“I am real!” said Alice and began to cry.
“You won't make yourself a bit realler by crying,” Tweedledee remarked: “there's nothing to cry about.”
“If I wasn't real,” Alice said — half-laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous — “I shouldn't be able to cry.”
“I hope you don't suppose those are real tears?” Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.
“I know they're talking nonsense,” Alice thought to herself: “and it's foolish to cry about it.” So she brushed away her tears, and went on as cheerfully as she could.
-Lewis Carroll, >Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, 1871
It should come as no surprise to anybody that when I was a little girl, I lived for stories - novels, fairy tales, the classic myths, religious stories, family lore, and even actual history. But while romance novels and Stephen King potboilers have their pleasures (especially if you are an overly curious 12 year old girl), the stories that really resonated with me were the fairy tales, both old and older. The quest, the plucky heroine (my favorites all featured girls, naturellement), the exaggerated characteristics of good and evil, the air of magic, and the structure of formality in the telling - I craved these things.
Whether it was the bittersweet ending for the one swan brother whose arm remained a wing or the fateful golden apple or the chilling Princess Langwidere with her collection of severed heads, I lived for myth and legend, for the non-real. If I could have ripped apart the fabric of space-time and stepped through into Narnia or Oz, believe me, all you would have seen is a Roadrunner-style girl shaped puff of smoke where I had been standing. I read and re-read my favorites so many times, they became a part of me.
There are two somewhat related stories of my own I’d like to share with you before I talk about what I know you all are interested in, what all of this has to do with Indian films. The first is from when I was in elementary school - in third grade, maybe fourth. My current obsession was a giant book on the solar system that featured lengthy descriptions of all the gods and goddesses the planets (and their moons) were named after. Skimming past the scientific descriptions of things like gravity wells and the churning poison clouds of the gas giants, I lingered over the artistic depictions of Mars, the terrifying war god, Neptune, god of the ocean, Jupiter, lord of all... My religious experience at that time was limited to those deathly dull “modern” Catholic masses, with crappy music and no sense of the mythic. (I mean, sure some of the Bible stories were pretty cool, but for some reason instead of dwelling on what I was interested in - i.e. mechanics of golden calf worship, weird Egyptian prophetic dreams - the focus always seemed to be on the mundane. I have vivid memories of Sunday School workbooks packed full of kids just like me in late 1980s haircuts safely learning about how God loved us. I have equally vivid memories of finding it meaningless. These are most likely somewhat colored by the feelings of my current self but it’s no coincidence that my memories of going to see a revival of The Planet of the Apes when I was like 6 are stronger than any memories of going to mass.)
One day, in that third grade year, when one of my classmates mentioned that her family was Greek, I eagerly began to question her. “So, does this mean you believe in Zeus?!” I asked. “No...” she replied, unsure. “Maybe my parents do?”
I remember feeling sad that she was missing out on such a primo opportunity. Looking back now, I’m amazed at the young me’s ability to hold two contrasting ideas at once. I knew the Greek gods weren’t real like I was but that didn’t mean they weren’t real in a broader sense.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be admitting this in public but the closest I’ve ever come to feeling any sort of emotional ties to my home religion of Catholicism is the handful of months I was obsessed with the movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar. I believe it’s the only time when I was growing up that my mother didn’t have to fight me tooth and nail to make me go to mass. Finally, the story of the last days of Christ resonated with me, filtered through the tortuous, musical, and deliciously homoerotic relationship between Jesus and Judas. This was a story I could get behind - a reluctant betrayal for the greater good and a reluctant acceptance of a cruel fate, told with great tunes and poignant lyrics. I listened to this soundtrack so much that I can still hear the opening lines clear as a bell in my head:
My mind is clearer now. At last, all too well, I can see where we all soon must be. If you slip away, the myth from the man, you will see where we all soon will be.
As my teenaged infatuation with the hunky and soulful Carl Anderson* Judas faded, my brief love affair with Catholicism faded with it. What remained with me was the musical about the myth about the man (and an unironic appreciation for the anything-goes glitter and fringe art direction of the film.)
The seed that was planted with Jesus Christ Superstar came into full flower when I was in my early 20s and working as a page at the main branch of the Boston Public Library. At that point, my formal education, a combination of many American public school systems, had been haphazard at best. Indifferent teachers, unchallenging curriculum, and a focus on scoring well on tests (the last of which is something I’ve always been very good at, meaning I got excellent grades without taking in much knowledge.) One of the perks of my job was to have no overdue fees and, being a poor college student, I took full advantage of this and used books as my primary source of entertainment for almost the entire time I was in school. I read some fiction at first but soon I ran out of things I wanted to read and began browsing through the “new nonfiction” shelves. It was revelatory.
One of authors I came across in those years was Karen Armstrong, the nun turned ex-nun turned religion scholar. Her book The Battle for God describes how, in the West, logos has come to dominate mythos - even in spheres where logos previously had no place, such as religion and the arts. To put it another way, our cultural life has been sciencified. Things are either factual or they are false. To go back to our angsty Judus: the man must be the myth in fact or the myth means nothing.
In practice, in religion, this leads to ridiculous things like The Creation Museum (motto: “Prepare to believe”) where children can learn about how Jesus palled around with dinosaurs. After all, if the Bible is fact, then the Genesis creation story must be fact, which means humans and dinosaurs existed at the same time. In practice, this also leads to cruelties like the occupation of Palestine. After all, if the Bible can be used as a heaven sent biology book, it can also be used as a heaven sent real estate contract. Even the non-religious supernatural hasn’t been immune from the scienceification, with television shows like Ghost Hunters dispersing the amorphous appeal of the unknown by attempting to measure it. The enjoyment of a spooky atmosphere means nothing if the spooky isn’t fact.**
The effects of this obsession with fact can also been seen in a lot of Western popular culture, especially in story telling.*** Are characters drawn from life? Are they relatable? Could events depicted really have happened? Does the story make sense... logically?
I’ve got an answer: Who gives a fuck.
Stories aren’t facts. Even the stories you want to believe are fact, aren’t really fact. Those “factual” stories we read every day in the newspaper or in memoir are compiled by selectively gathering facts and putting them into an order - an order, as in there are many ways to pluck and organize the facts of a factual story. This issue briefly rose to national prominence in American in 2011 when a story in the New York Times about a gang rape in Texas was told from the perspective of the families of the accused gang rapers, rather than from the victim’s perspective. What was interesting to me about this media blow-up was that most people seemed to act as if the “real” story was the victim’s story - certainly it was probably the one we all felt the most sympathy for - but it wasn’t any more or less real than the story told from the perspective of the accused. It’s a fact that friends and family of the accused are horrified at the accusations and can’t believe they are true, whether or not it gets reported. So, the debate ended up being about whether or not the New York Times was sexist (which it is but not intentionally so - it’s part of the general culture) rather than about how news stories are constructed.
Where this ties into the current trends into Hindi language film, specifically to Bollywood film, is that the Western obsession with “factual” stories has been gradually creeping into a style of filmmaking that is rooted in mythic storytelling and the results are a big fucking mess - the filmi equivalent of Jesus riding around on a dinosaur.
The traditional style of storytelling in popular Indian film works just like any of the myths and fairy tales I read as a girl. The characters are archetypal rather than drawn from life; the story takes place in a dissociative world; the course of events follow an emotional arc rather than a logical one; and stories are often reinterpreted and reworked to suit different audiences. Looking through the right lens, it’s not that far a leap from the conniving Puss in Boots using his wits to get his gormless master the good things in life (“Le Maistre Chat, ou Le Chat Botté,” 1697) to Geeta using her wits to getting her soft-hearted separated-at-birth twin Seeta’s life in order (Seeta aur Geeta, 1972). Mysterious doubles, divine intervention, fated love, diverting side quests, meaningful coincidences... none of these things are logical or even remotely factual but it doesn’t follow that they can’t be used to tell important stories.
By now, some of you might be wondering how I could have gotten this deep into an essay on myth and not have mentioned the big gun (at least as far as Western popular culture goes) - Joseph Campbell. I’m not a huge fan of The Cult of Joseph Campbell**** that has sprung up and, personally, I don’t think the monomyth is anything but the finest grade bullshit but I will borrow Mr. Campbell’s four functions of myth for this piece:
1) Metaphysical: Awe before the great mystery.
2) Cosmological: Coherent cosmological construct.
3) Sociological: Validate a specific social order.
4) Psychological: Guiding a person through life.
Masala storytelling combines elements of at least three of these functions. I think we can probably dismiss the cosmological elements except, perhaps, as it relates to explaining India’s (or the specific state’s, as in the recent 7aum Arivu) place in the world. Good films and bad films alike will bring the other three functions into play and the cultural scolds who say we need to “leave our brains at home” to watch masala just because it’s not “real” are seriously misreading things. It’s that very “unreality” that allows filmmakers to bypass the logical parts of the brain to let fully experience the mythical elements.
The sociological and psychological elements are probably easiest to see. To use a recent example, Rowdy Rathore (2012) had story elements that dealt with a woman finding the courage to fight back against sexual assault with the support of her community. The actual plotting of the sequence was far from “realistic,” considering it involved an clownishly evil landlord and choreographed fighting but that didn’t make it less cathartic to see her fight back. Nor did it escape my notice that despite her assault, her husband still loved her. The sociological element is the community giving tacit support to the woman fighting back; the psychological is the woman herself getting the courage to fight back. Considering the long filmi history of sexually assualted women committing suicide to save their family’s honor, is it right to have the power of such a moment dismissed as mere trash entertainment with a “leave your brain at home”? It’s doing the film and the style of storytelling a huge disservice.
As for the metaphysical, they can be trickier to see, though I have experienced awe at the cinema. Mr. Campbell specifically mentions contemplation of mythic symbols and participation in mythic rituals. Now, I’m not claiming that my experiences of trancendental bliss at the cinema are the same as everybody else’s but, for me, a well-timed, well-done song sequence can inspire feelings of awe. The same goes for a long-awaited confrontations or reunions or even fight sequences. It depends on the film and the viewer and, to an extent, the audience one is watching with. Think back to Sholay and Basanti’s desperate dance on broken glass to save her lover. Hema Malini’s performance, the frantic quality of the music, the way the plotting had pushed the film to this situation... everything worked together to give this view that feeling of awe. How could the world be this amazing?
Rishi Kapoor on a rotating stage in Karz; Vikram covered in rain and mud in Raavanan; Malika Arora Khan dancing for Sonu Sood in Dabanng; these things inspire feelings beyond clicking “like” on Facebook and we shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge that. The embarrassed boxing up of these feelings of awe is what leads to Jesus riding the dinosaur moments. The biggest offender being the tone deaf insertion of songs into otherwise “logical” films by having the characters go to a club or by just setting the whole film in the film industry so songs can be inserted in figurative quotation marks as part of a film within a film. But by far my least favorite is the use of romance conventions rooted in mythological elements into “logical” films. After all, if somebody confessed their love to you out of the blue, you’d most likely find it creepy rather than romantic. (I’m looking at you I Hate Luv Storys.)
Of course, accessing that feeling of awe, those emotions, can also be dangerous. Films can put across messages of jingoism and hatred as well as progressive messages and encouraging a healthy distrust of the ruling elites. The recent Ko put forth a complex message of political pragmatism while Singham (Hindi) had disturbing fascist undertones. Tapping into the mythical brain can fuel a lot of things - like children who get killed imitating Aamir Khan running from the train in Ghulam, not yet realizing the separation between the images on the screen and real life. Science and logic have their place. Killing witches isn’t going to solve a drought and burying a mirror won’t cure warts. However, science and logic can’t provide for all our needs, especially in when it comes to culture.
What is factual isn’t always the reality of the situation we find true - think back to the New York Times story about the gang rape. And though we may know something is logical and real, if we don’t feel that it’s right that knowledge will never go beyond the part of our brain that holds “2+2=4” and “India and Pakistan used to be one contiguous region.”
I’m not arguing for a ban on “realistic” films, though personally I would rather experience reality than spend 2 hours watching it on a movie screen, but for people to stop dismissing mythological storytelling as immature or wrong or, worst of all, brainless. Some people will never like these films and that’s fine. Some people have been conditioned to need to identify with the protagonist of any film and they aren’t going to find that here.***** And some people just never learned to engage with the mythic part of their brain and that’s fine, too. There are different types of ways to tell a story and despite what Robert McKee might tell you, there is more than one way to tell a real story.
* I know I’m not the only one out there who fell for those big brown eyes, ammirite, friends?
** And unfortunately, this sciencification of myth also opens the door for charlatans who take advantage of people thinking heaven is factual and tangible. Interestingly enough, one of the greatest crusaders against those charlatans - James Randi - is himself a magician. Do magic and illusion need to be supernatural to be amazing? No. Isn’t it more amazing that guys like Penn and Teller can spin us a story that we we think we’re in on the magic “trick” when really their wit and skill have just created an illusion?
*** And it’s only gotten worse since the desire for not just fact but the real took hold in the 1960s.
**** In their own way, nearly as annoying as the Ayn Randians but with less power over the political system.
***** Whiny male writers with lady problems, though a popular character type in Hollywood film are few and far between in popular Indian film. And THANK GOD. Though other whiny male writers can certainly identify with those characters, they always seem to forget at that at least half the population (i.e. women) cannot. Is it any wonder the Western fanbase for Indian film is full of women and gay men?