One of my cherished peeves is that so many film critics (and this includes young people whose writing I generally admire, and some of whom are even friends) have almost no taste for or understanding of what might broadly be labelled the “pre-modern” forms of expression. In the cinematic context, this would include elements from the older type of mainstream Hindi film which we are all conditioned to be so disdainful of now. The sweeping, allegorical courtroom scene, the dramatic declamation, the use of a strong music score to underline emotions (this is of course the very essence of the word “melodrama”, which is almost invariably used as a putdown these days, outside of academic writing).
So much film writing I come across is founded on the bizarre idea that the understated, “realist” mode is innately superior to the grand, showy one. (I put “realist” in quote-marks because to begin with this position entails a very narrow view of what “realism” is.) Even some writers who have a genuine love for “masala” cinema shift into a different gear when they are writing columns or essays, and fall into judgemental language (“MEANINGFUL” film vs “MERE entertainment” is a favourite) instead of allowing for the possibility that different modes of expression serve different functions and can be equally worthy in their own ways. Thus, slapstick comedy is always placed below dark satire (regardless of how good the slapstick is), the horror film that has something of obvious social value to say (e.g. the celebrated work of Jordan Peele) is elevated above the horror film that “only tries to scare the viewer”. Etc etc. Personal taste is one thing, but the professional critic owes it to himself to at least attempt to be open-minded towards different forms, to not be dismissive of whole categories, and to consider the possibility that any creative work that is well-done (irrespective of genre or mode) is automatically truthful and “meaningful” and adds some value to its field.
There is also the simplistic idea that the history of art follows a linear trajectory of “maturity” or “evolution”, so that we “outgrow” certain things (again, judgemental language) – and that we should always be a little sheepish about the films we loved as children or teens, which years later seem much diminished to our (presumably wiser) minds. Such “evolution” is usually seen as occurring in the direction of greater psychological realism and social awareness. Thus, the more detailed Hindi films of today are inherently better than the larger-than-life films of earlier times. Contemporary meta-Westerns, filled with sly commentary (whether by the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino), are more “progressive” than all those racist old cowboy-and-Indian films. (Except that anyone who has really watched and engaged with the better work of John Ford or Howard Hawks or others in this genre knows that there is far more complexity in those old films than the sweeping allegations of regressiveness would suggest.) In my view, all this shows an inadequate understanding of the many levels at which it’s possible to experience art over time. Not to mention that many people don’t become unequivocally “mature” with age, they become more rigid and less likely to open their minds to ideas they had rejected long ago.
Anyway: I have written about these things in other contexts, but was thinking about them again while reading a passage in a new book about women filmmakers. The chapter on Tanuja Chandra has a story about Chandra’s New York-based producer (for the film Hope and a Little Sugar) asking her to tone down a scene where a mother breaks down when her son is killed in a terror attack. “You have no idea how an Indian mother responds when her son dies,” Chandra tried to explain, but was told “For her to scream and shout...it's too much.”
And the next sentence approvingly reads:
“In the film, what one sees is a beautifully stoic and resilient mother, a deviation from the howling, often melodramatic mothers of Bollywood.”
Judgemental language again, and the sweeping eulogising of “understatement”. (Earlier on the same page, there is also this: “With the days of over-the-top histrionics and mindless action behind them, films have moved closer to realism.”)
I wish the author had been a little more accommodating of the point that Tanuja Chandra herself was trying to make to her producers – namely, that “howling, melodramatic mothers” do exist in the real world, especially in a situation so horrible that most of us would have trouble even imagining what our own response to it might be (let alone being smugly confident about all the other possible responses from people whose personalities and life experiences are very different from our own).
I could say much more on this, but for now I'll just quote something that Tanuja Chandra's brother Vikram said to me in an interview when his novel Sacred Games was published:
I feel very strongly about this notion of what is ‘too filmi’ as opposed to what is realistic. In India, especially in the upper and middle class, we've had an education that's trained us to see reality in a specific way […] So when we see the other kind of representation – of mainline cinema – we deny its reality. But the idea that the novelistic/psychological-realism form can transparently give us what is ‘real’ is very naïve […] Often, what we think of as melodramatic films reach deeper truths while seeming artificial on the surface. And what is overly emotional/melodramatic anyway? I look around me at Indian families and by God, we're so melodramatic in real life![Full conversation with Chandra here. Another related post -- a response to a Mihir Sharma column -- is here. And here are my two pieces around Padmaavat: 1, 2]