WHY WE NEED TO REASSESS NARRATIVES AROUND CRIME IN POPULAR CULTURE.

In 2020, a lot has transpired for collective humanity and while cooped up in our own private nests, we have undergone internal transformations. The time at hand has given passage for some of our irreconcilable differences of opinion to be mused about and clarified. Deep thinking always does exactly that so we are able to separate the majoritarian consensus from our own personal train of thought. What I am telling you here is very simple. As an admirer of the creative medium, I always looked to it as validating the best, worst and broader aspects of our lives with an unmatched accuracy.

However, I tend to think that the way it sometimes puts narratives of crime and underworld activities is not always in the best interests of the larger social discourse. Most of these enterprises are intermediaries negotiating between the realism of the medium and money- making shares. The profits coming from a juicy story and society’s hypocritical, contradictory and unhealthy ( also male-centric) obsession with the exploits of charismatically presented men who have their own rules and regulations to run a lop-sided world, participating in violent and amoral/immoral means to settle scores and whipping up a body count, is so far away from the commonalities of the everyday that it becomes mythic and peddles an anti-hero honorific to them. There’s nothing wrong in being captivated by a well-told story and those that go into the dark alleys of human behaviour or the antipathic subcultures operating within genteel society ultimately mirror the subliminal truth. Evil operates in ways we don’t always notice. Power gets equated sometimes with such brazen means and ends that it produces more anti- social elements than law and order agencies can handle; and mind you, it is a male-dominated, dog eat dog tussle for power that makes criminals elevated to party leaders, politicians and several key players constituting votebanks. That truth is very much a reality in our current climate, whether it is the nexus governing our own national politics or the nebulous ‘leaders’ running the most powerful country in the world ( cue the stars and stripes)

I am noticing that several productions seem to glorify the overblown antics of such figures, giving their acidic, volcanic temperaments a glamorous avatar, atleast to grab initial eyeballs and casting actors who can bring their best in terms of performative ability. But by cuing slow motion cuts, wind-blown treatments and rock- tinged musical cues to people who are malevolent and a clear menace to society, aren’t we cheering them on, in the most twisted, human way possible? As I see it, when we watch an image on screen, we don’t just cheer the brilliance of the performer but the real-life or fictionalized figure he portrays is inextricably linked to our understanding. So when Zac Effron portrays a serial killer complete with his good looks and charming presence, it is adjunct with the way the real-life man he plays used his prowess of physicality to entrap victims. Now here, there’s nothing about the performer. He is just delving into a malevolent personality and adhering to his craft that cannot only be relegated to a high-school heartthrob( in Efron’s case); or take the case of the squeaky clean, titular teenage star of Disney show AUSTIN AND ALLY wearing the robes of a spiteful, monstrous young man in MY FRIEND DAHMER. Even the way we hold THE JOKER (as in THE DARK KNIGHT, 2008) in high regard leans towards those impulses. I am not here to fault the stories, the actors or directors. But whenever we end up saying a line like,’ God, isn’t he just too good looking to be a murderer’ (as in the case of Ted Bundy) or ‘just a hippie prototype trapped in the image of a cult’ ( as in the Manson family’s mastermind) or obsess over these violent images and the perpetrators’ so-called ‘enigma’, we end up creating an admiration for the wrong kind of toxic culture to promote some kind of validation for a misdirected youth.

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It’s actually very simple to grasp as a cultural point of reference: when we defend a misogynistic protagonist, the one who stalks a girl, doesn’t take no for an answer, chainsmokes and drinks away to glory and still hoot and clap at the ‘suaveness’ of the characterisation, we know there’s something fundamentally wrong with where we are headed in terms of mindsets. Male behaviour in its permutations of sexism, criminal undercurrents and conformities of hot-headedness, finding representation through the prism of able-bodied, Adonis like male actors, just cannot be the norm anymore.

The same keenness to glamourise mobsters and their molls needs to retire from the silver screens. Facts can always be presented, the aesthetics of that kind of world be integrated to storytelling that duplicates the grit, grime and unpredictability of being enmeshed within such a set-up, with the ultimate consequences of such choices also getting highlighted with the validation being destruction, death; life imprisonment and death sentences, in the service of justice for the wronged and unnecessarily marginalized lawful agents of society. But by showing the ones toying with justice getting free, riding into the sunset and appending these scripts with mindless blood and gore, sexual dissipation, language verging on the psychotic and of course the use of female actors as objects for titillation and manipulation, or as mere props and secondary fixtures, makers give the wrong signals. By consuming these gratituous works for the sick thrill of it all, we end up creating an unhealthy business model for producers to back one rehash of the same story after another.

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Ultimately, entertainment is a commercial marketplace and more vices get into its fold of stories than those of simple, constructive individuals. ‘To spice up the proceedings’ is unfortunately the mantra that financiers swear by. Even when we know that some sections emulate heist tricks from films/ series, we tend to look the other way when celebrating reckless narratives becomes the ‘it’ thing. Clearly, it has nothing to do with false modesty or moralistic posturing but I feel that in this advanced age, we need to have a penchant for stories of industrious individuals who make a difference rather than lionize underworld figures and gangsters because we know how they have complicitly destroyed lives ( whether in the Bombay blasts or terrorist activities, with no particular religious affiliation occupying this strand of thinking)

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You know what, I have felt all of these long-abiding issues bubble to the surface after going through one of my earlier writings of THE GODFATHER (1972), the first in the trilogy, written five years ago. As I see wheels turn and previous structures of convention demolished and razed to the ground, I felt that now is the time to revisit some narratives and assess them accordingly. I am still awed by the brilliance of the trilogy vis a vis its cast and crew and overall slow-burning unravelling as well as moral wrestling with hard truths and by its scales being tipped towards one of damnation and no return for the protagonists battling complexities galore, especially the third part. But for now, I will not share that original appraisal of the film with my readers. Not in an environment where violence has become an ironic buzzword and men of ill-repute occupy corridors of ‘power’ while corruption rules the roost even amidst a global pandemic.

The only concession I can give in this regard is to THE IRISHMAN(2019) in the way it weaves in the alienation, social ostracization and hatred from one’s family that ensues for an ageing man(Robert De Niro) involved directly and indirectly with the mob in New York of yore. As are the brutal deaths for several key facilitators, justifying the lifetime of crime they signed up for. It’s an important meditation on the price one pays and is ready for once the stakes pass on to the hands of devil. Its pacing too greatly underlined that slow, rotting passage of time for an individual who can never make amends and has perpetually been locked out of heaven’s gate within his lifetime, awaiting a death that can come anytime in an isolated old age home’s room. That is a work that truly shows the after-effects of one’s bad choices. Or take the case of Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) which in its comic, mocking, irreverent style shows the Manson family cohorts for the delusional, idiotic savages they are, positing the sheer brutality and absurdity of their post-modern legacy through their actions (and the ends they meet). The two best friends at the story’s core ( Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio) and the large-hearted filmstar ( Margot Robbie) ultimately get saved from the carnage and reunite. It’s a work that justifies the consequences for all, on polarized sides of behavioural patterns.

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So for now my assessment of THE GODFATHER will not be limited to its realism, iconic status or its original prose material’s coherence by Mario Puzo. It will remain shut out of my writing’s dominant centre.

So have I ever watched a work with an anti-hero or negative personage and enjoyed it, you may ask? The answer is a resounding no. As I appreciate constructive real-life dramas based on the arcs of people who have something positive to provide us, I can never program my mind towards that direction. But that’s arising out of my preference and not some moral high ground. Horror narratives are ultimately analogies, animation works are approximations of truths that we choose to ignore or sidestep in our everyday wanderings but crime sagas are in your face and enlarging their footprint of blood, gore and ultraviolence in the name of commerce is a disservice to the world and we as audiences need to refrain from such examples. That is why I can never look at A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and not tremble uncomfortably at its content. Take due note of that, now more than ever.

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2 thoughts on “WHY WE NEED TO REASSESS NARRATIVES AROUND CRIME IN POPULAR CULTURE.

  1. By the time i was ending reading your essay above, A clockwork Orange started subtly knocking my mind and well, i see it by the time you were ending it. Pushing the criminal image forward, killing of Gulshan kumar at his professional peak, and many such incidents which now one can probably analyse to how and why ? But the good thing being we are understanding and seems now more than ever ready to discard what seems not right or outright commercial.

    Liked by 2 people

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