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Why does some beauty move us, and some leave us cold? What is this sudden obsession with Malayalam movies, most of which play out at the pace of life?
Last week I wrote about violence in movies. Not in the moral panic sense, though that was certainly hinted at. But in a broader sense of violence that can be emotional, cathartic, and how the difference between what is brutal and what is grotesque can often be the difference between who is a hero and who is a villain. I felt this distinction more palpably while watching Kala, which I reviewed, which I will cite generously here.
Kala made me think more about style, and embellishment, maybe even broadly speaking, beauty. Here too, a similar problem can be teased out. There is emotionless style (Hello, Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life), like there is emotionless violence. What to do with beauty that you can recognize as beautiful but can’t do much else with? If you flip it, the more treacherous question then is — are emotions overrated?
Please like, share, come back every Monday morning and feel free to howl in disagreement. I am not, mostly, in the business of facts, but feeling which can, and need to, often be challenged.
I’ll tell you the story as I have been told. There is substance, and secondarily, there is style. The former is not just more important, but more necessary. If a thing had an essence — like we love to believe everything has — it lived in the substance.
My brother’s eighth grade assignment needed a cover page. He was confident his work was superlative but had no interest in padding it with art — he was the kind who would draw kidneys with a ruler, demanding replicable precision — and so he came to me and said “Do Your Thing. Art Stuff.” I drew a man who had three hearts for a face. It had absolutely nothing to do with his assignment. How do I know? I didn’t know what his assignment was about, something about the different types of nouns, perhaps; like a book cover designer photographing and photoshopping into a contextless void. My brother was satisfied, though my mother was aghast. She took artistic control over his remaining projects. I don’t know how his teachers took to it.
When I loved the 2007 film Saawariya, he made fun of me. Of course I loved the film, he said, because it had these grand sets, empty of meaning and purpose. I could have said, but isn’t beauty, isn’t style, purpose enough? But I was a child, so I created a narrative around Saawariya’s narrative potence that I would spit out like a rehearsed elevator pitch to anyone interested in my subversive tastes. It would go something like this: Have you seen a film where a director conjures up statues of Buddha, murals of Lakshmi, and calligraphies of Allah to bless the blossoming love of two people — one perhaps Hindu adopted emotionally by a Christian, and one definitely Muslim. This was perhaps the first time when religion played a purely aesthetic function in the story. No Hindu-Muslim drama, the conflict was elsewhere — forsaken hearts. (When a cousin asked me what it is I loved about the film I yelled, “The sets, of course!” She widened her eyes, “The sex?!”, and that’s the story of when I stopped using that word in front of family.)
To this day I am not sure if I convinced myself of Saawariya’s brilliance as a facade to enjoy its beauty — and only its beauty — without guilt. Either ways, it is what it is; 5 years running, still my desktop background.
A year later when Raavan came and tanked, I had to go through the same rigmarole. Then 2 years later with Guzaarish, few more years later with Kaatru Veliyidai. The pattern was set — directors Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Mani Ratnam could frame beauty with identifiable style that moved me in ways movies usually don’t move me. (If I were in my mid-30s I would call them auteurs like all the good ol’ established critics. Right now, it’s too phonetically similar to otter for me to use it unironically.) Of course there is the instinct to stop time and carve the image forever into my mind, or just screenshot it. That’s not what I am talking about. Of course the eyes widen looking at the silken light on the face. That’s perhaps what I am talking about.
But style, especially one that comes out of a beating heart, highlighting that feeling felt by that character specifically and that feeling abstractly – what is it? It's certainly more than just precision and perfection.
I keep coming to Guru Dutt’s movies in these moments of doubt, because there is such visual clarity in them. Every time, every single time, I watch the song ‘Jaane Woh Kaise’ I feel depleted, like something inside me has been carved out. Not in the dramatic poetic sense of flailing arms and horizon-ward gazes, but like a weight that has been unburdened — so I feel light, but also empty. In the beginning of the song the way the camera moves away from him, as it moves towards everyone else — that sense of alienation that SD Burman’s music and Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics conjure (Who are these people, who find their love returned?). And then suddenly, his lover in the audience, the sculpted out of melancholy Mala Sinha, feels guilty, lonely. He sings “Bichad Gaya” (It is separated) and the camera glides away from her as she weeps, and towards him as he eulogizes the love they once had. How so simply, so stylishly the power is now swapped. (Kisko fursat hai jo thaame deewanon ka haath? Who has the respite to hold the hands of the demented lover?)
So certainly, there is something as style, and there is something as emotion, and there is something as emotion borne out of, carved with, and heightened by style.
I came to the musician Lifafa, who released a terrific album a few days ago, through the film Taish which used his music in a way no director has used music produced for a different context entirely. It’s almost irresponsible, but so stylish I was willing to forgive the dissonance. Lifafa’s music was striking the embers of national consciousness while Taish was about wounded love. ‘MJRH’ was used in the soundless violent climax, culminating in an audio-visual blood-flood under a London bridge that was so rousing, yet so empty because I didn’t care these characters were dying as much as I was caring about death as an idea made obliquely present by the music (Taaron ko dekhon, mein hoon amal. Look at the stars, I am hope.)
Look at the most exciting moment of the film, where the main hero, the oddly meditative Harshvardhan Rane, gets out of his car the same moment the beats drop in ‘Jaago’ to swagger-walk with intention into the marriage of his lover, shooting a few miscreants on the way. Oh man, the absolute joy of a beat synchronizing with a step, I miss running with music blaring, where you can feel your pace slacken when the beats rip out less pungently.
While watching these two scenes I was very confused — that the aesthetic lift that music and sharp editing is supposed to give is meant to lift … what? A story, a character, or an abstract idea? Because in Taish as in so many of the more recent films that have weaponized style as substance, I feel nothing for the characters. I don’t even remember their names.
The French philosopher Roland Barthes, when talking about a photograph and its effect, notes two things:
The first is what the photograph intends to tell, the studium. The second element which will disturb the studium he calls punctum — a sting, speck, cut, little hole. It is this which “rises out of the scene, shoots out like an arrow” and gives rise to the emptiness that I spoke of earlier, with respect to Guru Dutt and good cinema, generally. What I perhaps means by style with emotion is studium sizzled with that piercing punctum. Style that doesn't have or elicit a beating heart is perhaps left unstinging on the studium as the frame rate changes and it's gone, not yearned for to return, nor remembered.
In a piece titled ‘On Propaganda And Memory’ I had noted the following
This idea of degenerate art was existent from the beginning of the 20th century when art critic Adolf Loos in his Ornament and Crime wrote, “Evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament.” He was against the Secessionists, which included my favourite painter Gustav Klimt. Ornament (Klimt used abundant gold leaf in his paintings) was seen as not just bad art by these puritans, but also immoral. An aesthetic act now became an ethical one.
Ornament was considered degenerate, moving civilization away, distracting it from, its true purpose. There we go with that word again — purpose. It makes me wonder if the purpose-purists think of purpose as a Martin Scorsese movie. A perfect logical loop that closes on itself with little but an Ah on the lips of those who followed it, beat for beat. Can the purpose of a film be entirely unrelated to the story? Should a film have a purpose or just languorously pose above us as we steam and stew in its presence? Watch it, feel something, anything, and walk out, and live your life hereon touched lightly by a moment whose content might be forgotten but the feeling never is.
Let’s take the Malayalam film Jallikattu for example, India’s official entry for the Oscars last year. A film that was visually and morally excessively on-the-nose. The entire opening credits had close-ups of bleary eyes opening to the sound of hard knives against chopping boards. The kind of ingenious marriage of editing and sound design which when replicated frame after frame yields visual ennui. I don’t want to belittle the film because it is certainly true that we had never seen anything like this before. But that also made it easier to believe that there was more to this film than what met the eye at first. I think it is similar to this initial allure that the Hindi-speaking audience have with Malayalam movies — they had never or rarely seen films unfold at the pace of life, with the diction, distraction, and drama of reality propelling a film for 2 maybe 2.5 hours. Suddenly you have a film whose main conflict keeps getting referenced in conversations but is never laid out neatly until the interval, or sometimes never. How can a film be so audacious as to not loop its audience in a group huddle? Watching these rooted and raved over Malayalam movies, which certainly are amazing, makes me sometimes feel like the creep at the party trying to overhear and cohere a story being discussed in its grimy details, its overarching skeleton a given.
Certainly the first mover advantage in the minds of this audience helped push Jallikattu. I am thinking of the the fluid camera as it tracks the face of men running like savages towards a carcass at the speed of humans running like savages towards a carcass — no slow motion, no Mad Max Fury Road.
It didn’t help that I watched the film on my then lover’s greasy laptop screen. We didn’t get the hype as the credits closed. There was a theater screening of the film that I missed out on, and I have to note here that perhaps if I experienced the film as an ant-silhouette against the juggernaut screen I might have felt differently. It is so easy to feel moved when your smallness is so apparent. There is something humbling about the front row.
There are, thus, two separate issues here — one is the existence of style, or broadly beauty, and other is of the capacity of style or beauty to move me. This film shows an entire village trying to chase down a bull, and becomes this swirling trance of violence with men with fire-tipped logs, out in the forest at night screaming till the searing climax where they howl into a human pool jumping on a wounded animal — each man trying to get a piece of flesh. Humans pride themselves on distinguishing and developing evolutionarily forked from animals, and yet the tendencies are similar. The moral was hammered home when a character tells another one that the most tasty flesh is that of humans. It all made sense, and anyone who walked into the film walked out with a similar understanding of this human condition.
But then look at Kala, where Rohith VS the director constrains the film to one peppercorn and areca plantation around a house. It’s a chase between two people played by the very sexy Tovino Thomas and Sumesh Moor. Each person has a distinct backstory, given a distinct reason for violence, a distinct strain of sympathy. Both are introduced as animal-like, and both detour emotionally, to come back to the chase where they, “tie, break, bruise, bang, skewer, whack, drag, twist, bite and scratch each other.”
The cut-to, and cut-from is a careful dance that makes moments of violence feel like a poem — stylised, sensual, elevated. Out of context, the pummels might even look pornographic, Thomas’ underwear barely holding on. Both Moor — teeth baring like fangs — and Thomas — with his surefooted gaze — bring a physicality to the fight that is raw, yes, but also desperate. You can sense the pulse weakening, the arms wavering, the eyes tiring till again they stand up and fight, and weaken, and fight, again and again.
When the film ended, even forgiving that overly stylized climax where the colours of blue and red saturate the screen, I felt an emptiness in my stomach. The beauty of this was that it was not tied to a particular and absolute feeling — it wasn’t just about one of the men losing, it was about the wife, about the sexual appetite of the couple, about the child who just saw his father smashing a man’s head on the bonnet of a car while making unblinking eye contact with him, about the brutish ageing patriarch who sees his son evolve into an animal through circumstances, about the man himself, so beautiful so brutal so burned out, and about that dog at the center of this torrent, that, after all the salivating and barking ends up swapping owners. This swirl of feelings is the best a movie can conjure, a complexity from a simplified film to take back to one’s own life’s complexity. All of which heightened, not created, by style, by beauty.
The slippery wild mushrooms, the laborious red ants, the languorous spiders holding onto silken webs, the legless slithering of earthworms, grunting wild pigs, nervous dogs, voyeuristic lizards, the hood of a protective snake, a bulbous leech that is squeezed of its borrowed blood, even the CGI butterflies, this world is so dense with life, framed obviously under the designer canopy of foliage.
This time, though, I watched the film unravel on my scratched laptop screen, with black lines running through it rendering some of the chaotic subtitles chopped. Thomas' abs frequently doubled under its power. It made obvious the limitations of this screening. But it didn’t matter, you see, because I felt dwarfed anyway.
This past week I wrote and researched the growing trend of K-dramas among India's youth. I reviewed Ahaan, a film whose vanguardism – having a protagonist played by someone with Downs Syndrome – was dwarfed by its limited craft, Kala which I referenced heavily, and Operation Java which uses the eclectic charm of an anthology and the emotional continuity of a film to tell a story that is about cyber cell operations, yes, but also friendship.