Our obsession with the takeaway
How otherwise fine films are hampered by insistence on a single defining message
To my mind, Nila Madhab Panda is one of our more interesting contemporary directors, even though his output is uneven. Panda’s films tend to be sombre, languidly paced and deal with important social issues, which are all qualities that we associate with heavy-handed message-mongering—and yet his better work finds a way to approach a subject tangentially and to bring to it the ambiguous, shifting texture of a dark fable. This makes it very different in effect from, say, Madhur Bhandarkar’s ventures into social commentary, which are glossier, more accessible, and more didactic.
Panda’s Jalpari: The Desert Mermaid, for instance, links female infanticide with drought—two symptoms of a barren society—through a mostly realist narrative that alludes to mermaids, witchcraft and a mysterious swamp that everyone stays away from. In I Am Kalam, a dhaba (eatery) bordering a desert land is like a magical space of transition, a portal to a new destiny; a scary close-up of a villain burning the young protagonist’s precious papers might remind you of the witch at her oven in Hansel And Gretel.
And in his latest, Kadvi Hawa, a debt collector whose appearances herald farmer suicides is feared as a Yamdoot, or a messenger of death—though he is really just a morose man with problems of his own, clattering about on a little scooter and carrying files instead of a long noose.
Kadvi Hawa is not an easy film. It is slow to the point of meandering, and announces its intention to be this way right from the long, poetic opening sequence where an old man taps his way through a beautiful but parched rural landscape until he finally reaches a rundown bank and is then made to wait for hours. But if you have the patience for it and if you are in the right mood, it is very rewarding, with two wonderful performances by Sanjay Mishra (as the old man, Hedu, who turns out to be both blind and a “seer"—in the sense of clairvoyant) and Ranvir Shorey (as Gunu babu, the callous collector who reveals new sides as the story moves forward). At its heart, the film is a character study of these two people who shoulder different burdens (to put it very simply, one is haunted by a lack of water, the other by an excess of it) and are driven by their desperation towards a moral abyss.
The one scene that seemed forced to me came after this main narrative has ended: Before the closing credits, we get text with information about farmer suicides in India as well as the problem of extreme climates around the world caused by human irresponsibility. Here was the moment where—instead of simply absorbing the experience of having watched a quiet, superbly acted slice-of-life story—we could congratulate ourselves on having paid for tickets for a film about Important Things.
I’m not saying Kadvi Hawa isn’t about those big issues (though the way it links them is a bit random and overdone). But for most of its running time, “Suggest, don’t tell" is the chief mode. The social and ecological conditions that have caused the characters’ problems aren’t presented to us explicitly—we are allowed to conjecture about their importance to the Hedu-Gunu story. Information accumulates on the fringes; people speak in muttered half-sentences; there are effective little moments such as the one where a girl is called out from her classroom—the teacher casts her a quick concerned look, and we only gradually realize that her father has killed himself.
Given these strengths, that closing information feels like an attempt to inject gravitas and respectability into a film that already had those things. We are being spoon-fed.
Some weeks ago at a literature festival, I was involved in a discussion about the popularity of “takeaways", or easy-to-digest ways of understanding creative works. This is based on the expectation that a casual reader (or viewer) should be able to say, “Ah! This book/film was about *insert preferred theme or idea*." As if that was the only thing it was about, and as if anything can or should be reduced to a single defining message.
Such simplifications occur naturally when people think of books and films in purely utilitarian terms, focusing on the final takeaway rather than the fullness of the experience. Pandering to such a view, a film version of a famous literary work might end with a scroll saying, “Research shows that killing an authority figure produces crippling guilt in 76% of people, and causes the breakdown of marriage and the onset of delusions in 17%. In many countries, including Scotland, these figures have been increasing since 1372 AD." Which is useful information, no doubt, but it doesn’t tell us much about what makes Macbeth a good play or Maqbool a good film.
Above The Line is a column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world.
He tweets at @jaiarjun