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Book Review

The Popcorn Essayists


SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | New Delhi, May 21, 2011 10:44
Tags : Book Review | The Popcorn Essayists | Cinema | society | Jai Arjun Singh |

Author: Many (Edited by Jai Arjun Singh)
Publisher: Tranquebar Press
Language: English
Binding: Hardback
Pages: 240
ISBN-10: 9380658353
ISBN-13: 978-9380658353
It is difficult to write about a subject whose basic definition is yet to take shape. In fact, cinema remains one of the trickiest things to define. A few greats attempted to give it a formal dimension but ended up contradicting each other big time—leaving the audience confused all the more. Jeanne Moreau, the talent-bomb who gave us and Jules et Jim courtesy François Truffaut, famously quipped, “I think it is the mirror of the world.” No problem ma’am. Point taken. The only problem is that the god-with-a-camera, Jean-Luc Godard, begs to differ. “Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.” Now if you leave something in such ambiguity, you are either inviting trouble or you are a genuine believer in a rainbow of ideas and interpretations.

We have read N number of essays by cinema greats who construct and deconstruct it. These essays offer brilliant insights into the mind of people who live this art form. It has varied effects of different sets of mind. For some, it is a guide towards acquired taste; while for others, it is a sure shot way to cloud the mind. But in the either case, what we manage to know is the viewpoint of people who know the art form and are actively involved in it in some ways or other.  What has been missing till now is a readable anthology on how it affects, dare I add, an un-cinematic mind. Jai Arjun Singh’s ‘The Popcorn Essayists’ offers that opportunity in abundance.

The book basically is an anthology of 13 essays by non-cinematic writers, or, to put it better, writers who don’t earn either their bread and butter from writings on or about cinema. The idea is brilliant. It is evident that Jai Arjun decided on a set of professional writers—and not commoner—because he didn’t want the writing to be handicapped by the loss of expression or genuine choice of words. However, he also wanted fresh, unclogged and unclouded perspective on the effects of cinematic medium, which a cinematic mind is unable to offer. The result, I must add, has been utterly satisfying.

The anthology starts with one of the most effective essays, ‘Jellyfish’ by Manjula Padmanabhan. The essay is sort of bildungsroman that talks about Manjula’s maturing views about direction and storyline. “As a pre-teen, I was amazed when my friends identified movies by actors in them. But I would be over twenty before I met people for whom the god-emperors of cinema were obviously and absolutely the Directors.” Wow! Isn’t that a story of almost every one of us? Directors get a raw deal till the time mind is appropriately trained to perceive director’s point of view as its own. It is not for nothing that Manjula gets a shock of her life when Kiran Nagarkar makes her realize that her view of a movie is essentially what the producers want her to believe.  “Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out,” quipped Martin Scorsese. Nagarkar only stripped the glamour out of that statement.

And Manjula learn the lesson really well. “Directors are bound to lie. Everything about feature films is an elaborate, sumptuous lie. The more you are convinced that a film is telling a certain kind of truth, the more skillfully the director has fooled you.” Acerbic and incisive.

On the other hand, Manil Suri, the daring mathematics professor who took the academia by storm by performing a cabaret, a la Helen, right in the middle of Brooklyn, of all the places on the earth, talks about his obsession with Helen and how it lead to his act. Manil shows a side of himself that is utterly unapologetic about its love for mainstream Hindi cinema. “I am not sure when I first saw Helen. It was still the golden age of Hindi cinema, when movies were the only form of entertainment for most families, the common thread that linked all strata of society.” In a single line, by calling it an agent of cohesion and a social leveler, Manil absolves the mainstream Indian cinema of all its guilt. It was about time somebody did that.

Kamila Shamsie’s deconstruction of ‘Wings of Desire’ takes us to the world where different art forms subtly melt the boundaries to imbibe each other. One discussion that will continue to linger upon is that whether cinema as a visual medium can ever match the magic of written words. In the war of the two, the latter has had convincing victory till now and even a die-hard cinema fan will tell you that more often than none, the cinematic medium ruins a novel when we try to mount a novel as a magnum-opus. Shamsie’s take on the issue appears more personal. “There is more similarity between the visual mediums of painting and film than between novels and film, and yet it is the latter pairing that has come to be seen as entwined.”

Of course, her assessment is open to interpretations. Michelangelo Antonioni’s brilliant cinematic piece ‘Red Desert’ is considered by many as a subtle interaction between painting and cinema. Every frame is so well painted that one is bound to agree with Shamsie’s assessment. But then, remarkably opposite is the case of ‘Gone with the wind.’ The novel was dismissed as a lumbering bore inter-personal assessment of the civil war till Victor Fleming decided to give it a fresh lease of life. When you read a novel, you are free to create your own imageries. And that imagery varies from person to person. But when a director mounts that story, what you are required to confirm is his imagery. How close your imagery has been to his decides whether you liked that adaptation or not. I have met several people who felt let down by Godfather’s cinematic adaptation, at least initially. While it grew upon slowly on most of them, a few have refused to shed their ground.               

Equally brilliant, if not more, is Anjum Hasan’s piece on Aki Kaurismaki. Anjum’s analysis of the use of silence in Kaurismaki’s films is an essential read for everybody who mistake pretentions as independent cinema in India. So much newsprint has been wasted on the so called emergence of cerebral independent cinema that I don’t want to make anybody yawn by adding a single line. It’s just that I cannot help but remember a great sound-bite by Oliver Stone. “Forget the grand plan. Forget the master scheme. Forget control. That is the bleak but true basis of independent cinema. Inch by motherfuking inch we must, because we have no other choice.” Kaurismaki’s cinema imbibes all that a much more. India, sadly, is yet to see that kind of enlightenment.

But my favorite remains Amitava Kumar’s obsessive take on Manoj Bajpai and his character of Bhiku Mhatre in Satya. The film had jolted Kumar big time like everybody with a head on his shoulder. Almost a decade and a half after its release, Satya remains a cult movie—a movie that dared to show Mumbai as it should have been shown long ago. It marks the emergence of new energy, fresh perspective. Directors like Karan Johar and Yash Chopra cannot show Mumbai in a manner somebody like Ram Gopal Varma or Anurag Kashyap are able to show. There is a fundamental difference in the manner both these sets of people perceive the city. People who grow up in a city tend to take an inward view, a view restricted by their years of living amidst walls. And that is oh-so evident in their frames. When Johar or Chopra wants to show outdoors, they prefer going out of the country itself. On the contrary, a relative outsider captures the energy, the ethos better. Anurag’s vision of Mumbai, hence, will be expansive and all-inclusive. And so is Bajpai’ portrayal of Mhatre. Together, they have been able to capture than raw energy that moves the city of dreams.

Kumar dwells in the persona of Bajpai and identifies with that portrayal. That anybody as important as him will dedicate an entire essay on a man who seems to have lost in oblivion, is an example that the thinking of a common cinema fan is tangential to that of a cinema expert. I so wish that guy to make a well deserved comeback. I don’t want this essay to become his professional epitaph. I’ll wait at least for the proverbial swan-song.

The Popcorn Essayists is an essential buy. Not all the essays are engaging, but at least a majority of them will make you stop and ponder. You’ll end up being happy when your own take on cinema matches with even one of them.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017