(NOTE: One paragraph was not printed in the paper. Guess which one!)
Sivaji and the politics of numbers
By the time you read this, the Tamil film Sivaji would have grossed about RM7 million in Malaysia. It has been screening for three weeks.
I don’t know if this is the most successful Tamil release in this country, but it is certainly more successful than any Malaysian film. The record for Malaysian film is held by Jangan Pandang Belakang, a fright-fest in which ghouls skate across the screen and flail about in the manner of R&B back-up dancers. It made RM6.4 million earlier in the year.
Now, these numbers are interesting. It’s one thing for a Hollywood film, amply endowed with international buzz, to inspire locals to choose it rather than the home-grown stuff. But a Tamil film?
True, the main actor Rajinikanth is famous, and anticipation had been running high among Tamil movie fans. When some early Malaysian screenings suffered technical glitches, some frustrated punters even went on a rampage reminiscent of those “Say No to Violence” posters of our 1999 General Elections.
But still, a Tamil film? Less than 10% of the population speaks Tamil, while almost all Malaysians speaks Malay to some degree. So how can a Tamil film, whose run has not even ended, sell more tickets than any Malay film?
If you are an upper middle-clas urban type who speaks mainly English (hands up, you shameless things!) it’s possible that Sivaji would have gone completely under your radar. After all, it’s not sponsored by any fast-food chain or telco. Then you might scratch your coiffed head that this film you’d never heard of will end up achieving around the same numbers as the first Lord of the Rings.
There are several possible reasons. Could it be that the non-Tamil speaking population has taken a sudden interest in subtitles? Or could it be that the small minority that consists of actual Tamil speakers like to watch this same film several times?
More pessimistically: Could it be that people who make Malay films, despite having had seven decades of practice, literally have no idea what our audience wants?
I suppose you can hire a market-research type to find out the reasons. But I like things to be a little mysterious. Life becomes more interesting that way. Besides, how often are market researchers right?
It’s great to live in a country where conventional wisdom can be turned on its head once in a while. For example, it’s just assumed that people would rather see a film in a language that they understand. It’s also just assumed that Hindi films would have more appeal than Tamil ones, as the former have a glossier, plusher image, but the numbers have often shown otherwise.
And is Sivaji a bit grittier than, say, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai? Well, it’s about a US-based bloke who returns to India to set up a charity foundation. But there are corrupt officials and greedy businessmen in his way. He bribes his way through but then is confronted with a test of his principles. There’s also a love story somewhere. And songs by the venerable AR Rahman.
The success of Sivaji also makes one ponder the politics of numbers. It’s usually assumed that the majority will be stronger against the minority. This is true in the case of, say, an election. Leaving aside the touchy matter of how electoral boundaries are drawn, the basic premise is still: You need to get more votes than the other guy.
But there are various mechanisms through which a minority can assert itself. A talent contest where the outcome is determined by SMS votes is a case in point, since people can just vote repeatedly. (This is, of course, if we subscribe to the depressing supposition of communitarian loyalty trumping subjective criteria like, erm, talent).
You can also make the point that a numerical majority might in fact be weaker in the case of competition, because majorities tend to be complacent, lazy, and perhaps prone to unproductive bickering. After all, this has been the basis for much of our post-Independence political scare-mongering: “Stick together or else The Others will Take Advantage!”
Our previous Prime Minister caused an international furore in 2003 when he contrasted the achievements of the Jews against the Muslims, despite the huge gulf in numbers. But without libeling any race, there is something to be learned there. What’s the point of numbers if the numbers don’t work for you?
This is why the panic over apostasy strikes me as odd. (Or maybe I am the odd one). What’s the point of inflating your flock with people who want to fly away? Best to marshal your available resources the best you can.
Back in the pre-Internet era, a scarily addictive board game of my post-SRP days was called RISK, where you basically try to conquer the world. The outcome is determined through rolled dice. What makes the game frisky is that even if you have a large army of plastic battalions, you might still get beaten by a smaller force. It’s the luck of the draw. The seemingly punier guy might just have better luck or (as I sometimes darkly suspected) he has a special way of throwing the dice. This taught me that the bigger force may not always win. It also taught me that I can be a very sore loser, but that’s a different story.
The plot of Sivaji itself comments on the role of the minority (in this case, an individual who wants to make a change) pitted against against a large, corrupt force of vested interests. The individual (presumably) wins. So you can say that the plot has an ontological relationship with its success.
The added irony here, of course, is that Sivaji is not such an underdog. At US$16 million, it is reportedly the most expensive Indian film ever. But that’s often the case, is it not? Almost all blockbusters are about the triumph of the little guy against a big force. In the first blockbuster, the force was a form of marine life with big teeth and a scary theme song. But in subsequent incarnations, it has ranged from aliens to what Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex”. These blockbusters are made by large corporations, which then touchingly need the contributions of millions of you little punters to keep them solvent. And we keep obliging because they make us feel good, these blockbusters do, and feeling good is not to be sniffed at.
After all this, I blush to admit that I have yet to see Sivaji. I was supposed to watch it at the Coliseum last Sunday but was then told that the queue was too long. I shall try again this weekend.
And I hope that this mania for Tamil movies will extend to the release today of Deepak Kumaran Menon’s Chalanggai (Dancing Bells), which was made entirely by Malaysians and shot mainly in Brickfields. I have a cameo appearance in it!
But even if I were not involved, I would recommend this sweetly observed tale of youthful dreams coming up against tough choices. It is also a true lepak [hangout] movie that makes you appreciate your surroundings. Go watch.