SCREENSAVOUR: The set up
In a good film that gun on the wall when the camera pans the room is not just a prop. At some point it goes off, moving the plot further

In director Kabeer Kaushik’s impressive debut Sehar (2005), about a special task force engaged in tackling organised crime in Uttar Pradesh in the mid-90s, Pankaj Kapoor plays the role of a soft-spoken introverted physics professor from Lucknow University who trains the force in tracking cell phone signals that eventually helps them nab a dreaded gang. 

At the end of a day’s work at the police station, Arshad Warsi who plays the chief of the crack team, offers Kapoor a lift in his vehicle. As soon as Kapoor gets into the car, Warsi casually takes out his revolver and places it on the dashboard. Kapoor is startled; he requests the police officer to remove the gun because he is scared of firearms.

In the climax of the film that takes place inside an empty compartment of a running train, a major showdown between the gangsters and the police results in the death of all, except Gajraj, the heavily injured gang leader who is waiting for a chance to jump out of the moving train. But what Gajraj is not aware of is that one person is still alive, hiding under the berth, just beside Warsi’s dead body. It is the gun-fearing professor Kapoor who had accompanied the force on the mission. Kapoor slowly crawls out of his hiding place, reaches Warsi’s revolver, aims at the gangster and shoots him down.

Suddenly, the relevance of the scene earlier in the film where he had requested Warsi to remove the gun, comes out in full force. In screenplay parlance, such a scene is called ‘set-up’ and the resulting outcome — when you are least expecting it — is called ‘pay-off’. Quite often, it delineates the character’s transition too — another vital element in screenplay writing — in this case, from a nervous soul to a heroic figure.

Anton Chekov, the famous 19th century Russian short story writer and playwright had wonderfully summed up the principle: “If you show a gun hanging from the wall at the beginning of the story, at some point in the story it has to go off.”

Every time film students learn about this concept, they immediately jog their memories in search of all the films that they had seen to find out similar examples. One of the most exciting examples they come up with is from Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption (1994) where Tim Robbin’s character who is falsely accused of murdering his wife and sent packing for 19 years, requests for a small rock hammer and a poster of Rita Hayworth — Hollywood diva of the 40s —from an inmate, who is a procurer (Morgan Freeman) to stick up on the wall of his cell.

Nineteen years later, Raquel Welsh has replaced Rita and the jailor finds out to his horror that Robbins has escaped through a tunnel that he had dug diligently behind the poster for nearly two decades!

Countless films from all over the world have been using this device to varying effects. In India, two popular Hindi films from the ’70s that use this device to magnificent impact are Sholay and Deewar. In Sholay, the coin with two identical faces is used repeatedly to provoke laughter, but towards the end, Jay (Amitabh Bachchan) who knew about its special characteristics, tosses it to take a call at a vital moment which eventually saves his friend Veeru’s (Dharmendra) life at the expense of his own life —  which Veeru discovers later. The emotional impact it achieves is stupendous.

Similarly, in Deewar, the Vijay character, played by Bachchan again, loses his ‘billa number 786’ at a point when his police-officer brother (Shashi Kapoor) is about to shoot him during a chase. The same metallic badge had saved his life on several occasions earlier in the film; but this time we know — his game is up, as he struggles frantically to reach the badge instead of running away from danger.

It is not a coincidence that both the films were written by the Salim-Javed duo who were masters of the craft and knew how to use such devices for maximum emotional impact. The audience of course, need not know the intricacies of the craft; they just need to get their money’s worth.

(The author is a Mumbai-based filmmaker, instructor  and writer)

Columnist: 
Ranjan Das