The late Ismail Merchant once told me over a desert of melon at Cannes that a film must, above all, tell us a good story. I agreed, but today I would like to add a few words to his observation. The movie would probably have an even brighter chance at the box-office if it were to narrate a love story. Despite all that lovers hounded by society may say, the world loves a lover and, of course, a story that is spun around him and her.
Nobody believed that Michael Curtiz’s 1942 Casablanca would go on to become a classic and remain an all-time favourite. Yet, it became one, and not because it spoke of European refugees pouring into Morocco (on their way to the New World/America) at the height of Nazi tyranny. It was the love story between Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) that captivated hearts. Added to this was the man’s sacrifice and selflessness.
Victor Fleming’s 1939 Gone with the Wind, topped popularity charts and continues to do so. I do not believe that it was the American Civil War that the film (and Margaret Mitchell’s jumbo novel by the same name that it was based on) weaves it way through was its clinching point. No, it was the romance, the stolen glances and the quivering lips crushed under a hot kiss that did the trick. And when Rhett Butler (Clarke Gable) walks away from Scarlett ‘O Hara (Vivien Leigh) at the end, I am sure every guy and every gal would have wished for a sequel. Which did come in the form of a book and television movie.
Decades later in 1997, James Cameron’s Titanic amassed USD 1.84 billion worldwide to become the highest grosser ever in cinema history. Does anyone seriously believe that people flocked to see the “unsinkable” passenger cruise ship, Titanic, sink in the iceberg dotted Atlantic, taking along with it hundreds of passengers? I doubt it. Disasters and catastrophes have their attractions all right, but Cameron knew that these were not enough to get the vessel afloat all over again. He wrote an alluring love story between a poor boy, Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), and a rich and sad girl, Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), that ran in and out of the cabins and the decks, and the plot worked like magic.
Cameron is now all set to better his own record with his latest 3D creation, Avatar. Its tally now stands at USD 1.335 billion globally and is still mounting. The film has certainly pulled people back into theatres with its ambitious scale and imagination. Its three dimensional imagery has been a component of its success. But that is not the only thing. In an interview to the media last year, Peter Jackson, New Zealand director and producer best known for his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy said: “There’s an overreaction to 3D at the moment. It can be a wonderful additional experience to have in a cinema for the right type of movie, but it’s not the magic answer to the industry’s problems.” What could be, he added, was story. Jackson was saying exactly what Merchant had said years ago – and strongly believed in.
Avatar is an engaging story that flows out of Cameron’s pen. Set in 2154, the film is about humans trying to colonise a planet, called Pandora, hoping to exploit a valuable mineral there. Pandora is inhabited by a form of humanoids, Na’vi, who live harmoniously with nature. The humans create a hybrid Na’vi termed Avatars for their operation. While one cannot help drawing parallels between the humans/Avatars/ Na’vis and the current political goings on in our own world, it is, ultimately, the love story between a Na’vi girl and an Avatar that wins the war against avarice and greed, and the hearts of movie-goers.
Style and technology are important, but they are basically conveyors, which need a story powerful enough to keep one’s attention riveted on the screen. Ultimately, substance is what matters, not quite style. A good plot pays, and if it is romantic, it pays better. For, that is what touches the heart.
- Gautaman Bhaskaran has been writing on Indian and international cinema for over two decades.