaker. On the contrary, this kind of “critical” engagement is needed because he’s a good filmmaker, and if he’s attempting to give us a world-class Tamil film, then we must return the favour by evaluating his film not according to the standards of Tamil cinema but according to world-cinema standards. (In other words, returning to the point already made, we should engage with a film on its own terms, and see if it clears the bar it sets for itself.) I suppose this kind of involved engagement is a little difficult in this social-media age, where a film is either terrific or terrible, “it sucks” or “it rocks,” when most films fall somewhere in between. But this is how we must “criticise” a film, by engaging with it at a micro level – not just sitting back and saying we had a great time. If the filmmaker sets his sights on an international standard of filmmaking, surely as viewers we must set our sights on an international standard of critiquing, evaluating, appraising, noticing, cataloguing.

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 ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.