Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The use and misuse of "creative license" in movies

Today's post is a continuation of the discussion that I started on the incident of filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali being slapped by some members of the Shri Rajput Karni Sena for the suspected inappropriate portrayal of Rani Padmini in his upcoming film Padmavati. While the last post focused on the question of whether that incident could be consider terrorism, today's post attempts to explore the limits of artistic license. More specifically, I share my thoughts on what forms of artistic license are appropriate and not appropriate.

Artists have high levels of artistic license when they are working on projects that are completely fictional. For example, no one cares much if the hero in a fictional movie defies all laws of gravity and common sense. Artistic license helps bring interesting variety to characters. For example, aliens in movies have been conceptualized in wide variety of forms from tripods to octapods to shape shifting creatures and machines. They have been conceptualized from being malevolent to completely benign. They have been thought of as super-intelligent creatures to ones with more like reptilian-brains. The point is that all of these different forms of aliens are valid, because after all they are products of creative imagination and have no basis in reality. It is only when a certain filmmaker starts adding elements into the aliens that have parallels in reality that the ethics of artistic license comes to play. Let's take a hypothetical example of a Sci-Fi filmmaker who always depicts his his malevolent aliens as black in color and his benign aliens in lighter shades. Let's also say that his malevolent aliens always (or mostly) speak with African-American accents while his good aliens always (or mostly) speak with English accents. This would make us suspect that our Sci-Fi filmmaker is a racist. We would then say that the filmmaker is mis-utilizing the creative freedom given to artists. The filmmaker may still get away with it from a legal point of view, but would still be considered a racist.

Now things become more complicated for projects that are based on historical or real-life cases. My friends know that I am fond of such movies. That of course, doesn't meant that such movies get their facts right. In fact, almost all such movies get something or the other wrong. But that is not necessarily a bad thing, because movie makers often have to take some creative liberties to fit complex events into the format of a 2-hour feature film. For example, in the recent movie Patriots Day, the character of Sgt. Tommy Saunders played by Mark Wahlberg wasn't a real person but a composite of several police officers who had immediately responded to or investigated the bombings that happened at the Boston Marathon of 2013. You overlook such inaccuracies in the movie because you understand that such artistic liberties need to be taken to simplify a complicated investigation process. Peter Berg, the director of Patriots Day, was still criticized for not crediting a brave Black cop named Dennis 'DJ' Simmonds who suffered brain injury when one of the terrorists hurled a bomb towards him; DJ died a year later, and his death was linked to the injuries he had suffered during the blast.

The point is that artists can take less creative liberties when it comes to projects that they claim to be based on real historical cases. Again, it does not mean that they cannot take any creative liberties, but that their choices will be evaluated with more critical lenses. For example, the movie 300 which was based on the "historically inspired" comic book by the same name had many factual inaccuracies. Frank Miller, the creator of the comic said this about some these inaccuracies:

The inaccuracies, almost all of them, are intentional. I took those chest plates and leather skirts off of them for a reason. I wanted these guys to move and I wanted ’em to look good. I knocked their helmets off a fair amount, partly so you can recognize who the characters are. Spartans, in full regalia, were almost indistinguishable except at a very close angle. Another liberty I took was, they all had plumes, but I only gave a plume to Leonidas, to make him stand out and identify him as a king.

I think any reasonable person wouldn't mind these inaccuracies. However, some of the other "creative liberties" taken by the makers of 300 generated valid criticism. For example, some historians criticized that the Spartans were actually a slave-owning society, although they were projected as a culture that valued freedom the most. Similarly, the Persians are shown as an "incarnation of every Orientalist stereotype imaginable: decadent, oversexed, craven, weak, spineless," which naturally wasn't taken positively by people from Iran.

Coming back to the case of Bhansali's Padmavati, I don't know the kind of artistic liberties that he has taken, simply becauAse I haven't read his script. But given Bhansali's history with mangling historical facts, is it not natural for the Rajasthanis and all Indians to be apprehensive about the way their beloved legends have been depicted in the movie? By the way, before I proceed further, I must say that I have loved many of Bhansali's movies. I think some of his initial movies, such as Khamoshi: The Musical and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. I never saw Devdas, primarily because I am not fond of the idea of glorifying a depressed drunkard. I did watch Black, a movie that was praised to the skies because of its novelty and sensitive portrayal of different forms of disability. But frankly I was heavily disappointed by Black, not because it was a badly made film--it was actually very well made--but I abhor it when filmmakers plagiarize a movie and don't give credit to their source of "inspiration." I had seen and loved the 1962 Oscar-winning movie, The Miracle Worker, from which Black had been copied (including frame-by-frame reproduction of some scenes), so couldn't appreciate what was touted as an "original" movie.

People--including many of my friends--went gaga over Bhansali's last movie Bajirao Mastani, but I hated the fact that Bhansali reduced the story of the great warrior Bajirao I to that of a lunatic love story. Bajirao I, the man who challenged the reign of Mughals and never lost a single battle in his military career of 20 years, was shown dying a depressed and delirious lover. The warrior whom the British Army Field Marshal, Bernard Montgomery, had described as "possibly the finest cavalry general ever produced by India" was shown to be a man who easily gave up his fight against the "discriminations" that he received within his own society for having taken a second wife who happened to be partly Muslim. Instead of celebrating the Hindu culture that helped let a Brahmin (priest) emerge into the role of a Kshatriya (warrior), the movie took a lot of pains to show the Marathi culture of the 1700s in poor light. The mother of the great Peshwa was shown as an evil person who was ready to sacrifice her own son for the pride of her Hindu-Maratha culture. By the way, I am not claiming that the Hindu and Marathi culture of those times were all perfect, but I would have appreciated it if Bhansali had at least put in a little effort to highlight the reasons behind the Maratha's antagonism towards the Muslims. The Marathas after all had been the strongest resistors of the Mughals for over a century. It is well known that the Mughals, especially during the reign of Aurangzeb, had not only demolished countless temples but had also committed immense atrocities on the Hindus and Sikhs of India, literally killing, raping and forcibly converting millions of the population.

In summary, I have two points with respect to artistic liberties. First, artistic or creative license is not a license to falsify facts and depict historical characters and cultures based on our own whims and fancies. Second, creative license is not the same as not having any responsibilities towards one's society.  For example, creative license does not mean we should be including an item number (that objectify women) in all our movies just to titillate the audience. Hollywood makes tons of movies based on real life but almost all of them celebrate the inherent goodness of the American society and the American military. America is always saving the world in Hollywood, be it in works of pure fiction or movies based on some real incidents. Yet, in India, filmmakers seem to take immense pride in showing only the dark sides of the country. Again, I am not saying that India doesn't have any dark side or that those dark sides should not be shown, but no society becomes great by only pointing out faults in it. For a society to become great, you have to celebrate it, and you have to take pride in it. If filmmakers want to become instrumental in the building of a great India, they should make at least one positive film on India for every negative film that they make. Always pooh-poohing the society may make you appear liberal and cool, but you effectively do a great disservice to the society. To be fair, Bhansali is not the greatest offenders of the misuse of creative license--in fact, his offenses are pretty tame in comparison to others--but I hope and wish that the quality filmmakers of India also make historical movies that fill the people with a sense of pride about being Indian.

I will end this post with a recent video by poet-turned-politician Dr. Kumar Vishwas where he recites a poem by Pt. Narendra Mishra on Rani Padmini. The spirit that this poem evokes should be what the filmmakers of India should aspire to evoke in their movies. Jai Hind!

Disclaimer: Although I shared the video of Kumar Vishwas here, I am not a supporter of Aam Aadmi Party. Rather I am very critical of it, especially its leader, Mr. Arvind Kejriwal.

P.S.: Please share your thoughts on the ideas expressed in the article in the comments section below. Thank you!

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