View: You thought you know the film? Well, you don't

If you spend time reading film-related discourse on social media, you’re probably fed up with the endless echo-chamber discussions around Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Animal. Without watching the film, I feel like I have had it assessed for me through every available lens – along a continuum from virtue-signalling to vice-celebrating.

So, I’ll spare you my thoughts about the agonising and the exulting, except to say that it’s strange when people unshakably make up their minds about a film they haven’t watched yet, and even dissuade others from watching it. Or when they are convinced that a film can only be one thing — and that anyone who engages with it on another level is morally compromised.

A radical point that comes up in my conversations with students is that one should ideally experience a work – read a novel beginning to end, watch a whole film, not just its trailer – before venturing an opinion. (In a recent class, we spoke about cases – common in the OTT age – of viewers, including professional critics, forming judgements about a series after watching an episode or two, without taking the time to discover a character’s arc.)

This also involves engaging with many different things – including what you fear may discomfit you – and can result in a special joy: being surprised by your own response to a work, even finding a dimension in yourself that you hadn’t fully tapped into.

Now, a confession: despite this preaching, there are some films, including iconic ones, that I haven’t watched but still have a version of in my head.

As an adolescent developing an interest in old cinema, one of my prized books was Roger Manvell’s 1946 Film, and through its pages, I first formed impressions of what certain films looked like. There were striking double-exposure shots from German Expressionist classics like Carl Mayer’s 1924 The Last Laugh, images that emphasised giant shadows, and people caught in quiet contemplation. A photo of a man on a bicycle in Marcel Carne’s 1939 Le Jour Se Leve (The Day Rises) was so evocative, I had it in my head as I cycled through the lanes around my DDA flats, imagining a giant camera was recording me from above. Thirty years later, thinking of some of these films, I think first of those images in an ancient book, or maybe a fleeting scene, a dramatic moment in isolation. And if I watch – or re-watch — them, I am often surprised. In a previous column, I mentioned being stirred by David Lean’s 1945 Brief Encounter – something I hadn’t expected because in my head this was a cool, reserved film with even deep emotion expressed through little nods over teacups. And it did have such scenes. But there was a powerful, aching tremor below the surface that made it in its own way just as passionate a love story as anything Imtiaz Ali (or Vanga!) might helm.

There are disappointments too. A restored-print screening of Raj Khosla’s 1956 CID – which I had imagined as a Hindi-film take on American noir, with masala elements but also a sturdy suspenseful plot and a dashing young Dev Anand – revealed a disjointed work that didn’t capture the brooding darkness of its source genre (despite game attempts by the young Waheeda Rehman and Mehmood).

And there are films that you once knew well, but which your brain has transformed into something else. I recently re-watched two Anthony Hopkins starrers that were an important part of my early-90s viewing life, and was intrigued to find that while Hannibal Lecter’s prison cell in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 The Silence of the Lambs wasn’t quite the rat-infested dungeon-sewer I remembered, the big country house in which Stevens the butler serves in James Ivory’s 1993 The Remains of the Day was not as gleaming as I had thought. This didn’t feel like a sterile, too-polished Merchant-Ivory film, but was more in keeping with the theme of decay that runs through Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel.

Watching now, it felt like parts of Darlington Hall, with its gloomy passageways and crumbling plaster, would make an acceptable dwelling for Lecter and cohort. Maybe, to a degree, cannibals and animals are a construct of our fevered minds, and the butler did it after all.


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