Questioning stereotypes

In Die Hard, Bruce Willis made the ‘action hero’ a human being, a man who also aches as he bleeds. Over the years, the humanization project has been extended to cover superheroes, too. Spiderman hits a bad patch and is unable to swing across rooftops; Batman has yet to really recover from a childhood trauma; Harry Potter’s voice is cracking. Black and white cinema had evolved into all-gray, ‘am-in-touch-with-my-sensitive-side’ cinema.

At first, I enjoyed this tinge of reality in the fluffy yarns that Hollywood excels at spinning. As a macho cop, the hero battles a horde of baddies single-handedly. Unrealistic, but hey, we did warn you he was a ‘macho’ cop. But when this individual winced as he walked barefoot across a floor strewn with broken glass, it suddenly made him seem a shade less wooden, and that much more attractive. Invincible, but equipped with soft soles is apparently how we’ve come to like our heroes.

But soon, this seemingly endless gray started to tire me. I grew weary of having to feel sorry for everyone in the movie, having to root for everyone, from the hero down to the 4th side-kick on the bad side. Slowly, I increased the proportion of Cary Grant movies I watched, where the worst quality the hero can be accused of having is too much cheek. Bogie movies were good, too – while the hero was not as white as Grant, the villains were certainly pure evil. No one can ever accuse Renard or Kasper Gutman of possessing a single good quality. Even the side-kicks were uniformly and satisfyingly slimy.

After that trip around the world, we finally land in Los Angeles, where ‘Crash’ unfolds. This movie is all gray. But it is the most pleasing shade of gray I’ve seen in a very long time, perhaps ever. There are good cops and bad cops, good kids and mixed up kids, rich people who discriminate and are discriminated against, and the best part is that all these are often the same characters. No one is quite what he or she seems like.

The plot is too complicated and too simple to recount. The predominant theme of the movie, if you can narrow it down, is how misleading and also how true to type stereotypes can be. As you are faced with characters that repeatedly turn the tables on you, just when you think you have them pegged, you end up questioning your own beliefs about racism, about first impressions, about miracles, about sheer rotten luck. And frequently, you catch yourself chuckling, mostly at yourself, as the characters give vent to emotions the politically-correct-you keeps to yourself.


The cast is brilliant, and has everyone from Ludacris (yes, the rap / hip-hop star) and Ryan Phillippe to Sandra Bullock and Matt Dillon (who plays the most counfounding character in the movie), most of them in roles I’d never thought I’d see them play. With its numerous sub plots and star-studded cast, this movie could have been so easily messed up. Instead, it can serve as a how-to manual for any ensemble tale.

Usually when Hollywood tries to appear real, it gives you a layer of good and a layer of bad, which mix about as well as oil and water do. In Crash, Paul Haggis has achieved the smoothest emulsion yet of goodness & evil. Crash is a brilliantly executed complex ensemble piece that interweaves tens of stories into a surprisingly cohesive and ultimately uplifting whole. Watch it.



3 comments so far

  1. Manoj on

    I did watch it, and your review says it all. A discussion about the movie even led to a mildly shocking confession of “I’ll admit it. I am kind of racist” from a non-desi friend. Mildly shocking only because we were still coating our own confessions with politically correct fluff. Maybe not the lynch-mob kind, but atleast racist-lite with our jibes about ‘karuppange dress weird’ and ‘chappais mouth stink’.

    (kind of) related tid-bit: I happened to see actor Pratap Pothen at the RIC Video library in Nungambakkam this August. He was asking for this movie. Hopefully not to remake in Tamizh, but just because he has good taste! 🙂

  2. DoZ on

    Ah, another RIC-ite. Howdy.

    I thought about whether a desi version of this movie would make sense (I automatically do a mental hypothetical desfication of every movie I watch, whatever the language) & I guess we could do it – with different nationalities replaced with stereotypes of Tamilians / Mallus / Punjabis / Bengalis – the 4 groups that seem to lend themselves the best to stereotyping. But I fear that it might just morph into a ghastly comedy, because no one wants to watch serious desi cinema. God knows how many friends & acquaintances hated Ayutha Ezhuthu…no one wants to go to the movies & be asked to ‘think’. Something like Crash that has the potential to make you think, and not happy thoughts about yourself is still some way off of an Indian version (at least a faithful one).

  3. DoZ on

    OK – I withdraw that quip about no one wanting to watch serious Indian movies. The closest we came to showing that there could be more than one side to a story was Virumaandi – & that was a reasonable success wasn’t it? Although my heart bleeds for movies like Anbe Sivam that were better, at least having a lynching every 5th minute, or making car-crashes more violent, or making the cars do Matrix like tricks, might just draw the crowds in.

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