Self Expression Magazine

Movies and Social Imagination

Posted on the 05 October 2014 by Aravindan Ingersol @iaravindan
“Am all for artistic creativity and freedom of expression and speech, but I wonder whether a day will come when someone from Bollywood will have the guts to make a film on the plight of Kashmiri Pundits too!”
read a post on Facebook after the recent release of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider. Similar sentiments (amidst the rave reviews for the movie) were expressed by several people across social media platforms. A slightly aggressive cohort called for a boycott of the movie for allegedly showing the Indian Army in poor light; some went further and called for a ban on the movie. Haider isn’t an outlier to be at the receiving end of such sentiments for a controversial movie; such sentiments have increasingly become the norm.

Shahid Kapoor

Shahid Kapoor in 'Haider'

In the specific case of Haider (and which also applies to most controversial movies), there are two important aspects to the critical response against it. Firstly, the expectation that it’s not just important what the filmmaker has chosen to show us, what’s equally or perhaps even more important is what (s)he has chosen not to show us. The problem with such a response is the nature of responsibility that it levies on the filmmaker − to tell every conceivable version of an event or story. Even if the filmmaker chooses to propagate an idea that is seemingly false, it’s a choice that the filmmaker is well within his rights to execute. A filmmaker isn’t in the business of reporting news or developing high-school curriculum. S(h)e is not obligated to tailor her/his art to comfort popular (or minority) beliefs, whatever be the nature of validity of those beliefs. After all, one cannot expect the director of Harry Potter to show us all the patrons of magic, even if that means insulting the old and the new gods.

Secondly, the expectation that a movie that goes against the grain of popular or minority wisdom be boycotted or banned. Call for boycotts (without the elements of coercion and intimidation), though counterproductive, is a fair enough social response. Such responses spring under the guise of maintaining social order. It is a form of social whip that eventually leads to self-censorship of content in movies. Case in point are movies with themes such as disability, incest, homosexuality, etc. which continue to remain uncharted in our movies. Boycott of movies, therefore, only trade our social imagination for the prevailing popular wisdom.
The most primitive response of all is the call for ban of movies. Friedrich Hayek’s case for the importance of individual liberty offers a compelling counterargument to the case for ban of movies. Hayek, in ‘The Constitution of Liberty’, argues thus: 
Liberty is essential in order to leave room for the unforeseeable and unpredictable…. every individual knows so little and, in particular, because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it. Humiliating to human pride as it may be, we must recognize that the advance and even the preservation of civilization are dependent upon a maximum of opportunity for accidents to happen”.  
In a democratic society, the majority or minority therefore cannot act as arbiters of truth in their pursuit for social stability or progress. Hence, there is no practical or moral case for ban of movies. 
Influence of Movies
All these above discussed responses to movies pivot on our belief of the extent of influence that movies have on our collective conscience. Movies serve as an important epistemic source of social reality, culture and beliefs; they act both as a mirror and as a flashlight for the future. And sometimes they just exhibit the degree of creative insanity prevailing in the society, without offering any window to the social reality. Our fears and insecurities about the influence of movies on our lives, however, revolve around them acting as mirrors and flashlights of future. Sometimes we are just uncomfortable of what we discover about ourselves in movies, individually and as a society. Censorship of swear words or sexually explicit scenes in even 'A rated' movies is an exhibition of our immaturity and collective insecurity about who we are. Institutions working actively to limit the degrees of freedom of movies need to understand that movies did not invent the novel and evil concepts of sex, violence or obscene language. 
The influence of movies on our collective conscience is rather more subtle (and sometimes insidious) than what the censor board or patrons of our culture would like to think. Movies are an incredible window to people, culture, norms, ideas, etc. that we are unaware of – consciously or subconsciously, about ourselves and about others. For example, to people in North India, given their limited direct access to people in the south, their only popular, seemingly authoritative source on the people and culture of the south are movies. Therefore when someone like Shahrukh Khan purports to describe the South in his movies, it becomes the stereotypical model of the south. As in statistics, a predictive societal model, constructed in our mind to understand an alien society, becomes robust only with the availability of large number of data points that are independent. Sadly, the data points arising out of our movies are fixated and dependent on outdated beliefs, which are simply refusing to engage with fresh ideas or participate in deeper investigation. Filmmakers are just happy, from their commercial standpoint, to amuse us and limit our imagination to archaic stereotypes.
The other important influence of movies, at a subconscious level, are the cues that they offer us about the prevailing social structures; these cues serve to reinforce or shape our actions to fit the prevailing norm. Hence something as mundane and trivial in a movie as a heroine finding the hero’s chest as a safe abode to rest − as an expression of love and intimacy, offers us cues about the distribution of power between genders and the kind of machismo that the society demands from a man. Similarly our conceptions of beauty, societal recognition, success, power, morals, etc. are all actively reinforced and shaped, at a subconscious level, by the movies that we see. Does this all entail that we censor or ban movies that we perceive to be harmful to the society? Certainly not. The solution lies in holding movies to a higher standard – supporting the ones that infuse fresh ideas and actively question prevailing order & assumptions; ignoring the ones that are obstinate to change and progress, and eventually dragging us down as a society – culturally and aesthetically. The invisible hand of the marketplace will take care of the rest.

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