The American writer Eudora Welty, in a famous essay, Place in Fiction, wrote: “Fiction is a lie. Never in its inside thoughts, always in its outside dress. The night lamp’s outside is painted with a scene, which is one thing; when the lamp is lighted, through the porcelain sides a new picture comes out through the old, and they are seen as one. A lamp I knew of was a view of London till it was lit; but then it was the Great Fire of London...The lamp alight is the combination of internal and external, glowing at the imagination as one; and so is the good work of fiction.”
A still from Haider
I always remember this, in a restless way, when I see one of Vishal Bharadwaj's Shakespeare adaptations. Without a doubt, we look forward to these movies. They promise a piquant mixture of serious concerns mixed with guilty pleasures, strongly laced with sensuality.
And yet, I always leave feeling the promise was not kept.
Sure the adaptations are translocated to intriguing worlds. Scenes are meticulously detailed, popping with clever post-modern riffs and jokes and emotional undercurrents. Flights of fancy, aided by Gulzar’s superlative poetic bite, dialogue as refined and lush as zardozi, beautiful music, and actors who should just be given their own little cinema kingdoms.
In each film, the filmmaker teasingly unpacks this exciting bag of cinema tricks in the first half and I am waiting to see where he’ll take them. By the second half I am slumped in my seat waiting for the film to finish its dutiful, plodding job as it ticks off each scene from the original play in a deathly schoolboy exercise of match-the-following.
In Bharadwaj’s films the problem is relentlessly of the interior, which seems not to have a ministry, and of emotions in the most philosophical sense, before which the film seems slack-jawed. As in Eudora Welty’s night-light, there is a vivid exterior, but no discernible internal idea/light about the human condition that sets the exterior aglow.
To me, it wouldn’t matter so much, if the film is not ‘authentic’ historically, (one criticism of Haider) if it resonates with an internal or emotional truth about that history. To arrive at these truths though, an artiste must have a very strong point of view about life and the world — a world-view.
In Mr Bharadwaj’s films, we kind of know what Shakespeare thought, and what social historians think about certain political realities. But what really does Vishal Bharadwaj think? It’s unclear and hence the films eventually lose momentum.
In an interview, Mr Bharadwaj has said that if you are not leftist, you cannot be an artiste. If only art were that easy.
It’s not only that there have been great artistes who are right-wing or apolitical. Art is in fact its own politics. Artists cannot afford to become illustrators of other people’s thoughts.
It’s like these films suffer from too much loyalty to the original and the chosen context — but not enough fidelity.
Here’s the difference. In loyalty we stay domestically close to the master. In fidelity we may wander far afield, yet retain a deeply interior relationship of emotional commitment, to an idea. It requires a certain confidence in oneself and one’s relationship — in this case, with art.
Shakespeare and claims to social reality are crutches that perhaps this very gifted director should have the confidence to cast aside now. Seeing many of the lovely little accomplishments in Haider (and the films before), it feels like he must take the scary step of fulfilling the promise he keeps showing, on his own.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.