Monday, December 21, 2009

Avatar: Story of Tribals Through The Ages

Warning: Those reading this review to know ‘more’ about the film’s spectacular special effect, better visit a million other places that rave about it. This is about the story of ‘AVATAR’.

THIS IS ancient history: a human race reaches a particular place on the planet, settles down and over thousands of years builds a personal bond with nature, living in perfect harmony with them. Meanwhile, ideas of ‘civilisation’, ‘development’ and ‘technology’ take root in another part, and these ‘modern humans’ reach out to spread the same. They reach the ancient places that live in peace and quiet, call its residents – savages, and kill, rape and destroy what has been built over thousands of years and brand this annihilation - ‘reformation’, ‘religion’, ‘education’ etc. This has happened in North America since the doomed day when Columbus led a pack of murderers into the continent in 1492, and over 500 years almost wiped out their culture and tradition, flora and fauna… and yes, almost the entire race. This happened in South America, during the Spanish inquisition in the name of religion. In Australia with the aborigines. And, how can we forget the cradle of ‘real’ civilization, Africa.

The only problem with this ancient history, is that it is really not so ancient. This sadly IS recent history… nay, this is not history, this is what is happening… TODAY, in many parts of the world.
"This is why we are here. Because this grey rock here sells for 20 million dollars a kilo. Their village happens to be resting on the richest deposit and they need to relocate. Those savages are threatening our whole operation. We are on a brink of war. "

James Cameron thus hits the proverbial bull’s eye with the story of 'AVATAR'. Yet, ironically, while he was trying to subtly depict the European conquest of the Americas, and the current American conquest of Iraq (there’s even a dialogue where a character refers to the planned attack on the tribal population as ‘Shock and Awe’, cheesy…) what he misses out (or perhaps not), is that by a freak of ‘nature’ what he depicts in 'Avatar', is happening in the tribal hinterlands of India. Exactly the way he shows it, that is if you remove the special effects bit, and the magic, and the positive ending, it is occurring, as the cliché goes, to the ‘T’. Let’s find out how.

In the jungles of central India live many indigenous tribes who have lived in the land for thousands of years. Sadly they reside on top of some of the richest reserves of bauxite, coal, diamond, gold etc. known in the world. This, multinational corporations wants to mine. So, what does the government, that has a stake in these companies, do? They brand the tribals – savages, Naxalites, Maoists and send over 50,000 troops (today’s news confirm that it will be increased to 75,000 within a few more weeks), declare it a war zone and go on a rampage. Now consider this dialogue from ‘Avatar’ which the head of an MNC on Pandora delivers, explaining a mineral cheekily titled ‘unobtainium’ in the film: “This is why we are here. Because this grey rock here sells for $ 20 million a kilo. Their village happens to be resting on the richest deposit and they need to relocate. Those savages are threatening our whole operation. We are on the brink of war.” It is like our villain in ‘Iron Man’ telling the protagonist, “Just because this was your idea, does not mean it belongs to you.” Just because you happen to be living on the mineral deposit for thousands of years, does not mean it belongs to you. Fundamental rights, as one uncle pointed out to me the other day, is for the fundamentally rich.
Your average Naxalite warrior in Tribal India, protecting history.

Among the group of soldiers which the MNC brandish in this far off moon (of a planet) called Pandora (its 2154 and humans have already destroyed nature on Planet Earth. By 2154 we would, the way we are going, won’t we?), there’s a scientist, played by Sigourney Weaver, who had started a school amidst the local Na’vi (made to sound like the word ‘Naïve’, which almost every tribal in the world is: naïve, uncouth and too trusting of the outside world), who screams for restraint, who wants to study this tribe as she understands their deep connection with nature and knows that their deepest treasures are spread across the planet, and not just below the surface in the form of an ore. All the way through, she pleads for restraint, but is not heard. In Chattisgarh (where the bulk of the 75,000 armed forces of India is stationed), there’s a man called Himanshu Kumar, who believes in Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals of peace and non-violence and has been crying hoarse asking the government for restraint and pleading them to help the tribals, instead of sending armies to destroy them just so some ores can be dug up in the name of ‘development’. He has been pleading to the controller of the armies (the Honorable Home Minister of India P Chidambaram is exactly like the character of the MNC representative who is bent on using arms, except that he wears a lungi, instead of a tie) to stop this war, and Chidambaram has been listening, just like this character in the film, only initially.

Avatar, Real and THE REAL: Sigourney Weaver's Avatar, Weaver and Himanshu Kumar.

The MNC sends a paraplegic ex-marine, Jake, in the body of the tribal, called Avatar, to learn the ways of the Na’vi people (symbolism can be found here that to understand somebody, you have to be like them or ‘I See You’ as the beautiful greeting in the film goes. This has been practiced by many social workers across the world, e.g. Dr. Prakash Amte and his group of volunteers, to win the trust of the Madia and Gond tribals in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, discarded their own clothes just so the tribals who hardly wear anything and have always been cheated by outsiders, could feel comfortable around them). This is ideally for scientific purposes, like the character of Sigourney Weaver, who has studied and made the avatar body, but the army is bent on knowing the secrets of the Na’vi so they can destroy them. Jake, initially with them, begins to realise the truth, that the Na’vi are not savages, but are a highly evolved race, in a way that humans don’t yet know. He falls in love with the daughter of the chief, and like Sigourney Weaver, is determined to save them. When the Army declares war in the end, he chooses to fight from the side of the Na’vi. The analogy for this in the Indian tribal context can be found in thousands of people, who belonged to the educated middle class of the country, but went there, saw what was happening, how the poor tribals were being mal-treated (dialogue from the film told by Jake: “The strong prey on the weak, and nobody does a thing”), and joined the cause. These Jakes of the real world, when they saw that peace and non-violence were not working (many employing non-violence were killed, like Shankar Guha Niyogi, about whom I write in this blog post: , and many others like Dr. Binayak Sen, were illegally imprisoned and not released by the state even when 22 Nobel Laureates from across the world appealed to everyone for the same. Others like Dr. Prakash Amte and Dr. Abhay Bhang are still free, but fear for their lives from the police), took up arms, like Jake does. They have today been branded Naxals/Naxalites (relating to a peasant uprising during the late 60s in a place called Naxalbari in West Bengal in India) and Maoists (owing their allegiance to Communist leader Mao Zedong of China) and it is to hunt them ‘allegedly’ that the Indian government is sending the 75,000 strong army, just like the army in Pandora send their troops to kill Jake as well. And like Jake perhaps, these Maoists, Naxalites too must have thought, “I was a warrior, who thought he could bring peace.” Sadly the Indian ‘rebels’ wrongly killed a few police officers which the government declared all over the planet’s media and thus got one up on them, especially since the thousands the army and police have killed have never been reported so far.
The beautiful, but ferocious Na'vi Neytiri

However, to give the government due credit, just like the army in ‘Avatar’, it is not that they have not tried other means, or shall we say - 'carrot before the stick' as they say in the film. They have. However, the Indian government also realises, like Jake says, “There is nothing we have that they want.” When the army realises this, they send in the military might, both in 'Avatar', and in the tribal regions of India.

These tribals, un-advanced as they are, use bows and arrows, and the guns Jake manages to get to defend themselves. This is happening in the tribal regions of India where they are literally fighting with bows and arrows and with rifles stolen from the Indian police.
Every tribal in the world uses bow and arrow, ironically the pinnacle of weapons technology a few centuries back.

Now, after the armed forces launch their first offensive, the tribals of Pandora group together and their resistance swells from a few hundred to a few thousand, exactly what happened in Chattisgarh as well. After the inception of the state-sponsored militia, Salwa Judum (which even hires minors and gives them guns, just like child soldiers in Africa) four years back who went on a rampage killing, raping and ravaging tribal villages (over 700 tribal villages have been emptied and the inhabitants of those villages forcibly housed in camps controlled by barbed wires) the number of so-called Maoists and Naxalites in these regions have grown from 5000 to over 150,000 (government estimates).

Yet, while the tribals win in the end in 'Avatar', thanks to Hollywood cliché and Cameron’s magic (and a lot of foreshadowing of the magic that went into it), the tribals in India stand no chance. They will be systematically eliminated, just like the Red Indians in America, the Aborginies in Australia… you get the point. This is where, sadly, real life departs from reel life. Hollywood is sadly trapped in celluloid, otherwise in a world where filmmakers like Frank Capra, John Ford, Ernst Lubitch, Steven Speilberg, George Lucas and others exist, it has to be a world where the just, fair and truthful win, and the bad guys lose, no matter how powerful, in the end…

It is impossible to talk about ‘Avatar’ without in some way talking about its spectacular effects. Yet, it is spectacular only to somone who has never ever seen the 'new' 3D films. I having lost my 3D virginity 6 years back (again a Cameron underwater film in the big IMAX screen in Hyderabad and having seen other 3D animation films, 'Up', 'Monsters Vs. Aliens' etc. wasn't impressed so much). Yet, in simple terms, what Georges Méliès ‘A Trip To The Moon’ was in 1902, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ was in 1968, 'Star Wars' was in 1977, 'Matrix' was in 1999, ‘Avatar’ is for 2009. That is as far as technology goes, which in a few more years, would be usurped by something even better. That is the circle of life (and technology). As far as the execution of this beautiful story, well, what can you expect from a guy who made the chick flick ‘Titanic’? Like ‘Star Wars’, its special effects and the execution of the story, do not complement each other too well. Yet, you have to give it to the maker: his heart is in the right place. In almost all his films he talks against the dehumanisation of the planet, against war, and in favour of love and nature ('Terminator', 'Abyss', 'Alien', 'Titanic' etc.). You have no option but to give in to the vision of a guy who after his film became the biggest grosser of all time, refused to simply ride the wave (as is wont of any conformist) but chose to do something extraordinary, to push the limits of…er, not filmmaking (for it is the composite of a million other things), but at least of special effects. You have to say for the ‘king of the world’ (his famous Oscar acceptance speech), that his ‘heart does go on’ and he does have something to say, no matter in how Na’vi a manner.
Machines of Mass Destruction

And like the Wachowski brothers who commented on our addiction to technology and our conformism ('Matrix', 'V for Vendetta', 'Speed Racer'), Cameron wants to warn us time and again about our addiction to war. Sadly, Cameron is no Wachowski. He does not have the intellectual depth and knowledge of the world and its philosophies enough to pull off a ‘Matrix’ (anyone thinking of remaking ‘Matrix’ in 3D?), that marries a complex story (that had the world talking about its complexity for years) with great special effects. But, like I said before, his heart is indeed in the right place. And you are indeed happy for the same.

Yet, it is ironical, that Cameron had to invent technology, to criticise technology. He seems to be mocking us all humans about our blindness. You don’t have to be amazed by the spectacular ‘special’ nature he created in 'Avatar'. All you have to do is just step out, keep all your senses open to smell, feel, see and touch nature in ‘real’ 3D instead of the recreated, colourised and spectacular 3D of 'Avatar' (which you should not miss even if you don’t like films). The greatest three-dimensional wonder in this world is all around us, not in theatres. But we are all blind to it. Hope ‘Avatar’ pushes many of you enough to explore this wonderful world that you live in, to lie on the ground in a pitch dark night with your beloved, look at the stars above and kiss her, instead of merely wondering at Pandora(‘s box) that this film offers.
It's a shame if we have to see Avatar 3D  'nature' for us to really 'see' and feel nature all around us.

To know how beautiful your own world is, see Tarsem’s ‘The Fall’ where he uses no special effects, choosing instead to shoot in such places that amazes you (even in 2D). If between ‘The Fall’ and ‘Avatar’ you cannot open your eyes (like Jake’s, in the last shot of ‘Avatar’) to the all pervading magic around you, and to the perils of displacing the remaining tribals in India and the rest of the world from their natural homeland that they protect, than you better rest in piece. RIP.


Sabihur Rahman said...

Well, the piece seems one-sided, with the portrayal of the Government as rapacious invaders and the 'naxlites' as harmless victims, when their criminal nexus is so well known. Speaking about Cameron, a noteworthy fact is that all his movies, right from Aliens to Terminator to Titanic and now Avatar, have had strong female characters.

Satyen K. Bordoloi said...

The 'naxalites' are definitely not harmless victims. They have guns too, no matter how outdated. You mistook the piece Sabihur. It is not about them. It's about Tribals, adivasis, aborigines who have always been hunted by almost every government and monarchy throughout history, and hence have always been vanquished (except in the film thanks to good ol' kind hearted Cameron. John Ford was much more a realist than Cameron). And it is about the governments or monarchs branding them 'savages' once upon a time, and today in India of calling them all 'naxalites' and 'maoists' to justify their slaughter. Genocide, by any other name, is still genocide Sabihur.

Love said...

This post encapsulated my feelings about the parallels between this movie and real life. As a black person who also happens to be quite tall, to hear some people say "I will never look at a blue person the same way again" after the show to me, meant that Sci-fi is is doing its job, which is to create social commentary about our present condition without being heavy handed and still entertaining!

Nishikant said...
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Vattappara said...

Well said!

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