Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Hunger Games

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is the first book of a trilogy. The story is set in an uncertain time in the future in what is now North America and in the book, the country of Panem.

Panem consists of a Capitol surrounded by 12 districts. Each year, to remind the districts of the consequences of rebellion against the Capitol, the Capitol holds the hunger games. Each district is required to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in the games. To win the Hunger games the participants must eliminate each other within an artificially created environment known as "The Arena" till only one of them is alive. The Games are televised and broadcast across the country as a show of the Capitol's power over the districts. In its setting and premise the book is highly reminiscent of  Battle Royale, the Japanese movie. There too rebellious adolescents are kept in place by a fight to the death.

The Hunger Games begins in district 12, the poorest of the districts with Katniss Everdeen volunteering to take her 12 year old sister's place in the Hunger Games. As a thriller Hunger Games scores full points. There are enough moments, nicely interspersed to keep you flipping the pages, enough to make me want to complete the trilogy.

As an exploration of war and its effects on freedom and morality it falls short. I would have liked to see Katniss make a few more tough choices. The book circumvents tough choices in fairytale fashion with the Capitol relenting almost too easily. Personal conflict is almost absent as Katniss hardly faces a dilemma that calls for her morals, actions or choices into question. What would she have done if it came to her survival vs. that of a friend? Would she value her life more than a past kindness? Would she consciously rebel against the Capitol and the powers that be? There is no choice that Katniss is called on to make that compels the reader to evaluate the ethics of war, dictatorship and rebellion; choices whose consequences are unpalatable for Katniss and the reader.

While there is promise of retaliation by the Capitol in the other two books of the series, I do wish this one had examined the personal choices that people make in situations of extreme stress with a little more depth.

A P.S to the Post: After reading the other two books, I think the only key character who represents the personal crisis that is created by war, dictatorship and rebellion is Gale. At the very end of the tale, it is his choices that are worth thinking about. I wonder if he would have played the Hunger Games differently as opposed to Katniss or Peeta. Sure would have made for an even more engrossing read.

In a P.S that is longer than it should be, I should also say that I think the ancillary characters add much more meat to the story than do the protagonists. They represent the entire spectrum of choices that people must make in situations where Peace is not an option.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The death of the villian

 For many decades Bollywood has had iconic baddies. From Ajit as LION to Amjad Khan as the unforgettable Gabbar Singh to Amrish Puri as Mogambo. They were unabashedly bad making no excuses for their actions. You had to hate them and in doing so love the characters. They often became more defining than the heroes themselves, stronger protagonists whose destruction became the raison d'ĂȘtre for the film.

Somewhere today this memorable character has disappeared. In the fuzz of grey characters there are no villians anymore. Only people with questionable actions and morals spanning the spectrum between black and white without being either. So much so that the category of "Best actor is a villainous role" has all but disappeared from award shows. 

One could argue that this is more real, more nuanced, that people are hardly all good or all bad; that it is time that Bollywood got more realistic and less over the top in its portrayal of characters. And this is an argument that does hold good. Films have gotten more realistic, less melodramatic and on the whole more relate-able. I don't think I ever believed that someone like Mogambo or Shaakaal could exist with all the fancy hideouts with women dancing in silhouettes. 

While I am all for realistic portrayals and characters who are relate-able, I do wonder if the blurring distinction between good and bad is what has led to audiences often complaining that they don't understand what the movie is trying to say. Yes, all of us are grey and by that token, grey characters should probably be easy enough to decode. Only they aren't; they aren't because in a two-three hour film, you get but a fleeting glance of their lives and their thoughts; they aren't because decoding them is too much work when you are out looking just for entertainment; they aren't because decoding them raises uncomfortable questions about your own life and actions. 

And lastly I lament the passing of the villain because I wonder if it also means the passing of the hero. Batman, after all, wouldn't be Batman without The Joker.

Monday, 4 July 2011

The meaning of modernity

Mom was here recently and we were having one of our long winding, jumping from here to there, no end in sight discussions and the topic came around to one of the things that almost always crop up - the tradition vs. modernity dichotomy and what it really means to be modern. Is modernity only about blindly abandoning your tradition/culture? All around me I see  two extreme patterns. One is an endorsement of everything western and the abandon of everything Indian. The other is a fanatical endorsement of everything Indian and ancient and a denouncement of everything western as decadent and morally bankrupt. What I see very little of is questioning. What I see very little of is true progressiveness and a critical thinking.

To my mind, the blind adoption of an alien culture is a sign of capitulation to hegemony and not a sign of modernity or progressiveness. Modernity, the way I see it, is the ability to evaluate what values are important irrespective of their origin; to be able to use all the access to information and exposure to different cultures that we have to our advantage and find a balance that guides our choices and our behaviour through life.

At the same time, unquestioning obedience to one's own culture, at a time when life and society are completely different from the circumstances in which the culture and its practices originated, does lead to a situation where one's values are often impractical to follow or implement.

What is important, then, is to understand the larger purpose that a culture and a value system serves in preserving a civilization. Value systems are an ordering influence, a compass to align individual behaviours to be non-conflicting. They encompass broad values that determine the direction that a society or civilization takes, its attitudes towards production, distribution and consumption, its notions of right and wrong, of justice. It comes not with the legal sanction of the station but the moral sanction of the people who chose to follow it.

In that larger abstract framework, modernity lies not in the blind adoption of a system based on its origins but in the ability to recognize values that are universal, that benefit humanity beyond national borders and that provide support and direction in times of tension, dilemmas and choice.