How deep is it necessary for an artist to know the milieu that informs his work? The answer is obvious; otherwise how would he do justice to his creation? The work wouldn’t ring true, the characters would be facile, conflicts superficial, the settings inauthentic… and the assertions grow more persuasive with examples ranging from Ray — that master of realist cinema whose films inspired an entire movement from the late ’60s which erroneously, and sometimes derogatively came to be known as “art films,” to contemporary Hindi cinema, which is becoming more and more realistic.
There is definitely a lot of meat in the argument as a spate of films emerging from Mumbai in the last decade would bear witness to. A random assessment of films like Khosla Ka Ghoshla, Vicky Donor or B. A. Pass, all set in Delhi, or Udaan, set in Jamshedpur, or Ship of Theseus which explores different facets of Mumbai reveal a close relationship between the films and their makers who all come from the cities in which they are set and are familiar with the nuances of those places: the authenticity is palpable, the characters recognisable, the dialogues real and the soundtrack identifiable.
But in that case how would one account for the authenticity of films like Satya, Black Friday or Maqbool — all iconic films set in Mumbai but made by rank outsiders? Okay, Black Friday is based on a well-researched book written by a Mumbai bred veteran crime journalist, but it is an outsider’s interpretation of the facts and treatment that make it so interesting — and real. Ram Gopal Varma has admitted in an interview that he has no clue how the Mumbai underworld operates within its domestic confines or how gangsters romance; his underworld films are his personal vision that may not have any resemblance with the reality out there. And the authenticity of Vishal Bharadwaj’s interpretation of Macbeth, which he transposes in contemporary Mumbai is more to do with the bard’s understanding of human psyche and its flaws than the director’s knowledge of the megalopolis.
Not many people know that the first time Satyajit Ray visited a village was when he went for the recce of Pather Panchali. He, like Tagore was a city bred man, brought up on western classical music and art; but it was his intuitive understanding, sharpened by meticulous research and compassionate approach that made his Apu trilogy so real, not his personal experience of impoverished rural Bengal which he did not have.
If one looked at the golden era of classical Hollywood cinema, a majority of the directors were European Jewish émigrés who were fleeing Nazi repression. Fritz Lang’s thrillers are as American as he was German. Billy Wilder was of Austrian descent who made quintessential feel-good American films. Michael Curtiz, a Hungarian was still grappling with the English language when he made his 67th feature in Hollywood — Casablanca.
Roberto Rossellini whose films engendered the Italian neo-realist movement that dealt with the plights of post-war working class, was a wealthy man who loved to vroom around in fancy cars, wooing the most beautiful heroines. Hitchcock’s masterpiece Rear Window had no connection with Greenwich Village in NY where it is set.
It is not personal experience that counts when one contemplates a work of art, but the artist’s emotional connect, no matter how remote and unfamiliar the subject could be in terms of its period or setting — and his vision. He conjures up a world that may not have anything to do with the reality as we see and understand, but as long as he probes the psychological truth that underlines the apparent “non-realistic” representation, and arouses our emotions, he has achieved his purpose and fulfilled his creative duties.
Realism has mistakenly come to be associated with good cinema. Films that explore extra-realistic territories like fairy tales, horror, science fiction and period melodramas could be equally good — and realistic in its depiction of human psychology and its predicaments — which are universal.
Universality of theme and emotions is what makes a film realistic and not its “naturalistic” feel. And personal experience is a component that one might forgo in favour of identification with the subject, which is fundamental.
(Ranjan Das is a Mumbai-based filmmaker, instructor and writer)