Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Duality of Humanism in James Cameroon’s Avatar

Avatar, released in 2009, soon became a huge phenomenon in the world of media and movie production. The response that this movie received is mixed. Even the ones who criticized the movie are aware about the fact that it did something that never happened in Hollywood till date on such a grand level. Whereas the movie is praised for raising many social concerns, many have seen it to be taking an age-old stereotypical path to attain these shared goals. The duality is very apt if one sees the movie from different perspectives. Humanism is one of the major issues in this blockbuster which is intertwined to the whole plot. There is always present in human an urge to class themselves into a universal framework of “Human” which does not suit them because human are characterized by individualism and personality. In this paper, I would like to dwell upon the two trajectories possible to trace the essence of Humanism in the movie. The first portrays Cameroon as the Messiah figure who has tried to mobilize the masses against everything that has a tinge of imperialism and other ideas related to it; those which are still existent in our world. However, the second suggests that he is nothing more than a liberal humanist who could not think of a society without the intellectual and powerful assistance of Whites.
When viewed from one perspective, this movie is anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism. The human beings in the movie actually stand for degraded humanity where the society is divided in two halves; one headed by the superiors, ruling over the marginalized other for their personal benefits. Colonel Miles Quaritch heads this devilish face of ideas Cameroon is against. The instructions and information provided by the Colonel to the soldiers when they land on Pandora is the only source the newcomers have to know about the new planet and its inhabitants. The Na’vis are portrayed in the darkest light; they are compared to the savages. They have even been belittled to a state where they are nothing more than “trees that move”. The Colonel, manned in his metallic gadget, gets bracketed together with advance vicious machines. This hegemonic faction could be represented by technological excesses put on use for self-centered benefits. They depict the evil side of human, where the main concern of the RDA Corporation is to acquire an expensive element Unobtanium from the sacred planet of Na’vi. They don’t care about the losses incurred to the humanity as a price paid for their selfish motive. It is a material gain that is primary and everything else is of no consequence to them.
The humanoids, Na’vis are presented as a binary to the mercenary selfish human. The aborigines of this innocent planet are still in congruence with the nature. Neytiri, the teacher to Jake as an avatar, told him that there is a “network of energy” flowing in the whole planet. The harmonious relation between the planet and its inhabitants is just opposite to what the humans are up to. As opposed to how they are portrayed by the Colonel they are not savages. They have their own distinct religion and culture. They also have acquired a distinct language which exist only orally and thus binds the people on the planet together besides everyone’s intimate connection with Pandora. There exists an electro-chemical connection between the people and the planet whose epicenter lies in the sacred tree. This tree even unites the whole planet into one larger unit spiritually. Although this is different from Christian theology, it gives a sense of religion and ethics. It is shown that there exist a sort of bond between every creature, even between cultured or wild. This unconventional bonding is highlighted when the Na’vis were on verge of losing the battle against the humans. It is at this time they were joined by the wild creatures of the forest. The inhabitant live by the mantra of necessity and not abundance.
One even finds that the scientific team financed by the very RDA Corporation are outsiders in their chaotic society which has an affinity for war and destruction. They chose to change sides for they could see through the hidden wretched face of the mining works—symbolic of constructive efforts generally. They got closely connected with the natives while working for inhumane institute. This team unites under Jake Sully’s leadership to fight against the erroneous system. This is shown in their effort to save the natives, even at the cost of their own life. They help the ignorant residents of the planet about the limitlessness of the power possessed by the attackers with their huge army and havoc-creating weapons. The head scientist, Augustine is genuinely interested in the mysterious phenomenon on the planet. Her attempt is not directed for selfish benefits but for the advantage of the whole society by advancing the boundaries of science. She represent the scarce existence of positive implementation of the scientific advancements. This small but determined band of really altruistic people belong to the class which stands for antagonistic characteristics. This feud inside the system maybe an attempt to show the incompetency of the Corporation as it cracks from within. This small group gets teamed with the Na’vis in their struggle for freedom. The Na’vis are pictured as a prototype of the colonized people, oppressed by the formulations and rules laid down by the cruel and selfish colonizers.
The movie could simply be put into the framework of colonization. One could never find any instance in the movie where Cameroon is seen empathizing with the exploitative group RDA Corporation. The movie becomes a tool through which one barges into a zone of ‘No Entry’. The audiences get a feeling that they are peeping at secret enterprises of colonizing company. The mask of altruism that generally conceals the mercenary objective of colonizing enterprise is exposed. The director identifies himself with the blue colored Na’vis who are certainly representing a better alternative. The natives’ way of life is emblematic for the world that is on offer by the utopian view of the director. The marked contrast added by Cameroon while constructing two poles of his binary world enhances the vividness of his portrayal of bestiality. This animalistic character of human defines the world as it exists today—the world that is ever on the verge of war and destruction. According to him, the human being presents the true picture of human as they exist today and the Na’vis presents the world that is desired. Gilad Atzmon has rightly said in his review of the movie that this movie “puts Wolfowitz, Blair and Bush on trial without even mentioning their names.”
However, there often remains a question that is beyond a concrete reply. It questions not the theme that comes to the forefront in the movie but it interrogates the process through which James Cameroon has reached the end result that is Avatar. There is no denying the fact that the movie raised a loud cry against war, colonization and imperialism. The problem arises when one analyzes the methods and techniques used by this white man in painting his pictures and his characters to present such a remarkable story that was able to attract audience’s attention. After all, one knows that James Cameroon is no social activist, he is a successful director making movies in Hollywood and his prime motive would always be that his movie should do well. Despite, the remarkable message that got spread through the movie, it is not such an innocent effort as it appears because there is a force working, at least on a subconscious level. Cameroon is definitely enmeshed in the stereotypes that work on beliefs that are old but they appear in a new garb.
Cameroon has been charged for excessive expenses by many film critics for making this movie. It is ironical that the movie itself talks against excesses in human’s life. The natives are not able to fight their enemies with bows and arrows. It is only when they use the weapons used by their rivals that they could hope for winning the war. The finger that the movie is pointing at ideas it is against is now actually pointing towards itself. It roughly took the director a span of around five years for developing the technologies that were needed to produce a movie of such a grand scale! Paul Tatara has compared James Cameroon to Eric Rohmer where he shows the simplistic approach taken by the later. He pointed to the major ecological disturbance that should have resulted from the carbon footprint just in order to give a visual statement against such practices. The movie is made on a very grand scale which captures the human life at the time of crisis. This has always been a secret mantra of success for Cameroon. The same happened in the climactic scene in Titanic. The scenes of Colonel Miles Quaritch waging war and the one of destruction after the sacred tree of Pandora is pulled down gives a sentimental touch and an aura of awe to the movie. The director could easily be branded as a liberal humanist in terms of his characterizations. The white man will always play a heroic role in the life of a struggle of “the other” in their emancipation.
When one traces the plot of the movie into its simplest fiber, one finds that the Na’vis are actually portrayed as savages. The myth of noble savage finds popularity once again with Cameroon. The natives have become a subaltern who cannot speak for themselves and are beyond exclusive action against the hegemonic domination. It is obvious that the movie cannot not show them succeeding in the end if it wanted to do well at the box office. When the question arises, who will be the emancipator; it is neither Neytiri nor her parents who are the head of the clan. They are actually “white man’s burden”. So, the savior is no other than a white man even when he is crippled. Rather, his deficiency becomes a tool for alienating him from evil human beings. Further, his crippled self plays no role when he is transmuted into avatar’s body. Without Jake Sully the inhabitants have no hope for victory against the powerful human supported by weapons of mass destruction. The story is simple enough; a white man stand for the blacks against the whites. This format is generally presented as a white man’s confession of the ill his people have promulgated. It rather unhinges the hidden beliefs harbored by whites about their own superiority. This self-consciousness of recognizing one’s own mistakes and trying to correct is inferential to suggest that it could only be expected from people with wisdom, the whites.
Jake appeared as a messiah. His sermons and his prayer are powerful and they work because he is a white man. He surpasses the natives in his accomplishments. This is a myth prevalent in West that they know more about the East than they themselves know. The huge amount of literatures and reports where the oriental views of West tries to construct its “Other” is a proof of such convictions. We also come across one such attempt in the course of movie also. Augustine has gathered her researches done on the Na’vis in a form of book. This is what humanism does; it turns the living organism into the pages of a book. The written tradition brings with it a scope for loss of innocence that exist in the oral tradition—one adhered to by the Na’vis. It is quite rebuking to find that the all the actors who played as the inhabitants of Pandora belonged to native America or were Afro-Americans. There is discrimination at work not only in the movie but at a larger level as well. This duality which is functional even beyond the plot of the movie could not wholly be unconscious. Cameroon knows what he is doing with his movie and he surely is also aware as to what he is doing in his movie.
The natives are painted on the model of the people of Eastern civilizations. Whatever is connected with the Na’vis has a touch of exoticism. One cannot ignore the inherent “Orientalism” at work while creating the planet Pandora. The natives are portrayed as absolutely diverse from the Westerners. There is a stable amalgamation of wild and serene on the planet. This has always magnetized the West. The vegetations in the forests of planet glitter when touched. The hovering mountains add to the beauty of Pandora. The flying animals that are domesticated by the denizens also present a scene that is dream-like. The mercenary people are attracted towards this planet due to Unobtanium whereas good people from West will be taken aback by these exotic scenes which will make them utter, “Oh My God!” One can know the effects of such locations when they are viewed in 3-D. The movie appears closer that it actually is; ironic indeed. The audience seems to merge with this exotic world of Pandora. There is an attempt to attaching oneself with these mystic creatures where in the end it reaches the climax. We find that Jake has finally turned himself into a Na’vi, a complete transformation. He is an avatar when the human and the animal unite in him. He is beyond everyone else in the movie and he can never be unsure of the victory.
The whites will definitely love to see a white man trying to salvage the blacks, not in the real world but on an imaginative planet. The downtrodden people fighting and winning a battle to gain their freedom against the oppressors could not be such an interesting plot for the West. The displacement of the settings to an alien land makes it palatable, or rather enjoyable for the people who are in some way mocked at in Avatar. Even the name of the movie says that. Additionally, by borrowing a lot of ideas from different section of the world’s beliefs and ideas, Cameroon ensures that his movie is appealing for a wider audience, across the globe. The Pandora has been compared by many reviewers to the Garden of Eden. It amazes me that no one saw the connection between the name of the planet with a mythological story that talks about the chest of miseries; Pandora Box. There was a box that kept intact all negative forces of the world until it was opened. It is paradoxical when this Pandora is presenting everything that is not evil in the movie. This will surely invoke in the audience’s mind that the Na’vis cannot actually be as innocent as they are represented in the movie. The name says it all to them.
Therefore, in the end it could be said that even when Avatar might be a great success as a movie with an equally great moral message to endorse to the audience. However, one can always question this claim of promotion of awareness for lessons are learnt in a silent ambience and not in theatre were one is simply swayed and enticed by the great technologies used in the movie and one is equally not in one’s sanest of self to comprehend moral messages with all the war cries and reverberations of the gun fires. Now, it is worth noticing that in the last two sentences I have used “great” thrice for the movie. This is what happens with it. The audiences are in such an awe to be literally blind to the other facet of the movie that is equally important because there are huge efforts on director’s part to make such revelation invisible to them. One needs to be able to look through the motives of any act. Avatar is a movie that uses the same ways that it is criticizing. This is the crux of all the arguments. I would conclude by saying that there is a need to alienate ourselves from the things that appear on the surface if we want to reach to the deeper and truer version of objects under observation. We need such avatar that would allow us such freedom.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Creating while Performing: Vijay Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal

“I have more questions than answers, more problems than solutions.
As long as you don’t know the problem fully, it is easy to find solutions.”[1]
-          Vijay Tendulkar
Theatre has always been a social hub of any community. Since its inception, drama has championed the task of entertainment as well as teaching. However, when Bertolt Brecht introduced epic drama it emphasized mainly on the didactic role of theatre. The stage became a platform for a free flow of ideas and thoughts, trying to refine the society that was against such exchange of ideas because the society has been enmeshed in chaotic situations. Modernism in Indian Drama could be attributed to changes in the structure as well as the form of the plays. It is true that the influence of Western theories have also helped towards this process of modernization.
Vijay Tendulkar is considered a pioneer of Modern Drama in Vernacular language. His most celebrated work Ghashiram Kotwal could be seen as the harbinger of a new heights attained by Indian Drama. This paper will try to see the logic behind Tendulkar’s merging of traditional folk form and the modern form. There is a return to primary orality in using the traditional form in theatre. There is an excessive use of music in the play which nonetheless assists the performance of the play. These marked experiments could be seen as an endeavor to re-create historical facts which otherwise are formulated in the hands of privileged few belonging to the upper class. This is worth exploring is some detail. The playwright is trying to raise contemporary questions in the backdrop of an idealized past where he rigorously questions the validity of that past. The play has been successful according to Tendulkar because it raised certain controversies; leading towards thought process. I would examine the various facets that combined together to give the play its desired effects and much earned success.
Ghashiram Kotwal has been seen as an entrance of Indian drama in a newer arena of modernity in theatre. Vijay Tendulkar has brilliantly transformed the Marathi folk forms while imbibing it in his drama. The fusion of the Dashavatar Khel and the Tamasha could be seen as providing a desired effect to the play having a modern flavour. The Dashavatar form is used ironically in the play as it is a folk dance drama where ten incarnation of Vishnu would destroy the evil. What one witnesses in the play is just the opposite. Even Tamasha is a dance drama where the story is mainly about the adventure and romance of the protagonist. However, the playwright has even twisted this form by using it to spin a tale of misadventure of Ghashiram Savaldas and lustful indulgences of Nana Phadnavis. This amalgamation even helps in creating a plot which has to be justifiably historical for the audience should feel transported back in time. The musical and rhythmic structure of the play gives it a racing speed as desired. So, the folk forms — pantomime of the Dashavatar and the wit of the Tamasha — give a historical ambience to the play. However, it is obviously not a folk but a modern drama owing to the fact that it juxtaposes the past forms with the present concerns. This unison results in a chaos that is traced back to human psyche presented through the characters of the two protagonists. Besides, the centrality of the plot where the story seems to have gone through a vicious cycle gives the play an altogether different structure.
The Sutradhar has a very important role to play in the drama. He could be seen as an alienation device used by Tendulkar. His role has been extended by the playwright from merely introducing the play to the audience to a state where he is almost always present on the stage. It is through him that we find the play moving towards primary orality which is but impossible in a society based on literacy, where people know how to read and write. Therefore, the play creates such a surrounding where one could partially experience such primitive and pure form of oral art. The repetition is a keyword here because it is a pivotal feature of an oral literature which facilitates memorizing. In this light, even the chorus has an important role to play in association with the Sutradhar as it repeats what he speaks. It is to be noted that the chorus reiterates only a part of the line spoken by the Sutradhar and at times slightly changes it. This gives a prophetic dimension to the utterances, acting as dramatic ironies. The chorus even mimes many actions which could be seen as an instance where the playwright is trying to avoid even language to stay away from its politics. The chorus even acts and sings incoherently with the action. For instance the torturing of an innocent Brahmin is masked by the loud chanting of God’s name. This leads to an added stress on the deteriorating condition of the society which not only errs but knows how to conceal it under the garb of goodness and nobility. Thus, the chorus with the Sutradhar emerges as the third most important presence on the stage after Nana Phadnavis and Ghashiram Kotwal.
Vijay Tendulkar has claimed that Ghashiram Kotwal is not a historical play. However, one cannot overlook the historicity of a play which is set in the period of Peshwa Rule in eighteenth century and even the title suggests a person who actually lived during that era. Besides, the plot presents a parallel history which challenges the historiography; attacking the belief that history is a collection of fact and so it should be authoritative. The playwright presents an altogether different character of Nana Phadnavis than perceived by most of the people. During the Peshwa rule the Brahmins were at the apex of power. The play shows that instead of leading towards progress they indulged in carnal pleasure. Nana Phadnavis, instead of being a great statesman and ruler who resisted the British in Poona, is portrayed as a lustful and manipulative ruler who is excessively self-indulgent. This was seen as an attack on the iconic figure of Nana and an insult upon the image of Chitpavan Brahmins. The treatment of history in the play unsettles the stability of its agency itself because one is led to think that history is after all a subjective entity. It is about point of view and not facts.
History is important because it is considered to be concerned with one’s past which gives one a sense of identity. The colonizers tampered with native’s history so that the aborigines began to think of their culture and past as primitive. This belittling gives an upper hand to the colonizers’ culture as standard and superior. The playwright is still not so much concerned with this act of colonization. His main target could be summed up in what Vibha Saxena mentioned in her essay elucidating a postcolonial perspective of the play:
“Significantly, with the onset of colonialism and the arrival of a new and more sophisticated form of exaction and rule — founded on Capital and industry — older injustices and hierarchies were strung together into a form of servitude which the colonised solely attributed to the coming of the coloniser.”
The complex process of colonization[2] allowed the native leaders to absolve themselves of any evil that were attributed to them. They were simply shifted to the colonizers. The local people re-invented past as glorious by creating idols and icons to give a sense of superiority to the indigenous culture. The artists — a historiographer is also one of them — have tried to rationalize their fictional accounts to create icons. Tendulkar seems to be challenging this through demystification where he falsifies this creation of icons by the privileged upper class.
There are many who agree to what the playwright has said. They don’t see the play to be dealing with a historical setting. They consent to what Tendulkar has said in the interviews that the play is mainly about the foul play of power. That it is only incidental that the setting selected for this play happened to be Poona of eighteenth century. He says that his focus “was on human tendencies, human frailties”, in an interview given to Mukta Rajadyaksha for Frontline. The play might have depicted Ghashiram as a cruel Chief of Police but it is mainly trying to highlight him as a representative of those common people who become puppets in the hands of the powerful groups and are used and thrown away for their selfish ends. It is important to note that destruction of this Ghashiram does not ensure the end of their production. It is about Ghashirams — used as a common noun — according to the playwright. They will continue to raze the society because the ones who create these monstrous characters are unscathed. The spiritualized politics is a menacing presence in our society where one like Nana will always find ways to justify their foul deeds. One such occasion is where he has been able to subdue murderous Ghashiram with his ambiguous and illusory speech. Tendulkar is trying to rationalize the politics here.
Ghashiram Kotwal is not a protagonist of the play as the title suggests. It is mainly about the Nana Phadnavis. One can see the logic when seen in connection with the episode where Nana has bestowed Kotwali to Ghashiram. He speaks when alone, “What’ll happen is that our misdeeds will be credited to your account. We do; our Kotwal pays.” Such relocation is also happening with the title. Though Tendulkar attacks Nana, he conceals it behind the name of his Kotwal. Ghashiram is only a plaything in the hands of his superiors. He is the name given to the invisible face of power. He is only a scapegoat who works as an insulator for the corrupted head of the state. The evil in the society is credited to him, his being an outsider is profitably used by Nana to let lose terror in the city and finally he is destroyed. All these are done so that Nana could maintain his sanitized status in the public.
 The play could simply be seen as an attack on the barbarity of the human being itself. The human beings who considered themselves to have developed since they were conceived were shown to be still directed by their baser and raw passion and desires. Thomas Hobbes’ speculations about human still exist that every man is every other man’s enemy; that the world is directed by selfishness. Nana Phadnavis is worried only about his lustfulness where even his seven wives and the various concubines are not enough to satisfy his passionate self. On the other hand Ghashiram Kotwal could not content himself where he sacrificed his daughter to gain power and exercises it to take revenge from the common people. He seems to enjoy the scenes of macabre and bloodshed. When he says, “Feels good” on seeing blood on his hand, he falls below the stature of animals that resort to violence only out of necessity. The act of marginalization of Ghashiram Kotwal and other minor characters well reflect the way the society has been working since time immemorial. On a deeper analysis, the play is trying to show the working of the invisible but the most potent phenomenon; power itself. It is power alone that makes this world go round as every action is directed towards assertion of power of one kind or the other. The play sheds light on many relevant issues which are important in the analytical study of any society. The character of Lalita Gauri and the British officer leads one to think about them just because of their silent presence where both portray the two extremes of power.
These universal issues concerning human are aptly dealt with by the playwright. This makes Ghashiram Kotwal relevant in all times to come. This play always seems to be open to sundry new interpretations which suggest the infinitude possibilities provided by it. The performance of such a play in front of a large audience would certainly create havoc by destroying the stable base of their life. The play gives a sense of groundlessness where one is led to think that what appears as truth might only be one of the many possible versions of the same. Tendulkar has unveiled the working of power that is generally hidden from the people, has explored the human psychology, and displayed how this power could be used to mold human psyche into subservience. The play was banned and the playwright was assaulted as an initial response to the play. There lies its success. After all, what’s the use of a play which does not raise controversy for it is controversy alone that leads people to think and action can only emerge out of thought processes.
Ø    Tendulkar, Vijay, Ghashiram Kotwal. Trans. Jayant Karve and Eleanor Zelliot. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1984. Print.
Ø    Bhalla, Neela, ed. Vijay Tendulkar: Ghashiram Kotwal. Delhi: Worldview Publications, 2000. Print.
Ø    “Modern Indian Drama” Dec, 2011.   Online.
Ø    Tendulkar, Vijay, Ghashiram Kotwal: Sampurn Natak. Dec, 2011. Online.
Ø    “Traditional Theatre Forms of India” Dec, 2011. Online.
Ø    Rajadyaksha, Mukta, ‘My writing has always been honest’: Interview with Vijay Tendulkar. Vol. 22- Issue 24. Nov. 19 – Dec. 09, 2005, Frontline. Dec, 2011. Online.

[1] Vijay Tendulkar said this in an interview for Frontline.
[2] Cultural colonization is a passive yet the most effective means to subjugate natives.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

They are not in wrong but...

North India and South India are two different worlds. Actually even these monolithic terms that are so common in our vocabulary are erroneous... The term South India holds good only till it means what is beyond North India. Even North India could be used with certain exceptions. We often celebrate our unity in diversity. What unifies us is just a political vague idea of INDIA . No one actually cares about it when it comes to living ordinarily in daily life. We are diverse, true. But we are certainly not united. We form a collage where difference are just minimized by gluing the different ends together. Nothing unites us into one is the colonial English. Language was ever political but I have always been dimly aware about it. I had given it less thought that it wonted from me. I wondered at people who debated for Hindi as a National Language. How does it matter?? It does. It really does all that could be done. The only entity that could unite the common public is Language. I don't consider Art here for it is trivial in a common man's life. Language, in being cultural have always, instead of playing a positive role, have played the part of a villain. It creates a scenario where the different language speaking group form their mini societies. Isn't it a common phenomena that a Keralite will forget you when he/she meets another Keralite or a Bengali will begin talking to another Bengali in Bengali without considering the presence of others who might not know that language and are excluded from the conversation or a Kashmiri never agreeing to teach you their language or a Bihari enjoying the flavor of his language with other Bihari not caring for what others might think about it? What do these point towards? It is their attempt at retaining one's culture and even at certain extent keeping it exclusively to oneself. If only one knew that it is all the play of Language. Why do I yearn for people who are able to speak Hindi where it is hardly spoken. Even the Hyderabadi Hindi is acceptable! It was the only tool that was used to unite what we today know as Andhra Pradesh as "Telugu Speaking State" and today the same tool is exploited to attain a different end where the people demanding for a different state, Telangana proclaim that the language spoken in Telangana region is different from that spoken in other region. Language gives us a sense of "Us". It is One thing with which we identify ourselves. But language will always fail to give a sense of "All of Us". It unites and divides simultaneously. One can do nothing about it but to learn the best ways through which to put up with this heroic-villainous language. It should not be criticized when people talk in their native language. It is the only way they could identify themselves with their native land from where they might be far away. It is an old saying, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." but this conceals the fact that one is not a Roman and one should not desire to be categorized as one. This should be reflected from one's act. There is certainly a need to maintain individuality -- a social individuality -- in this Globalized World. My only plea to a global citizen (who live in a surrounding where the people from different society meet and interact) is that "Even when in Rome, do as you did at your Home but when in Roman Market do what holds good for EVERYONE." Just don't forget the Others because they are equally important.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Whose Wonderland it it anyway? Carroll's or Burton's or Alice's?


This has been an old tradition that famous novels have been adapted into the form of movies. It has always been an interesting field of research for various scholars who deeply analyze the purpose behind the art of intertextuality. The scope for the study arises from the point that the two forms are not quite similar. The pages of a book with their peculiar aroma have its own charm with the readers whereas the movie or even a theatrical adaptation has something somewhat different enjoyment to offer to the viewers. A complete and perfect adaptation is not at all possible. Besides, it is not even desired for the creators of both the forms have a different intention in mind. When a person thinks about adapting a novel in the form of a movie, he not only works out what has been thought by the actual creator of that piece of art but he rather adds onto his own perception to the same. The new efforts is in a way a hybrid where one gets to see one person’s understanding and interpretation of another person’s art.

In this paper I would like to explore this very idea referring to the movie released last year, Alice in Wonderland which is based on the novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll. Although what could be seen as a very intelligent version of the novel, the movie attains not the same end results as the novel tried to. Most of the characters from the novels are well fitted in the movie into the narrative but they have different roles to play. What Lewis Carroll wanted to achieve through his novel is different from towards what Tim Burton wishes his viewers to be directed to in his adaption of the two novels. The story looks similar but in the movie one finds Alice to be a young lady and not the same child one met in the novel. This could well be seen as giving motion to the fears of the author; losing Alice once she would be child no more. This is an important change that allows the director to explore Alice’s character in a rather extensive manner. What was a mere dream in the novels have been presented as a creation out of memory in the movie. This also opens a wide vista through which one can peep into this edition of the book.

I will analyze the relevant section of the movie where the changes brought from that of the novel serves vital purpose. The paper will further compare the two accounts of the same event stressing upon the function of such alteration. My main focus will be to deconstruct the politics of the director in this adaptation where there is another matter to be considered by him besides that of Carroll’s; to attest fairly to the norms of movie direction and certain elements that need to be there to make a movie stay at the box office and achieve success. Therefore, this intertextuality will aim at disclosing the motif of the important episodes in the movie and how they are designed in certain style to attain some definite ends.

In this era where we live, there are lot of things from past we still hold on to even though the efforts of the new technology has been to replace them; in many cases, for betterment. The same has happened in the world of books. Today it faces a tough competition with many alternative source of knowledge. What adds on to this is a movie adaptation of books. There is a large section of the society that is impatient. It does not has ‘gumption’ to go through the whole stretch of the novels, waiting for the events to unfold slowly and gradually. The people belonging to this busy class would prefer watching the movie adaptation. It saves time. Besides, it does not stress the faculty of imagination which is a must for a written text. The common people but fail to see the differences that the two means of entertainment have in store for they cannot be a perfect substitute. It falls then on the literary critics to study the difference between these two art forms; similar in many ways yet they ought to diverge so that both can maintain their independent existence.

The series of children literature, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There written by Lewis Carroll, is considered one of the major works of literature. The author has not only attempted to entertain his little companions but the novel became his tool and he attains liberty to critique the social milieu. What one comes across in the books is not just a dream of Alice through which the reader gets to know a child’s psyche. There is an inherent mature thematic running prominently in the sub-text that highlights the social construct and their absurdity for “what is the use of a book ... without pictures or conversations” [my italics]. It needs to serve a social function of enlightening the readers by revealing onto them the slice of life that generally remains hidden from their view. The many dichotomies that work in this wonderland are displayed in a displaced space only to make it easier for a developing mind to comprehend. What could be a better medium to unveil than dreams and wonderland, or the underground and the looking-glass world? These places allows for the suspension of the norms adhered to in the real world.

The novel raises many topical issues. The most prominent theme dealt with in the novels is the way the English language works. There are many sections that exclusively work on the same premise, spread across the text. They show the incomprehensiveness of the working of the language. The most important segment is where Alice meets Humpty-Dumpty.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master that’s all.”

There are enumerable occasions where Alice is asked to say what she means even when she makes herself clear enough. This clarity is from the point of view of the society she inhabits. There are many instances where the meaning is comprehended the way it was not meant. The author goes to an extent to deflate the grammar books. there is an instance where the author plays upon the word "tale" intending a pun, so as to debunk the language itself.1 The English language has been termed gibberish quite openly where a character asks another to “Speak English” although when the other was speaking in English. The incorporation of nonsensical in the books has added a new dimension to his work where Carroll is out making a statement to reject the rules set by others and ones not based on logic. The most important example is the poem, "Jabberwocky".

The politics of Carroll is anything but vivid. In certain section of the novels, he uses the semiotic; symbols to speak what he cannot otherwise do. The mock fight between the unicorn and the lion in the Looking-Glass world is actually an image of the battle between England and Scotland. The utopian world that the author creates is not impractical. Although there is a deferment of rules in the Wonderland, there still exists the evil that needs to be won over. It is then an idyllic place where there are possibilities of good happenings. The White Queen “believed (in) as many as six impossible things before breakfast” though this feat is attributed to Alice and her father in the movie.2 The two ends- good and evil- gets teamed with the White Queen and the Red Queen respectively.3 The judiciary as a farce is aptly presented in the novel where in a trial there is nothing that actually takes place. This brief description gives a faint idea about Carroll’s wonderland. The place holds the uniqueness in having an ability to unhinge the unknown facet of reality in a palatable way.

Burton creates his Wonderland with a raw material from Carroll’s world. The idea and the characters in the movie are taken from the novels but they are put in director’s Wonderland. It is principally a visual realization of novel’s space in Burton’s mind. He has surely taken the preliminary help from the illustrations in the two novels. At times, the two images cohere so completely so as to dissolve the line that demarcates the two different Wonderlands.4 The director has taken various incidents from the novels and incorporates them artistically to have a really good plot for a successful blockbuster. The poem Jabberwocky in Through the Looking Glass forms the main plot in the movie. The movie but takes a different turn as in what it tries to portray. The most distinct feature of the movie is that it presents the two worlds; although not unbiased. There is an attempt to cohere the two life form- reality and dreamland. The real world has been given more space in the movie and it sandwiches the happenings in the underground world.

A theme that runs parallel throughout the stretch of the two novels as well as the movie is portrayal of the Victorian society. When Burton does this, he does it more directly by presenting the people who stick to the standard of that time and again there is Alice who is everything a Victorian girl should not be. Alice in the movie will not follow the “proper” arrangements set by others and just to give one example; to her “a corset is like a codfish”.5 She is not the one to care for the dos and don’ts of the society that is depicted in the beginning of the movie. In the case of the novels, to a reader who is not alert, this theme might pass away unnoticed. Here, Carroll has only his little protagonist who is enmeshed in the customs. She rejects them at times and at other, accepts what she is asked to do. She is on the margins then, a connecting link. Her psychoanalysis reveals a lot about those times, when she existed. She wishes to get away from the boundaries and restrictions. She is able to do the same in her dreams.

This brings one closer to Alice as she is. The pivotal role is beyond doubts hers in the novels as well as in the movie for it is her dream that one gets a chance to peep into. Although it is the narrator through which one gets to know of the story, it is Alice’s voice that is heard most of the time. One of the most beautifully juxtaposed happenings in this whole space is what connects the novels to the movie in a somewhat linear fashion. There are many critics who believed, and not without reason, in Carroll’s intimacy with Alice of the real life. He feared his companionship with his little friend to be short-lived. This gets projected in the nostalgic retort at the end of Wonderland by Alice’s sister. It seems that it is the author that lays bare his heart.

Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.

In this light, the movie is where Carroll’s prediction fear has been realized but luckily not completely. It is also believed that White Knight who saves Alice from the clutches of the Black Knight in Through the Looking Glass is an objectification of author himself.6 The Bandersnatch could be a modification of the savior, in the movie, from the novel. If it is a case then it is for a particular purpose. I will undertake this in the later sections.

The way in which the character of Alice is presented in the novels and the way it is portrayed in the movie brings a stark difference between the two modes of art. In the novels, there is a child with her childishness, the one who is unknown to many facts of the real world. Her though process is yet in her infancy and so she has to dwell upon the parameters provided by others, and not her own. Alice in the movie, on the other hand is a young adolescent girl of twenty, the age and visage thought of as proper for marriage at those times. One finds singular approaches of two when faced with the challenges and led in danger. It is true that both Alice are dictated in the Wonderland by trivial creatures of everyday life but the little Alice is more modest about them and does not rebel, doing the same only in thoughts. While one finds a staunch rejection from the grown-up Alice, in the movie. She, at one time just blurted out at Bayard, the dog.7

The theme of growing up has a different connotation running throughout the text. A question that one must ask is that what the criterions to decide upon growth are. Alice changes size so rapidly that she is helpless when she says that she is unable to “keep the same size for ten minutes together,” in the novel. Even the Mad Hatter is tempted to say, “Why is it you're always too small or too tall?” The problems related to this issue are nicely explored in the novel than in the movie because Carroll always had a fear of grown-up Alice. When the little girl grows to a mammoth size, there are a lot of thoughts she finds herself into, stupid ones mainly. She had drawn the conclusions with the help of logic when she states, “There ought to be a book written about me, that there ought! And when I grow up, I’ll write one—but I’m grown up now,” she added in a sorrowful tone: “at least there’s no room to grow up any more here.”

This theme has become a criterion for Alice’s identity in a way, in the Wonderland.8 She herself lost her sense of identity and tried to identify herself with her friends, in to whom she might have turned. Her transformation in the unconventional land at times does not allow her to confirm to her actual self. She is unable to answer the simple question as to who she is, confused at this fluctuation in the size. She is “a little girl” but she is not actually little at times. The matter stands a bit differently in the movie where the identity of Alice is based on her memory as the creatures in the Wonderland expect that “she would remember it from the first time.” She had the same dream for about thirteen years. She is accused of being the wrong Alice all the times due to the same.9 This theme of recollection is somewhat not there in the plot of the novel but is apt and fore-grounded in the movie. Absalom helps her to solve the problem of identity, though in steps. Even then a vague question remains; one cannot describe oneself from within oneself. We do the same by stating what we are not, and by the objects or people we are associated to.

This matter of memory is important as the base on which the characters in the movie are created is not a dream actually but the memories of the same one dream that Alice has.10 The reminiscence of the past allowed her to take the serious decision of agreeing to slay Jabberwocky. She has realized the substantiality of the creatures in the wonderland even though when she had repeatedly pacified herself by asserting that “it’s just a dream” and believed that everything will be all right once she will wake up. She never wakes up though even when she tries to pinch herself. Burton’s or Alice’s Wonderland is a place created out of memory or images that came up in mind. Carroll’s world is a dreamland on the other hand. It is a dream where the impossible is taking place, can take place without any obstacle. Though one thing is common, both memory and dream has been considered as an incompetent source to build on something factual. Nevertheless, a lot of writers adhering to anti-realist mode use them for the same.

This idea of Wonderland itself allows the author as well as the director, to engage in the faculty of imagination and fantasy and to produce a world that was never seen before. It is obvious that Carroll had to paint his world with words and he can only have a liberty of few illustrations to add onto his descriptions. The Wonderland is then more a product of the fusion of writer and the reader for every reader will relate differently with the text and conceive one’s exclusive and one’s own world. However, it must have been easier for Tim Burton whose Wonderland is more to do with the sight, giving nothing to the audience to create.11 Everything has been done by the director; one only needs to engulf it as such. It must be helpful here to consider a point that was not taken into account until now. Burton has engaged into producing a Hollywood flick that had to have certain elements if it needed to do well at the box office. The movie did excel because he applied his imagination only to such a level where it will be accepted by the audience. It did not go past the viewer’s expectation and followed some pattern.

There are many points about the movie that one will never wonder at in this wonderland. These are the melodramatic moments in the movie. One comes across them very often in many movies. The logic of Bandersnatch in the movie is that there was nothing new happening in this scene. It was expected of Alice to win his favour by showing her kindness towards the beast by returning his eye so that it would save her at a critical point in order to pay back. The scene where Bayard meets his family after a long time is a play on audience’s emotion. Above all, there is a beautiful girl, on the verge of getting engaged with somebody quite unromantic. Isn’t it but obvious for her to get intimate with Mad Hatter. Besides, who would not be moved when the lovable Mad Hatter is no other that Johnny Depp? It is no amazement that when the movie did well, a substantial fraction of credit was grabbed by the famous actor. The ends are predictable, for in a Wonderland, no one could expect there to be any other ending than a happy one. Although these are clichés that have been used, they helped the movie to appeal to the audience as Burton would have wanted.12

So, this paper has just been a vague attempt to mention certain relevant issues related to intertextuality, emphasizing on the adaptation of Carroll’s novels last year. There could have been other methodology also, like a comparison between many different adaptations. What I have tried is to relate the coherent issues that one generally tends to overlook. The few question regarding dream, memory and identity are very political. There cannot be a simple answers to them. However, the most desirable way to deal with these issues is to ponder upon these unnoticed entities. The question to be asked is why there is a need for a Wonderland? It is self explanatory that the world inhabited has its anomalies which needs to be done away with. This dream is easily realized in a place without borders. There is a need to understand that the dichotomy between reality and fiction is just a conception of mind; the two are not as apart as generally perceived. Therefore, it is of no accord whether the Wonderland belongs to Burton or Carroll, or even Alice. The most important point is that our reality should be like the Wonderland, without boundaries.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Re-writing History: Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines

History has never been such as it emerged in the twentieth century. With the advent of post colonialism the way history was perceived and how it was later seen changed drastically, having nothing in common. History has been considered synonymous to past in earlier times; that is it was thought to be authentic and remained unchallenged. No one questioned the validity of the chronicles and the archives that formed the foundation of this branch of study. This trend stopped but with the massive changes brought in by the Marxist approach that became prevalent. History was objective no more and therefore it had to prove itself to be true. In the old times, history was never judged to be a form of literature but it was thought to be carrying greater importance and was never critiqued. However, it was realized that after all history is written by human being and no eternal creature. This led to the inference that the historiographers are but a bunch of people with their own subjectivities, their choices and their favorites. The history writing is then a complex combination of selection; rejection and addition. So, when a victor writes history, it is not an absolute replica of what happened but only one version of the same. The voices that are loud are made to reverberate in the world whereas the feeble ones and whispers are silenced. The world never gets to know about them.
This newly, revised version of history that has taken a bold step to challenge the so called mainstream history is what is depicted in Amitav Ghosh’s famous work The Shadow Lines. The author has cleverly presented his point of view that though every society has its own history; the individual (who is the smallest building block of this society) has his own share to contribute towards the greater history. Without him it is obvious that there remains a gap and the picture won’t surface completely with the blank spaces left by individuals. Helpless as for filling these fissures one has to rely upon the sources that are not at all factual. The fictional mediums of imagination, dreams and a much unreliable memory have to be made use of to complete the vacancies. It is interesting to note how through his narration Ghosh shows that at times these sources could be more authentic. He speaks through one of his characters that everybody lives in a story and stories are bound to be oscillating between realities and untruth. The character of Tridib further states: “If you believe anything people tell you, you deserve to be told anything at all….” This is what the author speaks to his reader to not accept as true whatever is told to them, whatever is presented as history.
When a story is told or written, the most important role, after the plot, is played by the narrator. It is through narrator’s eye and through his perspective that we visualize the whole story. The change in perception changes the meaning. This story has been told by a small boy who grows up to find himself bound by the draconian clutches of history. But for Tridib’s vision, he would have been like any other commoner, accepting the history in its crude form. Narrator’s mentor, Tridib has been behind his bend of mind towards “imagination with precision”. In the whole course of the novel, he is drenched in memories for his narration is overflowing with recollections, dates, anecdotes and an unanswered or a rather rhetorical, often repeated question: “Do you remember?” The narrator speaks about his experience with truth and facts very early in life. Although he tried to justify what he said regarding the unknown truth about his uncle, Tridib yet it was the story fabricated by his uncle that the people at the corner of the Gole Park tend to believe.
The narrator learnt from his mentor that “a place does not merely exist. That it has to be invented in one’s imagination”. This was how he has been able to journey through London before he even actually stepped out of Calcutta. He is even enticed to take up Indian History as his subject in college. Tha’amma thought nostalgia to be weakness but the narrator was nostalgic in a different way where it rather became his strength. He attempted to discover the presence of past in the present. That was how Victor Gollancz’s publishing house co-existed with the office that stood at the same spot after about forty years. Therefore, “past seemed concurrent with its present” for him. He lies between other two characters in the novel. Ila believed in all that was current while his grandmother in her later age did not pay any heed to what was present. The narrator tries to give voice to what has been silenced and remained unheard with such insight installed in him by the author.
It was thus, sitting in the airconditioned calm of an exclusive library, that I began on my strangest journey: a voyage into a land outside space, an expanse without distances; a land of looking-glass events. (224)
Tridib has told the narrator, the way the faculty of imagination worked. He highlighted in the novel that even an imagination presented in an accurate manner would pass for a fact. It is what made his speech believable and wholeheartedly acceptable by the narrator in his life. Imagination being bound by no boundary allowed the speaker a greater degree of possibilities. Reality and Recollection get to fight it out whilst the narrator roams around in England. The former is trivial for him compared to his memory of the description that Tridib has given him of the same place. Tridib bestowed his qualities of story-telling to his nephew who used to make sundry stories on one of his favorite photographs. The stories tend to end on how people in the photograph were posing. So, could one still believe a photograph to be an authentic source for histriography?
The technique of narration used by Ghosh is not at all simplistic for the narrator is not the only narrator in the novel. There are many minor narrators who tell a small section of the story. It is owing to this that one finds the narratology to be very complex; intertwining into each other. This makes it difficult for the reader who is never prepare to be instantaneously transferred to different places and different times, finding himself confused between reality and dream, dream and imagination, and imagination and memory. There are lots of people through which the information reaching the reader gets filtered through. The reader is then unable to decide whether to believe what is said for there is no surety of its authenticity but he is also void of any reasons to disbelieve the same for they appear to be true.
The help that various characters in the novel render towards the narrator is very important for he is not at all omniscient and is ignorant of many facts. Thus, the others lend their stories to him so that he could integrate them into his narratology and complete the empty spaces that were left by his unknowingness. He gave voice to those silent fables. Ila acted like a connecting link between the families of Price in England and Mayadebi’s in India. She defies those customs that has long been considered as the core of history by going against them. In her stories she placed herself as different characters and tried to live her dream life through it by modifying the happenings. The story that she tells while playing the game of House has Magda playing her role while Nick Price saving him whereas that was not what happened in reality. Robi, on the other hand, comes up with his nightmare that has haunted him ever since Tridib’s demise. This dream could but be taken for a genuine account of the accident that took away his brother’s life. Later, May confirmed to the same. Narrator’s grandmother has different stories to tell. On one hand, she has her childhood recollection of the “upside down house” and the different stories she made on them. It still holds importance for Mayadebi and her when they get a chance to enter that house. She rejects nationality as a true source of history in how she acts on the whole trip to her home, uttering the same question: “But where is Dhaka?”
The novel primarily tries to re-invent the riots that happened in Calcutta. Ila has already said that riots are a local thing and the same transpired in a discussion that took after a conference on the Indo-China War at Teen Murti Library. The opinion about the same event is different for some people who have witnessed such events. The narrator and Tha’amma could never agree to the same outlook as Ila and narrator’s friends. Riots are “extraordinary history” for them. The others are just ignorant about these events that otherwise would certainly have taken more life than even the War of 1961. Even the section on War in the library bypassed such episodes of riots suggesting their insignificance and actually contributing towards the silencing of this portion of life. The people and heroes of such events are soon forgotten, “faded(ing) away from the pages of the newspapers, disappearing from the collective imagination of ‘responsible opinion’, vanished, without leaving a trace in the histories and bookshelves” (230). The narrator reveals his experience of struggle in highlighting the concealed facet of the events of the riots of 1964 that nevertheless it is only a RE-presentation. This account could also be taken for his narration in the novel.
Every word I write about those events of 1964 is a product of a struggle with silence. It is a struggle I am destined to lose- have already lost- for even after all these years, I do not know where within me, in which corner of my world, this silence lies… it is simply a gap, a hole, an emptiness in which there are no words. (218)
The realization of the narrator after fifteen years of the riots was enough to make him think. Although there has been a border between two places- Calcutta and Khulna- they both were hit by riots at the same time. This helped him to understand the bond shared by human being, their history that is united into one irrespective of the artificial borders drawn by humans. The shadow lines drawn between two nations could not divide people for “how can anyone divide a memory?” Even when the language, culture and custom of different nations differ, there are yet times when two appear like images of each other and at times the line dissolves to give a taste of prehistoric times when history did not corrupted human bond. History dominates today only because it has been taken as a criterion to determine one’s identity. The section where the narrator elaborates upon his experiments with the Bartholomew’s Atlas should be read to cure the disease of intense Nationalism. Ghosh tries to change it with a wider idea of Humanity. Today, one might not be aware of the actions taking place in near vicinity only because there is some line drawn between such two places. What narrator believes is that these happenings, even with all the discordance between, are related and unites the divided section into one, unconsciously, without our knowledge.
Thus, Ghosh has tried in his novel, by his narratology to unite those which are actually one. The history that generally gets to the common masses is anything but bias with a lot of gaps that nobody cares to fill. One version of history gets a validity as an absolute one and so convincingly it is done that people tend even to overlook the truth, as happened to the narrator as a child also. The author uses his characters with their stories as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which he made his narrator to complete. Even when the picture is complete there are yet gaps where the parts were connected. Imaginations, memories and dreams are not such a fictional source as could be deciphered by Ghosh’s narratology. Therefore, one must need to differentiate between what is true and what is partially true and endeavor to reach the former with whatever resources one could.