Around seven years ago, I watched James Cameron’s Avatar with a bunch of school buddies and happily walked home, thinking about the CG grandeur and visual effects of the film. When I was discussing the film with my close friend, a visual communication student, he asked me.
‘Did you get the concealed theme of the movie’?
I stared at him for a second and asked.
‘What? Do you mean the ritual practice scene, afterlife and the spirit transfer concepts that resonated with Hinduism and Tibetan beliefs?’.
My friend: ‘Well it's good that you noticed it but more than that it talks about….’
He went on and on for hours about the underlying themes on Avatar that he had noticed such as militarism, capitalism, conservatism, Imperialism, environmental preservation, the importance of one’s roots, cultural beliefs and lots. I was flabbergasted, to the say the least. It was absorbing to hear him and comprehend the themes he had explained me about. It was confounding to know how a CG-loaded, sci-fi film can speak volumes about appealing societal issues even though it catered the same platter to a fellow like me, a regular movie goer and my friend who is a critic, art student and more than all a socially conscious person than myself. I kept on thinking how I missed or failed to see these elements in the film. The more I thought about it, I understood, it’s not that I’ve failed to notice these themes in the movie but I neither had the fundamental understanding or concerns on some of the themes nor the communal awareness to consume them in the first place.
The more I started watching films coming across all borders, I learned how critical, important and global an art form such as a film is and how responsible and aware a filmmaker must be to put forward the same. Fast forward to 2012, Titanic was re-released in 3D format. I took the girlfriend to see it at a theater. What was supposed a to be a romantic movie date watching a classic movie with fun talks, holding hands and gulping sugar garbage turned out to be a dedicated 3-hour gyaan, focus session for me. I was utter silent during the whole runtime of the movie. I had seen Titanic for countless times in TV earlier but this time, I saw the movie in a different outlook altogether. Just around the corner of its romance and emotions tied the themes of the class divide, Marxism, inequality etc. Now, few more mainstream Hollywood movies have started carrying undercurrent themes concerning civil issues. The creators are even taking big beef from the fans on the portrayal of Black and Mexican characters in films and TV, gender stereotype in animation films, LGBT portrayal, Bechdel test, feminism, white actors playing non-white, Asian and European characters etc.
Though the number of films is less, Indian cinema is no exception in the forte of films on social issues. The recent Hansal Mehta's Aligarh on LGBT laws in India, Nagraj Manjule's Fandry about the life of a young Dalit boy and Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court on how screwed up and totalitarian a judicial case can get are the some of the best examples. In Tamil cinema, off late, we can notice some of the mainstream films that had stirred a debate or a conversation on critical communal topics. Siddharth’s Enakkul Oruvan, the mercilessly butchered remake of the famous Kannada film Lucia, was criticized for the actor’s portrayal of an uneducated theater usher with a black/ mud makeup. Vetrimaaran’s Visaaranai voiced about police brutality and human rights violation, Karthik Subbaraj’s Iraivi, well, not totally about feminism but more about women’s stand in men’s world, Manikandan’s Kakka Muttai on the problems of globalization, alienation and the role of news media, Bramma's Kuttram Kadithal on the topics of school corporal punishment and the necessity of sex education for kids and Vijay Kumar's Uriyadi on caste-based politics. After a long period, Tamil film industry is churning out some of the best films in the mainstream, on collective issues. When was the last time a mainstream Tamil film had stirred a debate? Meaningful or not, impactful or not, worthwhile or not, an art starts a conversation, a healthy one rather. Its purpose has been achieved here and its creator’s core vision of the art has surfaced the daylight of the masses. And, that’s all it matters.
I didn’t like Pa Ranjith’s debut Attakathi in the first watch but I loved how the director handled a coming-of-age, rom-com story of a roadside romeo, set in semi-urban outskirts of the city. I loved his second work, Madras. Madras spoke the Dravidian politics on the Dalit on the basis of land. In a way, Madras voiced about Dalit's plight and the politics on a higher note than Kabali. Kabali speaks oppressed Tamil people’s issue in Malaysia on the basis of their skin color, dress, and other community-based dogma. A film starring superstar Rajinikanth is being debated for its political theme and social context. The man who shied away from acting in Shankar’s Gentleman and Mudhalvan, for its cast divide and political undertones, had finally dared to act his age and do a film that speaks about an oppressed community and the political concerns surrounding them. Yes, Kabali is bit of a weak film. It has its own flaws, pitfalls in the execution and it could’ve been definitely better but without a doubt, Kabali has arrived with a bang and Pa Ranjith’s deed is done.
The central theme of Oscar-winning film, The Revenant, directed by my most favorite director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s is a man’s quest for survival in the wilderness but it evokes lots of connotations on wildlife poaching, capitalism, colonization, magical realism, westerner’s injustice to the native folks of the land and some leitmotifs that one can notice in Iñárritu’s works such as death, loss, survival, human suffering etc. In the movie, there is a conversation between Hugh Glass (Leonardo Dicaprio) and his mixed-race son Hawk.
Hugh Glass: I told you to be invisible, son!
Hawk: At least he...
Hugh Glass: If you want to survive, keep your mouth shut!
Hawk: At least he heard me.
Hugh Glass: They don't hear your voice! They just see the color of your face. You understand? You understand?
In his Oscar speech for winning the Best Direction for The Revenant, Iñárritu said “So what a great opportunity to our generation to really liberate ourselves from all prejudice and, you know, this tribal thinking, and make sure for once and forever that the color of the skin become as irrelevant as the length of our hair.”
In every art form, symbolism, motifs, creator’s motives, nuanced themes can be noticed, reviewed, spoken about by critically analyzing and dissecting them into every granular bit. Films are no different. The need for assimilating an art is not a requirement to enjoy it but one can try assimilating it at least to hate less, No? I see so many vicious posts online thrashing Pa Ranjith and Kabali. Tear down a creator for his work of art but not for his personal moral, ideologies and political stand.
With Kabali, Pa Ranjith has donned a prestigious suit and suited himself in a majestic chair, amidst some of the important, socially responsible filmmakers from Tamilnadu. Let’s respect and welcome Pa Ranjith with open arms and that’s exactly the same thing he envisions to happen for the very people he speaks about in his films.