Wednesday, 30 March 2011
For a short time, 3 Idiots was the highest grossing Indian movie of all time. Released in 2009, it tells the story of 3 classmates studying engineering at university. Aamir Khan plays Rancho, a wealthy genius who never gets anything wrong. His buddies are Farhan (who really wants to be a wildlife photographer but is studying Engineering because of his dad) and Raju, who is poor and wants to improve the lot of his family.
Everything is as well-tended and prosperous as ever in Bollywoodland, even though Farhan comes from a lower-middle class family and Raju from an impoverished family with a comically paralysed father and a complaining mother.
The genius of Bollywood is that even this touch of reality is distanced from the contemporary Indian fantasy land by being shot in black and white, in a pastiche of Satyajit Ray. So instead of the family being represented as part of contemporary India, the discourse is purposefully made to be 1950s India. A cinematic simulation that distorts the original Ray cinematography - and the hardship, pressures and dilemmas that it represented so perfectly. Similarly, the slightly worn look of Farhan's family home is distanced by being shot in 1970s style. The visual discourse distances the reality from the present, but also diminishes the past, reinventing the narrative of film, social and economic history in the process.
I wonder if the same thing doesn't happen in documentary photography and photojournalism, if the visual discourse doesn't distance what we see from the present by virtue of codes and conventions that go beyond the generic to place the images into an imagined time. Not just in the Baudrillardian video game sense, but in a more dynamic way in which the pictures from our past, our visual history, is redefined by those we see in the present - and the way that we see them.
By the same token, aren't the pictures that touch and move us those that carry into the present and the future. How they do this remains something of a mystery - or does it. Foam Magazine has its What's Next
site up but it is a bit underwhelming. I think Alec Soth nails what's next - "What's Next is what always was: the story."
So there you go. Tell a great story. It really is that simple.
Back on 3 Idiots, it tells a great story and is an entertaining enough film in its cynical way, strolling through the lifestyles of an imaginary university and ticking off every emotional box in quick order (and you get the feeling that they really did have a page and really did tick off each of the boxes as they were shot), with a fine line in visual humour. But Aamir Khan's knowing-it-all, Jesus/Krishna/Mohammed-in-one schtick is more than a little wearing, and for some reason his range of expressions gone down from 3 to 2 - still one more than Salman Khan, mind, but at least 2 less than Shah Rukh Khan.
So 3 Idiots is a great story. But it doesn't have a heart, much less a soul. And that makes a difference.