My head contains a few fascinating dichotomies- Dravid/Laxman, Federer/Nadal, Anurag/Dibakar etc. Ofcourse, like some mental models, they are less accurate depictions of the world than arbitrary placeholders to interpret and communicate better. Deekshith and I spent hours discussing Dravid/Laxman. We love both of them but it is more interesting, and revealing, to ascribe to them select characteristics and debate on which are more valuable/cool. So, Dravid's the architect, the spine, the selfless, disciplined monk; Laxman's the artist, the lifeblood, the impulsive, imaginative artist. Similarly, Federed/Nadal is the distinction between a gifted genius and a never-say-die hustler1. Invariably, the approach is reductive. Humans, probably achievers of that level even more so, are way more complex and adaptive than these characters. Yet, narratives need characters and we need narratives to not only understand the world but even build our personalities.
In the world of cinema, we have, say, Nolan/Fincher or Truffaut/Godard or Ray/Ghatak. Let me reiterate: the classifications are almost arbitrary and generally speaking the folks who are discussing like both people but are trying to convince the other, while simultaneously trying to tell themselves, why one is better than the other2. My favourite point of departure, and I suspect to a lot of Indian film aficianados of my generation, is Anurag Kashyap/Dibakar Banerjee3. I could spend, and infact have, hours going through their filmographies with an equally passionate friend.
To set out the rules of the game, let me sketch their personalities from my understanding of their films:
AK is the prodigy, the angry, driven artist. Someone so immensely talented and so in love with films that he managed to crack, and infact reshape, Indian cinema despite being immensely sensitive and genuinely naive in many aspects. It is hard to imagine Anurag being anything other than the filmmaker that he is, someone who learnt films organically and operates intuitively.
DB is the smartass, someone who's always carried a chip on his shoulder for being the cleverest person in the room. His approach to cinema is scientific, almost clinical, mixed with a dash of whimsy and genuine whackiness. He could've earned success in any field, and to a certain extent did, with his fierce intellect and ease of expression. I suspect the primary reason he ended up being a filmmaker was because it afforded him an opportunity to fiddle with his myriad interests.
Both are unarguably immense talents and it is my pleasure and privilege that I've been able to watch their artistic journeys evolve.
Sandeep aur Pinky faraar is a terrific watch. It gave me a lot to think about, both while watching and later too. There, lies for me, the essence of DB's filmography. I love every one his film's I've watched because they appeal to my intellect, to my aesthetic taste, to my sensibility. I believe I understand his worldview. I respect his craft and am stunned by some imaginative leaps. But I don't really feel anything for the characters. Again, let me be clear, I don't mean it as a complaint. I'm very happy for what he makes. I'm just making an observation. I felt nothing when the lovers are butchered in the masterful first segment of LSD, not when Dr. Ahmadi is killed, not when Salman learns about Reena's affair with Sudhir, and not when Sandeep miscarries4. I clearly, indelibly, am aware of the artist behind these machinations. They are almost scientific observations of characters5. He works with types to tease out human behaviour and so characters, despite being interesting in themselves, work as part, and only as part, of the narrative.
AK is a master storyteller and while I don't particularly feel much for his characters too, probably because of his total immersion and love for 'mainstream' cinema I feel that his characters frequently exceed their brief and pull the narrative in their directions. Which is why his characters seem so real and emphatic. I'm thinking right now of Badshah Khan in Black Friday and how I genuinely felt for him. Even larger-than-life, seemingly unreal characters like Faizal Khan can't help but reveal their humanity. That is probably why his observations of small-town India seem more sincere than DB's scientific curiosity. AK genuinely seems interested in people for their own sake; DB is happier interpreting them as nodes in much larger social structures.
Before I let you go, I want to spend a little time comparing AK's short from Bombay Talkies and DB's short from Lust Stories (my favourite film from each anthology)6. The ambition of AK's short is so immense, and his cinematic grammar, including the delicious use of songs and slo-mo is so exhilarating, that it felt like a perfect encapsulation of what it means to spend sometime inside his head. This is gutsy, instinctive filmmaking- a small town guide having the courage, and the naivety, to dream that he could meet Amitabh Bachchan. AK thinks of the world as an immense movie theatre. There are so many interesting characters, so many larger-than-life dreams, so many quirks and anxieties and ambitions that it must be extremely hard to choose one story and travel with it long enough to transcribe it into a movie7. DB's Lust Stories short film on the other hand is a very intimate, and immensely tragic, story of a man having an affair with his best friend's wife. These are extremely rich, privileged people and yet they are sad, lonely, cynical. DB does not treat the story by amping up the pain, confusion, frustration. They are all self-contained (almost always), intelligent, articulate, yet not smart enough to truly understand, or even attempt to learn, what it is that they're truly feeling and want from life. One way of narrating this story is to turn it into a heightened drama. Another would be to turn it into a bleak, despairing account of a cold, cruel world. Maybe there are other interpretations but I can think of only these two now. DB does neither. He goes the matter-of-fact route. The characters don't transform, they don't learn something about themselves, they don't really evolve, there is no new knowledge being conferred on their beings. They remain who they are- bitter adults living in self-denial. But they're not depressives, they're like many adults. And when they think of their past, they remember it with longing and nostalgia. They laugh easy. The scene of them talking, Sanjay Kapoor eating, Jaideep Ahlawat cutting mangoes when a dead-serious conversations suddenly takes a turn into sheer absurdity ("half-fry, half-fry, half-fry") and they burst out laughing is cinematic gold. Not only does it tell me about those two, and about many men I know including myself, it also tells us how easily we navigate the multitudes of our selves.
A part of me also understands that reducing each movie to its 'essential' scenes or trying to unpack what 'core ideas' the filmmaker is trying to convey in this cinematic contraption is ridiculous. And I hope this doesn't really come off like that. But I use these specific scenes/tropes to interpret and communicate my thoughts and feelings.
Like I said, I love these artists and I'm so grateful to them for their work. Thinking and talking about cinema is one of my life's greatest pleasures.
1Sportswriters are enviably good at painting characters with a few broad strokes. Rohit Brijnath's essay on Fab Five is a brilliant illustration of that type of writing. The Architect/Artist label comes from, if I remember rightly, Rahul Bhattacharya
2It goes without saying, and yet I feel compelled to spell it out, that this is not similar to guys fighting over who is the bigger star or the more popular politician
3I've been meaning to do this post for years now but this sudden drive comes from having just returned home after watching Sandeep aur Pinky faraar
4I'm thinking where this expectation to empathise
and feel for/as characters comes from? That's the grammar of mainstream
5There's something Kubrickian about his work
6I want to spend sometime later thinking about the similarities and differences between the opening, long shots of Mukkabaaz and Sandeep aur Pinky. I don't understand how, but if someone had showed met these two shots in isolation, I have a feeling I would've been able to easily point out which was made by DB and which one by AK
7To be fair, this insight is not very original. It seems to come largely from what Zoya Akhtar spoke about him in a Rajeev Masand interview before the release of Bombay Talkies