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Snowden-like heroes

Reel Challengers

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Movies and pop culture are full of Snowden-like heroes who have stood tall against insurmountable odds and prevailed.

Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who leaked top secret US surveillance documents, is a classic archetype of the lone soldier taking on an invincible system - a typical David vs Goliath allegory. Attached to the tale is also a sense of intrigue worthy of a John Le Carrê mystery. At the Moscow airport where he has been holed up indefinitely Snowden learnt of his American passport being revoked, rendering him practically stateless.

Didn't something similar happen to Tom Hanks in The Terminal? Almost everything about Snowden is the stuff of the movies. An idealistic young man throws away a lucrative job, the warm comfort of family and a girlfriend to do what he feels is right.

But what does he get in the end - the tag of a fugitive with nowhere to go. To an interviewer, he said he acted on conscience. Decades ago, there was another American hero who was similarly guided by conscience - On the Waterfront's Terry Malloy aka Marlon Brando in a quietly volcanic performance. 'Conscience. That stuff can drive you nuts' is more than just a famous line. From then to now, American movies have had plenty of conscientious heroes - and heroines - who have in different ways, for either personal reasons or in larger public interest, fought the system. Gran Torino's retired autoworker and war veteran (Clint Eastwood) had no business getting his hands dirty. But he does. "I finish things. That's what I do and I am going it alone, " says ex-Dirty Harry, swearing to rid the neighbourhood of gang violence.

But balancing Clint Eastwood's masculinity are Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in Silkwood and Erin Brockovich respectively. They prove that real femininity is 'fortitude'. In Silkwood, Streep plays a real-life character that exposes the wrongdoings at a plutonium plant and pays for her conscience with her life. On the other hand, Ms Brockovich, the single mother of three, is suitably rewarded at the end of a long legal battle against a giant energy corporation charged with horrific environmental crimes. There is also Norma Rae, known for Sally Field's Academy award-winning performance as a mill worker who ignites a revolution by writing the word 'union' on cardboard.

But Anuvab Pal, screenwriter and stand-up comedian, says Snowden's plight finds more resonance in the espionage thrillers than the 'man versus system' genre. He cites The Informant, The China Syndrome and All the President's Men as instances - movies about those who either overcome the system or get punished for their actions. Like Snowden, such characters are filled with moral outrage, says Pal. "Moral outrage in the sense, 'How could this be happening ?'" But in spite of the fires within such people, Pal argues, they are not necessarily violent. "There is a lot of anger within, " he says, "unlike the Amitabh Bachchan movies where he would go and beat people up. " Pal is referring to Big B's blockbusters of the 1970s in which he took on the evil system singlehandedly. These movies include Zanjeer, Deewaar and Trishul among others. "They were all about the hero being born into disenchantment, his mom was poor and the industrialist and mill owner had some sort of control over his life. Wronged, he takes the law into his own hands. In one sense, these films were made from a socialistic point of view - which is completely different from a man who joins a certain organisation with moral idealism and finds out that the corporation is engaged in nefarious activities. "

In the words of Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, "In Indian films, it's not usually loners but someone fighting for vengeance, to right a wrong that has been done to him or his family. For instance, Amitabh Bachchan's 'Vijay' took the struggle on himself (Deewaar) or against his family (Trishul). "

According to filmmaker Vasan Bala, most South movies follow that template closely - with little tact but great success. "All the mass hero films are the same in South India, of an everyday hero caught in a big mess against the system, " says Bala. He adds Indians enjoy what he calls 'Ram versus Raavan' (the good versus evil) movies because they wish to be like Ram, the embodiment of a perfect Indian male. "It's also got to do with this mob mentality of ours, " he says. "It's like sports. We love to be spectators. We love to stand around and witness a street fight. If we find someone to root for, we are more than happy to do that. That's why when a hero - like say in Ardh Satya or Singham - stands up alone, we root for him. Our attitude is - 'We can't do it. Let someone else do it for us. '"

Indeed, Ardh Satya's incorruptible Om Puri is a lone wolf, a cop caught in the usual crimepolitician nexus that defines everyday Indian life as is Ajay Devgn in Singham.

Is there any place for Robin Hood or Superman in this scheme of things;they too fight the forces of evil. "They are more fantasies of omnipotence, " Dwyer answers. "With Superman, the idea is that inside an ordinary person there is a hero. "

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