PICTURING A NEW SCREEN VOCABULARY
As an art form cinema often comes the closest to mirroring how humans think; how memories are shaped and retrieved, imagination unleashed. Much of this has to do with the fact that the moving image engages directly with space and time. Space enters through the visual elements used to narrate a story. it may be argued that it is these visual elements which make a film truly cinematic. But apart from the moving image, stories are also told through the film’s posters. What role do they play in the cinematic component of films?
(DISCLAIMER: SPOILERS AHEAD)
What makes a film truly cinematic?
Is it a good screenplay, a great cast?
Is it how well a director extracts performances?
Is it about content, or form?
It may be argued that as an art form cinema comes the closest to mirroring how humans think; how memories are shaped and retrieved, imagination unleashed. Much of this has to do with the fact that the moving image engages directly with space and time. It incorporates temporality in its framework primarily through editing – by compressing and foreshortening a story and telling it in real time. Space enters through the visuals, the composition of settings, faces, objects, etc. to narrate a story. Perhaps it is this visual element that makes a film truly cinematic. Apart from the moving picture stories are also told through still images taken in the course of the filming and posters, which offer the public their first glimpse of the film. Movie posters perform the challenging task of conveying the crux of the film through a single image. Through this essay I will look at this exchange between posters and the films they represent through three films – Court (2014), S Durga (2017) and Newton (2017) .
The artistic coup of Chaitanya Tamhane’s film Court , is the fact that the protagonist, the sanitation worker around whom the narrative revolves, never appears. He is dead – sans voice and language – while everybody else is busy speaking on his behalf. This absence is central to the plot, both thematically and aesthetically. In his poster design Nishikant Palande captures this lack through the manhole. Not only is the manhole a reminder of the death of the protagonist in the sewer but also of the hole in which those raising their voice against injustice in the film find themselves. The void in the poster is thus the visual rendition of the chasm in the film’s moral universe created by the dearth of the character around whom the court case – and the film – revolves.
The minimalism of the poster replicates the visual style of the film, deliberately devoid of theatricality. Coupled with the preposterous situations of the plot the use of naturalist visual language, lends the film an air of absurdity. The variety of languages (Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati, English) used is a testament to Mumbai’s multiculturalism but also a reminder that some characters are altogether without language. When the voiceless do speak, they are silenced. Be it the arrest of the protesting singer, or the otherwise well meaning judge slapping a child who has finally raised his voice, dissenting voices find themselves abruptly suppressed at various junctures of the film.
A similar visual sophistication defines the narrative style and poster design of Sanal K. Sasidharan’s S Durga. The film oscillates between violent self flagellating devotion to the goddess and the very real threat of physical violence to the character who shares her name with the deity. The cinematographic composition of the film is often claustrophobic, especially when depicting the cramped insides of the vehicle in which the protagonists find themselves trapped. But the wide open spaces outside are not without a sense of looming terror either. Tantalising hints of the hope of escape are thrown in with the so-near-yet-too-far trains seen speeding across the landscape every now and then. The visual atmosphere prompts paranoia and the viewer is left unsure if the protagonist is at greater risk inside the van or outside. In the twisted moral universe of the film the goons alternate between saviour and sexually threatening. In this noirish universe the protagonists are bereft of choice and stuck in an infinite loop of escape and entrapment. This quagmire reflects amply in the poster design.
Half human half bestial, the masked man in the poster in the middle points to the moral complexity of the film. Perhaps it is significant that in the film when the characters do don masks the more ‘human’ characters – the woman and her husband – end up completely camouflaging their human features. The features of the feral goons, on the other hand, show through. The piece de resistance of Dileep Daz’s poster designs for S Durga however is a second poster. This depicts a circular maze with the half man half beast at its center. It is a succinct visual synopsis of the film. The maze stands in for the confounding journey of the protagonists, an infinite loop with no escape. At the core of the human condition, the poster highlights, is the indomitable beast within.
For a film about resistance Amit Masurkar’s Newton has a somewhat staid visual design. It is a film that chooses to play by the rulebook and prefers to unfurl its narrative through the characters and screenplay rather than innovative mise en scene. But the lack of visual storytelling is somewhat compensated by the poster design by Two Design, which offers a stunning summation of the film’s themes. In the first poster, a number of fingers are seen pointing towards the image of the protagonist, Newton. These could be interpreted simultaneously as the fingers of the voters whose rights he defends, but could also stand in for the use of state machinery or literally, the guns that point towards Newton in a pivotal scene in the film. The fingers also depict the literal finger pointing at the character of an honest man trying to do his duty. In this they are reminiscent of Satyajit Ray’s poster for Ganashatru (Enemy of the People), a film thematically resonant with Newton. The second poster is a stunning piece of Gond art. A visual echo of the Joker card from a deck of playing cards it draws from a scene in the film in which Newton picks a card that seemingly defines his destiny. The poster also doubles up as a mirror image – mirrors in traditional iconography often standing for symbols of vanity (think Narcissus). The all too serious character of Newton, whose original sin (alluded to with the worm in the apple) is perhaps vanity, is seen standing in the upper section of the poster with his voting machine. In the lower section he is a jester, the fool his arrogance about being honest and upright initially led him to be.
My purpose here is not to suggest that the visual design of the three films and their posters discussed are symptomatic of a specific trend in contemporary Indian cinema. Their selection for this discussion was in fact due to their deviation from dominant styles rather than an illustration of prevailing modes. What could have influenced the fresh visual vocabulary they adopt? The answer to this cannot just be the infusion of young blood in an industry that is usually averse to throwing off time honored traditions and formal techniques.. After all though Court is a relatively young director’s debut film, Newton is a sophomore effort and S Durga just one film from a fairly prolific director’s repertoire. Perhaps the liberty taken with the visual design has instead to do with the financial model enabling these films.
Rejected by the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), Court was supported by the prestigious Hubert Bals Fund and Vivek Gomber, an independent film producer and an actor in the film. S Durga was produced by independent film producers Aruna Mathew and Shaji Mathewand was promoted by the Kerala State Film Development Corporation Ltd. Similarly Newton was produced by the independent film company Drishyam Films. The indie financial model is usually hinged on the idea of the auteur director, which often allows filmmakers considerable aesthetic autonomy. The visual language employed by the three films discussed, it may be argued, is a result of this freedom.
It need of course be pointed out that Court, S Durga and Newton and their inventive visual aesthetic constitutes only a tiny (even if important) sliver of the number of films churned out by the various regional and mainstream film industries in India. It remains therefore to be seen if their visual choices influence a more concrete trend. But one remains hopeful in light of upcoming films by visually discerning filmmakers such as Payal Kapadia, Gurvinder Singh and Amit Dutta.
*Cover image courtesy www.latimesblogs.latimes.com
Divya Sachar is a filmmaker, writer and photographer.