Saturday, January 16, 2016

Ghosts and projections, in Wazir and other films

[My latest Mint Lounge film column]

If you haven’t watched Bejoy Nambiar’s Wazir yet and intend to, you may want to skip this column for now. (I’m not convinced a spoiler alert is really needed, but possibly I’m overestimating your deductive skills.)

At the halfway point, the title character – a goon hired by a minister to strong-arm people – makes his showy appearance. Or… he doesn’t. Because we subsequently learn that Wazir never existed: he was fabricated by master strategist Omkarnath Dhar (Amitabh Bachchan) as part of a convoluted, and very improbable, revenge plan. In the flashback that accompanied Omkarnath’s story about being attacked late at night, we saw Wazir all right (and gawped at Neil Nitin Mukesh’s scenery-chewing in the role), but now it turns out that the whole scene was a lie. Which means that in a sense, our eyes – with the movie camera as their guiding spirit – had played us false.

The scene got me thinking about other such sequences – where we are shown a person who doesn’t exist, or an incident that never took place – and to what degree they might be said to have misled the viewer. After all, film is a powerful and persuasive medium; once you have seen something on a screen, it is difficult to “un-see” it.

The conundrum of the unreliable flashback, for instance, goes back a long way. In 1950, Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright earned some notoriety for a flashback scene that turned out to be a murderer’s false account. While many viewers and critics felt cheated (and Hitchcock himself conceded the point during an interview with Francois Truffaut), defenders of the film felt the device was justifiable: when a person creates a cover-up story, he internalises his own lies, and that is what the viewers were shown in this case.

The construction or framing of a scene can make a difference. In a film I otherwise enjoyed a great deal, Sujoy Ghosh’s 2012 Kahaani, I had a slight issue with the scenes where Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) tells the police about her missing husband Arnab. As she relates her story, we see glimpses of them together in a happy past, but it later turns out that the man we saw in those supposed flashbacks was not her husband but her quarry. Friends have assured me that the scenes represent the images in the minds of the policemen listening to Vidya’s kahaani (she has shown them a photo of the wrong man), but I’m not convinced: the shots in question are bookended by close-ups of Vidya looking misty-eyed, which to me indicates that they are meant to be her memories. And if that is so, the film is pulling a fast one on us.

Normally, when we see a character on screen, we take his or her reality – within the given context – at face value. There are exceptions to the rule – when watching a supernatural story, for example, our scepticism meter is set high. But even in such cases it is possible to be fooled. M Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense was an overrated film in some ways, but its first viewers will never forget the shock of realizing that Bruce Willis’s Dr Malcolm was a ghost; never mind that “I see dead people” was the film’s most famous line. One of the tricks – deceits? – used here was that Malcolm always looked normal, while the other ghosts shown in the film telegraphed their spectral state from miles away, being pale or otherworldly, or still carrying their death-wounds.

What about when a seemingly realistic narrative takes a sudden right turn to reveal a supernatural element? One recent example was in Reema Kagti’s Talaash (2012), a police procedural which builds to the revelation that the Kareena Kapoor character Rosie isn’t just an informer who keeps showing up to aid Inspector Surjan (Aamir Khan) – she is from another dimension altogether. The impact of this reveal depends on the viewer being kept away from the possibility that Talaash could have anything “magical” in it – the narrative structure and characterisations establish it as a grounded, real-world story, and the pre-publicity didn’t hint at anything else. Which was a clever ploy, but it also accounts for the annoyed reactions by people who felt the filmmakers had stepped outside the internal logic of their own story.

Of course, a reviewer who wants to justify a movie’s choices can always turn to the life-jacket of subtextual analysis. Thinking about the introduction scene of arch-villain “Wazir”, it struck me that Mukesh’s performance had a touch of Cheshire Cat about it (he even looks like he is suspended in mid-air at one point, a broad grin plastered on his face) – perhaps this was the film’s way of telling us we were in Wonderland, so don’t take anything at face value. Or maybe it was just poor acting and writing after all.

[An old post about Kahaani is here - with a long and intriguing comments discussion]


  1. So a few years back, when I still had some time and energy left over in a weekend, I used to watch the recordings of this TV serial called "Adaalat" which had (or is it still on?) Ronit Roy as lawyer K D Pathak who doubled up as a detective in order to bring criminals to justice. That show had a lot of such scenes, in which we see the scenes as the witnesses describe them - sometimes truthfully, sometimes not. It took me a couple of episodes to get used to, but had no issues.

    I also had no issues with Kahaani. Did not feel a sense of being betrayed.

    I actually had a problem with "The murder of Roger Ackroyd", but soon learnt to forgive the author :).

  2. Interesting story of this movie and I will watch it later.