The characters in Paul Greengrass’s Jason Bourne love their screens, whether on the wall or in hand. A fair bit of stylish gadgetry is to be expected from an espionage thriller, but the screen almost doubles up as a character in Jason Bourne. Not only does the Central Intelligence Agency’s obsession with Bourne translate into a preoccupation with screens, but also CIA employee Heather Lee’s quest for information begins and ends with her laptop. In several scenes, screens are the only source of light. The frame fills up with a familiar, eerie blue shade, making for a brilliant subtext.
It is because they have woven themselves so snugly into the everyday aspects of our lives that screens in films can make a range of statements in cinema, ranging from the childishly simple to the delicately complex.
Characters in Hindi films are also not far behind in displaying their affection for the screens they own. A rough perusal of Hindi films produced in the past three decades is likely to yield many instances of characters enraptured by televisions and cinema screens.
Most commonly, characters in Hindi films watch the news. A montage of people getting galvanised into action by breaking reports is a popular trope in recent Hindi cinema, appearing in films ranging from Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani to the more recent PK and Bajrangi Bhaijaan. When our screens get swallowed by the screen a character watches, an interesting meta moment is at play.
Raj Kumar Gupta’s No One Killed Jessica provides us with a beautiful metascreen moment when a woman watches Rang De Basanti in the theatre. The audience sees her determination as she watches the screen and the screen itself. What she sees prompts her into organising a candle-light vigil for the slain Jessica. The moment resonates because we are able to make multiple connections between the emotional weight of the sequences of Rang De Basanti, the narrative of No One Killed Jessica and the character’s emotions.
At the simplest level, the portable screen has changed the way characters communicate with each other. They text. They FaceTime. And sometimes, more importantly, they studiously look at their screens and ignore each others’ calls.
In Tamasha, Ved’s mobile screen, flashing with multiple missed calls from Tara, is instructive. Although Tara is trying to reach him, Ved has gone inside himself to a place where there is no room for anybody else – even the woman he loves with a quiet desperation.
In Hasee Toh Phasee, Karishma guesses that her fiancé is in love with her sister when she finds text messages from him on her sister’s phone. As she swipes down the screen to read message after message, she begins to comprehend the depth of her fiancé’s feelings for her sister. That she is swiping the screen of a phone equipped with an alphanumeric keypad makes for a pretty funny blooper.
Kapoor & Sons also uses the metascreen skillfully. When Sunita snoops into her son’s laptop, she becomes privy to a detail about his personal life that prompts her to question everything she knows about her perfect son.
The way Hindi film characters use screens also function as shorthand for their personalities. In Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, the personal growth of Arjun’s character can be traced in the changing relationship between him and the screens he owns. Although Arjun is on a vacation, he is a slave to screens, going so far as to conduct a work-related video conference in a particularly scenic locale. When his friend, Imraan throws his phone away, Arjun is riled beyond measure. Imraan replaces it with a pink phone that Arjun initially deems fit only for a “Japanese school girl”. As Arjun begins to relax into his vacation, the pink phone begins grows on him. When Arjun swipes the screen of his new phone to disconnect a call from his workplace, we know that his process of transformation is complete.
As the number of personal activities mediated by portable screens rise, the metascreen is likely to appear in Hindi films with greater frequency and in more diverse ways. Consider the rapidly growing presence of the e-reader. Characters in Hindi films read books – with their titles amply visible – that function as side notes to their personalities. In Jaane Tu…Yaa Jaane Na, for instance, Savitri is shown to be reading The Beauty Myth, and the book becomes a statement on her subversive personality.
But the rise of the e-reader is likely to make this kind of visual shorthand complicated in a few years to come. In a few years, perhaps, a character reading from a real book will become a statement on personality in itself.
The craze around games like Pokemon Go and apps like Prisma is also likely to change the way Hindi films will incorporate the small metascreen into their narrative. The growing popularity of these applications is likely to make little screens integral to cinematic narratives. As the small screens we carry around with us sweep us off our feet, the filmic metascreen must continue to evolve, or risk redundancy.
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