Use the Force

Posted on April 9, 2016


Making the case that a film that’s considered “light entertainment” can also strive to be good cinema. Or that a film is more than just plot/dialogue/performances.

When I watched the recent Tamil film Thozha, a remake of the French hit The Intouchables, I experienced a curiously schizophrenic reaction. I was quite entertained, but I was exasperated that artistically speaking – namely, in the cinematic sense – there was absolutely nothing. I wrote, “The staging is broad, as are the performances. The storytelling has no finesse. What we’re seeing on screen are basically pages of the script… The melodrama is laughable… There’s some alarmingly crude comedy, especially in a bit involving a gay character. And the super-aggressive score is essentially [composer] Gopi Sunder holding a gun to your temple and screaming: Laugh. Cry. Feel warm-fuzzy.” And a  piqued reader wrote back: “Isn’t it a victory for the film if it is enjoyable? Does every film have to have long tracking shots, wide angle shots, that bring us a feeling that a film is aesthetically beautiful, is a piece of art?”

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Another reader said, “Nobody is asking if it’s great, avant-garde, pathbreakingly cerebral moving cinema, just whether it does a good job of what it sets out to do,” and added that I should not be comparing this Telugu/Tamil bilingual with “artsy world cinema.” Yet another reaction: “Maybe the yardstick chosen to compare this film is way too high. Thozha shouldn’t be compared to Anbe Sivam or Moondram Pirai, which [also] have the plot element of a normal guy’s journey with a mentally/physically challenged person. I don’t think the makers positioned this movie as a classic but rather a comedy bromance.” There was, finally, this question from the first commenter: “I also didn’t get it when you said it was script-to-screen translation. Isn’t every film doing the same thing, or do you mean that this film is lacking the auteur’s touch or that kind of stuff?”

I was bemused by the terms these readers used to connote “good cinema,” the kind of cinema that they felt I expected Thozha to be. Something with tracking shots, wide angle shots. Something avant-garde, pathbreakingly cerebral. Something like artsy world cinema. Something with an auteur’s touch. Something that’s not just a bromance but a… classic. My point is simply this: Why not expect a broadly pleasing bromance that’s also a classic? Okay, maybe that is a big ask. But why not expect a perfectly entertaining film that also strives for the “cinema” part of cinema? How long can we go on mistaking content for form, saying that as long as the plot/dialogues/performances – the only things Tamil audiences (and some Tamil critics too) seem to care about –  work, nothing else is required? Maybe not the audience, but shouldn’t a critic – someone whose job is to analyse the art – point out these deficiencies, even if he says he is otherwise entertained?

No, just because Thozha is an “entertaining” film, there’s no reason it cannot be well-directed. A film need not be “cerebral” or “contain tracking shots” in order to be good cinema. It just needs a good director, with a sensibility. So the next question: Why don’t we have enough of those in Tamil cinema? Mainly because most of our “directors” are essentially screenwriters who also end up directing a movie. There’s nothing to say that the same person cannot do both, but these are different things, and someone who can do the first need not be able to do the second. Screenwriting is about imagining a world. Directing is about transferring that world from inside the head to the screen, and this involves technical knowledge and an artistic temperament. You have to know how to position actors in relation to the camera. You have to know how and where you’re going to shoot the next scene, so that there’s some kind of thematic and visual continuity between the scenes. Even if you hire the best technicians, you have to know what to tell them. You have to know a bit about light and colour. You have to know a bit about sound and music. It’s not just making people recite sheets of dialogue while you keep cutting to reaction shots.

And many screenwriters just don’t have this in them, this alchemic ability to bring together the various aspects of filmmaking, which is something like the Force in the Star Wars universe, something that surrounds the film, binds the film, courses through the film. And because this ability isn’t always there, many of our films are just photographed stage plays – everything happens within the “fixed” proscenium arch of the screen. In other words: plot/dialogues/performances. And how can you blame the audience for thinking these are the only things that matter when even social-media and YouTube critiques of Thozha don’t go any further? I wouldn’t mind it as much if this is all the YouTube critics did, if they simply told viewers whether the film worked for them. But they pretend to be experts and talk about technical aspects like editing, surely the most mysterious process among all of cinema. They rarely seem to have a bad word to say about anything form-related, perhaps because they don’t really know much, or maybe they don’t want to antagonise people they may have to end up interviewing. And because they are popular, their word becomes some version of the truth.

It’s like writing. Yes, you can say what you want to say in a series of bullet points, but that’s not going to impress the evaluator of an essay, who also looks for style, grace, wit, technical soundness, and so on. A lot of Tamil cinema is still in the bullet-point stage. The content may be good, but a critic should also look out for form – for the stuff beyond plot/dialogues/performances. He should be able to feel the Force, separate the unrelenting procession of hacks (who just seem to want to make money) from the handful of genuine filmmakers (who aren’t above wanting to make money, but who also strive to make art). Also, he must know that a film can be well-directed (like Yennai Arindhaal, to take the instance of a movie that’s hardly “cerebral,” a movie with a mass star) even if you remained unmoved by the plot/dialogues/performances. Let me put that differently. You may not have been entertained by Yennai Arindhaal, but it’s still been made with some level of artistry. A critic has to recognise this.

This isn’t to say that plot/dialogues/performances are unimportant, or that a movie with the Force is automatically a masterpiece. You may even wonder why any of this is important if the audience is having a good time. Because when a film is well-directed, it affects you subliminally, in more than just the obvious ways that you experience from the plot/dialogues/performances. Cinema isn’t just entertainment. It’s also art. I can understand if you don’t have the wherewithal to execute the technological feats of an Iñárritu today. But what does it say when you’re not even trying to compose shots like the ones Hitchcock or John Ford or George Cukor did in the 1950s? I take the names of these  Old Hollywood masters and not those of the directors from the 1970s, considered a more auteur-driven era, because the films these older directors made contain a lot of the things our films have: action, suspense, broad comedy, music, melodrama. I can understand not achieving these high standards, but it’s hard to understand why we don’t even try.

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