25 years since its release, James Cameron's Titanic is still just as grand and glorious as it was at first sight, writes Joshua Muyiwa.
Last Updated: 08.08 PM, Feb 25, 2023
GROWING UP in my grandparents’ care in the Bangalore of the ‘90s, the world wasn’t kept at arm’s length from me. Instead, their attitude to most things was, ‘it hasn’t killed us yet, it won’t kill you either’. But also, they were at that stage in their lives where I just became another thing to take along everywhere they went. My Nepali grandmother Dewaki is a full-on film freak; she’ll watch anything from the trashy to the top-rated. And she’ll have an opinion on all of it. From the beginning, I was her favourite movie-watching companion. Mostly because I actually liked her constant colourful commentary, never-ever complained about it, and the fact that (for a long time) my social calendar was entirely at her mercy.
However, there were some movies — few and far between — that even she acknowledged had to be watched in total silence. Her compliance to this rule wasn’t ever a submission to the spectators’ shushing her at the cinema, but rather a result of being awestruck, swept up into the world of the film. Watching the James Cameron-directed, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet starrer Titanic at Urvashi Theatre was one such time.
At 11 years old, I just remember feeling everything. And the entire theatre tearing up, gasping, grunting and sighing, confirmed all of the many emotional spikes bursting throughout my body. My grandmother, next to me, was onto her third handkerchief. On our way out of the theatre, she snapped back from an emotional mess into her practical self and declared that there was “more than” enough space on the makeshift raft for Jack and Rose to share until the rescue boat returned. (She never even mentioned the nude scene.) Finally, 25 years after his film’s release and a series of experiments in similar conditions, James Cameron too concurs with her assessment.
On rewatching the film — twice this week — I found I had completely forgotten that it actually starts with a team looking for the “Heart of the Ocean” in the Titanic’s wreckage. I had forgotten about these wonderful opening shots of a remote-controlled camera meandering its way inside the ruins of the real RMS Titanic, sitting on the ocean bed. The grand interiors of this “Ship of Dreams” taken over by creatures of the deep…
While these sequences were still sublime, and clearly directed by a perfectionist, for me the movie always started — according to the time-stamp — at 20 minutes and 56 seconds in. A door opens. A white gloved hand reaches out to another gloved hand to step out of a car. The top shot of a giant purple hat embellished with an even bigger bow, worn on the slant. The reveal of the fresh-face and red lips of Kate Winslet as Rose DeWitt Bukater. It is a 10-second shot. But that’s the beginning of this film for me. I still had the air knocked out of me on each viewing, this week.
Even a quarter of a century later, this film still hits all of the right spots, even the hard to reach ones. Each frame is fabulous and flawless, the story-telling is smart and solid, the acting is pitch perfect, the music could coax blood out of a stone. Everything blends together to create something awesome. And it still is.
The entire story is quickly grasped even if one still hasn’t heard about the sinking of this “unsinkable” ship from 1912. Cameron crafts every possible story — human and engineering — that could be told about this ship. A little more than half the film focuses on the horrors of the two-and-half-hours it took for the ship to sink. Imagine: knowing what is going to happen; the gravitas placed upon each gesture. And the love story at the centre of this tragic voyage is familiar to our Bollywood-esque ideas of romance too.
Even the key-plot dialogues have been swallowed up by pop culture and become commonplace meme formats. Since the movie begins only 20 minutes in for me, I’d forgotten that this gif gem of “” is actually real. And that memes of animals awkwardly sleeping on sofas juxtaposed with the line “” isn’t merely funny but also a crucial fuck-you moment from the movie.
Unlike my recent rewatch of a Bollywood film from the same time [Shubash Ghai’s Taal. Don’t do it!], with Titanic the three hours didn’t feel like forever — even with our attention spans now reduced to the duration of an Instagram reel. Instead, rewatching Titanic revealed certain elements I missed. It reminded me that while I was drawn by the heroine’s poshness and prettiness, I loved her pluck too. Even her first remarks on stepping out of the car onto the dock: “I don’t see what all the fuss is about, it doesn’t look any bigger than the Mauretania”. I still loved the quiet dignity of the musicians who went from the fun “The Wedding Dance Waltz” to the funereal “Nearer, My God, To Thee”. The brief blur of the old couple spooning in bed. The ship groaning. The water gushing. It was all a bit spellbinding.
While a lot of contemporary cinema is gritty and great, Titanic is grand and glorious. It still manages to nudge feelings out of those deeply-buried places. It’s perfect for a good cry or a group watch. Also, don’t be the Leo DiCaprio from today’s tabloids: learn to give things that are 25 and older, a second chance.