Book review: Dispatches from the Wall Corner - A book for movie lovers
DECCAN CHRONICLE | Sidharth Bhatia
A film reviewer’s job must be fun. Imagine watching all the films you want, sitting in judgment over the hard work put in by the director and others, dissing the stars and then, at the end of a well-spent three hours, slapping a few condescending stars which will help millions of readers make up their minds whether to watch it or not. And, on top of that, be paid for it.
Then there are film critics. They don’t just tick off the various boxes — performance, dialogue, camerawork, direction, locations — and give an assessment based on that. They peel off the film’s layers, look for motivations and try and understand the director’s mind. They don’t get too bogged down in matters of logic — we do go to cinema for three hours of entertainment, which pre-supposes a certain suspension of disbelief. Where the reviewer sees emoting — ACTING — the critic perceives honesty of portrayal, even agency. These are the writers whose critique we look forward to, even if we disagree with the conclusions.
Baradwaj Rangan is one of the latter. Where I live I do not get the newspaper in which he writes regularly, but thanks to the social media, I get to read him fairly often and marvel at how he gets the heart of the film, even if sometimes his views are totally different from mine. So when he says that Abhishek Bachchan can be "lip-smackingly good" in lighter roles but needs a good director to steer him in the more serious ones, I have to disagree, though I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest, as a reader did, that Baradwaj was on Bachchan Jr’s payroll. Yet, it is the critic’s fearlessness of being contrarian that is his great strength.
That and the fact that he loves movies. He is infatuated by them, by the scale, colour, stories and the sheer joy of being in the darkened hall, his mind working all the time, connecting the dots and casting back for references, not to trip up the director but to see the continuum. He doesn’t care if it’s trash — does it meet its objectives, is it true and honest to its intent and does it entertain. If it does, it must be taken seriously. There are some cinema fans who are obsessed with the titles, even staying back to see the last names in the smallest type — I suspect Rangan is one of those.
It shows in this collection of his articles and reviews — dispatches he calls them, as he if was out on the warfront. Some are dated, some, alas, for those who do not see Tamil films regularly, out of bounds, but much here is thoroughly enjoyable. The English daily wheels him in not just to write about current films but also general articles and obits and many of those are fun to read. I enjoyed his small piece on Joy Mukherjee, a name lost in the mist of decades gone by. He calls Mukherjee one of the first "dudes of the era", but also appreciates that Mukherjee, for all his limited acting chops and strapping chocolate boy looks, worked only because he came at a particular time — when that time faded and Rajesh Khanna emerged, there was no place for him.
An article on Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, the story of three rich, disaffected boys who go to Spain to nurse their hurt and find themselves — what happened to good old alcohol — shows that Rangan is not fooled by gloss. "The heft of a television commercial. The minor hiccups. The feel good fantasy. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara has it all." "The direction takes its cues from the Farhan Akhtar School of Arty Disaffection, where being subtle appears to be the same as being scared to disrupt the clean composition of a scene with messy emotion. At times, this results in frames so lifeless, so juiceless, you are not sure if you’re watching direction or art direction." This is what he had written for Rock On and this is what he thinks applies to Zindagi In short, Baradwaj can see through the phoniness of it all, even if it is clad in designer togs.
Baradwaj recognises that stars must remain stars and thus get a starry-showcase. After all, we do not want our stars to become totally unrecognisable and go too much against the grain. "That’s what Tamil masala movies do, even the ones featuring major stars. The hero is always a hero, and if this makes for a unidimensional monolith at the story’s centre, as least there’s never any confusion in the film’s (or the audience’s) mind." Equally, he rues that sometimes actors too obviously begin to act, i.e. take themselves too seriously. This, he thinks, is the problem with Kamal Hasan, who has lost his cool by wanting to make a profound statement in his roles.
There is much more, not to be read at a stretch, but to be dipped into off and on, and enjoyed. I do have a complaint though — occasionally the reader may want to know about those mundane things like camerawork and editing. And occasionally, just occasionally, his thoughts seem to be galloping away, his mind full of ideas, which can leave the reader breathless in trying to catch up. Still, give me this than all the starred-ratings in the world. These are pieces to be archived, which will tell future readers about the films that were made years ago. If you are a cinema buff, get this for your library already.
Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist and author, most recently of India Psychedelic