Friday, September 30, 2011

Violence - between Catharsis and Solution

I often wonder how I ever started watching Indian movies (particularly from the South) where people get killed every 5 minutes in the most gruesome ways. I am fairly certain that part of my problem with Hollywood movies at a point was that there is too much violence in them, so how did I end up here?

More importantly, how do I reconcile my moral compass and its respect for life with revenge sagas like Dookudu, Munna, Kaakha Kaakha and Anwar, all movies that I quite enjoyed? (And yes, this post is a result of having just seen the Telugu film Dookudu in the theatres, a movie about a police officer who takes revenge on the people who offed his father, and reading that it's on its way to become a superhit.)

The first question is actually easier to answer. I still find the violence in American movies way too realistic to tolerate, and in fact, I still cover my eyes through the more gruesome parts of Indian films as well. It helps that most of the time it's more about the rowdies flying like frisbees than it is about chopping off their legs with machetes, so I suppose if I could watch Tom and Jerry inflict pain on each other when I was a kid (well, usually just Jerry on Tom but you get the idea), this is the somewhat grown-up version of it. Besides, most of the times I watch it for the choreography and the creativity of the fights rather than for the actual end result. It never ceases to amaze me how many objects can be broken with one rowdy and how artfully two people can tangle in midair.

And even though I still have an undying love for a good reverse roundhouse kick, I have developed a soft spot for all kinds of flying kicks too, some more realistic than others.

Lately however, what with guns and water taps becoming more popular, the good old kick in the neck followed by a bloodless knock-out seems to have been replaced by buckets of fake red dye and impalings. And this is where I think my old lack of tolerance for violence will make a comeback.

But that's only part of what I wanted to talk about.

Because once we get past the visuals, we come to the more thorny issue of morals. And morally ambiguous films. You know, the ones where the hero just "gets them all" in the end. Not to say that only the South does it, because that's certainly not true, Ghajini, Shor in the City and A Wednesday being stellar examples of Bollywood films that seem to condone killing off all the bad guys. And not to say that Hollywood doesn't do it, though for the most part they tend to sugar-coat it as superhero movies, historicals, war movies and all kinds of scenarios far enough removed from the immediate reality that they do away with our moral compass by sheer virtue of displacement. Certainly something worth talking about as well (why the moral compass doesn't apply there), but perhaps by someone more qualified in the field of American movies than me.

I think one way or another every film industry does it because, let's face it, it satisfies a basic human need that wants to see all evil disappear even if it's only for 10 minutes after the climax of a movie. Revenge sagas are a lot like spicy food to me. Spicy food (specifically hot chillies) apparently activates the pain receptors in the mouth and throat which triggers the brain to pump your heart faster and also to release endorphins. But at the same time, you know that it cannot harm you, so what you're really getting is free endorphins. Revenge sagas seem to work in much the same way: you get the endorphins associated with the bad guys getting offed, but none of the guilt or pain associated with it if it were for real. It doesn't stop you from feeling compassion in real life just like spicy food doesn't stop you from feeling pain, but it definitely helps you feel good for the moment.

I would imagine in a country where terrorism and corruption are every-day news, that need for catharsis is exacerbated, which would explain why there is virtually no need to sugar-coat anything and the hero can even be a cop and still get away with killing off all the villains. But is there no limit to how many people a hero can kill off before anyone wonders: what if they're not all bad? Sure, a film like Dookudu makes a pretty solid case for eliminating them, and besides you get to really admire the creative ways in which the villains are done away with, but is Mahesh being badass reason enough to not even wonder: what was this guy's side of the story?

Malayalam movie Anwar gets particularly puzzling on the topic because the bloody (and gorgeously shot) finale is preceded by some discussions in the beginning of the movie about precisely that: should all terrorists or suspected terrorists be trialed and sentenced to death based on word of mouth or ethnicity? Which in the end begs the question: if the rest of the world is not fit to judge them, why is the hero? Just because he's been wronged? Now don't get me wrong, I did appreciate the angle of not pitching different religions against each other, for a change, but nonetheless, does that make anything right?

Sometimes I think my brain has trained itself, and perhaps this is also the case with Indian audiences, to view this as a game of sorts, to the point where it doesn't actually have anything to do with what I find acceptable in real life and what I don't. After all, I don't find fist-fighting acceptable in real life either, and yet here I am cheering for all these guys to kick ass, right? Similarly, while I would always be in favour of a fair trial for anyone, it doesn't create much of a cognitive dissonance to see the chief villain getting beaten to a pulp and then hung by some loose pipe or hook. It still bugs me on some level, but I can still enjoy the movie just fine. But is it really only that?

I'll tell you a quick story from my motherland. There was a ruler once, some 500 years ago, who would give an awfully painful death to anyone who sinned against society: thieves, liars, criminals, etc. He also had many battles to his name and even some brilliant political moves, but I bet people would be hard pressed to name them. However, everyone remembers him for the fact that he cleaned the country of its bad elements. Nowadays when the country is about as corrupt as India and hopeless for a recovery, his name gets mentioned a lot in association with the only possible solution to the corruption plague: kill'em all!...

I used to only think of revenge plots and kill-them-all climaxes as catharsis, but with the inclusion of state powers more and more lately, I am slowly starting to see another explanation. If catharsis was the only goal, then the hero could just be a likable pokiri (no pun intended), standing on the side of good and triumphing against evil. But with the hero being in the force (police, military, what have you) or being helped by someone in the force, it becomes much more than the "side of good", now it's also the "side of just". Not only justice for the hero, but for all of society. It's a small shift, but I think it changes a lot in the perception of those watching. You see, it's not just the lonely hero getting revenge for the death of his lover, now he's also the hand of justice, purging out the bad elements in society. It's no longer just a personal battle, it becomes symbolic of everyone's battle against terror, corruption and evil-doers, because the law is on the hero's side.

Which makes me wonder, if we think of artists as a mirror of their times, as well as the instruments for change in an era, how much of this is intentional? Are film makers really trying to suggest this type of no-trial justice is what should be happening? I don't dare think so, but it does make me wonder. Certainly audiences are becoming more and more interested in this type of plot, fact proved by the fact that just today we have another "cop out for revenge" movie coming out: Force.

Maybe it's not only catharsis after all, maybe there's more to it than just seeing the hero being badass...

As it turns out, my moral issues with these films are rather shallow, because this is about much more than an ethical question about whether or not the police should protect people or kill them. Not only does the kill-em-all plot fulfil a need to see justice triumph, it also, in a very twisted way, gives one hope that this can happen *with* the help of the law.

I think I am going to feel a whole lot better about Pokiri the next time I watch it.


Leaf said...

I've been thinking about since I read this post yesterday and I think my catharsis has a lot to do with the sanitized world I live in.

I am someone who is annoyed by Hollywood's loud, bloodless, victim-less explosions and torture porn like Hostel. I can appreciate the choreography in the masala fight sequences, but I mostly fast forward through them unless they are especially good or ridiculous like the shark in Chatrapathi.

The violence that feels truly cathartic to me is the sort in British gangster films and (to a lesser extent) Tamil gangster films. The deaths and rapes and torture tend to happen to people we recognize as individuals. It doesn't feel thoughtless and I'm usually scrunched into a ball for most of the film from all the violence. But at the end of it, I can look around and be relieved that I don't live in that world.

I've wondered why I get so much catharsis from it, and oddly enough, I think it has to do with the fact that I've been reading the newspaper since I was 6. Victims of violent crimes and genocide always come across as numbers and I'm left feeling sad that I cannot mourn them properly because I didn't know who they were and how much they suffered.

Violent films give me a world into that, and in my ridiculous head, I think of mourning for the characters as mourning for the real people I do not know.

This might or might not make sense and it might be my trying to explain away why I don't struggle with violence in film, and if I were to make a film, violence would certainly be involved.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dolce
I see the justice/law issue a bit differently. I think many of these films (Athadu, Pokiri, Tagore, even Kanthaswamy etc) depict a setting where even the police cannot rely on the legal system to deliver justice, so a 'good' policeman may have to work outside the law. The vigilante hero is more of a remedy for a system that doesn't work than a sign of the system responding to the need of the people. There do seem to be clear rules (in the films) that an acknowledged 'good' person may kill a bad person and that is a good result that needs no further investigation.
I find the violence in Telugu films generally to be so unrealistic looking and over the top that it doesn't make me flinch at all and I really like their commitment to the comeuppance. I find that appealing - a fictional world where the bad guys don't often get away scot free. And sometimes they even have a positive social message in amongst all the carnage.
But it is clearly a fantasy or entertainment and that's why I can enjoy it and go along for the cathartic rollercoaster ride. I avoid watching news footage of disasters or accidents as I cannot stomach seeing the real life damage and pain.


Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Leaf, that's an interesting point of view, I would have imagined these movies get made more for the people who *do* experience these things as part of their every day life rather than for the ones who don't, but you just argued the opposite quite sensibly, so maybe it's both. From the point of view of catharsis, it's hard to say which group would feel more rewarded at the end of it.

I also don't think it's ridiculous to feel that these films give a face to the numbers, and in fact I am almost certain that is one of their goals, even with American movies, the problem with Hollywood however is that they can't seem to do this without propaganda, which usually makes me roll my eyes, so there goes all that emotion. That's probably why British and Tamil films hit harder, because there's no political agenda tied to them (or it's not always the same one anyway).

I think for me though, the squirming part comes from the fact that I do know these things happen, but there's no relief at the end of it all because I know that the filmi endings with all the bad guys dying don't happen in real life. So in a way for me the filmi endings make it worse. That's probably why I just block it all out, cover my eyes through the really rough violence and just treat it as a cartoon in the end when everyone gets killed off. But I can't say it doesn't still bug me on certain levels, which is why I'm always left wondering why the film makers chose this route... That said, I love seeing everyone's points of view on why it doesn't bother them, so thank you for sharing yours!

And by the way, would love to see your movie if you ever make one! ;) Even if violence is a big part of it. :)

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Temple, yes, you are definitely on to something there about the system not working, and that's kind of what I was trying to get at too. When the film proposes this type of vigilante as the hero in a system that doesn't work, it makes you wonder if everyone enjoying it is behind this type of film because they recognize a fact of life.

And you are certainly right about a world where the bad guys don't get to walk away, though I still feel that that's a little bit too black and white for my taste. However, as I was telling Leaf above, I can never quite rejoice as much as others because I know that these "happy" endings don't actually happen and a world where all the villains get offed doesn't actually exist. Granted, I don't watch movies to satisfy my cravings for reality, because then I'd just be watching the news, but I also can't help but put them in some sort of real world context. Not that it's not satisfying to see Mahesh kick ass in a movie (though I would argue with you on that count: the violence has in my opinion gotten a whole lot rougher and a whole lot more graphic, so it's not the cartoon stuff I was used to before and tolerated just fine). But it's also food for thought why that character is even needed to begin with.

Thank you for offering your (almost opposite) points of view, guys, it's interesting to see what goes on in everyone's head when they watch (and enjoy) the same kind of movie.

dustdevil liz said...

Great post, I've been meaning to reply, so here goes:
I definitely agree with the catharsis aspect, and I've thought that the reason I don't mind the violence in Telugu (and to an extent Tamil-Malayalam-Kannada) films is that when an innocent person is killed I know that within the story they will be a)mourned and b)avenged. Two good examples of this are Oosaravelli (which I saw today, and loved) and Athannokade (and it's Tamil remake Aathi), in which lots of nice, innocent people, including kids, are killed in some particularly horrible ways by the bad guys. So the protagonist's obsession with revenge and violence totally made sense, and I was generally fine with all of the violence that happened.

On the flip side, I've seen two movies lately where the evildoing of the bad guys didn't quite seem to warrant the excess of the hero's revenge. In the Hindi Singham, the last action scene is really drawn out, and the lead cop really strings along the bad guy before offing him, vs. in the Tamil version, where the final battle/death is more of a necessity in the task of rescuing the kidnapped girl. Same thing with Dookudu, I didn't really like that Mahesh's character made his victims helpless, and then sort of teased them before pulling the plug/shooting the arrow/etc.

I also feel differently about the "loner seeking vengeance" than the "cops meting out justice." I feel like I'm seeing more movies where the cop heroes engineer encounter killings (like in Hindi Singham), and it makes me uneasy.

Dolce and Namak said...

Yes, Liz, that's exactly what I was getting at too: the abundance of cop heroes lately. And the increased amount of cruelty (though that last one may be the result of better make-up and special effects techniques).

Since I just rewatched Raavanan, I do feel that in this aspect that one got it right with the ending and how we feel about the good guys and the bad guys. But that seems to be an exception these days.

It's an interesting progress to watch, curious if I will ever have a clear cut answer on why we are seeing so much of this. Sirish was tweeting something the other day that was brilliantly put, he said something about how people think Telugu dishoom movies are all about the OTT action, but in fact they're all about the rawness. Maybe this is an extension of that rawness they're aiming for...

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