The mirror behind the screen

Posted on July 24, 2012


When the events of fanciful popular culture make ugly inroads into our lives, the problem lies with us, and within us.

Christopher Nolan couldn’t have dreamed up a better title for his new Batman movie. The Dark Knight Rises. With the merest of alterations, it transforms into a newspaper headline for the day after the shooting that occurred during the film’s first screenings: “A dark night rises.” These murders, of course, are a unique American problem, arising as much from the easy availability of weapons as men with the unfortunate predilection for wielding them. For some grim fun, look up the Wikipedia entry titled “List of serial killers by country.” Argentina has two, Belarus one, Germany 17. The United States, on the other hand, has a link to a page of its own: so numerous are its citizens who are driven to snuff out other lives. James Eagen Holmes, the shooter who donned a mask and opened fire in a Colorado theatre, may not be a serial killer in the Hannibal Lecter sense. He may not have savoured his killings in quite the same way. But his compulsions aren’t all that different – chief among them the desire to make a statement in a flamboyant fashion.

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Whenever a student stabs his teacher after watching Agneepath or despairing lovers hurl themselves off cliffs after a screening of Ek Duuje Ke Liye, a section of society likes to point a finger at cinema. They ignore the millions who saw these films and went back home and woke up the next morning and sent children to school and packed their lunches and went to work. They focus, instead, on the few who viewed these films as a how-to manual to fix their problematic existence. The reason is easy to guess. It’s simpler to blame a movie than try to address the complex calculations that result in an individual’s descent into momentary madness. No detective will hold the trigger responsible for the corpse in the living room, and yet, we routinely write about films as a cause – if not the cause – for social rot, as if cinema were an assiduous weevil gnawing away at the roots of our modern-day lives.

But have you noticed that it’s never the other way around? Shankar’s Mudhalvan, for instance, exhorted decency in public behaviour. The film was a massive hit – there wasn’t a single news report about how we’d changed as a result. In other words, we all went and saw the movie and went back to our lives. The most damning case is possibly that of Amitabh Bachchan gunning down a corrupt cabinet at the end of Inquilaab, a scenario that doubtless many of us have imagined in our most frustrated moments. Yet, in the following days, no lone ranger was seen ducking into the Parliament with an AK-47. Films like Taare Zameen Par and Black foster topical op-ed pieces and television debates about the disabilities in question, but when was the last time you heard of someone who took five minutes off his early-morning dash to work to help a blind man across the street?

If cinema cannot be found to encourage positive behaviours, then why should we blame films for depicting (and presumably engendering) negative attitudes? The most laughable attempt at saving us from cinema, in recent times, has to be the admonitory scrolls that pop up during scenes of smoking and drinking. And why is it always cinema? In our age, it is certainly because movies are our mass medium, consumed by millions. But what about earlier eras, whose pop culture assumed different forms? Does anyone believe that, in nineteenth-century London, hordes of fans of Dickens threw themselves into rehabilitating orphans and rediscovering the spirit of Christmas? If they could separate truth from fiction, shouldn’t we be able to do the same? It’s always art that mirrors life. And if we are to worry about life imitating art, we should be discussing not just these occasional examples of deranged gunmen but also those numerous women who wrote Rajesh Khanna letters with their blood.

The latter occurrence, strangely, is seen as a charming footnote in a saga of monumental star power, but not one person questioned (or expressed concern about) the alarming inability of these women to emerge from a fevered and fanciful existence where a stranger on screen, however entrancing, was worth inflicting physical harm over. It is one thing to style yourself after a creator of popular culture – a movie star, say, or a musician – and follow their work and worship them from afar, but when things get out of hand, the problem is always with the individual who has lost touch with reality. As much as the shooting in Colorado invites reflection and analysis, it would be too easy to blame a movie about a joyless superhero with pointy ears as the reason so many families have been irretrievably broken. The Dark Knight Rises may be the summer’s grandest entertainment. It may be the year’s biggest blockbuster. It’s also just a movie.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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