Between Reviews: Aamir’s Avatar

Posted on January 16, 2010


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The ticket counters never had it so good, and Aamir Khan reaffirms that he’s a superstar like none other – but is box-office success reason enough to overlook other aspects of moviemaking?

JAN 17, 2010 – AS THE BOX OFFICE CONTINUES TO quake and tremble under the cumulative impact of Avatar and 3 Idiots, every single trade pundit – along with every single web site and blog devoted to film – has taken it upon himself to genuflect in unconcealed awe. The never-before daily totals are bandied about, the never-before second-weekend drops are hailed, and the never-before international grosses are being tom-tomed across the planet. This clamour is entirely justified, on one level, as both these films aren’t exactly what you’d call sure-shot blockbuster material. Looking back, it’s easy to point out that with the attraction of 3-D and with the star power of Aamir Khan, there simply was no way either film could have failed. But Avatar also carried with it a mammoth production budget and it was not based on existing material that audiences were pre-sold on, while 3 Idiots banked on our willingness to accept its fortysomething leading man as a college kid with a proclivity for life-altering sermons.

The unprecedented success of these films, however, rests with these very aspects – the attraction of 3-D and the star power of Aamir Khan, who is surely the most unique superstar Hindi cinema has known. Whether or not he is the biggest superstar ever, I’ll leave for the trade experts (and the fanboys) to duel out – but he’s certainly evolved into a superstar who’s the best guarantor of films of a certain quality. Even those who’ve professed to major problems with Taare Zameen Par or 3 Idiots (and I raise my hand) will not deny that these problems exist only in relation to the bar these films (and their filmmakers) have set for themselves. I have issues with these films because of what they settle for as opposed to what they promise to become, whereas if I’d compare them to the average mainstream movie, there’s absolutely no… comparison. They exist comfortably in a stratosphere of their own.

What Aamir Khan has accomplished is something truly phenomenal. He is the first superstar to have harnessed the traditional attributes of the successful leading man – namely, a practiced charm, a shameless willingness in playing to the gallery, and so forth – to the (relatively) upmarket sensibilities of the multiplex movie. I think it’s safe to say that it’s going to be a far easier task to convince a cineaste five decades down about the merits of Taare Zameen Par as opposed to, say, a pre-multiplex-era monster-blockbuster like Amar Akbar Anthony. Even today, I notice a marked suspicion about the traditional kitchen-sink Hindi film, and films of the seventies (thanks largely to Farah Khan’s spoof-tributes) are seen as a lark, or as camp viewed through the comfortable prism of ironic detachment. The fact that Manmohan Desai had a genuine “vision” – however demented – is a notion embraced only by those (again, I raise my hand) who grew up with that kind of cinema, and who can still remember that kind of India.

But as Aamir Khan’s films comfortably straddle the lowbrow and the highbrow – they are nominally highbrow in content, as they make us feel we’re watching something seriously worthy, and they’re simultaneously lowbrow in execution, in that they make a conscious effort not to alienate any section of the audience – and they give us the satisfaction of seeing good cinema that we don’t have to work too hard to appreciate. Decades hence, they aren’t going to be dependent on one’s knowledge of how things were – how India once was, how we once were, how our cinema once was – to fully get. They are modern in sensibility and ancient in appeal – or, in other words, they feature the traditional you’ll-laugh-you’ll-cry soul of an Indian film in comely, contemporary Western garb. Aamir Khan is the first superstar to have bridged this chasm, of making Indian films that you don’t have to be (even mildly) embarrassed about while recommending to foreign eyes. They’re not just “our” films, films that only we can understand and love, the way we love a flatulent uncle with clumps of ear-hair – they’re slick, universally viable products.

If there’s a niggle here, it’s that the staggering success of 3 Idiots and Avatar has eclipsed every other consideration about these films. In the face of such universal acclamation, you’re practically a pariah if you choose to be guarded in your response. I regarded Avatar a great visual experience but an extremely average film – and yet, from reactions to my review, I gathered that a great visual experience was the only criterion the film needed to be judged on. Who needs the traditional skills of moviemaking in the face of such an immersive theme-park experience? (Ask yourself: Would you condone such substandard storytelling in a 2-D movie?) And with 3 Idiots, any suggestion that the movie isn’t a masterpiece is apparently blasphemy. Never mind that the film is formulaic to the core, never mind that it’s preachy as a pastor, never mind evaluating the film’s merits across all aspects of filmmaking – it makes you laugh, and that’s all that matters. The audience has spoken. The case is closed.

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