“If you have a message, call Western Union.” The famous quote has been attributed to legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn, playwright Moss Hart, actor Humphrey Bogart and writer Ernest Hemingway. Whoever said it, the implication was the same — that films are for enjoyment. No one buys a movie ticket hoping to hear a lecture.
Of course the best films are about more than what you see onscreen. The messaging is woven into the tapestry of the tale. The storytelling engrosses you but the director also astutely shifts your perspective, allowing you to see the world in new ways.
Think of Kumbalangi Nights, C/o Kancharapalem, Village Rockstars, Gully Boy. Even Badhaai Ho which, using gentle humour, urges you to consider that your parents might have an active sex life, and to see that as a wonderful thing.
Over the last decade, there seem to be more instances of the messaging becoming the main show, however. I pondered this as I watched this year’s Diwali releases on streaming platforms — Ludo, Chhalaang, Laxmii, Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari.
Two of these, Laxmii and Chhalaang, were films with an overt message. The first is designed as a horror comedy but makes an impassioned plea for the humane treatment of the transgender community. The latter is a quasi-sports film in which a lazy PE teacher in a small town in Bihar finds his purpose in moulding some of the weakest children in the school into a winning team that triumphs in everything from relay races to kabaddi.
Neither works. Laxmii, directed by Raghava Lawrence, contradicts its own message of inclusion with problematic representation, a high-pitched tone and half-baked storytelling. Chhalaang, directed by Hansal Mehta, is tedious and logic-free — in one scene, Rajkummar Rao’s character Montu is teaching kids to run by having ferocious guard dogs chase them.
Female-empowerment films often fall into this trap of the political overwhelming the personal. Take this year’s Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, directed by Alankrita Shrivastava. The film has two strong actors — Konkona Sen Sharma and Bhumi Pednekar — playing cousins who want more out of their lives. Dolly and Kitty are refreshingly flawed women who stumble in their search for freedom and meaning. The set-up has potential, but the narrative gets weighted down severely as the film tries to simultaneously weave in plot points involving alternative sexuality, consumerism, agency, even the commodification of romance.
Somewhere along the way, the storytelling gets lost. As it does in the latter half of Bulbbul, directed by Anvita Dutt, another film with women at its heart. This visually sumptuous work in which the talented Tripti Dimri plays a chudail, eventually trips on its own good intentions.
Cinema is a potent medium with even more currency in a country like India, where illiteracy rates are still high and where we still worship our filmstars. So of course movies can and must effect social change. As the great American critic Roger Ebert put it, “Movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people.”
But films are not classrooms. The lessons penetrate when they are organically embedded. As the horror of caste was in Sairat or toxic masculinity in Kumbalangi Nights. As the best of Ayushmann Khurrana sub-genre tends to do, with movies like Vicky Donor, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan and Article 15. These films push the boundaries of what is permissible in mainstream Hindi cinema, without forgetting to tell a story. And that’s entertainment.
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