Sriram Chellapilla and K. Hariharan clash over the latter’s article in this space.

K. Hariharan’s article ‘Who is a vigilante?’ (Magazine August 9) combines an ideological reading of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises with criticism of storytelling craft. The messages of films must be vigorously interrogated, of course, but an ideological difference must be accepted as an ideological difference and not be mixed up with judgment of storytelling skill.

The first accusation against Nolan is that he does not use the movie for “a robust investigation of the modern American socio-economic crises that all audiences were waiting for.” Socioeconomic investigation as an objective has been denied by the writer-director to the point of being disingenuous (more on this later). And while commercial success is not the ultimate parameter for a film’s merit, the monstrous success of the film suggests that most audiences were satisfied with it. So it is unclear who these audiences — those that turn to summer blockbusters for social critiques — are exactly. To pile arbitrary expectations upon a work of art and then to attack it for not fulfilling them might be an expedient way of pulling it down, but it is hardly fair or, for that matter, useful.

Some theorists and commentators believe that the storyteller is obliged to illustrate theories they are sympathetic to. This is a self-important view: one that reduces the writer to an illustrator of others’ ideas. No such obligation exists and a storyteller is free to draw upon any source he or she wishes to as long as it serves to move the audience emotionally.

The second accusation against Nolan is that he posits the Occupy Wall Street movement as the villain. The counter-narrative that Selina Kyle (Catwoman) puts forward does suggest that the backlash against the big-business-super-rich crowd certainly is in play. Nolan has claimed that this merely provides a backdrop for his story but that seems disingenuous: even if it does do just that, the storyteller takes a position on it while advancing and resolving the story.

Nolan is a sophisticated storyteller and he has a fairly consistent position through the Trilogy. His position is that enemies of a society will exploit its enfeeblement from disparity, corruption, and crime in order to justify destroying it. Nolan’s objection seems to be the tendency towards destruction rather than the ideological position itself. The primary role of the hero then is to combat society’s internal ailments through philanthropy, fixing the corrupt justice system, and physically fighting crime. Batman/Bruce Wayne does all three. It is a combination of well-meaning cops, prosecutors, and politicians whom Batman strengthens as they take on menacing villains. In fact, the word “vigilante” applies poorly to him because he does not administer justice but delivers criminals to the justice system. Batman takes upon himself the responsibility of ridding the system of its internal problems and also protecting it from violent, externally induced upheavals.

Is this defense of the system at all costs an ideologically charged position? Absolutely! In fact, critics have charged the Trilogy with taking a conservative political position and even being pro-Bush. It has also been accused to trying to promote the Republican view that society should bend backwards to promote the rise of billionaires on the off-chance that they will turn their wealth to promoting public good. So Bruce Wayne could be read as a do-gooder of the Bill Gates-Warren Buffet variety — but taken to an extreme! So politically neutral the Batman Trilogy may not be, but inconsistent it is not. The filmmakers have produced a work of art that “works” within the parameters it sets for itself and for the audience it reaches out to.

An alternative view to the one taken by the filmmakers is that the preservation of a system reinforces the elite. It follows that to bring in change, the system must necessarily be brought down as a whole. The writers of Batman clearly don’t think this to be the right way to bring about change and they make no apology for it. This is where the ideological line between Nolan’s and Hariharan’s worldviews is drawn. What would have logically followed was a criticism of Nolan’s politics; instead, Hariharan’s critique tackles plot and character issues.

Hariharan suggests that Nolan has “forgotten the story”. He then suggests that rather than fight Bane, Batman should fight the corruption within Wayne enterprises. He goes on to suggest that Wayne and Bane, being students of the same teacher, should share the same “faith and compassion”.

These observations are not in keeping with the back-story established in this and earlier films of the Trilogy. The writers, being capable craftsmen, absolved Wayne of any moral responsibility for the financial collapse of the company by having him pursue a “clean energy” project at great cost only to abandon it from fear that nuclear devices could be misused. He’s not even guilty of wasting shareholders’ money as he owns the entire company. In Batman Begins he surreptitiously buys a majority stake of Wayne Enterprises out of the hands of the crooked managers into whose hands it had fallen. It is now run by the very ethical Lucius Fox. Now they’re also out of all military trade, though having been in it is handy as it leaves Batman a tidy armory. (Incidentally, they entered the business after Bruce Wayne’s father died; absolving Wayne Sr. of the taint of being involved in the arms trade!)

Too good to be true? Without doubt. But you need sharper observations to burst this balloon. And as for Bane and Bruce Wayne being guru-bhais of some sort, one would do well to recall that Batman Begins ended with Batman thwarting his teacher Ra’s al Ghul’s attempt to destroy Gotham and killing him in the process. And Ra’s al Ghul, far from teaching compassion, intones to Bruce: “your compassion is a weakness your enemies won’t share”. In fact, it is on the question of vigilante executions and destroying Gotham that Bruce breaks from the League of Shadows. Even for those who had forgotten the first film, this back-story is revealed at a key turning point in The Dark Knight Rises.

Hariharan also questions Bruce Wayne’s inability to recognise a seemingly benign character as a villain. This is a question of plotting that can have no clear answer: those who saw it coming will find fault with it and those who didn’t will be thrilled by it. And finally Hariharan asks just what the pit-prison (shot at Jodhpur) into which Bane dumps Bruce symbolises. This brings us full-circle to the problem with the critique: it seeks political symbols even where there may be none.

From the screenwriting technique point of view, however, it makes perfect sense: a defeated Batman is physically broken and forced to witness the slow destruction of Gotham. In order to be Gotham’s saviour once again, Bruce Wayne must resurrect himself physically and mentally not just to his earlier state but to one where he can confront Bane. Screenwriters use these situations to build the anticipation of coming heroism and to build up the character as a larger-than-life one—to get the audience rooting for the hero. The audience I watched the film with whistled, hooted, and clapped as Bruce made his escape. This inability to see plotting technique for what it is betrays a fundamental weakness in this brand of criticism: the inability to read stories without the framework superimposed by the critic; and even as the storyteller succeeds in making a connection with the audience, the critic believes the telling to be a failure.

Finally, Hariharan makes a comparison between Batman and Anna Hazare. I wonder why no comparison between the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement and the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement was drawn. (I have no position on these movements other than that they do attract some well-meaning individual protestors and they are both trying to agitate for legislations that the political establishment is resisting.) Surely, great personalities have had a positive role to play in history, be it the Indian Freedom Struggle or the American Civil Liberties Movement. And based upon the conduct of the leader, history has venerated or discredited him or her. But the tunnel vision of ideology allows quicker judgments: the villain, Bane, is endowed with the halo of being a revolutionary merely as he is seen (by the critic if not the storyteller) to be on one side of a certain political line. So is Anna Batman or Bane, or is it really about the political line behind which the critic is standing?

K. Hariharan responds...

It is quite naive to think that Christopher Nolan does not have an ideology behind his narrating the stories of “Batman”, an icon that has dominated the American psyche for so long.

There are two issues here; one which deals with Nolan’s ontological pre-occupations and the average American viewer’s idea of justice and crime. Nolan is undoubtedly a forceful story-teller coming from a background which deals with the idea of time and the way it gets constructed in stories. All his films have a strong undercurrent of the way “dream” and conscious spaces get intertwined in stories, and get further complicated in the way we, as viewers, receive them. He negotiates “Batman” into this matrix and tries to seek ways in which the imaginary vigilante awakens in each one of us in the face of large-scale corruption and political disorders and how we project ourselves as messiahs.

In this negotiation, Nolan is like most young Americans, sufficiently right of centre, male-dominated and seeped in the American’s conviction to exercise his right to bear arms and in this case with a lot more demonic gadgets to eliminate wrong-doers. But his story-telling craft is ingenious as he seeks inspiration from avant-garde artists such as Alain Resnais and Tarkovsky to interrogate the mechanisms of memory and desires, fundamental to the art of any story-telling. To that extent, the art of story-telling can disengage itself from ideologies to employ devices extrinsic to it, quite like the way Hitler and his fascist propaganda machinery inspired themselves from the works of a Soviet called Eisenstein.

The reason I was disappointed with this edition of Batman was not merely the insensitive approach to American corruption, especially after the wake of the scams that led to the depression of 2008 which bled the American economy dry, but also the way Nolan deals with simple story-telling devices such as timing of conflicts. Nolan seems oblivious of the ways in which the wranglers of Dow Jones and Nasdaq milked the American public, leaving thousands homeless and jobless. Worse, these greedy players got well compensated with Obama's bailout program. I am sure Sriram would say “why should a film be bothered about these details?” I might agree with him in certain kind of films but not here.

Secondly, what kind of story-telling would bring the protagonist Wayne/Batman face-to-face with Bane the antagonist in the third act, leaving no room at all for any kind of robust challenges which make such stories engaging? From any point of view this is the just a lazy writer’s way of escaping dramatic responsibilities. This film demanded a greater engagement between Bane and Batman so that the complex dramatic issues of the stock exchange’s involvement in this crisis get unravelled. I strongly believe that the film would have become far more enriching. 

Finally the “well” in India is obviously the dream zone where Nolan’s characters dip into in order to reorder their conflicts in life with detachment and clarity. This segment could have certainly been better done so that viewers also see this clarifying process.

To conclude, I wrote a rather scathing article on The Dark Knight Rises, simply because I expected more profound insights from someone like Nolan who has certainly mesmerised us with much better films.

Sriram Chellapilla is a novelist and teaches screenwriting at the Ramoji Academy of Film and Television.

K. Hariharan is a filmmaker and Director, L.V. Prasad Film & TV Academy.

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Who is a vigilante?August 25, 2012