Barbenheimer - The Biggest Cinematic Event Of The Year
How Did Christopher Nolan Become A Brand In India?
‘Barbenheimer’ as it has been affectionately dubbed by social media, is arguably the biggest cinematic event of the year. What started out as a meme about two films with vastly different tones, ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’, releasing on the same day has now gained enough traction to actually sell movie tickets.
Twitter, Instagram, and their weird amalgamation that is Threads, are filled with people excited to celebrate ‘Barbenheimer’ by watching both movies on the same day. The exact reason for the internet to latch on to these two films, when movies releasing on the same day happens every week, is no doubt of interest to social scientists, and marketing executives.
However, a curious factor is that audiences in India don’t really care about the ‘Barb’ part of it. The ‘Hindustan Times’ reported that Oppenheimer had sold 90,000 tickets for its opening day in India, more than five times its release day partner ‘Barbie’.
This came as a shock to many since ‘Barbie’ was globally projected to outsell ‘Oppenheimer’ by a comfortable margin. Many claimed this contrast proved the blatant sexism of the Indian audience, saying they were unwilling to watch a woman-centred film.
Others refused to buy into this tale, explaining that 'Oppenheimer' outsold ‘Barbie’ simply because the former’s director, Christopher Nolan, was much more popular with the English movie watching audience in India than anyone involved with the latter.
Neither are wrong, entirely. Nolan is extremely popular in India. The PVR cinemas capitalized on this popularity by having a ‘Nolan film festival’ where they screened his movies ahead of 'Oppenheimer' from July 17 to 20.
'Oppenheimer' is also available in Hindi, an advantage that ‘Barbie’ lacks. At the same time, the brand of ‘Barbie’ created by the toy company Mattel that contributed to its sales abroad does not have much value here. All of these combined makes for a pretty obvious conclusion- 'Oppenheimer' is doing better because Nolan has better brand recognition here than ‘Barbie’. Calling it misogyny is a bad-faith distortion.
But of course, now one would be tempted to ask: Why does Nolan have a brand in India? Every college student with the slightest interest in cinema rants and raves about Inception. Even people who aren’t generally interested in Hollywood films name Interstellar as their favourite film. ‘It makes you think’ is the reply usually received when pressed for a reason.
Nolan is an intellectual filmmaker. His movies are hard to understand. They aren’t like regional commercial flicks where you clap and holler for two hours and go home. Nor do they make you feel sad or guilty by depicting struggle and inequality.
Instead, you stretch your intellectual muscles trying to follow complicated timelines and confusing worlds. The plot itself takes so much focus that any thematic analysis comes secondary. At the end, you feel proud of yourself for having watched such a highbrow movie.
Therein lies the central attraction of these movies to the Indian cinephile: they allow you the superiority of thinking without the discomfort of questioning. Not to say, of course, that Nolan’s films lack any deeper meaning.
His best work comes when he explores complex human emotions, like the self-destructive denial in ‘Memento’ or the jealousy and ambition in ‘The Prestige’. But the Indian cinephile is not concerned with that. They’re too busy asking themselves if the top really fell at the end of ‘Inception’ to see the real point: it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that the protagonist of the movie no longer cares if he’s in a dream or in reality. He would rather be with his family. To quote Nolan’s own film ‘Tenet’, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it”.
The English movie-watching audience in India, consisting of mostly urban, middle class and above service industry workers, do not want to reflect on their own lives, and engage with what Nolan is really trying to say. At the same time, they consider themselves above simply watching a ‘fun’ movie.
The hustle culture of metropolitan cities and the universities on their outskirts do not allow for a movie to be simple recreation. The film must also be an intellectual exercise, lest they waste their precious time on something that does not add to their skill set.
But they do not want to analyse the horrors of war or a father’s complicated relationship with his daughter. Let those unemployable humanities majors do that. They want something scientific. Physics and mathematics. Alternate realities and wormholes and time travel.
All with a blaring background score and stunning cinematography that give you plenty of technical elements to appreciate before you move on to the thematic ones.
A notable exception to this is Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy, heralded by fans as some of his best work. Unlike his other films, it has no confusing timelines or complicated exposition. A billionaire dresses up as a bat to fight crime. Can’t get simpler than that.
In fact, the most lauded aspect of the trilogy is Heath Ledger’s portrayal of ‘Joker’, and how he captured the spirit of madness and chaos in his performance. This is where our Indian Cinephile makes a return.
While the Indian cinephile may not be concerned with other themes, they will spend hours discussing the melancholic beauty of tortured men. The single male filmgoer is drawn in by Bruce Wayne’s pain and loneliness. They relate to the Joker’s rejection from society.
And like the trilogy, they view the women in their life as mere plot devices for character development. It plays to the male ego, and their saviour complex and sense of superiority. They are the lone beam of light in a dark and corrupt society. “Bruce Wayne is the mask. Batman is his real identity,” proclaims the Indian cinephile like he has made a groundbreaking discovery.
He empathises because he feels he too must hide his real face from the world. Otherwise, these ‘woke liberals’ will ‘cancel’ him, simply for being who he is.
At the same time, one must be careful not to arbitrarily classify it into a gender binary. It would be a gross oversimplification to say that Nolan is for boys and ‘Barbie’ is for girls.
Plenty of women enjoy Nolan, even for the same reasons listed above. But his tragic male
heroes and complex exposition do appeal to a certain type of male cinephile who loves to mansplain the physics of space travel for an hour and a half.
It’s hard to draw a definite conclusion as to whether the Nolan obsession in India is driven by gender or class. But Nolan’s unique success here, far surpassing any other Hollywood name, does raise some questions. If it were merely a matter of quality then more established directors like Spielberg would have the same, if not greater, level of success.
It would hardly be fair to say Nolan’s success in the Indian market is driven entirely by intellectual superiority or male ego. And plenty of fans do engage with the deeper themes of his films. It is not wise to assign morality to simply consuming a piece of media.
Watching a Nolan movie does not make someone a sexist or classist just like watching ‘Barbie’ does not make someone a feminist. As audiences flock to 'Oppenheimer' one hopes they will try to appreciate the film as a whole, not just its individual parts. To think deeper about the monumental failure of humanity portrayed in the film, and not just work out the timelines and admire the tortured male genius.