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November 09, 2010


Haven't you read Ashis Nandy? ;-)
I get the same grating feeling too.

Thanks for the tip, Jagadish. I wasn't aware that Nandy had written an essay about film. I will certainly give it a look!

Usha, I didn't refer to any specific essay by Nandy on Indian films. I was referring to his writings in general and how he explains/deals with the accusations of irrational and inconsistencies in "Indianness".

in the end, I found myself rolling my eyes, as I always seem to do when the lights come up on 4 out of 5 popular Indian films

Well.. Why are you watching the 'popular films' anyway :-) The majority of indian society is not based on any egalitarian principles, they demand mindless entertainment which adheres to their notion of the world/or how it should be, and thats what popular films dole out.

As I read on a blog recently
Art should allow the reader (if it is a novel), the viewer (if it is a painting), the listener (if it is a piece of music), or the audience in the case of a good play or film, to enter into and share an imaginative experience, and perhaps to grow as a result of it

Our Indian movies mostly dont target the 'growth' part. Just mindless entertainment.

But I will continue to rely on reviews such as these to winnow out the crap ;-)

Thanks, astrokid. Truth be told, I don't see very many popular Indian films. Now and then, someone convinces me that I must see this one or that one, that I'll really love it. I try to keep my mind open enough to give it a fresh look, now and then. And now and then I do enjoy a piece of popular entertainment, Indian or American.

Jagadish, I've not read a great deal of Nandy, but only a few short articles of his. I also saw a really interesting interview in which he spoke about the epics and the way they're represented in modern, middle-class Indian society, so I might have some idea of what you're talking about, regarding his take on Indianness. He's an interesting thinker, for sure.

Nandy wrote an essay on Indian cinema in his 1985 book, The Savage Freud: "An Intelligent Critic's Guide to Indian Cinema", where he speaks of three kinds of Indian films: art house, middle-brow, and commercial. His goal is of course a sociological analysis, so he focuses on the underlying imperatives driving each type of cinema. He does find a few redeeming qualities in commercial cinema. Worth reading.

I, too, rarely watch popular films, Indian or not. I see them to stay minimally plugged into pop culture, and to follow conversations with family and friends. Quite honestly, what bugs me most is not that these films are crap. Rather, it's the fact that so many urban Indian elites in my orbit not only suspend their critical faculties, they feel annoyed and defensive when these films are dissed for their artistic vision. A standard retort is, "Ah, but what about Hollywood movies? Are they any better?" Look at the rave review of Endhiran in the Indian press. So many are taking pride in this movie's technical prowess (another sign that India is gate-crashing the superpower league?), but seem blind to its vision and morality. I hope reviews like Usha's get more Indians to think and further enrich their cinematic experiences.

Usha, thanks for the review. It did open my eyes. I came out of the movie looking at issues it touched upon - what is love? what is humanity? What are emotions? What is life? etc. I thought these were very good points to be made. I noticed the background inconsistency in the kilimajaro song. The mosquito scene was too childish for me. But the points you bring up completely escaped me. I am surprised I missed the caste angle as well. I usually notice them. They are very valid. I do wonder why you read Aishwarya's choice to go with the maker of the robot and not with the robot as emanating from a unself-actualized view. Have I read you wrongly? Could you clarify where the efforts at self-actualization are impliedly criticized in the movie?

Hi Vinod, thanks for your comment. I did think most of the questions you bring up were suggested by the movie, and perhaps I should have given them their due. But for me, whatever thoughtfulness they might have inspired was swamped by my irritation at what I considered to be the film's aggravating flaws....

If I understand your question, you're asking what it was in the film that made me feel it undermined any value for self-actualization, particularly in Rai's character. My answer could end up being an entire essay, but I'll have to keep it brief:

For starters, I feel Rajnikanth's character is presented as god-like and above reproach, despite the gross errors and miscalculations he makes with regard to his creation, which puts the world in jeopardy. He is presented to us as the Hero of the story, though never at any point does he actually do anything particularly heroic; indeed, his hubris is the very source of the world's troubles. His girlfriend (Rai) is likewise presented as our Heroine, though she, too, is the opposite of heroic: she never questions or stands up against her partner's errors in judgment regarding his creation, or regarding his poor treatment of her; in fact, we're asked to consider it positively cute and charming that she makes no demands upon him—nor even upon herself, as a person who cheats on her school exams with impunity. Nor does Rajnikanth's character stand up against his girlfriend's errors in judgment: he's happy to help her cheat; it's like the boon he grants to his devoted female.

But it's not as though these two are presented as our flawed Hero and Heroine, who are well-meaning but who still need to grow or to learn a great lesson. Truly, they are given to us as *not* flawed—essentially infallible—due to their inherent quality of being our Heros.

In other words, it feels to me that the storyteller expects that we will accept his categories of Hero and Heroine, based on a superficiality of type, rather than allow us to render our own moral examination of his characters. This, in itself, militates against the values of self-realization, because it denies us our own critical faculties and judgments in the moral world of the film: we are not to question and criticize, but merely to accept the given categories and pre-digested Truths.

Specifically about Rai's character, as I've mentioned above, the fact that she never questions, criticizes, or in any way examines her devotion to a man who ignores her for months, because he believes he has more important things to do than to so much as acknowledge the existence of his female, is pretty gut-churning behavior. And that we are to consider her all the more wonderful for her submissiveness and banality is, in my view, an implicit celebration of anti-self-actualization.

Imagine that the roles were reversed, and instead the story was about a woman scientist who ignored her gorgeous, vapid, do-nothing boyfriend for months because she was busy inventing something that she believes will make her god-like (and which ends up threatening the well-being of the world). But her boyfriend is irrepressibly devoted and forgets her pathological self-absorption and hubris when he's presented with some trinket, or a smile, or a song, or given aid in cheating on his exams, or whatever cute little thing it was. And we are given to believe, in the sensibility of the film, that this negation of himself, this being an empty space of a person, is supposed to make the man seem all the more wonderful and lovable—and, mind you, he's the only male character in the entire film. Frankly, I can't imagine there would be a person in the house who wasn't railing against the perfect inanity—the downright offensiveness—of the entire setup. And this is just the first 20 minutes of the film; it goes downhill from there.

Okay, so I wasn't brief :^) But I will have to stop this here. Hope that answered your questions satisfactorily.

Usha, thanks for taking the time to explain. The explanation was satisfactory.

Usha.. Outstanding response. You are making a great case for feminism in India actually :-) and I am fully onboard.

On rereading your original review, I think you have worded the below wonderfully.

This film, like the vast majority of popular Indian films, tells again the same story that rankles my sensibilities—the same story, in fact, that's framed and frozen into the stilted, mass-media re-tellings of the Hindu epics: that duty and devotion are the paramount virtues, that self-realization and actualization will undo the world

Bingo. Broght to mind my favourite quote from Naipaul..
The indian ego is underdeveloped. The world of magic and animistic ways of thinking lie close to the surface. ... This underdeveloped ego is created by the detailed social organization of Indian life, and fits into that life. The mother functions as the external ego of the child for a much longer period than is customary in the West, and many of the ego functions concerned with reality are later transferred from mother to the family and other social institutions. Caste and clan are more than brotherhoods; they define the individual completely. The individual is never on his own. he is always fundamentally a member of his group, with a complex apparatus of rules, rituals, taboos. Every detail of behaviour is regulated. Relationships are codified. And religion and religious practices lock everything in place. The need, then, for individual observation and judgement is reduced. something close to a purely instinctive life becomes possible

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