What our Movies say about us
Soorarai Pottru (Praise the Brave) is one of the more recent Tamil movies by Sudha Kongara with Suriya playing the lead. It was released OTT on Amazon Prime and has largely received positive reviews. Most people praise the acting by Suriya and Aparna Balamurali, the upbeat energy the movie has and I guess at some level the relief that it isn’t outright terrible, which a lot of much hyped movies tend to be.
It’s presumably the story of Captain Gopinath’s struggle and vision to launch Air Deccan, the first low cost carrier in India, at a time when we hadn’t yet been mass liberated by Jio and we didn’t have the diehard optimism that Millenials, Insta and Tiktok brought to the mass Indian table.
This same weekend I also saw “The Trial of Chicago 7" by Aaron Sorkin and a multi-star ensemble. That unpacks what happened after the riots in 1968 Chicago where anti-Vietnam war demonstrators clashed with the police. In typical Sorkinian fashion, it’s an homage to left liberal ideals of standing up to authority, especially conservative ruling authority. It’s a story of courage and principles, stories of the brave — so there exists some connection.
Any such comparison is going to be unfair and the idea is not to race the two movies but just highlight aspects of the core DNA of movies made for us and by us.
(1) Our biopics can never be truthy, by design
They start right off the bat by establishing that the Tamil movie (Soorarai Pottru) is a fantasy composite. That’s code for — please don’t be offended because we can’t really step up and do a true biography.
Check the image on the left that has Suriya levitating like Dr. Strange versus the poster on the right that’s Court and the people, painstakingly recreated from actual footage of what happened in the late 60s. That’s like a metaphor for what the two will be.
Serious bio pics, with complex storylines and multi-layered characters or process movies are unlikely to have an audience in this great nation so it stands to reason that we don’t get those. What we get are feel good, untruthy entertainers that don’t completely (hopefully) offend the masses but likely eviscerates the soul of anyone who wants to know what really happened.
The hero is a socialist-idealist battling a one-note caricature of a villain in Paresh Rawal to bring flying to the masses. Just as with Roja, everyone miraculously speaks Tamil wherever they are in the nation (helps that the President in 2006 also did) and this village bumpkin whose skills include ugly-dancing in front of corpses, he does complex VC math and finessed PowerPoint presentations to keep pushing his socialistic ideals through a resistant and bureaucratic India.
The credibility of all of that is not our problem because it never is.
If you wanted to know the true story of Capt. Gopinath you could read his book Simply Fly: A Deccan Odyssey but what purpose would that serve other than to wonder why the movie has little resemblance to what the man struggled with to birth this brand? Also how do we know how much of that is true, we just don’t.
Contrasting this with Chicago 7, not only does the movie literally match the people and their 1968 reality with Oscar-nominating accuracy, even the lines they say are culled from court transcripts. A simple reading of the wiki entry for Chicago Seven is this remarkable ride where you realize that you got a dose of real history and all the prompts you need to see why the fight against war, racism, authority — all of that is relevant to you regardless of where you come from, which era you read it in or what your identity is.
With Soorarai Pottru, you get fed a linear lesson on “the weak common man vs sociopathic capitalism with rich bad guys who don’t want anyone but the rich to fly.” India is a land that likes to hate upon the affluent even while craving nothing more than to gain the social respect and acceptance that comes from having the trappings of the rich.
Did Jet Airways (shown here as Jaz) truly try to sabotage every move made by a small player who was going after an untapped market, I do not know. It’s hard to know considering there is barely any truth to the story or recorded info on how it really went down.
One “iconic scene” is about how Suriya as Maaran (or a ghost of an idea of a hint of Capt. Gopinath) refuses to sell out to a self-indulgent, HughHeffneresque Mallya-inspired character. A scene that matters because after this confrontation, the hero’s loving wife hand-feeds him like one would a baby and tells him that she would have fed him poison only if he was a sellout. Because Tamil movies are where things escalating quickly was born.
In reality, Air Deccan was bought by Kingfisher after suffering losses that could not be controlled and the brand was reduced to Charter flights for the most part. It’s definitely not the common man who uses Charter flights. The truth is that brands need to keep rolling with the punches to survive and principles of the founders tend to evolve so they can stay afloat. But since there is no burden of truth, the movie can be a one-note, juvenile fantasy of common man good vs rich man evil in a world of complex grays.
Considering that the movie doesn’t even care to get the fashion of 2006 or a Tamil woman right, to expect that it would get the brand story of Air Deccan on point, is unfair. As someone who’s studied fashion for the good part of the last decade, I can confirm that the heroine’s blouses are closer to the India Circus upholstery palette than they are to anything the average middle class Tamil woman wears. Again, in contrast — there’s a scene in Mrs. America where the conservative women walk into the bathroom where “shameless libbers” are changing and down to the white, functional, utterly unsexy bras, the fashion codes for the time are right. But since we can settle for “feel good” or “how good hero heroine look” or “mass song” — there is no burden of accuracy in story telling or depiction.
(2) Good art should change you, except when it doesn’t
You watch the “Trial of Chicago 7” and you’re likely to come away — at the very least —with more information about a key event in history. Add to that you get some sense of the right vs. left tension, some sharp notes on racism and the Panthers, an understanding of how the left will always be fractured because of the values it embraces unlike a more homogenous and united right, how people with principle behave when under pressure and because it’s Sorkin, you also get a grammar lesson on personal pronouns and noun modifiers.
There is an iconic scene where Bobby Seale, the only black man held for a crime he did not commit, explains to Eddie Redmayne’s character how their white fight against authority is a rebellion against their “one father” telling them to “respect country, respect the flag, not be faggots” and he follows that with, “You can see how that is different from the view of a rope on a tree?” It’s a chilling scene that quickly establishes how even if they’re fighting the same beacon of white, rigid, conservative authority, their burdens are simply not the same. It’s the art of saying a lot without saying much. Where even as a brown person, the idea of privilege, race dynamics, allyship and all of that come coursing into a moment of empathy and learning. Contrast that with a scene in Soorarai Pottru where the hero realizes that a sparrow eats less and flies low because of its small frame and this analogy can be extended to low cost planes. But the unraveling of the scene and its sense of pregnant discovery makes it out like they just explained Ramanujam’s theorems to you. On average, Indian films consistently insult the intelligence of every viewer by over-explaining the obvious. It’s another cross we must bear.
I’d imagine “Praising the Brave” meant that one should feel inspired by the bravery, courage and vision of the protagonist and his team. It was harder to feel much of that knowing there was so much of a story that needed to be told that would never see the light of day, most likely because the story simply isn’t “mass” enough.
Creating a flight for people who believe they don’t deserve to fly because it’s ONLY for the rich in a country that struggled to provide access or connectivity should have made for an inspiring story. You learn no truth in the end about people, Indians or the brand. While that’s rarely ever been a test for what makes for a good or successful movie in India, it was hard not to feel that disappointment that our movie makers and story tellers rarely ever tell us why we should care or be better. A valuable lesson immortalized by Andrew Stanton of Pixar in this TED Talk, and is possibly why a robot from Wall-E or a rodent from Ratatouille can often make some of us FEEL more than our own (emotion-on-sleeve-wearing) culture and that shouldn’t be okay, but that’s how it is.
(3) Regression is our norm and we shall have it
Soorarai Pottru is supposed to be a progressive story of a man who elevates the masses and marries a spunky woman with more identity and career goals than a lampshade. Without doubt it has those elements but the moment it comes to a point where his business and dreams seem to be crashing to the ground while her bakery is taking off, it doesn’t take too long before the benevolent-for-the-masses hero becomes a bitchy, petty, raging whiner who reveals his insecurity about being financially dependent on his wife (something she has no issue with as long as he pursues his dreams and was her T&C while getting married.)
He slaps her right across the face in a post-Thappad world. I’m not sure if Capt. Gopinath did in fact slap his wife (who did actually a run a successful baking company) but even if they did, what value does it truly add other than reinforce for the masses that this is what “real men” do and how earning wives can create family tension? She of course welcomes him right back into her arms the moment he has sufficiently cooled down, because as is said in Tamil “it is the hand that beats that embraces.” While she doesn’t say that, it does perpetuate that norm in a culture that sees it as such already.
There are multiple moments in the movie when it was hard for me to calibrate if the amount of melodrama was overkill or “accurate for us as a people.” An argument between a father and son on pacifism versus protesting on railway tracks ends in “you don’t have to come to light my pyre” in under 30 seconds. It’s like “that escalated quickly” is the norm.
A son rushing home to meet his dying father is likely going to be traumatic but here it involves public wailing in an airport, heartless rich people not believing true story of lamenting man, kind and poor lorry people bringing the hero home to finally being ushered in by erstwhile-supportive mother who totally loses it in the context of death. It can be fairly assumed that the son who couldn’t make it feels bad enough but apparently it is important for the mother to slice into his soul with a serrated drama-dagger and keep going on about how his father had to be cremated by a stranger like an orphan (dial up drama by factor of 800 once in Tamil movie) and go at him until he falls to the ground and ugly-cries like a toddler. We are after all a country who vilified Nupur Talwar for “not crying like mother who had dead child so must have killed her own daughter” so it’s not surprising that so much melodrama has to be the norm, but it is also hard to swallow if you also watch movies by Pixar and The Trial of Chicago 7.
Not to pan an entertainer, as many people said — this is immensely more watchable than the two terrible movies Suriya made before this. And this is often our standard. “Totally not as unwatchable as the movie before it.”
Suriya also looks astonishingly pristine and definitely not the middle-aged 45 that he is, nor does he look incongruous next to a young, uncharacteristically spunky and satiatingly dusky 25-year-old Aparna Balamurali. So there is that.
But the juxtaposition of The Trial of Chicago 7 (a must watch for everyone) versus Soorarai Pottru (a maybe watch if you’re under-Vindhyas India) is something that does mess with the head a bit.
Nima Srinivasan is a brand, consumer and culture deconstructor who also watches movies. Especially movies about brands, consumers and culture.