Early on in the rich new anthology Popcorn Essayists: What Movies Do to Writers, Kamila Shamsie writes about the seamless ease with which fiction in prose can bridge barriers of eras and epochs in two short sentences. Her essay, Two Languages, In Conversation, questions this obvious premise on which the novel can claim supremacy over cinema. She is unwilling to call one superior to the other and concludes, based on some convincingly argued comparisons (Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion), “The languages of film and prose are radically different, and yet they are in conversation with each other.”
This can be a stimulating debate, especially over whisky, and can even turn facetious. Shamsie’s essay kept me hooked till the end. This, and other essays by writers on how cinema has enlivened them, fuelled them, make this book, edited by Jai Arjun Singh, a delight for cinephiles—especially those rancorous, disillusioned ones who consider film writing in our country stupid. Truly, most reviews of Bollywood films are reactions to films, not critiques of them. Here, I speak on behalf of film critics writing professionally every Friday: Let’s face it, there are few that demand robust critiques.
The Popcorn Essayists: Tranquebar, 227 pages, Rs395.
Could that possibly explain why none of the writers—Anjum Hasan, Manil Suri, Manjula Padmanabhan, Amitava Kumar and Sidin Vadukut (who is with Mint), among others—talk about films from contemporary India? With the exception of Satya in Amitava Kumar’s essay, no movies from recent memory seem to have influenced the writers.
As it appears, the primary purpose of this anthology is to fill the gap in film writing that makes the purpose of a verdict irrelevant—when, after being captive for 2 hours in a dark room, subsumed by their power, we recollect what some films have unleashed in us or how we viewed the world differently after watching them. The most delightful portions of the book are about the tangible pleasures of watching a particular film or director. Hasan’s imagination of austere and soulful Finnish life through the films of Mika Kaurismaki helps her understand the country and its people better when she visits the place. Vadukut relives his rapturous teenage delight at watching Charlie Sheen and Nastassja Kinski in Terminal Velocity, his first film ever on a big screen, in Abu Dhabi’s Eldorado Cinema. Suri, an academic, is driven to wear a bra to perform a song picturized on Helen in Brooklyn’s central square. Musharraf Ali Farooqi dissects, in dispassionate prose, a Punjabi film called Maula Jatt about the cult of foot-worshippers. Kumar extrapolates home and his Bihari identity through Satya and its prince of underworld foibles, Bhiku Mhatre, who asks, atop a hill overlooking Mumbai’s grey sea, “Mumbai ka king kaun (Who rules Mumbai)?” Padmanabhan grapples with the idea of reading a film: what is lowbrow and highbrow, an idea beautifully explored by American critic Pauline Kael in her seminal essay Trash, Art and the Movies. Hindi suspense thrillers of the 1950s and 1960s and the beginning of Bollywood celebrity cult journalism make two other engaging essays by Namita Gokhale and Madhulika Liddle.
All the writers write from memory, and the transformation of some of these writers from the time they watched these films until now are crucial to understanding their relationships with them—the writers are as or more important than the films themselves. Those are the most intriguing essays in the anthology. A few of them, such as Sumana Roy’s A Mechanical Love or Gaadi Bula Rahi Hai and Farooqi’s The Foot-worshipper’s Guide to Watching ‘Maula Jatt’, read like classic film school essays, but their choice of subjects sustained my interest.
We need more writing of this kind on the most democratic, entertaining and all-encompassing art form.