It is the design of cinema to exploit time, space, thoughts and emotions. But when does it start bordering on the offensive?

All films exploit. And manipulate.

The function of cinema is to exploit your emotions. And thought.

It is the design of cinema to exploit time. And space.

It is the nature of cinema to exploit actors. And audience.

Yet, we find some films exploitative and manipulative. Even offensive and insensitive. Why?

If Ram Gopal Varma milked the tragedy of The Attacks of 26/11 to make a manipulative film (with close-ups of children about to be shot), an acclaimed Tamil filmmaker recently released a ‘reality teaser’ that showed him beating and kicking members of his cast and crew (some in rage and some to demonstrate the stunt as a method of directing his actors to perform) to create buzz for his new film that opened in the theatres on Friday.

While it could be argued that it was a meta-statement made by the filmmaker who wanted to make a point about the oppression of the working class by portraying himself as the oppressor, the fact that these acts of ‘real violence’ (the filmmaker literally kicks an actor with brute force in the teaser to keep it real) are actually used as the selling point for the film is in very poor taste and raises a larger debate — how much can you stoop to get attention?

Anyone with a camera can film a goat getting its head chopped at the butcher’s in gory detail by framing a close-up. It’s footage that could immediately make you wince. Hence, evokes a strong emotion. It IS reality. Does this make the guy who put the camera at the butcher stall a great filmmaker?

Anyone with a mobile phone camera can slap a baby and capture endless crying! Or leave a slum kid near a gutter and make her eat from the leftovers of a dustbin. This is footage that will make you cringe too. It will shock you. It IS reality. Also, probably a reflection of society, the truth about kids who live in slums. Does this make the guy with the mobile phone a great storyteller?

If this is considered great cinema, it tells us more about the watcher than the filmmaker. Twisted. Voyeuristic. Pretentious. Poverty-porn buffs who watch these films from the insides of air-conditioned multiplexes, who shed crocodile tears while munching on popcorn and go on to appreciate the finer aspects of art… instead of being offended that someone actually decided to exploit a condemnable reality and decided to market it, just to sell more movie tickets?

What’s more appalling is that a huge section of the film industry thinks that it is okay because it’s been happening over the years. Why the outrage now? Does the fact that a social evil or a heinous crime that has been repeatedly happening for years justify its recurrence? Does it have to be a new crime for us to be outraged?

South Korean auteur Kim Ki Duk has been severely criticised several times for depicting real screen violence (of fish being chopped to death on camera in The Isle or the beheading of an eel that’s alive in his most recent masterpiece Pieta, for instance) and the filmmaker, while admitting his guilt also defended himself saying: “Animals are part of this cycle of consumption. It looks more cruel onscreen, but I don’t see the difference.”

However, Kim Ki Duk’s cinema does not rely on the scenes of animal cruelty to make its point. These instances of violence are all subtext and can be done without. While they do make you cringe, these scenes are not what make Kim Ki Duk’s films great.

Like our ‘reality’ filmmaker, Kim Ki Duk too makes films that are about people on the fringes of society, the oppressed in the underbelly of human tyranny who experience great suffering before finding redemption… But the difference is that Kim Ki Duk wouldn’t ever feel the need to assemble shots of animal cruelty to sell his films under the pretext of ‘reality’.

It’s not the scenes of animal cruelty that are the tour de force of Ki Duk’s cinema, but the deeper exploration of decadence and morality that moves, chokes and leaves us breathless and in complete awe of his work.

That is the best kind of manipulation and exploitation — the kind we don’t notice. The kind that is not staring at our face, screaming for attention but reaches the heart and makes it stop even before we know that we are being manipulated.

In India, of course, you would need supervision and clearance from the Animal Welfare Board of India to film any animal and the Censors have also ensured that you would need to put a disclaimer at the beginning of the film: “No animals were harmed in the making of this film.”

But hey, they never said anything about humans!