Feature: The Future On A Celluloid Platter
Are films an escape from reality or tellers of human fate? We explore how life and art intertwine on celluloid to act as simulations of what our world could be, inspired by who we are today. Or is it the other way around? Words by Rhea Gangavkar & Nikita Naiknavare
In Winter 1915, a ground-breaking film was released in the USA. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was the first ever 12-reel film to be made and at 3 hours long also the longest, divided in half by yet another movie invention - the intermission. It pioneered close-ups and fade-outs and was the first film to have a musical score for an orchestra. A landmark in film history, The Birth of a Nation was as controversial as it was technically complex.
A story of two families set during the Civil War era, it appealed to popular myths about the supposed injustice inflicted on the South during Reconstruction. African Americans were portrayed as either childlike individuals with limited mental abilities or depraved creatures who lusted after young white women. The film is widely considered to have inspired the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and is criticised for having sealed in the popular imagination a vision of the African American people as dangerous and unworthy of inclusion in society. Systemic reaffirmation of this image is evidenced by the decades of public lynchings and segregation that followed, policies that remain a talking point till today.
Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? For cinema, a medium whose power lies in the symbiotic confluence of art and life, this question becomes even more important. Historic films act as big screen reminders of of our evolution as a society, while films with foresight - typically genres like science fiction, dystopian dramas, political satires - are contemplative visions of the future and what it could hold.
One current political event that has erupted in debate, conflict and violence between the Indian state and its people drove us to explore this interaction between life and art. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act which states that in cases of persecution in their home countries, citizenship may be granted to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian but not Muslim refugee communities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Citizen protests have erupted all over India against this Bill (now enacted) citing its unconstitutionality, with fears running high that its deliberate exclusion of Muslims is cementing the first step towards a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. Fascism often sneaks up on you in the guise of a benevolent figure, offering you what the previous authority could not. It is an ideology riding on whataboutery, ethnic cleansing and systematic diversion from the actual problems that the country is facing. We saw this in the celebrated dystopian graphic novel turned film V for Vendetta, where in an alternate reality of World War II where England loses the war, Vice Chancellor Adam Sutler’s oppressive regime terrorises people on the murky claim of reducing a mysterious viral epidemic. As it is revealed at the end of the movie, the virus was systematically leaked into public water systems by Sutler himself, so that he could capitalise on the helplessness of the citizens.
In Indian politics, religion becomes a popular weapon of choice when governments want to drive minorities into a corner, isolating them from opportunities that the majority can access. When rumours of detention camps being built for 'illegal migrants' in Assam started taking over the Internet, we couldn’t help but be reminded of Deepa Mehta’s Netflix series Leila, in which we see segregation of communities into high-walled, tightly secured societies divided on the basis of religion, the religion of Aryavarta. Inter-marriage is strictly forbidden and the children of mixed parentage “mischrit bachche” are sent to camps for organ harvesting. Sure, you may call this dystopian fictionalisation of reality, but you need not look beyond the ghettos that build up outside our cities to find some resemblance to the ‘fictional’ stories we see on screen.
Ghoul, the Netflix produced three-part horror series begins on an even more ominous note. The Indian state is governed by an authoritarian, militarised regime and Nida Rahim (Radhika Apte), a bright young Muslim cadet is determined to do anything it takes to serve her country. To prove her allegiance, she turns in her left wing University professor father who has been using non-prescribed text books in his classes, naively unaware of what his fate might be at the hands of the state. The narrow and strictly defined vision for patriotism in Ghoul, one that systematically razes individual beliefs, private ties and community bonds, sounds like a dangerous progression from the tag of ‘anti-national’ currently doing the rounds in public discourse. 1984, based on the iconic novel by George Orwell tells a similar story - that of an oppressive regime whose dictator is nowhere to be seen, but is found everywhere - “Big Brother is watching you.” The idea of government surveillance takes a dystopian turn where citizens have to relent to the fact that their own government keeps tabs on every aspect of their lives. In a humanist world this would be considered a gross violation of fundamental rights to privacy but ta-da! You are living in a fascist regime ergo you become their property.
It is not always necessary to cry and rage however as the movie progresses. All is not lost. Satirical films take subtle digs at contemporary politics. They tap into our instinctual need for laughter as self-defence in troubled times. They criticise authoritarian governments and institutions with humour, pointing out the ideological hypocrisies and vacuums that exist in politics that play one side against the other. In Borat - Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Sacha Baron Cohen plays the hilarious Borat, who travels to the US to make a documentary about the country. While doing that, he learns that it is not so different from his country of Kazakhstan. In one scene, the film very cleverly comments on the longstanding controversy around gun violence, and the hypocrisy of it - where Borat tries to do the ‘American’ thing and buy a gun but is turned away because he is not American enough! Other films that have taken on the world of politics, albeit with a tickle are masterpieces like Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. More recent gems include Four Lions, The Interview, Tere Bin Laden and the upcoming Jojo Rabbit.
Films and TV shows have also been instrumental in showing us the would-be of societies that carry on repressive and outdated customs in the name of tradition. In The Handmaid’s Tale, a TV adaptation of the classic dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, the main plot is about restoring the plummeting birth rates in a fictional country called ‘Gilead’ by oppressing - in every way possible - those women with healthy reproductive capacities. They are not allowed to vote, write or read, rape is used as a ceremonial tool of oppression and their reproductive rights are subjugated. We see how the women, deprived of the right to record their own history are unable to learn from their predecessors, connect with fellow victims nor understand fully the impact of their social, economic and political repression.
The theme of biological subjugation of women has played out on-screen in various forms, amplifying the nascent stage that it is at right now. In the 2001 independent Hindi film Maya, a young girl called Maya is subjected to a horrific temple rape ritual as soon as she gets her first period, her elders telling her ‘she will not be the same anymore.’ The loss of agency for a girl over her own body, experienced at a crucial moment of physical and emotional maturity, aided by ignorance in the name of tradition is a trauma not unheard of. It’s the kind of story urban Indians tend to dismiss in disbelief as ‘ancient custom.' The context of Manish Jha’s 2003 futuristic film Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women is even more disconcerting. Set in 2050 A.D. in a village in Bihar populated exclusively by men due to decades of female infanticide, it tells the story of a young girl who is bought from her father to be simultaneously married to five brothers. The inspiration for the story came from a newspaper article about exactly such a village situated in Gujarat. With instances of female infanticide, polyandry, bride buying and rape being fairly common across the country, it makes you wonder whether films like Matrubhoomi and Maya are truly fiction or steeped in reality? But more importantly, do they represent our past, the present or the future?
The irony of age old customs resurfacing as indications of a regressive future, is now a palpable theme in Hollywood too. Mad Max: Fury Road, in which an oppressive ruler has a ‘harem’ of wives that he forces to bear his children, explores biological exploitation as a tool for rulers, while Alfonso Cuoron’s 2006 sci-fi drama Children of Men features a similar starting point as Matrubhoomi - where human society is on the verge of extinction by virtue of non-existent fertility rates and there is only one pregnant woman left in the entire world.
Cinema as an art form is inseparable from technology. But does the medium consider it an oppressive or liberating force? We see arguments for both sides in shows like Black Mirror and films like 1984, Blade Runner, Minority Report, The Matrix, Snowpiercer and Her. In Black Mirror we rarely come face to face with ‘nice-guy technology’ because while portrayed as a transformative force improving human operations, technology is also seen as corroding the gaps necessary for a certain ‘humanness’ to remain in our daily lives. It is shown as halting and ugly, repressing our potential to be kinder to each other, instead bringing out the worst. With Her it is more peaceful. The Joaquin Phoenix starrer shows one man and his relationship with his operating system, in itself an extension of Siri, Cortana or Alexa. The film gave AI an extraordinarily ‘human’ existence - intuitive, empathetic and complex - filling the loneliness that technology itself creates in our lives today, only to have the protagonist Theodore Twombly arrive at the glaring realisation that no matter what it did, his operating system could never replace a person’s touch.
In Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi classic Metropolis, we saw Joh Fredersen, the stern master of the titular industrial and futuristic city of 2026 use a wall-mounted, hulking piece of technology, a previously unheard of ‘video phone’ to get updates on all those he rules. In Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey the astronauts carried handheld computers that contained all the information they could possibly need, while in the Star Trek tv series and films, crew members had ‘PADDs’, which stood for 'Personal Access Display Device.' Not even one hundred years later, we already live in the era of Generation Z who probably can’t fathom an existence without a black screen by their side.
To say that films predict the future could be oversimplifying the relationship between art and life. But to categorise them solely as works of fiction and trivialise movies purely as entertainment would be shortsighted on our part. Cinema is a powerful tool which can be used to shape certain narratives about the human condition. Just as the visual spectacle of cinema can soothe the heart, so can it illuminate the mind, hinting along the way at the existence of all kinds of possible futures. If only we pay heed and use it to ruminate on the choices we make today - perhaps our future might be less Leila and more Interstellar?