Broad Reflections #1: Truth vs cinema

Posted on November 25, 2014


I keep getting emails about this and that, and some of these I am not able to answer in detail. So I thought I’d throw open the discussion to readers — aka, for a change, you, dear reader, do the yakking. Do chime in, if interested, and maybe this can become a regular feature.

This is the email that kicked this off:

Dear Mr. Rangan,

My name is Srikanth, and I’m an avid reader of your articles in The Hindu, as well as your ever interesting blog posts. I also like to think of myself as kind of a film buff, and I’m curious to get to know your opinion on a certain issue which has been racking my mind for quite a while now. I am aware that there is a section on your blog for such ramblings, but I think my post would be a bit too long, and might even be a bit out of place in such an environment. Since I found no other way of directly contacting you, a mail is the best I can do. I would appreciate it if you could take some time off to just go through this and respond to it if possible.

I recently watched “Midnight Express” and needless to say, I was quite blown away by it. I found it a gripping experience, and the ending of course made it worth my while. I was appropriately appalled by the treatment meted out to the main character by the authorities of the Turkish prison, and shocked by the general conditions he was made to live in. Imagine my incredulity, when I found out that a great part of this so called “torture” was exaggerated, and only a small fraction of it actually happened, as described in Billy Hayes’ 1977 book of the same name.

Another similar example I could cite would be “The Hurricane (1999)”. This film tells the unfortunate story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, convicted and incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. However, the film invited a lot of criticism, claiming that it misrepresented the facts and that there was actually no evidence to prove that Carter was innocent (that to me, is a huge deal breaker).

All this brings me to my question, which is this – how are we to judge films like these? Should we simply look at the cinematic aspect of it (by this of course I mean, how well the screenplay has been written, how engaging the storytelling is, and how well it has been acted out) OR, should we look at it in its entirety (by this I mean, the film’s responsibility towards the original story, towards the public, etc)?

I ask this because when considered individually, without the context, both these films are wonderfully made, in my opinion. Midnight Express was written by Oliver Stone (whose cinematic credentials can scarcely be doubted) and The Hurricane was directed by Norman Jewison (whose films “In the Heat of the Night” & “And Justice for All” are nothing short of masterpieces, I feel). But at the same time, we are taking away a certain image of a person or society from the film, and hence the film is responsible for projecting that image. I do agree that the filmmaker should be allowed a certain degree of artistic freedom (something which our country’s directors are sorely in need of) but at what cost does that come, and where do we learn to draw the line? Is it all right to distort the facts so that we can make a better and more engaging film, one which possibly wouldn’t be half as exciting if it were presented truthfully?

These are the questions which I haven’t been able to get rid of, and it is entirely possible that they do not have answers, and I may have to leave it as it is – an ethical dilemma. But I would love to know what your stand is on this issue, as I’m sure that you would have had similar thoughts crossing your mind when you watched such films. This would help me view them in a different light, and probably move on, if that is the right thing to do.

I would very much like to hear from you in this regard – as a reply to this, or in the form of an article in your column/blog (both of which I follow ardently). I apologize if my writing was a bit too wordy or tested your patience.

Yours Sincerely.

And I briefly replied…

Thank you for your mail Srikanth.

I am of the opinion that film is art, and I am not looking for the “truth”. All art involves an element of interpretation, and if this is how someone chooses to “see” something, then I evaluate the film based on what it shows me rather than what “really happened.”

At the same time, I am also aware that this is JUST A MOVIE and that if I really wanted to learn about the life of the protagonist, then I would not depend on this film — I would read up on him separately. (Though, we must be aware that even a book, as well-researched as it may be, is going to have some element of subjectivity and selective dramatization.)

The problem arises when people USE the film as a learning device — they want the film to be the equivalent of a Wiki page. IMO that is a rather useless way of treating cinema, but I am probably in the minority here.

Do you mind if I put this up on my blog and get a discussion going around this?


And he said…

Thanks for your prompt response, Mr. Rangan.

I guess you’re right in saying that we should not take cinema too seriously and start treating it as absolute fact. As I said, I’m all for creative freedom and the filmmaker has a right to say whatever he wants. Its just that in the examples I cited, I felt that maybe they took it a bit too far. But I enjoyed watching them anyway, and in the end I think that’s what matters.

And yes, it would be great if you could share this on your blog. That way we could get a few more opinions on the issue and probably start an interesting debate.

Yours Sincerely.

And you say?