Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Violence in the heartless art films

It must have been around 2-3 months ago when I watched this film "Irreversible" by Gasper Noe. The film was nominated for the top prize at the Cannes film festival, and won the "Best film" award at Stockholm International film festival. So to say, except a few critics' negative reviews and audience who walked out of theatres, the movie mainly received a lot of critical acclaim, and holds much attention and respect especially among film-school students owing to its avant-garde nature, be it the non-linear narrative structure, its widescreen 16 mm format, the shaky all-direction moving camera, the disorienting low-frequency sound or the hundreds of other modern film techniques that it employs in its editing, cinematography or scripting. 

The film is composed of 13 scenes shown in reverse chronological order, where two friends are attempting to take revenge on a criminal for brutally raping a woman, who was wife of the first and ex-wife of the second guy. The movie is so violent and cruel that even someone like Takashi Miike might shudder and feel an inferiority complex for a moment. For instance, the visual violence in the rape scene, shot in a seemingly single take and "the murder scene with a man's skull being crushed to pulp by being repeatedly hit with a fire extinguisher" might make many a viewers throw up at its ugliness. 

Well, what is this film trying to say? There is a placard that appears in the beginning prologue which reads "Time destroys everything". Whatever that means, all in all, it's not a film about rape as an issue. Frankly, it's not about any issue at all. Rather it's a film with a pervasive sense of nihilism and despair. 

Talking about this, I am reminded of two other films:

1.     Shekhar Kapoor's "Bandit Queen", another film which shows  a   woman being raped. This chronicle of the life of Phoolan Devi is ultimately a tale of a woman's bravery to rise from the depths, fight injustice and embrace life after all the unimaginable atrocities she is subjected to. Also, it speaks explicitly against the vice of child marriage in scenes where:

i)                Phoolan Devi, as a child, is being cruelly raped by her villainous husband, and 

ii)             On taking vengeance upon him years later, she asks her lover Vikram to write a letter to the Superintendent of Police that if any man marries a child, he would meet the same fate as her just-killed-by-her husband. 

     Also, the rape scenes in this film tend to move and sensitize the audience unlike Irreversible which, as says Newsweek's David Ansen, takes "adolescent pride in its own ugliness".       

   2.     Farogh Siddique's Bollywood blockbuster "Jigar" has a story-line with the major plot points similar to "Irreversible" where Ajay Devgan's character takes the revenge upon the villain Arjun who brutally raped, in this case, his sister. But this movie was far from receiving any critical acclaim and rightly so. But just because "Irreversible" is a so-called art film falling into some "cinema du corpus", "avant-garde", "experimental", "new wave" and other such heavy termed categories, should it be decorated with awards and heaped with accolades? And these awards and reviews in itself render the film many a times to be a critical success or failure.

At least, "Jigar" shows a triumph of good over evil, but "Irreversible" doesn't even offer that solace, considering that finally, because of a misconception, the man the two friends happen to kill is actually not the one who raped her. Now, why did the director choose to let the criminal slip by? May be that had also something to do with his "art" and some weird concept, if at all any, that he must have been trying to put through.   

Frankly speaking, "Irreversible" is not boring even for a moment. It's gripping from the very first to the last minute. But a basic question occurred to my mind, "Why was this film even made?" This is analogous to a review about R.....Rajkumar in the ‘Indian Express’ where the reviewer had asked the same question. The only difference is that "Irreversible" won critical success because of its "new-wave" art formulas, whereas "R....Rajkumar" was a commercial success because of its "box-office" formulas. Although apparently being on two ends of a pole, are they not similar in a way? The storyline in neither of the films makes much sense. 

Art is essentially a combination of content and craft. The craft of “Irreversible” is what has appealed to the critics because of its being different and experimental, whereas the quirky craft employed for ‘R.....Rajkumar’, ‘Rowdy Rathod’, or any of the spicy Telugu blockbusters with the numerous camera pans, short takes, low-angles, cheesy dialogues is what suits the sensibility of the mass audience. But if we talk about the content, neither of the two touches the heart of the audience. R....Rajkumar is a display of vulgarity and violence thrown in together to garner cash at the box office, whereas Irreversible is a collage of gory images which depict murder and rape in a so-called artistic manner, to win awards and fame. 

In a way, the violence shown in R.....Rajkumar defies several laws of science and realism making it mindless fictional entertainment which is to be watched, enjoyed if possible and then forgotten, but the organic manner with which ‘Irreversible’ has been treated brings out its ugliness further to the fore leaving a negative impact on the psyche thus making it all the more deprecatory.

Simply put, this art is "Art without heart". 

          Let’s extend our discussion to the Indian art scene - the parallel film movement that is surging with the advent of some new film-makers from the young generation. Among all of them, Anurag Kashyap, the film-maker who’s earned a reputation of being the flag bearer of this parallel movement, struck a chord with me as with the other young movie buffs and lovers of serious, art cinema. His films have been screened at major film festivals across the globe, including Cannes where the two-part ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ received a standing ovation from the audience.

Although critics have hailed him as the God of new-age cinema and the hope for art film, yet on several occasions, Kashyap has been deplored by many an enthusiastic moral brigades for his depiction of liquor, drugs and violence in his movies. These moral brigades earned the label of cynics in my counter-comments against them and became a subject of my scoff in my eager attempts to shield Kashyap from their condemnation. I laid strong claims that such moral policing is detrimental to art. In these times, when violence has become an integral part of the society, why should it not be depicted? Kashyap’s movies carry the right intonations, and ultimately, discourage people from indulging in violence.

.....But until yesterday; when I started thinking about Imtiaz Ali’s film ‘Highway’; and free thinking, after meandering to several allied topics, brought me to ‘Gangs of Wasseypur (GoW)’. Now, this is the special thing about free thinking that it has the power to surprise one’s own self through the various conclusions that emerge in the silent soliloquy. And it did leave me confounded when I suddenly found myself in criticism of ‘GoW’. The film puts on reel the real life of Faisal Khan, a gangster in the ghettoes of a small town in Bihar, who rises to become a coal mafia and avenges the murder of his father, brother and grandfather upon the rival gang’s leader Ramadhir Singh.

Ø  Who is Faisal? - A gangster and a murderer so brutal that he beheads a man and hangs his head in front of his house’s doorstep. Wow! What a creative idea of murder!

Ø  While watching the film, did the viewers feel any hatred for Faisal? - None at all.

Ø  Any sympathy or pity? - None. 

Ø  Did Faisal feel any repentance? - None till the end. 

On the contrary, Faisal became a darling with the audience becoming even the profile picture of many facebook users. He appealed to the audience to be so cool, with the romance, the guns, his style of murder and smoking the pot.

Ø  Did he have to suffer? – Not really. Although his family members are executed by the rival gang, but the funeral scenes are so entertaining; and Faisal, like a TRUE gangster, is nonchalant to the point of being unemotional. He is never sad, frustrated or afraid anywhere during the length of the film. 

Ø  Did he meet a terrible end? – Not at all. Yes, he is killed in the end, but just the way the real Faisal Khan is still alive, even the screenplay of the film does not hint to that end. The film is unequivocally about the rise of Faisal and his revenge. The film reaches its full-throttled climax when he kills Ramadhir Singh by pumping around 700 bullets in his body thus drawing a thunderous applause from the audience. The last 5 min of the film is a dragged anti-climax with an inorganic twist in which he is murdered by his half-brother 'Definite'. That was more of trickery for the film to have a closed ending, and probably a gimmickry to be able to answer to the moral brigades. Furthermore, even his murder doesn't really dampen the coolness of crime considering that Definite, another criminal, succeeds in his plans and is left surviving in the end. So, the moral is that if you play the game boy, you got to play it right. Be the lieutenant of the main criminal, get him to finish off everyone else and ultimately kill him to become the sole winner.

                                    Let's get a look at these 7 violent films :
    1.     In Brian De Palma’s ‘Scarface’, Al Pacino as Tony Montana rises to power as the major force in the arena of crime. But in the latter half of the film, although he has all the money, power, girlfriend and repute, yet he is lonely and frustrated. He doesn’t know what is it that is lacking but the audience sense it really well. No speeches, no preaching, and the audience, before they know it, are dissuaded from crime and violence.  

2.     The protagonist in Kim Ki Duk’s ‘Pieta’, a hard-core recovery agent, cuts off the limbs of the people who are unable to repay the bank loans, drawing instant hatred from the viewers. A woman surfaces out of nowhere and claims to be his mother making him promise that he won’t ask why she had abandoned him 20 years ago. Slowly, this hard-core criminal develops love for his mother. When she disappears one day, he realizes that there are so many people who hate him and hence, might have kidnapped his mother to take revenge upon him. He visits his numerous victims in search of his mother, but all he finds is drudgery in their miserable lives owing to him. He is overtaken by grief and repentance. The woman, it turns out later, is actually the mother of one of his victims who committed suicide so that his disability to work and earn doesn't make him a burden on his mother. Not that after watching the film a criminal would instantly be transformed into a good man, but at least, he won’t pat his own back like he would after watching Faisal.

     3.     Michael Haneke’s film Benny’s video is probably the most violent film that I have watched. The nature of violence is although very different in this case. It is the violence that exists in the mind. Benny, a ‘normal’ teenager, owing to the lack of parental care and proper upbringing plaguing the developed consumerist society, has developed the punk behaviour in him. He shoots on video a pig being slaughtered at his farmhouse; he gets his head clean shaven as a mark of rebelling against his parents and the society, but when his ‘weird and bad is cool’ tendencies are not satiated, he shoots a girl, who is a stranger and has no personal grudge with him, just to see how it feels like. This violent movie is an essential movie; a movie that needs to be made to express the angst, the morbidity, the loneliness and frustration of an entire generation. The depiction shows the society a mirror and that itself redresses half the problem.     
4.     Requiem for a dream by Darren Aronofsky. A movie that would make you lose your sleep for a few days after watching it. The protagonists are taking drugs of various kinds for various reasons, and ultimately all of them meet with such horrifying repulsive fates that any drug addict, after watching this movie, is surely going to reconsider his habits. At least, someone wouldn’t want to try it out because it is made amply clear that drugs are NOT cool. They kill, and if they don’t kill, the fate is such that the addict would better be dead than suffer that way.

.    5.    Goodfellas by Martin Scorsese : Based on true events, the film is about the highs-AND-LOWs of three gangsters. The narrator Henry Hill, one of the gangsters, mentions in the beginning that how his liaison with a gangster and entry into crime earns him a lot of respect in the neighborhood. But at the end of the film, the three of them are being chased like rats by the police who are everywhere around them. They are nabbed by the police and sentenced to severe punishment and Henry Hill admits that the gangster life is not so cool after all. 

6.         A Bronx Tale by Robert De Niro : A bus driver has a hard time with     his son, who instead of following his principles of hard work and honesty,   has started idolizing and hanging out with the gangster Sonny living in         their neighbourhood. But Sonny tells the kid in the film that however harsh     it may sound, but the fact is that a gangster can not trust anyone in his life   and he has to live alert in a constant fear of being hit by the police or the 
    rival gangs. Thus, he dissuades him from hanging out with the local         newbie goons. Ultimately, Sonny is killed by a boy whose father he had   killed years ago.  

     7.      Satya by Ramgopal Verma. Script written by Anurag Kashyap. The film traces the foray of an unemployed young guy Satya into the underworld, the scuffle between two gangs, and everyone including Satya meeting their waterloo in the end at the hands of the police or one another. In the form of Satya's ladylove Vidya, the film explicitly speaks against crime, and imagines the wonderful life that could have been, only if Satya were not stuck into a quagmire which engulfs him even though he tries to come out of it. 

Well, these are the examples of only 7 out of scores of other such films with violence at the core and a criminal as the protagonist, but the film gives the audience the socially-correct positive message of staying away from crime. The second category of violent films are the ones which don't have any message, neither positive nor negative - films like Psycho, Silence of the lambs, The quick and the dead, Vengeance is mine. 

When a society is already plagued by violence filling every page of the daily newspapers, what purpose does a film like GoW serve in which violence is all the more glorified and stylized. Films like ‘Don 2’, albeit much worse, create less of a detrimental effect, because the several plot-holes in the storyline, the exotic foreign locations, the not-so-common and flimsy talks of diamonds and stuff, the unrealistic action sequences give it the feel of just being a film not to be taken too seriously.                       
But when a REALISTIC film treated very organically and reportedly based on true story portrays as the HERO a very common-looking, not-a-psychopath guy with whom everyone can easily relate and who talks in language spoken on the streets uttering profanities, this character is every other guy’s claim to heroism. When he kills, viewers cheer for him. They are fed with those fantasies to kill, be in power, earn money, smoke pot. That is why so many spectators had learnt so many dialogues from the film repeating them in front of their friends, acting like Faisal. This Faisal is much more adversary than a filmy don.

    Some people remark that it's just a film, watch it like a film. In that case, Honey Singh's highly cheap songs are also just songs, listen to them like songs. GoW shows violence, Honey Singh's songs are utterly misogynistic showing little respect for women treating them like commodities (Char bottal vodka - kisi ki bandi koi bhi le le....the infamous Balatkaari song etc etc) and looking at the general scene in the society these days, these songs are actually making a huge negative impact, Irreversible shows rape, then there would be a film which has casteist and communal remarks as jokes, which shows child abuse in the form of entertainment and so on and so forth... is this supposed to be entertainment? When a person can be prosecuted for misuse of the freedom of speech, then just because it's an artistic medium, should a film be given all this liberty which is misused to depict anything in any manner in the name of art? 

The formula : GoW is a film made with an intelligent formula. Kashyap understood that -
  • People want to see violence, because watching violence easily produces a thrill.  
  • Watching a character chasing another in a life-and-death chase shoots up the adrenaline and is more likely to hold the attention of the audience than watching two characters talking in a room. 
  • The people have had enough of the clichéd Mumbai underworld gangster and hence there must be newness to the characters. 
  • Death of a character serves as a major twist in the storyline. So, he established characters of two gangs and kept killing them one by one from both the sides. 
  • People relish the sound of abuses, profanities and words with sexual allusions. But the setting of the film must be such a place where these abuses are the order of the day and hence, could be used as a demand of the realistic, bold, serious, artistic film. One such setting was found in Rajasthan thus leading to ‘Gulal’, and then ‘Wasseypur’ became the location for the next bloody grisly saga with revenge as the central conflict. 
     This power-packed formula combined with a skilled talented crew like Rajeev Ravi as cinematographer turned the film into an entertaining hit. Of course, I admire Anurag Kashyap’s creativity, but with all that creativity put into it, isn’t GoW essentially a commercial film at the end of the day?

Rohit Shetty has his own formulas making him a superhit with the masses time and again, which again requires a lot of creativity. So, why is Rohit Shetty being termed as a commercial film-maker and Kashyap as an art film-maker? 

         In fact, Anurag himself proclaims to be an art film-maker. At a point of time, he criticized Karan Johar for making nonsense, commercial films when 'Kuchh Kuchh hota hai' clinched the filmfare award that year instead of 'Satya'. The critics call him the hope of new-age filmmaking. What is so artistic about GoW? Isn’t it another formula film? Is merely being unconventional,     so-called realistic treatment, the lighting, color palettes, different style of editing cuts enough to get a film the label of art? How about the content? 

         GoW is like the poems that high-school boys write in which all the cuss words, and words with sexual allusions are neatly arranged into rhymes with a lot of metaphors, similes and alliterations, and thus become a favourite with all the other (only) boys. Naturally, the rhymes, the vocabulary and the elements of poetry used in these poems require a lot of creativity but calling these poems a work of art would not be justifiable. The content has to matter, however good the craft might be.

       A similar example is the filmmaker Quentin Tarantino who, according to me, is so totally over-hyped. 'Kill Bill' shows Uma Thurman in the role of a woman who has to take revenge on her five enemies. The storyline is clear from the starting; there is nothing for the audience even to predict. The only thing in the film is how she kills her enemies in different style employing guns, martial arts and craftiness.  

As a film-maker or an audience, I would prefer an unrealistic ‘Kuchh kuchh hota hai’ or a ‘Kareeb’ with all the plot-holes and overacting over a film like ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ or ‘Kill Bill’. Both the former films are original, and after emerging out of the theatre, you don't feel like shooting a gun, smashing someone or smoking pot in the one-hour hangover after watching the movie. Instead, there is a mild, warm feeling of love in the hearts of viewers. 

The impact of cinema and the importance of censorship : 
         Yes, every film need not have a message with it. Agreed. 

      But none of the films having any message these days whereas most of them, on the contrary, glorifying violence and other vices like flirting is a very disturbing equation. If you can't give any positive message, at least don't spread a wrong message. Considering the huge impact that films tend to have on the psyche of the people, the inherent ethical responsibility of a film-maker to be mindful of the implications of his moving images can not and must not be ignored. 

      Quoting from the 'Central Board of film Certification' (CBFC) as to why censorship is necessary - 

“Film censorship becomes necessary because a film motivates thought and  action and assures a high degree of attention and retention as compared to the printed word. The combination of act and speech, sight and sound in semi darkness of the theatre with elimination of all distracting ideas will have a strong impact on the minds of the viewers and can affect emotions. Therefore, it has as much potential for evil as it has for good  and has an equal potential to instill or cultivate violent or good behaviour. It cannot be equated with other modes of communication. Censorship by prior restraint is, therefore, not only desirable but also necessary''. 

     Hence, it is one of the stated objectives of CBFC that the medium of film remains responsible and sensitive to the values and standards of society ensuring that artistic expression and creative freedom are not unduly curbed. 

In the pursuance of this objective, two of the several stated guidelines for censorship are :
   i)   anti social activities such as violence are not glorified or justified; 
   ii)  scenes showing sexual perversions shall be avoided. 

          These days, heroes (fit enough to be called hero???) in films like R...Rajkumar speak such foul, perverse language and do indecent acts even in the poster to impress the heroine and she gets impressed. Rowdy Rathore is an ode about a corrupt and misogynistic policeman. GoW, Don2 and innumerous movies like this glorify and stylize violence and get away with it. Because these days, all the CBFC seems to be obsessed with is finding out scenes which show any sexual organs or sexual acts and make cuts on that. What the film is projecting seems to be neither the filmmakers' nor CBFC's concern. It is unfortunate that while such films are finding place in the cinema halls thus deteriorating the mass consciousness, films like 'Water' face so much protest. 

The importance, use and misuse of the Freedom of expression :
Convict        - Film-maker Jafar Panahi 
Sentence     - Six years imprisonment and a 20-year ban on making or directing any movies, writing screenplays, giving any form of interview with Iranian or foreign media as well as leaving the country except for Hajj holy pilgrimage to Mecca or medical treatment
Charges   -  "assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic"
Reason       - He made a meaningful and intense film like 'Offside' protesting against the State's oppression against women. The film is about some female football fans who are kept offside and not allowed to watch a World cup football match. They are arrested by the police when they try to barge into the stadium in the disguise of boys. 
          As the legend goes, three of Panahi's films - the short film 'The wounded heads', 'The Circle' and 'Crimson Gold' had already been banned in Iran, and he was at the bull's eye of the State. That's why, for making 'Offside', he submitted a false script to the authorities, did shooting of the film in secret, sometimes in live situations with a hidden camera on a very low budget of approx. 2.5-3 lakh rupees. His documentary "This is not a film" made by him while being in house arrest, was smuggled out of Iran in a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake, and had a premier at Cannes much to the surprise of everyone, and later at New York and Warsaw film festivals.     

          So to say, the tyrannical State doesn't allow him to make films. Still, he endures and finds some or the other way to make films risking an artistic death or even literally being killed by the fundamentalists. Freedom of expression is valuable. Even in India, CBFC, High Court had banned so many meaningful art films only some of which got released later, like Garam Hawa, Aandhi, Black Friday, Fire, Amu, Kamasutra : A tale of love, The Pink mirror, Rang Rasiya. These days, film-makers don't realize that this freedom of expression is a hard-earned asset. They take it for granted and misuse it time and again.

On the practical adage of "Commerce rules the world":

Shahrukh will dole out crap like RaOne, Don2, RaOne2, Don3, RaOne3, Don4, Chennai Express, Kerala Express, as he candidly admits that he loves money. Ajay Devgan has also taken up advice from him and giving him hard competition with 'Rascals' and 'Himmatwala'. It's no use talking about Salman because given his poor hand at acting, he doesn't have a choice and that's all that he can do. Smart, perfectionist Aamir Khan will work in very-low-on-creativity and high-on-copying idiotic films like 'Dhoom3' to compete with SRK and beat his box-office records. Amitabh will also sell Maggi, Navaratna oil and endorse jewellers. Let them do that. They have well crossed the age in which someone can take criticism positively and change onself. Moreover, the makers of Bodyguard, Wanted, Rowdy Rathore, R....Rajkumar are faced with a basic problem - dearth of creativity. They are forced to spin the same tale over and over again, because they can do no better.

        If someone feels that a meaningful film can’t be entertaining and only no-brainer commercials with oodles of sex and violence can appease the audience, he needs to reconsider his opinion and watch ‘Munna Bhai MBBS’, ‘Lage Raho Munna Bhai’, ‘Oye Lucky Lucky Oye’, ‘Jab we met’, ‘DevD’, ‘Taare Zameen par’, an out-and-out comedy like ‘Bheja Fry’, ‘Hera Pheri’, ‘Chak De India’,‘3 idiots’, ‘Chandraval’, ‘Anand’, ‘Mughal-e-Azam’, ‘Amelie’, ‘Life is beautiful’, a romantic comedy like ‘Priceless’, ‘The songs of sparrow’, ‘American Beauty’, ‘Dead Poets’ Society’, ‘Titanic’, ‘2012’, ‘A tale of two sisters’, ‘Kikujiro’, ‘Hero’, ‘In the mood for love’, ‘3-iron’, ‘Viva cuba’, ‘Nobody’s perfect’, ‘All about my mother’. But as I said, making these kind of good films requires a lot of hard work, dedication and creativity. 

         And Kashyap does have an inherent creative side to him, which was seen in DevD. Also, he has a rarely explored emotional side to him, which left a hint of itself in 'That girl with yellow boots'. Hence, it is with him that I find a problem on making such an 'incorrect' film like GoW. He must forget the difficulties he faced after making ‘Black Friday’ - the initial ban on the film and the low box-office collections on its release, and utilize his creativity into making some films, which not only entertain the audience but leaves them with a RIGHT conclusion to muse over or with no message at all. But if he wants to make money with formula films, he should leave the garb of being the art film-maker, and thus stop impressing upon people that this is art.

      The final word

        The problem is not depiction of violence. In fact, there must be more films which bring out the violence being suffered by several sections of the society in various forms. The question is as to how the violence is being depicted in the film and for what purpose.