Jeethu Joseph's Drishyam and the Issue of Fabricated Paradigm of Honour
The movie Drishyam (2014), hailed initially as a gripping family tale, has of late been hounded by controversies. The narrative revolves around the efforts of the protagonist to cover up a murder to save his family. The audience prodded on and applauded each lie that the protagonist uttered; fair became foul, foul became fair; the mesmerized spectator left the theatre pleased that poetic justice prevailed. Soon, however enchantment gave way to ratiocination. The custodians of law reacted aggressively; the media took centrestage; ‘well executed’ murders got attributed to the ‘Drishyam effect’. The director and the actor openly expressed their dissent over the arrogance of ‘mediacracy’ that blamed the movie for the ills of society.
The quintessential Drishyam discourse manifested the complex media- culture interaction. It got garbed as a site that negotiates and transcreates social values and norms. The movie, whose script was inspired by thrillers and real accounts of criminal behaviour, has as protagonist a commoner who uses ideas from the movies he has watched to outthink the enforcers of law. The function of art – didactic or aesthetic – is yet again problematised. The success of the movie hinged on the nonchalance of a culture that flouts codes and conventions to salvage the honour of a ‘criminal’ family. Worse, this very culture later ostracizes the movie for inspiring and perpetrating crimes.
Further examination sheds light on some other hitherto unexplored aspects of the movie that lay bare the role media plays in fabricating the contours of an ‘Indian’ culture. Drishyam boldly unravels the hypocrisy of a culture that inextricably links a woman’s identity with her “virtue”, that approves as didactic, adult-movies that closes with the tragic end of a fallen woman, thus imparting a “lesson”. A culture created and sustained by the media can perhaps behave no better.
This scrutiny feels that making criminal-thinking public is beneficial in that it would forestall possibilities of criminal behaviour stemming from such ingenious but deviant thinking. By unravelling the multiple facets of the complex relationship between media and culture as instanced in Drishyam, this paper attempts to put in perspective the role media plays in moulding, altering and controlling public opinion.
In Mass Media and Popular Culture (1984) K. Turner states "popular culture and the mass media have a symbiotic relationship: each depends on the other in an intimate collaboration" (4). Facts and stories get modified, altered and subverted through popular transmission to such an extent today that the symbiotic and reciprocal relationship between media and culture gets monitored and scrutinised frequently. Values, norms and taboos become increasingly designed and popularised by the media. The Mohanlal-starrer Jeethu Joseph thriller Drishyam (2014) is a case in point. This paper attempts, by unravelling the multiple facets of the complex relationship between media and culture as instanced in Drishyam, to put in perspective the role media plays in moulding, altering and controlling public opinion. It also problematises the fabricated paradigm of honour projected by the movie. This paper makes use of the term ‘mediacracy’ to signify the power that media wields - a situation in which media dominates or controls the populace (A system wherein people stop thinking and start listening exclusively to the media regarding what the important issues are and what they should do about them. The term is a play on democracy/bureaucracy and news media; possible reference to being mediocre).
The narrative of the movie revolves around the efforts of the protagonist Georgekutty (played by Mohanlal) to cover up a murder that happens in his home. His beloved wife and children are so dear to him that he would do anything to save them. The murder itself was inadvertent; it was more an effort by a girl (Georgekutty’s elder daughter) to save her honour. However, the family can expect no mercy, for the murdered is the son of a top police officer. What ensues is an exciting combat between truth and falsity. The protagonist gets the audience to cheer and celebrate his moves. The audience prod on and applaud each lie that the protagonist utters; fair becomes foul, foul becomes fair; the mesmerized spectator leaves the theatre pleased that poetic justice prevailed.
The movie got rave reviews; it was hailed as an emphatic statement of exceptional storytelling skills. The director Jeethu Joseph won plaudits from all quarters for the brilliant script, megastar Mohanlal was praised by all and sundry for the acting master-class he gave and the movie became one of the all-time hits of the Malayalam film industry. Then, as enchantment gave way to ratiocination, problems started. The custodians of law reacted aggressively. Additional Director General of Police T P Sen Kumar criticised the movie openly and expressed his fears that the film could give out a wrong message to the audience. He strongly felt that the movie could give criminals ideas on how to hide a crime. Moreover, to quote him, “when you are being blackmailed by someone, you should approach the police and not take the law into your own hands”. According to Trivandrum City Police Commissioner P Vijayan, there can be many among the audience who do not have the discretion to understand the cinematic element of the film and who could potentially use the tactics used by the protagonist of the movie for criminal purposes. Inspector General K Padma Kumar also expressed his reservations about the movie. He felt that the message of the film was disturbing in that nothing could justify a crime. He asks, "if I am hungry and have mouths to feed, do I have the right to rob someone?” And he adds, “the said film seemed like an educational film on how to cover up a crime".
The media took centre-stage; several actual murders which were meticulously planned, accomplished and hid from the police were attributed by the media as an effect of 'Drishyam' phenomenon. To make matters worse, the two accused in the Nilambur murder case confessed that their modus operandi to dispose of the victim's body was inspired by Drishyam. Like in the film, they tried to destroy all evidences to make it seem as if the crime never happened. The killers put the woman's body in a bag and dumped it in a pond. They tied a stone to the sack to make sure that the bag did not surface. Apart from this, the murderers seem to have received one more tip from the film. In Drishyam, the protagonist deposits the victim's mobile phone sim card in a truck which goes out of the state, in a deliberate effort to mislead the police. Similarly, in the real-life incident, the murderers leave the woman's sim card on the railway track at a place located some forty kilometres away from the crime scene, again to hoodwink the police officials.
Unprecedented scrutiny by ‘mediacracy’ followed. It was celebration time for the media as chat shows, interviews and discussions analysed threadbare the pros and cons of the issue. What was at stake was the role of art in delighting and entertaining the masses. Filmmakers and the Censor Board came to the movie’s defence, asserting that a film should be seen as a film, and that viewers are not idiots to copy those in real life. The director and the actor expressed their dissent over the arrogance of mediacracy that blamed the movie for the ills of society. Jeethu Joseph claimed that his is a work of fiction and shows how some people react in certain circumstances. He accused the police of using his film's name to cover up their fault.
In a write-up in Malayala Manorama newspaper, Mohanlal maintained that movies which are just art forms cannot be copied to real life, and hence cannot be the inspiration for crimes. Lal even pointed out the renowned Kathakali story, Baalivadham as an example. Just as the aattakadha, immensely popular with the Malayali audience, cannot be blamed for the sibling rivalries in Kerala, movies like Drishyam cannot be censured for inspiring people to do crimes. He shared his disappointment with the media’s attitude that held the movie culpable for criminal acts in the state. He insisted that people should understand that cinema is born out of somebody's imagination and it is not reality. He also clarified that Drishyam conveys some good messages apart from the basic plot and the movie does not support any type of criminal activities. Like the movie, its post-mortem by the media and the public too turned out to be a thriller!
Now, looking back at the whole episode, one cannot miss the fact that the quintessential Drishyam discourse is a sordid manifestation of the complex media- culture interaction. The movie itself got garbed as a site that negotiates and transcreates social values and norms. As we trace the genesis of Drishyam, it becomes more and more obvious that the movie itself was an offshoot of the media- culture interaction. Jeethu Joseph, who penned the script and directed the movie, grew up reading the likes of Agatha Christie. The script, as Jeethu acknowledged, was inspired by detailed descriptions on how the criminal was tracked and nabbed – the official modus operandi used in the investigation – narrated publicly, yes, by police officers, via the media.
Again, Georgekutty, the protagonist of the movie, is a cinema-crazy farmer, who runs a local cable network business while cherishing the dream of owning a theatre one day. He is parsimonious and does not like to squander money on anything beyond the basic necessities. His only concern except for his family is watching movies. He spends most of his time in front of the television in his small office. He is so obsessed with movies that he makes every major decision in life by subconsciously taking an example from some film he has seen. And when the situation gets tough, making use of ideas from the movies he has watched Georgekutty masterminds the script within the master-script – another offshoot of the same media-culture interaction – and deploys it to outsmart the enforcers of law. He does not traverse any extraordinarily heroic path in his endeavour to protect his family, but he cleverly carries out all that is justifiable for a person with only basic education, a passion for cinema and an ardent love for his wife and children.
The function of art – didactic or aesthetic – is yet again problematised. For Georgekutty, the movies performed both functions to perfection. They delighted and entertained him initially, and when the situation demanded they instructed him to take cues from the movies themselves on how to save a family from ignominy and disgrace. Armed with these movie-taught lessons, he confronted and outfoxed the entire police outfit. However, those who criticized the movie for sending out a wrong message saw only the didactic side of art. They forgot that it was first and foremost a movie, a product of the entertainment industry, that its primary and most important objective was to entertain people, to help them forget the worries of life.
Drishyam audaciously put forward a fresh sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ based on the sincere convictions of a scrupulous man. Of course, these rights and wrongs were obviously not in line with the existing criminal laws of the land. So the success of the movie hinged on the possibility that our nonchalant culture would flout codes and conventions to salvage the honour of a ‘criminal’ family, provided it is convinced. To the success of Drishyam, the audience stood firmly with the convictions of Georgekutty till the very end.
The movie broke most box-office collection records and the media celebrated the success passionately. But the circle hadn’t come full round. As the movie began to be hounded by controversies, the media shifted its stance and educated the masses about the ill-effects perpetrated by the movie. This tale, unlike the movie which inspired it, had a tragic end, for the very culture that initially embraced the movie as its own and rejoiced at its success later slammed and ostracized it, at the behest of ‘mediacracy’, for inspiring and perpetrating crimes.
Now, leaving this discussion incomplete for the time being, this paper invites your attention to a certain hitherto unexplored aspect of the movie that could potentially unravel the role media plays in fabricating the contours of an archetypal ‘Indian’ culture. The plot of the movie revolves around the video that Varun, the teenaged prodigal son of a top police officer, captures of Georgekutty’s daughter bathing during a nature camp. He intimidates the girl, threatening to upload the video onto the internet if she doesn’t surrender to his wishes. The girl unburdens her heart to her mother who intervenes, beseeching the youngster not to upload the video as the entire family will then have to commit suicide since their honour will be compromised. Behind the thin veneer of a mother’s pleas to salvage the honour of her daughter and family, a discerning critic can see camouflaged the faint outlines of the dictates of a fabricated culture.
To start with, the circumstance in which this unpleasant incident takes place emphasizes the widely prevalent notion that sending girls outside the safety of their homes is dangerous. Drishyam boldly unravels the hypocrisy of a culture that inextricably links a woman’s identity with her “virtue”. The mother’s supplication simply plays up to the conviction that if a girl ‘loses’ her ‘honour’, then the only feasible way out is death. Not just for her but for her entire family. This thought surfaces time and again in movies, although in real life, survivors of sexual abuse and their families are beginning to fight their battles without being cowed down by the fear of loss of ‘reputation’.
Had it been a different cultural milieu, the mother would then probably have faced Varun boldly and asked him to destroy the video. She would still have protested on behalf of her daughter and fought for her. But she wouldn’t have used the language, tone and reasons that she did; she wouldn’t have framed the issue in the problematic paradigm of honour. She would then present her case as one that involves violation of her privacy and bodily integrity. The story wouldn’t have suffered one bit; it would still have been as convincing as it is now. However, ifs and buts are of no use. This is a culture framed and fabricated by a media that wants to limit it to a superficial ‘indian’ness while bombarding it with cultural specimens of the West. One can expect nothing better from a market-driven media that bases itself on the dictates of Western culture.
Another related issue begs our consideration here. During his outburst against the movie, Additional Director General of Police T P Sen Kumar had said, "We can't ask such films to be banned, but at least there should be a right message at the end. A girl who hides such a murder will turn into a psychiatric patient later on in real life." What does he mean here? Would the movie have been acceptable to the lawgivers had it ended with shots of an asylum with Georgekutty’s daughters as inmates? Wouldn’t the criminals still have had the opportunity to master the strategies in covering up a crime? No reasonable person would agree that “a right message in the end” would convince criminals to stay away from crimes. So, this is just another event that underscores the hypocrisy of our culture, a culture that finds fault with movies like Drishyam for sending ‘a wrong message to the audience’, one that approves as didactic, adult-movies that close with the tragic end of a fallen woman, thus imparting a “lesson”. A culture created and sustained by the media can perhaps behave no better!
Coming back to our original discussion, one feels that making criminal-thinking public through a popular medium like the movie need not always be wrong. Rather than helping criminals hide crimes and deceive the police, such public scrutiny of criminal behaviour only help the enforcers of law in anticipating and preventing crimes. The possibilities that a criminal mind could explore can never be completely exhausted; they are simply infinite. If a Jeethu Joseph hadn’t done that, some criminal would have. And that could only have made matters worse. So, instead of blaming the movie for perpetrating crimes, the enforcers of law should have taken the cue from the movie and anticipated and prevented such criminal behaviour. Further, more than any movie, it is the actual descriptions, mostly on television, by police, detailing their modus operandi in tracking and nabbing some criminal, that help criminals more in covering up their paths and crimes. This can really be counterproductive since the criminal, who is being enlightened about the official ways of investigation, will come up with a better, if not more sinister, plan to beat the police. Above all, it is a matter of choice. To round off, this scrutiny strongly feels that making criminal behaviour public should be deemed beneficial in that it would forestall possibilities of criminal behaviour stemming from such ingenious but deviant thinking.
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