The Great Divide: Is there a bridge?

Watching videos about cinema, discussions on it and about the various aspects of it, etc. have always fascinated me. I have become such an eager enthusiast of such conversation that at the drop of statements like, "Master is a boring film. Bahubali is a back numbing experience with mindless action that are mere jocosities." rile me up and I plunge into a debate with the idea to "educate" the "lesser minds". Naturally, all my attempts were quashed - partly due to my condescending tone and partly due to the other party getting bored (I would like to think, and do so very often, that it is just their inability to take it that somebody has an opposing view and the logical reasons to back up the argument). So here we are, musing on how to bridge the ever-evasive and perennially elusive gap of "class" and "mass".

Let me set the context. Last December, a few of my friends started off on a discussion on Baahubali. The accusation from them was that the film was all gloss and no content. Apparently, the graphics were ridiculous and unbelievable as well. Even this I could take. What got me worked up was the statement that the film had no element of believability and realism in it. Now, before we get further into my thoughts on this. Let me make a few things clear.

We go to the movies for many reasons - to get away from a long day at work, to indulge in art, to move away from the realities of life and live in an imagined world - the reasons galore. All of this can be boiled down to: We go to the movies to be entertained and/or engaged. Now, these two words, to borrow Baradwaj Rangan's words are different and must be understood well. Entertainment is what we get when we watch films like Finding Nemo, the Transformers franchise, the Marvel films, and the likes. These films have their highs and lows, within their run time and leave us with a feeling of happiness and merriment to a certain extent. However, engagement is a completely different thing. When you watch a film like K. Balachander's Punnagai Mannan or Singeetham Srinivas Rao's Aboorva Sagotharargal or Mari Selvaraj's Pariyerum Perumal, you are engaged with the film. Sure, there are elements of entertainment in all of these films in terms of the songs, comedy tracks, action sequence, etc. But the aftertaste of these films isn't the same as a Finding Nemo. It's not a general feeling of mirth or merriment. You are left pondering and/or in pain by such films. It is because of so many different reasons again. The subject that the film handles, the way in which the subject is handled and so on.

Thanks to the proliferation of marketing tools at the beck and call of the filmmakers, it is very easy for the audience to get an idea of a film that they go to watch even before going to the theatres. And hence, with the help of the trailers, teasers and their breakdowns, the kind of the film is already set in the mind of the audience. For instance, a film like Baahubali was proudly (in my opinion, rightly so) marketed as an epic of sorts. The anticipation for the film, the constant updates of the film in the form of tweets and posters, the sneak-peeks, etc. made it pretty clear that the film was a fantasy-period-action-drama film. This takes care of the fact that there is going to be a lot of "how-did-they-do-that" and "unbelievable" moments in the film. This also means that it will be an entertaining film (and definitely a brilliantly made engaging film as well).

Now here is my contention with my friend. She said that none of the action sequences, viz. Shivudu picking up the Shivalingam and placing it under the waterfalls, climbing over the waterfalls with superhuman strength, etc. are human or believable or real. I start to get really itchy when I hear this word. If you want rooted realism in the film, then definitely Baahubali is not the film for you. When there was so much information around and about the film that it was anything but believable and "real". She had another question as well. "Why can't the director make the film in a way that at least some parts of the film are believable?" I am sure that when S.S. Rajamouli took the film or even conceived of this film, he was pretty clear about the audience he was making the film for. It was definitely a mass, commercial, masala entertainer. With the target audience already set is it his fault that you didn't find anything worthwhile in the film that held you in its duration of run-time?

There was another question that came up attacking the Selvaraghavan classic Aayirathil Oruvan. She said that all that she goes for a film is just for a get-away from the real world. I was thinking, "You couldn't have thought of a better film." But she said that she came back with a headache after watching the film. Why? The film was too confusing with the convoluted plot. Listen, lady, you are not alone. There were a lot of cine-goers who didn't get the film. But now it's being celebrated. You are not at fault for not understanding the brilliance. However what bothered me was she said she enjoyed watching Pariyerum Perumal but found Baahubali a back-numbing exercise. For someone who is going for watching a movie to "get away" from the realities of life, Mari Selvaraj is the last option. In this film, all he did was not even a far cry close to entertaining the audience. He had hammered it on the audience the brutality of the caste systems and its repercussion on the disadvantaged.

This is where the next point comes in. Our expectation while going to the movies. It is important that we don't have any prejudices while going for a film. But it's very difficult to be unbiased thanks to the knowledge of the director, the cast, etc. coupled with the marketing that goes about the film on social media. Therefore, with the expectations set, it is important to align our expectations accordingly. For instance, when going to a film by Shankar, it doesn't make sense to expect soul-stirring drama set in a rural backdrop with a minimal background score. Expecting such a thing would be foolish because he is a mastery of grandeur and is known for his over the top set pieces. Now, I am not saying that he is incapable of making such a film. In fact, he himself has wished to make such a film, but due to the image that he has of being the master of grandeur, he is not able to do it. He quenches his thirst for such rooted, small budget films by producing those films. At the same time, it is not fair to expect a film replete with a hero introduction song, heroine introduction shot, comedy tracks separately, etc. from an Adoor Gopalkrishnan. Thus, once the expectations and the mindset are aligned wherever possible such "disappointments" may be avoided.

There is another divide - the recognition, respect and performance of the "class" and "mass" films. I am talking about the films like Otha Seruppu size 7, Andhaghaaram, on one end of the spectrum and films like Viswasam on the other end of it. There are some obvious reasons for their recognition being so low-key. To begin with, there is a sentiment among the filmmakers and producers to release the film on a weekend - the logic makes sense with the weekend and all. But when a film by a big superstar like Ajith or Vijay also releases along with such small budget films, the smaller films (small only in terms of the scale and not in terms of the content) get sidelined and overshadowed by these bigger films (like a Robot or a Thupaaki). We are not new to such clashes of big and small films. Even Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan are no strangers to these dubious ways of the market. For instance, the splendid Guna starring Kamal was a flop as it released alongside another classic Thalapathi starring the "bigger" of the two "stars" and by a prolific director Maniratnam. Here the director and the actor cast in the latter worked against the success of Guna. Indian cinema history is replete with such mishaps. It is only of late that films like Maanagaram and Kaaka Muttai that are made on a shoe-string budget become popular and do well commercially.

Parthiban, the director of the brilliant Otha Seruppu size 7, said in one interview that one way to demolish what he calls the "caste system" (the upper caste being the "big" films and the lower caste being the "smaller" films) is by scheduling the release of the big films after giving the smaller films a reasonable breathing space in the theatres. This is one of the ways of helping the smaller films. Mind, I am not saying that the big films are not bad films, there are good films here too. But even if the films' concept or plot is not that great, the films still do reasonably well financially and earn quite some recognition due to the presence of the big names (like Vijay, Ajith or Maniratnam, etc.). When the smaller films don't have such names, this edge is missed and the films are not recognized nor respected or financially well despite the strong story, plot, etc.

Another possible solution is a paradigm shift in the mindset of the producers. It is important that the producers have faith in the content and not always go by the names/brands of the stars in the film and believe in the smaller-scale filmmakers so as to gain recognition and make their ventures commercially viable as well.

There are a few more reasons for this divide. The image of an actor among the public, the remuneration they demand, the importance of the writer, etc. As far as the image is concerned, I would like to point out the essay by the legendary Martin Scorcese where he beautifully puts it that most of the image is due to the kind of content that is fed to the audiences. Only if the audience is exposed to different kinds of cinema will the auteurist and a fresh band of filmmakers with unique concepts and ideas thrive. It is also important that the big stars consider reducing their remuneration which would be a welcome sign for the newer filmmakers. This would make them more approachable and we can get more films like Master.

Another imperative is the importance given to the writers in Indian cinema. Up north, the collaboration between the writers and directors (as two separate entities) has been on the rise and that too on successful ventures like Gulabo Sitabo. However, that is not the case down south. Somehow, the director also is the person behind the screenplay and dialogues. It needs to change. Thankfully, the Malayalam film industry has been giving the importance that they deserve - a reason why their films almost always do well irrespective of the scale.

Now with all the solutions set, would we be able to see a new wave of cinema? Will the divide finally be bridged? Will the "class" and the "mass" finally unite? Only time can tell. But with interesting ventures like Master and Karnan it is safe to say that the elusive light at the end of the tunnel may not be that far after all.

P.S.: Thanks to my idol Mr. Baradwaj Rangan for all the inputs he has given (absorbed from the myriad videos of his) without which this post would not have been possible.

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