Those were the days. Every time I returned to Mumbai, I looked forward to reading the pocket-cartoons of RK Laxman. Though everything changes around him, the common man, with his studied silence witnessing twists and turns, had looked the same for decades, in the pocket cartoon of The Times of India front page. It gave me a sense of permanence.
Every time I made a rough-cut of an assigned film, my producer swore by the common man outside 24, Peddar Road (Films Division headquarters in Mumbai). You have to reach out to him. You have to explain everything in words. The common-man syndrome at times made him believe in the need to come with his stenographer to see my film. After the show, the first opinion sought, invariably would be of his stenographer. Once I made a film on a woman-centric issue. He came with a band of stenographers to the Steenbeck editing room. (Mr Steenbeck, the inventor of the machine, must have been a great guy but the noise the machine creates when you play the threaded reel is awful). Once my editor started the machine and the beep sound was heard, it was time for me to go. I started the narration, stealing a glance at the visuals of my film and my stenographer judges, somewhat gasping for respite.
The noise the Steenbeck made when the rush of corresponding visuals came alive with my live narration, settled them down. Any deviation from the ritual ~ when you feel the narration is too much and pause for a second ~ the crowd thunders, “What happened?” So, you continue with the noise pollution till the reel ends.
After the serious formalities were taken care of – and with a Censor certificate- the film reached cinema theatres through the then existed distribution network of Films Division. The ‘common man’ in the form of a film projectionist at the projection cabin could cut a 20-minute duration biographical film into just three or four sequences.
So and so was born at so and so village, to so and so parents… In his teens he attended college… Did marvelous things during his lifetime… And on so and so date at so and so place he bid goodbye to the world. That’s all. What a cut! So my friend Suresh Sahasrabuddhe, an editor by profession and an astrologer by hobby, with his raw wit advised me to learn about films and feedback not from an abstract idea of the common man but through the serious analysis of projectionists. They can feel the nerve of the audience. The claps and catcalls in the darkness of the theatre equip them differently. Back then, TRP ratings were not reliable or unreliable.
National and international awards look the other way to common-man-stuff films. Once, after attending an advanced course in films and communication abroad, a director returned to 24,Peddar Road. Suresh Sahasrabuddhe was the editor for his new film. He summoned Suresh to his cabin and started discussing the structure of the film. Suresh with his straight talk asked the director to put these ideas down on paper for a concrete understanding of the ‘structure’. The director drew a circular form, with three curved arrows, one after another. Suresh nodded his head as if the entire circularity of structure was clear to him. He looked at the drawing for sometime and with an acquired humility in his posture and tone, asked, “Sir, what about the inserts?” Suresh met his match. The director hurriedly took the paper back and drew three more independent arrows piercing the existing circle of arrows! Simple inserts. . . But the film could not match the classic dimensions of its planning.
Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude-Carriere used to migrate to unknown destinations ~ even unknown to their families ~ for long sojourns for creative planning. Jean-Claude Carriere was Luis Bunuel’s creative collaborator and was younger to him by 30-odd years. The kind of surreal situations they developed together sometimes went beyond their own surreal limits. So the method they adopted was unique. They created an imaginary couple and even christened them with real images. Only the names were real, not the couple.
Carriere told us in a script-writing workshop in Delhi that the technique of flashback weakens a plot. As a flashback unravels, the plot becomes clearer and clearer, thereby weakening the film. But their own film, Discreet charm of the Bourgeoisie, is in the flashback mould that thickens and progresses in a complex manner. Whenever Bunuel went a bit off in his surreal construct, Carriere used to tell him, gesticulating at the imagined common man couple, “Sir it is too much for them, I think.”
My friend Suresh Sahasrabuddhe was practicing astrology when Pluto was a planet. Now both my friend and the planet are gone… I am in a genuine pursuit of the common man. While making a film I try to split myself half as a viewer and the other half as the maker. From the constant journey to and fro, I make the intangible common man tangible within me.
Joshy Joseph is an award-winning film maker and writer