18 May 2014

Calling Up a Time

Calling up a time
Screen presence: Patanga (1949) and Queen (2014)
My Mumbai Mirror column today:

Landlines to mobiles: The phone has evolved, but its cinematic effect remains strong as ever.

The telephone must be one of the most beloved cinematic devices. Think of the countless films in which the hero/heroine (and we, the audience) hears a murder, or a mysterious voice, after which the line is cut off, leaving them (and us) on tenterhooks. Or think of how the phone became indispensable to filmi love. It lets on-screen lovers conduct secret love lives, pulling landlines into bedrooms, hiding cordless phones under pillows to wait for the late-night call, setting up assignations rife with possibilities for identity confusion. 

In some ways, the experience of using a telephone was akin to the experience of cinema itself. In the words of the cultural theorist Iain Chambers: "Like the city and the cinema, and so many other institutions of modernity, [the telephone] allowed you to be somewhere you were not. Perhaps it allowed you to be someone you were not or someone you hadn't known you were yet." 

Filmmakers loved the telephone because it allowed you to play around with two components of the film medium, the visual and the aural. Between two people having a phone conversation, sound is necessarily present, but the image can be absent or obscured. Or at least, different from what the person on the other side imagines. 

In Hindi films, the telephone has run the gamut from the charming silliness of long-distance romance - Shamshad Begam's 'Mere piya gaye Rangoon, wahan se kiya hai telephoon' for Patanga (1949) - to excitement, even danger - 'Aaj ki raat koi aane ko hai' in Anamika (1973), featuring Helen, a hoodlum and a telephone booth in the rain - until the sound of the phone is itself sexualised ('Telephone dhun mein hasne wali', Hindustani (1997). 

But some of the most effective filmic uses of the telephone have been in domestic space. 

A film I wrote about recently, Kora Kagaz (1973), uses the telephone astutely, both to amplify its themes and direct its plot. The relationship between the inexperienced husband and wife (Vijay Anand's Sukesh and Jaya Bhaduri's Archana) is already splintering when the telephone arrives to drive a deeper wedge between them. An expensive proposition for an underpaid college teacher in the 1970s, it works, first and foremost, as a symbol of class. Archana's busybody of a mother decides her daughter needs a telephone, and she will pay for it if her son-in-law can't afford it. 

The film plays out the installation itself - the digging up of a road, the laying of lines, the decision over where the instrument will be placed in the house - as an upheaval in the household. Later, the phone becomes the embodiment of the unbroken link between Archana and her natal family. But director Anil Ganguly's finest touch is to turn the instrument's persistent tring-tring into an alarm bell of sorts, its shrill ring rupturing the peace of Archana's marital home. 

In accordance with lived reality, the landline in cinema has been replaced by the cellphone. An early cinematic tribute to the cellphone was Kabir Kaushik's Sehar (2005), with its droll subplot about a bumbling professor (Pankaj Kapoor) hired to help the UP Police figure out the new mobile phone technology that gangs are already using. A more recent example is Dedh Ishqiya, where Arshad Warsi woos Huma Qureishi with iPhone banter. 

Some films feature mobiles more than others. But three recent films have been noticeable for their absence. The first is Dekh Tamasha Dekh, which I wrote about last week, is a cleverly absurdist take on the politicisation of religion, and one doesn't want to hold it to dull realist standards. But really, if a film releases in 2014 and doesn't set itself up as a period piece, it cannot show us a world full of landlines and payphones. It is impossible to take seriously now a climax that depends on the cutting off of phone lines. 

The second cellphone-less film is last year's runaway indie hit, The Lunchbox, in which a neglected housewife and a lonely widower make a chance connection. Through the film, the two characters communicate through a mis-delivered lunchbox. The whole plot is dependent on the absence of instantaneous communication. 

The frisson lies precisely in the chanciness, in the will-he, won't-she quality of the message deliveries. A mobile does appear once, but this world of cassette players, neighbourhood shoutouts and handwritten notes is really held out to us as a world without cellphones. But it works, because we are willing entrants into this deliberate romanticisation of an older style of communication. The whole film seems, in fact, a nostalgic tribute to a phenomenon that only existed in the landline world: the cross-connection. 

The third film is Ankhon Dekhi, whose domestic conversations and crises could be described as a throwback to the'80s (there is some resonance with Humlog). But the gathering on the old Delhi terrace has pink-frosted cake. Still, you don't quite miss the cellphones until you see that Bauji's travel agency has computers on every desk. After that, the landline-only house feels contrived. Doubtless, the rift between brothers - based partly on their refusal to call each other - is more convincing without cellphones. But once the thought's in your head, it doesn't leave you: how can they not have mobiles? 

By way of contrast, a recent rift in another Hindi film, between Rajkummar's Vijay and Kangana's Rani in Queen, feels so much more believable because the cellphone is integrally woven into it: the selfie she sends him by mistake, her not taking his calls, his appalled enumerating of his missed calls echo what is now the stuff of our everyday life. A contemporary world imagined without the cellphone, it appears, can no longer ring true.

1 comment:

Nakul said...

There was this song too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMZNYDHBhHI