Movies with Non Linear Screenplay - Part 1

Since its inception, cinema has gone through a metamorphosis in various aspects of film making. In the beginning, a movie was just a play without dialogues, soon dialogues became a part followed by the addition of music. Special mention to Alam Ara (1931) the first Indian film with sound. What started as a black and white venture soon turned to colors. Slowly breakthroughs in the technology associated with film-making paved the way for more and more imagination to be materialized on the screen. Films like Mayabazar (1957) took the standard of Indian cinema to greater heights as the technical team was able to nail the fantasy parts to perfection back then and set new standards in Indian cinema.


The next big thing happened to be the advent of CGI with which impossible ideas have been implemented successfully which were near impossible a few decades back. One of the main reasons for MCU’s success is the implementation of CGI and the green screen. Though 3D films were introduced in the early 20th century itself, today we have specialized 3D cameras to shoot the scenes in the first place, Shankar’s 2.0 (2018) stands as a testimony to this. Today we have IMAX theaters and certain directors prefer to shoot with IMAX cameras all in the pursuit of giving an unbelievable cinematic experience.


Not to mention the new ideas/type of stories that have paved the way for many genres in world cinema. But that’s not all. Today we say that particular movie is clichéd, with us easily guessing what’s going to happen next. To break this monotony, filmmakers in the past have developed various ways of narrating the story. Initially, the story was conveyed as it is. Then came the introduction of flashbacks, which made the films more interesting by breaking the linearity. Certain filmmakers have gone further and explored a different way of storytelling, by completely removing the linearity from the story, thereby making even a simple age-old story interesting.

In this article I would like to talk about some of the films that have a convoluted or non-linear screenplay, keeping our nerve cells on their toes and keeping us glued to the movie despite the caveats they might have. Non-linear is also referred to as disjointed narrative or disrupted narrative. Generally, a story is narrated mostly in chronological order. But here the chronology is almost completely thrown out of the equation, with distinct events and different timelines interspersed together without actually revealing the timelines. Sometimes the narrative might contain a series of flashbacks or flash-forwards.


Memento (2000) IMDB: 8.4

The vast success of this film is credited to the director, master perfectionist, Christopher Nolan, who thought of such a screenplay back in 2000 (just in his 2nd film). Even if this screenplay was adopted today, people would still call it “ahead of time”. The film stars Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, who has anterograde amnesia (the inability to form new memories) and has short-term memory loss every fifteen minutes as a result of an injury in his past.


Sounding similar to Ghajini (2005) by A.R. Murugadoss? Such a story was pitched to Nolan by his brother. If a normal director had helmed this movie, Ghajini is what we would get. (BTW, if you’re thinking this movie is the same as Ghajini, then panic not! Entire Ghajini is just 2-3 minutes of this movie).


Now Nolan being himself, thought that the audience should also be in the protagonist’s shoes and travel with him, thereby stimulating the mental state of the protagonist. This gave birth to one of its kind nonlinear screenplays. The film is narrated in two different alternating sequences.


First is a series of color sequences shown in reverse order. Let me tell you the first scene to get an idea. The film starts with the hero having a polaroid photo of a dead man, whom he killed. In the next cut, the polaroid reverses into its undeveloped state thereby showing the man and the event that led to the killing. The next cut is about how the hero and dead man arrived at a particular location. Basically, each bygone event/scene leads to the event before it. This itself sounds complicated to many, but probably Nolan felt this is also simple. Now, these colored sequences (which are running backward) are interspersed with the other series of sequences in black-and-white which is shown chronologically (without mentioning the timeline of this sequence). These two sequences meet at the end of the film. The interesting thing here is that the first scene of the film is the last part of the story and the ending where the two sequences (black & white and color) meet, is somewhere in the middle of the story. Isn’t it one heck of a screenplay?


Apart from Guy Pearce’s acting, special appreciation should go to the characterization of John Gammell (John G) played by Joe Pantoliano, leaving us with an open ending, either to believe in Leonard Shelby or John Gammell. Also, Carrie-Anne Moss stars as Natalie, whose character brings the mystery element to the story. Dody Dorn, the editor of the film deserves as much appreciation as Nolan for editing such a complex narration.


As an additional fact, Memento was nominated to the Oscars for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing. In 2017, the United States Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. The film is one of Nolan's finest works and a trendsetter to directors who want to explore more on film narrating.


Andhaghaaram (2020) IMDB: 7.8 (Available on Netflix)

Andhaghaaram, meaning darkness, is a Tamil supernatural thriller film directed by debutant V. Vignarajan. It’s quite difficult to explain the plot, as going into details will lead to spoilers. This film revolves around three men.


The first among the three is psychiatrist Dr. Indiran, played by Kumara Natarajan (But voiced by Arjun Das, the main protagonist of this film), who gets shot by his patient in his clinic and goes into a coma. The patient also commits suicide after shooting Dr. Indiran. The second is a cricket coach Vinod played by Arjun Das of Kaithi (2019) fame. He lives in guilt, as he thinks he is the one responsible for his friend Pradeep’s unexplainable mental condition. The third is Selvam played by Vinoth Kishan. Selvam is a humble blind man working in a government library with the sole aim of taking care of his house which his late parents have left. Compounding the burden is Selvam’s kidney failure for which he requires around 80K. Also, as a part-timer he works as an occultist, playing a medium between ghosts and people, which he learned from his father who was a well-renowned occultist.


The director adds suspense initially by showing random people getting ready to commit suicide and how Pradeep goes into his unexplainable mental condition. Now why, how, and WHEN these people are connected is narrated in a non-linear fashion, which obviously leads to twists towards the climax. This is a slow-burn thriller close to 3hrs. But the director certainly rewards those who patiently stick till the end.


This complex story is aptly supported by the technical team. A M Edwin Sakay’s cinematography is top-notch. Be it the picturization of the government library, or Selvam’s ancestral house, or the theatre, or be it any crowded street, Sakay has captured to its very life. The framing of scenes has to be mentioned, as the Easter eggs giving hints about the timelines are tactically placed that doesn’t demand our attention much. Films like these demand the best out of the editor, and to his credit, Sathyaraj Natarajan has done a fantabulous job.


As mentioned earlier this supernatural thriller is anted up a few notches by Pradeep Kumar’s excellent BGM elevating the suspense, mystery, and thrill elements of the film. There are a few caveats in this movie. For starters, the runtime and initial pacing to set the characters in might test one’s patients. Secondly, this unique film with its complex story and narration requires most of your concentration, as little distraction could easily confuse the viewer. The ending might certainly look rushed. Despite a very few shortcomings, this film will certainly please cinema admirers, and will definitely make you look for the director’s next venture.


Vada Chennai (2018) IMDB: 8.5 (Available on Disney Hotstar)

Vada Chennai marks the third collaboration between Dhanush and director Vetrimaaran (boy this combo is the epitome of success). In simple terms, this movie revolves around the happenings in north Chennai from the late ’80s to early 2000, narrated in a non-linear manner with events from different timelines interspersed. But the plot is complex with many characters (almost every character is important) and situations.


The movie starts on a suspenseful note with four men killing a big fish. These four men later split between themselves as two groups due to differences, detesting each other and ready to kill the other when possible. The rest of the plot follows the events before and after the murder and more importantly how and WHEN an innocent Dhanush gets into this gang war. The highlights of the film are excellent casting by Vetrimaaran with each character nailing their roles so much so that Dhanush plays a kind of second fiddle until the climax, giving importance to the script. The others include the excellence and perfection with which Vetrimaaran directs his ventures capturing the flavors of north Chennai Director’s vision is backed well by excellent work from the technical team, with special mention to the art departments.


Majority of the first include sequences in jail. The setting and the detailing of the jail are as close to real-life coupled with the cinematographer capturing every bit of it. The editing is seamless with the scenes across timelines intertwined well. There are quite a few mass scenes not just for Dhanush, but also for other important characters. Santhosh Narayanan’s music, especially the BGM, electrifies these scenes and keeps ringing in your ears even after you finish watching the movie. This gangster thriller film will entice both the commercial as well as artistic viewers and make one look forward to the sequel.


Hope you enjoy them. We will be back another set of movies that have non linear screenplay.

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