There exist many words in our day-to-day usage of language which are used and heard but not really understood. In fact some of them are not just words but a concept.
As far as films are concerned, for any film buff, cinema scholar or self proclaimed cinema aficionado there are 2 words that emerge frequently in her cinema vocabulary and are used interchangeably in common practice – Cult Film and Classic Cinema. But does anyone know the meaning of the two? Do they mean the same or is there any difference? What makes a film ‘cult’ and how does it differ or in what sense is it similar with a classic? This highly confusing brain itching yet important question made me so curious that I decided to take the movie time machine and travel the sands of cinematic time to unearth the mystery.
There can’t be an exhaustive list to identify the features of any cinematic concept but there are certain identifiable features to locate films in a particular context. The same applies to ‘cult’ and ‘classic’ as well.
- Both flop initially - Primarily one of the basic common similarities between cult film and classic film, in majority cases, is that despite their best intention to be a commercial success both have either been panned by critics or have received an unfavorable response by the audience at the time of their initial release.
- Time Period – Both status of cult and classic is reached by a film over a certain period of time and most importantly both kinds of films reject the clichéd formula of mainstream cinema.
- Small yet loyal admirers – Both cult and classic films have strong loyal admirers. Cult films is loved and admired by, primarily, general audience who see such films from entertainment aspect. Classic films find adulation and loyalty in the eyes of intellectually inclined serious cinema enthusiasts who witness these films as a solemn work of art.
- Long lasting impact – Both cult and classic film have a long lasting impact on its audience. Certain elements of the film remain with the viewers. If on one hand you would remember the lyrics, music and set design of the famous song Pyar kiya toh darna kya of the epic period drama Mughal – E – Azam, or the unforgettable iconic music of children musical Mary Poppins then on other hand your memory would also help you recall the hilarious rib-tickling climax, with a high probability of mouthing every dialogue, of the social satire Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron.
- What is it – A classic film is primarily a significant historical evidence of work of art of a relevant and important figure of that era. These films are of cultural and historical significance. For eg. Mughal – E – Azam, Gone With the Wind, Bicycle Thief. A cult film is characterized as such because of its multi-genre narrative, strange camera angles, poor acting, cheap special effects, eccentric characters, garish sets or other offbeat qualities that differentiates them from mainstream films completely. The 2 films that come to my mind are Malegaon ka Superman and horror films by Ramsay Brothers
- Who is the Audience – A cult film re-emerges into the public eye by a group or communities of hardcore loyal fans who by steady and repeated viewing validate it as an art and craft and help it reach a cult status. For eg – Maine Pyaar Kiya, Topgun, Jaws; a classic film is brought into public space and awareness by film scholars and film critics through frequent articles which mention in-depth understanding and comprehensive analysis of the film which validates the film as an art and thereby declaring it a classic. For eg – Psycho, Deewar, Casablanca
- Budget – Classic film has high production value with the technical aspect of filmmaking, whether it’s cinematography, costumes, lighting, sets, music, lyrics, acting or dialogues being larger than life and faultless which makes the film a classic. For eg – Mughal – E – Azam, Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Mera Naam Joker. A cult film has a comparatively low production cost made on a shoe string budget with the focus primarily on the content and unique style of storytelling with relatable characters and dialogues that gives the film a cult following. For eg – The Blair Witch Project, Dev D, Dil Chahta Hai
- Cast - Classic films will always have either a big star in it, a public adorned actor with an enormous star appeal or a director who’s surely considered a maverick or a showman. Mother India, Pyaasa, Roman Holiday. Cult films will primarily have raw virgin talent. For eg – Rocky, Risky Business, Socha na tha, Ardh Satya
- Content – The content of a classic film may not be contemporary and relevant to the current generation. They principally showcase important socio-economic events, trends and happenings of the society in that era. For eg. Do Bhiga Zameen spoke about the plight of farmers post independence and the social concept of rural migration; The content of a cult film has a shock value and its concept cut across time and space making it pertinent irrespective of time and era. For eg – Wake Up Sid showcased a believable relationship between a young boy and a women or Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron spoke about the bureaucracy and red tapism prevailing in media, politics and business environment.
- Time Period – A film is not declared a classic in the era in which it was made and the time period for a film to reach the heights of being called a classic is usually longer. For eg. Kaagaz ke phool was not considered a classic in 1950’s or 60’s. The film emerged as a classic in the 80’s and 90’s when film scholars analyzed the film as a work of art; the time period for a film to become a cult is shorter and reaches the cult status in the current generation. This happens due to frequent viewership of the film by a small yet loyal fan base. For eg. Wake Up Sid, Rang De Basanti, Dil Chahta Hai, Dev D and 3 Idiots to name a few are films which have been made in 2000’s and are considered cult among the current generation.
- Language culture - The characters and dialogues of cult films become part of your daily language culture whereas in classic films the characters portrayed may be unforgettable but the dialogues do not form the personality of your language. For eg – You would remember each and every dialogue of Sholay or Andaz Apna Apna but not of Awaara or Guide.
- Purpose – Classic films have an element of nostalgia attached to them giving the viewers a sense of time and space in which it was made. Cult films have several elements of entertainment value attached to them giving the viewers a sense of ‘relatability’.
- Reason of Failure – Classic films do not go unnoticed as they spend huge amount of money on publicity and exhibition yet fail because they are ahead of their time in their content and treatment. Cult films go unnoticed and fail due to lack of proper publicity and exhibition.
- Medium Used – Cultist use the medium of television and broadcast for regular viewing which helps in making a film cult while film scholars and film critics use the medium of print by writing article and books on new dimensions and critical symposium of certain films which elevate them to being called a classic.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal views of the writer. It may differ from person to person.