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A Philosophical Take on Movies

By Parthiv N. Parekh Email By Parthiv N. Parekh
February 2023
A Philosophical Take on Movies

The unprecedented success of RRR and Kantara sparked, for me, a deep dive into what makes for good screen entertainment—and why I couldn’t jump on the bandwagon of enthusiastic fans of these two movies.

The worldwide buzz that RRR and Kantara have generated can hardly be overstated. Both qualified for a nomination for an Academy Award. The pulsating, high energy “Naatu Naatu” song from RRR was not only shortlisted for an Academy Award for music but also won a Golden Globe for Best Original Song.

This pair of films have not only amassed legions of fans from the general public, but also from professionals. James Gunn, director of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy described RRR as “an awesomely outrageous roller coaster of a movie.” Cory Woodruff of the Playlist writes, “People who hand-wring about movies being dead really need to check this one out. RRR proves that, yes, cinema is alive and well…” According to Jimmy Cage, a German movie critic living in Austria, “Kantara is a film that proves how much appeal and fascination a very regional subject matter can have when the filmmakers tell their story with so much passion and dedication.”

Both films are topping the charts on Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, and Metacritic: three of the largest movie review aggregators. The enthusiastic two thumbs up that both are garnering could very well mean a paradigm shift in terms of a global crossover appeal of Indian cinema. Woodruff’s assessment in the above referenced review says it all: “RRR is more than enough proof that it’s high time stateside audiences prepare themselves for the rise of a globalized cinema, one that is, quite frankly, probably schooling our asses in the fine art of studio filmmaking.”

With such formidable all around fervor for these movies, I was admittedly overwhelmed with self doubt at my disinterest in them. I watched them twice, and in bits and pieces for a third time, to see what I may have missed.

Of course, these movies are spectacular! Hats off to S. S. Rajamouli for his audacity in conceiving and executing such an ambitious production. And to Rishab Shetty for a visually stunning film. It is clear that both these filmmakers have invested considerable passion (and paisa!) in their productions.

But to what end such grandiosity? Sure, if “timepass” and “popcorn entertainment” is what you are in the mood for, these movies could hit the spot, as it has for so many.

But bring the slightest amount of critical thought, and the sheen and seduction of these movies evaporate. To that end, it becomes necessary to separate the two to speak about their unique demerits.

It is true that we often turn to fiction and films to escape our humdrum lives. Hence, it is not only okay but necessary for films to have the creative license for over the top dramatization. And yet, RRR is a good example of how to botch up such a license. Show me humans performing superhuman feats, and you have my attention. But when you make mortal characters in a historical fiction turn into superheroes with supernatural powers akin to Marvel series characters, it gets so ludicrous that it feels like a parody.

The gross incredulity of the opening scene where the character of Raju (Ram Charan), an officer of British India, fights off literally thousands to apprehend the “culprit” that he is chasing is simply tiresome. So are the ridiculously exaggerated hijinks surrounding the rescue of the boy under the bridge. Such over  reach in the name of action not only doesn’t cut it for me but is actually a turnoff.

It is not that I have not enjoyed Superman flying, Spiderman jumping across skyscrapers, and James Bond hanging by a thread under a helicopter. All of these are fantastically over the top too, but they work within their proper genres. I have enjoyed the adrenaline rush of intense action, such as in the slick and gritty fight scenes of Jason Bourne, or the heart pumping sequences in movies like Air Force One or Patriot Games. On the Indian side, I have loved movies like Padmaavat and Bajirao Mastani which too offer grandeur and heroism, but without a cheap descent into hyperbolic superlatives about physical prowess.

RRR’s proclivity to pander to our basic instincts is not limited to how it has handled the action sequences. There is also a subtle but disappointing streak of national chauvinism throughout the movie. I have no love lost for colonial masters, but the use of caricatured evil Englishmen as a trope in the movie only serves to stoke the disturbing rise of divisive nationalism not only in India but also around the world.

Kantara, also big and bold, has different vibes. RRR’s visual appeal is its setting as a period drama; Kantara, true to its mythological storyline, has an artistic look. At times, it feels like a painting in motion. But its visually appealing facade can only do so much to redeem an otherwise banal film. Filmmaker Abhiroop Basu is not a big name by any means in the world of Indian cinema, but I couldn’t agree more with his assessment of Kantara: “I feel it’s a mockery of anyone’s intelligence. Poorly made, regressive, loud, replete with tropes, no real character to root for, so called plot twists appear dishonest and merely serve as gimmicks, the protagonist’s redemption arc is laughable and by the time the film reaches the much talked about climax, I am not really interested anymore.”

Kantara is not only rank but also regressive. Portraying male toxicity is unfortunately far too common—whether in Hollywood, Bollywood, or all the other “woods” of South Indian cinema. But when a movie rises to the popularity that this one has, such things are going to be called out. And then there is superstition packaged in seemingly innocuous and even adorable folklore. Acharya Prashant, an IIT graduate who is now a spiritual teacher with a growing influence, is concerned that this movie is “mainstreaming primitive superstition.”

The preceding contemplation about these two movies makes for a good primer to dig further into what makes for good screen entertainment. I feel that the natural maturing of an individual’s preferences would eventually bring them to a point where nuance and substance of stories and storytelling become more important than cheap thrills.

To be fair, some of my criticism of RRR and Kantara comes from the fact that I am increasingly phasing out of the entire genre of what I refer to as “popcorn entertainment”: movies offering explosive action, fantasy, superheroes, invincible spies, murder mysteries, and such. When you come to see that there is far more character and heroism involved in real life scenarios such as waking up early to go for a jog or resisting that piece of cake in the fridge than there is in fantasy situations of single-handedly bulldozing a dozen bad dudes, you start gravitating towards novels, movies, and TV series that are about real, relatable characters. The adage that “Fact can be stranger than fiction” means that such relatable works of fiction reflecting realism need not be dull or boring. There is often more intrigue and fascination in such stories than there is in the cheap thrills of popcorn entertainment.

Fortunately, Indian cinema has done well in also giving us gems like the Irrfan Khan starrer Lunchbox and the social commentaries that Ayushmann Khurana has become a champion of: Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Badhaai Ho, Article 15, Bala, Doctor G, and others. On TV, delightful series such as Panchayat and Gullak have been a breath of fresh air. Not only do these tell engaging stories of everyday, relatable life, but they also give us a peek into the world of the real Indian hinterland.

On the American side, I have greatly enjoyed 1883, the Paramount mini-series about the compelling story of the journey of pioneers across the Great Plains in search of the promised land. Even though the time and place of the story is far removed from my life, the series is intimately relatable in its depiction of the quintessential human struggle for survival and the quest for a good life. Such quality productions require evolved sensibilities and the rigor of attention to detail to ensure that the plot and characters are believable. The same insistence on quality is evident in the inspired acting of all the leads in 1883. On the Indian side, when compared to the sublime acting of Irrfan Khan in Lunchbox and the earnest effort of Ayushmann in his social movies, the acting in RRR, and more so in Kantara, seems disappointingly caricatured.

I wish these two movies, which, at the moment, thanks to their global popularity, have become de facto ambassadors of Indian cinema, had offered more substance than spectacle.

Parthiv N Parekh is the Editor-in-Chief of Khabar magazine.

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