Why is Netflix, Amazon, (and Bollywood, of course) fare so dull and formula-driven as to make you think staring at the wall is more creative?
This one is about movies, but we start with politics.
On Saturday one of the lead headlines in the World pages of Indian newspapers was how China is the best friend to a Talibanised Afghanistan. The new Taliban government, about to take charge, naturally has no idea how to run the economy: nonstop beheading can beget only so much business after all. One headline (Hindustan Times) read: ‘Taliban make it loud and clear: China is our top ally.’
The rest of the world, which means the West, is still repeating President Biden’s (who increasingly sounds like his predecessor Trump) tearful speech of wrath in the wake of the American army pull-out: we will not forgive, we will not forget, we will hunt you down, etc. This makes not much sense, as the West was largely responsible for the current mess.
But China has gone ahead and said they would help rebuild Afghanistan. And the Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, said his government would support ‘Beijing’s One Belt, One Road Initiative’, which connects China with Asia (including Afghanistan), Europe and Africa.
Very clearly, through all these years of war, brutal repression, and bigoted and bloody idiocy (the truly stupid are truly cruel), the Chinese trade representative in Kabul must have been a very patient, clever and ruthless man. Who is he? What is he? What kind of character is he?
Also read: Killing fields: Confronting an Afghan-like situation in the backyard
A great movie on Afghanistan is likely to be the one on the Chinese Rep in Kabul. The Taliban has met their match. If something goes wrong, the Chinese, unlike the Americans (who through Korea, Vietnam, Latin America, the Middle East and Afghanistan have consistently shown they cannot understand a situation outside their culture) are not guided by that hallucinatory constitution that renders the Americans champions of the Diner-Democracy, which doesn’t work in most other places. The Chinese would just swamp the Taliban with Uyghur Muslims, Inshallah.
A movie on the Chinese trade consul, then. A man in his fifties. Plain looking. Polite. Sexually inactive. A personality that on the surface is indistinguishable from the furniture. A patriot for all times — god knows why. In touch with Xi even in his toilet. We know the Kabul situation. But we don’t fully know the character. And what’s character but action, which is decision, which is response, which is One Belt, One World. Or One Fire, One Hell.
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As I also write film scripts, I keep a surreptitious and hopeful tab on Netflix and Amazon, besides Indian movies. Most of them are predictable. The plot hook within the first 10 minutes destabilises the hero or heroine; the confrontation, which basically means the stacking up of the odds; and the resolution. The script has become a scientific superstition; there is no art — which in this case would be character.
Only last night I tried to watch The Defeated (about a post-war German female police chief —the female is the new-old trick: gender justice demands every male archetype now be reintroduced into entertainment history as a woman; abide a while for Spartacus and Christ, not to mention Mangal Pandey, to reappear in their female avatars). It does not work. The situations in The Defeated, for instance, are hackneyed. The difference is the police chief, who is sensitive yet and heroic with no eccentricities that actually make a character, character.
I switched to another: Clickbait. This one is supposed to be with it. It spins around another female character, Pia, young and high strung — and just as unpleasant as any young and high-strung man — trying to rescue her brother from a web scam. Does it work? Not to me. The internal logic does not hold. The woman (Zoe Kazan) acting as Pia Brewer is just a watered-down version of Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman, in Breaking Bad, the young junkie who is angry at everything, most of all at himself, and so the Pia Brewer character comes out like Tibetan thukpa without the spices.
In Indian movies, the idea of character is nearly just not there. It is all plot-driven. And of course, for the most part, that means, the plot is an excuse for whatever the lead stars and the producer fancy what will sell. There is no point of view or a perspective that turns the world particular to the characters in question on top of its head, and everything starts sliding and scuttling in a different way. When Tolstoy talks about how a family can be unhappy in a hundred ways, what he means is that each hell is unique because of the way each responds to it.
Again, contrast this — rather unfairly with the main character of Howard (Adam Sandler), a compulsive gambler and a precious stone treader in Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems, or the many-edged characters in the Fargo series, or the very bad (so bad, she could be mad) Rosamund Pike’s Amy Dunne in Gone Girl.
This is not to deny good stuff coming out in India. Scam 92, Paatal Lok, and some of the recent Fahadh Faasil movies (Kumbalangi Nights, Joji) are exceptions. Faasil movies, of late, though show deterioration resulting from typecasting thrust on him and his kind of projects by the anti-patriarchy market in Kerala. The products named here show sharp character sketches in typical situations; and the situations are now made interesting because the character responses to these are different.
Also read: An open letter to Fahadh Faasil, the victim, not victor
The new Afghanistan, for the Taliban, is essentially the old Afghanistan with One Belt and all associated developments thrown in. That would make it a snowcapped Saudi Arabia — with luck. Can the Taliban sell opium and copper and get a few roads and a couple of skyscrapers? It wants to.
And all of that very capitalist dream rests on China, represented by our China man, Mr Hung Hong (or Hong Kung), who is right now talking to the likely Afghanistan president Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (unless he is beheaded by the time this piece is published) from the most peaceful region in his house, the toilet, while his wife is beating on the door to let her in and have a word for his behaviourally challenged dog has pissed on the carpet again.
(CP Surendran is the author of One Love And The Many Lives of Osip B, published by Niyogi Books.)
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