Cinema, society, chicken, egg

Posted on July 6, 2016


We need to rigorously study the impact of cinema on society before blaming films for every shocking headline.

At least for a while, the case that shocked Chennai played out like a Tamil movie. A dark-skinned boy (Ramkumar) from a small town set eyes on a fair-skinned, upper-class girl (Swathi). He fell in love. He pursued her. She spurned him. Had this been a movie, the plot would have taken a Shakespearean turn: the “shrew” would have been tamed, duets would have ensued. It is fantasy, after all. But this real-life story took a sharp U-turn when the boy, apparently smarting from the girl’s insults about his looks, hacked her to death. For a day, the city was stunned. And then, predictably, essays and tweets sprang up blaming Ramkumar’s behaviour on Tamil cinema’s obsession with love stories which cross class lines, even caste lines, and perpetuate the notion that upper-class girls aren’t really saying “no,” they’re just playing hard to get, and if you persist they will say “yes.”

Do we tend to blame the movies every time a newspaper headline rattles us, every time a problem needs fixing? Let’s look at smoking. If the aim is to discourage people from lighting up, then the government can enforce arrests for smoking in public. Cigarettes can be made exorbitantly expensive. They could even be banned, if that’s how much you care about a smoke-free society. Instead, we have a pre-movie PSA that everyone ignores and teeny-tiny pop-up warnings desecrating the film every time a cigarette is whipped out. The culprit has been identified, punished. We can get back to our lives. This isn’t to say, categorically, that films do not create smokers. A 2012 report prepared by the office of the Surgeon General, Rockville, Maryland, USA, collated numerous studies and came to this conclusion: “The downward trend in movie smoking is consistent with an influence on downward trends in adolescent smoking.” But there was a caveat: “Movie smoking represents only one of several factors that contribute to youth smoking trends.”

And these are some of the other factors: Socioeconomic status, socio-demographic issues, developmental challenges of adolescence, gender, race/ethnicity, academic achievement, influence of peer groups, variables related to self-esteem and personality, lack of parental support. Summing up, there are social, environmental, cognitive, genetic, and even psychiatric factors at work, and they need to be studied in conjunction with the movies.

Hosted by

Correlating films and society is a chicken-and-egg conundrum. For the moment, let’s not even get into whether art has a social responsibility, or how much his obsession with The Catcher in the Rye was responsible for Mark David Chapman’s murder of John Lennon. (Is it the book’s fault, or the man’s?) But if we are going to look towards cinema to explain away the happenings around us, then we need more than just armchair analyses. We need to seriously and rigorously study the impact of cinema on society. (Quizzing Ramkumar about the films he likes, the heroes he worships may not be a bad start, even if this isn’t technically a “study.”) We need to study why so many people remain impervious to the good things cinema says – vote wisely; abolish the caste system; don’t do drugs – and take home only messages like “smoking is cool” and “girls who say no are really saying yes.”

We need percentages. We need data. We need to analyse how much of it is the movies shaping society, and how much of it is the movies reflecting the prejudices (patriarchy, racism) ingrained in a society. How much of Ramkumar’s action was a result of his nature (from reports, he was a friendless loner), how much was shaped by peers and elders, and how much by the people he saw on screen? A 2014 paper published in the science journal PLOS ONE came with the title, Reactions to Media Violence: It’s in the Brain of the Beholder. Its summary: Watching violent media content does make people more aggressive, but only if they have the propensity for physical assault to begin with. In other words, it’s not just what’s on screen; it’s what’s inside you.

This kind of study is routinely done in the West, possibly due to the greater numbers of academics, especially in fields like criminology and sociology. But even these research papers tend to focus on grand themes – say, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and its impact on inter-racial marriage, or how films like Coming Home and The Deer Hunter shaped American perception of the Vietnam War. In India, we need studies at a far deeper level. We need to study, say, the difference in the impact of an outright propaganda movie (say, the post-Independence Tamil films that took Dravidian ideology to nooks and corners of the state) and a film whose takeaways are more insidious (like the ones that supposedly result in a Ramkumar). Just blaming a strain – admittedly, a virulent strain— of Tamil cinema suggests a kind of classism, that “their” boys” – the ones who watch those “low-class” Tamil films – are out to get “our” girls. It’s as though fair-skinned, upper-class boys have never been guilty of stalking. It’s as though movies are all the validation we need, and because films mostly depict lower-class boys as stalkers, we assume their real-life counterparts must be getting the go-ahead from these movies.

This data-gathering is especially important because we are the world’s largest maker and consumer of movies (in terms of the number of admissions). More importantly, our “pop culture” comes almost entirely from cinema. A show like So You Think You Can Dance features pop songs, but a similar show in India features only film songs. Movies are in the very air we breathe. But cause-and-effect is a complex phenomenon, and we cannot place the onus of “responsibility” on the movies alone. It’s like blaming the Corporation for not keeping the city clean when we think nothing of tossing a used paper cup on the road instead of bothering to locate a dustbin. Every time we point a finger at the movies, there are three fingers pointing back at us.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2016 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.