Bitty Ruminations 95 – Naturalism vs. Realism

Posted on April 30, 2023


In the earlier Bitty Ruminations thread, tamil thanos asked: @BR , a question from your Mani Ratnam podcast. Towards the end, you mention that he is a naturalistic filmmaker and not a realistic filmmaker. Can you elaborate on it? Don’t naturalism and realism go hand in hand? In the case of battle scenes, wouldn’t filming it like the Battle of Bastards in GOT make more sense?

Now, (from the web): Realism was an art movement that largely embraced the world around us in a way that tells the truth of what is actually happening instead of dressing up certain subjects with more lively colors or other elements that are more aesthetically pleasing.

So this is not about any single director. Take Kaala. Pa Ranjith deliberately dresses the hero in black and the villain in white to make a symbolic point. So, he is using a cinematic tool at his disposal (colour) to say something. And he is presenting a tale with real-life resonances in a “non-realistic” way. That is, in “real life”, the characters could just be wearing a multi-colour lungi or some such thing.

So this departure from “real life”, this manipulation — using the cinematographer, the actors, the editor, the production designer, the sound engineer — can be done in many ways. It can be melodramatic (think of how Visu used dialogues). It can be Romantic (Bhansali). Or, in Mani Ratnam’s case (and in the case of some other directors), it can be “naturalistic” — in the sense that, even with the exaggerations, he tries to be natural.

Take this passage about Aaydha Ezhuthu/Yuva, from the Conversations book:

BR: You use specific colour coding for the (milieus of the) characters – red for Lallan/Inba, green for the Michaels, and blue for the Arjuns.

MR: This was an opportunity to do a three-in-one kind of film. There were three stories and yet it was part of the same theme – three people from three walks of life. It was possible to treat each of the three stories in different shades depending on where they were born and what they were made of. One was in browns and reds – basically someone who is really in the lower end of the social spectrum and with a certain amount of violence built into him. Ajay’s track and Suriya’s track is in green because they represent hope, somebody who looks at the future, who is looking at ways of taking us into the future. And the other one – the one in blue – is somebody who thinks that he is cool, laidback and chilled out, very today, not affected by anything. That is what we tried to represent.

In fact, for a short while, I was even contemplating calling the film Traffic Signal. That was the working title we had, as there were three different colours. So it always had… I mean the story allowed for a clear demarcation between the three. The way it was shot and the way it was cut had small differences. There were different kinds of lensing, different kinds of editing patterns used. The way Abhishek’s and Madhavan’s scenes are shot is kind of jerky, with a lot of hand-helds, and the way these scenes are cut is within the same axis – we just go closer and closer. We get a glimpse of him and yet we don’t have it. It’s kind of elusive. It’s kind of concentric frames that go deeper and deeper inside. It’s a cut that’s not conventional. Whereas with Ajay and Suriya, the scenes are more or less smooth, with lengthier flow. The shots are longer and there’s no jerky cutting. The Vivek and Siddharth portion is really modern. It’s a little psychedelic in the way it’s shot, with fast frames and these flares coming in. It had a lot of things that are a little more kinetic than the other segments. It was not classical. Rarely do you pick a subject that gives you a structure that lets you experiment with three different styles and merge them together.


Now, there is nothing that says a violent man’s house/decor/clothing should be in shades of red. But that’s the way MR and his team saw it. So, too, the editing choices.

So he takes a “real” situation, and exaggerates/enhances it — but the result (especially the acting, the dialogue delivery) is as “natural” as possible, as close to being real without really being real.

An example of Realism and Naturalism (as I define it) below, with both scenes having two actors.

In the Rudraiah film (Aval Appaidthan), the camera is still, there are no cutaways, there’s no music, and — most interestingly — no over-the-shoulder shots (usually used to indicate the other presence as one of them is speaking).

Now, contrast this with the terrific boat scene from PS-1. Even with the enhancements (the shot/reverse shot edit pattern, with over-the-shoulder shots, the drama of colour and props), the scene plays so… real… though we know it is not “realistic”.

(Again, this is not to say one style is better. I just wanted to talk about the two styles, is all.)

(I could not find another link to this scene, but hope you can click the link and watch it on YouTube.)