Long ago, Aristotle wrote “Poetics” and took a defence for poetic art. It was a response to Plato’s critique on poetry and related arts. Aristotle being the rebellious disciple wrote a long treatise. He described a method and sequence for the different types of arts. Among them he rendered tragedy to be the best form of poetry. And for tragedy, he formulated steps and important elements for the best tragedy. The plot is the soul of the tragedy and then comes character, thought, diction, spectacle and melody.
If we look at today’s modern art, then movies, music, paintings and every sort of creativity falls under art. Let's take movies for example. If we take modern art in parallel to Aristotle’s description of best art then there are several things to be noticed.
Aristotle discussed a specific character of a hero. He should be on the side of good, have a noble lineage and must face denouement. One important quality is Hamartia, a tragic flaw. We will dwell more on that later, but first let's take a look at the first three qualities.
Who is a hero? A typical movie hero is all good, never does bad. He has a backstory arising from grandiosity. Then, he commits a fallacy, the hamartia which brings about his fall. This downfall is cathartic for the audience. Perfect. That serves the purpose of an Aristotelian tragedy.
Moving on, times changed and so did the portrayal of heroes. Now ordinary men could be heroes and their roles have become versatile. Characters have become more diverse in their performances. A young boy from a downtrodden village would challenge the authorities. He is the lead and nothing can make him succumb to pressure.
Whereas, the villain has the evilest character. He is a great offender for everyone. Yet he has the most power and all misery is because of him. The only solution to end him is the rise of a messianic figure, the hero.
But nowadays films are witnessing a shift. The times are changing wherein heroes are celebrated. Now villains are given a shift that appears more like a change of heart. Villains are shown their villainous past which seems not so evil and far-fetched. In fact, people relate more to the demons they face: the abandonment, fears, and excommunication. The darker the background, the more audience it attracts.
Movies like Maleficent provide a good case study. It is a childhood storiy about an evil witch who casts a spell on the princess. Then a prince comes and saves her life by a “true love’s kiss”. This has changed. What we find in part one and two of the film is the love of a witch and the princess!
Maleficent is evil for many but her tragic backstory gives an insight about who she was. She faced betrayal in the hands of a human, her friend. Greed overpowered Stephan’s mind and he became King in exchange for Maleficent's wings. In return she cursed his daughter for eternal sleep. Aurora grew in the forest, the very kingdom of Maleficent. She played and talked and charmed Aurora with her magical powers. But even the budding life of Maleficent couldn’t avert the evil charm on her, her hamartia. The curse was done and time for its fulfilment was near. The curse worked and Aurora befell a deadly sleep.
Here is the twist. The witch and not the prince fell in love and revived her back to life. The evil that was thought to be cruel turned out to be a lover. As for Stephan, the supposed evil, he falls to his own death. However, a good side of Maleficent was shown when she scrupled in throwing him down the tower.
The Mistress of Evil which is the sequel of Maleficent follows the same theme. The love of Maleficent grew stronger and she became the witchy powerful godmother of Aurora. The queen of Moors and the queen of human subjects, it quite passes the bechdel test. The story is not just about finding a handsome prince. It's more about female friendship, relations and trust.
A Bollywood example will be good too in this respect. BhoolBhulaiya 2 featured a ghost story. The story followed the typical story of a haunted house. The trope of unrequited love and envy. But the climax caught the audience when the evil turned the tables. The good and evil exchanged their places. The ghost becomes the beloved dead corpse wandering to avenge her murder. The ghost is doing carpe diem!
Hence this shows a shift in the Aristotelian tradition of tragedies. Tragedies are universal and they relate to human emotions like nothing else. They allow purgation of emotions deep inside humans. A deeper understanding of human behaviour and human vices is judged through their acts at the time of showdown. The character decides to be on the side of good or evil. Or be the good or evil.
This change of villain into heroes also evokes an interesting point: embracing the “shadow”. Carl Jung gives an interesting insight into the subconscious mind and the “desires” which lie therein. He says that one should embrace its shadow. It must be brought to the conscious mind rather than suppressing it. This doesn’t mean to be outright devilish and do anything you want. Rather one must tame it and live with the desires that arise.
Otherwise, one would become an evil not resembling the characters of any movie. But a grotesque one whose purpose is to harm others as the shadow becomes the living beast.
So the fight between evil and good will remain. A visible break through from tradition is obvious. But the supposed good people are appearing to be more devious. Heroes are not disappearing; rather villains have come to share the stage. It is left upon the reader and the viewer to decide whose side they will take.
Edited by: Ritaja Kaur
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