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.