Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
One of the favorite words employed by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft was "indescribable." Granted, he was often trying to get across the idea of entities beyond the ken of human senses, but at times his insistence that such realities could not be circumscribed by human language proved ridiculous — he even once labeled a footprint as "indescribable," begging the question of how, then, it could be recognized as the imprint of a foot. To use such a word is the epitome of lazy writing.
That said, the newest Tollywood release showing at the Colonel Glenn 18, "Janatha Garage," is, well, indescribable. (Tollywood is a colloquial term for the Telugu-language movie industry based in the Indian city of Hyderabad, to be distinguished from Bollywood, which encompasses the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai.) Mohanlal Viswanathan Nair plays Satyam, who runs a garage in Hyderabad that fixes more than motor vehicles: Its crew also works to fix people's lives, to right the wrongs often ignored by local authorities. They are part-time vigilantes with a devoted following among Hyderabad's poorest residents. However, after his brother and sister-in-law are killed in retaliation for his efforts, Satyam sends their son, his baby nephew Anand, to be raised by his mother's family in Mumbai. Some 25 years later, Anand (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) is a student of environmental science whose devotion to saving the Earth often manifests itself in harassing small businesses for using the wrong kind of plastic bags, but when this walking "Captain Planet" gets into a fight with some local developer's thugs (apparently an education in environmental science includes wrestling moves), his family sends him to Hyderabad, where he is drawn to the world of his uncle Satyam without even being aware of the blood connection. Soon enough, Anand becomes the second generation of vigilante ringleader at Janatha Garage, leading the crew in its fight against yet another evil developer — this one in league with Satyam's own son.
Tonally, "Janatha Garage" shifts back and forth between a telenovela, with its breathless love of drama, and another night of "WWE Smackdown." Very few moments of the film are left untouched by the musical score, which is something Carl Orff might have composed had he been enamored of heavy metal. Some 30 minutes could have been shaved from the nearly three-hour runtime had only the editor cut those scenes where people stare wordlessly at each other while the music swells and swells and swells and the camera circles around like a gnat. When it comes to the fight scenes, our heroes are gods incarnate, suffering not a cut or bruise as they break bones and pummel faces in a slow-motion dream of violence. (One has truly entered an alternate cinematic world when the musical numbers and dance sequences feel restrained by comparison.)
In a recent essay for the New York Times, novelist Aatish Taseer wrote that popular Indian cinema "dramatizes a society's deepest tensions," especially in the figure of the villain, who "is the embodiment of what India believes ails India." Such villains have ranged from British colonizers to drug kingpins: "But in a spate of recent films, the villain has taken the form of India's own inner demons as the country negotiates an anguished transition to global modernity." That is true enough for "Janatha Garage," whose bad guys are the greedy developers and the corrupt politicians who sustain them, while our heroes side with the poor, with traditional Indian values and with Mother Earth. This is a nation struggling with the hegemony of globalized greed — a new form of Western imperialism that has lured away too many of India's own sons.
Even more so than most American summer fare, "Janatha Garage" operates without the slightest subtlety, as if our characters emerged from a medieval mystery play — the good inherently good, the evil purely evil. Or perhaps a better comparison would be the folk songs of the American labor movement, especially those of the Wobblies, which offered stark diagnoses and solutions to the problem of class oppression: e.g. "Dump the Bosses off Your Back." Unlike the luxury resort envisioned by our villain, this film does not have your comfort in mind, and if it strikes the typical American viewer as rather indescribable, just know that behind its simplistic story and overwrought emotion lies a significant crisis of cultural integrity. Nuance, after all, is the domain of the comfortable.