Friday, 30 May 2014

When a Movie is Not Just a Movie

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A few weeks ago I watched a movie called "The Monuments Men". Doesn't the title itself sounds interesting? To me it did. Well, to my husband actually who picked it up from the DVD store. He saw the cover, saw George Clooney on it and he knew I would enjoy it no matter what. And he was right. I enjoyed the film, and not just because of George Clooney (did I say that the film is also directed by him, so a two-in-one kind of treat if you are a real fan), not because it is a great film or anything, but for some other reasons which I will share in a minute. I enjoyed the film even though at times the plot seemed a bit chaotic with too many characters in too many different locations....but then there's always the George Clooney factor. Really. That takes care of many things, at least for me. And if that's not enough, how about throwing in the mix Matt Damon too. Can it get any better than that?

Of course it can. 

If you start going a bit deep into what the movie is telling you.

You might have guessed by now that this is not a review of the film. Those you can read on the net, if you have heard of something called Google. A few reviews that I read after watching the film (I generally avoid reading anything about a film if I am planning to watch it) were a mixed bag, some pointing out the historical inaccuracies in the film's plot (the film claims to be based on true events), some referring to other flaws in the film narrative, the lack of character development etc. But all that is too technical for my specific purpose here.

What I found most interesting in the film was the idea behind the story. The idea that while the whole world was burning under the massive flames of the inferno called Second World War, there was a small but very important concern taking hold of some minds that the War was destroying not only millions of human lives and thousands of cities and towns, but was also posing a great danger to the innumerable pieces of art, architecture and sculpture, one of the greatest accomplishments of any civilization.

Saving art and sculpture in the middle of a gruesome, most horrible war? Can any piece of art be worth more than a human life? Can a group of dedicated art-enthusiasts really save some precious art without concern for their safety? Should they have taken that risk? The film brings out some of these questions. And I, for one, thought that it was worth reflecting on those questions because they challenge us to think about the conflict that often arises between saving the life of human beings and the life of humanity. They challenge us to reflect upon the fact that a culture, a civilization is a living, breathing thing, which must be protected and aggressively defended, even in the middle of a war.
“The culture of a people may be roughly described as the expression of a consciousness of life which formulates itself in three aspects. There is a side of thought, of ideal, of upward will and the soul’s aspiration; there is a side of creative self-expression and appreciative aesthesis, intelligence and imagination; and there is a side of practical and outward formulation.” 
 ~Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Volume 20, p. 106 

The film’s premise and especially the true historical events which inspired the film really provoke the audience to reflect upon the value and necessity of all possible efforts that must be made to preserve and conserve the highest accomplishments and achievements of a culture’s creative self-expression and aesthetic imagination. It compels the audience to dig deep into the need for an aggressive defense of a culture and its highest accomplishments against all barbarism, whether it is an invasion from the outside or a parasite from within. It certainly made me recall this line: 
“The culture which gives up its living separateness, the civilisation which neglects an active self-defence will be swallowed up and the nation which lived by it will lose its soul and perish” (ibid., p. 57).
That is what the art-enthusiasts in the film were trying to do. They were trying to protect and defend that which made their culture living and unique, they were ready to sacrifice their lives to protect and defend the finest accomplishments of their civilization which were under grave danger. An idea like this in itself makes the film worthwhile in my subjective view.


But then there were two other things that made the film even more interesting for me. And these were not in any way part of the film’s story-line or narrative.

One was this thought at the back of my mind which at times even made me feel a little disconnected from the film. As I was watching this wonderful example of how some of the best art and sculpture produced by centuries and centuries of Western civilization was being so courageously protected and defended, I couldn't help feeling a tinge of pain when my thought went to the cruel historical reality that it was the same Western civilization which was behind the massive destruction of so many wonderful human accomplishments – be it in art, sculpture, systems of education, ways of life, languages, religions, – in so many parts of the world.

So many indigenous cultures and civilizations all over the world have had to face the destructive might of the West, in the name of imperialism, colonialism, settlement, civilizing mission, (and now economic globalization). What about all that?  -- a part of my mind kept raising this question. But the other part very much understood that the film was not about that, the story was set in a very particular historical moment, and that’s what it is concerned with.  And yet….

The second thing, which was again not part of the film’s plot or narrative, which made the experience more thought-provoking for me, is related to the first but is particularly relevant to India. A part of my mind wandered to the most violent and brutal destruction that had been unleashed on India’s finest sculptural and architectural marvels. The ruins of India’s glorious heritage and civilization are scattered all over her landscape for anyone to see. Thousands of broken stones and beheaded statues in thousands of Indian temples and cave-monasteries built thousands of years ago speak the story of the massive destruction they had once gone through at the hands of invaders and looters.

Kailash cave-temple, Ellora, photo by Suhas Mehra

They also speak the sad story of how even today India is not fully awakened to the need of protecting and defending this great heritage, these great accomplishments of her culture and civilization. The threat this time is not from the outside invaders, but from the in-house ignorance, apathy, indifference, neglect, and total disregard. The threat this time is not so much from the bullets and machine guns, but more from the home-grown weapons of mass delusion that are launched incessantly by the aggressive marketers of the glories of commercial-consumerist-mechanical-materialistic view of life(style).

Well, you would have never thought that a write-up on a film can be this long, especially when it doesn't even claim to be a review of the film. Let me conclude by saying that while the film as a film may not be that great (yes, despite George Clooney and Matt Damon), it certainly compels the audience (at least it compelled me) to reflect upon a few very important questions about the significance of art and all other highest aesthetic accomplishments in a civilization’s evolutionary march.

The film forces us to ask ourselves if we are doing enough to defend and protect those achievements of our past which have given our culture and civilization a unique stamp. It raises the question whether the future of a civilization depends on the extent to which the present generations can preserve and protect the finest splendours that have been handed over to them from the generations past.