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From make-believe to reality

I submitted, recently, to a brief interview about the probability that “Agneepath” caused a young Chennai schoolboy to plunge a knife into his teacher to avenge himself of an apparent slight. The question, in other words, was the oft-repeated one: Do violent movies shape a violent society? I said I did not know, but added that it is perhaps a little too easy to pick on movies or literature or corrosive rock music and absolve the viewer and the reader and the listener of blame.

While the film was possibly the spark that ignited this horrific action, the boy surely dwelt in a psychological tinderbox for a period far longer than the film's recent release. After all, there are so many others — children, adults — who watched the film without incurring the urge for violent retaliation. It's not as if the sale of guns and knives shot up after the film came out, like how “Hum Aapke Hain Koun!” fostered the sale of saris in a particularly violent shade of violet, which Madhuri Dixit draped herself in while immortalising herself in ‘Didi Tera Devar Deewana'.

The interviewer asked me, then, if the film's rating was the problem. There is, of course, the incident of a young boy shooting to death a cop, but there are also lynch mobs baying for a death by hanging, along with a number of shootouts. Just so that things don't become too monotonous, we are treated to the violence unleashed by an army of sword-wielding transgenders and a death by enforced drowning. How can such a film be rated U/A, the local version of the PG-13 rating, which allows children to watch the film provided they are accompanied by an adult?

That, I concede, is a problem. In India, we do not care about ratings. I have, in my younger years, watched a hideous number of entirely inappropriate films — not just because they feature deaths and rape scenes, but also due to mature subject matter — and not once have I been stopped at the door. (The man seated beside me at the “Agneepath” screening decided to do one better — he'd brought along his infant. Didn't he know better than to subject those delicate eardrums to such a shatteringly loud movie experience?)

But here I am, decades later, untouched by the long arm of the Indian Penal Code. And I can speak, too, for several of my friends, those wonderfully complicit people who were my comrades-in-crime in those theatre-going years — the only time the happenings on screen percolated into their lives was when they stationed themselves at strategic street corners hoping for a run-in with the subjects of their dreams.

If everyone did exactly what their filmic counterparts did, then I would have ballooned to twice my size today, with my mother having greeted my every accomplishment with an arm extending a bowl of gajar ka halwa. I — along with those around me – grew up with the knowledge that life was life and cinema was cinema. You cannot blame the circus if an excited member of the audience runs to the terrace and decides to balance himself on the clothesline. The problem lies with his sense of reality.

Besides, even if these films were R-rated and this rating was enforced with the diligence of an army chief planning a surprise invasion, there's nothing that can pry away reality-challenged adults from toxic simulations of actions on screen. Martin Scorsese's “Taxi Driver”, which featured an alienated young man who plans a political assassination, was a worldwide success, seen by millions of viewers, only one of whom — John Hinckley, Jr. — latched on to the idea that he could impress Jodie Foster, the object of his obsession, by assassinating Ronald Reagan.

Not every fan of Ashok Kumar and Humphrey Bogart ended up married to a packet of cigarettes. This is not to say that films do not influence human behaviour. They do so, at times, in good ways too — the impact of “Rang De Basanti” on aspects of the Jessica Lal case has been widely noted. At the end of the day, it's not art that needs to be responsible. It's the audience.


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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 5:10:49 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/chen-columns/from-makebelieve-to-reality/article2928281.ece

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