Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Cinefan notes: Amol Palekar's The Quest

After the screening of Amol Palekar’s Thang/The Quest, there was some goodly applause, and then the organisers called Mr Palekar to the front of the auditorium and invited questions from the audience. One girl raised her hand and made what I thought was a very pertinent observation. “It was jarring to see these middle-class Marathi characters, including a servant and a little boy, speaking to each other in English throughout,” she said. “Why didn’t you make the film in Marathi?” One of the organisers retorted with a facile attempt at cleverness – “Why are you asking your question in English?” – but Palekar’s response was more measured.

“The characters in the film are working professionals,” he said. “The wife is an advocate at the Mumbai High Court, where all work is done in English. The husband is a chef at a five-star hotel, where again English is spoken. Even the aged nana is a retired professor…” Besides, as he pointed out, he has made another version of the film, in Marathi.

The reference to the characters’ professional lives hardly explains why the husband and wife would speak to each other only in English (and in very strained English) at home. But on reflection, the problem with The Quest doesn’t lie in the director’s choice of language – that’s a valid artistic decision, which requires a suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. (It isn’t much different from, say, the cinematic licence employed in Hindi versions of Parineeta, where we understand that in strictly realistic terms the protagonists would be speaking to each other in Bangla, but that the film has been made in Hindi for the convenience of a particular audience. Or, for that matter, the literary licence used in much of Indian writing in English.) It wasn’t the choice of English for the screenplay that was wrong, it was the screenplay itself, which was terribly stilted and didn’t give the actors much scope for developing their characters. In the lead role, Mrinal Kulkarni seemed particularly ill at ease with some of the bombastic lines she had to speak.

At the Q&A session, Palekar said he “didn’t want my middle-class Marathi characters speaking the Queen’s English – I wanted them to speak English the way I speak it”. But in fact, despite their heavy accents and imperfect diction, the actual words spoken by the characters in this film are very much a version of the Queen’s English, or at least the English that would be spoken in a self-consciously scripted and acted high-school drama.

For instance, the protagonist, Sai (Kulkarni), shortly after discovering that her husband Aditya (Rishi Deshpande) is having an intense extra-marital relationship with another man, says (during a supposedly casual chat): “Life has ripped away my rose-coloured glasses.” (I wish I had taken notes – she goes on in this vein for some time.) Later, a colleague tries to explain latent homosexual impulses with a pat analogy involving sandwiches (“which one is accustomed to”) and croissants (“which one might never have tried before”). [Sidenote: this reminded me of the infamous oysters-and-snails scene between Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis in Spartacus, with the bisexual Crassus saying “I like both oysters AND snails.”]

Just two among many examples of dialogue that sounded unnatural, over-expository and plain wrong. And here, from a scene where Sai and her husband begin to make love, is an instance
of the use of full, grammatically perfect sentences during a moment of intimacy/high emotion between people whose accents and pronunciation make it obvious that this isn’t their first language anyway:

Sai: Switch off the lights.
Adi: But then how will I feast my eyes on you?
Sai: I am scared of our own shadows.
Adi: Most people are afraid of the dark. But you are afraid of the light!

Thang is problematic on other levels too. This is a film where two hopelessly misguided schools of thought about “Serious Cinema” converge: one, that a good, message-oriented film requires its characters to keep saying instructive things and wagging their fingers in the audience’s face, even during casual conversations (e.g. "You see, Adi is a representation of the thousands of men whose feelings have been closeted by society." A problem here is that Adi remains just that, a representation - he never becomes a developed character in his own right); and two, that if you fill a movie with scenes of characters sobbing noisily over their misfortunes, it will make for profound drama. (By this criterion, Ekta Kapoor’s serials should be High Tragedy at the level of Sophocles.) Some scenes exist for no reason other than to show us gratuitous close-ups of people screwing their faces up and weeping, and it doesn’t help that most of the acting in these scenes is dreadful.

The film
also goes on for 30-40 minutes longer than it needs to, and the shift in focus in those last 30-40 minutes is awkward. For the first hour-and-a-half, it's a story about a woman going through an emotional upheaval after discovering that her husband has cheated on her. (For a better treatment of this theme, see Rituparna Ghosh's Dosar, which I saw at Cinefan last year.) But three-fourths of the way through, it changes direction and becomes a polemic about society’s inhumanity towards homosexuals. What starts off as a promising personal story soon turns into a preachy social documentary that tries too hard to look at the Big Picture, and the issues get muddled. As an individual, Sai has to deal with a crumbling marriage, and with a husband who has betrayed her; surely it’s too much to expect her, at this point, to also become a crusader for his gay rights! (As if this weren’t enough, a late, superfluous sub-plot then tackles the even wider theme of discrimination against HIV victims, with Sai taking on a case where a young boy has been expelled from school because his father has AIDS. Palekar has way too many balls up in the air at the same time.)

P.S.: if only as much attention had been paid to the script as to the sound-effects editing. Thang is full of meticulously recorded background sounds that aim for a faux-realistic effect, even if it’s at the cost of irritating the viewer’s ears. A courtroom discussion between Sai and her colleagues is punctuated by the distracting sound of a typewriter; in a scene set in a church, the fluttering of birds’ wings (presumably on the roof outside) can be heard; there are numerous plane and train sounds. Most annoying of all, the Idea mobile ring-tone and the NDTV theme tune, though those probably had more to do with sponsorship dictates than with artistic decisions.


  1. as i read those english dialogues, the thought that went through my mind was that the script was probably written in marathi initially, and then translated into that awkward english. i can see those dialogues sounding fairly normal in the vernacular, but sounding a bit ornate when translated to english.

    lovely review. thoroughly enjoyed it.

  2. Hey Jai, did you catch " Via Darjeeling" last night?

    Are you planning to watch "Mithya" or " Anuranan". Would love to read your thoughts on these.

  3. As Anjali said, the dialogues must have been written in Marathi or rather shudh Marathi which is quite heavy even while spoken in the regular context, let alone in a supposedly complex drama.

  4. I enjoyed 'Road to ZigZigland'. Did u watch it by any chance?


  5. Sorry, I meant 'Driving to ZigZigland'

  6. Tony: yup, saw it yesterday and enjoyed it quite a lot. Might put up a post about it sometime.

    Anon: no, missed Via Darjeeling, but the wife saw most of it and didn't like it too much. Watching Mithya or Anuranan will depend on the schedule for the next 2-3 days.

  7. Coincidentally just watching Palekar's Dhyas Parva. Why is Indian art house cinema so bloody didactic (even the likes of Dor) - these movies seem like taboo/controversial subjects treated like the moralistic, improving middle brow Doordarshan era. Nothing remotely subtle in the sledgehammer message.

  8. Anon: THANK YOU for agreeing that Dor was heavy-handed/didactic. Haven't met anyone else who feels that way about it.

  9. OK, I have company. I haven't met anyone either - Dor is seen as great Indian cinema. Actually a lot of "good" Indian cinema is very much like the white middle class cinema where white man/woman goes off to Africa/ghetto/violent/illiterate place and is the person who very unsubtly leads them into enlightenment - thus rendering itself more meaningful than BO junk. Our protagonists are middle class Indians giving droning speeches on "serious" things that's all - hard to believe really that Ms. Goody-Goody Preachy Gul could so quickly introduce a simple feminism to our villages. Or providing public service messages like 15 Park Avenue (another movie I didn't like - I would rather see a proper public service doco than the kind of movie filled with long dull medical passages and where everyone gets annoyingly rapt with the actor interpreting the mentally/physically ill).

    OK, I have to stop rant.

  10. I just don't understand why don't you allow the director film his film the way he want it....

    How can u say that the there is a shift in focus to the end!! What if the director actually meant it and that you didn't get the beauty in it!!!

  11. What if the director actually meant it and that you didn't get the beauty in it!!!

    Aadithya: entirely possible, but if I'm the one writing a review, I have to be honest about my own reaction to the film, no?