Invictus in the land of the ‘Boks

Early on in the movie “Invictus”, there is a scene when Francois Pienaar’s father sits around and does a cassandra, while looking at the telly and talking generally, on The State of the Nation. His manner is disaparaging, his atitude pessimistic. As he rails and rants against what he sees as the inevitable collapse of the new dispensation in power, Pienaar (played brilliantly by a buffed-up matt damon) looks across at his mom, and they exchange The Glance.

Eyes rolling, and mouthing some inside joke, I imagine that this must have been a look in many households across SA, circa 1994. Mandela had been freed, and what the world saw as a moment of delirious celebration of victory for the forces against imperialism and racist bigotry was often seen very differently in South Africa, where the sudden appearance of black might and white fright turned the tables, and how!

And as older generations railed against the collapse of the world as they knew it, I imagine that younger people perhaps rolled their eyes at their mothers, and moved on with their lives.

In the evolving sensibility of Invictus, decades-old suspicion and mistrust is slowly replaced by interracial secret service camaraderie, hunger is replaced by a love for rugby by poor township boys, and eventually everyone (yes, yes! everyone, even the black xhosa maid!!) goes to see a rugby game where the national team grunts against oversize maori warriors. In a tensely fought final, the entire country stays indoors (white men in raucous pubs, black men in roadside shebeens), and a toothy boy from the townships shares the radio with on-tenterhooks Afrikaans policemen. The national team wins, people cheer madly, and a grinning Morgan Freeman- as- Madiba looks on at the tranformative power of sport.

If only life were so simple. Less than 15 years after the historic triumph, sitting in a darkened theatre in Gateway, Durban, I heard barely-suppressed snickers of derision when the scenes of reconciliation and repair flashed on the screen. The tragedy of South Africa today is that the bitterness is still very much in the air, and maybe as fathers rant, the glances are not even exchanged any more at breakfast tables.

The transforming power of sport is something that many hollywood movies have tried hard to exploit over the years (and succeeded admirably). The image of the last-minute touchdown with the orchestra crashing to a crescendo in the background, and the hero’s muddy face streaked with triumph, amid close up shots of the clock signalling timeout and a field invasion by fans, is legend. Invictus has all of that glory, and greatness.

The captain is a taciturn Afrikaans boy overwhlmed by the humility and greatness of the president. Madiba is a kindly old man : graceful, dignified and astute, charming supporters and critics alike with his simple and powerful philosophy. Even the rugby team, beefcake-bourgeoise before, are attentive anthem-singers after, all smiles and happy grins after Pienaar’s pep-talk. Heck, even the grubby kids from the townships, with the ragged trousers and no shoes, are a toothy crease of joy.

The reality, in today’s SA, is vastly different. In the year of World Cup SA 2010, it’s really pretty evident that sport, like everything else in south africa, has been carved up along racial lines, and distributed: the whites get rugby, the blacks get soccer and the indians get cricket , with the mandatory outliers all round. The coloreds, of course, are too busy hanging around Cape Town and being cool. Sports are only the tip of the iceberg: in a nation poisoned by years of institutional racial identification and prejudice, it takes more than a world cup win to bring the fractured pieces together. Depending on the color of their skins, foreigners will eventually get to be privy to the “South Africa is going to the dogs” dialogue. Everyone is a pocket anthropologist, and crude racial generalisations will be made over the poitjie pot, even as you stand around embarassed, and stammering thanks. Whites and Indians will be the first to moan and groan, even as they drive their fancy cars with super-sensitive alarm systems across the city to their fancy houses in the swankiest parts of town. Black moaning is different, and usually laments the fate that has befallen. And how powerless they are to stop it.

When Madiba talks in the movie of a “Rainbow nation”, and borrows Archbishop Tutu’s term to talk of the glorious multi-culturalism of South Africa, the whole world was charmed and touched. Today, the description seems eerily literal, of a prismatic country bent on splitting white light into its components. Maybe the great man was being  prescient, in his own ruined, tragic way.

Adapted from Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, by journalist John Carlin, Invictus is a portrayal of the intimate relationship between sports, pride, honour, and the inner core of decency and fairness that exist at the heart of every person. Some inconsistencies have been noted in the movie (Mandela quoting Invictus and not Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena  speech to Pienaar and the boys, the pile of stones on Robbyn Island that could not have existed in 1994), but the greatest inconsistency is the image of a united, cheering-as-one, proud and integrated South Africa. As we shuffled out of the movie hall, I could not but help noting with a sinking feeling that THAT particular cheer probably lasted barely as long as the credits.

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who’re the three?

3 idiots is a movie that was released over christmas in an unprecedented 2126 screens across the world, multiplex screens from Cape town to Canberra carpet bombed with raj kumar hirani’s latest offering. The film has grossed over 300 crore rupees (thats about $ 70 million) in 19 days, a record in itself, and is probably on its way to settling comfortably on the summit of the largest grossers’ mountain, glitteringly studded with some other A Khan –  starrers, like “Ghajini”, or older gems like “raja hindustani”: reigning favorites till they were toppled by other, more substantial offerings like “gadar”(dir: anil sharma, whose next movie “veer” is on its way : salman leading a mercenary army in pre-handpump india- so be warned) et al.

the film was preceded by careful branding and market promotions, for this was the latest offering from a director who had provoked countrywide discussions, chatter, and more importantly, emulation from the adoring masses for his last movie, and even, to a lesser degree for his debut film: both candyfloss social commentaries with the same protagonists who stumble with brilliant comic timing through life-as-idyllic-comedy.

As I went to see it, though, my tickets placed me right next to 2 south african-indian kids, who, after watching the opening credits and Aamir’s stellar entrance, rolled to their sides, and promptly went to sleep. hmmm, not part of the adoring masses, i see.

3 idiots was also the latest movie to be graced by the great khan (henceforth known as ‘gk’), whose return to normal size after acquiring rectii, biceps and a hydra-like* deltoid in his last offering “ghajini” has been the subject of excited speculation.

so its with some degree of reserve that one approaches 3 idiots. on the one side, adulation from the masses is almost always suspicious. yet, the team making the movie seems to be adept, and the marketing seems synchronised, right down to the facetious spat over acknowledgements and titles when a legal contract was signed between all parties concerned, (whose contravention should have provoked court action, not petulant tweets and angry press conferences)

and this post is meant as a review, so I shall cut to the chase, and try to concentrate on the movie itself, and chop out the chatter.

3 idiots is a movie about 3 friends, 2 adversaries and 1 sweetheart (supported by one pregnant sister, two differently autocratic families, and a surprise jaaved jaffery appearance). The movie is set in an engineering college in Delhi, the Imperial College of Engineering, a none-too-subtle reference to the IITs in India.

Indeed, none-too-subtle is a theme that runs through the movie, as the theme of “suicide due to academic pressure” is rammed down audience throats with vigour at three separate instances in the movie. I agree that suicides are a part of professional college life in India, particularly at high pressure institutions like the IITs, and we have all lost friends or classmates to the pressures of academia: some burning out, others fading away, and a few taking the plunge towards ending it all (and successful at it).

Yet is that the dominant experience of college life? is it the dominant tragedy of our university-attending students? is the oppressive teaching system, with its over-emphasis on memorisation and academic rigour, choking creativity and innovation in our institutions?

Does 3 idiots adequately address these issues?

Does it do so without resorting to tired cliches, painful melodrama and flaccid jokes to pepper the narrative?

The answer is no. on both counts, which is sort of paradoxical, I recognise.

Right from the name of Aamir’s main adversary (Chatur Raamalingam? Why don’t you just get out the Mehmood tapes and dress up the man in a dhoti, carve out a sikha and smear him in bhasma? Why not just address him as “oye madraasi”, mister hirani?)

The geeky, no-social-skills rival does not really have to be from Madras, or Hyderabad, neither does it really behove well to pick on a person schooled in Kampala and Pondicherry (both with no hindi included in syllabus) and from a non-hindi speaking background for their poor skills in the national language. Chatur’s attempts to speak in hindi are pretty good, and he improves through the movie, achieving a passable grammar and vocabulary at the end, enough to make himself understood to movie goers without subtitles.

Yet the cliche is repeated, as always. To Hirani’s credit, at least the token muslim was not subjected to kid-gloved condescension, neither was the inventor Lobo’s dad a “God tumhe hameshaa khush rakhenge” padre in goa.

That was some relief, certainly. But the tired cliches, and the flaccid jokes, and the forced hilariousness was almost as irritating as the sight of men in their late 30’s and mid 40’s playing boys less than half that age. Admittedly, parts of the movie are funny, like the sanskrit verse at the end of Chatur’s ill-fated speech, like some of the gags with the teachers. But when this is seen in the backdrop of gk’s condescending, sanctimonious elder statesman patronage, the humour is too little compensation. 

Aamir-as-superman is a role that movie goers have come to identify since Ghulam more than 11 years ago. With the possible exception of 1947: Earth, gk has played the squeaky clean and patronising hero in all his movie: saving enslaved childhoods in “taare zameen par”, saving enslaved villages in “lagaan”, defending the nation in “sarfarosh”, defending his faith in “mangal pandey”. Its about time that the long, self obsessed biopics of himself, embellished with a million edited-to-make-aamir-look-good moments are treated with scepticism, and not unabashed admiration.

Don’t get me wrong. I would go for an gk movie far more readily than an SRK , or Salman movie, but I still think that the alaborate paeans to the man’s megalomania are getting a bit too tedious. So while gk fools around “more outside classes than inside”and “attends whichever class he wants to”, other students in the class do the boring humdrum job of sticking to the schedule. Yet gk shines in every class, does projects for other students, delivers babies using vacuum cleaners, and spends the night before the finals ferrying a friend’s invalid father to the hospital before topping the finals with the highest percentage aggregate. Any student worth his/her salt who has gone through engg / med school can tell you that at the highest level, toppers ae created by a combination of genius, obscenely long hours, application, luck and perserverance. A genius who flits airily from lecture to lecture absorbing what he can may be able to do really well in the results list, but topping? Unlikely.

But the most irritating quality of the movie is certainly its unsubtlety. And the patron saint of that is Boman Irani. If I am forced to see another of Irani’s over-the-top performances with fake lisp/beard/pagdee/wig/limp/mole, i think i shall scream. To see him as a cardboard tiger in too-high pants and tight coat, with a poisonous persona defined by peevish petulance and rather uneducated comments about “engineering”, and “machines” was tortuous, to say the least. To watch his teary-eyed capitulation to the bright side was even worse, and it is here that the movie fails to move, or even push or nudge.

All-in-all, if Hirani doesn’t change his style of aseptic cinema stories, unsubtle social messages, happily-ever-after endings, random resuscitations of paralysed patients, all embellished with dialogue that uses puerile jokes that may cause primary school teachers to blush and giggle nervously  in their classes, its going to become increasingly difficult to see his movies.

Evidently, I am in a small minority here, and along with the 2 children snoring peacefully in the seat next to me at the theatre, probably I make up the 3 eponymous heroes of this movie.

Which really answers my question, of course.

* – read: many headed.