Recently, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the question of quality and context in matters of art. Since I spend much of my time reading or writing or watching films and plays, there's plenty of food for thought these days.
What really makes a piece of art good? Perhaps, art is the wrong word to use. People have funny ideas about what constitutes 'art' and what doesn't. It's a much bracketed and parentheticized word and the issue has been debated up and down the ages, right across borders and time zones. Perhaps, it might be more reasonable to say 'creative enterprise'.
What makes any creative enterprise wonderful (again, I hesitate to say 'great') or even worthwhile?
To me, personally, this has always meant that it ought to involve the audience. Make me laugh, make me cry, make me empathise, perhaps make me think too. It should draw me into itself. It should sink its teeth into my memory. Above all, it shouldn't bore me. It shouldn't make me look at the watch, or wonder about lunch, or flip the cover to see how many more pages still remain.
Sometimes, things are just cut and dried and obvious. The artists leave no room for doubt.
For instance, there is no doubt in my mind that some of the Renaissance masters really were masters. Michelangelo's Pieta is, well, it just works! So does Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters. And so does Emily Dickinson's Success Is Counted Sweetest, and Shakespeare's Hamlet. And so does Shaw's Pygmalion and the movie version, My Fair Lady. And so does Mandi.
To me, these are examples of creative processes that were wholly successful. Similarly, I have absolutely no doubt about certain creative undertakings either just went very wrong, or they failed to even register long enough to puzzle over.
Bal Brahmachari belongs to the former category (I'm usually cautious with criticism in public, but I have to confess that this was the worst Hindi movie I saw over a period of almost fourteen years. Kambakkht Ishq, however, more than matches up to it and perhaps deserves to wear the wobbly crown now on. But more on this on another post). Several of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays belong to the latter category. I read his collected works as an adolescent but many of them didn't strike me as anything to write home about. Just so, some abstract modern art leaves me untouched.
There is, of course, subjectivity to account for. When people ask me for my all-time favourite book or movie or author or artist, I usually get irritated. But if the annoying questioner persists, I name 'Sholay' in the film segment. It is not the best movie I've seen but it is the only one I've seen so many times and am willing to watch yet again.
Similarly, Shakespeare is probably not the most brilliant writer down the ages, but something makes me return to him, makes me willing to look at him from different angles, listen to or watch other people's wild interpretations of his work.
In the same vein, I liked Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games a whole lot. I found it compelling and insightful. Not everybody agrees with me. And I actually enjoyed Jhoom Barabar Jhoom and No Smoking. Almost nobody agrees with me. But that's okay. I am content to like creative work for my own sake.
The tricky bit, as always, lurks in the grey. I am bothered by the ones on the margins. The ones I cannot slot into 'awesome' or 'ugh' or 'I should be interested, because...?'. The ones that make me argue for them. Or the ones that I am unable to dismiss.
For instance, The Burning Train. I use it as an example because I caught it television, again. It certainly isn't on my list of favourites. But I saw it as a kid and remembered having enjoyed it tremendously. Several scenes stayed stuck in my head for over a decade - scenes of tenderness, or extreme passion, or public sacrifice, or just plain visual drama. I thought that it may have captured my imagination because because we travelled so much by train. But then I saw the film again a couple of years ago. And I still found it a decent watch.
Today, I saw it yet again. My mother was watching and I plonked down beside her on the sofa, and found myself getting sucked into the story. I knew what was going to happen, but the details were still shiny. At some point, the twists and turns and overladen crisis settled down into a pattern and I left.
But I had to think about what kept me on that sofa for over an hour and a half, annoying ad breaks and all. I still responded warmly to the emotional bits, laughed at the funny bits, clung to the pace. I still wanted these characters to live. But I could also spot bits that were just there, not doing anything. I could spot bits that raised feminist hackles. I could think of ways to make it tighter, to toss out the social tokenism. I wasn't bored. But I wasn't sitting back admiring either.
Perhaps, I was just more grown up. Grown up a certain way - looking for craft in any form, struggling to hone my own craft, learning to critique in such a way that you take the craft apart, not the artist. But having said that, how is one to decide on the merit of a creative piece? Does the value of a film diminish in proportion to your experience and evaluation of it? Yet, it is you who changed, not the creative enterprise. How is the artist to be held to account then? Does any review or response or critique make sense?
Another odd example is a book of short stories that has made me uncomfortable because I couldn't find the right mental space for it. The writing was not structured like most speculative or science fiction stories. And these were also not 'realistic' stories that have a bit of science or math or astronomy forming the backdrop. Most of the stories in the collection tread a heavy line, a blurry line. And I found this was testing my patience. I found myself wishing the stories were more focussed, less sprawly and wiggly.
Now this is the worst sort of criticism that can come from one writer to another - this accusation of being all over the place, not on account of your craft, but on account of not fitting neatly into a box. I would baulk if it was my writing in question. So I thought it through, and decided that my discomfort with the stories was actually symptomatic of a problem: a pre-conditioned approach to reading. We expect genres to unfold in certain ways. Because they often do. Because too many authors have begun to write inside the margins.
However, my reading isn't severely limited by genre. I read whatever makes me curious. I especially try to read contemporary work. And I have liked fantasy, speculative or otherwise experimental fiction.
But yet, these stories... It was bothering me: the fact that the book failed to connect with me. So I did yet another rethink and finally came to the conclusion that I was dissatisfied with the stories. Not with the way their everyday bodies slipped into magic realism and fantasy and sci-fi without warning, but with the distance of the characters. I wanted more from them - more explanation, more meat, more flesh, more imagination, more light, more dark. Just more. More to remember them by.
And there is also a suspicion that I might have enjoyed them more if I was older, except I would have to be older right now to enjoy them. Ten years later, my tastes will have moved a bit further off. I cannot explain it, but there it is.
None of this answers the question I set out for myself when I began writing this post. What makes a book a good read, disallowing individual preferences of genre or form?
I think the only question I have resolved is that it has a lot to do with timing. I feel that way about books or movies or even buildings. They appeal to different people at different ages. The fortresses we'd visited as kids seemed completely overwhelming, once. When I grew older, a low-ceiled monastries or loosely defined meditation caves cut out of rock left more striking impressions. Delicate filigrees and carved marble awed me when I was little. Naturally-formed coloured/precious stone leave me shaken and silent now. And I saw the Taj Mahal as a thinking, travelling adult, and was a little surprised that I was touched by its elegance. Not awed. Just moved.
I found James Joyce and Virginia Woolf boring and entirely lacking in texture when I was a teenager. But I returned to them a decade later and was forced to change my opinion. And there was a time I used to think that Ernest Hemingway was a simple, short read but not substantial enough for long train journeys (don't say a word; it is taking a lot for me to admit to ever having thought of Hemingway as insubstantial). In my early twenties, I confess I found some of Adoor Gopalakrishnan's films a bit of a yawn. And frankly, I am afraid to watch them now, worried about what that might reveal about me and my intellect.