Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Churchill does punk, Padmaavat does praying mantises (on criticism and creativity)

[Here’s a little piece I wrote a couple of months ago, before I had to take a longish break from work. This appeared in The Hindu’s Sunday magazine]


There are two questions, closely linked, that I am often asked in film-criticism classes or at talks. One is if I harbor any screenplay-writing or novelistic aspirations. (A less polite version of the question goes “Aren’t all critics just failed authors/filmmakers?”) The other is that old chestnut about whether a reviewer let his imagination go berserk while analyzing a film, creating interpretations that the director (or screenwriter, or cinematographer) never intended.

Among the many possible responses, one can banter: no, I’m perfectly happy being a parasite or a eunuch, I sometimes say (alluding to two of the more vivid descriptions for critics), “And anyway, why add to an already-massive stockpile of bad novels and scripts?” Or one can get pedantic, hold forth on how “critic” and “artist” are not hermetically sealed categories and that a good piece of criticism (especially a long-form one) should ideally also be a good piece of writing.

But there are times when criticism and creativity collide in a more direct way, when a reviewer just has to impose his own personal screenplay on a film. This can happen if you’re sitting through something that isn’t at all working for you, and one way to stay sane is by hurriedly organizing a private show inside your head. Watching a trifle called Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal some years ago, about a bumbling NRI football team, I slipped into an alternate-world scenario where John Abraham’s nose – badly wounded during a match – acquired a personality of its own and ascended divinely into the clouds. I was also so bored by Jodha Akbar that I conjectured a story about the Mughal Empire being in crisis because the emperor and his new bride were weighed down by so much jewellery they were too tired to consummate their marriage.

At other times, a jarring scene might briefly take you outside a film that you are generally enjoying. This happened to me during viewings of two recent, high-profile films.

Late in Darkest Hour, Winston Churchill (played by Gary Oldman, even more heavily made up than in his role as the disfigured Mason Verger in Hannibal) is under pressure to broker peace with Hitler. Ducking into the London Underground, the Prime Minister spends some time with “regular people” to find out how they feel about getting into bed with Nazis. The resulting sequence – which prioritises a form of emotional realism over historical accuracy – has been trashed by many critics, but it’s possible to see it as a sort of opium-dream that Churchill is having in the depths of his despair; a way of building his confidence.

Think I’m stretching? Maybe. But because you can hardly take this scene at face value, it’s possible to go much further. One of its key
elements – clearly intended to stir the modern viewer and make a point about the need for a democratic, egalitarian way of life – is a young black dandy in top hat and tails who completes an inspirational line of poetry for Churchill, appears to be in a romantic relationship with a white woman, and generally represents the hope of societal equality in a heavy-handed, anachronistic way.

But this dude and his clothes teleported me out of the film instantly, because I was reminded of the stoned dancer in the 1981 music video for the great Blondie song “Rapture” (which you must watch on YouTube) – and that in turn got me thinking of another famous Gary Oldman performance, as Sex Pistols frontman Sid Vicious in
Sid and Nancy. My mind did return to Darkest Hour’s world of stuffy old Oxbridge-accented parliamentarians, but for a few beautiful moments I was in a space where Churchill and King George VI were boogeying together to punk rock as German bombs fell about them.

On a similar note, I mostly liked Padmaavat (a hard admission to make in the current climate where this film is widely seen as a steaming cauldron of misogyny, jingoism and Islamophobia), but then came the action sequence where one of Chittoor’s defenders continues slashing about for a bit after his head has parted ways from his torso and rolled out of frame.

The scene put me in mind of the grisly mating habits of that fascinating insect, the praying mantis. Briefly: the female sometimes bites off the male’s head mid-coitus, but his hindquarters continue to do their job for a while. (Then she gets annoyed and eats the rest of him, gathering important proteins for the baby mantises to come.)

This isn’t meant as a facile comparison. With all the narratives about Rajput heroism – something that Padmaavat cares deeply about – I feel the martyrdom of this unheralded creature, also in the name of preserving and perpetuating its species, deserves respect. In fact, given the recent video by writer and standup comedian Varun Grover about how the Padmaavat story was the result of one over-chatty parrot and four inefficient courtiers who failed to kill this bird, there may well be a parallel-universe version shot in the style of a wildlife feature with exotic creatures playing the key parts. An ostrich as Khilji? A peacock as Ratan Singh? Lemmings as the
jauhar-committing women?

These would be good stories and I hope some of them get made. It’s the sort of thing we need more of, in a world of over-earnest films and angry responses to them.

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