It might help if we first arrive at a definition of ‘filmy’. In my mind, anything that is clichéd or predictable is filmy. Real life and films are different kettles of fish. Life, when shown as life is, can never be filmy. Crazy things might happen to you. You might even say, “Yeh toh bahut filmy ho gaya”, but you’d never question that experience. In cinema or any creative enterprise, the challenge is simple – show something that hasn’t been shown before or show it in a manner that’s wholly new.
Let’s take, for instance, the recent film The Secret Life of Pets. You’ll find that most animation films have the same template, most of them are formulaic. Once in three years you might have an Inside Out or a Toy Story 3, but the rest simply adhere to a similar format. Some animal suddenly vanishes and then there is this typical long chase. Yet we feel that these films coming from Hollywood are not as filmy as ours. The assumption does justify itself because that same story is told in different ways.
‘In Dum Laga Ke Haisha, we attempted a cliched and filmy song. The lyrics were a tongue-in-cheek comment’
In Hindi films, repetition is perhaps a little more obvious. A good example of this is the word ‘dil’ and the frequency with which it appears in Hindi film songs. In the songs of the 50s, you’ll find a constant metre and the same somewhat simplistic lyrics. Words like ‘dil’, ‘pyar’ and ‘jigar’ are employed often, but none of these songs seem as filmy as songs of the 90s because by the 90s, these words had lost their currency. Use the word ‘dil’ in a song today and you’ll never escape that tag of ‘filmy’.
In Dum Laga Ke Haisha, you will find that I’ve used the word ‘dil’ in one song – ‘Tumse mile dil main utha dard karara’. The intention here was to spoof the songs of the 90s. We were attempting a clichéd and a filmy song. The lyrics weren’t simply an imitation. They were a tongue-in-cheek comment on the words themselves. Finally, though, the song seemed fresh. This was a task because the easiest way to be filmy is to repeat that which has come before, and I never want to be clichéd.
It is impossible to make a cliché convincing. A single cliché can undermine all your work. The minute you use one, you are bracketed into a space that is already crowded. If I get labelled as someone who writes only for the hinterland or for indie films alone, I do not have a problem because that space is not so densely populated. There are only a few people there. It’s also easier to shed that tag. But if you’re branded clichéd, commercial and mainstream, you’ll never escape the crowd. My only ambition as an artist is to stand and walk alone. I want to be unique, even at the cost of success.
Something clichéd or overtly filmy is also easy to produce. I remember a meeting I had with a producer, director and music director. The music director was asked to play a song on his guitar. Once he was done, I was told, “Likh do!” I usually take three or four days to just listen to a tune. The writing comes after. The 12 songs of Gangs of Wasseypur took me two years to write. I was given seven to eight months for Dum Laga Ke Haisha. And here I was, being given a half hour and an empty room to write. They were shocked at my inability. Their logic was that ‘Hookah Bar’ was written in an hour. Now I don’t like ‘Hookah Bar’ and I certainly don’t want to write something like it.
‘In Tridev, your reaction is ‘teenon hero mar gaye’, but then they all miraculously return from their graves’
Think of a film like Tridev. When we arrive at the interval, all three heroes are dead. They have been buried alive. Your reaction is ‘teenon hero mar gaye’, but then they all miraculously return from their graves. The filmmaker follows a simple logic – ‘I just want to do it’. The writing here is filmy and so is the execution, but the film is unapologetic. I, though, am still apologetic about two moments in Masaan. A child finds the same ring that was thrown by Deepak who is played by Vicky Kaushal. And then Deepak co-incidentally happens to be there when they bring back the body of Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi). While writing these scenes, I realised that they were very filmy and I’m still not entirely convinced by them, but then it was the job of the director and the actors to make it less filmy. When watching the film, however, my reaction was, “Yeh bahut filmy ho gaya.” It’s convoluted and you do it for effect. It’s like showing a magic trick, but you are also showing the mechanism behind the trick.
Danny Boyle, in Sunshine, explores the improbable concept of travelling to the sun in a spaceship
The audience always wants big magic. You’re showing the impossible. The magician isn’t really cutting a girl in two halves, but it is now up to the magician to show that most unconvincing thing in a manner that’s convincing. Consider, for a moment, the 2007 Danny Boyle film Sunshine. Anyone who has been to school will know that it’s impossible to travel to the sun in a spaceship, but the filmmaker, like the magician, crosses that bridge by being technically superb. The audience already wants to be taken to the other side. Unlike the West, audiences in India don’t care much about craft. They will detect loopholes in narratives but not in technique. They’re happy accepting what is given.
When you think about it, you realise that all of Maine Pyar Kiya hinged on a pigeon. If that pigeon had not hit Mohnish Behl in the eye at just the right moment, Bhagyashree would have been dragged away and she’d have died. And then you have Tuffy the dog who saves the day in Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! In both these films, animals intervene at a point when the audience wants the film to end. When you have suffered enough, you are desperate enough to be happy with any miracle. Over three hours long, these films earned that desperation. Even for me, it was perfectly normal for an animal to solve a crisis that none of the 30 or 40 characters in the film could. If looked at intellectually, Sooraj Barjatya’s films are all about the great Hindu family, and that idea of ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbakum’ is personified brilliantly. Everyone is the same – animals, props and humans. These films of course belonged to an era where B-films co-existed with the mainstream. It really was normal for animals to come in and perform such magic. I was 14. I readily bought Tuffy’s awareness.
‘In Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!, an animal solved a crisis that none of the 30 or 40 characters in the film could’
I believe the filmy and the non-filmy will always co-exist. Neither filmmakers nor their viewers have a problem with it. Being filmy is convenient and there’s no real need for anyone to not push it out.
A still from Masaan
For those who want to make films like Masaan and Thithi, there’s an incentive which comes from their sensibilities, but this incentive is not provided by the market or the audience. Even in Masaan, I had succumbed to filmy convenience twice. Polishing those edges was up to us. We’re still a decade away from a point where the employment of filmy will be ironical. Creators may be evolved enough, but the audience needs to have a sense of humour that’ll accept films which are tongue-in-cheek. In the end, however, we must stop and ask – “Agar filmein filmy nahin hongi, toh aur kya filmy hoga?”
(As told to Shreevatsa Nevatia)