On Avatar

Posted in movies by jrahman on January 25, 2010

What do President Obama’s health care reform, James Cameron’s Avatar, and this humble blogger’s views about India have in common?  They have all come under fire from left and right, of course. 

Yes, yes, I know, gratuitous self-promotion, guilty as charged.  🙂  No more of that in this post, I promise.  And I am not going to talk about the US health care debate, in this post or elsewhere, also a promise.  That only leaves me with Avatar to talk about.

A lot has been said about the movie (no links — Mr Cameron doesn’t pay me to help him make more money), according to the New York Times:

Over the last month, it has been criticized by social and political conservatives who bristle at its depictions of religion and the use of military force; feminists who feel that the male avatar bodies are stronger and more muscular than their female counterparts; antismoking advocates who object to a character who lights up cigarettes; not to mention fans of Soviet-era Russian science fiction; the Chinese; and the Vatican. This week the authorities in China announced that the 2-D version of the film would be pulled from most theaters there to make way for a biography of Confucius.

So, what can I say that hasn’t been said before?  Probably nothing.  Everything worth saying probably has been said.  But the pleasure of running a blog is the ability to harp on with one’s ramblings and pass on other’s ideas as one’s original thoughts.  Wait, that’s probably how the academia works too (research after all means to search again — re-search, got it?) , except there they call it standing on the shoulders of giants. 

Okay, I digress.  My thoughts on the movie are over the fold.  Do go and watch it in 3D if you can.  Everything I say below notwithstanding, it is great blockbuster entertainment.  If this is the future of movies, then it’s a reason not to return to Dhaka until the movie going culture picks up there. 

Let me begin with some conservative critiques.  Here is Ross Douthat: except as dust and ashes, Nature cannot take us back.  And here is David Brooks:

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

Maria Bustillos makes the point more forcefully:

It still takes a white man to tame the really BIG dragon, and to outfox the enemy.  He will also take the “best” woman, the noblest, the highest born, the smartest, whose token resistance will dwindle its sorry way from faux-contempt to near-drooling adoration in a matter of days. Her former man will die, and her father will, too; her whole civilization will lie in ruins. She will pretty much get down on her knees to thank this white man…

This is what Annalee Newitz says:
I’d like to watch some movies about people of color (ahem, aliens), from the perspective of that group, without injecting a random white (erm, human) character to explain everything to me.

Of course I can’t make a movie for her.  But as a person of colonised ancestory, I think I can present a different perspective to all of the above (while I agree with all of them, even these critiques I find to be generally west-centric). 

That Cameron’s hero is a white guy is not the biggest problem with the movie’s politis.  If Will Smith, Angelina Jolie or Halle Berry played the lead, this ‘white guy’ criticism wouldn’t hold.  But the movie would still be based on an orientalist and/or reactionary premise. 

Firstly, the movie gets the anti-colonial resistance all wrong.  Successful anti-colonial / anti-imperial resistance has historically depended on the native/subject people acquiring technology / adopting modes of production of the imperialists, not the imperialist going native.  Let’s look at the history of South Asia, for example.  White Mughals — Europeans who tried to live Desi — didn’t stop the John Company.  When the Raj ended, it was Brown Sahibs like Jinnah (the most improbable ‘father’ of an Islamic Republic, given his predilection for the forbidden food and drinks)  and Nehru (who characterised himself as the last Englishman to rule India) who led the successor states. 

Even those founding fathers who explicitly adopted native idioms, most notably Gandhi, but also Maolana Azad / Sardar Patel or post-partition leaders like Sheikh Mujib or Badshah Khan explicitly integrated British (and American and Soviet) ways and mores into their politics.

And this gets to the second way that the movie gets the politics all wrong.  What happens when the humans return with bigger, badder bombs?  What if, next time they just drop massive amount of weedkillers into the moon’s atmosphere? 

James Cook was killed by Polynesian natives, but that tactical victory did nothing to stop islands of the Pacific being colonised.  When two different civilisations / societies meet, it’s reactionary to say ‘we are going to stick to our old ways’.  When the Na’vi says ‘skypeople have nothing that we need’, how is that any different from saying ‘the source of all wisdom is Holy Quran, and we need nothing from Jews and Christians’?  This is anti-imperialism of fools!

Again, look at our own history.  The 1857 uprising was crushed, but even if it had succeeded, what would it have achieved?  The post-1947 Indian democracy, on the other hand, has succeeded precisely because the Indian founding fathers integrated some of the imperialist institutions into the Desi reality.

So much for politics.  I also find the movie’s biology rather incredible.  How come it didn’t rain in this forrested world?  How come there aren’t insects?  When the protagonist says ‘it’s been three months’, does he mean ‘earth months’?  And how come the other land animals in this world have six legs, and the humanoid Na’vi has four? 

Let me end with Subasish, who makes the interesting observation: শ্রীকৃষ্ণ অবতার ছিলেন। ছোটবেলা থেকে তাঁর গায়ের বর্ণ দেখে এসেছি নীল রংয়ের। জেমস ক্যামেরনের অবতারের ও দেখলাম গাত্রবর্ণ নীল।


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