In the spotlight

In the spotlight


I have read at least a couple of people, who review films for a living, complain about how the fact that they need to write about them completely transforms their movie watching experience. It is almost as though there is a little voice in the head that pipes up constantly, adding commentary, egging you to take notes, creating, colouring and changing your opinion, making you notice things you would have otherwise missed and most importantly, making you miss an unfettered viewing experience you would have otherwise had. In my case, this is drastically exacerbated, because in addition to just putting down my thoughts and opinion about a movie, I need to look for a hook, a connection to a corporate concept, to make it relevant from a business perspective. For someone with my financial sense and business insight – I invested in stock of a microbrewery because I like microbrewery beers – this throws up an interesting challenge and even more interesting results.

While I liked 127 hours for its edgy, fast paced and gripping screenplay and how it managed to hold my attention in spite of knowing what was coming,  it did not impress me enough to dislodge my favourite movie in this genre- Into the wild.

For instance, the first thing that struck me when I watched 127 hours was the profusion of brands on display and the way product placement was naturally and seamlessly incorporated within the flow of the movie. In contrast, product placement in most Indian movies is so forced, be it focusing longer than necessary on a billboard unrelated to the story or on the cola can clutched in the hero’s hand. James Franco (playing the role of hiker Aron Ralston) sips on Gatorade, fantasizes about Coke and Mountain Dew, wears a Suunto watch, uses a Canon camcorder and a Sony camera and in one of the telling moments in the film, gropes around and fails to locate his Swiss Army knife to take on his hike. Even in the title credits as he drives on the freeway, I saw at least half a dozen food and beverage chains flash by. I am not sure how many of these brands had actually paid to be featured in the film, but even if some did, that would have accounted for a significant chunk of the budget of the movie. This is a creative cop out at some level, but if the product placement is incidental and not intrusive to the narrative, then there is not much to complain about.

Desiring an emotional connect

Being a fan of the great outdoors and as someone who prefers hikes and treks to urban travel, I tend to like movies which are set against the backdrop of national parks and desolate landscapes with minimal habitation. While I liked 127 hours for its edgy, fast-paced and gripping screenplay and how it managed to hold my attention in spite of knowing what was coming, it did not impress me enough to dislodge my favourite movie in this genre – Into the wild. The protagonist in the latter film, directed by Sean Penn, abandons all pretensions of a conventional life, shuts off communication with his family and friends, and sets off on a trip to experience life in the wilderness. Ironically, for a film about someone who is effectively renouncing the world, the most fulfilling parts are those that explore his relationships with strangers he meets on his journey.

Though I had strong fundamental disagreements with his obvious selfish motives of disregarding the interests of those who care for him and his escapist or maybe defeatist, outlook on life, Into the wild had enough emotional weight to make me relate to him, sympathise with him and be deeply moved by the end. 127 hours, on the other hand, while made me empathise with Aron Ralston’s pain, frustration and desperation, kept me at an emotional distance. This has been a consistent feeling for me as far as Danny Boyle’s movies are concerned. While he tells fascinating stories in a distinctive way, I think the emotional connect with the characters is always left wanting. Having said that, due credit should be given to him for weaving a full-length feature film out of what could have been the subject of a thirty-minute documentary. There are some standout moments in the film – how Aron’s childhood memories flash before him, the part where he role plays and interviews himself, when he desires what could potentially be his last moment of sexual gratification and of course, the stunning climax.

Going mainstream

I could have drawn some obvious business lessons from 127 hours like how you need a never-say-die attitude or how you need to lose-some-to-win-some, but a movie that involves dismembering is too strong and farfetched an analogy for the corporate world, especially when the victim is oneself and not one’s boss. Instead, I choose to make an even more farfetched connection, which regular readers must be accustomed to by now, of how niche industries go mainstream. In the movie, there is a veritable array of hiking equipment on display – the LED headlight, the straps and cables, hiking shoes, the backpack, and the hydration pack to name a few. Manufacturing suppliers for hiking and retailing would have essentially started out targeting an extremely niche market. Note that I say niche and not luxury, for here the question is one of necessity not affordability. There is a great risk in starting up something that you know has a limited consumer base and I am curious as to what would have driven the people who decided to do so. In many cases, it is quite possible that avid hikers themselves were forced to because of a dearth of supplies. Whatever be the reasons, as hiking and camping began to get popular as more people started to pursue them as a serious hobby, these very niche brands became mainstream. Today, its commonplace to find both retailers and manufacturers of hiking equipment, even in India where these activities have only recently begin to grow. Getting acceptance into popular culture can have this exponential effect on growth, but how to gain that acceptance is anyone’s guess. Even if you take the case of Danny Boyle: the movies he made before Slumdog millionaire  like Trainspotting and 28 days later had tremendous critical acclaim and a big fan following. But Slumdog catapulted him into the mainstream and a much bigger audience now waits eagerly for his work. Not much has changed about the subjects he chooses or the style he adopts, but why Slumdog found the universal acceptance that his earlier movies did not probably holds the secret of what it takes to get into popular culture.

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