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.


Anonymous said...

Aaah, I love this post Dolce. :-) Arjun was yummy though wasn't he? I think that having him take on the image of a male model from a perfume ad was the one instance of smart, self-aware humour in the movie.

Now, if only they could have had a better balance between the screen time devoted to his biceps and the time that featured booty-popping models in hot pants...he had WAY too little screen time, which I'm guessing is down to SRK's narcisstic/ insecure need to have the most prominent role and ensure that no one has the opportunity to overshadow him, despite his terribly uninspired performance. If Arjun, Shahana and Kareena's characters had been better developed and more prominent. that would have probably improved the movie quite a bit.


Swati Sapna said...

Ok, first up let me confess I'm one of the few people who actually liked Ra.One. I know. Judge me all you want to, but I screamed and hooted and whistled everytime G.One came on screen! I loved the G.One theme music, loved his look, loved the fact that after ages i was watching a movie in which there was SRK in all his glory!
But then you already know I love Shah Rukh :D Though I will assure you that i was cringing while watching My Name is Khan and Devdas and parts of KANK... So i'm not that unconditional in my love for him.
So yes I enjoyed the film in spite of all the loop holes in the script and Arjun having just some 6min of screen time. From what I have heard, huge portions of the film had to be re-shot after Robot released to avoid similarities. And that might have taken a toll on the script. But whatever be the case, I really think Ra.One is nowhere as bad as critics and the media is making it out to be.
As for 7aum arivu... I was disappointed with the film. In spite of Surya who was hotness personified!! I thought the climax would be huge and larger-than-life... but all that build up went nowhere! :( And that hypnotism was just too much... i agree!
So there, you have my 2 bits :) Am planning to write a post on Ra.One soon on my blog. Will keep u posted ;)

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Sanyogita, there are so many things wrong with RaOne that I didn't even want to go into talking about the. Trust me, if I started rubbishing it like I want to, we'd be here until tomorrow. But I try to stay positive on this blog, as much as possible.

I did enjoy Kareena's character, but like you said, there's so little of her it doesn't even count. As for Arjun... well, I console myself with the fact that, what with not being a great actor and all, less is actually more in his case. :) But yes, that was an excellent introduction for him and one of the few things in the movie that made sense. :)

That said, I think it would have taken way more than developing these characters to make this movie watchable, probably starting with a script written by someone older than 12. Ooops, I said I was going to try and stay positive, better stop here before I really start telling you how I feel about it. :P

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Swati, yes, RaOne seems to be doing a lot better with SRK fans (even discerning ones) than with non-fans. So if his presence on the screen generally makes things better for you, I can see how your attention would be diverted from the idiotic lines. For me it was nothing short of unbearable. Sigh... But I do totally look forward to your review, make sure you copy me on Twitter when you post the link, or leave a link here, whichever is easier.

And I won't deny that 7aam Arivu was disappointing for me too, especially since I have seen Surya so far in mostly good movies (ok, except for Singam which was so moronic I pulled the plug on it halfway), so the fact that he would go with such an inane script was a little disheartening, but oh well, everyone makes bad decisions every once in a while. But even while knowing it was not a good movie, I managed to stay entertained (and yes, it's entirely possible there is a connection with how good Surya looked :P). At least there was stuff happening, and when I was rolling my eyes, it was still funny, it never got to the point where I felt my intelligence insulted (which is how I felt about RaOne).

In the end, I suppose it could have something to do with me enjoying the sight of one hero and not the other, but I would still say 7aam Arivu is the better movie out of the two. At least it's fun to watch... I thought.

Mukundh B said...

Disagree on the first point. It is not the rawness. It is the emotional connection and spreading of (false) hope. If you take Tamil cinema, all "superstars" right from MGR to Rajni to "Dr" Vijay have banked on this concept only. For instance MGR propagating DK's ideologies gave hope for people. People truly believed MGR was their savior by being trapped by his on screen Charisma. Same with Ranji and currently with Vijay. They fish out the deep down wishes of lower class and middle class ignorant (not illiterate) and projected a clean image of themselves.

And coming to the last para, don't preach what you don't practice!! " visual effects are a means to an end, not the end itself" Do tell this to Mr James Cameroon and Micheal Bay and co.

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Mukundh, that's a very different point of view, for sure. I don't doubt that perhaps, for some of the audiences there, this emotional connection, as well as the saviour tag, would have a part to play as well. But I can't speak to that because it's totally lost on me (obviously, since I'm not part of the culture). (As an aside, I'm assuming this is why some of the stars go into politics too, or are expected to contribute with their opinion, which, again, makes no sense to me as Western audience who couldn't care less about a film star's political views). So I think maybe they speak in different ways to different audiences. But there must be more to it since I still enjoy these movies, as you well know, without looking up to Vijay to rescue me from my life, and for that matter, without even knowing (or caring) about his public image. :) This is obviously very different for the audiences you're talking about.

But back to the hero-centric movies, as far as I'm concerned, emotional connection means strictly: can I see this character as reasonably realistic or not? If I can, that's all I need; the backstory and the love story and all that, they're just plot movers. That's why it doesn't necessarily bother me when they're similar from one movie to the next. But if there's not even a shred of effort to build this hero into something that resembles reality, then there's no reason for me to invest anything in him, is there?

On the last point, haha! No, you're totally right! I never said Hollywood doesn't do this too. But Hollywood has also perfected this recipe that presents us with a hero that is just like you and me, or some dork you feel bad for, or some innocent bank clerk who's been wronged, anyway, you get the picture, someone who could be your neighbour. And that's all I was saying, that if you want a hero that the audience can cheer for, he has to be someone we'd accept as being part of real life, someone we'd know. If it's some robot with blue contacts, or some dude who has had his DNA resequenced to be like his grandpa from the Middle Ages, why should I care about what happens to him? There's a huge difference between something like Terminator 2 or Wall-E and RaOne, and it lies in the fact that T2 and Wall-E make an effort to humanize these robots and their relationships to the world. RaOne just plays up his robotness for comedic effect.

Mukundh B said...

Yes, I get ur part abt emotional connection and realism. for instance i was watching V for vendetta yesterday again (yesterday being nov the 5th. Remember the 5th of nov??) And i realized that there was lot of irregularities, but for me they were within the range of realism (esp considering it is a comic book movie). And more importantly, the screenplay was gripping, unlike the desi movies..

T2 and Wall E aren't superhero movies. Let us compare superhero movies to superhero movies. I think the last superhero movie that i loved watching was Kick Ass. None of the superhero movies released this yr by hollywood was worth watching. Green Lantern, Thor, Cap America.. All crap which relied on CGI. Overall i can def say only 1 0r 2 outta 10 superhero movies are good. Rest 8 are crap. Given the fact that indian superhero industry is pretty young (if u don't consider that dharmendra's superman copy) i thk we are on par :P

Mette said...

Love what you said about opera... :)

Dolce and Namak said...

Sorry, Mukundh, that was my mix-up, I was referring mostly to Ra.One with those comments, which is pretty close to T2 and Wall-E in terms of who the main hero is.

But for 7aam Arivu it doesn't apply, you're right. In that case we're looking at something more like an X-Men scenario, I would say. But you know I suck at HW superhero movies, so you'd probably know a ton more and are able to compare them better. I believe you when you say most of them are crap. :)

And yes, you're right about India just getting started with this. But, in my opinion, if you're gonna start doing something others have been doing for decades, one would expect you've learned something from them, you can't just start reinventing the wheel, no?

Dolce and Namak said...

Hey Mette, hehehe, you know it's true, especially for Europeans! :)

Mukundh B said...

Come on you can expect that high level of intelligence from Indian Film makers who make such movies! From AR Murugadoss to his counterparts in Bollywood, these people are fit only for coping and adapting (improperly) foreign works. Their dictionary doesn't have the word inspiration or improvisation.

Dolce and Namak said...

Hehe! Of course I can expect it! If people are equally intelligent world over, there`s no reason why film making would be less intelligent in some parts of the world compared to others. :) Technology or the lack of it should have no impact on the merits of a smart script, no?

That said, on the particular topic of Murugadoss... mwahahahaa... I can only agree with you. >:-)

Mukundh B said...

People are intelligent. But people in movie aren't intelligent world over...

Swati Sapna said...

hey! my post on Ra.one is up finally... must admit its not so much a review as a rant :P but have linked to this post of yours for those who do not love SRK as unconditionally as I do :D so do check it out!

Dolce and Namak said...

Haha! Nice read, Swati! You really should blog about movies more often! :) And thank you for the shout-out!

As they say, to each their own. I always like to think that despite not caring for him, I always give SRK a fair chance. And if he's in an OSO or a RNBDJ I even end up liking him. But sadly RaOne doesn't even come close to those, and when that happens, it's true, I have no mercy. ;)

Post a Comment