Surround the world…

Posted on December 3, 2016

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A mind-scrambling encounter with virtual reality at IFFI, Goa. Plus, an independent Tamil film.

If you want to know what a virtual reality (VR) experience is like, Google up YouTube videos about people reacting to a VR rollercoaster experience. These are men and women inside a room, but screaming and flailing about as though they are on the scariest amusement park ride of all time. You may have heard of what happened when the Lumière brothers screened their 50-second silent film, showing a train chugging into a station – the audience reportedly screamed and fled, thinking they were really in the way of a train that, any minute, was going to burst out of the screen. Once you’ve strapped on a VR headset, you may realise that’s not really urban legend. Over a 100 years later, it’s as if the motion picture is being born all over again, and like the audience at that Lumière screening, we too have to come to terms with the fact that it’s all just an illusion.

So I’m going to explain VR to you, because till I experienced it, I had only the vaguest idea – that it was like being in a virtual world. Words do no justice to what it’s like. It’s more than 3D, which is simply the added dimension of depth. This is 360D. You sit in a swivel chair and are plunged into a world in which things are happening all around you.

In traditional cinema, this is how you’d see the end of a school day. You’d see kids coming towards you – i.e., you have a camera pointed at the kids streaming out of school. Then the editor would cut to footage from the camera pointed at the waiting mothers – and that’s how we’d know what else (or who else) is out there, based on what the filmmaker chooses to cut to. In the VR version, you see kids streaming out of school and you swivel 180 degrees and you see the waiting mothers and you swivel back a little to 90 degrees and see a man selling ice cream and then you look up and you see the sky and then you look down and you see a candy wrapper…

The director no longer directs your gaze. He films all 360 degrees of the scene and leaves it up to you. You see what you choose to see. When I stepped into the VR booth, I thought I’d be seeing sci-fi clips, meteors zipping past and sea anemones and other such things that make 3D so much fun. But I watched a documentary, Clouds over Sidra, about the life of a 12-year-old Syrian girl in a refugee camp in Jordan. The after-school scene above, it’s from here. It’s thrilling. It’s immeasurably moving. It’s also very, very creepy. You watch a family sit down for dinner and it feels like you are spying on them, wearing Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. How long before someone ushers us into the bedroom?

Or on a vacation? You can see how you never need to step into a plane again. Paris and London and Tokyo will come to your homes. The tourism industry must be very, very afraid. Filmmakers, even more so. It’s not just the prospect of staging action all around the camera, so that something is always happening wherever you choose to look. It’s also creating content for a generation that will grow up not just playing Temple Run but being inside the game, living it. Future generations are going to be talking about 2D cinema the way we talk about gladiatorial contests in ancient Rome.

I caught this VR experience (film seems too small a word for it) at the International Film Festival of India at Goa. A festival is where a critic feels wanted, where he means something, where you feel you can really do something, like become an evangelist for a film you think everyone should see.  Like Clouds over Sidra. Or Selvamani Selvaraj’s Tamil feature debut, Nila.

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I wasn’t planning to watch Nila, but the director (from my college, BITS Pilani; there seems to be something about engineering dropouts and cinema) practically arm-twisted me into a trade screening (for potential buyers, distributors, etc.). I’m glad he did. The film is about a taxi driver and the woman of mystery who becomes a regular passenger. The title, which means moon, is a metaphor for the woman’s distance, her unattainability, the brightness she brings into night-time driver’s sad life. And then he discovers she has a dark side.

Which isn’t very difficult to guess. But the film is less about this discovery than how the man will react to it, process it, what he will do. This doesn’t sound all that unusual, until you realise they get to know one another less through words, more through stolen glances, hesitant gestures. One way to describe the film is that it’s Before Sunrise, but with silence. The ratio of the things that work to those that don’t (a childhood flashback, a couple of songs, the occasional bit of stiffness in the staging) is so high that I did something I rarely do. I tweeted about the film. May it find its way to general audiences soon.

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