Characters over caricatures

By Adnan Murad

Films are cinematic artefacts. They serve several purposes. Some film-makers use this medium to tell stories that particularly interest people of a certain demographic, while others choose to go with universality of content.

Julianne Moore in ‘Far From Heaven’

This is a gruelling path to tread on. Many film-makers find it complex to find a midway to cater to audiences on each end. Most of them falter, while the lucky ones excel. On the other hand, when people come to cinemas, they want to be introduced to characters they have not seen before, whose lives feel organic (Julianne Moore’s Cathy Whitaker in Far from Heaven), not forcefully grafted upon (all Baywatch characters). However, the final word always rests with the audience. Even if you have made a good film, it may end up biting the dust at the box office.

No matter how emotionally crushing it is for film-makers to accept, it is a sad reality that box-office success is one of the best yardsticks to measure the worth of a movie.

On a positive note, audience connects with characters not caricatures. This is the reason why people remember characters even after years of a film’s release (Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall and Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer in Annie Hall).

Keeping this point in mind, it is significant to understand that a good film, regardless of its genre, concocts the machinations of a character’s life. It unravels through exchange of words (John Well’s August: Osage County) or glances (Todd Haynes’ Carol).

Audience, with time, starts accepting quality content. In our case, Pakistani cinema’s burgeoning landscape has left people utterly dejected, disconcerted and dismayed. Particularly, the critical and commercial failure of 2017’s releases is unsettling for an ardent filmgoer like me. Around 17 notable Pakistani films released in 2017. Out of which, I personally vouched for Balu Mahi and Chalay Thay Saath because I felt that they were observant enough to make me root for their supporting characters. Yes, you heard it right.

A still from ‘Balu Mahi’ | Sadia Jabbar Productions

I have this thing for supporting characters (Kristen Stewart in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Matthias Schoenaerts in The Danish Girl). These characters are purposefully underwritten, but they show so much promise that you want to see more of them. They are merely written to tease the audience.

Similarly, last year’s best performers, Sadaf Kanwal (Balu Mahi) and Mansha Pasha (Chalay Thay Saath), were supporting characters. Pasha and Kanwal’s parts were completely different. Pasha’s character in Chalay Thay Saath is unobtrusive, reticent, while Kanwal’s portrayal in Balu Mahi is clearly seeking attention, lively and vivacious.

A still from ‘Chalay Thay Saath’ | Hot Water Bottle Films

The sheer likeability of these characters is a clarion call for film-makers to not only focus on the lead protagonists while writing a film, but also sculpt the supporting characters to perfection. There are enough lessons for film-makers to learn from debacles released in 2017, including Thora Jee Le, Whistle, Raasta, Yalghaar, Mehrunisa V Lub U, Chain Aye Na, Geo Sar Utha Kay, Arth: The Destination, Rangreza and Chupan Chupai.

Each of the above-mentioned film had around a dozen characters without their existence in the film being justified, which is just embarrassingly bad for an industry that is still growing.

It is time that film-makers understand that characters, in a particular film, are not purely subjective. The reception of characters in a given film holds utmost importance in the development of ‘character prototypes’ in viewers’ minds. The idea that characters are loved, hated, cherished, or revered accentuates that they are represented in some form or another. Even though mental development of ‘character prototypes’ is a prerequisite for understanding characters, it is certainly not the only aspect of their reception; however, it is one of the two levels of character-related viewer responses, which are:

  1. perception of images and sounds, and
  2. formation and interpretation of ‘character prototypes’ in viewers’ minds.

An example from a local Pakistani film may make these levels more understandable as they eventually build upon each other.

Watching Mehreen Jabbar’s Dobara Phir Se, we initially perceive information about Zainab (Hareem Farooq) only subliminally. Our initial impression of the distant shots of Hareem Farooq and her wavering hands is processed further to produce a mental prototype of Zainab’s character as Hammad (Adeel Hussain) constantly tries to catch a glimpse of her.

A still from ‘Dobara Phir Se’ | ARY Films

As she finally appears on the visual track, we see her slyly trying to cover her body with the black overcoat she is wearing. We first see her face and upper body. This is completely opposite to her initial impression, where we see her lower body only. Moments later, she disappears and viewers’ attention diverts to a party where Hammad discovers that Zainab is one of the guests.

A still from ‘Dobara Phir Se’ | ARY Films

Our visual perspective about Zainab gradually changes from shot to shot. Connecting bits of information by tracking Zainab’s movements, we infer that her character is going through an inner turmoil. The formation of this character prototype is merely a result of collecting explicit and implicit knowledge about Zainab.

In Dobara Phir Se, the prototype for Zainab is continuously changed until the end as her character is constantly teetering at the cusp of moral values. She has to make a significant decision about her life that constantly changes her outlook: from sombre to cheerful and cheerful to sombre.

Through the course of this film, we get impressions highlighting Zainab’s firm stand to choose between love and life. Her character also symbolises the idea of moral integrity. Moreover, we can see the development of her character through surrounding sounds and images.

Director Mehreen Jabbar uses motifs and symbols to underscore the fact that Zainab wants to be free. It starts from the beginning: one of the first few shots in the film shows a bird freely flying in the sky with its wings widely spread across.

A still from ‘Dobara Phir Se’ | ARY Films

Deeper inspection of accompanying sounds and images complements the development of mental character prototypes; both of them are inseparable and heavily rely on each other. Each level entails cognitive and emotional elements that constantly interact with each other to influence viewers. It is, therefore, imperative to ask ourselves these questions, while analysing a character:

  1. How is a character represented?
  2. What features does the character possess as a fictional being?
  3. What does the character stand for?
  4. What causes the character to be as it is?

With this being said, I found myself loving hardly a ‘few’ characters in Pakistani films in 2017. This is an ignominy as we saw dozens of characters in 16 local films last year.

Local cinema still has a chance to redeem itself. Let’s hope that this year turns out to be better.

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