Friday, March 09, 2007

In Pursuit of Happiness

Today I want to talk about a few films that I've seen in the past few weeks and months. In fact, I have been wanting to write on these movies, right after watching them, so that the immediacy of the impact could be captured which tends to get dimmer with the passage of time. I guess everyone expriences this diminishing effect. And for a person like me, until I have poured it all out, the residues of the remembered images keep blocking the arteries of my fresh observation. So, let me put out some of these embers of memory, these flashes of images, these bits of sound for good.

Interestinly, all the main characters in the films I'm going to talk about are mainly pursuing happiness and the conflict arises out of the challenging circumstances that come in the way of their pursuit.

In Babel, for example, Richard and Susan (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) are holidaying in Morocco, hoping to revitalise their relationship, when it all turns into a tragic experience. Their Mexican maid, back in the US, defying her employer's order, goes to her son's wedding in Mexico, triggering a sequence of heart-rendering events. In Japan, a deaf-mute girl looks for bodily pleasure but to no avail, turning the human basic instinct into a wail for a human being's basic right to happiness.

In Hannibal Rising, Hannibal seeks happiness by avenging his sister's killers, by seeking to exorcise the ghosts of his haunting memories, that might help him overcome the guilt of not being able to save his sister.

In The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris (Will Smith) struggles to achieve happiness by winning over his dehumanising poverty. In Guru, Guru (Abhishek Bachchan) is pursuing happiness by creating wealth, and in the process, clashing with the establishment.

In Rocky Balboa, Rocky (Stallone) wants happiness of heart and soul by redeeming his lost honor, in his own memory, and in the memory of his dead wife, and when the authorities refuse to give him a boxing licence, he invokes the principle of pursuit of happiness, guaranteed in the American Bill of Rights.

But happiness often comes with a twist. That's why it's spelled as "Happyness" in the Will Smith movie. We will see how happiness has a twisted tail.

I will start with Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel. I watched it before the Oscars and so was quite aroused by the media buzz surrounding this film, especially focussing on Brad Pitt's acting. Initially, I was a little apprehensive about the film packaging several stories together, which has been done so many times now, so much so that even in Bollywood, filmmakers like Ram Gopal Varma (Darna Mana Hai) and Mani Ratnam (Yuva, apparently inspired by Gonzalez's Amores perros) have done it in recent years. Even last year's Oscar winner Crash had a multiple narrative structure.

I will not go into the details of the movie here. Through its stories, connecting the strands to emphasize globalism, one thing leading to another, affecting lives across borders, the film seemed to make a grave point: neglecting the voice of the weak can have disastrous consquences, and sometimes, innocent and reckless acts can blow into humungous problems. That's why when the Mexican maid Amelia (Adriana Barraza) is denied permission to attend her son's wedding, she takes matters into her own hands, setting loose a sequences of terrible events leading to her own deportation from a carefully built life in America. That' why Cheiko (played by Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi) takes off all her clothes before a stranger when no one hears the cries of her body. I agree that Brad Pitt has given a restrained performance, full of grace and maturity, but I guess Rinko leaves the strongest impact with her deaf mute character.

There are a few points in the narative that baffled me in terms of their relevance. For example, wWhat was the point of showing the incest angle for the Moroccan boy in Babel? What was the point of showing him masturbate before the shooting sequence? Was it to point out his machoness, a boy trying to become a man, handling of his manhood as a precursor to handling a gun? Or was it to signify a point of sexual potency (for the boy who shoots from a gun) to a counterpoint of sexual deprivation (for the Japanese girl whose father's gun is used to shoot those bullets)? And why does Santiago (Gael García Bernal) is never discussed again? What happens to him? Does he escape from the police or does he die?

The same issue of incest also intrigued me in Hannibal Rising. When Hannibal reaches France and begins to live with his aunt (Gong Li), who teaches her oriental fighting techniques, he begins to fall for her. The first crime he commits there is related to his aunt, and after kiling the butcher who had made sexual and racist remarks against his aunt, he calls it a crime of passion. I didn't see the point of this incest theme here. Do violence and incest go together? Or was it to justfy the first crime by Hannibal, giving him an immediate motive--the birth of passion along side the birth of violent tendencies in a young man.

Now coming to The Pursuit of Happyness and Guru, I found a lot of similarities between these two different films. You might say comparing these two films is pointless, I will say, let me do it. I have a point here.
Both these films are about men who want to succeed in life, break through their ranks of poverty, and make tons of money. In a way, both the films, despite a similarity in their theme, reflect the two different milieus they belong to. In The Pursuit of Happyness, the story of a man's struggle in an individualistic society, shows no back story of the main character. As he wakes up one day, we enter his life. All his struggles are personal. Like Guru, he also sometimes crosses the limits of law (not paying the cabbie, jumping the gantries in the metro, sleeping in metro public toilets, minor crimes) but these are foibles born out of his poverty. What redeems his character is the love for his son. That relationship adds another dimension to this movie, which is so endearing.

Guru starts in a much better way. Guru remembers his father telling him not to see dreams. But he did and he made them come true. From the opening scene, we know the daemonic trigger behind Guru's character and what is it that pushes him. His nature to defy authority, be it a father figure or the establishment, is established from this first scene. Guru is a powerful film; only its songs and dances interrupt the vivid and continuous dream weaved by Ratnam.

Coming to the last movie, Rocky Balboa, I loved it for its simplicity, and how cleverly Stallone has weaved together characters that the studios favour most: retired old men, unemployed people, a middle aged lady, Mexican workers, two young boys, and even a pet dog. It is a perfect cast of characters. The movie has a beautiful pace, not too slow not too fast. It is a typical feel good movie, and a fitting end to a series.

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