Sunday, July 1, 2012

Head-first into the world of Upendra: Super (hand symbol).

What does any film watcher want in this world but to see something they've never seen before? To be surprised or provoked by a film experience is one of the greatest joys of it all, and on top of that, the delicious aftermath of telling a friend, "I saw a film unlike any film you've seen before."

From the moment I found out about Upendra, the "Real Star" of the Kannada language film industry of the south, often titled Sandalwood, I understood this was a man who was doing something Different, with a capital D. Now, whether it was something Different that I would like, I hadn't any idea, but I was curious all the same. 

So when I was putting together a DVD order of 6 films from six different film industries of India, and came upon "Super" (the title, being a handsymbol as seen in the screencap above, could be understood in multiple ways, as explained by Wikipedia but "Super" stuck in the media and fan conscious), I knew I had to see it, even if the DVD had no subtitles whatsoever. 

I mean, it's a film whose title is a hand symbol. 

A hand symbol.

Wrap your head around that first, folks, before you get on this ride - because "Super" is not just a quirky Southie director with a big ego playing around with concepts in a way that lends itself to amusing screencaps (though it is plenty of that, too!), it's also a political satire and a political philosophy dissertation in the format of a film. It's a film-long metaphor for the betterment of Indian society. It's simply put - something very unique, indeed.

Even the beginning credits provide something of interest. "Dialogues" become "die locks", story becomes "sorry". Producer becomes "fraud user". 

Behind these twists on words, we get scenes from life in India - all the negative aspects, be it violence, crime, or poverty. And then we reach this ultimatum: 

The letters "pendra" follow the U, eventually, but for a moment, the audience is literally being pointed at. This is your India. Look at it.

After that, we are taken 20 years into the future, to 2030 (this film was put out in 2010), where a foreigner comes to Mysore and sees a rich India, with cultured Indians strolling around in exquisitive Indian clothing (all the saris are made of the finest silk), with technology decorating tall buildings and not a trash in sight. Curiously, the problem of poverty has not been erased - but instead of fellow Indians slumming it, you have white people as beggars and service workers.

Naturally the foreigner - white British man, I should add - wants to know what lead to this enormous rise of India's wealth and infrastructure, and an Indian scholarly man tells him the story of how this all came to be, in a movie-long flashback.

Our "heroin" as per the beginning credits, Nayantara, enters the scene with flowers in her hair, romancing a rowdy who seems scared to death of her. Without subtitles this sequence is almost impossible to decode, but somehow she ends up threatening some rowdies until our hero bursts into the scene:

...carrying roses, accompanied by motorcycled badasses and white girls in mini-skirts. Okay!

The man is of course played by Upendra, the director himself, and the character is called Subhas Chandra Gandhi (remind you of anyone? it should). For a man raised in England, we see the enormous passion he's got for his home country, India. We even get a scene where the healing powers of the Indian soil are demonstrated in a scene that reminds me of Shahruh Khan's pigeon-curing in DDLJ.

Hand on heart, he has faith that his country, India, is the greatest in the world..

Eventually we see him meet Nayantara's character Indira (which leads me to ask what the meeting with the roses was about? God, I would kill for subtitles..), who is a traditional Indian girl, coming to London to perform traditional music and dance. We see the two fall in love.

It's all rather adorable, and they even get married, where we get the film's first twist; Indira is not really the traditional girl she acted like, but a mini-skirt wearing, cigarette-smoking, wine-glass holding schemer, who only married Subhas because years ago, her sister Mandir (Tulip Joshi) attempted suicide after he turned down her love, and now Indira wants to revenge this injustice.

She breaks down his idealistic view of India; Indians are rotten, corrupt and dirty, and could never amount to much. He's devastated, but takes up on her challenge to see Indian society for what it is.

This leads him to fight for a former teacher, who's got some trouble with his pension, but the problems of society hit him in the face every step of the way. He's distraught, but wants to make a difference all the same, and stays in India to do so.

Based on this, it might not seem like there is a lot going on, but the crux of the political satire and the message of the film only comes into full bloom on the second half. I've read that the film addresses specific Karnataka political scandals, and as I understand it, the political ideas of the film boil down to the thesis of corruption only existing so long as it is allowed by the people; Upendra's satire cuts not only the corrupt politicians but the people who dismiss politics as corrupt and don't try to change the ways things work on a microlevel.

In true film tradition, this political tale and message is still inter-cut with songs. The romance itself is a little questionable to say the least; not only the way in which it comes about (the scheming Westernised woman?) but also the way this plot-point ends - as a metaphor for something bigger. I'll get into some big spoilers later on regarding this, but for now, that's all I'll say. (I should also warn anybody who is squeamish over portrayal of rape, even just attempted such, there are such scenes in the film.)

At the end of the day, what is there to be said for a film so rich with thinking, even if a lot of it is fairly jingoistic? Well, I have to say, for all my criticisms of some of Upendra's points, and some questions that I have about the film as I saw it without subtitles, I really appreciate what he's doing, and how interestingly he is doing it. Even if I disagree with some of his choices, they are bold ones, they do make one think and they are packaged in a glorious mass entertainer that is truly in a league of its own. I think a subtitled DVD would be in high demand; this is a story not just for Indians, but also NRIs and even us Westeners to mull over.

It is weird and exaggerated (just look at the hairstyle in the screencap above), but it is also wonderful, and it has those complexities that you wouldn't necessarily expect from a blockbuster film. I don't think I understand Upendra in all his glory just yet, but I am more than happy to find out and see more. I didn't always agree with this film, but I ended up loving it for what is was - and what is was attempting to do.


Since the film is written like a thesis, I'll respond to it like one - with questions, thoughts and challenges. My first thought upon seeing Upendra's vision of the future wasn't to be offended that he portrayed white people as beggars, but rather the idea that an utopian future would include poverty in such a visible manner. To me, the problem in any society isn't the skin colour of the poor, but the fact that people are so poor they become beggars in the first place. I think the key to happiness in wealthy nations is not that I'm rich and somebody else is a beggar, because seeing them causes me grief/guilt and a number of other negative emotions - but that I'm reasonably well-off and my fellow (wo)man is not on the streets, either. The gap between the rich and the poor is what creates envy, greed and mistrust between people. I think somebody needs to send Upendra a copy of this book called The Spirit Level - which states that inequality harms us all, the rich the poor and the middle-earners. 

As far as his central idea goes, I am more persuaded. What is the responsibility of the people who consider politicians corrupt but continue electing them? What is there to be said for political apathy, and how much better would societies be if people felt more of a collective responsibility over the society that is essentially theirs? The thesis that you scale back democracy so much that the Chief Minister is the Common Man - or the common man is the chief minister of his own society - is very thought-provoking. The idea is that the choices we make on an individual level can be both to the detriment of the collective level - the society - or to the betterment of it. You can be great if you choose to live great - this sort of thinking.

I'll have to admit, I'm still unsure how I feel about the rape attempt of Indira to wake up Mandira from her coma. Even though steeped in metaphor - Indira as India, Mandira as Indian people, comatose from their apathy as to how bad things truly are - it still makes me uncomfortable. Of course, lack of subtitles made sure I had no idea whether Indira was actually in on this plan or not - whether she knew the true backstory of how her sister got to the state she ended up in. If she didn't, what is essentially happening - putting the metaphor aside for a moment - is that her husband is attempting to rape her. The horribleness of this imagery does lend the metaphor the sort of impact it was probably meant to have, but there's also other things to unpack here. (Did it have to be Subhas himself doing the raping?)

Why do women get to only to be metaphorical stand-ins for a nation and its people? There is a problematic, unquestioned misogynist premise here that is not uncommon in Indian films, but ought to be pointed out all the same; women are there to be "invaded" (raped) or protected. 

Patriarchy is not Upendra's fault, but I wish a director who obviously is thinking a lot about the film he is making, and has a tendency to present his messages in interesting ways, would question such decisions. Women who have agency are essential to any kind of social change that India needs as a country. (See several Satyamev Jayate episodes for succinct explanations of why this is.)

Another thing where I wish I had subtitles was so I could dig into the portrayal of Gandhism in the film. It seems like Upendra is saying, Gandhi's thesis of "turning the other cheek", being passive but strong against an enemy has made the Indian people docile in the face of adversity and problems. They are "turning the other cheek" towards corrupt politicians, when they should be making a difference actively, every day, in their lives. 

In the end, the biggest questions the movie brought up in me are questions of humanity - why do we do bad things, selfish things? Is it just our nature, or our carelessness about the welfare of others? And then the really tough questions - how can we change for the better, and whether we can change to leave a lasting impact?

But I do love the ending, and the punch it packs with such simplicity - who changed this all? You did. In the end, it's not a story of a hero, because no one person can change as much as needs to be. 

As for Upendra, I am extremely interested in watching his past works, both as a director and an actor. He's obviously doing something interesting, something unique and something different, and I think I can overlook the misogynist elements in his films (as I've heard there are some, and which was my biggest problem here) for the benefit of whatever else he is trying to say. He's also quite good-looking which is always a bonus. 

I also have to thank Amogh on Twitter for answering my questions about the film, helping me grasp some of the complexities of the message Upendra was putting forth.


Nithin said...

Thanks for finally covering a Kannada movie..waiting for your reviews of A,OM,Upendra which I consider are his best movies..

veracious said...

Nithin - Was glad to finally see a Kannada film!

Om is not on DVD but I just ordered A and Upendra, so will watch those films once my order gets here..

Filmi Girl said...

Now I need to watch this subtitles or no... it's available at Home Talkies. LEGAL STREAMING FTW!! :)

Upendra is a genius at combining entertainment with philosophy. He makes you think. Themes of the foreigner returning have played in both films of his I've seen. I think it's an interesting construct because it let's us be outsiders looking in; framing things differently.

You should also watch H20!! It has Prabhudeva being awesome in it.

veracious said...

FG - I think you can piece together pretty well the messages in the film without subs, based on online posts about the film.

Hope you enjoy it!

I ordered H20 along with A and other Upendra films so hopefully in a month I'll get those DVD's and can start watching!

aham said...

First things first, thanks for putting in such a great review, and I see some of your valid points about the movie I will try to clear them as much as I can.

1) About the portrayal of white people, when I first saw the movie I did find it a bit offensive especially the beggars, but let me assure you Upendra is no racist, when asked in an interview about these scenes he mentioned it clearly that it was just a joke and even the white actors in the movie knew it was a joke, maybe it could have been shown in a more subtle way but this is Uppi and this is his style, and Uppi did mention in the same interview that on a serious note, a lot of foreigners are coming to India for work, and he also mentioned that in Bollywood and other Indian film industries we can see many white/foreign faces working as small actors,so in my opinion its just an exaggeration. and the reason I mentioned about Uppi not being a racist is cause a lot of ppl have commented for a youtube videos of this scene that Upendra is a racist, I can assure you after being a ardent fan since nearly 14yrs he is in no way a racist.

2)About treatment of women characters, Uppi has been often accused of misogyny in his previous movies too, infact there were protests by some women organizations after A and Upendra on this issue, all I can say is that peole have misunderstood him, yes he has shown women in bad light is some scenes but that is because he had to show how society treats women, he is like a mirror to the way society behaves, and that is the exact reason why were very few female fans of Uppi till Super. and I have been seeing movies since as far as I can remember, and I dont think I have seen any Indian movie that has prominence for actresses as much as Upendra directed/written movies have, yes there are women oriented films but in a commercial mainstream movie where the story is not just about women Upendra has given equal importance to the women characters if not more, which is departure from the plethora of movies where actresses are restricted to songs and dance, if you are going to watch Upendra directed movies you have to look at the bigger picture of why and the how, in the case of raping a women being equated to raping a country, you have understand the Indian concept of Bharatmata, where country is represented by a women goddess, and what Upendra is trying to say from this particular rape scene is that when we get outraged by rape of a women why we Indians have kept quiet as mute spectators even when India has been raped by the corrupt for so long, it should in no way be seen as demeaning to women, I feel if you still have some concerns, you have to see the intention of Upendra, which is to wake the citizens of the country.
Also in the movie he addresses the citizens of India as sattpraje, meaning good citizens but he emphasizes on the satt part which becomes sattaa praje meaning dead citizens in Kannada,the whole idea behind the movie is to wake up the Indian citizens to do something for their country instead of complaining and that too in a unpreachy and entertaining way and I think Upendra succeeds in his goals.

P.S: While watching A and Upendra please do see the intention behind the scenes especially where women are involved, as I said Upendra is the mirror of society that very few in the society want to accept as reality.
I hope these explanations were helpful for you, I can go on and on but if you have any other doubts let me know, I will try to give an unbiased view even though I am a hardcore Upendra fan.

P.P.S: Also I am planning to write the english subtitles all by myself, i am yet to start it hopefully I can do it within a month, will let you know when its ready.

veracious said...

Aham - Thanks for the thoughtful reply!

I wasn't offended by the white people, I mean if living standards in India rise and in Europe they decline, obviously Europeans might seek employment and immigrate to India. My main problem was that the "ideal" India should have any sorts of beggars - to me that's not prosperity of society, that's failing of society on some level.

Hmm, I'll have to judge A and portrayal of women in it once I see it. I think the "woman as nation" is not a motif that is limited to India, in a lot of countries the "idea" of the nation is centered around the female figure of the nation that the nation's people must protect - this is partly how patriotism wraps itself in patriarchy sometimes. As a metaphor, it works, but I do wonder about the non-metaphorical side of the story, which runs parallel and which is very strange indeed - unless Indira had consented to "act out" the rape attempt as shock therapy to Mandira, then it is essentially a man attempting rape on a woman who thinks she will raped just to "make a point". And later they are shown living happily together. I think higher metaphors aside, this is the disturbing depiction on display, and I cannot completely brush that depiction aside.

I will be very interested in how I feel about this issue when I get to watch A. I think there is definitely a way to showcase the horrible treatment of women in society without tolerating it, or even making a point to show horrible it is. I don't, however, think it's enough just to hold up a mirror and say this is what is happening, I think a progressive film that wants to change the status quo also has to put forward some sort of a message ie "abuse of women is going on - it should stop!" rather than just showcasing it.

But like I wrote before, will judge A once I see it.

PS. Good luck with writing the subtitles! I would definitely love to rewatch the film with subtitles. As much as I liked it, I felt I was missing out on some nuances.

Anonymous said...

veracious - Thanks for watching SUPER, Do watch "A" and "UPENDRA" films as soon as possible, they are the best works of Upendra till date.

veracious said...

Blue Smash - thanks for the recs, both films I've bought & will watch as soon as possible!

AVINASH said...

amazing 2 see ua comments on our real super star 'UPENDRA' . . . uppi is different , different is uppi. . . for 'super' mvie ua have posted so gud thing abt upendra , don know how much u'll like him after seeing 'UPENDRA' movie . . .but its waste wen u see without sub titles, coz he is the master of dialogues. . .even u can go ' RAKTHA KANNERU' which is his master piece movie . . .

Akash said...

I feel Upendra is the greatest director of India at present. Just look at his movies:

Tarle Nan Maga - Out and out comedy movie. Started the era of dialogues with double meanings.

Shhh - The best horror film till date in Kannada.

Om- A cult classic which runs to packed houses even now, after 15 years of its release. A movie which dealt with problems of rowdism.

Operation Antha - A story in which the protagonist resorts to violence and murders to combat corruption.

A- Story of a director and his confusions about love.

Swastik - A story of terrorsim and its effects.

Upendra- Based on the concept "Aham Brahmasmi". A mirror to the society. Story of what happens if a person does whatever he feels like doing.

Super- A futuristic cinema.

We can observe that all these stories and screenplay was done by Uppi and his team themsleves and they were not inspired by other films or books.

And except for Operation Antha and Swastik, all the others were box office mega hits, which shows that Upendra also knows how to satisfy the common man, though his films are interlaced with complex themes.

His next film is touted to be Upendra-2, which is a sequel to Upendra.

veracious said...

Avinash & Akash - Thanks for your takes! I have bought Upendra and A both on DVD so will watch them and post reviews eventually... Maybe not within a week but hopefully within a month or so.

Both films have subtitles, too, so I'll be able to understand his message better. :)

Anonymous said...

Please review an amazing crowd-funded Kannada movie called Lucia (2013). It has to be one of the best movies I've seen in the decade. I guess it is available to watch from its website or