Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Avatar as a Rorschach Test

On the cab ride back from the theater where we saw Avatar, my friend Uthra remarked how it was odd that protagonist Jake Sully's avatar in the movie appeared with a U-shaped marking on his forehead which very closely resembled the naamam of the Indian Vaishnavite Brahmin The Na'vi achieved their dexterity and flexibility through intense training with fellow Vaishnavite BKS Iyengarsubcaste. She also remarked that the blue colouring of Na'vi, the alien race to which Jake's avatar and many other characters belong was similar to Ram and Krishna, two of the avatars of Vishnu. Clearly, she said, the Na'vi were Vaishnavites.

Of course, we just had to stretch the metaphor further. The very concept of Avatars is Vaishnavite in origin. Also, the Na'vi are worshipers of Eywa, a force that maintains the balance of life on their world. This is also the prime motivation of Vishnu. The Na'vis' human antagonists, on the other hand, wish to destroy much of their world to extract resources for their own civilisation - a motivation that can broadly be described as Shaivite. The main human villain, Colonel Quaritch, ever has three horizontal slashes on his head that resemble the tilak that Indian Shaivite Brahmins wear on their foreheads. Clearly, by our reasoning, Avatar is Vaishnavite propaganda aimed at showing Shaivites in a negative light and positing a victory for the Vaishnavites in the future struggle between the two (this is obviously nonsense - Shaivites are the the Vaishnavites' superior in everything that matters).

But when I came back home and read the multitude of reviews of Avatar, I realised that almost everyone else that saw the movie had been engaging in similar allegory. Some praised it as a metaphor for the displacement and genocide of the Native Americans. Others hailed it as a commentary on the unjust seizure of private property by corrupt local governments using eminent domain. Ross Douthat of the New York Times eviscerated it as an advertisement for taking up pantheism in preference to the Western world's more prevalent Abrahamic religions. Annalee Newitz of io9 decried it as an escapist fantasy seeking to assuage white guilt while maintaining white privilege. Other people looked through their 3D glasses and saw variously notions of the white man's burden, the noble savage, blame-America-first liberals, Iraq War criticism, the military-industrial complex, gorilla researchers in the Congo and many other things besides. And they either loved or hated the movie for these reasons.

Make no mistake, Avatar is a path breaking movie. It is perhaps even a historical movie - the first to utilise technologies such as performance capture, the first to depict CGI characters in primary roles without entering the uncanny valley, the first to use 3D in a non-gimmicky fashion in a mainstream film. It is visually appealing and an incredible experience to watch and listen to. But in spite of all this, Avatar serves as a kind of Rorschach test to project our hopes and fears into. We either love or hate Avatar based on not what it is, but on the deeper meaning we read into it. It becomes to us either a needed confirmation of cherished views, or an unwelcome statement of positions we despise and we develop strong feelings based on these readings of the movies.

So what I am basically saying is that Avatar is the cinematic equivalent of Barack Obama. Stay tuned for the inevitable Nobel Prize next year.

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Anonymous Janaki said...

Nice interpretation.. the krishna/ shiva parallels has come to the notice of many viewers ..

7:05 AM  
Blogger Sunil Deepak said...


BTW, couldn't catch the bit about the obvious superiority of shaivsm over vaishnism, but still a good read.

In Italy the film comes out next month, so I must wait to see and give my views. Still from what I have seen and heard I was imagining it more as a fight between Indian-mythology inspired and Western worldviews.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Siddharth said...

Nice Post. I thought that by being so unimaginative with the villain in the film (the blundering industrialized modern world), the creators of the film have kind of lost out on potentially giving Pandora and the whole Na'vi philosophy a cult following. The concept of a connected world is pretty cool and reminded me of Isaac Asimov's planet: Gaia. Making the villain and the conflict depicted so predictable diverts attention from the awesomeness of Pandora.

4:20 PM  
Blogger Shriniwas K said...

I agree with Dani, I too think somewhere in the story line Cameron kind of loses focus on the plot. 2hrs 40 minutes is a bit too long. I totally think the attack on the mother tree could have been clubbed with the final fight scene instead of having 2 conflicts. Agreed that its pathbreaking blah blah blah but in terms of cinematic excellence and story telling there is a lot that could have been better. Also it lacked the Michael Crichtonesque story line where something goes wrong pretty early in the movie ...

final take ... Cameron will never be able to make his movie character merchandise as popular as those by George Lucas (or even Spielberg)

4:29 PM  
Blogger Jerry Brabenec said...

this is probably kind of old hat by now but I just saw it. Thing is the same thing happened with a lot of my friends who saw "Aliens". It was a sci-fi movie that broke through to mass popularity, and people read all different sorts of symbolism into it. My favorites for Aliens were that it was a Vietnam allegory and that it was about Ripley's fear of motherhood.

9:57 PM  
Anonymous Radio Avatar said...

Oh my god I love this post! Why did it take me so long to find it? Well I have 8,000 subscribers who will soon hear about this!

Go Vaishnavites! Shaivites must be stopped at all costs!

--Official comment from Radio Avatar

8:38 PM  
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