How many messages the people of a country can be burdened with? This is a question worth pondering over. Every celebrity, political party, politician, government in India, even every government department, every activist… everybody has some message or the other for the society. To protect environment, to conserve energy, to save the girl child, to clean the surroundings—the list is endless. Of, I forgot to highlight: quit smoking. This is more than a message; this is a fetish, an ugly patch onto cinema and an intrusion into our enjoyment. The moment a character lights up a cigarette in a movie or television serial, the message makes it obnoxious presence felt on the screen. Equally, if not more, insidious is belief that a lot many people—movie critics, opinion makers, even film directors—have unquestioningly accepted that a necessary condition for a film to be good is the presence of a message: a movie can be good only if conveys some message, only if it is ‘socially relevant,’ whatever it means.
This is a pernicious belief which corrodes cinema, arguably the most popular form of art. The belief is the product and function of various tribalist, collectivist ideologies—socialism, muscular nationalism, to name just two—that we have imbibed over the years. The essential feature of these ideologies is that the individual exists for the sake of some collectivity—society, nation, et al. His life, aspiration, actions, achievements, and desires are of little value; everything pertaining to him has, and can have, any worth so long as it adds to the glory of the collectivity.
The natural corollary to this article of faith is the notion that cinema can be of any worth only if it is of any utility for the society and country at large. This is only possible if cinema conveys some message—how god-men and superstitions are corrupting society (PK and OMG), how to reform the medical profession (Munnabhai, MBBS), how social activism can give a fillip to the cause of justice (Rang de Basanti, No One Killed Jessica). Film critics go gaga over such movies. Supposed to critique cinema on the matrix of aesthetic criteria, they end up as social and political commentators without the prerequisite wherewithal; unsurprisingly, they often meander into the swamps of political correctness and sanctimoniousness.
Lost in the ensuing din of pious garrulity are a few basic facts: that great movies—in fact, great works of any art—do not convey any message; that art exists for its own sake, and not for some extraneous consideration; and that the presence of message, propaganda, or any other extraneous element is either the negation or distortion of art, and cinema cannot be an exception.
Let’s begin with the world of art in general. What message does Mona Lisa, which is perhaps the most famous painting, convey? What do the women in Rembrandt paintings do for the uplift of mankind? And the cheerful men and women in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s paintings? All these and other works of art are great not because they are ‘socially relevant’ or say something of philanthropic nature; a work of art is great because in it the artist is able to capture and portray an aspect of life in a pleasing, soothing manner. He has been able to find forms, display various elements in a harmonious fashion, and present the whole in a manner that satisfies our sense of aesthetics. “Art is pattern informed by sensibility,” said the art expert Herbert Read.
Similarly, Citizen Kane (1941) by Orson Welles and La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939) by Jean Renoir find place among the top five movies ever made. The two movies are known for style and narrative; they say many things about politics and society; but, as for message, there is none. In each of the movies, there is symbolism, there is comment, the director’s take on the subject, but nothing is obvious. The filmmakers have followed the dictum that art lies in concealing art, not like Shyam Benegal’s child throwing stone or even more unsubtle messages. In fact, the so-called Art Cinema is the negation of both art and cinema. Most movies under this rubric were an affront to art, with film directors promoting the discredited ideology of socialism and producing painfully boring stuff in the name of social realism.
In the Indian context, too, the best cinematic works contained no message. Naseerudin Shah considers the Dev Anand starrer and Vijay Anand directed Guide to be the best Hindi film ever made “without qualifications.” It is difficult to disagree with him; at any rate, Guide would surely figure in top five Hindi movies of all them. The beauty of the movie lies in the narrative, the songs, their picturization, the crispness of dialogues, the philosophical theme; the director created a work of great beauty and profundity on celluloid.
There are many more excellent examples; a number of Indian filmmakers have made good movies without conveying any message.
It may be asked if it is legitimate to convey a message through cinema. I think that it is like asking if it is proper to play cricket for personal records. The point is that when you play for your team and, in Kipling’s words, “if you can fill the unforgiving minute/with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,” you will make more records, and meaningful records, than you could ever just by playing for the sake of personal glory.
If a filmmaker, like any other artist, concentrates only on his profession, his art and craft—his dharma so to speak—he would do much better than he could ever by trying to inform or educate people. If he is able to create good art, it is service enough to the society, for he adds refinement to life. In this manner, the viewers will learn their own lessons from cinema. Jesus said that man shall not live on bread alone; he is much more than animals that are driven only by physical demands. In a similar vein, Bharttruhari, a Sanskrit poet, wrote, “Sahitya sangeeta kala vihinah/Sakshyat pashu puchha bishanahinah” (Without literature, music, and art, a man is like a tailless beast). In other words, refinement in life makes us human, so the filmmaker should enhance refinement. Voltaire concluded his novel Candide with profound but simple words: “let us cultivate our garden.”
Let filmmakers, too, cultivate the garden of life, and leave messages and social relevancy to politicians and pontiffs.