Why We 'Lurveee' Martial Arts Action Films

Last Updated: Wed, Apr 24, 2013 14:08 hrs

Why is it that despite having spectacular special-effects cinema and brilliantly intellectual ones, raw, hand-to-hand action films are never out of fashion asks Satyen K Bordoloi, as he places the stunts of Vidyut Jamval in Commando amidst the plethora of action greats.

Two goons have pinned a girl down by her hand while a third stands behind her with a knife. Our hero runs menacingly towards them, flies, split-kicks the two men on both sides while flicking the third's jaw with his right foot... all in less than a second and before landing on the ground.

The single-screen audience is on its feet. If the man on screen were Rajinikanth, they'd have emptied all rounded metal objects in their pockets. They don't do that for this new kid on the block, Vidyut Jamval. So what if the film Commando treads familiar territory with an expected kitch of cliches and a good intentioned but juvenile ending that dangerously justifies vigilantism in an attempt to appease post Anna Hazare Indians.  

Before the film ends, Vidyut executes many seemingly impossible stunts. And every time he defies the laws of physics, the audience – made up predominantly of men – almost jump out of their seats clapping. Women's reactions are slightly muted, but not much different while kids literally fly an inch off the ground in delight, leaving their popcorn kissing neighbours' laps.

As an action hero, Vidyut is good and exceptionally talented as he executes all the standard action sequences that most of the martial arts stars of the world are expected to deliver today. To be great, however, like a Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais (from the spectacular Indonesian action film Raid: Redemption), he'll need a better team of choreographers, cameramen and stuntmen. Because in the world of cinema, an action hero is the combined strength of his team.  

The delighted Indian audience (usually fed with beef-cake bodies of ageing stars inflexible to the core), don't care for these comparisons. They have found their private, gravity-defying pavan-putra-Hanuman.

This leads us to a very interesting cinematic question for our times: in an age where on one side we have mind-blowing special-effects films and on the other extremely intellectual ones directed by some brilliant filmmakers, by what magic-charm does a physical action film grab and hold the attention of its viewers? 

Why do physical films of filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan refuse to die despite many more complicated 'action' films full of techno-gimmicks that dilate our pupils whether we want to or not?

The answer perhaps lies in the complicated interplay of our 'mind' and 'body'.

At the root of it, there is something beautiful about raw physical energy, about watching the body push itself to its limit, about the mind and body working in tandem to create poetry of movement that is constantly at interplay with its space around and also with another human being, of watching the human body as the immaculate conception and perfection of mother nature.

Seeing the body in motion, be it in dance, in sports or martial arts, is one of the greatest vicarious pleasures one can ever have, one reason why people still watch sports – even the boring ones – despite having so many other options.

Thus one may love seeing huge robots bashing each other to pieces in a Transformer film, but what will thrill us more is the unbelievable five minute long-shot where the camera follow Tony Jaa in the film The Protector (2005) from one floor to another, as he jumps, kicks, escapes, punches through a barrage of adversaries while moving through different floors of a building. His stamina, body control and movement in that brilliantly choreographed scene, as in many of his other films, are sheer poetry.

A Perfect Marriage

The most beautiful human being is the one in which the mind and body live in a perfect marriage.

The driver of every physical activity is the mind, but the mind has no other way to take its inputs but from the body. What you eat, see, touch, smell and hear triggers and nourishes your mind, which makes value judgments on the inputs. The two form an impeccable coupling with both needing the other to survive and the occasional snapping of ties between them due to disease or accident, leads to disastrous consequences. 

A divorce usually causes the death of the consciousness.

It is hence a common conception we have of equating a beautiful body with a beautiful mind and often we have imagined our favourite writers and filmmakers to be physically beautiful people as well; despite knowing that a beautiful mind does not necessarily reside in a conventionally beautiful body and vice versa.

Dance, sports and martial arts are where the fruit of the marriage between mind and body is most visible. In dance, the movements are well planned and rehearsed. In sports, every step is unplanned and thus random. Martial arts go a step further because mortal danger is thrown into that ring of randomness – one wrong move could cost you your life. 

Martial arts action is a moment by moment readjustment of the body to suit the need of self-survival from the threat that the body finds itself in. The driver i.e. the mind knows that the body is in mortal danger and hence is alert and guides it out of it to the best of its knowledge.

Two people physically fighting each other is hence always a delight to watch because it tickles both our mind and body. A benevolent alien might consider us a brutal, ruthless race if they saw thousands cheering the brutality of two people in a boxing ring, but it is an original-sin whose pleasure is hard-coded into our brains.

The intellectual films of an Ingmar Bergman or Andrei Tarkovsky thus stand out at the opposite spectrum over the film of a Charlie Chaplin or Jackie Chan. The former pair intellectually uses interplay of words and images to extract your emotion; the latter uses physical movements for similar results. The former pair is serious while the latter comic and light hearted. 

In his most successful phase, Chaplin interestingly took almost the same time to make a film as Tarkovsky did for his, while both Bergman and Chan had a similar cinematic output in the number of films they churned out year on year. 

The pleasure that both these types of filmmakers and their films give us, without doubt, is different but we cannot point to one being greater than the other, for while one takes you to the peak of intellectual gratification the other orgasms you with its visceral elements.

Intellectuals will hence always argue over how their types of films are always better and more important than action films, which they'd berate. But don't be fooled by their arguments for your body and mind need both intellectual and action films. 

And no matter how advanced our special effects become or how smart our intellectual cinema, raw, physical action films will not only never lose its charm, but will actually become more important because they remind us of our own true natures and basic selves; that first we are physical beings and only later intellectual ones.

Satyen K Bordoloi is an independent film critic, writer and photojournalist based in Mumbai. His writings on cinema, culture and politics have appeared nationally and globally.