Heard a good story?

Jai Arjun Singh
Persistence of Vision
Opinions - IN

In an interview recently, I was asked the sort of question that makes my toes curl in terror — something about "the nature and purpose of cinema". Cornered, I reluctantly mumbled something like: "A really good film is one where form and content come together in the best possible way — irrespective of whether the subject matter is escapist or grounded in hard realities."

Since then I've received some feedback by readers who felt I was short-selling the importance of plot. Isn't the story — or the content — the most important thing, with everything else following?

This is a commonly expressed idea. Viewers emerge from movie halls and sagely tell the TV-channel reporter standing outside with a microphone, "film bakwaas hai, story original nahin hai". The condescending phrase "all style, no substance" is often used to describe just about any film that is visually daring (therefore "flashy") and tries to tell a story in cinematic language rather than by relying on "pictures of people talking". And recently, the well-known reviewer Raja Sen wrote a "cinema is all about the story" column that left me perplexed — not least because at one point he seemed to confuse "story" and "storytelling", which are two completely different things. I quote:

… the most disappointing efforts by major filmmakers, are films that have treated the storytelling almost as incidental, while making sure they get the right cinematographer and an appropriate heroine…

Really? I'd say that if your goal is good storytelling, then hiring the right cinematographer and the appropriate heroine are two steps (among many) in the right direction. Getting a good scriptwriter is, of course, another big step in that direction.

But it isn't my intention to pick on a specific piece — this is a complicated enough subject to write about without getting into skirmishes of that sort. Instead, I thought I'd use this column space to list a few points about "story" and how relevant it is to assessing a film. (Note: this isn't meant to be a comprehensive exercise, just a setting down of scattered thoughts on a large topic — and hopefully, a pretext for further discussion and reading. Apologies in advance for rambling.)

*Deep breath* Here goes.

What IS a good story anyway? How do you measure such a thing in isolation?

When I'm enjoying a film or a novel, I'm not sure I even know how good the "story" is. That sounds facetious, but here's what I mean: for me, the impact of a story is inseparable from the skill with which it's told. "Content" and "form" are not things that can be surgically extracted from the final product and then independently assessed. They inform each other, and what you think of a film or book depends on how well the two things have mixed. (To quote Dwight Macdonald, "An idea does not exist apart from the words that express it. Style is not an envelope enclosing a message; the envelope is the message.")

When you see two different movie versions of the same story, do you feel exactly the same way about them? Chances are you thought one of them did more justice to the story — or even that both films were equally good (or equally bad), but in different ways. Does PC Barua's Devdas = Bimal Roy's Devdas = Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas = Anurag Kashyap's Dev D? To take an even more direct example, Gus Van Sant made an almost shot-by-shot, dialogue-by-dialogue tribute-remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho — but you'd be hard put to find any movie buff who would say that the new film made the old one redundant.

Of course, it's true that some films are more reliant on plot than others, the same way some novels are (especially in genres like crime or science-fiction); no one would claim that the proportions are always the same. But in the hands of a talentless storyteller, even the most scintillating plot will fall flat. Think of the best joke-teller you know — a master of the clever pause, the strategic build-up and the explosively delivered punch line. Then think of someone who fumbles at the crucial point every single time.

"Woman has extra-marital affair. Is jilted and burdened with guilt. Throws herself under a train." Huh.

Even if you don't subscribe to the idea that there are only seven (or 12) basic plots under the sun, the importance of story is usually overstated. And this is as true for literature as it is for cinema. If you wrote a plot précis of a classic like Anna Karenina or Moby Dick, it would be difficult to explain to anyone why this thing merited becoming a doorstop of a book — much less a doorstop of a book that is considered a major artistic achievement. The triumph of a Tolstoy or a Melville lies not in what they are writing about but how they write about it.

Here's a plot summary of one of my favourite novels, Kazuo Ishiguro's maddening but brilliant The Unconsoled:

Renowned pianist Mr Ryder finds himself in an unnamed city for a concert. Various shadowy and improbable things happen, confusing both Ryder and reader. At the end he is enjoying a hearty meal in a tram-car. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he seems to believe his visit was successful. He looks forward to the next city.

This outline doesn't begin to convey the impact of the book, which depends (among other things) on Ishiguro's masterful structuring of his plot, his stretching and condensing of time and space to give the narrative a surreal, otherworldly feel, and the way he shows us Ryder's inability to comprehend what is happening around him (even as he allows Ryder himself to narrate the story).

In literature, sentences don't have to exist purely to get you from point A to point Z. (Plot-wise, The Unconsoled might be described as the sort of book that takes 500 pages to get from point A to point A.) The journey can be every bit as important as the destination — and, in the hands of some writers, it can be far more rewarding.

The question of "originality"

As most of us know, Shakespeare didn't think up the plots of any of his most acclaimed plays; he "borrowed" stories that had been floating about for centuries (at times he couldn't be bothered to even think up his own character names — "Desdemona" being a case in point). But he reinvented those stories in beautiful language, giving the characters tremendous psychological depth and finding new ways to make them relevant to the broader human condition.

While on Desdemona (and returning, after this literary detour, to cinema): let's say, just for the sake of argument, that Shakespeare's Othello is a "good story". (It isn't an original story, but that's another matter.) So if you arrange a theatrical production of the play, with solid actors and impeccable set decoration, and then set a stationary motion picture camera in front of the stage to record the action, will the result automatically be a "good film"?

I don't know, I'm only asking. But I suspect most viewers would prefer to either be physically present in the theatre, or to watch a movie version that makes some basic use of film techniques. It doesn't have to be as playfully flamboyant as Orson Welles' Othello, with its use of canted angles and sudden and unsettling close-ups — but it should at least be recognisable as cinema.

And even then, it shouldn't get a "Great" sticker just because it's based on a mighty work of literature. Films should be assessed as films, according to the strengths and capabilities of the medium. It would be bizarre to suggest that the worth of a movie depends mainly on the contribution made by a man who lived centuries before the motion-picture camera was even invented.

While on Wellesian canted angles…

"Style" can mean different things

Simply by discussing a movie's form, one is in danger of sounding pretentious or overly preoccupied with "technique". But that doesn't have to be the case. Phrases like "style" or "stylistic" don't necessarily refer to flashy, attention-drawing techniques out of the Godard school of moviemaking. Such devices can, of course, be completely valid, depending on what a director is trying to do. (Godard is among the most trailblazing of filmmakers — and he's usually quite uninterested in telling a straight story.) But "style" can just as easily be used to describe "invisible style" such as the judicious use of the shot-reverse-shot technique in a scene from a classical Hollywood narrative film. Or the spare, minimalist style of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, who barely moved his camera at all in some films, but who used the placement of characters — in relation to each other and their setting — in very meaningful ways.

The other day I was watching Ozu's lovely film Late Spring, about the subtle societal pressures on a widowed father to marry off his only daughter, despite the fact that both of them are perfectly content in each other's company. In Ozu's hands, even a static shot of an empty room — placed at exactly the right moment in a film, with the shot being held for a couple of seconds longer than one would expect — can add layers to a story about loss and loneliness. Many viewers watching this film could be fooled into thinking it has no "style" at all, and that the story is the sole driving force. That would be a mistake.

The auteur as storyteller

Many great filmmakers have taken varied source materials (novels, short stories, plays) and fashioned from them movies that bear little resemblance to each other in terms of their bare-bone plots but which are organically connected when you look at them as components in the director's career.

Alfred Hitchcock wasn't an all-rounder in the sense that a Chaplin or a Satyajit Ray were — he never wrote a full script himself. However, he did select material that held special interest for him; he collaborated with his writers and made changes that would subtly nudge the script in the direction he wanted it to go. The results are for anyone to see over a long career marked by recurring themes and obsessions that don't even begin to be covered by the thin label "Master of Suspense".

Reading the Cornell Woolrich short story "It Had to be Murder" after having watched the film Hitchcock made of it, Rear Window, I was struck by how pointedly the film deepens the relationship between its protagonist, the wheelchair-bound photographer Jeffries, and his girlfriend Lisa. Operating within the confines of a suspenseful story (is the man across the courtyard a murderer?), the film is just as much about the progression of a romantic relationship and about Jeffries' character development. In this sense, Rear Window has more in common with other Hitchcock films like Notorious (in which an obstinate man similarly takes time to come to terms with his feelings, pushing away the woman he loves and putting her in danger) than to the short story it is based on.

The human response

One reason why form gets short shrift compared to content is that many viewers are viscerally stirred by a situation. For example, there are people who will be moved to tears by any filmic depiction of a parent weeping over a child's body — even if the scene is poorly written and staged, and utterly gratuitous in terms of how it's used within the film. (Right now I'm thinking of Gulzar's Koshish, an occasionally moving but generally uneven film that contains a tacky and manipulative depiction of an infant's death.)

It's understandable (and perhaps even a testament to our best human qualities) that in such a situation, empathy and horror can override our critical faculties. Even the most discerning of us can be swayed (if only at a particular viewing) into giving greater weight to our feelings about the subject being depicted than to the quality of the depiction. Afterwards, our mind and our memory might play tricks on us — we might attribute the intensity of our response to a high level of artistry in the film. Revisiting the same film years later in a different mood, one might be surprised and embarrassed by what now appears an obviously shoddy scene.

Is plot irrelevant?

Of course not. At a basic level, nearly all viewers (from professional reviewers and pedants to "casual" entertainment-seekers) are concerned with story — at least when we are watching a film for the first time with minimal knowledge of the plot. Professional writers get accused of being pretentious killjoys, but very few of them spend most of their time (at a first viewing) consciously thinking about camera angles, shot composition and so on at the expense of what the characters are saying to each other. They flinch during scary scenes just like everyone else, they chuckle at a funny line, they want to know what happens next. They might be so engrossed by a dialogue or a performance that they fail to register the more technical aspects of a scene, such as a noteworthy camera movement. This is one of the reasons why Friday reviews (written after a single viewing and on a tight deadline) tend to focus more on a film's story and on easily discernable elements like acting and music — while longer-form works of criticism (where the writer has the luxury of watching a film multiple times) tend to examine the more hidden aspects of the film's craft.

But while story can't be marginalised, it should get less weight than it usually does. Unfortunately, much of mainstream Hindi film writing focuses disproportionately on content, so that the emphasis is more on "what the film is about" than on the actual execution. Thus we have the phenomenon of movies being neatly categorised (comedy, thriller or romance; or even more facilely, "entertainment film" and "art film") without enough of an effort being made to examine how they succeed or fail within those categories. "Fun films" or "masala films" (Anees Bazmee's Ready being a recent example) come with a built-in defence mechanism: they are insulated against criticism because, you see, you're not supposed to "think" about them, and if you respond negatively to them, that can only mean you're a pseudo-intellectual or a square.

However, masala movies can be well made or badly made, just like anything else — and everything is worth "thinking" about. Many films that get dismissed as flippant (because of the story or subject matter) can be incredibly inventive, using form to create layers of meaning that might not be readily visible on the surface. Conversely, films with "serious subjects" aren't always worthy of respect. Looking at a "story" alone (along with the themes or ideas that are most explicitly contained in it) can be a barrier to a full appreciation of what a good film — or book — has to offer us.

P.S. as mentioned above, this is a collection of disjointed thoughts on a topic that needs to be written about at much greater length. For more on this subject, I'd recommend V F Perkins' Film as Film and Joy Gould Boyum's Double Exposure: Fiction Into Film. But why not start with something more succinct, such as this piece by one of the best film writers around, Jim Emerson.


Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based freelance writer. His book about the making of the film Jaane bhi do Yaaro was published by Harper Collins in 2010 and he has also edited The Popcorn Essayists, an anthology of film writing, for Tranquebar. He writes the blog Jabberwock.