Friday, November 20, 2015

‘Is this real?’ Pictures that lie, frames that mislead

[My latest Mint Lounge column]

I’m looking at a colourful coaster I picked up from a shop that specialises in kitschy Bollywood memorabilia on cushion covers and other household things. At first glance the image on the coaster seems to be a black-and-white movie still featuring two old-time actors – but if you know who the people are, a warning bell goes off, and then you take a closer look and see that two separate photos have been fit together to show the young, Elvis-like Shammi Kapoor of the 1960s apparently posing next to the Reena Roy of the 70s or 80s.

You’ll find other unusual juxtapositions in that nostalgia shop, other pairings that don’t meet the demands of real-world logic (though they can certainly give one’s imagination a workout). Which isn’t a surprise: we live in a photoshopped world, there are plenty of doctored photos doing the rounds (yes, like that selfie you just took in your bathroom and Instagrammed to make yourself look like Hrithik Roshan racing a horse in Krrish), and there are also authentic photos put to misleading use. A recent Facebook meme had a publicity still of Salman Khan and Sonam Kapoor in Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo placed next to another picture of Salman with a little girl who, the context made clear, was supposed to be Sonam as a child. This was intended as commentary on the Bollywood parampara of aging male stars romancing multiple generations of women onscreen. But though the point is valid, this particular image was a lie – that wasn’t Sonam in the second picture. And this should have been obvious: Salman didn’t look anything like the lithe, almost wispy Salman of 20 years ago.

(While I’m at it – no, that little boy you saw with Rabindranath Tagore in another widely circulated and gasped-over photograph wasn’t really the 10-year-old Satyajit Ray.)

As a result, some of us are always sceptical. “Is this real?” a friend asked suspiciously when he saw a photo of Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton together in what looked like a dressing room. Well, it was: the image was from the shoot of Limelight in which the two legends famously appeared together. But the question was understandable.

If still photos can’t be trusted, why should it be any different for moving images? In cinema’s early days, there was a notion that film couldn’t be an art form because the camera could do no more than drily record the real world. This was about cold mechanics, not creativity: how could a series of moving photographs represent a specific worldview, an individual’s distinct perspective (which is the bedrock of art)?

You’d think that idea would have faded by the 1920s, when great directors around the world – Chaplin, FW Murnau, Victor Sjöström and others – were expressing themselves through their work, making personal decisions about how to position a camera, where to use a match-cut or a high angle; and all this in addition to the less “technical” decisions, such as choice of story and actors. But as VF Perkins notes in his excellent book Film as Film, as late as 1947 a critic for the British newspaper Observer sniffed, “It is not within the power of electrical engineering to create. It can only reproduce.”

Notwithstanding those early critics, the medium’s leading exponents have always known that the camera was more than an unblinking mechanical eye. So many movies by celebrated directors such as Hitchcock are explicitly about distorted perceptions, about how our eyes can deceive us. Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 Blow-Up centres on a photographer thinking he has seen a dead body – yet, even when we view close-ups of the processed image, we might wonder: is that really the outline of a face, or is our mind creating patterns? And why, at the film’s end, do we hear the sound of a tennis ball being knocked back and forth when the ball itself is invisible?

Even documentaries can be constructs: one of the most hallowed, Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North, purported to be an authentic depiction of the Arctic Inuit, but built a half-igloo as the set for Nanook’s home; the interior of a real igloo didn’t have sufficient light for the camera.

And now technology has made all sorts of things possible. “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” the comedian Chico Marx deadpanned in Duck Soup. As always, the Marx Brothers were ahead of their time: in the CGI age, who would be silly enough to trust the evidence of their eyes? Watch Lord of the Rings and you don’t know where real-world New Zealand ends and graphic design begins. Watch Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 3 or Aishwarya Rai in Robot and you wonder if maybe they built an android that was good enough to pass off – just about – as human.

I’m not dissing trickery, though. There were some beautiful black-and-white photos doing the rounds of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean together, looking gorgeous, languidly smoking cigarettes on a balcony in the mid-50s. Those were fabricated, but you can’t blame a movie-buff for feeling that “reality” be damned, such a meeting and such a shoot should have happened. To paraphrase a famous line from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend is more appealing than the facts, print the legend.”


  1. Hi Jabberwock,
    Sorry for the late comment. I just finished trawling through all your archives. Spent most of Diwali including late nights and early mornings and had a rip roaring time.
    With a sigh of relief I can now come back to your current posts.

    A lovely post. The comment about early movies only drily recording facts reminded me of George Melies and Harryhausen. What pioneers they were using various tricks to deceive the audiences

  2. Thanks! And please don't wear your eyes out reading the old stuff - I disagree with most of that myself now...

  3. Firstly I am thrilled that you replied. But kind of disappointed you don't agree with some of your old stuff. I hope you are not referring to your views on patriotism or opinions on writing film reviews. It was so refreshing to read your take on those subjects. In fact I was quite influenced by your strong and irreverent take on all subjects and that has given me inspiration to get back to blogging. Also I did feel that you have kind of mellowed down compared to your earlier posts.