Narrative to Character: Sympathy to Empathy?

I am a connoisseur of English and Hindi language films. Bring me to a theatre, buy me some popcorn and keep me blind folded until the opening credits roll. Irrespective of the genre, I won’t complain.

What drives good movies, much like any story across any medium is a good coherent narrative. But off late, I have been exposed to mainstream Hindi and English films that have abandoned well-constructed detailed narrative for character construction and study. These films don’t revolve around the construction of circumstance and the adjoining reactions characters provide but instead use circumstance as a backdrop to study character predispositions, internal strife and therefore explore their human condition.

Look at the popular mainstream Indian film ‘Gully Boy’ or Netflix classics such as ‘Soni’. These Hindi films have one line narratives (Slum boy struggles to become hip-hop artist or two women fight against gender based discrimination in the police force). What they focus on instead (Spoilers) is constructing character conflicts. When Ranveer Singh’s character simply watches on, as he chauffer’s his wailing employer, without diving into the why, who and when of the situation, the story-tellers juxtapose two characters based off the backdrop of their circumstance. Similarly, in Soni, assault, societal perception of gender roles and treatment of women in power in comparison to their male counterparts are not narratives weaved by circumstance but issues discussed solely by the strength of the characters perceived emotions and the cinematographers frame. This is fairly common amongst English language, so called ‘Slice of Life’ films. The cinematographer is as much a part of the story telling process as the script writer. I can’t possibly explain what Roma is about. It’s an emotion not a narrative. As common as this phenomenon is, it’s now mainstream.

What are the implications?

  1. I think mainstream acceptance of this form of storytelling, especially in India, a developing country, is a sign that we are ready to look at poverty or other such issues with a deeper lens. It enables us to categorize and sympathize with a whole spectrum of emotions rather than just giving them broad labels like sad, happy or angry. So, when we think of poverty on the streets, the way we process this stimulus goes beyond the economics of the situation. We start thinking about self-worth, what people on the streets perceive about social mobility and how that influences their actions and activities. Or, we look at gender disparity, beyond legislation or regulation but through a social lens. How does gender based expectation or treatment effect way we engage with men and women?
  2. Social campaigns or even advertising can now focus on character study which bleeds into experiential marketing or consumer identity based marketing. Psychographic consumer segmentation, which involves how a particular consumer’s personality, given his or her, socio-economic status and demographics engage with a particular product or service, can be the forefront of consumer outreach campaigns.   

The narrative still exists but the character is in the forefront. We have learnt to sympathize by deconstructing how a particular circumstance should make us feel but story tellers possess the ability to make us empathize by putting us in the shoes of their characters.

By Anirudh Dalmia

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