Written by Ankit Ojha
DISCLAIMER: This is more of a laid-back opinion piece than anything else. This is why The CineThinker’s Blog comes to fore – a portion of the online universe where the experiences I’ve had with movies I’ve watched and the things I’ve learned as much about the films as about the people the films impact are written down here.
I remember watching the Ritesh Batra film The Lunchbox more than a week ago, with the extended family that lives in my vicinity. Being a film set in India, with vivid brushstrokes of life, the movie is a deliciously written and directed slice-of-life journey of two characters. But that’s not really why I’m writing this. I’m writing this because when the film ended, my aunt emphatically stated, “Is that it? Is that how it ended?”
As of now, she dislikes the film.
Now, for people more used to the system of open-ended story-lines, there’s always comfort in knowing you’re prepared. The problem, however, rests within you if – for a person who watches too many a film with perfectly tied endings – you’re unprepared watching such a movie. Not that films with specific endings are any worse off. Because that’s not the point of me writing this piece either.
Being of Indian origin, I’ve grown up alongside too many people who bank on glitzy, hyper-commercialized star-powered potboilers of various genres into the one film they get to see to while away all their worries. Never mind if the film is incoherently told. Never mind if the movie is all over the place. Never mind if the movie is terribly insulting to race, gender or culture. All of those things don’t matter anymore, because by the end of the day, the protagonist wins the war, gets the girl and drives into the sunset. And that’s really what matters for the crowd the movies are designed for. The Indian Hindi-language movie industry – more popularly known by its terribly unoriginal pseudonym, Bollywood – has tons of movies of the kind to its credit. Almost every movie is basically a romantic action musical dramedy having so many obviously certain inspirations. Not that there aren’t glimmering examples of brilliant genre – and genre defying – movies and filmmakers in the industry itself, but there’s a certain mindset that has been made for the movies being churned out of the industry – even to the outsider – and that unfortunately cannot be shaken off. This is where the expectation levels of a movie completely ‘out of character’ comes in – how in the whole wide world would I be able to treat a movie I’ve already judged through its trailers without bias?
Because I’ve already engraved into the recesses of my mind a way to look at the film. This takes me back to watching director Anton Corbijn’s The American for the first time, for professional reasons, more than a year ago. The movie is a slow-burn character study of an American hitman that is an absolutely riveting watch, combining the technical visual artistry with the quiet atmosphere of the complex characters the viewers meet from time to time. I later ended up watching the trailer of the film, and I was left quite surprised. Because the movie was packaged to be more of an action drama than merely a drama about a reluctant assassin. Despite a few stellar reviews, there were also a bunch of unfavorable reviews that trailed the George Clooney starrer’s release in the days after.
Films like Guy Ritchie’s Revolver and Ridley Scott’s The Counselor are other strong examples of films that have failed to fulfill the expectation levels of the audience on different levels (how can a movie starring Jason Statham be so deep? How can such a stellar starcast have no action?). When the initial promotional spots for The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer saw their light of day, people didn’t even care half as much, and went ahead with their own expectations of the film being a dark, surrealistic and philosophically mature adaptation of a relatively lighthearted cartoon for the whole family. What they wouldn’t have expected would have been for the director duo to stick to their convictions and give us all an absolutely faithful, hyper-colorful live action film meant for the whole family, and stylized in the form of its source animation. The film obviously wasn’t successful – either critically or commercially. That it was recognized much after its release for what it was actually meant to be is a fortunate silver lining. But as they say, the first impression would unfortunately always stick to be the last impression.
While people can point fingers to various other people for these movies to fail to get their due, the reality is that we don’t know whom to blame. We don’t know if we should blame the audience for paying to watch a bad film as comfort food, simultaneously ignoring the deserving ones. We don’t know if we should additionally blame them for bringing a certain set of restricted expectations to movies that probably do not wish to be pigeonholed. We do not know if we should blame the studios for delivering terribly written commercial popcorn munchers more than substantial movies. Or if we should point fingers at them for having a misleading promotional strategy while struggling to bring us better films – if only to profit from a movie; because let’s face it – returns are very important too. We don’t know if we should be blaming the directors for making films that are completely out of character of their previous films – or even trying. In actuality, we cannot blame anyone. Everyone tries to do what they think is right for the path they have chosen. That is the simplest way I can explain the reality of the situation. And when looked at from a macro level, its not half as terrible as it sounds. Unfortunate for some intersecting threads? Yes. But terrible? Probably not.
And that’s how the never-ending cycle of expectations versus reality actually works.