Brahmastra, a Sanskrit word, refers to one of the “astra” (weapons) used in the two great wars of the Indian epics — Ramayana and Mahabharat. As described in the ancient scriptures, it is the ultimate weapon with an unparalleled catastrophic effect. Given that the Indian audiences have been looking forward to a local film that would create a spectacular world that Hollywood films within the Marvel Cinematic Universe manage, Brahmastra offers a great premise for a gripping plotline, stunning visuals, and cultural resonance. And so, a film has been made and released recently, by the same name. Set in contemporary Mumbai, the film depicts a mysterious group of villains trying to assemble the different parts of the Brahmastra, kept safely with modern-day sages as part of a secret society. The film seems to be a case study in illustrating how good intentions can take disastrous turns.
The good intentions are reflected by the filmmaker’s decision to explore one’s own cultural tradition: a rich reservoir of fascinating tales just waiting to be presented cinematically. And yet, there are many ways in which it is disastrous. For instance, there are those calling out Brahmastra for imitating the visual imagery of Hollywood films, its inorganic dialogues, lack of a good screenplay, and confused narrative progression. But what stands out to me is that it is trying too hard to tell a culturally rooted story. Lived culture is almost invisible to people who partake in it, but when culture is treated as a topping on a dish, it sticks out. To give a banal example from the film, there are a few scenes where Shiva, the protagonist, is touching the feet of his elders. Despite its traditional significance as a cultural sign of showing respect, it comes off as extremely forced — both in terms of the body language of the actor and its placement in those particular moments. The scene presents a regular, everyday action as bizarre and alien. A prop-like insertion of culture like this is so cringe that even conservative-leaning people may feel disappointed by this representation of tradition. One way to explain this particular disaster is with the paradox of decoloniality.
If you don’t know what decoloniality is, it may just mean that you are doing some interesting stuff with your life. But as someone interested in social science, I have to work with such concepts. Simply put, decoloniality cannot be explained simply. One has to go through some dense and convoluted spaces to get there. It’s like scoring weed for the first time in Delhi. You have to first convince the ricksha driver to go to that part of the town, then walk into these narrow lanes where strangers would stare and half-heartedly give you vague directions. And you will feel perpetually anxious about being there. Okay, so let me try and I apologize for this attempt in advance.
If you believe that the first world, sometimes referred to as the Global North, has an undue and often undeserving influence on the rest of the world, to the extent that third world countries and marginal cultures end up looking at themselves through their perspective, you are accepting that even though overt political colonization may be over, the force of coloniality persists. In common parlance, our uncritical fascination with western culture and ideals is often accused of our colonized mindset, and therefore decoloniality is seen as a kind of overcoming of the dominant discourse in favor of the local lived experience. At the heart of this exercise is the politics of attention and how decoloniality may open up for us that which was hitherto foreclosed. Decoloniality works in two prominent ways; (i) by calling out what is taken to be normal and universal and rendering it arbitrary and particular, and (ii) by normalizing and including the unforeseen aspects of a thing under consideration. I understand that there are enough controversies and disagreements around the concept of decoloniality, but bear with me, for I want to take you somewhere.
Cinema, as a big part of our cultural production, can be viewed through decoloniality. What makes cinema an extremely powerful cultural tool is its ability to reveal or hide aspects of reality that register in our senses but never quite get processed consciously, something Walter Benjamin called the optical unconscious. An image is not a passive object to be looked at as it actively orients our looking. Given this immense power of molding human perception, then consider who gets to decide what images will be seen by most people. Though delving deep into the political economy of films is outside the scope of this article, it is important to note that the kind of images we construct for ourselves may reflect colonial or decolonial perspectives, either reinforcing or disrupting culturally established ideas around representation, genre, narrative, aesthetics, and what is considered “heroic.” In recent years, decolonial cinematography has gained more recognition, both at the global level with movements like Black Camera or with initiatives like Dalit Camera in India. These movements seek to center on subjects that are usually excluded from the cinematic imagination while also seeking to break out of the dominant visual aesthetics of film.
Having spent some time within the labyrinth that is this field, let me now introduce you to the paradox of decoloniality. Essentially, the paradox arises from one’s trying to be decolonial, then possibly reproducing a colonial caricature of oneself and others in the process. In consciously trying to be local, cultural, and oneself; you may exoticize, romanticize, and render yourself more artificial. This happens because decoloniality often works through negation, meaning that it is entangled within the discourse of coloniality. It is like actively trying hard to not come across a certain way. As I write this, I again think of the awkward shot of Shiva, touching the feet of the senior members of the secret society in Brahmastara.
To take a break from thinking about decoloniality, I watch YouTube videos, often in the category of “cute videos” which cover young children playing, goofing up, and laughing. I believe however that “cuteness” is not a perfect description of the phenomenon under consideration. What we call cute in these videos — infants being unapologetically infants — is actually liberating for adults burdened by an overt sense of self-consciousness. This offers a clue. Perhaps a decolonial imaginary is best produced unconsciously.
But how is that possible, given the insistence of decolonial scholars on the significance of place, location, and self? Imagine a “kuye ka maindak,” a frog that takes its well to be the entire world with so much conviction, that the whole world becomes it’s well. The paradox of decoloniality makes the local feel universal rather than isolated or cut off from the rest. But all these big words mean nothing without one simple image to capture it. And since I was underwhelmed by a mainstream film in its decolonial gesture, let’s take an example of a mainstream film that gets it right: Pushpa.
Pushpa is an action film about a man from the lower rungs of society and his journey to dominating the sandalwood smuggling industry. The narrative template is nothing new, where a particular cocktail of subalternity and hypermasculinity delivers a reliable catharsis. In that sense, the film reinforces a lot of dominant styles and motifs, but within itself, it has moments that could stand for the decolonial imaginary. One such moment that stands out comes in the song “Srivalli.” The song portrays Pushpa trying to get the attention of the girl he likes and the playful hide and seek that follows. There are three subplots within the song. The first one involves the comical sequence between Pushpa and his friend, who are seen in the vicinity of Srivalli, the girl Pushpa desires. Pushpa keeps asking his friend if she is looking at him or not. This sequence is juxtaposed to include scenes where Pushpa hoodwinks the police and continues his smuggling operations, the central plot of the film. But in between those moments, we have a dance sequence that presents a crack in the cultural imagination worth celebrating.
The dance step is actually a misstep, where Pushpa slides his leg horizontally, forcing his slipper to come off, slips it back on, and continues. The particular step itself (without the slipper coming off) is reminiscent of many other such dance sequences in popular films. Pushpa’s sequence does not use the usual background dancers, making Pushpa perform his romantic body, almost secretively. This choreographed goof-up ruptures the usual romantic song imagery, where the hero’s movement exudes a sense of finesse, put together by synchronized dance steps, quick cuts, and editing. In the perfection of the hero’s movements and body in mainstream films, we love him for his distance from the realm of the ordinary. But the deliberate distortion in Pushpa’s dance calls attention to itself and trolls the artificial nature of a popular dance, simultaneously inaugurating a new grammar of the popular. Far from maintaining a distance from the ordinary, it elevates the culture of everyday bloopers and common people to art. Pushpa here is so Pushpa, that it becomes Pushpaesque. It is so cute, that it makes you feel that cinema was invented only for this actor to perform his stylish stutter.
So, what does it all mean? Why did we contrast the scenes in Pushpa with Brahmastra? Partially to highlight that decoloniality may come from unassuming places and moments, like at the end of your search for weed where you anticipate a dangerous drug dealer but instead find a middle-aged woman flipping rotis with one hand and trading grass with another. The second more important point is the difference in grace that the two movements present. Brahmastra, though overtly cultural, presents a form of body movement which is too conscious about its own intention, whereas Pushpa, even in its overt failure, presents a form of action that is uninhibited by thought. This little difference is what Kleist elaborates in his mystical essay on puppets, and why puppets are better dancers than humans. Decoloniality will itself become a Brahmastra when it moves from conscious trying to a state where it cannot but be itself.•