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Da Vinci: More than fiction

Forget feature film versions of novels for a minute. Instead, look at another genre of film where one kind of reality is made to project another kind through a layer of make-believe: pornography.

india Updated: May 21, 2006 02:14 IST

Forget feature film versions of novels for a minute. Instead, look at another genre of film where one kind of reality is made to project another kind through a layer of make-believe: pornography. As any viewer of porno flicks will know, the story lines are not based on anything remotely real. But even when armed with the knowledge that what one sees are actors in front of a camera playing their roles, one bypasses all the ‘fiction-making’ and settles for the basic ‘facts’ on display. Try telling someone appalled by pornography: “Don’t fret. This is pure fantasy.” It never works.

Ron Howard’s film version of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, too, is fantasy. But that hasn’t stopped the usual suspects howling against the film. Here we are, telling them, “Why are you standing with placards that say, ‘The Da Vinci Code is a pack of lies!’? It is a pack of lies. For Christ’s sake, it’s a novel!” This doesn’t work either. And it’s not only because the film offends the belief of the faithful.

For, there is an uncomfortable question directed at all those sitting chummily inside the liberal marquée: does something other than fiction — facts or factual conjectures, maybe? — slip through some works of make-believe?

When in 1938, Orson Welles put on a very realistic radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, the people in New Jersey (where Martian ships were supposed to be landing) fled their homes in droves. Incidentally, many listeners missed (ignored?) the repeated notices that the broadcast was “entirely fictional”. Welles escaped punishment, but not censure, and CBS had to promise never again to use the ‘We interrupt this program’ device for dramatic purposes.

In the case of Welles’ adaptation of The War of the World the fact-fiction ‘breakdown’ lay in the way it was presented. Like The Da Vinci Code, however, there have been many cases of what was being presented as ‘fiction’ leaking out something that suspiciously looked like facts.

Take early Indian cinema, which had overwhelmingly mythological/religious themes as subjects. The audiences of R. Nataraja Mudaliar’s 1931 silent feature Gopal Krishna, for instance, entered the auditorium after taking their sandals off outside and threw flowers at the screen during certain climactic moments of the film depicting the deity.

It wasn’t as if the viewers thought that what they were seeing was the infant Lord Krishna. But the fictional depiction in celluloid was a tangible representation of the divine. As Walter Benjamin observed in a different context, “Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.” Thus, the prohibition on burning national flags (physical representations of nationhood) and on the ‘questionable’ depiction of faiths — even through fiction.

Steven Spielberg used fictional devices, invented scenes and dialogue to dramatise fact in Schindler’s List (adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel, Schindler’s Ark). Millions received their primary education of the Holocaust — a real event even if British ‘historian’ David Irving and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may think otherwise — from the film. And if Vijay Sharma’s 1975 blockbuster, Jai Santoshi Maa could conjure up a new goddess out of pure celluloid, there may be logic to the view that a feature film may harm an established religion.

So does that mean films that mine the cracks that exist between established facts and un-established conjectures should be gagged? Christ, no! Art, even in its Hollywood formula-form, it seems, can be radical.

The Da Vinci Code’s fun and intelligence lie in its ability to put fact and fiction in one cement mix. After all, who wouldn’t kill to be Dan Brown, someone who’s pulled off that ultimate gag that all novelists hanker for: making people think that his make-believe is really real? And whether Brown and his ‘supporters’ admit to it or not, there is something more than pure fiction that seeps through his book/film. It’s called creative confusion — or for those offended, propaganda that is ideologically for the Imagination. Hallelujah!