Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Vishwaroopam: After all, it was you and me.

I watched with glee While your kings and queens

Fought for ten decades

For the gods they made

I shouted out,

Who killed the kennedys?

When after all

It was you and me

Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones

“Men are just monkeys with their tails in front.” - an old lady whose village has just been destroyed in Vishwaroopam

It’s impossible to talk about Vishwaroopam without acknowledging the massive controversy surrounding it. As has been pointed out elsewhere, I am not familiar with the internal politics of Tamil Nadu nor am I Muslim. I’m just going to preemptively state that I’m speaking for myself and myself alone. I’m not representing anybody. I’m not getting paid. And I’m certainly not advocating for anything other than global peace, love, and understanding between all peoples. Okay?

Here’s the thing. The topic of Islamic terrorism is with few exceptions handled very poorly by the types of people who make popular entertainment. Films like Kurbaan and Thuppaki imply that every woman who chooses to wear hijab or man who has a name like Ahmed is a potential member of an EVIL TERRORIST SLEEPER CELL. (Not too subtle subtext: “Ya can’t trust dem Muslims.”) Meanwhile, you have Hollywood supplying jobs as Waterboarded Terrorist No. 7 to anybody brown with menacing eyebrows . (Passable accent, strictly optional.)

All of this controversy is disheartening because it only encourages popular filmmakers to stay away from difficult political topics. Do we really need more Cocktail clones about contextless NRIs running around not being able to figure out This Thing Called Love? Entertainment is great but without any real content to balance it out, it soon becomes as sick-making as eating an entire carton of ice cream. You feel bloated but not full. It’s wonderful when filmmakers use their positions to actually say something... something not about how hard it is to be an upper-middle class dude who can’t find a girl who really gets him, man.

I understand that the Muslim community is tired of yet another film about yet more Muslim terrorists. And I understand that most viewers of these big popcorn films are not critical viewers and may very well walk away from Vishwaroopam still associating Muslims with terrorism. But that is not the association that Kamal Haasan intended. If Kamal Haasan is guilty of anything it is making the decision to trust that audiences would be able to pick up on the distinction he draws between Muslim Terrorists (Capital M, Capital T) and men, who happen to be Muslim, committing acts of terror.

Vishwaroopam begins in New York with Nirupama (Pooja Kumar) complaining to her therapist about her ridiculous husband, whom she married - despite the age difference, thank you - because she wanted to study nuclear oncology in the US. The ridiculous husband in question is the slightly effeminate kathak dance instructor Vishwanathan aka “Wiz” (Kamal Haasan).

Nirupama has taken a lover and is looking to assuage her guilt by sending a private detective after Wiz, hoping to catch him with another woman (or man). Instead she finds out that he is cheating on her religion. The private detective trails Wiz to prayer services at a local mosque and further on to the doorstep of some seriously nasty men, led by the seriously decrepit Omar (Rahul Bose). How are Omar and Wiz connected? Who is Wiz, really? The film switches back and forth between the more filmi thriller sections in New York and flashbacks to Afghanistan.

If this plot sounds like it’s veering into Kurbaan territory, it’s because it was written that way. Kamal Haasan (and screen writer Atul Tiwari) constantly play on audience expectations of the stereotypical Muslim Terrorist film, making us think about what those other films are actually saying. Really gruesome violence done filmi style in the New York section, to cheers in the audience, is mirrored with more realistic violence in Afghanistan. Watching somebody deliver death blows is only fun if you don’t care about the characters getting killed.

The character of “Wiz” is deliberately played as an enigma, with Kamal leading and misleading the audience as he sees fit. And he plays us good. We know Kamal Haasan is not really an effeminate kathak teacher, so who is he? We question his motives for attending prayer services - is he meeting an informant? Deliberately misleading the private detective? The easiest answer never occurs to us because it seems so improbable in a Muslim Terrorist film.

But in Afghanistan, shit gets real. Louise Richardson, in her excellent What Terrorists Want, boils down the immediate goal of terrorism into a helpful mnemonic: Revenge, Renown, and Reaction. It is the first of the three that really comes into play in the Afghanistan sections of the film. We can clearly see the damage that years of warfare has done to the people of Afghanistan. There is no industry except growing poppies or fighting. No toys, except guns. No hope that one day the planes, heavy with the promise of bombs, will stop flying overhead. It’s a broken country. One that we (at least here in America) read about every day in the newspapers as a series of violent incidents and greedy politicians. Because here is the other thing. Charismatic assholes with a grudge against the world like Osama Bin Laden are always going to exist but it’s only when a people are really suffering, or when society is suffering from a deep sickness, that they can amass enough followers to act out on that grudge.

Omar is a complex villain and Rahul Bose does a fantastic job capturing the nuances. He’s a man who has been deeply scarred (literally) by the warfare. He loves his family, in his own way, and can be kind. To my great surprise, I found the scenes with Omar and his group of fighters deeply moving. Watching the smile vanish from Omar’s right hand man Salim (Jaideep Ahlawat) at a crucial moment (that I won’t spoil) said everything about how the cycle of revenge just crushes people’s souls and erases their humanity. And the Salim we see at the end of the film is a shell of a man. It’s sad and we should be able to feel empathy for him even as we condemn his actions.

On the last episode of Penn’s Sunday School, Penn Jillette says something along the lines of this: Most of those award winning movies that are supposed to make you feel something just leave me cold. But This Must Be The Place really made me care about this utterly ridiculous guy who dresses like a clown. And isn’t that what movies are for? To feel empathy for somebody completely different from you?

To its great credit, that sentiment is at the heart of Vishwaroopam.

There is only so much more I discuss without going into major spoilers, so I’ll leave it at this:

Vishwaroopam left me feeling satisfied but contemplative, exactly what a mass entertainer mixed with Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar should do. It’s the film I wanted Ek Tha Tiger to be, a massy thriller with a big heavy dose of Important Issues tossed in for good measure. Haasan doesn’t shy away from the bloody aftermath of violence and he doesn’t go for easy labels. Can anybody really be a hero when innocent civilians get caught in the crossfire? How many men do you have to kill to become a villain?

We're all human and we're all guilty.


schreibdochwas said...

A beautifully written review! You make me want to try and see the movie :) (It was playing in Melbourne but I live in the sticks, so...DVD for me)

xo Kellie

Lovelina Amanna said...

Lovely review: I will be watching it on Dvd too

A.Prashanth said...

Just so you know folks, Indian films more often than not don't make it to legal DVD's. What you might get are on the internet torrents and pirated prints outside. This man Kamal Hassan and a whole lot of people who worked with them are undergoing major losses because of their movie being banned in their prime market Tamil Nadu and you can help by watching the movie in theatre and not on pirated disks. Thanks a lot. India has very few filmmakers who make logical, sane, society altering, thought provoking movies, Kamal Hassan is one of them. Don't let him disappear to oblivion, because of his losses...

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

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