REVIEW: Videokaaran and Cinéma Vérité
In the mid 20th century, a French man named Jean Rouch, inspired by the philosophy of Dziga Vertov, laid the principles for a unique, confrontational style of documentary filmmaking called cinéma vérité, or ‘truthful cinema’. The aesthetic was simple – capture the subject without prejudice, keep the documentary as objective as possible. The camera thereby became an instrument to gather truth. The filmmaker assumed the position of an interlocutor, trying to investigate the truth – cautious not to colour it with his subjective perceptions. At a time when documentary filmmakers wielded a sacrosanct intellectual license over the subject of their films, this new group of filmmakers broke through the tyranny of the author’s gaze. Creating films that were honest and truthful, these filmmakers would blend in with the milieu of the subject, rather than create a discourse by looking at it from afar. The style they afforded was unglamorous – no voiceovers, no added glitz. It was cut down to the bare minimum. The filmmaker would provoke an uninhibited response for the camera, and the result was a highly immersive piece of documentation, of reality.
It is in this light of cinematic rebellion and artistic vanguardism that we discuss Videokaaran – a quirky documentary directed by Jagannathan Krishnan. What is the film about? To summarise it would be an assault on the film – however, let us say it is about cinema, in general. The subject of the film is Sagairaj, a former owner of an illegal video parlor, in the underbelly of Mumbai. The 70-minute film is actually a conversation between Jagan and Sagai, and documents Sagai’s views on cinema, his philosophy of life, use of drugs, porn and a host of other things. Shot with a handheld camera, the film provides us the illusion of being present in the scene, listening to Sagai, as if he were talking to us.
It is an intimate documentary that captures the vanishing history of video parlours that screen pirated prints of films to an audience that cannot afford the luxury of multiplex amusements. For a nation of over 70% economically disadvantaged people, these video parlours offered them brief moments of levity, moments of reconciliation. Videokaaran captures this emotional energy and the sheer magic of cinema. One can now feel why film actors are raised to the pedestal of demi-gods; why people queue up to catch the first day-first show of their favourite actor’s film. I smiled when Sagai said he had never missed the first show of a Rajinikanth film. Why, you ask? That’s the technique of cinéma vérité at play. The film manages to bridge the gap between the performer and the spectator. Sagai is not just the performer, but a spectator as well. Likewise the person viewing this film is a performer-spectator, as well. I myself have cried when I couldn’t get the tickets for a few of my favourite films, and I’ve seen other people do the same.
The film deals with naked and uninhibited emotions that we might not all be comfortable with, but can relate to. For instance, Sagai draws a lengthy analysis on how porn helps one to seduce willing girls, or how slasher films are nothing compared to the violence that people in the slums have witnessed; how he managed to smuggle in drugs despite tight surveillance. These are topics that are considered cringeworthy in today’s atmosphere of political correctness, and it takes a lot of courage and honesty to reveal such uninhibited an flow of conversation. This is precisely what makes the film stand out.
It captures the crude and the sublime, without prejudice. Despite the intimate relationship the film creates between Sagai, Jagan and the audience, there remains an air of objectivity. These were the very principles laid down by Jean Rouche, half a century ago. The film is not about right and wrong or the politics of haves and have-nots. The film is about the passion of cinema – about how it belongs to everyone; how it submerges the various permutations and combinations of social, political and economical differences.
“I can’t fool a mad dog by pretending that I am not afraid. Dog’s sixth sense will interact with my sixth sense to let out the truth” – Sagai