LETTER FROM INDIA – “The Power of Melodrama”

Growing up, one remembers longing for our cinema to become more realistic, or at the very least a little less ridiculous. At one stage, virtually every film made was a lost-and-found potboiler that featured more or less the same dialogues. We have got our wish to a certain extent. The films of today try harder to tell a single story, populate them with characters that go beyond Kishan and Bishan, two friends who became enemies for a while until one sacrifices his life for the other, and steer clear of some stock devices including heroes disguising themselves by wearing pencil thin moustaches and ripping them off come climax time to reveal their inner Jeetendra. Of course, no one can still accuse Hindi cinema of stark realism, but on the whole, cinema bears greater resemblance to reality than it did in the past, with due apologies to the Grand Masti school of film-making.

But something is lost in the bargain. A couple of months ago, this realisation about Hindi cinema was brought home to me thanks to my Iraqi-born cabbie in London, who after giving us a thirty-minute lecture on the relative merits of Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra, bemoaned the fact the films of today are just not the same. No emotion, he said, hollow like Hollywood. Where did the stories full of twists, turns and coincidences go? When did the emotional crescendos give way to life-sized depictions of what we go through every day? People are boring, myths were not.

“Lipstick under my burkha,” a favorite Bollywood movie in 2017

Much as a part of me is grateful that the repetitive tedious melodramas of yore have died out, it is also true that watching movies is not the full-bodied experience it once was. More interesting cinema is being made today than in the eighties and nineties certainly, but one’s involvement with it is not the same. We are outside the film when we watch it today; we consume it with cautious discernment. Reviews are scanned, opinions sought, and critiques discussed. The delight of an earlier time, the unrestrained glee with which any and every film, however bad, was lapped up is now a distant memory. Cinema at its best today is thoughtful entertainment, but it is not quite undiluted magic.

The role of melodrama was to dissolve us in a collective soup of feeling. Everything had heightened meaning, and we, as audiences, were nothing. Something big was always at stake, heroes were never really representing only themselves. Mothers died coughing, sisters were thrown out of their marital homes, fortunes were usurped, the family’s honor was hanging by a thread.

Cinema was able to stir up emotion using devices that were standard, in ways such that you could see them coming from a mile. The dialogue-baazi, the rubbing in of indignities, the amplification of the sordid, the setting up of overly-neat archetypes, the need to repeat everything loudly thrice- barring our TV news channels, we don’t see these kinds of devices anymore in popular culture.

Mere paas ma hai. Kanoon ke haath. Khandan ki izzat. The innocent tawaif. The father’s heart attack. The doctor- chacha’s advice to go to a hill station. The reformed vamp wearing a white saree in the last shot. The long dialogue-soaked death of heroes. Yeh shaadi nahi ho sakti. Pagdi, vardi, khoon, mamta, parampara, wafa, me-lord, dua not dawa, kalmuhi– all gone.


“Lipstick under my burkha”

In this world, everything was fraught with consequences. People were suspended in culturally determined roles that they could not detach themselves from. Nothing existed on its own, no event or person had any agency as such. One acted because one had to, and one paid the price because that was the rule. But nothing was matter-of-fact; the cost of everything was spelled out, and the joys fairly quivered with bliss connoted by exactly one particular set of musical notes.

Hamming was and continues to be a game that the film plays with an audience. It allowed the viewers to insert themselves emotionally into the narrative, by emphasising that this was an enactment, not real life, which is why it was worth so much. Theatricality was the burden carried by the culturally significant. The actor’s role was not merely to make the character believable, but to make the culture it resided in desirable.

Those who cringe at this kind of cinema stand outside the narrative, and the whole game is not meant for them. These are people who cannot let go of a sense of self-awareness even for a moment, they are unable or unwilling to immerse themselves in the emotional tides of their surrogate psyches represented on screen. They are too aware of the surface absurdity of what is being shown, forgetting that the film is trying to speak not to the individual but to something more primal that resides inside us.

There are good melodramatic films and there are ordinary attempts that don’t come together. These tend to use melodrama without belief, as a formula. Emotionally powerful representations need the belief of the maker, they need the willingness to embrace the fullness of the encounters that unfold on screen. The great melodramas could be watched over and over again. There was nothing to reveal, but enough to experience. Memories do not fear repetition, myths grow with every retelling. The films were meant to evoke sentiment, not to tell a new story. Ironically, those films are missed on grounds that the films of today ‘do not tell a story’. In truth, what is being said is that the films of today do not travel down sweeping arcs of emotion, they lack the dizzying highs and plunging lows that made watching films an emotionally vertiginous experience.

But while there may be occasional pangs of nostalgia, there is no going back. We know too much, and cannot unlearn what we know. We cannot become putty again, and so we will discuss cinema and make our points, and disagree with each other’s “takes.” We own our movies now, they don’t own us.

(featured image: still from 2017’s “Bareilly ki barfi”)

Santosh Desai (@desaisantosh) is special to Screen Comment. He blogs for the Times of India. This article, which previously appeared in that publication, was republished with permission from the author.

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