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.


Sujoy Bhattacharjee said...

Well-written piece of one of the most hyped flicks of recent times. Though I wonder why you did not write anything about the choice of the movie's name - AVATAR (which has lots of connections with Indian mythology) - in your post.
And yes, James Cameron has had quite a fetish for cutting-edge technology ...right from the days of The Abyss.

PS: And it is not quite true that Indian techies are not great designers. Sabeer Bhatia, Ajay Bhatt(of the IBM ads)and others of their ilk did ply their trade, but unfortunately not in this country.

Girish Shahane said...

Sujoy, thanks for your note. Of course, the title ought to have been on top of the 'connections' list, stupid to omit it.
As far as Indian techies go, I'm aware of their incredible contributions in the US. I am not suggesting Indians are genetically incapable of becoming fine designers.

Girish Shahane said...

OK, I wasn't completely stupid. I put in this line, "Is Avatar the Hollywood incarnation of a Bollywood blockbuster", meant to draw attention to the original Indian meaning of Avatar.

DS said...

As Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, this year's Nobel Prize for Chemistry winner said recently in an interview in Bombay that India will only produce Nobel winners (and you can read designers, inventors etc here) when India functions as a meritocracy. Till then, I guess, Indians will flourish in lands where meritocracy is the sole criteria for selection and excellence.

adrian mckinty said...


The difference between your standard Hindi film and Avatar of course is joy. Avatar contains no humour, no wit and is utterly joyless. You leave the cinema only with the feeling that you are now three hours closer to death and with significantly less money in your pocket.

Girish Shahane said...

Adrian, I liked Avatar much more than you did, but you're right about the humour bit; Cameron has never seen the lighter side of life, and when he tried, in True Lies, the results were pretty sorry.

wanderlust said...

avatar is not anti-AMERICAN. the folks mining Pandora are not the US government. it is a private company that uses ex-marines in the security department.
so.. er... anti-capitalism here? which is also there in full flow in hindi movies, especially those with bhisham sahni?

Girish Shahane said...

Wanderlust, I didn't use the word 'anti-American' in my piece. I spoke of American militarism. The major political points of reference for Avatar are: The creation of the American nation and the simultaneous suppression of natives; the Iraq war; and the battle between environmentalists and polluting industries.
In Indian movies from the 1950s in which romantic socialism was strong, the battle was of rich versus poor, and the rich might be industrialists, moneylenders or zamindars. The trend was very much of a piece with Nehru's vision.

jaimit said...

I think the mammohan desai comment is to do with his style of constantly moving the story forward with one scene rapidly following the other leaving little time to ponder or think. Also the story needs the viewer to stretch imagination and temporarily suspend reality. Everything happens at a break neck speed in the movie but nothing untoward happens to the hero, except of course to the hero’s mentor (or some similar figure) – who needs to die. The premise or dil can be anything… but the basic ‘style’ remains something that mammohan desai was famously known in India for.

Girish Shahane said...

Jaimit, interesting that you think Cameron's style is break-neck, I've called it old-fashioned. He works out plot details much better than Manmohan Desai, but as Adrian has pointed out, Desai's films are MUCH more fun and filled with joie de vivre than Avatar.
As I mentioned in a column once, more stuff happens BEFORE the opening credits in Amar, Akbar, Anthony than transpires in any ENTIRE Hindi film these days.
If I had to choose a Hollywood movie that comes close to the Manmohan Desai spirit I'd probably go with Indiana Jones.

Sujoy Bhattacharjee said...

Of course, you did mention that :)
And considering Adrian's comments about the joy part, could not agree more. I mean, how can you ever come out of the hall after watching a David Dhawan or Rohit Shetty movie without experiencing the unbridled joy of having your brain all messed up. It is a pity that guys like Anurag Kashyap and Sriram Raghavan are trying hard to deprive us of that.

Girish Shahane said...

Lol. Have to say, there are hilarious moments in Dev D, Gulaal, Oye Lucky and other new wave films, so they haven't given the craziness up entirely, which is great.

guddu said...

Its a English movie but theme is taken from Ramayana.


Nimit Kathuria said...

Johnny Gaddar; first scene; describing the honeymoon. Not funny?

Of course, Dev D and Gulaal have already been spoken for.

About OLLO, it's funny/crazy all the way. So much so that if you didn't know better you'd think it's a comedy.

BTW, Girish, are you going to be there at the Jaipur Lit Festival? If yes, could you mention when exactly? I would really like to meet you.

Girish Shahane said...

Sorry, Nimit, no plans to attend. D'you live in Delhi? I come there once in a while, maybe we can get in touch when I'm there next, or when you visit Bombay.

Mohammed Musthafa said...

I agree Avatar is as simple a story line as possible in cinema. And Titanic, True Lies were both simplified as well. But Terminator? I feel the Terminator series has a lot of depth, both morally and plot wise. Time travel, artificial intelligence....

Girish Shahane said...

Mohammed, the first Terminator does have a reasonable plot, though I don't think it is too complex. That movie had a very complicated production journey, with all kinds of people involved and about a dozen writers. Cameron had more control on Terminator 2, and that had a very basic story, it is essentially one long chase.