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What is Non Linear Cinema?

I heard a lot of people complain that they did not understand the plot; found it too complex. Well, to them I recommend Nolan’s debut feature The Following which had as many as three timelines running parallel. And in this movie he did not keep them distinct through choice of colors. The entire movie was black & white. In fact, I believe that he intentionally “dumbed” down the screenplay of Memento as people might have found his debut feature’s structure plot.. errr.. a bit beyond their range of comprehension. :P

Wikipedia defines it as “a narrative technique, where events don’t follow the direct causality pattern of the events featured.” Parallel distinctive plot lines, dream immersions or narrating another story inside the main plot-line; non-linearity is often used to mimic the structure and recall of human memory. I grew up on a diet of Hindi cinema where the yaddasht-bhool-jaanaused to be a common formula.

Nolan Brothers- Masters of Non-Linearity

The power of non-linearity dawned upon me only when I watched Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Two parallel timelines-one running backwards (past tense) in color & the other running forwards (present tense) in black and white. Its only when they are about to merge that you realize what it was all about! It’s a pity that the Nolan Brothers’ genius was limited to just the Oscar nomination and not the coveted lady herself.

Closer home, I can’t recollect such innovative use of the style. I don’t know if its the fear of acceptance by audience here holds them back! However, there are a few instances that etched a strong impression on my mind which I have put below.


Jean Luc Goddard famously said “A story should have a beginning, middle, and an end… but not necessarily in that order.” I would like to end the post by just saying that the film making process should have a story and then the structure- very much necessarily in that order!

3) Rockstar:

Imtiaz Ali wanted the story to be narrated like documentary of a real life Rockstar. He wanted the audience to keep believing on various myths about his eccentricity and recklessness through various rumors that floated around him. What happened to him after he left for Kashmir? Where did he go missing after he was driven out of his house? The journalist , Aditi Rao, was put in by the writers of the film as our sutradhar, as the various facets of Jordan’s life unfolded like a folklore. And here are the best opening credits I have seen in a long time in Hindi cinema. Giving us a glimpse of Jordan’s entire life- from a gawky collegiate to becoming an International rage- only to make sense as the film slowly unfolded.


1) Kites

Anurag Basu does it regularly. Whether its bringing in the climax scene of Gangster (Emaran & Kangna lying on hospital bed) right in the middle of the film or mockumentary like narrative running in parallel with the Police Station and Darjeeling scenes in  Barfi!  But I particularly liked the ending of Kites where Babara’s death is revealed slowly through inter-cuts of flashbacks. Perhaps the best written scene of the film.

2) Wake up Sid:

The film was seen through Sid’s eyes. Not for once did the audience came to know what Aisha felt for him. Did she also wait eagerly for him to come back home? Did she feel drawn towards him when he fell asleep on her shoulders? All those moments were saved for this song.(from 3:20 onwards)

While non-linearity remained Nolan’s forte in all his subsequent films ( 3 parallel timelines in The Prestige and sharp inter-cuts of flashbacks thrown in The Dark Knight Triology), it was Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 grams which took me by compete surprise!

Not that 21 Grams would have been any less effective had it been narrated conventionally. But with the scenes of the film scrambled all over the place, the mind of the viewer was continuously at work to join the pieces together. The screen writers had a method to this scrambling up- not letting the emotional core of the film go away and yet keeping the audience guessing till the end. The structure of the film had such an impact on me that it found its way to this post also. And I am sure you must have figured out all the jumbled pieces by now! ;-)

What is non-linear cinema?

By: Abhishek Chatterjee
Posted: March 2, 2013, 5:21 pm


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