Monday, March 04, 2013

Thoughts on Kai Po Che! as an adaptation

The process of comparing a film with the book it was adapted from is often ridden with simplifications; such comparisons also tend to have an inbuilt bias towards the book, being premised on the condescending idea that cinema is merely illustrated literature. But I think most people who have seen the new film Kai Po Che! and also read the Chetan Bhagat novel The 3 Mistakes of my Life will agree that the film is a more fully realised work, and it may be worth looking at where its strengths lie vis-a-vis the source text.

At his best, especially when writing about things that he has firsthand experience of, Bhagat knows how to pace a story for his target readership and give them characters and conversations they can relate to. (An old post about this here.) But a self-conscious strain enters his work when he deals with situations requiring gravitas – such as violence during a communal riot – and in The 3 Mistakes of My Life, the writing becomes most clunky at the points of highest drama. Consider this bit from the book's climax, which reads more like the first draft of a screenplay than a well-crafted passage in a finished novel; an inert, disjointed description of things happening one by one, rather than an attempt to convey the messy, urgent wholeness of the moment:

Mama closed his eyes again and mumbled silent chants. He took his folded hands to his forehead and heart and tapped it thrice. He opened his eyes and lifted the trishul. Ali stood up and tried to limp away.

Mama lifted the trishul high to strike.

“Mama, no,” Omi screamed in his loudest voice. Omi pushed the man blocking him. He ran between Mama and Ali. Mama screamed a chant and struck.

“Stop Mama,” Omi said.

Even if Mama wanted to, he couldn’t. The strike already had momentum. The trishul entered Omi’s stomach with a dull thud.

“Oh...oh,” Omi said as he absorbed what happened first and felt the pain later. Within seconds, a pool of blood covered the floor. Mama and his men looked at each other, trying to make sense of what had occurred.
Even a moderately well-directed and well-performed movie sequence would be an improvement on the above passage (a competent sound designer might also replace the “dull thud” when a sharp weapon enters human flesh with a more appropriate sound), and Kai Po Che! is more than a moderately good film. It is wonderfully acted and has a real sense of character development. The screenplay – on which Bhagat collaborated with Pubali Chaudhari, Supratik Sen and director Abhishek Kapoor – is more focused, and the dialogue more authentic-sounding, than the often flat prose in the book. The decision to remove the novel’s framing device (in which Bhagat receives a suicide note from an Ahmedabad businessman) was a sensible one, as was the paring of a couple of flabby subplots and peripheral characters such as the Australian cricketer who uses similes like “I’m off like a bride’s nightie”.

In the history of Auteurism (which I will not go on about here!), there are many instances of directors choosing source material that will enable them to revisit their cherished themes and personal obsessions. Though it’s way too early to call Abhishek Kapoor an auteur – even if you’re using the word in the most modest possible sense – one should note that like his last film Rock On!, Kai Po Che! is about the gap between innocence and experience, and about how life can scupper the best-laid plans of shiny-eyed young people. In this coming-of-age tale set mostly in 2001-2002, the three central characters – the friends Govind, Ishaan and Omi – are affected by various important things that happened to Gujarat and to India during that period: the Kutch earthquake, the emergence of a mall culture with the promise of attractive retail space and new business opportunities, the historic India-Australia Test match in Kolkata in March 2001, and most significantly the Godhra massacre and the anti-Muslim riots that followed it. The book’s narrator Govind is the film’s quiet anchoring figure (extremely well-played by Raj Kumar Yadav), a young man whose interest in Mathematics – the one certainty in a world where pretty much everything else is ambiguous and up for discussion – was one of the more entertaining things about the novel (it is somewhat toned down in the film). Ishaan (Sushant Singh Rajput) is a temperamental cricket player who develops a bond with a 12-year-old Muslim boy, the extraordinarily gifted Ali. And Omi (Amit Sadh) is falling under the influence of his uncle Bittu maama, a leader of the chauvinistic local Hindu party.

With this basic information, it is easy enough to guess how the lives and personal equations of these three friends will be altered by the communal clashes – especially after Omi loses his parents in the Godhra attack. But I thought the film’s climax was more layered and challenging than the novel’s, partly because of how it makes Omi a participant in the riots. In the book he retains his innocence when crunch time arrives; he even ends up taking the trishul-blow intended for the boy Ali (as you might gather from the passage quoted above). And this allows the maama, a distant character in whom the reader has little emotional investment (fleshing out side-characters is not one of
Bhagat’s strong suits anyway), to conveniently become the figurehead for Evil. Much of the responsibility for the bad things that happen in the end are fobbed off on him, while the three protagonists remain young innocents, our unsullied points of identification.

The film, on the other hand, has dramatic impetus (which is lacking in the final passages of the novel) along with a more developed sense of how “good” people – or “apolitical” people – can be engulfed by tides that they don’t fully understand. Long before Godhra, we have already seen Omi becoming a little closed and distanced from his friends, gradually turning into a puppet for his maama and a handsome public-relations man for the party. (Even his freshly grown moustache underlines his new status as his uncle's minion-clone and a card-carrying member of a group that feels the need to emphasize their masculinity because of the perception that they have been weak for too long.) Later, driven by personal vendetta in the climactic scenes where a Hindu mob attacks one of the city’s Muslim quarters, he is for a while indistinguishable from the older, more hardened men around him, and unrecognisable from the cheerful kid who helped his friends set up a sports shop earlier in the story.

Manav Kaul’s
thin-lipped maama is a scary figure – the sort of man whom you can imagine planning a massacre, carefully examining the trunk-loads of scythes with which he will slit the bellies of his enemies. But watch Omi’s face near the end of the film – initial confusion and anguish slowly turning into watchful determination – and you see how he might become a similarly cold-blooded rabble-rouser a few years down the line. Eventually it takes a friend’s senseless murder – with his own hand on the trigger – for Omi to regain something of his humanity, but something much deeper has been lost. In the face of his transformation, the good guys-vs-bad guys dichotomy is no longer so easy to believe in. And this moral ambivalence belongs mostly to the film; there is no real parallel for it in the book.

[Some earlier posts on adaptations: Susanna’s Seven Husband/Saat Khoon Maaf; A Kiss Before Dying; notes from the Times of India lit-fest]


  1. I thought the movie was also excellent - and have absolutely no desire to read the book. I was struck by the excellent acting of all involved - the 3 friends, Mama, Ali. What really surprised me, however, is that this movie made it past censors and protests. Yes, it uses the train burning as a cause for the riot - but I think it's the first time I have seen, on screen, a portrayal of any community as the 'agressor' and yet it being handled maturely by the audience and everyone involved. Yes the movie is only representing facts, but that never stopped people from getting the Da Vinci Code banned e.t.c. Maybe there's hope for India still!

  2. Hi Arjun
    Loved your writing style , nice review :-)
    Also awesome comparision of the book vs the movie ,very unique and have not seen for this movie.
    Keep writing more , we too love movies and have created a site based around twitter -

  3. In this case, the book was underwritten, and therefore the filmmakers had the liberty of adding layers of drama to the plot. I think doing the reverse is a lot more difficult--the case of a very detailed novel being made into a film. One example comes to mind: The Namesake. In the book, the plot is so full of details, that some of the detailing has crept into the movie also--and, as a result, has made it unnecessarily longer. So minute is the detailing, that I got the feeling the writer had ghost directed the film, just to ensure that nothing from the plot is left out.

  4. I haven't read the book, so my 'comparison' point was with Rock On, which I came away from with rather empty feelings. I liked this film very much, and not least because of the mature way the gujarat events were depicted. I have very strong feelings about those (as do many others from whichever side of the spectrum) events, and so I was pleasantly impressed by how competently the film depicted those.

  5. What really surprised me, however, is that this movie made it past censors and protests.

    Phoenix: yes, a friend said the same thing a few days ago. Most heartening, and hopefully it represents a little sliver of hope for the future.

  6. Yayaati: I spoke with Sooni Taraporevala during a panel discussion about The Namesake adaptation a couple of years ago - a bit about that exchange in this post. I think that book was a challenge also because of its deliberately languid, introspective narrative, which had surprisingly little direct conversation in it. Think Sooni mentioned that they struggled to find the right voice for each of the main characters while writing dialogue, because there were so few cues for that in the book. Personally I liked the film though.

  7. I liked the film quite a bit. I especially liked the way it ended; thought the director had shown admirable restraint in scenes that could easily have given way to excessive melodrama.
    I was a bit surprised to read your comment on your post on FB wherein you've said that a lot of opinion pieces have accused the film of being a subtle championing/defence of Modi, because I've heard quite a lot of people say quite the opposite. They feel that the movie "sided" with the Muslim faction as it did not show the train being burned at Godhra in any detail, while the riots were shown(totally disagree with this view; I felt that the director presented a dispassionate view of events as they occurred. He naturally had to show the riots as a key event in the story takes place at that juncture, while an elaborate train burning scene was unnecessary from that viewpoint). Moreover, they claimed that the director had manipulated the book's plot in such a way as to show the Hindus in a poor light (an observation I could not comment on as I have not read the book).

  8. The film, on the other hand, has dramatic impetus along with a more developed sense of how “good” people – or “apolitical” people – can be engulfed by tides that they don’t fully understand

    Haven't seen the film. But it's amazing how artists in India go out of their way to "empathize" with crime or criminal tendencies as if rioters and rowdies somehow are impelled towards their actions.
    There's no dearth of such films - Roja, Bombay, Dil Se etc etc.

    This isn't moral ambivalence. It's just a total lack of moral sense.

    The same India which loves these films demands apologies from a British Prime-minister in 2013 for what a British General did in Amritsar some 95 years ago! But yes, Indian politicians who have administered pogroms 10 times bigger in magnitude than the Jallianwala Bagh incident never find it necessary to apologise! Some have gone on to have stellar political careers unlike Dyer who went into semi-retirement.

    Nobody can excel Indians when it comes to hypocritical and selective moral indignation!

  9. I was a bit surprised to read your comment on your post on FB wherein you've said that a lot of opinion pieces have accused the film of being a subtle championing/defence of Modi, because I've heard quite a lot of people say quite the opposite.

    Radhika: ha, I think that's a classic example of the Hostile Media Effect at work. Feel strongly enough about an issue and you'll find a way to convince yourself that everyone else is unreasonably taking the opposite position.

    P.S. not a "a lot of" opinion pieces, but certainly 2-3 very widely circulated ones.

  10. Having another bad morning, Shrikanth?

  11. A crowd gheraoing a Muslim neighbourhood chanting, "Jai Shri Ram" with swords in their hands - how much more direct did the director need to be? It actually shook me since I had not expected the film to be this clear in its sympathies.

    For me the ending worked really well and I am prepared to admit that this might be a very idiosyncratic reading - For me it highlighted the selective blindness some Indians might have when it comes to cricket or cinema. The religion of the sportsperson or actor might not matter, yet we had seen these considerations fall away in the preceding scenes. As a country you are proud of Ali Hasan, now but as a community you had done your level best to extinguish his life.

    And good to know that the novel lives up to its notoriety. I had begun to entertain the idea that I might have to read some Chetan Bhagat soon.

  12. Also, what Phoenix said.

  13. Having another bad morning, Shrikanth?

    All mornings are alike to me.

    And I am disappointed more people around me don't feel the way I do.

    I don't care what Omi has gone through. There's absolutely no excuse for aiding, abetting or even implicitly condoning crime. Especially unprovoked crime on innocent third parties. Period.
    But not a lot of the intelligentsia in this country don't feel the same way.

    The Jews in Germany and elsewhere in Europe underwent far greater trauma over the past 200 years than any community in India (across castes or religion). They did not wallow in self-pity or encourage wild reactionary tendencies. Today we find their community excelling in several areas of human endeavour. The only Jewish state in the Middle east remains the sole beacon for Western civilization in the region.

    Same goes for Germany and Japan. Countries that were ruined to a very great extent in the 40s. Barely 30 years later these nations were among the richest in the world! Thanks to industry and enterprise! No Self pity. No guerilla movements. No terror. Plain old fashioned morality. That's all.

  14. There's absolutely no excuse for aiding, abetting or even implicitly condoning crime. Especially unprovoked crime on innocent third parties. Period.

    No issue with this. Just in case it needed to be clarified.

  15. Didn't anyone find the ending of the movie a bit cheezy? Govind naming his son after Ishaan and then Ishaan appearing the horizon and smiling at them...


  16. V: yes, that bit was a little cheesy alright. Though naming the little boy Ishaan also facilitated the trick of misdirecting the viewer at the beginning of the film, when Govind and Omi are in the car together and one of them asks how Ishaan is doing.

  17. Jabberwock: Thats true but the suspense regarding Ishaan's fate was held only for few seconds.

    I was kind of underwhelmed by the film because it tried to give equal importance to their growth of business and their friendship and as a result ended diluting the impact of the movie.
    When the movie and the flashback started I thought the movie was about three friends chasing their dream.

  18. Talking of the Hostile media effect, I am reminded of numerous Hollywood films that have been a victim of this bias.

    For eg: Liberals still cringe at very fine John Ford films like The Searchers for instance saying that it is racist, just because the lead character (from a 19th cen milieu) happens to be slightly prejudiced. The same commentators have no issues with mediocre Stanley Kramer films that are overtly political and often condescending.

    The other day I stumbled upon a televisation of the Holmes novel - The Sign of Four starring Jeremy Brett. Several youtube commentators were labeling it "racist" just because it features a demented Indian tribal character!

    Ofcourse it is not just the left that is overly sensitive. Churchill deemed Colonel Blimp to be pro-German! A ridiculous jibe about a movie that is as English as it can get.

  19. I never thought this day would come, but I find myself in agreement with shrikanth. I quote from the person who writes on the anonandon blog:

    [Right. Some Muslims killed my parents, ergo I will kill many other Muslims — that’s complexity for you.

    I can’t get over the fact that Omi’s horribly warped thinking didn’t bother anybody. Neither critics nor audiences (at the premiere, I mean) found anything off-sync about how any Muslim within reach must pay for what was done to Omi’s parents by a specific group of people. It seems justified to Omi and everyone else that a colony of innocent Muslims must die because some other Muslims (who have no connection beyond the nominal yoke of Islam to those being attacked) torched a train. We are expected to forgive Omi his urge to kill Muslims because some violent extremists killed his parents. (By which logic, if someone’s parents die in a car accident, then it’s justified for the child to go out and kill any driver s/he can lay his hands on.) The fact that Omi knows Ali’s father doesn’t make him pause. The fact that his dearest friend Ishaan is begging him to stop doesn’t matter.]

    oh em gee, you're more of a "liberal" than you think shrikanth. oh em gee.

  20. Neither critics nor audiences (at the premiere, I mean) found anything off-sync about how any Muslim within reach must pay for what was done to Omi’s parents by a specific group of people...

    Sorry Sapera, but I think this is a serious misrepresentation/simplification of the way in which many people have responded to the film. Speaking for myself (and for the people I know who have liked the film), no one is suggesting that the killing of innocents from either community is justified, and I don't agree at all that the film itself condones the attack on the Muslims. But if the only way for you to feel comfortable with a filmic depiction of such real-life incidents is to disallow even the possibility of a basically likable/sympathetic character being so clouded by rage that he - temporarily - loses his moral compass (something that, yes, can happen to any of us), then you're probably better off watching simplistic agitprop.

  21. yeah I actually agree with you. I was doing a bit of roleplay by quoting that piece (mainly to needle shrikanth). I did suspect that that analysis was a bit simplistic. Surely humans contain multitudes?, etc..

    Although having said that, I did want to run that observation by you, since I haven't actually seen the movie.

  22. Yes! I agree with you Jai! In fact I came back to add a message to Shrikanth - the searchers is lauded by many putatively left wing cultural commentators as a good movie. If you have time, do read Jonathan Lethem's slightly long essay called Defending the Searchers about grappling with its moral ambiguity but still loving it nonetheless -

    the birth of a nation tops the village voice's best 100 movies of all time poll. The movie celebrates the klan for crying out loud. And I don't have to tell you the Village Voice's politics.

    and the liberal middlebrow who defends message movies is surely a straw man. speaking of which, Jai, agitprop could be good art too.

  23. Dr Vishal Dhingra6:19 PM, March 05, 2013

    MY REVIEW OF KOI PO CHE : Three friends share same geographical space and co exist during same period, in history, but they live in their own distinctive worlds. Their worlds are products of their idiosyncratic proclivities and passions. Due to their long years of friendship and common goal to make a decent living their worlds converge into genial camaraderie. But as time passes the inherent differences in their disposition starts showing up as cracks in their bond and eventually relationship gets acrimonious. Vicissitudes of history then goads their worlds to confront each other till they find themselves on ominous discomforting crossroads.

    Koi Po Che is a well crafted portrayal of their three worlds, their mutual interplay and influence of tumultuous history on the trajectory of these individuals. It generously invests in its three protagonists, builds their characters and finds befitting actors to do this job. You know them like you know your neighbour. It then weaves these three strands on a carefully tailored backdrop, delicately, into a delectable tapestry.

    The movie had smell of contemporary India; both its fragrance and stench. It revolves on cricket and communalism. Both evoke strong passions but it does not ‘use’ them as movie’s selling point. They do not make the movie relevant but as they are relevant, by themselves, and punctuate the storyline, so they find place in the movie. It brings out how young, aspirational, India is willing to cut corners to fulfill its dreams and the dejection that ensue on its failure. Some of the hackneyed but pertinent issues like conflicts because of generational gap and emotive disconnect between the between traditional and modern etcetera are touched in the movie but deft handling ensures they don’t turn into a cliché.

    It is reminiscent of Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi primarily because of style of novel like narrative; steady pace of events inching towards a climax with a sure footed gait. But what makes this movie stand out from the crowd it is the ability to make an unusual fiction look real, to make incredible sound authentic, to transmute unbelievable into believable.

    Koi Po Che has its share of technical ‘hits and misses’ that would not go unnoticed under a well lit scanner. But I would like to part with my fine tooth, analytical, proof-reader so as not to miss the forest for the trees. It is a wholesome cinematic experience not just because it tells a story worth telling but, more so, because it is story well told.

  24. Loved this post. And loved the film too.
    And yes I too felt the ending was a little cheesy. But here is something that totally stumped me: why on earth did they bring in Ajay Jadeja for the last bit. I mean seriously ?? ( It was all downhill from thereon, to be very honest. )
    Also I fail to understand why we are celebrating this film's successful escape from censorship. Are we left with so little a space for honest discussions, that even toothless cats have to be feared like man-eaters ?

  25. Are we left with so little a space for honest discussions, that even toothless cats have to be feared like man-eaters?

    Short answer: yes.

  26. oh em gee, you're more of a "liberal" than you think shrikanth. oh em gee

    This isn't a liberal vs conservative debate. It's a choice between civilization and barbarism.

    I am not commenting on this film as I haven't seen it but a general tendency in our media to empathize with barbarians!

    And yes, one can be a conservative without being a VHP/Bajrang Dal sympathizer. Those are not conservative groups, but rabid reactionary elements.

  27. and the liberal middlebrow who defends message movies is surely a straw man

    Not a strawman at all.
    There is no dearth of such middle brows or such "message" films.

    Take the huge fan following of Aamir Khan in this country especially among the English speaking elite. Movies like RDB, TZP, 3 Idiots...Shallow films that attempt to lecture the audience with a missionary zeal! I'd say these are propaganda films - far more partisan and potentially more deleterious than The Searchers.

    RDB in my book was decidedly an uncivilized film. Far more uncivilized than even the much maligned Birth of a Nation

  28. As an aside, Birth of a Nation is available online here

    What a shame that this masterpiece has a Like to dislike ratio on youtube of almost 2:1!

    It highlights the hyper-sensitivity of modern movie-goers and their acute lack of a historical perspective.

    I watched this film for the first time four years ago without cringing once during its duration! It never occurred to me that I am watching a "racist" film. If anything it provided a necessary corrective to this mythical view that the great man Abe Lincoln came in and abolished slavery and everyone lived happily ever after.

    What this Griffith film does highlight, albeit clumsily, is that the great social change came at a huge cost. It resulted in a War that claimed more American lives than any other war before or since! (close to a million I think). It resulted in race riots in some cases and a deep sense of insecurity across communities.

    In hindsight, the War was perhaps a good thing. It abolished an evil institution and prevented secession. But that wasn't so evident when it happened! Back then the War was a hellish experience which claimed about 2% of American population. I am no historian of the Civil War but maybe this great social change could've been accomplished through peaceful means? Perhaps by compensating slave owners.

    At any rate the movie makes one think and hardly "evil". But yes, 21st cen chatterati are apt to find it "evil" because it doesn't fit their view of the world.

  29. Nice movie with small budget this type movies coming very rare at this time however I love this movie and its story

  30. Shrikanth, I am largely agreeing with you here! You do realize that?

    I have pegged you as a Mises/Hayek conservative, with ample evidence from your blog. So yeah. I don't think you're the religious sort.

    The point I was making is that no one dismisses Birth of a Nation merely as a "racist" film. It was a landmark film by an iconic director whose other merits have been noted by many. Or I should say, no one substantive has ever dismissed it out of hand for those reasons you mentioned.

    The handful who do meaningfully register this complaint are those who actually have a historical stake in the matter, i.e black americans. This complaint is hardly "liberal" arm waving and it would in fact be specious and ignorant to dismiss that as such.

    HOWEVER, having said that, few serious left wing critics/academics have challenged the artistic integrity of B of a N, or Leni Rifenstahl or Will to Power or whatever fascist/racist old timey art that is any good. Ergo, strawman.

  31. few serious left wing critics/academics have challenged the artistic integrity of B of a N, or Leni Rifenstahl or Will to Power or whatever fascist/racist old timey art that is any good. Ergo, strawman

    Well. It's almost taken as a given by everyone that Birth of a Nation is a racist, evil film! Take Roger Ebert for instance who says -

    The film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all

    An utterly condescending remark which misunderstands the sentiments of the film maker as well as the audience which took to it back then in 1915.

    Is it "racist" to claim that the Civil War was a painful tragedy regardless of what it accomplished? Is it racist to claim that the Civil war did not result in inter-racial amity?

    And Griffith isn't the only critic of the Reconstruction Era. Several black intellectuals have also concluded that Reconstruction was a failed experiment. Maybe it wasn't as melodramatically violent as Griffith portrayed it. But the era was flawed nonetheless. The South which was in mid 19th century one of the more prosperous regions in American suffered grievous economic setbacks and has not recovered its preeminence since!

    So a price was paid. And a very heavy price at that. But I guess an acknowledgement of that is "racist".

    And I'm sorry. There's absolutely no parallel between a somewhat sentimental flawed film like Birth of a Nation and an openly propagandist, Nazi mouthpiece film like Triumph of the Will! It is an insult to Griffith to mention these films in the same breath.

    Oh...and it is surprising that prudes who regard BofaN as "racist" don't express a fraction of the outrage against 21st century monstrosities like RDB which overtly encourage violence and terror and disrespect democratic institutions.

  32. Re Birth of a Nation, it was racist, there's no argument about that.

    But it was also good art.

    They don't cancel each other out.

    My final word: "propaganda" is in the eyes of the beholder.

    As I said before, there's no reason why propaganda inherently can't be good art.

    To you democracy is an idea worth defending, to others it is a tyranny of the majority. Pro and anti-democratic art can be good/great/puerile/wtev.

    As for Aamir Khan, RDB specifically I have little to say. I personally thought it was middlebrow hackwork but that's neither here nor there.

  33. Just to clarify, Shrikanth - I am honestly not going to debate why Birth of a Nation is racist. As far as I'm concerned that is an issue that is settled. I REALLY doubt you can convince me otherwise.

    I keep noticing that you have a tendency to conflate an argument against racism with an argument about whether or not its any good as cinematic art (of course the two things are complicatedly intertwined frequently; BofAN succeeds despite being racist which is to its credit - being racist isn't).

    To reiterate, I am NOT going to debate morality with you Shrikanth. As you pointed out you are no civil war scholar, and just on the few points you have put forth I discern an enormous historical ignorance coupled with a conservative instinct of defending the status quo. So yeah, I refuse to go there.

  34. I am honestly not going to debate why Birth of a Nation is racist. As far as I'm concerned that is an issue that is settled. I REALLY doubt you can convince me otherwise

    I agree with you. There mustn't be a debate on this. Because the word "racist" is just a label. And my previous comments were essentially attempts to explain why "labeling" is wrong.

    You know how words can be used.
    As Naipaul once said, labels can only obfuscate and ignite passion and rarely enlighten. Example : I am civilized and steadfast; you are barbarian and fanatical; he is primitive and blind...and so on.

    I have used these labels myself. Most of us do. But we must try to avoid. The very greatness of Western civilization lies in its reluctance to use these labels.

    Which is why it makes me cringe to see the label "racist" being thrown about so heedlessly in the West. It is a word one seeks refuge in to avoid argument.

    If Birth of a Nation is racist then so are the millions of Americans (white and black) who enjoyed it. I cannot judge 1915 attitudes by 21st century lenses especially as we are far more ignorant of the realities of 1860s/70s than the aged audience who watched this film. We rely on sanitized history books while the audience of 1815 had experienced the realities of Civil war either first hand or second hand (one generation removed).

    That's all I have to say.

  35. To you democracy is an idea worth defending, to others it is a tyranny of the majority. Pro and anti-democratic art can be good/great/puerile/wtev.

    Never going to deny this.
    And I welcome critiques of modern democratic institutions.

    My point was a little different. If one has no qualms using strong words like "racist" to describe a 100 year old period piece like Birth of a Nation, why don't I find similar promptness among commentators in dismissing potentially incendiary works like RDB with similarly damning labels?

  36. It's very suspicious to me why you over-valorize the nominal "Western Civilization", but in response to your statement, Western Civ is in LOVE with labels. Ever read the nytimes? Most of the labels that trickle out into the rest of the world have been invented here. True, there's more conversation about these labels perhaps more than in India (which I have little idea of at this point). But there are many and complex reasons for this, which I again, refuse to go into within the limits of a comments section.

    As for RDB, I don't know why you're so obsessed with this as a talking point. The Birth of a Nation is an iconic, landmark creation in the history of cinema. It is HUGELY influential and was made in a country that has tremendous influence on the world's thinking at this point in history. In comparison, just in sheer numbers, RDB is an inconsequential footnote.

    Second, who are the critics (liberal or otherwise) who love and proselytize about it so much? Jai probably doesn't, Baradwaj Rangan probably doesn't, and I'm running out of names here whose opinion I respect, but pretty much zero serious Indian critics have any deep love for this film. I don't what kind of crowd you run with, but I personally know no one who even likes this film.

    As for crying "racism" at every little thing, I think in the long term, it's a useful thing. If it annoys you, well, sorry charlie. The US, where I live, is deeply systematically iniquitous on a racial basis to this day, which is something reading Hayek won't tell you much about. Ergo, I'm fine with Birth of a Nation being criticized every now an then from a fresh perspective. Views evolve, and it has to be critically demonstrated in every generation anew that it's a work worth defending. To my mind, at this point it is, but surely I wouldn't go so far as to say that it will always be so FOR ALL TIME FOREVA.

    I will perhaps, submit that crying racism gets old, and people need to figure out new ways of criticizing oppression. To be honest, I'm optimistic about this happening - progressives in america are usually smart about being flexible on this(which has nothing to do with the intrinsic goodness about america or western civilization), since oppression qualitatively mutates and changes here at a rate faster than any other place on earth.

  37. Shrikanth, Sapera: let's give this particular discussion a little break, please? Even Griffith's ghost is getting fed up of it.

  38. Jai, the debate probably wasn't going anywhere, but it was fun to read while it lasted.
    Anyway, saw this film, and was blown away by Raj Kumar Yadav's performance. It was of the caliber of a Nawazuddin Siddiqui. I hope his film Shahid is readily available.I guess, his role must have looked the least interesting of the 3 on paper, but he completely sunk his teeth into it.I think, it was his performance that provided the movie with some authentic heft.