I’ve recently started getting into Bollywood films — specifically, the epic musical extravaganzas Indian cinema is famous for. Western films have become so recycled and cliched that they have lost their magic. Want to be inspired again? Eager for something other than a superhero film? Watch Bollywood.
Sure, many Bollywood films will involve the standard boy-meets-girl romance. These films can be a bit messy, overly dramatic for Western tastes, and sometimes downright cheesy. Bollywood films are also notable for often having lengthy, exuberant dance numbers. Cynical viewers who hate this aspect of Indian cinema pine for a “skip song” feature on streaming services. But I think it’s precisely those musical numbers, along with the idealistic romance, that make Bollywood films so much fun.
What I really enjoy about Bollywood is how they can take simple stories and make them into something hugely epic and inspiring. After a good Bollywood film, life somehow seems richer, more magical.
One such Bollywood film is Zero.
Zero, a 2018 Bollywood film starring Shah Rukh Khan, didn’t meet with critical or box office acclaim. Zero was ambitious and over the top, and often convoluted. But this film had a heart and soul in it that profoundly touched me, in a way no Western movie has done for years.
Why Western Entertainment is Circling the Drain
Before I talk more about Zero, let’s take a look at what’s been happening in Western film and media in recent decades. Much of it is bad. Beyond bad.
Some small slivers of light exist. I recently watched Amazon’s Good Omens and thought it was brilliant. But this is an exception.
Far too often, we in the West have substituted the crass for the creative. HBO might as well join forces with PornHub. Disturbing scenes of violent teen sex? Even that’s not a bridge too far these days.
And for the intellectual? Arthouse films seem to be more and more about exploring the degrading and the shocking — though, is this anything new? When I was in college, we were treated to cannibalism as a recurring theme, ala “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” and “Delicatessen.”
To be seen as “sophisticated” these days, you need to be “dark.” That often means violent, graphic sex, lots of death, and angry, scary sociopaths as biopic subjects. “Saw” used to be shocking in its sadism. Now, it’s tame compared to a lot of Western movies and TV shows.
It’s not all blood, guts, and tawdry sex though. Instead, Western mainstream movies are stuck in a superhero rut. While I actually have enjoyed most of the Marvel Avengers films, they aren’t in any way profound or deeply inspiring. And I was deeply disappointed in the third Thor movie. It literally made the genocide and destruction of an entire home world into a joke. No amount of Chris Hemsworth hotness could make up for that.
Star Wars and the Demise of Western Mythology
Don’t even get me started on how bad the new Star Wars franchise is (with the exception of Rogue One). The new Star Wars looks great, but all the deep mythology and meaning has been stripped away in this misguided attempt to promote an all-powerful female heroine.
I’m all for female heroines, but it bugs me that Rey — the female lead — can simply master the Force without any training, much less straining. We’re not told why she has such amazing super Force powers. Is it just more midi-chlorians due to her estrogen power? Yawn. Seriously, they could have made this all better had they just included one damn scene explaining her better-than-Darth-Vadar abilities. Maybe a scene where she was young and orphaned and had to develop her Force abilities or die on the spot? That would explain things and help us respect her.
Instead, she’s a Goddess in a Box. But that’s about it.
She’s pretty, but wooden. That little spinning robot ball has more personality. We can’t easily relate to Rey.
In contrast, the original Star Wars trilogy was flawed, but amazing, in no small part because of the story of Luke Skywalker.
Luke didn’t pop out of the womb as a Force superhero. He was weak. He was whiny. He was annoying! Luke had to study to become a Jedi, and half of the story was about whether his impatience to succeed was going to result in the End of the Universe as We Know It.
Even the Star Wars prequels were far better in terms of mythology than the current films. In the prequels we got to see the downfall of Darth Vadar, precisely due to that anger and hubris Yoda warned Luke about in the Empire Strikes Back. Sure, Phantom Menace sucked, but Star Wars III was utterly tragic and epic.
The bad writing in modern Star Wars movies is simply a symptom of the greater lack of imagination and sense of the epic in today’s America and the greater West.
Petty angst and anger (aka Kylo Ren) have taken the place of genuine character building. This is why HBO can act like it is being sophisticated by showing teens getting abused during sex scenes — “this is raw, this is real.” Showing kids being abused and molested for the sake of being “real” does not automatically make it art. It does make it exploitative.
This idea that “dark and gritty” equals “profound” has sadly taken over Hollywood — at a point in time where we need good mythology to provide meaning and inspiration in an increasingly bitter and cynical Western World.
Back to Zero
This brings me back to why I loved the Bollywood movie Zero so much. It doesn’t wallow in its dark spots. It doesn’t try to amplify bad things in order to prove how “profound” the film creators can be. Instead, it works to redeem the bad things to promote goodness and inspiration.
The story is about a man named Bauaa who is a dwarf. (The actor, Shah Rukh Khan, is not a dwarf, so they used some CGI magic to make him appear shorter in the film.) He falls in love with a woman (Aafia) who has cerebral palsy. The two relate to each other in part precisely because they are different from other people.
Zero didn’t get great reviews from many critics. I can understand why. First, it’s not an entirely serious film, but I think that’s actually a strength. It would be far too easy to make a film showcasing someone with cerebral palsy a “serious” film all about how “difficult” and “challenging” the condition is — once again, using pain and angst as an easy way to claim profundity.
But Zero is part romcom, part science fiction, part fairy tale musical. It’s not trying to score sympathy points just so it gets an Academy Award nomination.
It could far too easily have been a film that wants us to feel sorry for the woman with the disability, because of her condition, instead of simply relating to her as a heroine. Zero doesn’t do that. Aafia is a hugely successful mathematician and scientist who has designed a way to send a rocketship to Mars. She’s beautiful and smart, and not looking for sympathy. We relate to her because of her broken heart, not because of her wheelchair.
That’s not to say that difference and disability aren’t explored here, because they are key to the film’s plot.
For example, what might shock Western audiences is a scene where Bauaa mocks Aafia for her disability. Clearly threatened by her success and intelligence, he tries to publicly humiliate her by saying that at least he can pick a pen up off the floor. She shows him up by literally crawling on the floor to retrieve the pen he threw at her. It’s at this point that he falls in love with her.
Right here, full stop, many Western minds would write the guy off as a horrible human being, beyond redemption.
And it gets worse.
Unfortunately, Bauaa, at the age of 38, is a bit of a Peter Pan and not ready to settle down. His issue with Aafia is not her disability, but the idea of being married. Stranding Aafia at the altar, Bauaa runs off with an actress in an implausible series of events. Now he’s really being a horrible misogynist!
It’s probably not spoiling things too much to explain that Bauaa eventually regrets leaving Aafia. The final third of the film is about how he tries to win her back — in an absolutely epic and unexpected way. (This is the science fiction portion I mentioned.)
Such a movie would never be made in America these days, however. It’s not even about the lead characters being “different.” It’s that we live in such a punitive, black-and-white culture now that “redemption” has almost disappeared from our vocabulary.
Had a Westerner wrote “Zero,” the romance would have stopped the moment Bauaa insulted Aafia over her disability. The film would have been instead turned into a revenge fantasy, something dark and dreary. The insulted female heroine would have found some way to not only exact her revenge, but prove that she didn’t need a man whatsoever.
(To be fair, Zero also has a little bit of a revenge subplot going on, but not in a sadistically dark and twisted way.)
Perhaps we could critique Zero for being a traditional romance that ultimately still promotes negative male and female stereotypes to some extent, with two successful women who emotionally “lose it” when a man leaves. But, let’s get real. Everyone in the film has emotional issues, not just the women. And most women (myself included) still love romance — and I daresay some men love it too.
Also potentially problematic to the PC Western mindset is how dwarfism is used in Zero as a metaphor, which could be offensive to some — especially since Bauaa uses his short height to manipulate people when it suits him. Bauaa is presented as a “man-child” who often pretends he is a “child” due to his height, but whose real problem is that he is a child on the inside and refuses to grow up. When this “man-child” finally confronts his fears and works to transform himself, he achieves great “heights.” (Literally — though not physically. I’d prefer not to spoil the great ending for you.)
If Bauaa didn’t redeem himself, and he remained one-dimensional, this might be more of an issue. But he works hard to become an amazing human being, and I don’t think the film is suggesting that all male dwarfs are emotionally “man-children.”
The thing is, mythology needs melodrama and archetypes to be powerful. There is a fine line between a stereotype and an archetype. And the ultimate message of Zero is anything but mean-spirited. It is hugely inspiring — if you can relax and enjoy the story’s wild ride.
The main difference here is that in the West these days, anti-heroes are now seen as irredeemable. But Zero is ultimately a redemption story. We have the archetype of our anti-hero — a man who refuses to grow up. He starts off as a lazy, selfish jerk and ends up becoming a true hero, inspired by love. We have seen these redemption stories before, which is perhaps partly why Hollywood presumes we no longer have an appetite for them. But is that true?
Ultimately, these types of epic stories — of men (and women) who screwed up but redeemed themselves, are more and more needed in our cynical culture of the West. We are far too quick to write people off these days as irredeemable assholes — and this is not only true for public figures but for friends and family.
Once we label someone like a “Bauaa” as a misogynistic jerk, we are in effect saying there’s no turning back for him. In our punitive PC culture, he’d be shunned and written off. But this only serves to cement the dark side in a person, instead of helping them towards the light.
I think this is sad. There’s an underlying hatred here — a lack of unconditional love — that has overtaken the Western consciousness on all sides of the political aisle.
We often see people as all good or all bad, and these traits are more and more made into an indelible part of a person’s make-up instead of a part of someone’s character, which can be developed over time. Even the fictional Harry Potter suffers from this, as a hero who has special magic powers “just because.” He’s just good because he popped out that way, not because he struggled to find himself.
And then we wonder why so many young Western men, in particular, have retreated to their video games and stopped caring about striving to be better.
Yet, in watching Bollywood films, I can see a joy, a kindness, and a love there that we are missing terribly in our Western media. In Bollywood films like Zero, a man will often start off as a shallow jerk but end up transforming into a great man of character. Once he has redeemed himself, he is accepted back into the fold of family and friends, with sincere love and forgiveness.
Zero is perhaps a messy film and not “refined” enough for Western audiences. It gets a bit confusing and bogged down in parts. It can be quite fantastical. And yet, it has a huge heart, something we need more of in the West. It also teaches us how to build character, which is a lesson we Westerners dearly need. Perhaps most importantly, it teaches us about the power of forgiveness.
Zero, as of this writing, it is currently available on Netflix with English subtitles. I warn you, like most Bollywood movies, Zero is super long, so plan on watching it in installments.