Metrolife: Should Bollywood be alarmed by success of The Avengers?

Metrolife: Should Bollywood be alarmed by success of The Avengers?

‘Avengers: Infinity War’, though lacking in inventiveness, is running to packed houses.

The phenomenal showing in India of The Avengers: Infinity War, which had collections of over Rs 200 crore within two weeks, sent alarm bells ringing in Bollywood and Amitabh Bachchan publicly asked Indians to patronise Indian films to protect the film industry from Hollywood’s depredations.

Hollywood has destroyed several film industries around the world and the alarm may be justified in some sense, but if we consider why the Indian film industry has held its own on its turf, it will seem premature.   

The latest chapter of The Avengers series is a big-budget extravaganza lacking inventiveness or even visual appeal, but it has been ushered in with a great deal of publicity. But it is not unlike American fast-food, which made a big splash when it first came but seems ordinary now. When a Hollywood film is announced as the costliest ever, the expenses include the publicity budget and this huge outflow cannot but show results in drawing audiences the first time. But just consider what Infinity War is about and see if it has anything in it that appeals to Indians. It is about the threat to the Universe from a villain named Thanos, his battle with the forces of good – American superheroes like Iron Man, Spider-Man and Captain America who are all by-products of technology, Norse gods like Thor and Loki and ‘intergalactic’ cartoon characters inspired by Star Wars like Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon.

The narrative jumps from planet to planet, heavenly bodies having names like Knowhere, Vormir and Nivedellir, the last two apparently inspired by Lord of the Rings. What the film tries to picture is ‘something never shown before’, but the unfamiliar is not something that usually excites Indians. I don’t believe that after adjusting for inflation, Infinity War will even come close to Titanic in its collections, but that film was successful because it was like an Indian film in its story-line. That film was so successful with such large audiences cutting across classes that the picture of the sinking ship was seen on the backs of autorickshaws – a place of honour usually reserved for Amitabh, Salman Khan and Shankar Nag. Infinity War is perhaps closer in its appeal to Jurassic Park, which did well in India but had a sequel that ran to empty houses here, although it was also an international hit.

If one studies Indian cinema---and I mean every category---one finds that what is common is their reiteration of familiar sentiments. Hollywood, it may be noted, is neo-Aristotelian in its methods in that it pursues mimesis and ‘imitates’ reality. If the reader wonders what ‘reality’ Infinity War is imitating, one could say it tries to imitate scientific possibilities in a way considered plausible by its public, provide pictures of aliens and planets as an unfettered imagination might conceive of them, while being true to what is scientifically known. Scientific howlers – like a ‘neutron star’ being a few hundred yards away as in Infinity War – are present because the public does not know much and such details get past.

In other words, a film’s value largely depends on expanding one’s imagination with regard to the actual world. Fantasies also deal with ‘possibilities’ and try to present them as ‘real’.

'Bahubali: The Beginning’ animated Chandamama-like images
'Bahubali: The Beginning’ animated Chandamama-like images.

This is hardly true of Indian cinema and what is valued is the correspondence of something shown with what is already known, through traditional wisdom and representations. If popular films usually have messages, the messages are from the epics and Puranas, ‘truths’ not derived from observation and experiment but pre-existent, usually from time immemorial. The art film may appear different but its sentiments are essentially liberal-democratic and egalitarian truisms. Radical political films in India similarly echo texts like those of Karl Marx and Lenin, just as popular films echo puranic texts.

This is as far as ideas are concerned, but spectacle similarly follows models already in existence. The models could be from Chandamama comics or Ravi Varma paintings. No one has seen our gods but it is essential that He or She cannot be imagined in any whimsical way and must be shown the way Ravi Varma showed them; ‘disguise’ is the only permitted departure. Images in mythological films closely follow models already created through illustrations in popular magazines or comics. When Bahubali 2 (2017) provided cinematic spectacle, it followed these models; what attracted crowds was that the images were moving, characters made truly flesh and blood as Amar Chitra Katha illustrations were not. Mythologies are not ‘fantastic’ but deal with belief in something essentially ‘true’.       

With globalisation, Indians in the metropolises are changing their attitudes but there is little evidence that their mindsets have transformed so radically as to follow other (non-Indian) modes of thought naturally. It is this adherence to tradition - a way of life independent of religious belief - that keeps Indian narrative modes alive and Bollywood safe hitherto, and one does not anticipate cataclysmic changes for now.  

(MK Raghavendra is a well-known film scholar and theorist)