Monday, 18 August 2014

Njan Steve Lopez: Finally A Character I Care For

I grew up reading the novels of Anand, a Malyalam writer who is considered by many as someone who explored totally new sensibilites in regional Indian writing, especially with his debut novel Aalkkoottam (The Crowd) much before path-breaking novels in English like Midnight's Children have appeared. As a young man, a character I came to care about beyond my own comprehension was Kundan,  the protagonist of Anand's Sahitya Akademi award winning novel Marubhoomikal Undakunnathu, available in English translation as Desert Shadows. Though many considered the character to be an example of a failed human being, he was my hero, if a non - hero can be a hero for someone.

Mainstream Malayalam movie industry could not ever conceive a major character who doesn't have some qualities of a conventional filmy hero, though not always backed by a heavy dose of innate virtue or machismo. For the same reason, I would never have cared for most of those 'hero' characters beyond a point, despite the many surprising ways in which our movies have excelled at various times even when they had the disturbing presence of heroic characters. I could only see these heroes as incompletely developed studies of human nature in situations where one's actions are guided more by popular expectations and acceptance than deep convictions. That was what I felt, till I came across Njaan Steve Lopez (I Am Steve Lopez ).  Steve, the protagonist of this movie, is stripped of major chunks of heroic qualities that he resembles Kundan in some ways. However, he is not totally reduced to the subhuman levels the latter ends up with, at least while he is still alive. The struggles both of them go through are solitary in nature. While the relatively mature Kundan's acts are based on deep convictions, Steve is depicted as a middle class youth protected by a lot of people around him. He just ends up taking some decisions which he can't even explain to himself. Just like Kundan was considered a 'failed' individual, Steve can be seen a 'foolish' young man - if we see the world in filmy terms.

The whole crew deserve praises for the way they executed the vision, without posing unnecessary obstacles. I am not a film maker, but as every imaginative viewer would, I considered other different ways in which the movie could have been made. I didn't succeed much. Which means, I feel Rajeev Ravi, the director, has made it in the best way possible. If I were as creatively accomplished I would just have changed a bit of the emphasis on 'authentic' Trivandrum-Parassala ambience through the songs, and used that space to expose more of the inner conflicts of Steve, and the other major character, Hari. I always have this problem with authenticity, though I know a bit of that is not much of an obstacle in getting into the real issues that are presented in the movie. I thought the young actors who gave life to Steve, Hari and and Steve's girlfriend Anjali did a great job to stay close to, and at ease with, the characters. All the other supporting actors were also selected with care, it seemed. I believe the cinematography achieved most of the vision of the movie as well. However, the strength of the movie relies on its thematic vision.The fact that the whole movie can leave different impressions on different people can be considered one of its achievements. While I was trying to figure out how Steve's mind worked, my sister was more concerned about Hari - it so happens that her teaching career in places around Trivandrum gave her experiences to interact with similar people, and to see them in various life situations.

The question revolves around the value of a human being's life, reflected upon in different ways in literary works like Doesteovsky's Crime And Punishment much earlier and Ian McEwan's Saturday in the not too distant past. Steve's responses can be interpreted as part of a rebellion against the upper middle class notions of leading a 'peaceful' life. A life based on the living room comforts. If you open your eyes to details, you see that the cosy sofas there actually sit smugly on a lot of blood. But that can be wished away if you ignore certain ethical issues of human existence.

Steve has all the problems that regular teenagers in Kerala these days have. I have seen a lot of them, in the role of a teacher. But the director has succeeded in instilling a deeper concern in the drowsy eyes of the otherwise unremarkable person who plays the part - Farhaan Fazil. I have seen the same in real teenagers too - but only in less than 5%, roughly. He worries about the injustices in the world, in his own useless ways. We feel he is just another shallow creature who thinks out a bit too loud on chats and updates in social media. He drinks too much and too carelessly for his age. He just follows his friends when they run away foolishly from the police. He is a pampered cat at home, allowed to sleep as he likes and to wake up late in the morning and to go around dreamily for the rest of the day. He has a cold war with his grandpa over the toilet timings. His father scolds him often, but in an affectionate way. There is enough emotional padding from his mother and sister. He is not as much middle-class-indoctrinated as his girl friend - about being focused in life, of making some sense of his existence. I loved these small details that delineated his character in the first few minutes.

And then, the epiphany. He witnesses a brutal crime in the street, tries to intervene, gets a tight slap on the face and is shoved off roughly. Even as the pain on his cheek is still very alive, he tries to process in his mind the act of violence that takes place right in front of him. He sees blood gushing forth from the body of the victim, and the onlookers' eyes are filled with disgust - not compassion. They watch it just like it's happening on a movie screen, with their wretched pity and fear, and the relief that it's not them who are attacked. He is drawn into a maze of questions from that moment. Questions that he dares to ask, despite the warnings he receive from the sane people around him, who know that it is better not to ask those questions. This is where the movie differs from those regular movies that use violence as a mere spectacle, or teenagers as oversensitive creatures who find the greatest fulfillment in their life through love, or success at any cost.

Steve has to be seen, to be understood. But all seeing him may not lead to understanding him, especially if you are going to write off his acts as stupid. That is one reason why the ones who produced the movie knew that it was not going to be a box office hit. It's not meant to be a movie for the majority. If not just for those 5% I mentioned, it can at least extend to a bit more viewers, who are willing to take Steve's decisions in an open-minded way. It is also possible that the movie could be seen as a cautionary tale - on how to desensitize your children, from a very young age, from the life and sufferings of the subhuman creatures around you. They are, after all, just a 'menace to the society'. To borrow a phrase from Salman Rushdie, Steve has failed to develop his 'city eyes'. Viewers in this category would have an aversion to the 'ugly' scenes in which the hired thugs get attacked and killed, while they would leave out a deep sigh at the suggestion of Steve being attacked in the same way. Because, hey, he is one among us. The question that the movie raises is - then, what about the thugs? You mean those are not ones among us too? Would the wives and children of real thugs feel things in a similar way when they watch the movie? Would they shed their tears for the thugs and not for Steve? If yes, they are not any better, than you.

Steve's greatest realization is that the comforts that he enjoyed from a young age were built on top of a lot of corruption and inhumanity. If his father kept asking the questions that he gets attached to, there wouldn't be much to enjoy in life for all his family. While it is easy to draw that connection in the life of a police officer in Kerala who has to be a part of the crimes around him whenever he turns a blind eye to certain incidents, there are hints at the general ways in which all human beings who do the same at some point of their life, which are no different. There are examples in the movie itself - of doctors, journalists, students, tea shop owners...Steve's outrage against them is in fact greater than the one he has for the hired thugs who kill each other in a puppet dance, of which the invisible strings are pulled by many in the civil society, including his father.

But is it not 'foolish', you may ask again, to be your brother's keeper all through your life? You are right. Steve was foolish. But there is a lot of innocence and virtue in his foolishness. His innocence and rebellion are closely linked.  Steve's rebellion would not have been possible without his innocence. The movie starts with the Albert Camus quote which goes, “Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence.” The one good thing that his corrupt father had perhaps done was to leave Steve to his world, to not interfere with his views and to not expose him to the 'smart' ways in which one has to live in order to achieve success and peace in life. In other words, he never taught his son the tricks of his trade and Steve grew up with a certain amount of innocence that all his friends lacked. They all criticize him when he gets involved in the lives of criminals. His girlfriend chides him on this occasion the same way she does it about his lack of focus in life. Why does Steve differ from them? Perhaps it is not all in the bringing up. He is programmed that way too.

 Even as his unusual choices can be labelled unwise, Steve comes of age in many other ways. He learns about 'other' lives, so far hidden from him. He finds a lot of meaning in their little acts of affection and kindness. He could connect well with the tender feelings the leader of a set of hired thugs, Hari, has for his wife and kid. While many other directors would have gone overboard to humanize these 'others' in the movie, Rajeev focuses more on the effect their life has on Steve, fully realizing that some among the viewers would still consider him a fool, to allow himself to be transformed in such ways. Isn't he foolish to notice that Hari's wife and his girlfriend have the same name, that both of them have assigned ring tones in their phone that sing the name, Anjali, in two different ways? Isn't he foolish to notice that one among Hari's accomplices loves to play games on the mobile phone? Isn't he foolish to notice that no one in their right mind, and decent enough living circumstances, would dare to indulge in work that risks their life any moment? Isn't he foolish to care for the suffering of a seriously injured man and his life, even though he turns out to be a criminal? Isn't he foolish to think that a doctor and a police officer should be responsible for the lives of the people who are, in some circumstances, under their power? Isn't he foolish to see a bit of himself in Hari, when there is absolutely no need for that? (Perhaps Steve drew parallels between his epiphany, the decision to throw himself into an unaccustomed terrain in search of answers to difficult questions, and Hari's possible decision at a young age to consider having a dangerous profession as a means to support his family.)

You may say that we live in a world where we can't be drawn through Steve's dreamy thoughts to a dangerous maze that traps us at a dead end. That Life waits for us outside it. That Steve's coming of age leads not to the loss of innocence, but the loss of existence. That it's his nostalgia for innocence that leads him to trouble. That we can't revert the world back to its state of bliss, as we remember it, when we weren't bothered about justice, crime, punishment, value of life, or the lack of it. That it's better to realize that we can't be our brother's keepers. That every man has to care for himself, even if we don't make sure that there is a situation in which they can.

I don't agree with you. I know that big trouble awaits the 5% teenagers who are different. I care for them. That's why Njan Steve Lopez  is my movie.

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