The question around the underwhelming Les Misérables isn’t how realistic a musical should be but whether musicals need to be realistic at all

Mere days after Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables was festooned with Academy Award nominations, it has sailed onto our shores — but this isn’t the first time Victor Hugo’s novel was set to song. That honour goes to K. Ramnoth’s Tamil feature Ezhai Padum Paadu, made in 1950. I know: it seems incredible that Tamil cinema, once, reached not just for literature, but French literature.

The difference, of course, is that Ezhai Padum Paadu was structured like any other narrative film from our country — the songs simply punctuated the drama. But in Hooper’s film, where almost every line is sung, like recitative, the songs are the drama. This may be the closest modern-day viewers will get to feeling like an opera-going audience in 19th-Century Europe.

In a sense, this is opera. That’s why Hooper’s insistence on ‘realism’ comes as a big surprise, which, at least in my eyes, diminishes the musical experience. This realism is achieved, first, through diegetic sound. In other words, the songs are layered with sounds from the surrounding situation. Thus, in the overture, where we see rows of prisoners hauling a ship to shore during a storm, the lyrics are fused with the roar of waves and the whistling of winds.

The second way Hooper strives for realism is by having his characters ‘act’ while singing, so that they’re not just belting out the song, keeping to tune and rhythm, but infusing the moment with what they are feeling at that moment. Thus, Fantine’s big number ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ is suffused with whispers and muffled sobs and the resulting cracked consonants. She’s not conveying her plight to the audience anymore but experiencing it instead. A dialogue becomes a monologue.

Hooper’s third weapon, in his pursuit of realism, is a cinematographic scheme that enhances this confessional quality. The camera hovers close to the face of the singer — in Fantine’s case, we observe not just the tears from her eyes but also the mucus glistening in her nose. And the colours are bleached, dirty even, as if the surrounding squalor had seeped into someone’s idea of a Technicolor musical.

Not since Lars von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark has a film with song and dance looked so bleak, and of all of Hooper’s attempts to immerse his film in authenticity, the latter is the most effective — because it has nothing to do with the singing. When we see characters bounding about in the bright reds and yellows of the MGM musicals of the 1950s, our spirits are automatically lifted, and the browns and the greys of this landscape do just the opposite. They leave us depressed. Mission accomplished.

There was no need to inflict ‘realism’ on the songs as well. Musicals are already a stylised form of expression. The very fact that people are constantly breaking into song and dance is proof that this is not a realistic universe. And audiences instinctively know this — otherwise, La Bohème, instead of becoming one of the most enduring and beloved of operas, would have been greeted with boos at its premiere. “How,” a very practical-minded member of the audience might have enquired, “does Mimi, racked with tuberculosis, hit all those high notes?”

And imagine what a mess it would have made of the music had Puccini, in response, instructed his soprano to stop midway through her arias and lean into the wings to hack out some sputum. People who watch musicals know the difference, and they know that the power of the songs make up for the lack of ‘realism’ otherwise. Put differently, they know that the song, if sung well, can convey everything — tuberculosis, stormy seas, Fantine’s sorrow, everything.

If you’ve come to Les Misérables after listening to one of the numerous recordings of the stage show, the ‘in-character’ songs are a washout. In another musical, we might console ourselves with the lyrics, but here, the lines are written in simple rhyme so that an audience can easily follow the story. When Javert tracks Jean Valjean to Fantine’s deathbed and makes a move to arrest him, this is what Valjean says / sings: “You know nothing of my life / All I did was steal some bread / You know nothing of the world / You would sooner see me dead.”

The power of this declamation lies only in the music, and this music needs really good singers, not actors who can merely hold a tune (though the actors in the second half of the film do fare better; they seem to be real singers). What a wasted opportunity! At least on a proscenium-bound stage, a singer can only throw his or her voice to the rafters. In the expansive world of the movies, why, they could have belted it out to the blue sky.