Thamizh Talkies: The twelve-minute theory
The writer is a former journalist who has worked in the film industry for several years and is passionate about movies, music and everything related to entertainment
'Vaanengum thangavinnmeengal vizhiyimaimooda suriyan vandhu kadal kuliththerum neram...'
This opening song in Moondram Pirai has been on my mind. A song whose tune is so complicated that it's a singing challenge; the Hindi version of the film, Sadma, incidentally has a wholly different tune for the same situation. The Tamil song rendered with such lilt by SP Balasubrahmanyam and S Janaki has visuals by writer-director Balu Mahendra, which match the lyrical imagery word for word. This song was invoked by an avid film buff and critic, Siddharth, on Twitter, as one of the best opening sequences in Tamil cinema. It is an exotic song, which showcases the female protagonist in a nonchalant manner as she enjoys a getaway with her male and female friends (remember, it was the early 80s). Even as we are enjoying the song and its breathtaking visuals, it ends in a car crash. Look at your watch for how long the movie has been running and you will see it’s less than twelve minutes.
Experts say that the first twelve minutes of a movie is the best time-frame to grab the attention of the audience. A good film is one that fits into this timetable. Keep a reminder on your watch or phone to check this theory the next time you see a film. Set it to throw light (literally) at the twelfth minute after titles. Assess if the film has, by then, got your complete attention/curiosity/involvement. If it has, the film is likely one you will end up liking.
In a script, one page, typically, amounts to one minute of screen time. So by the time you cross the twelfth page, the First Act of the film should have arrived with the first main spike of the story. Attention span is a limited commodity, and content creators are up against this ticking clock which does not show any mercy whatsoever. Even European cinema or film noir or niche films which deal with capturing 'moods' and 'moments' abide by this rule. Even the slowest visual will move into either capturing attention or losing it as the runtime crosses the twelfth-minute mark.
This is a simple rule with which one can assess whether a script will make for a good film. It’s all in the writing. For a director who’s a better narrator than a writer, it is best they collaborate with someone for the writing. As much as cinema is a visual medium, even the silent shots or montages must be written down, discussed, and described, ahead of the shoot to add meaning to the story. Every minute of screen-time is so precious and must help move the screenplay forward. Indian cinema has the added tool of music and dance to propel the story ahead by a few minutes but, more often than not, songs are used to distract us from the main plot. Just as an action movie packs its best punch in its one-liners delivered with panache by the hero and/or the villain, a great song is one which should carry the story on its able shoulders without wasting screen time. In that sense, the opening song from Moondram Pirai is a great example of using a song to shift gears from a pleasant mood to a shocking one, which sets the tone of the complete film thereafter.
Masala movies use this 'opening song' trope more as a hero introduction song. This is, in a way, best if the song is narrating the character arc of the hero. But it is often used as mere showcasing of heroism with heavy choreography and chest thumping 'build-up' which add nothing to the main story. Will a 'mass' Tamil film without a hero introduction song be welcomed by Tamil film distributors, producers and audience? Now that is something to think about.