By Pankaj Sachdeva
In cinematic parlance, the phrase breaking the fourth wall is often used by writers and critics. The concept refers to the technique where the actors in a film or a play interact directly with the audience. This method was first conceptualized by Denis Diderot and the term itself was first used by Molière. The term originated in the theater where the fourth wall refers to the imaginary wall at the front of the stage that separates the audience from the performers. There are two sides and one back of the standard stage. The invisible fourth wall, thus, encloses the world created by a play. By addressing the audience directly, the actors and the performers call attention to the fact that the audience is watching the play. Thus, these moments cut through the imaginary fourth wall, hence, the term breaking the fourth wall is used to describe them.
There are many contemporary films and shows that use breaking the fourth wall as a storytelling device. Films, such as Deadpool and The Wolf of Wall Street, and shows, such as House of Cards, have used this concept recently. However, it is not really a new phenomenon. Films in Hollywood broke the fourth wall even during the early 1900s. One of the earliest examples of the technique’s use in cinema is from the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, where a train robber shoots directly at the audience in the final scene.
Breaking the fourth wall can be done in two ways. The first option is by addressing the audience directly, or by responding to something that happens in the audience. The other way is by adding a number of met references, inside jokes, and social messages in films. This indirect way is also fourth-wall breaking in the sense as it is disrupting the narrative flow of the fictional world created by the film. These indirect methods are trying to tell the audience that they are watching a film and there exists a world outside the one created by the film.
In my writings on this blog, I have documented numerous instances of the indirect methods used by filmmakers to break the fourth wall. Films, such as Om Shanti Om, Johnny Gaddar, and Luck By Chance, offer a treasure trove of references and inside jokes on the world of Hindi films. I thought, therefore, to document some instances of breaking the fourth wall where the performers speak directly to the audience in the films.
One of my favorite instances of breaking the fourth wall in Hindi films is in Kal Ho Naa Ho. Different characters talk to the audience at various points in the film. Naina talks to the audience about her family and her problems. Later, the other characters also get an opportunity to speak to the audience. When Aman asks Naina the last time she smiled, all the other people tell us the last time they saw Naina smile. At a later stage, the people in the film told the audience the meaning of love. All of these moments were done in a way that felt fresh at that time and remains memorable to this day.
Films break the fourth wall in situations where characters talk about their own feelings directly to the audience circumventing the need of a narrator. In Shuddh Desi Romance, a contemporary take on live-in and marital relationships, the three lead characters break the fourth wall by explaining the thinking behind their decisions that they took in the film. The film opens with Raghu giving a spiel to the audience on the people in the society forcing lovers to get married. Later, Gayatri elaborates as to why she ran away from the altar on the day of her wedding with Raghu. In a lovely moment, Tara also talks to the audience when she breaks up with Raghu the second time. She tells us that it might be difficult to remember the moment one fell in love with but the exact moment when someone falls out of love is always remembered.
In Pyaar Ke Side Effects, a commitment-phobic DJ named Sid is unable to take the next steps in his relationship with his girlfriend Trisha. Sid often broke the fourth wall in the film and spoke directly to the audience about the side effects of love and break-up, and the events going on in his life. In Happy Ending as well, a commitment-phobic Yudi directly speaks to the audience sharing his views about the dangers of falling in love. In the anthology film Lust Stories, Anurag Kashyap’s segment was about a woman named Kalindi who regularly broke the fourth wall. Much more than the film’s story, it was Kalindi’s monologues that made the segment watchable. She talked about love, romanticism, and selfishness by sharing her feelings with the audience. In Qarib Qarib Singlle, when Jaya signs up on the dating website Ab Tak Singlle, she breaks the fourth wall and directly speaks to the audience. At some other scenes in the film, Jaya does not speak but just looks into the camera directly to convey her feelings to the audience.
In Rules: Pyaar Ka Superhit Formula, an advertising executive Radha has a crush on Vikram. Radha’s grandmother instructs her to follow a set of simple rules which will make Vikram notice her. In the film, the grandmother often breaks the fourth wall when she elaborates on her set of rules of attraction. Although she is advising Radha, she is also talking directly to the audience as if giving Dadi Maa Ke Nuskhe for the problems of love. In Sachin: A Billion Dreams, a documentary-fiction film based on the life of Sachin Tendulkar, the fourth wall is broken by the God of cricket himself where he directly addresses the audience adding emotional heft to the film.
Breaking the fourth wall has most often been used in scenarios where the characters talk to the camera and narrate the story of their past experiences or remember a special person from their life. In My Brother…Nikhil, Anamika narrates the story of her brother Nikhil who passed away after he was diagnosed with HIV. She and her family members reminisce about by Nikhil where they directly address the audience all through the film. In a similar depiction in Barfi!, a grey-haired Shruti Ghosh tells us the story of her lovable friend Barfi who was living his last days. Shruti, along with Inspector Dutta and Miss D’Souza, remember the old days when Barfi made them laugh and troubled them with his antics, but also gave them the wisdom of a lifetime. Barfi ne sikhaya tha ki khushiyan chhoti chhoti cheezo mein hoti hai, hatheli par paani mein bhi jahaaz tairte hai, ummeedein ho toh kaagaz ki chidiya ke bhi pankh hote hai. In Saawariya, Gulab Ji breaks the fourth wall when she narrates the love story of her saawariya Ranbir Raj and his Sakina. Sitting in the bar where she first met him, Gulab Ji takes us back to the days when she met this farishta in Khwaabon Ka Sheher.
Karan Johar tried breaking the fourth wall in his film Student of the Year. Based on the story of a bunch of friends reminiscing about their school days, the film shows them talking directly to the audience during the early scenes. The friends, who are preparing to visit their ailing dean, talk about their memories of the school and give a background of their relationship with the most popular students in the school. The story keeps going into flashback mode and the students break the fourth wall during the early introduction scenes.
Many films break of the fourth wall during the ending to offer some closure to the story. In Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, the affable don Anthony Gomes talks to the audience just when the film is about to end. He tells the viewers to not worry about his friend Sunil who was left heartbroken after the girl whom he loves marries someone else. Anthony advises the audience that life is all about acceptance and rejection, and, like Sunil, we all should move on as well. Surinder Sahni in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi breaks the fourth wall in a delightful way during the ending of the film when he shows the audience the pictures of his honeymoon in Japan with Taani Ji. He is sharing some of the most personal moments of his life with the public without any pretense. Aditya Chopra tried breaking the fourth wall even in Dil To Pagal Hai wherein the opening credits of the films, Rahul and Nisha talk directly to the audience about their views on the existence of a soulmate.
Breaking the fourth wall has been present in some of the older films as well. In Hero Hiralal, film star Roopa is trying to get away from a crowd of people who are pestering her for an autograph. Amitabh Bachchan sees the commotion and stops his car. Roopa asks him to help her as she is trying to save the life of Hiralal. Amitabh Bachchan replies, “Aap ko bhi happy ending chahiye?” Then, he turns to the camera towards the audience and says, “Aap ko bhi?” In Ghar Ho To Aisa, Kader Khan’s character Bajrangi spoke directly to the audience and refers to them as ‘saamnewale‘ and ‘his khaas public‘. Whenever he spoke to the audience, he would gesture the camera to come close to him. The camera would show a close up of his face, and then, he would say his thoughts to the viewers. At one point, he even asks the audience to not leave until he tells them to go. It is hilariously done. I remember watching this film while growing up and at that time, I did not even know that there is actually a concept called breaking the fourth wall.
Film Studies Professor Ajay Gehlawat mentions an interesting observation about the song Aap Jaisa Koi from Qurbani. Although this does not involve speaking to the audience, he opines that Zeenat Aman’s gaze in the song is also a form of direct address to the audience. In his research paper on the film, he writes, “In the second version of this song, which is half as long, Sheela wears a figure-hugging yellow outfit and engages in much more direct address than in the first rendition. Furthermore, while this second version also features several shots/reverse shots between Khanna and Aman, in this instance these looks–or, more precisely, Aman’s looks offscreen at Khanna–are interpellated into the direct address. Thus, at the level of gazes, one could say that while Sheela is much more the direct (private) object of Rajesh’s gaze in the first version, the second time around she is not only on display for Amar but also, via the overlapping of shot/ reverse shot and direct address, for us, the film’s external audience.” By this criterion, many other songs can be categorized into the direct address.
Many a time, the characters break the fourth wall in the film trailers, while nothing of this sort happens in the film itself. As the trailer is an introduction to the film, it becomes a tool for the filmmakers to let characters talk directly to the audience on the theme of the film. In the trailer of Sanju, Ranbir Kapoor plays Sanjay Dutt where when he comes out of the jail he speaks to the audience directly. Even a film like Veer-Zaara that was released in 2004 showed something similar. In the opening trailer of the film, Saamiya Siddiqui talks to the audience while introducing herself as a lawyer fighting the case of Veer who has been wrongly jailed in Pakistan.
Breaking the fourth wall has also been observed in other films, such as Race 3, Himmatwala, Main Tera Hero, Amit Sahni Ki List, Shaitan, and Bazaar. There are many more films that have not been mentioned here. The purpose of the above was to elaborate on the technique of breaking the fourth wall and document some instances of the same. As filmmaking continues to evolve with new methods of storytelling, some filmmakers have even started talking about breaking the fifth wall and letting the audience become a part of the movies. The future of the films is indeed going to be super interesting.
[Read more of the author’s work on his blog]