Vox un-populi?

Posted on November 12, 2016

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Musings on the media, post the bomb that just blew up in the United States.

The recent events around Trump already seemed to have played out at movie theatres around Tamil Nadu, around the time the film Remo was released. The word around the rom-com, starring the young (and young-skewing) actor Sivakarthikeyan, was toxic. The film depicts stalking as a legitimate means to capture acquire the woman of your dreams. It’s as misogynistic as anything Trump has said. There were opinion pieces written on it. Television channels – both English and Tamil – hosted panel discussions about its treatment of women. But in the final analysis, nothing mattered. Audiences around the state voted with their ticket money. They made the film a blockbuster. Another similarity with Trump: a very rich actor playing middle-class, speaking their language, positioning himself as their representative. That illusion, too, seemed to present no contradiction. People don’t view Sivakarthikeyan as someone who earns crores per film. They see him as the boy next door.

This is not surprising, for cinema, as much as politics, is about the manipulation of one’s image in line with the “voter base.” But the post-election think pieces about the liberal media are making me wonder about the gap between the people who write about films like Remo and the people who watch them in droves. On the one hand, we have those espousing a strong belief in what cinema should do, which is to entertain us with a sense of dignity and a modicum of social responsibility. On the other hand lies the majority, those who seem to expect nothing but a few hours in the company of their favourite star, even if his behaviour on screen is something you’d seriously object to in real life, if someone said and did the same things with your mother or sister or daughter. To the liberal media, this disconnect is unfathomable. To the majority, there is no disconnect. With his racism, xenophobia and misogyny, Trump might have had a flourishing career in Tamil cinema.

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I don’t want to stretch this comparison, as there is a huge difference between elections that speak to people’s hopes and fears and films that talk to people in very different ways. Also, we do not “poll” films the way we poll elections – the results are less devastating when a film comes out of nowhere and becomes a blockbuster. Like Jai Santoshi Maa. The reviews laughed at it. The masses loved it. And now the question becomes: If something we dismiss ends up connecting with vast numbers of people, do we owe this phenomenon more… respect? Even if we don’t like it, even if we don’t change our mind about its values and virtues, do we owe it a serious second look, given that we have now been proved to be in the minority? It’s a slippery slope, I know. I’m basically asking if book critics should take Chetan Bhagat seriously (as a phenomenon) even if they tear him to shreds (as a writer).

The most interesting aspect is the media angle. As with the US elections, mainstream cinema makes the liberal media seem utterly irrelevant. The language of mainstream cinema is the language of the masses, and many writers just do not speak this language. They are simply not tuned in, and they come off like ballet critics opining on a barn dance. This is not to say that their words aren’t important. Far from it. A point of view is a point of view, even if it is held by just one person. And it is absolutely necessary to hear everyone out. But when the level of engagement is cursory, and when it’s one’s own filters being applied with no attempt to “understand” the Other, you have to wonder how useful the writing is. How worthwhile is a piece of writing – a review, or a think piece – when it reaches only people like us?

And what is the media’s responsibility to “connect” with the public at large, not just those who subscribe to your paper but those that don’t? In putting forth a point of view, is it enough that we reinforce the belief systems of those who read us (and are mostly like us)? Or do we need to wade in deeper and try to talk to those who are nothing like us? Is such a thing even possible? And, therefore, is the liberal media doomed to exist in its own echo chamber, just like the right-wing media stays in its own bubble and speaks to its own? Is the only value we writers bring the ability to put thoughts into words, thoughts you may not have been able to express by yourself? In that sense, are we merely a transcribing service for our own kind? Thanks to the US elections, I am going to be thinking about these things for a long time.

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