As one does, I spent a recent Sunday evening trying to convince a friend—from New Zealand, OCI, unschooled in Hindi cinema—to watch Devdas, the Sanjay Leela Bhansali opus and my personal origin story of love for cinema and excess—for cinema as excess. As the frames rolled past, the unsubtitled dialogues like an unbrooked river, babbling at breakneck speed, this way and that, the rhythms and rattling of it all at a heightened tenor, I watched it anew from my friend’s perspective. And I was reminded that what is excess for one eye might be excessive for another, that it can tip over from the realm of “goodness” to “badness”, and that these choices lean heavily on our cultural diet. The film crashed in his head just as it soared in mine.
What is good acting? By asking this question, what you are actually investigating is the cultural diet and vocabulary and cultural expectations that have arisen from it, like filmic vapour. There is something very slanted about the question because it is not actually asking what you think it is. It is instead asking what according to you are acceptable ways of being on screen, your acceptability being both the strength of your convictions and the weakness of your biases.
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This is something Usha Iyer, Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies in the department of art and art history at Stanford University, tries to make sense of in her essay “The Many Bodies of the Dancer-Actress”, which is part of The Oxford Handbook of Film Theory. She wants to theorise the “dancer-actress”, beginning her story with Vyjayanthimala, an actress from the 1950s, trained in Bharatanatyam, who “earn[ed] a reputation as mainly a dancer with meagre acting abilities”, but something that we can pull forward into the 21st century to see how divisive the reception of a dancer-actress like Katrina Kaif’s art is—stilted actress, sinuous dancer, to put it crudely and perhaps incorrectly.
Iyer asks, what if we see dancing and acting not against but alongside each other? How does our discourse around acting change when we fixate more on “gesture, movement, the occupation of space, and mobilization of cinematic technologies by dancer-actors”?
“To watch Devdas is to be thrilled by the body’s contortions, the long hair as a fluttering flag, the chakkars, or pirouettes, of Kathak that swirl the fabric into a tailspin, the tremors of this beauty rippling through the film long after it has been performed.”
The fact is, as she notes, a lot of our schooling on what good and bad acting is has come from theatre, which over time has been replaced by this grotesque fetish for realism. We want acting to feel natural, as though characters were actually ripped from their lives and propped onto the stage of the film.
What is this realism we are after, and what are we giving up in our fixation for it?
The critic Leo Robson, when thinking about literary realism, writes that “by disguising or denying its own artifice… [realism] combines the delusion that you can present things as they are, saying in essence ‘Here is the world’, with a desire that the reader get swept up in that world. Realism is not merely a set of conventions, but conservative in a larger sense, an act of collusion on the writer’s part with a system of assumptions in which the reader is enlisted.” This demand for realism is a conservative one, not a modern gash over tradition’s palimpsest.
The world of The Archies
So, when critics are ripping apart the performances of the star kids in The Archies, Zoya Akhtar’s latest film, what they are also lashing out at is this contract, this convention that they think the film has reneged on. The affectless delivery, without scrunching of eyebrows or widening of eyes and lips, the low vocal fry, the languorous pacing of speech is part of a world that is stuck in 1960s amber. Everything is gentle. There is no threat in the dialogue or plot, even when a love triangle and the uprooting of a park take centre stage—such is the gentle pace of the film. It is the same baffling reaction people had to the English spoken in A Suitable Boy. Was it bad because it was unfamiliar? Was there something else?
To be clear, I am not arguing that the performances in The Archies are good. I am arguing that the performances perhaps belong to the world the film is embedded in. The question then becomes: why is it that some of us are unable to buy into that world?
In online commentaries, the actors from The Archies have been placed alongside Priyanka Chopra in Aitraaz, who would have been the same age as most of these young actors when she delivered a campy vamp performance that was sutured into that Abbas-Mustan world. To compare the two is unfair because the cultural discretions of the worlds, the directors, and the time are very different, almost incompatible.
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Being online does something crucially violent to thought: it makes you carp on the goodness or badness of something without demanding that you think about what you mean exactly by this “goodness” or “badness”, what are the limits of your imagination from which these judgments are coming forth. Such claims are then padded by irony, through memes, rhetoric, accusations. And, thus, something fundamental to thought is stemmed.
What if, as Iyer asks, we shift the focus, slightly, from the psychological landscape of a character towards the “thick materiality of labouring, moving bodies”, towards the energy that “is deployed and transmitted through the[se] bod[ies]”? To watch Devdas is to be thrilled by the body’s contortions, the long hair as a fluttering flag, the chakkars, or pirouettes, of Kathak that swirl the fabric into a tailspin, the tremors of this beauty rippling through the film long after it has been performed. Is that asking for too much? It is much enough.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online.