August 13, 2010
Intent and Imperfection
Aniruddha Guha (DNA) writes in his review of ‘Peepli [Live]’ that it ‘leaves you impressed but unaffected’. I read the fairly positive review, trying to find out whether Guha tries to diagnose the reason behind this impression he gets from the film. Perhaps he does. I’ll try to elaborate.
The film is a satirical take on the plight of poor farmers in modern India. The premise is extremely powerful, as it plays around, in a stark black comedy, the expected death of poor Natha. Sex and violence are the most affecting tools in cinema and it has been proved beyond doubt with the all-time success of Exploitation and B-films. And death of a human is as violent as it could be. Weaving a funny tale around it promises just the correct cinema experience. The problem here is that this merit of the film has already been known to us through its long and overt promotional campaign. I believe a film like this can have a much stronger impact if we watch it with no preconceived expectations and, more importantly, any idea about its theme and tone.
But this alone is not the problem with ‘Peepli [Live]’. In spite of brilliant performances, sharp and intelligent lines, and a different, ‘real’, and believable setting, there seems to be something missing. And that ‘something’, in my opinion is the mantra all screenwriting gurus insist on. I would like to name it: ‘Progression and Pace’.
After establishing the primary conflict of the film, the writer is supposed to take us on a journey. Not to a circus where we sit and wait for performers to exhibit their vibrant colours but to an active, involving journey of human emotions. Irwin Blacker brilliantly puts it as: “Plot is more than a pattern of events: it is the ordering of emotions.” To invoke the desired emotional response, the writer has to establish a serious ‘want’ for the protagonist – what exactly is at stake; the higher the stake, better the chance for drama. But to actually achieve drama, the writer needs to elaborate and enhance the conflict. Create obstacles in the path of the protagonist who is striving to achieve his dramatic need. These obstacles, preferably as harsh as they could be, and the protagonist’s efforts to overcome them is what makes drama affecting. His success or failure in doing so is hardly important. And this entire act of confrontation has be to crafted with intelligence and an acute critical eye, making sure that each scene takes the story forwards – it progresses from one plot point to the other with a definitive sense of purpose, remembering that each tree is important without losing the idea of the forest.
‘Peepli [Live]’ has the ‘want’ perfectly in place. But it lacks a purposeful progression of story through well-defined obstacles and attempts by the characters to overcome them. Also, the presence, and active involvement of such a large number of secondary characters causes the plot to meander, not meaninglessly, but diluting the force of the impact. There are sequences where it does work. But if you notice carefully, all those instances in the film are strong plot points and the scenes surrounding them are high on conflict-want confrontational drama. Of course, this is a very orthodox approach of writing films and the Quentin Tarantino school of cinema has always believed in defying such norms. If you are a genius, you can actually make a beautiful and affecting ‘circus-like’ film on a thin plot if you manage to create memorable characters and sequences, as Fellini did in most of his movies. But for all of us who are not Federico Fellini, and I think most are not, the conventional rule of ‘progression with a sense of purpose’ is the rule to follow.
This brings me to the ‘pace’ of the film. Contrary to the common notion, a film need not be ‘pacy’ to make an impact. It is attaining just the perfect pace suiting the mood of the film that matters. ‘Peepli [Live]’ has apparently too many things happening without actual progression of the story during the most of its hundred minutes. The story is stagnant, but the ‘events’ are happening hurriedly. So, we do not get time to think and feel the drama that is already minimal. The result is: we feel unaffected. The most affecting portion of the film unarguably is the final act. And I believe the best portion of this satirical film created in overtones is the final sequence, the denouement or the post-climax. Over the faces of Budhiya and Natha’s wife, lost over their bleak fate and ignorance about Natha’s reality, the camera makes an obvious meandering motion backwards. Kieslowski would use such camera movements to suggest some supernatural ‘eye’ looking at our characters. I could not help but feel the same as the camera pulls back and after a long journey through villages and towns reaches a modern city. Without a word more of dialogue or staged action, it presents before us the faces of numerous labourers working at a construction site. One of them is Natha. But who are the others? Aren’t all of these migrants from rural India – trying to survive in the inhuman loneliness of the polluted cities? One of them is Natha, and we have just witnessed his story. But wouldn’t there be similar, if not equally heart-wrenching, stories behind all of these helpless faces? There is so much conveyed during this entire closing sequence, so much of impact using a brilliant montage and camera. And although the closing title reduces it to a ‘fact’ about farmers in India who have left agriculture and spoils the understated brilliance of it for me, it still succeeds fairly. Notice that this entire sequence has only one strong dramatic reveal; otherwise it is just the stagnancy of its progression, or the ‘slow’ pace that generates such a strong emotional response in us.
‘Peepli [Live]’ in my opinion would work better in its repeat viewings, when you already know the story and understand its nature and limitations. It is then that the wonderful detailing and the ‘moments’ in its narration will make you smile. Its business story and importance, or the lack of it, in Hindi cinema history will always be worth discussing. But to understand the triumph of cinema, we need to keep these aside and assess the craft on its face value. The intent of a movie and the courage behind its making must be applauded if it deserves that. And after having done that justly, to really understand the cinematic achievement of it, the craft of the film should be analyzed, of course only if it is worthy of it. Perfection is not the prerequisite for great art, it is the stimulation that it provides to the audience is what matters. ‘Peepli [Live]’ does that, by not only making you think about the social issue it addresses but also, if you are interested, by inspiring you to diagnose the merits and demerits of its craft as a work of cinema. That, I believe, is enough of an accomplishment.