What is cinema? This is a question that has evoked a hundred answers. A good film must tell a good story, and say it engagingly, the late Ismail Merchant used to say. His association with director James Ivory and late writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala spawned wonderful movies, each rich in story and narrative simplicity.But there have been others who felt that a movie must go beyond mere storytelling. After all who wants to see reality on screen - the dirt, the grime of everyday life need not be replicated in cinema. We see enough of that. True to this line of thought, Indian cinema has offered more fantasy than reality. Indians walk into a theatre to forget their woes and worries, to escape into a world of make-believe where women look pretty, men handsome, where women seem vulnerable and men became super human beings capable of vanquishing tens of others with bare fists.
Call this magic realism, but this is what the celebrated director from Bengal, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, advocates. At a masterclass held as part of the ongoing 45th International Film Festival of India in Panaji, he said, "One can make a movie without giving too much of importance to the art of story writing."
A poet and novelist apart from having made some remarkable cinematic works like Bag Bahadur, Charachar, Lal Darja and Tahader Katha, Dasgupta said that if one were to write a story based only on reality, it will appear dated after a period of time. "It is this touch of the unreal that makes a film different."
This is why Dasgupta pays greater attention to photography, shot composition and lighting - drawing all these into a symbolism of magic. There is, of course, a plot in every movie of his, but he embellishes and enriches it with poetry, music, mood, atmosphere and fantasy. "One should always be open to one's own imagination," he averred.
A scene from Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Kodiyettam
Some may not agree completely with this. Another master helmer, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, (whose Kodiyettam was screened at the festival in his presence) for instance, would describe such cinema as escapist fare. His own films - like Nizhalkkuthu, Elippathayam, Kodiyettam and so on - are rooted in stark reality. Well, they do not appear jaded after so many years.
While Dasgupta and Gopalakrishnan may be right in their own ways, Indian cinema can go overboard with a kind of fare that insults basic human intelligence and logic. Perhaps, what Indian cinema can actually do with is a good mix of reality/authenticity tempered with a degree of magic and fantasy. Too much of either can spoil the broth.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the International Film Festival of India for Hindustan Times.)