Shahrukh Khan’s tribute--if that’s what we’re calling it--to Rajinikanth in “The Lungi Song” really rubbed me the wrong way for reasons I laid out in this morning’s blog post and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I wasn’t the only one turned off by the joyless nature of the song. In the ensuing discussion, however, the issue of pandering came up. We can all agree that Shahrukh is pandering to an audience in Chennai Express and I think it’s worthwhile to examine the issues this kind of pandering raises. Is pandering necessary to make money? Is there a difference between pandering and giving an audience what they want? What audience is Shahrukh pandering to?
(I’m not picking on Shahrukh specifically but he happens to have provided an easy example with Chennai Express.)
First of all, pandering implies something like giving chocolate to a whinging fat kid to get him to shut up. It’s not a particularly admirable way to interact with an audience, as if we’re the fat kid and our pandering filmmaker is throwing some masala covered sweeties in our direction to get us to shut up. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, pandering has become synonymous with pleasing a wide audience. With the distinction erased, I think it also erases the idea that art created for a wide audience can be both entertaining and meaningful, that culture--even mass culture--is a two-sided conversation between the creator and audience.
To say that art created for mass consumption is inherently worthless and meaningless is to give up the public sphere to the corporations and money-grubbing panderers. One of the things that initially drew me to Indian films was the combination of entertainment, beauty, emotion, and meaning in the popular films. Just because a film included a spectacular song-dance numbers and a tragic love affair didn’t mean that it also couldn’t raise issues of morality or ethics or point out some hypocrisy in the ruling classes.
The old guard still understand this, which is why I think it’s far more admirable to be Rakesh Roshan bringing a deeply sincere message of please be groovy to one another, while also admiring the sweet dance moves of my son to the world at large instead of an “auteur” making a navel gazing film about himself (let’s not kid, it’s always himself) or, worse, some “serious” filmmaker dragging out a dirty bit of society out for an insulated art house audience who will nod gravely at the screen, perhaps dab away a tear, and then drive back to their comfortable homes, safe and secure.
To become a real filmi hero, you need to do more than just dishoom a few bad guys or romance a few ladies. There is a trust built between the hero and his audience, a two sided conversation. Trust audiences with serious topics, sweetened with some good songs, and they may surprise you. Among the Hindi heroes, I think Aamir Khan understands this the best. Just look at 3 Idiots, Rang De Basanti, Lagaan, and even Dil Chahta Hai. Sure, he misjudged a bit with Mangal Pandey - a film I’m on record supporting as actually pretty good - but overall, Aamir seems to know how to use his platform to both enrich himself monetarily and people’s souls. 3 Idiots made bank because it was entertaining and had a real emotional impact on people. And, honestly, what will people remember more in 20 years: the film that cheered them on in their studies or the one with a couple cool car tricks and punch lines?
If Shahrukh can figure out how to tap back into that special relationship a hero has with his audience--not just him indulging a desire to play antihero-superhero or pandering to the worst kind of nostalgia--I’ll be first in line for tickets but until then... I think I’ll be skipping Chennai Express.