- Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance is a glorious and a thrilling film. I was a bit skeptical that I won't like it, but once I started watching it, I was fascinated. Not only because the film is fabulously layered that forces us to think, but also because the film kept reminding me of the counterparts of its characters in the Hindi film industry, and the myriad similarities of its meta narrative to a film that I cannot stop talking about—Luck By Chance.
- Michael Keaton played the superhero Batman twice in his career, similar to the character Riggan Thomson who played Birdman thrice in the movie. Edward Norton who plays Mike Shiner, a method actor in the film, is actually known for his method acting. Birdman also shows a conflict between making populist choices and giving people what they want by making superhero-based violent films that gross billions, or making an artistic film for yourself by having a personal connection with it, risking everything with it, and hoping that the audience likes it, too. There is a concept of a play-with-in-a-film. There is a realistic portrayal of Hollywood, and it refers many real life events and people, such as the death of Micheal Jackson, Martin Scorsese's way of choosing actors, the influence of the New York Times, and the charm of George Clooney. It also makes many subtle comments on Hollywood. All the three main actors appeared in a superhero film at least once in their career—Batman (Micheal Keaton), The Incredible Hulk (Edward Norton), and The Amazing Spider-Man (Emma Stone). In a similar fashion, the difference between the actor and the character in Zoya Akhtar's Luck By Chance is blurred, and sometimes, we wonder if we are watching the actor or the character. Luck By Chance is a deliciously realistic portrayal of the Hindi film industry. Konkona Sen Sharma plays a struggling actor, who is a great actress, but because she is not attractive, she does not get the film. This is similar to her own real life, where she is known for playing roles in offbeat films. Dimple Kapadia plays Neena Walia, a famous actress of the yesteryear, who is single and wants her daughter to join the film industry. She talked about how she was abused by producers when she was sixteen. Neena Walia's life mirrors the real life of Dimple Kapadia. Sanjay Kapoor plays Ranjit, a failed actor but now director, who is also the brother of a producer, which is exactly like his real life. Sanjay did not make any waves by his acting, and he is the brother of Boney Kapoor, a well known producer. The cameos of the actors, and the dialogues remind someone or the other from the Hindi film industry as in Birdman. In that film, too, there is a film-in-a-film concept. At one point, Ranjit is shown reading a magazine, and the table near him is a replica of his pose highlighting the meta narrative of the film. The characters of Abhi (Arjun Mathur) and Vikram (Farhan Akhtar) also depict the conflict between commercial cinema, and artistic cinema. All the while, I was thinking of Luck By Chance when watching Birdman.
- There is a Hindi film I forget the name that has a similar theme. Aankhon Dekhi has a similar ending, but there is another film where an actor is trying to make a comeback by doing something he wants. I tried to think but cannot remember. Perhaps, I am deluded, or confusing it with a real life actor's story. Was it Raj Kapoor's ambitious Mera Naam Joker that he made and became a big flop, or Guru Dutt's Kaagaz Ke Phool, or Amitabh Bachchan in the nineties, or the story of Farah Khan's father, I cannot recall but I felt that I have watched a similar Hindi film before.
- Call it a coincidence or some weird cosmic connection, not only is there a similarity of meta references, but also a theme of birds in both Birdman and Luck By Chance. In Birdman, Riggan Thomson is haunted by a 'mental formation' who is a character called Birdman, a role which he had played earlier. He thinks he can fly. There are many shots of flying birds and the sound of their chirping in the film. Riggan's daughter Sam had bird tattoos on her shoulder, too. In Luck By Chance, as I have written before, there is an underlying theme of birds. Sona’s (Konkana's) apartment is full of birds. The entire shelf in her apartment contains birds, pigeons, and parrots, either in the form of paintings or mini souvenirs. At one point, Vikram (Farhan Akhtar) comes and picks up the bird that had fallen off. In that scene, Vikram is wearing a shirt that has a bird and it has two colors—purple and white. The birds referred to the ambitions of both Vikram and Sona, that they want to become big stars. They want to reach the sky and fly high like the birds do. To reach the top, Vikram who is a two-faced person will do anything to get there. That is why he picked up the bird that had two colors and that is why he wears a shirt that has a bird in two colors. When he meets Shah Rukh Khan, Vikram is wearing a shirt with flying birds as if pointing that this bird has flown as his first film became successful. In the end, birds fly past a giant hoarding of Vikram, again symbolically referring the flying of birds to the achievement of success and ambition. This year another film of Zoya Akhtar, Dil Dhadhakne Do had a song Galla Goodiyaan that was shot in one take, and Birdman, too, gives an impression that it has been shot in one take. Who would have thought that two films—Luck By Chance, and Birdman—so different from each other could have so many similarities? As they say, truth is far stranger than fiction.
- Much has been written and debated on the possible ending of Birdman, which is subjective and open to interpretation. Anything could have happened and each person might have his version of the truth based on their perspective, like Roshomon. For me, the ending five minutes were the least interesting part because the other one hundred and fourteen minutes were so fascinating. I have read some terrific interpretations of the movie. Reading on the movie is an immensely enriching experience as it teaches us how to watch and more importantly, how to understand the deeper layers in the movies. I wish people watched Hindi movies with a similar depth. My version of the ending is pretty simple. I think Riggan jumped and died from the window. In the hospital after the play, there is a shot of him with bandages around his nose, and he looks like the Birdman. It gives an impression that he has finally become a superhero in his own eyes, and he achieved what he wanted, so, perhaps, there is nothing left for him. The shot of his daughter Sam smiling and looking into the sky could be because she saw her version of Birdman. Like her father, Sam was battling depression, and had come out of the rehab. There are many sequences in the balcony which looks as if she wanted to jump. There were two times when Mike came and saw her sitting on the edge of balcony. This makes me think that she, too, was fighting her own demons. Even her father had tried to jump but a man came and interrupted him. In addition, Sam has bird tattoos on her shoulder, which again belies that she could be having her own delusions of flying. When she sees her father dead, it triggers a certain emotion in her, and she sees someone flying in the sky. It could be her dead father, or her alter ego, or anyone. She shares many traits with her father, and her delusions and mental formation could have triggered that, probably because of something called shared psychosis. The title says 'The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance', which could be a joke that the director is playing on the audience as by keeping us in ignorance, he is trying to make us think. Perhaps, that is the unexpected virtue.
- In many ways, Birdman could be a teaching of Buddhism's principles. The film is filled with Buddhist references. In the first scene of the film, there is a golden figurine of Buddha in Riggan's room. He is in a state of meditation and enlightenment. In a latter scene, he is shown wearing a bracelet made of beads that is used for chanting. The film's title 'the unexpected virtue of ignorance' could also be interpreted as a reference to Buddhism. According to Buddha, the root of all our suffering in samsara is ignorance. Gautam Siddharth was ignorant of the suffering in the world before he became a Buddha. In Riggan's room, there is a quote that says, "A thing is a thing not what is said of that thing," also has Buddhist interpretations. There is no concept of labeling in Buddhism, and this is what the quote is hinting. Buddhism does not allow to be attached to any form of label or identity, or to indulge in any form of self-love or self-enhancement. At one point, when Riggan is talking to the New York Times critic Tabitha Dickinson, he mocks her for her use of labels. He says, "Let’s read your review. Callow. A label. Lackluster. Label. Marginalia. All labels. You know what this is? You don’t, do you? You can’t even see it if you don’t label it. You mistake those sounds in your head for true knowledge," which is what Buddhism says, too. In addition, the film is filled with conversations on ego, self-respect, anger, and existence, which are part of some of the main tenets of Buddhism.
- At one point, we see Mike Shiner reading Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, which is exactly what the film also takes us through. The shots of the hallways, and stair cases, are a journey in this labyrinth of Riggan's mind. Borges' book Labyrinths is a collection of stories and there is a theme of Endless Recurrence, or the circular repetition of all the history of the world, that of the dream within a dream. He says, "The greatest of sorcerers would be the one who would cast a spell on himself to the degree of taking his own phantasmagoria for autonomous apparitions. It is we who have dreamed the universe. We can see in what it consists, the deliberately constructed interplay of the mirrors and mazes of this thought, difficult but always acute and laden with secrets. In all these stories we find roads that fork, corridors that lead nowhere, except to other corridors, and so on as far as the eye can see." This is exactly what the film shows us as well. A phantasmagoria for autonomous apparitions of Riggan, and the meta narrative of different levels of reality—of the actors' real life, of the characters of Birdman, and of the characters of the play of What We Talk About When Talk About Love—all seem to merge. It is like reality-in-a-movie-with-a-play-in-a-play.
- The film also references Icarus. According to Greek mythology, Icarus was the son of Daedalus. He was locked with his father inside a labyrinth (again, a labyrinth reference). They escaped from the maze using wings devised from wax but Icarus flew too close to the sun and the wax melted, leading him to his death. Icarus paradox is taught in strategic management and organizational behavior classes in MBA programs and refers to the phenomenon of businesses failing abruptly after a period of apparent success, where this failure is brought about by the very elements that led to their initial success. Riggan confirms that his story is inspired from Icarus when he was giving interview; he said, "Birdman, like Icarus," which fits perfectly with his character's story, too. Later, Birdman says to Riggan, "We have to end it on our own terms with a grand gesture. Flames. Sacrifice. Icarus," which makes me feel again that he did die in the end. The original script does not mention the end part, which suggests that it was probably added later on. Perhaps, the shot of the falling star was referring to the burning of Icarus. Somehow, I could not stop thinking about Sajid Khan and Ram Gopal Verma, who in many ways could be the Hindi film industry's Icaruses; they got success in some films, and became too proud of that formula that it eventually led to their failure. Think Ram Gopal Verma Ki Aag, or Humshakals, which are not much different from their earlier films, but failed miserably.
- There was also a metaphor of flower. In the beginning, Riggan tells his daughter to bring flowers but they should not be roses. When his wife comes to meet him during the final act of the scene, his room is filled with roses and he says that he hates roses. Later, in the hospital, he is again surrounded by roses, but his daughter Sam brings him lilacs, which are the flowers he likes. It reflects the duality in the film's conflict between realistic cinema and commercial cinema. When the play is successful, he is praised for its 'super realism', and it was as if he finally got the admiration that he so wanted. The lilacs were perhaps that admiration; though he cannot smell them. In the beginning, there is a poem by Raymond Carver, "And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth." As this post explains, "beloved" connotes everything from adoration to esteem to self-recognition, which is what Riggan got.
- There are two sequences that are particularly relevant for Hindi cinema, too. At one point, Riggan's wife explains to him that he confuses love for admiration. Just because she did not like one of his plays, that does not mean she stopped loving him. At another instance, Tabitha says to Riggan, "You're no actor. You're a celebrity. Let's be clear on that." These two sequences could be defined for some of the top stars of the Hindi film industry. Salman Khan, for instance, does the trashiest of films, but people never stop loving him. He is no actor, he is a celebrity, a phenomenon, who uses his films to create an image for himself. A man who is accused of beating women in his abusive relationships calls a woman 'behenji' in his latest film.
- My other favorite sequence was when Tabitha says, "I'm going to close your play. Would you like to know why? Because I hate you. And everyone you represent. Entitled. Spoiled. Selfish. Children. Blissfully untrained, unversed and unprepared to even attempt real art. Handing each other awards for cartoons and pornography. Measuring your worth in weekends." Our Hindi cinema is also doing exactly that. No one is talking of about the quality of the film. What matters is how much money it grossed over the weekend, and how quickly it is going to enter the 100 crore club. Later, when Riggan's ego says that he grossed billions in his superhero avatar, he replies,"And billions of flies eat shit everyday! So what? Does that make it good?" It again mirrors the narrative that we see in Hindi cinema. As Sanjay Leela Bhansali once said, when he makes a film, he makes it for posterity because later generations will see it. Perhaps, we need a Birdman to bring some art in our films, but it is highly unlikely because we believe in the unexpected virtue of ignorance :)
- Dialogue of the Day: "A man becomes a critic when he cannot be an artist, the same way when a man becomes an informer, when he cannot be a soldier."— Mike Shiner, Birdman Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance