December 6, 1985 Screen (India) p. 20
IN QUEST OF HEROISM
Have you ever found yourself in a crowd and looked at the faces around you to try to guess who might help you if you were in need, say, if you were attacked by a hoodlum or if you fell down unconscious? Likewise, have you ever wondered what you yourself would do were you to witness someone else’s difficulty?
Characters in films are constantly being faced with such dilemmas. The small town Texas boy (Jon Voight) in Midnight Cowboy, shortly after his arrival in New York, sees a well-dressed man lying on a sidewalk where hundreds of people are passing by, none of whom bother to stop. Such callous city ways are a shock to the Texan. In the ensuing moment we witness the panic on his face as he fights with himself over his own course of action. He evidently wants to help, but then, if all those smart city people bustle past the man without a sign of concern, there is perhaps wisdom in their action that he, as a country boy, needs to learn. Certainly, he does not want to be taken for a sucker. The next instant, in confusion, he too walks on, but he is not at all proud of himself for having failed to show a little more courage and humanity than those around him.
The film medium, of course, does not have a monopoly on the theme of courage. Myths, fairy tales and legends from most cultures throughout the ages testify to a common human concern with courage. In modern drama and literature it continues to play an important part. One can even find courage seriously discussed in the context of business and management. In The Gamesman: The New Corporate Leaders, author Michael Maccobyt, a psychoanalyst, comes to the conclusion that courage is essential to good leadership within a company and that many of the American businessmen whom he studied are “flabby-hearted.” They tend selfishly and cowardly to avoid making independent decisions that might endanger their careers, even if someone else’s or the company’s good is at stake.
Nevertheless, it is perhaps cinema, with its unforgettable images, that most powerfully conveys the theme of courage. In the novel The Mother Knot Jane Lazare confirms the role of films in setting norms for courage, “I can only in fantasy withstand the fascist torture while refusing to divulge the names of my comrades. In truth, I was afraid that the moment they even threatened to hurt me, I would tell all. Movies which depict all sorts of physical pain would upset me for days, creep into my nights . . .”
In Annie Hall reality is combined with fiction. After seeing the documentary Le Chagrin et la Pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity), Annie (Diane Keaton) acknowledges, “The people in that film make me feel so guilty. I don’t know what I would do if I were tortured by the Nazis.”
“Oh, you’d tell them all if they just threatened to take away your charge account,” Alvie (Woody Allen) answers.
RARE AND DIFFICULT
The English word ‘courage,’ coming from the Latin, originally meant ‘heart.’ In Hindi buzdil literally means ‘goat-hearted.’ Succinctly put, courage is the ability to face and deal with anything painful, dangerous or difficult. Nerve, guts, backbone, intestinal fortitude and in Hindi jigra testify that, in the minds of the people who make and use language, the heart is not the sole centre from which this ability emanates.
Courage is, of course, much more complicated than a dictionary definition would indicate. We could not find ourselves involved film after film with characters striving to be courageous were the quality not both rare and difficult to delineate. Arthur Penn illustrates its complexities admirably in his 1971 Little Big Man. Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), an American boy heading West with his family during the 19th century, is captured by Indians who rear him as one of their own. Then one day, as an adolescent, he allows himself to be taken back to the white world. From that moment on, he finds himself shuffling between the two civilizations and in the course of his adventures the question of courage is raised many times. What is it? What is the boundary between courage and foolhardiness? Where does sensible self-preservation end and cowardice begin? Certainly, things are not always as they seem. Jack tells his adopted grandfather, a Cheyenne warrior, that he has met a white man as brave as any Indian. The white man, General Custer, proves before the film ends however that he is not above killing women and children. In his ‘Last Stand’ Custer shows that his ‘courage’ is in great part simply blindness to his own fallibility. His visions of grandeur are such that ‘mentally ill’ would describe him better than ‘courageous.’
Cowardice is repeatedly juxtaposed with courage. The negative example, what courage is not, makes the positive example all the more recognizable - slinking, spineless, devoid of self-respect like the servant in Namak Haraam - anyone’s money will buy the coward. In Dostana no amount of beating will make Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) divulge his secret. In Amar Akbar Anthony a couple of slaps assures that the petty truant will tell the police all he knows. Shatranj ke Khilari reveals a more subtle form of cowardice. Meer (Saeed Jaffrey) refuses to see what is obvious to those around him, that his wife has a young lover. Drawing conclusions would make action unavoidable. The easy way, the coward’s way, is the ostrich position. In Deewaar Ravi (Shashi Kapoor) could have buried his head in the sand. Instead, he boldly acknowledges his brother’s illegal activities and acts in consequence.
The coward is a pitiful or disgusting person. Our hearts rarely go out to such a character. On the other hand, we are torn by the plight of the tragic figure who has ideals and who wants to act courageously, yet finds himself or herself in a position of complete helplessness. We cannot blame Little Big Man for not running out in front of the white soldiers’ bullets when his Indian wife and newborn baby are slaughtered before his eyes. Nor in Mihalis Kakogiannis’ Zorba the Greek do we blame the English writer (Alan Bates) who watches in horror as the villagers stone and then stab the village widow he slept with the night before. In anguish he tells Zorba (Anthony Quinn) immediately afterwards, “I . . . I couldn’t help.” In Satyajit Ray’s Jana Aranya we suffer shame along with the main character cornered into betraying his ideals to succeed in his business.
Life and death situations are the focal point of courage in many genres: westerns, war films, murder mysteries, spy films, etc. Often the main character is forced to make a decision in a split second that will turn him into a hero or a coward. An intelligent decision will permit him to live to bask in his glory. But one wrong move . . . Courage often becomes the foundation upon which suspense is built.
The hero may face physical danger without flinching or giving in. He does not face it without fear. General Patton described courage as ‘fear holding on a minute longer.” Immersed in a film, the spectator, while experiencing the fear felt by the character on the screen, nevertheless consciously or unconsciously exhorts the protagonist not to give up but to hold on a minute longer. In Dakhal (by Gautam Ghosh) the rich landowner’s men try to force Andi (Mamata Shankar) off her farm through intimidation. She could easily surrender and leave: instead, she stays to fight for her land.
Refusing to give up sometimes means offering oneself to Death. The ever-present self-sacrificing hero of Hindi films follows his ideals - being faithful to a friend, keeping a promise, refusing tyranny - to their logical conclusion. Sikandar in Muqaddar Ka Sikandar dies proving he has the courage of his convictions.
Death may result too from having the courage to repent, to return to the path one once followed and then strayed from. Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) is told near the end of Deewaar that arrangements have been made for him soon to be far away from the police. He answers, “I’ve already gone too far. Now it’s time to come back.” He could have escaped and lived. He chooses instead to find himself and die.
We are especially moved by the character who very humanly surrenders to the temptation of seizing money and power. It is easy to identify with such an imperfect hero. It is also reassuring to have proof that it is never too later to salvage lost ideals. In Shree 420 when Raj Kapoor’s character, a less tragic figure than Vijay, decides to turn his back on his dishonest ways, he loses only his rich ‘friends’ and his fancy clothes. On the other hand, he wins the woman he loves and a vision of a bright future.
THE SPOKEN WORD
The courage to put one’s life at stake is spectacular. In everyday life, fortunately, the majority of film viewers are not forced to make life-and-death decisions in relation to their ideals. Almost everyone, however, is regularly faced with deciding when to speak up. The easier way, of course, is almost always to remain silent. In Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront Terry (Marlon Brando) is under pressure from many sides to respect the underworld’s law of silence. Yet if only he summons the courage to defy the crowd and tell the judge the truth, he will begin to break the grip of the extortionists at the dock.
The policeman played by Paul Newman in Daniel Petrie’s Fort Apache South Bronx faces a similar decision after he sees a fellow cop throw an innocent boy from a roof. If he turns the guilty man in to his superior, he will be considered ‘a rat.’ If he does not talk, he will be an accomplice to the crime and will have to live with that image of himself for the rest of his life.
In Insaaf Ka Tarazu the little sister (Padmini Kolhapure) has already been in the witness stand. She is well aware of the pain involved in speaking up. Yet she braves the court a second time because her testimony will help to save her sister.
On a lighter register we find one of the delights of Ek Duuje Ke Liye to be Vasu’s (Kamal Hassan) refreshing lack of meekness as he flouts Sapna’s (Rati Agnihotri) tyrannical mother.
Of all the ways one can speak out, surely one of the most humbling is to say, “I’m sorry.” Not a valiant gesture like parachuting behind enemy lines to save a captured platoon, admitting error nevertheless requires a courage only those with inner strength can muster. Costa-Gavras’ award-winning Missing is the story of an American (Jack Lemmon) who must go to a Latin American country in search of his son who has disappeared without a trace following a military takeover there. The man arrives thinking the worst of his son and his daughter-in-law (Sissy Spacek) and only the best of the powers that be. All his assurance soon crumbles in the face of a reality that he could never have imagined while sitting in his office in New York. Having to see beyond his narrow prejudices transforms him into a new person, one capable of humbly admitting his own past unfairness.
In Deewaar Inspector Ravi Varma does not actually use the words “I’m sorry.” Yet his going to the home of the bread thief whom he has shot in the leg is a sort of apology in itself. And his feelings of shame and humility spur him into action. He cannot take back the bullet he fired into Chandar’s leg. But he can resolve to track down the big criminals as vigorously as he has a petty thief.
Such down-to-earth courage as it takes to speak one’s mind will not slay monsters or rid the world of tyrants. Still, minor victories can be obtained. One is aware looking at Satyajit Ray’s work of a special emphasis on this accessible sort of courage. Physical courage is sometimes present in his films. The main character in Pratidwandi overturns tables and creates havoc in the office of the job interviewers who have been treating the job applicants ‘as animals.’ Perhaps partly because Ray’s public is understood to speak Bengali well or to be able to read English subtitles, however, courage is more often moral and verbal. In Mahanagar a woman whose job is the sole livelihood for an entire household dares to challenge her boss and protest against an injustice to a fellow worker. Her boss fires her, but he has not missed her message. Her husband salutes her courage, “We get so used to worrying about making a living that we become afraid to speak out against injustice.”
In the 1962 Kanchenjungha a young unemployed man on vacation in Darjeeling could hope to find a job through the influence of the important businessman he meets there. Rather than be a flattering sycophant, however, the young man throws his financial needs to the wind and dares to defy the old man. Later he tries to explain his action which has apparently been a surprise to him, “Is it the mountains or the trees? I don’t know, but I feel like a different person, a sort of hero who doesn’t need charity.”
Arthur Penn continues to investigate courage in his recent Four Friends. The ambiguity manifest in Little Big Man is present again. Danilo (Craig Wasson) is a young Yugoslav, moments of whose life we follow from the time he immigrates to the United States at the age of 10 until he reaches manhood. Throughout much of the film he is asked if he would have the courage to fight for anything. The answer comes at last when he takes on his ex-schoolmate, the class-bully-turned-Chicago-cop. The copy taunts, “Which one of you three is Georgia sleeping with this year?”
Ironically, the accusation that Georgia sleeps around is absolutely true. Yet Danilo loves Georgia, and he fights for her honour. Penn could be suggesting here that there is no cause really worth fighting for. We are nevertheless thrilled to see Danilo emerge from the fight, the cop on the floor.
Danilo wins, but his victory is not the stuff of legends. The odds, after all, are not really against him. Just one big bully. And the bully defends himself well enough that Danilo would be in no condition to take on another bully for several days at least. No, legendary heroes are in an altogether different category. They are the invincible ones: Superman, James bond, the characters in Star Wars, and very often, if not always, the Hindi film hero.
BIGGER THAN LIFE
Courage in Hindi films almost inevitably involves physical action. It can be argued that partly for the sake of those viewers in India and throughout the world who speak little or no Hindi, courage evidenced in the dialogues must be supported by action which has the advantage of passing across the language barrier. Be that as it may, the action is abundant and bigger than life.
Vijay (meaning ‘triumph’) is the name of the character played by Amitabh Bachchan in a great number of films. In Trishul, in Deewaar, in Kaala Patthar, in Dostana, in Shaan (all scenarios written by Salim and Javed), Vijay is the man who can take on a dozen thugs single-handedly. The warehouse fight in Deewaar alone would quickly have killed any normal man, but Vijay, true to his name, walks out victorious.
Reaching superhuman heights, this sort of courage is automatically limited to the few ‘born heroes’ in the world. Not modern, but traditional, the age-old figure of the invincible hero has been rejuvenated, thanks to the film medium. In the 11th century Sanskrit Vetala, the ancestor of the screen hero is described thus:
“During a battle he showed superhuman force; alone, armed with only a sword and shield, he cut off elephants’ trunks, horses’ legs and soldiers’ heads. When he had destroyed the whole army, he was attacked by the king himself.”
Martin Esslin in his An Anatomy of Drama says that an essential purpose of all forms of dramatic art is to present spectators with a variety of role models and thus to prepare them for situations they have not yet confronted in real life.
Woody Allen brings this theory to life in his Play It Again Sam (directed by Herbert Ross, 1972). A timid fellow totally lacking in confidence with women, he looks to the example of Humphrey Bogart to bolster his courage. At one point he tells Linda (Diane Keaton), “You know who’s not insecure? Bogart. Look, if I’m going to identify, who am I going to pick, my rabbi? Bogart is the perfect image.”
Later in Manhattan he chastises a friend for failing to look honestly at himself. The friend answers, “You’re so self-righteous. You think you’re God!”
Woody answers, “Well, I have to pattern myself after someone.”
Examples of courage do inspire. Courage could be said to be contagious, like many other human qualities, both good and bad. In Kasme Vaade one act of courage triggers a chain reaction. Big brother Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) dies while trying to save little brother Raju (Randhir Kapoor). Inspired by the example, Raju in turn courageously helps the thief Shankar (Amitabh) who in turn gathers the courage to quit the underworld and brave the difficulties of hard honest work in a garage where his colleagues taunt him to test his new morality.
If the accent so far has been on courageous men, it cannot be denied that courageous women too play an important part in cinema. Shyam Benegal’s films are especially striking in this respect. At the end of Ankur the young woman (Shabana Azmi), surrounded by silent, helpless men, dares to scream the truth to the zamindar cowering behind his closed door. In Junoon Ruth’s mother (Jennifer Kapoor) not only intelligently speaks up, but, when necessary, also proves herself capable of quickly and quietly killing an enemy to save her family.
The courage women show is often contrasted with the weakness of the men they love. In Ketan Mehta’s Bhavni Bhavai it is the woman (Smita Patil) who leads the man (Mohan Gokhale) to make courageous decisions. In Shree 420 the woman (Nargis) that Raj (Raj Kapoor) loves could have entered the world of riches alongside Raj. She, however, has the strength to resist the temptation that he succumbs to. In Deewaar when the father suffers one setback as a union leader at the coal mine, he gives up and runs away. The mother, on the other hand, does not abandon her struggle to raise her children. Insulted and exploited in terrible living and working conditions, she still never gives up. Over the years, she does not even lose her ideals.
A linguist might make a connection between the Hindi causative verb form karaanaa and the special sort of courage often shown by women in Hindi films. Quite often the woman does not so much ‘do’ as she ‘causes to be done.’ She is the source of strength and inspiration to others. “Ma, mujhe tumhari shakti, tumhari ashirvad chahie,” Ravi says to his mother (Nirupa Roy) in Deewaar.
In Sholay we see two women of contrasting natures, one who ‘does’ and one who ‘causes to be done.’ Basanti (Hema Malini) is the dauntless, spunky sort. Not one to stand back and watch, she rides her carriage through the village to assure the men their get-away after the Holi fight. Later, she dances until her last breath under the blazing sun to save the man she loves. Radha (Jaya Badhuri) is extremely reserved throughout the film. Not that she is afraid to act. She boldly faces Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) and Veru (Dharmendra) the first night of their stay to present them with the keys to Thakur’s safe, thus quietly but fearlessly challenging their values. Her principal power, however, is not to be found in her acts. Hers is an inner force that emanates from her presence and impels Jai to change.
Examples of woman courage, of course, exist in western cinema. The theatre director played by Catherine Deneuve in Franéois Truffaut’s The Last Metro is cool, clear-thinking and capable. It is her bravery that saves her Jewish husband’s life during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Still, the courage of women in Hindi films tends to be even more impressive. Like their male counterparts, women in Hindi films display a legendary nobility and courage, exemplary, but not necessarily attainable.
Legendary or down-to-earth, ambiguous or clear-cut, whatever its form, courage is universally valued. Like love, it is motivated by an attempt to transcend the limits of being human, to rise above oneself. In Namak Haraam Somu (Rajesh Khanna) develops the ability to care for those in need and, in the process, to prove his concern through his acts. Nisha (Simi Garewal) says of him, “He has grown up.”
Likewise, Alan (Woody Allen) matures at the end of Play It Again Sam. Reliving Casablanca, he renounces a woman he loves for the sake of a friend. Having thus proved himself a hero in his own eyes, he no longer needs Humphrey Bogart as his mentor. “I guess the secret,” he says, “is not to be you but to be me.”
Woody Allen is not the only film viewer to be fascinated with the Bogart-style courage. The effect of Casablanca and To Have and Have Not, even on blasé young city filmgoers, is particularly striking. Audiences can be seen literally rooting for joy after having witnessed a character begin by saying, “I stick my neck out for on one,” and end by overcoming both the bad guys and his own cynicism and narrow self-interest. Along with the viewer’s joy comes a certain resolve (if only momentary) to follow in the hero’s footsteps, whether the hero be Bogart, smart and cool, Amitabh, fiery and superhuman, or one of Satyajit Ray’s inimitable characters who simply manages to say ‘No!’ in the face of corruption. Like pointers along the path, representations of courage in cinema are present to guide each individual viewer in the quest after his or her own personal portion of heroism.