Readers Write In #8: The Great Story Obsession

Posted on February 5, 2017

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Whenever I ask for feedback about a film from my friends, and if it turns out to be a negative one, I used to quote Kamal from Vasool Raja,

‘Nee enna solla pora nu therium, kadhaye illa nu sollapora’.

Our audience strongly consider ‘The Story’ to be the garbagriha of a movie and would consider their pilgrimage a waste of time if the garbagriha is closed or invisible. So let us ask ourselves the following questions. First, does The Story’ have to be essentially the garbagriha of a movie? Second, if we consider the presence of a story so indispensable to a movie, from where does our ‘story obsession’ come from?

To answer the first question from my limited knowledge of ‘art’, the story may or may not be the garbagriha of a movie. And the discretion rests solely on the film maker. Story, in other words, can merely serve as an excuse to make a movie. The most passionate of filmmakers make movies not only because they need money to upgrade their car from a Swift to a City, or to move their kids to an international school from a local matriculation, but also to realise the pleasures or pains of filmmaking. Film makers when they double up as writers have more to undergo, which essentially is the case with Tamil cinema. In many ways, film making might be an ‘arippu’ like how Ajith calls his ‘duty’ in Yennai Arindhal. So here comes another question, why should we audiences, reserving nearly three hours of our precious time and almost a day’s salary for a movie do so only to satisfy the itch of an unknown filmmaker?

I can’t answer the question quite convincingly but I will make an attempt though. Many of ‘the best’ movies we have seen, have been done only by those filmmakers who have had that ‘itch’.  They had managed to satisfy it time and again over the years without completely getting cured of it. Let us take the case of Mani Ratnam and his Alaipayuthey. It was a done-to-death ‘boy meets girl’ story, they make and break and make again. Why did we, especially our middle class conservative women fall for the charm of the film? Was it because Shakti, so typical of our middle class womenfolk, met an Uber cool Madhavan, fell in love and gathered guts to cheat her family so as to elope with him only to face more trouble? Was it some kind of a weird wish-fulfilment for us? Certainly not. Look at the scene where Karthik’s (Madhavan) family meet Shakti’s for the first time.

Karthik’s father says, ‘Naan peria panakaran thaan. Aana yen pillaya ezhai maari thaan valathirken’.

Shakti’s father retorts, ‘Naan middle class thaan. Aana yen ponna naan maharani maari thaan valathirken’.

Please note how nicely the characters are defined using dialogue. A rich fellow takes pride in being outwardly ‘simple’.  Whereas ask our fathers, who would have got us our first PC in the third year of our college after at least two years of pestering, how they grew us up. They would say we were born and brought up like ‘princes’.

The point I am trying to make is, Alaipayuthey, in terms of ‘story’ is neither new nor great. But why did we make a ‘hit’ out of it? Look at the scene where Karthik tries to pacify an angry Shakti. It doesn’t happen in a tranquil place like where Simbu and Trisha meet in VTV. It happens in a heavily crowded railway station like Mambalam. So many people keep crossing the over-bridge where the hero pleads with a reluctant heroine who wants to break altogether with him. It is a matter of ‘life and death’. A virtual battle. He fights that out amid hordes of people who, steeped in their own pursuits of survival, cannot keep off from interrupting him unwittingly. If anything, you and me would have gone through the most decisive phases of our lives only in places like these. You would have attended a telephonic interview for a high paying job inside an MTC bus. The driver couldn’t have helped honking exactly when you were trying to retrieve an answer for a crucial question from among the thick layers of your confused memory.

An ordinary love story, with characters so much resembling us, with episodes staged in places where we can easily relate to, with some good music and acting becomes an instant classic. So what really, is the role of the ‘story’?

Now let me shift to people who still hate Alaipayuthey, not because they hate love stories, but because I still have not proved that it has a ‘story’. There are people whom I know who would marry even their daughters to men without brains but won’t watch movies which don’t have a story. Specimens like them help me to examine the unanswered questions I have posed  in the beginning of my essay. Why do we suffer from ‘The Great Story Obsession’?

Nobody in India, can deny the fact that the first story they came across in their childhood was either from the Mahabharata or from the Ramayana. Indians, just like we are obsessed with music, are in some ways obsessed with story as well. We like getting to know stories, admire and emulate the best characters inside them and love drawing comparisons of our real life events with those in the stories. But why are Ramayana and Mahabharata alone so popular among us while Meghdoot or Harshacharita are not? Given our rich heritage of classic literature, why do we know only very few stories?

The reason is that the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana do not depend upon written texts. Nobody can establish with evidence that the current version of Mahabharata that we all know is the one that was written by Vyasa, centuries ago. The stories of our great epics are mostly hearsay (Sevivazhi kadhaigal). Romila Thapar asserts strongly that the original texts of the Vedas and the grand epics of India, since they are almost old by a millennium, would not have survived to this day. Every mythological tale would have been modified either by hearsay or by the whim of the rulers who had dominated India’s history at various points of time. So my point is, stories that are hearsay alone have the potential to travel across time and distance and survive for eternity. In other words, we Indians, like stories only if they are accessible through listening or seeing. Our hunger for stories does not match our hunger for reading. If we feel like getting to know a story we always choose the easiest mode of imbibing it – either through someone narrating it or acting it out. This brings us to the point where we naturally expect movies, the biggest art form of our generation, to tell long stories for us or perish altogether if they cannot. We people want to learn a story as easily and painlessly as possible, either through a movie or a play, and like to impress others with our own narration of it. A man who knows a lot of stories, how much ever true or ridiculous they may sound, easily becomes the most sought-after man in a group. This phenomenon explains easily our tendency to spoil a film for our friends by revealing the most important twists in the story before they had had the chance to watch it. The viewer, by becoming a narrator, tries to claim credit equal to that of an author.

 Authored by Jeeva P.

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