How Exposition is used in Cinema?

Time.. One of the most important factor in storytelling. There have been filmmakers who have used time with utmost care and have done justice to their stories but there have been many who have not been able to tell their story in a limited amount of time, as a result of which, their films, even though they had some great content, were big disappointments at the box-office.

One of the time-consuming element in every script is the amount of backstory, also termed as exposition, that most of the characters require in order to clarify their objectives. The writer, not only has to keep moving the story forward but also has to make sure that the core concept doesn’t get off-track.

Exposition, is therefore, a great tool for any writer to convey the backstory of a character intelligently so that the script becomes more compact and gripping.

Exposition can be done through:

  1. Dialogues
  2. Flashback
  3. Photographs
  4. Setting/mise-en-scene
  5. Songs
  6. Narration

Let us study a few examples of how it has been used in some films.

  1. Exposition through Dialogues

When a piece of dialogue reveals something about a character’s past.

Consider the following examples:

In SHOLAY, during the first major flashback, we see Thakur traveling with Jai and Veeru in a train. Thakur asks – ‘Tum dono ye dhandhe kitne dino se kar rahe ho?” and Veeru says- “Bas ye samajh lijiye Thanedar Sahab ki hosh sambhaalte hi apne pairon par khade ho gaye the”. Now this dialogue tells us a probable backstory of Jai and Veeru that they must be orphans, having met at some roadside or an orphanage, became good friends and started doing petty crimes to survive. There is no flashback of Jai and Veeru. But we do not question anything and we do not need any further information related to this because the story is not about them.

Veeru says- “Bas ye samajh lijiye Thanedar Sahab ki hosh sambhaalte hi apne pairon par khade ho gaye the in SHOLAY (1975)

In ANDHADHUN, during first few minutes, when we see Ayushmaan entering a musical instrument shop, the owner says – “Do aur tuitions hain”, to which Ayushmaan replies “Arey nahi sir, tuitions ab cancel kar do.. wo Vimaan Nagar ka bachcha mujhe pagal kar dega.. aur jo Gokhale madam hai.. wo touch karti hai yaar”. Now these lines tell us that this guy gives piano lessons at home (backstory), as he played piano in the opening scene, and later on this information is useful in the narrative when Pramod Sinha invites him to give a performance at his home.

Ayushmann Khurana in Andhadhun (2018)
  • Exposition through Flashback

Aaj se 15 saal pehle, jab main ek din …” and then a dissolve to 15 years back. Remember such scenes in films. Well one of the most common forms of exposition but is also considered the easiest. Also, including flashback increases your troubles as you have to shoot those scenes later. So flashbacks are not highly recommended and should be used only when there is no other alternative.

Examples:

3 Idiots tells the story of Rancho through flashbacks only.

In Sholay, there are three major flashbacks- ‘the introduction of Jai and Veeru’ (First flashback), ‘the backstory of Radha (Jaya Bachchan) and her youthful days’ (Second flashback) and ‘the brutal murder of Thakur’s family by Gabbar Singh and Thakur’s hands getting chopped’ (third flashback). If you have seen the film, all the three flashbacks are important to the narrative and move the story forward.

  • Exposition through Photographs

Examples:

The opening scene of Hitchcock’s masterpiece ‘Rear Window’ where the entire space of L. B. Jefferies is established, we see a “framed negative” of a beautiful lady and the positive of the same photo as a cover of various copies of the same magazine. It establishes that she is someone very close to him. Also the shots of a photograph showing a racing accident where a tyre heads towards the camera. It shows that may be this was the accident that caused a fracture in Jefferies’ leg.

The photograph showing a ‘racing accident’ in Rear Window (1954)

In the opening shots of Andhadhun, we see a photograph of ‘Kishore Kumar’ over Ayushmaan’s piano to show that he is his idol.

  • Exposition through the Setting/Mise-en-scene

Examples:

Consider the opening scene of Sai Paranjype’s Chashme Buddoor, which establishes the PG where Siddharth, Jomo and Omi live together. However, all the three characters are distinct. Siddharth is shown as a nerd so his wall is full of Swami Vivekanand poster and a lot of books on economics, Jomo is a film buff so his wall is full of film stars cut-outs and posters whereas Omi reads a lot of books on body-building and fitness.

Chashme Buddoor
  • Exposition through Song

Examples:

The song ‘Ek Haseena Thi” in the film ‘Karz’ tells the story of a character named ‘Ravi Verma’ in order to seek revenge of his murder from Kamini. In addition, the entire song shows the excerpts from his life through dramatic re-creation. ‘Om Shanti Om’ used a similar song.

The song ‘Dost Dost na raha’ from ‘Sangam’ is a beautiful expositional song where Sundar (Raj Kapoor) narrates his heart out in the following lines:

Amaanatein main pyaar ki, gaya tha jisko saunp kar
Woh mere dost tum hi the, tumhi to the
Jo zindagi ki raah me bane the mere hamsafar
Woh mere dost tum hi the, tumhi to the
Saare bhed khul gaye, raazdaar na raha

The song ‘Dost Dost na raha‘ from Sangam (1964)

Also, another song in the film ‘Munnabhai MBBS’, where Munna narrates his backstory to one of the young patients at the hospital:

Phir Bole To Ek Din Apun Ke Mohalle Main Hema Aayi
Sala Apun Ka Khopdi Chakkar Kha Gaya
Truck Ke Saath Bhi Sala Takkar Kha Gaya

  • Exposition through Narration

Examples:

In films like ‘Lagaan’ and ‘Paheli’, there is a use of a third-party narration where either one of the characters in the film narrate the film or someone outside the filmic world narrates the story. However, in Lagaan, we see voice-of-god narration by Amitabh Bachchan (though he is not there in the film). In Paheli, we see the point-of-view through two puppets (voices of Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah).

CONCLUSION

A lot of times, exposition causes disturbance in the flow of the story, therefore, it should be used carefully and creatively in the narrative so that the story always progresses forward.

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