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Southern Lights: Inside/Outside

It's fascinating how an outsider watches a different film than one familiar with a culture

Baradwaj RanganBaradwaj Rangan

November 9, 2017 | 01:11 PM

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One phrase was used a lot in the reviews for the Tamil horror film, Aval, released last week. (Its Telugu version, Gruham, is expected soon.) While acknowledging its world-class technique (sound design, and so forth), there was a constant refrain of “for a Tamil film...” or “for the first time in Tamil cinema...” In this particular case, it was to point out how the film stood out from the way horror is typically handled in Tamil cinema, with a schlocky comedy track almost as loud as the jump-scare sound effects. Aval, on the other hand, was promoted as a “pure” horror film, which is what brought about those phrases in the reviews.

Is that enough? I am not talking about Aval, but about films in general. When I saw the Telugu romantic comedy, Pelli Choopulu, I found it sweet and pleasant (I’m a sucker for the genre), but hardly the earth-shattering rebirth of cinema I was led to expect. In fact, a few minutes in, I had to recalibrate my expectations to “is this film doing a good job of being a rom-com?”, as opposed to “is this film breaking all rules and giving me an experience I have never had before?”. Those initial expectations came from reviews and social media, where I kept hearing “for a Telugu film...” and “for the first time in Telugu cinema...”

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One part of this is surely the hyperbolic hype that makes films impossible to live up to what the publicity machine wants us to believe. But this is also about the outsider/insider divide that – among a thousand other factors – makes a thousand people view the same film a thousand different ways. I have always maintained that the reviewer (or even the viewer) has to have a switch inside the brain, which he/she is able to flip to the film’s genre (i.e. view the film through the lens of “what is it trying to do, and is it doing that well?) – but as an insider (in the case of Tamil cinema), I am also being coloured by a history that an outsider doesn’t possess.

One of the best “outsider” reviews I’ve read is the American critic Charles Taylor’s take (for salon.com) of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge

As I don’t have that deep-rooted history in the case of Telugu cinema, my viewing of Pelli Choopulu is inevitably going to be along the lines I view a rom-com from, say, Hollywood. But a rooted Telugu film viewer is seeing the film through the prism of a thousand older Telugu films that violated the rom-com genre with crude comedy tracks, overblown melodrama, perhaps even an action sequence or two – and so the low-key-ness of this film is a breath of fresh air, much more so than to a viewer of the film who comes at it from the outside.

ALSO WATCH: SAB JOHN INTERVIEW WITH BARADWAJ RANGAN | ONE FILM, ONE FACET | GUNA 

Of course, one has no control over the way one responds to art (or watches a movie, in this case). As a reviewer, I can only see where I am coming from. I cannot be expected to go through a crash course of Telugu cinema in order to get at this one aspect (which is why the outsider review of a film is sometimes fascinating, as he/she “sees” the film in a very different, and equally “valid” way; just look at the reviews of Hindi films done by Americans and Europeans, and you’ll know what I mean). And if this means I sound slightly less enthusiastic about Pelli Choopulu (I do love the film; still, “it’s a lovely, little rom-com” doesn’t sound as much of a rave as “ never-before experience”), then that’s more about me than the film itself.

One of the best “outsider” reviews I’ve read is the American critic Charles Taylor’s take (for salon.com) of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. He writes, “Within the most idealized of contexts -- the movie musical – [Aditya] Chopra insists on the unidealistic truth that life is never one thing or the other. He finds a way to honor romance while acknowledging the compromises that life inevitably demands.” It’s something I knew, of course, but had never quite articulated that way, because “compromise” is an aspect of Indian life we take for granted. Taylor’s review doesn’t change the way I look at DDLJ, but it makes me appreciate how the film isn’t the fixed entity from just my “insider” viewing, but a fluid experience that changes shape according to the mind of each person who sees it.