20 November 2016

Picture This -- Rinse and repeat

Yesterday's BLInk column

The experience of viewing a film a second time ought to be a tidier, more predictable, repeat of the first. After all, the film is the same, and ostensibly, so are you.

What happens when you watch a film for the second time? I don’t mean the sort of second watching that comes decades after the first — like when your mum finally decides she’s had enough of Arnab Goswami and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar is playing on the next channel. I mean something much more deliberate: returning to the theatre or sitting down with your laptop to watch a particular film, a few days or a few weeks or, at most, a few months after the first time you saw it.
Now when you’ve watched something once already, you think you know how you feel about it. You know what you liked about it and what you didn’t, where the actors seemed to be trying too hard and which scene played itself out too quickly. So one might imagine that the experience of viewing a film the second time will be a tidier, more predictable repeat of the first. After all, the film is the same and, ostensibly, so are you.
But think about it, and you know that the second time is likely to be different. And not just different, but unpredictably so. That scene which you thought you wanted to watch unfold forever the first time might now seem excruciating rather than deliciously condensed. The jokes you laughed at the first time may lose their punch: repetition often does that to humour. Additionally, the experience will depend at least partly on what you hope to achieve by the repetition. Sometimes we’re just blown away by the film, and it seems like a pleasurable idea to try and recreate the magic. Sometimes it’s cinematic complexity that creates the desire to return — meaning there was such a host of things going on in the film, visually or aurally or narratively, that a second watch seemed necessary to absorb them. Sometimes it’s just chance that brings the film back into your life — a friend who insists you watch it with them, or a public screening that lets you decide to watch it again.
A recent trip to McLeodganj to attend the utterly charming Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) was bookended for me by two such instances. The festival’s opening night involved a screening of Thithi, a Kannada film that I first saw in Delhi at a Siri Fort Auditorium screening of National Award winners early this summer, and that opened to a long and fairly successful run in cinemas across India soon after.
My memories of watching Thithi (and the notes I made at Siri Fort) were dominated by the characters. Like everyone else, I was most struck by the bearded, unkempt Gadappa (literally ‘beard-man’). But there were others who stayed with me: the bush-shirt-clad wheeler-dealer through whom Gadappa’s son wants to sell the family land, the gleeful excitement of Gadappa’s grandson Abhi as he successfully woos a striking shepherd girl who’s caught his eye.
The other thing that had stayed with me was a powerful sense of Raam Reddy’s chosen landscape: stretches of almost barren red earth, bumbling herds of sheep, groves of sugarcane whose overgrown greenness is beholden to an erratic irrigation pump.
This time around, I remained enchanted by Gadappa’s face and bearing — his memorable melding of a childish stubbornness and a wisdom that can only come from experience. And perhaps because I already knew what they were going to say, I could gaze uninterrupted at the faces of many others.
But otherwise it was like watching a different film. The visual seemed to recede into the background, and sound came to the fore. The funerary band that I had marked for their incongruously orange sashes, I now noted for the deliberate gaiety of their music: defying the lovely gravity of the faces around the pyre, perhaps defying death itself. There was the tinny congratulatory tone of the TV talk show, and the sulky silence of the blocked-out porn clip. I heard, as if for the first time, the mobile ringtones piercing the otherwise bucolic quiet of the village: songs of youth, anthems of the present. But suddenly, now, I heard more and more industrial sounds: the loud tractor on which Abhi and his friends go on their illegal logging expeditions, or the borrowed bike that makes him monarch of all he surveys, the dull whirring of the wood-cutting machines. But I also heard, with much greater clarity, a repeated exclamation: “Hou!” — its intonation differing from person to person and situation to situation. It is not a word I know, I have no wish to look it up — and yet, somehow, it felt absolutely central to Thithi’s conjuring of a landscape.
On the way back to Delhi after the festival, part of a crew of returning journalists, I found myself granted the unreturnable gift of the video coach. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil was to play, and greeted with a mix of delight and mock-despair. “Our last DIFF screening,” said someone. Ae Dil wasn’t a film I had intended to watch again. But there in the back of the Volvo, surrounded by new friends whose reactions I couldn’t predict and was utterly curious about, it became a different film. Or rather, as many films as there were faces to watch.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, 19th Nov 2016.

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