The Oedipal intrigues of Indian cinema and if they undermine hope

British film critic Nicholas Barber has a fantastic insight in this review in The Economist. The gist is that increasingly more productions, especially from the West, have plots that ‘evolve’ to until they become some sort of a family dispute. Barber cites famous examples: Star Wars, Jason Bourne, Sherlock (by extension, Elementary), Goldfinger, Spectre, etc. Some plausible reasons he offers:

It’s not too hard to see why such universe-shrinking appeals to screenwriters. Drama is fuelled by revelations, and there aren’t many revelations more momentous – or easier to write – than, “I am your father/sister/brother!” Giving the protagonist a personal involvement in the plot is also a simple way of raising the emotional stakes, as well as making him or her more sympathetic to the viewer. Most of us will never be lucky enough to blow up a moon-sized space station, as Luke Skywalker did, but we all know what it’s like to be angry at a parent or resentful of a sibling.

But I suspect that there is more to this trend than narrative expedience. The new spate of universe-shrinking, of plots driven by personal animus, could well be a sign of how narcissistic our culture has become, and how desperate film and television studios are to please fans who are obsessed by their favourite characters. But it’s also a symptom of globalisation: now that studios are so reliant on overseas sales, they don’t want to risk offending foreign markets. It’s safer to be personal than political.

I disagree with Barber’s larger point because I think he might be projecting. Numerous episodes of Sherlock are concerned with family but only if that’s what you choose to take away. Instead, Barber appears to be picking on themes and in the process betraying a personal dislike for them. He may also be cherry-picking his examples; his review itself in The Economist has been prompted by one episode of one TV show.

Obviously this made me think of Indian cinema and if it’s been guilty of the same tactics. Of course it has and there are innumerable examples across eras. One that most ground at me was (spoiler alert) the very-recent Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru. But then the occasion also merits some introspection about the place of the Indian family and its sensibilities. Barber thinks more western creators are resorting to, as one comment points out, “Oedipal intrigues” because producers expect them to find more favour with western audiences. Similarly, what kind of “Oedipal intrigues” does the Indian audience like? A tangential take on this line of thought: what possibilities do “Oedipal intrigues” violate? For example, Barber explains how Luke Skywalker’s humble origins – which the audience may have been able to connect better with – are outwindowed when you realise he’s the brother of a famous princess and the son of the series’s greatest villain. Similarly, what possibilities offered by Indian cinema have been undermined by its own “Oedipal intrigues”?

The only thing that comes to mind is its treatment of women. Perhaps you can think of something else as well.

Featured image: A still from the film Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru.

About Me

I’m a science editor and writer in India, interested in high-energy and condensed-matter physics, research misconduct, pseudoscience, science’s relationship with society, epic fantasy, open source/access/knowledge systems, H.R. Giger’s art, Goundamani’s comedy, Factorio, and most things that require a lot of time to get the hang of.