Paralysed by reverence: Why we don't dare make a Lincoln

by Sandip Roy  Feb 12, 2013 15:16 IST

#FilmCrit   #Lincoln   #Steven Spielberg   #Swami Vivekananda   #The Light  

Lincoln should be compulsory viewing for all those who want a miracle cure – whether it’s the Aam Aadmi party, Narendra Modi or a Jan Lokpal - for all the ills that beset our country.

If there is one message in the movie it’s this – change is not easy. It doesn’t mean it’s not worth striving for. But the road to change can be knee-deep in muck and compromise.

Steven Spielberg has not made the conventional hagiographic epic bio-pic though it’s respectful enough in a feel-good American way. Lincoln is actually a political thriller, the backroom story of all the wheeling and dealing that went into amending the American constitution to abolish slavery. By spending almost two and half hours focused on Abraham Lincoln’s dogged pursuit of the Thirteenth Amendment, Spielberg gets to show us the the arm-twisting, the sweetheart deals, the half-truths and plain old bluffing that go into bringing about historic change. "The greatest measure of the Nineteenth Century. Passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America," congressman Thaddeus Stevens marvels after it's all said and done.

Now all these years later that change has acquired a sort of halo, carved into immovable granite, the story of a mighty man who swam nobly against the tide.

Lincoln, as portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis is noble but he’s also droll and long-winded. His critics complain he is a dawdler. Yes, he has a moral compass but he also worries about his son going to battle, fights with his wife and settles for less than he believes in because he does not want to make perfect the enemy of the good. He is not yet the heroic figure carved into Mount Rushmore. He is still quite human. He has to deal with the moral quandary of prolonging the Civil War because if it ends first, there will be no congressional appetite to amend the Constitution to abolish slavery. It’s an uneasy and murky choice.

Image from Lincoln's Facebook page.

Image from Lincoln's Facebook page.

Instead of struggling with those shades of gray when we portray our national heroes, more often than not we produce terribly dull bio-pics that have been carefully sanitised to offend nobody at all. So they attract nobody either.

Take The Light, the brand new film about Swami Vivekananda, timed to coincide with his 150th birth anniversary. Vivekananda is obviously one of India’s iconic figures. Narendra Modi knows it and he’s made him sort of the mascot of his campaign for a “resurrected India” helped along by thousands of Vivekananda volleyballs and cricket bats.

Modi’s embrace aside, this is a story that’s obviously bursting with dramatic potential. And it has been filmed before in the nineties with Mithun Chakravarty playing Sri Ramakrishna. “I have tried to recapture the event-filled life of Swami Vivekananda,” the Tutu Sinha, the filmmaker for The Light told the media. It is an “event-filled” life, short at it was. The young man who initially scoffs at Ramakrishna and then inexorably falls under his spell, his great Discovery of India journey down to Kanyakumari, his voyage to Chicago and then his untimely death — all of this can make for a really stirring film even for those who are not tracking  #Vivekananda150 on Twitter.

But alas, The Light is just another one of legions of well-intentioned but terribly bland bio-pics that have their subject already ossified in his greatness even before the first frame. It becomes a sickly paean to Hindu Muslim unity with colourful Muslims singing and dancing through fields to meet up with equally colourful Hindus singing and dancing through identical fields. The South Indian devotees shake their heads and say Aiaiyo at regular intervals. Vivekananda’s mother weeps. When she stops, his grandmother weeps. Then all the women weep. It's enough to make anyone run to the monastery.

Everyone who meets Vivekananda from the Dewan of a kingdom to John Rockefeller to JRD Tata promptly falls under his spell. One moment his order is struggling to gather enough alms to feed themselves. The next moment he has kings falling at his feet and upgrading his ship passage to Chicago to a first class one. The only obstacles to greatness seem to be some snow in Chicago and a thorn that gets stuck in his foot as he travels around India as a young monk. His stubble meanwhile comes and goes, as if like Rahul Gandhi he cannot make up his mind as to whether he is growing a beard or not.

In Lincoln, on the other hand, early on in the film, a black man tells the president “You got stringy hair for a white man?” “Yes, I do,” Lincoln replies. “My last barber hanged himself.”

Vivekananda was not a man devoid of humour. You just have to read his letters from abroad to get a sense of his lively mind. He wrote “I have been asked many times, ‘Why do you laugh so much and make so many jokes?’ I become serious sometimes – when I have stomach ache!”

If that is true, then the Vivekananda of The Light almost always has a stomach ache.

It’s unfair to compare a Steven Spielberg or his budget with Tutu Sinha, the much less experienced director of The Light. But the fact is we struggle to do our national icons justice because we are too afraid to see them as human. We are afraid that stepping outside the safe path will be construed as attacks on the nation itself and trigger protests and demands for bans. We think of them as statues not as stories. And then we lament that young people today don’t know, or seem to care more, about a figure as dynamic as Vivekananda.