Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Popular culture is neither worthless nor meaningless. At least, it doesn't have to be.

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.


Deepti Bhat said...

I think your point on the need for a two-sided conversation between a hero and his audience is interesting.

Shahrukh once understood this - his entire fandom rested on his ability to tap into the longing of the Indian middle class youth for romance despite the barriers of a strongly conservative society. Even as an anti-hero he was a lover first - a psychopathic lover and not a mere psychopath. Even the way he presented his personal life for consumption to the public (Muslim guy, Hindu wife, etc) fed into this image.

IMO, the movie that most strongly reflects this need of the Indian middle class is DDLJ, not coincidentally one of Shahrukh's biggest successes ever. It perfectly balanced the need for romance with the fear of breaking away from traditional support systems like caste and family. I cringe while watching DDLJ today, yet I cannot tell you how many of my friends who had inter-caste or inter-religion marriages took inspiration from it to "convince" their families rather than rebel against them.

Deepti Bhat said...

I think that is why Chennai Express feels fake and so much like "pandering" - it is clearly about the fun & games (and unclassy stereotyping) first and romance takes a definite backseat. Whereas Shahrukh's image has always been about romance first.

odadune said...

I recently gave up on watching the Telugu film Sarocharu because it was too dialogue-oriented for me to follow along unsubbed, but I was very impressed by the hero's introductory scene, where Ravi Teja struts into view, beats on some baddies interfering with a pair of young lovers, and the words "Mass Maharajah in a Class Role" or something to that effect popped up.

I liked the honesty of the star basically saying: "Look, I'm going to do something a bit different from what you normally like to see me do. You're welcome to come along for the ride, but if this isn't your thing don't worry, cuz I'll be back soon enough, doing the stuff you like."

The hero-audience dialogueat its most literal.

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.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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