antiheroes, superheroes, bad behavior, and restraint: in response to the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, October 4, 2013
Frick. I'm already a week behind in my plan to write a brief, timely Indian cinema-themed response to whatever points of the current episode of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast catch my attention. Oh well.
The big entertainment news before this episode was recorded was the finale of Breaking Bad, which I have never watched because it sounds so mercilessly bleak (and violent). PCHH's discussion of the series as a whole included the concept that when antiheroes are the focus of a story, especially a long one like a tv series, they still need antagonists, and these often take the form of even worse villains. Like many other discussions I've enjoyed on this podcast, this seems completely obvious now that they've pointed it out, but I'd never thought about it before. No perfect examples from mainstream Hindi cinema are leaping to mind, maybe because mainstream films don't seem to like having anyone truly bad be the focus of attention, at least not at the expense of the less-bad male lead. I can think of two sort-of examples off the top of my head. In Delhi Belly, the male leads aren't exactly good—sloppy, crass, disrespectful of authority and conventions, and definitely not seedha saadha—but the people they're in conflict with are worse—violent, criminal, and, in the case of Tashi's first girlfriend, shallow. After rewatching part of Kaminey the other day in an attempt to remind myself that Shahid Kapoor's future didn't always seem as floundering as it does right now, I was reminded that Vishal Bharadwaj regularly uses antiheroes well: Priyanka Chopra's work as the femme fatale in Bharadwaj's 7 Khoon Maaf is my favorite of her performances and the first one that convinced me should could actually act, and to my eyes the person who might seem morally worse in Omkara, Saif Ali Khan's frightening Langda, steals the show.
And when does an antihero slide into being a really charismatic villain? Bollywood probably plays very carefully with that line, given the stereotype that audiences have a narrow definition of what a hero is, which is maybe one reason SRK's performance in Darr is so famous. Is it a coincidence that Darr was such a star-making turn for him? Is being a really juicy, layered villain a smart way to set yourself off from the more standard hero faces? I wonder if it felt like a huge risk to him at the time. And when you become a standard hero, maybe even the standard hero, you try to play up the underdog appeal by naming your most expensive and complicated home production after its epically-evil-referencing villain?
Glen Weldon, the comics and comic culture contributor, talks about superheroes and "the power of this very silly idea of people dressing up in outfits and whaling on each other, to protect us, to give us agency, to inspire, but also to rescue us in a very real way, an emotional way, a psychological way...the power of these characters to lift us up" (in reference to Dean Trippe's Something Terrible comic). With Krrish 347 soon upon us and looking so...problematic, I've again been thinking about that old question of why superheroes in Hindi cinema are one of the tougher genres to execute successfully. I keep coming back to the point that many people have raised of "Who needs a superhero when our regular heroes are so superheroic?" Hindi (and Tamil and Telugu) heroes already beat up dozens of baddies, rescue women and children, give voice to the oppressed or impoverished, reinstate the moral order, and bring emotional closure to stories—and depending on the era and type of film, they might already have capes and spandex tights. Toss in the mythologicals and reincarnation stories (Magadheera may be the most superheroic Indian film I've seen, but I've never heard anyone call it a superhero movie) and there hardly seems a need to bother with American-style superheroes. I watched the Puneet Issar Superman a few weeks ago and started out being quite taken with it, but by about halfway through it felt decidedly un-super and it seemed any hero worth his salt could have stepped in and done essentially the same things without bothering with a costume or telepathic Dharmendra (not that I want to live in a world without telepathic Dharmendra).
For the record, I am not saying Indian filmmakers shouldn't experiment with American-style superheroes if they want, or that there is definitively no scope for superheroes in Indian popular film culture, especially if story and/or effects can be harnessed to make clear that this is someone who is different from, and more than, the standard-issue masala mortal hero. It's just a steeper uphill battle than it might be in other parts of the world.
Side note: if you haven't read Todd's list of 10 oddball Indian film superheroes at io9, you should.
Stephen Thompson likes the growing trends of nice people being rewarded—"good things happening to good people." He quotes a tweet by David Slack "Vince Gilligan [creator of Breaking Bad, co-creator of The Lone Gunmen] is known across the industry as a very nice guy. Remember that the next time people say bad behavior is the price of genius." Can we say this about Bollywood? Are there famously nice people off-screen? I try not to let off-screen life influence my opinion of anyone involved with filmmaking, but it's hard, which is one of the two major reasons I tend not to read interviews or pay much attention to gossip. (The other is that I am always disappointed when stars and directors sound like idiots, and this happens far too often, and I have to remind myself that sounding dumb in interviews isn't necessarily the same thing as being dumb, and being dumb doesn't necessarily mean someone is bad at their movie-making job.) I'm not saying I'm above gossip—I'm just saying it muddies the waters of my head with things that I truly believe to be irrelevant most of the time. But those of you who do pay attention, do you think there's a connection in the fillum industry between genius and acting like jerks/babies? It's also hard not to wonder, in an world in which there may not be much distinction between "good publicity" and "any publicity," if bad behavior is hardly a price at all.
In reference to trying to make jokes in tweets that already have real estate gobbled by long hashtags, Linda Holmes reminds us that "The more you're constrained, the greater your art." I believe this to be true in my own professional life, though obviously it's not a principle I live by on this blog. Can we assign any general value to constraint in cinema? Surely Bollywood cocks a snook at any hint of a directly proportional relationship between constraints on the resources required by the creative process on the one hand and, on the other, the actual finished product and its expressiveness and entertainment value. Of course, many films operate within constraints on types of story and aspects of the human experience that can be depicted, whether dictated by the censor board or issued by producers on behalf of audiences whom they assume to have limited tastes and interests. There can be a high creative cost to content constrained by formula or formulaic approach. Brevity, though, is a different question. Bye-bye, odious comic side plot uncles and long-winded moralizing mothers.
To close: this lip synch battle on Jimmy Fallon between Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Stephen Merchant, and the host is a hoot, partly because of the reveal of unexpected (at least to me) talents and partly because...how do I phrase this? The majority of white boys in the US (and in my experience the UK), to be blunt, tend to ignore all encouragement towards song and dance if they aren't song and dance (or comedy) professionals. I don't know how choreographed ahead of time this was or if their gestures and steps were relatively improvised. I would love to see any of the filmi stars do improvised, or even not well-rehearsed, lip synching to songs that aren't ones they made famous. Has that ever happened? That should definitely happen.