Monday 29 December 2014

The Scabrous Eye of the Beholder

A few days back, I rewatched the 90s anthology-style horror movie Darna Manaa Hai. I'd seen this before during college and had liked the film quite a bit. Like many others, I'd also ranked the stories in it in order of quality and 'horrorness'. I'd come to the conclusion that the first story, with Arbaaz Khan and Antara Mali, was the only true 'horror' story there. The others were just weird stuff that wasn't effective in scaring the audience. People turning into apples? Some guy picking off teenagers with the predictability of a chronograph? Everything was either cliched or just not scary.

I had a different experience when I watched it again. Perhaps the difference was because I was reading some crime fiction beforehand, or maybe because it was my first horror movie in a very long time. But the movie felt a lot more visceral, a lot scarier and gruesome, than the first time around. This in spite of knowing the entire story, down to certain dialogues, beforehand.

Typically you'd expect the reverse to be the case. As you get older, you consume a lot more media of the genres you enjoy, and you get more jaded. Therefore things don't frighten you as easily. You need heightened stakes: similar to the way action movie sequels increase the stakes in every sequel. Part 1 - oh, no, everyone in an office building is in danger! Part 2 - oh, no, everyone in an airport is in danger! Part 3 - oh, no, everyone in an entire city is in danger! (I didn't watch parts 4 and 5, but I expect the entire world is in danger there. Yippee-Ki-yay!)

The same would apply for people who have spent their entire lives immersed in a genre. Joe Hill is an awesome example. His first book, 20th Century Ghosts, features situations that are a step up from anything his father wrote, besides expecting you as the reader to have been reading this sort of horror story for ages.

When you're immersed in a genre, you tend to discount the impact that the genre has on a newcomer. I remember reading one of Janet Evanovich's Kinsey Millhone books. There the story had a serial killer in the past, someone who's buried a bunch of people in cement under a house. The funny thing was, no one, including Kinsey, felt any sort of shock at the whole thing, as if serial killers are par for the course. If there'd been a serial killer in, say, a science fiction or a 'serious lit' novel, it would have overshadowed everything else. Here it's kind of expected since it's a crime fiction novel.

The same thing happened to me with Darna Manaa Hai this time. My mindset was that of a 'normal' fiction/movie consumer, and suddenly I have schoolteachers going nutso, the aforementioned people-to-apples, ordinary teenagers getting cut up. The movie scared me more than expected.

It makes you wonder: as a writer or director, do you focus on the 'normal' audience or the 'tuned-in' audience? It's probably really difficult for write for the normal audience, since how much more 'tuned-in' can you get than actually creating something in the genre?

That's the game, really. Write a book for the 'normal' audience, and make sure your characters are 'normal', i.e. they are affected by the events in the book the way a real person would be. Any other route is basically resorting to cliche.

Thursday 25 December 2014

Stephen King's Revival, and Manmohan Desai

[NOT a review of Revival. Or of Manmohan Desai films. Just a rambling bunch of thoughts and connections]

I just finished reading Stephen King’s latest book, Revival. [There will be spoilers here, so beware]. The book spans almost the entire life of its hero, Jamie Morton. Beginning from when he’s a small kid, and ending when he’s past sixty, it talks of his multiple encounters with Charles Jacobs, a pastor and later carnival showman, miracle healer, and researcher into pseudoscience. The climax is a disquieting peep into the afterlife – a hell enforced by Lovecraftian beings and giant-ant-like creatures.

As it stands, the book is good. The question I came away wondering is, is this really a story that needed recounting of an entire lifetime to tell? An alternate novella-length version could have started from just before the climactic Frankensteinian experiment, covered the revelations, and ended, say, with all the characters dying or mad. King’s decision to let the tale unfold over a lifetime does give us more to chew on, of course: the fates of the various patients cured by Jacobs, the slowly disintegrating Morton family, the changing of the world and technology.

One thing is for sure. The way the book has been structured, to be a narrative of a life rather than of a set of events, there is no scope of a sequel. There isn’t going to be another four stories where the pastor shows up and heals people in mysterious ways. Perhaps the full impact of the climax was felt only because this was the single more important thing that happened in Jamie’s life.

And this brings me to a peeve I always had in days past: why did Bollywood movies never have sequels? No matter how much you enjoyed, say, Amar Akbar Anthony or Sholay, you couldn’t imagine a proper sequel being produced in the next couple of years. I used to watch, say, Armour of God Part 2: Operation Condor and enjoy the idea of watching the characters in more adventures. Why couldn’t Hindi movies do that?

With the years, I realized the reason was the scope of the typical Hindi movie: it wasn’t a single event or a sequence of events, but a chronicle of an entire life. Amar Akbar Anthony, say, or Zanjeer, or Sharaabi or whatever, documented the absolutely most important events in their protagonists’ entire lives: getting separated from their families, or growing up with significant family issues, or being wronged by an epic villain, and then over the course of the movie, righting these wrongs. When these characters got old and retired from their job, they would put their grandkids on their knee and tell them about the events that were depicted in these movies. Their neighbours would always know them as “the guy who caught and killed Loin”, or “the guy who was separated from his parents, but finally was reunited with everyone”, and so on. It would be too incredible for them to have any more adventures in their lives.

On the other hand, Jackie Chan in Armour of God, or Sean Connery in the James Bond movies, or Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, was just solving another case. Once it was done he was pretty much walking away and ready to do another one. You could imagine Mel Gibson having hundreds of weeks similar to the events listed in Lethal Weapon.

There are exceptions on both sides, of course: There can’t be a sequel to Titanic, or Independence Day, for example. And there actually was a sequel to Sholay and one to Jewel Thief and another one to Nagina, not to mention the sorta-sequel to Munnabhai MBBS. But the structure of these movies, on both sides, proves my point.

What does it say about desi movies in the 80s? Well, to powerpoint my thoughts:  
·         Bollywood movies have a smaller number of writers, writing a large number of movies. So, many movies are written by people who had written at least the same number of movies as Stephen King has written books.
·         As you keep writing, your plots tend to get bigger and bigger in scope, until you really need to write about entire lives. I really need to analyse the typical story arc period for a Bollywood screenwriter over his career to prove this, but I can see how this makes sense.
·         Or maybe it says that experience teaches you that large events reverberate through entire lives, so you need to paint your canvas at lifetime-level to explore your plot properly.
·         Or maybe audiences of Hindi movies wanted large scale in everything: the villains larger than life, the dialogues and the soundtrack reverberating for the ages, the hero’s journey a lifetime long, the heroine the most beautiful woman in the world…

In any case: Revival is very good. Read it. Also watch Amar Akbar Anthony if you haven’t seen it yet.

Monday 6 October 2014

Hi, folks!

So, here I am. Wanted to start posting for quite a while, but never could come up with enough motivation. No matter - der aaye, durust aaye.

I plan to talk about my literary inspirations, whether news stories, or snippets of books read, idle thoughts, or bits and pieces of my own stuff eventually. One way or the other, I seem to come around to talking about books and writing in all my conversations, so I expect this blog will, too.

Thoughts about the craft and art of writing benefit from a detailed analysis, a proper breakdown and putting-together. I expect to take those unfinished conversations, staircase-aphorisms and linkages of disparate sources and polish them as I set them down here.

Here's to a long journey.