VIDEO ESSAY: The Man and the Masses

I wrote this video essay for Cinema Kaburlu, exploring how masala filmmakers tend to use cinematagraphy to distingush the hero i.e. the demigod from the masses. Watch:

You can read an extended version of the essay in text here:

Cinema, often regarded as the most magnanimous form of entertainment, is first and foremost an audio-visual art form. It’s a medium,  to tell stories, communicate ideas, and enable the viewers to transcend reality for a few fleeting moments. As it slowly became a source of entertainment over the years, we began overlooking its purpose of cinematography and sound design. With the advent of masala filmmaking, the camera was reduced to a tool to capture the leading man in all his glory and music as an instrument to nudge what we are supposed to feel. 

According to the late American film critic Roger Ebert, there is a lot to dissect in each and every frame. For instance, a character framed towards the left is considered negative and the one framed towards right is deemed positive.

A close-up, a wide-angle, a low-angle, a top-angle, each and every shot has a distinct purpose. Although many filmmakers and viewers fail to acknowledge it, they still hold meaning. 

In the words of Ebert,

“A Point-of-view above a character’s eyeline reduces him; below the eyeline, enhances him. Extreme high angle shots make characters into pawns; low angles make them into gods”

Words to be closely observed: ENHANCE and GODS. What better way to describe how a star is portrayed? A frame indicates the dominance of a character and their importance in that scene. This is the reason why the protagonists tend to get close-ups and extreme close-ups of face while supporting characters and other unimportant characters remain in a corner. Likewise, no masala film is complete without a low angle shot, and there is a reason why our filmmakers hold it in high regard. The scene where Ballaladheva meets an imprisoned Devasena for the first time in Bahubali: The Beginning is a great example of using low-angle and close-ups to foreshadow one’s dominance. The scene begins with Balladeva’s son agitating a physically fragile Devasena, and she walks out, the camera remains on her knee level, and she stands tall despite her weak moral standpoint. Although she is weak, the camera never looks down upon her. There’s a wide shot revealing Devasena is under their captivity. A top angle – known as god’s view – alluding to the absence of a mystical savior. The director treats Devasena, Bhalladeva, and Nasser, equally. When Bhallaldeva claims Mahishmathi has forgotten Amarendra Bahubali, we get a low-angle shot equating him to the mightiest person of the Mahishmati universe.

Now, continuing with masala filmmakers’ fetish with low-angle shots, they make the protagonist mightier than everyone, literally making them look like high-rise statutes(insert hospital scenes from Simha mainly because the camera is so low, almost at his testicles). While close-ups establish the character’s importance in a particular scene, low-angles allude to the dominance of their stature. 

Yet another example of this technique is the scene in Bharath Ane Nenu, when Bharath, on his first day as the chief minister, a position that bestows his unprecedented power.  The scene begins at Bharath’s home in the morning as his administrative assistant reads him newspapers. The shot is beautifully composed with both of them occupying a corner while reflection appears on the opposite ends. And Bharath doesn’t sit on the sofa, but rests on its edge. From the visual, it’s evident that Bharath is the higher person here, but it is backed by logical reasoning that he is polishing his shoes, which might not be easier had he sat on the sofa. Owing to the same logic, his assistant is framed in eye-level close-ups, while Bharat is framed in slightly low-angle. 

As Bharath leaves for the office, we get the first true low-angle shot – with sunlight glowing behind him, making him look like a god. In the subsequent scene, as Bharath goes to the office, the scene comprises wide shots exposing us to the vibrant office coupled with Bharath’s reaction. Until he takes the chair, we either see him in close-ups of mid-level shots. And as he sits, he is placed below the portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Ambedkar. By doing this, the filmmaker acknowledges that his hero is not above the founding fathers of constitution Indian constitution. But in the same scene, when administrative officers come to meet Bharath, they remain in mid-level shots, while Bharath is seen through over-the-shoulder shots or dedicated close-ups, proving that he is the most important one. In a similar vein, take the scene in Shankar’s Mudhalavan/Oke Okkadu, also a film in which the protagonist becomes the CM. Although it’s a strikingly similar scene, the staging is different. Instead of focusing on the reaction of the hero, we get a wide shot of the hero and others entering the office as he takes the chair, and we get a few quick close-ups. However, unlike Bharath ane Nenu, when journalists try to ask questions – we do not get a close up of Purushottam, but instead, the camera hovers above them, making him look like another person surrounded by many.

Another completely different take on the same scene is Sekhar Kamula’s Leader, another film with a CM protagonist. When Arjun enters the office here, though, there is little to no special importance given to the hero. He is portrayed along with everyone else in wide shots. The closest look we get of him is when he interacts with Tanikella Bharani’s character. Other than that, he is majorly seen as just another character.

While Bharath was under the Mahatma in multiple instances, the film visually nudges his superiority in the song Vacchadayyo Saami. If the lyrics comparing him to a God weren’t enough, he is placed above the people both literally and figuratively in the framing. Moreover, the staging of the song is strongly reminiscent of Bahubali with herds of people, who mostly exist to react to the actions of the hero, chant his name, and celebrate him, considering Bahubali – or any mass hero for that matter – is no less than a god. However, Srimanthudu – also directed by Koratala Siva – is fairly grounded in terms of elevating it’s hero. Take the hero’s introduction, which is integrated in the song Raama Raama. It’s quite similar to Vacchadayyo Saami and both the songs lyrically announce the arrival of the god, that is the hero. 

It is interesting to note that in Raama Raama, the camera is placed at the eye-level of those behind cherishing the hero’s arrival which means the hero and they are on the same level. Considering that the protagonist of Bharath Ane Nenu holds higher power and respect among people, they are reduced to mere crowd. Whereas in Srimanthudu, although the protagonist is the rich saviour, he yearns to be amidst common people, thus justifying the introduction. Throughout Bharath Ane Nenu, when given an opportunity people fold their hands in masses as a symbol of respect. Nothing wrong, he is the chief minister and not to forgot, a saamy. Although an entire song in the climax of Maharshi is dedicated to common people doing the same to express their gratitude to their guardian angel, this is a much frequently recurring troupe in Bharath Ane Nenu. If I tell someone unaware of Telugu films that both of these are from the same movie, the chances are – they’ll believe it without raising a shadow of doubt.

On these lines, there are countless crowd shots as such, ranging from Oke Okkadu to Bharath Ane Nenu to Stalin to Maharshi…where crowds of people worship their hero. 
 Perspective matters. Gaze is everything. Sean Baker, the director of The Florida Project, a film observes poverty through the perspective of children, said in an interview “We never wanted to look down on the kids. I don’t even know if there’s one shot in the entire film where we’re looking down at the kids”. Manikandan’s Kaaka Muttai, which deals with a similar subject-matter, follows a similar style, never looking down on the poor children, because they are treated as humans. However, in the case of star-driven films, this perspective goes for a toss. It’s also in these finer details how filmmakers use cinematography to convey a character’s dominance. When you watch your favourite hero next time, see how they are framed. A good frame can tell a story of its own.

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Video Essay: SANKRANTHI & TELUGU CINEMA

I produced this video essay titled Sankranthi & Telugu Cinema for Film Companion South, and working on this has been a highly rewarding experience. For years, Sankranthi has remained a celebration, a time I eagerly look forward to every year. There’s something very joyful about the festival that’s hard to express in text. It’s a feeling that emerges from childhood memories, the people around, the conversations, etc. If you are here, I assume you are a film lover, and Sankranthi is a film festival in the literal sense. This tiny video essay is a reminder of those cheerful memories, a love letter to the films we watched with our friends and families during Sankranthi vacation year-after-year, and a critque on the evolution of – or lack thereof – Telugu Cinema. I have spent many hours sitting in my room, facing the computer, transmuting words into the audio visual form. Barring the painful part where I had to listen to my voice, it was a fruitful learning experience.

If this video gives a glimpse of your childhood or even nudges you to notice something that you might have been overlooking through these years, my job is done. You can watch it here:

If you are someone who prefers reading over watching, here is the written version of the voice-over (actually conceived as an essay) which has a notable chunk that wasn’t used in the final version of the video essay.