Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Ethnic, Social, and Political Tension in Cinema

Mani Ratnam's Roja (1992) is quite something; in its first hour especially, before the controversial political content really comes into play, it's virtually a masterpiece of popular cinema (simple, accessible, engaging, and itself engaged, spontaneous, vivid, organic, neither stupid nor lazily formulaic). But while I really liked the film overall I am troubled by its jingoism, where Hindu nationalism trumps ridiculously (but no doubt "humanely") sketched Muslim Kashmiri militant villains. It's political-dramatic resolution is akin to Rocky IV's climactic victory speech, where Sylvester Stallone preaches to a hardass Soviet audience (who were won over by his underdog Uncle Sam can-do spirit) that "If I can change ... and if you can change ... maybe we all can change!" Cheers all around. But what exactly is the point of these easy salves in which all it takes for sociopolitical tension to subside is for "our" good guys and "their" not-quite-bad guys to go through a (masochistically?) painful ordeal and come out ready to gasp their way through a chorus of "We Are the World"? It's almost like these types of entertainment are tiny exorcism-attempts for an embattled collective psyche. (And their real world effect is one of the placebo variety. Or sedative.)

Then there's the preachy Peasants in Distress (1994, pictured above), which features two brief kung fu scenes and a bizarre travelogue-ish coda. Authored by His Majesty Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia, its about jealousy and romance among Khmer rebel fighters and two peasants they encounter in the jungle. In it, handsome humanitarian rebel Cheyrith picks up cute peasant-girl Nit. But fellow rebel, and rival officer, Mân, a mean bastard and a genuine civilian-despising militant, doesn't like it, and sees to it that the romance is "tragically short-lived," as the video box copy puts it. (He even twirls his handgun after using it.)

I have no idea who or what this film was actually made for--Western audiences eager to see fictionalizations of problems that the UN has tried to address? Sufficiently un-humanitarian Cambodians? So I'm not really sure how it should be judged; it's an off-the-radar film for me, and I watched it for precisely that reason. Even so, I can't see how justified the film's moralizing is. Once again, we've got political differences--including unsavory political convictions and actions--reduced to character flaws. These sorts of films tell us that people who kill civilians for a cause are either deluded or bad people with any number of vices (smoking, arrogance, alcoholism...). Olaf Möller once icily identified this problem, in which films turn real political problems and disagreements into fiction fodder and personal psychology. (I don't have on hand the issue of Film Comment--at least I think it's in FC--where he wrote it, so no exact quote or citation at the moment.)

One can see this mentality on display in something like The Interpreter, too, Sydney Pollack's recent entertainment that's (kind of) smart and (kind of) has a conscience. For no good reason I can see, Sean Penn's character (and oh does Sean Penn love playing these tortured types) is dealing with his own tough personal tragedy that forms a "strong emotional bond" between himself and Nicole Kidman (a white African who used to be a rugged freedom fighter before she started to "believe in what the UN was doing," got the titular job there, and moved herself into one amazing and tastefully-decorated New York apartment). Penn's character's personal loss is, at least on some level, equated with Nicole Kidman's personal experience of huge social loss and strife. Even if Pollack & Co.'s intentions are good, I tend to view this sort of storytelling as demeaning telescopy of psychological issues onto social ones, and a reduction of sociopolitical realities ...

But that's all I've got for now. Take this as untempered venting rather than a "thesis."

Also, how do people who read this blog like the inclusion of jpegs? Is it good, bad, a nice occasional inclusion?


Anonymous said...

It's a nice touch, Zach.

And a very thought provoking post, too.

Mubarak Ali said...

Zach, I haven't seen Roja in years but I think Mani Ratnam's loose political trilogy (Roja, Bombay, Dil Se) becomes slightly more abstract after every film. From what I remember, Bombay is pretty neutral - perhaps too noticeably so - and the political struggle in Dil Se is pushed to the periphery by the film's central (metaphoric) love story. Still, these films are among the more interesting in popular Indian cinema of the 90s, and it was nice to see Roja mentioned.

(Digging the pics, too.)

ZC said...

Mubarak, I was lucky enough to find Roja at the local Hindi video store I've written about, but they didn't have Bombay or Dil Se, which I very much plan on seeing! I'll be intrigued to set up Bombay next to Khalid Mohamed's Fiza, which I own a copy of but have not watched yet, for their takes on the same incidents. (Unless I'm completely screwing my history up here.)

I'll keep up with the pics every once in a while then. Thanks.

Brian Darr said...

I haven't seen any of these, though I've been curious about (recently abdicated) King Siyanouk's films since visiting that country. He's not the only Southeast Asian king to have considered it important (perhaps something of a duty, even) to make cultural contributions to his country as well as political ones. The king of Thailand is a composer who wrote, among other pieces, an anthem sung before every commercial film screening in that country.

Cambodians are very serious about the usefulness of art in remembering history. When I and my fellow American, European and Japanese tourists got off the truck from the Thai border to Siam Riep, the first thing our guest house hosts wanted to do that evening was show us the Killing Fields on their small television. We were in that town to see the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, but as incredible as they were, perhaps the most extraordinary experience there was a visit to a place called the "Landmine museum" which was a backyard gallery of decommisioned military equipment and paintings by the proprietor, who had been forced to fight in the Khmer Rogue army against the Vietnamese. It seemed like these paintings revealed more about Cambodia's recent history than any history book I've read or film I've seen. Though I do highly recommend the documentaries of Rithy Panh (I've seen a mere two, but they're among the best films in that genre I've seen in the past few years.)

Jaime said...

I dislike ROJA intensely but applaud your continued use of pictures.

Mubarak Ali said...

Yes, Fiza does begin with the '93 Bombay riots, but that film is more about Hrithik Roshan's biceps than anything else!

ZC said...

Brian, thanks for sharing your knowledge: this helps put Peasants in Distress into clearer focus for me. It takes place about a year before the film was made, when the UN was coming into Cambodia in '93. I suppose the King felt (and justifiably so) that he was doing a public service by recreating recent history on film. It might also explain the travelogue bit: national pride is found in the cultural and historical monuments of Cambodia ...

Jaime, what bothered you about Roja if you don't mind saying?

Jaime said...

>>Jaime, what bothered you about
>>Roja if you don't mind saying?

Actually, I'm sorry I brought it up. I don't think I have anything constructive to add to any conversation regarding ROJA, just as I don't expect much of anything constructive from people who hate films that I think are great.

I do share your befuddlement with the film's Hindu jingoism. But by the time it became the film's central concern I was already annoyed beyond reach.