Bombay Showcase

The tamasha of interpretation

Radha Rajadhyaksha  

A few days ago, I chanced upon a virulent social media exchange between admirers of Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha and those who were unimpressed by it. The contention of the former was sweeping and supercilious: people who hadn’t liked the film hadn’t “understood” it — as simple as that. A particularly fervent supporter went on to bemoan that audiences came to theatres only to stuff their faces with popcorn and have fun, and movies like Tamasha were beyond them.

Whether Tamasha was indeed deep and rich with subtextual delights or merely tedious and unintelligible is not the subject of this column. Cinema, like all arts, is a subjective experience, and we can all draw our own conclusions from a film. The point is, how much should subjectivity overwhelm the objective benchmarks by which a work of art is judged? And at what point does interpretation cease to be an analytical or intuitive activity and degenerate into farce?

Over the years, I’ve seen a number of movies which, when judged on the basis of objective yardsticks such as concept, screenplay, direction or simply how the whole film held together, pretty much sucked — but which were accorded wildly intellectual ‘interpretations’. I remember the over-the-top Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani being lauded as a brilliant film that was structured according to “chaos theory”, whatever that is. More recently, a post on Bombay Velvet blamed its failure on the elite audience’s fear of the subaltern protagonist who was always trying to reach above his station. Even Bollywood classics have been eye-poppingly interpreted by the academic world — get hold of one of those treatises and you’ll wonder if the author and you saw the same film.

While conceding each person’s right to even radical subjectivity, for me personally there are movies that are worthy of deconstruction and those that are definitely not. World cinema (Hollywood and Indian cinema included) has a lot of intellectually rich movies that give one subtlety, layers, little surprises and a chance to make one’s own connections. There are also the exasperating conundrums — say, L’Annee Derniere at Marienbad , Mulholland Drive , No Smoking or any film that’s like a jigsaw puzzle waiting to be solved. One can go to town on those. But would you deconstruct Chennai Express for subtext? (Okay, that’s an exaggeration.) There are, however, enthusiasts for whom ‘interpretation’ is an intellectual game to be played with all films, and who visit baffling meanings on totally commonplace visuals and narrations.

Where does a director fit into all this? Did s/he actually intend any of the things that you perceived in the movie? Would s/he be flummoxed by your interpretation? That depends. There’s a school of thought that says, ‘It doesn’t matter what the director intended’, and some directors agree. Chaitanya Tamhane, the maker of Court , was non-committal when I asked him what the very unusual ending of his film was meant to signify, saying that he preferred to let people arrive at their own conclusions. Canadian director Atom Egoyan has voiced pretty much the same sentiment in an interview. “To me, the highest aim of any film is to enter so completely into the subconscious of the viewer that there are moments and scenes and gestures that can be generated by the spectator’s imagination,” he said. “That becomes part of the film they’re playing in their mind.”

In stark contrast, some of the more matter-of-fact directors of yesteryear have chosen to pop the ‘deeper meaning’ bubble when it could have added to the mystique. A story goes that Satyajit Ray was once asked about the significance of the cracked mirror in the opening shot of Abhijaan (which his biographer Marie Seton has interpreted as reflecting the jagged state of the protagonist’s mind). Ray put an end to the creative speculation by stating the prosaic reason behind it: the glare reflecting from the mirror was causing problems for his cinematographer and hence he had it broken.

Ray’s no-nonsense demeanour makes it very likely that this story is not apocryphal (the veteran journalist who told it to me many years ago swears that it happened).

But here’s one to which I was witness myself — at a film festival interaction where G Aravindan was discussing Oridathu , his satire about the electrification of a village.

At one point, an earnest gentleman asked him why he had a particular top-angle shot of the villagers. Was he “looking down” disdainfully on the disadvantaged protagonists of his film? Replied Aravindan in a gentle, almost apologetic, way, “Er, no. You see, when you have to get a large group of people into the frame, it is better to take a top shot.”

Between the insightful viewers who get what a filmmaker is trying to say between the lines and the extravagantly imaginative ones who spin their own movies in their heads lies the fluid realm of interpretation. Eventually, it’s to each her own.

(The author is a freelance writer and editor)

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Printable version | May 4, 2021 11:37:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/entertainment/the-tamasha-of-interpretation/article8010306.ece

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