Should You Punish The Art For The Artist?

by Tushar Gupta - Sep 11, 2022 05:35 PM +05:30 IST
Should You Punish The Art For The Artist?Brahmastra poster
Snapshot
  • Individual freedom is paramount, and, thus, the pursuit of punishing the art for the artist can be both futile and rewarding, depending on the baggage of bias one comes with.

In 1997, Brad Pitt starred in Jean-Jacques Annaud directorial Seven Years In Tibet. The filming location had to be changed from Ladakh to somewhere in the Andes mountain range in South America.

This is because, offended by the subject, the Chinese had put pressure on India to stop the film shoot, and banned Annaud, along with Pitt, from entering the mainland indefinitely.

In 2010, looking to build their own movie industry, the Chinese turned to Annaud, inviting him back to the mainland.

Annaud aided the production units in China, helping them understand the tricks of the trade as practised in Hollywood. He ended up being chummy with the top officials and film entrepreneurs in a country where he was banned a decade ago, enjoying great repute.

In 2012, speaking at the Shanghai International Film Festival, Annaud apologised to the Chinese audience for his work on Seven Years In Tibet, citing his lack of knowledge on the region's history.

In 2015, a Chinese film directed by Annaud called Wolf Totem was released, and received commercial success. The Chinese had successfully divorced the artist from the art.

No one in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had any special affection for Annaud. Their concern was more Hollywood profiting off their market of over a billion viewers, and the struggle of their filmmakers to find the right creative flair to go global.

Propaganda films, produced and directed on the orders of the CCP, were no good. Whatever low-budget films were being released were also not getting the attention they sought.

So, for the Chinese, it was all about luring vulnerable personalities from the West, learning from their creative experiences, and then discarding them as their movie industry found its feet.

With Annaud, China was willing to let go of a 13-year-old grudge to focus on the next 30 years. Politically and economically, it was a well thought-out transactional move. Eventually, even Pitt returned to China.

Such are the times today that political leanings make way for private conundrums. The litmus tests for unflinching loyalty to a cause or an ideology, for now, include the two most visible targets in the Indian television and OTT (over-the-top) circuit — cricket and the Mumbai film industry (Bollywood).

Thus, after the failure of Aamir Khan’s latest release, a feeble remake of Forrest Gump, spirits were high to also ensure the same fate for Dharma Productions’ Brahmastra.

The debate is between the artist and the art. Is the art a mere subset of the artist and, thus, qualified for punishment, or is art bigger than what the artist may represent outside the creative canvas?

The Chinese had different answers to this question in 1997 and 2010.

Disney flipped its stance in less than a year when it came to rehiring James Gunn, director of the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy, after his decade-old tweets that were seen as pedophilic by many.

Tom Cruise, one of the biggest global movie stars, whose Mission Impossible franchise has stood the test of time, was not punished for his views advocating the Church of Scientology.

Cruise had gone as far as campaigning and lobbying in Europe for scientology to be recognised as a legitimate religion in the early 2000s.

Today, as the second installment of Top Gun inches towards the $1.5 billion mark on the global box office, Cruise’s commercial immunity from his politics remains strong.

One could have also targeted the great American screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the first four seasons of The West Wing.

Given the polarisation today in the United States (US), would Sorkin be forgiven for siding with the Democrats in his fiction?

Has the stature of The West Wing, almost 20 years since its final episode, lowered within the American entertainment circuit? Not even remotely.

The 'art versus artist' debate is further complicated by another factor. These are no longer simple times. Social media unleashes a tsunami of raw data that has amateur users processing them into useful and not-so-useful knowledge.

On 10 September, Disney announced a new animated series on the Mahabharata for Disney-Hotstar. They will be collaborating with some local production companies including Allu Entertainment.

Now then, how can a company headquartered in the US, where the primary choice of meat may not be acceptable to most Indians, be allowed, even with all its money and creative might, to produce a series embedded in the minds and hearts of every Hindu?

Can one disregard or dismiss the money muscle and market strength along with the creative experience some production houses bring to the table in order to nurse grudges that may go back decades?

Does the solution lie in waiting (forever) for the 'right' artist, a Hindu acceptable to all political and religious groups, and with the skill of someone like Christopher Nolan, before their productions are spared the boycott calls?

The debate is plagued with stories of contradictions. Today, a production house is being labelled as "anti-national" when just a few months ago it released a movie based on the heroics of Captain Vikram Batra in the Kargil War.

While it was an OTT release due to the pandemic, most trade analysts agreed that if it was released on the big screen, Shershaah would have certainly raked in a few hundred crore rupees.

On the topic of war movies, how can one forget Lakshya?

Released in 2004, the movie, along with the title song which has over 45 million clicks on YouTube, is an inspiration to many aspirants preparing for competitive exams, especially for selection to the armed forces.

However, the film's director, Farhan Akhtar, is infamous for his presence in the protests he had no clue about and goofing up the map of India on his Instagram account.

The choice, at the end of the day, is private and cannot be imposed upon a community or crowd or country in the name of nationalism.

Individual freedom is paramount, and, thus, the pursuit of punishing the art for the artist can be both futile and rewarding, depending on the baggage of bias one comes with.

Based on the exchange rate back in the day, Spider-Man: 3 (2007) cost Rs 1,435 crore, The Avengers (2012) cost Rs 1,166 crore, and, more recently, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) cost Rs 1,520 crore. (These figures are approximations.)

In 2007, Spider-Man: 3 collected Rs 16 crore on its opening weekend in India. Today, Brahmastra has been made on a budget of Rs 400 crore, and these are promising signs for the Indian film industry.

Brahmastra as a film may have zero emotional but great cinematic value. But the reverse also worked in the favour of a low-budget movie based on the plight of Kashmiri Pandits, a subject everyone kept at a distance.

Given the early collections of Brahmastra, it appears that is the platform, the industry as whole, that is the winner. So, why wish for the decimation of the goose for a few rotten eggs when the market and audiences can welcome both?

Cinema is important. Commercials are paramount. Culture is constant. So, where do the art and artist fit into the scheme of things?

If the story of Annaud and China is any indicator, it is better to be transactional in the long-term.

Own the playground. Celebrate the art without putting the artist on a pedestal.

Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_
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