On Establishing Character

Two films I watched recently provoked me to think about the means of establishing character in a story. One was a delightful German comedy about a chef and his troubled restaurant called Soul Kitchen. The other was a moody revenge saga from the director of Attakathi, called Madras.

As I sat watching the first ten minutes of Soul Kitchen, I couldn’t help but imagine the 1001 ways in which Tamil movie directors would have handled the same characters and scenarios. The first ten minutes of Soul Kitchen establishes six key characters of the film, without relying on narration or text appearing on screen. The character’s actions, their lines, their body language – each one of these factors helps to clearly inscribe in our heads their nature and the relationships between each one of them.

Madras, on the other hand, takes a different approach. A short-filmish approach. Since Madras seems to have a lot of key characters (at least five I think), Pa.Ranjith resorts to the technique of displaying a character’s name on the screen as the character voices out their belief in life to some other characters on screen. You’ll see a slightly drunk Karthi say to his friends that life needs to be enjoyed. You’ll see Karthi’s friend say in a separate shot that upliftment of the poor should be everyone’s focus etc. This is quite similar to an off-screen narrator spelling out the traits of each character (S.P.Balasubramaniam in Chennai 28). And this is where I seem to have a grouch.

I feel narration is the fallback option for a person who has thrown up his hands saying, “Sorry man! I don’t know any other way to introduce these characters and define their characteristics to the audience.” Think of Friends or Big Bang Theory. Do you have a Director Rajesh speaking out to you from an unseen place, “These 6 people are our heroes and heroines. Ross loves history. Joey loves sex. Chandler hasn’t had a girlfriend. Bla bla bla…”? No. The audience should say these things inside their heads as they see the actions and reactions of these characters. And that gets them involved in the story.

Which brings us to a wonderful thing that Hitchcock said in one of his interviews. He said before writing out a screenplay, he usually prepares a very short summary of what a film is about. The core of the film. He then proceeds to elaborate on that summary and adds in details, characters, dialogue everything, all the while keeping in mind that they’re in tune with the core. And then he executes the film. But it does not end there. He considers himself successful only when an audience member, who steps out of the theatre having watched the film, says the exact stuff from the summary when asked “What was the movie about?” If the audience member answers with something different from what Hitchcock intended, then he considers himself lost.

But what we’re getting in most Tamil films today (features & short films), is a narrator handing out the summary directly to the audience. The recent film Jeeva, on the politics behind the Indian cricket selection system also suffered from the same syndrome. The film begins with the protagonist seated on a bench and opening up the story of his life to us. As the film progresses and each character is introduced, we are explicitly told who each person is and we are also given detailed description of how things are progressing in the story. Vishnu’s narration in the film reminded me of the voice that accompanies the live telecast of the Sabari Malai Jothi on Podhigai channel. “And watch out! The star has appeared in the sky! Oh look at it, it’s blinking! Oh look there, people are worshipping it!”

Having narration in a film is not a sin. Shawshank Redemption (and thereby Morgan Freeman’s voice) has achieved cult status for it. But does Morgan Freeman explicitly spell out to you what the characteristics of different people are? Therein lies the difference. Kill Bill makes use of titles to introduce each character but that style is consistent with the structure of the entire film, which Tarantino splits into chapters with titles. But when you have text specifying the character names come up randomly in Madras, without that style being adhered to anywhere else in the film, then that simply stands out as a homage to Tarantino and nothing else. It merely remains as an aspect that some reviewer might point out as “different” in the movie and some other short-film makers might proceed to ape that and that’s it. It does not add to the film’s core.

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