I recently attended the Mountain Echoes literary festival in Bhutan. It was an exciting, intimate gathering of writers, journalists and artists including the iconic dancer Sonal Manshingh, theatre doyenne Sanjana Kapoor and the first couple of Mumbai theatre – Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah. The largest panel at the festival had the two in conversation with Bhutanese actors and filmmakers. The Shahs spoke about cinema and why it needed to be more than entertainment, about why song and dance was formulaic and limiting – especially for fledging filmmaking industries like the Bhutanese, which are massively influenced by it. Naseer jokingly advised the Bhutanese contingent – you can always break a bad habit.
Which got me thinking about escapism in cinema, entertainment and especially song and dance. I’m actually a big lover of all three. Great films like great literature construct an elaborate lie to lead us to truth. They reveal to us, the essence of life. They widen our perspective and give us new ways to see the world. But sometimes, all we want is a diversion. The film critic Charles Taylor had written: if it’s reality you’re looking for, what are you doing at the movies. And that’s where The Meg comes in.
For those of you who missed it, The Meg is a silly, outlandish tale that has Jason Statham, playing the world’s best deep-sea diver, going up against a 75-foot prehistoric shark. In the climax, Statham, armed only with a spear, impales the Meg’s eye and does a gravity-defying leap into air, killing the monster. It’s flat-out ridiculous but also satisfying. And is that a bad thing?
I define entertainment as engagement. I want films that engage me – through drama or laughter or emotion or scares or stillness. In Indian cinema, songs are a tool of engagement. The best transport us. They further the narrative and showcase a heightened state of emotions. Movie songs permeate our life – they play at our weddings, parties, night clubs, festivals. Film songs are markers of events and emotions. I remember when the documentary Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, co-producer Shekhar Kapur spoke eloquently about how sophisticated the Indian audience was because they could accept the musical form. Viewers are unfazed when the action shifts to Switzerland for a romantic interlude and then back again.
I agree that cinema cannot and should not only be escapism and entertainment in the simplistic sense of the word (flashback here to Vidya Balan as Silk in The Dirty Picture explaining that films run only for three reasons – entertainment, entertainment, entertainment – and finishing with a wink and that deadly line – aur main entertainment hoon). But I don’t believe that escapism and entertainment and song and dance are bad words. We need them.
I read a wonderful interview of Ethan Hawke on www.filmstage.com in which he quoted John Cassavetes who said: There is no such thing as high art or low art, there are good movies and bad movies. Hawke added – The definition is: did the people who made it put their best love and ideas, did they work hard to complete what that thing is trying to be.
I believe that when Sanjay Leela Bhansali or Raju Hirani or Karan Johar make a movie, they put their best love and ideas into it. They work with passion and intent. Of course Bollywood makes too many terrible films – I know because I’ve sat through most of them, including the oeuvre of Sunny Leone. But to dismiss a film because it has songs or stars is simplistic.
I’m a greedy movie lover. I want it all – complex, personal cinema and the next over-the-top Rohit Shetty blockbuster. Because there should be no rules – in life or in the movies.