To Titanic, the most Bollywood Hollywood movie ever made
It’s not cool to do a Titanic selfie. You know, that sweeping shot of Rose and Jack at the bow, she with arms outstretched, he every bit the lover in control behind her.
For years, it’s been a favoured pose for couples, going by social media timelines, but much to my relief, some of the selfie-crazed people I asked think it a terrible cliché. “Never!” says one 26-year-old, who has not watched the movie. “All I can think of now is that Celine Dion song.”
Who can blame her? Certainly not those who watched the movie on then big screen when it was released worldwide in 1997. Although the song never played in the movie, Celine Dion’s ‘My heart will go on’ had started playing in cassette tapes across the world even before the movie came out.
It topped every music chart in the UK and US and won countless awards. Just as the movie did. I agree with the 26-year-old that the song made James Cameron’s 190-minute-long, extravagant pop classic even more insufferable.
Titanic is one of those irritating pop-culture landmarks. When it first came out and became a blockbuster all over the world, we in India marvelled. So Bollywood, we smirked.
At the centre of the monumental disaster and human tragedy that was the sinking of the luxurious RMS Titanic on its maiden voyage, Cameron crafted a love story between a depressed 17-year-old British girl (Kate Winslet) persuaded to marry into wealth against her will, and a 20-year-old bohemian artist (Leonardo Di Caprio) who won a third-class ticket on the ship in a game of poker. She attempted suicide; he became determined to rescue her from her stilted, upper-class funk.
Cameron’s script distilled, in a very simplistic narrative, all the class anxieties of the 19th century, which spilled over into the 20th, and which Hindi films have been exploring even more simplistically since the 1940s and ’50s. Mughal-e-Azam, Sujata, Devdas, Maine Pyar Kiya, Bobby, and just a year before Titanic, Raja Hindustani are just a few Hindi movies in which social class / caste propel the drama of separation and union of lovers. And each had its own version of the shrill, hyper-emphatic anthem to star-crossed love.
In fact, Hindi film lovers had just about recovered from Raja Hindustani’s ‘Pardesi pardesi’ — composed by the seriously raag-challenged duo Nadeem-Shravan, written by Sameer and sung by Udit Narayan and Alka Yagnik; a combination that defined love bathos in 1990s Hindi movie music — when ‘My heart will go on’ started playing at the end of every party.
As a nation and people, we love the tragic — at least we did at the time. Our favourite accompaniment to whiskey has long been weepy Mohammad Rafi songs. So the tragic love story of Jack and Rose was bound to resonate with Bollywood audiences instantly. That the heroine, in the final climactic moment, decides to live after the hero has frozen to death, and weeping, begins to feebly blow into a whistle calling for rescue across the icy, dark sea did not work against the movie.
Of course, the view that Cameron deliberately wanted to follow the Bollywood model, which floated about in the years following 1997, is a joke. As a screenwriter and director, Cameron has never been interested in realism or conceptual complexity; his themes are broad and his storytelling, simple. The majority of Bollywood directors and writers also aren’t interested in realism, but that’s probably because they consider realism unsafe, ‘escapism’ for audiences being the Bollywood canon that producers prefer to follow.
Cameron differs because he has never not been ambitious or out-of-the-box when it comes to visualising stories. He is one of the few directors in the world whose films justify their multi-million-dollar budget. The details in every scene are painstakingly worked out, the CGI is never grotesquely loud, and most of his films require more than a couple of years to complete.
Take Avatar, the tale of conflict between good and evil, capitalism and nature, is a simple one, and yet he turns it into breathtaking cinema; his films are visually all-encompassing of the senses.
Titanic certainly justifies its 200-million-dollar budget. I watched it for the second time a few days ago, this time, as would suit 2017, on my laptop. The sinking of the ship takes up about an hour of the three-hour-plus runtime. The dialogue sounded as theatrical as it did 20 years ago. The background score that combined Celtic and big brass sounds, as effusive. The love story, as sparkling in moments and stagey throughout. But it is still a marvel, a phenomenon that couldn’t have been stopped.
Cameron’s combination of brilliant spectacle, hubris, technical mastery over form, and an instinct for what will please the mass audience is unmatched in movie history. The last decade of big-budget filmmaking has been a giant digital slam, which roaring marketing (there are Iron Man pyjamas, bobblehead dolls, helmets, T-shirts and cereal bowls) keeps afloat for at least two, and if the producer is lucky, three weekends. The challenge the director sets himself or herself up for is: How much more technology can we show in the sequel?
Bollywood has taken time to use technology well in big-budget movies. And when it has, in the past few years, with Baahubali showing the way, it has been in the same digital-slam style of the Hollywood of the past decade. Big-budget in Bollywood is still largely about stars, not a director’s vision.
Cameron’s computerised hydraulics in Titanic is about perfecting the moments on screen, and how to retain an extraordinary degree of suspense despite everyone knowing how the movie will end. The doll that lies eerily on the ocean floor in the arms of a little girl; the ship’s designer adjusting the clock as the giant vessel prepares for its last plunge; the Irish mother in third-class consoling a terrified her child; the harrowed crowds’ little gestures of hope, and then resignation, and the variety of shots that Cameron manages through it all — these are expensive details. There is no confusion in Cameron’s vision, and there are no technical flashes that exist for their own sake.
That’s why Titanic matters, and why movie-lovers won’t let go of the most Bollywood Hollywood movie ever made. Rich girl’s doomed affair with poor boy — that doesn’t excite even the most formulaic of Bollywood writers today.
(Sanjukta Sharma is a Mumbai-based writer and critic)