(I will be reviewing the film later, here I am just addressing the politics of the film’s reception)
Once again the Indian media has revealed it’s utter lack of literacy in cinematic matters. Once again we see the spectacle of bankrupt journalists (for the most part) doing a hatchet job on a film that deserves better. Once again we see for all purposes ‘hacks’ pretending to write film reviews without being equipped with any of the analytic tools or the film education that is necessary before one attempts this job. Once again we witness the politics of the box office being played out in reviews.
Whether Saawariya is a worthwhile film or not is not the relevant issue here. It is important that a film be critiqued for the right reasons. It is critical that a film be judged based on what it’s attempting to do. In any case pre-conceived notions of what a mainstream Hindi film ought to be cannot be germane to such a discussion. Whether Bhansali was smart enough or pragmatic enough to attempt such a subject, whether he was foolhardy or not releasing it in opposition to a much more mainstream and mass-oriented film is also a question that has nothing to do with the content of the film.
Unfortunately we’ve seen this farce being played out before and it was repeated once again with Saawariya. The film was royally ripped in most quarters for being the worst human enterprise since old Yudhishtira lost his game of dice! The critics in their obtuseness assumed that a film they couldn’t understand much less appreciate was by definition a poor work. Once they also realized the box office of this film would be questionable they immediately smelled blood and went in for the kill. Bhansali was mercilessly ridiculed for being too indulgent, not knowing how to make a film, and for Lagaan missing out on the Oscar! This man had shamed himself, his actors, and the entire industry.
Of course the audiences get the critics they deserve. Before one approaches a work in any art form one must be sure that one has the grounding to understand what exactly is happening with and in that work. Let’s take a quick example. I pay Satyajit Ray a certain amount of money to make a film in Hindi. I know very well that no market for Ray exists in Hindi cinema but I am a bit of a masochist who likes being flagellated by Messrs Adarsh and Nahata and the other dwarfs of the Bombay film media and decide to nonetheless go ahead with the project. Naturally Ray makes a masterpiece or at the very least a very fine film but it is also (also rather naturally in Bombay) a complete disaster at the box office (many of Ray’s films did well commercially in Bengal, perhaps this tells us ‘Hindi’ types something about those audiences). Does this mean that Ray has made a bad film or that he doesn’t know how to make a film. Does it mean that he’s a fool for attempting an artistic work because such attempts usually end up being box office failures?
All the cinemas of the world are littered with the names of films that were colossal failures in their age but were later recognized as great or at least important as artistic achievements. Where would half the great films in any industry be if box office criteria were used to judge all of them? Guru Dutt would not have made one masterpiece if the dictates of the Bombay media had been followed. Orson Welles would not have made a Citizen Kane if he were just serving studio interests. The history of cinema has many tragic tales of abortive projects and truncated careers. One is always wistful about what ‘might have been’ but one is also happy about what was nonetheless possible despite the draconian codes of all these industries.
I took a bit of a detour. But much as one likes to blame the hacks for indulging in such ‘self-important’ writing one has to accuse the audiences as well. There are very many silent masterpieces in cinematic history, there are very many great films in earlier eras that we are not exactly best placed to ‘receive’ as audiences if our weekly cinematic diet never rises above the Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Heyy Babyy bar. An audience that chooses to remain ‘infantile’ has only itself to blame. One does not reasonably expect general audiences to become connoiseurs of serious cinema much as one does not expect the general populace to be well-versed in Schoenberg’s anti-tonal methods. What one can expect and demand is a general sense of humility about one does not know. It is bad enough when audiences do not have this kind of sobriety, it is however unacceptable when ‘critics’ exhibit symptoms of a similar disease.
Any field of human endeavor requires a set of skills without which one cannot operate in that area. A specific medical knowhow is needed before one starts prescribing medication or opening up someone’s insides (assuming one is not in the business of torture). A different kind of expertise comes into play if one wishes to draft legal documents involving the purchase of a Boeing. I do not write pieces on a Ravi Shankar performance as I have no knowledge of raags and sitar playing. Similarly I do not send in my resume for an umpire’s position in cricket. In much the same way when one writes on a film in the position of an ‘expert’ an understanding of what one is writing about is a sine qua non. When this doesn’t happen a web of complacency and smugness is created. The readers or audiences cannot be educated and are unable to see the limited nature of their own understanding in the matter. Mediocrity reigns in such a system and films like Saawariya are always casualties.
To be more clear about this I am not ‘prescribing’ an education here for anyone who chooses to watch movies as entertainment. But I would insist on this for those who write on movies in media outlets or who have voices influential enough to be able to pass pronouncements on the same. As for the general audiences one is free to watch whatever one wants, one is also free to have one’s likes or dislikes. But one is not free to wallow in one’s ignorance. What’s the difference? I might not enjoy a Ravi Shankar performance as much as a Kishore Kumar song but I should also be aware that this is partly because I am not able to understand the true nature of Ravi Shankar’s art. Listening to the Bombay Vikings without an adequate understanding of music is radically different from listening to Zakir Hussein in the same circumstances. The loss is infinitely greater in the latter instance. I can enjoy Shakespeare greatly just following his plotlines and poetry but to get a greater sense of why he is so titanic a writer I would need to know something about poetic language in some very technical ways. I would need to know a lot more about other dramatic works and so on. It’s a tall order. Not everyone can do so and that’s fine. But if I read Hamlet for the first time and didn’t find it remarkable I would have to question my own position before anything else. Opinions are valid on any subject as long as these are ‘educated’ ones. I prefer Bach to Mozart but I do not offer this as a serious opinion. I am allowed that opinion. I am just not allowed to oppose it to Charles Rosen’s (a scholar on the subject).
It might be protested that I am overrating Bhansali. That he’s not a Ray or a Bach or a Shakespeare. He doesn’t have to be. Not every musician is a Ravi Shanker, not every filmmaker is a Ray. But to the extent a filmmaker is trying something different or something serious he or she must be judged on those grounds. Antonioni is a great director in film history but only boring for the uninitiated. Years ago when I first saw the director’s L’Avventura I found it impossible to grapple with it or appreciate it in any sense. Today it’s one of my very favorite films. What’s changed? I have learnt a lot more about cinema in between.
Finally there is another disease that often afflicts journalists and audiences alike in the subcontinent. This is the tyranny of the box office. The idea that there is absolutely no connection between meaningful cinema and successful cinema is still a rather novel one. The answer to the question ‘how good is x film’ could be ‘x film is a flop’ with no lapse in logic perceived by the interlocutor! Again a film like Saawariya which does not seem likely to succeed at the box office suffers.
I shouldn’t just be blaming journalists and audiences. People associated with the film industry are also by and large as bankrupt and imbecilic in these matters. Farah Khan suggested in a recent interview that she found Manmohan Desai’s cinema ‘illogical’ even if enjoyable. Leaving aside the fact that one might find this judgment questionable, it is surely a bit absurd for the director of Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om to bring up notions of logic! In the same interview she cites Guru Dutt and Nasir Hussein and Vijay Anand as being more technically accomplished than Desai. One spots the Desai anxiety of course! But Nasir Hussein and Guru Dutt are about as much on the same plane in matters of ‘craft’ or ‘refinement’ as Bill Clinton is on the same plane with George Bush in terms of English grammar. Farah Khan then goes on to say that she doesn’t like remakes. One would have likes this opinion cited when Don released! That’s another matter though!
I am not just picking on Farah Khan. But a number of film ‘personalities’ in Bombay display this sort of smugness, ignorance, and plan idiocy.
But I have been defending Bhansali here even though I have never been a fan of his work as such. One ought to be able to separate one’s preferences from more objective evaluations. In some ways I have liked Saawariya more than any other film of his though I wouldn’t argue it’s his best film. It is though a better fit for his cinematic vision and interests than perhaps anything else he’s done. I will however address all of this in a separate piece on the film. But even if I thought the work poor I would have to criticize it on proper cinematic grounds.
Ultimately an ‘openness’ is required by an audience when encountering a different work. Every different attempt is not automatically a successful one but it might be an interesting failure. But one needs the right mindset for this. One needs to give oneself over to a work. There have been countless times when I’ve seen films, not liked these or not thought much of them, and then revisited the same after coming across a different and stimulating set of views. I have not always changed my mind but I have always been enriched my those new positions. If I have not liked a specific film more I have usually understood it better and I have certainly been enriched in my understanding of cinema. One can only learn to the extent that one is willing to be surprised by new opinions or new approaches. We are certainly free to only entertain ourselves by the Partner or Kal Ho Na Ho kind of film, there is no moral obligation to do any more. But this does not give us the right to dismiss any striving that seeks to be more than instantly disposable entertainment.
Bhansali must absolutely be defended. The way the game works most are laughing at him for not being able to accept his film’s failure. But the point he’s making is an important one and I don’t believe he has ever been pompous like a Vidhu Vinod Chopra to invite criticism on those grounds. But even were he pompous that would be beside the point. Since in any event he is head and shoulders above the writers who review his films or in most instances the audiences who watch them. It is amusing to see self-important audiences and journalists get offended by the same arrogance, real or perceived, in filmmakers!