Lights, Camera, Conversation… — The awakening of unconsciousness

A still from the movie Moondram Pirai  

News arrived, a few days ago, that Mani Ratnam's “Raavan(an)” — that most vilified of recent films, sentenced to be drawn and quartered on enraged social-media platforms — had been included in the permanent collection at the Austrian Film Museum. Not that this means anything (other than the fact, of course, that the people at the Austrian Film Museum, for whatever subjective reasons, found “Raavan(an)” worthy enough to collect) — but I cannot help being reminded of the time the film came out and the number of instances, thereafter, I was asked to defend my review, where I said that the film was intriguing.

I am occasionally interrogated about what the most vexing aspect of being a film critic is. The daunting number of films to be watched? The deadlines that drive you to calcify into cold words a nascent opinion-cloud still swirling in the mind? The bigger problem, in my experience, is being faced with readers who subscribe to what literary theory labels Authorial Intent. “Aren't you reading too much into this film?” I'll be asked. “How do you know that the director put it there?” And no amount of “I don't know that the director put it there, but more crucially I don't care whether he put it there or not” will stave off their scepticism.

What's frustrating is the fundamental non-resolvability of the situation. You belong to the Authorial Intent school, deeming that the author decides the meaning of art, whereas I am a card-carrying subscriber of the Reader Response club, which shifts the responsibility of gleaning meaning from the person who creates art to the one who experiences it. Wouldn't it be easier, instead of reading me and wringing your hands, to latch on to a critic more consonant with the way you view art, someone who pinkie-swears by Authorial Intent? Besides, how, short of buttonholing the director for explanations, do you determine Authorial Intent? And even then, how do we know he's telling the truth?

Films, so often, are amoebic entities, beginning life as one thing and ending up resembling something else altogether. Would Authorial Intent, then, manifest itself in the writing stage, which is the stage the author has fullest control over but which may bear little relation to the film that's later shot and cut and plastered on our neighbourhood screens? In this context, I imagine myself viewing, say, “Moondram Pirai (Sadma)” alongside Balu Mahendra. And I ask him about the nari kadhai song sequence, whether he picked the fable of the fox — the one that jumped into a vat of blue dye and was subsequently anointed the king of the jungle, until the dye dissolved in the rain and exposed the fox as a fraud — because the narrative arc of the fox is a distant echo of the arc negotiated by Kamal Haasan's character.

He is, after all, a nobody (like the fox) who, through a salubrious twist of fate, becomes the ruler of a woman's life, until he is restored, at the end, to the nobody he was, a fraudulent claimant to her emotions. Balu Mahendra might laugh and say no, that he chose the fable simply because it was familiar to everyone. But I would still have, in my Reader Response corner, evidence from the film that supports this possibility: Kamal, through his frequent aping of a trained monkey, has already aligned himself with the animal kingdom. Surely that's no coincidence.

Or is it? Maybe the director didn't zoom in on this fable consciously — but couldn't it be otherwise? A filmmaker I've been talking to a lot lately swears that everything in his films is there because he wants it that way. I respectfully disagree, and I think that the only person (thing?) capable of telling me the “truth” is Balu Mahendra's unconscious. That's why I like the term “film analysis”, which suggests the critic putting the filmmaker on the couch and analysing his work, the intents that produced, which may have sprung from unconscious wells deep within. That process, to me, is both intriguing and interesting.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 1:33:06 PM |

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