Last Thursday, as Star Wars: Episode VII, opened in North American theatres, I battled past armies of Stormtroopers, Princess Leias, Jedi Knights wielding light sabers, and other assorted obstacles, to take my seat to actually watch the film. After a host of promos played across the screen, we were finally instructed we could don the 3D glasses. Then the spectacle unfolded — a stream of commercials that seemed to flow on long enough to fill all advertising time for a T20 match.
Among them was a cosmetics multinational enticing us to explore our light or dark side. In the days since, during periodic visits to grocery stores, I could perceive the Force had truly awoken. From cereal boxes to seasoning to Santa hats, the Star Wars brand had a license to overkill.
Fans of the franchise could, theoretically, literally live in this universe. Sleep in a Millennium Falcon bed wearing your Wookie pyjamas, rise to a Darth Vader alarm clock, use a Chewbacca toothbrush, plug in a toaster that will burn the logo onto slices of bread, wash that down with java whitened with C3PO-themed coffee mate… you get the picture. There are more tie-ins here than Kim Kardashian’s Instagram followers.
I watched the original Star Wars (that later became Episode IV: A New Hope), as a child in 1977. Just about 18 months earlier, I had seen Sholay. With their arrival, cinema became an event rather than an experience, though the Chambal ravines were light years from that galaxy far, far way. Even minor characters entered popular lore and each delivered a villain for the ages. But, while there were endorsements, like Gabbar ki asli pasand, I don’t recall, for instance, Jai hawaii chappals or Basanti agarbatti.
But the Stars Wars phenomenon occupies a merchandising space that is unparalelled. In the United States, Jedi is a religion (but it’s probably salutary to remember that qualifications may include being an alien rather than being alienated from the reality around you), and Anakin was, one year, among the top 1,000 baby names. The first two teaser trailers for this instalment totalled over 75 million views globally. The box office was being blockbusted. Perhaps they ought to cancel the Presidential debates and instead hand light sabers to the aspirants.
This isn’t mere escapism, it’s another reality altogether. That’s probably a reason Hollywood studios are busy building universes – from Marvel’s roster of superheroes, to the Star Wars spinoff spectaculars to even Paramount creating its own. It’s comfortable to inhabit a galaxy far, far away, even if that is for two-and-a-quarter hours, since the world we live in appears to be too challenging for many, what with global jihad, IS savagery, hordes of refugees, climate change and the kult of Kimye. And you can almost imagine the next American presidential elections being contested between Emperor Palpatine and Captain Phasma, the first female villain, introduced in The Force Awakens.
One major cinema chain in these parts had its own statutory warning. While it said that “fans are encouraged to enhance their Star Wars experience by wearing costumes”, it also stated that “props and toys that could become tripping hazards or impair vision in a theatre are best left at home. Guests are prohibited from wearing masks or carrying toy weapons of any kind.” From helicopter parenting to drone surveillance, life comes complete with the hashtag #WatchYourStep. Therefore, falling into fantasy is a fine option.
However, to power the myth, the first order of business would be to ensure a sequel that scores, unlike, say, Dilwale. As Darth Vader said in another film, “The Force is strong with this one.” The return of characters Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, even R2D2, is seamless, despite the wrinkles the humans have acquired. But it doesn’t feel old or tired. With newbies like scavenging angel Rey, or ex-Stormtrooper Finn, even the bowling ball-like droid BB-8, it doesn’t implode like the Death Star.
In a difficult, downbeat year, it offers a constructive coda. To channel Yoda, To you, New Year Happy!
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed are personal.