When watching a good film is too much effort…

I started watching films seriously a few years ago, a little ways before I started this blog. Ever since I have sought out films that engage me, expand the range of stories I consume and help me understand the craft of filmmaking better. But let’s be honest – watching a good film requires emotional investment. And seeing as we are in a particularly tumultuous period in the world, it takes me more effort to watch films that are great but consequently, emotionally demanding. So what does one do when it all gets too much? Watch a bad film of course!

I used to find it difficult to concentrate on bad films. And often because of my premature judgement I didn’t give the films a serious viewing. A few weeks ago, I was taking a film criticism course from Film Companion. The course made the argument that critiquing a film requires giving it a serious viewing, even if it is a bad film. I decided to put that advice into practice. I picked out a few ‘choice’ terrible movies and watched them attentively. I resisted the urge to write them off right at the beginning, but I tried to discern what specifically pulled the film down in my opinion. In doing so I found that when the story didn’t engage me I could observe the craft more and understand how a film shouldn’t be made.

For this little project, I watched four bad Bollywood movies – Humraaz and Ajnabee (directed by Abbas-Mustan), Fida (directed by Ken Ghosh) and Hello Brother (directed by Sohail Khan).  These films are from the early 2000s. Between a newly formed middle class that aspired to explore the world and a newly developing filmmaking sensibility (brought in with films like Dil Chahta Hai and Lagaan), these films have much in common. Many were shot in foreign locations. At least one protagonist was rich and/or urbane, and the antagonist was often looking to get rich. In terms of their aesthetic, like many films in this time, these films were rather glossy. While on the surface they looked better, they were made carelessly, which is what made them terrible. From set design to continuity errors to the problems with screenplay to bad costumes, these films have it all. Most critically, the characters were so one note that you could go the entire film having learned nothing about them except their names.

Take Hello Brother for instance. In a majority of the scenes that are filmed indoors in this movie, you will find flowers in the background in frame. From the police inspector’s office to the doctor’s cabin to the villain’s warehouse to even the hospital lobby there are bouquets or bunches of flowers in the background. They do not serve any purpose whatsoever. In Ajnabee, there is a scene in which Bobby Deol (one of the protagonists) is breaking into his neighbour’s house looking for evidence that would exonerate him in a court case. The scene is set in Switzerland. But one of the shots in this scene is clearly filmed in Mumbai (you can even see a coconut tree in the background). It is slipped into the scene but it is hardly inconspicuous.

Additionally, Humraaz and Ajnabee routinely cut to the ‘comic’ track in the film that has nothing to do with the plot of the movie. Far from being a part of the screenplay, these scenes were often improvised. They relied on stereotypes (like Johnny Lever putting on a Bengali accent in Ajnabee) or particular quirks (think a police inspector who farts a lot as seen in Hello Brother). Even though I cringed when these scenes came on, I realised (to my surprise), that these were the best written parts in the film. Because at least the films gave some information about these people through their quirks. Sadly, the central characters of the films were devoid of a single defining trait.

Amongst these films, the 2004 film, Fida, turned out to be a surprising exception. The film stars Shahid Kapur, Kareena Kapoor and Fardeen Khan. Don’t get me wrong, the film as a whole is truly terrible. Its plot makes no sense and scenes awkwardly cut to ill-placed songs. But in an industry that portrays women purely as love interests to the male lead a little too often, this film surprised me by having the female parts be better written than the male ones. Kareena Kapoor’s character was shown to have a moral crisis over her actions and the film showed her be vulnerable. Kim Sharma, who plays the protagonist’s best friend even gets an arc. From being madly in love with Shahid Kapur at the beginning of the film, to detaching herself from a toxic situation to finally redefining her relationship to him, she had the best part in the film (I cant believe I just said that). Sadly, the men in the film remained caricatures.

Putting on a movie you know is terrible might not be for everyone. But watching them seriously helped me understand aspects of film and filmmaking better. It has also made me a more patient cine-goer. So if you are in need of some respite from the heavy news-cycle and have no inclination to put yourself through an emotional rollercoaster with a good movie, try putting on a bad film. You might be glad you did.

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