Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Our Sterile Monoculture Of Storytelling

When reviewing the movie "Madras Café", I mentioned my disappointment that the movie eschewed the traditional Bollywood style of storytelling in one very important respect - it had no dances or even songs. There are many who think this makes it a "serious" movie, because songs and dances distract from the storyline (at best) and trivialise a serious story (at worst).

I'm actually disturbed at this. Different cultural traditions have different storytelling styles, and none is inherently more or less valid than another.

A non-Japanese watching the Kabuki theatre might wonder why there is so much slow movement and screaming. A Japanese might point out that a member of the audience who sees the performance in such terms is in fact a philistine. [Confession: I have watched bits of Kabuki as part of Japanese movies and must count myself among the philistines.]

Movie buffs would know the subtle differences that exist between American movies, English movies and Australian movies, even though all of them are in the English language. Readers of "Asterix" and "Tintin" comics would surely have noticed the distinctly European sense of humour in these stories. What a pity it would be if this rich variety did not exist. We would lose something if all English-language movies had the same "feel" to them, or if all comics exuded the same sense of humour. We must not lose the diversity of the world's storytelling cultures. To avoid such a loss, we must actively train and sensitise ourselves to appreciate this diversity.

I have explained before why Bollywood movies cannot be lightly dismissed as "musicals". In the Indian movie tradition (not just Bollywood but the various regional language movies as well), songs and dances are part of the entertainment package. The best movies manage to weave these sequences into the flow of the story so that they advance it in their own way. But even those that don't cannot be faulted. A song sequence in the middle of an otherwise gripping story is an admonition to the audience to stop and smell the roses. Life is multifaceted, and the goal of watching a movie is not to rush headlong towards the dénouement, but to savour every subtle emotion along the way. It's an attitude that should inform one's approach to life itself. Life is not a rat race in which we have to get somewhere. The journey itself is the point. That's why Indian movies are often called "masala" movies. They're a mix of flavours, all of which are meant to be savoured. Viewing Indian movies through a Western cultural prism (according to which the movie's sole purpose is to relentlessly advance the storyline) only exposes the viewer as a philistine.

I believe it is legitimate to challenge an audience to evolve in sophistication to appreciate an art form, rather than to demand that artistes dumb down their art to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

That's why I'm unhappy that "Madras Cafe" has no songs or dances. In its quest for respectability in Western eyes, it has sold its soul. It's now a Hollywood movie with Indian names in the credits.

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