Birdman v Uttama Villain: Portrait of the Artiste As an Older, Wiser Man

Making their films resistant to easy consumption and demanding respect for the artiste is essential to the spirit of Birdman and Uttama Villain.

When two unallied films are released from two different culture industries just months apart, but speak in the same subversive language, it is more than just a coincidence or an inevitable outcome of self-reflexivity in form. Released six months after the critically acclaimed American black comedy, Birdman (Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014), the Indian Tamil comedy-drama Uttama Villain (‘Virtuous Antagonist’, Dir. Ramesh Aravind, 2015) is no remake; it's not even ‘loosely inspired by’. Both narratives are structured differently, with the latter imbricating a more inchoate metatheatricality within its mise-en-abyme. No accusations of counterfeiting Birdman will mar the positive critical reviews Uttama Villain has received. The silence from local self-declared plagiarism specialists, who see all Indian films as somehow a copy of a successful foreign one, should be taken as a compliment. Nevertheless read together, both films offer a rich cultural seam portraying the artiste as an older, wiser man.

The Oscar-winning screenplay of Birdman is a modified Künstlerroman about an over the hill former movie star, Riggan Thomson struggling to find artistic self-actualization. Riggan aims to stage a Broadway magnum opus, which he would produce, direct, and star in, to revive his dead-end career. Decades ago, Riggan used to play the eponymous superhero, in a career-defining role that brought both fame and fortune. Both came to a halt once ended his involvement with the Birdman-franchise. The theatre venture is risky, but Riggan hopes that his creative gamble will silence naysayers. As opening night approaches, a member of the cast is injured, forcing Riggan to hire a mercurial method actor who threatens to upset Riggan’s own interpretation of the play. Meanwhile he has to manage his girlfriend, daughter, ex-wife, and critics who threaten to write off the production even before it officially opens.

Presented in a magical realist mode, the struggle between Riggan’s mocking superego (articulated in his raspy voiced Birdman-persona) and his own ambitions to resist an image trap, compounded by the disparagement from critics and loved ones alike, makes up the meandering narrative of Birdman. However, a lingering suspicion remains whether the title is an intentional malapropism of another superhero movie franchise.

Compared to Birdman, the preoccupation with existentialism is manifest in Uttama Villain, the story of a Tamil movie superstar, Manoranjan (Kamalhaasan), who discovers he is terminally ill with advanced brain cancer. He tries to bequeath a final masterpiece and find familial redemption before the disease kills him. Formerly a hard drinking playboy, Manoranjan tries to reconcile with his illegitimate daughter whom he recently found out about, repair bonds with his estranged son, and calls off his affair with a doctor, paralleling Riggan’s own personal life, which we are told in Birdman, was ruined by a similarly debauched lifestyle. Meanwhile, Manoranjan turns to his mentor, to direct his own cinematic masterpiece.

Against the wishes of his father-in-law, a producer of commercial entertainers, whose daughter he married for convenience, Manoranjan produces and stars in an eighth century fantasy-comedy about the adventures of Uttaman, thus the titular Uttama Villain. Uttaman is a warrior-king out to save a neighboring kingdom from a tyrant by masquerading as a folk villupattu artist, a traditional musical form using bowstrings as a musical instrument (a villupattu performer is known as a villan in Tamil, pronounced the same way as villain in English). Alternating between the frame narrative of Manoranjan’s personal struggles and the film’s production, there's even a musical theatre showpiece in the denouement of the-film-within-the-film. In the homonymically titled Uttama Villain’s multitiered but labyrinthine narrative, metatheatricality meets metacinema: the metafiction par excellence.

Yet, both Birdman and Uttama Villain avow a transnational countercultural zeitgeist that uses parody, sardonicism, and cinematic irony, to lampoon the unfettered commercialism of both Hollywood and Kollywood respectively. Despite possible protestations from both sets of filmmakers and screenwriters against affixing an overtly political label on both films, it does little to dilute the anti-capitalist Weltanschauung in both narratives. A cross-cultural analysis reveals that both Birdman and Uttama Villain promote a return to humanism through culture jamming, reject the fascist fantasies of hypercapitalist cinema, and celebrate the corporeal impulses of art. Metacinema in Birdman and Uttama Villain conveys a counterhegemonic discourse liberating film as an art from its reliance on commerce to return it to its roots as a form of self-expression.

Parody as Culture Jamming

Subverting mass culture through self-deprecating parody is integral to the counterhegemonic politics of metacinema. While 'culture jamming' has been used to broadly describe disparate anti-consumerist social movements that promote violence on advertisements and disfiguration of corporate logos to reveal the exploitative nature of manufactured demand, its appropriation to describe artful cinematic subterfuge is not inapposite (Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic, 15 May 2012). By self-reflexively turning a heavily commercialized medium on itself, with the suspension of disbelief suspended, the real behind the scenes look is made possible. A subjective insight into the dark cul-de-sacs of the movie industry unfolds instead.

Just to subvert the pretensions of celebrity life, Birdman opens with an objective expose through Broadway’s backstage corridors leading to dressing room. The first introduction we have of Riggan is in tighty-whities levitating in a meditative pose with his back to the camera. Far from a figure of Apollonian perfection, Riggan’s inadequacies are laid bare to shock and jolt the audience, merging quirky comedy with magical realism. By deglamorizing the celebrity through parody as someone not dissimilar to the viewing audience, the pedestaling of celebrities by the media is overturned. Birdman’s humanist commentary escalates into a discussion about the denigration of film art through Riggan’s torment from his delirium-induced Birdman-alter ego.

The Birdman persona tempts Riggan to return to his superhero movie days as an A-List celebrity rather than pursue his own artistic identity on stage. Long since the luster of superstardom has been lost and his wings clipped, Riggan continues to reminisce about his days as the superstar of a blockbuster franchise, even hallucinating about soaring like Birdman but is brought back to earth by his own troubled production. The deconstruction of the performer reveals irreconcilable ambitions: be recognized as an artiste championing organic self-expression or be reduced by Mammon into a lavishly paid factor of production.

Parody extends to the characterization of the superhero figure of Birdman in allusion to DC Comics’ legendary Batman and Superman franchises, but campier and far more garishly costumed. While like Batman, he has the suit, utility belt, mask assortment and like Superman can fly, but the portmanteau does not quite come together, and we quickly recognize that we are watching a mockery rather than a serious attempt to introduce a new character to the superhero pantheon. Critically, the parody dismantles the way Hollywood fetishizes the messianic Übermensch on whom the fate of the world rests, showing it to be a vacuous spectacle generated to provide distracting escape from social realities.

Furthermore, the confirmation thatBirdman is a parody comes from extratextual sources that further elaborate the parody, like the fake Birdman Returns trailer assembled in the early '90s style, and of course, Big Birdman, the Sesame Street spoof. The fact that the parody has taken a self-sustaining life of its own confirms the earlier intention of making Riggan’s background in Hollywood’s superhero movies the original object of mockery.

Likewise, on the opening night of his latest action-masala film, Tamil superstar Manoranjan arrives dressed to impress, steps out of a luxury car on to the red carpet with hundreds of cameras flashing, and greets his legions of adoring fans in a glitzy shopping complex, adorned with consumer brands and corporate logos. Moments later he is shown surreptitiously slipping out midway through the premiere to hide in a toilet to take a swig of whiskey, gets a headache, and collapses. In the next shot Manoranjan is found by his personal assistant sprawled on the toilet floor, immobilized. After the bombardment from razzmatazz and superabundance, the commercially propped up superstar is revealed to be a dysfunctional mess the paparazzi must not see lest it stir a public relations nightmare in an industry where image is capital. The parody humanizes the celebrity through his frailties that make him human rather than a commodity for the media to exploit.

The premiere Manoranjan attends is for his latest action film Veera Vilayattu (‘Brave Sport’). Named in the manner of the typically hypermasculine Kollywood action-masala flick, made for men by men, the little we see of the faux film Veera Vilayattu are the posters solely featuring Manoranjan as the lead hero airbrushed and digitally touched up. We also watch from the audiences’ point of view the performance of one song from Veera Vilayattu that also features as the opening song of Uttama Villain: a kitschy paean to the convention of a romantic pseudo-erotic duet song set overseas in exotic locales between the hero and a much-younger heroine. Given the tone of the rest of Uttama Villain, the faux film seems to be included to invoke derision for the status quo in tinsel town particularly, and the compromises an artiste must make for commercial reasons. As a culture-jamming device, the clinquant song misleads the audience members into thinking that they have walked into another clichéd run-of-the-mill entertainer. You can almost hear the more intolerant reviewers going: ‘oh no, not again!’ The introductory scenes in both Birdman and Uttama Villain inaugurate the disjuncture-inducing culture jamming at work in the rest of the film by parodying stardom to reveal a media-constructed hoax when the gloss is stripped away.

Metareferentiality as Verfremdungseffekt

An early predecessor of culture jamming to simulate audience alienation from complete media manipulation was the Verfremdungseffekt or "estrangement effect". Formulated by playwright Bertolt Brecht, the goal of Verfremdungseffekt was to get characters into “playing in such a way that the audience was hindered from simply identifying itself with the characters in the play”, to unveil the technoideological systems and directorial designs rather than to allow the audience to be emotionally manipulated by the opacity separating the audience from the fiction. Brecht added that accepting or rejecting the ideas of characters was “meant to take place on a conscious plane, instead of, as hitherto, in the audience’s sub-conscious”, rather than passively accepting the reality on stage, cognitively the audience is encouraged to make sense of the associations or disassociations between what is shown on stage and actual social realities. The “estrangement effect” was to increase political consciousness of the world outside of the theatre hall, the economic relations between the ruling classes and the working classes, and not just to uncritically empathize with the fictional characters on stage in their happily-ever-after worlds [Bertolt Brecht, “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting” in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, Edited and Translated by John Willet (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), pp. 91 – 99].

In the metacinema of Birdman and Uttama Villain, Verfremdungseffekt may operate through metareferentiality that severs the viewer from a fictional universe to intellectually formulate the connections between cinema and lived realities. Though the actors and the director have tried to downplay the anagrammatic and cryptic intimations Birdman makes to the career of actor Michael Keaton who played a similarly raspy-voiced role as a superhero vigilante in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), the parallels are too conspicuous to be a coincidence. Keaton even rejected a big money move for a third superhero movie in the franchise -- just as we are told Riggan avoided a fourth Birdman -- citing a terrible script, and fears of getting typecast.

On a metareferential plane, the audience is forced by the obvious convergences between probable fantasy and actual reality to consider the struggle of an actor who desires not to be debased into the proprietorship of film corporations, but to be respected as an artiste. Through the device of parody for culture jamming, the paying audience is now exposed to the dehumanizing industrial transformations and commercial concessions that even talented actors must go through before they find their way into big budget movie bonanzas.

While self-reflexivity is implied in Birdman, a surfeit of extratextual associations in Uttama Villain creates an estrangement effect so strong the film appears to be a thinly veiled autobiography. Kamalhaasan, besides starring as the lead, wrote, and co-produced the main Uttama Villain; similar to what his character Manoranjan does in the film’s fictional universe. The overload of metareferences commences with Veera Vilayattu an alliterative allusion to Kamalhaasan’s own blockbuster cop thriller, Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu (‘Hunt for Sport’, Dir. Gautham Menon, 2006).

Kamalhaasan’s own complicated relationship with the action-masala genre is indexed through the faux film. The multiple National Award (India’s equivalent of the Academy Award) winning actor is considered to be a screen legend, a multitalented connoisseur of the arts, as well as a distinguished member of India’s cultural intelligentsia. While he began his career in arthouse and middlebrow films in the mid-'70s, he gradually shifted towards commercial entertainers to play the romantic heartthrob or an action hero, ascending towards superstardom in the late '70s. Kamalhaasan catapulted himself into megastar status in Tamil cinema in the early '80s, but not without personal misgivings about his artistic growth.

While the versatile actor continued to act in highbrow films in other South Indian languages, he struggled to create a space for middle cinema on par with commercial Tamil cinema. Even Kamalhaasan’s attempts to refine the action-masala genre into something similar to the Hollywood or Hong Kong action film remained hit-or-miss. Likewise his authentic period films and use of experimental conventions from world cinema failed to create reformative reverberations in the industry’s echo chambers. Part megastar-part method actor, the heights of financial success and the flopping disappointments stack up in almost equal measure for Kamalhaasan.

The controversial Kamalhaasan has also unwittingly united South India’s religious fundamentalists from different religions against him for his opinions about the role of religion in public life and politics expressed in his recent films. The release of Uttama Villain was almost hindered by some far right Hindu groups supported by moderate Islamist parties. The ambivalent title of Uttama Villain may stem from Kamalhaasan seeing himself as righteous defender of secularism and humanism but deemed the villain by his detractors. Nevertheless, Kamalhaasan seems to want to avoid the ire of tinsel town as well through an overtly autobiographical film, and so uses Manoranjan as a convenient proxy.

Like Kamalhaasan, the fictional Manoranjan articulates similar frustrations of financial limitations, and repressing the artiste within for the security of financial stability. He detests his dependency on his wealthy producer father-in-law who expects his son-in-law to support the family business, but endures because it sustains his escape into a hard partying lifestyle. Only in the face of impending doom does Manoranjan break away and decide to tell his own story that he will write and produce.

Unsurprisingly, in an interview to the media for Uttama Villain, Kamalhaasan has preemptively denied that Uttama Villain is a satire on the Tamil movie industry, but rather the “story of an actor”. And to the question of whether it's an autobiography, in a typical non-committal response, he cops-out: "I'd like say all my stories have some part of me." The conflation is hard to avoid. though: the mise en scène of Uttama Villain is replete with movie paraphernalia (posters, portraits, billboards) edited from Kamalhaasan’s older films, making it hard to distinguish him from Manoranjan, effectively estranging us from the fictional narrative in Uttama Villain to function as a metacinematic commentary of the cutthroat world of Indian cinema funded by crony capitalism.

In what must be a casting coup, Utttama Villain unites two of South India’s most prolific auteurs within the frame narrative, pursuing to the furthest extent the culture jamming through metareferencing. Manoranjan’s mentor, Margadarsi, who is chosen to direct the-film-within-the-film, is played by Kamalhaasan’s guru in real life, and the director who gave him his breakthrough, the late K.Balachander. Balachander was a pioneer director of middlebrow-middleclass Tamil cinema in the '70s. Elevating the narrative as superordinate and the screenplay the true hero, he refused to pander to the egos of matinee idols, at that time also politicians, exploiting the medium to construct a larger-than-life public image to serve political ends. In the '80s, Balachander would expand his oeuvre to include arthouse films and political dramas seen as the avant-garde of Tamil cinema. Only the name has been changed to Margadarsi; otherwise Balachander appears to be playing himself.

Similarly, director K.Vishwanath, who plays the role of Manoranjan’s father-in-law Poornachandrao Rao, is a contemporary of Balachander. Vishwanath rose to prominence in Telugu cinema, the other major commercial film industry in India after Bollywood and Kollywood, through serious highbrow films about classical Indian music and dance advocating traditional values and social reformism in the '70s and '80s that were also dubbed into Tamil.

Both aesthetes responsible for the growth and development, respectively, of Kamalhaasan the thespian, also introduced a renaissance in Tamil and Telugu cinema, which at that point was calcified by the lowbrow triumvirate of escapist potboilers produced by big studios and using major stars. Between them Balachander and Vishwanath produced some of India’s most aesthetically meritorious films, sharing 13 National Awards between them. To uninitiated viewers the sardonicism may be lost, but to the discerning viewer, the cinematic irony of getting Vishwanath to play the usurious Rao who detests Margadarsi’s brand of highbrow cinema is to parody the very anti-intellectual pro-business forces that both Balachander and Vishwanath opposed in their years as filmmakers. The dissonance it generates maintains the culture jamming at work throughout the rest of Uttama Villain.

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