IIM Calcutta

On Majoriticism, Reviews, Peepli Live, Normal Curve and More

By Ramana Krishnan

Singh Better Than KingOn a recent trip to Delhi, I stumbled on a car with a slogan saying: ‘Singh is better than king,’ and as it would happen, a friend wrote an article on a related topic here (NOT a shameless plug for the said friend). It got me thinking on certain things. A movie like Singh is King or even 3 Idiots (yes! The one hailed as the next best thing since Rang De Basanti – another falling into this category that I am talking of) has a certain kind of an impact on the audience.

Now, because we are so jobless – me in writing this article and you in reading it – you might just as well do well to imagine a normal curve. Now imagine one (and only one specific) quality of a film or a film maker which defines the quality of the movie made and assume this quality to be distributed along the normal curve. Now this quality in itself would be a function of a multitude of things including, intelligence, clarity of vision, control over technique, actual knowledge of technique/craft etc. Also, assume that ‘intelligence’ is good enough a term to supersede all of these individual terms and qualities. This basically means that each filmmaker makes a movie that falls somewhere along the normal curve with the position on the curve being a function of the intelligence of the movie-maker.

Now, imagine another normal curve. This time, take the function of that normal curve to be the ability to get (and like) a movie. Even this curve, given a million assumptions and one, can be thought to be a function of intelligence – of the moviegoer this time.

Superimpose the two curves in such a way that the averages of the two curves aren’t the same, but merely parallel and separated by a certain horizontal distance signifying the higher average intelligence of the movie-maker than the movie-goer (fine! I think the average movie-maker is smarter than the average movie-goer. No scientific/logical reason to believe so. Go sue me! :P).

Now, most movie-makers tend to make a movie appealing to the mean of the audience-normal-curve and there is a reason for that. The movies lying on the far-right of the curve (e.g. say Inception, Peepli Live etc.) invariably divide the audience into two kinds. At the cost of sounding heavily condescending and simplistic (pardon me FSM!) the audience falling to the left of the movie, find it hard to understand (or too realistic, or too arty and so on) and thus ignore it, while those to the right try to prove themselves to be on the right by highlighting the million ignorable mistakes instead of focusing on the superb aspects of it. Some movies from the hindi scene which, I thought, tried to push the boundaries but failed: Hey Ram, Mithya, Love, Sex aur Dhokha – three absolutely ground-breaking movies which deserved better.

The logical extension of this theory of course debunks the entire critics’ society as a bunch of people trying to prove to be more intelligent than the filmmaker. That isn’t the point. I immensely respect some of the critics and I think a minority from the community go beyond their position in the intelligence curve to actually ‘judge’ the position of the movie on the curve fairly well. (Case in point: two of my favourite ‘mainstream’ critics.) The point is about the divided opinion of the ‘classes’ (or the right extreme of the normal curve). The point is in the essential difficulty of saddling the path of appeasing everybody in the ‘classes’. So, we have the Rang De Basantis and the Singh is Kings ‘empowering’ the common viewer into believing whatever they want to, and achieving pop culture acceptance.

The easier path? Screw the classes, go for the mean. Mean is where the moolah is. The people on the left of the curve want to identify with the majority (which is perfectly valid) but sadly, the people on the slight-right don’t want to pursue the further-right! The irritatingly simple-yet-uncounterable argument offered being: “I watch a movie for entertainment and if real life were to really be as entertaining, wouldn’t I rather lead my life than watch a movie about my life?” Irritating is the word.

The desired path? A path that leads to movies giving more on each viewing to the classes while appeasing the ‘entertainment v/s reality’ argument by providing with sufficient entertainment. Case in point: Omkara, Wall-E, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind et. al. To me, Vishal Bhardwaj offers most hope in the hindi cinema scene of walking on the ‘desired path’, with people like Dibakar Banerjee and Anurag Kashyap trying to go more the classy-way. I think, Chris and John Nolan most famously achieve the balance in Hollywood with Charlie Kaufman taking the role of not just pushing the proverbial envelope but in fact, the whole of post box down the audience. Always. (Recommended viewing: Synecdoche, New York.)

Okay. So having reached here, with/without having read the entire article till here, I’ll make the easier assumption of you being somewhat convinced with the above. Except, probably about the objectivity of it all. So, a film-maker has a fixed point on the normal curve and doesn’t make movies of varying quality? A viewer can’t relocate his position on the curve? Err, well, so in my utter joblessness, I make a patently-innovative (my world. my article. I term it innovative. :P) change to the model. Different people shift from movie-to-movie depending on their mood. So, I shift fromKamal Hasan in Abhay not-getting-the-greats – 2001: A Space Odyssey, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and Taxidriver (I don’t like them. There, I said it!) to loving-the-recognised-genius of Cidade de Dues and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (my absolute favourite films!). So only a Ram Gopal Verma shifts from a blood brilliant Satya to a to-be-watched-only-on-being-paid Sarkar and Kamal Haasan shifts from Mahanadhi/Hey Ram to Aalavandhan/Abhay (for all practical purposes both probably directed by him) – and mind you, I think Abhay had a brilliant one-line concept ruined by his indulgence for all the things that caught his attention during the making.


20 responses

  1. kartik

    the photo is prophetically scary of the things to come
    Nice post

    October 19, 2010 at 2:58 pm

  2. RamanaK

    I would still prefer if you are referring to Abhay’s pic rather than to Singh is King’s as being prophetic. Anyday.

    October 19, 2010 at 3:01 pm

  3. kartik

    thats an intresting comparison. A kamal hassan gone bezerk or a bezerkly successful singh is king ? Take your pick

    October 19, 2010 at 3:15 pm

  4. CLAP! CLAP! CLAP! (A bit went bouncer, normal curve and all for a non-math, literature dodo like me was too hi-fi!) But great wit, great style and great clarity. As usual. Write more! And SEND the links. Don’t wait for people to find out, in my case for KK to send it to me.

    October 19, 2010 at 3:44 pm

  5. RamanaK

    Abbe I would’ve sent you the link for sure.
    Waise the idea of the article partly started, in the mind at least, from the discussion at Somen’s place with Subrat and you guys… 🙂

    October 19, 2010 at 4:44 pm

  6. RamanaK

    and btw I’ll call it my revenge on your bouncers with, as KK calls them, super-gre reviews. 😛

    October 19, 2010 at 4:47 pm

  7. rakesh

    where’s the like button when u need one! the best thing i like abt this post is that its categorized as random thoughts! never knew we had a category like that till you started writing 😛

    on a serious note, care to explain where the desired path lies on the curve? i always thought it was the mean…

    October 19, 2010 at 6:45 pm

  8. Haha…this post hits the sweet spot between the two means, so that people like me don’t have to work hard to claim to have ‘got it’.
    Now indulge yourself with the challenge of proving this theory with the assumption of a positively skewed curve. Finding folks with cultivated tastes is more difficult than finding Akki-fans. So the curve can not be symmetrical. Now that mean > median > mode, how does it affect your analysis?
    Just messing with you 😛
    Well written!

    October 19, 2010 at 7:18 pm

  9. RamanaK

    @Rakesh: It would’ve been great if desired path was in the median/mean (ignoring Swamy’s attempt at fucking me up :D) but I think the desired path is always to the right of audience’s mean and maybe right of film-maker’s mean as well. With the audience (and film-maker) shifting its mean to the right with time.
    Simpler words: The quality of the movies should keep improving with the film-maker challenging himself (by trying to shift to the rightward side) and the audience moving alongside. I would go so far as to say, that in comparison to the 80s-90s brand of (hindi) movies – the times with Chunky and Govinda ruling the roost – we have moved towards the right side. In more ways than one.
    @Swamy: I am just happy that you consider Akki-fans to be on the left side of the curve, and not Govinda-fans (I fall in the latter :P).
    And as for updated analysis: Seeing the popularity (!?) of this article, to milk it, I’ll post a sequel to this. 🙂

    October 19, 2010 at 10:18 pm

  10. The ability to get and like a movie is not a function of the intelligence of the moviegoer… As you yourself stated somewhere in the post, people might just seek entertainment from movies which might be fairly independent of viewer intelligence/foolishness except rare cases like Gunda (Yes, I said it on a public platform appealing to MBAs and engineers – Gunda sucks)…

    In a survey once conducted, people said Shakespeare was more “classy” than Simpsons but they preferred watching Simpsons personally. So, that assumption is not perfectly valid, questioning the validity of the remainder of the theory.. But, it was a great read! Keep writing!

    October 19, 2010 at 10:35 pm

  11. Harsh Ketkar

    IMO, I feel the decline of cinema in general has been precipitated because of the decline in television. Till the late 90s television was still an ‘elite’ medium of sorts. It was in the 90s and the 00s that TV became a massively ‘mass’ medium. Trashy prole-feed has become the order of the day today.
    Earlier that wasn’t the case. Prospective actors, directors, editors, cinematographers learnt the ropes on television. So we had a Kay Kay Menon, Irfan Khan, even Shahrukh Khan (not that I particularly like him, but he is a zillion times better than the Neil Nitin Mukeshes and the Ranbir Kapoors of today) and so on who started off on television.
    Even if you consider something as technical as editing, it can be said that the quality has deteriorated considerably. If you ask why trashy movies and mindless comedies like Tiranga, Dulhe Raja, and Haseena Maan Jaayegi have so much of re-viewability, the answer is that they are strong in a particular technical department, even if the direction sucks or the story is flawed.
    And the decline is precisely in the technical departments in television productions. Editing is horrible- I’ll just say ‘Ekta Kapoor’, and nothing more. Delirious panning with whooshes added as the background sound passes off as cinematography. And I haven’t even mentioned the script and screenplay.

    October 20, 2010 at 4:05 am

  12. Well let’s start at the beginning. I love this article and the thoughts expressed are true Ramana K. The reasons for liking are innumerable – the thoughts, the curves involved (all mathematical mind you ;)) and the suggestions like Synecdoche – a movie I would have missed if I had not read this (I download it as I speak :D). But here’s an interesting question (just to prove the point that I understood this article and not ALL of my MBA fees is a waste)-

    In a “normal” normal curve, the Y-axis represents the number of people (or frequency of occurence) and the X-axis the attribute we are measuring. Here I am confused to find out what you have assumed as the axes. The Y-axis cannot be the attribute as then it would mean people who you say are on the right of the mean would actually end up having less of the attribute than the mean. Again, the Y-axis can also not be the number of people (or frequency of occurence) at any given value of the attribute (X-axis) as then the movie-maker curve being above the movie-goer curve would imply more movie makers in your set than movie goers. Did I confuse you??

    Just trying to have fun. Good writing. Keep going. Yearning to read more!!! 🙂

    October 20, 2010 at 7:55 pm

  13. @HSS
    Perhaps this will help…
    Time Waste
    X-axis is intelligence (say IQ)
    Y-axis is probability of finding a viewer of IQ = x among all viewers. For the red curve, prob. of finding a movie-maker of IQ = x among all movie-makers.
    Movie-maker is not ‘above’ the audience curve. Their average IQ is more than that of the audience. Hence the difference in the mean of the curves.

    October 21, 2010 at 7:40 am

  14. Hmmm…..Agreed…by “above” I meant that the amplitude of the curve above a certain level of intelligence (x-axis) is higher for the movie-maker curve than the movie-goer curve. Not a too bad assumption to make I must say!!!

    And the fact that Shreyans points out that many people may not be that short on intelligence but like brain-dead cinema….I would also like to point out that there are many movie-makers out there who may not be all that short on intelligence but just make movies that “sell”. So even to Ketkar, be vary of under-estimating the likes of Ekta Kapoor….for all we know her intelligence is head and shoulders above us but she simply knows what goes in the Indian markets.

    Also justifies my point about Anurag Kashyap – with all due respect for the movies he makes (he’s one of my favorites), venting out your frustration to corner finance in the beginning of your career in the form of a “No Smoking” proves that even “intelligent” movie-makers make totally arbitrary movies at times….. 🙂

    October 21, 2010 at 8:02 am

  15. sachin

    awesome article,bhaiya…
    and 1 thing needs to be pointed out,that apart from the main article,the various posts and remarks from the readers also playd a very important role in determining the impact of ur article..
    the normal curves seemed abnormal at the start but the wonderful illustration by swamy bhaiya..made it crystal clear 🙂

    keep writing..keep enlightening..

    October 21, 2010 at 8:39 am

  16. RamanaK

    @Shreyans: Wrt the ability to get a movie not being a function of intelligence – I started writing this article when I was really bored and din’t have a lot to do. I figured I’ll just make a model based on some past discussions (refered to in the reply to Fatema) and some general opinions of mine. It isn’t meant as a rigorous proof, obviously! 😛
    @Harsh: I think that is a very very interesting insight that I’ve read in a while now. Now that I think about it, it seems totally true in the hindi pop culture scene – the trend does seem to exist right from Hum Log Circus, Fauji etc. to the latest tripe these days. I’d be interested in knowing if this has been the trend in other areas – Tamil scene, Hollywood scene etc. or not.
    What I am not so sure about, though, is on the hypothesis that the trashy ones were really strong on their technical areas.

    October 23, 2010 at 11:44 am

  17. RamanaK

    @Harish: Do tell me what you thought of ‘Synecdoche, New York’.
    And Swamy’s curve (err, I meant the curve drawn by Swamy) is the exact thing that I wanted to draw (but couldn’t!).
    Also, ya – generally the ability to ‘get’ a movie is not just a function of intelligence, but a lot of other things, like – ability to go ahead into believing what the filmmaker wants you to believe (or ability to willfully suspend disbelief) and general inclination towards a certain topic being shown etc. (hence the existence of genres, probably).
    But wrt Ekta Kapoor ‘serving the masses’ – that is my point about makers pursuing the mean of the curve (essentially making a better business decision) and not a ‘cinematically better’ decision of pushing the envelope.

    October 23, 2010 at 12:00 pm

  18. RamanaK

    @Swamy: Shashtang!!! Thanks for making the drawing which I wanted to but couldn’t for lack of paintshop knowledge etc. and you’ve gotten a new follower for your blog linked in your comment. 🙂
    @Sachin: Ya man, the comments are totally constructive and helpful in making the page richer! 🙂

    October 23, 2010 at 12:06 pm

  19. ankurbhatia23

    Nice post, was forwarded by a common friend Vishal Soni. I agree with most things you wrote. Mithya was spectacular and so was LSD.

    All movies have flaws, nothing is flawless, but even in bad films, what I try to do is find some spark, some shining light which is difficult to do in films like Chandni Chowk to China etc.

    January 19, 2012 at 9:16 am

  20. RamanaK

    @Ankur: The industry runs on people like you. Keep trying to find the glimmer of hope (after watching the trailer!) in the Chandni Chowks too :P.

    January 19, 2012 at 10:30 am

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