Meenakshi Shedde: The Shape of Water: political musical

Mar 11, 2018, 07:34 IST | Meenakshi Shedde

Indian cinema has always had an ambiguous relationship with its song and dance: proud of it at home, but usually embarrassed about it abroad

A still from The Shape of Water, which won an Oscar for best picture last week
A still from The Shape of Water, which won an Oscar for best picture last week

Meenakshi SheddeIndian cinema has always had an ambiguous relationship with its song and dance: proud of it at home, but usually embarrassed about it abroad. Filmmakers have often had an "international cut" of their films with no songs, assuming that foreigners can't fathom why a couple, having a conversation in Juhu one moment, is suddenly cavorting in Switzerland the next.

Even so, Indians imagine we are at the centre of the universe when it comes to musicals and 'dancicals'. But two recent movies that have been hogging the limelight — Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water and Lav Diaz's Season of the Devil (Philippines) — are also musicals, political commentaries, and from cultures not famous for their musicals. The Shape of Water which, of course, won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and Season of the Devil, a nearly four-hour film (3 hours 54 mins), which was selected at the Berlin Film Festival. The Shape of Water is produced by Mexican director-producer Guillermo del Toro and Canadian producer J Miles Dale, with a clutch of Hollywood companies. Season of the Devil is a hard-hitting Filipino film. There could not be a greater contrast in the way Bollywood and these films use song and dance.

The Shape of Water is a transcendental fantasy, a love story between a woman and a fish, or rather a merman. But it is politically loaded: not only is it set during the Cold War, but all its key protagonists are minorities — a mute Hispanic woman, a black woman and a gay man. Sally Hawkins, playing Elisa Esposito, is luminous as the mute cleaning woman in love. The point is, as Elisa is in love with a merman, and both are mute, theirs is a romance without words, so their body language grew in importance. Guillermo del Toro said in an interview, "I was interested in the two main characters recognizing each other, falling in love, but being unable to say anything. So, you pay more attention to the act of recognition."

Del Toro added that his film was also a love letter to Sunday movies: "The work with the camera, with the music, with the actors, has references to classic cinema; it is filmed like a musical, even when the actors do not sing or dance. The camera and the actors are doing a beautiful choreography." So there is a lot of music (Elisa and Merman are able to hear), especially classic Hollywood musical songs. There's even a fantasy within the fantasy, in which Elisa and Merman dance in a glorious Hollywood musical.

In contrast, Lav Diaz's Season of the Devil, is a political, b/w musical, set in the military excesses of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship of 1979, that allegorically damns the current president Rodrigo Duterte, who has overseen extrajudicial killings. Poet-activist Hugo investigates the disappearance of his doctor-wife Lorena, who opens a clinic in a remote village, where the locals are tormented by the militia. Almost the entire film's dialogues are sung in a cappella by the actors. "Your country is being challenged. When are you rising up?" one of the characters sings. Most of the songs are declamatory or lament the people's oppression. Jacques Demy had also converted conversation into song in his poignant love story The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964); though Diaz ups the ante, by choosing the musical form to tell a daring, political story. Would Bollywood dare try a political musical like this, or would it prefer to remain safely in la-la land?

Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at meenakshishedde@gmail.com.

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