Culture & Society

Celluloid ‘Cult’ure

Rohit Vats for BeyondHeadlines

Who does not remember the duo of Ernesto Che Guevara and Alberto Granado gliding down the valleys of South America on their beloved motorcycle!  From that moment onwards, one realizes the transformation of these two characters into the youth icons that they are deemed as today.

The pull of cinema has always over-awed all and sundry, but the extent of its influence over the young generation has always generated much curiosity and debate. Although films began with the aim of bringing about social change, over a period of time, a sub genre began shaping up around youth-oriented movies. Some of the reasons that could be attributed to this maybe the frustration with the status quo when a need is felt to bring up certain issues.  Movies like the above mentioned The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), Rebel without a cause (1955), The Graduate (1967), Dead Poets Society (1989) and many more can be counted amongst the “cult” movies that have represented the youth over the ages.

The Graduate (1967)

These movies majorly begin with a sense of identification of the protagonist with the youth. For example, the figures of Che Guevara and Alberto Granado, epitomized the gay, care-free youth, in the movie entitled The Motorcycle Diaries, before its plot takes a serious turn. By connecting with the viewer first, at a personal level, the film takes one to the problem that needs to be addressed, be it injustice, corruption or social inequality.

Further, films such as the “Rambo” series or even “Rocky” series work towards icon-building. By making icons out of ordinary characters, they not only connect with the viewer but also instill a sense of empowerment, which explains their stirring effect on the viewers.  The hero, then, becomes a tool or the driving force of the movie.

Such movies acquire a “cult” status with time. This cult then helps bring about mass movements in the society. For example, the movie entitled The Dreamers (2003) most effectively documents the French student movement of 1968 against the government of Charles de Gaulle. Outraged after the shutting down of the Cinematheque, students from across Paris participate in mass demonstrations all over the city to protest against the impeachment of their basic rights.

Set against this chaotic backdrop, the film touches many other issues that were breaking the old traditions of the society, whether we talk about the unconventional relationship that the three protagonists share or the constant talk about the inevitable social change, the sudden outbursts against institutions, family and even society in general.  The Dreamers by providing a backdrop of Paris in the late 1960s gives a setting of an arena going through a revolution amidst which the three characters grow.

When we talk about films documenting a social change brought about by youth, we cannot help but talk of The Times of Harvey Milk (1984). Like The Dreamers, this film too is set against a backdrop of social change but this time in the United States of the 1980. The film is about a young gay activist and his rise in politics until he gets assassinated.

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

The 1980s were the time when major economic and educational changes were taking place, there were efforts made by individuals to break away from orthodoxy and to accept new changes (one of them being sodomy). But as is true of all such revolutions, they never go unopposed and the assassination of Harvey Milk in the film brings forth exactly that.

On one hand such movies target the youth as a mass and bring about mass movements and on the other, some films address them individually. These films deal with the frustrations that one goes through on an individual level like Naked (2002) or even their Indian counterparts such as Maachis (1996), Lakshya (2004), Rang De Basanti (2006), and such, it deals with the individual’s personal conflict. It shows the journey of the character through various events and the change that comes about inevitably.

Another common motif is also the one of a teacher who wants to shape the attitudes of young people in a certain way. The symbol of The Unconventional Teacher has carved a separate niche for itself. Movies such as Dead Poets Society (1989), To Sir, With Love (1967), Mona Lisa Smile (2003) have one teacher who is willing to go against social norms and adopt unconventional ways of teaching, which are often looked down upon by the society. Dead Poets Society has Robin Williams as an English teacher teaching high school students to embrace poetry to better come to terms with one’s own philosophy. Mona Lisa Smile has a young art teacher (Julia Roberts) who urges the conservative girls of a 1950s convent Wellesly College to mould their talents and be independent and self sufficient women. To Sir and With Love also have a similar theme where a Black teacher deals with the racial and social issues in an East London school, which teaches slum children and becomes an intrinsic part of their lives in due course of time.

Throughout this process of perpetual change, there came about a difference in attitudes as well. New kinds of ideologies began seeping in as a product of this attitudinal change. Movements such as the punk movement, which has now acquired the status of being an alternative lifestyle for many, the skinhead movement in the United Kingdom to the more recent rise of street culture in the United States (not only in terms of movies but also music, art and literature) have come about as a result of a break away from existing norms. The result or effects of these movements are visible at two levels. Films like “Into the wild” tried to inculcate a more carefree sort of attitude in young audiences where they were given the glimpses of serene and content life style devoid of any materialistic pleasure like phone, vehicle or a cozy home. It was widely accepted also because the post modern society felt the need of individualistic approach towards life.

This is England (2006)

On the other hand, a film like “This is England” portrayed the undercurrent of color discrimination in 1980’s England. This was not a propaganda or solution giving film but it certainly contributed to form an ideology among youth. Till this point of time, films had started to mould young minds in a particular direction in Europe, where the prime subjects were dealing with inter and intra-personal clashes between ideologies. In a nut shell, the youth was getting food for thought from contemporary films.

Interestingly, these trends were noticeable not only in Western films but also in Hindi films. “Ankush” (1986) featured four young unemployed idealists who do not have any faith in law of the land. Furthermore, they find themselves accepting the capital punishment for doing what they thought as most apt and just reaction. “Ankush” brought out the anxiety and dissatisfaction of the youth in a believable manner where their personal ideologies were completely opposite to that of the state. India was witnessing many students’ movements at that time, especially in urban areas and this film along with other films like Aakrosh, Kalyug, Prahar and Pratighat, was primarily appreciated in urban set ups only. Thus, in one way we can argue that films were actually working as a medium of socio-ideological change.

It is true that Hindi film watching youth did not find anything so outspoken and attacking in 1990’s chiefly after the announcement of open market policy. Probably, this is the reason that the student movements and youth anger gradually died down. After one point of time, everybody seemed to embrace naked capitalism, needless to say that the youth formed a major chunk of this neo rich mass. But, then again you cannot deny the ideology forming power of films that was powerful enough to kill discontented outbursts of young minds. Maniratnam’sYuva” and a handful of films could be seen as rebel voices but basically, they are just a way of releasing individual utopian frustrations. Same is the scenario in Western entertainment industry as well, where you cannot find a film star who has appeal due to his or her youth oriented image and who is not middle aged. In fact, “American Pie” is debated as a youth film, while it’s just a showcase of shameless escapism. All Latin American states, which were once known for their charismatic youthful leaders, are still run by those “young” leaders. The society is becoming more individualistic, so are the films and so is the society again.

Ankush (1986)

Situation seems to be very suitable for another young outburst where the common mass will start another global movement, just to avoid their well-fed boredom. Hopefully, films would soon start to give impetus to these much awaited thoughts.

Rang De Basanti (2006)

(Rohit Vats is an alumnus of Jamia’s Mass Communication Centre and is currently working with a Media Company. He can be reached at


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