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Hero, not hero worship

The hero, in recent movies, has become more body and less mind, writes Shohini Ghosh.

india Updated: Jan 04, 2012 22:16 IST

It may appear that Tintin, Sherlock Holmes and Don don’t have much in common except perhaps a spirit of adventure. But the three 2011 films in which they play the lead protagonists — Secret Of The Unicorn: The Adventures Of Tintin (directed by Steven Spielberg), Don 2 (Farhan Akhtar) and Sherlock Holmes: The Game Of Shadows (Guy Ritchie) — could well suggest that they are now bonded by unassailable heroism. In all three films, the heroes are so invincible and the villains so diminished that their victory is a foregone conclusion.

While the inevitable triumph of the hero is an established convention, the worth of a good narrative is to persuade us that victory is not inevitable. After all, who is interested in watching a film where the hero is never threatened? The bigger question, for which I offer no answers, is this: what accounts for the desire to articulate heroic masculinity through an abandonment of vulnerability, uncertainty and the fear of defeat?

When Ritchie created a manic Sherlock Holmes in the 2009 version, he retooled Arthur Conan Doyle’s character into one whose intellectual prowess was matched by a restless physicality signaling both strength and vulnerability. But he never compromised on Holmes’ ability to think himself out of situations. In the climax to Ritchie’s film, an unexpected revelation pays tribute to the most important attribute of Conan Doyle’s sleuth: the indomitable power of reason. But in the 2011 film, the genre is reworked to turn Holmes into an indestructible James Bond whose most dispensable attribute is reason. At the end, when he falls to his death, we know his return is imminent. Predictably, he’s in before the film is out. The return is as much authored by fandom as the power of the franchise with its promise of a sequel!

Similarly, Spielberg’s Tintin is most unlike the intrepid journalist we grew up with. Herge’s Tintin is riveting because his adventures are full of smart opponents and lurking danger. His reflexes are as quick as his intelligence and he is frequently shown to be reflecting on the challenges at hand. He is an indestructible action hero with little time to introspect. Like a cartoon character, he survives plane crashes, shipwrecks and several calamitous predicaments. As one Tintinophile blogged: “If you want to create a narrative that lasts more than ten minutes, you need to create characters who the audience sees as alive and vulnerable to the same kind of consequences as we are in real life. All I am asking for is someone to break a limb, have a few bruises, or just be a bit out of breath after a fight or huge chase scene.”

Akhtar’s Don 2 suffers from having interpreted too literally the dialogue, “Don ko pakarna mushkil nahin, namumkin hain.” The 1978 version deploys this line with irony and that Don does die. But his 2011 counterpart is always the man on top no matter how high the heap of human bodies. Contemporary interpretations of heroism seem to have replaced the complex mental landscape of their protagonists with action-adventure. This is particularly regrettable in the case of Holmes and Tintin.

In Bollywood, perhaps, this reinvention is linked to an actor’s superstardom. Aamir Khan, who confidently explored vulnerable masculinities in his early films, has after the success of Lagaan, continually reinve-nted himself as a vanguardist protagonist unbothered by doubt or uncertainty. Shahrukh Khan has more literally reinve-nted himself as a caped superhero whose antics spill over to Don 2. It is as though on-screen super heroism was being pressed to the service of superstardom.

It’d certainly break the tedium if heroism got to use its head and not just its body.

( Shohini Ghosh is a professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia )

The views expressed by the author are personal