Lights, Camera, Conversation… “A matter of same”

Posted on January 2, 2015


Thoughts on Rajkumar Hirani, formula films, and the astonishingly successful ‘pk’.

Most of us turn filmmakers when something we’re watching doesn’t satisfy us. If X occurs and we’re not happy with it, if our mind screams out “this cannot be happening,” then we automatically come up with alternatives. It’s our way of making peace, finding closure, and it happens all the time in the movies. It happened to a reader of my blog, who watched pk and commented that the love track between the alien named pk (Aamir Khan) and a human named Jaggu (Anushka Sharma) could have been subtler, that we learn about pk’s love for Jaggu only at the end. I agree. As for me, my filmmaking instincts kicked in during the stretch in which pk comes to Delhi in search of a crooked godman. Earlier, we’re shown that pk lands in Rajasthan and a local promptly steals the device that helps him communicate with his spaceship. He’s stranded, and when a newfound friend tells him that all stolen goods are fenced in Delhi, pk decides to go there and look for the device. And he finds it in the hands of the godman, whose assembly he stumbles into by chance. I wasn’t too happy with this contrivance, which comes at the end of a riotously funny segment involving a street-theatre actor posing as Lord Shiva. This kind of “coincidence”, where you just happen upon the very thing you’re looking for, is always a little iffy, and I wished something else had brought pk to Delhi. Let’s say pk, in the living room of that friend’s house in Rajasthan, discovers this wondrous box-like contraption that broadcasts moving images. He discovers that there’s another wondrous contraption, with buttons – he can hold it in his hand and flip from image to image. And one of these images makes him pause. It’s the godman, and beside him is the stolen device. And that’s what makes pk decide he needs to go to Delhi. And there, he meets Jaggu…

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It’s fun to do this, sometimes, but most people I’ve trotted out this scenario to haven’t been amused. You know pk is a phenomenon not just because it’s minting staggering amounts of money, but because viewers are so much in love with it that they cannot stand criticism. The film, according to them, is perfect. With other films, they’ll say to me “let’s agree to disagree” – they are okay with the fact that our views are at variance. But pk has become one of those films where it’s practically a case of “you are either with us or against us.” They want consensus, and it vexes them to find someone with a contrarian opinion. I faced some of this when Interstellar came out and I expressed my annoyance with what I considered the director Christopher Nolan’s bad habits. I bring this up because, like Nolan, I think Rajkumar Hirani is an important but problematic filmmaker, and if they weren’t important, I wouldn’t be analysing their work in such microscopic detail. With hacks, I’d just say it’s a bad movie, point out what went wrong (or right), and move on – this handwringing wouldn’t happen. It happens with Hirani because I expect more, I demand more.

How do we know Hirani is special? Because of the flashback in the first half of pk that tells us about the alien’s experiences on earth. Hirani is one of the few mainstream filmmakers who can pull of the mix of tones and emotions we find in this stretch – it’s funny, it’s whimsical, it’s sentimental, it has parts that make us think, and, most importantly, it’s original. It’s easy to make money with Dhoom 3, working off a prefab template, riding the coattails of a hugely popular brand, counting on the guaranteed patronage of a pre-existing audience. But Hirani’s films are different. You could say that Lage Raho Munnabhai was as much a sequel and a “franchise film” as Dhoom 3, but the film wandered off into a unique zone with its engagement with Gandhian values. I am not a fan of 3 Idiots, but at least at a conceptual level, the film is unique, as is pk.

And yet, when it comes to the execution, Hirani – and this is my problem with him – is turning out to be as much a “formula” filmmaker as the maker of a franchise film. If the enemy-establishment was the medical profession in Munnabhai MBBS and educational institutions in 3 Idiots, it’s now the religious right. If the catchphrases earlier were “jadoo ki jhappi” and “all is well,” it’s now “wrong number.” I don’t have an issue with formula, per se. All franchise films (the Bond adventures, Fast and Furious) thrive on it – we go to these films because we liked what we saw in the previous instalment and want more of the same. In this category, you could also lump films that belong to a genre, and therefore have the must-haves of that genre, which is another way of talking about formula. Most rom-coms, for instance, must have the scene where Boy and Girl get separated (mostly due to some misunderstanding) before their grand reunion at the end. So why, as a reader asked, can you not treat Hirani the way you treat a Subhash Ghai, who was a formulaic filmmaker as well?

The question sounds logical enough, but consider this: Ghai’s formula is a generic masala formula, whose ingredients are the strong mother character, the mythical hero-villain showdown, and so on. So here’s the difference between Ghai and Hirani. Ghai, at his peak, picked and chose from these formula elements and did not repeat them all that often. For instance, Hero is very different from Karz which is very different from Kalicharan. There’s a formulaic sensibility in these films, but the films themselves aren’t reiterations of the same formula. Hirani’s films, however, are more unique in their conception – that is, they’re not assembled from “generic” bits and scraps – and this uniqueness is what makes us instantly sniff out the formula.

He likes, for instance, the Disapproving Father Finally Relents trope – we see it between Munnabhai and his father in Munnabhai MBBS, between the Jimmy Shergill character and his father in Lage Raho Munnabhai, between the Madhavan character and his father in 3 Idiots, and between Jaggu and her father in pk. And apart from the first film, the fathers in all the others were played by Parikshat Sahni. And Saurabh Shukla, who played a manipulative guru in Lage Raho Munnabhai, plays the manipulative godman in pk. A reader pointed out the similarity of the “bittersweet Disney-type farewell” in 3 Idiots and pk, followed by the “happy return scene”. You could add the Death Accompanied By Quirky, Unexpected Music trope – when the Sharman Joshi character attempted suicide in 3 Idiots, we heard opera, and when an equally beloved character in pk dies, we hear an old Mukesh hit. You could add the hero’s sidekick character as well – played by Arshad Warsi in the Munnabhai movies, by Sharman Joshi and Madhavan in 3 Idiots, and by Anushka Sharma in pk – whose reaction shots are constantly invoked in order to amp up the emotional quotient, to make us marvel at the hero just a little more. The Tamil auteur Mysskin’s oeuvre consists, essentially, of variations on his pet themes and tropes, but in his case, these are not just simple, narrative-level dramatic devices to evoke a response in you. They are part of an overall vision. But with Hirani, these are just scenes that move the story forward, and when similar scenes with the same actors, in service of similar stories, become a fixture across four consecutive films, it becomes – as I said – a problem.

And only to me, it appears. When I mention these issues to people, I get some variation of the “but this film has made so much money” response. But was there any doubt about its success? For a good part, it’s genuinely charming and entertaining – Hirani may be like Madhur Bhandarkar in terms of identifying new settings for essentially similar plots revolving around “socially important” issues, but his light-hearted scenarios are far easier to take than Bhandarkar’s humourless hectoring. (Even if you say that only half of pk is truly worthwhile, that half is more satisfying than the entirety of most other films.) Besides, most people aren’t into analysis of art or artists – they just want to have a good time at the movies. And more importantly, pk features an actor who can do no wrong at the box office, who has assiduously built up a reputation as someone whose films are always worth forking out money for in theatres. If there’s a man who sees just one Hindi film a year in the theatre, that film will be an Aamir Khan starrer. Even the gloomy, moody Talaash (which I think is among Aamir’s best two films of the last decade, the other being Rang De Basanti) made over 90 crores at the domestic box office. And heck, when a film is making so much money, isn’t that it’s own kind of success? Why should Hirani change? Why should he fix something that ain’t broke?

Because if he doesn’t, then it’s going to be hard to consider him a major filmmaker, who is almost always someone with range. Hirani is undoubtedly an important filmmaker – he knows the pulse of the people like no one else. He is also a real filmmaker, in the sense that, when all cylinders are firing, he can create magic on screen, like the way he invests a quotidian phrase (“God only knows”) with existential weight in the scheme of the narrative in the early parts of pk. But what else is he capable of? That question hasn’t been answered by his quartet of films. I hear that Hirani’s next is a biopic of Sanjay Dutt. I am really looking forward to this. It would have been devastating if his next was about another impish, twinkly-eyed outsider who sets about changing things – though at some level, it would certainly be understandable. After all, when your films become the first to breach the 200-crore and 300-crore benchmarks (pk is zooming in on that target), why take a risk with something different? Filmmaking isn’t just an art, and not everyone wants to be a “major filmmaker”. It’s also commerce and it’ll be interesting to see if this Sanjay Dutt project gets going, or if Hirani decides to do more of the same, with the logic that once you enter the race you have to keep running.

On another note, critics, these days, are part of a different kind of race.  A long time ago, films would release on Fridays and the reviews wouldn’t appear until the next Friday. Then the interval shrank – the reviews began to appear on Sunday. Then, after the Internet arrived, reviews started showing up the same evening. Now, apparently it’s all about how quickly you can get your review up on the web. It’s all about who’s the first to review the film. How does this help? Once the gold medal for first-on-the-web has been handed out, what about the quality of the review itself? How can one properly process a film and mull over the parts that you’re unsure about, have problems with, when you have an eye on a deadline? I’m being sucked into this race slowly, as the paper has begun to publish its reviews on the web the same day, and it’s caused a bit of stress. As my resolution for the new year, I’m going to try not to think about the deadline. The review is ready when it is ready. As long as the content has some meat, I guess… all is well. Happy 2015.

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.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi