Friday, November 11, 2005

Meaning Making Machines

The other day, I showed my 105 minutes Tulu film SUDDHA to a few friends in Mumbai. Among the viewers was Srinivas Jokatte, a Mumbai based Kannada short story writer and journalist at ‘Karnataka Malla’, a Mumbai Kannada newspaper. After seeing the film one of his reaction was that it is an “Art Film” and some of the subtleties that such ‘Art Films’ would posses might not work with ordinary filmgoers. He gave examples of some ‘Art Films’ that had come from Bangalore at the height of the New Wave Movement a few decades back. ‘People did not understand what the filmmakers were trying to say’ he lamented. He added quickly, ‘There is no such communication issues with your film, but will the layman get the meaning of, for example, the general village shots that you have inserted between various sequences?’

In SUDDHA, as an editing pattern, there are some general village shots that I had inserted in between some key sequences. These are shots showing villagers going about in their daily routine. They have very little connection in the main plot. A man ploughs his fields, another climbs a coconut tree, a kid goes to her school, a woman scraps some coconuts etc… Shots like these act as a transition between sequences. They give the necessary breaks amidst the ever-talking characters.

One of Jokatte’s observations was that these shots were unnecessary to the film because they were ‘meaningless’ and that they did not add anything to the main story of the film. Within these statements lie the fundamentals of how we generally approach the process of watching and experiencing a film. Thanks to the trigger ignited by the ever sensitive and incorrigible Jokatte, I now am able to formulate my thoughts regarding an issue that has bogged me down for quite some days now.

We are all, as the saying goes, meaning making machines. Generally, it is my observation that human mind tends to assign meanings to what ever it sees and experiences. Thus, if a politician sits on his chair, the chair may be taken as a symbol of ‘power’. If your subordinate happens to question you, it maybe considered by you that he lacks respect for his superiors. A husband might doubt his wife if she enjoys a joke with one of her male colleague over the phone.

If we separate the fact from fiction, the only reality that can be assumed is that the politician did sit on his chair, the subordinate had posed a question to you and the wife had laughed at the joke that her male colleague had uttered. These facts by themselves do not mean anything or they do not have an inherent meaning attached to them. The meanings and interpretations are assigned in our own minds. Thus, a simple chair becomes a symbol for ‘power’, a simple question from your subordinate may become termed as ‘arrogance’ and your wife’s simple laugh might be interpreted as ‘infidelity’!

Going by this, it is natural to assume that our mind indulges in such ‘meaning creation’ while watching a film. Very long back, when still in college, I had gone to a ten-day film appreciation course that was being conducted by K.V. Subanna’s Ninasam in Heggodu, Karnataka. A well-known Kannada writer, who was my co-participant in the course, was very impressed by a sequence in a film where the heroin had placed her hand into the mouth of an anthill. For him, the act ‘meant’ that she was sexually unsatisfied. Maybe the filmmaker might have meant that, or maybe he did not. The point I am making is not if the interpretation of the well-known writer is right or not, but the fact that we always assign meanings to works of art.

While it is not ‘wrong’ to assign such meanings, it is just one of the approaches we could be taking while watching a film or a work of art. There might be a film or a painting or a drama, which would need an altogether different approach of experiencing it. Sometimes, change has the ability to unsettle even the strongest.

So in SUDDHA when I do not assign any meanings to all those village shots, except perhaps what is being experienced, I have noticed that people do get worried! What do these shots ‘mean’? Why do you shown a woman bathing her child in between those two sequences? How does it carry forward the story? Why have kept the shot so long? Is there any ‘meaning’?

My question is – is there any which way that we can stop assigning significant ‘meanings’ to everything and anything we experience during the process of watching a film? Is it possible that we just ‘be’ with the film and it’s characters, their dialogues, movements and their emotions without giving any ‘meanings’ to them? Can we ‘be’ with the pace of the film, the sounds of the film, the camera movements of the film, the cuts of the film without giving any ‘meanings’ to them?

Is it possible to experience a film just as we experience music?

What ‘meanings’ do we assign to a classical Bhajan that Bhimsen Joshi sings? Even if the listener does not know anything about Ragas, Talas, Shruti and other technicalities that music imbibes in itself, does he not appreciate the music? One can’t appreciate music unless you are actually ‘listening’ to it and ‘being’ with the voice that is thrown at you. In fact, if at all one started to assign ‘meanings’ to Bhimsen Joshi’s voice modulations; one could never ‘be’ with the music. One would therefore loose the very essence of the music and the rasa it would have generated.

Having said that, I do know that it is probably relatively easy to ‘be’ with the musician, than to ‘be’ with a film - because what Bhimsen Joshi sings are abstract voice throws. Where as, what we see in a film or in a drama is concrete stuff that one can easily relate to, in one’s real life. It thus lends itself to many interpretations and connections beyond the film, while the film is running on. Thus for some, a shot of a politician sitting on his chair may mean, ‘power’ and for some others it might mean ‘greed’!

Many-a-times the filmmaker himself gives some ‘significant’ meanings to what he is creating. ‘The audience must understand this meaning that I have given to this action or sequence’, is his desire. Again, there is nothing wrong with this approach. But how does the filmmaker ensure that the audience gets the exact meaning that he had originally thought of for the action or sequence? There is no way in the world that he can ensure this, except perhaps put in a subtitle, ‘This is to be interpreted as this!’ No wonder people complain that they cannot understand an ‘Art Film’. And no wonder some filmmakers complain that the viewers have not understood their film.

If a widow putting her hand into an anthill symbolizes her unfulfilled libido, then there would be a few more questions posed. While coming to the anthill, she had probably rested her hand on a tree, plucked a leaf, and maybe looked at a flower - what do all these mean?

On the other hand, what if there is no inherent meaning intended? Like the village shots in SUDDHA… Is it possible to ‘be’ with these shots without assigning any meanings?

Ironically, I feel that it is in the mainstream cinema that the audience can easily ‘be’ with the film. The dramatic techniques in this kind of cinema are such that the audience is automatically drawn into the screen, loosing their identity. Heavy captivating music, heightened conflict between characters, and a linier fast paced story line – all ensure this. ‘The film has captured the audience’ the saying goes. Neither the filmmaker nor the audience assign any ‘meaning’ to a fight sequence where the hero bashes up four tough guys, except the fact that the hero bashes up the tough guys!

But how about generating the audience’s ‘being’ with the film without any manipulative techniques used by the filmmaker?