What makes a movie too long, asks Anupama Chopra
There is no science to film duration. But even a good idea stretched too far will snap, as a new crop of filmmakers is finding out.
Death by duration. I thought of this peculiar movie phenomenon as I watched 777 Charlie, a Kannada film released last week (also released as dubbed versions in Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu). The film stars the celebrated actor and filmmaker Rakshit Shetty, as an angry young man named Dharma who thaws after a stray dog attaches herself to him. Charlie, a Labrador with expressive, intelligent eyes and the ability to give “hugs” on cue, teaches Dharma how to laugh, live and love again.
The trailer, which ends with Charlie embracing Dharma with her front paws, reduced viewers to tears. The film should have been the equivalent of having your heart battered by a bulldozer, but still walking out of the theatre with a teary smile.
But that doesn’t happen. Because 777 Charlie clocks in at a back-breaking 165 minutes. That’s 2 hours and 45 minutes. By the end, the crackling chemistry between Dharma and Charlie has sputtered out. Your tears (yes, you will cry) are dry. And the blatant emotional manipulation by writer-director Kiranraj K starts to feel more tiresome than cathartic.
777 Charlie is a perfectly good idea, stretched until it snaps. Which raises the question, what is the ideal duration for a film?
When I started my career as an entertainment journalist, three hours was the norm. Trade pundits espoused the wisdom that viewers who paid the price of a ticket expected to be entertained, in air-conditioning, for that long. When Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) entered its second decade at the Maratha Mandir theatre, one of the reasons given was that it provided long hours of cooling and comfort. Mainstream Hindi cinema also traditionally hewed close to a multi-genre format; most films included romance, drama, emotion, action and comedy. It naturally took longer to weave in the various threads. Our classics demand commitment. Sholay (1975) runs for 3 hours and 15 minutes, Mughal-e-Azam (1960) for 3 hours and 17 minutes, and Lagaan (2001) clocks in at 3 hours and 43 minutes.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (also the body that gives out the Oscars) defines a feature film as anything more than 40 minutes long (anything less qualifies as a short). In the last two decades, Hindi films have become leaner in both story and duration. Even a sprawling historical saga such as the recent Samrat Prithviraj clocks in at 2 hours 15 minutes. Meanwhile, Hollywood seems to be flirting with longer durations. Avengers: Endgame (2019) clocked in at 3 hours 2 minutes; The Irishman (2019) at 3 hours 29 minutes; and The Batman (2022) at 2 hours and 56 minutes.
Alfred Hitchcock famously remarked that the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder. But clearly there is no exact science to film duration. Editors point out that it’s not about how long a film is, but how long it feels. So, despite a nearly-three-hour run time, Sairat (2016) never feels like a slog, and it certainly delivers its sledgehammer climactic blow. As does this year’s Malayalam heartbreaker Hridayam. But when the story doesn’t hold, even 90 minutes can become an endurance test.
My submission to filmmakers would be to err on the side of caution. Less, more often than not, is more.