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What on Pandora does culture or civilisation stand for?

In Cameron’s movie, humans are primitive and brutal. This reverses the very concept of the term ‘avatar’, meaning ‘descent’.

entertainment Updated: Dec 27, 2009 01:19 IST
Maxim Osipov
Maxim Osipov
Hindustan Times

With the dazzling 3D-vortex of colours, actions and emotions in Avatar, James Cameron seems to have given every single viewer something to rave about. Cinemaphiles are thrilling at the walk-in CGI world, realistic down to a thanator’s whisker. Sci-fi fans are already filling up wikis and blogs with data on Pandorian atmosphere composition and details of viperwolves’ breeding. Gamers must be drooling over its plug-n-play dragons and broadband net-jungles. Environmentalists, native Indians’ rights fighters, Iraq war critics and you-name-it have already started drawing didactic allegories from the movie to further their respective agendas. And the rest of us have got just enough of ‘wows’, ‘cools', and ‘OMGs’ to start looking forward to a sequel.

But let’s get it straight — Avatar is a downright misnomer for the new blockbuster on the block. The movie reverses the very concept the term ‘avatar’— literally, in Sanskrit, ‘descent’ — is based on. An avatar always descends from a higher realm into the lower, restores prosperity, wisdom, and happiness —and moves on unchanged after the mission is accomplished. However, Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ Jake Sully — and we, the, viewers along with him — shortly after his descent into the world of Na’vis sees the ‘higher’ realm of earthlings rapidly grow pallid and repulsive in comparison to the pristine world of supposed savages. The ‘civilised humans’ turn out as primitive, jaded and increasingly greedy, cynical, and brutal — traits only amplified by their machinery — while the ‘monkey aliens’ emerge as noble, kind, wise, sensitive and humane.

We, along with the ‘Avatar’ hero, are now faced with an uncomfortable yet irresistible choice between the two races and the two worldviews. And invariably, along with him we cannot help but lean toward the far more civilised insides within the long-tailed, blue-skinned, and technologically infantile exterior.

Jake soon admits to himself in his videolog: “I realised that I had it backwards, I wasn’t sure what was the dream and what was real.” Having regained through the Avatar body not just his legs, but his dignity, his freedom, and his brethren whose love and trust he struggles to earn, the rescuer becomes the rescued, the benefactor becomes the benefitted.

The ‘Avatar’ becomes, well, a refugee among the aborigines so content inwardly that they wouldn’t trade their tree for whatever the savvy ‘Sky People’ gods have to offer — not even for a can of light beer! Contrary to The Matrix’s Neo, Jake plugs into a supposedly illusory world just to discover it to be much more tangible, wholesome and true than his own — and wants to stay in.

This makes us ask the aching question: Why? And what on earth (or on Pandora) do ‘culture’, ‘civilisation’ and ‘human’ stand for? Not succumbing to the stock trifle of sci-fi genre, James Cameron makes this question the fourth dimension of his movie — and answers it most convincingly: it’s the qualities of kindness, gratitude, regard for the elder, self-sacrifice, respect for all life and ultimately humble dependence on a higher intelligence behind nature that qualify one as cultured, civilised and human. As the Bhagavad Gita (16.1-4)puts it: Fearlessness, cultivation of wisdom, charity, self-control, austerity, simplicity, refrain from unnecessary violence, truthfulness, freedom from hatred, renunciation, tranquillity, aversion to faultfinding, compassion for all living entities.... are qualities befitting real civilised humans.... Pride, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness and ignorance are qualities of barbarians.

Maxim Osipov is a student of Sanskrit and Indian philosophy and a member of the Hare Krishna movement since 1991

(Khushwant Singh’s column will be back next week)

First Published: Dec 27, 2009 01:17 IST