Monday, February 20, 2012

Tradition Vs. Modernity: A few reflections based on films

       Kallan Pavithran is a film by Padmarajan. The story is about a village burglar who turns rich after selling an antique Indian statue which he steals. Here the antique Golden statue enters the story as a trigger which brings in modernity. The peaceful life of Mammachan- the mill owner is turned upside down when this statue enters Pavithran’s life. The golden statue fetches him money, prosperity and status. He starts another mill in the village which represents a threat to the life and livelihood of Mammachan. The story is narrated in a realistic manner in a village set up. What interests me in the narration is the entry of the golden statue which also brings in all the pretentions and intrigue which navigate Pavithran’s life into the jail. Though the immediate cause for the ruin of Pavithran is his interest in women, that golden statue is the ultimate/distant cause.

       The mill Pavithran builds, the car he buys, his shining clothes and the aura of new money- all these stands tall representing the entry of an alien element. The soul of the village is not able to digest this, though apparently they have no problem in accepting him as a rich man. Padmarajan’s message may have been a different one. But what I gather from the movie is that modernity is not part of the village. In the end, it is the true tradition that wins. Pavithran as a poor thief was a well accepted element of the society. Without him the village was an
incomplete entity. But when he was corrupted by the golden statue’s money (modernity) he becomes an alien. He necessarily had to be dealt with. That is why, in the end when he was arrested, there was no reaction from the people as if it was the natural outcome of Pavithran’s life.

       Another instance from the same movie is when Pavithran takes his ex-wife’s sister into the city to flirt with her. He sees city as a safe place to do this. Village is home. Home is not the place to flirt. He could do this only in a place where anything is right. City is the place for this. City thus represents modernity. It is a den of all the
activists who dare not flirt at home. It is a hiding place. It is afree zone to be ‘genuine’- since they cannot be ‘genuine’ at home, in the village.

       If tradition is seen as opposite to modernity, there are many instances in our films. But if tradition is seen as more than merelythe state of being modern, or the opposition between old and new, it would be quite a task to analyze and filter instances of their coming together. Modernity is a welcoming state to development, change and new elements. It is about the creation of conditions where progress and change in culture and art are visibly made. It is about changing the attitudes and lives of human beings from within, often without their consent or willing knowledge. This lack of volition makes modernity a target of skepticism and suspicion. And it is true that
our times have seen such unwilling inflections in millions. Globalization and market culture are backed by the ideals of modernity. No wonder our films always have such elements.

       India as a ‘national’ entity has been seeing new elements being introduced into its blood for centuries. This became pronounced and painful when the colonial conquerors used our benevolence to bring us to their will. From that time onward, life for us Indians was on the pretext of the presence of foreigners in our land. The cultural, emotional, economic and psychological crisis created at the introduction of a foreign element thus is very well know to us.

       In a recent film by director ‘Santhosh Sivan’- Before the rains, this crisis is well enunciated. The plot is set in early 1930s, when freedom struggle is gaining momentum. In an interior Kerala village, there is an estate owned and managed by a British man- Henry Moores, played by Linus Roache. He lives alone. There are two native characters who help him with his life and work. One is a male assistant- Neelan played by Nahul Boss, a young bachelor. The other is a young married women- Sajani, played by Nandita Das.

       The story revolves around the construction of a road leading to the estate, which has to be completed before the rains. The presence of the English man is an uncomfortable factor in the village since he is not of the village. Especially for Sajani’s husband, who has to send his wife to Mr. Moores who lives alone, the Mr. Moores is a threat and a source of shame and suspicion. Between Sajani and the Mr. Moores, there was a warm but illicit relationship growing day by day. When the Mr. Moores’ wife comes, he had to keep her away against her will. In
the wake of events, she kills herself. But the blame falls on Neelan. Here, the village interferes, since the rules of the village is visibly infringed and its sanctity, under sacrilege. Gradually, the village elders find that the fault is with Mr. Moores. With this, village rests back in sanctity, though hurt and bleeding at the intruder’s violent and insensitive act and the loss of one of its daughters. Neelan who set out to kill Mr. Moores decides to let him go
after keeping him at gun point. The film ends when rain pours down on Mr. Moores and the incomplete road, washing away his dreams and fortune, as well as the shame of the village.

       In this movie, modernity as part of colonial power created havoc in the heart of the traditional village. They are not visibly opposed to the foreign element. But when it upsets the normal flow of the village’s life, they spring into angry but controlled action. They are engaged in an endeavour of restabilising the society- bringing
traditional society into its powerful status again. Neelan is put under trial and is asked to prove his innocence.

       It is important to note that the two characters who were in constant touch with the modernity element were always looked at with suspicion. Neelan was seen almost as a traitor. Sajani was suspected by her husband. Thus, a normal reaction to modernity that is ‘introduced’ into ‘tradition’ is suspicion.

       What is intriguing in such a discussion is the ability of people to detect what belongs to their tradition and what is alien (or modern)- in other words, what is tradition and what is modernity. It may be is subtle as in Kallan Pavithran or visible as in Before the rains. But people are able to spot it at first sight. I observe that this is because anyone can distinguish between what is one’s own self and what is alien.

       Again I am not sure whether this argument can be applied to the people and movies of our age. 21st century is changing at a pace which was never imagined by the 20th. Technology and complexity becomes surprisingly simple. Space and time are tackled through innovations. What was alien and foreign 10 year ago is part of my spirit, body and mind today. When the scenario changes like this, a study of modernity and tradition becomes even more challenging. 

       But on a second thought, I realize that nothing has actually changed. There is an exchange of roles. The oppressor and invader are not the same as in former centuries. But the concept of modernity remains the
same. In the early 1900s when film was introduced in the subcontinent, our audience was looked down upon by the people of the west as people of no taste for cultured things. Backward economic status combined
with that of a colony made Indians appear uncivilized for the oppressors. Today, more than 60 years after they have left us, we still feel colonized in many aspects of life- not because we cannot break fetters, but because we don’t want to! This is an unfortunate state of affairs. Indian society today is making an economic leap
towards becoming a super power. Technology and military power backs this leap. But the western economic and technological supremacy limits our horizons.

       Modernity is not an outsider today. What the state represents is an aggregate of all the philosophies down the centuries. Democracy serves as a safe platform wherefrom the legitimate rights of adivasis and tribals and those on the peripheries- the subalterns- can be legally denied. Rich become richer, middle class remain comfortable and the poor become poorer. This is the curse of 21st century. Polarisation of the world happens as never before. Every region on earth has a section of people who work for the rich. This was the case with colonies of last century. But its difference between today’s colonialism is that today, everybody accepts this condition.

       Mainstream films of today’s India (majority) do not reflect real asto evoke social change. These films work from the platform of a modern outlook. The camera looks from above, from the perspective of the modernity. Since the base itself is modernity it goes without saying that the values propagated are that of modernity. The most popular and money-gathering film of the year so far- ‘Three Idiots’ speaks of the necessity to let children find their own vocation- a noble ideal indeed. But the way it portrays a poor family (that of Mr. Rastogi)
tells a lot to the intelligentsia about the outlook of the movie. I was annoyed at the way it was screened. It would not have done any harm if not good to the movie if the director had given a positive impression of how a family lives in dignity and hope even when they had little to eat. It’s a matter of perspective. That is what happened
to our filmdom. Perspectives are changing. When films are made spending millions, profit is important. When profit is important, many other issues like social concern and genuineness become less important.

       That is what makes many of us look away from Malayalam movies of the day. There is a visible shift of perspective in Malayalam movies of the last decade. Elements of films have changed considerably. From
being one of the best industries, we have managed to reach a stage where we have movies with no messages at all. Adopting Hollywood assembly line technology and Bollywood dance-fight sequences made us forget quality in terms of storyline and value systems. 

Sajit M. Mathews