Wide-angle cinema

Posted on September 19, 2015


On ‘Swades’ versus ‘Srimanthudu.’ And the idea of the socially relevant ‘mass’ movie.

A few weeks ago, Mahesh Babu’s Srimanthudu had a subtitled release in Chennai. I must say it was a brave move. Not because it was a Telugu film – these Telugu ‘mass’ films (or wide-appeal masala movies) are practically identical to the ones in Tamil – but because it referred to Mahesh Babu as ‘Super Star.’ As we all know, there’s just one of those in these parts (insert smiley here). But back to that ‘mass’ film business. Srimanthudu has all the expected formula elements. The hero introduction scene (during Ram Navami celebrations, where there’s pleasant confusion about who exactly is being deified)… The heroine entry scene (she’s in a salwar kameez, drawing a kolam/rangoli on the porch; in other words, she’s non-threatening desi arm candy)… The villain establishing shot (he brings down a log of wood on some poor man’s skull, and he’s so evil, he doesn’t stop there; he orders his men to throw this man on the road, so he can get crushed by a passing truck)…

But Srimanthudu is a little different from the usual mass movie, in that it has what the industry would call a ‘soft’ subject. It’s about a billionaire who doesn’t care for money, who’s not interested in taking over his father’s business. He keeps associating with the lower classes – at one point, he hands over lakhs of rupees for the wedding of an employee’s daughter. (We’re not meant to ask things like: Wouldn’t it be better if he said something against dowry and found the girl a groom who accepted her for what she is? This is about the hero’s heart, his big, golden heart.) And later, goaded by his girlfriend’s taunts, he adopts a village – he uses his wealth to build roads, schools, hospitals, and so on. So the film is a bit of Rudraveena (Unnal Mudiyum Thambi in Tamil), a bit of the Buddha’s life, a bit of Swades

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It’s the latter, mostly, that keeps coming to mind. This isn’t an exact comparison. You might say that there isn’t a single moment in Srimanthudu as powerful, as intimate as the one in Swades where the NRI protagonist buys non-bottled water from a little boy at a nondescript railway station. But then, that was a different kind of movie, the equivalent of a close-up – Srimanthudu, on the other hand, is a wide-angle shot. Swades devoted a lot of its running time to detail how this man changes this village, while in Srimanthudu, it all happens over the course of one song. But this isn’t about which is the better film. This is about how the same premise is treated in two modes of popular Indian filmmaking – a relatively ‘realistic’ mode (Swades) and an unapologetically larger-than-life mode (Srimanthudu). So Swades has a protagonist, while Srimanthudu has a hero – one who has to perform periodic goon-bashing duties in order to remind the mass audience that despite his do-gooding impulses he can be a badass.

Is there another country where there’s such tonal variety in mainstream cinema? Elsewhere, you have popular cinema (released in large numbers of theatres all at once, and aiming to make tons of money from all audiences) and art cinema (released in a few theatres, for a select audience) – but here, even the popular cinema can go the way of a Srimanthudu or a Swades. What’s more interesting, the line between art cinema and popular cinema has begun to blur in at least one respect. Once upon a time, the mass films were mainly about power struggles (which typically rose from economic disparity) – so you had the village-based films where the hero was a lowly farmer and the villain a zamindar, or the city-based films where the hero was a lowly clerk and the villain a politician or gangster. But in the past few years, mass films (at least the ones in Tamil and Telugu) have begun to look at the kind of ‘socially relevant’ issues usually relegated to documentaries and art-house cinema.

Srimanthudu hints at how private enterprise can play a part in the rehabilitation of underdeveloped villages. The Vijay blockbuster Kaththi brought into focus farmer suicides and the role played by Coke-like multinationals in depleting water resources meant for agriculture. Ajith’s Yennai Arindhaal had a subplot about organ trafficking and Sivakarthikeyan’s Kakki Sattai talked about migrant workers. Seen one way, this is just lip service. These films are not really about any of these issues – complex realities are often dismissed with simplistic solutions, like taking an aspirin for cancer. Oftentimes, it’s just that the directors are trying to avoid cliché, thinking up out-of-the-box villains (MNCs, organ traffickers) for the hero to go up against. But look at it another way. Should we be happy that a medium that reaches millions is at least throwing these topical subjects into the conversation around a movie?

On a tangential note, I was happy Srimanthudu was released here. The point isn’t about the quality of the film, the “is it worth watching?” question. The point is that the regional films that end up in cities outside the ‘region’ of the film’s making are almost always pedigreed films – like the impressive Court (Marathi), which won Best Feature Film at the National Awards. But watching Court does not translate into watching ‘Marathi cinema’ – just like you’re not going to get an idea about French cinema in general by watching Godard. That’s not what the average French moviegoer sees, the commercial, mainstream stuff. These regular films are important too. What are we like as audience? What do we find socially or culturally acceptable enough to drag our families to? What kind of film do we open up our wallets for? These are important questions, and the best answers come from our mainstream movies.

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