Pixar Meets Percy Mistry

I saw Brave (the Pixar movie about the red haired Scottish princess) last month along with Anand. (We then ended up also putting wine based lunch and gourmet ice-cream so it turned into a man-date, but that’s another story.) So far, it’s been the best movie I’ve seen this year (admittedly, I’ve only seen five), even better than The Dark Knight Rises. As I tweeted, it managed to mix constitutional law, principle based regulation, feminism, little Gaulish village style punchups, Feegles, and good 3D.
The post that follows is mostly about everything Brave made me think about. Fair warning – there are spoilers ahead for not just Brave, but also a whole bunch of other princess-y movies, books and TV shows – Tangled, Goong, and The Princess Diaries. I’ll start with the feminism (which I’m not an expert in) and the Feegles and the punchups, and move on to the constitutional law and principle based regulation (which I’m also not an expert in, but which I get all obsessive-fanboyish over, so that’ll be far more detailed.)
One of the feminist criticisms of Love Aaj Kal was that the sardarni in the old time love story never spoke at all. (This is in addition to the other feminist criticism of LAK that sardar-Saif is basically a stalker throughout his story, and the more general criticism that LAK was totallly WTF). Things are quite the opposite in Brave: the heroine does all the talking while the princes never say anything (giggling and sign language apart).
And on that note it’s kind of awww to see a Disney princess movie (okay, Pixar, but distributed by Disney) where the happy ending does not involve the princess getting married. To be honest, I had watched Tangled which does end with the princess getting married, and liked it. But as a certain bear told me in the context of The Princess Diaries (princesses again!) “I do like Mia, of course, but still. It’s the principle of the thing.” (Oddly enough, as we’ll see in a bit, Brave the movie is full of bears.)
One of the early scenes reminded me of the all-against-all punch ups from the Little Gaulish Village, except with Scottish people. That particular scene convinced me that I could trust Pixar to do a film adaptation of the Tiffany Aching and Nac Mac Feegle books. Crivens!
And now for the constitutional law and principles based regulation.
These days, I’m unable to read or watch most things with a monarchical setting without rolling my eyes and going “Bitchplz, if you had just adopted a constitution this shit wouldn’t be causing so much drama.” In this, I’ve been spoiled by The Princess Diaries (in which Lilly Moscovitz is anti-monarchical right from the beginning, there is that whole Principles of Government plot track in the early books, and then shit gets *real* in Books Nine and Ten, once Genovia goes from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional parliamentary monarchy. Even more than The Princess Diaries (in which I read the last few books only in April this year), my eyerolling at monarchy stories has been driven by Goong.
Goong, also known as Princess Hours, is a Korean drama stories which I was introduced to by Beatzo (who writes about it here). Quick synposis: it’s set in an alternate timeline where the Korean monarchy was never abolished, and so Korea still has a monarchy (no mention on whether it’s a unified Korea or not), but also a constitution. The Crown Prince has to be married off to preserve succession, and his grandfather’s will specifies that he marries one particular girl – who is a commoner, a klutz, and coincidentally, at the same school as the crown prince. So far this is just Cinderella meets Princess Diaries meets teenage love triangle – except things get further complicated with succession intrigues, and – this is the cool bit – constitutional crises, right from the beginning. It sounds kitschy (and it is! it is! when it comes to the costumes and the soundtrack), but it’s also written very cleverly, with lots of playing with the tropes of the Cinderella story, high school cliques, and so forth. My love for Goong is just as sincere as my love for the Princess Diaries (that is, completely fucking sincere). I really ought to blog about it separately, especially to take issue with Beatzo’s claim that all the characters are sympathetic. I dididentify with all the characters, but sympathising is a completely different issue – except for Min Hyo Rin the aspiring ballerina, they’re all kind of assholes. But yeah, different post. Back on track now, or at least to a digression that’s just one fork deep.
So, the fact that there are books and TV series that have monarchical settings but which manage to actually use constitutional law as important plot points instead of just ignoring it and its conflict with absolutism is a major reason why I get fed up with books with the same setting but where the alternative of rule of law (or at least rule by law) isn’t even on the radar screen. This is one of the reasons why I hated A Game of Thrones (the other reasons were that the damn thing meandered for more than four hundred pages without bringing any of the plot threads to a satisfactory conclusion, and that we got hints of a cool zombie plot in the introduction which was then cruelly set aside for almost the entire book).
I have a conspiracy theory, though, that George R R Martin is actually aware of this shortcoming, and has made this known through that bit in AGoT where one dude tells the other dude that all the characters are obsessed with playing the game of thrones, but none of the common people really cares who is on the throne. The whole point of A Game of Thrones, in this conspiracy theory, was to annoy the readers, or possibly the publishers. When they missed this blatant pointer that they shouldn’t really give a shit about any of the characters, GRRM decided to up the ante and screw with them even more by means of the insane delays between books. Basically, the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series is an elaborate troll.
OK, seriously, back on track now. Constitutional monarchies. Brave. Time to focus.
There are lots of issues here, but lets start with political legitimacy and the consent of the governed. We take it for granted today that governments derive their legitimacy from the consent of the people they govern – and that this consent is periodically refreshed through democratic elections (or, if you’re being cynical about it, by the people’s failure to revolt – but then, kicking out a government you no longer consent to by voting it out is a form of peaceful revolt.)
As with most stories about monarchs, the question of whether these monarchs have the consent of the governed or not is neatly ignored, but the theme is touched upon in another way: by the fact that the monarchs themselves are governed by tradition, custom, and “what a princess should do”. So, when Merida, the princess of the kingdom and the central character in Brave, is told to marry one of the three princes of the other kingdoms against her wishes, because that’s the tradition that binds the kingdoms together in peace, we see the clash play out. Instead of unjust laws for the commoners, we have unjust traditions for the rulers.
(The situation of absolute monarchs being miserable because of unjust traditions, while likely ruling their subjects with wholly unjust laws, does have a lot of eyerolling and “Cry me a river” potential. But if you’re going to address this issue, this is probably an easier and more dramatic way of telling the story.)
So although Brave doesn’t actually have constitutions and laws anywhere in the plot, it does, through allegory, raise issues of constitutional law. In a constitutional state, where you’re governed by laws, do the laws have the consent of the governed? And in a pre-constitutional state, where you’re governed by traditions (which could be purely religious, cultural, or a difficult-to-separate complex of religious and cultural), are the people carrying out those traditions doing so with full consent as well? This, I feel, is a question applicable to India even today – we’re not so much a single nation as a patchwork or network of nations, some of which are governed by law, some by tradition, some by charisma, and some by a combination.
A specific example is the khap panchayats of Haryana and Western UP (Jatistan, in other words), which are the governmental structure of the (virtual?) state that governs by tradition. And when two same-gotra kids decide to marry, they’re no longer consenting to the traditions that have been governing their communities up until then. Boom. Suddenly the consent of the governed has vanished. The trouble is, the people running the government are going to treat it as a rebellion. Which means that your choice is to secede, and run away to a part of India where the government is by law and not tradition (but I doubt that any place in India is completely like this), or to actually rebel and take the tradition-government down. That needn’t mean attacking a panchayat full of Jat geezers with a hand-pump Sunny Deol style, pleasing as the mental image is – you could also do it like Raja Rammohun Roy or Swami Dayanand.
So at one level, Princess Merida’s challenge to traditions is an allegory for the movement from rule of custom to rule of law. At another level, I saw the movie talking about another one of my pet obsessions, that started ever since I read the Percy Mistry report – the difference between rules based regulation and principles based regulation. (Here’s a link to an excerpt of my Pragati article where I talk about this in detail – to read the whole thing, you’ll have to download the entire issue of Pragati as a PDF.)
To elaborate further, I’ll have to provide a synopsis of Brave and leak spoilers. The movie takes place in a Scottish kingdom in which there are four clans (or sub-kingdoms?) which are all entitled to the throne. To prevent civil war from breaking out between the four clans, the ancient laws (or customs which have all the force of law) demand that when the king’s daughter comes of age, she marry the heir of any of the other clans, and the throne passes to him. (This is what I gathered from the movie – I presume that things change if the sitting king has a male heir.) Unfortunately, the princess in Brave doesn’t want to get married, and rebels furiously. The details of how she rebels are also important, so I’m going to have to spoil those too. Next paragraph.
The rules of succession say that the first born heir of any of the four clans is allowed to compete for the princess’s hand, in a contest of her choosing. Princess Merida chooses archery, and then, once the three princes are done shooting (very badly, at that), announces that she too is a first born heir of the clans, and will shoot for her own hand. She then takes her shots, gets bulls eyes, and pwns all the princes.
But all this does is create further problems – Merida’s mother, the queen, is furious, Merida throws a tantrum, and tears apart a tapestry showing the family, and then rides off into the woods, where she finds a with who gives her a potion that will make the mother change. It does – the mother changes into a bear. Now there are two problems – how to change the queen back into human shape, and how to get Merida out of a marriage she doesn’t want.
The first problem is solved through negotiation – Merida tells the assembled clans that she too wants the kingdom to stay united instead of falling into civil war, but that there’s plenty of time for the princes to actually win her heart instead of just her hand, and so she will marry someone… eventually. And the important point is to focus on maintaining the peace by any useful means, not to get bogged down in one particular way of doing so.
The final resolution of how the queen is restored to human form can also be seen as an exploration of the principles v/s rules or letter v/s spirit dichotomy. The witch has given Merida a loophole: the spell will reverse if she mends the bond that was torn. Merida and the queen assume that this means the torn tapestry and set about to mend that – but that doesn’t work. It’s only when Merida and the Queen repair the emotional, not-quite-material bond between themselves – by apologising to each other and accepting the inevitable – that the spell reverses.
In light of this, Brave is a romance with idealism. (As in, idealism is being romanced by the script, not that the script is a romance that has idealism in it). It wants you to be motivated by larger goals instead of being wedded (heh!) to a particular process of implementing them. In fact, it treats strict rules as both problem and ineffective solution – the strict rules are what get Merida into an unhappy situation in the first place, and her attempt to use a loophole, while cheeky and badass, doesn’t solve her problems.
In real life, the focus on principles and the spirit of the law doesn’t always work that well, particularly in India.  (Ravikiran has a blogpost which speculates on why this is so.) Not only does the person or institution judging or enforcing the principle based regulation have to do so fairly, everyone who has to abide by the principles has to be believe that he’s fair. Even if the regulator is fair, but isn’t seen to be so by the regulated, principle based regulation will flop. Moving towards idealistic and goal-driven ways of doing things rather than stick with specific processes is still something we should aspire to, though – just that it’ll be a longer and harder struggle than idealism itself would lead us to believe.