By Prakash Kona
I suffer from a profound distaste for the rich-boy meets poor-girl movies, not because I don’t believe in love across the class divide. It’s just that these movies disguise the system of exploitation behind the bourgeois sentimentality where men declare their undying passion for the woman and the women thoughtlessly surrender their individuality to the men, convinced that their girlhood fantasy of the man of their dreams has finally come true. Haven’t seen that happen in fifty-five years.
I did not like the Richard Gere movie from 1990, Pretty Woman for that very reason. If that was bad enough, I cultivated a dedicated contempt for the movie Titanic (1997). There must’ve been at least a few thousand Indian movies made along similar lines. Titanic is only a sophisticated version of any one of them. For someone with James Cameron’s extraordinary gifts as a filmmaker, I always felt it a shame that he made so many average movies and a couple of great ones such as The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). I’m yet to form a clear opinion on the movie Avatar (2009) though more or less I know where I stand.
As a rule, I don’t like movies that celebrate indigenous traditions as a response to western advances in science and technology. First, science and technology is humankind’s response to the vagaries of nature. We need traditions for people to have a sense of belonging and caring for one another. But that is never a response or a replacement for scientific progress. I remember liking The Emerald Forest (1985), which I saw as an undergraduate, a lot more than Avatar (2009) which Cameron acknowledged as having thematic similarities.
My opposition to movies like Avatar is for the kind of a message that they convey to the audience. It is unimaginable greed combined with cold-blooded reasoning along with the use of modern technology that made the colonization of both the Americas possible. If the Avatar series is an apology for the systematic genocide of indigenous peoples, it is slightly unfair to ask those very people to continue with their natural ways of doing things because they seem so idyllic on screen. I don’t think that The Tree of Life is an answer to modern weaponry. The Tree of Life did not save the lives of countless indigenous people who were slaughtered by European marauders. The original inhabitants of the land were unprepared for the disease and the weapons that made the occupation possible. Should we be telling Palestinians in the Occupied Territories that they don’t need to fight Israelis and instead wait for nature to take care of them? Or the Pakistanis who were victims of some of the worst floods ever? Nature, evidently, was a part of the disaster and not a solution.
I am one of those people who strongly believes that we need to protect and preserve nature in all forms, whether as environment or as people, because we need to ensure our own survival as a species. I, however, do not think that nature takes sides in any conflict or is really interested in human beings. The last thing that the powerful are worried about is natural intervention of any sort. At the risk of sounding clichéd, it needs to be pointed out that we need modern thinking, modern attitudes and modern ways of coming together, while retaining those elements from the past that kept people together in spite of differences.
Where a real knowledge of the past is missing, it is impossible for us to enter the future. That’s the whole point in not allowing pseudo-histories to take the place of real histories that are written by individuals who have a sense of the importance of how the past needs to be retold. Perspectives might change and new research always has something to add or remove from how we look at the past; what however cannot happen, even from the point of view of General Theory of Relativity, is time travel in order to alter the past through a certain kind of a reading that insists on redressing the wrongs that happened long before you were born.
However, thanks largely to cinema and the entertainment industry, pseudo-histories are becoming extremely important and are being taken more seriously than real histories. The invention of pseudo-history evinces a popular desperation to seek an alternative to the knowledge of real history. There are two facets to it: pseudo-histories help in disguising the unpleasant parts about the past such as a painful defeat in a battle; another is the promotion of the idea that there are other histories much more real or at least as real as the ones taught at school.
Pseudo-histories rely heavily on nostalgia for a past that never existed except as a golden age where things remained the way they were untouched by either chance or choice. “Golden age syndrome” is a disease of the body and the mind; victims of this disease tend to believe in a world when everything was perfect and that whatever they’re witnessing in the present is but a fall from perfection, which, interestingly, could be restored here and now, provided we support a political party or an ideology that promises to take us back to a world where no disagreements or conflicts exist and a state of harmony prevails because all are similar to one another. The takeaway from any serious study of history ought to be that disagreements and conflicts do not have to lead to lasting hatreds and rivalries.
Needless to say, a conflict-free world is nothing but false nostalgia for a time when feudalism existed in its ugliest manifestations with the powerful trampling on the rights of the powerless; before personal hygiene and modern medicine could save the lives of millions; before women had access to sanitary pads; where birthing for a woman more often than not meant a close shave with death; where there was no notion of an individual having a choice; where wars were a part of the day to day reality of social life; this is the golden age syndrome that served as the lifeline to fascism and every other criminal enterprise involved in brainwashing masses into supporting duplicitous agendas.
If the Harry Potter film series (2001-2011), The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), The Chronicles of Narnia (2005-2010) and the Avatar series (2009-2028) are bad enough, their postcolonial imitators in South Asia, Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (2017), Ponniyin Selvan: I (2022) and The Legend of Maula Jatt (2022) are worse, because they make it look like there was a rich, thriving world in the precolonial past. Unless you consciously view these movies as stupid entertainment, you might be submitting to a dangerous kind of reactionary politics with your sense of the past trapped in daydreams. I did not see the movie RRR (2022) which apparently did well in Japan. To be honest I expected a little more from the Japanese who can boast of a rich movie tradition and some of the greatest filmmakers ever. I was thoroughly disappointed, let me add.
From the movie RRR, I saw the scene of a kid being saved by the two main characters on YouTube. This is a country where kids get a raw deal both at home and school, not to mention on the streets and everywhere else, especially if they happen to be poor and weak, or even if they happen to come from the middle classes. I am supposed to believe that two strangers would risk their lives to save a child. Get real, boss! If I am genuinely disgusted with such scenes of helpless children being saved by so-called heroes, what is more disgusting is the kind of public approval that is given to this kind of bullshit.
Instead of the fake heroism of one or two characters acting as their saviors, the masses should be educated to take pride in who they are and what they want to be; nothing can replace the dignity that one accords oneself. To grovel shamelessly before authority in the hope that some fantastic hero will come out of the imaginary past and save the masses is sheer nonsense. Politicians, demagogues and military generals need this kind of hogwash in order to make themselves relevant, while what they do is serve their own interests at the expense of the people.
The numbing of the mind is what we see happening to the poor. The numbing of the heart and the mind leading to psychopathology is what we see with the middle classes, whose prejudices display a lack of empathy that is bound to boomerang in their personal lives. In countries like India it is the educated who, for their petty security, are more than happy to toe the lie of power. It is not difficult to figure out that it is people like these who surrendered India to the British for their own petty gains. And if any other nation should take over, they will not hesitate to do the same. A person who is used to worshipping power will not hesitate to betray his or her own people in all circumstances.
Change is made by individuals with infinite patience and care and with a vision directed towards the future. Such a vision needs unconditional faith in the masses and a commitment to change the world even if it means that they are not going to ever be a part of that world. Noam Chomsky is a living example of that kind of a faith and unflinching commitment to the masses. When asked by Dr. Abdul Jalil (Pakistan Institute of Development Economics) on what motivated him, Chomsky responded: “the question that should be asked is, “why doesn’t everybody do this?” Such an obvious thing to do. Suppose you see a poor child starving in the streets, do you have to ask, why do you want to help him?”
That’s how it has been through most of history, that we see exploitation and injustice and we look the other way or pretend that it is not happening where we live. I don’t believe in absolute truth; but there are relative truths and they are not completely relative either. They have a social and political context to them. A truthful understanding of the past, however relative, brings us closer to the struggles and aspirations of the common masses. The kind of sensationalism that audiences are subjected to through movies, with pseudo-histories peddled as real histories, is just another way of distracting them from their real condition.