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The future of flashbacks

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Memories have a distinct visual language. Contrary to age-old cinematic perceptions, images don’t flip by in any coherent form. Instead, actions pop into mind abruptly. Inherently fleeting in tone, some do just enough to make you believe this is a traditional ‘flashback’.

Hindi films tend to deliberately blur the line between flashbacks and memories, that is, thinking as a screenplay activity as against it being an intellectual activity. For example, when the gloomy Narayan Shankar (Amitabh Bachchan, in Mohabbatein) sits on the empty auditorium steps and recalls his daughter’s (Aishwarya Rai) suicide, we see a sepia-tinted sequence of orderly events unfold in flesh and blood. With controlled dialogue and rationality. These are merely narrative devices designed to feed viewers details of the story; they aren’t exactly affecting thoughts of a man mourning his dead daughter. Badlapur, Kahaani and No One Killed Jessica have protagonists recollecting entire scenes with those they’ve lost, to perhaps cleanly set the platform for redemption, and occasionally, bloody revenge. Sweet faces and endearing chemistry from the past are drilled into our heads to eventually empathise their rage.

Realistically, flashes only serve as triggers, often momentary, staccato and soundless, haunting enough to paint an emotional landscape and suggest the entirety of a phase. Reminisce while walking down a street, and these memories won’t bear the soundscape of its time; they will likely be scored to the cacophony of your current environment: whizzing cars and loud hawkers on your street.

Contemporary filmmakers have begun to experiment with these inconsistencies of retention, specifically the visceral grammar of grief. More often than not, these “melancholy cuts” involve faces that viewers haven’t yet encountered in the film. Tragic equations are introduced, and established, by the craft of concealment. Think Christopher Nolan’s handling of Don Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) tortured mind in Inception. His deceased wife Mal’s (Marion Cotillard) face initially appears in rapid figments, sharp, unsettling and piercing his subconscious while he goes about his mission. In dry technical terms, shots of her, without any colour alteration or jarring ‘jumps’ from reality, interrupt his present-day mindscape. As a result, his feelings acquire an imagined immediacy far more poignant than actually being shown their marriage. This is executed perfectly by the recent Amazon series Fleabag and HBO drama The Night Of. In both, we see preoccupied protagonists (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Riz Ahmed) dealing with the aftermath of untimely deaths. They willingly allow tranquil flashes of a broken past intrude, and barely disorient, their daily existence.

French-Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée (The Dallas Buyers Club) has mastered this fractured-mind form in two films from his ‘grief trilogy’. During her 1,100-mile hike across the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon, in Wild) is routinely haunted by muted moments of her late mother (Laura Dern) and ex-husband (Thomas Sadoski). In his next, Demolition, Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man numbed by his wife’s death, allows blink-and-miss portions of their car accident to dot his somber mornings. Sometimes it’s just her last smirk at him, and others, her slender fingers on the steering wheel. Tom Ford’s directorial debut, A Single Man, has depressed English professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) constantly struck by intimate lens-flare-heavy flashes of his deceased partner Jim (Matthew Goode). These hushed hues — the details of Jim’s handsome face, his flirty eyes, their sexually charged banter — creep up on him during his day’s most mundane parts.

Another technique some storytellers and editors have introduced is the ‘puzzle board flash’: sprinkling separate bits of a memory throughout, until it finally gains context within the complete sequence revealed later. Perhaps a traumatic pit stop brings the mind to compensate for its life-long lucidity.

In Anu Menon’s Waiting, young Tara (Kalki Koechlin) grapples with scattered moments of a particularly romantic morning with her now-comatose husband (Arjun Mathur). She revisits snippets of all those coy kisses, the newlywed teasing and her playful tantrums. The more she learns to live with her current situation, the more we’re shown about that fateful morning, leading up to the minute he leaves for the final time. By the end, it becomes an unbroken sequence in her head, more a tiny film than its hastily cut trailer. Similarly, throughout Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh, we see Professor Siras’s (Manoj Bajpayee) fragmented memories of the ‘gay tryst’ that got him banned. Only once he wins the case, we’re shown the real affection of that night with the rickshaw puller: the friskiness, the carefree toying with a light switch, the transitory glow of companionship in their eyes. Even in Silver Linings Playbook, a bipolar Patrick (Bradley Cooper) gradually pieces together disturbing parts of a whole. Incoherent images of his hassled wife (Brea Bee) in a shower soon add up to form one ugly revelation: that’s where Patrick caught her with another man.

In all these cases, the visual grammar of memories form an evocative part of the protagonists’ being. They don’t exist to take the story forward or backward. None of the characters sit down with intent to go back in time. It just happens, non-dramatically, quietly, while they’re navigating a distant path to recovery. And it’s rarely provocation that leads to it, contrary to what we’ve been shown over time.

Then there are the films that choose not to spell it out. No pictorial evidence is inserted even though you visualize it coming. In Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) decides to distract Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) from their perilous situation; she then speaks about how her little daughter died after a freak head injury. We’re shown nothing. She continues drifting, both literally and figuratively, to an extent where I’m still convinced there were physical hints of the accident she talks about. In Imtiaz Ali’s Highway, kidnapped Delhi brat Veera (Alia Bhatt) confides in her abductor (Randeep Hooda) about how she was molested as a child. The filmmaker refrains from using a pointed flashback here, thereby lending importance to a later scene in which this monster is revealed. Her stilted words, a memory she has no doubt fragmented into compact boxes of agony throughout her life, remain with us for being just that: words. Our minds do the rest.

Sebastian Schipper’s one-shot Berlin-based drama Victoria preempts the very notion of flashbacks. The entire film is virtually designed as a single unbroken memory of an unforgettable night. At one point, a joyous Victoria sneaks into a building and climbs onto a terrace with her new male friends. All sounds cease to exist, and a melancholic piano track takes over, as if to indicate that this part will haunt her mind when she introspects about this night. There’s a degree of mortality to this theme. This becomes a thought, a passing memory, even as it’s happening. It simultaneously attains the weightlessness of a snapshot and the weight of a life-altering event.

This sleight-of-mind trick is also the reason one is able to recollect bits of cinema so vividly. One sub-consciously identifies, as the film unravels, which parts will endure to represent it as a memory. These movie memories, in turn, act as the music to a life even as it happens. I’ll always remember receiving my first slap in a classroom, because we watched Baazigar that night. And as I write about these faces, the whir of a ceiling fan lends an undying personality to their silent frames.

The writer is a freelance film critic, writer, and habitual solo traveller

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Printable version | May 30, 2020 12:12:23 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/The-future-of-flashbacksstrong-strong/article15868535.ece

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