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On Bhansali's Voice-overs
A voice-over can elevate a scene by highlighting its importance. But it can, just as easily, and more often than not, reduce complex moments into simple morals.
I was quite young when I realized I sucked at writing dialogues, and was better with interior narratives, with small shards of dialogue puncturing reams of description. It took me a decade and two obsessively meditative Garth Greenwell novels to realize why.
We live our interior life through chaotic narrations, and exterior life through dialogues; except that the interior narrations aren’t necessarily coherent, necessarily consistent, necessarily meaningful. This lack is compensated by the dialogues. It is why we love sharing profound lines from profound pieces about love and grief as quote tweets, because we think it means something, and is saying something that is true. Of course, it mostly-always isn’t, but that’s never the point. Truth can be performed, it’s what most writing it—the performance of truth.
“Coleman had thought the excerpt was satire. But when he checked the internet, he saw that people had passed the link around in great earnestness and depth of feeling. They felt that something real had been articulated.” — from Brandon Taylor’s short story The Prophet, where he’s understandably bitter about the quote-tweet profundity that writing can become and encourage.
A heightened version of this attachment to dialogues, quotes, and truth, is the voice-over, a neat, bow-tied figure with a distinct function of narrative closure. To tell us how the character feels, and to then, extrapolate it as part of a grander, more universal tapestry. The urge to have it is understandable — the feeling that stories must be universal, to make the individual story a tributary that flows into the river, and not treat it as the bustling, inconsistent river itself, like the mighty Brahmaputra that changes its course with its age.
It was last week, when I had to review The Illegal, which landed on Amazon Prime after a roving life at the film festivals, that the voice-over struck me as something worth thinking through. The film is about Hassan (Suraj Sharma) who moves from Daryaganj to LA to study at film school, only to see his dream slowly being chipped away by immediate financial pressures. In my review I noted the following:
What strikes sour here is that Hassan serves as a narrator to this movie as much as he plays protagonist to his life. His ringing monologues have the same problem most voice-overs have— it dilutes feeling by highlighting it in deep purple prose. A lot of what can be seen, is now also heard with student-film like sobriety, with an acrid dose of metaphors. There is an over-seriousness in its treatment that makes an over-serious topic feel laboured. Any feeling that comes out of here is muffled.
Towards the end of the film, there are shots of Hassan’s co-workers sitting on steps, melancholic, as he muses in the background. It brought back memories of India Cabaret, Mira Nair’s documentary where she lived with bar dancers in then Bombay for months, recording them by being among them, a kinship that is an attempt to not be outward-looking-in. There too they are all sitting on stairs, poking cheap fun, and sighing deep sadness. The attempt in this film, however, is to see if we can live our own stories outward-looking-in, to be both distant narrator and enmeshed protagonist, to be both the person feeling and the person voicing feeling. The verdict, unfortunately, seems to be, not effectively.
Critics tend to hate the voice-over, at least the ones that think “show-don’t-tell” is sage, universal advice. The allure, however, is deeper. It’s because as Matt Seiz, editor of rogerebert.com notes, “the voice-over is simple to understand and doesn’t ask the audience to hold more than one thought in its head at the same time.” It serves the same function of simple dialogue, but with an added pressure of narrativizing. The range and follies of the voice-over can be seen on some of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movies, where in the last few years he has made a sharp pivot towards the epilogue voice-over, a move I have been very skeptical of.
The Voice-over In Bhansali
Bhansali, the grunge maximalist, and my entry-point into the allure of cinema, has employed three kinds of voice-overs in his films.
Where the protagonist does the voice-over for their own lives. He used this in Khamoshi: The Musical (1996), his first film, and a decade later, in Black (2005). Both films dealt with muteness and deafness, and the voice-over was either a way to express what couldn’t be expressed — where the protagonist herself is deaf, mute, and blind — in Black, or as in Khamoshi, a way to give voice to one’s own conditioned silence — both the protagonist’s parents are mute and deaf, rendering silence into her own world. The voice-over has thus a compensatory quality. That the protagonist is a woman in both cases is perhaps incidental.
Interestingly, these are the only two of his films that begin with establishing the protagonist as an adult, before pivoting to a flash-back of the protagonist’s childhood and growing up years. The voice-over thus also functions as an autobiographical tool. Phrased otherwise, the autobiographical impulse of the story finds expression through the voice-over.
Where a peripheral character does the voice-over. This happened in Saawariya (2007), and is, understandably, the best voice-over of the lot. The narrator is a gold-hearted sex-worker, a cameo in the movie, who is narrating to us directly, breaking the fourth wall (the only time Bhansali has done this), a story of a man she loved; she is thus aligned with us, the audience, who are also sensing a similar love for this character.
Somehow purple-prose works better when you’re describing someone else’s life, elevating it with beauty it perhaps doesn’t deserve, as opposed to when you’re romanticizing your own life; there’s empathy, and there’s ego. The voice-over in Saawariya is a framing device of empathy, like Sheherzade, made emphatic by Rani Mukherji’s husky longing.
Where a grand-voiced, velvet prosed personality gives the rousing ending. This has been a post-Ram Leela (2013) phenomenon, and I think it’s Bhansali at his weakest.
A Bhansali climax is a thing of visual beauty and pain, it doesn’t need to be padded with text to evoke more, or to dictate what must be evoked. So, I have always felt that Bhansali’s pivot to the epilogue voice-over felt like an insecurity, a worry that visuals aren’t enough, that showing pain isn’t enough; tragedy must be underlined, just to be sure. Another way to look at it is perhaps Bhansali feeling his films are grander, and not just in terms of scale, but in terms of impact— that he cannot tell stories of characters, he must tell stories of personalities. Either way, it doesn’t work.
In Ram-Leela, a peripheral characters gives a booming epilogue about love that transcends. The late Irrfan voiced similar platitudes in Bajirao Mastani (2015). In Padmaavat (2018), one of the rarer female voice-overs by Mona Singh (who also dubbed for Deepika Padukone, Jacqueline Fernandez, Katrina Kaif, and Bipasha Basu) helped balm the climax where hoards of women jumped into a fire wearing red, like an ornate communist flag. I had watched all three films in the theater, and I walked out underwhelmed despite buying into the visual hyperbole. It was when I looked back at this trend I realized that Bhansali was sending us out of the theater, not with the visual, but with the sound of the narrator moralizing. And moralizing never evokes awe.
This is a different kind of voice-over because the narrator has no involvement in the story, a distant sutradhar. The role of the sutradhar, or narrator, in traditional Indian theater was two-fold— one was to introduce the viewer into the world by setting up characters and circumstances, and two, to enhance what is going on stage or compensate for what isn’t (e.g. trying to simplify, with “fleeting asides and dry exposition”, the dense goings-on on stage). Theater is more communal than cinema, and so, when Makarand Deshpande comes out of the audience in the beginning to establish his play Pitaji Please, and introduce us to his characters, it doesn’t have the distant, walled-off quality that narrations on screen have, because I am seeing this man walk among us, telling us to switch our phones off, while introducing Zahan Kapoor as the son and Swanand Kirkire as the father who is worried sick that his son is in love with a Muslim girl.
It is true that I have found Bhansali’s most effective climaxes— Devdas (2002), Guzaarish (2010)— to be the ones where he doesn’t employ the voice-over at all, because there is a distinct sense of the story being not about a platitude, but a person; that last laugh of Hrithik Roshan with lovers and friends in Guzaarish before he is euthanized, and that last screech of Paro before her lover, Devdas, languishing at her threshold, breathes his last. That’s what I remember.
At the end of Devdas, before the film is extinguished into its end-credits, Devdas voices a poem in dead silence. It works, sort-of, but even without it, the film had made its point. Even in Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, one of the best climactic moments, it is Javed Akhtar’s poetry that plays to a rousing swell of music as the last frame dissolves.
Poetry works better than most prose as an end-note, because it works counter to the meaning-making imperative of voice-over dialogue. Like music it becomes what you want it to in that moment. Like I noted in my post on poetry, it flows through you and does not stick to you. Its slippery, capacious quality eludes simple explanation. And maybe that is it — the worry about film voice-overs, is similar to the worry about pop-poetry, where you are both showing, and telling simultaneously. This could either be a worry about an audience’s intellect, or an acquiescing tool— that films are not made for stupid people, but tired people, who seek in film, something simple, something kind, something that doesn’t remind us of the riot we live in.