Shaukat Ajmeri

The Academy of bad choices

4-minute read

Normally one doesn’t care for the Oscars, after all it’s just a bunch of self-congratulatory rich, over-paid, self-important people who annually gather together to self-congratulate one another some more. Maybe that’s a bit over the top. But seriously, apart from the bragging rights and commercial spin-off from an Oscar win who really gives a rat’s tail about the Academy Awards. It’s never been the gold standard of good cinema. And if anyone had any doubt about that, it should have been put to rest by this year’s event.

The show itself was quite tame and it seemed as if the presenters were trying hard to please. The funnies were forced and the show was less than spectacular. All this would still be tolerable if only they had shown some sense in the choice of winners. My beef is mainly with the best picture going to The Hurt Locker. On its own terms the movie is really good, a story well told and well made. It has an edgy finesse that perfectly captures the frisson of a war situation, but whatever its superlative qualities, it is no match for Avtar.

The latter is a breathtaking magnum opus. It inspires your awe and leaves you stunned at what human creativity and imagination can achieve. Leaving aside its technical prowess – which itself is a feat of human technology – Avatar has a breadth of vision and depth of wisdom rarely seen on the silver screen. At first blush the story may seem like another extravagant go at good against evil. True, there is the usual tripe of human greed and how we’ll go to great lengths – even to a distant planet – to satisfy our material hunger. Human imperialism, if you will. (On another level it is also a sharp critique of the U.S. foreign policy – its gung-ho willingness to invade foreign lands and steal their wealth.)

But what is different here is that James Cameron presents an alternative world – the world of the Na’avi people who live in complete harmony with nature. Theirs’ is a more advanced civilisation and their technological advancement is more organic than material – for example, the Na’avi have the ability to plug into the energy of the universe and become one with it. The real sting is in the end of their tail, so to speak. Avtar opens up a vista of grand vision, a paradigm shift, a palimpsest of possibilities that borders on the spiritual. Our planet, on the verge of collapsing on itself, never needed a more saner message more urgently.

Cameron tell his story on a larger-than-life canvas, holds up a mirror to our moral and civilisational crises and then offers an alternative vision of possibilities. And he unfolds this vision with spectacular imagery and a technical mastery yet unmatched. Commercially too the movie has broken all records at the box office.

So, on every count this is a gem of a path-breaking film. It deserved an Oscar. But who got it instead? The Hurt Locker. A war movie that concerns itself with the travails of a bomb-disposal squad. Yes, theirs’ is a precarious existence, they play with danger with the possibility of a bomb blowing up in their face. Behind the drama and the tension is the sub-text of the futility of war. But in the end the film’s sympathies seem to lie with the invading army, as if proclaiming “see what a tough job our boys have to do to keep the terrorists out”. The narrative completely sidelines the real victims – the Iraqis. As if they do not matter. The human condition of the occupiers – dealing with their internal demons resulting from murder and mayhem – is somehow more worthy of our consideration than those whom they kill and destroy.

The Hurt Locker at one level is exactly what Avtar is decrying: Imperial ambitions and an inability to recognise the humanity or even the existence of the “other”. Some years ago Michael Moore denounced the Iraq war at the Oscars. This year a war movie wins an Oscar. And you thought Hollywood had no sense of irony.