Mahesh Narayanan On The Illusion Of Single-Shot Films

The director, in an exclusive session on FC Front Row, talks about the genius of the Oscar-winning Birdman and the psychology behind certain commonly-seen shots in Indian films
Mahesh Narayanan On The Illusion Of Single-Shot Films

Alejandro González Iñárritu's Oscar-winning Birdman successfully captured a trick not many films can master. With ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in the helm, the film managed to look like a single-shot movie, without actually being one. Director Mahesh Narayanan – whose last film Malik opened with an epic 12-minute single-take shot – had an exclusive interaction with Baradwaj Rangan on FC Front Row, as they spoke about the risks of single-take shots becoming gimmicky if not well-planned, the genius of Birdman's cinematography, and the psychology behind certain commonly-used frames in Indian cinema.

Edited excerpts:

Baradwaj Rangan: Film is a medium of illusion. The idea is to communicate to the audience what you want to say. But when you see a film like 1917, which is publicized as a single-shot film, do you think it detracts somewhat from the enjoyment of the film? Do you think it becomes a gimmick sometimes?

Mahesh Narayanan: That definitely happens. Take the film Taxi (2015), by Jafar Panahi, for instance. It's from a dashboard camera and it's very simple. In that manner, all the passengers who are coming and going, are interacting with the director himself. The director himself is also an actor. It's the director's perspective through a camera kept there. People are always interacting with him and the politics of the region, is being shown through the entire film. 

Sometimes, it will misfire. Sometimes, we attempt a single shot and we miss out on certain emotions. I've witnessed it myself. For example, in Malik, in that single take – there are a lot of incidents, I didn't have the patience to reveal it slowly, but later, my friends told me, "After 3-4 watches, we understood what happened there." It was all rather quick. The audience should be given enough time to settle in and to grasp the film. That's the beauty of Birdman.

In Birdman, the first three shots are not single shots. The first thing we see is a shooting star, which represents Riggan's (Michael Keaton) mind, like he's some kind of a superhero, and another thing is the dead jellyfish instance. This is what he explains at the end: he has attempted suicide once after having a fight with his wife on their anniversary and has gone to the Malibu beach. He tries to move into the ocean but accidentally the jellyfish comes and he's lying there. He lies to his wife, saying that it is a sunburn.

I think those two moments were actually from his life. I loved the way Iñárritu framed the film, saying that the core line of the film is, "I don't exist". It is about an existential problem: Where do I exist? In that manner, cut to that shot where he does that yoga pose without a chair. So there is a magical realism coming straight into the film. And it's moving slowly, it's not like you've been given too much information in one particular scene. That's why I feel this film is like a textbook.

Rope (1948) is also an example. Alfred Hitchcock's films are always slow-burn kind of films. When we look at Rope, we move slowly through the film. The act has been done, the killing has been done, but they are going to treat it like nothing happened. The cuts are evident, because at that point, there was only so much technology available.

But often, these exercises fail. The only thing is, how well you understand the medium, and the purpose of a single-shot needs to be defined. In that manner, I feel Don Palathara's Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam (2020), Taxi or even Victoria (2015) are correct examples. And all these films are real-time films. But Birdman is not a real-time film. There are two rehearsals and one performance. That means there are 3 or 4 days of events within it.

BR: I feel that the Malik scene is working for one simple reason. First of all, it is a dense film. There's a lot going on. I think the important question is this: is the shot emotionally correct? Is there an emotional meaning to that shot? For me, there is. I feel like I'm in that house, in that feast. And I'm strictly being taken around the place. The camera becomes the audience. I get distracted when someone moves the camera without reason.

Many Indian films or even foreign films do an establishing shot with the camera moving down to up or up to down. Let's say there is a house, they will never have a still shot for that, they'll move the camera vertically/horizontally. What is the reason for that?

MN: I don't think there is a specific reason for that. But what you mentioned earlier is correct: we need motivation to move the camera. For example, when a person is placing a gun or trying to snatch something from a guy, when his hand moves, the camera will move. When one person is getting up from one place, the camera has the motivation to move. When you're showing still objects or natural frames, establishing things, sometimes, people will feel that these are 'cinematographer shots'. You take a shot, then see what it becomes. Sometimes, there will be a huge pan. 

But even if you see a film like Kaala (2018), which has got geography, or Nayakan (1987) too – they show the slums and they show a house. There is a comparison. There is movement in terms of geography; a contrast. Other than that, there is no purpose in doing a tilt down shot from the sky, until and unless, it is a sunrise/sunset or day/night transition. Moving the camera is the filmmaker's choice ultimately.

BR: I spoke to some cinematographers about this. They said that the directors are very scared of two things: the first one is silence (they always want to give the audience background music), and the other is stillness. They said that they want to capture a still shot. But the director said, "Give me pan. I want to have some kind of movement all the time so that the audience doesn't feel restless."

MN: That can be a reason. We think of films as theatrical experiences. In a theatre, when things are flowing well in terms of dialogue and actions, when people see a still frame all of a sudden, they feel odd. Cinematographers also have this notion that if it's a still image, the editor will apparently keep it for 3-4 seconds, that's what I've heard from cinematographers. If it's a tilt down, they can't cut it.

There is actually visual beauty in it; some golden light coming in. These shots are taken in the correct light, with no actors involved in the frames. And probably, it's the best moment they could capture. Apparently, they have to end up in the film in the same way. If it's a still frame, it will end up as a 3 or 4 second shot.  As an editor, I have had experiences where I have chopped off this moment and used only 3-4 seconds.

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