Indian Cinema Is Very Powerful, But It Still Has A Lot To Learn From These 3 Hollywood Films

Posted by Imaad ul Hasan in Culture-Vulture
March 20, 2018

“I think the greatest thing our art does, and our industry does, is to erase the lines in the sand. We should continue doing that when the world tells us to make them deeper.”

These were the words of Guillermo del Toro when he climbed up the stairs of Dolby Theater to receive that Academy Award for “The Shape of Water” – a fascinating  movie which revolves around this beautiful idea of not hating ‘the other’. Along with “The Shape of Water”, two Hollywood movies were released in India last month, “Black Panther” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”. While their social, cultural and political significance were discussed ardently in the West, it is interesting to understand how these three movies hold a mirror to India.

In case you haven’t heard about the movie which bagged four Oscars this year, “The Shape of Water” is a love story of a mute woman and an amphibian creature. Before understanding the ideas which Guillermo del Toro conveyed through this movie, it is important to understand through whom he conveyed those ideas.

The lead character of this movie, Elisa, is a woman whose job is to sweep floors and clean trash. And what’s more? She has a disability. She is easily a person whom we would not give a second glance in real life. But del Toro completely compels us in this movie to see the world through her eyes, to understand her struggles, to understand the discrimination she faces and to also understand the immense love she holds in her heart. In a country where a man, allegedly with a mental disbility (Madhu) is lynched in Kerala and selfies of it are taken with great pride, such characters surely might help in creating a little empathy.

In one scene, the supporting character points out that Elisa is an educated woman, which indicates that because of her disability, she was forced to do  labor work and did not receive a more decent job. But in India, differently-abled people like Madhu Chindaki , Dular Rai or over 15 such people in Kashmir, do not even receive the right to live.

Another effective movie released last month was “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”. This spectacular story is about a woman who puts up three billboards to seek justice for her teenage daughter, who was raped and murdered. It effectively shows how a women challenges the authority, even when the entire town turns against her. But, this story gets more complex and goes on to show the perspective of ‘the other’. What Guillermo del Toro did by using an amphibian creature, Martin McDonagh does the same by subtly letting you inside the psyche of every character. Subsequently, at one point during the movie, you might even realise that you have changed sides.

“Three Billboards” powerfully shows how hate and anger will not lead us anywhere. And at this point of time in India, when hate is taking over everything else, this movie might teach us a thing or two. When the disturbing video of a man being hacked and burnt alive in Rajsamand shocked the entire country, hundreds of people flooded the streets supporting the killing  and went on to burn shops and beat policemen.  In such a situation when mobs are continuously used to cause destruction, if only a single person takes a pause to think about the other person’s perspective, and imagines where this anger will lead us, the purpose of this movie might be fulfilled – and maybe, a lesser number of people will be killed.

And the movie which recently crossed $1 billion worldwide to become one of the highest grossing films ever – “Black Panther” is not only about stunning visuals, great action or beautiful costumes. It offers a strong commentary about racism, the question of refugees and the problem with extremism.

Imagine a movie being made in India by a person from an oppressed community, by taking all the actors from the same community, on a story based on the people, the place and problems of that community. Several religious and political groups from other communities might definitely go against it for some reason or the other. But what if the director decides to show that people from that same oppressed community sometimes resort to radicalism? Then undoubtedly, those people will also be hell-bent on stopping the release of such a movie.

“Black Panther” does not only talk about radicalism. It also shows how one becomes a radical, which might help us to understand the problem of growing radicalism in India. Its powerful take on refugees might lessen our gruesome hatred towards the Rohingya refugees. And what we also need to understand is why India urgently needs such a movie which helps us comprehend marginalised communities,  especially when the UN Human Rights chief is clearly saying he is disturbed by the discrimination against Dalits and Muslims in India.

But above all, the impact these movies made in the society is truly worth noticing. Many activists are using “Black Panther” to help black communities engage with politics by registering their votes at movie screenings. Besides that, school curriculum are including this film to enhance the knowledge of students about the African continent, diversity and colonialism.

“Three Billboards” has inspired an entire new form of protest. People at different parts of the world are putting up similar billboards to demand justice including Los Angeles, Miami, Naples, Malta – and more recently, in New York, outside the United Nations office, demanding action on Syria in advance of a Security Council vote through exactly similar billboards.

All of these three movies directly or indirectly talk about inclusion, but they have several other common threads too. While “Black Panther” changes our perspective of viewing the black community, “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards” also deal with the issue of racial discrimination effectively. “Black Panther” might not have a woman in a lead role like the other two, but it has other incredibly strong female characters. Thus, all the three movies contribute greatly to women empowerment in their own ways. This comes at a time when two of the highest grossing films of the year in India are, in my opinion, also two of the greatest flag-bearers of misogyny – “Padmaavat” and “Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety”.

This certainly doesn’t mean that every Hollywood movie which is doing great has a good message to convey or that every Bollywood movie holds regressive values. As pointed out by Shashi Tharoor, Hollywood is rewarding a mass murderer by showing Winston Churchill in a good light in movies like “The Darkest Hour”.

On the other hand, “Mukkabaaz” does a brilliant job of raising a number of social and political issues convincingly. In fact, the mute female character of this movie symbolises how there is no voice for a woman in the Indian patriarchal society. Similarly, a film like “Omerta”, which is finally releasing next month, is totally based on the causes and effects of radicalism. But the number of such movies is so low that they remain just a cry in the wilderness.

Unarguably, cinema is the most powerful form of media, especially in India. But unfortunately, the change it can bring by highlighting important issues does not take place because of several reasons. The content of the movie gets hugely influenced by what the Central Board of Film Certification and the people sitting above them like.

However, it has been witnessed that film-makers have often crawled when they were asked to bend. They not only avoid what is disliked by them, but work hard to impress that certain group, by totally speaking along their lines. If sometimes it becomes too difficult to promote progressive ideas, they should at least avoid promoting regressive ones.

Besides this, crores of rupees are at stake, which might not be recovered if audiences don’t show up to watch preachy content. The three movies discussed above tackle this particular problem by making them super interesting to watch. All of these movies convey great messages, while still being enjoyable and engaging.

Considering the immense impact of these movies, let’s hope that Indian cinema will no longer watch from the shadows. It cannot – and it mustn’t. Now more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. It must find a way to look after one another as if we are one single tribe.