Sunday, 29 January 2012

Ra.One's decolonial moment

What does one say about Ra.One that hasn’t been said already? The script is banal, and all its flaws have been summed up well by the vigil idiot here. There is one flaw that particularly irks me. A character with the name of Shekhar Subramanium dies, and first gets a Christian burial, after which his family is shown releasing his ashes in an unspecified English river, probably the Thames considering that the movie is set in London. But if you bury someone, there are no ashes!!! Ashes come from the cremation of a dead body. There are other flaws/loopholes/'what were they thinking' moments in the movie, but this one irritated me the most. In this post, however, I do not want to enumerate the faults of the film further. Instead, I want to explore the question: Is Ra.One decolonial?
My nephew, who turned 4 last week, loves Spiderman. He regularly ‘convinced’ his parents to buy every piece of Spiderman merchandise, including the Colgate Spiderman toothpaste. Then he saw Ra.One, and now he has the Ra.One and G.One toys. And we are only allowed to listen to “Sarrati sarrati raftarein hai” in the car. He has not forgotten Spiderman, but Ra.One is high in his list of superhero favourites.
I am not making the argument that replacing Hollywood corporate franchisee filmmaking with Bollywood corporate franchisee filmmaking is a grand decolonial step. I am trying to tease out the idea of the physical location of cultural imagination. As a child, I remember reading Enid Blyton and desperately wanting to go to Malory towers and drink ginger beer. It wasn’t just about the boarding school or the food – it was a longing to be a part of a world that I found in the books I was reading, a world that had no place for my world within it. I did read some Gujarati or Hindi books now and then, of which I remember Bakor Patel and Chako Mako most clearly, but they did not inspire longing.
For my generation, it was Enid Blyton. When I left India children were reading Goosebumps and Harry Potter instead. A few children read Indian books; most often slick retellings of Indian mythology as graphic novels. The key difference was not only availability, in that more and different books were available, but also merchandising: most of the products mentioned in children’s literature are available in the Indian market. Here longing, then, is training in being the ideal future consumer.
My first grown-up memory of this feeling came when I read Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters, in which the children retreat into the world of Enid Blyton.
Muffins, porridge, kippers, scones, steak and kidney pie, potted meat, dumplings. Their father said if they ever tasted this insipid foreign stuff instead of merely reading about it in those blighted Blyton books, they would realize how amazing was their mother's curry-rice and khichri-saas and pumpkin buryani and dhansak. What they needed was an Indian Blyton, to fascinate them with their own reality.
-- Family Matters, quote found on the blog onehotstove

That feeling was not just restricted to India either, as I discovered, to my surprise but not joy, when I heard the delightful talk “The Danger of a Single Story” by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie. Incidentally, other things in the talk resonate too. I am often asked which language I spoke in Delhi, and people are disconcerted when the reply is English.

Ra.One’s decolonial moment is the moment when a train is speeding towards CST station in Mumbai, unable to stop and putting thousands of lives at risk. The superhero saves the day, albeit with the help of some divine intervention. What is interesting is that this is happening at CST, in Mumbai, rather than in New York or in London, the “centres of the civilized world as we know it”. In other words, the most familiar trope of a superhero movie is sundered from its always inevitably Western location and shifted to Mumbai, setting up a new cultural landmark. This geographical-cultural landscape is still thinly populated, and its features are not as familiar to us as Notting Hill or Manhattan, courtesy numerous books and movies. This imaginative landscape may eventually be left barren or become densely populated, though this moment in Ra.One does gesture towards a potential decolonial way of being.
There is another potential argument: that Ra.One is decolonial because they used Akon and apparently only Indian SFX experts and so on. I am not very enthusiastic about this, because in the interviews that I have seen, the point of reference has still been Hollywood/the West: “We can hire Akon too”, or “We did not use their technology”. The people who made the film must have been passionate in their belief and desire to do this as an assertion of identity and pride, and that is a different discussion. Ra.One’s decoloniality lies elsewhere.