Not the easiest thing to see as “heroic” a figure who fought along side Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany! Yes, I understand the “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” ideology, and that in many ways the evils of colonialism could be considered equal to the sins of Japan and the Nazis, or at least related. But supporting Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany still doesn’t seem like something to necessarily be proud of?
I’m getting ahead of myself mentioning Chandra Bose, we aren’t nearly there yet. Or am I? Because that same attitude of “Manliness and violence will solve problems” seems to show up through out the film. Not that this is necessarily bad, I do believe that sometimes violence and “manly” virtues are required in order to achieve social justice. But I don’t believe they are the only things required. Careful thought, discussion, mercy, and hope are also required.
This is a hard film to wrap my head around, because at certain points it does seem to be arguing that there is a place for talking and gentle persuasion. And then at other points it doesn’t. It sets up a clear binary between two heroes, representing two attitudes and personalities and periods in Indian history. And for a long time it looks like we are going to end with a compromise between the two visions, which I would have liked. The young man learning that there are some absolutes and right and wrong in life, that it is okay to stand up for something. And the older man learning that there is value in forgiving human errors.
(Also hard to wrap my head around is the usual Shankar strange CGI song sequence)
But, no! The lesson is to be completely uncompromising! Which isn’t necessarily a message I can get behind? I mean, there is value in moral absolutes, doing the right thing, all of that. And there is value in extreme measures to fix impossible problems. But there is also value in forgiveness, understanding, and faith that people can be better than they were in the past.
Or, to put it in the terms of this film, while I’m not 100% a Gandhian, I am even less of a Chandra Bose follower. More like 40% Nehru, 30% Bhagat Singh, 20% Gandhi, 9.9999999999999999% “miscellaneous grass roots uncoordinated efforts that show the vast national faith in the movement”, and 0.0000000000000001% a Chandra Bose person. And again, even setting aside my philosophical differences, as someone with a lot of family who fought in the War, it’s a pretty hard sell to make me go “Woo! Guy who allied with Nazis and Imperial Japan!”
And really, there is something to that, my discomfort with Bose’s alliances. If we are talking about moral absolutes, as this film is, then where do we fall on the collaborator scale? I am willing to accept my responsibility for global labor practices and the Japanese internment camps and all sorts of other terrible things that are part of my identity as an American. But I am also ready to accept that these are mistakes it is now my job to work towards resolving, that we are all culpable but we are also all capable of doing better.
If this movie is saying that the just punishment for collaboration with an evil system is death, then what does it say about our “hero” who collaborated with people involved in the Rape of Nanking? Again, I myself can understand this point of view and, barely, make my peace with it. But then I am someone who believes in the big picture and second chances and all of that stuff. But our “hero” isn’t. So, if I showed him a bunch of photos and documents and showed how his involvement with Bose and Bose’s involvement with Evil all are connected, would he then kill himself?
I know I am way over-thinking this whole thing, but it kind of feels like the filmmakers under-thought it, and then packaged it in an “overthought” kind of way. They knew the message they wanted to give, and it’s a fine message, it’s the same message as Gabbar is Back and dozens of other movies. Wrap it up in shockingly violence and some neat speeches, get the audience thinking and ready for action, this is all great. But then the film keeps going, and enters into a bit of a philosophical realm, and it just invites me to start thinking to hard about the message and pulling on threads that shouldn’t be pulled! Really, it’s too smart for it’s own good.
Okay, that’s enough big general stuff! Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the plot spoilers.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
One of the ways that this film was smarter than was good for it was in the way the narrative unfolds. The audience is kept in the dark about a lot of stuff, big and small, for a long time. Instead we are thrown right into the middle of it, seeing the first murder, the investigation starting, and then a guy sitting in his “office” in a car, helping random people who come to him with their bureaucratic issues. And the sexy young politician’s daughter Urmila Matondkar who flirts with him and makes him pick her up before she gives him papers he needs. And the virtuous young animal activist who he helps on her rights crusades.
My first reaction to this guy was that this was our hero. Not just because he was played by Kamal Haasan, or because he got the hero introduction, but because his skill set seemed optimal for helping with the problems we were seeing. The corruption and backlog and all of that. You need someone who really knows the system, knows where it is weak and vulnerable, and it would be fun to see the sparks between someone changing the system through radical murderous means, and someone changing the system through fast-talking and clever maneuvers.
But then we start going in an entirely different direction. Turns out, Kamal Haasan was just doing all that stuff for other people to kill time. His main focus was on getting a position for himself. And once he achieves that, he quickly becomes as bad as anyone else. Doesn’t even try to change the system, just enjoys it.
What is confusing is that he isn’t a “bad” person. He helps his saintly Manisha Koirala girlfriend to defend her animals. We later learn that Urmila was only flirting with him because he was a “safe” guy, who could be trusted to always be a gentlemen. All of these things tended to make me think he would be redeemable, he would end up on the side of the angels, as it were.
(Also has a catchy love song with Manisha)
And yet, he doesn’t! He very much doesn’t! But before I get there, I have to check in with our other hero, Kamal Haasan 2. We see this implacable old man, using his magical pressure point fighting skills, to incapacitate and then stab a series of corrupt bureaucrats. The police slowly close in on him, through the unique fighting technique he uses which was only taught to freedom fighters back in the day. They send someone in disguise to his remote farm house, where his wife promptly gives a whole long flashback story about their youth (if you are ever in an Indian movie, NEVER ask an open-ended question about somebody’s past! It will just turn into an incredibly detailed reminiscence complete with song sequences. Or I guess, maybe ALWAYS ask an open-ended question about their past? Song sequences can be fun)
I have many many issues with this flashback. Again, if it were obviously supposed to be ridiculous, I could get behind it. But it uses the same black and white film and low-key acting style and all that stuff as movies like Shaheed, which makes me think I am supposed to be taking it seriously. And, when taken seriously, it does not hold up.
Our hero meets his future wife when she refuses to salute the British flag, so the British army guy is going to kill her? Until Kamal suddenly appears and shoots him instead? Now, first of all, I don’t believe the British were that capricious. That cruel, certainly, absolutely, colonialism is a dehumanizing force. But I’m not buying the “I will randomly shoot this woman in the town square after 3 seconds of conversation” kind of evil.
(See the torches coming through their love song? SO CLEVER! So much better, for me, than this blunt evilness)
And, if this is evil, to shoot her for not saluting the flag, than wouldn’t it also be evil for him to be shot for arguing with her for shooting the flag? I have no moral issues with this scene if it is pitched as “British guy is obsessed with Nationalism, and therefore tries to kill her. Kamal Haasan shoots British guy in simple defense.” But since it’s followed by Kamal ripping down the British flag and putting up the Indian one while crowds cheer, it feels more like “British guy is obsessed with Nationalism:Kamal Haasan is obsessed with Nationalism. Kamal just happened to shoot first.”
I have this problem TIMES A THOUSAND in a later scene. Our heroine is leading a march. The bad British guys learn a woman is leading it and therefore arrest all the women. And then they take them to a field and make them strip. In terms of historical whatever, sure, I can actually believe this, that at some point a rogue group of British officers arrested women and forced them to strip. That’s not my problem.
I have a HUGE problem with the filming of the scene! It doesn’t feel like we are being made to sympathize with the victims, to feel like we are there, being stripped and terrified. Instead, it feels like we are bust observing them. The camera is careful to still frame the bodies in a pleasing manner. There are minimal close ups on their faces. At best, we are put in the position of a (male) audience at a later date being told of this atrocity in order to rile us up. At worst, we are in the position of the British soldiers, committing an atrocity by enjoying their bodies while they are terrified.
For comparison, I kept being reminded of an almost identical scene in Atom Egoyan’s Ararat about the Armenia massacre. Again, the army rounded up women and made them strip. But in that scene, there was a combination of obscured vision and close ups. The camera was placed behind a broken wall, so we never got the classical elegant view of the female bodies, just a broken up and disconnected glimpse of a back wrenching away from a beating, or an arm trying to twist out of reach. And while the bodies were partially obscured, the faces kept coming towards us in turn as the women moved in a circle, so the viewer was always away of the torment they were feeling.
(Great movie, really interesting use of memory and film and history, in a way that kind of reminds me of Rang De Basanti)
Oh, and at the end of the Ararat scene, all the women are raped and killed. Which is a much, I don’t want to say “better”, but less stupid ending? In this movie, all the women are stripped, so they all run and jump off a cliff. How horrible (we are supposed to say)! The British didn’t understand Indian female virtue, and therefore thoughtlessly made them strip which obviously would lead to suicide!
But instead I find myself saying “How horrible! These women are so brainwashed by society, they think it is better to kill themselves than try to survive their loss of ‘honor’!” And, I think, we are also supposed to, like, be proud that they killed themselves? To be impressed at the nobility and chastity of women who would die rather than let themselves be seen naked? This is a terrible lesson! What about all the rape victims and abuse victims and all the others in the world today? They should just kill themselves and let society honor their corpse in a way it would never honor them if they had continued to live? Blech!
Moving on (with great difficulty), to the rest of the plot. It doesn’t get any easier for me to handle. Kamal 2 decides he wants to fight for real, so he rides off to join Subhash Chandra Bose. There’s like a 30 second shot of him fighting in WWII, throwing grenades at my Grandpa, and then he is in jail. Jail-jail-jail, and finally released to return home in glorious celebration to his faithful wife.
And then, happy happy times, they start a farm, they have two children (a boy and a girl), the family is joyful, all that. Until the kids grow up and the son, Kamal 1, wants his sister to forge something, because he is trying to get a government job. Kamal 2 finds out and is furious and they have an argument that made me think we were going to end with a compromise. Kamal 1 argues that he has a good engineering degree, and is qualified for this job, and would be even more qualified if his father had used his “Freedom Fighter” perks. And that there is no way to get the job without paying a bribe, so why not pay it?
Kamal 2 argues that even using the “Freedom Fighter” perks would be wrong, since there are more deserving and needful Freedom Fighter families who need them. And if Kamal 1 just waits his turn, eventually he will get the job he wants.
See, Kamal 1 is wrong for wanting to pay a bribe. But Kamal 2 is wrong when he thinks that simply not paying the bribe will solve all the problems. Is this why the liberalization of the economy is so exciting? Because you finally aren’t stuck between bribing someone and getting a good job, or not bribing them and giving up on a good job? There are more jobs available, jobs that aren’t controlled by bribes?
Also, I feel like Kamal 1 isn’t fully presenting his argument. Because the side he is ignoring is that his parents are the ones who chose this life for him which has lead to this impossible choice. They are farmers, but apparently they wanted him to be an engineer, thus the education and so on. And now here he is, an engineer, and there are no jobs. Not saying it’s entirely his parents’ fault, but also not saying it isn’t. If they expected him to stroll out of college with a degree and immediately get a job, than they need to change their expectations and help him come up with a new plan. That’s the argument I would make if I were Kamal 1 (and the argument that a lot of my friends have made to their parents, who sent them to college for advanced degrees and are no disappointed when they take whatever minimum wage job is available because the economy sucks).
And Kamal 1 does find a different way! He runs away from home, goes to the city, starts that “fixer” business on the street, and makes a living for himself. Again, we are heading to a really interesting movie, where the son with his “fixer” lifestyle, and the Dad with his uncompromising eye for an eye attitude end up working together and finding a better solution. What a great movie! (that we don’t get)
Even Kamal 2’s main motivation for vigilantism is something he could use to bond with Kamal 1, the death of their daughter/sister. She was burned in a kitchen fire, and the doctor refused to treat her until he was paid a bribe. Instead of paying, Kamal 2 ran to report him to the police, he also requested a bribe before acting. Finally, the daughter was wheeled out of the hospital and left to die alone in the rain. Kamal 1 returned home for the funeral and blamed his father’s ethics for his sister’s death, and then left again, never to return.
(See how happy the family is! And how both Kamals can come together in loving the sister/daughter!)
This really is an interesting moral quandary! Is there any situation in which it is okay to give a bribe? Even if it might save a life? Oh wait, it’s not an interesting moral quandary, it is BLATANTLY OBVIOUS!!!! PAY THE BRIBE!!!! It’s not like you are paying for her to get preferential treatment, you are paying for her to get any treatment at all. No harm can come from this, except that the evil doctor gets a little money. But then all you have to do is report him to the police tomorrow, and get your money back. I am completely behind Kamal 1 here.
Really, I am completely behind Kamal 1 most of the film. He uses funky paths and back ways to do it, but he does manage to force the government to work for the people. He is right that his father needs to bend a little and acknowledge the world as it is, not keep living in his dream world. And he beats up animal abusers for Manisha. And, when his parents are on the run and bump into him, he immediately helps them and hides his mother away and tries to convince his father to stop.
And then suddenly his character goes waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay in a different direction! In just like the last 40 minutes! I can’t tell if they wrote the characters and then decided to change the ending, or if they had the ending in mind all along but through re-writes and onset changes, the character became different than original imagined. But either way, big break between Kamal 1 in the first 2/3rds and last 1/3rd!
He gets his government job, and takes a bribe for giving a license to a driver. And then the driver causes an accident and a bus full of school children die. Hey! This is why my former Governor is in jail! Not a bus full of school children, but a van full of a family with 6 kids. There was an accident caused by an unsecured load on the back of a truck, turns out the truck driver paid a bribe to get his license, they followed that trial all the way up to the top of the Secretary of State (which is the office that controls licenses in my state), and finally to the former Secretary of State, now Governor. He’s a nice man (the former Governor), also ended the death penalty in our state.
(Also married his high school sweetheart. Which is neither here nor there, I just think it’s nice)
I tell that story kind of on purpose, because it related back to what I was saying about their needing to be mercy and hope along with justice, as I see it. Governor Ryan sold licenses and was in charge of a super corrupt Secretary of State’s office. But he also ran the state well. I mean, there was a certain “well, this doesn’t hurt anything” level of corruption. But past a certain point, there was a common sense understanding that nothing would function unless we all worked together and did our jobs. From what I can see, from very very far away, that is the point Indian corruption has passed. At least, that is what this film is arguing, that civil servants went over the line from “I do my job, and I get bribes as a nice perk” to “My job is to get bribes”.
And here’s Governor Ryan, who took bribes and supervised this whole elaborate system of corruption. And also had a seemingly sincere moral awakening and put a moratorium on the death penalty in our state as evidence mounted as to the HUGE number of innocent men we had killed. People aren’t just one thing, and you can’t give up on them because of one (or several) mistakes.
Which is what this film is arguing. Kamal 1, all along, has been a little more flexible than Kamal 2. But not actually “bad”. And then he takes a bribe to give a license, children die, and suddenly he is willing to do whatever it takes to escape punishment? There is no remorse, no concern with making sure nothing like this happens again? He just turns totally horrible all at once? I don’t believe it. As an audience member, this is where the film completely loses me. This is not the same character I have been watching, something has gone wrong.
Oh, and then Kamal 2 kills his own son. I see the point here, it is supposed to be the ultimate sacrifice, Kamal 2 being willing to give up his own beloved family if it was corrupt (he has a great line about how he loved his son so much, he even shaved his mustache so it wouldn’t scratch him). But, I don’t buy it.
I can’t really put my finger on why the ending doesn’t work for me. A combination of things I guess. For one, like I said, I don’t buy the whole last bit of character development for Kamal 1, it doesn’t fit with anything we saw before. For another, I have a hard time saying that anyone is completely irredeemable and better to just kill them. And finally, it feels like the killing was supposed to be more about us relating to the killer than feeling sorry for the victim. Only, we had spent equal amounts of time with both characters by this point, so I didn’t feel fully able to pick a side.
It’s that last most of all, I think. If the point of the movie was to make the audience feel uneasy and as their their loyalties were divided, than mission accomplished! If the point was to make us feel all “rah rah, we must save India even if it be by blood!”, than mission NOT accomplished.
(This movie, on the other hand, I pretty much completely bought that message)