Oh boy, a post about old American television shows! Perfectly on brand for a blog that started as being about Hindi film. Anyways, I love Columbo, and I want to talk about why I love Columbo, and then you also can love Columbo, and then we can use our Vast Collective Mental Powers to cast Shahrukh in a high budget Columbo remake on Netflix*.
Let’s talk Ayn Rand! Ayn Rand says, certain people are simply Better than other people. And because they are better, they deserve to live a different kind of life. She says that if you are a super talented engineer/writer/whatever than rather than using your talents to help average folks, you deserve to be appreciated as the engine that runs society, excellence and achievement above all.
This is a philosophy with which I personally do not agree. I think every human being and every human life (not like life and death, but like your time on this earth) has equal value. And I think the best way to make that happen in the world is through many hardworking decently good at their jobs folks doing many small jobs, not through One Great Person doing One Great Job. In fact, I do not believe that any One Great Person can accomplish anything, without also having many decently good people around and supporting him.
Come to think of it, this is why I find film as an art form so fascinating. Because it requires so many people working as a team to accomplish the end result. Not just working as a team, but contributing their own talents to it. Rajamouli had the vision for Bahubali, but it was Prabhas and Anushka and all the technicians and costume designers and set designers and everyone else who really made it happen. In the end, it is the vision of ALL of them put together that created this art. You don’t get that with a novel, or a painting, or a statue. Sometimes you get it a little bit with a musical recording, the composer writes something, the lyricist adds on, and then the musician makes it sing. But film is really the ultimate in collaborative art.
Now, what does this have to do with Columbo? Every murder on Columbo has a similar killer and a similar victim. The killer is brilliant, at the top of his field, a shining star in the world. The victim is a small person who got in his way, his nagging wife, his mistress, his less talented rival. Or even a blackmailer or a thief, a criminal of some kind. The killer kills not through desperation but through arrogance. A Columbo killer goes through elaborate tricks to cover up his crime, there is no one moment of hesitation or doubt. He is not afraid if being caught, he truly thinks he does not DESERVE to be caught. That his value to the world is such, it outweighs the life of this small meaningless person who was in his way.
Enter, Columbo. Columbo represents the average man of society. He is an average man himself, he likes his simple pleasures, he likes his wife, he likes his comfortable old coat and his dog. But he also speaks for the average man. He is not paid by any one client, his only job is to represent society and balance the scales of justice. He does not care what talents the killer possesses, what supposed “value” he has, or how sinful and weak the victim may have been. Every life has equal value. Every victim deserves to be avenged.
Columbo takes place in a very particular time and place, Los Angeles of the 1970s. This was the era when LA was the place to be. New York was dying, was harsh and sick and poor. Chicago was on the way out, torn by racial strife with a dying downtown. But LA was FUN!!!! It was bright and sunny, you could build a big house and have a big car, you could mix with the movers and shakers from every industry, celebrities in the arts, in business, in politics, they all flocked to LA. It was a playground for the privileged. And in that playground, Columbo appears as the monitor, the one who says “play fair, play nice, this isn’t a game and you haven’t escaped the real world yet”.
Columbo is a really interesting show to watch interspersed with my true crime. The thing is, the “real” police are a lot more like Columbo than I realized. First, they almost always know who did it right away. It’s the wife who acts weird and inherits everything. The challenge is figuring out a way to prove it. There is no “who done it” or even “how done it”, it’s all “how prove it”. But second, like Columbo, they are just people doing a job day in and day out who get good at it over time. They aren’t stunningly brilliant folks who make big intuitive leaps, they are people who have seen a lot of dead bodies, and a lot of grieving families, and a lot of crime scenes, and sort of know how it is supposed to look. They are professionals.
We don’t get enough of that in fiction, and I think it is really important. Forget the brilliant surgeon who saves lives, forget the amateur detective who makes the police look like fools, look at the people who follow the steps and go into work every day and do the best job they can. Because those are the people who make the world work.
Right now, my city is covered in snow. And you know what is helping? It’s not our mayor giving press conferences or anything like that. It is the CTA workers who are dealing with frozen tracks, and the snowplow drivers (city and private) who get up in the morning and do their job and the maintenance guys at small apartment buildings who shovel the sidewalk all day long. There is no One Great Hero, just a bunch of small people doing the jobs they are supposed to do as best they can. Like Columbo.
*Shahrukh remake. Shahrukh is a cop in Bombay. He dresses like he is trying to be cool but it just looks cheap, same with a “cool” haircut and beard. When he meets movie stars or directors or writers, he talks about how he dreamed of being an actor but was too short and dark so he became a cop instead. But slowly you realize all that narcissism and stuff is part of his act. He’s very smart and very good at his job, and he has cultivated the vain part of himself with an awareness that it makes people open up. Bombay is a world of wealth and fame and power, but average cop Shahrukh just sees murderers and victims and always finds a way to bring them to justice. And at the end of every episode, he lets his real intelligence shine through and suddenly appears handsome and scary and powerful as he confronts the murderer and shows his proof. Also, he is always talking about his wife and kids and the little bits we get are based on him and Gauri (“I’m not so good with women, except my wife, I met her when we were only teenagers and I guess I never learned to talk to anyone else”. “My youngest, you know the one that was born when the other two were teenagers, he is always telling me I overthink things. ‘Papa, don’t try so hard!’ he says”)