"No, you don't understand. That is what the name is called. The name really is The Aged Aged Man. The song is called Ways and Means but that is only what it is called." (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There)
And why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up. (Thomas Wayne, to young Bruce Wayne, Batman Begins)
Anna Hazare and his band of followers continue with their struggle to get their foot in the door. They earnestly, and perhaps rightly, believe that they represent the frustrations of the Indian people with having to deal with a corrupt and arrogant system in every aspect of daily life. After witnessing the loyalty of political parties, the media, and the government to the cause of eradicating graft from public life, I thought I would write about Batman.
I was impressed more than others with The Dark Knight Rises. While the trilogy is centered on the superhero theme, the closing film pulls in several metaphysical threads that are very relevant to the evolving consciousness of our times. In addition, I missed Robin right up to the very end. At the screening I attended, youngsters clapped, cheered and whistled when Batman first makes an appearance and every time he trounces the villains. It felt good but it felt strange. When I shared it later, my friends told me I was being elitist and cynical. But it was strange to hear an auditorium full of people cheering for Batman as if he were a Pawan Kalyan or a Salman Khan. It was strange when I contrasted this with the very Eastern acceptance that we display towards crime, injustice and corruption, towards exploitation, marginalization and abuse. In the face of my friends' criticism, I shut my mouth, and realized that maybe we are better off cheering at fictional superheroes in a dark auditorium.
It is not that our times are more crises-riddled than any other time in history. On the contrary, our time has seen mankind emerge victorious in several critical areas. Yet the present day sees a battle between the “ties that bind us together and those that would tear us apart” unlike at any other time in the past. We also have grown in our awareness of the evil that lies within us, perhaps within each of us, that is capable of destroying all that our civilization can be proud of. Technology has blessed us with the gift of protecting ourselves with the same generosity with which it has made it possible to wipe our race out. We have also developed an unparallelled hatred and intolerance for any fellow being who stands in the way of our greed and ambitions. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in governments and corporations and in criminals who hide behind governments and corporations.
Look at censorship, be it of the electronic or the digital media. Look at the impunity with which groups of people have been allowed to pimp our national resources away. Look at the swagger with which the underworld funds the entertainment industry. Look at how naive and easily provoked the Arvind Kejriwals and the Prashant Bhushans of our times look. Look how composed and self assured even the politicians who are in jail look compared to them.
These are the realities that the Dark Knight addresses. Unlike Matrix, where the questions revolve around the legitimacy of our perceived world and the possibility of sentient programming, Nolan’s Batman series confronts the question of morality and the choices that superheroes (or our highest ethical selves) are forced to face. It questions free will and the immutability of actions and their consequence.
Gotham City is a perfect representation of contemporary Indian society. It is lawless and amoral, and arrogantly so. The big boys of the underworld carry on their business with the certainty that one would think belonged only to the righteous. The villains in the films are more than just characters in the story. They have been carved out of the lessons in morality that can be found in almost every spiritual literature.
Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins is more than just the face of the Shadow of leagues, he is the destroyer who restores balance to creation, and he is totally assured of the righteousness of his actions. The Joker believes that he is the better class of criminals that the town deserves, not a monster, but just ahead of the curve. Bane takes the mindlessness of devilish function a step further by embracing physicality and lack of anything to redeem him in the sight of the viewer. The religious/spiritual imagery is hard to miss, be it the creator-preserver-destroyer in Batman Begins or the satanic exhortations of The Joker or the in-your-face evil of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.
Batman, the series and the superhero, has been built around darkness by Nolan. Not just cinematographically, but metaphorically too. There really is no white knight, but just the intense hope of mankind that it can somehow rectify the mess that it has dragged itself into. The films repeatedly plunge the characters and the viewers into facing classic paradoxes and dilemmas that cannot be dealt with in blacks and whites. This is the strength of the villains of the series. They are not driven by lack of choice, but by conviction. Just like Anna Hazare and friends have to think before they take names, Commissioner Gordon too has to keep himself half in shadow and half in light, if only to preserve the need for a superhero, a godlike savior that the common mortal can turn to in times of need.
The one thing that is common to all the villains is that they are products of our times, of our value system, and they could actually be the kid you grew up with and felt really close to. In a way, they symbolize the devilish aspects of humanity that exist in some measure in each one of us. The good news is that the superhero is also a product of the same predicament, and that the strength that Batman has lies not in his wealth or his gadgetry but in his inherent humanity and compassion. This strength is fortunately alive and kicking, and is perhaps the only reason we have not driven ourselves into extinction.
The present telling of the Batman story is about hope, the one thing that keeps us all going. It is about survival of human values in the face of the greatest crisis that mankind will ever have to deal with. It is about winning over the darkness within each one of us. It is about why the 75-year-old Gandhian continues to fight for the Lokpal Bill. It is about what makes each of us wake up in the morning and do the things that we know make a difference. It is about why I write, and why you are reading this.
By the time Alice heard it, she was already tired of poetry.
For those of you who clicked through expecting a review of the film and got stuck with this moral discourse, may I temper your disappointment by pointing you to two superb analytical reviews of this series that I came across.
Thoughts on the Batman Saga by Greatbong and Christopher Nolan's Batman Franchise - An Analysis by Arun of Passion For Movies.
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