Thursday, December 09, 2004

More on movie-watching: a mail exchange with YB

Am posting here a mail exchange I had with Yusuf, a friend/former colleague twice over, with whom I’ve often squabbled about topics like "serious cinema" vs "entertainment". YB and I argue about many things, but we also have an occasional grudging, unhealthy respect for each other -- though that’s mainly when we’re both very drunk and so can pretend to have forgotten about the whole thing the next morning.

In his mail (which he tried to post as a comment but couldn’t), he makes some good points about film appreciation and about quality film writing in Indian journals/serious papers long before the advent of the Net. My response is only partly a reply to his mail, but it takes some of the things I mentioned in the Ocean’s Twelve blog further.

Yusuf: Dude, was going through one of your blogs...the one that has your thoughts on plagiarism. Was surprised you think that before your time film critics were not cued in the Western/Hollywood idiom. And that "knowledge" came with the advent of www. I don't think even today Indian film critics (or any observer) understands a foreign culture. Some of today's youngsters (and I include you in this group) may speak with an accent, have a slightly more understanding of American English. But how does that help one understand a film? By your yardstick I need to live in the US/Czech Republic/Peru to understand films from those countries. Having an in-depth knowledge of a country/culture helps one understand better. American society has been written about extensively (in India) since the end of WW II. Indian film critics had a working knowledge of Hollywood.

I think you've missed the point. Internet has made plagiarism (as well as getting caught) easier. But to think that critics of the 1950s/60s/70s were lacking in film education is going a tad over the top. I wish you could read Bengali so that I could refer you to a few film magazines that had serious articles on cinema (European, Latin American, Hollywood, etc) and all written before the advent of www. I'm sure there must be articles in other Indian languages too written during the same period. Frankly I can't understand why people are getting worked up with 300-word reviews in mainline newspapers. If one was serious one would be writing about films in film journals.

I would have posted this on you blog space but then found out that I had to register and all that crap.

My reply: Hi, thanks for the inputs, but some of what you've written is in vain -- I should have clarified (and I think I did in one of the subsequent comments on that blog or another related one) that I was talking largely about Delhi-centred critics, and the mainstream newspaper ones (the 300-word trash writers), not journal/academic writing. I'm certainly not so naive as to think that quality foreign film writing didn't exist here before "my time".

Regarding being "serious", we've had that discussion before in the context of film watching/reviewing... my only real critical observation on your approach to movie-viewing is that I don't think you're open-minded enough about films. I'm every bit as discriminating about "Hollywood trash" as you are (and anyway, I've watched maybe 6 American films in the last two years) but I also think one should be open to movies that might not seem to be about serious issues but which have style, verve and a sense of cinematic history. Often, if you watch such movies with an unprejudiced eye, you'll find that they do in fact have some interesting, provocative things to say as well - it's just that they don't spoonfeed you messages, the way the "serious" directors' films do.

Small example: (and I know I'm painfully obsessive about the Hitchcock thing, so bear with me) try this sometime. Watch Psycho, note how beautifully Hitch hides his little ideas, visual motifs, scene-echoes, even (yes!) "messages", within the framework of the film's narrative structure, so that they don't interfere with the storytelling. Then watch Bergman’s Persona, a movie with many visual and thematic references to Psycho (the child-figure reaching out to the schizophrenic mother figure, the concept of becoming another person through the process of acting a role, etc), and see how the director time and again thrusts his motifs and ideas in the viewer's face blatantly, with complete disregard for narrative structure or story continuity.

Now I'm aware that Bergman's approach to film-making is completely different from Hitch's, and that both are legitimate. My point is this: Bergman is universally regarded as a serious director of "ideas", while Hitchcock is still widely dismissed as a clever entertainer. And yet, in the example I cited above, what Hitchcock did is clearly far more difficult to achieve than what Bergman did.

There are many more examples...more on this later...

P.S. Dude, the last thing I would ever suggest is that one needs to live in a country to understand its cinema. I've been here for 27 years and I still have immense trouble with Hindi films. (Go on, that's your cue for another jibe about how Ocean's Twelve "is no different from a Govinda movie"...)


  1. One of the most simply and genuinely funny things I've read this week is your allusion to YB's name (in a previous post) and its suggestion of existential crisis. I kept thinking of it later. [YB? Good question. 2B or not 2B, etc].

    Ah, the simple pleasures.


  2. serious cinema and ocean's twelve in the same sentence can be a tad difficult to swallow. But pure cinema as u put it, cannot only have entertainment value? just curious. does it have to be message laden, with implied art and a thematic representation along the story (such as it may be?)

  3. Dude, I don't think there is anything called "pure" entertainment. The artist, who puts his thoughts on paper/canvas/celluloid/etc, brings with him a baggage (emotional, political, social,etc) that seeps into his work. Any action is a political act (which also means a non-action is political). There are numerous sub-texts to any ("pure"/serious/crappy) cinema. Some of us choose to give these sub-texts a miss and just look at what is on the surface. Even a Govinda film has a message!! Why do you think there was the recent fascination with kitsch? Reams have been the politics of popular culture.
    Secondly art does not have to be "laden". One does not necessarily have to add anything. Chaplin's films do not have any "seriou" toppings; neither does Shakespeare's plays or Tagore's novels or plays. But all of them besides being entertaining also add a new dimension to how we see the world. One has every right to miss Chaplin's social comments and just enjoy the film for its humour. Or one can do a post-doc dissertation.
    Cheerio. YB