Why can’t we get dystopia right?

The present is even more frightening than the imagined future.

Vikas Bahl’s Ganapath is set in a foreseeable future – an India destroyed by a nuclear explosion. Whatever remains is divided into three zones. The rich live in Silver City, where they conduct gladiatorial mixed martial arts tournaments to amuse themselves. The poor live in a middle zone. Beyond lies a desert-like region where rebels plot to bring down Silver City.

All of this is on paper. Bahl’s derivate box office bomb is a drag from start to finish. Apart from wasting Tiger Shroff, playing a Silver City denizen who realises that he is The One who will lead the rebellion, Bahl is unable to create a tech-led future in which life is cheap and the chasm between the wealthy and the powerless is vast. 

Ganapath (2023).

The movie is only the latest instance of the inability of Hindi filmmakers to conjure up convincing futuristic scenarios. While this could be blamed on budget constraints – world-building is highly expensive – an impoverished imagination is the real culprit.

It takes huge pockets and massive leaps to come up with dystopias that bear only traces of the present, where the political order has been turned upside down, and where technology is the problem rather than the solution. In a country that has only recently begun embracing the benefits of science, where technological advances are viewed with pride rather than disquiet, it’s hard to think of local versions of Steven Spielberg’s The Minority Report or Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca

The scepticism required to question, say, a compulsory identity card programme based on biometrics, is lacking. If we love tech and can’t see its downside, we are equally wedded to the idea of stability. The crystal-clear political messaging against authoritarianism in the Mad Max and The Hunger Games series is equally missing from filmmakers who prefer to speak up for rather than to power.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

A handsome production budget isn’t always necessary to create dystopia, as Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking proved. The 2007 film relies on ideas, characterisation and Wasiq Khan’s evocative sets to create a nightmarish world in which a programme to quit smoking masks an attempt to impose conformism. 

Perhaps Mumbai, the headquarters of Hindi cinema, has a part to play. The megapolis with seething and yet normalised inequality, which runs on an economy based partly on speculation, and where a collapse in urban planning has led to deplorable living conditions, is a functioning dystopia. 

Is there anything more disturbing than growing up in a slum, trying to buy a place of residence in a city with usurious land rates, or raising children in an open space-averse city? And given the horrific violence that gets regularly reported from the rest of the country, much of it increasingly targeting Muslims and Dalits, is there anything more frightening than the present?

The apocalypse is already here. The overall failure of organised rebellion against our rulers, and the crushing of those who dare to speak up against injustice, are more shocking to contemplate than a make-believe future in which Tiger Shroff leads the masses to victory over their oppressors.

‘Beckham’ and the art of puffery

Beckham has scored a goal for Netflix, Deadline reports. Since its premiere on the streaming platform on October 4, the documentary series about the gifted British footballer has reportedly been topping the charts in the United Kingdom as well as in the United States, where Beckham has lived and worked for several years.

Directed by Fisher Stevens, the four-part series traces its subject’s rise to global stardom both on and off the field. Since Beckham has been co-produced by the footballer, it leans towards hagiography. 

While showing how Beckham almost single-handedly created the cult of the star footballer, leading to a version of Beatlemania characterised by eye-watering earnings and screaming fans, there is no mention of the role played by image consultants behind the scenes. 

Beckham (2023).

The show’s overall theme is the importance of family and community. Whenever Beckham suffered professional setbacks, his teams rallied around to bring him back on course, the show suggests.

The Beckhams are portrayed as a dream couple who are devoted to each other and their four children. Beckham’s alleged affair during his stint with Real Madrid is barely addressed.

Stevens’s immense access to the Beckhams results in a roster of big names in football revisiting the milestones in David Beckham’s journey. These conversations are warm, candid on occasion, and revealing of the highly competitive nature of professional football. A clear picture emerges of the pressures brought to bear on star players, who are often at the mercy of their managers or club owners.

There is equal attention paid to Beckham’s celebrity status, which was cemented by his marriage with former Spice Girl Victoria Adams. Beckham’s ascent was inextricably linked to his association with the singer nicknamed “Posh Spice”. Yet, just like trolls attack Anushka Sharma whenever Virat Kohli plays badly, Victoria Beckham was viciously targeted for her husband’s failures on the field.

It’s remarkable what Beckham gets away with. Dissenting voices are allowed to bring David Beckham down a notch or too. Alert viewers might draw their own conclusions on whether he reached his full potential or allowed his pursuit of lucrative contracts to muddle his decisions. 

While Victoria Beckham is a forthright, strong voice, the star of the show is the ridiculously good-looking footballer. At once dreamy and canny, casual and ambitious, a stud and the boy next door, David Beckham exposes himself as well as retreats behind a carefully constructed persona. 

As the new Koffee with Karan season arrives on Disney+ Hotstar, in which Karan Johar traffics in merry vacuity, Beckham suggests that embedded documentaries can be insightful too. It’s hard to imagine Indian celebrities or power couples similarly offering themselves for scrutiny. The Beckhams appear to have understood that even puffery must be tinged with honesty. The result is a show that is unabashedly partisan, never boring, and always surprising. 

Koffee With Karan season 8 (2023).

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