Reading about the ruckus created by some Mohammed Rafi fans over an “insulting” line in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil—Alizeh (played by Anushka Sharma) dismissively says that Rafi cried more than he sang—I had a conflicted response. As a supporter of freedom of creative expression, I was appalled by the idea that a film-maker might be coerced into apologizing on behalf of a character in his story (even if what was said had been many times crasser than “Rafi gaate kum, rotey zyaada thay”). As a critic, I shook my head at this inability to understand a scene’s function in the context of a specific narrative.
But another part of me—the fan of old movies and old music, who is always a little defensive about the cinematic past and how it might be perceived by the current generation—knew I would give this Alizeh person a wide berth if we ever chanced to meet.
“Airhead,” I thought, humming one of Rafi’s most stirring songs, Dil Ke Jharokhe Mein, to myself, “I wouldn’t want to have a conversation with her about music, or possibly anything else. It would be like talking to that Sid Mallya kid who said Top Gun when asked about his favourite classic film.”
It’s a small tribe I belong to—call us hoarders and worshippers of things that were made (or sung) decades before we were born—and our conversations are often fraught. As someone who became addicted to the great Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s as a teen, read all the literature available about the period, and later found his way to the vintage films of other countries, I grit my teeth at people who think these relics are quaint or irrelevant compared to the edgier films and TV shows of today. On Quora, a question like “Which is the most amazing movie climax?” or “What is the most philosophical movie ever?” routinely begets answers posted by users who are invested enough in cinema to have elaborate conversations about it, but seem unaware that there was a pre-Christopher Nolan world; let alone that medium-defining things were being done a hundred years ago.
With the past being a foreign country that very few of us apply for visas to, there are obvious reasons to be entranced by Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a film about two people who are in many ways anachronisms. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) loves jazz in its original, pristine form and frets about its decline (“the world says let it die, it had its time,” he despairs; he would identify with old movie buffs who worry about poor print preservation and lack of public interest), while Mia (Emma Stone) has a giant Ingrid Bergman poster on her wall and loves movies like Casablanca. They both look ahead to the future, to the realization of private dreams, but they have such a strong connection to a cultural past that the film itself is seduced into telling their story in a language that evokes the golden years of the big-screen musical.
Notably, even though La La Land is set in the 21st century, in a world of intrusive cellphones and electronic car keys, the musical numbers, many of which could easily be from 1950s or 1960s films, are played straight. There are tiny nudge-wink moments: For instance, when Mia sardonically sings maybe this appeals/to someone not in heels during a nighttime stroll and then sits down to put on shoes more suited to dancing, I was reminded of the famous, uncredited observation that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did in their dances together, except that she did it in high heels. But the overall tone is affectionate and unironic.
It’s likely that many of La La Land’s fans—especially the younger ones—love the film not because it reminds them of a grand, larger-than-life cinematic past, but for its novelty value; it will remain a delightful one-off, like almost nothing they have seen before, or will see again. In this sense, it is like The Artist, a 2011 black and white silent film that became massively popular among audiences that knew little about the actual silent era. But I feel Chazelle’s film generously invites a viewer to use it as a channel to explore bygone treasures; not just the obvious influences such as American and French musicals, but also other old films we are shown in posters, such as The Black Cat (1934) and The Killers (1946).
Here’s to the ones who dream, sings Mia in a rousing scene that expands its scale almost magically: It begins as an effort by an aspiring starlet to clinch an audition (I was reminded of Vicki Lester in the 1937 version of A Star is Born, saying “But maybe I’M that ONE” when told that only one in a hundred thousand make it in Hollywood), then soars into a gentle commentary on the frail times we live in. A time where the vanguards of art and culture, the “painters and poets and plays”, seem always to be under threat by larger, bullying forces. But the lyrics, about a fiercely independent aunt who inspired Mia, are also a paean to the past; to the achievements of those who paved a road for the realization of our current dreams. They could just as well be a tribute to old cinema. So here’s to the amateur historians, the time travellers, the dabblers who are weirdly nostalgic about things they never actually experienced. Foolish as they may seem.
Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. Jai Arjun Singh tweets at @jaiarjun.