The art of reading a film

A still from Leila

A still from Leila | Photo Credit: File Photo

In the week when a scene from an innocuous 40-year-old Hrishikesh Mukherjee comedy is making headlines for its supposed subversive nature, suddenly the art of reading a film has become relevant. Evidently, scenes and dialogues convey new meanings as the context changes. That’s how a film like any other art form survives and that’s how the meme industry works. Even as the police could not see the satire in Mohd Zubair’s tweet and Kissi Se Na Kehna emerged on everybody’s lips, artist Shuddhabrata Sengupta of the Raqs Media Collective reflected on a scene from Mukherjee’s classic comedy Golmaal (1979) wherein Bhawani Shankar (played by Utpal Dutt) has to spend a night in lock-up because a policeman (played by Om Prakash) mistakenly believes that Bhawani is a smuggler. Bhawani responds with a memorable line, “Aap police officer nahin, foolish officer hain.”

Politics of censorship

Over the years, writers and filmmakers have found ways to bypass censorship and fragile sensibilities. When Kavi Pradeep wrote “Aaj Himalaya Ki Choti Se Phir Humne Lalkara Hai” for Kismet in 1943, director Gyan Mukherjee presented it as a warning to the Axis power, but the Indian audience connected it with the call for the Quit India Movement. It took the British government a long time to understand the true intent of the song.

The story of the Congress government banning Amrit Nahata’s Kissa Kursee Kaa (1978) during the Emergency is well documented. Some of its negatives were allegedly burnt and the stinging satire could see the light of day only when the Janta Party government came to power. However, the film’s protagonist Gangaram, a roadside performer who is catapulted as the supreme leader remains relevant. Played by theatre legend Manohar Singh, Gangaram is a master of word play and the bluster comes in handy while luring the mute public personified by Janta (Shabana Azmi). The kingmakers mortgage Gangaram to a corporate house to fulfil their interests, but don’t realise that their Gangu has become a monster out to bite his creators.

However, these are times of mob censorship and wafer-thin sensibilities that can use judicial access to take creative people on a tour of mofussil courts. OTT platforms and production houses have learnt their lessons. Every script is vetted by an in-house legal team and creators look for ways to make their point without attracting undue attention. Even in interviews, filmmakers often underplay the context and stick to the text.

Creating subtext

For instance, Cannes winner All That Breathes is a wonderful piece of creative non-fiction on environment protection, but one of the main reasons that the Shaunak Sen film is receiving global critical acclaim is because of the way it marries the ecosystem with the socio-political climate in the national capital. It deftly juxtaposes the life of two Muslim brothers who decide to save the kites at the same time that protests against the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the riots in North East Delhi rock the capital city. It changes the whole equation of who needs to be rescued. There are plenty of voices in the background and visuals that indicate the turmoil within and without. In one scene, one of the brothers says that while hatred was there earlier as well, they are now being seen as termites and vermin.

Similarly, Amit Masurkar’s Sherni plays out like a government-sponsored documentary on saving wildlife, but beneath its skin carries a biting comment on how the system seeks to create an animal out of its adversary for all those who care to delve deeper. Shefali Bhushan’s Guilty Minds is a sharp courtroom drama that breaks many stereotypes about the genre but it steers clear of cases on religious persecution and freedom of speech. However, if you look closely, there are subtle references to the politically-charged times, without directly digging into them. When we are first introduced to the courtroom, a voice, perhaps of a lawyer, could be heard telling the bench in the background that, “Respect for all religions was the intention of the framers of the Constitution.” There is a case wherein one of the takeaways is that start-up culture hasn’t made the life of female employees any better.

Deepa Mehta’s Leila fills you with fear because the discerning could watch the lines between fiction and reality blurring with a disconcerting frequency in the dystopian tale. Based on Prayag Akbar’s book of the same name, on the surface, it is a mother’s search for her daughter but as the narrative unravels, we could gauge its commentary. From the obsession with purity to hating the ‘other’ or for that matter water scarcity, one could easily join the dots. The violent detestation of mixed marriages becomes a brutal metaphor for the recent attacks on the plural character of the nation.

Perhaps, the most moving manifestation of this subversion comes through in Dibakar Banerjee’s short in Ghost Stories, a horror anthology, where in the fictional zombie-land only those who don’t move and speak could survive the fascist monster. The small town called Bees ghara, perhaps indicating the percentage of a minority, are being eaten up by big-towners named Sau ghara. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison once said that all good art is political but one didn’t know it could be applied to horror stories as well.

Layered propaganda

It is not that only those who want to expose the system are lining their narratives with explosives. Besides depicting the graphic violence perpetrated by one community against the other, The Kashmir Files questions the Sufi tradition of Islam in the Valley and subtly pushes the putrid thought that no Muslim is above suspicion. Sometimes, this layering is far too apparent and makes you chuckle. In Dhaakad, when Kangana Ranaut, playing an undercover agent, survives even after a bullet pierces the left side of her chest, a helpful doctor tells us that her heart is slightly on the right side. Isn’t it a little too obvious?

Over the years, writers and filmmakers have found ways to bypass censorship and fragile sensibilities. For instance, in All That Breathes one of the main reasons why the film is receiving global acclaim is because of the way it marries the ecosystem with the socio-political climate in the national capital.
Perhaps, the most moving manifestation of this subversion comes through in Dibakar Banerjee’s Ghost Stories, an anthology of horror films.
Films like The Kashmir Files show that it is not only those who want to expose the system that are lining their narratives with explosives.

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Printable version | Jul 8, 2022 1:09:44 pm |