Thursday, 25 October 2012

My Blog in a Big Blog!!

The blog post that I wrote on Aiyyaa was accepted for publication on the Indian cinema blog f.i.g.h.t.c.l.u.b., also known as moifightclub.They asked me to watch the Marathi film Gandha, and that led to my adding further stuff to the post, so it is more an extended post rather than the same one.
Here is a link to the post: 
I follow this blog regularly, especially as it regularly features trailers of Indian films and documentaries that I do not otherwise get to hear about. It also engages with popular cinema, and usually the opinions and analysis posted on the site are more insightful than regular film reviews. I think most people who write for it are also writers, aspiring directors and so on, though I don't know that for sure about all that bloggers. So all my friends who enjoy cinema, do check this blog out. I'm very excited to be part of it :)

Monday, 22 October 2012

God, gods and superheroes: On Alan Moore's Watchmen

God exists and he’s American.
 - Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen.

Superheroes emerge when heroes fail. One possible definition of the superhero is that he (and it used usually to be a ‘he’) is a being with extraordinary powers who fights evil and has a recognisable costume in which to do it. As the genre evolved, female superheroes emerged, as did superheroes who did not possess supernatural powers but who fought their battles on the basis of brawn, brain and/or technology, with Batman being a notable example of this kind of superhero.

I read Watchmen around 2 years ago on the recommendation of my supervisor, and have become a convert to comic book fandom since then. I enjoyed V for Vendetta, and delighted in the arcane Victoriana of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. I follow Alan Moore's stand in choosing to call Watchmen a comic book rather than a graphic novel or (horror of horrors!) a mature-audience miniseries. Watchmen is a multi-layered comic book that not only deconstructs various (and various kinds of) heroes, but the very idea of a hero. (This argument is also made by Iain Thomson in "Deconstructing the hero" in Jeff McLaughlin (ed.) Comics as Philosophy.)

The world of Watchmen is a world wherein superheroes appeared ‘for real’, that is, real people dressed up as superheroes, for a variety of reasons, and took on the roles and responsibilities that went with the costumes. These ‘superheroes’ could not remain the ‘good guys’ for long. They were often needlessly cruel and were used by governments and/or armies to quell dissent and rebellion rather than fight crime. For example, in the alternate historical universe of the Watchmen, America won the Vietnam War while Nixon was never impeached, because a ‘masked hero’ killed Woodward and Bernstein. The fear and loathing that these 'heroes' aroused led to popular demonstrations against them, and a government Act sent most masked heroes into retirement while the few who did not retire operated like thugs and were hated by the general public. It is at this point, after most of them have retired, that the text begins.

This idea of the failure of superheroes and of heroism leads one to other failures. Arguably, the biggest hero to have failed over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is God. In a circular argument, the violence and despair that characterise our world, living in the aftermath of two world wars and regular conflict, is used as both cause and trigger: ‘it is because the world is so violent that it becomes impossible to believe in God, that it becomes possible to believe that God does not exist’ can exist alongside ‘it is because people have given up on God that they are so violent and despairing’. According to the latter argument, violence, in both actuality and representation, gets more and more nihilistic in a world that does not believe in God, or in the consolations that the concept of God or any other substitute grand narrative make possible. The first Superman comic appeared in 1938, which allows it to be contextualised within the framework of the Great Depression. Similarly, I would argue that the ‘death of God’ is one of the contexts that allow a superhero to emerge within the popular cultural imagination. (I'm sure others have made this argument earlier, and will put in references here if anyone can direct me to them).

Image Courtesy: Lord Jim, Flickr,

Two characters in Watchmen appropriate God-like spaces but do so with unsatisfactory consequences. Dr Manhattan is the only conventional superhero in the text in that he possesses scientific/supernatural powers. At the end of the text, he leaves earth to create a ‘human’ population elsewhere, that is, to be a God and start another world from scratch, since this one is past redemption. Adrian Veidt, ‘the smartest man on earth’, comes closest to a ‘god-like’ decision when he kills half the population of New York in order to put an end to fighting and unite the world against a perceived external enemy. This decision, made on behalf of humanity, alienates him from it. His last appearance shows him aware of the terrible implications haunting him and unsure of whether his action will actually achieve permanent ‘peace’ or not. God has already failed mankind, and now both the major  superheroes do too. This crisis and subsequent failure of heroism, which constitute the moral universe of Watchmen, is a crisis that depends on a western conceptualisation of the hero. A superhero is necessary in a secular world where (and after) God has failed. Ultimately the God of Watchmen, whether he is the ‘real God’, Dr Manhattan, Adrian Veidt or Alan Moore (as per some fans!), is indeed American.

However, it would be interesting to regard the existence and the failure of the superhero as a concept when imagined with reference to a polytheistic universe. One way of examining this is through Hinduism. The biggest heroes of Hindu mythology are all too frequently not God-like but God-himself or God-themselves. Both Rama and Krishna are avatars (which could be translated as ‘versions’) of Lord Vishnu, one of the holy trinity of Hinduism. Though both are avatars of the same god, their strategies for dealing with the world are different – Rama relies on personal valour while Krishna is known not only for his mischievous and flirtatious behaviour during his childhood and adolescence but also for his stratagems and tricks, which help the Pandavas win the Mahabharat war.

This difference between the two is sometimes explained in the following terms: ‘Rama is the god to be followed while Krishna is the god to be enjoyed’. Keeping such convenient classification aside, if a god-like superhero is wrong, he loses some of his god-like stature, but a god, in his sojourn on earth, can lie and manipulate the people around him and still not lose his stature. The Old Testament has a vengeful God, which is arguably a human trait, but even after taking that into account neither the biblical God nor Jesus, the Son of God on earth, lie and take sides in wars the way Krishna does. Krishna’s behaviour sanctions the idea that strategy and flexibility are inescapable tools of worldly survival. This makes possible a deeper and more ambivalent understanding of morality, beyond the categories of good and evil. I do not, of course, mean this comparison as complimentary or derogatory to any one religion over the other. The point I am trying to make is that a monotheistic God can fail the world, but a polytheistic god who has lived on earth and lied cannot ‘fail’ his devotees in quite the same way. Krishna's lies in the Mahabharat are arguably "for the greater good", though the multi-layered nature of the epic means that this too can be questioned. This could be one of the reasons why representations of the superhero have not really captured mass imagination in India, where gods provide solutions to the problems of life (do this and you will pass your exam!) rather than fighting these problems on behalf of humans. At the same time, I would like to stress that I do not want to use Hindu religious beliefs and Indian religious beliefs as substitutes for each other.

And what of the comic book in India? I get regular updates from Jabberwock about new Indian comics, new innovations happening within the Indian sphere, and I hope I'll get to catch up with them someday soon. The comic books I remember from my childhood were usually derivative of American comic books, with bits and pieces from Indian mythology thrown in. Such interesting hybrids were usually comics written in Hindi that brought together suggestions of sensuality with religious motifs and an exaggerated sense of nationalism. Most English-language comics were aimed at children and incorporated, ‘general knowledge’, the much-valued commodity of Indian childhood. As a cultural phenomenon, local comic books and animated films struggled to find audiences, while international comic books operated as cultural capital, circulating among a select few.

So then how does Indian culture conceptualise the hero? If one considers Ramayan as the prototype and examines popular Indian cinema and television, the ideal hero is constructed through a network of relationships – the ideal hero is the ideal son, the ideal brother, the ideal husband, the ideal father, the ideal citizen, the ideal king and so on. In the case of Ram this is open to questioning because he abandoned his pregnant wife Sita in order to be the ideal king. However, the use of the term "maryada puroshottam", i.e. "the best of all men", for Ram, suggests that he is popularly seen in some contexts as an ideal to be followed. Another interesting aspect to this is that one can be a hero without saving the world. And without needing to. The idea of heroism is thereby tied up with being in and participating in the world rather than rescuing it.

This creates an interesting situation wherein Indian audiences accept superheroes in Hollywood films and through the syndication of American shows, both of which find sizeable Indian audiences. Thus the Batman franchise makes a lot of money in India, while Ra.One earns more from merchandising and distribution deals rather than audience footfall. Superhero films made by Mumbai filmmakers usually find few takers. An exception to this is Mr. India (1987), which was a successful fantasy superhero film, but it is the only exception to the rule so far. Also, Mr. India tapped into middle-class frustration with Indian systemic failures in a way that was as much reminiscent of the "angry young man" syndrome in Indian cinema as of superhero narratives.

Iain Thomson says that "our heroes help tell us who we are, what we stand for". (Deconstructing the hero, p. 100). To return to Watchmen, these heroes help tell of a world in crisis. The crisis, however, is of the western world, and non-western modes of being and imagining speak of different worlds, of different crises and of different heroes.

[This blog first appeared as an MnM Commentary and is available here]

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Aiyyaa - On making an idiosyncratic film

Aiyyaa is a difficult film to like. It can be easily dismissed as having no plot, and dragging out one idea for too long into the plot, and then jumping into a quick conclusion. The tone does not help either - it is neither entirely realistic nor entirely parodic. The actors seem to constantly shifting from subtle to over-the-top, which makes them irritating both as characters and as actors. We left the movie thinking of it as a waste of time, energy and money. However, I've been thinking about the film. It hasn't grown on me, nor will I claim that it is actually a wonderful film that has been misunderstood. I want to use this blog post to think through certain things that I found interesting about the film, and about my reactions to it.

The premise of any story can be outrageous, and it is up to individual viewers whether the story resonates with them or not. Logically, it is absurd to suppose that a wife would not know her husband (Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi) or that a man could pass off a concentration camp as a massive game (Life is Beautiful). I've heard people tear the former apart while waxing eloquent about the latter. I'm sure there are also people out there who love Rab Ne and don't mind the logical inconsistency. I'm not saying that the two films are at par with each other. The point I am trying to make is that both films accept seemingly outrageous premises as givens and go ahead with their narratives. As I strongly feel that films/books should be allowed to tell the stories they want to rather than those that seem more logical or natural to any individual viewer/reader, an outrageous premise rarely bothers me. 

Aiyyaa too has a premise that seems illogical, that of a woman who is attracted to the way a man smells. Come to think of it, smell is difficult to convey on film. You have to rely on familiarity and on audience experience. Like all human experiences, smell is subjective. It is difficult to explain the power of the smell of the mud after the first rains in India to someone who's never smelt it. It took me time to appreciate the smell of winter in Australia, though now I love the smell of the nip, though I still hate feeling the cold. It is easier to make films about colour, about touch, about sensation and Aiyyaa too brings in colours - yellow for Rani and blue for Prithvi - and uses them to play around with notions of smell. Perhaps they thought that colours would make smells more tangible. Aiyyaa also reminds one of the odour that one so completely takes for granted in India, showing public toilets and garbage lying open on the streets. Who in India has not scrunched one's nose, and then passed on?  

The other major motif of the film, intertwined with smell, is desire. Meenakshi desires Surya, and is somehow convinced that he is not the monster that everyone else thinks him to be. There is no logical reason behind this belief, and part of the disconnect you feel with her character is because of how illogical her behaviour is. Yet it is good to see female desire in Bollywood cinema, though of late this has become quite regular. Dreamum Wakeupum (and Ijjajat papad!) is pure genius on the part of Amitabh Bhattacharya. All those thrusting, pumping, heaving dance steps in all those Hindi films over the ages - they were all metaphorically sexual, and this song dispenses with the metaphor.

The other major problem area in the film is the falling in love narrative. Meenakshi tries to speak to Surya often, but never actually gets to do so. Until one miraculous evening, wherein they talk, the mystery about him is solved, they confess their feelings, and get engaged to one another, all in the space of one evening. This is again something that induces impatience - how illogical can you get? Behind this impatience however is the assumption that other things that are shown in more realistic narratives are more 'natural', whereas they just have become more sedimented in our minds as ways of being in love, ways of performing romance.

Aiyyaa juxtaposes desire, as represented through smell, and the stifling nature of social life in India, as indicated through the odour of the garbage that haunts Meenakshi even in her dreams. The film finds some subtle moments here and there - walking around the clean, rose-garden terrace of a man whom Meenakshi does not find attractive does nothing for her. This garden of red roses must presumably smell great, and brings in notions of conventional romance, but she is entranced neither by the smell nor the appearance of this ideal space because this is not the man for her.

Ultimately, my reaction to the film is as much about my expectations as about the film itself. I like films to stick to tones and genres. I liked the realistic feel of a college library - the old computers, the library membership cards, the dust on the books. The presence of an overtly sexualised librarian, however, was jarring - such a person would never exist in such a space. But do films have to necessarily be either realistic, or fantasy as accepted by Bollywood convention (i.e. either melodrama or a fantasy of excess, a la Karan Johar or Salman Khan), or totally bizarre? Can a film not be a little bit of each?

The attempt to make a film that is a little bit of each is jarring, but I think that it is a brave attempt. It would not have been that difficult to make Aiyyaa a bit more like Vicky Donor and English Vinglish: emphasise the Marathi - Tamil aspects of both families, show them as more lovable and less quirky, remove the bizarre, give the hero-heroine more conversations, show the heroine as the underdog who finally convinces her family that she has the right to choose her own life partner and so on. I do not think Anurag Kashyap and co. are stupid enough to have not thought of this alternative, safer option. It would have been an easier option to sell too, and that is often a big criterion that drives the way films get made. While I do not like the final product that Aiyyaa is, I do admire the fact that they made it their way - bizarre, quirky and idiosyncratic.