All posts by Saravanan Mani

Saravanan Mani is Editor and contributing writer at ScreenEthics.com. He is a film and TV enthusiast who is carrying out research in the field of Screen Ethics at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Recommended TV: Speechless on ABC

This post begins with a non sequitur. Instead of directly arguing for the merits of the show that I am trying to get you to watch, I am going to explain the obvious reasons why you should watch a good TV show besides it being a good TV show. It has been a while since I posted on this site, and strangely, it also coincided with the annual summer break on the TV schedule. [It is one of my pet peeves that the scheduled TV summer break is irrelevant in the world of digital streaming and OTT content, but I will leave that aside for now. Clearly I am going to use the break to explain away my own laziness!]

So there are at least a half a dozen shows that I am watching (or failing trying to) at this time. Besides the great shows recommended by friends, family and Netflix, I am obliged to keep up with the upcoming scheduled network programs as well. One of the strangest, and beautiful things about network programs is that the audience voice matters and does not matter in two extreme and oppositional ways. First, if a show is underwatched in the outmoded AC Nielsen measurement, it is condemned for the chopping block. However, once the numbers are in, the critical reception and fan cultures have little influence on the show’s continuation.

While a show like Breaking Bad with less than 2 million viewers per week in its initial season was renewed for bigger and badder things in the latter seasons (which also ended up pulling monster level 15 million ratings for the last few episodes), a show like Hannibal on NBC could not drag its internationally subsidized production budget into a fourth season due to poor ratings. Leaving aside the less obvious shows like The Grinder (Rob Lowe’s best comedic performance), even the more widely appreciated shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreations, 30 Rock, Better off Ted all had to fend off the specter of cancellation throughout their run.

And that is why Speechless deserves your attention, because it fell from 7 million viewers to 4.5 over the course of the first season, and opened to a modest 5 million in the second season. Compared to ABC’s Modern Family (9 million viewers) and CBS’s The Big Bang Theory (up to a surprising 20 million viewers), Speechless’ position as ABC’s third best comedy might maybe good enough for a few more seasons, but not enough to be featured as a headliner as the show deserves to be treated. I guess that is rant over, so let us take a look at the show itself.

Formally, Speechless is far less daring as some of the modern sitcoms. The A and B plot lines are very clearly demarcated and the characters are, at times, typically indistinguishable from other dysfunctional TV families from Malcom in the Middle and The Goldbergs among others. However, the content of the show makes up for any timid imitative practices from other shows. In fact, the patient evaluation of simple situations may seem as obvious and tiresome to many. What kind of a ramp should a disabled child uses in a high school? Is a garbage disposal ramp an acceptable alternative to an adaptation or is it insulting to the user? How do disabled children fight? How do they express anger? Should adaptations help bridge access for them to do things that are perceived to be bad, just as much as they allow them to do things that are socially approved? The questions in Speechless move from the mundane and practical to serious grounds on social acceptance and good behavior.

In a different era, a show like this would have been deemed too depressing or heavy on reflections for a prime-time network TV comedy. And yet, along with shows like Black-ish and Fresh Off The Boat, ABC continues to present families of all shapes and colors, while maintaining an engaging and entertaining storyline. Speechless encourages people to laugh about these things, but not in a mean-spirited way. It normalizes the needs of disabled children without trivializing them, thus performing an important function of communication that goes beyond representation. And yet, these attempts of remaking similar narratives with the focus on access feels like an intentional ploy to produce a show that can produce popular images which help visualize, if not normalize the issues of adaptation.

Disabled characters do not have a lot of visibility on network TV, unless they are used as narrative props for a specific episode or in a quirky, upbeat role as a sidekick. ABC’s new comedy Speechless engages with questions of access and disability head on, presenting important questions without exceeding the typical conventions of the sitcom. This is a precious little show, which examines the questions of what kind and degree of adaptation is acceptable. The disability presented in this show is not a magical way in which life moves on without any difficulties. The show actually lingers on the struggles without making it about sympathy or overcoming the odds. It engages with the difficulties without judgement, and that makes Speechless rather unique.

The show examines JJ, the protagonist who communicates through a words written on a board, in the context of his family and friends. The representation of siblings and parents whose lives are linked to the disability of their family member is handled with an optimism that emphasizes the importance of awareness and practical knowledge rather than an old-world idea of stoic and unquestioning togetherness. There is a lot of heart and very funny one liners in this ABC sitcom, but most of all – it is a manifestation of the transformative power of TV.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

 

Dunkirk – Uncomfortable watching of Rewritten History

Christopher Nolan’s much awaited Dunkirk hit the screens last month marking the critically acclaimed director’s first foray into historical fiction. Three years after his space exploration film, Interstellar, Nolan’s presentation of an epic rescue was expected to be a human drama about survival. Despite being one of the darkest moments in WWII for the Allies, the rescue at Dunkirk is arguably one of the points where the tide turned against the Axis powers. The film turned out quite successful, as critics, academics and most importantly, filmgoers have embraced Dunkirk for its masterful execution as well as poignant story-telling that presents unconventional images of muted heroism not typically seen in war movies. Kristin Thompson talks about the atmospheric construction of narrative exposition where the emphasis is more on what characters want (Alex describing Gibson looking for a way out on the rescue boat instead of getting a piece of bread) rather than any totemic background details, including character names. David Bordwell sees a similarity between Nolan and Kubrik who are rare filmmakers capable of turning a genre film into an art film, and elevating it further into both a prestige and an event film.

These critical responses give shape to the overwhelming feeling of awe when a film-enthusiast encounters a Nolan film. The sheer technical brilliance of his work curmudgeonly steers clear of contemporary dependence on CGI and meticulously builds tangible movie magic with practical effects. From the innovative rotating camera-rig for the corridor fight in Inception, to the complex but clear fictional technology created in The Prestige, Nolan’s skill as one of the most consistently brilliant filmmakers of the 21st century is unquestionable. I do not share the view that Nolan does not write well-rounded characters. Just the strikingly terrifying portrayal of Heath Ledger’s Joker suggests that he has an eye for unique and powerful characters. While the individual characters maybe plot-devices in a meat-suits, I find that the relationships between the characters evoke the much-needed drama that sustains us in the narrative. I was blown away by the tense dynamic between Robin Williams and Al Pacino in Insomnia, as I was with Guy Pearce and Joe Pantoliano in Memento. Come to think of it, the tension between male characters with opposing views has been the engine that drives forward Nolan’s films from The Prestige to the Batman Trilogy. This dynamic changes with Inception and Interstellar, where the relationship dynamic is between a male protagonist and a female family member – Cobb’s wife in the former and Cooper’s daughter in the next. In sum, there are few filmmakers who I can be certain of delivering a thrilling and entertaining film experience like Christopher Nolan.

I say all this, because I personally had a bit of a problem with Dunkirk. I enjoyed it as much as one could enjoy a tightly produced war thriller, but I also felt that there was some inexplicable gap between the film’s intention and its final output. I agree with much of Thompson and Bordwell’s assessments of the presentation of nobility in the place of valor, and the brilliance of Nolan’s craft of filmmaking. However, I find myself unable to reconcile the dissonance between the intended message of survival and the overtly heroic conclusion of the ending. Although Nolan himself has called it an “intimate epic”, the conclusion stresses the epic more than the intimate. I was particularly uncomfortable with Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech from 1940 juxtaposed with the dramatic success of the rescue operation, because I simply could not erase from my own cultural memory the atrocities conducted by his government during the Bengal famine of 1943.

The image of an underdog Britain who seemed to outsmart and out-luck the Germans because of some special (divine?) cloak of invulnerability was simply unpalatable to me. And, the British achieved this extraordinary victory, without a single non-white face in sight. Now, I am not a WWII historian, but I was pretty certain that one of the main reasons why the war was called a “world war” was because of the international scale in which it was fought, and due to the spread of the empire, how many diverse groups of people fought in it. Perhaps, I thought, this particular stretch of the war was fought exclusively by white British soldiers considering how close it was to the Isles. After all, have not the critics been raving about the accuracy of the details in the film from the kind of people who inspired the specific characters as well as the equipment and vehicles used in it? Surely, I was being over-sensitive and simply wrong-headed to expect diversity in a historically accurate film. And then I came across this article by Sunny Singh in The Guardian.

For those who did not read the article, here is the TL;DR version: it erases the presence of the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies from the British side, who were not only there on the beach, but also tasked with transporting supplies to areas inaccessible for the motorized transport companies. Besides the Indians, the film also left out non-white soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and other colonies who fought on the French side. The article frames the exclusion of non-white characters in the context of a grand, selective mythologizing of Britain’s past in a post-Brexit world. More than anything else, the article externalizes the concerns that I had watching the film and makes me question the contradictory reaction that I had in doing so – how do I account for my enjoyment of the film when clearly I am uncomfortable with much of its politics? And in a broader sense, is being politically sensitive a mutually exclusive option to enjoying the film?

Indian Troops in Burma

When I look at the film and its publicity material now, I cannot help but feel irritated by its blatant jingoism. From a by-line that proudly claims Dunkirk to be “the event that shaped our world” to a description that explains “when 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” I cannot help but wonder if the reverse is also true, that is, if Britain is home only to those who were shown on screen as the ones waiting to be rescued. I will be the first to admit that movies are not reality but the narrative around Nolan’s film has time and again stressed on the attention to detail and historical accuracy. Nolan himself has prided himself on the fact that they used airplanes as close as possible to the real thing to get the same effect. Even in a fictional movie like Interstellar, Nolan’s obsessive efforts to bridge science fiction with science probability (if not actual science fact) was a big part of the buzz around the film. While we do not watch Ip Man expecting a true bio-pic of Bruce Lee’s master, Dunkirk painstakingly constructed metanarrative is a claim to history and a promise to tell a definitive version of that story. Nolan’s own words during interviews describe his desire to portray a moment of human victory amidst historical/practical loss, so the exclusion feels deliberate, jarring and painful. The absence of significant diversity in Nolan’s earlier films have not been a real concern to me, because they are fictional worlds and need only address the rules determined within it. While I wonder now how hard it is to write a non-white central character in any of his previous films, I do not think it diminishes the value of the films overall. Whereas the excision of non-white characters to obscurity is something that the director should be held accountable for. Even the absence of typical whitewashing where a non-white figure of history is rewritten for or simply played in earnest by a white actor, this removal from history is significantly more dangerous.

Moroccan Goumiers in Alsace

Ultimately, I have to recognize that, yes I enjoyed the movie, but I’m also uncomfortable with its politics. And while there is no recourse between these two poles, there is definitely a need to develop such vocabulary to explain the relationship between these ideas. It is easy to categorize things we find problematic under the same list as things which we dislike, but perhaps it is more important to articulate our complex feelings about the missteps in things we actually like. That is why it is important to talk about the mishandling of sexual violence as a throwaway plot-point in Game of Thrones, and spousal abuse in Breaking Bad and excessive police power in The Shield. The bigger the reach and influence that a pop-culture text enjoys, the more important it is for us to locate our criticism from a place of love, if our intention is to start a dialogue with the fandom as well as other critics. We should not have to ignore that ambivalence of our cinematic and televisual encounters and the response need not be defined in terms of either defending Nolan at whatever cost or bashing the film in its entirety. That is the purpose of criticism – it recuperates the flaws of art by expressing our reaction to it.

Senegalese colonial troops in the French army, WWI.

A Note about the photos of the soldiers: They are not from Dunkirk, but I decided to randomly include them based on their color, in the same random way that Christopher Nolan decided to exclude them from his film.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

War for the Planet of the Apes and Post-Human Cinema?

Many films have used non-human characters as their protagonists. Pixar films have famously animated various things from toys, cars, bugs to even emotions with narrative agency and made us love every moment of it. We have rooted for toys to return to their homes, fish finding their family, cars regaining their glory, or even emotions achieving a balance. However, the recent Planet of the Apes films have achieved a further distinction in not only creating non-human protagonists that we can root for, but in making their quest for survival come at a direct cost of human characters. By turning the humans as the main antagonists, these films have achieved something of a landmark in post-human cinema – conceiving a fictional world where we can step out of our position of dominance and see the overwhelming impact we have had in shaping the world. Although this reflection still occurs in very human terms, where the protagonists are not replacements of humanity but inheritors of what it essentially means to be human, this reflection opens a new line of questioning about the effect of the cinematic image.

This cinematic image of the heroic ape riding a horse bareback, and still capable of wielding a machine gun when the situation demands it leaves the audience thrilled and excited. Here is a hero who is able to overcome the face of the oppressive overlords that we have faced in our own lives – that of humans in positions of authority and seemingly unending power. But our response to the heroic overthrower of human authority also makes us wonder if there is something essentially problematic with the seductive power of a film that can compel you to hate your own ‘kind’. Is it too close to propaganda films that totalize the human enemy into a monolithic figure-head deserving all our hate? Despite featuring sympathetic and likeable human figures in all three movies, are the Apes films in their own way – racist [against humans]? Do they bait our compulsive beliefs about cruelest and worst aspects of humanity and turn our justifiable anger against individual figures of tyranny toward all humanity?

A close look at the films show that these questions are not entirely baseless. The apes have all the narrative agency that has for long remained the domain of human or surrogate protagonists. Caesar, a noble leader who simply wants to find a space for his people, and preaches co-existence when it is possible strikes at the heart of our aspirations for a modest hero – one who would not look for a fight for its own sake, whose heroism always evaluates its cost. The more aggressive and violent among the apes are still largely justified in their anger as they had sustained years of abuse at the hands of humans. Caesar’s own outburst of anger in the third film marks the peak of unwanted human aggression and at many moments in the film we cheer on as he defies the humans.

Contrarily, the human characters are presented as monstrous and ruthless beings who are so deeply entrenched in their own desire to continue their domination of the world, that they disregard the changing landscape of evolution that had put them in a dominant position in the first place. Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus in the second film is motivated by his survival instinct and goes to war only when provoked. Woody Harrelson’s Colonel in the third film is a raving megalomaniac whose opposition to the ape-kind is motivated by his belief in human superiority and the need to destroy competition. There is a rapid advancement of Ape-technology and a simultaneous degradation of human technology that makes the human position of dominance unsustainable, and they fight tooth and nail before they are dethroned. Even though all three films have a ‘good human’ figure in James Franco, Jason Clarke and Amiah Miller – they are progressively less influential in the narrative. Where Franco’s scientist is clearly more powerful as he directly turned Caesar to an intelligent ape, Clarke’s human survivor and his band of humans play a much-reduced part in the relationship, as they are equal who seek co-existence. Miller’s mute little girl in the third film reduces her position even further as she is completely under the protection of the apes, almost like a cherished pet.

Ape Caesar, better than the human ones.

However, such a reading of the films as positioning the viewers against humans misses a larger point about the film, or any post-human cinematic protagonists – the protagonists are not human replacements but merely human surrogates. The Pixar movies were successful because they dealt with human experiences even though the characters were non-human. They deal with relationships, success and failure in human terms, much like the Apes franchise. The Apes films may have turned humans the villains, but they have created a new type of humans in the apes, where the protagonists are human and humane in their behavior – in terms of their strategy, motivation and action. When we see the intelligent apes behave as humans do, we are not worried about the apes taking over, but rather see that the feature that has enriched the apes is their new-found humanity. And for this reason, we will continue watching a good overcoming-the-odds narrative regardless of the color of the skin or shape of the face of the protagonist.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Masterclass in Human Relationships – Bong Joon Ho’s Films

If you happen to be on the internet, chances are you have just survived the marketing blitz for Netflix’s recent project Okja. Directed by acclaimed Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho and featuring a star-cast of Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal, a mysterious animal and a sci-fi premise, the film seems to have all the trappings of a typical Hollywood creature feature. After all, this film is from the same director who also made The Host (2006) [however, those who know the acclaimed Korean director only through the monster-attack film have missed out on one of the best collection of movies by a director on a trot]. Bong Joon-Ho delivers a touching film about the relationship between a young girl and her animal friend. Okja offers satirical glimpses at corporate politics, the harsh realities of large scale animal farming and animal abuse, and the cynicism with which activism is comparably positioned with the industries themselves. Like his 2013 film Snowpiercer, Joon-Ho’s film offers a bleak world divided along class, geographical privilege and crucially, the randomness of birth. The melancholy in his films invite reflection and horror. This post takes a quick look at four films which unsettle narrative closure to leave the audience with questions rather than satisfaction.

Snowpiercer

THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS.

(MOST SPOILER-HEAVY SECTION) Consider these four frames:

  1. A police officer returns to a scene of crime after 17 years, and looks at the ditch where the first murder took place, reflecting on the fact that they never caught the murderer.
  2. An elderly woman dances in a field to music with a remarkable sadness in her eyes, when she comes to terms with the truth about her son’s innocence.
  3. A young woman and a child exit a perpetually moving train after it has crashed to a halt to find themselves in a frozen world and see a polar bear at a distance.
  4. A young girl has successfully bargained for the life of her animal companion, while similar intelligent animals are designated for the slaughterhouse.

(END OF MOST SPOILER-HEAVY SECTION)

All these scenes are loaded with triumph and sorrow. The characters have failed in what they intended to achieve, and yet they have attained a fulfillment which brings them to rest in their minds. Their character’s story arc gets completed, even though none of these films allow their respective narratives to come to a successful completion. The director’s visual style has changed from one film to another, but his laconic storytelling remains central to his filmmaking. His stories seem to ask after our own discomfort – what does it mean when we feel so conflicted about the choices made by the characters? What does it say when we dread the uncertainties that the characters face in their future? These narratives achingly reach for the viewers’ concern for the characters and raise a grain of unease in our minds. The films do not answer any of these questions –they quietly raises a finger to point to those people that we know who also live in similar worlds.

Memories of Murder

Bong Joon-Ho’s command over subtle use of visual grammar in the 2003 masterpiece Memories of Murder and its spiritual sequel Mother from 2009 prevents us from getting too relaxed while watching the them. Instead, we feel disquieted with the gentle flow of the narrative, which keeps preparing us for a dramatic jolt. While it is expected to see characters are challenged by the significance of their choices, these films push the audience to weigh the significance as well. Both films develop the audience relationship with the characters and their goals to a point where the resolution seems inevitable. And yet, the ultimate ending, while consistent with the narrative world, offers no solace to the characters. Similarly, in Snowpiercer and Okja, the success of the characters have come at a high price and their future remains uncertain regardless of the immediate outcomes the encounter.

A deep sorrow engulfs you before the film begins, Mother

The South Korean filmmaker’s measured pace and introspective narratives have been extensively discussed and praised. What I enjoy the most about his work is the sense of incompleteness that prevents the films from fully slipping away from your mind. Instead, the films linger with you, challenging your understanding of how narratives work, and mildly chiding you for your certainties about people and their behavior. The behavior of people who encounter situations way beyond the scope of their ability is perfectly captured in 2003’s Memories of Murder. When three under-prepared police officers try to solve a mystery while contending with an incompetent working environment, they elicit the audiences’ sympathy and anger at the same time. Their motivations may spring from a righteous desire to bring a murderer to justice, and yet their repeated failure seems a fair reward to their working methods. In Mother, we see an exceptional circumstance that stretch the limits of the everyday relationship between mother and son.

Okja

The most compelling aspect of these films to me, is not their ability to present a deep discomfort, but in the gentle humor they incorporate throughout the narratives. Tilda Swinton’s monstrous villain in Okja is prone to excesses that reveals her desire to be appreciated in comparison to her sister. The steely-eyed Giancarlo Esposito also plays a humorous turn involving a cup of coffee while delivering some classic supervising henchman role. In Snowpiercer, there are a plenty of terse moments undercut with double-take inducing gag-shots. And perhaps unforgettably, an interrogation scene in Memories of Murder begins with one of the policemen landing a near flawless dropkick to a suspect – knocking the breath out of the audience with surprise as well as laughter. The blend of humor and the inescapable atmosphere of horror elevate these films to near perfection. In moments of failure, of coming to terms with your grief or irredeemable position, of contemplating the significance of the greater world that is either altered or untouched by your individual actions – these films think visually and convey the most intimate human stories.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Borgen – Great TV

We live in a time of great political pessimism. Across party, state and regional lines, there is a growing anger with the quality of leadership and a skepticism about whether they have the best interests of the people in their hearts. Many TV shows have represented this anger in their dark portrayal of political figures ranging from the Machiavellian House of Cards or the pitch-black satire of Veep. Consistently, these shows echo or even preempt contemporary political fiascos, painfully emphasizing a bitter hopelessness for its audience. Contrarily, shows from an earlier era that presented an upbeat and idealistic view of politicians like The West Wing no longer resonate with the seemingly unresolvable entanglements we encounter today. Borgen, an episodic political thriller from Denmark treads a fine line between being its idealism and cynicism and delivers one of the finest TV dramas of this era.

With its riveting thirty episodes, Borgen has received near-universal acclaim since it hit the airwaves in 2010. Counted among the Scandinavian TV royalty that rose to global prominence in the late 2000s alongside Forbrydelsen (The Killing 2007-12) and Broen (The Bridge 2011-), Borgen follows the life and career of Denmark’s first female Prime Minister, Birgitte Nyborg. Borgen’s simple and clear narrative engages with different aspects of the political process as well as its media and public perception. While the intricate plot and the complex perspectives are compelling, it is clear that we watch the shows for its well-written characters. Chief among them is Moderate party-chief and statsminister, Birgitte Nyborg. Sidse Babett Knudsen delivers one of the best performances on TV as the dramatic protagonist who is tough, intelligent and moral. She is the epitome of a statesman, whose values-driven, progressive policies fly in the face of established conventions. And yet, not once do we mistake Prime Minister Nyborg for a naïve politician as she expertly maneuvers her way through a sea of political and personal treachery without compromising on her ideals. The narrative victories that she wins are not through shortcuts, and sometimes, they are not even victories. Nyborg endures unfazed through the circumstances, both as a witness and an ideal respondent in the face of adversity. Instead of presenting a simplistic heroic arc, Borgen offers something that we all long for; not just a protagonist we can root for, but an inspiring model for grace under fire.

In Borgen, Brigitte Nyborg and her staff negotiate for the survival of both their ideals and their government in the fragile balance of a multi-party system. The restrained tone and the deliberated style of writing works surprisingly well within the largely episodic format of the show. The show succeeds where some other shows fail because it refuses to offer unexpected twists or clever narrative-play at the cost of character and plot consistency.  It is not that characters do not change their minds or act erratically. However, any erratic behavior is a result that naturally grows out of their context and painful character introspection. The best moments of the show blend character-based drama that also exposes the political play and the machinations behind the institutional walls. However, it does not bask in the glow of mocking all notions of political integrity. When Kasper Juul (played by Pilou Asbaek), the charismatic spin doctor, orbits around the political drama with his brand of circumstantially convenient morality, Nyborg grounds the show in her principles stating that she wants to do politics in her own way. Her steadfast and upright approach recovers the idea of politics from the scheming and treacherous world we see in Game of Thrones in favor of administering the state and its people in the best possible way.

One of the fan-centric joys of watching a fairly niche program is to see actors from such programs achieve international mainstream acclaim. Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, Pilou Asbaek and Sidse Babet Knudsen have all found success in international film and TV (in Pitch Perfect 2, Game of Thrones and Westworld respectively). I am not implying that Hollywood is the yardstick of success that the actors should be measured against. Instead, I am very happy to see these actors in performances where I can follow them without subtitles. While on the subject of subtitles, Borgen was so compelling that I found out if there are ways of learning Danish enough to follow the show without subtitles. Unfortunately, the watching easily outpaced any efforts of learning a new language. And yet, like the equally brilliant Broen (Bridge), this show has framed the eponymous Borgen in particular (the Christiansborg Palace which houses the parliament and other government offices), and the city of Copenhagen in general with its iconic shots.

At the time of writing this, there is an American version of Borgen in the works. I have mixed feelings about this. On one side, the American show will certainly get greater global visibility. However, in the current political context, an American remake is dangerously susceptible to sliding into a cynical and negative approach. Alternatively, if there could be a fourth season of the show, that would be great.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Two BBC Crime Dramas – Broadchurch and River

One of the pleasures of my research topic is that I get to watch Crime Dramas. A lot. While many of them can be quite predictable and poorly written, some shows have the capacity to stun you in their brilliance. Though I am a big fan, I would be the first to agree that even the best among American Crime dramas prioritize the crime factor more than the drama. Some of the more deliberate narratives like the first season of True Detective and the brilliant TV adaptation of Fargo (both are season-long anthologies), tend to linger on the characters rather than focus on the action. And yet, they too look at the stories for the length of the crime and the aftermath has little bearing on the viewers’ perception of the characters’ lives. It is as if the challenges faced by the characters simply cease to exist at the end of the season. This is one of the places where European shows fare better, with their intricate plotting never over-taking the depth of characterization. I would like to discuss this ability to build on past events and crimes in two recent shows from the UK, Broadchurch and River.

While I usually avoid spoilers, the following post may give away some broad strokes outline of the character arc – but you may read ahead without being robbed of the meaning and actions of the plot as I try to only reference to its method.

Broadchurch balances between the two genre modifiers of crime and drama the best among contemporary television shows. Set in a fictional coastal town in England, the first series features David Tennant and Olivia Coleman in leading roles as they try to solve the mysterious death of a ten-year old boy. This is the perfect setup for a whodunit with its finite set of characters each with their own dark secret that they want to hide. It is not to say that the show avoids that aspect, but it also transcends the simplicity of crime as a puzzle-solving that dominates many TV shows. Instead we are allowed to take a harrowing peek into the complex entanglements between the characters who are involved in the aftermath of the tragedy. It looks at the devastation of a single death and the implication of a killer to its ultimate conclusion. By resisting the tropes of inventive criminality and mind-numbingly escalating body-count other shows seem so easily susceptible to, Broadchurch seeks a crushing humanity as the basis of the viewers’ relationship with the characters. The solving of the crime is as devastating as the crime itself, as the consequences change the world of the characters permanently. In eight short episodes, Broadchurch showed how unique crime drama on TV could be.

And then the second series happened. It abandoned the format of the first series that most TV shows try and repeat. Instead, it examined a trial and its crucial elements by extending the case from the first series. This led to mixed results because the sense of closure provided in the first series seemed to be completely undone by the second. It felt like a cheap trick from a 90s Hollywood movie where an unplanned sequel forces the producers to remove the happy conclusion they had achieved. Although the second series was inarguably a natural extension of the first, it was undeniably inconsistent in quality. Like many other fans, I was not very impressed with the outcomes of the court proceedings. In my opinion, the near-perfect first series was ruined by an attempt to extend a show that should have been a limited series. Even at that stage, I would have been happy for the show to end on that note – with one remarkable series followed by a slightly underwhelming series, which was still better than many shows on air. And then the third series came, changing the way I think of a crime drama. I was never more delighted to be shown wrong when it rescued the flailing second series retroactively by presenting the greatest bit of character development between the second and third series. The characters who had suffered twice – first with the death of a child and second the failure of a justice-system – are used to make a more important point about trauma – recovery. Instead of using their tragedy as a plot point that leads them to irredeemable suffering, the show allows its characters to cope with the loss over time and return to their lives. Not only did Broadchurch provide one of the most satisfying conclusions in crime drama TV history, but it legitimized the need for the suffering inflicted by the second series. It explained why the events in the second series were important for the characters to explore their experiences.

Another show that blends a bleak aesthetic with a soul-searching character centrality is BBC’s 2015 crime drama River. Featuring Stellan Skarsgård and Nicola Walker, critics often acknowledge the faux-Scandinavian look and feel of the show with its grey London-scapes and lingering sense of narrative development. I believe that beyond the appearance, the show borrows something far deeper from its Scandinavian counterpart – it values the feelings and thoughts of its characters and reflects the significance on the plot.

River begins with almost an eye-rolling conceit typical of any of the leading crime-solvers on mainstream TV— a special ability that allows the protagonist to see the case in a way that others simply cannot. Skarsgård’s titular hero can literally see the ghosts of his cases, allowing him to externalize his thoughts and grasp at the heart of the case, eventually solving it. This feels giddily like an overused generic trope at the beginning of the show, but within the first episode it goes off on a course that is surprising and refreshing. The important distinction between this show and others like it is in its treatment of this special ability. The protagonist is slowly revealed to be less gifted, and more burdened with persistently painful and difficult life. While it has its episodic procedural moments (especially in the first three episodes), the overarching plot takes over in the latter part of the series as the inspector is trying to solve the mystery of his partner’s death – leading to a whirlwind finish where there are real emotional and personal stakes for the protagonist in solving the case.

Unlike other crime shows, River earns its twists painstakingly and makes the characters pay dearly for each truth they wrestle out of the narrative. The audience are compelled to weigh the importance of those twists – each one with its palpable and lasting consequence make us ache for the characters who live with the outcomes they choose. The show’s protagonist is deeply involved in the thick of the plot in the most organic way – as the characters’ entanglements are used to examine the dangerous profession that they are in. Usually crime shows offer a degree of invulnerability to their protagonists, especially if they are cops – some of the most famous cop-shows have insular protagonists who are never under mortal threat simply because they must exist and be in an active relationship with the plot. This is where River reaches for a level above its contemporaries. The six episodes are concluded with a finality that scoffs at the idea of returning for a second series that would cash in on a well-built world of characters and relationships. Although the production details are ominously left dangling for a possible return, actors Stellan Skarsgård considers the show “a one-off piece” and hopefully that resolve remains.

To conclude, I find this impulse that desires for River’s finality a bit conflicting, because a show like Broadchurch proves that a one-off concept could be masterfully extended and redeemed even if it is botched in the process. We may never know if a second series of a show could exceed expectations if it is never made. And yet, the fans of a show are pulled in two opposing directions, hoping for an untouched legacy and a perfect memory as well as a hope to return to characters we have become acquainted with and deeply care for. TV history is full of shows that got better in a returning season, and there are just as many examples of near-perfect mini-series events. These two traditions bear their own modes of reception in the way they prepare the audience and the buzz they generate about their content. Ultimately, long-term seriality remains one of the most intriguing points of engagements with TV shows. The tension between our desire for more episodes and the dread for them being bad is the site where TV shows- both great and terrible- are made, remembered and forgotten.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Rajnikanth and Politics – A Few Words

Everyone has an opinion about whether Rajnikanth should enter politics, and as a self-proclaimed fan of the actor, I have one too. SPOILER: I think he should enter politics, but not in the way everyone thinks. Before I explain my point of view, let me explain the context in which this debate takes place.

A (Very) Simplified Recap of Tamil Nadu’s Politics

Since 1967, Tamil Nadu’s politics effectively rejected national parties in favor of regional parties that emerged from the Dravidian movement. CN Annadurai’s call for strengthening the state around linguistic lines as opposed to a disconnected central government swept through generations of people who would identify themselves as either of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which means the party for advancement of the Dravidians, or its alternate, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which was a breakaway formed in 1972 and named for former Chief Minister CN Annadurai. The two parties have produced seven Chief Ministers over half a century and their tug-o-war moves between phases of development and welfare schemes. The passage of time has bred discontent cynicism in the people as allegations of corruption, nepotism and neglect of long-term state-development took root.

Former Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu

Rajnikanth and the 1996 Elections

At the peak of anti-Dravida party sentiment, Indian National Congress leader GK Moopanar broke away from the national party to form a Tamil Manila Congress (TMC), a state-centric party. His clean image and popularity received a boost from support by Tamil cinema’s leading man, Superstar Rajnikanth. An alliance between the TMC and the DMK came to power in 1996 and many credited the actor for turning the tide decisively against the incumbent government. This may not have been an overstatement considering the longstanding ties between the cinema industry and politics in Tamil Nadu. Both chief ministers from DMK, CN Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi were successful writers who had written many socially motivated plays and cinema that shaped the discourse of the Dravidian movement. AIADMK’s founder MGR, arguably the most influential politician in the state, was an actor who cultivated his image through the resounding message of hope and revolution, written for the most part by his former colleagues, the aforementioned chief-ministers. His successor J. Jayalalitha was the leading lady in many of his films. Many of the minor parties that have developed in the state are often led by actors. So, Rajnikanth’s value to a political party or his potential impact is not insignificant.

Pros and Cons – Perceptions of Political Life

Which brings us to the question of his entry into the political fray. First of all, there are those who claim that the actor’s background as a Marathi native born and raised in Karnataka disqualifies him from entering Tamil politics – to them, I have nothing to say except point out that as an Indian national, he has every right to run for public office anywhere in the country. Cynical critics look at his recent comments about politics as an attempt to capitalize the political vacuum created by the passing of then incumbent chief minister J. Jayalalitha. A few critique his perceived ideological proximity to the right-leaning national party BJP and the national premier Narendra Modi. However, it is important to note that Rajnikanth has maintained cordial relationships with all political leaders from either side of the aisle. Quite a few cite the 67-year old actor’s age as being past the prime to enter politics. Former Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha was actively involved in politics until her last year and she was of the same age as Rajnikanth. Opposition leader M. Karunanidhi is 92 years old, and he is still projected as the party’s incumbent leader. Outside of the state, current US President Donald Trump entered his office at the ripe old age of 70. Age cannot be the only consideration to exclude someone from public office. Others look at the years as well; not exactly his age, but his years of relevance. The Superstar has not shone as brightly in 2017 as he did in 1996. Although his films are still received with an enthusiasm reserved for a festival, they have become few and far between. People are far more critical of the extravagant flourishes of the Superstar, than they were in the 90s. In his years of absence, he has ironically been overexposed by the many younger actors imitating him in tribute and inevitable parody. This may not be a bad thing, because it shows that the people discern between the actor’s on-screen persona and his potential political life. His laconic and enigmatic mode of speaking, which enthralled his fans in an earlier time is not welcome by a people clamoring for clarity and actionable ideas. His gentlemanly image simply feels outmoded in this contemporary period of unrest.

The Actor’s Image as Myth

Should He Enter Politics?

I am firmly of the belief that anyone who holds considerable sway among the public should actively engage in political work contributing to progress. As long as we keep claiming that only career politicians can enter politics, we are skewing the conversation about national growth in the direction of nepotism and protectionism. Public figures from all walks of life should engage in a political life, doing their best to advance the cause of the common folk. However, I also believe that entry into politics is simplified into a false choice of either joining an existing party with its corrupt machinery or launching his own party, haphazardly converting fan-clubs into political offices. Established parties are already making overtures to the actor asking him to join them. Instead, I would like Rajnikanth’s entry to politics to take a third way – for him to effect actual change at the grassroots, he must run for a clearly defined political office for as an independent candidate. By this, I mean, he could contest to become a Member of the Legislative Assembly and set an example of what good leadership could bring to a single constituency. If his ambitions are grander than that, then he could contest as a mayoral candidate for a city and work for its welfare. The problem with the reaction to his entry to politics seems to be located with the notion that if he enters politics, he must be a Chief Ministerial candidate. Only when we recognize the importance of leadership at all levels will we see the exodus of the crony culture. Socially minded public figures are not new in Tamil Nadu, just as anywhere else in the world. The usually reclusive actor Kamal Hassan has recently expressed his thoughts on political and social problems openly. Radio Jockey Balaji became a cult figure due to his public works during the Chennai floods two years ago. Only when public figures of non-political background volunteer in their own spheres of influence, do we have a chance of challenging or at least destabilizing the status quo of dominant parties and encouraging a legitimate democracy. Rajnikanth’s entry to politics would be a success if he can add to that critical force that listens to the people and works for their progress. However, we can only wonder if the larger than life image of the actor would allow him to enter politics at the humble, day-to-day level of community service.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Young Sheldon: The Big Bang Theory spin-off rant

This week CBS released trailers for it’s the upcoming slate of Fall shows (Read my side rant about the outdated Fall schedule here*), including Young Sheldon, a spin-off for one of the network’s biggest hits, The Big Bang Theory. The response to the five-minute preview seems to be generally positive, with most people being pleasantly surprised with the intimate portrayal of what promises to be a difficult childhood. I was very impressed with the promo too. However, I could not help but feel that the spin-off feels inconsistent within TBBT’s universe.

The biggest disconnect seems to be in the intimate portrayals of the characters and their relationships as opposed to the show that we are familiar with. The young Sheldon portrayed in the eponymous promo seems like a character primed to go through a learning curve and change to be a better adapted person. His relationship with his step-father and his sister are framed as very important to the titular character. However, these aspects are completely discordant with the stubborn and utterly selfish person we encounter as the adult Sheldon Cooper in TBBT. The adult Sheldon has not changed much over the nine years and is still as inconsiderate as he was at the beginning. The idea of a prequel spin-off becomes woefully frustrating when considering that either the character is going to evolve (and thus leading to a different point than the beginning of TBBT) or he is not going to evolve (rendering the whole project irrelevant). Let me be clear, I am not writing off a show even before its first full episode is out – I like the promo too. All I am saying is that this discrepancy is a direct result of networks trying to package a good idea (the relationships of a misadjusted boy) as a familiar idea (he is also Sheldon Cooper from TBBT), to keep things safe. It feels as if the new show was written as a spin-off only to cash in on TBBT’s popularity, rather than any organic need to extend it. Again, I am not against prequels – my favorite show on air currently is a prequel – Better Call Saul (and that show deserves an entire series of posts to talk about its conceptual brilliance). From Fraiser to Mork and Mindy, American TV is full of spin-offs, each of varying quality. The problem is not with the idea of a spin-off but with one that is clearly disjointed from its original premise.

I understand the intention of trying to update a series with a new aesthetic sensibility. Despite its success, TBBT’s critical reception has dwindled over the years, and especially amidst a growing number of TV comedies like Louie and Master of None that have challenged the limits of that term. Single-camera comedies like ABC’s Black-ish and Speechless continue to present socially-relevant comedy without the annoying laugter-track. Even more traditional sitcoms like Mom (from TBBT’s creator Chuck Lorre) have gone on to grapple important issues about sobriety and failure, whereas TBBT continues to harp on four mostly unlikeable men-children struggling in their fairly comfortable lives. In light of this, a Young Sheldon spin-off could go a long way in recuperating the image of the much-maligned show. But when a character as static and with a glacial development pace as Sheldon Cooper imprinted on the minds of the viewers, it is going to take a lot for the show to win over its audience.

* Now, my Fall Schedule Rant!

I am tired of the convention of shows taking a break over the summer and returning every fall. Cable shows have long since dispelled with the idea of a seasonal premiere, with shows taking as much time as they need to return with a compelling season. HBO’s ratings juggernaut Game of Thrones is ditching its usual March premiere in favor of July because they need more time to shoot. Shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Walking Dead have all broken up seasons into two parts to write the shows to their satisfaction rather than being forced to deliver a poorly delivered season on-time. The change in these shows’ scheduling has not affected the fan-base. Online video streaming service Netflix has even taken an even more brazenly contrarian approach with many of its major shows (Orange is the New Black, Master of None, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, House of Cards and Narcos) returning this year over the summer. And the best thing about this scheduling is that it will not be the same next year. It does not have to be, because the quality of the programs control the audience and not some arbitrarily made up criteria of a TV season. A staggered year-long schedule where a show is on air only as long as it needs to before taking a break to prepare its next season would be better suited to attract today’s audiences.

The schedule also imposes a rigid and unnecessary imposition that a regular season should feature about 22-24 episodes. Cable and streaming shows demonstrate how the duration of the program’s availability is irrelevant when it comes to popularity and critical acclaim. The only important feature that remains common across all successful shows is that the shows tell a story that is sincere to its chosen mode. By forcing creators to stretch their material to a specific length, many shows have resulted in episodes of uneven quality (like the second and third seasons of Fresh Off the Boat) or in being prolonged for seemingly no reason (like the still delightful but meandering Modern Family). But networks don’t want to give up on a good thing – and a successful episode of a hit show will have the exact same ad spots to sell as a poorly reviewed one. As long as the network can lead its viewers with a show with promise of a better episode down the line, they can sell ad spots in bulk. Instead, would not multiple shows of differing lengths presented over a staggered schedule promote a more vibrant TV culture?

What are your thoughts on the Fall Schedule and TV Spin-Offs? Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Baahubali 2: The Indian Epic Melodrama

Yesterday, we watched Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, and except for the uninspired title the film was stunning. Despite what the title says, it is S.S. Rajamouli’s strong arms that carry the film. Watching the film, I was thinking about the epic melodrama genre that the director has down to a pat. Here are some thoughts about the film…

1, Baahubali Opens the Door

Baahubali’s production shows that Indian cinema is ready to relook the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. The stunning visuals and rich detail of the practical effects and the mostly passable CGI blended tastefully into the landscape shows a maturity in technical and aesthetic sensibilities. Especially, I applaud the decision to not attempt to make the CGI life-like. The distinctly dreamlike quality adds to the visual palette without jarringly interrupting the experience of the film. I am sure that the next few multipart epic dramas will be oversaturated with CGI and hi-speed photography and not all of them will sustain the same quality as these two films – we can rest assured that when the right filmmaker decides to do it, the blueprint for an epic melodrama is ready.

2, The Dominant Queen Mother

Was I the only one who thought this part should have been more appropriately titled ‘Sivagami, the Queen Mother (also featuring Baahubali)’? The Queen Mother’s role is a strong and complex one, whose equal we have not seen in a while, and Ramya Krishnan is a strong performer who elevates the role to unforgettable. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Prabhas or Rana Daggubati, who are memorable as icons – but are just as stiff and unchanging throughout the film. The supporting cast channel their energy to build the value of the main characters. Anushka Shetty as Devasena and Satyaraj as Kattappa seem to have landed roles of their lifetime and they are both awe-inspiring and sympathetic in turns.

3, An Epic Production

I could not help but smile when watching the movie and noticing where the director has spent the money. While the first film has an epic battle on a massive scale, he manages to construct beautifully choreographed small skirmishes that manage to capture the former’s glory and hiding the smart cost efficiency. By shooting two of the three epic fights in the dark, the film also glosses over other instances of careful budgeting. And yet, it is clear that these moves are not aimed at cutting the overall production cost – but to spend it on VFX (both practical and CGI) for the fewer elements on the screen. This trade has paid off, as only three moments (an odd gold statue, an awkward human catapult and an ugly bridge) are poorly produced in a film that runs for nearly three hours.

4, The Length

There are many movies that stretch their narratives to make more money – The Hobbit trilogy being the worst offenders – but Baahubali felt like a film which would have benefitted from an extra film with a couple of hours to flesh out the two Baahubalis. The father and son become indistinguishable in their characterization quickly, and as mentioned earlier, Prabhas is not the kind of actor who could salvage the roles with subtle distinction. We end up admiring the father more than the son, and that is clearly the filmmakers’ intentions as well. However, it is a bit sad that the son ends up being an afterthought in the second film, despite the fact that the film is about him finally rises to the mantle of the epic warrior. But again, a third movie could have fatigued the audience and affected the quality of the film’s reception. Not to mention the toll that it could have taken on the cast and crew if they were to shoot another film. Then again, there are some rumors about another film set in the same universe with new characters and that could be an interesting development as well.

5, The Business of Baahubali

Lastly, a note about the film’s significance to the film business in India. Baahubali is a testament to the director’s capacity to produce a technically competent film at a fraction of its international counterparts’ costs, and its record-breaking business shows that the Indian market has not yet reached its peak. The two films are reported to cost a total of 430 crores INR, which is roughly $68 million USD. Their combined revenue is just over 1300 crores INR (about $203 USD); a figure that is still growing fast, as the second film has been at the cinema for just a week. Additionally, the TV rights of the two films have also reached unprecedented heights in the Indian market. Perhaps the most impressive point about the film’s business is that its opening weekend took home over a $10 million haul at the US box office, despite being shown in only 425 screens. Albeit, some of this staggering per screen averages are due to the inflated premium ticket pricing of the film aimed at cashing in on the phenomenon (I paid a little over twice the normal fare in Singapore). The hype machine was balanced with the actual attention to quality in the film, showing that the recent trend of big openings weekend culture cannot dampen a movie that genuinely earns its must-see tag. The two Baahubali movies stand as the only non-Bollywood movies on the list of all-time highest grossing Indian films. However, Baahubali 2 (Currently standing third) should easily end its theatrical run at the top of the list. The massive success of the film is a step towards dispelling the myth of treating Bollywood cinema as an Indian national cinema. The second biggest movie industry in India has delivered a film that has caught the nation’s imagination, and we can only hope that more are to follow.

SPOILERS

BONUS: Now, it is SPOILER TIME: If you have not seen either of the movies, then definitely don’t read this last section. However, if you have seen the first and not yet the second, you will be surprised at how non-spoilery the epic reveal turned out to be. The biggest question at the end of the first film was the classic cliff-hanger, Why Kattappa Killed Baahubali (#WKKB)? However, what the filmmaker did not anticipate was the adoption of this phrase by the meme-culture on social media. This question became such a big deal, that people were overlooking the obvious clues in the first film that clearly explains why Kattappa, a man whose family has sworn to abide by the King’s word over many generations, killed Baahubali, a man who is definitely not the King’s favorite person. The second movie could have gone in many poor directions where the question takes over the narrative. We have seen many films where the audience’s expectations, and the producers attempts to subvert or satiate that expectation dominates the sequel – often rendering the film as an underwhelming outcome. Baahubali 2 brilliantly used the hastag only to the point of promoting the film. When you watch the film, there are no surprises as to the WKKB question. Instead, the film masterfully changes the question through its narrative. It strengthens the Kattappa-Baahubali relationship in many light-hearted moments, heightening the tragic significance of the final betrayal. Through the camaraderie built through characterization, the film switches the question from ‘Why’ to ‘What does it mean’ – we have always known why he killed Baahubali, but the film explains the stakes of that betrayal. That is a brilliant narrative strategy that does away with the marketing strategy and tells us a more honest story.

Overall, this is not the best Indian film or the most important. If you have never seen an Indian movie in your life, then there are far more subtle and brilliant films that you could watch. However, if you are a fan of the broadstrokes Indian epic melodrama, this movie is unparalleled. It fully embraces the technical affordances of the 21st century and shakes off the underwritten and overproduced history of the 1990s and heads towards a new kind of Indian entertainer.

Which are your favorite Indian melodramas? Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Jallikattu – Looking Back at a Protest

Nearly three months ago, Tamil Nadu saw a huge wave of protests against a controversial ban of a traditional sport – Jallikattu. At its peak, the protest wave transcended its local purposes and became a social, political and cultural movement that provoked institutional reversal, albeit momentarily. However, underlying the overwhelming mass-appeal of the protests, there are some problematic strains that undercut the protest narrative that need to be addressed. The importance of refining protest language and rhetoric amidst a political struggle is very high, because it is not only representative but also formative in shaping popular dispositions and argumentative structure.

Jallikattu

To offer a little background, Jallikattu or Aer Thazhuvuthal (literally Bull Hugging) is a kind of bull-fighting where an agitated bull is released amidst a sea of participants who try to subdue it. There are clear rules about how many people are supposed to engage with the bull at any given time, as well as which part of the bull can be held during the event. However, the actual numbers of bull to man ratio is not clear on any of the sources. This sport has been a point of contention, as many see a move to forbid such events as a challenge to or dilution of their culture. And many who are outside the culture do not see the point of something that is visibly cruel towards an animal.

The debate over Jallikattu has raged sporadically for a few years around this season but an uneasy compromise often was offered instead of a clear solution. This year, the issue reached a head when the Supreme court ordered to ban the event. Compounded with a general anger against unilateral government policies that lost touch with ground reality, the issue of Jallikattu became a flashpoint of public action. Supporters of the sport took to social media and the streets to protest peacefully in remarkable numbers. The critical mass of the movement was so monumental that it changed the popular discourse about the event, and it gained national and even international attention, leading to a change in the laws themselves. In a nation where the idea of political change is often dealt with skepticism, if not cynicism, the results were beyond the most optimistic expectations. Jallikattu events happened around the state and it was seen as a victory for the untapped political power of youth movement and social media networking.

Protesters at Marina Beach, Chennai

However, the language in which much of the protest was carried out was anticlimactic and weak, because it called for hostility towards one organization (PETA) and ignored the core issue at hand. Ignored were the other Indian Animal Welfare organizations that also had called for a ban on the sport. Instead of engaging with the politics and more importantly, the ethics of the criticism – the resistance focused on the origin of the opponent. By attacking PETA’s American origin, the protests slipped away from the legitimacy of their position, creating greater ambiguity of message. Ironically, PETA was not called out for its many inconsistencies or hypocritical reaction to animal welfare. Instead, it was challenged simply because it was not an ‘Indian’ organization. Other Indian organizations were dismissed equally nonchalantly, because they were not ‘Tamil’. And what happens to those who happen to be Tamil, and against the sport? They are traitors and outcasts who are no longer connected to the roots of the culture.

I am also aware that my own opposing views would be seen as at best, contrarian or at worst – treacherous. It does not help that I am writing this piece in English – I am already a sellout. I can already hear the accusation that, “Of course he lives abroad, disconnected from the realpolitik of day-to-day Tamil Nadu and the aspirations of the Tamil people. What else can you expect?” And I ask the same question – what else can you expect, when the quality of your resistance lacks moral direction? The rhetoric was constructed on a fervent Tamil nationalism and a rhetoric of anger that discredited any view that was opposed to theirs. This is a dangerous and totalitarian discourse that resists dialogue in favor of a populist will. Sensitive issues are inherently polarizing and a misguided rhetoric that prevents communication does not improve the situation – it simply turns into a political tug-o-war.

And perhaps the most disheartening part of this fervent discourse was the ad hominem attacks which took the easy routes of sexism and xenophobia. The overwhelming misogyny directed towards actress Trisha when she expressed an opinion contrary to the public groundswell was downright shameful. She was addressed with the most unimaginative epithets and was called out for drinking and hanging out with people from outside the state. The shutting down of a film production which featured her was celebrated as an achievement. Similar moral outrage over drinking and threats of physical violence were directed at the head of PETA’s Indian administration. Of course, she was a woman as well. None of the social media bravos expressed their displeasure with the usage of such language, regardless of their own drinking or smoking habits. The populist imagination was so opposed to contradiction that it fiercely challenges any form of dissent. Beyond a question of doubt, such language was mainly directed towards women, chastising them for the impunity of trying to curb something that is masculine. This attitude of cultivated ignorance and rage against the other that has insinuated itself into the culture of protest so deeply, that it achieved little more than simply changing a decision about an event – while utterly wasting its potential that once seemed to become a point of legitimate dialogue between opposing ideals.

Equally worrisome was the demand for banning things. There is a petulance that could easily take a fascist turn if not checked with a desire to engage with opposition in a responsible and co-operative manner. To call for a ban on something is to reject a conversation in favor of fascist political control. Why not test the validity of the idea in the open market? Why not boycott PETA or any organization whose principles you are against? Why not simply stop using the products of the multi-billion dollar companies who are seen as an anti-national enemy? Nothing cuts a business more than the absence of growth and profit. A ban does not express the will of the people – it only reveals the insecurity of those who want to remove anything that is challenges their power and authority. The call for a ban is a reactionary and rage-fueled response that unironically affirms the same authority which had banned Jallikattu unilaterally in the first place.

There were many voices that presented a well-argued position that stemmed from pragmatism (protection of native species) and rationalism (a call to closely regulate the events instead of banning it) – which were very clearly visible throughout the protests. However, they were never invested with the responsibility to be the most important part of the protests. Instead, show of strength and populist slogans took over the narrative. There are agriculturalists and historians who watch helplessly as their nuanced arguments have been steamrolled over by simplistic jingoism.

Ultimately, the sport was conducted, but the results were anti-climactic in their mundanity. Despite the many advocacy groups which flagrantly declared their guarantee of better treatment of the animals – the sport was conducted in the same way as it always had been – with abuse, death and irregularities. Nobody was interested in talking about reform of the problem after the fact. That would be a conversation for next year, three days before the event. Questioning the brutality of the sport which left two dead this year also quickly became taboo – you cannot choose the extent to which you support the event. There can be no discussion on the evolution of the sport to offer greater protection for the participants and the bulls. You are either with the protest or against Tamil Culture. We need a better quality of protestors, those who engage with the problem and not the people. Those who believe that ideas can be debated without disrespect. Those who know that just because something was a certain way in the past, it does not mean that it ought to continue in the same way.

That is why, despite my own personal support of Jallikattu – I am not comfortable with the “I Support Jallikattu” movement. It is important to remember that a movement which loses its moral direction becomes irrelevant, regardless of its cause. When the dust settles, the issue of Jallikattu has not yet been resolved, it has been summarily and perpetually postponed by the overwhelming will of the majority. A truly ethical decision would focus on developing a much more nuanced way of conducting the sport which includes incorporation of safety elements for both the animals as well as the participants. The current reactionary move to reinstate the sport does little than revert to an older form of status quo. Instead of addressing any of the questions (such as these raised in an opinion piece featured in The Hindu) that should haunt the self-proclaimed lovers of animals and those who call upon the greater good of preserving native species of cattle, all we got was a day with a few agitated bulls rushed through roaring crowds.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.