The magic of movies

Movie Mania
Last Updated : 24 March 2012, 18:49 IST

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Movies have a way with our lives. They might trigger something special for us and inspire us to a greater, more empowered life. It’s what a really good movie can do — affect us, transform us, provoke us — more viscerally, more potently, than any other art form can do, writes Pradeep Sebastian.

For a long time now, that venerable storytelling art form — literature — hasn’t been able to do much for me. I had once written, in this very newspaper, that books had given me my longest standing identity: that of a reader. Now I’ll have to say I know myself more (and better) as a multiplex movie-goer and a home theatre DVD watcher.

I used to think all kinds of bad things about why this had happened: that literature had exhausted itself, that novels had become a bit of a slog, that I had gotten too jaded and impatient with fiction, that reading made me lonely (or more lonely), or that I had become too personal and picky in my taste — there’s probably some truth to all of this, but I think what’s really happened is this: I’ve simply begun to prefer movies to books.

I mean, prefer the way movies tell stories to how novels tell them. Oh, it’s not choosing images over words — I do a lot of heavy duty non-fiction reading and love the long-form, immersive factual narrative — it’s more from a preference now for stories narrated in pictures than in words. (I just realised this explains to me my growing interest in children’s picture books!). There was a time I never went to a movie based on a book without first having read the book. Now I put the book down and wait expectantly for the movie version. (You’ll be surprised how many of them turn out nicely).

I guess I might be able to find a few people out there who feel like me. And I hope they’ll agree with me that it’s not just laziness at play here; that it’s out of a deep fascination for this craft, a swooning desire for the art of cinema. Filling our senses in a way no other art form can hope to. And it’s a communal art, which is a bonus.

It’s a shared, communal experience, isn’t it, watching a movie in a theatre? I go alone to the movies a lot of the times and sitting in the dark with strangers, I can still feel that communal buzz that a good movie can give you. If the movie sucks, you can feel everyone’s disappointment too. (And who hasn’t enjoyed the witty heckling of hecklers when the movie stinks?) It’s just very possible I was seeking a sense of community here, experiencing community in a way I hadn’t, with reading and readers.

When I asked Pico Iyer, a writer with a deep respect and reverence for cinema, what he felt about literature’s relationship to movies, he said: “It’s no surprise to me that those writers who hold us most are often the ones — I think of Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, Kazuo Ishiguro — who have clearly learned from the leanness and wordlessness of movies. Movies have given us a new way to lose ourselves, and our artists a new, crafty, universal and post-verbal way to tell a story.” Yes, yes, yes — exactly. Pico’s eloquence comes to my rescue: these are the very things I have perhaps been fumbling to say about what movies do for us.

“It’s only a movie, for god’s sake,” I heard someone in the audience say to her companion who seemed to need such reassuring, so deeply sucked in was she in the story Asghar Farhadi’s movie was telling. Watching A Separation, the new Iranian movie, you are reminded of life. Life, as lived by people you know, even your own life, or just life, real life. Walking out of the movie theatre, I knew it wasn’t a film anyone in that audience was going to get out of their heads soon. It’s what good art does. It’s what a really good movie can do — affect us, transform us, provoke us — more viscerally, more potently, than any other art form can do.

Films’ reach

A Separation is a realistic movie that might be expected to make us think of life and shake us up, while something like Scorsese’s Hugo, a fantasy — a richly entertaining 3D fantasy — is as far away from true life as we can get, and yet they both fill our senses and touch us deeply. In different ways, yes, but both, a story about a boy’s adventure in a Parisian train station and an intimate, complex moral drama of two families in modern Tehran become in our hearts, in our imagination, one indelible emotional, aesthetic experience. It’s not the high level of realism in one and the delirious sense of fantasy in the other that get at us, but their art — cinematic art.
How true is such a thrilling, lofty vision of cinema when it comes to our own movies? How do Indian movies rate as art and entertainment, both now and in the past? I’ve been talking mostly of our shared, common experience of movie-watching in theatres and not in our homes, so how have we fared with our movie-going practices over the years?

In the past, there were two shameful, troubling factors about our movies and movie-going experience that we can’t ignore. Women couldn’t go to a movie alone if they wanted to. There was — and for all I know, there still is — a stigma about women being seen alone in a movie theatre. I’ve known many friends who ended up missing a movie they badly wanted to see because they couldn’t find someone to see it with. They were made too self-conscious just standing in that long, winding all-male ticket queue we saw so much of those days, and if you did make it inside, it wasn’t entirely safe to be alone. (I know they didn’t — and still don’t — mind going alone to a concert or a play, say, at Chowdiah or Ranga Shankara).

Troubling reality

I don’t know how much this once large and troubling reality about going to the movies in India has changed for women, but I do see a few young women now, mostly college-going, catch a morning or matinee alone at a multiplex. Killing time, bunking college or an irrepressible passion for cinema? Whichever it is, it’s nice to see they can choose to watch alone. I wonder how much of that ridiculous old stigma had also to do with the poor reputation cinema had in India for several generations as trashy and artistically inferior cinema. Our movies are hip and cool now, but even until the late 90s they were thought of as cheesy and infra dig. (What we could all unabashedly relish and celebrate were the movie songs, especially the old Hindi songs).  

I come from that generation for whom ‘movies’ was a guilty pleasure. You had to hide your love for it, you couldn’t celebrate it; you had to pretend along with the others that it was silly: at best, a way to kill time, at worst, a waste of time. It wasn’t art, it wasn’t a career, (not even a Vis Com course in sight) it wasn’t respected or even respectable. It also had to do with the state of the art of our movies which, frankly, wasn’t state of the art ‘anything’. (Yes, there were some charming, poetic, sepia-toned Guru Dutt-type movies, and some artsy cinema — the parallel cinema — but right there was the problem: it stayed parallel, didn’t connect, didn’t touch, didn’t go anywhere). No one in their right mind could look at our mainstream cinema then and say: that’s the most vital art form of the 20th century.

The whole world knows going to the cinema is our national pastime. And that Hollywood hasn’t been able to dent our box-office or our tastes because of the kind of emotional grip our own cinema’s aesthetic has had — and will continue to have — on our imagination and our purses. We know too that the pan Indian Hindi movie is a myth, and that its hold on us is only a small part (too deracinated to take hold, really) of the larger, deeper seduction of South Indian movies which is far more vibrant and rooted than Bollywood. (And now we are hearing of wonderful things happening in the new Marathi cinema). It’s true that movies were even more of an obsession with us before the multiplex, but even so, most weekday evening shows and all weekend shows today still go houseful.

It seems to me that music, art and dance were the central art forms of the early centuries, literature the dominant art form of the 19th century, theatre and cinema the great art forms of the 20th century, and television the key art form of the 21st century. And I might just write one of these days (and I’m almost there) that I’ve begun preferring the way some television movies and serials tell stories to the way movies tell them!    

But, for now, I can enthusiastically and safely turn again to something Pico Iyer said before signing off, that will keep as an encomium for this liveliest of arts, this bright picture book of life: “Movies — nowhere more so than in India, of course — have become not just a rich sense of community, and collective dreaming, but one of the few places where we look up, to something much larger than ourselves, hold our breaths, suspend our selves and have the chance to step out of the darkness a little bit transformed.”

Published 24 March 2012, 13:59 IST

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