Barfi! director Anurag Basu told Tehelka in a recent interview that “People who grow up in Delhi and Mumbai find their references in cinema. We, the small-town men, find our references in life.”
Basu’s childhood was spent in Bhilai in undivided Madhya Pradesh, where he seems to have met characters who were either straight out of a Charlie Chaplin silent movie or resembled the soppy lovers of Nick Cassavetes’s The Notebook. That is one explanation for the fact that scenes and characters from Barfi! strongly remind us of key moments from Chaplin movies and The Notebook. The other explanation is that Basu is “paying tribute” to his favourite movies. There used to be a time when directors like Mahesh Bhatt and Abbas-Mustan were pilloried for ripping off Hollywood films. Their reputation has now been restored: they were tribute artists before the phrase became trendy in the movie business.
Paying homage to much-loved, landmark films can sometimes go far beyond ripping off “scenes I wish I had directed”. Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill has too many references to his favourite chopsocky titles to remember, so it’s best to keep aside the list of tribute-heavy moments, characters, dialogue and background music scraps and enjoy the two-part movie’s celebration of cartoon-book violence. The name of Tarantino’s company A Band Apart is itself a reference to the Jean-Luc Godard classic Bande a Part (The Outsiders), so we can’t complain that he didn’t warn us.
Several filmmakers have attempted to celebrate their favourite films by opting for straight-out remakes, some of them redundant (Gus Van Sant’s colour film Psycho can’t match the chilling black-and-white Alfred Hitchcock classic) or laboured (Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Solaris). Sometimes, the part is better than the whole. One of the greatest movie tributes is by American auteur Robert Altman. His Gosford Park, about an investigation into a murder that has been committed at a wealthy Englishman’s country estate, salutes French filmmaker Jean Renoir’s 1940s classic La Regle Du Jeu (Rules of the Game). Both films poke fun at wealth, privilege and snobbery, and take great delight in showing the “upstairs” and “downstairs” sections of the estates on which hedonism quickly makes way for tragedy. The lords disport themselves upstairs, the domestic help crowd themselves into the downstairs section. Little seems to have changed between 1939 and 2001, between black and white and colour, between a largely static and a highly mobile camera, and between the French and the English. Altman’s version is very much his own film, however – it is also a caustically funny murder mystery that uses an ensemble of British acting greats, including Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Kirstin Scott Thomas, and Maggie Smith.
Movie nostalgia can be parodic or heartfelt – and sometimes both. Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger, which was frequently shown on the World Movies television channel, respectfully doffed its hat to Thai melodramas, Westerns and Indian movies that were shown in Thailand in the 1950s and ’60s. Indian filmmaker Shashanka Ghosh attempted a similar exercise with Quick Gun Murugun, which was more spoof than homage to Indian masala flicks. Ghosh didn’t share Sasanatieng’s love for formula fare, but instead suggested that bland vegetarianism is the only consequence of watching so much movie cheese.
There is nothing but affection in Todd Haynes for genres now deemed to be out-dated – his Far From Heaven is a smart update of Douglas Sirk’s marvellous melodrama All That Heaven Allows. Sirk’s fifties account of the scandalous romance between Jane Wyman’s wealthy widow and Rock Hudson’s free-spirited gardener allows Haynes to explore modern attitudes towards homosexuality and race. His film stars Julianne Moore as a stifled housewife who cheats on her closeted homosexual husband with her African-American gardener. Once again, between Sirk, working in 1955, and Haynes, who released his homage in 2002, little has changed in the suburban paradise that can be hellish for its dissenters.