4 days ago
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Whatever Happened to the Human Hero?
Good versus evil movies seem to be the in thing right now (not that that's new, but more so than ever it seems), but lately, unless you're a hero with superpowers, you'd better sit down, because you've just been schooled. I'm thinking in particular about two recent releases both advertised as full-on masala: Hindi movie RaOne (a sci-fi story about a game designer who creates a villain so evil he escapes the game and comes to wreak havoc in real life) and Tamil movie 7Aam Arivu (about an ancient healer and warrior whose lineage still carries enough of his DNA structure to make his resurrection possible). Both of these movies rely heavily on visual effects, CGI, and stunts, but the most important factor that unites them is that the heroes and the villains are not just your average humans, they have superpowers.
I came across a tweet from Allu Sirish (this random guy that I like to follow, from this random family who runs some random film company in Andhra Pradesh) that I will discuss for a little bit because I think it nails a very important point. I've taken the liberty to fill in the blanks on words that were shortened so here's the full version: Lots of Bollywood directors think that the "South formula" is over the top action, but they don't get it: it's the rawness. "Force" gets it right. I haven't seen Force, so that part of the tweet didn't matter to me, but I had an eureka moment reading the rest of it because I had been trying to explain this very simple concept myself for so long and could never find the right word: rawness.
I think it's a little like when people mock old school Bollywood by saying "Oh, do they still dance around trees?" and you're fuming inside because you know there's a whole layer of symbolism that they are dismissing with that sentence just because they don't get why the singing and dancing are a perfectly valid form of expression. (Funny how some of the same people go to the Opera and don't snicker: "Do they still trill all their lines?" But I digress.).
South Indian hero movies are something along the same lines: you just have to understand that it's not about the special effects, it's about communicating that rawness that Sirish talks about in a way that makes sense visually. And over the years the consensus has been that the best way to do that is to have the hero punch the rowdies across 20 feet of empty yard and into a house wall. Or a variation of that anyway. With that came a whole repertoire of gestures, phrases and stances that make up the vocabulary of a hero, so you see neck cracking, finger pointing, shouting, knuckle popping, and the ominous fist clenching, which always spells trouble for the rowdies. It's not hard to understand this vocabulary, in fact a 5 year old could get it, which is probably why their parents take them to see even the bloodiest movies in theatres, but you do have to have some minimal understanding for why it even exists. If not, you'll have a really hard time digesting any kind of masala, particularly the South Indian variety.
But now here's the problem with this: just because people have learned to suspend their disbelief and pretend to accept that you can in fact punch someone and they will fly into that pile of wood across the street, it doesn't mean they have to accept that anything is possible. All that power that is communicated through these stunts is nothing but a metaphor for the inner strength of the hero (or for the evilness of the villain). It will not, however, allow them to fly, change bodies or otherwise become a part of the X-Men. The hero still has to defeat evil in a one-on-one fight.
And I don't mean this kind of one-on-one:
This is exactly what newer movies, with the advent of VFX, seem to have forgotten. If anything, visual effects work against this basic concept of rawness because they deny the hero the opportunity to display his strength. The moment superpowers come in, the hero loses his humanity, and thus becomes alienated from me and you, which greatly diminishes his appeal (despite the rocking abs, sorry Surya, still love you though!).
Back to the movies I was talking about in the beginning, 7 Aam Arivu features a villain and a sometimes a hero who can hypnotise anyone into doing anything. As a consequence, much of the confrontational scenes see them standing 10 metres away from each other and using this neat little superpower to attack and/or escape. It's fun to watch, sure, but I am disconnected from it as the viewer because I simply cannot make that leap of faith, it's too big for me. All of a sudden, it's not just going from a realistic punch that knocks someone out, to a super-punch that also flies them in the air before knocking them out. Now I have to buy this whole new set of rules and why should I buy them when I have not been given a single articulate reason by the script?
Similarly in Ra.One, the battle is between a robot and a villain whose entire existence is based on artificial intelligence (and some mumbo jumbo they included in the script at the beginning of the movie to make it sound like it could somehow make sense). They mostly fight by throwing fireballs at each other and by exploding cars and trains around them. Again, with great "help" from an idiotic script that bored me to tears, there is no connection to be made with either of these characters. Ok, except for wanting to take Arjun Rampal home after seeing his yummy look as RaOne.
Not that I have anything against progress or the use of visual effects and technology to enrich the look of a movie, by all means, go all out. I do however have a problem with it when it kills the soul of the film, and it's becoming harder and harder to draw that line. Where does the CGI stop and where does the hero begin? In Ra.One I can safely say I did not even catch a glimpse of the hero, so that's an easy one. For the same reason its predecessor, Endhiran, did not appeal to me either. In 7aam Arivu you do get occasional good moments mostly because the hero is not superhuman until very late in the film, so that helps a lot. It's a shame that the script lets it down because 7aam Arivu did have good potential. It manages to slip under the door of entertaining, but just barely.
Now I know it really sounds like I am complaining against all that's new and shiny in Indian movies (though for everyone who has read this blog before it would be a well-known fact that I am not in the habit of doing that), but my bone of contention is strictly with the irresponsible usage of this new and shiny stuff. Give me a movie that has the hero and the villain fight it out in a battle of musical instruments (ask me if you don't know where that's from, it's a sure sign that you missed out on an awesome movie) and use all the special effects you want. And by all means, do have people fighting on top of trains! But if all they can do is throw cars at each other until one of them runs out of fuel... no thanks.
Until the day Bollywood (and its regional counterparts) learns that visual effects are a means to an end, not the end itself, I think I am off any sci-fi coming out of India. And the funny part is, I am pretty sure G.One himself says in the film that superheroes are made from the heart, it's not the hardware that matters but rather the humanity. Pity the movie did not practice what it preached. If only it had borrowed some of the philosophy behind Terminator 2 along with all those visuals...
PS: When they're done with that lesson, we'll move to script writing, screenplays that don't insult every adult's intelligence, and turning plot craters into gentle slopes, but for now... I am happy with baby steps.