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Hanging out at the movies

By Sreehari Nair
Last updated on: March 11, 2016 12:24 IST
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How do you even define a movie that primarily exists as an invitation to its audience -- an invitation to come and merely laze around with a set of interesting characters, asks Sreehari Nair.

A scene from the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski

IMAGE: The Big Lebowski compresses the Coen Brothers' characteristic nihilism into what can only be termed as a life of 'Bowling, White Russians and Search for the Perfect Seed.'

If in the middle of a super-inspirational, lump-in-the-throat-forming movie, you are overcome by a tremendous urge to have Caramel Popcorn and Diet Coke, do not berate yourself. You are not being impolite there; but just being elemental.

There is a typical pattern to inspiration being sought at the movies -- especially if you consider the people who seek it with full gusto.

Corporate honchos, for example, are most known to cite Gladiator and Top Gun as their favourite movies. This trend is in perfect correlation with how -- just a few years ago -- many of these bigwigs would immediately hold up The Alchemist as their favourite book.

Even when Corporate Top Bosses cite something like, say, The Godfather as a favourite movie it's because they see it as 'The Perfect Revenge Story'; about how Michael Corleone, systematically, gave it back to his enemies.

"I'd protect my Team like how Michael protected his Family," is the most preferred response to the Coppola film among the business community. In its perfectly distilled form, The Godfather teaches them valuable lessons in Corporate Score-Settling.

Ever asked any of these reputed people if they viewed The Godfather as essentially a 'tragedy', about how the ending scene with the door shutting out Diane Keaton was probably meant to profile Michael's descent into capitalistic madness?

A question like that and the honchos might roll their eyes in derision and direct you to the nearest available elevator (This article is, by the way, also a speed-guide on how to underperform in job interviews).

In contrast to The Godfather -- which at least the literal-minded can view as an exaltation -- I am sure, only a handful of these corporate figures would have anything positive to say about The Godfather II and I am doubly sure almost nobody would love a Taxi Driver or a Mean Streets. In fact, most of them would find these movies repugnant.

Repugnance, though, is alright for lesson-seeking movie-watchers; in that case, they have at least devised an outright rejection mechanism. What hurt these types the most are movies where they don't really see the 'point.' And when it comes to this particular class of movies, it's not like the honchos are alone in their contempt.

A scene from Barry Levinson's Diner.

IMAGE: The beat of Barry Levinson's Diner, for the most part, is just its lead characters chatting away at their favourite hangout place.

Excerpted below is a conversation (originally archived on a coffee shop tissue paper) that I had with an 'Artist' friend -- a struggling screenwriter; also an expert on Chandeliers, Global Monuments and Dog Tattooing:

"Nothing happens," my friend protested. "No shit but 'nothing' literally happens through the entire length of your Lebowski film."

"A story?" I asked -- slightly rebuking my own recommendation -- "A story? Is that what you missed?"

"Yes! A story."

"But what about the characters? There are interesting characters. Walter? Didn't you think he was interesting?"

"I don't go to the movies to 'Kick It.' Because, when I am watching a movie," explained my friend, his nostrils still clinging onto that perpetual flare, "When I am watching a movie, I am giving it 'my time.' And that is the time I want to invest into watching some real movement. Just a few laughs or interesting characters won't do. I want to feel. I want a plot. I want the characters to grow. And I want the characters' growth to inspire me. They should have goals."

"I want arcs. And I am open to thought-provoking ideas too. But I want (at this point he seemed to be searching for just the right phrase -- and it came) "ENTERTAINMENT PLUS ENLIGHTENMENT."

"I am not giving the movies my time just to spend more time at the movies."

Even as I knew there was nothing wrong about my friend's expectations, I at once realised that he was on the path to denying himself an unsaid pleasure of the cinema: The pleasure of just 'hanging out.'

No lesson learning. No chest swelling. No expanding of the mind. Only aimless loitering that somehow brings you closer to a certain set of characters and certain worlds.

By not conforming to the established three-act structure and keeping it really loose and weightless, what The Big Lebowski did was compress the Coen Brothers' characteristic nihilism into what can only be termed as a life of 'Bowling, White Russians and Search for the Perfect Seed.'

Every time a new character randomly showed up in Lebowski, the Coens zoomed into his/her life. And each time we went deeper into a specific rabbit-hole, the directors abruptly scooped us out.

'Ok fellas, we have a plot to take care of here.' The plot was just a ruse; it's the characters in Lebowski who held all the power.

The recently released Malayalam film Maheshinte Prathikaram (The Revenge of Mahesh) too expects its audience to just 'hang out' while unloading one interesting character after another and letting one small-town issue segue into something equally trivial.

To counterbalance its obvious lack of plot, the movie places a mythical revenge story at its centre. But the characters in Maheshinte Prathikaram -- none of whom work around the comfort of a prefab architecture -- are a lot more interesting and fully formed than the central story and they take over the story completely, exposing the smallness of the plot in the process.

The world of Mahesh is so intricately designed -- like how Tolkien would carve out his geographies -- that even when these characters pop in and out at their own convenience, we still don't lose their individual threads.

In a half-scene, an emaciated, bed-ridden lady asks her granddaughter to pass on a piece of jackfruit and that's probably the only time we see her. But later when informed that the old lady has died, we feel like we've lost someone we knew.

A scene from Padmarajan's Thoovanathumbikal (Dragonflies in the Spraying Rain)

IMAGE: Thoovanathumbikal today enjoys the reputation of a once-neglected Cocteau piece and despite all the associations that the movie gives off, it is essentially the story of its lead Jayakrishnan bound by a cross-section of fluttering characters -- all given their due dignity.

Back in 1987, another Malayalam film, Padmarajan's Thoovanathumbikal (Dragonflies in the Spraying Rain), had also arrived with an invitation to just show up and laze around.

The movie -- an average grosser at the time of its release -- has today become a hot, cult favourite in the order of a neglected Cocteau piece.

There are blog posts analysing the movie's philosophy -- which I must confess is 'charming' in an oblique sort of way -- its themes, its background music and the recurring motif of rain.

And yet the movie, I think, is essentially the story of its lead Jayakrishnan (played by Mohanlal) bound by a cross-section of fluttering characters -- all given their due dignity.

The characters in Thoovanathumbikal, much like Truffaut's Jules and Jim, seem so vivid and unmovie-like because they make up their own sense of morality as these movies go on. And it's this convenient bending of morality -- this complete lack of emotional security that lesser movies often grant -- that shocks us and motors our interest.

A scene from Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim.

IMAGE: In Truffaut's Jules and Jim, it's the convenient bending of morality -- this complete lack of emotional security that lesser movies often grant -- that shocks us and motors our interest.

In Jules and Jim, Jeanne Moreau's Catherine flirts, marries, commits adultery, and remarries before killing herself and her lover. But it's in the way the movie generously lets us into her world and those around her -- without holding judgment -- that we come to enjoy the constantly fermenting relationships and talks that all seem 'overheard' -- and sometimes even 'plain.'

Plain, yes! The spirit of these 'Movies for Hanging Out' can never be discovered in grandness. On the other hand, their charm is gleaned from small conversations and moments mentioned in passing.

Barry Levinson made Diner almost entirely from the overlapping conversations that happen between a set of friends living in Baltimore.

The beat of the movie, for the most part, is just its five boy-men characters talking away at their favourite hangout place.

And what do they talk? About how professional football trivia can be deployed to decide whether or not a marriage proposal is a suitable one, the confusing texture of the word 'Nuance' and Frank Sinatra.

Do note that the stories of the pro-hanging out movies are never Reuters material and often they are slight and seem fashioned from flyers stuck on telephone poles. Susan Orlean calls it the ability to find 'verve' in the ordinariness and the directors of these movies know exactly where to find this verve because they possess an inherent understanding of the poetry that resides in ordinary life.

A scene from Anurag Kashyap's Gangs of Wasseypur.

IMAGE: The vow in Gangs of Wasseypur: Wont't Kill But Shame is hardly of the kind that plays out at 'The Theatre of the Polite.'

When these movies really work, they can pull away the safety blanket that separates a movie audience from a movie.

During a suddenly-inserted midget dance in Gangs of Wasseypur, I had the feeling that someone in the audience had probably got up from his seat and walked right into the screen to join the merry band. The immediacy of that sequence was that powerful.

Wasseypur is a movie for 'hanging out' and nothing confirmed this better than Manoj Bajpai's obtusely-phrased vow: Won't Kill but Shame. It is hardly the sort of vow that plays out at 'The Theatre of the Polite.'

Bajpai's Sardar Khan just noodles around as characters zip in and out of the story; characters that may not have a direct connection with the core setting but with whom we may have a rendezvous, later on.

These are the kind of liberties that great novels and short stories and beautifully written journalistic pieces are allowed. And when blended with a composite medium like cinema, it has the power to elevate the medium to a level of Pop Art.

While we definitely need the Programmatic Movies, my personal opinion is that they lull the audience -- these are movies that only conform to what we naturally regard as 'Good,' 'Bad,' 'Moral,' 'Amoral,' 'Brave,' 'Inspirational' etc.

For moviemakers, a great way to sidestep these conventional definitions is to peek into people and stories that don't give you the comfort of genuine plot movement.

Like, say, a story about your Uncle Raman who maybe this crazy patents-registering man.

Or that crowd that drinks at Janta Bar, Bandra and then heads off to expensive pubs on the town side just to dance, before catching the last train from CST to their homes in Dombivli and Kalyan -- effectively tracing Mumbai's entire Cultural Loci every Friday night.

Or those people who are simply very serious about their past-times. These are people and stories that may not read like natural movie material but have 'juices' nevertheless; there are new rhythms waiting to be unlocked there.

As for the audience, here's something to ponder about: What do you think is the wellspring of all these current debates that are raging in our country?

I believe that they are sourced from those simplistic definitions of issues and sentiments that we've carried with ourselves through ages -- and ones that perhaps need tweaking.

And for that to happen, the virtues that one should, maybe, give up is this feeling of self-righteousness and the impulse to talk over each other.

Listening can be really helpful, sometimes. To a muddled mind, effective listening can even work like therapy.

Amidst all the chatter and banter and drifting around that happens in 'Movies for Hanging Out,' you are taken inside each character's heads and made to tally their thoughts with yours and your experiences with theirs.

When they are done really well, stripped off the Puritanism, these movies can make you look into yourself and then to the world.

To that friend who finds this entire process 'pointless,' I have only one question: Is it not, on some levels, also oddly self-cleansing and liberating?

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Sreehari Nair