Joker – Some Points

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on August 20, 2016

1. Somasundaram is (again) one of Koothu Pattarai’s great gifts to Tamil cinema. This man deserves accolades at several levels. I fervently hope he does not get misused by the film industry like that other great Koothu Pattarai product, Pasupathi.

2. This movie shows how political satire must be made. Except maybe for MR Radha’s performances, this movie is an exemplar of the genre.

3. Strength: The story, the actors. It is really tough to elegantly play the role of a mentally unstable person who thinks that he is perfectly normal. DiCaprio did that in Shutter Island. Somasundram does it here. Madness plays in the iris of his eyes and on the corner of his lips.

4. Crux: The toilet. Normally, the suppressed, ‘dirty’ aspect of a caste society, the toilet is the center of this movie. The director’s genius is revealed here.

5. Flaw: The pedantic dialogue of Mu Ramasamy in the climax. His “religion is evil, caste is evil, politics is evil” perspective makes it look like AAP propaganda. The movie should have ended with Somasundaram’s death.

6. Comment: Someone should send Slavoj Zizek a subtitled copy of Joker. He may write a chapter on how not only Somasundaram’s character of Mannar “a beggar who believes that he is a king” is delusional, but ha ha, even the king who believes that he is a king is delusional. That is, psychopathology is not a obtrusion in society, but its core. So maybe, it is not just Mannar who believes that he is the President is mad, even the President who believes that the politics of development has delivered is also mad. And so on and so on. And so on.

7. On a serious note: Look at it this way. Mannar thinks that the President is a post that has power. The President knows that the post has no real power, but acts as though it does. So who is the Joker?

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X-Men: Future Imperfect

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on June 1, 2014

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” is an unashamed defense of American liberalism. Whether past or future, liberal democracy and multicultural tolerance is the end of history. On the good side, the young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is not just awesome – he is awe-inspiring (he makes Wolverine played by Hugh Jackman look like a street punk). Confronting his partner who wants to assassinate an individual bad guy among the humans, he says that this one guy is not the problem, rather “they are”. Concomitantly, he is the only truly political person in the movie, who knows what war is, who knows who the enemies are, and who knows that struggle – not reconciliation – is the only way out.

On another note, every time I recollect the below conversation from the earlier “X-Men: First Class”, I get goosebumps. Pretty much sums up what our relation to the Sinhalese – “innocent” or not – must be like.

“Professor X: Erik, you said yourself we’re the better men. This is the time to prove it. There are thousands of men on those ships. Good, honest, innocent men! They’re just following orders.

Magneto: I’ve been at the mercy of “men just following orders”. Never again.”

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A Comment on ‘Moodar Koodam’

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on November 3, 2013

Originally published on The Weekend Leader as “Portrayal of Tamil assertion in films”

First, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed watching debutant director Naveen’s Moodar Koodam (Fools Gathering). A low budget movie of a genre that is rarely taken up in Tamil cinema – dark humour – it was good entertainment.

The comic storyline, interspersed with even more comic flashbacks, the lack of an infallible hero and his often senseless romance, a narrative that gives weight to all characters, make the movie a worthwhile watch.

While I appreciate the style of the movie, I have to disagree with some aspects of its content. The director seems to have unnecessarily mixed what could have been a good comedy on its own with a social commentary that is banal.

The semi-pedagogical dialogues on communism and the ills of capitalism seem rather pointless especially at a time when most communists in India don’t know what it is that they are fighting for.

The romanticising of the rural as naively good and the cursing of the urban social elites as being morally corrupt has become a boring theme.

This ranting against English, IT professionals, the upwardly mobile has been hammered through Tamil cinema enough.

After a point, the contempt for knowledge and modernity gets really annoying. And it also makes one wonder whether what is being advocated is a rule similar to the Sharia laws…

But why is it that the Tamilophile is usually a crass, frustrated, lower/lower-middle class male who mostly behaves like a sociopath?

Haven’t we had enough with Katradhu Tamizh where the protagonist, a misogynist, goes around killing, beating and molesting people because they did not conform to his notion of Tamil culture?

Or rather, why can’t a smooth and suave and socially refined man – or for that matter, woman – be a Tamilophile? The latter would be the really radical thing to portray.

Likewise, the scene from the movie, where one of the protagonists harasses a guy for talking to him in English, which is in wide circulation in social media, cannot appeal to the learned.

A positive assertion of identity cannot be based on paranoia and insecurity and berating your own for neglecting their ‘roots’, real or imagined. But again, to be fair to the director, maybe this is why he called his movie ‘Moodar Koodam’.

A much radical portrayal of Tamil assertion can be seen in a particular scene in the movie Tamizh Padam. A reel Manmohan Singh calls up the protagonist asking him to take-up a police assignment, speaking to him in Hindi throughout.

After hearing out the Indian Prime Minister with an indifferent look on his face, the protagonist replies in Tamil “Sorry PM ji, I don’t know Hindi” and cuts the phone.

The Indian PM is left with a bewildered look on his face. Comedy apart, this scene speaks more for an assertive Tamil nationalism than all the “Tamil kalaachaaram (culture)” jingoism that we have been subject to in other movies.

When you look at it, the protagonist of Tamizh Padam is really ‘speaking truth to power’ when he tells the highest political authority of India that he (symbolically representing Tamils) can’t speak Hindi, and refuses to engage in further conversation.

This is the real positive assertion of identity – being confident without being xenophobic, refusing to entertain dialogue with the Other who does not recognize you, while at the same time not boring yourself and those around you with didactic rants.

Indeed Tamil Nadu’s identity politics of the future cannot be like Moodar Koodam – a gathering of fools.

Madras Cafe: Intercept The Half-Truth

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on August 27, 2013

Originally published on Countercurrents

*Spoiler alert

Some sections of the Indian media may be going gaga over the ‘realistic’, ‘non-dramatic’ film ‘Madras Cafe’ of Shoojit Sircar. Some have, rather shamelessly, compared it to Zero Dark Thirty – in reality, GI Joe: Retaliation is a more gripping watch. While the poor sense of aesthetics of these pseudo-critics is lamentable, their contempt for history as it happened leaves much to question.

Selective history, grand conspiracy theory, not-so-subtle Indian patriotism all go into the making of a movie that principally exonerates India from all culpability of the brutal war crimes committed against the Tamils by the IPKF. From the start till the end, the subtext of the movie is to project India, a nuclear power state with the fourth largest army in the world, as a victim of the LTTE. For the record, at the height of the IPKF-LTTE war, over 100000 Indian soldiers armed to the teeth confronted about 3000 LTTE cadres. Despite this, India lost.

“They were powerful. In this game, we lost our prime minister, and the Lankan Tamils, their future,” confesses RAW agent Vikram Singh (played by John Abraham) to a Christian priest. The entire movie is the confession of Vikram to the priest, from his activities as a RAW agent in IPKF occupied Jaffna, to the failure of the RAW to break the LTTE, to their failure to stop Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

The numerous atrocities suffered by the Eelam Tamils under the IPKF, the murders, tortures, rapes and disappearances, do not form part of his confession. Thus, no mention of the same in the film. On the other hand, the reel LTTE are shown as fanatics, who even murder the wife of Vikram in India in their attempts to get to him. I am yet to hear of a single case where the real LTTE has deliberately targeted the family of officers or soldiers of even the genocidal Sri Lankan military.

The LTTE, shown in the film as Liberation of Tamils Front (LTF), are shown as some intransigent armed rebel group that has support of the local population. Why did the armed struggle come about, what did the Sinhala state do to create such a situation, why did the Tigers oppose the Indian solution of 13th Amendment, why did the Tamil people stand with the ‘rebel group’, and what did the IPKF actually do in the course of its intervention – these are questions not even considered by the filmmaker. But the words “provincial council elections” are repeated to the point of being a slogan throughout the movie. Contrast this with the bare minimal usage of the word ‘Sinhalese’ in the movie – it is as if they had no role to play at all. The tagline for the movie was “Intercept the truth”.

The first half of the film is concerned with the RAW agent’s covert operations in Jaffna. These include scenes that allude to RAW’s role in supporting Tamil groups antithetical to the struggle for Tamil Eelam, the Mahattaya split and so. Of course, the intelligence failure in the famous ‘Jaffna University Helidrop’ is underplayed, though the filmmaker grudgingly acknowledges the superior intelligence of the Tigers at that time.

The second half of the movie, concerned with the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, is actually banal. Other movies like ‘Mission 90 Days’ have covered the subject with more intensity, and with far more venom. Madras Cafe tells us that its LTF was a foot-soldier of foreign forces in carrying out the plot.

“Corporations, big countries, big organizations,” in short, “economic hitmen” supported the LTF, we are told. The purpose is “economic control, business deals and large arms contracts,” it is asserted. An intelligence officer informs Vikram that the war is for Trincomalee, that the foreign forces wanted the LTF in power so that they can get the harbour, and that this would be a threat for India. Last time I heard however, it was the US that gave Sri Lanka effective advice in counterinsurgency strategy to remove the LTTE from the coveted harbour.

“At no stage did we ever consider India as an enemy force. Our people always consider India as our friend. They have great expectations that the Indian super power will take a positive stand on our national question,” LTTE leader Velupillai Pirapaharan said in his Heroes’ Day address on 27 November 2008. He has never referred to any other country in such terms.

However, Anna Bhaskaran, the movie’s celluloid version of Pirapaharan, tells in an interview to British journalist Jaya (a sad allusion to the Indian journalist Anita Pratap) that he will even consider taking help from the West to wage their struggle.

This is the other subtext of the movie. India is justified in assisting unitary Sri Lanka, irrespective of what the latter does, else foreign powers will intervene and that will be against India’s ‘national interests’.

To be fair to the movie, it has its share of laughs.

For instance, the scene where Jaya interviews Anna in English and the leader of the Tamil struggle responds to it – in Hindi.

The climax was dark comedy. Vikram ends his confession and walks out of the church muttering lines from Rabindranath Tagore’s famous poem from Gitanjali “Where the mind is without fear…” The poem is a utopian vision of an ideal democratic country. Unitary Sri Lanka, which India has been supporting till now, is the perfect antithesis of the spirit of the poem.

The line best suited for the context of Madras Cafe, however, is Alfred Tennyson’s “That a lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies”.

The Dark Knight Rises a Fascist?

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on July 21, 2012


A few weeks back, I watched the BBC documentary on ‘Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution’. True to classic British Liberalism, the documentary presented the image of the main protagonist of one of the world altering events in the history of the modern world as a delusional paranoid who would sacrifice thousands of lives for his ideal. While the Marxist critic Slavoj Zizek provided a single line of defence to the man, whom it wouldn’t be an excess to call the ideological patriarch of modern revolutionaries, the structuring of the documentary as such was tilted towards British historian Simon Schama, who was portraying an image of Robespierre as this megalomaniac, blood thirsty monster (oh, that’s what radicals are to liberals/conservatives anyway). Among other nice things he has said in the past, Mr. Schama has also defended Israel’s pounding of Lebanese cities in the Israel-Lebanon war. But that’s another story.

Let us talk about Christopher Nolan’s final (hopefully) movie in the Batman trilogy, the Dark Knight Rises. Though he has apparently claimed that the movie has nothing to do with politics, the political and social undertones in the movie are too obvious to miss. To give a brief summary of the story, Gotham City has been peaceful after the events in the previous movie ‘The Dark Knight’, and the Batman has retired. However, the ‘terrorist’ Bane enters this scenario and after a few attacks on Gotham, instigates the wretched of the city to revolt against their masters and to wage civil war to take power, using explicit revolutionary phraseology, in the process, exposing the lie on which peace in the city was built – while secretly conspiring to destroy the entire city as such. Though he severely cripples Batman in a fight, the protagonist returns for a final fight. No guesses on who wins.

So why start with the French Revolution?

“Tale of Two Cities to me was the most sort of harrowing portrait of a relatable recognizable civilization that had completely fallen to pieces. The terrors in Paris, in France in that period, it’s not hard to imagine that things could go that bad and wrong.” No, it wasn’t Mr. Schama further demonizing Robespierre referring to Charles Dickens’ literary work that excessively criticizes the alleged ‘excesses’ of the French Revolution.

The statement is of Jonathan Nolan, brother of Christopher Nolan, and co-writer for the movie, responding to a question on the movie’s inspiration in an interview by Buzzine. The inspiration, Dickens’ classic, was steeped in English liberal thought. “We know there are a lot of problems with the existing system, but hey, revolutions are worse.” And as the novel portrays the revolutionaries as possessed fanatics (with far greater finesse though) the movie portrays Bane and his comrades, and condemns Bane with the vehemence that Mr. Schama condemns Robespierre.

The result is the caricature of what in real life would be an ideologically committed revolutionary fighting structural injustice. Hollywood tells what the establishments want you to know – revolutionaries are brutal creatures, with utter disregard for human life. Despite emancipatory rhetoric on liberation, they have sinister designs behind. Thus, whatever might be their reasons, they need to be eliminated. Watching this treatment of Bane in the movie felt like sitting through the BBC documentary on Robespierre all over again.

But why such a harsh disposition towards Bane when a character like the Joker was dealt with (relative) lenience in the earlier movie? The Joker, calling for anarchy in its purest form, is almost impossible to be true. Though he critically underscores the hypocrisies of bourgeois civilization as it exists, his views are unable to translate into mass action for the sheer strength of will and ‘decivilization’ it would require from any individual attempting treading that path. Imagine a political person completely beyond morality and norms of any kind, beyond categorizations and compartmentalizations. Simply put, either one is the Joker or one isn’t. His threat to existing order and its guardian, the Batman, is more philosophical than physical. And the Truth that he waved in the face of Batman was combated by a lie, to save the abominable liberal capitalist society that is Gotham.

Revolution vs Reaction

Bane, on the other hand poses an existential threat to the system of oppression. He is the FARC in Colombia, the Tamil Tiger facing Sri Lanka, the PKK guerrilla combating Turkey, or a Maoist in Dandakaranya. Or the Jacobin in the time of the French Revolution. His strength is not just his physique but also his ability to command people and mobilize them to achieve a political goal. He represents the vanguard, the organized representative of the oppressed that wages political struggle in their name to bring about structural changes. Such a force, with the greatest subversive potential, the system cannot accommodate. It needs to be eliminated. With such a theme, Sri Lankan cinema would’ve made a propaganda movie against the Tamils’ struggle. Nolan gave us The Dark Knight Rises.

Catwoman’s presence is largely unworthy but for one significant symbolism. Selina Kyle, from a proletarian background, a master thief by profession, does not join her ‘natural ally’ in Bane, but embraces the Batman, quite literally, and saves his life. The lumpen seduced by the fascist? The relation Bruce Wayne/Batman has with the two main women in the film is characterized by physicality primarily.

Endurance… Sacrifice… Love!

Bane, on the other hand, with all the tough veneer, reveals the source of his hardness – love. In a fleeting, but touching moment, through a tear, the ‘monster’ tells the story of his becoming that Che Guevara so eloquently phrased decades back: “Hay que endurecerse sin perder jamas la ternura”. One must endure, become hard, toughen oneself, without losing tenderness. While Batman was brought into his line of work through a personal loss, Bane’s initiation was an unselfish act of love, which came with enduring terrible suffering and sacrifice. The ideal was not limited to his personal fetishes. As love goes, the ideal in itself was total and absolute. Contrast a Batman, inconsistent with both his personal and political lives, and a consistent Bane who saw no difference between the two. In this sense, Badiou is right in saying that the truly subversive thing in the world today is not sex, but love. No wonder, the chap who sleeps around represents the liberal system while the committed lover, the terrorists!

As for morality, ironically, the Batman proves the Joker right in this movie. The Joker had said, referring to the moral standards of the system that Batman defends, in the previous movie that “their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble.” With the trouble, the radical threat to Gotham’s system, that Bane posed, the Batman first threatens to kill him, and later, endorses his murder. Soon after that, Batman, who claimed to be morally opposed to killing, is directly responsible for the death of another main antagonist.

This signifies a crucial point in the series – morality is a matter of convenience as determined by circumstances. In Batman Begins, the protagonist is a liberal claiming that the system can be defended with morally acceptable methods. In Dark Knight, he recognizes that his old methods won’t work, and he taps into an entire city’s phone conversations, besides using torture to pry out information. In the final instalment, he reveals that he will not even stop at murder to defend his system. The age old statement that the oppressors have been saying from Paris Commune to Mullivaikaal – the harder you resist, the harder we’ll hit. But the system shall remain.

Isn’t that what happens in this movie? The Batman has his back broken. Viciously stabbed. Passes through a nuclear explosion (!). But yet, he saves the day, emerges unscathed and moves on with a normal life, with someone else to replace his role defending the system. This brings us to the other crucial point – capitalism is the end of history. Batman’s changes and continuity symbolises capitalism’s persistence despite various crises inherent to it depression, war, genocide, fascism, colonialism etc. But at the end, there is no alternative. Watching the climax of the movie, I was convinced of Zizek’s argument that Hollywood can even imagine the end of the world, but not of capitalism. And the system’s old defenders will be replaced by new ones, probably with a new series of movies on them as well!

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Liberalism vs Identity Politics In “X-Men: First Class”

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on July 13, 2011

I had to watch X-men: First Class. It was high priority on my list of to-do things in Chennai once I landed here from Delhi. Since I had watched all the other X-men movies, I was intent on seeing this one considering that it was supposed to explain the origins of some of the main characters.

The politics of the movie aside, it was good entertainment and I will suggest it to superhero movie buffs. The director Matthew Vaughn was blessed with a great cast. While James McAvoy as Charles Xavier gave a good performance, he was dwarfed by the towering Michael Fassbender who played Erik Lensherr/Magneto. Fassbender seemed to be at ease with expressions of rage, pain, sadness and above all, loss, probably the toughest of emotions to enact unless genuinely felt. Veteran artist Kevin Bacon played the role of arch villain Sebastian Shaw with élan. And the other characters acted their roles pretty well too.

For those who are beginners to X-men, here’s the deal. There are humans and mutants and tensions are brewing between them. Amongst mutants, there are ‘good’ mutants led by Charles Xavier alias Prof. X and his band of X-men, who believe that it is possible for mutants and humans to live together in peace and harmony. The ‘bad’ mutants, led by Erik Lensherr alias Magneto, believe that this argument is a farce, that humans will always persecute mutants owing to their fears and prejudices, and that the only way for mutants to survive would be to overthrow human rule by force. While the humans in general are suspicious of the mutants and there are some among them who seek to use these sentiments to the detriment of the mutants, there are the good humans too. So, the fight is basically between the good side of the mutants and humans against the bigots of both sides in order to usher in an era of multiculturalism and tolerance – the American way. That’s the theme of the earlier X-men movies in brief.

Now to the politics of this particular movie. In the entire series, X-men: First Class had, in my view, stronger political tones than its predecessors. The clash between liberalism and identity politics, which was an underlying theme in the earlier movies, came out much clearer in this one. Charles Xavier leads the liberal camp. Accordingly, he has the power to read and manipulate the minds of people – as liberals think they can. (Had he been a radical, he would have been a Leninist. But that’s another story!) Despite having grown in opulence, he thinks he can authentically feel the pain of others, as he tells Lensherr. He conducts personality development classes for fellow mutants so that they can be… ‘better’ mutants, or mutants who will be liked better by human beings (Vaguely remember a liberal Tamil politician making a statement that if the Sinhalese hated the Tamils, it is our responsibility to make them love us. Oh Xavier!). The priority is clear here. He recognizes the difference of the mutants and its corresponding discrimination by the humans. But he does not want to emphasize on them. He is the multiculturalist who believes in mutual tolerance and coexistence. He personifies the ‘American Dream’ and its accompanying drama. He is the ‘home nigger’ of Malcolm X, the conformist, the mutant who tries to be more human than humans themselves. The director favours him obviously. Necessary for the reel triumph of liberalism.

The ideologues: Xavier (McAvoy) and Lensherr (Fassbender)

I, on the other hand, the viewer with my freedom of interpretation and reading into signs, am predisposed to supporting Erik Lensherr. A Polish inmate of Nazi camps as a young boy, he realized his powers under brutal conditions. He controls metals and electro-magnetic fields and, as if living up to his name, is indeed an magnetic personality on screen (maybe the director’s hint at how radical identitarianism attracts hard things and people and is eventually dangerous). He witnessed the execution of his mother by Shaw, another mutant who worked for Nazis, and his powers developed further under Shaw’s torturous manipulations. Here is the monster created by greater monsters. Xavier wants Lensherr to understand that though the grievances of the persecuted may be legitimate, there are boundaries they cannot cross. Of course, who devises the frames of these boundaries is a question that Xavier does not deeply consider.

Hunted down for being different, yet bold enough to assert his difference, Magneto is the Tamil ‘separatist’ in Sri Lanka, the Kurdish ‘secessionist’ in Turkey, the ‘violent’ Dalit-Bahujan in India. He is fully conscious of his identity and chooses to assert it, to wield it as a weapon, knowing well that a refusal to do so would mean submission to or collaboration with the powers that be. He also contests that humans would never be able to grasp or genuinely empathize with the ‘mutant problem’ and that the only solution lies in the struggle of the mutants themselves. Is it so? An example: the spontaneous feeling of rage and pain that a Tamil patriot experiences over the atrocities committed on her kind in Sri Lanka can never be replaced or represented by an occasional pamphlet or words of denunciation from a Liberal/Marxist/whatever in, lets say, New Delhi. This not to say that solidarity is not required for identity based resistances, but these are only of strategic value. For such politics to translate into radical action, the essential requirement is for the actors to bond on the basis of an identity and to recognize it as what Everett Hughes calls the “master status”, that is, the identity that takes priority over other identities. For me to be a genuine actor in, lets say, a backward caste resistance, I need to identify myself as a backward caste primarily. Acceptance of identity. Assertion of identity. Action on the basis of identity. (A question can arise: Can a brahmin lead an anti-brahminical movement? I would argue that he can support it but the leadership must be in the hands of those affected by brahminism – following Ambedkar’s, Periyar’s and Lensherr’s case for self-representation at all times). Lensherr’s brief advice to Mystique, that we need to accept ourselves if we want society to accept us, sends out a far more powerful message than any of Xavier’s therapy sessions in the movie. As Nietzsche would say, “you must become who you are”.

After Magneto, Mystique is probably the most interesting character in the movie. With the power to change appearances, she has the ability, or rather, the option to appear as a ‘normal human’ – and so she chooses to be for most parts of the movie till she is fully convinced of the force of Magneto’s arguments. In Sartrean terms, she is initially the inauthentic mutant, always striving to pass off as ‘one of them’, but never fully able to do so. Perpetually caught in an ethical dilemma, she personifies what we call ‘identity crisis’. She is the oxymoronic ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’ of Colombo, an elite, a creature trying to underplay the latter part, the part that really matters, of her identity and attempting to live with the herd, a darling child of Sinhala liberals and of collaborator-intellectuals like Ahilan Kadirgamar. She is the Kurd in Istanbul who would, in public, accept that Turkey consists of Turks alone and that she is one of them while wondering deep inside whether such is the case. She is the Dalit in Delhi University who will avoid eating non-veg so as to not offend the sentiments of her brahmin roommate, who will never disclose her caste identity and who shies away during debates on reservations for fear of being identified.

Mystique: As she is

Unable to be true to any side by virtue of her birth and by matter of her choice, her existence is traumatic. With the well-timed advice of Magneto she confronts reality as it is. And when she realizes what she is, she becomes who she is. A mutant, an aberration to the ‘normal’ but a beauty to those with the perspective. So when she proclaims ‘Mutant and Proud’ towards the end of the movie, one is compelled to join with her saying ‘Tamil and Proud’, ‘Kurd and Proud’, ‘Dalit and Proud’. For broken women and men, pride in what they are, what they should become, is the first emotion that needs to be kindled if at all a liberatory praxis on the basis of identity is to be envisaged.

Magneto: Mutant Power

The ethical argument between Xavier and Magneto at the climax is highly relevant for our times. Magneto, who manages to prevent the annihilation of the mutants – including Xavier – by weapons deployed by humans, decides to use his powers to wipe off the humans who launched the attack. Xavier’s argument against this decision is that the men who initiated the attack were “just following orders” but otherwise were “good, honest, innocent men”. Really now? To those who have watched the Channel 4 video on Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields I ask, do we believe that the men who dropped bombs on hospitals in Tamil areas, who shot children at point blank range were “good, honest, innocent men”? Do we presume that the Sinhala army men who were vividly describing the naked bodies of Tamil women whom they had sexually abused and executed with words that would make a pornographer blush were “just following orders”? If the answer is affirmative, let us assume that they were indeed “just following orders” of their superiors… that they may have been “good” fathers to their children, “honest” citizens to their country… but innocent? Well, in the perspective of the Tamils who suffered, Magneto’s rejoinder seems apt – “I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders… Never again!” – and his war begins from that moment. I am sure that the Tamil journalist Isaipriya, who also was at the mercy of such men, who was raped, mutilated and murdered by these humans, would agree with him too.

The ‘mutant problem’ of X-men and the polar opposite views of Xavier and Magneto not just convey arguments on liberalism and identity politics, they also indicate that choices are to be made. The Tamil ‘mutant’ in Sri Lanka must choose living as a slave, or collaborating, or fighting for her freedom. The Kurdish ‘mutant’ must forego his identity or struggle to secure a land where his kind can exist as they are. The Dalit-Bahujan ‘mutants’ must choose becoming invisible, or fighting for their rights by themselves, or handing over the leadership of their struggle to those will act in their name but will never be one of them. The choice is ours to make. We can assert our identity and fight for our right to be different and to secede from the rest or we can embrace our oppressor communities and live under their shadow. I have made my choice.

What about you, fellow mutant?

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The Land of Raavanan

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on June 23, 2010

I really wanted to praise Raavanan. Honestly. Criticize Mani Ratnam’s flicks all you want, but you will have to agree that they at least provide good entertainment. I went to Raavanan with that expectation. When I returned home, I actually had to take an aspirin. Thus, I am compelled to lash out at the movie. If you think that’s unfair, please close this window. You wont like what follows.

For starters, the movie was a waste of talent, despite having a pretty good cast. You actually wonder why some characters are even there. Cases to consider, Prabhu and Karthik. Much hype was created over their appearing together in Mani’s movie after ages. Yet, their characters in the movie were hardly impressive – anyone could have played their roles. Karthik as a modern day Hanuman was pathetic. An oversized Prabhu was irrelevant.

Let’s go the main characters. Dev (Prithviraj), Mani’s Ram, is a loser and a shameless defender of an unjust order, much like Valmiki’s Ram. Prithvi does some justice to the role of a smart and ruthless cop. His archenemy is Beera (Vikram), our neo-Raavana, who is a local hero for the tribals/dalits of the village. Dev’s wife Ragini (Aishwarya Rai) is abducted by Beera, who wants to avenge his sister. And yeah, Dev wages ‘war’ on Beera. Their war is shown not just as a conflict between two cultures, but as a confrontation between the establishment and the historically neglected, between the oppressor and the oppressed. But in spite of Mani’s good intentions (assuming he had any), the oppressed come out as comic figures… sigh! I can remember Vikram more for his funny sounds and actions than for any provoking piece of acting. I believe the original Raavanan was a man of culture, a great artist, dancer and singer. Why would Mani Ratnam turn a talented artist like Vikram into a caricature like Beera? Come to think of it, Beera is closer to Jaambavan than to Raavana.

Let me make it clear here that I have no sympathies for any of the main male characters in Ramayana. Rama, a male-chauvinist moron obsessed with a hierarchical social order. Raavana, a weirdo who thought abducting women was cool. Hanuman, a spineless slave-monkey. Yuck! One should read the Ramayana to remind oneself how not to be like these characters. But I do have a thing for Sita. (No you dirty mind, its not that!) I mean, look at her. Helpless, caught in circumstances beyond her control, against forces she cannot fight, suspected for things she didn’t do, ending up taking her own life to prove her ‘purity’. I genuinely feel sad for her. Nothing patriarchal here, just a sense of pity.

But I didn’t have even half this pity for Ragini. And its not due to Ash being a blonde. I went with high hopes on Ash after reading Bharadwaj Rangan’s review where he lavishes praises on her. But what a disappointment, she was her usual self. Stupid, with a permanent irritating, confused look on her face. If that’s what her character was meant to be, I didn’t like one bit of it. If there was one thing consistent in the movie, it would be her costume. Whether torn or normal, dirty or clean, all her attires are designed in a way so as to reveal the right amount of skin at the right places. Mani please! Why these cheap tricks to appease front-benchers?

The movie plot is simple to the point of being dull. Guy kidnaps cop’s wife cos the cops raped his sister, and mayhem follows. Mani’s Mouna Raagam and Gitanjali were simple too. Simple, but refreshing. But this flick was tiring. It is wrong to say that the movie is based on the Ramayana, rather, the Ramayana has been imposed upon the movie to the extent of making it crudely obvious. The repetitive references to the number 14, ten-headed Raavana, Ash’s dialogues, the suspicion drama where Dev asks Ragini to go through a lie detector test to prove her chastity (modern day agnipariksha), Karthik’s monkey antics as he acts as a messenger – imitating the monkey god etc. You know, I was actually waiting for the captured Karthik to set fire to the village with something resembling a tail. Thankfully, Mani was not THAT stupid.

Mani’s cognizance has failed to recognize something called subtlety, which is a rare virtue in cinema. He has gone overboard in trying to insert bits and pieces of the epic into his movie and he ends up with a botched-up operation. Consider his Thalapathi, which has undertones of the other great epic, the Mahabharata, and which was executed with professional finesse. Raavanan in comparison is pathetic for sheer lack of sophistication.

No relief from the music too. There was just the jumble of weird sounds that Rahman and his fans would like to call music. I credit my headache primarily to him.

Nothing good about the movie? Apart from the beautiful scenery, I just loved Priyamani. What expressive eyes that woman has! Happiness, excitement, pain, anger – you just need to look at her eyes to know what her character is going through. Sadly, she is in the movie for only a matter of minutes. If you want to see this movie for something, see it for her. Because there is really nothing else. Valmiki’s Raavanan was a tragedy, Mani Ratnam’s is a farce.

One consolation: If the Tamil Raavanan was this bad, I shudder to think how the Hindi Raavan would be. And there’s Abhishek Bachchan in it too! Thank heavens I was spared the misfortune of going through that hell!

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Some Reflections on The Dark Knight

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on July 21, 2009

Its been a year since The Dark Knight hit the screens. I am not much of a movies person but I should say that this flick had an impact on me. I am not attempting to write a movie review but rather analyzing the characters of the protagonist and the antagonist, their world views.

I used to like Batman as a kid. The concept of a “good guy” standing up for what is “right” and beating up the baddies all by himself is definitely appealing. That too, for Indian kids, who are conditioned by their socialization with family and education to believe that order is the ideal, a defender of social stability would appear a hero. And the caped crusader’s portrayal as a “dark character” also added to his charm. But that was childhood. Intellectual maturity unfortunately does not allow the bliss of naïve romanticism.

The first four Batman movies had a lot of gadgets, goofy villains, hot women, fight scenes – but little stuff to ponder about. Batman Begins was a break from those kid-flicks and had a sober theme. But The Dark Knight, with its striking closeness to reality, took super-hero movies to a different level. Though movies like Underworld, X-men, Spiderman too have some underlying social themes, none have been as provocative or as hard hitting as the Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan has made a daring attempt to cast light on the dark side of society and the human psyche. But perennial skeptic that I am, I had to find flaws in his judgement.

If you belong to that school of thought that believes that there is no art that is aloof from class and politics, then you will agree that a provoking film like The Dark Knight is based in particular kind of socio-political world view. I call it bourgeois morality – and this has been primarily responsible for the way the characters in the movie were projected. The “good side” represents the ideal values of bourgeois society while the “bad side” is its bane, its anti-thesis. Questions of morality are evoked, only to conclude that people are intrinsically “moral” while the “immoral” ones are the exceptions.

If you’re familiar with the ‘patriotic movies’ of Hollywood, you will notice that a streak of anti-communism is evident is most of them. Now, The Dark Knight has been released at a time when the US is receiving criticism worldwide for its “war on terror.” The main theme of the movie is the conflict between the system and what it perceives as the anti-system and the extent to which the system can go to defeat its enemies. The system, represented by Batman, Dent, Rachel, Gordon et al is presented as being fundamentally good, though there a few black sheep. The challenge to the system, represented by the Joker and the mob is presented as being fundamentally bad, though they might have a few strong arguments in their favour. And the good guys within the system make sure that the system does not cross its limits even under extreme pressure from the bad guys.

It is to Nolan’s credit that he has allowed the “bad side,” the Joker, to make strong arguments in his favour instead of simply portraying him as a sadistic demon. But the limits of his objectivity ends there. Nolan covers up the fact that the bad guys are products of the system, of the economic order that creates striking inequalities among people. The mob is not a flaw existing outside the system, nay, it is a progeny of the very system that Batman & Co defend. If Carmine Falcone is morally wrong, then so is the society that fosters conditions that makes some people so desperate that they have to take recourse in crime. So in my opinion, which somewhat corresponds to that of the Joker, the system is the criminal and destroying the established order is part of the solution. But yeah, Batman would have none of it.

So what is Batman’s weltanschauung anyway? Look at Bruce Wayne, he’s the ideal American. White, rich, handsome and very.. ahem.. social. He’s the capitalist with a conscience, if there be such a creature. He is the corporate czar with a misplaced sense of social responsibility. He was witness to the murder of his parents by a vagrant in search of easy cash and thus, he feels that he was wronged by the scum of society. He decides to take it upon himself to defend society from its unwanted lot. And how does he do it? By becoming a hooded vigilante. But then, he is not a vengeful, violent character like, say, Wolverine. He has rules that he would never break. So I feel that the title of ‘Dark Knight’ is rather unsuitable for the Batman considering that he is desperately trying to play “fair” all the time. But for all his fairness, the Batman’s methods are doomed to fail because he’s barking up the wrong tree. Targeting individual criminals can never be the solution when society and its rules, morals, codes and values created by the ruling class to serve their own interests are the disease. And I believe that a wrong diagnosis can complicate the disease, make it worse. Then again, this is what bourgeois morality is all about.

Now to the Joker. He isn’t what his name suggests. The Joker in the Dark Knight is not the buffoon-villain played by Jack Nicholson in the first Batman. No, no. This is a very serious philosophical character, with a touch of dark humour, played to perfection by Heath Ledger. It is a tragedy that Ledger’s best performance had to be his last (I doubt whether anyone else can recreate the Joker the way Ledger did) – and he rightfully received the Academy Award for best supporting actor posthumously. I felt that that he was the real lead character in the movie considering that the Joker was the driver of all the main events – right from pushing Batman and the establishment to their wits end to “converting” Harvey Dent. I am not sure if he “put a smile on that face” when he kills Gambol, but he did put one on mine when he makes the following argument to Batman

“You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.”

Heath Ledger as The Joker

Heath Ledger as The Joker

Ah! A man after my own heart. Ledger’s Joker is closer to reality than many would like to accept. Morals and codes of bourgeois society are constructs of the ruling classes with the primary purpose of maintaining their hegemony over society. A Nietzschean would say that that every system of morals is opposed to nature and reason. The hypocrisy of morality in bourgeois-feudal societies is all too obvious for those who observe it closely – it is bent, twisted or even temporarily done away with as and when required by the ruling classes. In societies like India, where structured inequalities ensure that a minority remains rich and a majority remains poor, a system of morality and rules created by a nexus of religion, society and politics serves as the perfect opiate of the masses, thereby ensuring “order.” The Joker attacks the hypocrisy of the bourgeois when he says that “they’re only as good as the world allows them to be.” He makes an effective argument that people show their true colours when their interests are affected – when that happens, “the civilization and justice of bourgeois order stand forth as undisguised savagery and lawless revenge” (thank you Marx).

Consider this conversation with Harvey Dent

“Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying!”

Now ain’t that true? The massacre of the Bhotmange family in Khairlanji didn’t provoke any reaction from the Indian bourgeois and its agents. But when that Aarushi Talwar case came on television everyone lost their minds! How could it happen to her? Murder or rape of Dalits is a daily affair but a good looking, fair-skinned, urban, upper caste, upper-class girl is not meant to die – its not “according to plan.” And so, you had television anchors screaming on top of their lungs, spoilt-brat organizations like YFE staging candlelight protests (they didn’t light a matchstick for the Dalits) and politicians trying to assure that ‘everything is under control.’ Tragedy is tragic only when it strikes close home.

The Joker has a solution to these structural inequalities

“Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos…Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair!”

I guess that’s what necessary in India. Upsetting the established order of society – politics, economics, family, education, everything. Order in a semi-feudal country like ours, where discrimination is sanctioned by religion and enforced by society, has done more damage than good.

So let there be chaos!

“You poor take courage, you rich take care,
this earth was made a common treasury for everyone to share.
All things in common, all people one
they came in peace, next time we’ll bring a gun”

(The World Turned Upside Down)

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