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An Avatar without Soul

Modern Mythmaking 16 Comments

Published in Sunday Midday

After watching the much touted Avatar, I had left the theatre shell-shocked. My friends were bewildered by my reaction. “It was an amazing experience, wasn’t it?” they said. It was, but….

Maybe I belong to that much dreaded species –the gyaan-spouting intellectual who loves being contrarian for effect! No, it was not that. Nor had it anything to do with the title ‘Avatar’ (to be pronounced as Americans do) or the blue-colored creatures who seemed a curious cross between images of Vishnu and Narasimha and Hanuman.

I just expected more from the film that cost more than 2000 crore Rupees. More than a series of psychedelic special effects that stirred the senses. I wanted a story that touched the head and/or the heart. I was disappointed on both fronts.

Stories are a reflection of culture. Popular story a reflection of popular culture. It is no accident that during the License-Raj our heroes were angry young men (Deewar) and post-Liberalization, we embraced shirt-removing six-pack-displaying stud-muffins (Om Shanti Om).

Storytelling is proof of our humanity. It began the day animals turned into humans. As the ape became less animal, he became increasingly self-aware and he wondered, unlike other animals, about his condition and role in the world. Who am I? Why do I exist? From these questions came the first stories. These are reflected in cave paintings. They make no logical sense as they attempt to communicate mystical and magical experiences of the first humans as they delved into their subconscious, for the very first time, in search of meaning. These stories were the mythic narratives, commentaries on the human condition.

Later came stories that helped man remember their heroic feats and the feats of their ancestors. It helped generate pride in the children and established benchmarks in society – what was it that the clan considered great and noble and brave and worthy of adoration and what was it that the clan considered bad and unworthy and shameful. These stories reflected on politics and social order. They shaped young minds.

But no story was palatable if it was not packaged well. A story had to arouse the senses and ignite the imagination and provoke a variety of emotions, for the audience to pay attention and pass it on to the next generation.

Overtime, stories came to possess all three layers: the mythic core dealing with the human condition; the mundane body reflecting on social realities; and the masala wrap that makes the story entertaining. In times of boredom, stories with predominantly masala layers were narrated; for shaping young minds, stories with predominantly mundane layers were preferred; and in times of great sorrow or introspection, stories with predominantly mythic layers were sought.

So it is even today. Time pass films typically focus on the masala layer (Bollywood’s Hera Pheri, Hollywood’s Hangover). Social and political comedies, thrillers and dramas (Bollywood’s Wednesday, Hollywood’s Erin Brockovich) focus on the mundane layer. And finally there are stories that focus on the human condition (Bollywood’s Abhimaan, Hollywood’s Hours), the mythic layer.

The mythic layer is the soul of the story: it tells us the underlying worldview of the storyteller. Shakespeare explores, but never explains, the wide variety of human emotions from envy (Othello) to ambition (Macbeth) to indecision (Hamlet). Jane Austen’s books tell us the author’s worldview: ultimately life is about finding love.  Shyam Benegal’s films whether it is dealing with feudalism (Ankur) or prostitution (Mandi), reveal a yearning for a world where there is equality and fairness.  Satyajit Ray’s first film, Pather Panchali, shows hope while his last films, Ghare Baire and Shakha Prakasha, show cynicism and despair.

In the Bollywood space, there is often a fight between ‘fun’ films and ‘serious’ films. And of late, ‘fun’ films are clearly winners. Perhaps because when the Indian audience enters the film theatre, they are seeking the masala layer and not the mundane or mythic layer. Excitement, not meaning nor introspection.

In Hollywood films, one can clearly see the gradual triumph of the masala layer. Compare the first part of Pirates of the Caribbean with the third part. What is the difference – less story, more special effects. Compare the first set of Star War movies with the latter part. The same thing: simplistic, childish, almost naïve storytelling with spectacular adrenaline rush. Pixar is perhaps the few production houses that balances both brilliantly – Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Up, all balance the three layers of storytelling. They arouse the senses and stir the soul. And I hoped James Cameron would too. But he did not.

This was the filmmaker who had given such fabulous entertaining as well as thought provoking stories such as Aliens, Abyss, Terminator 1 and 2, even Titanic. Beneath the cheesy romances, the successful packaging of chick flick and action movies, he always touched the soul. Then came Avatar.

Great hype. Great marketing (released during the Copenhagen Climate summit is no coincidence). But under the magnificent masala layer is a pedestrian mundane layer: a cheesy attempt to assuage American guilt for acts that they have committed and continue to commit – films notwithstanding – against Native Americans, African and Amazon tribes, and now Arab nations. A dash of American political correctness: women warriors. A dash of political incorrectness: the scientist smokes cigarette. And then a joke of a mythic layer: science is good, technology is bad; tribal communities are nature loving and good, modern corporations are greedy and bad. This was tasty food with absolutely no nutrition. A great package with no gift inside. A narration for the dumb bimbo/himbo.

The argument I receive is – the focus is on creating a new magical world. Surely the story does not matter. I say, come on! With a budget of 300 million dollars, surely a million or two could have been spared for a story. Simple stories need not be silly.

As I watched the film, I could actually hear the filmmaker chuckle. “People are stupid. They just want a rush. Don’t bother with the story, just dazzle them with spectacular special effects. Give them a high without the drugs. For I am the king of the world.”

I think his point – when the masala is good, no one cares for the food – was proved when even the most sensible of film critics give him a PERFECT score.

  • Progressman

    I completly agree Devdutt, too many people seem to enjoy completly mundane films. That’s why mythlogy is so compelling.

  • Yes, yes, yes please! I was starting to wonder why I was the only person in the world who wasn’t impressed by the blue people. The fact that most of the world was indeed satisfied by this extremely basic story, dressed up in special (and blue!) effects is rather disappointing. Have people’s tastes dipped that we are entertained by so little? Would you care to elaborate on the thought you begin, of multi-layering in story-telling?

  • Pandyan

    Excellent words delivered in an extraordinary manner and verbosity.

    I for one just went to see a film that showed great effects and was quite satisfied it was not a low grade “boy chased girl” story line of the Titanic. In Titanic he completely missed the agony of the people as well as the history of the voyage. He could barely make the viewer relate to it through the romantic pair. It may as well have been set on a cowboy ranch with the same pair.

    It portrays the human as the aggressor and a possible alien species as being environment sensitive. That is pure sci-fiction There are no references on such story lines. Easier to show a film with an alien species wanting to destroy the entire earth and a cowboy President flying out to get them etc.

    It takes different points of view and I would just share a simple thought, if you cannot appreciate it, may be you should have avoided it, anyway. This is not to say your expectation is in any way inappropriate. Just that I don’t agree with you.

  • I had read many reviews of this movie, but this is the first one I totally agree. I too was thinking why people are going gaga over this?
    After having Mahabharatha in our blood , this movie totally lacked the soul.

    He did not deserve the adulation or the collections, ( as in the cs eof Slumdog..). I dont look forward to his movies at all.

  • Meera

    Did you watch the same movie as everyone else?
    Did you reallycompletely miss the point?
    The whole movie is about escapism, firing people’s imaginations about the thousands of possibilities that are out there. The absolute thrill of making contact with a new civilisation. What more of a story could you want? Oh wait, yes I see, you are one of these peopl who have no imagination and for you a story needs to be spelt out.
    Yes there are fantastic special effects in this movie, which makes the STORY so much more enjoyable. For me, I was in awe that the james Cameron an his fellow cocreators had reache outside the box to challenge our minds and question our narrowminded views. Yes it i a high without the drugs – so much safer don’t you think but it also left me with the feeling of “What would I do?”
    Honestly DR Pattanaik, you went to watch that movie with preconceived notions and ideas and were not open to anything else. You, sir are living in the past, the world is evolving and the stories evolve with it but they all have one underlying message and theme. Good versus Evil, with good always winning. The ancient mythologies and stories are all the same as Avatar and just as fantastic. strip away the special effects and you still have a story. a young man struggling to come to terms with his brother’s death, his own struggle with the loss of his legs and ultimately his struggle with his conscience and victory as he “does the right thing”. It relates to all of us with the daily fears and struggles that we all have. james cameron has packaged it into a more palatable offering.
    Take off your blinkers, open your eyes and find the story.

  • Pranveer

    Well, I second Meera on this Dr. D

    Avatar is not just a movie, its a breath taking experience. As the title of this article suggests, it indeed was an Avatar with soul. On one hand it encapsulates the mythical concepts of “Jai” and “Vijay”; and on the other it details the living beings of Pandora to such a minuscule detail that it re-instates the age old “aham brahmasmi” (James Cameroon was the “creator” and so are all of us).

    And if you think that the special effects overwhelmed audiences’ judgment. I’d like to just rewind a few months when a hugely awaited “2012” released. That was a magnum opus of the special effects one could ever imagine of but the movie failed, Why ? It lacked the “soul”.

    I believe your statement “I just expected more from the film that cost more than 2000 crore Rupees” reflects the pre-conceived notion u had before-hand. So as you’d say it, you are being Bali and Avatar is Vaman. Bali had to ‘see’ the ‘shown’ and Sir, when you do get a glimpse of the ‘shown’… you’d say “I see you” haha!

  • Ganesh.V

    Dear Devduttg.,
    We have more things to discuss from our mythology sorry to say this that too to a mythologist. Please don’t waste your presious time in realising article on these thing.

    we have more messages from our mythology to be delivered doc.

  • Sundaresh

    Dr.Devdutt,

    Please take some time to listen to James’s experience and I believe you would rename this post!

    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/james_cameron_before_avatar_a_curious_boy.html

    I stumbled upon you from TED too! :)

    To me, was about the workings of our mind. The movie was very spiritual indeed! Eywa = Parashakti / Parabrahman ?

    Well the plot of the story doesn’t matter. Yes everyone can write what they feel,want, etc. But to visualize it?! and make other’s see them as you do, takes more than the 3rd rate points in the post and not forgetting the Yes-men/women in the Comment column! :)

    With Respect,
    Sundaresh

  • I agree with you Devdutt…
    Avtaar could have been made into something great..but it missed the mark..The director’s aim was to make a blockbuster to entertain audiences and it did its job.The above reviewer has commented he added a dead brother,a physically handicapped person achieving some rare feat,climate change etc…But everything was not made into something concrete by merging the different layers of material,psychological and spiritual..These so called issues were added as they are the “in” thing is USA…

    The talk by Shekhar Kapur(Elizabeth) at TED India,where he expalins the merging of the psychological and physical…by representing it through architecture and color…was something which Avatar lacked….
    It was a merger of smurfs,new age idealism and typical hollywood romantic eye wash…

  • $ujay

    For ALL the opponents and supporters of Devdutta’s comments:

    I think “may be” you all are missing a point here:

    Avatar is just one example used in this article. The “real” theme is about perhaps art of storytelling. And what happens to the “art of storytelling” if your story itself is not of the caliber that you consider that to be. And Avatar is just one example of that. It is not about 3-D or money that was involved or the painstaking efforts that were put in to create the whole so called “experience”….

  • Tina

    I love reading your blog. But I must say that I disagree with you completely on this.
    Meera, Pranveer and Sundaresh have raised some important points.
    The 3-d effects were awesome but I personally loved the underlying message – which was so nicely packed so that even the normal junta would get it. The story shows how the Pandora people believe that all creatures are connected and they believe in the soul of the planet.
    The story was as much about spirituality and mythology as it was about environmental issues, ethical issues and the attitude of the western world (we are better than the not-so-technologically advanced).
    I think this movie was also about admiring the small things – how the training the guy gets at Pandora emphasizes on trusting himself and his abilities and letting go. It was also about admiring the beauty of the planet – the beauty that we all already have on Earth. But as said by other people, you may have been already biased against the movie when you went to watch it – maybe because of the high budget or special effects or maybe because you had different expectations because of all the hype.

    Avatar was an experience – it was a different form of storytelling and it was an altogether different outlook on life and the world compared to the modern outlook.

    • Kstrategy

      The stress here is on story telling
      – this is not a film review section – but about tales by how humanity evolved.

      Did avatar tell a fascinating tale ?
      answer is NO.
      it gave a spectacular experience,
      nevertheless gave a clichéd story.

      Compare with Shreck , I would say.

      But then
      One thing, that surprise me is how westerner can portray their own evil deeds of past in movie and make money.

      It shows what happened in Americas killing of red indians for gold ,in Africa killing for ivory and precious jewels and Iraq for oil.

      • Harsha Muddu

        Avatar did tell a fascinating tale. It shows how it’s very difficult to make a choice between right or wrong. The hero could have easily supported the super corporation and made millions, (bringing in Lakshmi), but he chose the righteous path of supporting the NaVi people. And when someone truly wans to do something good, god helps him. That is the underlying concept, like the dialogue ” Eywa has heard you”. Besides the graphics help create such an atmosphere.
        But I agree with you on the part that Americans tend to portray their evil deeds of the past.

  • Prakash Nyamathi

    Hi Dr. Devdutt, Watching and listening to you has been an eye-opener and an enriching experience. First saw you on Menaka’s Business Sutra and have watched all your videos. The analogy that you put forward between mythology and present day business practices makes us want to revisit the stories of yore.
    Having not seen Avatar yet I cant comment on its lack of story or otherwise. If it really lacked a soul(meaningful story), I guess thats why it lost out to The Hurt Locker in the Oscars.

  • Tridiv Sardesai

    There is a “Making of Avatar” video that has been doing the rounds since the movie released. The video pits the movie more from the point of view of the (hollywood) industry and brings to attention whats new (in technology and methodology) behind the scenes. It actually lets to appreciate better what

    James Cameron and his crew created.
    But lets get back to the point that Dr. Devdutt is trying to make, which is: great special effects will never make up for a flat story.

    Frankly speaking I felt cheated when I watched the movie. I felt that I had watched a CG version of ‘Khoobsurat’ (The Sanjay Dutt and Urmila Matondkar flick). And an alarming number of people on the Internet feel that this story completely lacked originality – Its a near shameless copy of Pocahontas.

  • KK

    I thought it was just another american story. More like a bhel puri of special effects alien obsession, love story, war, environment that was absolutely lip-smacking and lacking the nutrition.

    I agree with Dr Devdutt and Preethi. It was- in Dr’s words- a cheesy attempt to assuage American guilt of what they have done and continue to do.