Vodka and Ramadan

So Ramadan 2016 had just started and I was in this really shoddy bar which didn’t look so shoddy from the outside. I was once again fooled by that bright coloured pre-fabricated panelling which is ubiquitous these days. I stepped into the dive, sat at a table and ordered vodka with some lime slices. It was a little after 3 pm on a Thursday in Calcutta. This is probably one of the joys of urban existence that I have somehow got around to cherishing: the empty bar. To sit in a quiet, undisturbed space with only the background banter of waiters with booze on call – these are the hallmarks of civilization! After a near hour-long dip into this oasis of tranquillity, I was joined by other weary travelers. A couple, the man had a skull-cap on and his companion was a woman, probably out on a date. They ordered some food and the man asked for a beer. I did not really give any of this much consideration.

In another half hour or so, another couple walked in. The men glanced at each and apparently knew one another. They exchanged a bout of words which I was not able to discern. I took all this in with long sips of vodka. After some time, I noticed that the men seemed to be annoyed with each other. It is that strange malaise which afflicts men in bars whereby they start shouting incoherently about something, their eyes wild and unfocused, their heads bobbing side-to-side. Sometimes there is foam at the mouth but rarely.

At first I was bemused and unable to understand what exactly was going on. Then it began to dawn on me. The man with the ‘topi’ was obviously breaking his fast before time and this somehow irked the other man. The fact that he was doing so with beer must have been a further point of anxiety. I suspected the other was also Muslim and as I mentioned earlier acquainted with the ‘offender’. It was quite interesting listening to them. The aggrieved party told the other to at least hide his ‘topi’ if he was going to insult his faith when he came to such places, the offender countered the attacker by asking him why he was there himself if he was so pious. The man maintained that he was there to simply keep his lady friend company. The women, I could see, were enjoying the show while merrily chomping down on chicken legs. They were both non-Muslims, I suspect.

“The one above knows”, said the attacker as he pointed to the sky. “So let him judge”, was the reply. Now when I think about it – why did that man have his skullcap on? Did he simply forget to take it off in the excitement of going on a date? Or did he do it intentionally? Was it some sort of a performance on his part? Maybe he just naively assumed that no other Muslim would bump into him in such a place and at such a time in the year? These deductions were quite fascinating to think about and I began to also construct a life for him beyond the bar. I was a little drunk and imagined him as a rebel who drank regularly, smoked weed openly and dated only girls outside of his own religion. Later at home, I re-read an article about how a Muslim man and a Hindu woman had been too frightened to register their marriage for fear of repercussions, somewhere in rural UP.

People cannot believe there is any love in such unions, they believe only in agendas. We have become objects with no will outside of stereotype. Worse is we submit ourselves to these ideas eventually, even when as children we fought hard against them. We slowly subdue ourselves and perpetuate the crude sketches, lewd jokes taught to us by our parents, who in turn learned it from theirs. We have invented and sustained a tradition of hatred.

Could our hero in the bar shake aside such reductions? Would he enthral his detractors with his wit or show up their poor reasoning with his own? Or maybe he is just lying drunk in his bed at home, having nightmares about the argument in the bar and acknowledging his fault? Maybe he will turn as well, in his pursuit of becoming ‘respectable’ and ‘grown up’? We will never know for sure.

The Dark Knight Rises as Liberal Triumph



The title of the film alludes to a rising but in reality it was no Lazarian feature, rather it was a stone over a mausoleum. It could have been better, no doubt, but at least the trilogy was decisively ended, the interpretation of the comic firmly closed.

As I see it, the problem with mainstream movie production is the sense of financial expectation coupled with that certain ‘anxiety of influence’, that all creatives have to live up to. They are acutely aware about what needs to be done for the studio’s success and are very alert to the activities of their rivals. Nolan was, no doubt, aware about the release date of The Avengers and was also conscious to an extent about the type of competition it would present at the box-office. Being both a writer and the director of the film, (two of the most important roles in production), Christopher Nolan would have been closely linked with the off-screen financial machinery of the studio. This has hampered our enjoyment of the film, because it “goes out with a bang”, too big a bang in many instances of the film. The other two in the trilogy are quite gradual and well-spaced compared to this one, in plot and action. Whether this is to ensure returns or to vocalise the swan-song, I cannot say for certain.

Nolan displays a Liberal understanding of this machinery of the market in The Dark Knight Rises as well as a keen sense of observation of current affairs. Unlike the Marvel/Disney offerings, The Dark Knight films have never been fantastic. This has been at times strength, as well as flaw. The strength they exhibit is their ability to convey the real world to us, to make us believe that such events could be realised one day. Their flaw is that they are too set on the rational, set to convince us about the sanctity of (Liberal) Science.

The entire movie is set around the premise of the ancient war between Necessary Evil and Necessary Good. This is what we are told overtly, anyway. In reality though, it has very little to do with this theme. In reality, it is in fact a cunning commentary on the state of the world today and it is no coincidence that the strongest images revolve around the financial sector. A survey of this film shows us references of the Occupy Wallstreet Movement, rioting and class warfare. We are told as much in the trailer when Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) threatens Bruce Wayne’s class at a dance. She echoes what has been a consistent message of the anti-1% front, namely, that rich people have to face up to the judgment of the exploited. Kyle is, however a thief, and we can guess from the very start (usual mainstream motif) that she ends up with Bruce Wayne so her words are those of a hypocrite. In this way, through her character, the message of the Occupy movement is dismissed as both faulty and untrustworthy. Hypocrites like Kyle.

The whole movie is, essentially, a lesson plan in laissez faire Liberal economics. We are even given a nice visual tour of Wall Street. “Invest if you want to restore balance” – one of the characters at the stock exchange tells another. He might as well be Obama speaking to the bosses of Big Business. This is interesting because, quite obviously, it is directed towards the upper class. It is, in fact, an entreaty to the owners and controllers of capital. The second part is the imperative. The rationale is that they should invest because it is not only profits that are at stake, it is, in fact, the stability (and safety) of their very society, that is endangered by economic downturns.

To “restore balance” is actually to maintain the status quo. It is a means of persuasion for people to leave their “anti-capitalist fun” and to get back to work. Balance is a carefully chosen word because it fosters notions of harmony. There is a problem with this though, in that relations between corporate and worker is not based on harmony but on intimidation. The scales are not balanced at all.

Is Bane out to punish the system? Is he a lone ideological individual or a representative of a greater mass ideology?  In the scene of the hostage taking at the stock market, even the people who maintain the status quo, namely the police, have second thoughts about helping the rich bankers retake their precious institution. John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) questions a broker about why they should bother at all. The broker responds eloquently about the central role that the stock exchange has in ensuring social stability, “balance”. Blake is rationalized into submission.

Blake, even though, he is an outsider (being both an orphan and lower class) is shown to be yet another person indebted to the system. The Wayne Foundation, after all, funded the orphanage he was raised in. In this way, Bane and co. seem to be the only ones who display a feverish hatred of the system, which as we have seen, is deemed irrational because it seeks to upset “balance”. Bane is portrayed as a brutish megalomaniac delivering one harangue after another as and when he encounters crowds of people. There is an old Stalinist trope that surfaces in this character. The rhetoric of the Old Left is used by Bane as a means of justifying the anarchy. It is not chaos but a necessary anarchy for the people to regain control of their lives and society. Bane is simply the one who seizes that control back from the old capitalist order.

Being a “businessman” himself (he and his wife run Syncopy Films which was the production house for the movie) Nolan dispels this belief quite effectively in the film. The messages of Occupy Wallstreet are mere rhetoric, they are foolhardy and dangerous like Bane’s speeches. It is interesting to note too how people are portrayed as whimsical – at one instance chasing down and persecuting the wealthy and the next they can go back to the way things were before.

Only the system is firm in its beliefs, it seems. Through Bane, we begin to distrust the Left again because it is irrational and upsetting. We recall the London Riots in a number of scenes and so dismiss the concept of revolution as being the recourse of a few crazy dissidents, hell-bent on violence for the sake of violence. The cleverest inversion of the classic template of riot control involves the police; as one scene shows them attacking, with sticks and stones, Bane’s men who are armed with hi-tech weapons. It is a humanising touch. We start to empathise with the law enforcers, with the maintainers of the system. Couple this with clear homages to American patriotism (soldiers, flags, marches) and you have a familiar American Capitalism vs Soviet Collectivism trope. Of course, it is no longer the Soviets that are the enemies but rather a (poorly sketched) Left. The same Left that is involved in struggles and protests world-wide in today’s real world. Like the Soviets though, they are depicted as liars and tyrants.

The film presents the Old Left in the light of Soviet brutality and the New Left as a wild aimless anarchy. The former is, of course, best represented by Bane and his lackeys whilst the latter seems best to represent the ordinary people who are easily swayed and emotional, non-rational. What message does this send out to the younger audiences in particular? The film is almost like damage control for the Capitalist machine.

Rather than address the very real issues raised by the rioting and the dissatisfied, we are encouraged to dismiss them. To a more-or-less politically indifferent (or ignorant) young viewer, this film is one of many, that still gives currency to the idea of capitalism. Even the most enthusiastic will readily admit to the fact that many Occupy Wallstreet volunteers have a rather untenable Utopian mindset; but it is stupid to think that this is an isolated incident and it is dangerous to dismiss them. These incidents will continue to happen, even if on purely reactionary grounds.

Nolan’s vision of the Left is also unabashedly tied up with, what can only be described as, Orientalist terrorism. True, the onscreen baddies are ‘white guys’ but they are people who received indoctrination abroad in a savage and primitive land. Would it be so wrong to say that they were brainwashed in that Hollywood fantasyland called Arabia? Located somewhere (I think) in the Middle East but geographically ambiguous, impossible to locate. They do, after all, wear something resembling a kufiya. Visibly, we cannot draw the direct link between Arab/Muslim terrorists and the Bane acolytes, but in representation, there is no mistaking the references.

Our enemies are clear now. They are non-American –no, un-American, irrational, Leftist terrorists. These are by no means benign reflections from the mind of a filmmaker. They reflect back into society a certain message that the filmmaker might not even be aware of. They confirm and affirm what the audience has a suspicion about or is curious to know more about. In this way, though they might function as a lesson for the Left to learn from, they are also harmful to the public’s relations with the Left. In this sense, Nolan’s reflections are didactic and warn people about the dangers of associating with the Left whilst insisting that the present status quo is the best solution to the woes besetting the people.

Batman is a defender of his class in spite of the fact that he might be a crusader on the side of good and justice. It would, of course, make little sense for him to undermine his own position of power by questioning the system that privileges him. Isn’t Batman then simply chasing shadows – content to beat up and arrest hoodlums without asking the reasons why they became hoodlums in the first place? I realise it is, of course, “entertainment” but all media, as I have said before, reflects society and reflects back into society. The ideology is wonderfully concealed in that, it seems, a natural schema of the way we live today. Real-life resistance is contorted and disfigured into an “entertaining” Fascist Left.

The problem within the film that is thrown up to us is this. Which, of the two evils, do you pick – the unknown or the known? Do you continue with the society controlled by the forces of Capital/Batman or do you dare jump into the discord of the unrevealed evils? The answer might seem obvious in the film, the conclusion foregone, but real life offers up something different from either. Our options are far more multifarious.