Saturday, December 26, 2009
Is Avatar a Hindi movie?
Abhishek Bachchan tweets, "James Cameron is Hollywood's answer to my favourite director MANMOHAN DESAI!! He could pull off anything. Avatar too is a Hindi film at heart." Joginder Tuteja of India Abroad News Service writes, "The story conveys that Cameron is a big fan of Bollywood films from the 60s and the 70s. Just like his last effort Titanic which was as Bollywood as it gets, even Avatar has quite a few Hindi film references if one starts plotting them on paper." Needless to say, Tuteja cites no specific references in Avatar to Hindi cinema of any period.
Are Bachchan and Tuteja right, though? Is Avatar the Hollywood incarnation of a Bollywood blockbuster? A few arguments can be lined up in favour of the thesis. First, the simplicity of the storyline and dialogue. After the 1960s, Hollywood gave up lulling audiences to sleep and began overloading films with detail. Characters spoke over one another (Altman's MASH), spoke while looking away from the camera or while barely visible (Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now), spoke so fast or so low one could barely follow (Burt Young in Rocky), spoke in accents difficult to decipher (Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain). Essential twists in the story began to be taken at such speed viewers could barely hold on, and films provided more than could be absorbed in a single sitting.
In his use of dialogue, plot and lighting, Cameron is old-fashioned and close to the method Bollywood has retained. Every sentence is clearly enunciated, every plot development unambiguously marked, every frame conventionally beautiful. Few leave the theatre after watching Terminator, True Lies, Titanic or Avatar feeling they've missed something vital.
In his last two films, Cameron has foregrounded romance, another element vital to Indian popular cinema. Avatar's love-story happens to be between blue-skinned, ten-foot tall residents of the planet Pandora, but it's an old-fashioned (that word again) tale at heart, with the interloper pardesi carrying away the heart of the tribal lass, overcoming initial opposition from within her community led by the local boy who desires her.
Which leads to the next point of contact: Cameron's valorisation of traditional life over industrial civilisation parallels the idealisation of village in opposition to city seen in a number of Indian films.
Fourthly, there is the sheer length of the film to consider: while Avatar's running time doesn't quite match that of Titanic, it's closer to that of the standard Hindi film than the 90-120 minutes of most Hollywood movies.
Fifth, Avatar's pantheistic philosophy is congenial to Indians, particularly Hindus. Cameron departs from the tradition of western pantheism in creating an active Goddess who takes a role in the final combat, reminiscent of the many occasions in Indian films when characters, animals or objects are animated by divine force.
There are, however, enough departures from Hindi film idiom for us to conclude Avatar would be a misfit within the Indian canon.
The film is an allegory, a form that fell out of favour in India after independence, having being used prominently during British rule when censorship created the necessity of representing the Raj obliquely in any critique. It is, moreover, an allegory that casts American militarism in the villain's role. In Indian film, nationalism is a given, as is the glorification of soldiers. Indian movies are sentimental, thrilling, funny, but never thought-provoking; ideas are generally frowned upon and intellectually interesting conversation absent. The only contemporary film-maker who deals with ideas is Mani Ratnam, and in his case it's invariably a fake engagement, appearing to tackle ideologies only to evade them when it comes to the crunch.
The spiritualism of Avatar, which fits snugly with conventional Indian wisdom, is part and parcel of a widespread contemporary rejection of conservative Christianity in North America (evident also in The Da Vinci Code, which makes a similar appeal to the Female Principle). While Avatar can hardly be called radical or original, the animistic beliefs embedded in Pandora represent a repudiation of the values that built America. Taking the Dances with Wolves and Last Samurai route, Cameron has created a hero soldier who turns coat, going over to the anti-American side. Again, while this is a trodden path in the US, it's unthinkable in India, where any undermining of national myths is likely to be punished not only at the box office but through direct physical harm to those involved.
The technical achievement of Avatar separates it decisively from anything created in India. Cameron intimately understands machinery and what it can do. On his first shoot, he took apart a camera to figure out for himself how it functioned. He worked his way up from the bottom of the special effects ladder, to a point where he could lead innovation in technology. Indians, on the other hand, have only recently begun producing films of passable technical quality. Even the simplest opticals were botched before the digital era. How much more effective would have been the ending of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (for my money, one of the three greatest Hindi films ever made), if the lab had created a better transition from living hand to skeleton. Singin' In The Rain, made in the same year, provides an appropriate contrast, its dissolves and effects appearing pristine over four decades after its first release. It's true that Bombay's Prime Focus did some work on Avatar, but effects in indigenous productions continue to be shockingly shoddy. As in the IT world, where our techies have failed to create a single important internationally marketable product in all these years, in animation we make reasonably good tailors, but terrible designers.
Finally, for all its technological excellence, Avatar, like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Titanic and virtually every significant effects-driven film, warns of the dangers inherent in technological hubris. The tension between a dependence on cutting-edge technology in the act of creation and a questioning of it within that creation is at the heart of the genre, and that dil is not hindustani.