Monday, June 25, 2007


Rajnikant Phenomenon

Rajnikant's Sivaji The Boss has virtually taken the country by storm sweeping the market and setting new records in terms of reach and marketing. For one, sheer scale of the film itself is mind-boggling. Reported to have costed Rs 80 Crores in production, it is the biggest ever film production from India. Another striking factor is its reach. It is literally the first global release for an Indian film, that also from a 'regional' language, that stands testimony to the spread of Rajni fandom. For instance more than 70 prints are released in Japan and Malaysia alone. (In Malaysia there were riots by Rajni fans in front of theatres, when the prints didn't arrive in time!) Evidently, Rajni phenomenon is not something confined to the local or regional, but one that cuts across cultures and territorial bounds. Obviously the stardom and 'histrionics' of Rajnikant appeal to something elemental in film buffs all over the world.

What is it that makes people throng the theatres in such numbers braving inclement weather and physical discomfort? What is it that keeps this kind and level of expectations and 'devotion' live and vibrant for years despite the fact that his last film was released almost three years ago? Can any other star in India or abroad create and more importantly maintain such frenzied expectations for so long? Most of our stars will wither and fade the moment the limelight turns away from them. It is certainly something that goes beyond media hype; for one can't create and maintain a hype without it touching some raw nerve or living up to its image in some way or other.

In the case of Rajnikant, several factors seem to have worked to create the aura. One element is the personal 'style' he has developed over the years. Spurning any pretences at realism or naturalism, he has virtually evolved a 'star language' – of the body, gestures and words – of his own. It has more to do with the narrative-melodramatic tradition of performing arts rather than cinema. For, it is the same old story all over again and again, but only in different guises. The basic elements are all the same – lowly origins, conditions that cry for and spark heroism, the fight with the enemies with romance as its byproduct, and finally, the climactic vanquishing of the powers that be. Obviously, one knows the whole 'story' already but we are only watching it being performed and enacted differently.

At one level, the Kamal-Rajni duo continues the lineage of Sivaj-MGR duo of the earlier decades. In both cases, the contrast has striking parallels. While one of them is dramatic-realistic, the other one is the heroic-fantastic kind. The Kamal and Rajni duo has taken this contrast and tension to greater heights and intensity using new technologies of imaging and also make-up that are available to them (It is not a coincidence that both give great importance to make up and costumes. It is also worth noting that in Tamil cinema, the investment on special effects is more to boost the person/a of the star-actor than to create an ambience or enhance the rendering of the narrative). But Kamal is obsessed with more and more of the visceral and the emotional, churning out several subhuman and lonely characters who are challenged in various ways, social, political, emotional, physical and psychic (Guna, Alavanthan, Thenali, Sippikkul Muthu, Kalyanaraman, Apurva Sahodarangal, etc). In contrast, Rajni worked at the other end, celebrating the magic that the medium of cinema is capable of, in the process 'playing' superman characters of various kinds. Interestingly, while the fair, upper caste bodied Kamal 'falls down' abysses of various kinds, to expose the revolting innards of society, Rajni, the dark hero, 'rises up' from severe constraints and lesser life to fight back through magical and superhuman means. So while Kamal constantly de-faces , Rajni re-faces himself.

Ironically, one element that is basic to star persona is the personal life of the actor in question. A comparison of the star persona, public image and folklore surrounding the above two actors would make an interesting study about our own subterranean yearnings and journeys. Significantly, Rajnikant is an actor who has (maybe deliberately and consciously) nurtured two faces of stark contrast. On the one side is the onscreen image of the 'style mannan' that he is for the last three decades, and on the other is the very common and 'ordinary' man that he is offscreen. It is interesting to note that in his public appearances Rajni is consistently seen without any makeup. This in a way 'shows him off' as an ordinary person like you and me, thus paving the way for easy identification. It also very firmly separates the onscreen glamour from offscreen presence, adding to his mass appeal and star magic at the same time.

So, Sivaji is yet another solo performance by Rajnikant, but one only he is capable of.

Monday, June 18, 2007


The Possibility of Another Reality

“We must consider the existence of at least three worlds in one. The first would be the world as we’re made to see it: globalization as a fable. The second would be the world as it is: globalization as perversity. And the third: the world as it could be: a different globalization” - Milton Santos

Our debates on globalisation have always been characterized by a polemics of intolerance. It was never one of analysis and exploration. As a result we have never attempted to look at globalization as a process, in which we ourselves are implicated and are an essential part of. Instead, we are happy branding it as a ‘conspiracy’ or a ‘project’, thus cleverly disentangling ourselves from the whole question. So, it always ends up as a pitched battle between ‘us’ and ‘them’; anyone who doesn’t agree with us are ‘naturally’ on the enemy side.

In this context, this engaging documentary film ‘A Bit of Milton – A Libertarian Proposition for these Tumultuous Days’ by Sylvio Tendler which is a conversation with the Brazilian political philosopher Milton Santos is sure to make us think about the whole process with fresh insight and new vigour. Even while placing himself firmly on the side of the Third World, Santos looks at globalization as a multidimensional phenomenon. It is clear from his words quoted above that, any serious and futuristic discourse about globalization should keep in view the three worlds we simultaneously inhabit. It is harmful for any meaningful dialogue to restrict oneself to anyone of these, which will leave us in a monochromatic world – one we are blithely happy not to be reminded of.

The film looks at the globalization process from various points of view, and ponders over how it works out to be a game where all the rules are set by the victors and are applicable only to the losers. For instance, while the idea of the nation state and state-involvement in welfare etc are derided by the advocates of globalization and the global powers-that-be who advise the poor nations to ‘free’ themselves of all state controls, their own nation-states are flourishing and growing consolidating itself from strength to strength. Santos points at various issues like deterritorialization of production and capital accumulation which sets the basic conditions for the ‘freedom of the capital’ while impoverishing the human and material resources to the detriment of all. The privatization of the commons, unfreedom of labour movement etc are other issues of great urgency and vital points of global struggle. But the film also looks at the liberatory potential that information and communication technologies have opened up before the world and dwells upon the ways in which indigenous communities hitherto cut off from the world found new connections and possibilities of life, livelihood and expression. For, the story of globalization will not be complete without that of the margins.

In the process, the film also ponders upon how we have been colonized internally. “We decided that we would be European, we insisted on that, refusing for think for ourselves. We thought it was more sophisticated…Hence comes the great difficulty understanding the world and this great difficulty also leaves us confused somewhat foolish in the face of the history in the making. So politics itself becomes lost because we really don’t know what to do with the new world. We haven’t found ways of reflecting upon this new world from within ourselves..”

The film ends up with Santos’s refreshing words “We are rehearsing what will become of mankind. There never was one.” A great documentary of sharp insights and more significantly, hope.

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One major media event that happened recently which was covered widely by the international media and english press in India was the shutting down of the commercial television channel Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) by Hugo Chavez. He decided not to renew the broadcasting licence of RCTV and instead handed over the frequencies to the
newly esatablished state channels. While the western media condemned the move as yet another
instance of intolerance and strangling of freedom of expression etc, the move didnt receive much
attention and analysis in Indian media especially in Malayalam. There was only an embarassed silence on their part. Some of the radical media analysts of the west condescendingly justified
Chavez' move as a result of the nation's 'little tradition of public broadcasting' and the fact that
licences for commercial televisions channels was in the first place given by military regimes that ruled the country earlier. According to Richard Gott of The Guardian, "The debate in Venezuela has been less to do with the allegead absence of freedom of expression than with a perennially tricky issue locally referred to as "exclusion", a short hand term for "race" and "racism". RCTV was not just a politically reactionary organisation that supported the 2002 coup attempt against a democratically elected government - it was also a white supremacist channel.. It was "colonial" television, reflecting the desires and ambitions of an external power..". Our comrades, in their admiration for Chavez, didnt even bother to analyse the issue, for Chavez is the only global icon (after the aging Castro) they have at the moment.
Meanwhile in India there is a similar move by the Union Government to curb radio and television. The Ministry of Information & Broadcasting has brought out a Draft Broadcasting Code for television, which according to reports, contemplates several draconian measures to strangle broadcasters
like FM radio, television and community radio. If this Code becomes law, it will severely restrict
freedom of expression and communication in the country. For example, according to this code broadcasters will not be allowed to criticise "friendly countries" or the judiciary etc. Many media activists and progressive organisations have come out in protest against the draft code. Once this code falls into place, sting operations, and anything that may be detrimental to the interests of any social groups or communities would not be allowed to be aired.

This brings to focus several issues crucial to democratic society, issues entangled with the global media industry, state power and local/regional/national aspirations relating to information and entertainment. These interests often work in tandem with each other and sometimes in conflict as
is the case in both the instances referred above. But it is very difficult to justify one instance and condemn another,
for freedom of expression is an issue of vital importance, which cannot be left to the whims and fancies or interests of any one of these forces. We cannot curb the diatribes of capitalism to substitute it with that of the state. Nor should we treat people as gullible children who have to protected from what 'we' perceive as 'perverse' influences..

Only by giving unconditional and total freedom to more and more expressions and representations in the public sphere and by allowing the people to receive and choose from any of them can we ensure a more healthy and informed civil society.
In which case, unfreedoms are just that, whether it be global, national or local..

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Malayalam Film Industry

Yet Another Cycle of Crisis

At the moment, Malayalam film industry is enacting yet another crisis of its own making. Each and every player – producers, directors, scenarists, technicians, actors, distributors and exhibitors – is trying to impose on the industry rules and conditions that are favourable only to them. Each one of them wants the largest share of the pie in an industry that has no clue as to where it is heading to. The established actors want to maintain their hold over it and in the process do not want any new talents to enter the fray. Scenarists feel that they have been treated very badly and wants a rightful share in the spoils. The distributors and exhibitors who now have a stranglehold over the industry doesn't want anything to change; they want the industry to run on their deeply status quo-ist terms. Technicians on the other hand, feel that they have never been paid their due, and are exploited by all the others. The net result of all this is a deeply divided industry that is virtually a partnership enterprise between enemies. Only thing all of them agree upon seems to that the industry is about change. Everyone seems to believe that the state of the industry today is the end of the world, as if there are no other alternatives.

Committed and institutional capital that demands professionalism is not entering the field, that is presently ruled by butterfly capitalists. (If we analyse the production pattern of the 50 to 60 odd films that are released and 70 – 80 that are made every year in Malayalam, one will find that majority of the producers are debutants or one-time financiers) This evacuation of the field by professionals and established producers is one major symptom of the malaise.

Another major impediment has been the systematic indifference of the industry to innovation and exploration of new possibilities in all fields of business, like industrial practices, financing, marketing, technical upgradation, and new media extensions. Naturally this aversion to taking business risks gets reflected in the creative area too. Being an industry that is blissfully imprisoned within a limited market and business vision, it doesn't welcome changes, leave alone searching for it. As a result, the practices prevalent in the industry, the relationship between the various players, and the infrastructural edifice – all have remained stagnant and regressive. Even the possibilities opened up by digital technology and the world of creative opportunities it has opened up have not been able to wake up our industry. It is only natural that such a system will not be able to welcome fresh ideas, talents and methodologies. While the players fight each other for their share, only the fast changing tastes and expectations of the viewers go totally unaddressed and ignored. And so, a conservative capital, feudal production norms, decades-old faces and staid themes rule the roost for us.

One doesn't have to look far for solutions. Tamil films, which 'we' used to look condescendingly until recently, have made huge strides in all areas. They welcomed new talents and explored new themes, geared the industry, its technology and practices to suit the new scenario and as a result have conquered new markets and audiences. It will take a long time for the myopic, spending all their creative energies finding fault and fighting each other, to see the obvious.