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.