This is the time for learning new things and adapting to ‘new realities’, a term that has become a cliché in quick time. Let’s explore genre and categorisation so that we can better understand the kind of films are we likely to see more of.
As audience, we are familiar with different genres of films. One of the advantages of viewing films online is that we get to read a lot of details about the film, its makers, cast, genre, duration, rating and so on before we click the Play button.
We have our own genre preferences as well. If someone likes romantic comedies and musicals, someone else would binge-watch thrillers and fantasy action films. A new release in the past week made a lot of people talk about genre. A genre that is perhaps the least explored in Indian cinema: screen-based film.
The film is Mahesh Narayanan’s Malayalam film C U Soon. The film, which was completely shot indoors during the lockdown period involves a small number of characters (three main characters to be precise). They called it a ‘screen-based’ movie. From the first look itself, it had the look and feel of a chamber film, a category that has been richly explored the world over to tell intense personal stories in a limited budget.
What is a chamber drama?
By definition, a chamber piece, chamber drama or chamber film is a film involving a small number of characters in a single or just a couple of locations interacting for a short period of time. There are many world classics made by legendary directors such as Ingmar Bergman (Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence and Persona) and Roman Polanski (Carnage) that fit into this category of films. Bergman’s model for chamber dramas was classical chamber music. Alfred Hitchcock is the other director who explored it to flourish his mystery films.
Chamber music, live performances inside a palace chamber by a small number of musicians inspired chamber drama in theatre plays first and then in movies. Chamber plays dramatise a minimal plot in a three-act structure on the same stage without changing the set. On the same lines, chamber films minimise the use of outdoor locations and tell a story that unfolds in a minimalistic fashion in a closed-door environment. In cinema, for a change, “chamber” can involve multiple locations, but not too many.
Most chamber films tend to be conversational pieces with “bottle plots” because they have to tell a story with a minimal backdrop, characters and locations. Take the 2015 film Room for example. An adaptation of a novel by the same title, Room tells the story of Joy Newsome (Brie Larson who won an Oscar for her role), a woman who was kidnapped and held captive in a closed environment for seven years. During her captivity, she gives birth to a son Jack and raises him for 5 years before he sees the outside world. The drama unfolds in a tiny chamber, which houses a bed, toilet, bathtub, television, and a tiny kitchen, with one window to let sunlight in.
Iranian films that have been the talk of film festivals across the globe are prime examples of such minimalism. Asghar Farhadi’s family drama A Separation (2011) had bagged the Academy Award for best foreign-language film. He again won the same award in 2016 for The Salesman. Farhadi came to films from the theatre. It is no wonder that his productions are deeply dramatic in a theatrical sense. In Kiarostami’s Ten (2002) and Panahi’s Taxi (2015), a static camera captures the action inside a car in which different passengers get in, converse and get out.
In India, some of the recent films that live up to the definition of this category are R Parthiban’s Tamil thriller Otha Seruppu, Joy Mathew’s Malayalam thriller Shutter and Vikramaditya Motwane’s Hindi survival drama Trapped.
From Chamber to Screen
Screen-based films communicate their entire narrative through “screens”. All the visuals that are part of the narrative move from one screen to another, from chat windows and video calls on smartphone screens to the computer or TV screen. Aneesh Chaganty’s Hollywood thriller Searching was shot from the point-of-view of smartphones and computer screens. The horror anthology V/H/S uses a TV to take the narrative forward. While most of the screen-based movies that we have seen so far are essentially chamber films that are limited to a minimum number locations, there is a possibility of doing it on a larger scale with varying backdrops as opposed to the limited backdrops such as in Room or Trapped.
The entire story of C U Soon unfolds in two or three locations. Jimmy’s home and office, Kevin’s bedroom and Anu’s bedroom. There is very less change in the backdrop and minimal noise and atmospherics. The focus is on the conversations that happen through various instant messaging and video calling apps. We are constantly reading their private chats and listening to their phone conversations.
In comparison to chamber films, things are not vastly different in screen-based films with the notable exception of the technology, the type of cinematography and editing employed in the latter.
Case for chamber films
Chamber films fit most of the stories that we, in India, have grown up with. The family dramas, romantic comedies, satires, or even thrillers that could be made in comparatively lower budgets with a leaner production crew fall into this category. Mahesh Narayanan, the director of C U Soon had credited the pandemic-induced lockdown as the primary reason for conceiving the project. The screen-based drama format suits the project even if he had planned to make it in another period. The backdrop and external elements hardly matter to the story.
Note that we are saying “category” and not “genre” to denote chamber films because chamber films can be of any genre or sub-genre: romantic comedy, thriller, horror, film noir, sci-fi and so on. C U Soon is a well-made thriller in the screen-based format while Trapped is a superb survival drama that happens within an apartment.
Many stories related to the film industry during the pandemic indicated that our writers are working on scripts and designing projects that could be executed within the limitations of the current times. Are we going to see a surge of intensely personal stories that could survive on the power of the narrative than grand production designs and beautiful overseas locations? It is time to create a new, intimate and minimalistic grammar for storytelling that focuses on the micro details that we least focus on.
(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and film enthusiast. Read his past works here)