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Puppets on a string

Lack of a good story is often the death of cinema despite all the technology it has at its disposal, writes Annie Datta in her column From the Varsity.

india Updated: Oct 01, 2005 17:39 IST

Last year university students at Coimbra had an opportunity to see the great Indian epic Mahabharata as adapted to the Theatre of Puppets. (Teatro de Marionetas) written by Massimo Schuster with the collaboration of Francesco Niccolini. So profound is the Indian epic that the affective response is not lost even when the spectacle is in another medium. As pure entertainment puppetry is popular as folk tradition in India but tales narrated through puppets often suffer reduction. One saw recently the animated Ramayana in English (co-produced and directed by Yugo Sako and Ram Mohan) and could grasp its essence despite knowledge that one was simply watching an animated version of the tragedy. The secret, of course, is the literary merit of the text.

Flimsy stories do not withstand such an exacting test. A recent Hindi film, 'Paheli,' adapted puppets for pushing forward the plot. Going by current trends, cinema, it seems, is moving in the direction of fairytale and make believe. Animated characters mingle and interact with real characters on a surreal stage. Films like 'Aladdin' and 'The Lion King' have been popular. Powerful voices and musical tracks compensate for lack of corporeality. Should we assume that with more technology and less literature, cinema is getting simplified? We already see a rising trend in cinema of elements of the supernatural and the fantastic. The educative aspect in the process is being pushed to the periphery.

The above-mentioned 'Paheli' draws its central theme from the nether world of ghosts and witchcraft. Through the medium of the supernatural, the movie brings to the fore societal norms and dilemmas of the individual. Escape from the problems of a harsh reality is what the audience need. Elements of the magical are thus 'welcome' restoring technically the quality of the dream to cinema. There is extensive use of Rajasthan backdrop in colour while songs lend their own 'realism' to an absurd tale. Cinema has thus reached a slippery ground from the time of breezy romances in dream-like places. It has now entered the irrational and the absurd. All in the name of entertainment. It is more technology and less nostalgia now.

The lesson learnt so far is that cinema thrives on literature. Lack of a good story is often the death of cinema despite all the technology at its disposal. Return to historical themes has been a possible option. Hollywood was known for it in the past and its now Bollywood following the lead. We had of late films like 'Alexander the Great,' 'Troy' on the one hand and films like 'Asoka,' 'The Rising' (Mangal Pandey) and 'The Legend of Bhagat Singh' on the other. Ghost has been another theme closing the divide. Films like 'Ghost,' 'The Sixth Sense' and 'Ghost Ship' as also the Bollywood 'Paheli.'

The latter film makes use of puppets as narrators in highlighting moral dilemmas. Towards the end, humans are seen reduced to puppets. They are forced to accept an absurd situation and are literally pushed back in time. The 'willing suspension of disbelief' (Coleridge) depends on our faith in the narrator. The audience needs a rational voice, a voice we can trust, to be able to travel into the supernatural or whatever be the plane of the plot. Puppets on a string cannot play that role.

Cinema as a medium today is equipped with the technology to make anything happen. It is a terrible loss that there are few corresponding themes and ideas to feed the vast resource at the disposal of filmmakers.

First Published: Oct 01, 2005 00:00 IST