Wednesday, October 07, 2009

More inconclusive rambling

Yesterday, I finally got around to watching Ikiru. The DVD had been lying around the house, but the blurb suggested that it might be a depressing watch so I'd been avoiding it for a while. My mother saw it in my absence, however, and when I asked what it was like, she said, "Oh, it is just like Dasvidaniya."

So that was what finally prompted me to watch Ikiru. It is a Kurosawa film and it does what it is supposed to do - makes you feel; makes you think; makes you take notes. But I was interested in was something else.

When I bought a DVD of Dasvidaniya, I did so with a measure of expectation. I like Vinay Pathak's work, for one. Besides, here was a film with an atypical protagonist (atypical for Hindi cinema) who wasn't a 'hero' and he wasn't going to pretend to be one. Here was a new director who had picked an unusual theme for a first film. The promos were not committing hara-kiri.

Since I am not part of an audience that only likes happy-happy, bling-bling, the film should have appealed to me. I was its ideal target audience. Unfortunately, it failed to depress me. My heart didn't feel wrung out. I did not fear for, hurt for, cry for the protagonist.

Ikiru, however, did work.

In both films, the protagonist is an ordinary man, no longer young. Both have cancer. Both have lived fairly responsible lives, taking care of the family, staying away from the temptations of wine, women and song/dance. Both want to 'live' (in capital letters) before they die. And they set about doing it too, initially through the help of a character who has always led a dissipate life.

Here on, the two films take divergent paths. And here on, Dasvidainya failed to work for me. But it was through watching Ikiru that I began to understand why.

Ikiru is a Japanese film and the disc I had access to was not in good shape. It got stuck in places and the sub-titles would not appear in some places. Even so, I didn't want to stop watching. It was quite slow moving too, and I can get a trifle impatient with slow storytelling. Even then, I wanted to go on watching. The film was about a man who is going to die, so one knew how it will end. And yet, I wanted to know what happens next. With Dasvidaniya, I did not want to know.

I think, the essential difference was that of the 'inherent idea'. This is what I mean when I talk about the writing out of any piece of art. There is a surface idea, and there is an inherent idea - the one that decides why this project is significant, what it is trying to resolve, or what is the writer grappling with?

In Ikiru, to my mind, the inherent idea is this issue of dying. Not the act of dying. Not the physical process. But all the conflicts around the awareness of dying. The aftermath of this awareness. The impact of one's death; or others' knowledge of your own awareness of impending death.

In Dasvidaniya, all I was left with was the surface idea - a terminally ill, dull middle-aged man decides to get a life. People who find out, commiserate. Things that were going wrong, get set right because of this tragedy.

In Ikiru no such thing happens. The man's attempts at getting a life are complicated, ridden with all the awful social judgments that prevent most other people from getting a life. There is a huge reluctance on the part of other people to acknowledge his lonely, last struggle. And while he is forced to behave out of character, he is still in character. He behaves as someone like him would logically behave when forced to get a life, at his age!

In Dasvidaniya, the protagonist comes across as someone who is essentially loved. As if, by extension, this makes him a lovable guy.

In Ikiru, the protagonist feels unloved, right up to the end and even beyond. And we, his audience, feel the full force of this tragedy.

In Dasvidaniya, there is nothing to root for. Because the dying man seems to be doing alright for himself. In Ikiru, we can see him falter and fail and grow miserable and make mistakes while he seeks to redeem his existence, and we finally want to reach out to him. And this is possible only because the writer/filmmaker did not cringe while making a full exploration of impending death and what this knowledge does. A good story is made not just by twists and turns of events. It is made up of detail, of depth.

I had the same feeling for Ghajini. I had already seen it before I got hold of a copy of Memento. Ghajini had struck me as an average sort of masala film - romance, violence, colour, song, a touch of humour, revenge (and its wild popularity served as a stern reminder of the fact that the soul of the average Indian film-goer hasn't changed much from the eighties or nineties. They want what they want! Which is to say that the 'multiplex audience' is a myth. Now, Wanted is the latest reminder of that fact). I wasn't wildly taken with it, and didn't understand what the fuss was about until I saw the original, Memento.

Everyone already knows that it is a brilliant film, but once again, what made it memorable was not just the cleverness of its construct or its premise or its treatment. You can take a story about a guy who has memory loss problems, give him a crazy mission to kill the bad guy, and it might end up a comedy. All that is just surface. That is not the inherent idea.

In Memento (in my opinion) the inherent idea is memory, and our relationship with memories - the way it is tied up with our sense of self, our purpose in life, how we play with it and how it plays with us. How much can we trust memory? Can it manipulate us? Even if we don't want it to? The film explores these questions. Perhaps it does not find answers. That is not the point. The point is the attempt, because that is all an artist does: Try.

A lot of new books I've been reading have also disappointed me for the same reason. I keep looking for an inherent idea there. For evidence of a struggle. For signs that say, the artist pulled out all the stops in trying to figure this out.


There is a fascinating, and partially illuminating, debate happening on a related theme over here. The journalist who wrote the original piece said a few things he shouldn't have, or just didn't make his point very clearly, which led to a lot of people aiming cursive literary kicks at his teeth. I followed the debate but failed to put in my two bits (the website would not accept my rendition of its anti-spam gibberish).

What I did want to say was that while the ban-worthiness of a book is no mark of quality, and while the writer did shoot himself in the foot by admitting that he had not read the books he was criticizing, I do sort of understand what he was trying to get at.

Recently, Shyam Benegal was invited to say a few words at a screening of many, many short films entered as part of a contest. I was not there myself, but from what I heard, he had just one thing to say about those films: 'Why?'

It is a cruel word. But often, while reading a lot of books being written these days, I find myself wondering: Why?

Which is not to say that every book written or every film made must be 'serious', or politically rife, or have a social conscience. But it does have to change your life in some small way. It has to make the reader happy at the very least. If it cannot provoke, let it at least please. The trouble is, in my view, that many writers are not very sure of the 'why' aspect themselves. They don't seem to know why they are telling this particular story, and why it matters, and how it should be told so that it meets its objective. It is alright to fail. I don't mind the ones who try and fail. But the ones who don't seem to be attempting anything specific (except becoming a 'writer', or staying one) are tiresome. And for a critic to keep up with hundreds of books like this must be tiresome too.

But on the other hand, that is what critics do. It is their job to sift through the random stuff and let the rest of us know what is worth our time and money. Which is one reason I am reluctant to review anything professionally. There is a certain amount of responsibility attached, a certain foreknowledge of the wider field is assumed, and odious comparisons must be made. I am just happy for now to recommend what is good.

So go watch Ikiru, if you have not already. It is good.


Shravan said...

Comparing (good) foreign films, and their corresponding Bollywood 'remakes' is like comparing delicious food, and delicious food after it has passed through your digestive system.

TheQuark said...

I liked your analysis of 'inherent idea' and 'surface idea'. I think I would not be wrong if I say the surface idea has to be a visual manifestation of the inherent idea. Something like if a man's soul is good, her/his actions would be good too.

I have not seen Ghajini, recently watched Wanted and I would not deride average Indian audience as in Indian context one doesn't neatly categorize movies in genres. For me at the start movie was something like a superhero and comic (it is later that it became a drag when creators don't really realize what exactly they are making, something i found in Tashan, case in point Akshay's fighting sequence).

May be Indian cinema has never seen this separation of inherent and surface idea. I find them more as reinterpretation or retelling of myths than stories. They are totally drab when interpreted as stories.

Annie said...

shraven: whether or not you're right, it is not enough to say just that. after all, even in saying that, you are comparing the two versions of the same story. and i was not discussing copying or remaking ethics. as a writer, i have a vested interest in trying to figure out why one version works and the other doesn't. hence, the anlysis.

the quark: i don't think indian cinema has never thought this duality of ideas through. it is about layering rather than segregation and there are some great layered narratives out there. but a lot of commercial cinema doesn't bother - hindi or tamil or hollywood.

Shravan said...

Annie - I was just saying that Bollywood lacks the technical expertise required to make good films. You can copy ideas, but you can't copy skill. You can copy dialogues/story-lines, but you can't copy emotions. Bollywood can never let go of its bling-bling dishum-dishum roots. And the founding pillar of nepotism isn't helping either.

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