Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Worship the Art: Thoughts on the Ilayaraja controversy and idol worship

The irony of the title will not be lost on those that know me.  I am one of the most passionate movie buffs that you will have the pleasure of knowing – many may say, ‘pain of enduring’ but let me look at the full half of the glass!  But I don't always stop with just watching the films.  I have, through contacts, persistence, serendipity or a combination of all of these, met a considerable number of film folks from writers to directors to actors.  The root cause of this urge to reach out to them is the fact that their art gives me tremendous joy.  Movies and music are a very important part of my life.  A few years ago, ‘Crazy’ Mohan offered a profound, even moving explanation of humor and its role in society.  He opined that the profundity of novelists, intellectuals and social workers were all akin to a surgery that was performed by these social doctors on society; humor was the anesthesia.  By itself, it may not have intrinsic value but without it, surgery is impossible.  In a way, movies are the anesthesia for my life.  As much as it is the intention of filmmakers to evoke a reaction, visceral or cerebral, movies are a parallel stream of consciousness.  They exist on a different plane.  Yet they are a calming influence that help me keep myself centered.  And what about the people that create this parallel universe for me?  Are they akin to God?

For creators, being deified is not only an honor but also a burden.  But in a lot of cases, they only have themselves to blame.  There are very few filmmakers in Tamil cinema who consciously avoid the spotlight or the public adulation (Mani Ratnam is a case in point).  Some like singer Chinmayi utilize social media to make themselves accessible to people, especially for important social causes like the #MeToo movement.  But a lot of celebrities live off the idol worship, the sycophancy, the constant shower of praise, some empty.  They believe that their prima donna behaviors are a natural byproduct of their genius.  That civility, empathy and respect are all things that people can pray for but not expect from them the way they can of lesser mortals.  In here lies the dilemma that we fan(atic)s face – we have a choice.  We can choose our boundaries.  We can choose to keep the art at an arm’s length and the artist at a barge pole’s length.  And to point of this write-up, we can choose the subject of our worship –the art or the artist?  Alas, the inexorable pull of the medium can be too hard to resist for some.  And yes, I admit – I have had my challenges too!

The recent video of Ilayaraja acting in a rude, insensitive manner towards a security person during his concert should not come as any surprise.  I am not going to delve into the rights and wrongs of his behavior.  The poor security officer was in a state of shock.  Singer Mano stepped into defuse the situation but not before gesturing to the officer to fall at Ilayaraja’s feet!  Of course, the officer didn’t have to.  He could have stated his rationale and exited the stage.  But it is impossible to imagine the pressure he must have felt in front of a humungous crowd, standing next to a man who is worshipped as a God, hailed as a king of music.  The ‘God’ gave evidence that he is just a human being, with his own flaws and foibles. 

I have had several memorable exchanges with filmmakers and actors.  I have been mesmerized and awestruck to be in their presence.  I have had mostly pleasant interactions.  In some instances like with Director Vasanth, I have had longstanding friendships that sprouted from my love of their art.  But there have been other instances – I will not mention names – where I have seen the subjects of my adoration behave or say things that have rubbed me off the wrong way.  I have simply distanced myself from them.  I know of friends who cannot stand to watch the film of a much-respected artist whose actions and behaviors (in real life) left a bitter taste – Woody Allen is a case in point.  It is a very, very valid choice - after all, we have to respect our instinctive reactions in such cases.  Others go to the other extreme, ignoring these things completely with a laser focus on the art itself.  They have even made public statements to this effect.  I find myself somewhere in the middle.  I certainly don’t think that a work of art can or should obscure unacceptable behaviors.  But the truth remains that I can watch (or listen to) the creations without the ghosts of the creators’ dark sides looming over me.  After all, it is the art that gives me joy. 

It is the art that moves me.  It is the art that uplifts me.  The artists come second.  If I know some of them and they are nice to me, that is an added bonus, a privilege that I don’t take for granted.  But by the same token, I think that celebrities have responsibility too.  Let me hasten to add that I am not about to act as moral police.  All I am saying is that they cannot assume that the adoration of their art must co-exist with a condoning of their behaviors.  They don’t have to act or sound angelic.  But the written and unwritten rules of societal interaction apply to them too.  But as long as we deify them, we will continue to unwittingly imply that they are the exception to these rules.  So, as fans, I think we must empower ourselves to create a healthy distance from creators while knowing that if we want to get any closer, we are subconsciously signing up to take risks that come with the territory.  That, I think, will be a lot easier than to sit back and expect celebrities to mend their ways and act in ways that stack up to the heights that their art take us to.  After all, the parallel universe that they create for us is easier to enter into and exit from.  If we only remember that while they may have created it, we own it now!

1 comment:

Zola said...

Very topical article Ram ! My sister and I were arguing about the same ting few weeks back. She said " yes AR Rahman had a great bedside manner but how many of his songs are you able to listen to today unlike Ilayaraja's ? " Point taken.

Kamalahasan said something very perceptive - for a change :):) - " Dont go near people whom you revere. You'll be disappointed"

Its very difficult to separate the art from the artist but it helps. Sometimes one has to be extremely ruthless and answer the bottomline question :Dud the artist take you where you wanted to go ? If Yes then screw everything else."