“Why not some mellow drama ? ” wonders Subrat

Posted: January 11, 2011 by moifightclub in bollywood, cinema, Special
Tags: , , , , ,

Subrat, who ? If you know him, great. If not, Kartik Krishnan has an intro for him – He is The Guru-Mahaguru encyclopedia of film knowledge, pop (and other) culture, literature connoisseur from the Raymond Chandlers, Oscar Wildes to Ibn-e-Saafis, and expert on music, quizzing, food & alcohol (One would think in that order). Unlike most professors, his musings on cinema are non pedantic and yet rich with layers of subtle meaning (and humor). And as he says himself – he’s more a consumer than producer of creative output. He’s even introduced us to two of his legendary colleagues. Prof ATM Yadav – whom KRK so shamelessly copied saying , “Yadav kabhi Bhikhari nahi hota, hamesha raja hota hai raja“. And Prof Arthashastri. We do hope to see both of them soon. And if you thought that’s all the man does, his day job has nothing to do with any of his aforementioned passions.

Woohoo! Quite a long one! And since the intro has managed to over-hype the author, please read on….

It was an opening sequence that filled me with dread. A tiny sapling being planted into the soil by a female hand soon to be trampled over by an insensitive passerby. Was this “Rabbit Hole” or will I now espy a Guru Dutt sprawled in a park morosely observing the world go by? Is this Pyaasa with the oft talked about symbolic opening sequence of a bee hovering over flowers in an ‘all’s well with the world’ sort of a manner till a surprisingly careless foot precisely squashes it away? Thankfully, that was a minor aberration in Rabbit Hole as it went on to depict a heartrending yet understated story of loss and longing. Pyaasa, on the other hand, for all its hallowed position in the classics of Indian cinema, would go onto show an overwought story of poet who riles against this soulless world with barely a nod to subtlety barring Sahir’s poetry. Maybe I am being harsh to Pyaasa. In my opinion it was the subtler of the Guru Dutt films and it showcased his limited acting abilities rather well. The rest of Guru Dutt ‘tragic’ oeuvre has often left me wondering. When it comes to raw display of emotions, why do we love going over the top and then staying there. As the lawyer pleads NOKJ – kab tak chhat pe rahega. Ab to neeche aaja.

And, this is Guru Dutt – widely held to be one of our more understated filmmakers.

I have lost my appetite for melodrama. As more life happens to me (as opposed to I seeing more life), I realize nothing dramatic happens in ordinary life. And, nothing dramatic happens in things around ordinary lives. The background score to our lives is the drone of the whirring fan above our heads. You will be lucky to discern melody there if you hear closely and start humming to it. But, trust me, there’s no Salilda doing an Anand in that drone. But, why has this discovery eluded our filmmakers who claim to show ordinariness in our lives? Or, why do we as audience love melodrama so much that it is a ‘fix’ we need in every movie watching experience?

These are questions that crop up in my mind as I see the audience reactions around me on No One Killed Jessica. Admittedly, the film fell short of my expectations – an inconsistent screenplay, an over the top Rani and a poor supporting cast. However, what surprised me was the commonest reason cited for disappointment – the way the movie closed. Apparently, there wasn’t enough drama; a spectacular last reel of monologue, rousing emotions and the deliverance to all of us who invested our emotions in Sabrina.

We must love melodrama dearly to expect such a denouement and then be bitter about not finding it. Why do over the top portrayals win our hearts and then the awards? How does one bear Rani Mukerji in Black? Or, why should the last sequence of Sadma be so iconic? In my mind it spoils an, otherwise, remarkably restrained film. Or, take Dilip Kumar’s shtick through the decade of the 60s. How was it great acting? And, since I am getting these things off my chest, let me not forget the cringeworthy Karishma throwing stones into the lake while cursing her creator in Dil To Pagal Hai and finding a Filmfare and a National Award being thrown at her in return for display of such histrionics.

The reason I am often given is a version of ‘we are like this only’. That we love our emotions, the rona-dhona and our movies reflect them. I find this hard to accept. Firstly, we are not the most emotionally expressive race. I am sure the Italians, Spaniards or the Latinos will concur. Secondly, the arts that precede filmmaking like theatre and literature hardly betray any signs of our future love affair with melodrama. Read Premchand, Tagore or even the relatively pedestarian Devdas (that marker in melodramatic history of Hindi cinema). You will be surprised by the restraint, by what’s left unsaid. Even the early years of Hindi cinema rarely had the protagonist declaiming for long periods on social ills or the mythical mother with her gajar ka halwa.

So, where did we go wrong? I don’t know. May be the answer lies in the transformation of Dilip Kumar from a genuine brooding actor in intense portrayals in the early 1950s to a caricature of the ‘tragedy king’ that lazy directors made out of him in the 1960s. Is it any surprise that the most restrained of the directors of that era, Bimal Roy, didn’t direct Dilip Kumar after late 50s? And, once you had accepted Gunga Jumna, Dil Diya Dard Liya or Aadmi as great dramatic performances, how far is Rajendra Kumar banging the door down in Dil Ek Mandir and Manoj Kumar grating on and on about Indian culture in Purab Aur Paschim. Follow that linear process and you will reach Sunny Deol with a handpump and Shah Rukh Khan’s quivering lips in Devdas. And,eventually, to the million TV serials where each emotion is amped up a million times with the camera going berserk being lapped up by millions of us.

There have been signs of improvement though. Movies like Johnny Gaddar, Oye Lucky, Kaminey and, lately, Udaan, all had great drama without going over the top. Just as I was letting a sigh of relief, I find everyone around me sorely missing that dramatic closure in NOKJ. And, then I saw the Ra.One poster. Out went subtlety through the window.

  1. kartik says:

    super read Prof Saab….but too short 😦
    Why did the similarity in the opening sequences of Pyaasa & Rabbit hole not occur to me ? Bow to Thee.
    And at the cost of being melodramatic – Kab tak chhipa rahega Subrat. Ab toh aur likhne lag jaa

  2. Honhaar Goonda says:

    Mahabharat?! Ramayan? Etc are the reason why our cinema is all melodramatic. And why people love it.

  3. moifightclub says:

    Pyaasa and Rabbit Hole is a sooper catch. Also, was waiting eagerly that you will mention the last sequence of Rabbit Hole somewhere. Damn biutiful and smart one.

    Firstly, we are not the most emotionally expressive race…Naah, don’t agree with it. Have realised that the way we express our emotions also changes with class, education and lot of other factors. My fav comparison is between european cinema (nothing specific but in a generic way) and bollywood – it’s much like our food. Bread, bland and baked or curry. May be, what we eat, we express in same way 😉

  4. George says:

    I think we are quite an emotionally expressive rays… i fail to see restraint in our society … death, birth, religion, politics ….I think the whole argument is the other way around …i wud sure love to see some restraint atleast in cinema cause i am fed up of the melodrama in real life.

  5. Subrat says:

    KK, moifightclub: some other day for the last scene in Rabbit Hole. Food differences is an interesting reason but then Thai films would be the most melodramatic and within India, Nagaland would be making weepies courtesy the bhut jolakia.
    Gundaa: The original Ramayan, Mahabharat or the TV versions that we have seen?

  6. Indraneel says:

    Ah Subrat! What bliss for the senses that you are back again.
    Subtlety or the lack of it has been lamented upon by many a stage or cinema artiste. I remember Vijay Tendulkar distinctly as he lamented that when wrote “chup! Adalat zaari hai! in Marathi, he did not visualize the loud acting it underwent in Hindi and Bengali later. Neither did he want Sakharam Binder to be so violent on stage. But actually those transitions brought in the taalis. And commerce was based on appreciation.
    Let me go to Govinda, the epitome of high pitch acts. He was subtle with his gestures for I think the first two scenes in Ilzaam and the zoom! For the next decade and half he kept doing a consistent high pitch version of Bachchan and carried away film after film. The one subtle film, a version of Godfather, that he tried, sank without a trace. We lost what would have been a great actor otherwise in the mould of a certain Sanjeev Kumar.
    We all know what the famed Sanjeev Kumar could have done and was made to do!

  7. kartik says:

    Prof saab – Out of curiosity, how would you rate Requiem for a Dream on the scales of melodrama? Because technically every cinematic trick is used to ‘amplify the emotion’ ?

    But isn’t that what a director’s job ? To use tools & try and make it dramatic. Ok ok but where do you draw the line from dramatic to melodramatic ? Any hard & fast rules ? Because to be very honest till date the last scene of Sadma & Pyaasa didnt seem melodramatic to me. And now after reading your post I tend to agree to you 🙂

    That way even in the subtlest of all scenes in the film – when either Aaron eckhart or Kidman are silently crying, putting a background score may seem melodramatic – say to a guy who is accustomed to the absence of background score in films (or a french cinema lover)

    So how do you be objective and realize what is what ? How much is cinematic and how much is melodramatic ?

  8. Vikas says:

    q is – Why did you go to watch NOKJ (trailer ke upar likha to tha bade bade aksharo mein – MELODRAMA).

  9. arijit says:

    Nice post…however, I don’t necessarily agree that melodrama is bad and should be banished from cinema…maybe the way it is used without any though in Hindi cinema is bad…Guru Dutt might not be understated but that doesn’t make him a bad filmmaker…Even Raj Kapoor has sometimes used melodrama to good effect. Both “melo (meaning music in Greek)” and “mellow” drama are essential for cinema. It is a question of style and what treatment the story requires (according to the director). BTW, NOKJ is another example where too much of melodrama (especially in the second half) of the film has overcooked what might have been a very good outing because the first half without being OTT was quite dramatic and gripping…

  10. Fatema says:

    @Kartik – The difference between drama and melodrama is simple. The latter is exaggerated emotion that may or may not be true to the moment and the former is heightened emotion of the moment. (and IMO the ending in Sadma or Pyaasa do not seem melodramatic to me in itself but maybe it is the ‘subtlety’, ‘understated-ness’ of the whole film that kidna makes it seem so.)

    Interesting observations about yester-years cinema Subrat. It brings one to examine the change in the very definitions and seives through which we veiw and appreciate ‘acting’.

    I have grown up on tales and tales of how great Dilip Kumar and Guru Dutt are, mum being a HUGE fan of former and dad of latter. Like you say, I’ve always found both, shall I dare say, a bit melodramatic (and GD over-rated)…Same with Meena Kumari, even in Saheb Bibi aur Ghulam…that brand or style is difficult to relate to for me. And going by how easily they lend themselves to parody, it is the same everywhere. But that it the present times which does not appreciate/relate to that brand anymore. Moreover, its interesting to note how my dad talks of their acting in terms of ‘real’ and so on.

    I don’t think melodrama needs to be explained, justified or rationalised. Its a perfectly valid means of creative expression in itself and probably will always be interesting to engage with. (Even with the R.A. One’s of the world :)) I guess its just the conjunction with the context it comes with, its own honesty of portrayal and a certain level of self-reflexive naturalness would make melodrama more palatable and acceptable in our times. Having said that, as long as melodrama doesn’t try to sell itself as something else, its ok I guess.

  11. Fatema says:

    About the emotionally expressive race, I would tend to agree with you. We are an emotionally loud race, and that does not automatically translate to expression. Also the emphasis on restraint in our culture make us a little skewed with crying and wailing being acceptable but the real emotions being wrapped up and hidden under layers of social formalities and what looks good or not. Besides, the very discomfort of expressing and the awkwardness with it, of course.

    At mfc – Don’t think it’s got to do with race and class. The loudness yes, but the actual expression, no we are the same everywhere. Emotionally confused and most of the times choosing what looks good, should be done than what we really feel.

  12. V.P.Jaiganesh says:

    Coming from TN, I can vouch for melodrama. subtlety is for college kids whispering to each other when a professior is writing on the board for us. Our movies right up till 70s were stage plays shot and played back in silver screen. A Hero holding back has to “throw up” in the end. A silent hero taking all the stabs on chest without complaint has to have a mother who has to “blow up” her ” mamta ka jwalamukhi” at ungrateful sisters and brothers. Our actors’ vehicles were always missing the gears 1 to 4. Yet, the performance our actors offered were like some kind of drug. The swagger of sivaji and his diction and baritone were so intoxicating that he kept peddling the same drug movie after movie and we kept consuming them forever. Even now his movies enjoy awesome reception , generations since those movies were originally lapped up as cultural treasures. Came 80s and we found that our actors had no engines , let alone gears to control the output. So we asked the director and the music director to tune up the “drama” . Close ups went out of the window – It was more like a shadow puppet show with a lot more “symbolic shots” – all to infuse drama which the actors could not provide any more. I am not arguing in favour of “more melo drama”, just that with the right actor, it is all acceptable.

  13. […] established in the first 45 min, after that its purely one tharki budhdha after another. As Prof Saab said – “Pure mind fuck but no penetration”. Avoid. Allegedly an indian well […]

  14. […] Nick Krause, Shailene Woodley, Subrat Mohanty, The Descendants 0 And our favourite writer, Subrat is back. After many requests, much cajoling and few smses, he managed to sit down and write this […]

  15. […] blog, you surely know about Subrat. If not, you can read some of his old posts here, here, here and here. So as we all discussed Kahaani, we realised there’s more to it. And who better than our […]

  16. I feel we still have place for epics in our society and also a space for melodrama. I am not sure but I think all epics should have a hero who undertakes a great journey. It can be a physical journey like Ramayana or it can be metaphorical like the coming of age stories which portray ‘a hurdle to be crossed towards’ a preferred state of being (i.e. usually self confident adulthood, Hollywood coming of age stories are usually pop psychoanalysis) or nostalgia stories which invoke a ‘distant’ past (Notice the spatial words). But such journey’s can be present without melodrama e.g. Udaan has journey of a kid’s rebellion against his hyper masculine father.

    Movies trying too hard to be liked by all tend to have melodrama. It can be cathartic, even for people not used to Indian cinema. I had once screened K3G at my house for the sake of dissing it and also the Chinese friends knew just that name. I was shocked when one of the girls had moist eyes watching the movie which seemed cloying and laughable to me.

    I consider Guru Dutt great but the hyperbolic and ritualistic adulation towards him is sort of hypocritical. He was hailed as a genius only after West recognized him.

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