Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The critic doth protest too much?”

Posted on October 17, 2014

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Thoughts on readers’ thoughts on my thoughts on “Haider”.

About the observation that I try to “find faults” with good films while giving lesser films an easy pass, here’s how it works (or at least, here’s how I think it should work). Firstly, it’s not “finding faults.” It’s not nitpicking. It’s gnawing, mental mastication. It’s considering every aspect of the film with respect – because the makers of “good films” deserve this respect – and going “hmmm… I wonder what this is about” and “hmm… I wonder where that fits into Hamlet,” instead of saying “Wow, Haider is so much better than Bang Bang!,” which is a no-brainer. Of course, even the worst Vishal Bhardwaj film is going to be a better movie-going experience than the best Siddharth Anand film. Duh.

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So here’s the other thing. I walk into a Siddharth Anand film with almost no expectations, so if I’m vaguely entertained, if the film isn’t a total write-off, then that’s enough for me. But that’s not enough when it comes to Vishal Bhardwaj. It’s the difference between a play staged by kindergarten kids and the Royal Shakespeare Company. You cannot analyse the former in any meaningful way, so you settle for simplistic good/bad evaluations. But the latter, you have to analyse. You have to consider it very, very seriously. If something bothers you, you have to talk about it. That’s not just respect you owe to the art form. That’s respect you owe the filmmaker.

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That’s also the respect you owe an auteur. And Vishal Bhardwaj is most certainly an auteur.

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If the things that bothered you exceed the things that you find good, that doesn’t mean the film is bad. It doesn’t mean you’re dissing the film. It just means that you may have to return to it a few times until the things that bothered you cease to bother you. Of course, that may never happen. But the fact that you want to keep returning to the film is what makes it a “good” film, not the fact that it’s “perfect” or “a great watch” or whatever. Any piece of art that makes you want to keep talking about it, that makes you want to keep engaging with it, that makes you want to keep digging into it and (hopefully) discover new things is worthwhile art. Worthwhile. I’ll take that qualifier anytime over “good” or “bad”.

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And yes, this is what you do when you’re a critic. If you’re not going to keep having a constant “conversation” with the movie, if you’re just going to sit back and “watch it” like the lay audience member, then why call yourself a critic? This is your job, and you better do your damnedest to do it well.

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I’ve been saying this for years now, and I’m still not sure how to say this in a way that can be understood – because some people just don’t seem to get it. What’s important is not whether the critic liked the film or disliked it (based on your perception of his review). What’s important is not whether his thumb is up or down or pointing north by northwest. What’s important is what the critic has to say. This isn’t an evaluative profession but an analytical one, even a forensic one. Put differently, a critic isn’t a judge with a gavel but a scientist with a microscope.

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Yes, I found quite a bit of Maachis in Haider.

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No, I didn’t have an issue with the way the army was portrayed. This is the army seen through the eyes of these particular people in this particular story. This is what a viewpoint is. This is what fiction does. I found it far more offensive when, at the end, we get this trite, tacked-on coda about how the army helped during the recent floods in Srinagar. It came off like the desperate act of someone who wanted to be thought of as “balanced” and “non-judgmental.” But how can those positions produce art?

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Of course I’m going to be thinking about Hamlet when I watch Haider. Firstly, the film is being advertised as an adaptation of the Shakespeare play. Secondly, even if we didn’t know about the Hamlet connection, it is so famous. It has influenced so many other works. The play-within-the-play has inspired people as far-ranging as Agatha Christie (The Mousetrap) and Subhash Ghai (Karz). As for the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, is there anyone who hasn’t heard of it, straight or parodied? (My favourite: Woody Allen going “TB or not TB… that is the congestion.”) So, of course I’m going to be thinking about Hamlet.

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But I didn’t feel Haider needed to be based on Hamlet. With Omkara/Othello and Maqbool/Macbeth, the attempt was to simply retell a story – but Bhardwaj is a more ambitious, more “important” filmmaker now (another reason his films are always… worthwhile) and he wants to do more than just transpose Hamlet to a desi setting. He wants to offer a commentary on that setting. And I felt he’d have been better off adapting (co-screenwriter Basharat Peer’s) Curfewed Night rather than keep returning to the Hamlet-isms that now look shoehorned in. The staging of the Bismil song sequence and the one with the gravediggers is extraordinary, but they’re also show-offy, standalone pieces. Do they really belong in this realistic tale of strife?

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When you’re hewing too close to reality, when your political backdrop isn’t just a…backdrop against which the human drama is framed, when this backdrop becomes the throbbing heart of the story, then I’m not sure Indian-movie fixtures like flamboyant music videos work. Of course, one day a filmmaker may come along and show that it can be done, but at least, on the basis of Haider, I’m not convinced they work. The segues to the song sequences in the films of Vishal Bhardwaj 2.0 don’t seem as seamless as those in the films by his earlier avatar.

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Organic. That’s a word that often comes to mind while watching a film – any film. Are the events organic? Are the characters, their actions organic? Is the narrative carried forward in a great organic surge? Without this invisible binding quality, we’re left with brilliant individual moments that make for great discussion, but that’s not the same as the film itself working as a whole.

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Not that that’s a problem. A handful of brilliant individual moments can send you home very, very happy

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You have to be careful when you convert archetypes to characters. King Hamlet is an archetype. All we know of him is (1) he was a king, and (2) he was killed. We don’t question, for a second, his reaching out from beyond the grave to goad Hamlet. But the equivalent character in Haider is a humane doctor. The word “intequam” (revenge/vengeance) sits very oddly on his tongue. With fleshed-out characters, we questions things we take for granted in archetypes.

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Also, some things come easier to some filmmakers. In the battle of the new-gen Bollywood directors with Saptarishi surnames – staged in the arena of my mind, I admit – Anurag Kashyap is far more comfortable handling playful changes in tone. The pomo pranks – the two Salmans, the grand “masala” entry of the ghost – would have seemed more, yes, organic in Kashyap’s universe. With Bhardwaj (on the evidence of recent films like 7 Khoon Maaf and Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola), there’s the sense I get that he’s trying for something and he hasn’t yet got a grip on it. (I’m reminded of Polonius’s exhortation: “To thine own self be true.”) And yes, this includes the chutzpah-peppered obsession with (often mispronounced) words, which goes back at least to Omkara, to the scene where Vivek Oberoi tells Kareena Kapoor that the correct way to sing I just called to say I love you is by pronouncing bottom as baah-dum.

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All of which is to say that a film like Bang Bang! is all surface, while something like Haider is all depth. Do you think you’d be doing – or that you could be doing, that it is at all possible to be doing – half of all this handwringing with Bang Bang!?

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.