(Wrote this for my Economic Times column)
If you spend time reading film-related discourse on social media, you’re probably fed up with the endless echo-chamber discussions (both for and against) around Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Animal. Without watching the film, I feel like I have had it assessed for me through every available lens – along a continuum from virtue-signalling to vice-celebrating. So I’ll spare you my thoughts about the agonising and the exulting, except to say: I find it problematic (to use a cherished “liberal” word) when people unshakably make up their minds about a film they haven’t watched yet, and even dissuade others from watching it. Or when they are convinced that a film can only be one thing, hence worthy of contempt – and that anyone who engages with it on another level is in some sense morally compromised, or deluded.
One of the radical points that come up in my conversations with students is that one should ideally experience a work – read a novel beginning to end, watch a whole film, not just its trailer – before venturing an opinion. (In a recent class we spoke about cases – common in the OTT age – of viewers, including professional critics on tight deadlines, forming judgements about a series after watching just an episode or two, without taking the time to discover the arc of a character or situation.) This also involves engaging with many different things – including what you fear may discomfit you – and can result in a special type of joy: being surprised by your own response to a work, even finding a dimension in yourself that you hadn’t fully tapped into. An aunt – rigid in her tastes, very hung up on “realism” in art – was once forced by friends to accompany them for a Sanjay Leela Bhansali opus, and went grumbling, convinced she would hate it based on what she had seen of his work earlier. She came out smitten, gushing about the beauty of the film’s world-creation, and couldn’t stop talking about it for a few days.
Now, a confession: despite this preaching, there are some films – including iconic ones – that I haven’t watched but still have a version of in my head. As an adolescent developing an interest in old cinema, one of my prized books was Roger Manvell’s 1946 Film, and through its pages – notably a thick image inset filled with black-and-white stills – I first formed impressions of what certain films looked like. There were striking double-exposure shots from German Expressionist classics like The Last Laugh; fragments of the famous Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin; images that emphasized giant shadows (Ivan the Terrible), or people caught in a moment of contemplation (Wendy Hiller playing Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion). A photo of a man on a bicycle in the French film Le Jour se Leve was so evocative, I had it in my head as I cycled through the little lanes around my DDA flats in Saket, imagining a giant camera was recording me from above.
Thirty years later, thinking of some of these films, I think first of those images in an ancient, crumbling book – or maybe a fleeting scene, a dramatic moment in isolation. And if I watch (or re-watch) them, I am often surprised. In a previous column I mentioned being stirred by David Lean’s Brief Encounter – something I hadn’t expected because in my head this was a cool, reserved, very British film of a certain time, with even deep love being expressed through little nods and surreptitious glances over cups of tea. And it did have scenes like that, but there was a powerful, aching tremor below the film’s surface that made it in its own way just as passionate a love story as anything that an Imtiaz Ali (or a Vanga!) might helm.
There are disappointments too: I went into a restored-print screening of the 1956 Dev Anand-starrer CID having not watched the film before (or not having a clear memory of it), and imagining it as a Hindi-film take on American noir, inevitably with songs and masala elements but at least with a sturdy suspenseful plot – and was annoyed to find a disjointed work that didn’t capture the brooding darkness of its source genre (despite game attempts by the young Waheeda Rehman and Mehmood).
And there are films that you once knew very well, but which your brain has transformed into something else over time. I recently re-watched two Anthony Hopkins starrers that were an important part of my early-90s viewing life, and was intrigued to find that while Hannibal Lecter’s prison cell in Silence of the Lambs wasn’t quite the rat-infested dungeon-sewer I remembered, the big country house in which Stevens the butler serves in Remains of the Day was not as gleaming as I had thought; this didn’t feel like a sterile, too-polished Merchant-Ivory film (like, say, Howards End which had also starred Hopkins and Emma Thompson) but was more in keeping with the theme of decay that runs through Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel.
In my memory all these years, the aesthetics of these movies were very different. Watching now, it felt like parts of Darlington Hall, with its gloomy passageways and crumbling plaster, would make an acceptable dwelling for Lecter and cohort. Maybe, to a degree, cannibals and animals are a construct of our fevered minds, and the butler really did it after all.