THE FIRST TIME I cried watching a film, I knew nothing of dignity. Yours truly had bawled, acquiring nuisance value enough to be evacuated from the hall in parental arms. It was a movie called Maa and a baby elephant was stuck on a railway track as a train came hurtling down. There would be a hero to the rescue, of course, but that’s irrelevant; a runny reflex had revealed itself and any intervention— heroic, motherly or otherwise—to smother it has proven a doomed exercise ever since. If it’s an authentic Hindi movie, an all-blurry cry is assured.
That it’s a jolly good thing struck me only in the early 1990s. It began as a dry observation after being sent off on a market research assignment to study theatre audiences in the dark, but was soon to transform into live experience as my own sensibilities started yielding to cathartic conspiracies encoded in twitchy rays of light.
That the typical Hindi movie is a tearjerker has long been taken for granted, and apart from—or often coupled with—the poetic power of a sophisticated soundtrack, this has arguably been the great speciality of Indian cinema all along. Not only is its most openly lachrymose fare more effective than anything Hollywood has to offer—Kramer vs Kramer, or ‘Cry More vs Cry More’ as a Mad spoof had it, is no soggy patch on, say, Taare Zameen Par or a Masoom—it does better on the somewhat subtle stuff as well. The efficacy of it can be attributed to a formula that goes all the way back to Shakespeare: there’ll be no tears in Act V if there are no laughs in Act I. But the need of our movies to get all weepy can perhaps be traced to a latent demand of this market: if one can’t cry and let it all go, one can’t regain much cheer either. By this theory, most of us have aches held deep within that we dare not expose to the harsh glare of life’s reality, but readily grant them sublimation in the safety of someone else’s sadness onscreen.
With tear ducts as aqueous as mine, such slices of the subconscious are impossible to confirm. What’s tragic is tragic, after all. From Aashiqui 2 all the way alphabetically down to Veer-Zaara, with a dyslexic cluster of K titles from KHNH to KKHH thrown in, there has scarcely been a Hindi flick that has not hollowed my voice wispy and haunted me with its melody. It’s not me alone, thankfully. Indian theatres have had many a watershed release over the decades, some of which seem overlain with an allegory that casts its hero in symbolic light. Sacrifice fare such as Mother India and Sholay are commonly cited examples. These are easily attestable as tragedies, just as that honorary Hindi movie Titanic is, or the ever-spectral Dil Se, even if they’re officially envisaged as entertainers (unlike, say, a Schindler’s List). Yes, they made me cry. Far harder to admit or fathom is how a couple of kitschy snifflers spaced almost a decade apart, Baazigar and Devdas, managed to break my sobfest barrier.
Hang on. Scroll back a bit. How on earth did Aashiqui 2 get on that list? If memory serves me right, it was actually an iPhone watch, done on a sofa at home in broad daylight, with nothing more drastic by way of response than a mild lump in my throat, let alone damp cheekbones or anything.
So what made the difference? Was it the screen? Was it the ambience? An emoji that popped up? Or the darkness—that invisible armour—of a movie theatre gone missing?
Hmmm. Either way, the trend is clear, and it’s one that technology seems determined to dictate: the more we switch from being filmgoers to handset watchers, the less disposed we are to cry.
Let’s face it: this is a crisis.
And Hindi cinema appears to be giving in. Ever since entertainment apps began to replace expensive halls as its audience interface, it has gone for the spectacular over the evocative. Some would argue it’s all for the better, the composure afforded by a movie held in one’s grasp. True, exposure to one’s own emotions could be a bad thing at times, drawing fretful attention to what’s ‘smoking down the track’, to steal a line from Bob Dylan’s I and I. It’s alright, maa, as he might say.
But still, Hindi cinema, described by another littérateur as ‘India’s love song to its hybrid self’, has always splashed itself in tears to its most sublime moments, and it would be a pity if it lets a digital stream of bits and bytes blow-dry it all away. Now, more than ever, the country’s top art form needs to sharpen the secret of its success. Its rona-dhonaa. Cry ‘n’ cleanse.