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Opinion | In praise of visible film craft

How directors from Hrishikesh Mukherjee to Shyam Benegal have sidestepped the idea that elements of filmmaking mustn't draw attention to themselves

Prithviraj Kapoor in a dramatic moment from ‘Awaara’ (1951)
Prithviraj Kapoor in a dramatic moment from ‘Awaara’ (1951)

In one of the most arresting scenes in the 1960 film Anuradha, the heroine looks yearningly at the full moon, recalling the early days of her romance with the man she married, a doctor who is now preoccupied with his work. At the same time, her husband is looking through his microscope at a bacterium on a drop of liquid. The scene visually links the two white spheres, which represent different sorts of passions to the people observing them.

It’s a showy moment, guaranteed to draw attention to shot conception, framing and editing—even a casual viewer will notice these things. And it is hard to reconcile with some of the stories I have heard about the film’s director, Hrishikesh Mukherjee. “At a preview screening," more than one of Mukherjee’s associates have said, “if someone exclaimed ‘What a beautiful shot!’, he snapped that he wanted the image cut out. He didn’t want viewers to be distracted by something showy."

This is an oft-repeated theme if you read film-makers’ interviews, and it can come from unexpected sources. Director Dibakar Banerjee once told me he cringed when someone commented on beautiful camerawork in a scene: “How can you even identify camerawork separately?" In a related conversation, his art director Vandana Kataria said, “If someone comes out of the hall saying the production design was brilliant, it means we have failed." I frowned, thinking of the many times in Banerjee’s films where cinematography creates a very specific mood (the Stygian, oppressive look of Shanghai, for example) or where art design beautifully captures a sense of place: Consider the cluttered spaces in a modest west Delhi house in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, helping us see why the protagonist wants to escape his small well for a bigger world.

There is a cult of movie appreciation based on the celebration of invisibility or unobtrusiveness: the idea that when watching a film, you mustn’t be aware of the nuts and bolts; that cinematography, editing, music and other elements shouldn’t draw attention to themselves. But this is a reductive and conservative view. For starters, everything depends on the sort of film we are talking about, the emotional, visual and aural scales it is aiming for, and the relative importance of a director’s personal style. It might sound reasonable to say, “Cinematography should be purely at the service of the narrative," but what does that really mean? What if it is an anti-narrative film, where plot is less important than mood development? Or what if the point is to create a distinctive “look" that facilitates a deeper understanding of the characters and the story? Think about Ashok Mehta’s brilliant use of candlelight in Shyam Benegal’s Trikaal, about a large Goan family ossifying in an ancient house.

It’s impossible to list the thousands of showy scenes in great films, where the ostentatious beauty of a shot is inseparable from our emotional reaction, but to take a few obvious examples: Try imagining Awaara without that image of a shadow literally flitting across Prithviraj Kapoor’s face as the shadow of a doubt creeps into his mind (has his wife been with another man?), or Pyaasa without Guru Dutt standing in the doorway in the climax. Or The Third Man without the canted angles and shadows that capture a poetic-mythical Vienna, as opposed to a strictly realistic one (what is “realism" anyway, when a film is shot in black and white?).

If the type of film is one factor, another is the type of viewer: Are you the “immersed" sort or the “watchful" sort? In an interview once, Aamir Khan said he usually gets so involved with a film that he might shout “Look out!" to an imperiled character. Others are just the opposite: Even when thrilled by a narrative, I am usually very aware of a film’s inner workings, and this helps me appreciate it more (I think to myself: Waheeda Rehman is so good as this fictional character Rosie; she does this and this so well. I don’t think: this is Rosie and she is a real person). One viewer might watch a stylistically experimental film and still focus only on the “plot"—another might watch a story-driven film and still register the framing and positioning from one shot to the next.

Which brings me to the point that even seemingly straightforward narrative cinema—driven by dialogue or plot—involves dozens of little decisions at various levels, which can be noticed and critiqued. In the 1960s, the first generation of “auteurist" critics, including young British writers like V.F. Perkins, brought new vigour to film writing by pointing out such things: how, for instance, the gradual change in a character’s wardrobe over the course of a story—from brightly coloured clothes to greyscale ones—could be central to a film’s effect.

Admittedly, these are not things you would expect a casual viewer to notice, especially on a first watch, but they are very much on the table if you’re trying to engage. And if anyone tells you otherwise, chances are they are being lazy or evasive, and are about to say those ghastly, eye-roll-inducing words: Don’t Analyse So Much. As if the only thing one can talk about while discussing a film is the plot, and everything else that goes into the process just falls together somehow, without any thought or deliberation.

Above The Line is a column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world.

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