It is not about doing justice to an existing classic or improving upon an average film. The big question here is if it is possible to replicate the emotions of an audience of yesteryear?
It takes innocence, enthusiasm, devotion, courage and craft to make a film that is essentially a tribute to that one piece of magic on celluloid, which was instrumental in making one, a filmmaker in the first place. Don, in a way, was one such cinematic exercise. So was Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1960), which was known to have emulated a the westerns made by John Ford.
What is of greater interest to us, however, is the subject of remakes and not the makers of them.
The concept of remake is hardly a novel one. Ben-Hur was made three times (1907, 1925, 1959) – with the last version being the most successful in terms of Oscars (11) and box-office collections ($37 million); both ‘editions’ of The Ten Commandments (1926, 1925) were equally successful.
However not all remakes have been successful. There have been less-than-flattering reinterpretations of existing classics at times by the makers of the original themselves! But we shall skip the dead bodies and their gory post-mortems here.
The point, however, is that much as one would want to look beyond the subject of remakes, it would have to be accepted by all that remakes can’t simply be dismissed with one firm brush of disdain. For, to begin with, they help the world remember (or learn about) the originals and secondly, not much of art can qualify as creation sans inspiration anyway. For instance, there have been innumerable films based on Shakespearean tales, but shockingly enough, the plot of Hamlet is said to have been borrowed by Shakespeare from his Elizabethan predecessors!
Indian cinema, theater and music have always drawn generously from mythological and folk tales of our inspiringly diverse culture groups. In fact, the folk music and dance forms too draw some of their present inspirations from popular culture – as propagated by films and music – of the present times.
With time, culture and the various forms of its expression too change. Old traditions might wear a trendy new garb, while new beginnings might be copiously influenced by ancient traditions.
So then, does that mean that all the cinema of present times is basically based on some earlier tales, and hence remakes?
The answer may be both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Yes, there is a probability of their being based – knowingly or otherwise – on some ancient tale of some land. Yet, no, they cannot be called remakes merely on the basis of the extreme probability.
In any case, we are here concerned with the scenario of a film-maker himself calling his film a remake of the earlier one.
But why call it a remake? Why not give it the description, ‘based on the original’?
After all, except for Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998), which was a ‘verbatim’, shot-on-shot replication of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 original, most remakes make many changes in the narrative – including that of addition or removal of characters, change in the mood of the narrative or that of simply placing the narrative in a completely different era. What better example can we give than that of Devdas, which was played in their inimitable styles by K L Saigal, Dilip Kumar and Shah Rukh Khan – not to mention the distinct styles of directors like Bimal Roy and Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
Sensibility of a film, the emotions that it generates in the audience and the feel of its era are all inseparable parts of the magic called cinema. Once a film starts feeling different from its earlier avatar, one can safely assume it to be a different film!
One can remake Dil Chahta Hai with three female protagonists, based in Darbhanga (Bihar) in year 1863 and make an equally compelling and entertaining film at that; but would that be a ‘remake of Dil Chahta Hai’? Ram Gopal Varma might end up making a film that is technically superior and just as entertaining as Sholay, but would that film ever make you feel like the 1975 one?
So why not acknowledge the inspiration, have a different name of the new one and make what you are making anyway? You would not only avoid disappointing the loyals and team of the earlier one because of making changes (as in Farhan Akhtar’s DON) but also be saving yourself from mind-numbing expectations and, God forbid, soul-scarring criticism.
But hey, wouldn’t that steal away some ready-made publicity and respect? Of course. Which else motive do you think is muddying the subject of remakes?
… … …
A Tale of Two Psychos
One of the very rare remakes of its kind, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998) was a ‘verbatim’, shot-by-shot replication of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 original. Almost all frames of the cult original were recreated in the exact same manner, with almost the same dialogue, the same music, and even the same screenwriter! Predictably, even before the release of the film, stringent critics were already questioning the purpose of ‘such a remake’ of ‘such a classic’.
In the DVD commentary of Psycho, Van Sant claims that his remake should be seen more as an artistic endeavour and not a commercial one. And that one of the leading motivation for him was to make the original more appealing to the youth of the present time. He further corroborates in the commentary that the original Psycho was filmed in black-and-white, not a very attractive medium in itself, and carried a language that might be deemed archaic now.
While one can argue that huge films like Schindler’s List have recently been made in black & white because of the requirement of the script, one can understand Van Sant’s slant towards the colour medium. After all, how easy is for any of us to think of making a film in black & white today? Unfortunately for Van Sant though, the very decision of giving colour to the original contributed to a great extent towards the spectacular failure of the remake. Psychological thrillers are supposed to be grim and ‘shadowy’, not a collage of pastel colours.
All said and psyched, no one quite understood the whole point of replicating a milestone of a story-board. Especially when access to the original is as convenient as it actually is? And what about the whole factor of time that this write-up is all about? How could Van Sant not take into account the change in sensibilities of the audiences of two different times, before serving the same dish, with minor modifications?
In all, this was one remake that made headlines for all the wrong reasons. And this was one remake that most filmmakers would vouch of not attempting. Cinema is basically about narrating a story. Not about playing the same live voice through a audio player. Ouch!