Message from the ‘Ben Hur’ debacle: remakes work when they are not exactly remakes

Hollywood’s reboot rush ignores the fact that if the new version does not remind us of the original, it won’t do.

While remakes and reboots have long been a Hollywood staple, the recent spate of films inspired by storied properties has given this trend an urgency that makes one wonder if the world’s biggest film industry is running out of ideas. The situation is worsened by the fact that most such films are performing poorly at the box office.

For instance, the recent release Ben Hur, a remake of the 1959 classic, cost $100 million and recovered only about $25 million in domestic and international markets. Weeks before Ben Hur, the Ghostbusters reboot, with women replacing the Bill-Murray fronted gang from the original, had failed to enthuse audiences. When the backlash against the Ghostbusters reboot started, some on social media painted the outrage as the work of bullying fanboys. But the pervasive hate could not have been misogyny alone. It was also an outcome of the bruising rigours of fandom, which looks upon iconic films as cherished memories. Tweak them and you open yourself to viciousness and ridicule, as Paul Feig, the director of the Ghostbusters reboot, learnt.

In an entertainment culture teeming with good programming on television, audiences are no longer satisfied with bland remakes of old Hollywood fare that enamoured an earlier generation. Even so, Hollywood is in no hurry to give up its addiction for remakes. Films in the pipeline include reboots of The Craft, the 1996 teen thriller about witchcraft; Commando, without Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course; and even the 1930 classic, All Quiet on The Western Front.
‘All Quiet on the Western Front’.

It is anybody’s guess how these reboots will fare. The Craft, which was genuinely creepy for its time, is highly dated today, when horror as a genre has entered a zone of rich psychological complexity (The Conjuring, for instance). Schwarzenegger’s Commando combined its lead’s machismo with a plot that was so steeped in the Cold War ethos and American misadventures in Latin America that unless its reboot updates the setting to West Asia, it is at risk of drowning in tone deafness. As for All Quiet on the Western Front, the mere thought of tampering with the classic is enough to give its fans jitters.

In their rush to redo old hits, studios have failed to understand that those films worked for reasons beyond mere entertainment. They were mirrors to the prevalent social reality, capturing triumphs and anxieties of their era. For evidence, look no further than the poor box office reception of Independence Day Resurgence. Though not a reboot, the film stuck to the premise of the original, deriving its thrill from taking down the unknown enemy from space.

The original Independence Day released in pre-9/11 America, a time of absolute global supremacy for the superpower, where the only real threat Hollywood could conjure for its audience was aliens. Today that movie appears quaint, even cute, the last hurrah of a more innocent time. Little wonder its sequel failed to set the cash registers ringing.

If there is one lesson for Hollywood, it is that the reboot is unlikely to work if it is unable to invoke jolting memories of the original. Even poorly written attempts at revisiting old themes worked when the audiences were supplied enough nostalgia to chew on. Warner Brothers’ Suicide Squad offered a mashup of DC supervillains that was too delicious to miss.

‘Suicide Squad’.

Remakes that audiences might be genuinely interested in, like The Big Lebowski or Barton Fink (both helmed by the Coen brothers), have failed to take off because they demand the kind of talent that Hollywood’s assembly line is ill-equipped to nurture, let alone recognise. Television has come to the rescue, with the FX series Fargo taking inspiration from the 1996 Coen brothers’ namesake. Following the anthology format, the series has introduced fresh characters and storylines while retaining the bleak atmospherics of the original.

Remakes will continue to occupy prime real estate on Hollywood tycoons’ drawing boards. When they work, they become an easy target for replication, sacrificing artistic merit on the altar of financial expediency. Meanwhile, the discerning viewer, as also the nostalgic one, will increasingly shift online or to television for his fix of the fresh and the invigorating.
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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.


During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.