As a kid, we are always fascinated with the fantasy world of magic. Isn’t it? Once I went to watch a magic show with my parents. It was from one of the best magicians of India. As a 10 year old, I was too young to crack the magician’s code everytime. There was this trick where the magician pulled a rabbit out of the hat. It all happened in a whisker of a second. It was too quick for a 10 year old kid to unravel the trick. Later, I realized that all the while when the audience were staring at his left hand carrying the hat, it was his right hand that did the trick. But we couldn’t notice or you can say we were hypnotized. Cinema does the same with its audience with a trick called “Red Herring”. Let’s see how?
Simply, if I can put it this way, Red Herring is a literary/film device that distracts the audience from the truth. A lot of time, in murder mysteries/thrillers/horror films, there comes a point where the audience gets involved into the drama. It could be right from the word go (as in Vijay Anand’s Teesri Manzil) or somewhere in the middle of the film (as in Hitchcock’s Psycho). We have this tendency to be our own detective and go after each and every character with suspicion. But what happens at the end? More often than not, we end up picking the wrong guy and we feel- “Ohh how did we miss it?” and the writer wins at the end.
Let us discuss a few films and the “red herrings” in them (SPOILERS AHEAD):
- Psycho– Alfred Hitchcock’s one of the most notable and popular works. It tells the story of Marion Crane, an employee at a real estate company, who steals $40,000 from her boss. She runs away to California to be with her boyfriend, Sam. During her journey, she spends a night at Bates motel and is stabbed multiple times by a ‘shadowy figure’ and dies. Now here, Hitchcock introduces the character of Norman Bates’ mother who can be seen through a window. We realize that she is unhappy as Norman allowed a woman to stay at the motel and then Marion dies. Norman’s mother is the biggest ‘red herring’ here. We think she killed her and that Norman is trying to save her from the investigator Arbogast, Lila and Sam. But the ending is a shocker.
- Bhool Bhulaiyya– Priyadarshan’s suspense thriller tells the story of a ghost named Manjulika who dances behind the huge doors during night and is responsible for some not-so-normal activities that happen everytime. Right from the beginning the biggest ‘red herring’ is Amisha Patel’s character as we have a valid reason for her to seek revenge from Siddharth. There are other minor ‘red herrings’ too like Amisha’s brother, her sister Girja, even the head of the family Badri narayan, but the ending has something else in store for us.
- Prisoner of Azkaban– In this part of Harry Potter series, the character of Sirius Black has been established as a murderer who is on a roll, seeking revenge. It doesn’t take much time for us to cite him as a villain in this film. Other characters like McGonagall and Weasley further support these findings. introduction of. But at the end, we find Peter Pettigrew as the real culprit. So all this while, Sirius Black was just a ‘Red Herring’ so that we don’t take Peter seriously.
- Kahaani– Vidya Balan’s pregnancy and her restricted movement plays the biggest ‘Red Herring’ in the film. We are more than surprised once the big revelation happens.
- Dus– The character of Himmat Mehandi played by Pankaj Kapoor is a ‘Red Herring’ as it makes us believe throughout the film that he is a not so serious guy and may be just a henchman to Jambwal only to find at the end that he himself is Jambwal.
Well there are so many films that use this magic trick not only to mesmerize the viewer but also to carefully drive the narrative. After all, thrillers are like that as they have so much to offer till the very end. So you can also apply this trick to your narrative, to your story and try and play with your audience but make sure you win the last part.