Vada Chennai, 96, Badhaai Ho and A Star is Born — Are clichés always bad?

Arguably the most common accusation a film gets from everyone who consumes cinema, clichés are considered to be an abomination in films. However, as Khaled Hosseini puts it in his book Kite Runner, clichés are also ‘dead-on’. Talking about avoiding clichés in creative writing, he writes, “the aptness of the clichéd saying is overshadowed by the nature of the saying as a cliché.” In fact, to prove his point, he goes on to use a few cliched phrases in the next few lines with brimming charm.

A similar analogy can be drawn to films where clichés, if presented well, surprisingly work effectively due to its innate congruity to the situation at hand. With clichés here, I mean tropes that have already been pushed into the dark zones of recognition — ones that we have used so often (and mostly in such unexciting manner) that they have been reduced to caricaturish templates.

Four films from the recent weeks are great examples of how clichés can be staged to exciting effect — Vada Chennai, Badhaai Ho, 96, and A Star Is Born. These films belong to different languages, genres, show different worlds and work on different constructs. But the common thread in these films is that they don’t break all the stereotypes their stories come with. Vada Chennai doesn’t really go beyond the gangster-violence-cuss word facade of North Madras. A Star Is Born comes with a story that has been told several times and leads we all recognise quite well; neither does Badhaai Ho, which shows middle-class families in all its stereotypical glory, another cliché if you can call it. But these films work as a result of the cultured writing that embellishes these stereotypes with enough details; giving its characters flesh and turning them into people. The most defining aspect of 96 is that most of us are content to wallow in what-ifs and nostalgia rather cross societal boundaries. Familiarity here thus becomes an instant opportunity to get the viewer involved.

Superlative performances further deepen the sense of witnessing actual people and actual moments on screen. For example, In Badhaai Ho, Ayushmaan Khurrana returns home after an epiphany, looking to break the ice with his mother. His mom is pregnant and his reaction to the same isn’t what one would term as ‘welcoming’. After days of not talking to her, he enters the kitchen and just says ‘Ma’. She knows that this is his peace offering and in return offers the question that mothers across the country ask, ‘Khaana kha liya beta?’. Nothing more needed to be said as they embraced each other. Both knew that the other had understood, no questions asked. A similar example from 96 would be when Ram (Vijay Sethupathi) mock-prays Jaanu’s (Trisha) thaali as she sleeps. A moment we have seen once too many in real life and on-screen, but it is Vijay Sethupathi’s effervescence that shines through.

Have you ever wondered why sharing stories are immensely gratifying? It isn’t that our stories are unique or out-of-the-box. Most of us understand love, anguish, anger, revenge, ambition, fear of embarrassment and the gamut of emotions these films deal with and have a story to narrate of our own. But there’s a sense of companionship that these discussions give us — a feeling of ‘I’ve been there too’. So are clichés really always a bad thing?


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