Why are birds on the rampage in the teaser of Shankar’s upcoming science-fiction film 2.0? The teaser indicates that a mysterious gravitational force is sucking up cellphones all over the world at the behest of the half-human and half-rooster Dr Richard (Akshay Kumar). A fun theory that has galvanised the Whatsapp grapevine is that 2.0 is a movie about nature’s revenge. Our otherwise-benign feathered friends are targetting mobile phones because the radiation from cellphone towers is destroying their population, the theory goes.
In one of the movie’s posters, a giant claw rips into the glass facade of a building. The visual effects needed to bring 2.0 close to, if not on par, with Hollywood science fiction fantasies have delayed the production by nearly a year. The sequel to Shankar’s Enthiran (2010), which sees the return of Rajinikanth as scientist Vaseegaran and the robot Chitti that he builds in his likeness, will be released in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu on November 29.
We have seen birds put their claws and beaks to malignant use before. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 production The Birds is based on a novella of the same name written by Daphne Du Maurier in 1952. Hitchcock changed the English setting of the original to Bodega Bay in California and instructed writer Evan Hunter to retain only the title and the novella’s basic theme: an unanticipated and unexplained bird attack on a peaceful town.
The movie introduced the model Tippi Hedren to the movies. Hedren plays impulsive socialite Melanie, who drives from San Francisco to Bodega Bay to deliver a pair of lovebirds to a lawyer she has just met. The lawyer, Mitch (Rod Taylor), visits his widowed mother and younger sister at Bodega Bay on weekends. Melanie lands up along with the caged birds, not sure if anything will come out of the encounter.
As with most of Hitchcock’s suspense films, the tension is cranked up only gradually. A seagull inflicts a wound on Melanie’s blonde head, which turns out to be a dress rehearsal for a series of bombardments that are staged without warning and without discrimination. Men and women of all ages and even children are not safe as various species – gulls, crows, even sparrows – unite to rain terror from the skies.
The first full-blown attack, by a flock of sparrows that barrels through the fireplace and invades Mitch’s house, appears only in the 58th minute. From then on, Hitchcock expertly rations out the shocks in one enthralling set-piece after another. As Melanie wait outside a school to pick up Mitch’s sister, Hitchcock deploys one of his most well-known techniques for creating suspense. The audience sees what the characters do not. Melanie lights a cigarette and waits as a lone crow settles on the jungle gym behind her. She does not notice when a few more crows make their landing, and then a few more. By the time she turns around, the jungle gym is packed with corvids, waiting, like her, for the students to be let out.
It all started after you came to Bodega Bay, a hysterical woman tells Melanie, but the movie refuses to clarify the motive behind the blitz. Is The Birds a parable about nature turning on humankind? An early warning sign of climate change? Any hint of an allegory with sexual undertones – Mitch’s mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), is resentful of all his female friends – is destroyed when Lydia too becomes a target.
By leaving the mystery behind the avian invasion unresolved, Hitchcock ensures that The Birds remains one of his most beguiling works.
Hitchcock used close-ups, framing and editing to startling effect in most of his films, and The Birds has some beautiful instances of the director’s ability to convey meaning through the unique tools of cinema. Some of the tension is created purely by the framing and the deep-focus shots, such as the scene between Melanie and Mitch’s ex-girlfriend, Annie (Suzanne Pleshette).
The realisation that the birds mean business and not only satisfied with a few pecks to the scalp comes in the scene when Lydia stumbles upon a neighbour whose house has been ravaged by the creatures. Lydia sees the victim in three takes that are sutured together. The effect is stunning, especially since Lydia, rather than screaming, stumbles away in silent panic.
Another bravura montage is in the sequence in which a bird-hit causes a car to explode. The mishap is reflected on Melanie’s horrified face, which changes its angle as she takes in the extent of the damage. Melanie later runs into a phone booth for safety, but is assailed from all sides by some of the angriest birds ever seen in the movies.
The birds were both real and mechanical. Some sequences involved compositing – shots of actors and birds were shot separately and combined later. In others, fake and actual specimens were used. In one memorable sequence, which has been compared to the murder in the shower in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), hundreds of birds strafe Melanie in the attic of Mitch’s house. Tippi Hedren was under the impression that mechanical birds would be used, she recalls in a documentary included in the DVD version of the film. Instead, she was told on the day of the shoot that the mechanical birds weren’t working out. For five days, the handlers threw live birds at Hedren, making her anguish in the scene very real.
The production had a darker side to it, which Hedren revealed many years after the film’s release. Hedren alleged that Hitchcock sexually assaulted her during the shoot. Shards of glass flew into her face during the phone booth sequence. She needed a week’s rest after the scene of the assault in the attic.
Hitchcock’s predatory behaviour towards Hedren allegedly continued in his film Marnie (1964), in which Hedren plays a sexually frigid kleptomaniac. Marnie includes a rape scene, which Hedren believes was put in there by Hitchcock as a form of punishment.
It would be impossible to make The Birds with the same conditions. Animal rights activists would not allow the birds to be flung at humans, tied to them or enticed through food to get the required shots. No director would be allowed to push his actors beyond their endurance limits in quite the same way.
Contemporary filmmakers have the luxury of using the advances in visual effects technology to suggest equal, if not greater, verisimilitude. Some of the trick shots in The Birds look creaky by current standards, and the compositing isn’t perfect in all places. But the movie’s emotional impact, and its ability to suggest no less than an avian apocalypse with relatively limited resources, is pure 1.0.