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Mdeii Life - Anand Krishnamoorthi's blog

Monday, August 09, 2004

Finnegans Wake and Sakalakalaa Vallavan

Reading books, especially the ones that are non-contemporary classics (non-contemporary is a broad term that goes beyond its temporal inference and is used to represent even physical, cultural and stylistic distance or dissonance), is a rather tiring thing. There is always a constant fear of losing the plot. At-least I have to read and re-read lines and passages that I have just read and not absorbed.

This later work by James Joyce is a very difficult book, but ironically, has been the one book that I have found easiest to read through as I am unencumbered by the need to understand every word, phrase, line or passage. This way, I can just go ahead and enjoy it by picking up whatever I can along the way. (Joyce fans can now shoot me)

The desire to seek closure to the incomplete or the incomprehensible has been the driving force of readership, and consequently storytelling. The only time we feel unencumbered to find meaning or closure is when in our dreams; where the abstract, the unintelligible and the illogical are allowed. For example, bad malapropisms are not only excused, but also quite plainly understood. Could it be because we know that �we ourselves� are the sole audience and sole authors of our dreams? So is the need for closure only a non-reflexive activity? Is our desire to communicate with �the other� rather than with �the self�, such a strong force that we have an almost primeval urge to seek closure?

Going by Freudian theory, even dreams have secondary elaboration, but these seem to be as abstract a �fill-up-and-make-logical� activity as our dream images are.

Forget Finnegan�s Wake, take Tamil cinema, which has one of the oddest, and most remarkable forms of storytelling where too, the audience is mostly unencumbered to seek logic, rationality or even intelligibility. No one seems to care if in the middle of a serious scene, someone breaks out into song and dance. Simply by virtue of convention, habit and tradition, the audience can reach a stage of readership where they can purely skim through the text without stopping and re-reading and actually trying to find out the meaning. Even the creators of the images have by virtue of the same habits, conventions and traditions, formatted their storytelling to be as non-textual as possible, and consequently the telling allows itself to be told in such an abstract a manner. (By non-textual I mean in a manner that seemingly defies common understanding of storytelling)

This singular ability for being unfazed at the abstract does not mean that the audience has forgotten to read the �traditional� story. The truth is that �this� abstract style is what has become traditional. Therefore a different kind of abstraction that is varied from the one that has been formed by habit and convention, would still be unwelcome and unintelligible.

But by its mere existence this phenomenon demonstrates the capability of a culture and a people to evolve unique, shared (only within the group) and local abilities of abstraction that is strange for a foreigner. But what is the point about being able to be niche-abstract? The thing is that, as far as the local-traditional images go, the audience considers itself to be as much the author as the reader, to be able to, like in one�s own dream, condone, if not understand the abstract and unintelligible. (Again, abstract and unintelligible to a person outside the local-culture or the person outside the collective dream-state)

For a person who steps out of his or her own sphere of abstraction (sphere of abstraction is a much broader term than �language�, or �culture�, or even �religion�), the immediate reaction at reality (That is, if there is something called an absolute reality, as things could very well turn out to be relative abstractions and relative realities. In that case, there is no difference between stepping into or out of the spheres of abstraction.) or other abstractions (colloquially�a new culture) would be that of either pity or anger. (Mainly if one is of the opinion that one�s own sphere of abstraction is the best representation of �reality�)

So, how to step-into a new sphere of abstraction? Go read Finnegan�s Wake, it grows on you! Or go ahead and watch Tamil cinema (if you are not already Tamil that is). Or try and bloody well make sense of this post (and not missing the parentheticals) in a single reading. Hah!

11:28 pm


Comments to Finnegans Wake and Sakalakalaa Vallavan


Anand: I feel the need to draw a distincton between dreams on the one hand and Tamil Cinema on the other. Dreams, as you explain, are abstract, no doubt. But I dont know if I would take the liberty of attributing any "abstractions" to Tamil Cinema. This, because it is necessary to understand that dreams take place in a realm that is infact detached from the human temporal or spatial reality. What I mean is, Dreams have a reality; just not in this realm of our everyday existence. Metaphorically, Abstraction is like a foggy mirror and Distortion is like a broken mirror.

Obviously, I am not in favor of the Freudian theory that all dreams are targeted towards 'wish fulfillment'. Therefore dreams are abstract to our rationaislitic understanding, but are not detached from rationale or logic as a whole. There is no scope for probing into the realities which exist in the realm of dreams, but atleast it is consistent in its abstractions. This cannot even be compared to science fiction as science fiction is nothing but an imagined/extrapolated modification of our present reality. This is in contrast to dreams, which are not in the realm of any concievable present reality although it may borrow some elements like incidents, people etc.

Tamil cinema, on the other hand is (in my humble opinion) a distortion of our present realities, and not (in the least healthy) abstraction. (Distortion of reality is obviously not used synonymously with abstractions.) We live very much, (sometimes disgustingly so) within the realm in which tamil cinema takes place. Tamil cinema sometimes distills our realities so much that we are confronted with our own escapist demons. Paradoxically, using the method of song and dance to convey these ideas distorts these very realities it strives to get across. So much so, that as u said, we have become accustomed to filtering aspects of reality from these distortions. Tamil cinema is furthest away from abstraction because unlike the former, it is concrete. Concrete in its distortions. It quite simply takes reality by its neck, strangulating it into an ogre that we in time, have grown to love and cherish as part of our cultural heritage.

Ironically we have socialized ourselves to enjoy and cherish these distortions of reality (song and dance) giving them a strong individuality apart from the stories or films which showcase them. Over time, these distortions mutate further and last as long as it is within the syntax of our understanding.... and if not, we either reject them or as you said learn to over look them in favor of the story.

Regarding your questions:

We learn to see ourselves in our dreams. (Seeing the self in oneself) . And regarding (tamil) cinema, we learn to see ourselves in one and all who view the film. (seeing the self in the other) So, in my opinion both are reflexive activities. We dont seek closure in dreams as it is a realm that we visit ocassionally, whose syntax and reality is individual-specific and will always be unknown to us. Plus, as you inferred, it is not a collective experience. In tamil/(or otherwise) cinema, there is a need for closure because of the masalas of realities and their distortions that we have to swallow in the very realm of our spatial and temporal existence. It is a collective experience, and therefore answers are necessary.

As far as Tamil cinema is concerned, I think that these distortions (what u refered to as abstractions) will never see complete annihilation. There will be hybrids and hybrids of hybrids thereby teaching us newer methods of distilling cinema and seeking closure. If my opinions sounded too reductionist, please excuse me.

posted by Blogger Mitochondria 

2:35 pm, August 10, 2004

Mito: Hmm� getting into the groove! (Rubbing my hands in excitement) Yes. I completely agree with you. In fact, I have to correct my idea of a few things especially my blanket assumption that the film viewing experience is entirely equated with the Freudian dream-state. Nevertheless, not abandoning my core assumption that identification is synonymous with understanding (i.e. excusing, condoning, etc.), I have to make a (another pretty reductionist) distinction between the content of (Tamil) cinema (i.e. the themes, story etc.) and the format of the medium.
While �distortion� is more than adequate to describe the content as reflection of reality, the narrative format still remains within the realm of an abstraction. Again, by format, I explain the existence of multiple disconnected tracks of story, sudden songs, even the whole idea of the film being shown in two parts (with a snack / piss / cigarette interval). While the larger than life image of the hero, the presence of 100 dancers in songs, the superhuman stamina displayed in the fights, even the illogic of dramatic climaxes are definitely distortions, (they specifically, need to have closure, and in a Freudian sense, are symbolic / symptomatic, and even wish fulfilling). For these �content elements� the idea of suspended disbelief can apply, if you, like me, like to swear by the psychoanalytical approach to cinema. Alternatively, and convincingly as you put it, you could even call it a willing distortion that simply exists in the psyche of the filmmakers and the audience�escapist in most cases.
This wonderfully explains (Tamil) cinema �content�; whereas, I am looking at the �format�. Why do we allow, however concrete it is, a distortion of reality, or even rare glimpses of sincere reality, to be shown as disconnected tracks, with the existence of songs and fight sequences? When I mentioned the non-requirement of closure, I did not mean the closure of plot, or of the escapist sentiments expressed in the content, but in terms of grappling with the question of �Why is there a song here?� or �Why is Vivek making jokes about things that have nothing to do with the plot?�
People, unaccustomed to (Tamil) cinema might not find closure / peace of mind, when such questions nag them, while we, by virtue of habit, have agreed to deny the irritability, irrationality of this format. For example, while we narrate a film�s story to a friend, we quite simply stick to the plot, and do not talk about these vestigial form elements (unless there is something really extraordinary about them, and even when we do so, it is a totally different discussion, and not part of the discussion of the story). We quite simply ignore these �form elements� while understanding the �content� of the movie. This ability to ignore the �usual, formulaic, expected form elements� is what I meant to convey as part of the sphere of abstraction (i.e. equating it with language, accents).
Therefore, sticking to my earlier argument, �alternative, new, experimental form elements� such as non-linearity, the situation/montage song where the actors do not sing the lines (popularised by Balu Mahendra), or even doing away with songs, (as partially tried by Bala and Mani Ratnam) would initially be unwelcome or regarded with amusement or disdain. But, once they enter regular parlance, then, they are part of the sphere of abstraction.
But, the one big point you have made in the end of your argument has to be repeated here to sum up. How much ever these form elements change, the distortion in the content remains. The form elements become hybrids, in some measure even slightly nudging the orientation of the content, but as long as both the filmmakers and audience in convinced that the fundamental reason to go to the movies is for escapist entertainment, and a willing suspension of disbelief, the distortions will remain.
So I have to correct myself of two mistakes I made in the original post. One is the failure (almost an arrogant dismissiveness in hindsight) to separate �format� and �content� while propounding my hypothesis; and the second in the sticking to only Freudian theory to explain the film viewing experience. Sincere Apologies!
And thanks Mito, for bringing it up :)

posted by Blogger Anand 

6:55 pm, August 10, 2004

Anand: Your clarification did shed more light on the distinction between dream (abstraction) and Tamil cinema (distortion, now that we both agree on it). I agree with most of what you have to say with a few additions. You probably know it is very difficult to separate the scab of content from the skin of format. For instance: the message although independent of the medium, is mostly suordinated by the medium, so much so that media theory refers to the medium as the message.

A thriller or a crime drama devoid of comedy tracks or romance cannot for this very reason be reproduced in Tamil cinema. If medium is uderstood synonymously with format of story telling, then the format (song, dance) mandates the presence of these elements in the narration of the core content. Therefore, as you summed up, even if formats change, they will bring with them their own little abstractions which will in more ways that few distort the purity of the content. It seems pronounced here in Tamil cinema because of the domineering, ubiquitous command of the characteristic-unchanging 'format' over the changing 'content' in individual films.

posted by Blogger Mitochondria 

12:09 pm, August 11, 2004

This blog's turning into a frigging PhD class in film.
OMG! Awshum! Anand, You kinda lost me midways, and I didn't wake up till the very end.

FIlms, while trying to "mirror" society, end up being stupid exercises in vanity and a substitute for sex. I have always, (and this I have told you too) hated the done to death flashbacks, the break into a song and dance routine, and Mr. Ramanarayanan's way of religion and spirituality.

Maybe, you could talk about Mr. Ramanarayanan's Brand of godliness. I would love to bash him up, even if it second hand (through you)

posted by Blogger Ravages/CC 

6:31 pm, August 11, 2004

Mito: Yeah! I forgot all about Marshall McLuhan. Whenever I think of him, it reminds me of the scene from Woody Allen�s Annie Hall.

CC: I�ve always wanted this to be a friggin PhD class in film. I try to show off and wait for someone to catch me in the act and start a nice discussion. Am happy that it can now happen. Ramanarayanan is a whole new doctorate. Another day maybe?

posted by Blogger Anand 

8:44 pm, August 11, 2004

Interesting!Joining the party a tad bit late!(blame it on the time zones!)

For any issue we need to tackle the root cause!To understand why we have so many "distortions" and "hybrids" in our current tamil cinema we need to understand where they came from in the first place.Hollywood Musicals ofcourse!After the silent era,came the musicals.Cinema as a medium has grown out of Beverly Hills to the rest of world.And so did Tamil Cinema.They borrowed the musicals format and u had "Chandralekha","Karna" with 22/25 songs(with the exception of "Andha Naal",which was a classic Hitchcock-ian inspiration).Cinema as a medium to represent reality actually took force only during the World War 2.War movies were made.And slowly they started making social commentary and other aspects of life through the motion pictures.

While Hollywood moved on to completely dialogue oriented movies,mimicking reality as much as possible,experimenting with various "formats" of story telling,developing different genres in story telling,Indian Cinema(which includes Tamil Cinema), failed to take the next step in the cinematic evolution that was happening in the world.

One reason could be "why fix when something ain't broken".People enjoyed musicals.Since the number of film makers who do it for Art/Cinema is considerably less than the number of filmmakers who do it for Money, they never really tried hard experimenting.And those who moved away from the beaten path,were actually beaten by the clueless
"critics" and supposed intellegentia in the media!(how do u think the term "Art Cinema" came into existense when there is just good cinema and bad cinema).

They extrapolated the song/dance routine to showcase beautiful places/countries and even included angels shaking their hips to the act!By itself, its an ingenious idea.The trouble is when they do it ad nauseum which is the case now!Since there has not been much movement from the musicals era in Indian Cinema in terms of format, and even today, majority of people watch a movie for escapism,and somehow everyone touts the idea of making a movie as costly investment,the "real" movies that actually breaks the "format" gets buried under the pile of other shit they churn out faster.Its more of a celebration of mediocrity because thats what they have been fed on for a long time and they dont recognize a work of genius because they dont know what it is!(except for a few who venture to find out because of exposure of different kind of cinema!)

As far as the mixture of Genres in same movie is concerned,again by itself, its a great idea! But u cant do it as well in every other movie.Since an average indian movie-goer is greatly forgiving at missed-attempts of a "real"movie,incoherent screenplays,bad lighting,bad editing,even bad logic,and derives pleasure from parts of the whole unit and manages to make the movie a commercial hit, other producers assume that gullibility,forgiveness as a token of courage to produce many more versions of that original
shoddy work!Over time it has become an accepted norm!Thus came into existence,the comedy track,item number,marriage songs,etc.It has now become a convoluted universe caught in its own web of deceptions!

We need a new breed of movie-makers(and resurrect the "real" directors) supported by new breed of mediamen who can call a spade a spade, and recognize true "cinema" !

posted by Blogger Rama The Drama 

12:41 am, August 12, 2004

Ramchi: You�re right about the fact that the (Tamil) film audience can be seen to be very forgiving. I actually wanted to shed a little light on that when I wrote about their identification with a specialized form of storytelling (condoning the format etc). I also agree with you when you say that the film medium itself is imported and foreign. Very true; but that does not explain all the peculiarities in our cinema. This is a slightly overdone explanation, but here goes anyway: we have always has a theatre/performing-arts tradition that has had its own quirks/specialities. They could be classical dance, music, drama, or they could even be folk arts. For example, taking the classical Sanskrit drama tradition, we have certain things that have continued to this day in our cinema. The hero, or leading man, is always shown or introduced in fragments. When fully introduce, there is always a song. (Naan Autokkaaran). The hero has a comic sidekick. The comic sidekick always has his own romantic story, often disconnected with the main plot. (Right from NS Krishnan to Goundamani-Senthil) The leading lady is also introduced with a song. (Chinna chinna aasai) And there is the �thunderbolt� (borrowing from Puzo) scene. The hero has a mother, etc. the villain is also clearly defined. But the issues handled in some plays were much more complex than in some of our film plots. (Take for example Mrichhakaticam). Another important thing is that in our classical drama, there have always been soothradhaaris and komaaLis, who usually interrupt the audiovisual storytelling by bringing in a textual narration. These could be comments, observations, wise-cracks, asides, analysis, or even verbal expositions to drive the story in a particular direction in a particular speed. So, we are also traditionally used to fragmented storytelling; that in turn makes us an ingrained television audience.

Moreover our literary tradition itself has been poetry; also our large epics have multiple tracks and sub-plots and �set pieces� and �items�. (Much like the classical literary tradition in the west�mainly Greek) Nevertheless, we have borrowed quite heavily from world cinema, especially mainstream American. But these have mainly been plot ideas and little in terms of storytelling style. Yes, there have been a few Tamil filmmakers who have borrowed format styles as well. But eventually we have mostly either borrowed from our past, or borrowed from outside�never evolved our own styles properly (Again I have to stress. We have some peculiarities that are only our own�a mutant chimera sort of evolution of the film medium) As Mito says, we have come to love this chimera and call it part of our culture & tradition.

posted by Blogger Anand 

12:05 pm, August 12, 2004

How can i forget the influence of folklore and theatre in our movies! Thanks for filling that missing piece in detail!I wouldn't go to the extent of saying "love this chimera" but more of a reluctant acceptance of the inevitable.We need to break these bad habit of accepted "distortions" and make a real effort towards moving the viewers towards one-concept movies(no more "scifi-romantic-musical-thriller-drama" as Preity Zinta described "Koi Mil Gaya") with an hour or two at most.But again we can't expect that to happen until the intelligence of the average viewer raises above the need for escapism.TV might be a good starting point to acclimatize the viewer!

posted by Blogger Rama The Drama 

8:23 am, August 13, 2004

Tamil cinema had its origins in 'company' drama, the most popular form of entertainment prevailing at the time of advent of cinema in Tamilandu and India (early decades of the 20th century). It has been argued that the persistent 'peculiarities' (distortions, if you will) of Tamil cinema--such as, song and dance, comedy track, dominance of the verbal over the visual--stem from these origins. The irony is that all of these made perfect sense for the drama format. Since the visual range was limited, dialogue had to dominate. The comedy track (involving a couple of comic actors unconnected with the main plot) was a trick of expedience which allowed the lead characters and others to change their elaborate costumes and also to get the props ready for the next scene. Since company drama itself was derived in part from the 'tamasha' or 'koothu' tradition, song-and-dance was also integral to this form of popular entertainment.

When the new medium entered the country, people from the theatre en masse flocked to the film industry. (This was perhaps noone else worked in the 'entertainment' industry of that time.) In fact, up until the seventies, the leading figures in most traditional disciplines of the Tamil film industry were company drama people: Shivaji Ganesan, MGR, Neelakantan, AP Nagarajan, VK Ramaswamy, MR Radha, and so on, ad infinitum. It is possible that all of them played to their long suit, and so, kept Tamil cinema from emerging as a visual medium, with its own stupendous possiblities. (For a more detailed presentation, see S Theodore Baskaran's "The Eye of the Serpent: A Social History of Tamil Cinema" Manas, Chennai 1996).

Why does it remain stagnant today, even after nearly a century has passed? Partly because the intersection between capitalism and popular entertainment is a veritable fountainhead of 'distortion'. Happily, ths is not peculiar to Tamil cinema. Look at the way the space for human drama has been squeezed in Hollywood by this FX crap, literally a distortion, masquerading as high-technology among the technologically illiterate.

The other reason is that cultural systems - literally, closed sytems of meanings evolved _exclusively_ by communities - are notoriously self-perpetuating. They resist, even destroy, anything that threatens the cultural status quo. Between civic sense and the lunacy of building platform temples, the sacredness of God will always win. So it is with the format of Tamil cinema. The content, if you look close, is invariably tied to the retrogressive elements of Tamil culture, no matter what the posture is at the moment. Such are the ties that bind in a closed cultural system.

Finally, every individual has a narrative, it's a way of relating to oneself, to build a coherence. This narrative is not logic, nor ethics, nor philosophy, but just a dream that one keeps having, a dream that answers to the deep psychic needs of the individual (parphrased Murakami). After entering a film's narrative, the average individual may not experience a deep dissonance. He would condone in the narrative what he condones in himself. This is perhaps the bedrock of naratives in popular cinema, anywhere in the world. You couldn't get away with it in the literary format, where the reader's experience is reflective, not immediate and inexorable (as in a dream or a film). There are few filmmakers who can take you beyond your own dreams. Bunuel and Tarkovski? Perhaps, but that's another story!


posted by Anonymous Anonymous 

3:30 pm, August 13, 2004

Partisan: Going through history is really useful in understanding (Tamil) cinema and its peculiarities. Apart from historical forces, economics has also played a huge part in shaping the industry: both the economics of making movies and the economics of watching movies (if you really want to separately look at the two). I like your points about individual narratives, the dream state and the movies. Of course even though that is a point that is close to my heart, I guess it needs to be better discussed especially since I have a propensity to take a Freudian slant; well if not Freudian, then Lacanian.

posted by Blogger Anand 

11:31 pm, August 13, 2004

"The content, if you look close, is invariably tied to the retrogressive elements of Tamil culture, no matter what the posture is at the moment."-Well Said,Partisan.I can safely extend that thought-process to Indian Cinema with the additon of stereotypes.Idea of Virginity(husband has to die on the first night),Parents always being right/good when it comes to marriage,Rich plundering the poor,the evil step mother,the cunning politician,policemen...the list goes on.

A film's narration is a reflection of its makers style of communication.what ultimately matters is content.A blend of style and content is a joy to watch which all great filmmakers demonstrate.

What i don't agree is that literary format is reflective and not immediate.To anyone who has immersed themselves in a great literary work(fiction or non-fiction),its as immediate and reinvigorating as films or dreams.And most of the times it is better than films, since the imagined "movie" is usually of a higher quality than the adapted "real" movie.It is the success of the narrative style and content of that author when they evoke such experience while reading their work. Just my 2p.

posted by Blogger Rama The Drama 

3:02 am, August 14, 2004

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