Readers Write In #480: My affair with Black and White films

Posted on September 1, 2022

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By G Waugh

Thank you Vijay Ramanathan for giving me a topic to write.

There was a time I used to watch films only for what is often called the ‘story’. Those were early days. If a film did not have a long-winded story or a story of some ‘importance’, just like many others I used to term the entire film ‘useless’ or ‘insignificant’. Just like how I used to watch cricket for seeing only Rahul Dravid or Sachin Tendulkar bat and reduced cricket-watching once these icons retired, films by themselves did not hold any special attraction for me. I was either watching films for stars or for stories. But I was a young bachelor then and had no work to do during weekends after toiling for five dull days inside the glitzy walls of the building of a multinational corporation.

I had no girlfriend too and weekends were even drearier than office days. I had started reading books by then but I also had the acquaintance of a film-buff who had the habit of watching films that our generation often tried to avoid. My generation often associated themselves with super-hero films or costly multi-crore blockbusters but was loathe to watching the films of a certain class of film-makers. This acquaintance of mine asked me to download and watch the films of Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson and Inarritu. I tried watching Taxi Driver but was largely unimpressed because it had according to me, a ‘wafer-thin’ story. Then came, Aguirre directed by Werner Herzog but I couldn’t finish the movie. He later asked me to watch There Will be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson. It was another disaster. But I liked one thing about these films- whenever I used to chat with my friends and colleagues during lunch or tea-breaks, it gave me great satisfaction to name-drop these films and appear like an ‘exclusivist snob’.

I am sure not many would have known the fact that there is a channel called Makkal TV and it was the first among Tamil channels to dub and telecast old Hollywood films, most of which were directed by Alfred Hitchcock. One mutton-gravy flavoured Sunday afternoon, when I was changing channels I stopped at the Eastman-colored frame of an old Hollywood movie where a character was speaking to another in uneasy, poorly constructed Tamil. It was a brief scene where one man traps another man and forces him to become his paid-killer in order to murder his wife. It was a brilliant scene, a type which I had never seen before in Tamil movies. The film from there on hooked me simply and at the end of it, I had to empty my bladder of atleast two and half litres of long-accumulated urine at the restroom. The film was named ‘Dial M for Murder’ and was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. I googled his name up and pulled a list of films directed by him. Every week, Makkal TV kept telecasting almost all of his classics but I did not wait. I downloaded the following in perhaps the same order, the very same week- Rear Window, Psycho, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Notorious.

After devouring these films within a week squeezing them into the routine of my crammed daily schedule, I started discussing these films with my acquaintance. He told me that these films were of a genre called ‘Film Noir’ and there began my journey into the world of Black-and White Hollywood films. Most of these films were thrillers or Whodunits and each one of them was giving me enormous satisfaction of a kind I had never experienced before. I had seen thrillers in Tamil and Malayalam before but these films seemed to fascinate me with what can be called as ‘grim atmospherics’- a term that I found later and which was very new for a Dharani-Hari fan like me.

I finished almost every single instance of the film-noir genre within months but soon I started realizing that I was watching too much of the same suspense and macabre stuff. After finishing Double Indemnity directed by Billy Wilder one day, I had marked his name to watch other films of his. I liked Sunset Boulevard of his for reason I still cannot express convincingly and I was led to watch a film called The Apartment of his one Friday evening when I managed to return quickly from office for a long weekend. It was what could be called as a ‘loser’ story or ‘Soup Boy tale’- for those who don’t know, it is about people like me who always try to stand on the right side of the line of morality but always get the wrong end of the broom in return. There was something so wholesomely satisfying about the ‘feel-good’ness of the film as a result of which I started moving from my favourite, over-done ‘Film-Noir’ genre into Drama. The next feel-good movie I saw was Roman Holiday written by one of Kamal Haasan’sfavourite screen-writers Dalton Trumbo. I took a short detour into Trumbo’s work for a while since his Wiki profile told me that he was a communist and had led a very controversial and interesting life. The Marxist in me leapt in joy at seeing such a personality in America and that led me to watch one of his films- The Spartacus directed by some Stanley Kubrick. My ‘film-watching’ friend whom I had told earlier asked me to mark his name for reasons he didn’t divulge then.

I decided to watch a film titled Paths of Glory directed by the same Kubrick, a black and white courtroom drama about a court-martial that happens during a war. For the first time, I was witness to such dynamism in the camera-work that enhanced the intensity of the narrative with astonishing effectiveness. Also for the first time, I was seeing how devices other than the pen and the paper of a screen-writer too could be of such value to narrating a cinematicstory. As I progressed with more films of Kubrick from Barry Lyndon to 2001: Space Odyssey I was learning slowly that a film does not need to have a story or a plot to impress the viewer and all that matters was just the nature and intensity of the experience one draws during the running time of the film. For someone like me who was weaned on the tradition of strong, heavy-handed dialogue and expressive acting built into Tamil Cinema by M. Karunanidhi and the latter-day geniuses such as K.Balachander, these films were all nothing short of earth-shattering. When I had the opportunity to watch a film called The Brief Encounter by David Lean which in the tradition of Tamil Cinema would be called ‘a film with no story at all’, it still surprises me to remember that I was panting and sweating too when the lady protagonist was running away from the chasing camera on the desolate night streets of London in one of world cinema’s greatest sequences.

I was not only learning cinema and its basics and how the audio-visual medium need not necessarily depend on the first part of the hyphenated word alone like most of our Tamil films do, but I was doing all of thisdrawing in fact, great fun and excitement from the learning experience. Whenever I used to have a bad day at office, I always made it a point to pick a Frank Capra movie from a carefully curated list of downloaded movies in my small hard-drive. Recently I was surprised to see that an all-time favouriteCapra movie of mine, It’s a Wonderful Life having been released for viewing for Amazon Prime Subscribers. I recommended the film to a lot of people despite knowing that none would touch it even with a pole.

I used to reserve David Lean’s epic films for lazy Sunday afternoons, less than 100 minute noirs like the Night of the Hunter and thrillers for the midnights of a busy office-day, feel-good films for Friday evenings and YashuziroOzu’s films for watching with the whole family whenever time permitted. Loser stories such as the one in Wilder’s The Apartment led me to watch Charlie Chaplin’s films who nudged me towards watching films of his over-intelligent disciple, my life-changing Woody Allen. Woody Allen did not belong to the Black-and-white era but some of his films dealt with questions such as fate and morality. For Losers like me, who often ponder over these questions as to why destiny always deals good people with harshness and bad ones with favour and fortune, Allen’s films such as Crimes and Misdemeanours and the Match Point were extremely eye-opening. But these films had according to Allen himself been heavily influenced in turn by Black-and White films that emanated from a lesser-known country called Sweden. The Swedish Ingmar Bergman who was a contemporary of Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock had made films that pondered over these questions of existentialism and absurdity and I was led to watch films such as Winter Light, Through the Glass Darkly, Wild Strawberries and The Persona. These films were needless to say not only extremely atmosphericbut also something that I had never associated with films- deeply ‘meditative’. When I use that word I am sure that I am not using that with recklessness or exaggeration because those films had a transformative quality for me- like how you enter a temple with a messed up mind and get out sometimes with some serenity or clarity of thought. The same experience I had with another black-and-white film that I watched long back, Harakiri directed by a Japanese legend Kobayashi.

As years rolled by, my indulgence on Black-and White films soon was turning into an obsession. Whenever my girlfriend-less friends used to come to me for movie recommendations for their weekend, I used to hand them pen-drives loaded with my favourite Black-and White movies for their watching. But none of them usedto return to me with an appraisal of how these films were. Literally nobody wanted to watch Black-and White films for multiple reasons just like I don’t like to watch MGR or Sivaji films anymore.

Having become a fanatic of Black and White Hollywood films within less than half a decade, I secretly nurtured a desire to spend the first night with my bride, watching Casablanca on the television in my bedroom. I got married the next year and the same night, I decided to surprise her with my secret plan. I switched on the TV and started playing the film from my rusted pen-drive. My sweetheart lay beside me and as the film started, she rolled towards me and shifted her jasmine-adorned head from the bed to my shirtless chest. It was a delightful gesture for a hopeless romantic virgin like me and it started triggering waves of great expectations for the night in my head. But within less than fifteen minutes and before even Ilsa meets Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in the movie, I could hear a gentle snore from beneath me. As I touched to feel her head, I found out to my great alarm about what had happened. Casablanca which had delighted me every time I had watched it had unfortunately and successfully spoilt my first night. I had already told you guys that I am a loser, hadn’t I?