Monday, March 24, 2008

Divine comedy

A post related to the title tag-line of this blog. A million problems and issues ride our minds at every second - some real, some more important than that. Our big escape from that can be some form of stimulation – sports, meditation, arts or maybe cinema. Since I have a very poor relationship with the first three, I will talk of my only option - the last one. I am not an avid television person but I am crazy about cinema. It may probably be a small side effect of a Mumbai existence but it could be a general human feature.
In cinema, I subscribe to what the typical Indian movie maker sells, but I have a major craving for good comedy. It gives me all the high that I miss out from not using drugs. But of course, not all attempts at comedy are funny. The Hindi film industry had been starved for good comedy for close to two decades until the Dil Chahta Hai’s and the Lagaans came out. Though it has still not fully gotten back to the magic that prevailed in the times of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee, there are at least the odd movies like ‘Kal ho na ho’, ‘Waqt’ and ‘Khosla ka Ghosla’ that weave in some really tingling bits into their script. The comedy tracks that prevailed until then were never good enough to be called lackluster (with the exception of some brilliant bits by Paresh Rawal and Johnny Lever in the movie ‘Judaai’ and a couple of Aamir Khan movies that could make you smile).
The other Indian cinema industry that I follow – the Tamil industry - fared and is still faring a lot better. What was started off by Thangavelu and Nagesh in the sixties and seventies was carried through the eighties and nineties by Goundamani, Janakaraj and Senthil and finally the torch still is held high by Vivek, Vadivelu and the recent Ganja Karupan, each of the stars adding their own colors to it. Of course there are people who never found any of them funny enough but they are not authors on this blog article. Comedy in this industry is so good that despite the current infection of the industry by some people who should have joined some other industry totally unrelated to entertainment, (someone please burn their D.F. Tech. degrees) the finances are still being held stable in many production houses single handedly by the comedy tracks that these greats graciously keep doling out.
Of course there is this whole parallel store of comic cinema that actually did not intend to be so, but nevertheless provides as much entertainment as a quality comedy track would. I talk of the Mithuns, the TRs, the recent Sam Andersons and even Shivaji Ganeshan from the seventies. These movies are meant to be taken in a serious nature (and there are the target audiences that does too) but some others like me take it as a different form of entertainment (hey, after all it is an entertainment industry!).
What makes these movies funny? Is it the excessive jingoistic overacting, is it the bloopers, is it the unbelievable nature of the cinema or is it the fact that the cinema refuses to accept its mediocrity? Jingoism, in my opinion is there in all cinema and some excessively jingoistic movies like Border were big hits not because they were taken to be funny. Second, bloopers exist in all movies and it just takes a keen eye to find them. Third, cinema is allowed to have unbelievable moments and larger than life elements because that is what makes it so fantastic and different and entertaining in comparison to real life. Though of course it is quite funny that a girl that is a third of his age goes weak on the knees for Vijaykanth, (as in that being unbelievably gross even in cinema) and a hundred people spontaneously combust by his very stare, it does not cover the entire spectrum of this parallel industry. There are some other grandpas who still are superstars. In fact such an extreme larger than life effect is taken very serious by most of the movie makers and a large fraction of the public. That leaves just mediocrity.
What defines mediocre cinema? Everyone comes to watch movies with a different mindset and look for different elements in it. Most often the quality of the cinema is based on the element(s) that they looked at but does not always cover everything. Then how can we call a movie mediocre in a general sense? Would it be by a majority of public opinion? In that case, what does the majority of the public call mediocre?
The answer may not be very simple but can be illustrated to make it quite clear. Rajnikanth’s movies are not called mediocre in the Tamil industry because they are taken seriously and his extreme acts and punch elements are called entertaining. The very same act by T Rajendar would be heavily laughed at. One could argue – T Rajendar looks like a Neanderthal’s poor clone and Rajnikanth has a better style. But his son Simbu does look more human than Rajnikanth does and can be made to act well in some situations too. Why did his attempts at heroic dialogue in his debut movie get laughed at, while his later Vallavan (that did not show better acting/screenplay/dialogue/direction in any way) was called a serious hit? Vijaykanth looks like the same species that T Rajendar is claimed to be. But the former is still taken more seriously (not wholly but still substantially, to quote Pt. Nehru). Does Vijakanth offer a better quality in his movies (at least currently)?
One more element to add before I discuss the above - the Hindi movie industry does not seem to offer any extra quality in their acting, dialogue, comedy (already established above) or cinematography. In fact, cinematographers are drawn from the south. Then why is it so that in Bombay, Delhi and Jamshedpur, south Indian cinema (read Tamil cinema. Most people north of the state of Karnataka are not aware of the other south industries. Except for maybe the Malayalam industry but that is thought to entirely be a soft porn industry) is hugely made fun of and the same godly Rajnikanth is mocked openly with the mind-its and the quick-gun Murugans? The answer probably is – budget. The recent ‘Shivaji' by the same person was actually taken seriously in these provinces because of it record – India’s most expensive movie yet. One may scroll back to the previous paragraph to see it sound a bit clearer now.
This argument could sound specious but there is more to stimulate the thinking mind. The bollywood industry, as the Indian industry is popularly called abroad, is called so because it was made in Hollywood’s image – a rip off. Of course the aware world citizen would laud the bollywood industry as ‘full of color and masala’ but it is never treated in the same level of seriousness as a Hollywood or a British production. That is not a result of lack of reach as Indians have migrated to even El Dorado. It is similar to how the Hindi industry treats the Tamil industry.
Big budget is the new brand word. Big budgets mean quality – that is what is sold. The media is worried more about the budget of the movie than what its USP is. And that has carried over to the consumer as well. ‘Taare Zameen Par’ was a big hit; ‘revolutionary children’s movie’ – it was hailed. But the same public never even knew an even more revolutionary ‘Halo’ by Santosh Sivan because it was low budget. There are a million better examples of this but the point driven is the same.
However the purpose is not to promote sensible cinema watching or cut down on excessive expenses in cinema. As stated before, it is an entertainment industry and we draw what we choose from it.
I am a big fan of the Mithuns and the T Rajendars. Not just because of some comedy involved but because of the other thing that they are doing. Though they are not getting great movies out, they provide jobs to so many people who entirely depend on it for their frugal existence. Why is it so important to have a great fight in the movie even though it doesn’t add to the story in any way? The stuntmen and the doubles depend on it for their bread. Technology has pretty much limited the roles of extras, spot boys, doubles, make-up artists, art persons, set designers and makers, stunt men and such. You can be waving your hand in front of a blue screen and the final movie can show you as a great knight slapping an army of dragons. Low tech pavilions that remain – the Bhojpuri industry and the b-grade industries, T Rajendar, Joe Stanley and so many other grass root production houses are their last hope.
To conclude a post that could have taken lesser words to get across, I have always wondered why Kamal Hassan always had to have a car stunt in every one of his movies after the eighties (with the exception of a bare few) even though it never helped the plot. It provides employment. I have even heard that during the 1997-1998 Tamil industry strike, when a lot of the lower rung industry workers faced unemployment and poverty with nowhere to go to, he brought together a team to make a movie called ‘Kadhala Kadhala’ when went on to become one of his best comedy movies and gave a lot of jobs to these people while the actors’ guild refused to do something about the situation. Most of the actors and the top rung members of the movie did not draw anything for their work but passed on the entire sum to the ones who really depended on it. That’s probably why the movie had large numbers of extras going around doing nothing and most of the movie involved sets. Kamal Hassan has his heart in the industry. Mithunda and TR fall in the same league.


Anonymous said...

A little too serious for this particular blog on a subject that could've been made slightly less serious.A well thought out piece of work, definitely.

Bala Venkatakrishnan said...

the idea was to be serious...i guess i'm not humorous unintentionally...phew!

Sankar Deiva said...

In tamizh grammar, there is sumthing called the "vanjcha pugazhchi ani". Didnt knw u were so good with tamil grammar :)
brilliiantly written.
i still have a doubt regarding your actual taste with respect to movies. You hv hit goals left right and centre,analysed the "moral" ethical and "entertaining" qoutients of each, that i am still not sure for each of it has hit home.
(inbetween..did u take a dig at thalaivar??)

Bala Venkatakrishnan said...

depends on whom you give that title to, sankar... :D
but you're right...i've not hit home on any one of them because thats probably where my taste lies...very mixed and not too much of anything...

Anonymous said...

Well written article.